In our last mock draft of the 2011 Draft season, we complete it with a sense of sadness. The Draft is the last hard NFL news we'll get until labor peace. And with the league's preparations to miss the first quarter of the season, the NFL Draft might be the last time real football news is discussed until October.
NFC South rival Panthers have a difficult choice, with two top quarterbacks in Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, plus a solid defensive tackle prospect in Alabama's Marcel Dareus. But none of these players are heads above the rest, none of them grade as elite prospects. Gabbert might be safer, but Newton might be a breakout superstar.
We here in south Louisiana had that strong sense of foreboding about the first overall pick by the Raiders in 2007, LSU QB Jamarcus Russell. It seemed that nothing physically was wrong with Russell, only a career-long sense of doubt about his maturation and football savvy.
It is with that same sense of doubt that we approach the draft, with the Panthers ready to take Auburn QB Cam Newton. Few of Newton's doubts lie on physical features; Newton is a stunning athlete. His problems are different but in the same categories as Russel's: problematic hangers-on in his personal life, inability to adjust to a complicated pro offensive scheme, and a mental lack of focus on the game of football.
Newton's single season of real playing time came in a very simplified, coach-controlled offensive scheme, as pointed out so tactfully by ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.
"You've haven't been in a lot of these huddles, have you?" Gruden asked.
In response to Gruden pointing out that he'll "move to France and speak French, pretty quick," Newton played the victim, putting himself against the world, talking about his "mental chamber," saying he wanted to "prove those people wrong." Inspiring sure, but hardly assuring for the way he'll respond to future criticism.
It looks like the Saints will become intimately familiar with Newton, facing him twice a year as the first overall pick of the Panthers. New Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has his work cut out for him.
The Saints have a front-loaded draft class in 2011, four picks in the first two days and then a pair of seventh round picks at the tail end of day three, including recently-acquired compensatory selection awarded after the free agency departure of LB Scott Fujita in 2010.
1. Carolina - Auburn QB Cam Newton
2. Denver - LSU CB Patrick Peterson
3. Buffalo - Texas A&M OLB Von Miller
4. Cincinnati - Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert
5. Arizona - North Carolina DE Robert Quinn
6. Cleveland - Alabama WR Julio Jones
7. San Francisco - Georgia WR A.J. Green
8. Tennessee - Alabama DT Marcel Dareus
9. Dallas - Cal DE Cameron Jordan
10. Washington - Auburn DT Nick Fairley
11. Houston - Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara
12. Minnesota - Washington QB Jake Locker
13. Detroit - Boston College OT Anthony Costanzo
14. St. Louis - Missouri DE Aldon Smith
15. Miami - Florida State QB Christian Ponder
16. Jacksonville - Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt
17. New England (from OAK) - Purdue DE/OLB Ryan Kerrigan
18. San Diego - Temple DT Muhammad Wilkerson
19. New York Giants - Alabama RB Mark Ingram
20. Tampa Bay - Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers
21. Kansas City - Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod
22. Indianapolis - Baylor OT Danny Watkins
23. Philadelphia - USC OT Tyron Smith
24. New Orleans - Not a great scenario here in the draft, with so many top defensive linemen going in the late teens, with Ingram the Saints' #1 RB prospect going to the Giants, and with even the top offensive linemen taken off the board.
In a weak draft class for outside linebackers, the top two are fast and good in coverage. While Texas A&M's Von Miller is a safe prospect with elite instincts, UCLA's Akeem Ayers is also remarkable athlete who is a step below when it comes to tackling and football smarts. Underclassman Ayers is the top outside linebacker prospect on the board, and the second best linebacker prospect outside of top 3 talent Von Miller. Ayers, very athletic and probably the best linebacker in coverage in the draft, has the ball skills of a lighter man. But his track record doesn't include being great tackler and is a better body than football player. He'll be overdrafted, because he looks the part and is the next best thing in a weak linebacker class. With the right coaching though, Ayers has big potential.
If the Saints take a linebacker here, it could also be Illinois LB Martez Wilson, who is also a superb athlete with a ridiculous 4.42 40 at 6'3, 25. Wilson's questionable toughness and instincts might stop him from being wildly overdrafted, or it might not. Wilson certainly doesn't play that fast, and Ron Zook had to resort to motivational tactics to keep him engaged. If Gregg Williams wants him we doubt the Saints will pass on him twice, and might not have the nerve to pass on him once. We're going pass on him here though.
With Liuget and Phil Taylor on the board, there's still good value to be had. Both are motivation and conditioning gambles, despite all their upsides, but we wouldn't be surprised to see the Saints take either one here.
Georgia OLB/DE Justin Houston's failed drug test at the combine is just another reason to avoid him in the first round. Kerrigan, Watt, or Cameron would be slam dunks here. While Ohio State's Cameron Heyward and Iowa's Adrian Clayborn are the top defensive ends on the board, the Saints may have docked them for injury issues. Based on their performances against OT prospect Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin, we'd rank Heyward higher.
Can't sleep on Florida G Mike Pouncey or Colorado OT Nate Solder here, with the looming free agency of LG Carl Nicks and C Jonathan Goodwin here. Pouncey was a scattershot collegiate center who would need to start at guard, and Solder is a lanky, vertically-stretched collegiate tackle with high upside.
But, with the top tier of DE's gone, we'd expect the Saints to pull the trigger on a trade out of the first round, for a team looking to come up and grab a quarterback. Loomis joked on Tuesday that he wants six quarterbacks to go early in the draft, to push all those defensive stars down to 24. But having the 4th or 5th quarterback on the board at 24 would make it easier to move down. The Saints are in choice position, being directly in front of quarterback-likely Seattle.
This may be just that opportunity, trading down to a team looking to acquire TCU QB Andy Dalton or Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick. The presence of Washington QB Jake Locker on the board would make a trade down even more likely. Should the Saints trade back, they will be targeting the next wave of defensive ends, including Heyward, Clayborn, and Pittsburgh DE Jabaal Sheard.
While in this situation we'd expect a trade down, we're going to go with UCLA's Akeem Ayers, who can help the anemic Saint pass rush and challenge for a starting role at outside linebacker. He'll have a great mentor in Jonathan Vilma and a creative, aggressive defensive coordinator to put him in the right position. If the Saints have a shot at an elite linebacker in the draft, it will be Ayers or UNC's Bruce Carter.
v1.0-Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward
v2.0-Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan
v4.0-Baylor DT Phil Taylor
v5.0-Illinois DT Corey Liuget
25. Seattle - Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick
26. Baltimore - Colorado CB Jimmy Smith
27. Atlanta - Illinois DT Corey Liuget
28. New England - Colorado OT Nate Solder
29. Chicago - Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi
30. New York Jets - UNC LB Bruce Carter
31. Pittsburgh - Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward
32. Green Bay -Baylor DT Phil Taylor
Second round pick (56th overall): Georgia OL Clint Boling
v1.0-Kentucky WR Randall Cobb
v2.0-Oklahoma S Quinton Carter
v3.0-North Carolina OLB Bruce Carter
v4.0-Clemson S DeAndre McDaniel
v5.0-TCU QB Andy Dalton
Saint great OT Willie Roaf will announce the Saints' second round pick(s) in this draft, an honor the NFL extended to alums of each team. So it is fitting that we project this pick to be an offensive lineman. Boling, a smart, lunch-pail toting worker played all over the line at Georgia, is quick with long arms and the mentality that coaches will love. In the NFL Boling could probably play anything but left tackle. Boling started all possible games after his freshman year, and started 10 games as a true freshman. Started at both guard and tackle against top collegiate competition. Smart and reliable, he played through a wrist injury in 2009 and minor ankle surgery in 2010. Boling would help insulate the Saints against departures of Zach Strief, Carl Nicks and/or Jonathan Goodwin.
Third round pick (from Washington) (72nd overall): South Carolina DE Cliff Matthews
v1.0-Temple S Jaiquawn Jarrett
v2.0-Clemson DT Jarvis Jenkins
v3.0-LSU OL Joe Barksdale
v4.0-Michigan State LB Greg Jones
v5.0-Texas DE/LB Sam Acho
We really like our previous prediction of Sam Acho, but not after taking Ayers. Having avoided their top need of defensive end so far, Matthews gives them a boost to the pass rush rotation at defensive end. A great intangibles guy and worker, Matthews is tall with very long, 34" arms but needs to add bulk, weighing only 257 at the combine. He's an intense, high-motor player who could be compared to a poor man's Ryan Kerrigan, a top DE prospect from Purdue. He doesn't have Kerrigan's football IQ or explosive power. Matthews is a good football player who can make an impact on third downs.
Third round pick (88th overall): Cal S Chris Conte
v1.0-Mississippi State OLB K.J. Wright
v2.0-TCU WR Jeremy Kerley
v3.0-Cal S Chris Conte
v4.0-Tulsa TE/FB Charles Clay
v5.0-Clemson S Marcus Gilchrist
We'll go back to our version 3.0 pick here, going back out to the West Coast to a former corner moved to safety. Conte is an ideal fit to immediately add to your special teams and dime packages. That area could see a lot of turnover, with the Saints facing a mass core of players in the ranks of the secondary hitting free agency. As an All-Pac 10 senior in his first year playing a new position, Conte was the spy assigned to Oregon QB Darron Thomas and shut him down as Oregon narrowly avoided their only loss of the season. Conte will only get better with time and a pro workout regimen. Conte was mentored as a senior by defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who coached with Gregg Williams on the Houston Oilers coaching staff, so the Saints have a personal review on him.
Seventh round pick (225th overall): Wisconsin WR David Gilreath
v1.0-Portland State TE Julius Thomas
v2.0-Penn State RB Evan Royster
v3.0-Miami LB Colin McCarthy
v4.0-Pitt DE Greg Romeus
v5.0-Michigan State TE Charlie Gantt
Gilreath is the Big 10 career leader in kick return yardage with 3025, and this is the reason the Saints look for him here. Gilreath is microsized at 5'7, 170 but is aggressive and tough. He's been concussed as a college player, a factor that could limit his NFL availability ongoing, because he plays with such disregard for personal security. He's got great hands, but we expect him to make or break this team exclusively on special teams.
Seventh round pick (compensatory) (242nd overall): Oklahoma State FB Bryant Ward
v1.0-Portland State TE Julius Thomas
v2.0-Penn State RB Evan Royster
v3.0-Miami LB Colin McCarthy
v4.0-Virginia TE Joe Torchia
v5.0-Arkansas State OL Derek Newton
Ward, an All Big-12 blocker, was a walk-on at Oklahoma State who is a coach's favorite. At 5'11, 237, Ward is an experienced blocker in a high-powered offensive system that produced a 1200-yard rusher each season that Ward was on the team. He took on exactly one carry per season, so he isn't as versatile as Heath Evans, who is set to hit free agency. Ward worked his way into a leadership position as a power blocker. As a pro athlete Ward is marginal, but he has a love for lead blocking that can't be taught.