Posted: Wednesday April 13, 2011 12:28PM ; Updated: Thursday April 14, 2011 11:16AM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL
2011 NFL Mock Draft 5.0
Everyone knows the NFL is a quarterbacks league, but maybe never more so than in 2011. A little draft history might be in store this year at the position.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock last week told me that eight quarterbacks might be taken in the opening three rounds, something that has never happened in the event's 75-year existence. Seven QBs have been selected in the first three rounds several times, the most recent being 2006.

Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett, and Colin Kaepernick should be the first seven passers off the board in some order, and if Iowa's Rick Stanzi cracks the top three rounds as well, we'll have a record.

Little wonder. With at least 10 teams having legitimate quarterback needs, and no free agency or trading period to precede the draft in this lockout-impacted year, there's only one way (at the moment) to acquire another option at the game's most pivotal position.

Reflecting that anticipated run on quarterbacks, I project four QBs making the opening round for the first time in my 2011 mock efforts. I've got Newton and Gabbert switching places at No. 1 Carolina and No. 3 Buffalo, No. 25 Seattle still taking TCU's Dalton, and I'm playing my hunch that Minnesota will trade back into the round to grab Locker at No. 28.

But I've still got two more weeks -- and two more mocks -- to change my mind.
(Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)

 
1 QB Cam Newton Auburn Jr. 6-6 250
I'm not convinced that Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is out of the running in Carolina, and I still think the Panthers would love to trade down a few spots and land more picks. But it does seem like Carolina is starting to focus like a laser on Newton, under the theory that he offers the largest potential impact for a franchise that needs an infusion of hope and a fresh start. Newton comes with risk, but not JaMarcus Russell-level risk.
2 DE-DT Marcell Dareus Alabama Jr. 6-4 306
That 31st-ranked run defense in Denver should make for an easy card to turn in on draft night. It's hard to imagine Dareus not being the first real building block as the Broncos transition back to a 4-3 defense under new head coach John Fox. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson is likely the only other name under consideration.
3 QB Blaine Gabbert Missouri Jr. 6-5 235
Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller seems to have emerged as the consensus choice for the Bills in NFL mockdom, but I still see Buffalo reasoning that it's the right year and the right draft slot to take a franchise quarterback. You could take Gabbert and still play Ryan Fitzpatrick most of this season, following the Jon Kitna/Carson Palmer model in Cincinnati, circa 2003.
4 WR A.J. Green Georgia Jr. 6-4 212
With no top 10 quarterback option to tempt them, the Bengals won't have to over-think anything. They'll take Green and happily land one of the league's future stars. It also gives Cincy the play-making receiver that Chad Ochocinco wishes he still was.
5 LB Von Miller Texas A&M Sr. 6-3 243
You can never have enough pass rushers and Miller is this year's best bet to account for rookie impact off the edge. At quarterback, the Cardinals are still more likely to be in the market for veterans Kevin Kolb or Marc Bulger than any draft prospect.
6 DE Robert Quinn North Carolina Jr. 6-5 270
With Da'Quan Bowers slip-sliding his way down draft boards -- one team told me he's definitely no longer top 10 material -- the Browns will turn to Quinn and still get the pass rush boost they seek. Alabama receiver Julio Jones is the option you hear if Cleveland goes offense, but No. 6 is a little higher slot than most teams would feel comfortable taking him.
7 CB Patrick Peterson LSU Jr. 6-1 222
With enough QB options to be had in the second round or later in the first, the 49ers are in great shape to land one of the draft's top-rated prospects in Peterson and worry about finding their next starting passer after that. San Francisco's need and slot should align perfectly in this case.
8 DT Nick Fairley Auburn Jr. 6-5 298
Some teams are wary of Fairley, believing he's a character-issue risk not worth taking. Tennessee has been down that road before, and you wonder if the Titans will have less tolerance for it under new coach Mike Munchak than they did in the Jeff Fisher era? Fairley could slip out of the top 10, but with former Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker now in the same job with the Titans, Fairley should have at least one important fan in the building.
9 OT Tyron Smith USC Jr. 6-5 280
No free agency means the Cowboys can't go shopping for a replacement at Marc Colombo's right tackle slot unless they get it done in the draft. Dallas could investigate trading up to No. 6 Cleveland in pursuit of Peterson, or maybe moving down to acquire picks and still get an offensive tackle later in the first round. But if the Cowboys stay put, Smith, the draft's top-rated tackle, seems like the right pick at the right value.
10 WR Julio Jones Alabama Jr. 6-4 220
Bowers falling out of the top 10 means Quinn is already gone, so I'm back to giving the Redskins the play-making receiver they covet in Jones. Washington probably would like to move down and recoup some of the picks it lacks in rounds three or four, but unless the Rams want to come up for Jones, there's probably not a likely trade partner to be had.
11 CB Prince Amukamara Nebraska Sr. 6-1 205
While most mockers continue to project the Texans adding a pass rusher to their defensive front seven (J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, Aldon Smith or Quinn are the likely suspects), how can Houston pass on the draft's second highest-rated cornerback with a secondary that was atrocious last season? It's all about beating the Colts in Houston, and Amukamara might help finally get that job done.
12 DE Cameron Jordan California Sr. 6-4 283
Spoiler alert: I've got the Vikings trading back into the first round with No. 28 New England in pursuit of quarterback Jake Locker of Washington. But I don't see Minnesota passing on Jordan to reach and take a quarterback at No. 12. Jordan meets a need at defensive end and his stock has continued to climb throughout the pre-draft scouting process.
13 OT Anthony Castonzo Boston College Sr. 6-7 308
The Lions are said to be intrigued with the idea of finding an elite pass-rushing prospect like Bowers still available at No. 13, but if I'm Detroit I'd be scared off by the possibility the ex-Clemson defensive end might require a risky microfracture surgery on his knee. The improving Lions don't need to take chances like that. They just need to keep adding solid pieces to the roster, and Castonzo easily qualifies.
14 DT Corey Liuget Illinois Jr. 6-3 300
The Rams also seek an impact receiver, but they have a better chance of finding one in the second round than they do a starting defensive tackle, which is why the underrated Liuget is the smart choice. He's a playmaker inside, and an ex-defensive coordinator like Steve Spagnuolo knows the value of having that kind of player in the middle of your defensive line.
15 RB Mark Ingram Alabama Jr. 5-10 215
Maybe I'm being stubborn about the Dolphins, but I still think Ingram makes the most sense for a Miami team that wraps up a good bit of its identity in the running game. Florida guard-center Mike Pouncey is the chic pick to go to the Dolphins at No. 15, but I wouldn't pass on Ingram and give him reason to want to beat you for the next five to seven years.
16 DE Ryan Kerrigan Purdue Sr. 6-4 263
Jaguars general manager Gene Smith is starting to earn respect within the league for his willingness to draft the kind of prospect who rates a solid double, rather than swinging for the fences and maybe striking out. That's Kerrigan. He's going to be a solid pro and improve your team. In contrast, Bowers is still available, but his boom-bust quotient is far higher than Smith prefers.
17 DE J.J. Watt Wisconsin Jr. 6-6 292
The Patriots, as always, are willing to move around on draft weekend. But I think they'll stick with their No. 17 pick and snatch up Watt to address their need for a 3-4 defensive end. It's at No. 28 where I expect New England to vacate the slot, dealing with a team (I have guessed Minnesota) intent on landing a quarterback late in the first round.
18 DE-LB Aldon Smith Missouri Jr. 6-5 260
The Chargers could use a 3-4 defensive end, so Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson is another option. But in Smith they'd be getting a potential 3-4 outside linebacker with edge pass-rushing skills, helping offset the disappointing production turned in by 2009 first-round pick Larry English.
19 G-C Mike Pouncey Florida Sr. 6-4 310
This feels like the right slot for Pouncey, who would give the Giants some much-needed youth at offensive line. Pouncey figures to start his NFL career at guard and then transition to center at some point, and New York in time will have use of him in both slots.
20 DE Da'Quan Bowers Clemson Jr. 6-4 275
With the young and improved Bucs in desperate need of more pass rush, they're the right team in the right position to take a chance on Bowers and end his first-round free fall. Tampa Bay might understandably be nervous about drafting another Clemson defensive end in the first round after spending the fourth overall pick on Gaines Adams in 2007, but Bowers' potential as a pass rusher makes him a good value at No. 20.
21 OT Gabe Carimi Wisconsin Jr. 6-7 327
Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli likes tough players, and Carimi is one of this draft's best in that department. Other options like Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor, UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston all come with some question marks. Carimi doesn't. He'll walk in the door as a solid starter at right tackle.
22 OT Nate Solder Colorado Sr. 6-8 314
Other than a baby-sitter or two, I can't think of anything new papa-of-twins Peyton Manning might welcome more than a little first-round love at offensive tackle by the Colts. Solder's forte is pass blocking, so he'd show up in Indy already knowing plenty about what the Colts do best.
23 OT Danny Watkins Baylor Sr. 6-3 310
Guard and tackle are two of the Eagles' biggest needs, and Watkins can play both spots. A former fireman who grew up playing hockey in British Columbia, Canada, Watkins is already 26, but he's a mature and reliable presence who would instantly upgrade a Philly offensive line that was decimated by injuries last season.
24 DT-DE Muhammad Wilkerson Temple Jr. 6-5 305
The Saints are looking for an upgrade on their defensive front and Wilkerson is the highest-rated defensive line prospect remaining. Teams like No. 11 Houston and No. 18 San Diego are thought to be considering him as a 3-4 defensive end, but he'd give New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams a versatile player who is both stout against the run and capable of penetrating and making plays in the backfield.
25 QB Andy Dalton TCU Sr. 6-2 215
I'm not budging off my mock 4.0 belief that the Seahawks are strongly considering Dalton, who is gaining more fans within NFL scouting circles as this long pre-draft season unfolds. Dalton, Locker and Ponder seem to be in competition to be the third quarterback selected, but it's the steady and experienced Dalton who is now viewed as the most NFL-ready of all.
26 CB Jimmy Smith Colorado Sr. 6-2 205
He carries legitimate character-issue red flags, but Smith to the Ravens is still my hunch, with a caveat. Just as it did in last year's first round, Baltimore likely will be willing to trade down with some team eager to take a quarterback (it was Denver coming after Tim Tebow at No. 25 in 2010). Teams like Tennessee, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Miami and San Francisco all make some sense as potential trade partners. And the Ravens could probably still draft Smith somewhere early in the second round.
27 DE Adrian Clayborn Iowa Sr. 6-4 285
Clayborn's health issues have been well-chronicled, but his top 20 grade makes him a good value for a Falcons team intent on beefing up its pass rush. Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward is another solid option for Atlanta, but Clayborn is the better pass rusher, and that's the Falcons' greater need.
28* QB Jake Locker Washington Sr. 6-2 231
*PROJECTED TRADE: Predicting the Patriots will make a draft-day trade isn't exactly going out on a limb, because that's just how they roll in New England. In our purported deal, the Vikings get their quarterback of the future (and maybe present) in Locker, and New England gets even wealthier in terms of future draft picks. If the Pats keep this pick, an offensive tackle like Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod or a running back like Illinois's Mikel Leshoure makes sense.
29 OT Derek Sherrod Mississippi State Sr. 6-6 312
I think the Bears are hoping Baylor offensive tackle-guard Danny Watkins lingers all the way to 29th, but I predict they're going to be disappointed. Sherrod becomes the best available tackle prospect, and Chicago offensive line coach Mike Tice gets some new talent to work with in 2011.
30 DT Phil Taylor Baylor Sr. 6-3 334
Taylor has unusual athleticism for a guy who goes 334 pounds, and he'd be a long-term replacement for the released Kris Jenkins at nose tackle. North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin is another prospect who might crack the first round, and the Jets could have their pick between he and Taylor.
31 OT Marcus Cannon TCU Sr. 6-5 358
The Steelers' need at cornerback could prompt them to reach just a bit for either Miami's Brandon Harris or Texas's Aaron Williams, but their offensive line requires attention as well. Cannon is a borderline first-round prospect, but at 6-5, 358 pounds he has both the size and footwork that Pittsburgh looks for.
32 DE Cameron Heyward Ohio State Sr. 6-5 288
The Packers would continue their winning streak if they find Heyward waiting for them at the end of the first round. He has the size and disruption skills to perfectly replace free-agent-to-be Cullen Jenkins at defensive end in Green Bay's 3-4 formation, and coordinator Dom Capers will love his intensity and ability to stop the run.
 

 
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