2011 NFL Mock Draft: Luck staying opens door for Gabbert to be No. 1
The potential for a rookie wage scale makes QBs more enticing at the top
Defensive line prospects abound at the top of the draft
Georgia's A.J. Green could be a good fit for the weapon-needy Browns
Now that Andrew Luck has announced he's returning to Stanford, the top of the draft has changed dramatically, especially for the remaining top quarterback prospects. With a potential lockout looming, teams may not be able to trade for veteran quarterbacks until right before the season. And a potential rookie wage scale could make QBs even more tempting, since teams wouldn't have to pay the normal premium for the position. Last month, Packers president Mark Murphy wrote in the Washington Post that the league wants a system that would lock a QB taken No. 1 overall into a six-year, $19.9 million contract. That's not a big risk for the most important position on the field.
1. Carolina Panthers -- Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Quarterbacks have gone No. 1 overall eight out of the past 10 years. CAA, which represents Gabbert, has represented seven of the past eight overall No. 1 picks. Despite playing in a spread offense at Missouri, Gabbert is the top-rated quarterback and is the kind of player Carolina could sell to its fans.
2. Denver Broncos -- Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
The Broncos need a defensive playmaker and should look at Bowers and Auburn's Nick Fairley here. It helps to get Elvis Dumervil back from a torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss the entire 2010 season, but they need to make doubly sure they can improve their league-low sack total.
3. Buffalo Bills -- Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
The Bills allowed over 200 yards rushing in eight games last season and getting tough in the middle should be their No. 1 priority. Fairley isn't quite Ndamukong Suh, but he could bring a Suh-like attitude to a defense that needs to be more aggressive.
4. Cincinnati Bengals -- Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
Dareus may not be as hot a name because he's been out there as a top draft prospect for so long, but he has had a quality body of work at Alabama. Dareus had 6.5 sacks in 2009 and 4.5 sacks last season. The Bengals' defense fell from No. 4 overall in 2009 to No. 15 this season and needs an impact player on the line.
5. Arizona Cardinals -- Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
The Cardinals might not find the quarterback they love this high up in the draft, so expect them to take the best player available, who also happens to fit a need. Arizona ranked 23rd in pass defense last season in a division in which teams can't throw the ball. Peterson would also be a dangerous return man.
6. Cleveland Browns -- A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Hard to tell which direction they'll head until they name a head coach, but this offense desperately needs someone to worry opposing defenses.
7. San Francisco 49ers -- Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
New coach Jim Harbaugh needs a quarterback, but he probably feels he knows the college ranks a lot better than the rest of the NFL and can wait to get a guy he can mold into a star. Just look at what he did with Josh Johnson at San Diego. The Niners allowed too many big plays last season and need a shutdown corner. Amukmara didn't have any interceptions, but primarily because no one threw at him.
8. Tennessee Titans -- Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Smith is going to blow people away at the combine and jump up the board. But he won't be just a workout wonder. He had 11.5 sacks as a freshman at Missouri, and 5.5 last season, when he missed three games with a broken leg. Longtime Titans defensive line mastermind Jim Washburn may be able to turn him into the next Jevon Kearse.
9. Dallas Cowboys -- Tyron Smith, OT, USC
Assuming the Cowboys think they can sign Nnamdi Asomugha to help solidify the secondary, they'll turn to the offensive line in the draft. Smith has a good chance to come out of the predraft process as the top offensive lineman.
10. Washington Redskins -- Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkanas
Mallett needs to work with a good coach to improve his footwork. Right now if defenses bring pressure up the middle he's in trouble. Mike Shanahan seems to like mobile quarterbacks, but could work with the strong-armed Mallett while he sits behind either Donovan McNabb or Rex Grossman. They also desperately need a receiver, but with Justin Blackmon going back to Oklahoma State, they might wait to draft a pass-catcher.
11. Houston Texans -- Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
Ayers will thrive in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme since he can rush the passer and cover. The Texans need his versatility and his knack for making big plays.
12. Minnesota Vikings -- Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
The Vikings need a quarterback, but they could let their next offensive coordinator bring in a veteran to implement his system instead of starting over with a rookie. With 22 free agents on the roster, the Vikes may end up with plenty of needs. Quinn could help replace DE Ray Edwards, who is unlikely to be back in Minnesota.
13. Detroit Lions -- Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
The Lions need help in their back seven on defense, but the right player may not be in this spot unless they love Texas' Aaron Williams, or if Peterson or Amukamara slip. Look for Detroit to fill out those spots later in the draft and start first by solidifying their line with Sherrod.
14. St. Louis Rams -- Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
The Rams could use help on the offensive line, but there are a lot of questions in this year's OL crop. They also need another big target for Sam Bradford.
15. Miami Dolphins -- Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Ingram is likely the only first-round worthy running back, and the Dolphins may very well lose both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams this offseason. Miami also needs a quarterback, but with Tony Sparano presumably coaching for his job he's not going to want to start a rookie.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars -- Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
The Jags can let Newton sit behind David Garrard and develop.
17. New England Patriots (via Oakland) -- J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Under-recruited, hard-working lineman ... sounds like a Patriot. Even though New England's defense improved greatly throughout the year, the Pats still need playmakers.
18. San Diego Chargers -- Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M
Having the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 offense provides you some luxury in the draft. But the Chargers' defense isn't quite as good as its numbers because the special teams' failures kept them off the field in certain games. Miller can get to the quarterback and will be compared to Shawne Merriman.
19. New York Giants -- Allen Bailey, DL, Miami
The Giants will likely need a running back, but they've proven you don't need to use a first-round pick to do well at that position. Instead, they can bolster their defensive line with the versatile Bailey.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
The Bucs have to be excited there are so many quality defensive ends in this year's draft. Clayborn entered the season as the top defensive end prospect, but only had four sacks his senior campaign. The Bucs could also look at California's Cameron Jordan and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward.
21. Kansas City Chiefs -- Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Some draft experts question his athleticism, but Carimi fits the bill as a big, tough, run-blocking lineman.
22. Indianapolis Colts -- Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
The Colts had just one sack against the Jets in their wild-card loss and need to get a player who can make an impact up the middle to free up their pass-rushing ends.
23. Philadelphia Eagles -- Aaron Williams, CB, Texas
Opponents too easily picked on whoever wasn't being covered by Asante Samuel last season. The Eagles would be very happy if the Longhorns corner was still available.
24. New Orleans Saints -- Anthony Costanzo, OT, Boston College
The Saints' vaunted line took a step backward this season, and left tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Carl Nicks are free agents. They also could have running back issues since Pierre Thomas is a free agent, but they'd be better served getting one lower in the draft.
(Picks 25-32 will be determined as the NFL playoffs unfold.)