Panthers looking for an impact player at No. 1?

The Charlotte Observer is reporting that the Panthers are not sold on drafting a defensive lineman with the No. 1 pick and are thought to be seeking an impact player.

Missouri Tigers quarterback Blaine Gabbert throws the football in the first quarter against the Illinois Illini at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on September 4, 2010. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

If the paper’s sources are right, that means Auburn’s Nick Fairley, Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers and Alabama’s Marcell Dareus may be further down Carolina’s draft board than quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton, and possibly even LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson (regarded as the best defensive player in the draft).

At least according to the Observer’s sources, the Panthers are concerned about the health of many of the draft’s top defensive lineman. Bowers had his knee scoped and therefore didn’t work out at the combine because he wasn’t in shape following rehab, while Fairley says he’s fine now but revealed that he suffered a small shoulder separation that occurred in a November game against Georgia.

Heading into the combine, Fairley’s name was being thrown around as a possibility at No. 1, but that talk has died down considerably. I haven’t put together my third mock draft yet but if I were today, I would have either Gabbert or Newton going No. 1. I had the Panthers taking Gabbert in my first mock, but then I bought into the hype surrounding Fairley and had him going No. 1 in my second mock. Now I’m back to believing that Carolina won’t take anything but a quarterback with the first overall pick. (Of course, just because the Charlotte Observer says that the Panthers may not take a defensive lineman, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. How exhausting…)

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Five players with something to prove at the 2011 NFL scouting combine

Honestly, there’s not one player who doesn’t have something to prove at this year’s scouting combine. Along with how they perform at their Pro Days, the combine might as well be a job interview for draft-eligible prospects. But below are five guys who stand out as players who have a lot on the line this week in Indianapolis.

Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
Reports have surfaced that Mallett bypassed entering the 2010 draft because he had a drug addiction problem. There are also concerns about his decision-making, his leadership abilities and whether or not he can stand up to pressure when the pocket collapses. Some have even labeled him the next Ryan Leaf, which is the kiss of death for any quarterback prospect. But even with all the questions that surround him, he’s 6-6 and 238 pounds, is an ideal pocket passer and has a cannon for a right arm. He won’t run or do any of the agility tests at the combine, but he will throw and interview with teams. I have no doubt that he’ll impress scouts with his physical skills, but he better put his best foot forward during interviews because teams will want to know what kind of character he has. Passing the mandatory drug test wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
Quinn missed the entire 2010 season for his involvement in an agent scandal. If he played well last year (or played at all), he may have been the top pass rusher taken in this year’s draft and a surefire top 10 pick. But because of his suspension, he won’t be able to live on his physical skills alone. There’s no doubt that he has the talent to be better than Aldon Smith, Da’Quan Bowers, Cam Jordan and the rest of the defensive ends in his year’s class, but the time is now for him to start erasing doubts about his character.

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Top 5 most NFL-ready draft prospects for 2011

It’s difficult to gauge whether or not a prospect is NFL-ready heading into the draft because we have no idea where he’ll end up. I may like Ryan Mallett as a prospect, but if his best fit is in a vertical offense and he winds up in the West Coast, well then he might not pan out. And that’s not my fault if he doesn’t. It’s your fault, NFL Team.

But based on their physical skills and strengths as they apply to the next level, here are the top 5 most NFL-ready prospects in my eyes.

1. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Hands down, Green is the most NFL-ready prospect in this year’s draft. What I like most about him is his body control and balance. When he runs routes, he’s fluid getting out of his breaks and he uses his quickness to separate from coverage. He could stand to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and when the ball is in the air, but that’s not to suggest he doesn’t have great leaping ability or he doesn’t locate the ball well (because he does). He also catches passes away from his body, is good about getting up field after he secures the catch and he uses his hips incredibly well (an important trait that all players must have at the next level).
Best Fit: Cincinnati or Cleveland. Both teams run a version of the West Coast Offense, which relies on receivers to run a lot of horizontal routes (think sideline to sideline) and force defenses to stretch itself across the field. I would love to see Green wind up with the Browns because I think he would fit in well with the receivers they already have on the roster (i.e. Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Chansi Stuckey and Brian Robiskie) and he would give Colt McCoy a true No. 1. But if the Bengals release Chad Ochocinco, I could see them pulling the trigger on Green at No. 4.

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2011 Pre-Combine NFL Mock Draft: Will Nick Fairley go No. 1?

It has only been a week since I released my first mock draft and I’ve already found myself waking up in a cold sweat thinking about whom I mocked too high, too low or not at all. So with the NFL scouting combine ready to kick off, I’ve gone mocking again this week…

Check out 2011 NFL Mock Draft 1.0.

1. Carolina Panthers: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Mock 1.0 Pick: Blaine Gabbert
I had Gabbert going to the Panthers in my first mock because that seems to be the default thinking. But I’m starting to buy into the notion that new head coach Ron Rivera will try to build his defense first and while Jimmy Clausen haters will disagree, defensive tackle is actually Carolina’s most pressing need heading into the draft. Fairley was one of the most dominant defensive players in the country last season and can play several positions along the D-line.

2. Denver Broncos: D’aQuan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Mock 1.0 Pick: Nick Fairley
Defensive tackle is a bigger need for the Broncos, which is why I had them selecting Nick Fairley in my first mock. But there are a couple of factors that now lead me to believe they’ll select Bowers here. The first is that they’re switching back to a 4-3 and Justin Hunter is the only potential 4-3 end they have on the roster. Elvis Dumervil will be healthy again, but can he be as effective in his old end spot as he was as a 3-4 OLB? In his first draft with the Panthers, John Fox selected a defensive end with the second overall pick and I think that turned out pretty well. (Uh, until that defensive end signed with Chicago last season.)

3. Buffalo Bills: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Mock 1.0 Pick: Newton
The opinions on Newton vary. Some believe he’s sure to go in the top-10 while others think he’ll fall into the second round. I’m somewhere in between. He certainly has the size and athletic ability to be a top-5 pick but there are questions about whether or not he can run a pro-style offense . That’s why Buffalo is an intriguing landing spot for him. Chan Gailey likes quarterbacks who can run and are versatile, which obviously fits Newton. Will the Bills think highly enough of him to take him at No. 3 though? There are obvious questions about his character, too.

4. Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Mock 1.0 Pick: Bowers
I had Bowers going to the Bengals at this spot in my first mock, but with him off the board they fill a major need with Green (who is the most NFL-ready prospect in the entire draft). T.O. is a free agent and won’t be back and I don’t see the Bengals paying Chad Ochocinco the $6 million he’s owed in the final year of his contract. Green will become the new face of the team’s receiving corps.

5. Arizona Cardinals: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Mock 1.0 Pick: Tryon Smith
The Cardinals may have faith in John Skelton, but if Gabbert falls into their laps I find it hard to believe that Ken Whisenhunt wouldn’t pull the trigger. The concerns about Gabbert are just: he ran the spread in college and there are some scouts who think he’ll have trouble being a leader at the next level. But he certainly has the size, arm strength and accuracy to succeed and there’s no doubt Arizona needs to establish consistency at the quarterback position.

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2011 NFL Mock Draft 1.0

Missouri Tigers quarterback Blaine Gabbert runs onto the field for a game against the Oklahoma Sooners at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri on October 23, 2010. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

2011 NFL Draft Needs: AFC East | AFC North | NFC East | NFC North

I usually don’t release my first mock draft until after the scouting combine, but if devote one more post to Albert Pujols’ contract situation I think my head will explode.

This is an extremely rough draft, one in which I’m basically just trying to match needs. With it only being February 14, it’s hard to do much else at this point.

1. Carolina Panthers: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Carolina’s biggest need may actually be defensive tackle, which is why Auburn’s Nick Fairley is being talked about at this spot. But if you have the chance to draft a franchise quarterback with your first pick, you don’t pass on that opportunity. There have been reports that Gabbert’s stock is falling, but I don’t buy that. He’s got great size, a strong arm and is an accurate passer. What more do you want out of a quarterback prospect?

2. Denver Broncos: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
The Broncos’ top two needs are cornerback and defensive tackle, so with the Panthers passing on Fairley at No. 1, he’s a great fit for Denver at No. 2. The Broncos are expected to switch to a 4-3 under new head coach John Fox and what better way to usher in a new scheme than to add the best defender in the draft? Jamal Williams probably won’t be back because he’s not a great fit for the 4-3, while Marcus Thomas and Justin Bannan are fits for the scheme but not disruptive players. That’s where Fairley comes in.

3. Buffalo Bills: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn Tigers
The opinions on Newton vary. Some believe he’s sure to go in the top-10 while others think he’ll fall into the second round. I’m somewhere in between. He certainly has the size and athletic ability to be a top-5 pick but there are questions about whether or not he can run a pro-style offense. That’s why Buffalo is an intriguing landing spot for him. Chan Gailey likes quarterbacks who can run and are versatile, which obviously fits Newton. Will the Bills think highly enough of him to take him at No. 3 though?

4. Cincinnati Bengals: D’aQuan Bowers, DE, Clemson
The Bengals’ biggest needs are wide receiver and safety, so Georgia wideout A.J. Green is an option here. But if Bowers falls, I can’t see the Bengals passing on one of the best defenders in the draft. Carlos Dunlap is a fixture at one end spot and Robert Geathers is nice in a rotation, but Antwan Odom has been a major injury concern the last two years and Michael Johnson is still a project, so the team would find room for Bowers.

5. Arizona Cardinals: Tyron Smith, OT, USC
The Cardinals’ biggest need is at quarterback but many pundits believe they’ll look to add a signal caller through free agency. The Cardinals have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. They’re due to address the position and while Smith may be a reach at this spot, he’s an athletic marvel that could give the Cards options at tackle down the road.

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