The first round of the 2011 NFL draft takes place in New York City next Thursday with plenty of uncertainty and intrigue -- and indifference from some disenchanted fans -- as the football freeze unthaws for draft weekend.
It will be interesting to see how the draft unfolds during the lockout. Usually, free agency takes place before the draft, but not this year, so draft philosophies will be changed. Players can't be traded, so that could cut down on the number of trades. And with a rookie wage scale likely to be in place post-lockout, teams might be willing to gamble on high-risk players since it won't cost them as much to roll the dice.
There is also no consensus No. 1 pick at the moment, which clouds things even more. But I've got a feeling the Panthers will pounce on Cam Newton atop the draft and we'll see how things shake out for the NFL's 32 teams -- including your Baltimore Ravens -- from there.
Here's my final crack at guessing how the first round of the 2011 NFL draft will go down:
1. Panthers: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. With a rookie wage scale likely to be in place after the lockout and Jimmy Clausen in Carolina as a backup plan, the Panthers can roll the dice on the supremely-gifted Newton, who has more upside than any quarterback -- and perhaps any player -- in this year’s NFL draft.
2. Broncos: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. The Broncos, who have a new coach (John Fox) and a new defense (back to the 4-3), will have their choice of the draft’s top defenders. Patrick Peterson, Von Miller and Dareus would each bring something to the table, but the Broncos beefing up their defensive line seems most likely.
3. Bills: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. Buffalo will give serious thought to taking a QB here, but if the Bills aren’t sold on Blaine Gabbert, they can wait until early in the second round to grab one of the second-tier quarterbacks. If that’s the plan, they should select Miller, who is widely-regarded as a can’t-miss prospect.
4. Bengals: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. If the Bengals phase out Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco -- and they should -- they will need a new quarterback and No. 1 receiver. They are rumored to be hot and heavy for Andy Dalton, who would be a huge reach, so why not fill the other projected need with the draft’s best wideout?
5. Cardinals: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. In the Cardinals’ ideal world, one of the draft’s top quarterbacks would fall in their lap at No. 5. (If not, they would win a nice consolation prize in Miller or Peterson.) Gabbert comes from a spread offense, but Ken Whisenhunt can attempt to mold him into his next Ben Roethlisberger.
6. Browns: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Like the Broncos, the Browns also have a new coach, Pat Shurmur, who plans on switching his defense to a 4-3, so new personnel is needed up front. With Shaun Rogers gone, the Browns need a dominating presence in the middle. We’ll see if Fairley cares enough to become that player.
7. 49ers: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. A potential lockdown cornerback and one of the draft’s cleanest prospects, Peterson could be snapped up by any of the teams picking ahead of the 49ers. Yes, even the Panthers. But I would be surprised if he slides past the 49ers, who could use his play-making skills in their secondary.
8. Titans: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. Quinn has done well in rehabbing his image and re-raising his stock after sitting out the 2010 season for violating NCAA rules. The Titans need to improve their pass rush, and will get their choice of Quinn or Da’Quan Bowers. Right now, Quinn appears to be the safer selection.
9. Cowboys: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. Watt, who racked up 11.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss in two seasons at Wisconsin, is quick enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and stout enough to hold up against the run as a five-technique end in the 3-4. The Cowboys have a need for the latter, so Watt is the pick here.
10. Redskins: Jake Locker, QB, Washington. In my three previous mocks, I had the Redskins selecting a receiver. Julio Jones is still on the board this time. But given that Mike Shanahan’s relationship with Donovan McNabb doesn’t seem repairable and that first-round QBs will be relatively cheap, I could see Locker landing in D.C.
11. Texans: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. The intersection of need and value meets perfectly here for Houston, which had the NFL’s worst secondary last season (just ask any fantasy football player). Amukamara answered any questions about his speed in pre-draft workouts, and his cover skills are said to be top-notch.
12. Vikings: Tyron Smith, OT, USC. Smith was a right tackle at USC, but he is projected as the draft’s top left tackle prospect by many pigskin pundits. The Vikings, whose offensive line is aging fast, would be best-served to let Smith play on the right side in 2011 before moving him to left tackle sometime in the not-so-distant future.
13. Lions: Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. Widely viewed as a candidate to be the top pick in the draft a couple of months ago -- I had him No. 1 in my first two mocks -- Bowers has plummeted down draft boards due to injury concerns. But if healthy, Bowers has the potential to be a steal for the Lions, who are stocking up on defense.
14. Rams: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. Young QB Sam Bradford gets his go-to guy in Jones. This one is a no-brainer.
15. Dolphins: Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida. The Dolphins are expected to move on from Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and get younger at running back, so Mark Ingram is a possibility. But they can maximize their value by selecting Pouncey here and waiting until the second round to draft a new feature back (maybe even Ingram).
16. Jaguars: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. Since birth, Clayborn has battled Erb’s palsy, a condition that limits the strength and flexibility of his right arm. But like offensive linemen, that didn’t stop him from getting to NCAA quarterbacks often. The Jaguars need his production after whiffing on defensive ends in recent drafts.
17. Patriots: Cameron Jordan, DE, California. The Patriots are in a great spot if they actually want to use this pick; they can fill a need at offensive line, running back, defensive line or linebacker. They can take Jordan here then address another area late in the first round. Ah, who am I kidding? They’ll probably end up trading both picks.
18. Chargers: Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri. Smith has been compared to elite edge rushers such as DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman (well, back when he was elite). But buyer beware, he lacks polish and could end up being more like Vernon Gholston or Aaron Maybin if his new team doesn’t coach him up properly.
19. Giants: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College. The Giants are likely to consider their highest-rated offensive line prospect on the board, and that could be Castonzo, who can start immediately at either tackle position.
20. Buccaneers: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue. The Bucs took a pair of defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy and Brian Price) with their first two picks a year ago. Now they can add Kerrigan, who led the NCAA in tackles for loss in 2010.
21. Chiefs: Justin Houston, DE/OLB, Georgia. Houston was productive as both a defensive end and linebacker in his college career. His versatility and athleticism will allow him to hammer out a niche with this young defense.
22. Colts: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado. Tall, athletic and intelligent, Solder has the potential to be a good left tackle in the NFL. But as a former tight end, he still has room to grow both physically and developmentally.
23. Eagles: Game Carimi, OT, Wisconsin. The Eagles have similar needs as the Ravens -- most notably, offensive tackle and defense line -- so they could take a highly-rated prospect such as Carimi off of the Ravens’ board.
24. Saints: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois. The Saints, who signed Shaun Rogers before the lockout, continue to reinforce their defensive line by selecting Liuget, who is slippery and can penetrate opposing backfields.
25. Seahawks: Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple. Seattle could select a QB here if they aren’t confident in Charlie Whitehurst. Or they can wait, select a talented defensive lineman in Wilkerson and try their luck later.
26. Ravens: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado. The Ravens haven’t selected a defensive player in the first round since Haloti Ngata in 2006, and with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the twilight of their careers, they need to add a playmaker on that side of the ball. The good news is that a good player such as Smith could very likely fall into their lap at pick No. 26. Smith is the big, physical cornerback the Ravens’ secondary is lacking, and the hope is that he can become the second coming of Chris McAlister in Baltimore. He’ll have to stay out of trouble for that to happen.
27. Falcons: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA. The speedy Falcons defense adds another athletic player in Ayers, who is a bit of a tweener. Atlanta has needs at linebacker and defensive end, so we’ll see how they put him to use.
28. Patriots: Brooks Reed, DE/OLB, Patriots. The Patriots will be tempted to select a back such as Ingram, but they can wait until early in the second round and select Reed, who gets compared to Green Bay’s Clay Matthews.
29. Bears: Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina. The Bears must shore up their offensive line, but they also need to add a penetrating defensive tackle such as Liuget, Wilkerson or Austin, who is the only one left in this mock.
30. Jets: Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA. I bet Rex Ryan misses the bearded ballhawk, Ed Reed, so I can see him selecting Moore, a rangy free safety, to help solidify the back end. Nose tackle is more of a need, though.
31. Steelers: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State. The Steelers would be pleased to land the draft’s last first-round offensive tackle prospect. They might also consider Baylor guard Danny Watkins or a cornerback.
32. Packers: Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State. If the Ravens pass on Heyward, he won’t last much longer.
The next five: 33. Patriots: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama; 34. Bills: Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas; 35. Bengals: Andy Dalton, QB, TCU; 36. Broncos: Martez Wilson, ILB, Illinois; 37. Browns: Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State.