Last week, buzz that the Carolina Panthers are seriously considering Auburn star quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft intensified. Newton - who will be looking to impress NFL scouts one final time at Auburn's pro day this week - is undeniably the star prospect of this draft class, and the quarterback-needy Panthers could certainly use a little star power.
What might the first round look like if Newton vaults his way up to the top overall pick? Out latest mock draft makes an attempt to answer that very question.
1. Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. As much of a risk as Blaine Gabbert might be with the first overall pick, Newton is a significantly bigger one. His star power, however, may be too hard for the Panthers to pass up - and the idea of a division featuring Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman and Newton is incredibly enticing.
2. Denver Broncos: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. After releasing Jamal Williams and Justin Bannan last week, defensive tackle is Denver's most pressing need. There's an excellent chance that John Elway's Broncos take advantage of a deep DT class and a high second-round pick so that they can take arguably the best prospect here.
3. Buffalo Bills: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. Bills head coach Chan Gailey is committed to running a defense featuring 3-4 and 4-3 looks - and what the Bills really lack defensively is a player that can pressure the quarterback out of both fronts. Bowers is a versatile athlete capable of moving around with nose tackle Kyle Williams.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. Carson Palmer's continued insistence, through various media leaks, that he's done in Cincinnati will likely force the Bengals' hand here if either Newton or Gabbert is available. In either case, Cincinnati would likely target a veteran while the rookie grooms - just as they did with Palmer.
5. Arizona Cardinals: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. There's little question that aside from quarterback, rush linebacker is Arizona's biggest area of concern. As the Cardinals are expected to take the veteran route at quarterback, there's a very reasonable chance the rock-solid Miller winds up atop Arizona's big board.
6. Cleveland Browns: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. Moving back to the 4-3 under defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, the Browns need to re-tool their defensive front seven. They could certainly take a pass rusher to begin that process, but after a strong Combine showing, Dareus might be too good to pass up here.
7. San Francisco 49ers: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. You won't see this pick in a lot of projections, because when you get right down to it, Green isn't a snug fit for Jim Harbaugh's West Coast Offense. If the Niners were smart, they'd look past that; pairing Green with Michael Crabtree would be a win no matter who's at quarterback.
8. Tennessee Titans: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Say what you will about Albert Haynesworth, but the Titans' defensive line just hasn't been the same without him. Minus a quarterback, the D-Line should be Tennessee's focus, and Fairley is the type of disruptive force that could fill the shoes Haynesworth vacated in 2008.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. The Cowboys' needs don't match up with talent at the top of the draft that's likely to be available; the one exception is Amukamara, who is likely to grade out highly on secondary-starved Dallas' big board. Cornerback is a big need for this team.
10. Washington Redskins: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. There's a chance that Mike Shanahan rolls the dice on a quarterback he likes here. There's also a chance that they take a guy like Julio Jones to bolster their receiving corps. Watt, however, is a rising prospect that would immediately help Jim Haslett's still-evolving 3-4 defense.
11. Houston Texans: Cameron Jordan, DE, California. Over and over, you'll see mock drafters slot the best available front seven defender to Houston as Wade Phillips moves them to the 3-4. Here, that's Jordan, whose quickness and pass rushing ability should help him in Phillips' one-gap scheme.
12. Minnesota Vikings: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. In an already difficult-to-figure Top 10, Quinn - who did not astonish in Indianapolis, but tested well anyway - is a wild card that could really shake up the dynamic of Round 1. He makes a great deal of sense for the Vikings should he actually slip this far.
13. Detroit Lions: Tyron Smith, OT, USC. Detroit has done an outstanding job of re-building its roster through the draft, but one lingering area of concern (no, it's not the only one) is the long-term outlook of Matt Stafford's blind side. Smith's tape is as good as any lineman's this year, and after weighing in over 300 in Indy, he's good value here.
14. St. Louis Rams: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. Most consider this Jones' worst-case-scenario landing point, and with good reason: Sam Bradford needs more weapons. I'm just not sure it's as huge a need for the Rams as perceived; Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery return to full health next season, after all.
15. Miami Dolphins: Jake Locker, QB, Washington. Chad Henne remains Miami's starter, but rather than being the club's long-term answer, he's now merely the bridge between 2011 and whenever a rookie can take over. Minus a second-round pick, the Dolphins may very well reach a little for a high-upside QB like Locker in Round 1.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue. Over the past three drafts, Jags GM Gene Smith has spent seven draft picks trying to re-tool his defensive line. That process has yielded some results, but end remains an issue. Kerrigan is the type of blue-collar, high-motor guy that Jacksonville values highly.
17. New England Patriots: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado. The Patriots are going to need to address their offensive line, having released Nick Kaczur and with Stephen Neal retiring. They should start at left tackle, where Matt Light is aging and Nate Solder has as much, if not more, upside as any blocker available this year.
18. San Diego Chargers: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. Jacques Cesaire has made a career of being the guy that the Chargers should upgrade on, but have never seemed to be able to. Now is the time, and though Clayborn lacks the size of a prototypical five-technique, his athleticism and motor make him a great fit here.
19. New York Giants: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College. The Giants could really use a linebacker, but after Akeem Ayers' hugely disappointing athletic display at the Combine, they'd do better to wait to address that position. Castonzo comes from the BC pipeline and could eventually replace either David Diehl or Kareem McKenzie.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri. No matter how the first round projects each time we shake this up, a defensive end lands here. That's a beautiful thing for the pass rush-needy Bucs, and in this case, they're getting a guy in Smith that could very well be the best of the bunch when it's over with.
21. Kansas City Chiefs: Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor. At 337 pounds, Taylor looks the part - he carries his heft magnificently, and tested really well both in Indianapolis and at Baylor's pro day late last week. Gil Brandt thinks Taylor is locked in as a first-round pick, and he'd complete the Chiefs' defensive line quite nicely.
22. Indianapolis Colts: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois. There are a couple of tackles - Smith and Solder, to be specific - that Bill Polian should consider if they're available here. With both of those guys gone, defensive tackle should be the focus - and Liuget's size and athleticism make him a very strong fit up front for the Colts.
23. Philadelphia Eagles: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado. It's easy to project an offensive lineman here, as it's a problem area, and Andy Reid seems likely to fix it. Corner is a need, too, however, and adding a personality like Smith's to a D already featuring Asante Samuel is intriguing from both a talent and chemistry perspective.
24. New Orleans Saints: Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State. After the Saints reached agreement on a highly reasonable four-year deal with Pierre Thomas last week, it seems unlikely that they'll target running back here. Paea would upgrade over Remi Ayodele, and is a perfect two-way player for Gregg Williams' defense.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami (FL). The NFC West champions still need help everywhere, but quarterback, the offensive line, the pass rush and the defensive backfield are of chief concern. Harris is the best prospect available out of those four positional groups, and could push for a starting gig right away.
26. Baltimore Ravens: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin. Baltimore didn't really miss impending free agent Jared Gaither at right tackle last year, but that doesn't mean they can't do better than Marshal Yanda or Oniel Cousins at the position. Carimi has the size and run blocking ability to bookend Michael Oher immediately as a starter.
27. Atlanta Falcons: Allen Bailey, DE, Miami (FL). Credit this pick to TheFalcoholic.com, who made a compelling argument last week for the Falcons rolling the dice on a high-upside end like Bailey. Atlanta is willing to take draft-day risks, and the ultra-athletic Bailey makes for an intriguing complement to John Abraham.
28. New England Patriots: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama. Word is that the Patriots are looking to further bolster their pass rush; a running mate for Jermaine Cunningham would make a lot of sense. Ingram, however, may prove too good to pass on if he's available here; imagine New England's potent offense with a talented runner. Terrifying.
29. Chicago Bears: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State. Best offensive lineman available. It's not even necessary for the Bears to take a tackle, but they will if there's one available, and Sherrod could go much earlier than this. He'd have an excellent chance to usurp Frank Omiyale at left tackle immediately.
30. New York Jets: Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: some smart team is going to take Rudolph in the first round, pair him with a good tight end, and emulate the Patriots' two-TE offense. Who better than their division rival Jets, who might lose Braylon Edwards at wide receiver this off-season?
31. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida. There are more talented prospects at bigger need positions that the Steelers could consider here. The NFL is about more than having talent, however; pairing Mike with twin brother Maurkice would create unparalleled chemistry along an offensive front that needs to improve.
32. Green Bay Packers: Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia. Green Bay will escape draft weekend with at least one solid OLB prospect that projects as a complement to Clay Matthews over the long haul. Houston has the size and athleticism to eventually be more than just a Matthews complement in Dom Capers' scheme.