1. Miami Dolphins- Andrew Luck QB Stanford Just as with Carolina and John Fox last year, the lousy team with the lame-duck head coach lands the #1 overall pick. There are a few teams that are less talented than the Dolphins, but even fewer that are in as much disarray (or in a division as unforgiving as the AFC East). After taking a cursory glance at Miami’s remaining schedule, the only game I even thought about penciling a “W” next to was the Week 7 matchup at home vs. the Broncos…and even that’s iffy. (Miami will be coming off of a Monday Night matchup at the Jets, while the Broncos will be coming off of a bye.)
There might be greater needs along the Dolphins’ depth chart than at QB, but the selection of Luck at #1 overall is simply a foregone conclusion. Luck is the most promising prospect since Peyton Manning and would be a deluxe upgrade from impending free agent Chad Henne. Beyond the obvious positional upgrade, the selection of Luck would provide great hope for the future in Miami, where a frustrated and increasingly disinterested fanbase has tired of a mediocre product and the parade of so-so passers that have taken turns under center since the retirement of Dan Marino.
2. Indianapolis Colts- Matt Barkley QB USC The Colts’ current QB situation is so dire that they should seriously consider taking Jeff George up on his recent comeback proposal.
The losses to Cleveland and Pittsburgh could have been wins with merely sereviceable performances by Kerry Collins/Curtis Painter, but both QBs were atrocious. Recently re-signed journeyman Dan Orlovsky is not the answer. I just don’t see any way this team gets more than three wins, even in the weak AFC South. The recent losses of defensive captain Gary Brackett and starting safety Melvin Bullitt to season-ending injuries doesn’t help matters. The Colts are just having one of those “Murphy’s Law” kind of seasons.
There will be great debate as to whether the Colts should select Manning’s heir or a franchise LT like Matt Kalil or Jonathan Martin near the top of the 2012 NFL Draft. Sentimentality aside, I’m of the opinion that pinning your hopes on a QB (no matter how legendary) who will be 36 in March and has neck/back issues problems worthy of stem cell solutions just isn’t good business. The Colts can avoid the $28 million bonus Manning is due in 2012 simply by releasing him before late February. The uncerimonious release of Manning obviously wouldn’t be popular around Indy, but rarely does a NFL Draft crop boast three potential franchise QBs (four, if Robert Griffin III keeps it up). The Colts should take advantage of the rare opportunity to transition from one franchise QB to another.
Following three pristine performances, Barkley reverted back to his old form in USC’s PAC-12 opener against Arizona State, often holding on to the ball too long and forcing the ball into coverage, while turning it over three times. He also continued his disturbing trend of folding in the fourth quarter. I won’t bury him based on one game, but let’s just say that this pick could just as easily be Landry Jones or RG3. Barkley will never be confused with Manning, but he’s at least on par with rookies Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert, and could allow the Colts to remain competetive in the post-Manning AFC South.
3. Seattle Seahawks- Robert Griffin III QB Baylor RG3′s early season performance is becoming impossible to ignore. (As many TDs as incompletions through three games…are you serious?!) While I’m sure that Griffin will cool off as Baylor’s BIG 12 season unfolds, his vastly improved accuracy and pocket awarness, in concert with his great athleticism and arm strength, make him a Heisman contender and a strong candidate to enter the 2012 NFL Draft. (Keep in mind that he’s already earned his degree.) Griffin has plenty of great tape and should make a mockery of the Combine, so we may see a Newtonesque rise up draft boards during the predraft process. Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell prefers a mobile QB, so Griffin could get the nod over the (relatively) mechanical Landry Jones if the Seahawks are given the choice of the two come next April.
The Vick/Newton comparisons are inevitable, but pay them no mind. Griffin (6-2/225), a member of the Baylor track team, is a top-notch athlete, but isn’t as explosive as Vick or as big as Newton. However, he’s more refined and has better accuracy than both at similar stages of their careers. Unlike Vick and Newton, Griffin’s intelligence and character will never come into question. If anything, comparisons to Aaron Rodgers would be more apt.
4. Minnesota Vikings- Matt Kalil OT USC The Vikings are finding out the hard way that Charlie Johnson is a guard disguised as a left tackle. Their recent interest in the morbidly obese Max Starks only confirms their desperation to upgrade this position. It already looks like a lost season in Minny, so if a QB is going to take a beating, it might as well be a washed-up stopgap like Donovan McNabb. Rookie Christian Ponder is the future under center. If his injury history at Florida State is any indication, the Vikes better find a top-shelf blindside protector…pronto. Kalil is a premier, low-risk LT prospect, a la Joe Thomas and Jake Long, with good size, great athleticism and even better fundamentals. His experience in a pro-style system and NFL bloodlines are gravy. Plug ‘n’ play.
5. Kansas City Chiefs- Jonathan Martin OT Stanford It will be very interesting to see what GM Scott Pioli chooses to do with this pick. Matt Cassel simply isn’t the kind of QB that can take his team to the Super Bowl, so a potential franchise QB like Landry Jones would seem the logical choice. However, history shows that Pioli is adept at mining late round QB gems, so if he’s not sold on Jones, he could address the OT position in the first round and target an intriguing late-round passer like Florida’s John Brantley.
Few college O-lineman are performing better than Jonathan Martin right now. Well-rounded, smart and consistent, he could step in at LT and allow Branden Albert to move to the right side or inside to guard.
I think that folks may be overreacting to the Chiefs’ early season struggles just a bit. This isn’t an awful team, just a team that’s had the wind taken out of it’s sails due to a rash of major injuries. With an improved O-line and a return to health from Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki, the Chiefs could bounce right back in 2012.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars- Quinton Coples DE North Carolina GM Gene Smith has done an underrated job of rebuilding the Jags by staying true to his value board and putting a premium on character in the last three drafts. However, assuming that he’s still the GM in 2012, he may want to consider drafting for need…specifically, pass rushers. Jacksonville has put up historically rotten sack totals over the last few seasons and 2011 isn’t looking any better. At DE, Matt Roth is a one-year rental and you can stick a fork in Aaron Kampman. Yeah, the Jags could really use a great WR, but the keys to success in the modern NFL are having a QB and having guys who can get to the QB. Smith secured his QB in Blaine Gabbert and now it’s time to draft a stud DE (or two).
Coples has been a disappointment this season, disappearing for stretches and posting his two sacks against an outclassed James Madison squad. Still, he flashes the athleticism and pass-rushing skills that brought 10 sacks and 15.5 TFL in 2010. He has the potential to emerge as a Justin Tuck-type force at the next level, capable of bringing the heat from LDE or from an inside spot.
7. Cincinnati Bengals- Trent Richardson RB Alabama The young Bengals are taking their lumps this season, but the addition of a premier, all-purpose back like Richardson could make the offense downright terrifying in 2012 and beyond.
Impending free agent Cedric Benson turns 30 in December and is on the decline. He’s no longer worth the off-field headaches, especially if Richardson is an option for Cincinnati in the 2012 NFL Draft. Forget all of that “devaluation of the RB” stuff…Richardson is a top ten lock. A perfect storm of power, speed, pass-catching and pass-protection abilities, he’s on pace to eclipse Mark Ingram’s 2009 Heisman-worthy numbers.
8. Denver Broncos- Landry Jones QB Oklahoma HC John Fox is more than happy to grind out wins with a bullish rushing attack and stifling defense, so he may prefer to go forward with QB Kyle Orton playing the role of Jake Delhomme and using this pick on Vontaze Burfict, who could become his Jon Beason in Denver. However, it’s John Elway who gets the final say, and he could have other plans.
Elway has no interest in seeing Tim Tebow in any other role besides H-back, and impending free agent Kyle Orton is obviously not the same guy that he was in Josh McDaniels’ system, so I’m guessing that Elway would jump all over Landry Jones if he’s on the board. Jones is the kind of tall, strong-armed pocket passer who could appeal to Elway. The “spread QB” stigma and emergence of Robert Griffin III could prompt a slide to the 8-12 range for Jones, but he has all of the tools to become a legitimate franchise QB in the NFL.
9. Arizona Cardinals- D.J. Fluker OT Alabama OTs Levi Brown and Brandon Keith comprise one of the worst starting duos in the NFL. Both guys lack the agility and footwork to handle speed rushers. Brown, a strong run blocker, would benefit from a return to the right side. Keith simply shouldn’t be a NFL starter. There could be an overhaul at this position in 2012, when both guys will be free agents.
Fluker is a rSo. and has little chance of passing Kalil and Martin in the OT rankings, so including him in my mock is a bit of a stretch, but his performance and upside almost demand his inclusion. Fluker consistently uses his great size (6-6/335) to TNT holes for Trent Richardson over the right side, while flashing the athleticism and nimble feet that portend a successful move to the blindside in the NFL. Fluker would probably be the #1 OT and a top 5 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft if he decides to stick around Tuscaloosa for his Junior season, but if enters this draft, I don’t see him falling out of the top 10.
10. Tennessee Titans- Vontaze Burfict ILB Arizona State Prior to Kenny Britt’s season-ending ACL injury, I was prepared to stick with my preseason prediction that had Tennessee winning the watered-down AFC South. Hasselbeck has been effective, the defense is invigorated under Jerry Gray and Chris Johnson’s early-season struggles can’t last (can they?). With the loss of Britt, all of that goes out the window. The Texans win the South by default (he says a he grits his teeth).
While the Titan’s defense has improved, an upgrade is needed at MLB. One-year rental Barrett Ruud is soft vs. the run and not the kind of guy a defense rallies around. Burfict offers the size, instincts, athleticism and intensity to take this unit to another level.
Burfict might have made himself a little bit of money in the Sun Devils’ romp over USC. As usual, he was a Tazmanian devil, flying all over the field and grabbing a huge INT, but what stood out the most was his composure. By now, it’s common knowledge that a lack of discipline has been Burfict’s achille’s heel. The Trojans obviously received the memo, as Matt Barkley egged him on prior to the game and the baiting continued throughout the contest. Burfict rarely bit. Instead, he let his performance to the talking. Burfict is still rough around the edges, but if he can build off of this game, clean up his tackling technique and find a balance between focus and aggression, he has the potential to emerge as the top defensive prospect in the 2012 NFL Draft.
11. Carolina Panthers- Justin Blackmon WR Oklahoma State Ron Rivera’s aggressive defensive scheme needs high-quality corners to hit on all cylinders (think Jammer, Cromartie and Cason in San Diego). Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn just aren’t cutting it, so Dre Kirkpatrick makes a lot of sense here. As great as the need at CB is, I think that Jerry Richardson and Marty Hurneys’ desire to ensure the NFL success of Cam Newton may ultimately trump that need. This means more weapons for Newton.
Newton has come storming out of the gates in his rookie year. The addition of a potential stud WR for Newton to grow with would allow OC Rob Chudzinski to really put the pedal to the metal. Blackmon has refined his game while continuing to put up great numbers this season. I’d say that he’s currently ahead of Alshon Jeffery in the race to the top of the 2012 WR rankings.
12. St. Louis Rams- Alshon Jeffery WR South Carolina I’m seeing quite a few mock drafts that have the Rams taking a CB in the first round. I don’t see it. The season-ending injury to Ron Bartell has exposed a lack of depth at CB, but Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are rock solid starters who are in their primes and contractually locked up, so to burn a first-rounder on a nickel back just seems like a luxury that the Rams aren’t good enough to afford yet. What they really need are a legit #1 WR and a dominant force at DT.
Barring a surprise early entry from LSU’s beastly rSo. Michael Brockers, I just don’t see any DT prospects worth a top 15 pick in this draft. The Rams should address their need for a run-stopper in free agency (Paul Soliai could be a good fit) or in the second round (Alameda Ta’amu might be available) and finally grab their stud wideout with this pick.
Jeffery has become a relatively forgotten man at South Carolina, where Steve Spurrier has decided to ride Marcus Lattimore until the wheels fall off. Jeffery’s numbers are way down from last season and Stephen Garcia’s inaccuracy isn’t helping matters. A drastic statistical falloff and questions regarding Jeffery’s conditioning and fundamentals could induce a slide to the #8-15 range, but there’s no way on Earth that he gets by the Rams. The current group of journeymen wideouts in St. Louis can’t catch a cold, and the Rams are desperate for upgrades. Jeffery is the kind of huge, rangy target Josh McDaniels covets (think Demaryius Thomas) and would provide Sam Bradford with a sorely needed red zone threat.
13. Cleveland Browns- Dre Kirkpatrick CB Alabama Joe Haden and T.J. Ward deliver the goods, but the other two spots in the Cleveland secondary could use upgrades. Ten-year vet Sheldon Brown is smart and knows Dick Jauron’s defense like the back of his hand, but his declining physical skills could mean a move to free safety, where Mike Adams and Usama Young are marginal starters. Kirkpatrick has only flashed glimpses of his potential, but with his elite size/athleticism and surprising physicality, he could really blossom in the pros. Kirkpatrick could be a steal at #13 and would give the Browns a potentially great, young trio at cornerback (counting exciting nickel back Buster Skrine).
14. Chicago Bears- Lamar Miller RB Miami (Fla.) It’s starting to look like the Bears have serious questions as to whether Matt Forte deserves to be paid like an elite RB. If both sides fail to agree on a contract extension before Forte hits the open market this offseason, Chicago could go into the 2012 NFL Draft with a gaping hole at RB.
Only a rSo., Miller has emerged as an All-American candidate and potential first-rounder with his insane combination of physicality and sprinter’s speed. His speed and versatility would play well in Mike Martz’s offense, should the Bears decide to let Forte explore his free agency options.
15. Washington Redskins- Michael Floyd WR Notre Dame I love the new-look defense in D.C. (especially that LB corps), but Rex Grossman’s inconsistency probably torpedoes any hopes for a playoff spot this season. The ‘Skins will likely be drafting too low to have a shot at one of the potential franchise QBs come next April, so they should look to surround Grossman with more play-makers at the skill positions.
Aging vets Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney are serviceable out wide, but neither is a red zone or big play threat. Rookie third-rounder Leonard Hankerson already has the look of a bust. Floyd has the size (6-3/227) to come down with jump balls and the open-field shiftiness to do some damage after the catch.
Nebraska’s Jared Crick could also be an option as the potential replacement for impending free agent (and fellow Cornhusker) Adam Carriker.
16. New York Giants- Riley Reiff OT Iowa I’m hesitant to bet against the G-Men making the playoffs, as Tom Coughlin has always done his best coaching when his back is against the wall, but with the NFC South and NFC North looking absolutely stacked, the only way the Giants get in is if they win the East. The Eagles are a mess right now, but I have to think that the cream will eventually rise to the top. (Unless Michael Vick, overwhelmed by frustration, reverts back to his combative, pre-”redemption story” persona, triggering a complete organizational implosion.)
Will Beatty is inconsistent at LT and could benefit from a move to the right side, where 11-year vet Kareem McKenzie is the incumbent. McKenzie is in a contract year and it’s no surprise that rookie 4th-rounder James Brewer, who was branded an injury risk coming out of Indiana, has been hounded by a leg injury since training camp. A versatile, blue collar OT like Reiff would be a solid building block for an O-line that looks to be under further reconstruction in 2012.
17. Dallas Cowboys- Stephon Gilmore CB South Carolina Rob Ryan has the defensive front seven playing lights out, but the secondary has some issues. Terence Newman turns 34 next season and is incredibly expensive for an old guy who has trouble staying on the field. Mike Jenkins has been dinged up and remains inconsistent. The Cowboys obviously envision nickel back Orlando Scandrick as a future starter, judging by the six-year, $28.2 million deal they gave him recently, but I have my doubts. The Cowboys’ top three corners are all 5-10 or shorter, so the rangy, 6-1 Gilmore would be a welcome addition. A smart, physical and well-rounded corner with a nose for the ball, Gilmore could enjoy a solid, Quintin Jammer-type career in the pros. Also, his punt return abilities would reduce Dez Bryant’s risk of injury. Good value at #17.
18. New York Jets- Brandon Jenkins DE/OLB Florida State The fact that the Jets have been sniffing around garbage like Aaron Maybin speaks volumes as to how desperate they are for an explosive, young pass rusher for Rex Ryan’s aggressive 3-4 scheme. LOLB Bryan Thomas is solid vs. the run, but rarely brings any heat off the edge and will be going into his 11th season in 2012. Calvin Pace is decent on the right side, but is approaching his 10th season and is not nearly worthy of his current six-year, $42 million deal. Offensive coordinators are getting wise to Ryan’s blitz disguises, so he’ll only be able to mask Thomas and Paces’ shortcomings for so long. An influx of youth and athleticism at OLB is needed.
So far this season, Jenkins has cooled off considerably after a monster, 2010 1st Team ACC campaign (63 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 21.5 TFL). He’s often been overshadowed by emerging LDE Bjoern Werner (Justin Smith 2.0). For now, I’ll assume that Jenkins is simply off to a good old-fashioned slow start, and that he’ll right the ship before long. He remains in my top 20 this week, but if he continues to only flash glimpses of last season’s dominance, he might be best off returning for his Senior season.
19. San Diego Chargers- Jared Crick DT/DE Nebraska Luis Castillo has been relatively unproductive since recording seven sacks in 2006 and the frugal Bolts could look to get out from under his heavy contract this offseason. Castillo is currently out with a broken tibia and his replacement, Vaughn Martin, has been ordinary after turning heads in preseason. Like 2011 first-rounder J.J. Watt, Crick is a 4-3 defensive lineman who would be best as a 3-4 DE. He’s an experienced backfield disruptor with functional athleticism who can set the edge vs. the run, use his 6-6 height and long arms to knock down a few passes and get his team about six sacks a season with his relentless motor and crafty array of pass-rush moves. A rock solid (albeit unsexy) pick for the Chargers.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Morris Claiborne CB LSU With a torrid start to the 2011 season, Claiborne has emphatically answered any questions I had, like whether his productive, 2010 2nd Team SEC season was just a result of the ample opportunities that come with playing opposite a shutdown corner like Patrick Peterson. He’s thrived in his new role as the #1 CB, and along with So. ball magnet Tyrann Mathieu, has spearheaded a National Championship-caliber defense in Baton Rouge. He’s left guys like Alfonzo Dennard and Jayron Hosley in the dust in his rise up my CB rankings, and Stephon Gilmore may want to watch his back.
36-year old Ronde Barber just keeps rolling along at RCB (Week Three NFC Defensive Player of the Week), but he has to slow down at some point…I think. The Bucs are high on young corners E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis, but it’s unsure if either will ever emerge as a starter. Claiborne would be an ideal fit in the Tampa-2 defense and his explosive return ability would be a boon to the Bucs’ vanilla special teams unit.
21. San Francisco 49ers- Mohamed Sanu WR Rutgers Yeah, I still like the 49ers to take the God-awful NFC west. Why not? As long as Alex Smith continues to avoid mistakes, the Gore/Hunter RB combo and All-World mismatch Vernon Davis should be just enough on offense, while the suddenly stout defense does the heavy lifting. Sadly, 7-9 will probably win the West again. I like San Francisco’s chances.
GM Trent Baalke may want to clean house at the WR position after this season. One-year rental Braylon Edwards has yet to make an impact for the ‘Niners and is questionable to return in 2012. Michael Crabtree is apparently allergic to practice and headed toward “bust” status. Josh Morgan is a good fit in the WCO, but rarely makes a big play. Fresh off a 16 catch/176 yards/2 TD outing against Ohio, Sanu is streaking up draft boards. An explosive weapon with tremendous speed and versatility, he offers great upside. Baalke proved in this year’s NFL Draft that he’s not afraid to roll the bones on high-upside prospects (Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick).
22. Oakland Raiders- Michael Brewster C Ohio State A week after neutralizing Miami DT Marcus Fortson, Brewster set the tone for the Buckeyes’ dominant rushing attack in their victory over Colorado. Clearly the best center in the 2012 NFL Draft, Brewster is in a groove and close to cementing a spot in the 20-30 range. A great leader, a versatile, underrated athlete and a dominant run-blocker, he would be a huge upgrade over C Samson Satele or RG Cooper Carlisle in Oakland. Brewster and fellow BIG TEN snarler Stefen Wisniewski would make a bulldozing, interior combo as the Raiders move further away from Tom Cable’s ZBS.
23. Buffalo Bills- Ronnell Lewis DE/OLB Oklahoma I’m aboard the Bills’ bandwagon, but that anemic pass rush still scares me. Buffalo’s reason for throwing that 5-year, $28.2 million contract at 32-year old LOLB Chris Kelsay remains the NFL’s greatest mystery, and let’s be real…Shawne Merriman hasn’t been the same guy since he “shrunk”. New blood is needed at OLB.
Ronnell Lewis is blowing up this season. An elite two-way prospect coming out of H.S., he has settled in at DE after switching from LB and is emerging as a dominant force for the Sooners. A snot bubble hitter with great athleticism, he consistently gets into the backfield while showing the fluidity to drop into coverage. A natural fit as a 3-4 OLB, Lewis should continue to add good weight (currently listed at 6-2/244) and tear the Combine a new one. Academic issues reportedly have Lewis leaning toward early entry into the 2012 NFL Draft. There’s always a premium on pass rushers, so his great upside could land him in the mid-to-late first round.
24. Cleveland Browns (from Atlanta)- David DeCastro OG Stanford The Browns desperately need to rebuild the right side of the offensive line. Instead of reaching for a RT prospect like Florida State’s Andrew Datko or BYU’s Matt Reynolds, they should go with the better value in David DeCastro, the best pure guard in the draft (if he declares). Country strong and nasty, DeCastro wins battles with great leverage and fundamentals. He’s experienced in a pro-style WCO, so he should have no trouble sliding right into the starting lineup at RG in Pat Shurmur’s WCO. Should GM Tom Heckert decide to give up on disappointing WR Brian Robiskie, Texas A & M’s Jeff Fuller (a custom-built WCO WR) could be an option here.
25. Philadelphia Eagles- Zach Brown OLB North Carolina Moise Fokou, Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews are the worst linebacking crew in the NFL…and it’s not even close. There’s no way Philadelphia wins a Super Bowl with this group. They can’t stop the run, don’t get into the backfield and served as Tony Gonzalez’s fountain of youth in Week Two. If I was Andy Reid, a veteran MLB like E.J. Henderson would be my top free agency priority. After that, I’d go into the draft intent on landing an impact WLB. That’s Zach Brown. With his jaw-dropping speed and ability to throw a blanket over tight ends, Brown could be the disruptive whirlwind the Eagles thought they were getting in 2010 free agency flop Ernie Sims.
26. Detroit Lions- Mike Adams OT Ohio State I’ve often been the first to defend LT Jeff Backus, a solid pro who’s regularly been singled out as the scapegoat by fans frustrated by all of Matthew Stafford’s injuries, but I’ll also be the first to admit that the 34-year old has been awful through the first three games of this season. Backus is a limited athlete with little room for error, so when he’s hurt (as is the case this year) he becomes a serious liability. At his age, things aren’t going to get better. He must be replaced in 2012. Franchise LTs never make it to free agency, so unless GM Martin Mayhew makes a bold Draft Day move up for Jonathan Martin, Riley Reiff or D.J. Fluker, Detroit almost has to reach here.
While Adams at #27 is considered a reach right now, that could change in the coming months. Often forgetten amid the OSU scandal and ensuing suspensions is that Adams is a prospect with great upside. It was Adams, not Riley Reiff, who was voted 1st-team BIG TEN last season. His linear, 6-8 frame and athleticism are perfectly suited to handle the blindside. Don’t be surprised to see him rise up draft boards upon his return from suspension and ultimately land in the late-first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
27. Pittsburgh Steelers- Manti Te’o ILB Notre Dame I’m not ready to write off the Steelers. The offensive line is a disaster, but it was also a disaster last season…when Pittsburgh reached the Super Bowl. This team is too well-coached, resiliant and talented to just fade into oblivion. Mark my words, when the snow starts falling, Mike Tomlin’s crew will be right in the thick of things in the AFC.
The O-line is the Steelers most obvious need, but having just missed out on David DeCastro and Mike Adams in my scenario, Pittsburgh should look for the heir to either 34-year old NT Casey Hampton or 36-year old ILB James Farrior. I don’t see any pure nose tackles worth burning a first-round pick on, so I’ll go with Te’o. At an athletic 6-2/255, he has the ideal size and skill set for a 3-4 ILB. Te’o’s troubles in coverage could keep him closer to the bottom of the first round than the top, but he’s a great leader and a heat-seeking missile who always seems to be around the ball. A potential bargain at #27.
28. Houston Texans- Brandon Thompson DT Clemson Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell form a mediocre tag team at NT. Thompson (6-2/310) is generally regarded as a 4-3 DT, but I think that he could be a one gap nose in Wade Phillips’ unique 3-4 set, which values quickness over bulk from the NT and ILBs. Thompson’s good work ethic and motor should appeal to the Texans, who are traditionally very conservative and avoid character risks on Draft Day.
29. New England Patriots- Devin Taylor DE/OLB South Carolina You never know what Bill Belichick will do on Draft Day, but I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t go heavy on defense in 2012. The stop unit has been putrid this season. The heralded group of veteran free agents that were brought in to shore up the pass rush have been largely invisible. DEs Shaun Ellis (34) and Andre Carter (32) are old and ineffective, while Albert Haynesworth (30) is getting old and has been much more talk than production since joining the Pats. Save for Vince Wilfork, the D-line needs to be completely overhauled during the 2012 offseason.
After a lot of preseason hype, Taylor has been outperformed by fellow DEs Melvin Ingram and Jadveon Clowney this season. He’s still more potential than production, but when he’s on, using his 6-7 height and insane wingspan to disrupt passing lanes and flashing great burst coming off the edge, he just screams first-rounder. Taylor is painfully raw, but his motor and versatility should intrigue Belichick.
30. New England Patriots (from New Orleans)- Dont’a Hightower ILB Alabama Journeymen Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown have been getting lit up this season, so securing a talented, young safety to partner up with Patrick Chung should be a top priority next April. I’m just not sure if Robert Lester or T.J. McDonald are deserving of first round consideration right now, given their early-season struggles. I say the Pats hold off on drafting a safety until the second round and go with the value pick in Hightower.
MLB Brandon Spikes, who looked so promising not too long ago, has suddenly become a mess, on and off the field. He’s in danger of losing his job to Dane Fletcher (?!) and of following fellow malcontent Brandon Meriweather out of town.
Hightower is finally fully recovered from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2009…and it shows. He’s been the Tide’s best LB this season, which says a lot. He can line up at any of the LB spots and really lays the lumber at 6-4/260. Well-schooled in Nick Saban’s 3-4, Hightower is an intelligent leader who could emerge as an effective, versatile chess piece in Belichick’s scheme.
31. Baltimore Ravens- Janoris Jenkins CB North Alabama If DC Chuck Pagano wants to dial up the blitz more often, more corners are needed. Domonique Foxworth is once again out for the season as a result of knee issues. The Ravens shouldn’t count on any contribution from him going forward. Lardarius Webb is a best suited for the nickel back role.
Janoris Jenkins (as expected) has dominated Division II competition since enrolling at North Alabama, regularly shutting down his side of the field and adding a Gulf South Conference Special Teams Player of the Week award for good measure. Widely considered a top 15 prospect at this time last year, the speedy Jenkins is an effective cover corner and a big play waiting to happen on defense and in the return game. If he keeps his nose clean and continues to perform at a high level, he could really tempt a brave GM like Ozzie Newsome near the bottom of the first round. Historically, Newsome has showed no hesitation in taking on controversial prospects (Jimmy Smith, Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, Michael Oher, etc.). The young duo of Smith and Jenkins could potentially give the Ravens their best set of corners since the Chris McAlister/Duane Starks era.
32. Green Bay Packers- Courtney Upshaw DE/OLB Alabama Dom Capers worked miracles with Frank Zombo and Erik Walden at ROLB last season, but neither guy is the long term solution. Courtney Upshaw (6-2/265) emerged as the alpha dog of an Alabama defense overflowing with NFL prospects in 2010 and was a dominant force by the end of the season. He’s a versatile, explosive pass rusher custom-built for the 3-4 defense. His presence could potentially ease the burden on Clay Matthews. Upshaw is a Senior, team leader with great character, the kind of prospect GM Ted Thompson usually goes for in the first round.