The two-month pilgrimage begins Wednesday.
The Eagles have packed every coach, trainer, scout and administrator – a band of merry men that numbered 50-plus at last bed check. The Dolphins lost count of their contingent somewhere around, well, a number that has probably drawn the attention of homeland security. And the rest of the league isn't far behind.
A 32-team caravan is making its way to Indianapolis and the RCA Dome for the annual scouting combine. Just over nine weeks remain to sort out the NFL draft, which is the closest thing the league has to a collective religious experience.
With that in mind, below is the first of what will be multiple mock drafts leading up to the April 29-30 D-Days. The plan is to update the first-round forecast roughly every two weeks, with changes reflective of free-agent signings, personnel tips, scouting reports, player visits and various pro days over the next two months.
Starting Wednesday, the Texans are on the clock …
1. Houston Texans – Reggie Bush, RB, USC. Scouts are expecting to see Bush bulked up to 210 pounds at the combine. New coach Gary Kubiak likes Bush, and he's had success with small backs before (Clinton Portis). The Texans still could trade David Carr despite picking up his option, but taking hometown boy Vince Young still looks like a bigger gamble than Bush at this point. And personnel sources say there won't be a big trade market for Carr.
2. New Orleans Saints – Matt Leinart, QB, USC. Other than Quincy Carter, new Saints coach Sean Payton has spent his career working with traditional pocket quarterbacks, and Leinart fits that mold. Unlike Young, Leinart is polished enough to be plugged into a traditional offense with plentiful surrounding talent. Depending on what happens in free agency, there is a possibility of the Saints trading back a few spots and taking an outside linebacker.
3. Tennessee Titans – Vince Young, QB, Texas. There are still suspicions in NFL circles that Bus Cook could be aligned with Young behind the scenes. But Young's current representation – he's signed with family friend Major Adams – has spurred questions about whether Young is getting good advice and preparing correctly for the draft. He raised some eyebrows by committing significant time to TV stints (specifically the week leading up to the NBA All-Star game) and waiting until mid-February to start training with former NFL offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome.
4. New York Jets – D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia. Ferguson could have been a top-five pick a year ago. He was dominant at the Senior Bowl against some of the draft's best defensive ends and has shown he's a cut above an offensive line class that is the strength of the draft. The Jets are going to take a good, long look at Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler at the combine along with the top running backs. But all of those prospects would have to have stellar workouts to move up to the fourth spot. Right now, a franchise left tackle is a solid pick.
5. Green Bay Packers – Mario Williams, DE, North Carolina State. The Packers could use an outside linebacker, and there are some impact prospects available in Ohio State's A.J. Hawk and Iowa's Chad Greenway. But Williams is a rarity – he has great size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) and has the athleticism to be an every-down end. Some scouts think he's the next incarnation of Julius Peppers, but there have been questions about whether he takes plays off. Hawk is more polished at his position and has a more consistent track record, but Williams could be a major game-changer.
(The sixth overall pick will be decided by a coin flip between the Raiders and 49ers at the combine.)
6. Oakland Raiders – A.J. Hawk, OLB, Ohio State. Hawk fits one of Oakland's biggest needs and qualifies as the best defensive player in this draft. Scouts love his combination: the size of a traditional outside linebacker, speed to play passing lanes and instinct against the run. The Raiders are going to consider Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but Hawk fits perfectly going into the combine. Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler is another possibility if the Raiders can't solve their quarterback issue in free agency.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland. If A.J. Hawk goes before Oakland, or San Francisco lands the No. 6 pick via coin flip, Hawk is a lock for the 49ers. If they can't get Hawk, the pick becomes a prime position for a trade-down. The Niners are already sending signals that they would like to move back and acquire more picks. If they can't find the right package, a wealth of players will be considered including Chad Greenway, Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans and Texas cornerback/safety Michael Huff. But Davis is a very real possibility. As much as San Francisco needs defensive help, it's time to build around quarterback Alex Smith.
8. Buffalo Bills – Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon. The league's 31st-ranked rushing defense needs a plug in the middle of the line, and Ngata fits the bill. At 6-5 and 338, he's a monster but has the athleticism and moves to create havoc in a backfield. Ngata can collapse a pocket, too. The Bills could also consider a cornerback at this spot, but if Ngata is available, he fills the void left by Pat Williams last year.
9. Detroit Lions – Michael Huff, S/CB, Texas. There will be plenty of buzz about Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler in this spot, but the onus has been put on offensive coordinator Mike Martz to salvage Joey Harrington. The Lions will go with the best defensive prospect left on the board in Huff, who could fill a need for an impact player at cornerback or safety. He'll help fill Detroit's need for more athletic playmakers in coach Rod Marinelli's Cover 2 defense.
10. Arizona Cardinals – Jay Cutler, QB, Vanderbilt. It will be hard to pass on a running back like USC's LenDale White or Memphis' DeAngelo Williams, but Cutler has the arm and moxie to fit Dennis Green's vertical offense. Maybe that will change if the Cardinals can't pick up a running back in free agency. But right now, Kurt Warner gives the Cardinals the time to groom Cutler, and this might be a little too high to fill the needs at offensive line. The Cardinals will also consider Chad Greenway and Michael Huff.
11. St. Louis Rams – Jimmy Williams, CB, Virginia Tech. Williams' size is almost a tad big for a corner (6-2½, 207), and his performance in the workouts will be a big determining factor in where he ends up. Some scouts think he might eventually have to convert to safety. The Rams could use a player with the flexibility to do both. Iowa's Chad Greenway and Alabama's DeMeco Ryans will both get looks at this spot. If Vernon Davis is still on the board here, he's a virtual lock.
12. Cleveland Browns – Chad Greenway, OLB, Iowa. The Browns have to address the need for linebackers in their 3-4 scheme, and Greenway fits. He graded out well at the Senior Bowl, but scouts still have some concerns about his strength in shedding blockers against the run. Like A.J. Hawk, he has top-notch instincts and is fast enough to survive in the passing game. An offensive tackle like USC's Winston Justice will also be considered.
13. Baltimore Ravens – LenDale White, RB, USC. Jamal Lewis could still be signed to a long-term contract, but if the Ravens decide to let him go via free agency, White and Memphis' DeAngleo Williams could be in line to fill the void at running back. White is bigger and seems like a better fit for Baltimore's mauling offensive line, but he must have a good showing at the combine. If Lewis gets franchised, the Ravens will look at offensive tackle Winston Justice to fill the void at right tackle, or a defensive end like Penn State's Tamba Hali.
14. Philadelphia Eagles – Santonio Holmes, WR, Ohio State. With Terrell Owens gone, the Eagles are once again looking for an impact No. 1 wideout. Holmes doesn't have the greatest size (5-10, 185), but he's not afraid of contact and has enough speed to get the job done. Defensive end Tamba Hali is another strong possibility at defensive end, where Jevon Kearse appears to have lost a step and Jerome McDougle and still-developing Trent Cole are solid but unspectacular options.
15. Atlanta Falcons – Tamba Hali, DE, Penn State. The Falcons are looking for depth and youth at defensive end, and Hali would satisfy both needs. Brady Smith is aging and missed the majority of last season with injuries. Hali was the North's defensive MVP at the Senior Bowl, finishing with two sacks. Though he lacks ideal size (6-3, 267), Hali doesn't need to be motivated, and he has moved ahead of Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka on most draft boards. Some scouts have discussed the possibility of having Hali play the "flex" combination of defensive end and outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
16. Miami Dolphins – Winston Justice, OT, USC. The Dolphins have to do something about left tackle. Damion McIntosh has to be moved to guard, so there is an urgent need for a talented and athletic tackle. Justice has had some issues off the field, but Dolphins coach Nick Saban isn't afraid to take risks. Justice is big (6-6, 315), can move well and did well protecting Matt Leinart's blind side when he played right tackle at USC. The Dolphins could trade with San Francisco in pursuit of Jay Cutler. Alabama outside linebacker DeMeco Ryans could get a strong look if Miami isn't sold on Justice.
17. Minnesota Vikings – DeAngelo Williams, RB, Memphis. Michael Bennett will be gone via free agency, Ciatrick Fason was ineffective in limited opportunities and Onterrio Smith's substance violations have made him unreliable. Mewelde Moore gives new coach Brad Childress the multidimensional presence he values, but the group still lacks a dominant back. Despite his size issues (5-8, 208), Williams was very productive in college, but concerns remain about facing a lack of quality competition. DeMeco Ryans could get a look to shore up the linebackers.
18. Dallas Cowboys – Marcus McNeill, OT, Auburn. Safety is a need, but the Cowboys may be able to address that spot later in the draft. Tackle is a far more pressing need, and there's no guarantee it can be addressed in free agency. Outside linebacker (DeMeco Ryans) or wide receiver (Santonio Holmes or Chad Jackson) could factor in, too. McNeill is big (6-8, 332) and has good feet. Scouts thought he had flashes of brilliance at the Senior Bowl – but also looked lazy at times.
19. San Diego Chargers – Ashton Youboty, CB, Ohio State. The Chargers have some depth needs at a few positions, including guard, offensive tackle and wide receiver. But the offense still has plenty of gas in the tank to get by. The defense, on the other hand, is still searching for an adequate cover corner. Youboty takes some risks and isn't the most physical player for his size, but some scouts think he could have been a top-10 pick if he had returned to Ohio State for his senior year. Clemson cornerback Tye Hill will get a look here, and he could move ahead of Youboty with a strong combine.
20. Kansas City Chiefs – Chad Jackson, WR, Florida. Jackson could end up leaving the combine as this year's Troy Williamson. He's very well built and should test out well in most of the drills. He has very good hands, and if he runs fast, he could challenge Santonio Holmes as the No. 1 wideout on most draft boards. The Chiefs could use an impact defensive end or tackle, but there aren't any stunning talents at this position this far down in the first round.
21. New England Patriots – DeMeco Ryans, OLB, Alabama. Seeking a replacement for Corey Dillon is a possibility here if the Patriots become enamored with Laurence Maroney. LenDale White and DeAngelo Williams will almost certainly be gone at this spot. The Patriots' corps of linebackers is aging, and Ryans is a small, Tedy Bruschi type who does nothing but rack up tackles and make plays. As usual, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Pats go for someone they really like and doesn't seem to figure this high in the draft. Maybe Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson or USC safety Darnell Bing.
22. Denver Broncos (from Washington) – Ko Simpson, S, South Carolina. With two first-round picks, Denver can afford to pad some depth. If wide receiver isn't addressed in free agency (with you know who), that could be a spot the Broncos look to bolster here, especially if Chad Jackson is still on the board. If not, they have their safeties set for at least another year or two, but need to find a replacement to groom. Simpson was extremely productive in only two seasons with South Carolina, and he could really blossom with some patience. It's going to take some good workouts to elevate Simpson this high, but with his physical ability, he's expected to test well.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Mathias Kiwanuka, DE, Boston College. Ideally, one of the tackles would slip to this point, but if not, the Buccaneers could use this pick to find an impact defensive end to groom. Kiwanuka could be that player – if he can bounce back from a bad Senior Bowl. He was considered the No. 2 defensive end and a possible top-12 pick heading into this offseason, but looked ordinary at the Senior Bowl. Kiwanuka has size (6-5, 260) with room to grow, but scouts believe he needs work on his pass-rushing technique.
24. Cincinnati Bengals – Gabe Watson, DT, Michigan. Tight end is a priority, but the Bengals may be able to fill that need later in the draft. There is a lack of dominant defensive tackles, and Watson is a bit of a gamble. He's huge (6-3, 341) and raised some eyebrows at the early Senior Bowl practices, showing a lot of power and quickness. But he was erratic during the week as well, mirroring Watson's production at Michigan. Marvin Lewis has shown he'll gamble on guys with question marks, and he might be willing to give Watson a shot because of his load of potential.
25. New York Giants – Tye Hill, CB, Clemson. Hill had a very good week at the Senior Bowl and dispelled some size concerns (he's only 5-9) with his ability to play the ball and shadow receivers without using his hands. He has some swagger to him and is very adept in man-to-man coverage. Considering the sad state of the Giants' cornerbacks, Hill would have a chance to start right away. If Hill is gone, an outside linebacker like Florida State's Ernie Sims or Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter could get looks.
26. Chicago Bears – Leonard Pope, TE, Georgia. The Bears need more offensive options, and are going to try and address the wide receiver spot in free agency. Pope would give the Bears a potential upgrade over Desmond Clark, who hasn't developed into a consistent threat. At 6-7 and 250, Pope has a good combination of size and length that could give linebackers trouble. He was an integral and dependable part of Georgia's offense. The Bears could use some quality depth at cornerback, so if one slips, he could be a possibility here, too.
27. Carolina Panthers – Dominique Byrd, TE, USC. Byrd had a good Senior Bowl and pushed himself into the first round by practicing well and catching four balls for 67 yards for the North squad. Scouts like the fact that he's a solid, all-around tight end with above-average hands and athleticism. His blocking leaves something to be desired, but that could improve with some added strength. Running back Laurence Maroney is a candidate for this pick, too, but it appears the Panthers are going to try and retain DeShaun Foster and try to find another veteran to back him up in free agency.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars – Ernie Sims, OLB, Florida State. Coach Jack Del Rio wants to add some speed to his linebackers and Sims would do the job. He is a little too aggressive at times and overruns plays, but scouts think that can be reigned in. There are also some durability and strength questions because of his size (6-foot, 220). Sims could end up playing safety because of a lack of bulk. The Jaguars could also look to upgrade the guard spot with USC's Deuce Lutui if they can't fill that void in free agency.
29. Denver Broncos – Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Florida State. The Broncos need some fresh legs in the defensive tackle rotation that could be more effective in pass-rushing situations. Bunkley is a little light (6-2, 287), but he's got explosion and would fit right in to Denver's situational rotation at defensive tackle. LSU's Claude Wroten could be another pass-rushing defensive lineman considered in this spot. If the Broncos can't get a wide receiver in free agency, they could take a flier in this spot on Miami's Sinorice Moss or Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall.
30. Indianapolis Colts – Laurence Maroney, RB, Minnesota. Obviously this is contingent on free agency. If the Colts lose Edgerrin James and can't find a reasonable veteran replacement, Maroney would be a good value pick from Tony Dungy's alma mater. Maroney has some size questions (5-11, 205), but he's a patient runner with good speed. LSU's Joseph Addai and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun could sneak into the running back picture with this pick, too. Maroney and Addai might be the running back sleepers of the draft.
31. Seattle Seahawks – Deuce Lutui, G, USC. Lutui had a good, steady week at the Senior Bowl and moved to the head of the guard class, pushing to the fringe of the first round. He's absolutely huge (6-6, 365) but moves his feet well and has a little bit of a nasty streak. He played tackle and guard at USC – a big plus for scouts who like that flexibility. Even if Seattle retains free agent Steve Hutchinson, Lutui could give great depth at guard and tackle and eventually challenge Chris Gray for a starting spot.
32. Pittsburgh Steelers – Darnell Bing, S, USC. The Steelers could go a lot of different ways with the last pick, picking someone to groom at center (Ohio State's Nick Mangold), linebacker (Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter) or wide receiver (Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall). But the situation with Chris Hope is troubling and he could command too much to retain in free agency. Some scouts think Bing is versatile enough to play either safety position. He has a great combination of speed and athleticism. There are personnel people who think he would be a top-15 pick if injuries hadn't slowed him down at various points in college.