Note: Listed by pick, team, player, position and college. Underclassmen indicated by a single asterisk (*) for juniors and a double asterisk (**) for third-year sophomores.
1. Carolina Panthers – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn*
With Andrew Luck returning to Stanford, the Panthers select a DT with the top overall pick for the first time since 1994. The Lombardi Award winner culminated his incredible rise this season with an MVP performance in Auburn’s national championship victory.
2. Denver Broncos – Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU*
Defensive line may be a bigger need, but Peterson is unique talent as a big corner with speed who is a playmaker on defense and as a returner in the mold of Charles Woodson. The potential departure of Champ Bailey in free agency could make this a need pick, as well.
3. Buffalo Bills – Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson*
Head coach Chan Gailey seems impressed enough with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to instead use this pick to address the struggling defense. An impressive physical specimen, Bowers finally put it all together on the field, leading all FBS schools with 15.5 sacks and second with 26 tackles for loss.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green, WR, Georgia*
With Terrell Owens gone and Chad Ochocinco possibly following him, the Bengals add perhaps the most talented overall prospect in the draft to play opposite emerging WR Jerome Simpson. If Carson Palmer actually does get traded, we could see the first QB off the board here instead.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
After being limited by an ankle injury early in the season, the 2009 FBS sack leader was back to terrorizing quarterbacks as the year closed. Ryan Mallett may remind head coach Ken Whisenhunt of another super-sized QB who he helped develop as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, but this division is winnable if the Cardinals bring in a veteran starter.
6. Cleveland Browns – Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina*
A brain tumor in high school and missing this past season as part of the agent scandal that rocked the UNC program make him a risky pick. However, the freakish athleticism and ability, reminiscent of another former Tar Heel, Julius Peppers, also make the reward high.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri*
New head coach Jim Harbaugh will see if he can put together the rest of the package in a player with physical characteristics similar to Andrew Luck.
8. Tennessee Titans – Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas*
Despite the departure of head coach Jeff Fisher, GM Mike Reinfeldt has said the team still plans to follow through on their previously announced intention to trade or cut Vince Young. Mallett has received a lot of negative reviews for his perceived issues, tangible and intangible, but the rocket-armed QB did nothing but improve on the field.
9. Dallas Cowboys – Marcell Dareus, DE, Alabama*
Three of the Cowboys top four ends are free agents. Expect them to fix secondary issues by going after free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, who played under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Oakland.
10. Washington Redskins – Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Rumor was head coach Mike Shanahan was a big fan of Locker last year. Most were disappointed Locker failed to achieve the inflated expectations that were put out there for him, but he played through an injury-filled season to finally lead the Huskies to a winning record and remains an amazing prospect physically.
11. Houston Texans – Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri**
New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips gets a player with potential to be another DeMarcus Ware for him.
12. Minnesota Vikings – Cam Newton, QB, Auburn*
After bringing Craig Johnson from Tennessee to be their new QB coach, there was speculation Vince Young could follow him. I think the Vikings look to start fresh at the position and expect either Newton or Jake Locker to be available here. Both are mobile options that Johnson is a good match to work with. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is also coming off helping develop a rookie QB to quick success in Atlanta.
13. Detroit Lions – Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
Cornerback is a strength of this draft class, so the Lions could look in other directions at this pick, but I don’t think they pass up Amukamara if he is available here.
14. St. Louis Rams – Julio Jones, WR, Alabama*
The Rams got some unexpected highlights out of their patchwork receiving corps, but they need a premier weapon to pair with their new franchise QB if they want to get the most out of him.
15. Miami Dolphins – Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama*
Expected to be the strength of their offense, the running game was extremely disappointing behind Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Both are free agents and past their prime, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both gone and Ingram or Mikel LeShoure the new face of the backfield.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
While always difficult to predict what GM Gene Smith will do in the draft, he’s been very forthcoming about his intent to focus on improving talent on the defensive side of the ball. A shutdown corner with great measurabes, Smith has flown under the radar at a struggling Colorado program and without gaudy numbers because opposing quarterbacks avoided him.
17. New England Patriots (via Oakland Raiders) – Cameron Jordan, DE, California
The versatile and fundamentally sound Jordan is the ideal Belichick player, but he may not fall this far after an impressive week at the Senior Bowl. If he does, the Patriots flip the pick they acquired for Richard Seymour to get him.
18. San Diego Chargers – Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State
After an up-and-down season, a dominating performance in the Sugar Bowl reminded teams of why he was one of the top prospects as a five-technique DE at the beginning of 2010. Tommy John surgery in January will limit him at the NFL Combine, but isn’t of long-term concern.
19. New York Giants – Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
The value in this draft looks like it will be the offensive tackles. Despite a number of potential left tackle prospects, none have separated themselves from the pack yet. After the NFL Combine, one or more are likely to be locked in to the top half of the draft because of the importance of the position. With ideal measurables, four years of quality starting experience and enough athleticism, Castonzo is a good bet to be the first off the board.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Adrian Clayton, DE, Iowa
After being regarded as one of the top overall prospects entering the year, a disappointing season dropped his stock. He didn’t do himself any favors by not participating in the Senior Bowl. He could be a value pick for the Bucs here, who look to bolster their edge pass rushing after focusing on the interior line in last year’s draft. However, an underwhelming performance at the NFL Combine could have him fall out of the first round.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor
The increase in 3-4 defenses in the league has put a premium on true nose tackles. Ron Edwards and Shaun Smith formed a serviceable tandem during the team’s year of transition, but both are free agents and Taylor has rising up draft boards after an impressive Senior Bowl week.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Tyron Smith, OT, USC*
Smith has exciting potential, but after spending last season on the right side and weighing under 300 pounds, there is risk in betting on him meeting that potential. Lacking the classic bulk, he is a better fit for their zone-blocking scheme, although the Colts have begun moving away from it. The termination of running back coach Gene Huey may mean more changes in blocking approach are in store.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
He might lack the footwork to be a left tackle, but the right side is just as important with a left-handed Michael Vick in Philadelphia. With a nasty attitude and some physical similarities, Carimi will remind some of Jon Runyan, the man Winston Justice has been unable to successfully replace at RT.
24. New Orleans Saints – Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA*
The top pure linebacker in the draft, the Saints would be thrilled to have him strengthen their weakest unit overall.
25. Seattle Seahawks – Aaron Williams, CB, Texas*
Head coach Peter Carroll has a lot of holes to fill in his second season despite backing in to the playoffs, but cornerback might be of the most immediate concern. This pick will be interesting if one or more of the top four quarterbacks fall here, especially local hero Jake Locker.
26. Baltimore Ravens – Brandon Harris, CB, Miami*
The team has just Lardarius Webb and Domonique Foxworth under contract, with the lateral coming off a blown knee. Efforts to plug the position with free agents haven’t been successful and they need an influx of talented youth.
27. Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame*
The severe hamstring injury that ended his season early will help Rudolph fall here for the team to get the eventual replacement to Tony Gonzalez. With the future Hall of Famer around for another year, Rudolph has time to fully recover and be eased in to a feature role as he learns watching one of the best.
28. New England Patriots – Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Purdue
A classic high-motor guy, Kerrigan produced with tenacity over athletic ability. His fringe first-round stock will take a hit with many teams at the NFL Combine, but he fits the Belichick profile and should remind him of Mike Vrabel.
29. Chicago Bears – Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
The only surprise at this pick will be which offensive tackle GM Jerry Angelo selects. He tried the last time the Bears had a first-round pick (2008) and failed, with Chris Williams moving to guard this year. This draft projects to set up nicely for the Bears to try to fill their biggest need again, after leading the league in sacks allowed.
30. New York Jets – Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Temple*
The biggest strength of this draft may be 3-4 DE prospects, so the Jets should find a great value here at a position where age and depth are a concern. Under the radar in the MAC, Wilkerson has been a beast at DT this season, but has the agility and ability to penetrate that should make him a great fit at end for the Jets.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin*
While usually strictly adhering to a policy of drafting the best player available over need, the two may converge this year. After season-ending injuries in three of the last four years and turning 35 this year, the end is near for stalwart DE Aaron Smith. Like Smith, Watt has the prototypical build for a five-technique DE and rose up draft boards after showing some surprising ability to penetrate as a pass rusher.
32. Green Bay Packers – Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh*
If he runs well at the NFL Combine, he won’t last this long. The depth of the Packers was highlighted on their way to winning the Super Bowl despite a number of key injuries, so they definitely have the luxury of drafting the best player available. WR could be more of a need than expected as Donald Driver’s career is coming to an end and James Jones could look to cash in on free agency.