Thursday, April 14, 2011

2011 NFL Mock Draft

By Matt Thomas

While much of the excitement of the 2011 NFL season has been tempered by the ever-present lockout situation currently facing the league, the NFL will be holding its annual draft April 28-30. In spite of the arrogance and stubbornness surrounding the ongoing labor dispute, loyal draftniks like me must put our frustration and ridicule of the "as-is" state aside in favor of a more optimistic assessment of what "will be" as we postulate on which ex-collegians will be going where — at least in theory — when their names are called later this month.

For the past two seasons, SC's Joshua Duffy and I have "competed" for the crown as Sports Central's least wrong mock drafter and, to be frank, the competition has been more one-sided than the 1985 Bears' Super Bowl romp over the Patriots. Joshua has wiped the proverbial floor with me, and for that, he has earned my respect. Unfortunately, with that respect comes a steadfast resolve to establish the previous trend as "old news," so to that end I have redoubled my efforts in research and "guess-timation" in preparation of this missive, which enters into the official record my 2011 NFL mock draft assessment.

As always, my mock does include potential trade scenarios — which creates additional risk to my dwindling reputation as a draft "expert" — and is based on the facts as I interpret them in the weeks before the draft. Without further ado...

1. Carolina Panthers – DE Marcel Dareus, Alabama — While I am probably going to rue over thinking this one, I am resolute in my belief that the Panthers will not take a shot at Cam Newton here considering the following facts: 1) as lost as their QBs looked last season, the reality is they did spend a high draft pick on Jimmy Clausen last season; 2) in Carolina's worst-case scenario, they will suck again in 2011, which will net them a shot at QB Andrew Luck, who — assuming he remains healthy — will undoubtedly be the first player taken overall next season; 3) if the Panthers are intent on bringing in someone to compete for reps at QB, there is no reason to believe that they won't go for one of a very strong second-tier set of rookie quarterbacks early in the third round.

2. Denver Broncos – DT Nick Fairley, Auburn — Denver needs help up front and Fairley is the top option here. Von Miller (LB) is also an option here, but expect the Broncos to build their defense from their inside out, making DT a priority.

3. Buffalo Bills – QB Cameron Newton, Auburn — Buffalo is another team that may not be sold on the top QBs in this draft, but the immediate value Newton's brand name brings a team searching for an identity should prove to be too great a draw to overlook.

4. Cincinnati Bengals – CB Patrick Peterson, LSU — All signs point to Georgia's WR A.J. Green in this spot, but Peterson is a stud and fills a position of need for Cincy.

5. Arizona Cardinals – LB Von Miller, Texas A&M — No team will be watching the board more closely than the Cardinals. They are absolutely smitten with Miller and are wringing their hands in worry that another team may decide on the most talented rush linebacker to come out in recent years. Depending on how draft day buzz rolls along, the Cards are one team that may look to move up should they really start to worry that Miller won't fall to this slot.

6. Cleveland Browns – WR A.J. Green, Georgia — The Browns need some explosiveness on offense, and the productive Georgia wideout makes sense. Should the board fall like this, I really like this pick.

7. San Francisco 49ers – CB Prince Amukamara, Nebraska — Expect the Niners to receive some calls for this pick — particularly from the Vikings as they look to leapfrog Tennessee to draft Gabbart — but you have to think San Francisco is looking at getting a top-flight corner in this draft and moving to a slot behind the Texans (12 overall, if they did swap picks with Minnesota), would guarantee that they would not get a shot at the defensive backfield's consolation prize, Prince Amukamura. In the end, Washington could move here if they somehow manage to parlay a trade down (perhaps with New England) into additional second and third round picks that could be packaged and sent to San Fran, but reality is this scenario is highly unlikely, so the best bet is for the Niners to stay put and select the promising Cornhusker cornerback.

8. Tennessee Titans – QB Blaine Gabbart, Mizzou — Probably not a big surprise here. They clearly like Gabbart and they clearly need a new QB.

9. Dallas Cowboys – DE Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson — While OT makes the most sense for the Cowboys, Jerry Jones will not be able to resist the temptation of teaming another hell-raising defensive pass rush specialist with DeMarcus Ware.

10. TRADE – San Diego Chargers – DT Robert Quinn, UNC — Quinn is an interesting player. Big for an outside linebacker, he has a great motor and is a solid pass rusher, to be sure. If he remains "big" (6'4", 260 lbs), he could play 3-4 end for San Diego but should he slim down a bit, he would be a nightmarish pass rush outside linebacker option in the mold of Shawn Merriman, minus the 'roid-rage. Washington will be looking to move down to recoup some later picks and the Chargers have one extra pick in both the second and third rounds to work with.

11. TRADE – New England Patriots – OT Nate Solder, Colorado — The Patriots have tons of ammo for potential trades and, while they don't historically move up in the draft, Solder is a Bill Belichek kind of lineman — big, athletic, nasty, smart. Houston will be reeling as their nightmare scenario will have unfolded, leaving them with absolutely nobody they coveted as a high draft pick remaining on the board and a trade down will be their best option.

12. Minnesota Vikings – QB Jake Locker, Washington — Minnesota, like Houston, will be frustrated on draft day. They, more than any other team, will want to move up in this draft to get a shot at either Newton or Gabbart. Additionally, few teams will be willing to trade up into this spot as right here is about where value levels off in the player pool. Left with little choice, the Vikings will take their highest-rated remaining QB.

13. Detroit Lions – OT Tyron Smith, USC — Won't waste much time justifying this one. Detroit needs offensive line help and Smith is the best available.

14. St. Louis Rams – WR Julio Jones, Alabama — Jones has opened eyes throughout the offseason with his skills. The Rams will be happy to get him here.

15. TRADE – New Orleans Saints – RB Mark Ingram, Alabama — Miami, contrary to popular belief, is more intrigued with some of the second-tier running backs that they will be able to get later in the draft. Additionally, all signs point to DeAngelo Williams being a primary free agency target for the Dolphins, making this pick a commodity that they can comfortably do without, should they find the right suitor. Enter the Saints, who will be happy to bring a durable, hard running power back into their offensive mix.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin — Pass rusher is a key position of need for the Jags and Watt is a cerebral, hard-working type that is low risk, high reward.

17. TRADE – Houston Texans – LB Aldon Smith, Mizzou — Smith is a nice fit in Houston, and they have made no secret about the fact that they are intrigued by his skill set and motor. Should they land the Mizzou sack artist, the trade down with New England will have been a rare draft-day success for a team needing to emerge from this offseason transformed and more stable.

18. TRADE – Washington Redskins – DT Corey Liuget, Illinois — At 6'2", 300 lbs, Liuget is undersized for a NT prospect, however, he is extremely strong and this strength makes him a real option in the middle of a 3-4 despite his lack of ideal size. All in all, this would be a sound pick for the Redskins who will be looking to reform their defense on draft day.

19. New York Giants – OT Anthiny Castonzo, BC — A very, very solid pick at a position of need for a Giants team not needing wholesale changes to get back into the mix in the NFC. Castonzo should be able to start immediately.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Jimmy Smith, Colorado — With the drama surrounding Aqib Talib, Tampa will need an insurance policy in the defensive backfield. Smith is the best remaining CB on the board and makes sense.

21. Kansas City Chiefs – LB Akeem Ayers, UCLA — Georgia's Justin Houston is another option here for the Chiefs, but Ayers is a bit more polished.

22. Indianapolis Colts – OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin — And Peyton Manning will let out a huge sigh of relief.

23. Philadelphia Eagles – RB Mikel Leshoure, Illinois — By many accounts, the hard-running Illinois halfback is the most "pro-ready" prospect at the position, and Philly could use a hard-running halfback to team with McCoy.

24. TRADE – Miami Dolphins – LB Dontay Moch, Nevada — Moch is an uber-athletic linebacker that could start immediately in Miami.

25. Seattle Seahawks – OT Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State — A bit of a reach in the first round, the 'Hawks need offensive line help.

26. Baltimore Ravens – CB Brandon Harris, Miami — Yes, it may be cliché, but the Ravens love them some Hurricane defenders. Harris is nasty and aggressive, just how they like them in Baltimore.

27. TRADE – Houston Texans – DT Muhammed Wilkerson, Temple — Wilkerson is the best 3-4 guy in the lot, particularly this late in round one. Houston, desperate for a solidified defensive alignment in 2011, will be happy trading away their two second-round picks (their own plus a late first-rounder acquired from Pats in an earlier draft-day trade) for the rights to the 330-pound defensive anchor. Atlanta, not in a position where they need to grab impact players, will use this opportunity to stockpile picks and build depth.

28. New England Patriots – LB Justin Houston, Georgia — Houston is versatile and aggressive and will help bolster a defense that lacked depth in 2010.

29. Chicago Bears – OG/C Mike Pouncey, Florida — The Bears need interior line help and Pouncey is versatile, smart, and has a nasty streak. He comes from a proven bloodline, so this pick should be a no-brainer for the Bears brain-trust.

30. TRADE – Arizona Cardinals – QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas — Arizona, having gone defense early in the draft, will most certainly look to trade back into the first round should any of the top four QBs drop. In this scenario, Mallett is that guy. The Jets, without a round two pick, will be happy to pick up some additional selections in either this year's draft or next's.

31. Pittsburgh Steelers – CB Ras-I Dowling, Virginia — Dowling's stock is fading, but he is a big, relatively athletic playmaker who should be a nice fit on an aging Steelers defense.

32. Green Bay Packers – DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue — I'm not sure why I think this pick makes so much sense, but I just do. The defending champions could use some help at defensive end and Kerrigan is a mid-first round value and a steal this late in the round.

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