With bowl games left to play, underclassmen yet to declare, coaches to hire, a collective bargaining agreement to figure out, Senior Bowl week and the scouting combine, 2011 NFL Draft prospects will move a lot over the next four months. But we already have a good idea of what the non-playoff teams need, so why not stir up some speculation with an early mock draft. Now if only Andrew Luck would make a decision so we can figure out the top ... (*Denotes underclassmen)
Luck's decision to stay at Stanford or go pro will have a huge impact on the top of the draft. He had to notice Pac-10 colleague Jake Locker's draft stock fall steadily since last season and knows his could too if he stays in college. Luck's obviously the clear-cut choice for No. 1 if he does join the NFL.
2. Broncos -- Da'Quan Bowers*, DE, Clemson
With Elvis Dumervil hurt, the Broncos ranked last in the NFL in sacks. Even if Dumervil comes back at full strength, Denver needs defensive playmakers. Bowers led the nation with 15.5 sacks and was second in tackles for a loss (26).
NFL teams have a lot to find out about Gabbert in the coming months. Can he make the adjustment from the wide-open spread offense at Missouri to the pro style?
Fairley could cement his top-five status with a big performance in the national title game against Oregon's high-powered offense. The Bengals need an explosive player up front, and would hope Fairley could duplicate the kind of impact Ndamukong Suh had on the Lions.
Peterson needs to improve his cover skills, but his size, athleticism and return skills make him more attractive than Prince Amukamara. The Cardinals will look hard at a quarterback here as well. But they have a lot of needs and will go with the best available player.
The Browns' run defense fell apart at the end of last season. A solid defensive lineman like Dareus would be a safe pick in this spot.
7. 49ers">49ers -- Ryan Mallett*, QB, Arkansas
Mallett has been criticized by draft experts of late. He supposedly has character questions, doesn't show up in the big moment, isn't a leader ... but how can you ignore that arm? He throws the ball better than Luck, and he resembles Ken Whisenhunt's former QB Ben Roethlisberger in how difficult it is for defenses to bring him down. Mallett has to really impress teams during his interviews to sneak up this high on the board.
8. Titans -- A.J. Green*, WR, Georgia
The Cowboys would love an offensive lineman, but this draft seems light at the top at this position. If no one emerges at that position, they'll bolster their defensive backfield. Amukamara didn't have any interceptions this season, but no one threw at him.
Mike Shanahan loves mobile quarterbacks, like John Elway, Jake Plummer and Donovan McNabb. He also loves QBs with big arms like Elway, McNabb and Jay Cutler. Newton is both. And we think Daniel Snyder can get over the character questions. The big question about Newton is how he'll fare away from a spread offense. If Tim Tebow can go in the first round, Newton will too.
11. Texans -- Akeem Ayers*, DE, UCLA
Houston's secondary desperately needs help, but if the Texans hire Wade Phillips as a defensive coordinator and go to a 3-4 scheme, they will need help outside. Ayers is going to be very productive right off the bat and could also fit in a 4-3 scheme if necessary.
Jenkins is recovering from a shoulder injury. If he's fully healthy in time to work out, he could rise up the boards this spring and possibly challenge the top two CBs in the draft, Peterson and Amukamara.
Offensive linemen always start moving up the board rapidly in the weeks before the draft. Expect Smith to garner a lot of attention in the coming weeks. If he gets by the Cowboys at No. 9, the Lions will jump on the big Trojan.
14. Rams -- Justin Blackmon*, WR, Oklahoma State
The Rams showed down the stretch that they plan to have Sam Bradford throwing the ball a lot. Now they need to give him a big No. 1 receiver who can come down with a jump ball over a smaller cornerback.
Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both could be gone, and the Dolphins need to focus on the offense. It's a stretch to take any running back this high considering how well late-round backs have been doing of late, but Miami needs to fill this position with a quality player.
Quinn was one of the Tar Heels suspended for taking improper benefits from an agent. But that will be overlooked if teams believe he can get to the quarterback as much as he did when he was eligible.
17. Patriots (from Oakland) -- J.J. Watt*, DT, Wisconsin
He has the size to be an impact lineman in a 3-4 defense and seems to have the character marks the Patriots covet. He wasn't highly recruited and became a star because of hard work. Of course, New England is never easy to peg in a mock draft.
What do you add to a team that had the top-ranked offense and defense ... but didn't make the playoffs? The Chargers' defensive numbers were a bit skewed because their special teams let the opponent score so much, so they could go with a pass rusher like Vonn Miller. But they might take another opportunity to tick off Vincent Jackson.
19. Giants -- Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
The Pac-10 defensive player of the year would be a good value here. Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield is a free agent who has had injury problems.
Smith missed most of last season with a broken leg, but had 11.5 sacks the season before. The Bucs didn't have any players who reached five sacks last season and have to find a way to get after quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.
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