The 2012 NFL Draft represents somewhat uncharted waters for teams. Rookie contracts, particularly those given to the top 10 picks, have been reigned in to more reasonable levels. The new economics free teams to swing more deals this year, and there are deals to be made this year.
This is not a particularly strong draft class, but it is rich with top-tier quarterbacks that could give needy teams a player to build around for the future. Andrew Luck has the top spot in any 2012 NFL Mock Draft nailed down. Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III will entice teams to make a move into the top three picks of the draft. Expect these mock drafts to get more and more interesting as the NFL offseason approaches.
1. Indianapolis Colts - Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Everything should be so automatic as this pick. Speculation is flying about the Colts being big enough for Manning and Luck, but the two have been making niceties in the media lately, enough to quell the controversy until April. Indianapolis may be better off trading the pick for a bounty of even more draft picks so that they could have more than just two quarterbacks as their only legitimate stars.
2. St. Louis Rams - Matt Kalil, OT, USC
The Rams were already supposed to have their cornerstone offensive tackle, but Jason Smith, the second pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, has been a severe disappointment. Kalil looks like the best tackle prospect to come along since Jake Long. The Rams can finally give Sam Bradford the protection he needs. Rodger Saffold can move to the right side and instantly improve a unit that nearly got Sam Bradford killed this year.
3. Minnesota Vikings - Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Minnesota could really use Kalil, but they can settle for the draft's top cornerback. Claiborne fills a big need for the Vikings who had allowed more receiving touchdowns than any other team in the league with 28. In truth, the second and third spots in the draft could be dealt given the rise of Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. The Vikings could use the extra picks, just like the Rams.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars - Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Jacksonville really needs to get Blaine Gabbert another weapon on offense. The Jaguars have the worst group of receivers in the NFL. Blackmon's speed and playmaking ability would be a nice complement to Maurice Jones-Drew. Gabbert will be happy to have a sure-handed wide receiver.
5. Carolina Panthers - Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Carolina's biggest need is in the middle of its defensive line. The fifth pick seems a little high for Penn State's Devon Hill, though that could change as the draft season progresses. Cam Newton and Steve Smith formed a deep connection this season, but the young quarterback needs another, younger complementary receiver to take this offense to the next level. Not convinced there won't be some draft day horse trading? Just look, we're at the fifth pick and Robert Griffin and Matt Barkley are still on the board.
6. Washington Redskins - Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
John Beck, Rex Grossman...neither of these guys have shown they can be the future in Washington. That changes with the selection of RG3. Mike Shanahan finally gets the building block he needs to finally make the Redskins a threat in the NFC East. Griffin may not have the complete package that Andrew Luck has, but he would be worthy of the first overall pick in any other year.
7. Cleveland Browns - Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
Nine out of ten mock drafts and dentists think that Trent Richardson is the natural pick here. Pat Shurmur learned a lesson about not putting talent around a young quarterback in his last job as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. They can find another running back in the draft, but they can't pass on a player that would give Colt McCoy a receiver with an elite skill set. Don't rule out the possibility of the Browns drafting a quarterback.
8. Miami Dolphins - Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Matt Moore may very well be the Dolphins' starting quarterback at the beginning of next season. Matt Barkley will be starting by the Halloween. If they found a way to add a good tight end, they could really give Barkley something to work with from the start.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Kirkpatrick bolsters the back end of their defense prone to leaking pass yards this season. They could use playmakers on both sides of the ball. Kirkpatrick has the speed and physical ability to give their secondary flexibility and better matchups against their pass-first division rivals.
10. Philadelphia Eagles - Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina
Skip the Dream Teams jokes here. Brown gives Philly a great starting linebacker for their defense. There might not be a bigger need for this team than upgrades at linebacker...and defensive coordinator.
11. Arizona Cardinals - David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
After trading away a second-pick and a starting cornerback for backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals had little to protect their investment. He can also make their running game a real threat. DeCastro is the second-best offensive lineman in the draft, behind Kalil. This is an example of how the new rookie pay system will change daft day axioms about what positions are drafted where.
12. Kansas City Chiefs - Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Martin can play either tackle spot, giving Kansas City some flexibility. He does know how to protect the quarterback, and can give Jamaal Charles some room to work on the outside.
13. Buffalo Bills - Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills' offense has drawn some criticism for the team's flame out after a hot start, but the defense has been awful. Injuries and neglect are both to blame. Drafting Upshaw adds a pass rusher to the mix.
14. Seattle Seahawks - Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
Yes, shocking as it may sound, neither Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst appear to be the answer at quarterback. Jones lands in an offense with some receiving talent and a talented offensive line that should help him ease into the NFL. Seattle is one of several teams that could look to trade up for Robert Griffin or Matt Barkley.
15. San Diego Chargers - Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
San Diego needs an injection of youth on their offensive line. Whispers about Philip Rivers playing hurt and a mid-season addition of Jared Gaithner point to a very real need up front.
16. Dallas Cowboys - Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
Dallas was keenly interested in drafting Nebraska corner Prince Amukamara last year. Having waited a year, they get the better of Nebraska's fearsome duo in the secondary from 2010 to improve their shaky pass defense.
17. New York Giants - Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
For the second year in a row, an elite pass rusher from UNC slips to the middle of the round. New York dealt with constant injuries to their aging group of pass rushers. Coples reinforces the unit and gives Jerry Reese some flexibility.
18. Tennessee Titans - Mark Barron, S, Alabama
Barron is the kind of safety that frequents the highlight reels with his hard hits and knack for being in the right place at the right time. Working with a re-signed Courtland Finnegan, Barron gives the Titans a good secondary.
19. Cincinnati Bengals - Chase Minnefield, CB, Virginia
Cincinnati's defensive front is already a pretty good unit. Adding a talented cornerback would make it more complete. Minnefield also has the hands to create turnovers. Cincinnati will want to get Andy Dalton and A.J. Green as many chances as they can.
21. Cincinnati Bengals (via Oakland) - Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
Cedric Benson isn't getting any younger. Even with Benson around, the Bengals could use someone with Miller's speed and big play ability. *See my note on Trent Richardson at the bottom of the page.
22. Detroit Lions - Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
Detroit needs to take a note from Green Bay and keep fresh tackle talent on hand for their pass-first offense. This gives them some flexibility with Jeff Backus and the disappointing Gosder Cherilus.
23. Cleveland Browns (via Atlanta) - Kelechi Osemele, OT, Iowa State
Cleveland needs help along their offensive line. Osemele is a little raw, but he could work on the right side or move inside to guard where his toughness would be a valued asset in the running game.
24. New York Jets - Dont'a Hightower, OLB, Alabama
Rex Ryan needs a better answer than the injured Bryan Thomas to play opposite Calvin Pace. Hightower has size and speed to make a difference in the Jets' defense.
25. Denver Broncos - Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
Assuming Denver commits to Tim Tebow, at least for another year, they have to surround him with some playmakers. Wright's speed gives them a weapon to do some of what Tebow used to do with Percy Harvin during his college days. He can also be a downfield threat.
26. Houston Texans - Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis
Houston's defense has been great this season. Imagine what they'll do next year with a healthy Mario Williams and 350-pound guy who also possesses the athletic ability of a 300-pound defensive lineman at the nose tackle position.
27. New England Patriots (from New Orleans) - Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
New England's defense has been a problem this season, e.g. a game against Rex Grossman that was far closer than it should have been. Jenkins rounds out the secondary and gets a stern head coach to oversee his growth.
28. New England Patriots - Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska
Fact: one, probably both, of these picks will be traded. Supposing for the sake of mock drafts that New England hangs on, they can significantly upgrade their defensive line with Crick. Injuries will prevent him from being drafted in the first half of the round, but the Pats have had good luck taking chances on injured talent in the past.
29. Pittsburgh Steelers - Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia
Pittsburgh could use an upgrade on their offensive line, particularly on the outside. Glenn's power fits nicely on the right side, and his wide body would help reroute pass rushers.
30. San Francisco 49ers - Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
If San Francisco is going to stick with Alex Smith for the near-term future, they need to get him some receiving help. Sanu allows them to rely on Michael Crabtree less and end the Braylon Edwards experiment. A big, physical target with good hands and yards after the catch ability fits perfectly with Smith's limitations as a quarterback.
31. Baltimore Ravens - Vontaze Burfict, MLB, Arizona State
Ray Lewis has a few more years left to give. Still, Lewis' injury this year has to be of some concern to the Ravens; after all, he is 36. Lewis is the perfect mentor for a tough young player like Burfict that needs to iron out his mental game.
32. Green Bay Packers - Devon Still, DL, Penn State
Imagine the Packers with a top ten defense. Frightening. Still would instantly improve their run defense, giving more power up front and allowing the linebackers to do more.
*What about Trent Richardson? For now, he says he's staying another year at Alabama. That's different than Matt Kalil who never made any public statement about whether or not he was staying in school. If Richardson does turn pro, which he would be smart to do, I'd put him in there for Cincinnati instead of Lamar Miller. The conventional wisdom still says Cleveland, and if he's available with their second pick in the first round, that's a possibility.