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Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Justin Blackmon Arrested For Aggravated DUI

I’m actually pretty surprised by this.

Jacksonville Jaguars first-round draft pick receiver Justin Blackmon was arrested on an aggravated DUI charge Sunday after authorities in Oklahoma said he had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his system.

The former Oklahoma State star smelled of alcohol when an officer pulled him over shortly after 3 a.m., Stillwater police spokesman Capt. Randy Dickerson said.

Blackmon agreed to take a breathalyzer test and blew a .24 — three times the legal limit of .08, Dickerson said.

Blackmon struck me as someone who had it together heading into the draft, so this boneheaded mistake seems out of character. The Jaguars can’t be happy about it. Let’s hope it’s an isolated incident.

Had 49ers not taken Jenkins at No. 30, Rams may have selected him at No. 33

The 49ers surprised observers last Thursday night when they selected Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. But now we know that if the Niners hadn’t snagged Jenkins at No. 30, the Rams probably would have taken him at No. 33.

Yahoo! Sports’ Michael Silver was actually in the war room with Jeff Fisher and Les Snead in St. Louis last weekend and observed the Rams’ 2012 draft. He was on 101 ESPN sports radio in St. Louis today and filled hosts Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Chris Duncan in on the Rams’ draft strategy when it came to selecting a receiver.

In response to whether or not he knew the Rams would take Appalachian State receiver Brian Quick with the 33rd overall pick, Silver responded:

“Yeah, I sort of knew their thinking on the receiver position. And I think the thinking was this: Blackmon at No. 6, we love it. We’re not going to trade up to do it but we love it at No. 6. If we don’t get him we pretty much have to get one of the five that we worked out, and I think the order was Blackmon first, with Quick and Jenkins right there with him. Then it went down to (Michael) Floyd or (Kendall) Wright after that. Once the four were gone and Quick was left, they did not want to mess around.”

It’s interesting that, at least according to Silver, the Rams had Quick and Jenkins rated ahead of Floyd and Wright because many people speculated that St. Louis would have taken Floyd at No. 14 had Arizona not selected him at No. 13. But that was never the case. The Rams had Trent Richardson ranked first, Blackmon ranked second and LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers ranked third. Brockers, whom Silver believes the Rams would have taken at No. 6 even if they hadn’t traded down, ultimately went to St. Louis at No. 14.

Getting back to Jenkins, it’s always interesting to hear about how things played out in teams’ war rooms after the fact. I’m sure plenty of Niners fans thought Jenkins was a reach at No. 30 but there’s a strong possibility that the Rams would have taken him at No. 33, so clearly the Illinois’ receiver was ranked higher on teams’ draft boards than people thought.

This is just one more example of how far off the media and fans are when it comes to projecting what teams are thinking on draft night.

2012 NFL Draft: Team-by-Team Evaluations

Even though it’ll be years before we can effectively grade the 2012 NFL Draft, that shouldn’t stop anyone from having an opinion on how each team fared this past weekend.

Based on overall strategy, trades, value based on pre-draft projections, and the ability to improve rosters, here are team-by-team evaluations following the 2012 NFL Draft.

Arizona Cardinals
Teams look to draft impact players in the first round and the Cardinals did that by snagging Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd at No. 13 overall. Thanks to having Larry Fitzgerald on the other side, Floyd will benefit from not having the pressure to perform like a No. 1 receiver. Landing Bobby Massie in the fourth-round presented value, but only if the Cardinals leave him as a right tackle (he won’t succeed on the left side at the next level). Ryan Lindley is raw but he can make all of the throws and might be compete for a starting job in two or three years.

Atlanta Falcons
After stealing headlines in the first round last year with their trade for receiver Julio Jones, nothing about the Falcons’ 2012 draft was flashy. They landed a guard/center in Wisconsin’s Peter Konz that should be a starter for the next 10-plus years, as well as an intriguing project in offensive tackle Lamar Holmes. The Bradie Ewing pick in the fifth round was seemingly a reach but Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi may have been a steal seven picks later. If Holmes winds up starting at left tackle in two years and Massaquoi surprises, this will be viewed as a solid draft.

Baltimore Ravens
Trading out of the first round and still having the opportunity to land Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw proved to be an excellent move by GM Ozzie Newsome. Upshaw is a great fit for Baltimore’s defense and he should have plenty of motivation after falling out of the first round. Keep an eye on Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson, who could wind up being a sleeper in the fifth and if the Ravens can get Miami receiver Tommy Streeter to realize his untapped potential then Baltimore will have done well in the later rounds.

Buffalo Bills
Gilmore is an excellent prospect and has the ability and talent to be a starter as a rookie. Cordy Glenn was a steal in the second round based on a) he was projected to go in the first and b) he offers plenty of versatility in that he can play guard and tackle. Florida State outside linebacker Nigel Bradham is a speed merchant and FSU offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders offers solid value considering he was projected to go in the third round.

Carolina Panthers
Luke Kuechly will remind observers of Rams’ middle linebacker James Laurinaitis in that he just makes plays and racks up tackles. Considering how much power running is done in the NFC South, the Panthers were wise to strengthen the middle of their defense with the selection of Kuechly at No. 9. When you watch the highlights, it’s hard not to fall in love with Amini Silatolu’s size and potential, although Carolina needs to be patient with his development because he played at a small school. Arkansas receiver Joe Adams was a solid edition in the fourth round because he brings speed, quickness, and toughness to the Panthers’ receiving corps. He’s someone that will go over the middle, make the tough catch, absorb a big hit and get right back up.

Chicago Bears
It’ll be interesting to see how Boise State’s Shea McClellin fits as a 4-3 defensive end. He’s versatile, tough, and relentless, but he seemingly would have been a better fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Assuming the Bears whip him into shape, Alshon Jeffery may wind up being Chicago’s best selection in this draft and fans will love H-Back Evan Rodriguez. Oregon State free safety Brandon Hardin is the wildcard of this team’s draft class. Thanks to his size and speed he’ll be able to cover tight ends and backs in the middle of the field, but he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury so it’s tough to evaluate him at this point.

Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals filled needs in their first five picks and landed two potential first-year starters in Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler. Kirkpatrick will bring toughness to Mike Zimmer’s secondary while Zeitler should anchor one of the Bengals’ guard positions for the next 10-plis years. In the fourth, the Bengals got a steal in tight end Orson Charles, who only slipped that far because of his DUI arrest a couple of months ago. He has second-round talent and played in a pro-style system at Georgia, so he should be able to contribute from Day 1.

Cleveland Browns
Trent Richardson was the best prospect in this year’s draft and there’s no doubt that he was the top player on most team’s draft boards. The Browns had to trade three late-round picks in order to secure him at No. 3, but give them credit for guaranteeing that they would land the player they ultimately wanted. Brandon Weeden played in the spread offense at Oklahoma State, didn’t face elite defenses in the Big 12, shrinks under pressure and is already 28. I wouldn’t have invested a No. 1 pick in him but at least he can make all of the throws and the desire to compete is there. Mike Holmgren passed on a more talented offensive tackle prospect in Mike Adams when he selected the underwhelming Mitchell Schwartz, but the former Cal product should be serviceable on the right side. If you’re looking for a potential sleeper out of the Browns’ draft class, it’s sixth-rounder Billy Winn. His work ethic has come under question and there are concerns about his durability, but he was a great value in the sixth thanks to his ability to rush the passer as an interior defensive lineman.

Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones did incredibly well to move up to No. 6 and land a top-5 prospect in Morris Claiborne. Forget his Wonderlic score – Claiborne can play and should start from Day 1. That said, this was a very underwhelming draft for the Cowboys. Outside of Claiborne, the other players they selected all seem to have lower ceilings. That’s not to suggest that guys like Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber aren’t good fits or won’t succeed, but it’s doubtful they’ll make big impacts. (Of course, the Cowboys were pretty set coming into the draft so it’s not like they needed to find starters in the third or fourth rounds.)

Denver Broncos
Derek Wolfe was highly productive in college and he was a beast at times last season, but he was a reach at No. 36 overall. Brock Osweiler was this year’s Ryan Mallett, minus all of the baggage. He has great size at 6-foot-7 and 242 pounds and a rocket for an arm, but he’s extremely raw. (Good thing he’ll have an opportunity to learn under Peyton Manning for the next couple of seasons.) Overall, the Broncos seemingly didn’t draft any players that can make immediate impacts right away. Considering they made the playoffs last season that might not be a bad thing but this was an underwhelming draft overall.

Detroit Lions
Riley Reiff represented good value in the first round as he should start right away on the right side before eventually replacing Jeff Backus on the left. Ryan Broyles was projected to be a late first-round pick before he tore his ACL, so some observers love that pick in the second. That said, the ACL is a two-year injury and Broyles is a prototypical slot guy. Thus, there wasn’t much value in taking him in the second, regardless of where he could have gone if he weren’t hurt. Ronnell Lewis is the potential sleeper in Detroit’s 2012 draft class. He’s extremely physical, he’s a solid tackler and he should contribute right away on special teams. That said, he wasn’t overall productive and his durability is a concern.

Green Bay Packers
Once again, Ted Thompson hits a home run. Nick Perry was inconsistent at USC but he’s an explosive playmaker that will look great lined up opposite Clay Matthews in Dom Capers’ 3-4. Jerel Worthy represented decent value in the second round and Casey Hayward was one of my favorite corner prospects coming into the draft. He’s a highly instinctive corner with great technique and ball-hawking ability. The other pick I really liked was Andrew Datko in the seventh round. Had he not had a season-ending injury last year, he would have been taken in the first three rounds. When healthy, he has the potential to be a starting tackle on either the right or left side.

Houston Texans
The selection of Whitney Mercilus in the first round was surprising but that doesn’t mean he won’t make an impact down the road. In fact, if Wade Phillips sticks around as Houston’s defensive coordinator than Mercilus could be a stud in two or three years. The Texans did extremely will in the third and fourth round. Brandon Brooks wasn’t invited to the scouting combine this year but he’s a load at 6-foot-5 and 343 pounds. Fourth-round pick Ben Jones, who played in a pro-style system at Georgia, is a solid fit for the Texans’ zone blocking scheme.

Indianapolis Colts
It’s hard to argue with the Colts’ first three selections. Andrew Luck gives the team a franchise signal caller to replace Peyton Manning, while Coby Fleener (Dallas Clark, anyone?) and Dwayne Allen will emerge as Lucks’ primary weapons outside of Reggie Wayne. Alabama defensive tackle Josh Chapman was also an excellent pick based on the Colts’ switch to a 3-4 defense next year. Chapman should plug a lot of holes for Indy’s linebackers.

Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars’ first two picks were rock solid. They desperately needed a receiver that can make plays outside the number but they also had to get an edge rusher that could make an impact right away. Thus, leapfrogging the Rams for Justin Blackmon in the first and then coming back in the second to snag Clemson defensive end Andre Branch was excellent decision-making by GM Gene Smith. But then he drafted a punter in Brayn Anger in the third, which is just a joke – I don’t care how good Anger turns out to be.

Kansas City Chiefs
If Dontari Poe turns out to be more than just a workout warrior then the Chiefs would have had a very underrated draft. Jeff Allen was a solid pick up in the second round and fourth-round selection Devon Wylie is a highlight reel waiting to happen. Texas A&M running back Cyrus Gray was a very good value-based selection in the sixth as well.

Miami Dolphins
There’s a chance that this draft could turn out to be a total disaster for the Dolphins – it just depends on whether or not Ryan Tannehill and Jonathan Martin produce. Tannehill was arguably a second-round prospect that was drafted at No. 8 overall and Martin has some big question marks as well (most specifically whether or not he’s just a finesse blocker that lacks that killer instinct). Tight end Michael Egnew was also a risky proposition in the third because he can’t block. That said, Lamar Miller was a value pick in the fourth and might wind up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings had a solid draft. Not only did GM Rick Speilman entertain draft followers with a plethora of pre-draft rumors to chew on, but he was also able to acquire three extra picks and still land the player he wanted in Matt Kalil at No. 4. Kalil should start right away and protect Christian Ponder’s blindside for years to come. I wasn’t big on the Harrison Smith pick at No. 29 but I really liked the Josh Robinson selection at No. 66. He has average size but he has outstanding speed and playmaking ability. Jarius Wright is also the perfect seam-buster out of the slot and Greg Childs is a potential sleeper in the fourth round. All in all, I really liked this draft.

New England Patriots
Much like Ted Thompson and the Packers, it’s not surprising to see Bill Belichick and the Patriots succeed on draft day. Belichick will probably turn Jones into a star and Hightower is a perfect fit as an inside linebacker in a 3-4. Illinois safety Tavon Wilson could make an impact right away and Arkansas’ defensive end Jake Bequette reminds me of an undersized version of Justin Smith. Leave it to Belichick to also find value in Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was a third-round prospect before he was arrested in the days leading up to the draft. If he pans out, the Patriots get a steal in the seventh. If he doesn’t, then all they lose is a seventh.

New Orleans Saints
The Saints lessened their chances to find impact players in this year’s draft because they didn’t have picks in the first two rounds. Akiem Hicks is the ultimate wildcard because at 6-foot-5 and 318 pounds, he has tremendous size for the position. But the book on him is that he couldn’t play at LSU so he went to Canada and dominated at Regina. He could be a find or the ultimate flop – who knows? Nick Toon doesn’t have a lot of speed but he has good size and fills the void left by Robert Meachem in the Saints’ offense.

New York Giants
David Wilson is a boom or bust pick in my eyes. He has the explosion and quickness to be a dynamic playmaker at the next level but he also dances too much and he doesn’t have great size. That said, he should succeed in the Giants’ two-back system and give New York’s offense yet another playmaker. Rueben Randle waited a long time to hear his name called but he’s a perfect fit for the Giants’ offense. He’s a true vertical threat and a seam buster, which is what the now-departed Mario Manningham did for New York the past couple of seasons.

New York Jets
Rex Ryan could turn Quinton Coples into a star and it’s hard not to root for Stephen Hill. His route tree was limited at Georgia Tech but he has size, speed and hands – he’ll be fine. Demario Davis is a massive sleeper in the third round. He didn’t draw a lot of attention at Arkansas State but he flies to the football and sifts through traffic extremely well. The rest of the Jets’ draft was so-so in my eyes but the first three picks were all potential home runs.

Oakland Raiders
Just like the Saints, the Raiders didn’t have selections in the first two rounds so they limited their opportunities to find impact players. Tony Bergstrom is a massive tackle that will play guard in Oakland and if healthy, Arizona receiver Juron Criner could be a sleeper in the fifth. But overall, this wasn’t a very inspiring draft and that’s hardly the blame of new GM Reggie McKenzie. He wasn’t left with much.

Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid admittedly made mistakes in free agency last year but he’s doing a hell of a job to make up for it this offseason. Fletcher Cox will have an opportunity to make an impact from Day 1 and California linebacker Mychal Kendricks fits perfectly with Philadelphia’s aggressive scheme. He’s a playmaker in every sense of the word and so is the raw but talented Vinny Curry, who was a Mike Mayock favorite in the second round. Had Brandon Boykin not broken his leg at the Senior Bowl he would have been drafted in the second round and thus, he was a steal in the fourth. And speaking of steals, Marvin McNutt and Brandon Washington were outstanding values in the sixth round. A receiver as productive as McNutt shouldn’t have fallen all the way to the sixth round while the big-bodied Washington has second-round talent. This was an “A” draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Want to know why the Steelers continue to challenge for Super Bowls every couple of seasons? Because of drafts like the one they just had. David DeCastro is a top 15 pick that the Steelers got at No. 24. Thanks to his ability to play left tackle at the next level, Mike Adams was a steal in the second round and Sean Spence is a nice fit as an outside linebacker in the third. The massive Alameda Ta’amu is a capable replacement for nose tackle Casey Hampton and fifth-rounder Chris Rainey is the perfect change-of-pace back. Pittsburgh really did extremely well this past weekend.

San Diego Chargers
Considering Melvin Ingram was projected by many to be selected in the first 12 picks, the Chargers did well to land the talented pass rusher at No. 18. He should make people forget about A.J. Smith’s miss on Larry English three years ago. Both Kendall Reyes and Brandon Taylor were solid picks in rounds two and three, while tight end LaDarius Green may surprise. He’s not an in-line blocker but he has the ability to kill defenses down the seam thanks to his size and speed.

San Francisco 49ers
A lot of people viewed A.J. Jenkins as a reach at No. 30 but if the Niners had him atop their draft board then that’s where they had to take him. There was no way he was going to fall to them in the second round, even if they traded up in the middle of the second. LaMichael James was an interesting pick in the second. He has tons of playmaking ability but whatever they call that turf in San Francisco could limit the shifty James, who will serve as Frank Gore’s backup. Talk about value: Cam Johnson in the seventh? Nobody can seem to figure out why he dropped into the seventh round but the Niners did well not to let him hit free agency. Johnson is a third-round talent with a high ceiling.

Seattle Seahawks
I think Bruce Irvin could wind up surprising people. He’s too small to play defensive end in a 4-3 and not stout enough to play otuside linebacker in a 3-4, but if the Seahawks can get creative with him he has the skillset to be disruptive. That said, would I have drafted him that high? There’s no way. And with all of the trading that was going on in the first round, it’s jarring that Pete Carroll didn’t try to trade back even more and taken Irvin much later. The Hawks did well by adding Utah State inside linebacker Bobby Wagner because Barrett Ruud can’t be this team’s starter in the middle. Russell Wilson is short but he’s extremely smart and could challenge for the starting quarterback role in a couple of years. Robert Turbin is one of the bigger sleepers in this draft. He’s not overly fast for the position but he’s a hard North-South runner that will make holes when they’re not there.

St. Louis Rams
The Rams missed out on Justin Blackmon but Michael Brockers is the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the draft and he’s got more pass-rushing tools than given credit for. Mark my words: Brian Quick will be a stud in the NFL. He didn’t hit a growth spurt until late in high school so he wasn’t on the radar of most big-time schools. But he tore it up at Appalachian State and has the combination of size, speed and athletic ability that NFL teams covet. He and fourth-round pick Chris Givens will compliment each other well and should upgrade the Rams’ biggest weakness. Janoris Jenkins is the ultimate wildcard because of his baggage but there’s no denying he can play. In fact, he might wind up being the best cornerback taken in the draft if he can stay focused. Fifth round pick Rokevious Watkins is a road grader and third-rounder Isaiah Pead will finally give the Rams a nice change-of-pace back to complement Steven Jackson in the running game. My only complaint about Jeff Fisher and Les Snead’s first draft in St. Louis is that they missed on several good outside linebackers in the second round.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Given how much teams in the NFC South like to play power football (even the Saints despite their desire to throw the ball), the selection of Mark Barron was a solid one for the Bucs. Tampa also added two speedy backs in Lavonte David and Najee Goode, who could be a steal in the fifth round. Keith Tandy is an underrated prospect that can hit and run, while Doug Martin will be a nice complement to LaGarrette Blount. Greg Schiano added speed and toughness to Tampa Bay’s roster in one draft.

Tennessee Titans
While it came as a surprise, Kendall Wright was a great selection at No. 20. He doesn’t have great height but he’s a playmaker with run-after-the-catch abilities. I really like outside linebacker Zach Brown, who can be engulfed by offensive lineman but he sifts through traffic very well and is a sideline-to-sideline player. The Titans got excellent value with their last two picks, safety Markelle Martin and explosive defensive end Scott Solomon.

Washington Redskins
The Redskins parted with a ton of picks in order to land Robert Griffin III at No. 2, but at least they finally acquired a franchise signal caller. The Kirk Cousins selection in the fourth was a little surprising, not because he can challenge RGIII obviously but because Mike Shanahan didn’t have picks to waste. Cousins could surprise as a nice backup but he’s ultimately going to be a backup. Unless Shanahan expects to catch lightning in a bottle and can one day parlay Cousins into a first-round pick, I’m not sure why he didn’t look to add another potential impact player in that round.

Final 2012 NFL Mock Draft

After putting the finishing touches on my final mock for the 2012 NFL Draft, I sat back, looked it over and become extremely disappointed.

When does the NFL draft ever play out the way everyone expects? The answer is never. The NFL draft never goes as planned and yet my mock had zero trades, very few surprises and not enough risks. It was boring, which is the one thing the NFL draft isn’t.

The NFL draft is a study in failure, from the prospects that don’t pan out, to the teams that misjudged players’ talent, to clowns in the media who think we have it all figured out. And that’s exactly why I decided to scrap my mock and start over.

Mock drafts are supposed to be fun and creative and yet, everyone gets so caught up in trying not to look foolish that they don’t make bold predictions.

Lucky for you I don’t mind looking foolish so without further adu, here is my final mock for the 2012 NFL Draft.

1. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
The Colts will have an opportunity to rebuild the way all teams in their situation would want to: By drafting a franchise quarterback to usher in a new era. Luck certainly has some big shoes to fill but he has all the tools to become successful.

2. Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
It’s great that the Redskins have found their franchise signal caller but they better protect their investment by building Griffin a quality offensive line and by continuing to add playmakers that will help shoulder the load. If they don’t, they’ll look awfully foolish for giving up so much to trade up to No. 2.

3. Minnesota Vikings: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
GM Rick Spielman has been a godsend for Roger Goodell and the NFL because he’s brought intrigue to the top of a draft that will offer no conspiracy at No. 1 or No. 2. Seeing as how Charlie Johnson is penciled in at left tackle and the Vikings invested a first round pick in Christian Ponder last season, Matt Kalil makes the most sense at this pick. But considering nearly half of Minnesota’s schedule is against the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, watch Spielman surprise and take the best cornerback in the draft.

4. Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
There’s a chance that someone will jump ahead of the Browns and nab Richardson at No. 3 but which team has the resources to do that? The Bucs may pull a fast one but it’s doubtful – Richardson falls to the Browns as projected.

5. Buffalo Bills (Projected trade w/Tampa Bay): Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Rumors have started circulating that the Bills want to move up to No. 3 in order to secure Kalil. But if the Vikings want what the Rams got in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick, then the Bills will likely baulk. That said, with Claiborne off the board, there isn’t a clear choice for the Bucs at No. 5. Thus, they trade back with the Bills, who land the left tackle they so desperately need.

6. St. Louis Rams: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
The Rams need a receiver that can make plays outside the numbers, which is why Justin Blackmon is the most logical fit at this spot. But Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded coach and a throw back, so look for him to build from the inside out. In a division that features Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch and Beanie Wells, the Rams beef up the interior of their defensive line with the best DT in the draft. Seeing as how deep the draft is at receiver, the Rams could always trade back into the first round for Michael Floyd or Kendall Wright by using one or some of the selections they acquired from the Redskins for the No. 2 pick.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
The Jaguars could go a number of different routes with this pick, including selecting a receiver or trading out of this spot entirely. But Jeremy Mincey emerged as the Jaguars’ only legitimate pass rusher last season and you can’t win in the NFL if you can’t get after the quarterback.

8. Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
Thirty-one teams may grade Tannehill as a second round prospect but it only takes one team to view him as a franchise quarterback in order for him to be selected in the first round. The moment the Dolphins hired Mike Sherman to be their offensive coordinator Tannehill was the most logical choice at this pick.

9. Carolina Panthers: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Blackmon could come off the board at No. 6 to the Rams and if that happens, Fletcher Cox will likely fall into the Panthers’ laps at No. 9. But if team’s draft boards get dirty and Blackmon falls to the Panthers here, they take the best player available and give Cam Newton another weapon opposite Steve Smith.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Projected trade w/Buffalo): Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
If Claiborne comes off the board at No. 3, the Bucs could do much worse than to trade back, acquire more picks and still wind up with one of the top cornerbacks in the draft.

11. Kansas City Chiefs: David DeCastro, G, Stanford
Inside linebacker and defensive tackle are definite needs for the Chiefs, who may even surprise and trade up for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But if I were a GM, DeCastro is a much better player than Luke Kuechly (the top inside linebacker) and Dontari Poe (who is arguably the best DT left on the board, although I think Michael Brockers is a better prospect). DeCastro played in a pro style system at Stanford and could start right away. Guards aren’t typically top 15 picks but DeCastro is a as close to a guarantee as you can get in my eyes.

12. San Diego Chargers (Projected Trade w/Seattle): Mark Barron, S, Alabama
The strong safety position has been a revolving door in San Diego since Rodney Harrison left in 2002. The Chargers could wait and hope that Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith falls to them in the second round but why? They might as well trade up ahead of Dallas (which could also use Barron) and land the best safety in the draft.

13. Arizona Cardinals: Cordy Glenn, OT/OG, Georgia
I could see the Cardinals taking DeCastro or even Floyd if he were to fall this far. But given what’s available in this mock, Glenn is arguably the best fit. Most assume he’ll kick back inside to guard after playing one year at left tackle at Georgia (his senior season), but he had a strong showing as a tackle in the Senior Bowl and would upgrade Arizona’s situation at RT.

14. Dallas Cowboys: Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
The Cowboys need help at safety and guard, but with Barron and DeCastro off the board they decide to take the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the draft in Brockers.

15. Philadelphia Eagles: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
I was a little surprised that the Eagles didn’t pursue middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in free agency, but maybe they figured they could address their need at MLB without having to spend over $6 million a year on a veteran. Kuechly could go earlier than this but I doubt it. Teams just don’t put a premium on inside linebackers anymore, but he’s certainly a great fit for Philadelphia.

16. New York Jets: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
The Jets have been missing that outside pass-rushing threat since Rex Ryan arrived to New York in 2009. Upshaw is a fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker who has the ability to battle offensive linemen in run defense but also rush the passer when the situation calls for it.

17. Cincinnati Bengals: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
There’s a good chance that Floyd won’t fall this far but considering his issues with alcohol-related arrests, don’t rule out the possibility. No offense to Brandon Tate or Jordan Shipley but after A.J. Green the Bengals’ depth at receiver is thin. Getting younger at cornerback is also a priority for Cincinnati but receiver is arguably a much bigger need and if Floyd were to fall this far, he’d be a solid selection.

18. Seattle Seahawks (Projected trade w/San Diego): Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
Coples has top-10 talent but he’s a risk to fall because teams reportedly question is motor, which runs “hot and cold.” He would be a value at this spot, however, and would fill Seattle’s massive need for a pass rusher.

19. Chicago Bears: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Reiff could be long off the board by the time the Bears are on the clock and if he is, then I fully expect Chicago to address its needs along the defensive line. But if Reiff does fall, look for the Bears to upgrade over left tackle J’Marcus Webb, who is constantly battling injury issues and inconsistent play.

20. Tennessee Titans: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Stephon Gilmore will be an option at this pick if he falls but if he doesn’t, Kirkpatrick would be a nice consolation gift for a Tennessee team that was burned repeatedly through the air last season.

21. Cincinnati Bengals: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
The Bengals could take a defensive end or a cornerback at this spot but Poe is arguably the best player on the board (albeit a very controversial player).

22. Cleveland Browns: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
Offensive tackle is also a need for the Browns but Wright is a better much prospect than Mike Adams and Jonathan Martin, who are the two best OTs available. Wright had an underwhelming performance at this year’s combine but watch the film – the kid can play.

23. Detroit Lions: Cordy Glenn, OT/OG, Georgia
Cornerback is the Lions’ top need but with Claiborne, Gilmore and Kirkpatrick all off the board, they’ll select a versatile Glenn and groom him as Jeff Backus’ replacement. They can address their need at corner and running back in the middle rounds.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
The Steelers could zero in on their offensive line and therefore move up for somebody like Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Cordy Glenn or Jonathan Martin. But Hightower has experience playing in the 3-4 and could help fill the void left by the release of James Farrior.

25. Denver Broncos: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Once Brodrick Bunkley left via free agency the Broncos had an immediate need to fill at defensive tackle. Ty Warren is 31 and Justin Bannan is 33, so Worthy would inject much-needed youth along the interior of Denver’s defensive line. As a potential wildcard, don’t rule out the Broncos selecting running back Doug Martin.

26. Houston Texans: Ruben Randle, WR, LSU
Some may view Randle as a slight reach at this pick but the Texans need a No.2 receiver that can make plays outside the numbers. Randle is a legitimate vertical threat that would look great opposite Andre Johnson in Houston’s passing attack.

27. New England Patriots: Nick Perry, OLB, USC
The Patriots have a massive need for a pass rusher and Perry fits the bill. He’s a highly disruptive edge rusher that could flourish in Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme.

28. Green Bay Packers: Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State
The Packers’ pass rush regressed last season so adding a player in McClellin who racked up 19.5 sacks for Boise State last season makes sense. He could be a solid addition opposite Clay Matthews in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense.

29. Baltimore Ravens: Amini Silatolu, G, Midwestern State
Silatolu is projected to go in the second round but the Ravens have a need at guard with the departure of Ben Grubbs in free agency. Silatolu might be a little raw coming out of a small school but he could turn out to be one of the gems of this year’s draft.

30. San Francisco 49ers: Kevin Zeitler, G, Wisconsin
Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal both left via free agency, leaving the Niners thin at guard. Zeitler is a powerful run blocker who helped Wisconsin become the eighth best rushing team in the nation last season. He appears to be NFL-ready and could be a starter in his rookie year.

31. New England Patriots: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
Jenkins could easily slip into the second round with the amount of baggage he carries into the draft, but Bill Belichick is rarely scared off by players with character concerns (see Randy Moss, Corey Dillon and Albert Hanyesworth). Maybe landing in New England and playing for Belichick will help Jenkins fly straight off the field.

32. New York Giants: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
There’s a chance that Martin will slip into the second round but I’m basing this pick mostly on need. Like all teams picking at the bottom of the first round, the Giants could go in multiple directions with this selection.

Updated: 6:00PM ET.

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