This 2011 NFL mock draft constitutes my third effort at predicting the top picks. Based upon reports from the Senior Bowl, I have reordered some of my predictions. You can see the movement in this version by comparing it to the second mock draft, which was prepared after Andrew Luck announced he was returning to Stanford, and the first mock, which was done before the end of the regular season (and thus reflects a different draft order).
Also, make sure to check out my profiles of top prospects by position, including top running backs, top wide receivers, and top quarterbacks.
#1. Carolina Panthers – Nick Fairley – Auburn University
Though a lot has changed at the top of the first round since the Senior Bowl, I maintain my position that Nick Fairley and Da’Quan Bowers are the top two picks in the draft. As the draft inches closer, I feel that the dominant narrative will be that Fairley is the safer pick, while Bowers has the higher upside potential. You’ll note that I’m reversing the top two picks from my second mock, perhaps against my better judgment.
There’s more buzz right now about Da’Quan Bowers than there is about Nick Fairley. If the Panthers end up going for Fairley, it will be because they are overly paranoid about taking a bust with the top overall selection. Of course, it may also be because I’m a bit of a homer for the Broncos, and wouldn’t mind seeing Bowers fall to them. At any rate, Fairley will plug in to the Carolina defensive line easily and be an instantaneous difference maker for a franchise that was nothing if not dreadful last season.
#2. Denver Broncos – Da’Quan Bowers – Clemson University
If Bowers ends up getting taken first, Fairley is the pick here. There are a lot of whispers circulating that the Broncos could go for Patrick Patterson, the cornerback from LSU. Most of this chatter seems predicated on the fact that Champ Bailey is a free agent. That may be the case, but there hasn’t been any indication that the Broncos won’t attempt to resign him. Bailey still has a couple of productive seasons left, and new head coach John Fox is going to focus on shoring up a deplorable defensive line.
Good cornerbacks can be found deeper in the draft; a defensive lineman of Bowers’ potential won’t be. Plus, it’s fun to dream of Bowers paired with a healthy Elvis Dumervil. Perhaps the Broncos aren’t all that far away from a respectable defense.
#3. Buffalo Bills – AJ Green – University of Georgia
The temptation for the Bills to take Patterson will be great, but in the end I think Buffalo will opt for the fantastic playmaker, AJ Green. Having finally found their quarterback in Ryan Kirkpatrick, the Bills finally have the opportunity to establish an identity–with an elite passing attack. Pairing AJ Green opposite Steve Johnson makes for a very potent, and potentially high scoring, Bills offense.
The defense needs a lot of work in Buffalo, but this is too high to reach on Robert Quinn or Von Miller. They’ll have to address those needs with subsequent picks.
#4. Cincinnati Bengals – Patrick Peterson – Louisiana State University
Cincinnati’s feeling the sting here. With a disgruntled Carson Palmer demanding a trade, Cincinnati might be able to win him back with a dynamic (and mentally stable) wide receiver like AJ Green. If Green’s off the board by now, they could reach on the consensus next best receiver, Julio Jones. But Peterson’s easily the most talented player left at this point, so Cincinnati will opt for him.
Perhaps they can court Carson Palmer with the prospect of playing with shortened field position; Peterson is a fantastic return man and will instantly impact his NFL team in that aspect of the game.
#5. Arizona Cardinals – Blaine Gabbert – University of Missouri
To be perfectly honest, at this point I don’t think there’s a quarterback in this draft that’s worthy of a top ten pick. That said, somebody always reaches on one, and Arizona is as quarterback desperate as any franchise in the league. It’s simply a process of elimination as to who they end up picking.
Locker looked less than stellar at the Senior Bowl and had a disappointing senior year, Cam Newton suffers from Tim Tebow’esque suspicions, Ryan Mallett’s accuracy and football IQ are in question, and as for Gabbert–he wasn’t exactly a statistical phenom at MIssouri. None of this year’s quarterback crew are “sure things,” but Gabbert seems to be the consensus best available. Cardinals fans better hope he works out, lest their franchise be set back another few years.
#6. Cleveland Browns – Von Miller – Texas A&M University
Of all the players mentioned as likely picks for the first half of the first round, Von Miller’s draft stock seems to be as hot as anyone’s. Cleveland seems to need help at virtually every position (though they’re set at starting running back with Peyton Hillis). One thing that Cleveland could definitely use is leadership on the defensive side, and Von Miller could be just the player to fill that void. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miller had the kind of first year impact that Rolando McClain had for the Oakland Raiders.
#7. San Francisco 49ers – Prince Amukamara – University of Nebraska
Given the hiring of Jim Harbaugh and the disarray of the quarterback situation in San Francisco, it’s hard not to see the 49ers strongly considering a quarterback with the seventh pick. The problem is, anyone besides Gabbart is probably a reach at this position. I maintain that if Gabbert doesn’t go to Arizona, the 49ers will snatch him up. If Jake Locker, Cam Newton, or Ryan Mallett manage to quiet all their critics in workouts leading up to the draft, perhaps things will change.
The experience with Alex Smith may have caused the 49ers to be a bit gun shy about pulling the trigger on another high first round quarterback prospect, and they may seek to fill the void via free agency or a trade (both Kyle Orton and Kevin Kolb would be possibilities).
The much hyped 49ers defense was actually in the bottom third against the pass last season, and absent an obvious selection on offense, they may go for the best available player that fills a need–which could end up being Prince Amukamara. Some scouts even go so far as to rank him even with phenom Patrick Peterson.
#8. Tennessee Titans – Julio Jones – University of Alabama
Last season, the Titans didn’t have a receiver with more than 775 yards, and they could really use a playmaker in the receiving core, especially since they’re likely to shift to more of a passing attack after parting ways with Vince Young. This is one of those rare instances where the need and the draft position synchronize and make the choice fairly easy. Tennessee needs a wide receiver, they have the eighth pick, and Julio Jones is just about the eighth best player in this draft.
#9. Dallas Cowboys – Robert Quinn – University of North Carolina
If this draft were all about potential, Quinn and Da’Quan Bowers would probably be the top two picks. But there are enough uncertainties and inconsistencies in Quinn’s resume that his draft stock is going to slip a little bit. Last season, the Dallas Cowboys were second only to the Denver Broncos in points surrendered. They need an impact playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, and with Bowers and Peterson long gone, the next best option at this poitn is going to be Robert Quinn.
#10. Washington Redskins – Cam Newton – Auburn University
For some reason, I simply find it impossible to fathom Mike Shanahan not being tempted to go after some high profile quarterback prospect in this year’s draft. As I have mentioned before, there are serious questions surrounding all of this year’s top quarterback prospects (less so with Gabbert). But between Newton, Mallett, and Locker, Newton has seemed to silence the greatest number of critics. His mechanics and his accuracy may not be as poor as many have stated them to be. Given that he has so much up side potential, Newton will probably be the second quarterback taken this year in the draft. The tenth slot is way too high for Newton (25 to 40 is where I think his talent and risk level dictate he should go). But that won’t stop an offensive mastermind like Shanahan from being seduced by the thoughts of what might be.