With less than four weeks left to the first round of the NFL draft, people are starting to establish definitive statements when it comes to prospects — whether they have validity or not. Cam Newton either is or isn't an enormous character risk. Ryan Mallett either is or isn't worth a first-round pick, based on his tape and character issues. Da'Quan Bowers either is or isn't a mess with horrible, terrible knee concerns, and Jake Locker either is or isn't so inaccurate, that a bright NFL future is or isn't impossible. In truth, of course, we don't know where any of these guys will go and what they will do. So, to avoid definitive statements we can't possibly verify, let's stick with the tape, and specific team needs, and see how the back half of the first round might shake out. Picks 17-32 can be found below; you can read 1-16 here.
17. New England Patriots (from Oakland Raiders) —Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Patriots have been trying to manufacture a pass-rushing solution for years now, but just as Bill Belichick's team has benefitted like few others from the fact that the NFL is more and more a passing league, New England's defense has struggled in the secondary — at least in part — because the pass rush has not been there consistently. Kerrigan, who is already a naturally explosive 4-3 end and is doing everything possible to mutate into a 3-4 edge rusher as well, possesses the work ethic and versatility to be a natural fit in the Patriots' hybrid defense.
18. San Diego Chargers — J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Linebacker Shaun Phillips is the Chargers' only play-to-play pass rush threat at this point, and ends Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire have performed at a disappointing level of late. Watt is a bit of a workout wonder, but his measurable transfer enough on tape to make a difference in a front seven that needs it. Watt can rush the passer, but his ability to peel back and play the run makes him an intriguing prospect as a true 3-4 end, and he has the size (6-foot-5, 290) to make that happen.
19. New York Giants — Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida
The Giants benefitted from the NFL's most consistent and durable offensive line for a number of years, but you can start to see the wear on the tires, and nowhere is that more true than at the center position. Shaun O'Hara is 33 years old and has struggled through several injuries of late. Pouncey is still a work in progress as a center, and that's a problem considering the fact that New York went shotgun almost 40 percent of the time, but he developed enough in his one year at the position after a very rough start to make his future interesting. Worst-case scenario would be that Pouncey would wash out at center and move to become one of the best left guards in the business.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers —Cameron Jordan, DE, California
]The Buccaneers have invested a great deal in their defensive line of late, but are still looking for an elite pass rusher after Stylez G. White led the team with just 4.5 sacks. That's as far away from the glory days of Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp as can be, and if Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris want to build on last year's surprise season, they'll need more and better pass rush, as well as a better overall run defense. If Jordan even lasts this long, he'd be a perfect fit with a healthy Gerald McCoy in the Bucs' front four — he has an underrated ability to get in the backfield as a pass rusher, and he's a dynamic run defender as well.
21. Kansas City Chiefs — Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
The Chiefs are another surprise team with a serious need up the middle in their defensive front, and Paea would fit in both three-and-four-man fronts. He's not a dynamic upfield rusher, but he's a strong as an ox, will command double teams with his power, and will allow other members of the KC front seven to move around and make plays. Add in one of the NFL's best young secondaries, and Paea could turn out to be the one piece needed for the Chiefs to become a real contender for years to come.
22. Indianapolis Colts — Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Everyone knows that the Colts need help along the offensive line; the question is how much of a project they want to take on. Pure athletes like Solder and USC's Tyron Smith would fit Indy's concept of quick stretch-zone running, but Solder's problems in maintaining blocks in the back half of the pocket would mean that in the short term, Peyton Manning will have to be even more aware of the rush than he already is. The X-factor with a guy like Solder, who's probably two years away from elite NFL play from a mechanical perspective, is that many offensive line coaches tend to see athletic upside and think they can add the rest. Solder will be a very attractive player for anyone with that mindset.
23. Philadelphia Eagles — Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
If there's one thing the Eagles probably feel pretty confident about after the Michael Vick move paid off in a big way, it's taking chances on talented players with character issues. In Smith's case, the character issues are more of the speculative kind at this point, but what is not in question is Smith's potential at a position for which the Eagles definitely have a need. Smith can lock down in man coverage, sit in zones, and can jump routes at a very high level, which would put him on pace with current Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel in that department. If the Eagles don't trade Kevin Kolb for more picks and wind up taking a quarterback in the first round, getting a cornerback with Smith's talent might put them over the top.
24. New Orleans Saints — Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams throws as many different fronts and blitzes as anyone in the NFL, and Houston brings a specific alignment with that philosophy because he's played in straight 4-3 and 3-4 fronts with the Bulldogs. In addition, Houston can shoot off the edge against quarterbacks in a way the Saints need in a developmental sense — Will Smith could use some help off the edge, and the Saints need as much quarterback pressure as they can muster in an NFC South division that already has Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman, and may add a first overall QB pick for the Panthers.
25. Seattle Seahawks — Jake Locker, QB, Washington
After a very iffy Senior Bowl week, Locker went to the scouting combine and showed some improvement in his accuracy and mechanics after working with Ken O'Brien in Irvine, Calif. A month after that, Locker stepped onto the turf at the UW's Dempsey Indoor facility and completed 38 of the 40 passes he threw. Pro days aren't really meaningful unless they're part of a serious progression of development, and Locker's seen a pretty significant growth curve since the Holiday Bowl. It was easy enough for Pete Carroll and John Schneider to head down to Montlake, but seeing just about the entire Seahawks' scouting staff there — and adding in Carroll's hyper-friendly demeanor with Locker at Washington's 2010 pro day, it's pretty easy to fill in the blanks. The Seahawks need a mobile quarterback who can use play action and can at least display a fundamental level of accuracy. Locker's still working on the accuracy part, but he could be seen as the ideal developmental quarterback in this case.
26. Baltimore Ravens —Brandon Harris, CB, Miami
As great as their defense has been over the last decade (and as much as they need pass-rush help and a speed receiver), Baltimore's primary need right now may be at the cornerback position. Harris doesn't have exceptional interception numbers, predominantly because he tends to bat balls away instead of getting in position to pick them off. But he's an experienced pass defender with good speed and agility, and his excellent combine performance raised quite a few eyebrows. Could Ray Lewis and Ed Reed be welcoming another member of "Da U" to their ranks?
27. Atlanta Falcons — Martez Wilson, LB, Illinois
John Abraham has been one of the league's best pass rushers when healthy, but it's time for the Falcons to get him some help, and they've struck out in recent years with project players like Jamaal Anderson and Lawrence Sidbury. The advantage Wilson brings is that he played a lot of nickel at Illinois, and he displayed the kind of range the Falcons could also use in occasional 4-3 outside linebacker roles.
28. New England Patriots — Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor
Once they've settled their need for an edge rusher, the Pats could very well turn to the left guard position, which has been a point of contention over the past couple of years, as Logan Mankins' contract dissatisfaction becomes more and more severe. Watkins replaced Jason Smith as Baylor's left tackle, but his skill set fits perfectly as the type of pulling/trapping guard Belichick's Patriots have always preferred. Watkins showed incredible strength and impressive adaptability when he moved to left guard during Senior Bowl week, and he even got in a few reps at center. He may wind up being the best lineman in the 2011 draft class.
29. Chicago Bears -- Tyron Smith, OT, USC
Smith, however, is by far the most athletic lineman in this draft class — he's a physical freak who played right tackle as a 280-pounder at USC. He beefed up to 307 pounds in time for his pro day and put up a very impressive performance. There are questions about his ability to swing over to the left side, and he's never played at his increased weight, but the Bears desperately need more than Band-Aids for the NFL's worst offensive line, and Smith is the kind of lineman they like — athletic, with a lot of potential.
30. New York Jets — Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor
The Jets need a replacement for the aging Kris Jenkins to make Rex Ryan's defense go — it was just as devastating for the defense to be lacking a true nose tackle as it was to lose safety Jim Leonhard to a broken tibia. Taylor is a huge interior defender who can plug up the run in the middle, but he also has the agility and quickness to play end in certain situations. Given the flexibility asked by Ryan of his players, Taylor would be an effective cog.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers — Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
The Steelers came within a touchdown of their third Super Bowl win in half a decade, but the team's offensive line has been an obvious issue for years. Ben Roethlisberger masks many of those issues with his ridiculous escapability, but after benefiting greatly from selecting center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round of the 2010 draft, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to go back to the well and find the franchise's next left tackle. Carimi isn't quite as high-ceiling as some of the tackles in this class, but he may be the most pro-ready, and he's a pretty nice steal at the 31st overall pick.
32. Green Bay Packers — Corey Liuget, DL, Illinois
As you'd expect of a Super Bowl champion, the Packers are pretty set in many ways. But the end position could be a major problem, with Cullen Jenkins wanting out of town with his own version of "I Want a Bigger Contract!" and Johnny Jolly unable to stay out of trouble. Liuget would be a great fit in Dom Capers' multiple fronts with B.J. Raji holding the point and Clay Matthews terrorizing quarterbacks — he's that perfect middlemen who can control guards and make a few plays himself.