It's already April, which means we're just a hair over three weeks away from the 2011 NFL Draft. It's time to start getting serious, leaving the realm of discussion scenarios behind in favor of a more predictive terrain.
In this latest 2011 NFL Mock Draft, we've got Cam Newton edging out Blaine Gabbert for the No. 1 overall pick, four quarterbacks selected in the first round, and Alabama star running back Mark Ingram falling past the initial 32 picks.
1. Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. It's been a while since there was considerable buzz about a non-quarterback to Carolina. At this point, it's difficult to imagine this pick being anyone other than Newton or Gabbert - and for now, there's more buzz surrounding Auburn's Heisman Trophy winner.
2. Denver Broncos: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. Sometimes when you're picking early, it's tough to take the safe route - it feels like settling. Denver should have no problems settling on Dareus; he fills their biggest positional need, is an extremely talented football player, and yes - he's a very safe pick. Safe is good.
3. Buffalo Bills: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. There's a lot of talk about Newton in Buffalo; not nearly as much with Gabbert. The Bills might seriously consider Newton if he's there; as he's not in this scenario, the Bills could look to take the best front-seven defender. Here, that's obviously Miller.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. With at least two teams in front of Cincinnati looking seriously at quarterbacks, it's quite possible the Bengals will have to wait to replace Carson Palmer. If the Top 3 shakes out as it did here, Gabbert makes too much sense for Cincinnati to pass on.
5. Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. Newton, Gabbert and Miller all make a great deal of sense for the Cardinals (and not necessarily in that order). With all three gone, it's Peterson, the draft's best athlete, that is the right fit for Arizona, who would readily team him with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
6. Cleveland Browns: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. Last Thursday, the easy projection here would have been Da'Quan Bowers. Now, it's tough to see any pass rusher worth this pick; Nick Fairley would make sense for Dick Jauron's 4-3, but adding a unique receiving talent to aid in Colt McCoy's development makes more sense.
7. San Francisco 49ers: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. You've seen this exact projection for months, and for good reason: Amukamara is an excellent prospect, fills one of San Francisco's biggest positional needs, and has the type of football and personal character that Jim Harbaugh covets.
8. Tennessee Titans: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Once considered an option at No. 1 overall, character concerns have caused Fairley to slide in most projections. He is far too talented, and far too dominant on tape, to last past Tennessee, who are desperately in need of an impact defensive lineman.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Tyron Smith, OT, USC. Though he never played left tackle while at USC, there's an increasing sense that Smith will be the first tackle off the board. He'd make a lot of sense for Dallas, who could start him on the right side - where he has experience - and then move him left down the line if they see fit.
10. Washington Redskins: Cameron Jordan, DE, California. There are plenty of flashy routes the Redskins could take here - Julio Jones and Robert Quinn chief among them - but they went relatively conservative with Trent Williams a year ago. Jordan would be conservative, too. He's also a great fit for Jim Haslett.
11. Houston Texans: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri. Gary Kubiak has been hanging onto his job by the skin of his teeth for years. He needs a playoff berth - and to secure a playoff berth, the Texans need to give Wade Phillips talent for his 3-4 defense. Smith is a bit raw, but has dominant potential.
12. Minnesota Vikings: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. It's quite possible that Bowers' lackadaisical pro day (as well as continuing knee concerns) cause him to slide on draft day. He's too good a football player to slide very far, however, and he'd be a great value pick for a Vikings team that excels at finding draft-day value.
13. Detroit Lions: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College. There are value-based picks that the Lions could make here, but taking Castonzo makes too much sense. He's a versatile, intelligent athlete with good upside that could start on either side of the line. Protecting Matt Stafford is a top priority.
14. St. Louis Rams: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. For months, No. 14 overall has been the point everyone deems Julio Jones won't slide past. That still holds true today, even though the Rams' need at receiver may be slightly overhyped. Sam Bradford looks like a future star, but he'll need more help to get there.
15. Miami Dolphins: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. It's not too often that you see Quinn last this far into Round 1, but he's just one of a few pass rushers with serious question marks. I don't think he'd get past Miami, who should be discussing OLB despite having two pretty talented players there (Cameron Wake, Koa Misi).
16. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jake Locker, QB, Washington. Jake Locker used to be polarizing; now he's pretty universally rejected as a first-round prospect. Jags GM Gene Smith isn't afraid to defy conventional wisdom, and Locker's raw talent and intangibles make him a strong fit here.
17. New England Patriots: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue. Over the past couple of years, Bill Belichick has been using more 40 front, a departure from the staunch 3-4 he ran during the early part of the century. Why? He hasn't had the edge rushers. Kerrigan would team with '10 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham to change that.
18. San Diego Chargers: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. San Diego doesn't have a lot of glaring needs, aside from the defensive end position that's been discussed to death since January. It's possible that they look elsewhere here - think pass rusher - but Watt's the best fit for them in this scenario.
19. New York Giants: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State. Sherrod has not been the subject of a lot of pre-draft buzz, but amongst a controversial crop of offensive linemen, Sherrod is among the most experienced and most versatile. In New York, he'd be depth at tackle and guard with long-term starting potential.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh. A second straight pick with a fringe first-rounder surging safely into the Top 20? Sheard is a vastly underrated prospect, and with all of the top edge rushers off the board, Tampa may feel alright "reaching" on an end that's nearly as enticing as the higher-profile guys.
21. Kansas City Chiefs: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin. Phil Taylor, a nose guard out of Baylor, is a popular pick here. The book on Taylor is that he's a unique physical talent that will likely be over-drafted despite rather average tape. Scott Pioli may be OK with over-drafting, but an instant upgrade at right tackle makes more sense here.
22. Indianapolis Colts: Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State. This would be an excellent scenario for Indianapolis, even though they'd be missing out on four offensive tackles, which is a clear need area. They'd get to choose between two excellent scheme fits at DT, with Stephen Paea representing slightly more value than Corey Liuget.
23. Philadelphia Eagles: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado. Philadelphia's most pressing needs lie along the offensive line and in the secondary. They may target overall value if they can't find a good fit at either positional hole, but luckily for them, Smith - despite character concerns - fits like a glove.
24. New Orleans Saints: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois. It seems fairly obvious at this point that the Saints are looking to upgrade at defensive tackle, both alongside Sedrick Ellis and their overall depth. Choosing between Liuget and Muhammad Wilkerson is an interesting proposition; in the end, Liuget is simply a better prospect.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State. Here's where our fourth quarterback prospect goes off the board. Seattle has been feverishly checking out quarterbacks ever since Pete Carroll's arrival, and they still don't have the long-term guy. Ponder has the tools to thrive in Seattle's offensive system.
26. Baltimore Ravens: Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple. It's never easy guessing which direction Baltimore will go on draft day. Cornerback is the most-cited need area, but there's no value there in this scenario. Wilkerson, however, is an impressive physical specimen that could be groomed into the Ravens' defensive system.
27. Atlanta Falcons: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. The growing sentiment around Atlanta is that they'll take a defensive end if a good one is available. Erb's palsy may limit Clayborn a bit transitioning to the NFL, but he's the high-motor, solid run-defending complement the Falcons need alongside John Abraham.
28. New England Patriots: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado. After snagging Kerrigan at No. 17, there's little question that Solder is the most intriguing athlete left on the board. The Patriots are going to have to seriously re-tool their offensive line sooner rather than later, and Solder's upside as a bookend to Sebastian Vollmer is considerable.
29. Chicago Bears: Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida. Pick an offensive lineman. Any offensive lineman. Aside from Tampa Bay's need for a defensive end, there's no bigger team/positional need this year than Chicago and the offensive line. Pouncey is the best available here, and should start at guard immediately.
30. New York Jets: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA. As the saying about Rex Ryan goes, he collects pass rushers and defensive backs on draft day. Despite that tendency, he still hasn't been able to milk what he needs out of the Jets' group of pass rushers. Ayers isn't an elite athlete, but there's more than enough there for Ryan to work with.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas. Aaron Rodgers ripped the Steelers' vaunted defense - their secondary in particular - to shreds in Super Bowl XLV. The team needs reinforcements on the back end, and Williams has the requisite physicality and playmaking ability to excel in Dick LeBeau's system.
32. Green Bay Packers: Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State. B.J. Raji looks like a star at nose tackle, but there's less certainty (even if there's talent) at end, where Cullen Jenkins is a free agent. An elbow injury suppressed Heyward's buzz through most of March, but he's still a strong possibility for Round 1.