While the rest of the free world puts Matthew Stafford at the top of their mock drafts, we're not budging, and there are a few reasons why. First, free agent QB Daunte Culpepper has lost 30 pounds, looked strong in minicamp by all accounts, and is carrying a serious-sized chip on his shoulder. He also has a great receiver at his disposal in Calvin Johnson, the best pass catcher he's played with since a guy named Randy Moss. The Lions can win games with this guy this year.
Then there is the issue of signability. Of the top prospects, Stafford will be the toughest to get under contract before the draft starts, and that is the ultimate goal for the Lions. Remember, the last team to face a holdout with the No. 1 overall pick was Oakland with QB JaMarcus Russell. You see how that turned out. Coming off an 0-16 season and with many people questioning his ability to handle the job, Martin Mayhew, Detroit's new GM and former Matt Millen honcho, can ill afford the PR nightmare of an extended holdout by the future franchise QB.
The good news is that Mayhew is playing with more leverage in this battle. He already has Culpepper under center, and the Lions have so many needs that they won't be held hostage in negotiations. Any of the top prospects will provide an upgrade to the roster and will have the chance to contribute right away.
Finally, there are the disturbing statistics regarding quarterbacks who are underclassmen and declare early for the draft. Of the last five early-entry QBs (Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers in 2005, Vince Young and Omar Jacobs in 2006, Russell in 2007), only one (Rodgers) has completed more than 60 percent of his passes, and only two (Rodgers and Russell) have thrown more TDs than INTs. Combined, they have just a 40-49 record as starters and a 54 percent completion rate, and Jacobs is already out of the league.
Stafford has an impressive 27-7 record as a starter for the Bulldogs, but while he passed for 51 TDs, he also threw 33 career interceptions, completed just 57 percent of his passes, and didn't encounter anything in the SEC that resembled an NFL-caliber defense.
None of this bodes well for Southern Cal's Mark Sanchez, either, by the way. But he will benefit because of his accuracy, his consistency and a better set of intangibles that could make him more attractive to a team that is rebuilding. The Lions could still certainly take Stafford with the first pick, but in our estimation they would be making a mistake.
1. Detroit — Eugene Monroe, T, Virginia
Detroit makes the safe pick, gets Monroe signed before the draft, and slots him in as its starting LT for the next 10 years. He's a polished pass protector who comes from a program that prepares players well for the rigors of the NFL (see Chris Long and Branden Albert in recent years, among others). This will also allow the Lions to move Jeff Backus inside to guard, which will also improve the overall play up front. Previous Mock: Jason Smith.
2. St. Louis — Jason Smith, T, Baylor
Smith actually has more upside or potential than Monroe in the eyes of some scouts. He's already a dominant run blocker and is athletic enough to become a top-flight pass protector in the pros. His ability to play either side of the line will help in his transition and will assure the Rams of having two capable tackles in Smith and Alex Barron, who can play LT but is ultimately better-suited to the right side.Previous Mock: Eugene Monroe.
3. Kansas City — Aaron Curry, OLB, Wake Forest
There are stories circulating that Kansas City is taking a long, hard look at DE Tyson Jackson, who is ideally suited to a 3-4 scheme. That's where the Chiefs would ultimately like to be, but the truth is they have much work to do to get the personnel in place. In the meantime, they will run a hybrid scheme that will give them more opportunities to get after the passer, an area where they've struggled (10 sacks in 2008). It's too early to take Jackson here, and Curry is that hybrid player who can play 3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE and get after the passer (nearly 60 plays behind the LOS). Expect the Chiefs to be looking for a trade partner here. They will be looking for additional picks to fill their many needs. Previous Mock: Brian Orakpo.
4. Seattle — Mark Sanchez, QB, Southern Cal
The truth is the 'Hawks have much bigger needs along the offensive line and in the secondary, and they need to bolster the pass rush behind Patrick Kerney. But we're told the Seahawks' interest in Sanchez is real, and he is a good fit for their West Coast-style attack. Matt Hasselbeck has struggled with injuries recently, but he's still a couple of years away from retirement, so Sanchez's lack of starting experience won't be as much of an issue if he doesn't have to play right away. Seattle could have some real interest from other teams for this pick, especially if Stafford were to go to Detroit, so they may not even make this pick at all.Previous Mock: Sanchez.
5. Cleveland — Brian Orakpo, OLB, Texas
If the Browns do anything, they must come out of the weekend with an improved pass rush. Orakpo is one of the best pass rushers in this whole draft and he will be staring them in the face with this pick. The former Longhorn is another player who had 60 plays behind the LOS, including 22½ career sacks.Previous Mock: Curry.
6. Cincinnati — Andre Smith, T, Alabama
No one would have believed a month ago that Smith would go this high after his disaster of an off-season. But since disappearing from the combine, Smith has done most everything right (firing his agent last week wasn't one of them) and is actually a player on the rise on most boards. Scouts just can't dismiss the dominance he shows on the game tapes. He has the longest arms of any O-lineman in the class and is clearly the top run blocker. Cincy is looking to balance the offense this season and Smith can help upgrade the run game and fill the hole the Bengals have at LT.Previous Mock: Everette Brown.
7. Oakland — Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
Crabtree is another player who absolutely jumps off the screen when you watch him on film. He was extremely productive at the college level with 231 catches for 3,157 yards and 41 TDs in just two seasons. He's a very hard worker and has a real competitive streak. For a team that was looking at Johnnie Lee Higgins as their top receiver, Crabtree is an instant upgrade and a dangerous downfield threat.Previous Mock: Crabtree.
8. Jacksonville — Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri
Maclin is reportedly rated higher than Crabtree on some team boards. In addition to his great receiving production (182 catches, 2,315 yards, 22 TDs), he had six rushing TDs and five scores in the return game. He has good size (6'0", 198), shows great burst out of his cuts, and has excellent change-of-direction skills. Many scouts have the Jags plucking a QB here, but they are so thin at WR that Maclin's 200 total yards per game will make the greater impact for this team.Previous Mock: Maclin.
9. Green Bay — Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU
The Packers are switching to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Dom Capers, but they lack an ideal player to play the 5-technique DE position. Jackson is that player. He is very durable (50 games, 40 starts in college career) and has the ideal size to hold up at the next level. He should step into a starting role right away. Previous Mock: Andre Smith.
10. San Francisco — Matt Stafford, QB, Georgia
Some will argue that Stafford and Mike Singletary are like oil and water, but even Singletary will have to realize that he lacks the talent at QB to oversee a complete transformation of this franchise. While Stafford has his negatives, as we mentioned earlier, he has a gun for an arm and won a lot of games in the tough SEC. Those will be attributes that Singletary can learn to appreciate.Previous Mock: Stafford.
11. Buffalo — Michael Oher, T, Mississippi
The loss of Jason Peters makes this pick a necessity. Langston Walker is a more natural RT, but he will be the new LT if the Bills can't find one in the draft. Oher is physically strong and athletic and can play either tackle spot, but he has the quick feet and agility to be a strong pass protector on the left side.Previous Mock: B.J. Raji.
12. Denver — B.J. Raji, NT, Boston College
Though Raji's size (337 pounds) leads most people to believe that he's a two-gapping DT, he's really not. His game is based more on his quickness off the snap and his ability to penetrate gaps and collapse the pocket from the interior. He's too short to be an ideal 3-4 NT, but he could be coached into the role. In the meantime, like most teams switching to the 3-4, it will take time, and Raji's ability to create havoc in the backfield will help the Broncos defense more effectively pressure the passer.Previous Mock: Aaron Maybin.
13. Washington — Everette Brown, DE, Florida State
We're hearing Washington isn't that high on Brown, but he addresses the Redskins' top need. The knock on this player is his lack of size (6'1", 256), but we believe he has the frame to add more bulk. He produced an unbelievable 46½ tackles for a loss and 23 sacks in 39 career games for the Seminoles. As of this writing, the 'Skins will be relying on Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn, both ancient and non-productive, to play opposite Andre Carter, their only legitimate pass rusher.Previous Mock: Brian Cushing.
14. New Orleans — Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
The Saints' troubles in the secondary have been well documented. Jenkins has good size and is at his best in press coverage. He can make plays on the ball and has the skillset to play either corner or safety. If he doesn't win a starting job outright, he will add some valuable depth to a unit that still needs help.Previous Mock: Knowshon Moreno.
15. Houston — Peria Jerry, DT, Mississippi
Amobi Okoye struggled last year. Was it a sophomore slump? Will he bounce back this year? The Texans can't afford to wait to find out because fellow DT Travis Johnson has been a disappointment. Houston allowed over 120 rushing yards per game last year and needs a run stuffer in the middle who can protect its talented young linebacking corps. Jerry is a gap shooter who can disrupt plays in the backfield and allow the talented LB corps to run to the ball.Previous Mock: Jerry.
16. San Diego — Rey Maualuga, ILB, Southern Cal
The signing of former Cowboy Kevin Burnett was a boost to a position that didn't measure up to the rest of the defense last season. But Burnett was an OLB and special teamer in Dallas, and his value actually comes in his ability to play inside or outside. Maualuga gives the Bolts a true presence inside who can play all downs with his ability to blitz, track the ballcarrier and drop in coverage.Previous Mock: Tyson Jackson.
17. New York Jets — Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State
There's some talk that Freeman could go sooner than this, but based on our scouting reports and his production, he shouldn't. However, the Jets could be in the selling business if Denver is unable to move up higher, or if Tampa and Minnesota have real interest. Short of all that, Freeman is 6'6", has a very strong arm and runs well when protection breaks down. He reminds some of Jason Campbell, but he will remind Rex Ryan a lot of Joe Flacco.
There are more pressing needs at WR, DE and even TE, but the way our board shakes out, at pick No. 52 Gang Green could have their pick of Oklahoma WR Juaquin Iglesias, TEs Chase Coffman, James Casey or Jared Cook, and maybe even 3-4 DEs Jarron Gilbert or Paul Kruger. In the third round, the Jets could have a choice between WR Louis Murphy and TE Cornelius Ingram, both of Florida.Previous Mock: Kenny Britt.
18. Denver — Brian Cushing, OLB, Southern Cal
Denver's defense struggled at every level last season, so improvements are needed across the board. As we mentioned above, they are also moving to a 3-4 under new coordinator Mike Nolan, so a versatile player like Cushing could be a blessing on so many levels. He can play inside or outside LB in any scheme, can move to safety with his range and ability to make plays on the ball, and could even play some DE on passing downs in a 4-3 hybrid scheme, which is where the Broncos will have to start. This kid is all football player and will find a home in this defense.Previous Mock: Josh Freeman.
19. Tampa Bay — Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State
Expect the Buccaneers to make a play for Freeman, but they have a more pressing need at left DE. Gaines Adams has become their top pass rusher, but the Bucs defense is predicated on getting a push from all four spots along the D-line. Though some teams considered using Maybin as a 3-4 OLB, he has natural pass rush ability (24½ sacks in 26 career games, only 10 starts) thanks to his great quickness and upfield burst.Previous Mock: Robert Ayers.
20. Detroit — James Laurinaitis, ILB, Ohio State
The Lions are set on the outside with Ernie Sims and Julian Peterson, who arrived via trade this month. But they need an upgrade in the middle to solidify the LB corps. Laurinaitis is a safe pick here. He was a very productive college player, has great football instincts and does a very good job with his key-and-diagnose immediately after the snap. He's athletic and can get deep into coverage drops as well. He needs to add bulk, but his smarts and toughness will make him a good fit on a Jim Schwartz team.Previous Mock: Rey Maualuga.
21. Philadelphia — Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia
By pulling the trigger on the Jason Peters trade, the Eagles are able to dedicate this pick to Brian Westbrook's understudy, and they will get a good one in Moreno. He didn't run great 40 times in workouts, but he's a Tiki Barber clone with a good burst to the edge on outside runs, and better-than-average power between the tackles. He's also a capable receiver who had over 50 receptions at Georgia. While he provides some short-yardage options for the immediate future and can spell Westbrook at times, he has the skillset to take over for Westy in the not-too-distant future.Previous Mock: Beanie Wells.
22. Minnesota — Eben Britton, T, Arizona
The Vikes also have needs at WR and CB, but the top players remaining on the board at both positions, Percy Harvin and Vontae Davis, have off-the-field issues that we aren't going to deal with. Maybe the Vikings will, but we won't. Britton probably better addresses their most pressing need anyway. While Minnesota could probably start the season today with Ryan Cook and Bryant McKinnie, Britton is a big, tall, athletic run blocker who can get to the second level and would be an upgrade over Cook. The better news is that some coaching and technique could make him an ideal replacement for McKinnie when the time comes.Previous Mock: Percy Harvin.
23. New England — Clay Matthews, OLB, Southern Cal
The Pats defense needs to get younger and it starts with the linebacker corps. DE Richard Seymour led them with eight sacks in '08, so NE needs an edge pass rusher who can consistently get to the QB. Adalius Thomas hasn't had the impact the Pats had hoped for, and though they like Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable and they added Tully Banta-Cain, Matthews is a very bright, hard-working, energetic player who will appeal to Bill Belichick. A former walk-on who developed into a starter, he's the third generation of NFL players in his family, so he understands what it takes to play in the NFL. He'll be a special teams ace and can be molded to fit any number of roles in the Pats' system.Previous Mock: James Laurinaitis.
24. Atlanta — Evander "Ziggy" Hood, DT, Missouri
Jonathan Babineaux is undersized and Kindal Moorehead is 30 and doesn't tip the scales at 300 pounds. Think about what Mike Smith had in Jacksonville in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. He's looking to build the same thing in Atlanta and needs at least one 300-pounder with the quickness and burst to penetrate the interior gaps. Hood is quickly moving up draft boards. He has the combination of size and quickness that Smith will need as well as unbelievable strength.Previous Mock: Clay Matthews.
25. Miami — Larry English, OLB, Northern Illinois
The Dolphins are definitely in need of a receiver and a corner, but when have you ever known Bill Parcells to take a receiver in the first round? English is an aggressive player who made nearly 90 tackles for loss in 49 career games and he's loaded with intangibles — the tough, physical leader type Parcells loves. Joey Porter had a breakout year with 18 sacks in 2008, but no one else on the roster even approached double digits (Matt Roth was second with five). Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford, '08 draft picks, may improve as pass rushers, but Porter isn't getting any younger, and Miami needs a hybrid OLB who can get to the QB and do it from different spots on the field.Previous Mock: Malcolm Jenkins.
26. Baltimore — Darius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland
Derrick Mason, 35, is the Ravens' best and most consistent receiver, so at the very least they need to be looking for an heir apparent. But the one thing missing from this offense is a dangerous deep threat, and Heyward-Bey could be the answer. Even Joe Flacco went to this kid's workout.Previous Mock: Heyward-Bey.
27. Indianapolis — Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers
Marvin Harrison is gone and the depth behind Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez is very thin. They need at least three solid contributors in order to run their spread sets. Gonzalez can play on the perimeter but may be better in the slot. Britt is rocketing up boards. He's 6'2", 218, and ran a 4.40 40. He averaged 16.9 yards per catch at Rutgers and could be a viable deep threat on the perimeter opposite Reggie Wayne. Previous Mock: Ziggy Hood.
28. Buffalo — Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State
Derek Schouman is in more of a FB/H-back role now, and the disappointing Robert Royal was a cap casualty. Derek Fine is the top TE on the roster, but he's not the downfield receiving threat the Bills need to help QB Trent Edwards. Pettigrew was slowed by an ankle injury as a senior, so there is some question as to how well he will be able to get down the seam. But he is a complete two-way TE who can split out as a receiver and is also an effective in-line blocker.Previous Mock: Michael Oher (Philadelphia).
29. New York Giants — Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina
Don't discount the Braylon Edwards rumors. There may still be something there. But short of that, expect the Giants to address their need at receiver early in the draft. Nicks got some bad press when his weight ballooned this off-season, but he's already lost it and is back in business. At nearly 6'1" with a 36" vertical leap, he has the tools to be the perimeter threat Big Blue seeks. However, he can still make plays over the middle and does a good job of making plays after the catch. He's described by scouts as a faster version of Anquan Boldin.Previous Mock: Nicks.
30. Tennessee — Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee
Starters Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse have both pushed past 30 and are showing signs of wear and tear. Jacob Ford and Dave Ball contributed 11 sacks combined as subs a year ago, and Jason Jones can also swing outside. But Ayers is a player who could play anywhere along the defensive front and contribute as a wave rusher initially while finding a more defined role.Previous Mock: Alphonso Smith.
31. Arizona — Chris "Beanie" Wells, RB, Ohio State
Tim Hightower is the only starting-caliber running back on the roster, and Wells could bring some size and punch to the power running game that Ken Whisenhunt would like to include in the Cards' arsenal. He's a powerful runner who averaged 5.7 yards per carry and can be a dangerous scoring threat near the goal line. He had 30 TD runs at OSU.Previous Mock: Larry English.
32. Pittsburgh — William Beatty, T, Connecticut
Beatty really burst onto the scene at the Senior Bowl, where he played well. He'll be a bit of a project at left tackle, but the Steelers need to start addressing the O-line, particularly the LT spot, which is the greatest weakness for the Super Bowl champs.Previous Mock: Eben Britton.