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College Football Week 7, NFL Week 6 Free Picks

No. 25 Missouri vs. No. 7 Georgia, 12:00PM ET
The Tigers are back in the AP top 25 for the first time in two years and are coming off a 51-28 drubbing of Vanderbilt on the road last Saturday. Quarterback James Franklin has looked sharp in the early going and has weapons at his disposal in Henry Josey and dynamic playmaker Dorial Green-Beckham. On the other side, No. 7 Georgia barely escaped Knoxville with a victory last weekend and is severely banged up offensively. The Bulldogs will be without running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurely, as well as recievers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley. And while quarterback Aaron Murray has put on a show in back-to-back weeks, the defense still has plenty of holes after losing a handful of starters to the NFL draft back in April. Georgia is tough to beat in between the hedges, but look for Mizzou to keep things tight.
FREE PICK: MISSOURI +7.5

No. 9 Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss, 8:30PM ET
Two weeks ago there was plenty of chatter surrounding the 3-0 Rebels as they headed into Tuscaloosa. But following a 25-0 blanking at the hands of Alabama and a 30-22 upset last week versus Auburn, Ole Miss has once again fallen off the map. On the other side, A&M has completely regrouped following its loss to Alabama. The Aggies thumped a hapless SMU squad 42-13 before out-pacing Arkansas 45-33 two weeks ago in Fayetteville. Kevin Sumlin’s team is well rested coming off the bye and more importantly his defense has started to show signs of life. The spread is too low for this game, as “Johnny Football” and Co. should roll.
FREE PICK: TEXAS A&M -6

Steelers at Jets, 1:00PM ET
It was impressive to watch Geno Smith lead the Jets to a huge road victory over the Falcons on Monday Night Football, but suddenly the national media has made him into Randall Cunningham. Thanks to a rash of injuries the Falcons were without their starting running back, left tackle, middle linebacker, one of their outside linebackers, one of their starting defensive ends and were forced to play a hobbled Roddy White and Julio Jones because their reciveving corps is so thin. In other words, what the Jets did was impressive but they didn’t exactly beat the same Atlanta team that came within 10 yards of going to the Super Bowl last year. The Steelers are coming off their bye and thus, should have had plenty of time to regroup and iron out their issues on both sides of the ball. While it’s shocking to see the Giants at 0-6 on the year, it would be even more surprising to watch the Steelers fall to 0-5.
FREE PICK: STEELERS +1

Rams at Texans, 1:00PM ET
The Texans are in the middle of a freefall because quarterback Matt Schaub can’t protect the football. He’s had an interception returned for a touchdown in four straight games and has seemingly lost his confidence. That said, Houston’s running game has remained effective and its defense still boasts the likes of Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt, who is the best interior defensive lineman in the league. The Rams are coming off a win over the winless Jaguars but they still struggle with penalties, third down conversions on both sides of the ball, and run defense. Sam Bradford has also reverted back into a check-down machine and should be under constant duress in Houston. Look for the Texans to get back on track on Sunday.
FREE PICK: TEXANS -7.5

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NFL Preseason Week 3 Observations: Rex, sleeper contenders & more

+ At this point it would be an upset if Rex Ryan wasn’t handed his pink slip before the end of the regular season. What he did Saturday night in New York was a joke, inserting his starting quarterback Mark Sanchez into a game that didn’t matter and watching him get planted by Marvin Austin. The result was rather Jets-like: Sanchez was injured and now Ryan will likely be forced to play rookie Geno Smith Week 1. (And that isn’t a good thing, as Smith looked completely overwhelmed in a disastrous performance on Saturday.) What was it all for? Apparently the annual “Snoopy Trophy,” which is handed to the winner of the Jets-Giants preseason game. Ryan and the Jets have progressively gotten worse every year he’s been head coach. He doesn’t have a handle on how to manage quarterbacks, he hires overmatched assistants, and no offensive player has show improvement under his guidance. He should go back to doing what he does best: Coordinate defenses.

+ Don’t fall asleep on the Lions this year. The interior of their defensive line is going to cause headaches for opposing quarterbacks and Jason Jones might turn out to be one of the more underrated signings of the offseason. He had his way with New England right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on multiple plays last Thursday.

+ Speaking of the Lions, they’ve been searching for years for a complementary piece for Calvin Johnson and they may have finally found that weapon in Reggie Bush. He remains a home run threat when he gets the ball in his hands, which Detroit plans on doing plenty of this season. While he still tries to bounce too many runs outside at times, he’s difficult to tackle in open space and the guy has the ability to take a screen pass 60-plus yards in the blink of an eye. He provides the Lions offense with an element they haven’t had since they drafted Johnson in 2007.

+ The Patriots’ passing game will be fine as long as Tom Brady is still under center. He has the rare ability to put the ball in places only his receivers can catch it, including when said wideout otherwise blanketed in coverage. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how much growing pains Brady’s new weapons will go through this season. Kenbrell Thompkins scorched Detroit for eight catches and 116 yards, but he also dropped a pass on a potential first down in the first half and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson needs to play with more physicality. While they should win the AFC East with relative ease, it’s fair to wonder whether or not this new receiving corps will hold the Patriots back this season.

+ Halfway through the first quarter of the Falcons-Titans game I was ready to write about how Atlanta’s reshaped offensive line won’t be as big of a problem as some believe. Then came Tennessee’s five sacks and the police report that Matt Ryan filed on RT Lamar Holmes for the abuse he suffered in the second quarter. The run-blocking was good for a second consecutive week, but pass protection could be a recurring issue for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations heading into Week 1.

+ While new OC Dowell Loggains would be wise to lean on Chris Johnson this season, Jake Locker has improved as a pocket passer. He threw a couple of frozen ropes in his 133-yard, one-touchdown performance on Saturday night versus the Falcons. He remains most effective when he can use play-action, deception and mobility to free up receivers, but his confidence is growing in the pocket. He specifically looked good during a second quarter drive that resulted in him completing all three of his pass attempts for 41 yards and a touchdown strike to Nate Washington off a play-action fake.

+ Opponents will find it difficult to run against the likes of Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody in Baltimore. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will also continue to be headaches for opposing quarterbacks from a pass-rush standpoint, and getting cornerback Lardarius Webb back from injury will benefit the secondary greatly. The Ravens lost a ton of leadership and experience when Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed left for Houston via free agency. But from an overall talent perspective, they didn’t suffer much of a drop off and this idea that Baltimore will ultimately sink to the bottom of the AFC North is an overreaction to the losses they experienced this offseason.

+ Luke Kuechly is going to keep plenty of offensive coordinators up at night. Last Thursday he forced a fumble on a perfectly timed read in Baltimore’s backfield, intercepted Joe Flacco in the red zone, and damn near decapitated Aaron Mellette when the receiver went over the middle (which led to a penalty). He plays like a man possessed and he’s seemingly involved in every defensive play Carolina makes. He’s the exception to the current notion that teams should wait to draft linebackers in the middle rounds.

+ The biggest reason the Seahawks will survive Percy Harvin’s injury is because they have a fantastic stable of backs, led by Marshawn Lynch. The trio of Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael is the best in the NFL and each runner brings something different to the table. Lynch is a bruiser but he’s also versatile in that he can change directions quickly and explode through open lanes. Turbin is more of a plodder but like Lynch, it’s difficult to bring him down on first contact and Michael’s speed and quickness complements the other backs’ styles. Toss in Russell Wilson’s running ability and Seattle’s backfield will once again be a headache for opposing defenses.

+ While nobody will argue that the Cardinals are an improved team, they’re still going to struggle offensively this year. Carson Palmer is a significant upgrade over the signal-callers that Arizona trotted out last year but he’ll have no running game to lean on and he’s likely to face as much pressure as Kevin Kolb and Co. did a year ago. Losing Jonathan Cooper to a potentially season-ending fibula injury was a crushing blow.

+ Some are expecting a massive rebound from the Saints this year and given how much explosion they have offensively, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them atop the NFC South again. That said, they better average 30-plus points a game because the defense is liable to give up 40 on a given Sunday. Former first-round pick Cameron Jordan is emerging as a stud but the Saints are going to need more than him and newly acquired Parys Haralson to drum up a pass rush. Matt Schaub did a nice job of getting the ball out of his hand quickly on Sunday but there were a handful of times when he had all day to allow his receivers to find openings in the Saints’ zone. The first-string wasn’t much better on run defense for New Orleans, which allowed Ben Tate to gash them for 6.7 yards per carry. Rob Ryan is a creative playcaller but he simply doesn’t have the manpower to keep top offenses in check.

+ Rams fans had to be encouraged that four of their offseason additions made impacts on Saturday versus the Broncos. While rookie LB Alec Ogletree continues to struggle getting off blocks, he caused a fumble of Ronnie Hillman, recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown early in the contest. Then later he got excellent depth in coverage and intercepted one of Peyton Manning’s passes down the seam, then nearly had another pick of Manning in the end zone. Fellow rookies Tavon Austin (81-yard punt return) and T.J. McDonald (blocked field goal) also made impacts, as did tight end Jared Cook (4 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD), who could be in store for a breakout season. Throw in another stellar performance by a motivated Jake Long and St. Louis’ collective 2013 offseason had quite a night.

+ There’s little to suggest that Christian Ponder will start all 16 games for the Vikings this season. Thus far, he’s completed 62.2 percent of his passes but his 4.97 YPA average paints a much clearer picture of his abilities. While his mobility is a plus, his slightly above-average arm will continue to hold Minnesota’s offense back. If Adrian Peterson doesn’t rush for another 2,000-plus yards, the Vikings are a horrible bet to make back-to-back playoff appearances.

+ The Bills need to resist the temptation of rushing E.J. Manuel back to the field. He’s their franchise signal-caller and while Week 1 will be an ass-kicking that Jeff Tuel has yet to endure, Doug Marrone and his coaching staff need to keep their eyes on the future. Heading into a season where they’ll be fortunate to win four games, it makes no sense risking further injury to Manuel in hopes of receiving less of a beat-down from New England in the opening week.

Jets, Bills and Raiders stumbling into NFL season

Rex Ryan is frustrated, and you can hardly blame him. He watched rookie Geno Smith toss three interceptions in the last preseason game, and then he watched Mark Sanchez hurt his shoulder in preseason garbage time.

The Buffalo Bills have their own issues, with Kevin Kolb suffering another concussion that could keep him out for the season or possibly threaten his career. Meanwhile top draft pick EJ Manuel may not be ready for the opener against the Patriots as he heels from a knee injury. If he can’t play, then the Bills will have to start Washington State undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel.

The Raiders look like a complete mess, and they’re so desperate that they’re considering having Terrelle Pryor start week one. Pryor hasn’t looked terrible but he still a very raw passer. Matt Flynn has a sore elbow, which doesn’t help a guy who has had another mediocre preseason.

The NFL is very hard to predict, and often you’ll see teams suddenly turn things on in week one. But you have to be skeptical with these three teams, and when we look at the odds for week one, you have to consider picking their opponents, even considering the larger spreads.

Buffalo is currently a ten-point underdog at home against the Patriots. Considering the problems at the quarterback position and that cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been lost with a broken left wrist, things look pretty bad for the Bills. The question is whether you want to lay ten points with the Bills playing at home.

The Raiders are on the road against Andrew Luck and the Colts as a 9-point underdog, and this one seems like a gift. I suspect the line might move even more in Indy’s favor, as Andrew Luck looks like he’s getting even better as he enters his second year. I love the Colts here.

The Jets are a home underdog as Tampa Bay is giving them three points. I would wait to see what happens at quarterback here. If Sanchez is healthy I would avoid it, but if Geno Smith has to start, then Tampa might be an interesting bet.

Tebow circus leaves New York

The Jets unceremoniously released Tim Tebow the day after the NFL draft. The timing sort of sucks for Tebow, but who can blame the Jets for trying to get something in return for Tebow?

It will be interesting to see if anyone is willing to give this guy another shot. For the Jets, I think they took a major gamble grabbing Geno Smith. Don’t get me wrong, Smith has some talent and could develop in the right situation, but he seems immature as hell, and throwing him into the New York media circus seems like a huge mistake. Smith is very inconsistent and really needs to sit on the bench and learn for a while, particularly considering that the Jets will now run the complex West Coast Offense. If they throw him in too early, Mark Sanchez will look like a rock compared to Geno Smith.

2013 NFL Mock Draft Final Edition

Surely all of these picks will be correct on Thursday night…surely.

1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
There has been plenty of pre-draft speculation that the Chiefs will select Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher with this pick and maybe they will. But GM John Dorsey will ultimately have the final say and he has a history of taking big school prospects. Whether it’s Joeckel or Fisher, expect the Chiefs to select an offensive tackle first overall.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Dion Jordan is a logical (and popular) pick for the Jaguars because they finished with 20 sacks last season, which is a brutal stat. But the bottom line is that this is a quarterback-driven league and neither David Caldwell nor Gus Bradley were around when the former regime took Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in 2011. Would I take Geno Smith this high? No. But Caldwell and Bradley might set the tone in their first draft by taking who they believe is a franchise signal-caller.

3. Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan (PROJECTED TRADE W/OAKLAND)
Martin Mayhew tried and failed to land top cornerback prospects Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne the past two years, so there’s a possibility the Lions will stay at No. 5 and take Alabama’s Dee Milliner. But following the retirement of Jeff Backus and the departure of Gosder Cherilus (FA/Colts), the Lions can’t pass on addressing their need at left tackle. Fisher has as much upside as any offensive lineman in this draft, which includes Luke Joeckel. With the Jaguars passing on Fisher in this mock, the Lions swap picks with the Raiders to ensure that they land their left tackle of the future.

4. Philadelphia Eagles: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
The Eagles could go in a variety of ways here, including Oregon’s Dion Jordan or even Florida’s Sharrif Floyd if he’s available. But Jason Peters is coming off an Achilles injury and he’s set to make $10 million in 2014. Johnson is the most athletic offensive tackle in this year’s draft, which makes him a fit for Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. The Eagles could slide Todd Herremans inside to guard and have Johnson start at right tackle until they’re ready to part ways with Peters.

5. Oakland Raiders: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida (PROJECTED TRADE W/ DETROIT)
The Raiders need more draft picks after Hue Jackson foolishly gave up a ransom to acquire Carson Palmer from Cincinnati two years ago. Thus, they make a logical trade partner for any team looking to move up in the top 10. But whether they trade out of the No. 3 spot or not, Floyd is a solid fit. He gives them the interior defensive line help that they desperately need following the departures of Desmond Bryant and Tommy Kelly.

6. Cleveland Browns: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
Unless the Browns intend to start career backup Christopher Owens opposite Joe Haden in their secondary, then cornerback remains a priority. Outside linebacker isn’t a pressing need for Cleveland but when it comes to a pass-rusher with unlimited upside versus a No. 2 corner, there is no debate for NFL teams. Jordan may not slide out of the top 5 but if he does, the Browns would be hard pressed to pass on the versatile Duck.

7. Arizona Cardinals: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
If Lane Johnson slides to the Cardinals at this spot, then he’s the most logical choice. In D’Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie, Arizona had the worst offensive tackle tandem in the league last year so upgrading their line should be a priority. But with Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson off the board, the Cardinals could address their need at pass rusher with Mingo, who is an athletic freak. There’s some question whether the svelte Mingo will hold up against the run but for now, Arizona can use him as a designated pass rusher against the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.

8. Buffalo Bills: E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib has been a popular pick for the Bills either at this spot or in the second round because of his connection to new head coach Doug Marrone. But Manuel is the better overall prospect and he’s the best fit in this year’s draft class to run the read-option (which Marrone plans to utilize in his offense). The Bills could use Kevin Kolb as a bridge player this year and turn the keys to Marrone’s offense over to Manuel next season.

9. New York Jets: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
If the season were to start today, Rex Ryan’s edge rushers would be Garrett McIntyre and Antwan Barnes. Thus, while receiver, running back and quarterback are all holes for the Jets, they can’t head into next season without addressing their need for edge rushers. Ansah is versatile in that he lined up both inside and outside at BYU, and has the ability to stand up as an edge rusher as well.

10. Tennessee Titans: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Everyone expects the Titans to draft a guard with this pick but after they signed Andy Levitre to a massive free agent deal, defensive end becomes a bigger need. Thus, if Ezekiel Ansah were to fall to this spot, he would be a logical selection. But with all of the top pass-rushers coming off the board in this mock (save for Florida State’s Bjorn Werner), the Titans take the best defensive back available in Milliner. He’s the type of press man corner that Tennessee is seeking and his medical history could scare off teams like Cleveland, which has been a popular landing spot for Milliner in other mocks.

11. San Diego Chargers: Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
Many draftniks will view this pick as a major reach but I’m willing to bet that Watson’s name will be read by Roger Goodell far sooner than people expect. There’s a team out there that has already fallen in love with his size (6’6″, 320 pounds) and will undoubtedly pull him off the board before he’s projected to go. Is that team the Chargers? Outside of cornerback and linebacker, there is no bigger need in San Diego than offensive tackle, so it’s certainly a possibility.

12. Miami Dolphins: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
I’m making this pick based on the assumption that the Dolphins will acquire OT Branden Albert before the draft. Miami signed Brent Grimes to a one-year deal but he’s coming off an Achilles injury that wiped out most of his 2012 season and there’s an opening that was created when Sean Smith signed with Kansas City. If the Dolphins don’t trade for Albert, then Watson could be the selection at No. 12 and Rhodes could be San Diego’s pick at No. 11.

13. New York Jets: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Tavon Austin and Tyler Eifert are definite possibilities at this pick but the Jets lost LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell in free agency and thus, safety is a huge need as well. Rex Ryan has yet to find a long-term solution at safety since taking the New York job in 2009, but the versatile Vaccaro could be the answer.

14. Carolina Panthers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The Panthers have needs at offensive tackle, cornerback and safety, but Richardson is arguably the best player available and would give Carolina’s pass-rush a boost. Playing on the same line as Charles Johnson could do wonders for Richardson, who should be a stud as a three-technique tackle.

15. New Orleans Saints: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Jones is hard to project because you don’t know how many teams have flagged him as a medical risk. (He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2009.) But the condition didn’t hinder him in 2012 and despite his poor showing at his Pro Day in March, he certainly stands out as a playmaker on film. The Saints need to give Rob Ryan more edge rushers and the versatile Jones could be used in a multitude of ways.

16. St. Louis Rams: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Rams have holes at safety, running back, outside linebacker and guard, but adding offensive playmakers continues to be a priority. After signing tight end Jared Cook in free agency, Austin could provide Brian Schottenheimer and the Rams with another mismatch in the slot. (He also fills an immediate need as a returner.) Many pundits don’t believe he’ll fall this far but the NFL is still about height, weight and speed. Austin certainly has speed, but his small frame could cause him to fall further than people expect. If he comes off the board to the Jets No. 13 like many suspect, then Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and Chance Warmack, North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, and Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins are all possibilities at this spot.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
The Steelers could go in a variety of directions here, including pass rusher, guard or safety. But after losing Mike Wallace to the Dolphins via free agency, they need to find another weapon to go along with Antonio Brown in their passing attack. Heath Miller blew out his knee in Week 16 last year, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL in the process. With the 30-year-old due over $5 million in 2013 and $6 million next season, the Steelers could address an immediate and future need with the selection of Eifert (who can attack the seam as well as line up on the outside and challenge cornerbacks with his size and athleticism).

18. Dallas Cowboys: Eric Reid, S, LSU
The Cowboys have needs along both their lines but Jerry Jones loves to draft skill players in the first round. (Not that offensive and defensive linemen aren’t skill players in the NFL.) Prospect to prospect, I like Florida’s Matt Elam more than I do Reid. But Elam is 5’9″ and 208 pounds, while Reid is 6’2″ and 213 pounds and can run a 4.53 forty. He fills a need for Dallas and quenches Jones’ thirst to add athletic marvels on draft day.

19. New York Giants: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Is there a general manager in the league who values defensive ends more than Jerry Reese? With Osi Umenyiora now in Atlanta and Justin Tuck slowing down, Werner gives the Giants youth and upside at their most coveted position. While he’s shown a tendency to avoid tackling ball carriers, Werner had no issues getting after the quarterback at Florida State and is arguably the most skilled pass-rusher in this year’s draft.

20. Chicago Bears: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
Nobody expects Cooper to fall this far but the average slot position for guards over the last 10 years is No. 23. Who thought David DeCastro would fall to the Steelers at pick No. 24 last year? Simply put, guards rarely go as high as everyone thinks they will. Phil Emery is currently paying for past mistakes made by former Chicago GM Jerry Angelo, who missed on former first-round busts Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi. Either Cooper or Alabama’s Chance Warmack would offer an instant upgrade over Lance Louis at right guard.

21. Cincinnati Bengals: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
The Bengals could still wind up re-signing Andre Smith after the draft but if they don’t, right tackle becomes a huge need for them. Alec Ogltree or a wide receiver are also options for Cincinnati as well.

22. St. Louis Rams: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Assuming the Rams take a receiver at No. 16, they could go in a variety of ways with this pick, including guard, outside linebacker and safety. That said, I ultimately envision Jeff Fisher and Les Snead taking Lacy off the board here in efforts to fill the void left by Steven Jackson, and then address their need at safety in the second or third round. A combination of Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson won’t cut it for a head coach like Fisher, who wants to pound the ball between the tackles. Would I take Lacy here? No. Quality running backs are found in the middle rounds all the time (see Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Michael Turner, Jamaal Charles, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore and Ray Rice). But I don’t get the impression that Fisher is as concerned about the safety position as he is acquiring as many weapons for Sam Bradford as possible.

23. Minnesota Vikings: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
The Vikings did well to sign Greg Jennings in free agency, but they still have a need at receiver following the trade of Percy Harvin to Seattle. Patterson is raw and will need to refine his route-running ability, but he’s also an explosive playmaker when he gets his hands on the ball. If OC Bill Musgrave is creative, he’ll design ways to get Patterson the ball while he learns the nuances of becoming an NFL receiver.

24. Indianapolis Colts: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
The Colts addressed a lot of their defensive needs in free agency, so turning their attention to their offensive line is logical. While they did sign Donald Thomas in free agency, Indy could out-draft Mike McGlynn with the selection of Warmack or fellow guard Jonathan Cooper.

25. Minnesota Vikings: Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Te’o could easily slip into the second round because the middle linebacker position just doesn’t hold as much value as it did 10 years ago. It’s a pass-happy league and teams will continue to avoid paying two-down linebackers big money, as well as drafting them high in the first round. But at 23, the Vikings could fill a need with Te’o, who was one of the best defenders in the nation last year despite his lousy performance in the national title game. He could start Week 1 and represents an upgrade over current MLB Marvin Mitchell.

26. Green Bay Packers: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
There’s a good chance that Lotulelei won’t fall this far but the Packers and Steelers always seem to have top prospects fall into their laps on draft day. Last year nobody thought Stanford guard David DeCastro would slip out of the top 15 and he wound up going to Pittsburgh at No. 24. Nick Perry also fell to Green Bay with the No. 28 overall pick last year and Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod wasn’t slated to slip to No. 32 in 2011. Lotulelei wasn’t one of the 23 prospects invited to Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night. And while that might not mean a damn thing, it also could be an indication that draftniks have the Utah defensive tackle rated too high. Either way, I’m calling my shot: Lotulelei falls further than people think on Thursday night.

27. Houston Texans: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
The Texans desperately need a weapon opposite Andre Johnson, which was evident during their postseason run last year. Hunter’s 2012 season was marred by a knee injury but he’s one of the most explosive receivers in this draft and has as much upside as any prospect slated to go in the first round.

28. Denver Broncos: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
The Broncos might wind up signing a veteran free agent like Dwight Freeney or John Abraham to address their need at defensive end, but even then they still need a long-term replacement for Elvis Dumervil. Jones might not get past the Giants at No. 19 but if he did, the former Bruin could be a steal at this spot. He has an aggressive style and often wins off the edge with strength and power. He’s also versatile enough to play inside in obvious passing situations.

29. New England Patriots: Keenan Allen, WR, Cal
I’m not convinced that Allen will be a first-round pick but he was highly productive at Cal and might be the best route runner in this year’s draft class. New England is always a mystery on draft day thanks to Bill Belichick, but receiver is a need, as is cornerback, defensive end and safety.

30. Atlanta Falcons: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Plenty of mocks have the Falcons selecting a defensive end at this spot, which makes sense given their need for pass rushers. But they signed Osi Umenyiora in free agency and remain high on undersized pass rusher Kroy Biermann. They also seem to like former mid/late-round picks Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews as well. Thus, the bigger need is at corner following the release of Dunta Robinson. Trufant might be off the board at this spot, but if he’s still available, he has the speed, agility and quickness to be a starter from Day 1. He just needs to be more physical, both in coverage and when defending the run. It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons trade up to get Trufant, or maybe an edge rusher like Bjorn Werner if he falls. (Don’t rule out a defensive tackle such as Sheldon Richardson either.)

31. San Francisco 49ers: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
When Justin Smith tore his triceps in a late-season game against the Patriots last year, the 49ers’ secondary fell apart. But instead of investing a high draft pick in a cornerback, GM Trent Baalke once again went the bargain-bin route by signing Nnamdi Asomugha to a cheap one-year deal. (Baalke made a similar move a couple of years ago when he signed Carlos Rogers off the scrap heap in early August.) It makes sense that the Niners continue to focus on their front seven, and the versatile Hunt would be a nice fit at this spot.

32. Baltimore Ravens: Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International
Ozzie Newsome signed Michael Huff in free agency, but the addition of Cyprien could make the Ravens’ safeties interchangeable. They need to find a replacement for Ed Reed and while the safety position is deep in this year’s draft, Baltimore can’t wait to land one seeing as how its picking at the bottom of each round. A linebacker such as Manti Te’o or Kevin Minter also makes sense.

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