Every GM and personnel man we talk to around the league says they are approaching this year's draft like any other. But if a labor accord isn't reached prior to April's selection process, rest assured things will be different.
Already a need-driven process in the early rounds, teams would be reaching more often to find players who fit roles that need filling throughout the draft. The lack of a labor agreement would also limit trades, which were a big part of the draft process a year ago.
As for our first mock, we're not sold on the quarterbacks yet, and you won't see some of the names here that you've heard in the media in recent weeks. Defense is key, especially at the top of Round 1. Here are the first 16 picks of this early mock. Combine figures are for a player's top-five finish within his position group (VJ–Vertical jump, LJ–Long jump):
|Ht||6'3"||Wt||280||Combine||Did Not Work|
Bowers is the next Julius Peppers. He led the country with 15½ sacks last fall but may actually be a better run defender.
John Fox will move to a 4-3 front on defense, which is a better fit for the Broncos' personnel. But they need to put pressure on the QB, and Fairley is a prototypical gap shooter on the inside with the quickness, burst and athleticism to make plays in the backfield.
Gabbert is every bit as good, every bit as athletic and every bit as big as Cam Newton. His PR guy just isn't as good. The innovative Chan Gailey is the guy who can make the most of Gabbert's skill set until he makes the necessary transition to the pro game. Ryan Fitzpatrick is also a nice stopgap solution if Gabbert needs more time.
|Ht||6'4"||Wt||211||Combine||No Top 5's|
The Bengals have serious needs on the O-line and they could use a pass-rushing DE, but they would be reaching for one here. With Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens likely gone, Cincy needs a receiving threat and early indications are that Green is the real deal.
|5||ARZ||Von Miller||WR||Texas A&M|
|Ht||6'3"||Wt||246||Combine||40: 4.53, LJ: 10'6"|
We're not ready to pluck a QB or OT this early, and the Cards may need to replace two OLBs before the season. Miller won the 2010 Butkus Award and has 27½ sacks over the last two seasons.
|6||CLE||Robert Quinn||DE||North Carolina|
Despite his suspension this past season, Quinn's pass-rushing skills are hard to overlook. As the Browns move to a 4-3, Quinn can be a dominant pass-rushing end and may even have the skills to stand up as an OLB in some 3-4 fronts.
|Ht||6'0"||Wt||219||Combine||40: 4.34, 3-Cone: 6.58|
When all is said and done, Peterson might not still be on the board at this point — he's that good. With great, size, strength and straight-line speed, he's an elite shutdown corner who is unbelievably physical and competitive.
The Titans' defensive success begins with line play. Dareus is best suited to playing inside in a 4-3, but he can also swing to end if needed. He has the strength to anchor against the run and enough pass-rush moves to make him the effective player the team needs inside.
|Ht||6'0"||Wt||206||Combine||40: 4.43, LJ: 10'8"|
We also like LT Anthony Castonzo here to address the Cowboys' glaring O-line needs, but Amukamara is a higher value on the board and gives the 'Pokes the big, physical press-cover corner they need as Terence Newman nears the end of his career.
|Ht||6'5"||Wt||248||Combine||40: 4.59, LJ: 10'6"|
The 'Skins have so many needs that they really can't go wrong with this pick. WR Julio Jones could work. So could a T like Castonzo or Nate Solder, or RB Mark Ingram. But in the end you never pass on a franchise QB. Though there are questions, Newton has unquestionable physical tools, the accuracy and quick release, and the competitiveness and winner's mentality to make us believe he might be that.
The Texans really need help in the secondary. They also need a pass-rushing OLB for their new 3-4 scheme under Wade Phillips, but none are a value here. Jordan, though, is a big, strong, consistently productive DE with loads of experience in the 3-4. He could be an immediate starter.
|Ht||6'3"||Wt||220||Combine||40: 4.39, LJ: 11'3"|
Joe Webb will get a look at QB and a chance to work with a veteran. The defense also has needs in the secondary and at LB but won't find help here. With Sidney Rice a potential free agent and Bernard Berrian a question mark to return, Jones could be an instant contributor.
|13||DET||Anthony Castonzo||T||Boston College|
The Lions certainly have needs to address on defense, but Jeff Backus is better suited to play on the right side. Castonzo has great feet, is extremely athletic, and can handle quick edge rushers, which is what they need to keep Matthew Stafford healthy.
|Ht||6'4"||Wt||263||Combine||No Top 5's|
A fantastic athlete, Smith is a strong run defender on the edge with tremendous upside as a pass rusher. He's a tough, hard-nosed player who will thrive in Steve Spagnuolo's scheme despite a lack of game experience. Expect the Rams to look for offensive playmakers later in the draft.
|Ht||5'9"||Wt||215||Combine||No Top 5's|
The Dolphins won't waste much time filling out this card. With Ricky Williams getting on in years and Ronnie Brown coming off a subpar season, the time may be right for an explosive back on a team that produced few big plays in the run game.
|Ht||6'5"||Wt||290||Combine||Bench: 34 reps|
Watt is a high-character, high-effort player who is a relentless pass rusher and versatile defender and can line up just about anywhere on the defensive front. The Jags need pass rushers and this guy is the answer.
Thursday: Mock Draft, Part II