The 2011 NFL Combine begins this week, with hundreds of 2011 NFL Draft hopefuls congregating in Indianapolis to prove their football prowess with very little actual football being performed. As such, any NFL Mock Draft you come across next week may look radically different than the projections you've seen since the close of the NFL season. In our final pre-Combine projection, Nick Fairley is still off the board first, the Bills grab a quarterback (but not the one you're thinking of), and linemen reign supreme.
1. Carolina Panthers: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. At the moment, there is still no better blend of talent and filling a need in one player for Carolina than Nick Fairley. The most disruptive defender available this year, Fairley would slide into the center of Ron Rivera's 4-3 defense and be given the opportunity to wreak havoc from day one.
2. Denver Broncos: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. A particularly tough team to project, Denver's needs are so dire defensively that they can pretty much take the best defender on their board (minus anyone Carolina takes, of course). Given that Champ Bailey can't play forever and has a house on the market, Peterson makes sense here.
3. Buffalo Bills: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. Right now, quarterback is a trendy pick for the Bills, and with good reason: in Ryan Fitzpatrick, they have a guy that can bridge the gap until a new guy is ready to play. It seems odd, however, that Cam Newton gets all the play here when Gabbert has the tools to be the better pro.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. It's easy to pencil A.J. Green in here, because he's arguably the best player available. It'd also be easy to pencil Newton in here, given the whole Carson Palmer trade demand drama. Cincinnati's got needs on the other side of the ball, and Bowers would be a nice fit.
5. Arizona Cardinals: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. Arizona desperately needs a quarterback; John Skelton isn't ready to play. Ken Whisenhunt may end up choosing to go the veteran route there, however, freeing the Cards up to address by far their biggest defensive need - an elite edge rusher.
6. Cleveland Browns: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. Moving to the 4-3 defense under Dick Jauron, it'd take a lot to keep Cleveland from beginning that transition with their first-round pick. "A lot" falls to the Browns in this scenario; he'd be the only right move for a team building around a young quarterback (Colt McCoy).
7. San Francisco 49ers: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. Quarterback is a need, but Newton doesn't fit Jim Harbaugh's personality or offensive system. San Francisco has bigger problems defending the pass than the run, but Dareus can help the team out in both areas.
8. Tennessee Titans: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. People will inevitably come to the conclusion that the Titans either will, or will not, consider Newton because of the concluding Vince Young era. Vince Young has nothing to do with Cam Newton. The Titans need a quarterback, and Newton is a potential star.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. This might be a hair too early for Amukamara, but he'd have a hard time not improving the Cowboys' secondary. Whether he played at corner or safety, Amukamara would fill a huge need for Dallas at the back end of a still-talented defense.
10. Washington Redskins: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. With the top two quarterbacks off the board (and one not really a fit for Mike Shanahan's offense to begin with), the Redskins could either address their defense, or try to boost their very weak receiving corps. Jones is good value and a nice fit in Shanahan's scheme.
11. Houston Texans: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. Houston is becoming a fairly easy projection: in any scenario, find the best front seven defender for a 3-4 defense, and make that the Texans' pick. Here, it's Quinn, who has the pass rushing acumen and natural athleticism to play outside linebacker in the scheme.
12. Minnesota Vikings: Tyron Smith, OT, USC. Minnesota has needs aplenty, but arguably their most urgent - aside from QB - is to fix their once-dominant offensive line. Smith may not be the most talented lineman this year, but it's very close - and if he weighs in at or around 300 pounds at the NFL Combine, he could be the first OT gone.
13. Detroit Lions: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA. There are definitely better value picks that the Lions could make here, but Ayers would fill one of the team's bigger needs while offering versatility and very few on-field weaknesses. He'd start immediately for a Detroit team on the rise.
14. St. Louis Rams: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri. Steve Spagnuolo was part of a Giants organization known for stocking up on defensive ends; he hasn't had the opportunity to do that yet in St. Louis. The team does need to complement Chris Long, however, and Smith's athleticism and upside are both through the roof.
15. Miami Dolphins: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama. Fixing the running game is the priority - and without an elite interior offensive lineman (or, ahem, a quarterback) to take here, the Dolphins may very well settle for a super-productive running back that, for whatever reason, continues to fly under the radar.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars: Cameron Jordan, DE, California. It's rare these days that you see Jordan slip this far in a mock scenario - and while that seems unlikely, it would make for an interesting storyline. In Jacksonville, Jordan would be re-united with college teammate Tyson Alualu, drafted No. 10 overall just a year ago.
17. New England Patriots: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. The 2010 draft class was full of promising young talent for New England, but they need to continue re-stocking their defense with more young talent. Watt is the prototypical five-technique that will help as both a run defender and pass rusher in Bill Belichick's defense.
18. San Diego Chargers: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado. Solder is one of the tougher prospects to get a read on - some scouts love his talent and upside, others think he's soft and not ready to play. San Diego's pass-first offense would allow Solder to grow as a player while starting right away at right tackle.
19. New York Giants: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College. Offensively, the Giants need to begin planning for the future at offensive tackle, where both David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie are aging. Castonzo has good school pedigree and some upside, along with the ability to play on either the left side or the right.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue. Tampa Bay's need at defensive end is very desperate; lucky for them, this draft class is wealthy with talented defensive linemen. Kerrigan is not a great athlete, but will still be a very good NFL edge rusher because of elite intangibles and a ferocious on-field disposition.
21. Kansas City Chiefs: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State. The Chiefs need a complement to Tamba Hali at outside linebacker, but there isn't a good value pick here. They could also take a nose guard like Phil Taylor, but that seems too much a reach, as well. Sherrod would replace Ryan O'Callaghan at right tackle.
22. Indianapolis Colts: Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State. The best tackle remaining on the board, Gabe Carimi, is not a good fit for Indy's offensive system, as he lacks the range to be a consistent edge blocker in a pass-first offense. Paea would address the team's longest-standing issue, and would be their best effort at fixing it.
23. Philadelphia Eagles: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado. Asante Samuel has a reputation as a freelancer, and the team can do a lot better than either Ellis Hobbs, Joselio Hanson or Dimitri Patterson across from him. Smith is a big, smooth athlete that could end up being the second cornerback off the board come April.
24. New Orleans Saints: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois. Remi Ayodele was an adequate running mate for Sedrick Ellis in 2010, but the Saints - still just a year removed from a world championship and one of the most talented teams in football - can do much better than "adequate". Liuget has elite potential.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Jake Locker, QB, Washington. It's no secret that the Seahawks need a long-term answer at quarterback, and there are too many connected dots here to ignore: the geography, the coaching tree and Matt Hasselbeck's presence make this a very logical choice for Seattle.
26. Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami (FL). Despite doing a nice job of patching holes in the secondary during the 2010 season, the Ravens still need help at cornerback. Setting aside the collegiate ties to Baltimore's star defenders, Harris has as much natural ability as any cornerback not named Peterson in this class.
27. Atlanta Falcons: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin. Atlanta is poised to lose starting right tackle Tyson Clabo this off-season; with the draft taking place before free agency this year, they'd be wise to hedge their bets - particularly if a heady prospect like Carimi is still on the board.
28. New England Patriots: Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia. After adding a potentially elite five-technique end in Watt, the Patriots can continue to bolster their young defense here with Houston, an explosive edge rusher that would team up with '10 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham to give the Pats two promising outside linebackers.
29. Chicago Bears: Danny Watkins, OT, Baylor. Addressing the offensive line is a must for the Bears, even if they can't do so at tackle. Watkins, who will play guard in the NFL, will turn 27 during his first season - but his age might be less of a factor for a Chicago team that's very close to championship-caliber.
30. New York Jets: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. Shaun Ellis is a free agent, and as he proved that there's plenty left in the tank during the post-season, there's a very real chance he's gone. Even if he stays, he'll be 34 this summer. Clayborn has a similar skill set to Ellis, and would be an ideal replacement.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida. Mike Pouncey is not as good a football player as his twin brother, Maurkice, who happens to be Pittsburgh's center. He's a talented prospect in his own right, and as they say about the offensive line, chemistry means more than just about anything.
32. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas. This looked like it would be a major problem for the reigning world champions, but Tramon Williams became a star in 2010, and Sam Shields looks like he'll get there, as well. Without good value available at more pressing needs, however, cornerback would be a wise pick here.