words // Brandon Richard
Here’s the cream of the crop when it comes to incoming NFL talent. For the most part, the teams that need a franchise-caliber player will be selecting in the Top 10. While we’re uncertain about the status of the upcoming NFL season, there’s still a great deal of excitement surrounding the 2011 Draft Class. At least 25 prospects are expected to attend tonight’s event at Radio City Music Hall, which would be a draft record. Unfortunately for this class, it’s possible that they’ll be the first group paid under a new rookie pay scale – bummer!
Before the festivities kick off tonight, let’s take a look at who the Top 10 picks may be. The NFL Draft starts tonight at 8 p.m. EST. Be sure to check out Eastbay’s 2011 NFL Combine interviews with several of the top incoming prospects. These players may be the future difference maker for your favorite team.
1. Carolina Panthers
2010 (2-14): The Panthers are in full rebuild mode after a season where everything fell out of the bottom. They won just 2 games on the season, were ranked 26th on defense and dead last on offense. As a result, the John Fox Era came to an end.
Needs: Face of the franchise that can put butts in the seats. Perhaps an impact defender or prime time receiver.
The Pick: QB, Cam Newton, Auburn. There’s a ton of people saying that Cam won’t translate well at the next level, but the Panthers seem to be enamored with his potential. Cam is an incredible athlete, the most impressive we’ve seen at quarterback in years. There’s still some questions regarding his mechanics and ability to read defenses and call plays, but he can be taught. He’ll definitely sell some tickets, and if he succeeds, will give the Panthers a scary option under center.
2. Denver Broncos
2010 (4-12): The controversial Josh McDaniels Era finally came to a screeching halt after an unacceptably poor year in Denver. The writing was on the wall when the Broncos were swept by the rival Oakland Raiders by a combined score of 98-37. It was so bad that the team made sure they brought back John Elway in some capacity – he’s now the team’s Vice President of Football Operations.
Needs: Quality defensive lineman for John Fox’s new defense; a receiving tight end and some help in the secondary.
The Pick: DE Marcell Dareus, Alabama. Dareus is a large physical specimen that will step in and help any team that needs him right away. He could prove to be the inside force at the three-technique that Denver can build their defense around for the next 10 years. To learn more about one of the best prospects in the draft, check out Eastbay’s interview with Marcell Dareus below.
3. Buffalo Bills
2010 (4-12): At some point, this thing has to turn around, right? The Bills have talent and guys that just flat out play hard. They’re competitive in a lot of games and end up finding a way to lose them at the end. A huge example would be the Steve Johnson drop against the Steelers in Week 12.
Needs: Franchise quarterback, front seven help, defensive end, outside linebacker and possible cornerback depth.
The Pick: OLB Von Miller, Texas A&M. Miller is an excellent athlete that fits a variety of schemes. He gets off the edge in a big way and causes massive disruption in backfields. For a team that needs all kinds of help with the pass rush, Miller would be a quality snag for the Bills.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
2010 (4-12): The T.Ochocinco didn’t exactly yield many popcorn-worthy moments, and surprisingly, it was Owens who played the better of the two receivers. As usual, the Bengals are a mess. They had a dismal season, Carson Palmer is pretty much a goner and it’s highly possible that both Owens and Ochocinco will be playing in new uniforms next season as well.
Needs: Playmakers on the defensive line, particularly a DE. They could also use some upgrades in their secondary.
The Pick: WR A.J. Green, Georgia. This is a pick they’ll make based on available talent. Plus, the Bengals will probably undergo a complete offensive overhaul. A.J. Green is top rated receiver in the draft and has the potential to be a playmaker for a decade. Some say he’s the best receiver to enter the draft since Calvin Johnson…and that Johnson guy is pretty good. Combination of size, speed and great hands make A.J. Green a desirable downfield prospect.
5. Arizona Cardinals
2010 (5-11): Kurt Warner’s departure opened up huge wounds for the Cardinals, who missed the postseason after back-to-back trips. Larry Fitzgerald still managed to tab a 1,000-yard season, but expressed frustration playing for a bottom-feeder.
Needs: Clearly, they need a quarterback. Though a guy like Gabbert could be available, the Cardinals are expected to pursue a QB through free agency rather than use a high pick on a prospect that isn’t particularly a homerun. They could also use a new running back, playmaking tight end, nose tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback.
The Pick: CB Patrick Peterson, LSU. Peterson has been labeled the biggest ‘can’t-miss’ prospect in the entire draft. Some experts feel like he should be first guy off the board, but because teams don’t typically draft corners this high, he’ll slide just a tad. That Cardinals need playmakers on defense and Peterson could team up with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to form one of the league’s elite cornerback tandems.
6. Cleveland Browns
2010 (6-10): The Browns weren’t a good team by any stretch of the imagination, but they were competitive. They scored back-to-back wins over the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, and it took overtime for the New York Jets to beat them in Week 10.
Needs: Cleveland needs talent upgrades at a lot of positions. A big time wide receiver could be on the radar, as will help on the o-line, inside linebacker and defensive end.
The Pick: DE Robert Quinn, North Carolina. By some, Quinn is regarded as the most talented player in the entire draft. However, a few outside circumstances have pushed his stock down. For one, he was suspended in 2010 for a situation involving an agent and illegal tutoring. Two, he’s had complications with a benign brain tumor. Otherwise, you could be talking about the top pick in this year’s draft. The question is whether not Cleveland will want to gamble with this pick. Quinn could slide down in to the late first round because of the mentioned concerns.
7. San Francisco 49ers
2010 (6-10): Even with that dismal record, the 49ers were still in contention for a playoff spot down the stretch because the division-winning Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 mark. Another sub-par year in the land of great expectations, in addition to some player run-ins, ended up leaving Mike Singletary without a job.
Needs: Could look at a franchise QB, address defensive front 7 weaknesses and improve cornerback depth.
The Pick: QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri. It’s time to admit that Alex Smith is a straight-up bust and move on. Gabbert gives the 9ers a chance to do so. New Head Coach Jim Harbaugh is a quarterback guy and is the perfect candidate to groom Gabbert into something special.
8. Tennessee Titans
2010 (6-10): It appears that both the Jeff Fisher and Vince Young eras are over in Tennessee. Midseason disagreements between the two led to a “one or the other” situation, and ended up with both men being shown the door. At one time, the Titans were looking strong at 5-2. They finished the season losing 8 of their last 9.
Needs: A franchise quarterback and improvements on the offensive line, the linebacker core and secondary.
The Pick: DT Nick Fairley, Auburn. This certainly doesn’t fill any pressing needs for Tennessee, but the value may be too great to pass up. Remember, after the National Title game, Fairley was projected to be the #1 overall pick. Concerns about his maturity and work ethic have slid him down draft boards since the Combine. Like I always say though, on-field production should always be considered first and there wasn’t anybody better than him last season. Tennessee may have found their Haynesworth impact player and can draft a QB later on.
9. Dallas Cowboys
2010 (6-10): Jerry Jones said that he wanted and expected his Cowboys to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. They fell way short of that prediction, plummeting near the bottom of the NFC East. However, after firing Coach Wade Phillips and replacing him with Jason Garrett, the ‘Boys showed some promise.
Needs: They have to keep Tony Romo healthy by re-tooling the offensive line and could use upgrades at safety.
The Pick: OT Tyron Smith, USC. Maybe this is going out too much on a limb, considering Jerry hasn’t used a first round pick on an o-lineman since 1989. However, there comes a time where you have to switch it up and start protecting your investments. Smith is impressive physically, a quality blocker and excels against the pass and run.
10. Washington Redskins
2010 (6-10): Another odd season in Washington, with a ton of controversy surrounding coach Mike Shanahan, Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb. I’ll remember this season as one where McNabb was benched in favor of Rex Grossman. They started off decent, but finished the season 2-7 in their last 9.
Needs: Plenty. A young QB for Shanny to groom, offensive line help, a playmaking wide receiver, a running back and improvements on the defensive line and secondary.
The Pick: WR Julio Jones, Alabama. Here’s a guy that appears to be one of the biggest talents in the draft. Initially slotted to be a lower first round / early second round guy, Julio shot up draft boards with his incredible Combine performance. Not only were the numbers impressive, but he put them up with a legitimate foot injury. A.J. Green has been ranked the top receiver in the class for some time, but some scouts have even moved Julio above him. The Skins need a downfield threat and Santana Moss may also be on his way out.