Here's my third-annual SI mock draft. Before you go through it, I'll give you my 10 toughest decisions putting it together:
On with the draft, but please remember one Peter King Self-Preservation Point. All those analysts who crow about hitting nine picks on the nose, or getting 29 guys right in the round overall? The key is when you turn it in. Mine was 11 days before the first pick. Apples and oranges to compare this one to those posted the morning of the draft. As my daughters would say, "I'm just saying.''
Touchdowns scored in the NFC South last year: Atlanta 47, New Orleans 44, Tampa Bay 39 ... Carolina 17. While you may not want to blame Jimmy Clausen for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as a rookie last year, you have to be skeptical of him after the Panthers' offensive meltdown. Hard to pass on a player with Newton's talent, even if the supporting cast in Carolina may not give him the chance to show it right away.
Let's get one thing straight: The 6-foot-3, 319-pound Dareus is not the second coming of Ndamukong Suh. No defensive tackle in this draft rushes the passer like Suh, but then again there's rarely a defensive tackle in any draft who does. What Dareus will do is stop the run better than anyone Denver has, a good thing for a team that allowed 4.7 yards per carry last year. A safe pick for John Fox's new 4-3, and the right pick.
Buffalo's biggest needs are a left tackle and a run stopper, but those will be addressed in later rounds, because Miller's potential is so great. He has the chance to be a double-digit sacker, the guy '09 first-rounder Aaron Maybin hasn't become. But projecting pass rushers is always risky. For a team whose QB was hit way too much last year, I'd rather have a Day One left tackle. Castonzo started 54 games at BC and was never overmatched.
Whether they'll admit it or not, the Bengals will look for a quarterback to succeed Carson Palmer. Gabbert, who rarely threw downfield at Missouri, isn't as football-smart or as prepared to play in new coordinator Jay Gruden's quick-decision passing scheme as some of the other quarterbacks coming out, like TCU's Andy Dalton. Jones is a big, fast worker bee who'll block like Hines Ward -- a better fit for Cincinnati here.
The way Arizona figures it, a veteran QB can be had at some point before the season to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball. What else would help the Cards' best player? The top-rated receiver on most teams' boards, who could further deflect attention from Fitzgerald. I'd prefer the best corner in the draft, to boost the 29th-rated defense, improve the athleticism in the secondary and help the return game.
The Browns are desperate for an edge rusher, and they may reach for Robert Quinn of North Carolina. They shouldn't. Quinn's a terrific prospect and probably the best pass-rushing end in this draft. But Cleveland has zero weapons in the passing game for new West Coast coach Pat Shurmur, and with Mike Holmgren having final say over football ops, I'd be surprised if he didn't make the obvious pick: a topflight receiver and blocker in Jones.
Tennessee was rarely as toothless defensively under Jeff Fisher as it was in his last season, and the lack of interior pressure from the line was a big part of that. Fairley doesn't come without risk, however. He was a one-year wonder at Auburn, and there are questions about how dedicated he'll be. This is too high for Dalton, of course -- unless you think he's got a good chance to be the best QB in this draft. Which I do.
Dallas can take the long-term replacement for right tackle Marc Colombo here, and the choice is between the raw but athletically gifted 20-year-old (Smith) or the proven commodity who is the most versatile lineman in the draft (Castonzo). Smith's not a bad pick, but with a roaming QB in Tony Romo, who's subjected to lots of hits and coming off a season-ending injury, give me the surer thing, please.
With this choice, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can team Quinn with Brian Orakpo and have the best bookend pass rushers in the NFC -- presuming Quinn is as good as advertised. Though Washington needs a passer, there's no lock at this spot, and I'd rather see the Skins help the hurting offensive line with the versatile Pouncey, who can be a mainstay for 10 years. Quarterback? Build the lines first. And get a receiver.
The broken record continues. Hey, I like Dalton. Re Locker: Other than his 54% completion rate over four seasons -- which could consign him to the Kyle Boller Hall of Mediocrity five years from now -- there's a lot to like about him. "He's as tough as any player, quarterback or otherwise, in this draft, and he is one great leader,'' says Jon Gruden, who analyzed Locker for his ESPN quarterback-prospect show. So, the Vikes roll the dice.
He's a medical risk, and playing on the rug isn't good for a guy who might need microfracture surgery on his right knee. But two people who've done exhaustive work on Bowers told me they think he's a solid mid-first gamble. Jim Schwartz knows if he gets a young edge rusher to pair with Ndamukong Suh, his defensive front will be competitive with the league's best. But watch for Castonzo or Colorado tackle Nate Solder here.
Look back at Steve Spagnuolo's Super Bowl defense, when his Giants beat the Patriots. Players came in waves, particularly from the interior, to batter Tom Brady. Liuget just turned 21. He had 17 tackles behind the line last season, with 10 QB pressures and six passes batted down. His stock's rising, and it should. Some teams like him better than Nick Fairley as a sufficient run stopper and possible Warren Sapp-type rush tackle.
Of the 19 teams that worked out Dalton individually or hosted him for a visit, none was as exhaustive as the Dolphins, and I hear they liked what they saw. I could see them trading down -- they're desperate to recoup the second-round pick they lost in the Brandon Marshall deal -- and taking either Dalton or Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett later. With solid running backs available in the middle rounds, Miami won't go for Alabama's Mark Ingram here.
The Jags continue to pay for the abominable 2008 draft -- spending all their draft capital on a pair of defensive end busts, Derrick Harvey (eighth) and Quentin Groves (52nd), and then not choosing until 103 picks later -- by drafting into the strength of this class, the defensive line. Kerrigan, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, had 26 tackles for loss and has the kind of motor G.M. Gene Smith loves in an edge player.
Watt's a speedy, versatile defensive end who'd allow Vince Wilfork to move back inside where he belongs. Pouncey? He's a Day One starting guard, with the ability to someday replace Dan Koppen (32 in September) at center if need be. Either of these picks would make the Patriots better immediately. I give them Pouncey because of the interior-line urgency and the Urban Meyer/Bill Belichick connection.
The Chargers are still looking for the kind of pass rusher they thought they were getting in 2009 with end Larry English (24 career games, five sacks). At 6-4 and 287 pounds, Jordan is flexible: He played all over the line at the Senior Bowl, and last season he had a combined 18 sacks and tackles for loss. The fact is, San Diego doesn't have a D-lineman whom opposing teams have to game-plan around. Jordan could be that guy.
Some see Castonzo as a mauler with great competitive spirit, others as a second-rounder who has peaked as an ACC tackle. But he was the most versatile lineman at the Senior Bowl, started for four seasons at the school where Tom Coughlin used to coach, and is one of the quickest studies of any player in this draft. The Giants have three starting O-linemen (Shaun O'Hara, Rich Seubert, David Diehl) who are 30 or older, and Castonzo can plug in at four line spots.
Tampa Bay is still saying novenas that Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers will fall because teams are worried about the health of his knee, and it's not impossible that he'll still be available here. But these two pass rushers are safer choices. Personnel men I've spoken to are very high on Smith, but Clayborn, though he'll likely be a right end only, looks better suited to be an edge rusher than Smith.
G.M. Scott Pioli would have loved to take Baylor's Phil Taylor, the best nose man in the draft, here, but Taylor's foot problems will make Kansas City turn elsewhere. If Mike Pouncey were still around at 21, he could be Pioli's man, to slot in as a long-term guard or center. But with Pouncey likely out of the picture, the Chiefs will turn to a Day One starting mauler at right tackle in Carimi, a safe guy at a need position from a good program.
The long-armed, 6-8 Solder should make up for the miscall on Tony Ugoh four drafts ago. Frankly, the Colts have been scotch-taping the O-line together for the past couple of years, and they should have chosen tackle Rodger Saffold instead of pass rusher Jerry Hughes in 2010. Whether it's Solder or Anthony Castonzo, the pick has a good shot to start early and then protect Peyton Manning's blind side for the last few years of his career.
Baylor coach Art Briles has been saying for the past year that Watkins, the former firefighter from Canada who didn't play football until junior college, would be a first-round pick. And he was hooted down. Art, you're going to have the last laugh. Philadelphia would consider pass rushers Aldon Smith and Adrian Clayborn here. But Andy Reid has an affinity for O-linemen, and Watkins is the kind of tough player Eagles fans will love.
A very strong proviso here: Watch out for Alabama RB Mark Ingram. I think he's the player Sean Payton loves the most at 24. But he looks at his running back crop, including undrafted free agents Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, and knows he can get a good back later. He also realizes it's now or never to get a defensive end who's got a chance to be a pass-rush force. New Orleans likes Anthony Castonzo too -- but he'll likely be off the board by this point.
No team wants to trade down more than Seattle, which has seven big holes to fill, including two at guard and one at tackle, and that's before we even get to quarterback. The Seahawks will probably lose Matt Hasselbeck to free agency, but I don't see them taking a passer in the first two rounds unless they trade down. They're willing to go with Charlie Whitehurst and a vet in '11, while Austin, a penetrating DT, fortifies another need position.
Smith would love to play alongside Ed Reed and behind Ray Lewis. Some teams are shying away from him because of off-field problems. Some teams would like to shy away because of off-field problems but can't -- because he might be as good a player as Patrick Peterson when his career's over. The Ravens can put in enough safeguards to make sure Smith behaves. And this just in: They desperately need a shutdown corner.
The Falcons are looking for a long-term speed-rush replacement for veteran John Abraham, who'll turn 33 in May, and Houston fills the bill. But even though Watt doesn't fit G.M. Thomas Dimitroff's theme for this draft -- finding "explosive players" -- the chance to get a guy who's in the top 10 on more than one draft board around the league is an opportunity Atlanta can't let slip.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice would have pulled calf muscles in both legs jumping for joy if Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi were still on the board here. The word on Carimi is he'd have been able to start early at tackle for the line-starved Bears. Sherrod -- more of a technician than a brawler -- isn't really Tice's type, but he is the best available lineman, and the Bears simply have to address this position of major need.
Speaking of value picks, I've seen Wilkerson projected as high as No. 11 in this draft. Rex Ryan, who's been to every good defensive line prospect's Pro Day this spring, would be able to use the 6-4, 315-pound Wilkerson as a poor man's Haloti Ngata, which is to say all over the front. When you can run 4.96 seconds in the 40, and you're as powerful as Wilkerson, you're made for Ryan's attacking defense.
Did you see the Super Bowl? Packers receivers Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings abused Pittsburgh's secondary, and without knowing if he's going to be able to improve the backfield through free agency this year, Steelers personnel czar Kevin Colbert can't afford to outthink himself here. He's got to take the best cornerback left, unless one of the top two or three tackles Colbert's eyeing falls all the way down to here.
G.M. Ted Thompson could choose more of a rush twin for Clay Matthews in Brooks Reed from Arizona. And if J.J. Watt falls, as I project, I wouldn't be surprised if Thompson jumps up a few slots to grab him. But the 294-pound Heyward is a good fit here because he can play all over the line, and versatility in Dom Capers' scheme will be vital with Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly possibly missing from the defensive front in 2011.