This year's defensive line class could go down as one of the strongest in draft history, starting with the top three picks and five of the top 10. In all, more than one-third of the first round could wind up being comprised of pass rushers. Quarterbacks, on the other hand, could suffer a slide much like last year, despite the great need at the top of the draft for passers, because of the risk involved with so many of the top QBs in this year's draft. PFW projects 18 of the first-round selections will be underclassmen.
1. Carolina Panthers
Marcell Dareus | DT | Alabama [Jr.]
Ron Rivera's defense starts in the middle, and there is not a more disruptive force on the defensive line in this year's draft than Dareus. He can play anywhere along the line and constantly draw double-teams, freeing up the rest of his linemates to create pressure, while allowing Jimmy Clausen a second year to prove his many critics wrong.
2. Denver Broncos
Da’Quan Bowers | DE | Clemson [Jr.]
If Bowers' knee clears medically, the powerful rusher could provide John Fox with the type of presence that Julius Peppers helped bring to the Panthers upon Peppers' arrival in Carolina.
3. Buffalo Bills
Von Miller | DE | Texas A&M
With Dave Wannstedt on board and the Bills' committing to a 4-3 look, the importance of adding more explosion to the pass rush became increasingly important, and there is not a more explosive pass rusher in this draft than Miller.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green | WR | Georgia [Jr.]
Mike Brown might be forced to find a quarterback of the future, but if he can add a premiere receiving talent such as Green, and find a way to placate Carson Palmer, the Bengals' offense could have all the horsepower it needs to reclaim the AFC North.
5. Arizona Cardinals
Blaine Gabbert | QB | Missouri [Jr.]
When Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals' offense was left in shambles and the team cycled through quarterbacks, unable to find a solution. Gabbert is still raw, but Ken Whisenhunt is a master of bringing quarterbacks along slowly, as he did with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and could tailor a game plan that allows Gabbert to step into the starting lineup readily.
6. Cleveland Browns
Julio Jones | WR | Alabama [Jr.]
Mike Holmgren is revamping the offense in his image, appointing Pat Shurmur as his head coach and committing to the quarterbacks that he procured in his first year on the job. To make his West Coast offense work, he needs playmaking talent at the receiving position, and Jones perfectly fits the tough mold that Holmgren seeks.
7. San Francisco 49ers
Patrick Peterson | CB | LSU [Jr.]
The 49ers' offense is loaded with talent, and now has a head coach who can maximize it. San Francisco's most pressing need is arguably at the cornerback position, and a big, physical press cornerback like Peterson could seriously upgrade the position held by the declining Nate Clements.
8. Tennessee Titans
Nick Fairley | DT | Auburn [Jr.]
Fairley is the most explosive interior rusher in the draft and could provide the interior surge the Titans lacked after Albert Haynesworth departed. Although he brings a lot of baggage with him and is a risky selection in the top 10, the presence of Titans DL coach Tracy Rocker, his DL coach at Auburn, should ease the transition and help keep him in line.
9. Dallas Cowboys
J.J. Watt | DE | Wisconsin [Jr.]
Watt tested off the charts at the NFL Scouting Combine and received rave reviews for his maturity and focus in the interview process. He is not without his detractors in the scouting community, but his ability to man the five-technique post where the Cowboys are severely undermanned could allow him to fit into the top 10.
10. Washington Redskins
Prince Amukamara | CB | Nebraska
DeAngelo Hall is coming off a Pro Bowl season, but he was still inconsistent. Carlos Rogers is a free agent, and depth is lacking at a critical position in a conference that's very deep at receiver.
11. Houston Texans
Brandon Harris | CB | Miami (Fla.) [Jr.]
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was closely scrutinizing the cornerback position at the Combine, and rightfully so, given that the Texans had the league's most woeful pass defense in 2010 and struggled to replace Dunta Robinson. Harris fits the physical temperament the Texans seek.
12. Minnesota Vikings
Robert Quinn | DE | North Carolina [Jr.]
Despite not playing football for a season, having a benign brain tumor and carrying a reputation as a soft run defender, Quinn's pass-rush prowess and overall upside is still too great for teams in search of pass rushers to pass him by. After showing up in tip-top shape at the Combine and working out very well, he gained momentum in the scouting community and could be an attractive option to a team that's expected to lose Ray Edwards.
13. Detroit Lions
Gabe Carimi | OLT | Wisconsin
Carimi has not been shy expressing his belief that he is the best offensive tackle in this year's draft, to the chagrin of many decision makers, but Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is the type of head coach who seeks a high degree of confidence in his players and embraces it on his roster.
14. St. Louis Rams
Aldon Smith | DL | Missouri [Soph.-3]
Smith was more of a force rushing from the inside than he was from the outside, and his terrific body length and quickness could provide Steve Spagnuolo with a Justin Tuck-like pass rusher to take the Rams' pass rush to a new level.
15. Miami Dolphins
Cam Newton | QB | Auburn [Jr.]
The Dolphins were one of the teams that was very interested in Percy Harvin, despite all of his off-the-field concerns, and they have a demanding, disciplinarian head coach in Tony Sparano who is capable of keeping players in line. If the Dolphins want to get over the hump and compete with the Patriots and Jets, they need an answer at the QB position that Chad Henne has yet to provide. If Newton is available midway through the first round, as he very well could be, the Dolphins could be champing at the bit.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars
Adrian Clayborn | DE | Iowa
Since GM Gene Smith took over, the Jaguars have made a concerted effort of rebuilding their lines, and his work is not yet done, with Derrick Harvey struggling to provide the pass rush that Jack Del Rio expected when he aggressively traded up to land him in 2008.
17. New England Patriots (from Oakland)
Cameron Jordan | DE | California
With outstanding size, body length and versatility, Jordan could fill a number of roles in the Patriots' defense and provide Bill Belichick with a more youthful version of Richard Seymour, who was shipped to the Raiders for this pick.
18. San Diego Chargers
Ryan Kerrigan | OLB | Purdue
Purdue defensive ends historically have been able to transfer their skill set to the outside linebacker position very well, and Kerrigan could be the next in line to make the transition, providing new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky with the type of high-motor, relentless edge performer that the coach seeks.
19. New York Giants
Mark Ingram | RB | Alabama [Jr.]
With no guarantees that Ahmad Bradshaw will be back in New York and Brandon Jacobs beginning to show signs of slowing down, the Giants can use a new bellcow in the backfield. Ingram runs with the type of vinegar that excites Tom Coughlin.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tyron Smith | OT | USC [Jr.]
GM Mark Dominik did a fine job of uncovering skill talent in the mid-to-late rounds last year, but needs to turn his attention to the trenches this year and improve both the offensive and defensive lines. Smith might not be ready Day One, but he has as much upside as any offensive lineman in this year's draft, and could help keep Josh Freeman standing.
21. Kansas City Chiefs
Mike Pouncey | C | Florida
With Casey Wiegmann on his way out, the Chiefs have a glaring hole on the middle of their offensive line, and Pouncey could help fill it.
22. Indianapolis Colts
Anthony Castonzo | OT | Boston College
The Colts have sought to add more physicality to their offensive line and upgrade the protection for Peyton Manning. Castonzo accomplishes both feats.
23. Philadelphia Eagles
Aaron Williams | CB | Texas [Jr.]
The Eagles could use help at both cornerback and safety, and with Williams, they would add a player who potentially could fill both needs. He is best suited to man the slot where retiring Ellis Hobbs formerly excelled.
24. New Orleans Saints
Nate Solder | OT | Colorado
Given Drew Brees' quick trigger, it does not take much to protect his blind side, as he often steps up in the pocket and gets rid of the ball before outside rushers have a chance to reach him. Nonetheless, the Saints could stand to upgrade the position manned by Jermon Bushrod, whose play was spotty last season.
25. Seattle Seahawks
Corey Liuget | DT | Illinois [Jr.]
Whether or not Matt Hasselbeck was healthy last season, the Seahawks showed they could win with a proven ground game. Where they need the most help is on the defensive line, and Liuget could provide help at either interior position, most ideally being suited to line up alongside Brandon Mebane.
26. Balitmore Ravens
Muhammad Wilkerson | DE | Temple [Jr.]
In Haloti Ngata, the Ravens have one of the best defensive linemen in football, but he could use some more help after Trevor Pryce surprisingly departed for the Jets last season. Wilkerson's instincts are still raw, but he has the size and length ideally sought at the five-technique position.
27. Atlanta Falcons
Lance Kendricks | TE | Wisconsin
Tony Gonzalez has been able to continue playing at a high level in Atlanta, but his days are limited, and allowing a young, ascending talent the opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from one of the game's true professionals would serve the team well.
28. New England Patriots
Jake Locker | QB | Washington
No, Tom Brady is not going anywhere, and Bill Belichick is not going to tap into his bag of tricks and line up Locker in the wing-T. If Locker is still on the board at this spot, as he very well could be, expect the Patriots to be manning the phones hard, seeking to find an interested suitor willing to give up a series of picks that could benefit the Patriots in years to come. The only shock here is if the Patriots were to sit still and hold both of their first-round picks.
29. Chicago Bears
Orlando Franklin | OL | Miami (Fla.)
Although GM Jerry Angelo might prefer to find a replacement for Tommie Harris with this pick, the board could be more favorablly filled with OL talent. Franklin could be the most physical blocker in this year's draft and perfectly fits the nasty disposition that OL coach Mike Tice seeks in the trenches.
30. New York Jets
Danny Watkins | OG | Baylor
After recently cutting ORT Damien Woody, the Jets could kick Vlad Ducasse to right tackle, leaving a void at the guard position. Watkins not only has the versatility to play multiple positions, he quickly could become a fan favorite as a blue-collar, down-to-earth former firefighter.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers
Derek Sherrod | OL | Mississippi State
The Steelers' most pressing needs are at the offensive guard and tackle positions, and Sherrod potentially could fill either with great versatility.
32. Green Bay Packers
Justin Houston | OLB | Georgia [Jr.]
The Packers' front seven relied heavily on the efforts of Cullen Jenkins and Clay Matthews to create a pass rush, and sorely could use another outside rusher manning the side opposite Matthews. Houston has the pure physical traits to intrigue GM Ted Thompson.