I typically wait until the week of Christmas to drop my first mock draft of the season, but figured I'd beat Todd McShay to the punch this year (his first mock typically debuts in mid-December). Good thing, too, because the way this incoming draft class fits what the Dolphins want to do on offense and defense has had my teeth on edge the last few months. Yes, you'll hear plenty of analysts over the next few weeks refer to this draft as "weak" or "lacking depth," but that is just sour grapes speak for "This draft doesn't have enough big-name quarterbacks for us to gush over during the next five months." Simply put, this will be an excellent draft for teams that need:
1) Talent at any of the three levels of defense
2) Quality offensive linemen
3) Wide receiver talent
I wanted to add "tight end" to the list above, but while the incoming class has two elite prospects (Stanford's Zach Ertz and Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert), there just isn't enough depth to warrant a top grade.
Now, before we dive headfirst into 2013 mock draft numero uno, I'd like to first take a moment to point out that this will be my first Dolphins mock draft season in which quarterback isn't the team's top need. It's too early to tell whether Tannehill will become the Luke Skywalker to Miami's Rebel Alliance (with Joe Philbin as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jeff Ireland playing the part of a less-likeable Yoda), but take a look at the incoming quarterback class and then tell me that you're not even a little relieved that the Dolphins "reached" for a signal caller last spring.
One last thing: congrats to the Northern Illinois University (my alma mater) for earning a berth in the Orange Bowl. I still haven't begun to comprehend how big of an accomplishment this is for the Huskies, nor have I begun to comprehend the degree to which Florida State will beat the living crap out of them. Good times.
Moving on, let's take a look at an early projection of the way things will go down in the 2013 NFL Draft.
1) Kansas City Chiefs - Jarvis Jones, OLB Georgia
Probably one of the trickier first overall picks I've seen, if only because the Chiefs desperately need a quarterback, but would be certifiably insane to try and acquire USC's Matt Barkley or West Virginia's Geno Smith at this spot. Smith could be in play for the No. 1 overall selection if he burns up the NFL Combine (certainly a possibility), but in a draft with so many second-round QB prospects, the Chiefs can afford to take the best overall player here (what a concept) and then make a move on their signal caller at the start of day two. For the record, I believe that quarterback will be Arkansas' Tyler Wilson.
2) Jacksonville Jaguars - Geno Smith, QB West Virginia
Expect the concept of inflated draft value for quarterbacks to be put to the test at this spot. Jacksonville may think they have something in Chad Henne, but Dolphins fans know better. Just say no, Jacksonville. If West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith stands out during pre-draft workouts, he'll be a leading candidate for teal and gold on draft night.
3) Oakland Raiders - Star Lotulelei, DT Utah
It's clear that the Raiders needs to change the entire culture of their defense, and that change should begin in the trenches. Star Lotulelei has lived up to his billing as a one-man wrecking crew this season, and his resemblance--both in likeness and style of play--to Baltimore natural disaster Haloti Ngata will have Lotulelei's stock sky high by the time April rolls around. The Raiders can do themselves a favor by eschewing their crummy, lazy defensive line in favor of a relentless, hard-working and elite-caliber talent like Lotulelei. Arguably the safest prospect in this draft.
4) Philadelphia Eagles - Luke Joeckel, OT Texas A&M
Philadelphia's offensive line has all of the redeeming characteristics of a nuclear winter, so Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel is a flat-out must for the Eagles at this spot. This selection would also mark the second consecutive year in which the No. 1 tackle prospect goes fourth overall.
5) Carolina Panthers - Johnathan Hankins, DT Ohio State
With a rush defense that ranks among the NFL's most abominable, the Panthers have no choice but to address the defensive tackle position early in this draft. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins is the first of two very powerful nose-tackle-sized prospects in this class, and though he possesses good athleticism and pass-rush know how, he's absolutely devastating as a run defender. Few defensive tackles can absorb the multiple blocks Hankins sees on a weekly basis, so he'll fit in well on a Panthers defense that desperately needs some cushioning along the interior.
6) Tennessee Titans - Damontre Moore, DE Texas A&M
Tennessee's pass-rush department is certainly nothing to write home about, but this pick is more about the fact that Texas A&M's Damontre Moore is arguably the most gifted defensive end in this draft class. Georgia's Jarvis Jones may get more attention due to his size and scary speed, but Moore is just a natural when it comes to getting after the quarterback. A strong, technical and fluid defensive end prospect with excellent upside, Moore's a can't-miss prospect if he declares for the draft.
7) Arizona Cardinals - Taylor Lewan, OT Michigan
Mark down the Cardinals as another team likely to get a quarterback on day two (you'll see that list get exponentially longer at this mock rolls along). Meanwhile, Arizona can address the other position it has mortgaged for ages: offensive tackle. Michigan's Taylor Lewan should be one of many draft risers in this class, as he has all of the tools teams look for in an elite-caliber protector. Lewan's unlike most Big 10 offensive tackles in that he's actually stronger in pass pro than run blocking. He's plenty capable as a run bulldozer, as well, and probably just a notch below Luke Joeckel in terms of overall balance and technique.
8) Cleveland Browns - Manti Te'o, MLB Notre Dame
Fans hopeful that Manti Te'o will land in their team's lap this spring can all breathe a sigh of utter disappointment when Cleveland grabs him with its first selection. The good news for Te'o, of course, is that Cleveland's defensive line and secondary are looking pretty slick these days. Does that mean Te'o could be the player who ultimately changes the losing culture in Cleveland? I say yes.
9) New York Jets - Barkevious Mingo, DE LSU
You'll see plenty of mocks this season projecting Matt Barkley to the Jets, but for Gang Green to go that route would be borderline masochistic at this point (one weak-armed USC quarterback is probably more than enough, no?). If the Jets' front office has any brains (and that's always a big "if") it'll use this selection on a franchise-caliber defender. Seeing as how the Jets still rely on Calvin Pace to produce heavily in the sack department, a pass-rusher like LSU's Barkevious Mingo makes a ton of sense here. Of course, Mingo's freak skill set and "maul now, learn technical aspects later" approach bear a strong resemblance to that of another legendary Jets draft pick: Vernon Gholston.
10) San Diego Chargers - Eric Fisher, OT Central Michigan
The Bolts' offensive line play this season has been thoroughly awful, and it will continue to get worse unless San Diego can man up and get Philip Rivers a franchise left tackle. Eric Fisher has become one of the big names in this draft class, so don't be surprised when he crawls into the top 15 this April. Technically sound and physically massive, Fisher is a blindside protector in the Joe Staley mode.
11) St. Louis Rams - Chance Warmack, G Alabama
Jeff Fisher knows his offense is a receiver or three away from doing some real damage in the NFC West, but expect the Rams to beef up the offensive line via the first of their two No. 1 picks. Alabama's Chance Warmack might actually grade out as a better guard prospect than Stanford's David DeCastro, the No. 1 interior line prospect last year, and would give the Rams' trenches an exponential boost. Warmack has no real holes in his game at this point, and displays a bullish demeanor that will jell perfectly with the goon mentality found on any offensive line group that plays for Fisher.
12) Detroit Lions - Dee Milliner, CB Alabama
Anyone who witnessed Andrew Luck go upside the Lions' head last Sunday knows that cornerback is absolutely Detroit's Achilles' Heel. Fortunately for the Honolulu blue cats, Alabama's Dee Milliner projects as the best corner in a fairly stacked draft class. And the fact that he provides blanket coverage and first-rate run support with equal fervor should pay immediate dividends for a Lions secondary that just doesn't get it right now.
13) Miami Dolphins - Dion Jordan, DE Oregon
Oh boy, would this be a major get for the Dolphins and their still-evolving hybrid defensive scheme. Oregon's Dion Jordan is a lanky, powerful pass-rusher in the Jason Pierre-Paul/Aldon Smith mold, and can play as a stand-up elephant or with his hand in the ground. Rookie defensive end Olivier Vernon has been impressive at times this season, but Cameron Wake is still commanding too much attention from opposing offensive lines. Jordan's presence would fix that problem in a hurry.
Florida State defensive end sensation Bjoern Werner will also be a strong option for the Dolphins if he's available, but Jordan is the epitome of a hybrid pass-rusher, so he gets the nod here.
14) Buffalo Bills - Matt Barkley, QB USC
To paraphrase the P.A. announcer at the beginning of the Guns N' Roses Live Era album: "You wanted the best ... well, he couldn't make it. So here's what you get!" That line pretty sums up Matt Barkley's draft stock at this point, but I don't believe it'll be enough to scare off the sometimes good/sometimes horrid Bills. Buffalo has repeatedly put off the quarterback position during Ryan Fitzpatrick's time as a starter, but that trend could (and should) come to an end right here. The Bills would be wise to wait until day two for a quarterback, but if Barkley has a halfway decent pre-draft season, expect Buffalo to get itchy and pull the trigger on him.
15) New Orleans Saints - Sam Montgomery, DE LSU
New Orleans' defensive line as a whole needs to be upgraded, and it can start with one of the best pure 4-3 defensive ends in this class. LSU's Sam Montgomery doesn't have the flash or freak athletic ability of linemate Barkevious Mingo, but he's absolutely the better pass-rushing prospect in terms of technique, balance and awareness. Montgomery right now grades out just behind Damontre Moore and Bjoern Werner as the best 4-3 pass-rusher in this class. That ranking could change, too.
16) Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Johnathan Jenkins, DT Georgia
The look on Greg Schiano's face during Tampa's game against Falcons last week suggested that he really, really dislikes giving up mass yardage on the ground. Of course, the main reason for the Buccaneers' occasional ineptitude against the run is their lack of a 1-technique defensive tackle who can absorb multiple blocks and free up 3-technique standout Gerald McCoy. Georgia nose tackle Johnathan Jenkins is the rare two-gap-sized player who can clog the run or blast into the backfield and create problems. That's why he represents excellent value at this spot.
17) Dallas Cowboys - Kenny Vaccaro, S Texas
Dallas did itself a real favor by upgrading both corner positions last spring, but safety is still a chief concern for the Cowboys, especially after Robert Griffin III practically bought real estate in the middle of their secondary on Thanksgiving. As of right now, Texas' Kenny Vaccaro is the clear-cut No. 1 safety in this draft class, thanks to his phenomenal speed and ability to flex between centerfield and in-the-box roles. His awareness in coverage is first rate, as well.
18) Minnesota Vikings - Keenan Allen, WR California
No one's about to confuse Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder with Fran Tarkenton (or even Joe Kapp for that matter), but to expect Ponder to consistently light up the scoreboard with arguably the league's shoddiest receiver group is just plain wrong. No one knows if California receiver Keenan Allen can be a legit No. 1 wideout in the NFL, but his pure route-running, excellent hands and big-bodied stature certainly have him looking the part. Works for me.
19) St. Louis Rams (from Washington) - Justin Hunter, WR Tennessee
Now, about that Rams receiver problem. St. Louis doesn't have any wideouts who can consistently make plays downfield (with the possible exception of rookie Chris Givens), so a speedster prospect like Justin Hunter should be a priority at this spot. Hunter's ACL history might scare off a team or two, but he has gazelle-quality wheels and the big body to wear down NFL defensive backs.
20) Pittsburgh Steelers - Alec Ogletree, ILB Georgia
If you managed to stomach the SEC Championship Game last Saturday, you probably noticed Georgia inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and his total domination of Crimson Tide linemen. Now imagine the kind of impact he'll have on a Steelers linebacker group that needs to get younger, faster and more opportunistic along the interior. Heyah.
Ogletree will have the "R" word (raw) thrown at him early and often during the pre-draft process, but his berserk speed and Urlacher-like command of the middle should get the attention of most teams slotted in the latter half of round one.
21) Seattle Seahawks - Bjoern Werner, DE Florida State
Werner is a top 10 talent in this draft, but his status as a pure 4-3 pass-rusher might push him into the second half of round one. Not saying that's right--he's a disgustingly effective defensive end with ultra-violent hands and a lightning first step--but we've seen excellent 4-3 pass-rushers slide before. Nevertheless, Werner's the real deal and a phenomenal value at this juncture.
22) Cincinnati Bengals - Johnthan Banks, CB Mississippi State
One could make the case that Cincy hasn't really recovered from losing cornerback standout Johnathan Joseph prior to last season. Coincidentally, Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks--a tall, fast and extremely physical cornerback--is stylistically similar to Joseph in several regards, and arguably the best ball hawk of any first- or second-round-caliber corners in this draft. Banks' value as a punt returner will up his value, as well.
23) Indianapolis Colts - Sheldon Richardson, DT Mizzou
Look for the Colts to go the J.J. Watt route and add a franchise-caliber 5-technique who does more than just serve as a human blocking sled. Sheldon Richardson has had an excellent season for an extremely bad Tigers team, and his ability to consistently shred double teams and get into the backfield will be an attractive skill set for an Indy defense that needs to get much bigger and stronger everywhere upfront
24) Chicago Bears - Jonathan Cooper, G North Carolina
The Bears' entire offensive line is such a flatulent mess right now, so it would behoove Chicago to go the BPA route with offensive linemen on days one and two. The trench rebuild can kick off with Jonathan Cooper, who, like Chance Warmack, is an elite guard prospect with excellent technical grasp and ox-type strength. Cooper's a top 10 talent who might slide due to positional value, so for Chicago to get a crack at him at No. 24 overall would be an all-time get.
25) Denver Broncos - Matt Elam, S Florida
The ageless Champ Bailey might be a Highlander ("There can only be one!") at this point, which means Denver would be wise to cash in on his longevity and get him some breathing room in the form of knockout Florida safety Matt Elam. A Polamalu-type defender with fabulous instincts and athleticism, Elam plays the game with an edge--perhaps too much of one at times--and has as much range as any safety in this class.
Terrell Suggs isn't getting any younger (or healthier), but Ray Lewis has been the bigger absence for Baltimore this season. That means it's time to find his suitor, preferably one in the form Alabama linebacking hammer C.J. Mosley. Though unspectacular, Mosley is a complete, scheme-diverse product who hails from an Alabama program that produces NFL-ready linebackers year in and year out.
27) New York Giants - Ezekiel Ansah, DE BYU
NYG will always hound for pass-rushers on day one regardless of its needs, and BYU terror Ezekiel Ansah is a flex-type defender who fits the "lanky demolisher" mold of Giants pass-rushers like Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. Ansah could be the one of the biggest names in this draft once the NFL Combine wraps up in February, and a glance at any of his college tape reveals a prospect who can do considerable damage from anywhere on the defensive line.
28) New England Patriots - Barrett Jones, C/G Alabama
New England did the right thing by going after Colorado tackle Nate Solder in 2011, and they can continue to make Tom Brady's life easier by reinforcing the interior with a big prospect like Alabama do-everything lineman Barrett Jones. Jones is most at home playing center and guard, but he's also a capable tackle. Bottom line: if you need it, Jones can probably do it. This level of versatility figures to be mighty appealing to someone like Bill Belichick.
29) Atlanta Falcons - Corey Lemonier, DE Auburn
Ray Edwards was a colossal so-what at defensive end for the Falcons, and it's not like John Abraham is getting younger, either. Upgrades need to be installed at several spots along Atlanta's defensive front, and a lanky pass-rusher like Auburn's Corey Lemonier could be just the ticket in Mike Nolan's angular, freewheeling scheme.
30) San Francisco 49ers - Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Tennessee
What do you get the team that already has everything? For the 49ers, it's a young No. 1-caliber receiver who can help stretch the field for Colin Kaepernick (or Alex Smith. Seriously, who knows at this point?). Cornerback and 5-technique depth are also areas of need for San Francisco.
31) Houston Texans - Terrance Williams, WR Baylor
Lost upon the success Houston has had with its defense is the fact that Matt Schaub could really use a weapon or two in the receiver category. Andre Johnson is still a match-up nightmare for almost any corner in the league, but a big-bodied alternative at wideout would do the Texans a world of good at this point.
32) Green Bay Packers - Tavon Austin, WR West Virginia
Green Bay ignored the size and position questions with former Kentucky slasher Randall Cobb two years ago and proceeded to turn him into one of Aaron Rodgers' favorite targets. Lightning strikes twice with the selection of West Virginia's Tavon Austin, who boasts insane speed and route-running ability, but is rather undersized (5'8", 175) for the position. With Greg Jennings due to leave town after this season, the Packers can continue to get younger and more lethal at receiver by bringing in a receiver like Austin or Terrance Williams.