Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was mentioned as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft as far back as November - two full months before Stanford redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck decided to return to school for his junior season. Granted, the Newton-as-No. 1 scenario was presented through the lens of the Buffalo Bills holding the top overall pick, but the idea remains the same: Newton's star power, talent, and draft-day desirability were evident very early in the draft process.
It shouldn't be terribly surprising, then, that despite almost unprecedented levels of scrutiny and controversy, Newton is strengthening his grip on front-runner status to be picked first by the Carolina Panthers in 16 days. As such, this won't be the last 2011 NFL Mock Draft you read in which Newton is the first player off the board. The only question at this point is whether or not anyone (Blaine Gabbert?) can close the gap as draft day approaches.
1. Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. It almost seems as if people are waiting for the hammer to drop that would blow apart the Newton-to-Carolina buzz. Nothing of the like seems imminent, and Newton is still the front-runner to be Carolina's pick.
2. Denver Broncos: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. Of late, Von Miller has been getting a lot of hype to Denver. You'll probably start seeing Patrick Peterson's name associated with the Broncos, too. Needs are needs, however, and Dareus is a rock-solid prospect at Denver's biggest need.
3. Buffalo Bills: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. Newton is a distinct possibility here should Carolina go a different direction. Dareus will also be on Buffalo's radar, given their league-worst run defense. If both are off the board, Miller and Patrick Peterson seem to be neck-and-neck for Buffalo's pick.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. A.J. Green really is a strong option for the Bengals, and could very well end up being the pick regardless of quarterback availability. It's just hard to envision Cincinnati passing on a QB knowing that Carson Palmer probably isn't bluffing.
5. Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. A lot of names linked to the Cardinals are already off the board, but that might be to the team's benefit - Peterson is arguably the best player available, and is a great complement to the ultra-athletic Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
6. Cleveland Browns: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. Along with Peterson, Green is most often mentioned as the best player in this draft class regardless of position. Sure, the Browns need help defensively, but getting Colt McCoy elite skill talent makes just as much - if not more - sense.
7. San Francisco 49ers: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. Another mock draft, and the same result for San Francisco. If a bigger name slides, the Niners may pounce depending on the position. If things break as they have here, Amukamara is a safe bet for Jim Harbaugh.
8. Tennessee Titans: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Risk-averse fans rightfully question this projection because of the Albert Haynesworth connection and comparisons. It would make less sense, however, if the Titans passed on Fairley when talent and need are so perfectly fused into one player.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Tyron Smith, OT, USC. Don't sleep on a pass rusher here, despite the presence of DeMarcus Ware and the steady, if unspectacular play of Anthony Spencer. That's where the value lies here. Still, Tyron Smith is the safer bet at this point in time simply due to need.
10. Washington Redskins: Cameron Jordan, DE, California. This is another spot where a pass rusher makes sense, as the Redskins could use a complement to Brian Orakpo. Quarterback is a possibility. Jordan, however, quietly remains this year's most versatile and pro-ready prospect.
11. Houston Texans: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. Gary Kubiak has been hanging onto this job by the skin of his teeth for years, plural, and if he plans to continue that trend, the defense needs to shape up quickly. 3-4 OLB is the obvious need, and Quinn gives them good value here.
12. Minnesota Vikings: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. The term "microfracture surgery" is being floated around Bowers, despite the fact that other than a slow 40 time, he tested fairly well at his pro day. It's hard to see him lasting too far beyond the Top 10, if in fact he gets that far to begin with.
13. Detroit Lions: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College. Detroit's in great position this year - either they'll be able to fill a need with a quality prospect, or some big-name, big-talent player will fall directly into its lap. They get the former in Castonzo; protecting Matthew Stafford is a huge priority.
14. St. Louis Rams: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. For months, the Rams have been penciled in as the worst-case scenario for Jones. The Alabama product's worst case may be St. Louis' best case, as he's the type of weapon that could accelerate Sam Bradford's already-excellent development.
15. Miami Dolphins: Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida. Thanks mostly to the success of twin brother Maurkice, Mike Pouncey finds himself a rather hot commodity at the right time. A plug-and-play interior lineman, Pouncey would start at guard immediately in Miami, and perhaps even move to center down the line.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jake Locker, QB, Washington. Locker's still flying under the radar a bit, but the theme here is that players with Locker's talent and intangibles don't last long in Round 1. David Garrard affords Locker the development time he'll need in Jacksonville.
17. New England Patriots: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. If Bill Belichick and the Patriots are looking for value rather than filling a need with their top pick, Watt is by far the most sensible player for the team. He might be the most sensible from a need standpoint, as well.
18. San Diego Chargers: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri. The Chargers have had bad luck with pass rushers of late, what with Shawne Merriman's injuries and ultimate departure, and the ineffectiveness of first-round pick Larry English. Smith is a Top 10 talent, and too good to last beyond this point.
19. New York Giants: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA. Pedestrian off-season workouts have dropped Ayers down mocks a bit, but you'll see him start to sneak up over the next couple of weeks. His versatility and upside make him a perfect fit in Perry Fewell's defensive system.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue. The Aqib Talib situation has suddenly made cornerback a priority for the Buccaneers, but their biggest need - and thus the smart money in Round 1 - is still at defensive end. Kerrigan is the type of hustle end that will thrive in the Tampa 2.
21. Kansas City Chiefs: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin. Phil Taylor is a very popular projection to the Chiefs, but it's tough to envision Scott Pioli liking Taylor's tape enough to take him this early. Carimi's as NFL-ready as they come at tackle, and could solidify the Chiefs' already-solid line immediately.
22. Indianapolis Colts: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois. Two tackles, Derek Sherrod and Nate Solder (not necessarily in that order), would make a lot of sense here for the Colts. Liuget makes more sense, as he's exactly the type of DT prospect the team has been trying, and failing, to add for years.
23. Philadelphia Eagles: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado. Some of the perceived attitude issues plaguing Smith's draft stock are beginning to be shrugged aside - and as such, Smith might go earlier than most anticipate. Right now, Philly seems like the basement of his draft-day potential.
24. New Orleans Saints: Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina. In a deep class of defensive tackles, Austin's late rise has been a bit surprising, but it shouldn't be. A highly-touted prospect before his year-long suspension, Austin is back in the first round conversation thanks to elite-level talent.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State. Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton are both strong fits for the West Coast offense, and either could be the pick. Both (especially Dalton) would be slight reaches. Sherrod has the feet and versatility to play tackle or guard for Seattle.
26. Baltimore Ravens: Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple. At a certain point, teams that draft very well can take some risks on high-upside guys. Wilkerson is an outstanding athletic talent that'll need time to adjust from the MAC, but fits perfectly with what Ozzie Newsome likes to do each April.
27. Atlanta Falcons: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. This would be an interesting scenario for the Falcons, who'd get to choose between two ends (Jabaal Sheard included) and a guy like Kyle Rudolph. Clayborn is a good short-term bookend to John Abraham, and still has some upside to work with.
28. New England Patriots: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado. With Watt - the instant-impact defender - on board, the Patriots may choose to address a pressing concern on the other side of the ball with more of a project. The idea of pairing Solder with Sebastian Vollmer at tackle is tantalizing.
29. Chicago Bears: Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State. This pick has been projected as offensive line-or-bust for the Bears for good reason: their line is pretty terrible. It's not their only need, however, and with all of the value gone, Paea as a replacement for Tommie Harris would be a sensible alternative.
30. New York Jets: Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor. If Scott Pioli doesn't like Taylor's tape enough to take him at No. 21, then Rex Ryan will like Taylor's size and athleticism enough to take him here. Finding a suitable replacement for Kris Jenkins is a rarely-cited option for the Jets.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers: Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor. Fitting a 26-year-old interior lineman into the first round of a mock draft doesn't happen a lot, but it makes sense for a Pittsburgh team that needs reinforcements along its line, and immediate impact from its top draft pick.
32. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas. While the focus has become a running mate for Clay Matthews, an offensive lineman or a defensive end with this pick, cornerback depth and longevity remains a problem. Williams is the type of physical press player that would excel for Dom Capers.