Pass-rushers rule top of board
Two elite cornerbacks go back-to-back; four offensive tackles in latest projection
By Todd McShay
The college all-star circuit has ended, the final first-round order is set and the NFL combine is rapidly approaching. So what better time to update our first-round projection?
The top of Scouts Inc.'s latest mock draft is heavy on defensive players, with defenders occupying the top three spots on the board and seven of the top 10. A pair of elite defensive backs are off the board in consecutive spots in the top 10, which also includes a pair of underclassman quarterback prospects.
There are some new faces in this projection, too, including an under-the-radar offensive lineman and an impressive defensive lineman from a program not known for producing top pro prospects.
Things likely will change significantly as the combine and the rest of the pre-draft process unfold, but this is how we see things playing out based on what we've seen on film and the buzz we're hearing from around the league.
1) Carolina Panthers
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson*
The Andrew Luck dream has long since ended, and it's time to deal with the reality of the situation. Trading out is a long shot, 2010 second-round pick Jimmy Clausen does not appear to be the long-term answer at quarterback and although Blaine Gabbert is the premier quarterback in this year's class, Gabbert is no Luck. Auburn DT Nick Fairley is an option, but I believe that Bowers is the better choice. He is a power rusher with the tools to develop into a Julius Peppers-type impact player.
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn*
The Broncos are likely to transition to a four-man front under new head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. They finished last in the NFL with 23 sacks last season, so upgrading the pass rush is a major priority. Bowers would be a possibility if available and Alabama's Marcell Dareus makes sense, but Fairley's specialty is wreaking havoc in opposing backfields (24 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks in 2010), and he has the elite tools to become an every-down impact player as an under tackle in a 4-3 front.
3) Buffalo Bills
Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
The Bills have no shortage of needs. Left tackle is a priority, but the 2011 class doesn't offer a surefire top-five pick. The team is also likely to draft a quarterback, but it should do so on Day 2, when a legitimate backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick (and potential future starter) can be found. The Bills also need help along the defensive front, and Miller makes sense because he's a versatile playmaker. Miller can play sideline to sideline versus the run, and he's at his best when turned loose off the edge as a pass-rusher.
4) Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia*
Using a top-10 pick on a wide receiver is rarely a wise move, but Green is special. Many wideouts are big and fast, but Green's route-running savvy, toughness, body control and ball skills set him apart from most college wideouts. The Bengals also have needs at defensive end (and could select North Carolina's Robert Quinn), middle linebacker (what's Dhani Jones' future?) and quarterback. (Is it time to draft Carson Palmer's replacement?)
5) Arizona Cardinals
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
The Cardinals have needs at guard, right tackle, tight end, 3-4 outside linebacker and cornerback, but none is bigger than their need at quarterback. Gabbert is still a work in progress, but he's the most complete signal-caller in this class. His accuracy is far better than his statistics indicate, he has the arm strength to drive the ball vertically (which is what the Cardinals want in their starting quarterback) and he has the work ethic and football intelligence to quickly emerge as a solid starter.
9) Dallas Cowboys
J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin*
The team's most pressing need is for a 5-technique (DE) in its 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys are also aging along the offensive line and need some depth/future starters at inside linebacker and safety. Dallas would have a tough call in this scenario but Watt will continue to fly up boards because of his versatility and nonstop motor. Watt is capable of making an immediate impact on all three downs as a rookie. Finding a player like Watt to generate inside pressure would be a great complement to OLB DeMarcus Ware's edge rushing ability.
Todd McShay is the director of college scouting for Scouts Inc. He has been evaluating prospects for the NFL draft since 1998. Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl also contributed to this report.
Follow Todd McShay on Twitter: @McShay13