The NFL scouting combine is valuable for many reasons. One of the primary reasons for the whole event is that it allows coaches, general managers. and team owners to get a sense of priorities and targets in a huge pool of talent. That applies to the faux-GMs who do mock drafts, including your humble draft correspondent. With pro days and player interviews coming up, there's still a lot to get through, and that's why we'll have multiple mocks over the next two months. But after the combine is when things start to shake out.
Linemen dominate the second half of the first round of our mock, but this is where as many as three safeties could be selected, as well. Picks 17-32 below; you can see picks 1-16 here.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri. The Steelers have struggled to strengthen their defensive line in the past few drafts, and Richardson could be an ideal five-tech tackle in Dick LeBeau's system. At 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, Richardson has the strength to plug up blocks, and the athleticism to drop into coverage.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame. Well, we know that Jerry Jones won't be "wasting" any high picks on Dallas' offensive line. So, they might as well get Jason Witten's eventual replacement now, and allow Tony Romo one more hot route per play while he's getting his block knocked off. Eifert is a good blocker, but he's best known for his ability to line up along the formation, and Jason Garrett was a bit more adventurous with his receiver formations at times in 2012. We'll just have to wait and see how many of the plays he'll be calling.
19. New York Giants: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State. I'm not quite as sold on Werner as some -- I think he's a good run-stopper, a very aware defender in space, and a decent pass-rusher. But I don't see him beating blocks a lot, and he may be a low-ceiling player. The Giants would take that and run with it, as their front seven is in transition. Last season, the G-Men ranked 30th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, and 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate. He may not be a transcendent player, but Werner could definitely help in both categories.
20. Chicago Bears: Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame. Here's my reasoning for this one: All the best offensive linemen are gone in this mock, and Alabama's D.J. Fluker might not fit head coach Marc Trestman's more expansive offense. New Bears GM Phil Emery is an outside-the-box thinker, and Te'o's productivity from a statistical perspective will appeal to him. In addition, Te'o will benefit greatly from a locker room that includes legendary linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. He'll be able to mature in a defense perfectly suited to his strengths (decent speed in space) while the Bears' front is optimized to minimize his weakness (thumping heads at the line). It will be tough for Te'o as this pick would be a clear indicator that the Urlacher era is close to an end, but I could see Emery taking a shot on the idea that Te'o is the next James Laurinaitis in the right environment.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Matt Elam, S, Florida. The Bengals' safeties were abused in 2012, and changes clearly need to made in their deep defensive backfield. As he proved at the combine, Elam has the speed and transition ability to transform this weakness to a strength, especially under the direction of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
22. St. Louis Rams: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas. The Rams are an up-and-coming team, but they'll need to reinforce their secondary for that next-level championship push. Jeff Fisher loves aggressive safeties with attitude who don't fear contact in the front half, and Vaccaro plays the front half and back half with equal aplomb.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Keenan Allen, WR, Cal. Allen missed the combine because his knee injury from last year flared up recently. The plan is for him to have an individual pro day in early April, and if that goes well, it would be easy to see the Vikings pulling the trigger on another target for Christian Ponder, especially if Percy Harvin is on the way out. Allen is an ideal receiver for a quarterback who doesn't have a big arm (as Ponder does not) -- he's very dynamic after the catch, has better speed than some think, and plays with a lot of toughness.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M. Opinions vary greatly on Moore, especially after his sub-par combine workouts. Some will tell you that he's the next Aldon Smith, and others will swear that he's an oversold outside rusher with limited upside. Personally, I think Moore is a talented kid who needs work on angles, leverage, and hand and foot movement, and that Chuck Pagano is the ideal person to start Moore on his way -- especially since Pagano will want to play more snaps in a "traditional" 3-4 defense this season. Ideally, Moore will be able to kick it outside in base packages, and move inside on passing downs.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Datone Jones, DL, UCLA. The Seahawks need pass-rush help from the inside and outside, and Jones would fit Pete Carroll's front concepts like a hand in glove. Carroll prefers linemen who can strike through multiple gaps, and Jones has clearly proved his ability to do so. He'd give the Seahawks a lot of positional versatility, because he's equally adept when playing run-stopping end and pass-rushing tackle.
26. Green Bay Packers: Johnathan Cyprien, S, Florida International. Cyprien first flashed on a lot of radars when he showed that he could cover a lot of ground at the Senior Bowl. He certainly doesn't have Charles Woodson's hard-won football acumen, but with Woodson now out of the picture, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers will need another player who can shift between spaces in coverage and allow his defense to be multiple. Small school or not, Cyprien would be a great fit in that role over time.
27. Houston Texans: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU. Two years ago, the Texans took a ridiculously athletic but sometimes undisciplined (on the field, we mean) defensive lineman by the name of J.J. Watt. So far, that's worked out in Wade Phillips' defense. Hunt is far more raw than Watt was, but the Estonian star, who absolutely dominated the scouting combine, could be a force multiplier in the same defensive front with Watt. Both players are pass-blocking machines, and Hunt plays with a similar motor. He's still learning a lot of the basics as a pass-rusher, but few defensive coaches are better than Phillips at maximizing a player's attributes and working them in as the rough spots get worked out.
28. Denver Broncos: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington. If there's one thing the Broncos learned from their first-round playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, it's that the great Champ Bailey has lost a step ... or two. Or three. And unless they tape a cheetah to Bailey's back, they're not going to be able to deal with speed receivers with the talent they currently have. Trufant showed at the Senior Bowl that he's very sound in his technique, and he burned the track at the combine. With a little help from a savvy veteran like Bailey, Trufant could look a lot like Asante Samuel sooner than later.
29. New England Patriots: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. Even if the Pats do re-sign Wes Welker (and Tom Brady's recent contract re-do certainly has them in line to do just that), there's a clear need for speed in New England's offense. Bill Belichick has the tight end position sewn up like no other, and Welker takes care of the slot. But that doesn't challenge safeties deep, and if there's one thing Austin can do with his cartoonish speed and agility in space, it's that. Putting him in this system, with that quarterback, might be almost unfair.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Alex Okafor, DE, Texas. The Falcons are just a couple pieces away from a real Super Bowl run (as opposed to last season's faceplant), and one of the areas that needs improvement is the team's pass rush. When John Abraham was injured in the regular-season finale, Atlanta didn't really have any other options, and they need to get that sorted out before Abraham runs out of gas completely. Okafor would fit the Falcons' defense very nicely, because he's not just a pure pass rusher -- he can also stop and drop at the line, and he's a good defender against the run. Mike Smith also likes ends who can flip inside, and Okafor has done that before.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State. Sometimes, team needs are pretty simple. The 49ers' defense was amazing until Justin Smith was hurt in the Week 14 game against New England, and very average afterwards. Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks before that injury and none in five games after, could tell you that. Hankins certainly isn't Justin Smith just yet, but that's a tall order for anyone. What Hankins can do at 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds is to take enough blockers to allow Aldon Smith to stunt inside and make the plays he couldn't make when his linemate was out and subsequently playing at less than full strength.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU. Now that Ray Lewis has retired from the team he defined, the Ravens need a lot of help at inside linebacker. Actually, it could be argued, they needed a lot of help there before Lewis retired, especially against the pass. Minter plays the run better than Manti Te'o (and every other linebacker in this class), and he's mobile enough to make plays on slants and screens.
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