Billion dollar businesses do not curl up into the back of a dark cave to hibernate for a few months at a time. Enterprises like the NFL keep rolling forward, getting bigger with every molecule of oxygen it consumes. No games, no problem. Free agency and the NFL draft feed fan interest and propel the league forward, shining a little ray of sunshine into the bleakness of late winter.
Barely a week after the Super Bowl - remember it? - the NFL hot stove is roaring at full blast. Teams have already started to make roster moves. Rumors about pending and potential roster moves are also filling the vacuum, 140 characters at a time. Free agency carries big ramifications for the NFL draft. Teams can fill December's most glaring roster needs in free agency, reorder their draft board and shatter the groupthink of prediction.
This week's 2012 NFL mock draft reflects some early free agent rumblings, giving it a little different look than previous versions. In the weeks ahead, things will start to get really interesting. The NFL Scouting Combine will cause some seismic shifts to the first 32 picks. When NFL free agency officially kicks off on March 13, these draft predictions will look especially dated.
Who would want to hibernate right now. This might be the most wonderful time of year to be a football fan.
1. Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
The Colts will draft Luck. Ignore speculation that says otherwise. Luck is a once-in-a-generation prospect that will replace the other once-in-a-generation prospect whose bitter divorce with this team will consume most of the offseason's talk over the coming weeks.
2. Washington Redskins, Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (Projected trade: from St. Louis)
Once again it appears that the Redskins are the presumptive favorites to trade up in the draft. Unless, of course, they sign Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn or one of the other quarterback moves that would inject a little life into this franchise. Griffin is not on the same level as Luck; however, he is blessed with the arm, accuracy, athleticism and know-how teams desire in a franchise cornerstone.
3. Minnesota Vikings, Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Kalil is the best left tackle in the draft since Jake Long in 2008. He's a natural in pass protection, and should make life much easier for Christian Ponder in Week 1. Kalil needs to hone his run blocking before ascending to the class of elite of elite linemen.
4. Cleveland Browns, Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Conventional wisdom nowadays says never to draft running backs near the top of the first round. Richardson, however, is the exception that proves the rule. He is a multi-talented athlete who runs with power, explosion and straight-line speed. He is a complete running back that will significantly upgrade Cleveland's stale offense. Richardson will also come cheaper than trying to re-sign Peyton Hillis. Previous mocks had the Browns taking Justin Blackmon here, but the rumor mill has them sniffing out free agent receivers. Besides, Blackmon may not be a top-five prospect.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
A perfect match pf talent and need, Claiborne will make the Bucs' secondary respectable again in 2012. Aqib Talib is bound for breaking rocks and Ronde Barber is pondering retirement after 16 seasons. The new administration in Tampa Bay will appreciate Claiborne's character as much as his talent.
6. St. Louis Rams, Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa (Projected trade: from Washington)
This will come as a bit of shocker to conventional wisdom that say the receiver-needy Rams could even take Blackmon with the second pick in the draft, should they forego a swap. Jeff Fisher has said that pass protection is priority one for getting quarterback Sam Bradford back on track. Reiff can slide right into the left tackle spot, moving Rodger Saffold to the right or even inside to guard.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars, Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
This is one giant leap for 2012 NFL draft punditry. Buzz is emanating from the internet, as it is wont to do, that Floyd will surprise people with his Combine workout. A good day on the track inside Lucas Oil Stadium could vault Floyd over Blackmon as the top receiver in this draft class.
8. Carolina Panthers, Devon Still, DT, Penn State
The hype machine is pushing Michael Brockers pretty hard, but Still looks like the best interior defensive lineman in this draft, especially for a 4-3 team like the Panthers. Still has the strength to bolster the inside wall and can also apply pressure to the backfield.
9. Miami Dolphins, Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
The Dolphins are the second team in the AFC East to announce a shift to the 4-3 defense. Adding Coples gives Miami a natural fit for an outside pass rusher in a four-man front. Coples carries a high potential to bust in this draft. Like most UNC players, he seemed to be in cruise control last year, and then he flashed moments of greatness at the Senior Bowl.
10. Buffalo Bills, Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Even if the Bills do re-sign Stevie Johnson, they need to upgrade their offensive skill players after committing $54 million to Ryan Fitzpatrick. In the past, this mock has had the Bills taking a pass rusher for their switch to a 4-3 or even an offensive lineman. Think of it like an arms race, only instead of enough nuclear weapons to melt the globe into a pleasant looking piece of obsidian, teams that play the Patriots have to acquire enough firepower to score points on pace with the Patriots.
11. Kansas City Chiefs, Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
What a break for the Chiefs to get Martin with this pick. Martin represents a major upgrade to their offensive line, replacing Barry Richardson. This pick, along with the healthy return of Jamaal Charles and a handful of other key players lost in 2011, could have the Chiefs back in the running for the AFC West.
12. Seattle Seahawks, Michael Brockers, DT/DE, LSU
Brockers might not look like the most obvious fit for the Seahawks, but they cannot pass on this kind of talent. Pete Carroll has a knack for getting the most of his players. He will find a way to utilize Brockers' natural talent.
13. Arizona Cardinals, David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
Arizona needs help all along the front five. Just ask Kevin Kolb. DeCastro has rare talent for an interior lineman. If guards were valued as highly in the draft as tackles, he would be a top 10 pick, and the world should applaud any team that decides to draft him that highly. For now, we will assume the Cardinals grab him.
14. Dallas Cowboys, Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Kirkpatrick might not fall this far. Dallas could trade up to draft him, or select Janoris Jenkins instead. In our alternate universe, they draft Kirkpatrick. Had Rob Ryan had a corner of this caliber in 2011, they might have been the NFC East champions.
15. Philadelphia Eagles, Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
Wait. The Eagles are supposed to draft a linebacker here, a guy like Luke Kuelchy. The Eagles have not drafted a linebacker in the first round since Andy Reid has been head coach. DeSean Jackson's future in Philly looks iffy. He could be franchised and I would not rule out the possibility of him being traded. Replacing Jackson with Wright gives the Eagles a more complete package, without Jackson's distractions.
16. New York Jets, Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
The Jets might need to add a receiver, depending on what happens with Santonio Holmes. Their roommates at the Meadowlands are a testament to the idea that NFL teams can never have too many pass rushers. Upshaw will pair with Aaron Maybin to give the Jets a twin threat on the pass rush and some hope for beating the New England Patriots to win the division.
17. Cincinnati Bengals, (from Oakland), Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
Another perfect match of talent and need punches up the Bengals' secondary. As promising as their season was in 2011, they really could have used Johnathan Joseph, who slipped away in free agency to make Houston a playoff team. Jenkins plays man and zone really well, giving the Bengals some options.
18. San Diego Chargers, Nick Perry, OLB, USC
San Diego could pursue Mario Williams in free agency. Of course, Williams might prefer to return to the outside in a four-man front. Norv Turner needs help in the pass rush, along with a few other things, in his one last shot at credibility in San Diego.
19. Chicago Bears, Mark Barron, SS, Alabama
Barron's double hernia surgery could hurt his draft stock. Rob Rang at CBSSports.com cited one NFL talent man who believed that the injury will not hurt Barron's stock. Chicago could use a hard hitting safety in their secondary. Receivers have been the pick here, but none of the remaining receivers really match up with this draft slot.
20. Tennessee Titans, Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
The Titans' offensive line received some very public criticism from head coach Mike Munchak, the man who used to coach that very unit. Eugene Amano is terrible. Drafting Konz would fix the problem. Amano could move to guard, provide depth or get the ax to save more than $3 million in cap space.
21. Cincinnati Bengals, Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia
Both of Cincinnati's starting guards are bound for free agency this year. Bobbie Williams, the better of the two, landed on IR with a broken ankle in December, and at 36 he can no longer be counted on to start 16 games. Glenn flashed some talent for playing on the blind side at the Senior Bowl. He has a real knack for working on the inside where the Bengals could really use him.
22. Cleveland Browns (from Atlanta), Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
Colt McCoy has a bright future as an NFL backup quarterback. The Browns could be active in free agency or on the trade market looking for a veteran to replace McCoy. They might find a solid interim option to start ahead of Tannehill who has the kind of upside the Browns need in a quarterback.
23. Detroit Lions, Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
Detroit got a steal when they signed Tulloch to a one-year deal for 2011. He will command a much higher price as a free agent, and the Lions might be better served to look elsewhere. If Kuechly falls this far, the Lions would pounce at the chance to get a player of his ilk.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers, Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis
The Steelers have been busy clearing cap space, knowing that they need to make some major moves to add talent to an aging defense that had no answer for Tim Tebow in the playoffs. Poe is the best player available on the board in our manufactured history of the 2012 NFL Draft. The 350 pound tackle from Memphis would be an excellent replacement for Casey Hampton.
25. Denver Broncos, Jerel Worthy, DE, Michigan State
The Broncos can get much further with some fixes on defense than figuring out what the hell to do with Tim Tebow. Worthy gives John Fox a stouter defensive front, which could really help Von Miller thrive. Of course, Worthy himself is no slouch when it comes to the pass rush. Mike Adams would be a good pick here too.
26. Houston Texans, Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Houston's loss to the Ravens in the divisional round highlighted their need for another receiver to pair with Andre Johnson. The beauty of drafting Sanu here is that he fills an immediate need and offers a potential replacement should Johnson struggle with injuries again.
27. New England Patriots (from New Orleans), Fletcher Cox, DE, Mississippi State
Andre Carter and Nick Anderson are both free agents this year. Even if the Pats keep one of them, they could use an injection of youthful talent along their defensive front. Cox improves their run defense immediately and gives them some help as a pass rusher.
28. Green Bay Packers, Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska
Green Bay needs more power in their defensive front. Crick has the size, strength and smarts to vastly improve the Packers' play up front. He can pressure passers and anchor well against the run.
29. Baltimore Ravens, Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
The Ravens need to start finding younger players at several positions. The interior line is a bigger need, but Adams offers great value with this pick. He could spell Bryant McKinnie. Adams' issues with consistency will limit his draft position to the second half of the first round.
30. San Francisco 49ers, Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
Josh Morgan could leave via free agency. Michael Crabtree, while good, may never live up to his original draft spot. Randle is a surprise late entrant to the first round, on par with Sanu and replacing Alshon Jeffery. He has the ability to get down the field as well as the physical ability to pick up yards after the catch with Alex Smith's limitations at quarterback.
31. New England Patriots, Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
New England's struggles in the secondary are now legendary. Dennard is excels in man coverage, and would greatly upgrade the Patriots secondary with his physical style of play and ability to move with the league's bigger receivers.
32. New York Giants, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
Eli Manning could use a sure handed, versatile target at the tight end spot. Jake Ballard was adequate, but Allen is more of an offensive weapon. His blocking ability, or lack thereof, could bump him into the second round.