Throw out popular convention and probabilities. The key to nailing the draft is understanding fits, properly identifying needs and understanding the depth of the talent pool via the draft, free agency and the trade market. In the latest mock draft, PFW concentrated on assigning prospects to teams based on three factors — one, the best schematic and divisionaly competitive fit; two, the strongest area of need; and three, the available talent pool in the draft.
1. Indianapolis Colts
Not only did Robert Griffin do more with less at Baylor, as the incoming quarterback of the Colts will have to do with one of the weakest supporting casts in football, but Griffin is a more intimidating playmaker than Andrew Luck with the big-play ability sought in Bruce Arians’ big-strike, vertical offense. Griffin entered the season low on the radar in the Heisman Trophy race and upset the anointed golden boy in college football. Luck remains the heavyweight favorite to be selected first overall, but Griffin is the better schematic fit.
|2. Washington Redskins (from St. Louis)
Andrew Luck | QB | Stanford [ Jr. ]
The key to Mike Shanahan’s offense is knowing when and where to go with the ball. Having operated a very similar pro-style offense at Stanford to the one the Redskins employ, Luck could hit the ground running and give the Redskins the missing piece that has kept the offense on the runway during the Shanahan era.
|3. Minnesota Vikings
Morris Claiborne | CB | LSU [ Jr. ]
Chris Cook found trouble multiple times in his first two NFL esasons, and though he is not expected to be disciplined by the league following his acquittal on assault charges and has returned to the team, his trustworthiness has come into question at a time when Brandon Marshall is entering a division that already includes Calvin Johnson and a deep assortment of Packers receivers. Antoine Winfield is 34, coming off a season-ending broken clavicle injury and his body has not been able to handle his aggressive style of play. OLT Charles Johnson gave up a career-worst nine sacks in 2011, but the talent pool is deeper at tackle than at cornerback, and Claiborne has the length and press cover skill highly desired in the NFC North.
|4. Cleveland Browns
Trent Richardson | RB | Alabama [ Jr. ]
Peyton Hillis left town, leaving the unproven Montario Hardesty as the Browns’ starter in a very physical, pound-the-rock division. The Browns finished second to last in the league in 2011 with a paltry 3.69-yard-per-rush average, as a non-threatening passing game allowed defenses to easily crowd the box. Trent Richardson proved he could produce against stacked boxes and will help the offense open up the passing game.
|5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Matt Kalil | OT | USC [ Jr. ]
As OLT Donald Penn has beefed up, he has lost some quickness and gave up a career-worst nine sacks in 2011, according to STATS LLC. Josh Freeman’s front side has not been much better protected behind the serviceable Jeremy Trueblood, who is entering a contract year. GM Mark Dominik has invested heavily on protecting the inside of his pocket, and would benefit heavily from upgrading either edge. Kalil allows the Buccaneers to continue bolstering an offensive line that already saw the addition of Pro Bowl OG Carl Nicks.
|6. St. Louis Rams (from Washington)
Michael Floyd | WR | Notre Dame
Michael Floyd is bigger, stronger, faster and more explosive than Justin Blackmon and closed the gap between the two prospects by showing well at the Combine and his pro day and by showing more maturity and focus than Blackmon in the interview process. A two-time captain, Floyd alleviated concerns about his history of alcohol-related arrests by staying out of trouble as a senior. He can help upgrade one of the weakest crops of receivers in the league and has the run-after-the-catch strength to help snap Sam Bradford out of a sophomore funk.
|7. Jacksonville Jaguars
Fletcher Cox | DE-DT | Mississippi State [ Jr. ]
The Jaguars need to add more playmaking receiving talent to their offense to support the growth of Blaine Gabbert, but they can find it in the coming rounds. They won't find another impact pass rusher like Cox in the second round. The Jaguars were able to retain Jeremy Mincey after he sparked interest on the free-agent market, but Aaron Kampman is coming off a season-ending injury for the third consecutive year and Cox can step in immediately as a left defensive end, capable of kicking inside in nickel situations and disrupting.
|8. Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill | QB | Texas A&M
Physically, Tannehill has the skill set to become a bonafide quarterback, even if he showed he is still a long ways away as a senior. With Matt Moore coming on late last season, Tannehill could be afforded some time to develop. He already is familiar with the offense and personality of new coordinator Mike Sherman, which could ease the transition process to the NFL, and help fill the Dolphins' most pressing area of need.
|9. Carolina Panthers
Justin Blackmon | WR | Oklahoma State [ Jr. ]
Steve Smith carried the Panthers' downfield passing attack last season. For Cam Newton to take the next step in his development, he would benefit heavily from a strong, inside receiver capable of working underneath zones. Blackmon, who could slide given maturity concerns, can fill the void and bring a playmaking presence that needs to be honored opposite Smith.
|10. Buffalo Bills
Cordy Glenn | OLT | Georgia
Since GM Buddy Nix took control of the draft in 2010, the Bills have plucked both their first-round picks from the Southeast, where Nix was born, coached and scouted and has especially strong ties. OLT Demetress Bell signed with Philadelphia, leaving the Bills without a tackle possessing left tackle feet. Glenn showed continual improvement on the blind side as a senior and gives Nix enough reason to believe he can handle the task in the pros.
|11. Kansas City Chiefs
Dontari Poe | NT | Memphis [ Jr. ]
Though Poe’s production and effort outside the box leaves much to be desired, he will not be asked to play as many snaps in the pros as he did in college and has rare traits to be molded by a good coaching staff. He can anchor the middle of the Chiefs’ defense for a long time and has rare physical traits to be used creatively.
|12. Seattle Seahawks
Riley Reiff | ORT | Iowa [ Jr. ]
With James Carpenter kicking inside and Russell Okung struggling through injuries his first two seasons, the Seahawks could still use more help on the flanks and overall depth on the offensive line. Reiff could provide versatility to help at a number of positions and seamlessly plug into the Seahawks’ zone-slide protection scheme.
|13. Arizona Cardinals
David DeCastro | OG | Stanford [ Jr. ]
The Cardinals signed Adam Snyder in free agency and could plug him into the right guard position, but Snyder has proven to be a very versatile performer capable of playing either guard or tackle position and could easily move outside with the addition of a proven guard such as DeCastro, who fits the intense, workmanlike mold that OL coach Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt seek on their line.
|14. Dallas Cowboys
Melvin Ingram | OLB | South Carolina
Concerns about Ingram’s short arms could keep him out of the top 10, but he is as athletically gifted as any pass rusher in the draft and capable of becoming a disruptive mismatch piece for a creative defensive coordinator such as Rob Ryan. Ingram could be molded to take over for franchised OLB Anthony Spencer.
|15. Philadelphia Eagles
Mark Barron | SS | Alabama
The Eagles have invested in a second-round safety each of the last two years with Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell departing in free agency, but neither Nate Allen nor Jaiquawn Jarrett have been able to provide the same intensity or impact from the safety position as their predecessors. With safeties in short supply in this year’s draft, the Eagles can add more firepower to their secondary with a hammering enforcer like Barron.
|16. New York Jets
Dont'a Hightower | ILB-OLB | Alabama [ Jr. ]
Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas and Bart Scott are all on the wrong side of 30, putting a premium on youth at the LB position. The reason Hightower has a good chance to be drafted before his more touted teammate Courtney Upshaw is because of his unique versatility, football intelligence and strength of character. He can factor immediately inside or outside.
|17. Cincinnati Bengals (from Oakland)
Quinton Coples | DE | North Carolina
The Bengals’ defensive success has hinged in large part on the strength of its defensive line, where they have stockpiled athletic talent that has slid on Draft Day as a result of medical or character questions. Joining Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins and Robert Geathers could be Quinton Coples, who could stand to benefit from the hard coaching of DL coach Jay Hayes.
|18. San Diego Chargers
Courtney Upshaw | OLB | Alabama
The Chargers’ defense should benefit from the arrival of OLB Jarret Johnson, but both Johnson and LOLB Shaun Phillips are 30 years old, and former first-rounder Larry English has struggled to find his way. Adding a powerful leverage-rusher could give defensive coordinator John Pagano a cornerstone piece upon which to build.
|19. Chicago Bears
Luke Kuechly | ILB | Boston College [ Jr. ]
With a new GM could come a new face of the franchise. Though the Bears have more pressing concerns on both lines, Phil Emery could find the appeal of a can’t-miss linebacker too great to pass after the Bears’ previous regime struggled to hit on Michael Okwo or Jamar Williams. The Butkus Award winner has the instincts, toughness and ethic to follow in a long line of greats.
|20. Tennessee Titans
Peter Konz | C | Wisconsin [ Jr. ]
With the addition of the aging Steve Hutchinson, the Titans’ offensive line remains one of the best in football, with C Eugene Amano standing as the weak link. For the third consecutive year, following in the path of the Pouncey brothers, a center could be drafted in the top 20. Konz could use more time in the strength program, but he could be plug-and-play in the Titans’ zone protection scheme.
|21. Cincinnati Bengals
Stephon Gilmore | CB | South Carolina [ Jr. ]
In a slot three picks before Johnathan Joseph was taken in 2006, the Bengals could take a chance on another big, fast, athletic cornerback with the physical traits to be molded. Gilmore has the size and press cover skill desired in Mike Zimmer’s aggressive defense and can provide much-needed depth with Nate Clements aging and Leon Hall coming off injury.
|22. Cleveland Browns (from Atlanta)
Brandon Weeden | QB | Oklahoma State
Brandon Weeden’s age remains a concern that could easily push him into the second round, but the need for quarterbacks might take him off the board before the Browns’ reach their second-round pick (No. 37). Having a luxury first-round pick and no sure-fire starter on the roster could push a fourth quarterback into the first round and give Pat Shurmur more horsepower to run his offense.
|23. Detroit Lions
Dre Kirkpatrick | CB | Alabama [ Jr. ]
If Kirkpatrick can be managed properly and stay healthy in the pros, he could emerge as an elite press cover corner, fitting very well in Gunther Cunningham's defense. As Jim Schwartz has shown in recent years, he does not mind taking chances on top talent with character concerns.
|24. Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Adams | OT | Ohio State
With the size, length and power to match up well against size, as Adams did against Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, he could easily be overdrafted by a team in need, such as the Steelers, who vastly overdrafted fellow Buckeye Cameron Heyward a year ago and reach for scheme-specific talent.
|25. Denver Broncos
Michael Brockers | DT | LSU [ Soph.-3 ]
When John Fox's defenses have had the most success in the past, he has had a dominant clogger such as Kris Jenkins stuffing the run. Brockers is young and still feeling his way, but possesses a unique combination of length and power to blossom into a dominant run defender.
|26. Houston Texans
Rueben Randle | WR | LSU [ Jr. ]
Matt Schaub is not an elite quarterback, but Gary Kubiak managed to make him produce like one with a dominant offensive line and an extremely efficient zone-blocking scheme. Where the Texans can still bolster Schaub’s supporting cast is in the receiving corps, where No. 2 WR Kevin Walter is coming off his lowest output the last five years.
|27. New England Patriots (from New Orleans)
Whitney Mercilus | DE | Illinois [ Jr. ]
Ron Zook clearly excelled recruiting elite pass-rushing talent at Florida and Illinois, and Mercilus falls in a similar class as Zook's two former first-round standouts, Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey, from a physical standpoint. Much like the two early-entry first-round picks, Mercilus has raw positional instincts, but he showed improvement as the season progressed and has the speed and length to mold and potentially make the Patriots' defensive front more multiple.
|28. Green Bay Packers
Ronnell Lewis | OLB | Oklahoma [ Jr. ]
A strong, physical, edge-setter is sorely needed opposite Clay Matthews. Similar to Matthews, who was a late-blooming first-round pick, Lewis possesses unique rush potential and press strength to garner late first-round interest from teams employing 3-4 fronts.
|29. Baltimore Ravens
Kevin Zeitler | OG | Wisconsin
The age of Matt Birk and the departure of OLG Ben Grubbs to the Saints places a premium on upgrading the interior of the Ravens' offensive line. Zeitler has the strength to pave the way in the run game and play the physical brand of football desired by John Harbaugh.
|30. San Francisco 49ers
Amini Silatolu | OG | Midwestern State (Texas)
Pairing Silatolu with Mike Iupati could give the 49ers the most feared pair of guards in the NFL. Silatolu plays with brute caveman strength and dominated lower-level competition. With Adam Snyder departing, the Niners could upgrade the physicality of their offensive line with a unique talent.
|31. New England Patriots
Harrison Smith | FS | Notre Dame
Bill Belichick could be comforted by knowing every detail about Harrison Smith dating back to the recruiting process, where his former coordinator Charlie Weis lured him to school. In a draft class very short on safeties, Smith could stand to benefit and be selected in the first round, where the Patriots seldom miss and do not shy from reaching for high-floor talent.
|32. New York Giants
Bobby Massie | OT | Mississippi [ Jr. ]
With Kareem McKenzie unsigned and Will Beatty and James Brewer slated to handle the edges, the Giants could use more help outside. Massie, a right tackle at Ole Miss, has quietly flown under the radar and concerns about his intelligence could keep him out of the first round, but he has the physical tools to warrant late first-round interest, with good enough feet to play on either side.