Here it is – my first mock draft. A moment I will savor forever. Here’s how I am doing it: I will choose players based on my film study and my sense of team needs. I have no idea what different teams draft boards look like, nor will I try to speculate what a team might be thinking. The main objective of my mock is to further discuss the top players by putting them in a draft format. One other caveat: I am disregarding documented off-field problems, character issues, anything that is not a function of on-field play. I understand that teams significantly factor that into the equation, but I am solely basing my player evaluations on what’s on the tape. That’s what I do. I watch tape.
Drum roll please . . . . .
1. Indianapolis (I know they are taking Andrew Luck but that’s not important for this exercise): My highest rated quarterback is Robert Griffin III. Projecting college quarterbacks to the NFL demands an understanding of the attributes needed to play on Sunday. I presented those earlier this week. My conclusion: Griffin is a superior arm talent and better natural passer than Luck. This debate will rage for a long time, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
2. Washington: There are similarities between the offense Mike and Kyle Shanahan run, and the Houston Texans offense of Gary Kubiak. Andrew Luck fits very well into that scheme. He’s a bigger, more physical and more talented Matt Schaub, with the same kind of short to intermediate passing efficiency and more athleticism to get outside the pocket on designed rollouts. Luck would be outstanding in that offense.
3. Minnesota: The Vikings play in the same division with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. You cannot compete in the NFC North without quality corner play. For the Vikings in 2012, a corner is more important than a left tackle. Minnesota takes the best corner prospect in this draft: South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has a chance to be a Charles Woodson type player down the road: athletic, physical and competitive, playing outside in the base defense and in the slot in the sub-packages.
4. Cleveland: The Browns select my highest rated player, RB Trent Richardson. Richardson is a special runner, the best to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson. Cleveland will not compete in the AFC North trying to outscore Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. They will not sustain offense throwing the ball. They must shorten the game, limit the number of snaps their defense is on the field, and try to win 17-14. You need a foundation back to do that.
5. Tampa Bay: Remember what I said about Minnesota. It applies to the Bucs as well. In the NFC South, they must defend Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. If they expect to be competitive, they must cover on the perimeter. They select the best pure man-to-man cover corner in the draft, Janoris Jenkins. If you watched him at Florida in 2010 matched against AJ Green, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery, you know what I mean.
6. St. Louis: In a division that features 2 ground and pound offenses, San Francisco and Seattle, the Rams go defense and select the best overall defensive linemen in the draft, Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State. Cox fits the Jeff Fisher profile: he can play both defensive tackle and defensive end, and he has the natural athleticism and body flexibility to develop into a quality pass rusher.
7. Jacksonville: The Jaguars select the third corner in the top 7 picks, Morris Claiborne. Claiborne played both press and off coverage at LSU, and he also played in the slot. Claiborne was more of a mirror or shadow press man corner, much like Champ Bailey has been in his career. Claiborne was a smooth efficient mover, but he was not as physical as Gilmore, and I don’t believe he provides the same slot versatility as a blitzer and run support defender.
8. Miami: What I’m about to say certainly applied to Cleveland as well, but I could not pass on such a special player as Richardson at #4. If you have a top 15 NFL quarterback (give or take) you can compete for division titles and by extension, championships. If you don’t, it’s very difficult. Think about the top 15 in the NFL right now, and you’ll realize it’s a fair statement. That logic leads me to Ryan Tannehill for the Dolphins. In fact, over time, I believe he has a chance to be significantly better than Top 15.
9. Carolina: The Panthers have a quarterback with a chance to be special. They have 2 excellent running backs, both still young. They just re-signed Steve Smith, following his best season in a number of years. They have an excellent offensive line. How about adding Michael Floyd to the equation? The idea: Make one side of the ball outstanding, and then gradually build the defense. That was Bill Polian’s approach with the Colts when they drafted Peyton Manning back in 1998.
10. Buffalo: The Bills select the second receiver in the top 10, Justin Blackmon. Blackmon fits very well in Chan Gailey’s multiple formation passing game. Gailey runs a fast-break offense with Ryan Fitzpatrick getting the ball out quickly like a quarterback version of a point guard. Many will argue left tackle, and Matt Kalil is still available in my mock, but in Buffalo’s offense, I believe a receiver like Blackmon, with his size, alignment versatility and excellent run-after-catch ability, is a more necessary component than a left tackle.
11. Kansas City: The Chiefs under Romeo Crennel are quietly building an excellent defense. Focus on linebacker: It’s a very good group that features Tamba Hali and Justin Houston on the outside, and Derrick Johnson inside. You add Luke Kuechly to the mix, and you may well have the best 3-4 linebacking unit in the NFL. I’m tired of hearing about Kuechly’s average athleticism. I watched game after game after game and he played fast with urgent reaction speed. He played with his eyes better than any linebacker I can remember evaluating. His so-called inability to play physically? Watch the NFL as extensively as I do, and you’ll know that very few linebackers take on blocks. That’s a time-worn cliché that really has little practical application.
12. Seattle: The most intriguing front-7 player comes off the board to the Seahawks. Melvin Ingram is remarkably athletic for his body type (6’1½”, 264 pounds at the Combine). He aligned all over the South Carolina defense: DE, DT, LB. He was the movable chess piece looking for matchups to exploit. At times he moved like a running back with his lateral agility and nimble feet. Don’t overreact when I say this, but his spin move was reminiscent of Dwight Freeney. He had that kind of explosive quickness.
13. Arizona: This is where Matt Kalil comes off the board in my mock. I know the Cards re-signed Levi Brown, but trust me, I watched every game on tape last season, and Brown is not a quality starting NFL left tackle. They can move him to the right side, and start Kalil at left tackle from day one. Kalil is a much better pass protector at this point; the tape clearly shows he needs work as a run blocker, but in the final analysis, he’s the best left tackle in this draft. In addition, with either Kevin Kolb or John Skelton taking the snaps, two quarterbacks who struggle with pocket movement, it is imperative that pass protection be a priority.
14. Dallas: The pick here is Alabama safety Mark Barron. Barron is easily the best safety in this draft class. His tape showed a complete and multi-dimensional skill set, perhaps the most impressive attribute being his man-to-man coverage ability versus tight ends. He also played man-to-man against the inside slot receiver in 3×1 sets. The larger point is that Barron can play man coverage, and that has become increasingly important for safeties in today’s NFL. Overall Barron offers tremendous scheme and position versatility. Safety has still not reached premium status in terms of NFL draft value, but I would argue that Barron is one of the 5 to 7 best players in this draft.
15. Philadelphia: I look at the Eagles defense, and see the need for an inside pass rusher in their sub-package personnel groups. Remember, in the final 4 games of 2011, the coaching staff expanded the alignment and personnel concepts, often utilizing Jason Babin and Trent Cole in 2 point stances as moveable linebackers. With that said, the pick is Chandler Jones from Syracuse. Jones has an intriguing combination of size, length and athletic movement. I think of Eagles defensive line coach Jim Washburn, and I could easily envision Washburn looking at Jones, and seeing a better version of Jason Jones, whom Washburn coached in Tennessee for 3 years.
16. Jets: There’s no question the Jets need to rush the quarterback to implement one critical element of Rex Ryan’s team profile: a dominant turnover-fueled defense. The pick here is Courtney Upshaw from Alabama. Upshaw transitions best as a 3-4 OLB. When I studied him, he reminded me in some ways of Steelers LB Lamar Woodley: similar size, similar body type. In addition, Upshaw showed the natural strength to be an effective power rusher. There were also snaps in which he bent the edge and closed with speed. Upshaw also has the versatility to put his hand on the ground and rush from a 3 point stance.
17. Cincinnati: In my mock, Stanford’s David DeCastro is still available. He’s the pick for a Bengals offense that needs to run the ball effectively to achieve consistency. They signed two 30+ year old guards in free agency, Travelle Wharton and Jacob Bell, along with back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but DeCastro would be a critical component of a revamped offensive line playing next to former first round RT Andre Smith. I know the Bengals have never drafted a guard in the first round, but, with Andy Dalton at quarterback, a balanced, efficient offense is a necessity.
18. San Diego: Norv Turner’s offensive modus operandi has always been balance, a consistent power run game setting the table for an intermediate and downfield passing game. It now looks as if Ryan Mathews can become the foundation back (three 20+ carry games in his last 5 in 2011) that Turner desires. What’s needed to carry out the plan? Offensive line help. Cordy Glenn from Georgia is the pick. Glenn could transition to the NFL at 3 positions: LT, RT and inside at guard. Keep in mind the Chargers lost Kris Dielman to retirement. He was the most important piece in San Diego’s power run game.
19. Chicago: The pick here is Kendall Wright. Wright’s vertical explosiveness is a strong scheme fit with Jay Cutler. Cutler is a see it, throw it passer who often waits for his receivers to get open at the intermediate and deeper levels. Many will argue that offensive tackle is a pressing need, but having watched every 2011 Bears game on tape, I believe LT J’Marcus Webb has the physical skill set to play the position and showed improvement as the season progressed. In addition, Chicago drafted Gabe Carimi in the first round last year; he will be the right tackle. In a division that features Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, the Bears will need to score to compete.
20. Tennessee: One of the most intriguing players I watched on tape was DE Whitney Mercilus. He rarely aligned wide in Illinois’ defense, which significantly limited his pass rush space and minimized his initial burst off the ball and his overall athleticism. The Titans need to rush the quarterback better (only 28 sacks in 2011), and they will select Mercilus and line him up wide to maximize his pass rush ability. At this point, Mercilus is a little bit of a straight line rusher with a limited repertoire but there’s no question he has burst and closing speed.
21. Cincinnati: The Bengals need help in the secondary. They have a lot of age and a number of question marks. That’s why it makes sense to select Dre Kirkpatrick. Under the demanding eye of Nick Saban, Alabama corners are taught, and therefore are experienced playing in, all coverage concepts. What I liked evaluating Kirkpatrick was his understanding of different coverages, and his role in playing them properly. He knew when he could undercut routes in man coverage; he was aware of where his help was, whether it was underneath or over the top. There’s no question he didn’t always play to his physical and athletic attributes but the skill set to be both an effective press man corner and off zone corner is there.
22. Cleveland: The pick here is LSU WR Rueben Randle. Having chosen Richardson at #4, the Browns now select the big (6’3”, 210 pounds) and athletic Randle. He pairs with another big WR, Greg Little, Cleveland’s second round pick a year ago, to give the Browns a young and physically imposing tandem that is a nice scheme fit in the Pat Shurmur/Brad Childress version of the West Coast offense. Randle, as I’ve said before, showed some similarities to the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks in terms of athletic movement and deceptive vertical speed. There were times watching tape I felt he was the quicker more athletic than both Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd.
23. Detroit: The Lions must upgrade their offensive line. Detroit is a team built on explosive offensive plays with the strong-armed Stafford and the unique receiving talents of Calvin Johnson. You cannot ignore the importance of offensive line play to that team, and its profile. That leads me to Ohio State’s Mike Adams. Adams is the most purely athletic of the offensive tackles in this draft class: long arms, quick and light feet, outstanding size and body length, excellent balance and body control. For a team that throws the ball as much as the Lions do, Adams is the right fit. His overall skill set transitions well to pass protection in the NFL.
24. Pittsburgh: The Steelers select one of my favorite players to watch on tape, Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. Guard is clearly a position of need for Pittsburgh. I’m sure many will disagree, but I believe Zeitler is a better athlete than DeCastro. He has quick and active feet that allowed him to be very effective in the zone run game. He squared up well as a puller in the power run game, showing strength on contact. Zeitler was not as purely physical and nasty as DeCastro, but I saw a more athletic and complete OG.
25. Denver: This is now Peyton Manning’s team. The profile begins with offense, just as it did in Indianapolis. Certainly there are needs on the defensive side of the ball, but the pick here is Coby Fleener. Fleener is a more athletic Dallas Clark, a tight end that can align all over the formation and get down the vertical seam. Seam routes off play action are critical in the Manning offense, and Fleener is a fluid route runner with deceptive speed. I remember Fleener beating Notre Dame corner Robert Blanton for a touchdown with a beautiful route, one that showed a great understanding of how to set up a defender. His ability to beat linebackers, safeties and even corners at times will give the Broncos offense the extra dimension Manning desires.
26. Houston: The pick is Riley Reiff, the left tackle from Iowa. Reiff would transition to RT for the Texans. He was a very efficient and controlled player, assignment disciplined snap after snap. He showed the lateral quickness and movement needed when executing the zone run game at Iowa. That, of course, is the staple of the Texans offense. As a pass protector, he was smooth out of his stance with good knee bend, balance and body control. He was robotic and repetitive, in a positive way. He’ll need some work and seasoning, as there were times the bull rush got inside of him due to slow hand movement. But Reiff’s deficiencies can be cleaned up with coaching.
27. New England: This is where Shea McClellin comes off the board. He was one of my original diamonds in the rough, but now, as we approach the draft, everyone seems to be acknowledging what has always been there on the tape. He showed the ability to get low and bend the edge as a pass rusher. He also had an instinctive feel as an inside rusher for getting skinny, and getting through small cracks. He shed blocks and made plays in the run game. He was a smooth change of direction athlete with excellent balance and body control. My sense is he will get better in the NFL with a chance to be a dynamic edge pass rusher. He’s not as purely explosive as Clay Matthews, but I see some similarities as McClellin matures and develops.
28. Green Bay: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a bit of mad scientist in him. He likes defenders he can tinker with in a larger grand scheme. That leads Green Bay to Andre Branch from Clemson. One of the first things that struck me watching Branch was how he was deployed by the Clemson coaching staff. He was what I call a “Joker”, a movable chess piece who aligned all over the defense, in both 2 and 3 point stances. That’s a Capers kind of player. There’s a lot to work with. Branch is long and athletic, and he showed at times the ability to get low and bend the edge and close with burst. There’s no question Branch has a chance to develop into a quality NFL pass rusher.
29. Baltimore: The pick is Dont’a Hightower from Alabama. Hightower was both a fascinating and frustrating watch. He was a multi-positional player in Nick Saban’s pro style defense, aligning at both inside and outside linebacker, and also at DE as a pass rusher in some sub-packages. He was effective in that pass rush role. At inside linebacker, he was an enigma. He took on lead blocks with physicality but he did not do it with good balance and often lost all his natural strength in the process. He was a little stiff and tight as a mover but yet at times showed deceptive build up speed. Overall there was enough on tape to see Hightower as a good prospect with some position and scheme versatility.
30. San Francisco: The 49ers team profile will not likely change in 2012. Run the ball, play outstanding defense and special teams and win with fundamental execution as opposed to occasional splash. While it might not be sexy, the pick here is Peter Konz from Wisconsin. Konz played center for the Badgers but could easily slide to guard in the NFL. Another highly disciplined Wisconsin offensive lineman, Konz played with an excellent combination of movement and strength. He was not a road grader but in tandem with his active and constantly moving feet he was effective moving defensive linemen. The other attribute that stood out: Competitiveness.
31. New England: This is where Michael Brockers comes off the board. Brockers is a development player with great size, long arms and natural power. When he stayed low and played with leverage he could be dominating. He also flashed quick and violent hands. Are there similarities down the road to Richard Seymour, clearly a better player coming out of college than Brockers? Will Brockers have the explosive strength and leverage to win the battle for the neutral zone? Will he establish a new line of scrimmage? The key for Bill Belichick is how impactful that kind of player is for other defenders. I can see Belichick looking at Brockers and seeing a raw, less refined Seymour; a piece of fresh clay that he can mold.
32. Giants: Tom Coughlin still wants to run the ball. Never forget that. Boise State’s Doug Martin is the pick. Martin has a feature back mentality. He attacked downhill with decisiveness, determination, toughness and competitiveness. There was a blue collar, workingman element to his game that was more appealing and captivating with each tape I watched. He ran with velocity, and that translated into natural power. There were some elements of Ray Rice in Martin’s running style. Martin was one of the last players I re-watched late in the process, and I liked him more each time I saw him.
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