The first weekend of the 2012 NFL playoffs is in the books. Four teams were sent home to start planning their return march to the postseason next year. If those teams, or any others, are going to get there, they'll need a little help culled from the next wave of prospects available in the 2012 NFL Draft. Here we attempt to predict which players will be helping teams reach the next level. (Note: This mock draft assumes there are no trades.)
If comparison is your thing, here's a link to our last mock draft.
1. Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Not much prediction required since Colts owner Jim Irsay said that the team would draft Luck with the first pick. There should never have been any doubts. Peyton Manning's future looks iffy. Luck gives Indianapolis a quarterback capable of dominating their division for another decade the way Manning did. Whoever ends up in the GM job here still has big task to replenish the roster, but this is a great start.
2. St. Louis Rams, Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Consensus says that Baylor's Robert Griffin III gets drafted here. He might, and the Rams would be more than happy to trade the pick for a heaping helping of draft picks to fill in the talent gaps throughout their roster. If they don't trade down, there will be a debate between Blackmon and Kalil. Sam Bradford could use both, but a third season with Danny Amendola as his best receiver would be a tragedy.
3. Minnesota Vikings, Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Minnesota wins the Matt Kalil prize, getting the best tackle prospect since Jake Long to protect their investment in Christian Ponder ... or Joe Webb. They signed Charlie Johnson from the Colts to be their starting left tackle prior to the 2011 season, and he quickly reminded everyone how Peyton Manning makes linemen look better than they are. Kalil gives them a cornerstone on the line.
4. Cleveland Browns, Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
At this point, I would more shocked if Cleveland kept Colt McCoy than if they traded up in the draft to secure RG3. Washington and Miami (and maybe others), will be circling RG3, so trading up is the only sure way they can nab him. They need some talent to pair with him, but this is a big upgrade for Cleveland.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Aqib Talib may not go to prison, against all odds. If he doesn't, the Buccaneers still need to find a more consistent corner to replace him. They could even get the double shocker if Ronde Barber rides off into the sunset. Claiborne is that rare cornerback worthy of a top-five pick. The new coach, whoever that may be, will love to have a talented guy like this anchoring the back of his defense for what he'll hope is more successful tenure than Raheem Morris' was.
6. Washington Redskins, Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
It's becoming popular in mock drafts to put Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill here. But unless they're able to get RG3 somehow, I see Washington trying to nab a non-Draft QB solution-- Matt Flynn perhaps? -- and give that person some talent to work with at wide receiver, an area the Skins desperately need help. Floyd fits the bill.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars, Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Jeffery's stock is going to rise between now and the draft. That process started with his 148-yard performance in the Capitol One Bowl. Jeffery has the tools to be elite, and last year most had him pegged as the top receiver in this draft. Jacksonville's current group of receivers would be reserves on most teams, and they need to get Blaine Gabbert someone to throw the ball to this season.
8. Carolina Panthers, Devon Still, DT, Penn State
Carolina could go any number of directions here, though defense is a big priority. The Panthers were soft in the middle of their line. Still bolsters the middle and makes Charles Johnson a more effective rusher off the edge. Dre Kirkpatrick is another option here, as their pass defense had trouble covering anyone.
9. Miami Dolphins, David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
DeCastro, to me, is the second best offensive lineman in this draft. Comparisons to Steve Hutchinson are on the money, and he improves the Dolphins interior line instantly. Guards never used to get drafted this high because the old rookie salary schedule made them among the top paid players in the league at their position. Now, the Dolphins can score an interior lineman cheaper than they can in free agency, and also get a better player than any available free agents.
10. Buffalo Bills, Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Buffalo could use some defense, but since Ryan Fitzpatrick received a $59 million deal, they need to find him some protection. Reiff is the best offensive tackle on the board at this point. He replaces free agent Demetrius Bell at cheaper rate for a big upgrade.
11. Seattle Seahawks, Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Pete Carroll found a solid player in undrafted rookie Brandon Browner, who picked off six passes this year. Marcus Trufant is getting rather elderly, and he is not very good anyway. Kirkpatrick matches this defense's identity as a physical unit. They might have to look elsewhere or wait a year for their quarterback.
12. Kansas City Chiefs, Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Getting by with Barry Richardson is no way to maximize a player like Jamaal Charles, much less keep a stable of mediocre quarterbacks on their feet. Martin can play the left tackle spot. Running back Jamaal Charles will also be helped by the improvement along the offensive line.
13. Arizona Cardinals, Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
Ray Horton's defense played over their heads this year. Drafting Kuechly gives them a crucial pivot in the middle of their defense, making life harder for Marshawn Lynch when they see him twice a year. The BC standout won a bucket of awards, including the Butkus Award for the top college linebacker, thanks in part of a gaudy average of almost 16 tackles per game.
14. Dallas Cowboys, Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
A misdemeanor arrest for marijuana got Jenkins exiled from Florida. He opted for obscurity in Northern Alabama, rather than a middle round pick in the supplemental NFL Draft. Most NFL teams shy away from a player who gets caught dabbling in the green stuff; they'll miss out on a talented cornerback. Dallas needs a cornerback so they can finally rid themselves of Terrance Newman.
15. Philadelphia Eagles, Dont'a Hightower, MLB, Alabama
I'm still amazed that the Eagles could do what they did in free agency last year and completely ignore a gaping hole at linebacker. With Hightower they get a beast who can prevent opponents from continually racking up 150 rushing yards every week.
16. New York Jets, Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
Alabama linebackers are good, really good, and Upshaw is the top 3-4 outside linebacker in this year's draft. For all the bluster about how great the Jets' defense was, they lack pass rushers. Upshaw fills that need.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (from Oakland), Mark Barron, S, Alabama
The Bengals need help in their secondary. Barron makes more sense for them than a cornerback at this point. Barron gives the Bengals a rangy safety that likes to hit and does a great job of it.
18. San Diego Chargers, Nick Perry, OLB, USC
Sacks were hard to come by for the Chargers this season, and they paid the price because of that. Perry should start contributing right away in San Diego.
19. Chicago Bears, Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
Another need so obvious it hardly needs an explanation. Cutler was abused from all points behind the Bears' line this season. It's a miracle that a hand injury was all he suffered. Konz is the best center in the draft, and has the brains to do handle the cerebral part of the center's job.
20. Tennessee Titans, Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
Pass rushers are always at premium. Tennessee needs some help in that department after managing just 28 sacks last season. Fortunately for them, there is a lack of 4-3 teams looking for an outside rusher above them in the draft. They get a steal if Coples falls this far.
21. Cincinnati Bengals, Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
RIchardson probably won't fall this far in the draft. But if he does, the Bengals win. Cedric Benson is a free agent, and is hardly worth the money he would likely demand. Richardson is a talented player who plays like Steven Jackson.
22. Cleveland Browns (from the Atlanta Falcons), Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
What better way to ease RG3 into the NFL than pair him up with his main weapon from college? Wright has the speed that might get him picked higher. He'll be Cleveland's answer to Mike Wallace and a great complement to Greg Little.
23. Detroit Lions, Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
Detroit needs help on the offensive line, but with Dennard on the board they can address another big need that was exposed this weekend.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Adams, Ohio State
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times by the Broncos. He came into the game limping after a season of abuse behind a front five that struggled to contain the pass rush, particularly the offensive tackles. Adams is giant of a man at 6'8" and can help seal off the edge for Big Ben.
25. Denver Broncos, Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
Tim Tebow won a playoff game, defying all odds and cementing himself as the incumbent starter when the 2012 season begins. Changing that would provoke a fan outcry and injure ticket sales, which is really what this business is all about in the end. Might as well give him the weapons to work with. It's a small miracle that the Broncos managed to find some usefulness in Willis McGahee, but they really need speed. Miller provides that along with a natural burst that will make him a threat in that offense.
26. New York Giants, Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina
It's hard to think of the Giants' run defense playing better than they did against Atlanta this weekend, but Brown would make that unit truly elite. The UNC product is the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the draft, a natural fit on the weakside where he can use his range and instincts to shut down plays.
27. Houston Texans, Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis
Wade Phillips did a marvelous job turning around the Texans defense, converting it to 3-4 in his first year as coordinator. Adding Poe at the nose could make this the best unit in the league next season.
28. San Francisco 49ers, Dwight Jones, WR, North Carolina
You can be forgiven if you missed the fact that Braylon Edwards was in San Francisco this season. They cut him just before the end of the regular season. Adding a player with Jones gives the Niners a great trio of pass catchers with Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
29. Baltimore Ravens, Kelechi Osemele, OG, Iowa State
Ben Grubbs is headed for free agency, and the Ravens need to replenish talent for their interior line. Osemele has been playing left tackle for the Cyclones, but he looks more like a guard in the NFL.
30. New England Patriots (from New Orleans Saints), Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Scoring a gazillion points per game helped camouflage a defense that just wasn't very good this year. They need some youth and some power along their defensive line. Worthy is a good five technique who solidifies their defensive front.
31. New England Patriots, Bruce Irvin, OLB, West Virginia
The Patriots also need pass rushers, regardless of what defensive scheme they opt for in 2012. Irvin has impressive raw rushing skills and blazing speed. Obviously, Bill Belichick will be trading one or both of these picks.
32. Green Bay Packers, Fletcher Cox, DE, Mississippi State
Green Bay is another team that needs help along its defensive front, at the five technique in this case. Cox shores up the run defense and also allows them to get more pressure from their front three.