Seven years ago, as Aaron Rodgers was enduring the most uncomfortable green-room experience this side of a David Letterman/Neal Patrick Harris exchange, most people in the NFL community felt for the spurned quarterback.
As Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay watched his peers pass over Rodgers for players like Troy Williamson, Mike Williams and Matt Jones, he undoubtedly sympathized with the former Cal passer's plight.
Being a Tom Petty aficionado, among his many rock n' roll obsessions, Irsay might have channeled some lyrical inspiration. Perhaps "Free Fallin" was the Petty tune that came to mind, or "The Waiting", or "I Need To Know." (Alas, as Twitter didn't exist back then, we'll never know.)
Well, as fate would have it – or, at least, fate as manipulated by the imaginary whims of yours truly – Irsay and Rodgers are about to rock the football world. Yes, sports fans, it's time for the eighth annual Ultimate Mock Draft, that noble exercise in which we conjure a selection process which supposes that everyone is there for the taking.
As with last year, when Rodgers went No. 1 overall to the Carolina Panthers, the rules are simple: Any human being on this glorious earth is available, as is, meaning you and the Joe Namaths of the world would be off your rockers (literally, in some cases) to consider Hall of Famers as options.
Since, in the past, some of you have proven to be a little slow, I'm going to make this painfully clear: WE'RE USING THE ORIGINAL DRAFT ORDER. In other words, the first five people who email or tweet incredulous responses like "You idiot – the Rams don't draft second, the Redskins do!" win a day's supply of public humiliation – and don't say you weren't warned.
Also, as much as this may pain some of you, these selections were compiled with the help of some of pro football's sharpest minds: respected general managers, personnel experts and coaches. These men have a pretty good idea of how current and prospective NFL players are valued in their world, and that helps distinguish this draft from any amateurish imitation that may turn up in the cyber-universe from time to time.
Rodgers, I'm sure, will cherish the honor of being the first player off the board, not to mention escaping the pretend UMD green room after only a few minutes. After all, as Petty and Irsay would agree, "It's Good To Be King."
1. Indianapolis Colts – Aaron Rodgers, QB: It seems that, in the wake of a 2-14 season and Peyton Manning's departure, the Colts are having some trouble selling tickets. The presence of the reigning MVP at Lucas Oil Stadium might help remedy that situation. Rodgers, 28, is at the top of his game and seemingly ascending. Last December, on Showtime's Inside the NFL, a Rodgers admirer declared that "it's impossible to play the quarterback position any better than he is playing right now." I don't know about you, but I tend to defer to Tom Brady's analysis on such matters.
2. St. Louis Rams – Cam Newton, QB: Jeff Fisher's most fulfilling years as a head coach came in tandem with the late, great Steve McNair – a big-bodied, athletic quarterback who developed into a savvy field general. Newton, coming off a record-setting rookie season, looks like McNair 2.0, and the kid is just getting started.
Consider that Newton accomplished all he did in 2011 after just a single year in a non-NFL-style collegiate offense, and without the benefit of an offseason. Am I saying that Newton, 22, is the second best football player on earth? Of course not. But his combination of talent, athleticism and potential is staggering, and I believe Fisher snaps him up in this scenario. The coach doesn't get much of an argument from his newly hired general manager, either: Les Snead, after all, is a former Auburn tight end.
3. Minnesota Vikings – Tom Brady, QB: Yes, Brady will be 35 by the start of next season. The Vikings' brass isn't dissuaded. As owner Zygi Wilf pines for a new stadium, this franchise needs a shot of life – and Brady, still playing at the highest level, would be a transformative presence. And if the stadium talks implode and the Vikes bolt for L.A.? Well, Brady and Tinseltown are totally simpatico.
4. Cleveland Browns – Drew Brees, QB: Just what Saints fans need: More bad news. Fortunately, this is of the hypothetical variety, but given Brees' contentious contract situation, the thought of the franchise's locker-room leader not being in the fold hits a little close to home. In this case, after drafting the exceptionally productive passer, Browns owner Randy Lerner is happy to fork over a massive contract; considering that he paid team president Mike Holmgren a reported $50 million to come to Cleveland in December 2009, a nine-figure deal for Brees seems like a relative bargain.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Jason Pierre-Paul, DE: Who's down with JPP? Well, you know T.B. … After a stellar second season that merited NFL defensive player of the year consideration – and helped the Giants win a championship – Pierre-Paul stands as the NFL's most dynamic young defensive lineman. While at Rutgers, new Bucs coach Greg Schiano had a ton of exposure to the 6-foot-5 playmaker and doesn't hesitate to break the run on quarterbacks by snagging a bona-fide QB-disrupter.
6. Washington Redskins – Robert Griffin III, QB: Yeah, I know, there are a lot of accomplished, NFL-tested passers still on the board, but Mike Shanahan can't help himself. The coach has a major-league man crush on RG3, and with good reason. Some might say the two of them need to get a room. (A team meeting room, where they can watch some film. Get your minds out of the gutter …)
7. Jacksonville Jaguars – Ndamukong Suh, DT: Statistically, Suh fell off a bit in 2011 after his tremendous rookie season. He also suffered from what seemed to be a string of immature decisions, from stomping on Green Bay guard Evan Dietrich-Smith during his team's Thanksgiving Day defeat to the Pack to giving a dubious account of his early December car accident in Portland. But you know what? Thirty-two NFL franchises would gladly employ him for the next decade-plus. In this case, the Jags are snatching Suh off the board one spot ahead of where he went in last year's UMD.
8. Miami Dolphins – Darrelle Revis, CB: Something about the thought of Revis Island rubbing up against Star Island seems incredibly appropriate, and having faced off against the league's preeminent cornerback twice annually for the last five seasons, the Dolphins are all too familiar with his excellence. This selection is so solid, general manager Jeff Ireland and owner Steve Ross actually get praised by the team's fan base.
9. Carolina Panthers – Ben Roethlisberger, QB: Having had so much success with Newton in 2011, coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney don't hesitate to go after the older, more polished version. Some suspect Roethlisberger, who has shaken off more would-be sacks in his first eight seasons than most quarterbacks do in a career, is starting to wear down physically, which is the only reason he's still on the board. Given that he has been to three Super Bowls, winning two, and is probably the most underrated player of his era, the Panthers are willing to gamble that he'll hold up just fine.
10. Buffalo Bills – Andrew Luck, QB Two seasons ago, before "Suck For Luck" was part of the NFL lexicon, Bills fans were hoping their team would finish with the worst overall record to position themselves for a shot at the Stanford quarterback. The Bills botched that by ending up with the third-worst record, and Luck stayed in school another year anyhow. Since then, Ryan Fitzpatrick helped the Bills to a fast start in 2011 and landed a reported six-year, $59-million contract extension for his efforts. Then the Bills started sucking again, and the term buyer's remorse was tossed around liberally in western New York. If only Buffalo could have a little Luck. In UMDville, the Bills can!
11. Kansas City Chiefs – Terrell Suggs, OLB/DE: Suggs, an aspiring filmmaker, went to the Cannes Film Festival a year ago to see a screening of the acclaimed short he co-wrote and produced, "When Beautiful People Do Ugly Things."
Now imagine the material he can gather under the employ of Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who, according to the Kansas City Star, had former coach Todd Haley and others convinced he was tapping phones and engaging in other acts of surveillance. When he's not terrorizing opposing quarterbacks like few others can, T-Sizzle can start plotting his espionage-heavy thriller, "When Paranoid People Do Shady Things."
12. Seattle Seahawks – Patrick Willis, MLB: The Seahawks, who once had a menacing force in the middle in Lofa Tatupu, pilfer the league's best middle linebacker from an NFC West rival. Scot McCloughan, the Seattle front-office executive who drafted Willis as the 49ers' general manager, proclaims his team will "beat the hell out of" San Francisco for the foreseeable future.
13. Arizona Cardinals – Larry Fitzgerald, WR: Even in the UMD, some picks are kind of boring. Here's one: The Cardinals, who have had the services of the game's best receiver since they drafted him third overall in 2004, have no desire to see him wearing another team's uniform, ever. Fitzgerald has no argument with that. After all, when you have a sweet, open-air living room, moving sounds like a real drag.
14. Dallas Cowboys – Eli Manning, QB: Jerry Jones expresses his public devotion to Tony Romo at every turn, but the man doesn't live in a cave. Watching Peyton's kid brother win his second Super Bowl in stirring fashion last February – not long after Eli and the Giants bested Romo and the 'Boys in a pair of late-season clashes – surely gave the Dallas owner a serious case of QB Envy. And right now, the younger Manning isn't just the king of the NFC East, he's the man every passer in the league wants to be.
15. Philadelphia Eagles – DeMarcus Ware, OLB: Oops, sorry Jerry: The NFC East-on-NFC East crime continues as the Eagles raid the Cowboys' roster and pick up one of the game's great edge rushers. Suddenly, the "Wide Nine" seems a whole lot wider, and Jason Babin has a bookend pass-rushing counterpart. You might say the Eagles are a Dream … uh, sorry. Never mind.
16. New York Jets – LeSean McCoy, RB: Double oops: Rex Ryan robs Philly of the 2011 season's most explosive back, a rushing and receiving threat with breakaway speed and slippery moves. Forget "Ground and Pound"; bring on "Shady Go Crazy." The upshot: The Jets suddenly have a semi-dynamic offense that will either enable Mark Sanchez to fulfill the promise he flashed during his first two seasons or hasten the ascent of You Know Who.
17. Oakland Raiders – Joe Thomas, OT: When Al Davis was alive, assigning the Raiders a safe, semi-boring pick like the game's most dependable left tackle would have been unthinkable. But there's a new regime in Oakland, and general manager Reggie McKenzie decides to make a shrewd and sound selection, rather than a splashy one. Thomas, however, does manage to make somewhat of a splash – from his fishing boat, where he hangs out for every UMD.
18. San Diego Chargers – Von Miller, OLB: More division-on-division crime: The Chargers hurt the Broncos by nabbing Miller, the reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year, allowing linebacker Shaun Phillips to resume his former role as The Other Guy.
General manager A.J. Smith doesn't blink in making this selection, and don't even think about calling him to offer an alternative when he's on the clock, and three minutes or fewer remain. In fact, don't even look at him.
19. Chicago Bears – Jared Allen, DE: Continuing our division-rival-raiding theme, the Bears dip into the Vikings' medicine cabinet for a relentless lineman who has matured into a locker-room leader. Yes, Allen just turned 30, but the man had 22 sacks last season, half a sack shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record. He also knows the meaning of the word "metaphor" better than most athletes.
20. Tennessee Titans – Jake Long, OT: When you are coached by a Hall of Fame lineman, it's unlikely that your organization will undervalue the men in the trenches. Long is commonly cited as a reach as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft, but the big man has been steady and highly successful as Miami's left tackle, and he's the closest thing to Thomas the league currently has to offer. Second-year coach Mike Munchak is all over it.
21. Cincinnati Bengals – Adrian Peterson, RB: I realize that Peterson tore his ACL less than four months ago and has endured five years of pounding from NFL defenders, but the man is a flat-out beast, and I expect him to return with a vengeance. So does Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who craves a power-running upgrade from Cedric Benson and can give young quarterback Andy Dalton the greatest gift imaginable.
22. Atlanta Falcons – Calvin Johnson, WR: Thomas Dimitroff, who last year traded everything but his favorite mountain bike to acquire rookie wideout Julio Jones, gets an even more prolific receiver by standing pat. Megatron, a former Georgia Tech star, gives Matt Ryan yet another explosive weapon, assuming Ryan doesn't get stolen away by one of the teams yet to draft. (Yes, UMDville is a confusing place, but some of us like it that way.)
23. Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford, QB: Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew are not happy men, having had Suh and Megatron taken from their grasp, so they make a point of holding onto their franchise quarterback. Stafford, after a stellar third season, is so valuable that it's tempting to call him the "fine china" – though former Detroit linebacker Zack Follett is a little sensitive about that analogy.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Clay Matthews, OLB: The Steelers tend to like their linebackers homegrown, but Mike Tomlin and friends have no intention of passing up this versatile Packers star. They can play Matthews inside or outside, and he and Troy Polamalu can form a formidable playmaking tandem – and collaborate on one hell of a Head and Shoulders commercial.
25. Denver Broncos – Philip Rivers, QB: Stung by the Chargers' pick of Miller, Broncos vice president John Elway gives the figurative middle finger to Smith by taking away San Diego's franchise quarterback. Yes, I know, Peyton Manning is still on the board – Rivers, however, is nearly six years younger, and he isn't coming off neck-fusion surgery. Somewhere in the Windy City, a former Broncos quarterback winces.
26. Houston Texans – Haloti Ngata, DT: General manager Rick Smith thinks about protecting one of his own (Andre Johnson, Arian Foster), or even reclaiming one who got away (Mario Williams), before giving defensive coordinator Wade Phillips the gift of gap-clogging. Ngata, who'd play the nose in Phillips' scheme, would make an already dangerous defense even scarier.
27. New Orleans Saints – Ray Rice, RB: With soon-to-be-suspended general manager Mickey Loomis presiding over the team's War Room – and banished coach Sean Payton popping in via hologram, Tupac-style – the Saints give their fan base a reason to smile. Rice is a resplendent runner who'd make an already prolific offense even tougher to contain, despite the fact that Payton won't be around to run it in 2012. One slight snag: Rice, like Brees, is seeking a long-term deal and has yet to sign his franchise tender. On a positive note, he ought to be able to cash in on a red beans and Rice endorsement from one of NOLA's many awesome eateries.
28. Green Bay Packers – Jimmy Graham, TE: Yeah, I know: general manager Ted Thompson needs a quarterback to replace Rodgers. No, Brett Favre, that phone won't be ringing … and no, Thompson isn't drafting Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman or any other signal-caller. Instead, he sticks to his best-player-available philosophy and takes Graham, who blossomed into a star during his second season in New Orleans. Back in the Saints' War Room, the Payton hologram just removed his shirt in disgust.
29. Baltimore Ravens – Michael Vick, QB: Joe Flacco, who came tantalizingly close to guiding the Ravens to a Super Bowl last January, thinks he's the best quarterback in the league. GM Ozzie Newsome thinks Vick is better. With Vick running the offense and Ray Lewis in charge of the defense, Team Redemption feels it cannot be denied. One potentially awkward scenario: When Lewis asks if his dogs are in the house and Vick joins the other Ravens in woofing, will someone at PETA have a hissy fit?
30. San Francisco 49ers – Mario Williams, OLB/DE: There are so many enticing in-house choices for coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke – from defensive end Justin Smith to linebacker NaVorro Bowman to safety Dashon Goldson – but in the end they settle for an oversized outsider. Williams, late of the Texans and newly minted by the Bills, crosses the country to make the Niners' defense even more explosive. Williams celebrates by treating new teammate Randy Moss to dinner at a churrascaria; Moss, however, ends the meal abruptly after holding up a large piece of meat and shouting, "I wouldn't feed this to my dog!"
31. New England Patriots – Matt Barkley, QB: Bill Belichick, as per custom, outthinks his peers by reaching into the college ranks to grab the presumptive No. 1 pick of the 2013 draft as Brady's replacement. Barkley, who returned to USC for his senior season, gets up and leaves in the middle of his U.S. history class, Jeff Spicoli-style, explaining to his stunned professor, "It is what it is."
32. New York Giants – Peyton Manning, QB: Faced with the loss of his franchise quarterback, general manager Jerry Reese rolls with a "Best Manning Available" approach, choosing the former Colts star over Peyton and Eli's seven-year-old nephew, Arch. Sure, Peyton is a high-risk pick, having sat out the entire 2011 season and still saddled with an uncertain medical prognosis. But when you win two championships in five seasons, you can afford to take chances. And while Denver may not have been big enough for Manning and Tim Tebow, New York welcomes the madness.
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