After the order was set for the 2012 NFL Draft and the Washington Redskins made their intentions known by trading up to the second overall pick, it was relatively clear who the top two choices were going to be. The thing is, since those players were quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the top of the draft was probably going to go one of two ways regardless. Those guys, at that position, were and proved to be that good. As the 2013 NFL Draft approaches, talented players are available like every other year, but this time who goes where could depend more on who's selecting rather than an inarguable big board.
A good way to splice this idea is by looking at ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who released his newest mock draft on Thursday (Insider), and SB Nation's Matthew Fairburn, who dropped his post-Super Bowl mock draft on Monday. With the NFL Combine less than two weeks away, this is as good a time as any to step back and see how the draft could be taking shape.
Since the draft has that butterfly effect to it, where future picks can only be determined by who's left on the board, we should start at the top. McShay has the Kansas City Chiefs taking Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, citing this pick in-part because the Chiefs may ultimately not decide that any of the quarterbacks available are worth the draft's top overall spot.
Along with that, here's McShay's case for the versatile Lotulelei at No. 1:
The Chiefs have a need for a 5-technique (DE) in their 3-4 scheme, and he is an ideal fit. Lotulelei has great size and natural tools, especially strength, but he is not just a space-eater. He makes plays versus the run and can help collapse the pocket as an inside power rusher.
So right off the bat Fairburn differs, as he thinks as of now that Kansas City will go with West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. Though he acknowledges that Smith isn't a lock like Luck or Griffin III were thought to be coming out of college, Fairburn sees the Chiefs' glaring hole at the game's most important position winning out in terms of need (SB Nation's Arrowhead Pride has a good roundup of people assessing Smith's game):
Geno Smith is far from a slam dunk to be the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but this pick still makes the most sense. The Chiefs have a desperate need at quarterback, and Smith is the draft's highest-ranked player at that position. This pick could change between now and April, but when a team doesn't have a quarterback, that's the biggest need.
Going through the rest of the top ten, only two picks mirror one another -- offensive tackle Luke Joeckel from Texas A&M to the Philadelphia Eagles with the fourth pick and Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher to the Arizona Cardinals with the seventh selection. Where the others are similar, if they are at all, is in the positions being drafted. That's why this draft could hinge on which player each team evaluates the highest, which guy wows at the combine, or who could best fit a particular scheme or need.
It's why McShay can have Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner going second overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, with Fairburn projecting him to drop, admittedly-so, to the New Orleans Saints at No. 15. It's not every year that a second pick could seemingly fall to the middle of the first round. It's why anyone from Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan, Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and Werner can be seen on both drafts anywhere between the second and fifteenth slot. Each player has slightly different skills and limitations, and there's probably valid logic that could place any of them on the likes of the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills or Tampa Bay Buccaneers without too much of an argument.
Another case in point: Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner filling a need with the Buccaneers with the 13th pick in Fairburn's predictions, and getting selected third overall by the Oakland Raiders in McShay's version. Bucs Nation is covering what appears to be a very up-in-the-air selection for Tampa Bay.
Because whenever a quarterback gets taken early in the first round, the Bills and New York Jets represent a potentially interesting twist at Nos. 8 and 9. With Smith still on the board, McShay has him going to Buffalo. The pick that undoubtedly would cause more uproar, though, is in Fairburn's mock, as he projects the Jets taking Arkansas signal-caller Tyler Wilson. Even with what isn't a top-heavy quarterback class, a pick like that would cause a great many waves.
As the draft rolls into the middle part of the first round, the only thing that's certain is the depth along both offensive and defensive sides -- this would also be known to some as the "boring" part of the draft. Alabama -- with offensive linemen Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker and defensive tackle Jesse Williams -- could be well-represented here. Also the likes of Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be hovering over this area. Again, it's going to come down to which player's trending up, who wants what, and in what kind of system. Additionally, there's great potential value in the linebacking and secondary units, such as Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Kenny Vaccaro from Texas.
And speaking of running backs, well, no one really is. A position that's had a representative in two of the draft's last three top tens only has one projected to go in the first round in the respective projections of Fairburn (who has North Carolina back Giovani Bernard going to the Atlanta Falcons at No. 30) and McShay (Alabama's Eddie Lacy to the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 21).
Even down the line into this past season's playoff qualifiers and Super Bowl contenders, both mocks skew to the side of team needs rather than simply picking up a player based on sheer value. This speaks to that old standby -- parity -- in today's NFL. Every team, whether they're the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens or the Tennessee Titans at No. 10, has issues within their various styles and makeup of rosters that need to be addressed. The 2013 NFL Draft features players that could help most any team, but the question of where the pieces will ultimately fall is an especially tough one to pin down this year.