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Five NFL defenses that (potentially) improved over the offseason

San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews (24) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Houston Texans defenders Mario Williams (top), Eugene Wilson (R) and Bernard Pollard (31) during their NFL game in Houston November 7, 2010. The Texans recovered the fumble on the play. REUTERS/Richard Carson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Seeing as how no teams have played a down yet, it makes it difficult to gauge which defenses will be improved in 2012. But based on the decisions they made in free agency and the draft, these five teams should be improved defensively next season.

Buffalo Bills
Think of the impact that Julius Peppers has had with the Bears the past two seasons – that’s exactly what Mario Williams could do for the Bills in 2012. Buffalo’s defense struggled last season mostly because the pass rush was non-existent. So GM Buddy Nix lured Williams to Buffalo this offseason and made sure he didn’t leave the city without first signing a contract. Nix also signed Mark Anderson, an experienced situational pass rusher that should benefit from playing opposite Williams in the Bills’ “new” 4-3. Adding cornerback Stephon Gillmore should also help Buffalo on the backend while Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder will add depth to the linebacker corps. We’ll have to see how the Dave Wannstedt hire pans out but for now, there’s no question the Bills have upgraded their pass rush in one offseason.

Dallas Cowboys
With the moves they made this offseason, the Cowboys’ defense could transform from a top 15 unit into a top 10. DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Sean Lee comprise a solid front seven but Dallas struggled on the back end in 2012. So Jerry Jones invested $50.1 million and a second round pick on his cornerback positions this offseason with the additions of free agent Brandon Carr (the best CB on the market) and first-round pick Morris Claiborne (the best CB in the draft). It’s never guaranteed that a big money free agent or a rookie will make an immediate impact but at least on paper, the Cowboys have definitely improved their secondary. The signing of Dan Connor was also somewhat underrated as well. He struggles at times in coverage and he’s not a pass rusher but he’ll be perfect for what Dallas signed him for: an insider ‘backer that can bolster the run defense.

Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were productive this offseason in re-signing John Abraham (their best and sometimes only pass rusher last season), safety Thomas DeCoud (who is better than his reputation would suggest), and situational pass rusher Kroy Biermann (who appeared to be distracted last year, although marrying a reality TV star and parenting a newborn will do that to a man). But fans grew aggravated by GM Thomas Dimitroff’s inactivity in free agency and expressed disappointment that the team didn’t go after big money talent like Mario Williams. (Fans were also upset that the team didn’t re-sign MLB Curtis Lofton, who wound up landing with division rival New Orleans.) But the day before the draft Atlanta swung a deal that could only be considered as a steal. Acquiring a three-time Pro Bowler in Asante Samuel for a seventh round pick was a bargain for any team, especially one that struggled getting off the field last season on third downs. Furthermore, the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was a huge coup for the Falcons, who should be more aggressive and better equipped to handle explosive offenses like New Orleans, Green Bay and New York. No, the Falcons weren’t very active in free agency this year. But the re-signing of Abraham, the acquisition of Samuel and the hiring of Nolan should be more than enough to make this an improved Falcons squad.

Philadelphia Eagles
After struggling early in the season, the Eagles wound up being a top 10 defensive unit in 2011. But here’s why they’ll be improved in 2012. Juan Castillo has a full year of experience under his belt and the pressure he faced last year being a first-time defensive coordinator should lessen. Andy Reid also hit a home run in this year’s draft. Fletcher Cox has top 10 talent and the Eagles landed him at No. 12 (after moving up). Mychal Kendricks is undersized for the position but he was extremely productive at Cal, he hits like a Mac truck and he plays at 110mph every down. Vinny Curry is raw but he has potential as a pass rush and the only reason Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin fell to the fourth round was because he broke his leg at the Senior Bowl and was limited in pre-draft workouts. Otherwise, he’s a second-round prospect. Re-signing Derek Landri was also good for depth purposes and acquiring DeMeco Ryans from Houston should help the run defense.

St. Louis Rams
The Rams are a bit of a wildcard but considering they ranked 22nd in yards allowed, 31st in run defense and 26th in points allowed, there’s really nowhere to go but up. There are five moves the Rams made this offseason that should prove to beneficial in 2012. The first was hiring defensive-minded Jeff Fisher as head coach, who brought assistants like Mike Waufle and Chuck Cecil with him to St. Louis. The Rams also added scrappy cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive tackle Kendall Langford, who is a freaking house. Drafting run-stuffing DT Michael Brockers to play alongside Langford was also big and former Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins could prove to be worth the gamble that new GM Les Snead took in the second round. Keep an eye on William Hayes, too. He was limited last year because of a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 1 but he’s someone that could potentially see his playing time increase because he’s he can play the run and provide some pressure. The Rams screwed the pooch by not taking an outside linebacker in the second round, but all in all they had a productive offseason and should be improved next year.

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2012 NFL Draft: Team-by-Team Evaluations

NFL Draft prospects pose for a group photo with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, second right, along with former and current NFL during the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft Pick at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City. UPI/Monika Graff

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.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stands with Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck and his family after the Indianapolis Colts take Luck as the #1 pick overall in the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on April 26, 2012. UPI /John Angelillo

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.

UNC Defensive End Quinton Coples hugs NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after the New York Jets select him as the #16 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on April 26, 2012. UPI /John Angelillo

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.

2012 NFL Draft First Round Recap

Notre Dame Wide Receiver Michael Floyd hugs NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after the Arizona Cardinals select him as the #13 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on April 26, 2012. UPI /John Angelillo

Which teams emerged from the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft as winners?

Honestly? Who knows. It’ll be at least three years before we can answer that question.

That said, based on draft strategy, trades, value based on pre-draft projections, here are my thoughts from Thursday’s first round, including moves that I liked and didn’t like.

- The Vikings traded down one spot, collected three extra picks, and still landed the player they wanted at No. 3. While I bought into the rumors that Morris Claiborne was the top player on their board, Matt Kalil made the most sense for a Minnesota team that needs to protect young quarterback Christian Ponder. GM Rick Spielman did a great job not only landing the top left tackle in the draft, but also acquiring three extra picks. (Albeit they were late picks, but extra picks nonetheless.)

- While the Cowboys could stand upgrades at safety and along both lines, they didn’t have any pressing needs coming into this year’s draft. Thus, for them to nab a top 5 prospect when they came into the draft with the No. 14 overall pick was impressive. At the end of the day, giving up a second rounder to pair Morris Claiborne with Brandon Carr was an opportunity that Jerry Jones couldn’t pass up. And say what you want about Jones, he usually lands impact players in the first round.

- Based on his potential alone, Fletcher Cox should have gone in the top 10 and could have gone in the top 6 based on some of the pre-draft reports that emerged about his soaring stock. So for the Eagles to land him at No. 12 was huge, especially considering how porous their run defense was last season. Cox is still raw in some areas but his skill set is a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s aggressive defense.

- Rams fans are no doubt frustrated that their team didn’t land either of the top two receivers in this year’s draft. But once the Jaguars traded up for Justin Blackmon and Les Snead was presented with the option to trade back, he took it. As you would imagine, the 2-14 Rams have a ton of holes to fill so acquiring as many picks as Snead did was impressive. Plus, they land the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in Michael Brockers, who will look great playing alongside Kendall Langford…

- …that said, the Rams had a golden opportunity to land a top 5 prospect had they just stayed at No. 6. Granted, St. Louis did sign Cortland Finnegan in the offseason but this was a team decimated by injuries in their secondary last year. Having a chance to add Claiborne opposite Finnegan would have been an opportunity I would have jumped at, but Snead weighed that option against potentially acquiring one more starter (i.e. that second round pick he acquired from the Cowboys). Time will tell if he should have went with the impact player instead of the opportunity to address another need in the second round.

- Three years ago A.J. Smith whiffed on Larry English in efforts to beef up the Charges’ pass rush. He should have more success with Melvin Ingram, who could be an impact defender if San Diego can get creative with his skill set.

- There’s no doubt that the Titans’ selection of Kendall Wright was a surprise but it’s hard to argue with the pick. Wright is a playmaker with outstanding run-after-the-catch ability and he’s a great add to an up-and-coming offense.

- It’s amazing that one of the safest picks in the draft fell into the Steelers’ laps at No. 24. David DeCastro has the talent to be a top 15 pick but since guards aren’t viewed as impact players he fell into the middle 20s. The Steelers always seem to draft well and this is why – they continue to select players at the top of their position class.

- The Bengals did well to land two players in Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler that not only addressed needs, but could also make impacts in their rookie seasons. Kirkpatrick helps the Bengals get younger and more physical at corner, while Zeitler is a mauler in the running game that helped Wisconsin finish eighth in the league in rushing last season.

- Just like the Eagles and Steelers, the Packers had a very good prospect fall into their laps and they didn’t over think the situation – they just pulled the trigger. Nick Perry should have been off the board well before No. 28 based on his explosiveness and ability to rush the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’ll look great opposite Clay Matthews in Dom Capers’ defense.

- Bruce Irvin looks like a reach in the first round. He gets swallowed up by offensive lineman because he relies too much on his speed and athleticism to get to the quarterback. He’s also undersized as a 4-3 defensive end and isn’t thick enough to shed blockers as an outside linebacker. With Quinton Coples still on the board at No. 15, I’m surprised the Seahawks went with Irvin.

- With how many trades transpired in the first round this year, I’m surprised that the Bears weren’t able to trade back and still land Shea McClellin. Not to knock the highly productive, high-motor defensive end/outside linebacker out of Boise, but you’re telling me the Bears couldn’t trade back, acquire more picks and pick him in the 20s? I didn’t have the luxury of being in the war room with Phil Emery and Lovie Smith so maybe McClellin was at the top of their board and they just pulled the trigger on their guy. But again, with how many times teams moved back and forth tonight, I’m shocked the Bears stood pat and took McClellin at No. 19.

- Neither Ryan Tannehill nor Brandon Weeden look like first-round prospect in my eyes, but I can understand why the Dolphins and Browns felt the need to take each quarterback where they did. Weeden can make all the throws but he played in a college offense, he doesn’t fare well under pressure and he’s already 28. Tannehill has limited experience, he’s a major work in progress and he wouldn’t have been a top 10 pick in most other drafts. But we’ll see if either quarterback can prove doubters wrong in a couple of years.

- Dont’a Hightower is just a pure football player in every sense of the word. He’s going to make a ton of plays in Bill Belichick’s system and while I don’t know enough about Chandler Jones as Mike Mayock, he’s an intriguing talent on paper. No surprise – the Patriots did well in another draft.

Final 2012 NFL Mock Draft

The National Football League logo is displayed near the stage during round one of the 2011 NFL Draft Pick at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City. UPI/Monika Graff

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.

2012 NFL Draft: Five prospects that the experts can’t seem to agree on

Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill looks to throw against LSU during the first half of the 75th AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic January 7, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX UPI/Ian Halperin

No matter which NFL draft analysts you follow, the consensus pretty much agrees on which prospects in this year’s class belong in the top 5.

But which players are the so-called experts having a hard time agreeing on?

Analysts unanimously concede that Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Kalil, Morris Claiborne and Trent Richardson comprise the top 5 in this year’s draft. Some may rank the prospects in a different order, but those are the five names that you see listed atop the media’s version of a big board. (Justin Blackmon is generally listed as the sixth-best prospect for those scoring at home.)

But the names below are some of the prospects that, for one reason or another, the analysts just can’t seem to agree on.

1. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
Depending on the analyst, Tannehill lies somewhere between Jay Cutler and whatever JaMarcus Russell ate this morning for breakfast. The overall consensus is that Tannehill is the third best quarterback prospect behind Luck and Griffin, but the majority of analysts can’t agree on whether or not he’s worthy of a top-10 selection. And seeing as how the Dolphins (who own the No. 8 pick) have been the team most linked to Tannehill, his situation has made for an interesting debate over the past few weeks. Dan Pompei of the National Football Post suggested that Tannehill isn’t ready to start at the NFL level because he only played 19 games at quarterback for A&M. NFL Network’s Charley Casserly also said in early April that most teams view Tannehill as a late first-round pick at best. But former Colts GM Bill Polian called Tannehill a “unique talent” who “merits a high pick,” and there have been others who claim he has the skill set to succeed at the next level. We’ll see.

2. Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Poe is one of the more polarizing prospects in this year’s draft. Some analysts view him as a top 15 prospect while others don’t even rank him among their first 32 picks. In fact, SI.com’s Peter King recently reported that Poe is drawing the “widest disparity of opinion” among first-round prospects. He has drawn comparisons to both Haloti Ngata (good) and Ryan Sims (bad), with most of the positive comparisons coming after his dazzling combine workout. Analysts can agree that he’s extremely athletic, has excellent size and strength, and has plenty of upside. But he’s not a very good interior pass rusher, he wasn’t productive in college and he may be this year’s poster child for “workout warriors.” The media just can’t get an accurate gauge on where Poe will be selected and at this point, nobody should be surprised if he goes somewhere in the first 15 picks or drops into the second round.

3. Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
Hill was largely considered a second-round prospect when he announced that he would forgo his senior season at Georgia Tech back in January. But after he ran an average of 4.32 in the 40-yard dash at this year’s scouting combine, analysts started to suggest he would be taken in the first round. When you consider he’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and can run a 4.32 forty, it’s hard to argue with that line of thinking. The problem, of course, is that Hill played in the tripe option offense under Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech and thus, he’ll be behind when he enters the NFL because he’s limited as a route runner. Some believe that Hill isn’t NFL-ready and his rising draft stock is based on his combine workout alone. What’s interesting is that if a team selects Hill in the bottom of the first round, they may get scrutinized but if someone takes him in the second, they would likely be viewed as a team that found value. (Just one more example of why all the pre-draft talk is rather silly. Fun as hell, but silly.)

4. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
There’s no question that Coples is a first-round prospect but where in the first round he’ll be selected is certainly up for debate. Many analysts view him as the best defensive end in the draft but there are questions about his motor. At 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, people are enamored with his size but he isn’t viewed as an elite pass rusher so you almost have to buy the rumors that he’ll fall into the teens come Thursday night. But yet you look around and some analysts can’t help but put him in the top 10 of their mock drafts.

5. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
In the case of Jenkins, the disagreements have been whether or not he’ll be too much of a risk to take in the first round – not whether or not he’s talented. From a talent standpoint, there’s no question that he’s a first-round prospect. But he was kicked off the team at Florida because of multiple drug arrests and an assault charge, and also has four children born to three different women. There was a report that came out a few weeks ago that stated Jenkins admitted at the scouting combine that he continued to smoke pot last year while playing at North Alabama. But he has since denied that claim so it’s hard to know what to believe at this point. What we do know is that it only takes one team to fall in love with Jenkins to make him a first round pick. But given his off-field transgressions, it’ll be interesting to see if some analysts are correct when they think he’ll drop into the second round.

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