— This uncertain and unprecedented NFL offseason deserves a draft like this.
In an offseason where everything is in doubt, from free agency status to when the season will start, it only seems right that the draft has more questions than usual.
Let’s try to figure out some answers.
Is Cam Newton a lock to go No. 1 to the Panthers?
No one knows. A media consensus has coalesced on it, but the Panthers have done an excellent job limiting leaks about their plans.
A few clued-in NFL folks believe Carolina would prefer to trade down, thus taking LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus or Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. Dareus seems likely to go second to Denver, but no one seems sure of that either.
Can a team without a quarterback afford to pass on Newton?
There are plenty of arguments against taking Newton first. He’ll need time to get ready, but fans won’t be patient after buying tickets to see him. With limited offseason practice to get ready, rookie quarterbacks might have to essentially redshirt next season.
New Panthers coach Ron Rivera is defensive-minded and the team’s need at defensive tackle is arguably greater than at quarterback. The Panthers took quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the second round last year, and GM Marty Hurney still believes in him. (The coaching staff might feel differently.)
Carolina does not have a second-round pick and would love to pick up more ammo. Hurney’s biggest problem is that no one is likely to move up for Newton, who is a reach so high. The most likely outcome is that Carolina stays put.
Newton remains the favorite to be taken first, but it’s not a lock. Dareus going No. 1 overall makes a lot of sense.
Why is the top 10 so unpredictable this year?
This could be a rough year for mock drafters. There isn’t a big talent gap between the players in the top 10. Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller is an exceptional pass rusher, but it’s hard to separate him from receivers like Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones. Peterson may be the "safest" pick, but some believe Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is nearly as talented.
UNC’s Robert Quinn leads a deep crop of defensive ends; he didn’t play last year because of NCAA violations. Clemson’s DaQuan Bowers was once seen as a potential No. 1 pick, but knee troubles have torpedoed his stock. That’s the kind of class this is.
At least eight defensive linemen should go in Round 1, and the number could climb to double digits. Ask five evaluators which end they like best and you may get five different answers.
The cream of the crop isn’t as hyped as usual. That doesn’t mean they are less talented, just that teams will see players differently.
Throw in an unprecedented number of teams at the top of draft needing quarterbacks, and we should have quite a few surprises in the top ten.
Why is this a good year to be a quarterback prospect?
Supply and demand. This offseason started with an abnormally big group of teams looking for help at quarterback. Without free agency or trades available because of the labor uncertainty, there are a lot of desperate coaches and antsy owners looking for someone to help sell hope.
In the top 12 picks alone, at least nine teams need a quarterback. Mike Mayock expects a “feeding frenzy” to build at the position, with players getting taken earlier than their talent warrants.
“There’s never been a draft where eight quarterbacks have gone in the first three rounds,” Mayock said this week on the Dan Patrick Show. “And eight are going in the first three rounds this year, maybe in the first two rounds. And it’s not because they are great quarterbacks.”
Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert arguably aren’t worth top-10 picks, but they should go in the top five. Jake Locker looks like a boom or bust with accuracy questions, but he could go No. 10 to Washington or No. 12 to Minnesota. Tennessee could also reach for Locker or even TCU QB Andy Dalton at No. 8.
Who will benefit from the quarterback frenzy?
Teams at the bottom of the first round like the Patriots and Jets could capitalize on QB fever, picking up extra picks in order to let teams move back into the first round.
Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett’s arm strength may prove too intriguing for teams to wait on, despite questions about his maturity. Florida State’s Christian Ponder and Dalton have become favorites of teams that want a smart, steady skill set. Think Chad Pennington 2.0 if all goes well. Raw but wildly athletic Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick might be a bit of a project, but has the tools to go early.
An unprecedented number of quarterbacks will likely be taken in the first 2-3 rounds, yet there is little consensus this is a great class. It’s a boom-or-bust group, and we suspect a few GMs will lose their jobs for taking these guys too early.
What teams will be the most active trading?
While you can’t trade veterans (see sidebar), teams can deal 2011 and 2012 draft picks. The Patriots own six of the top 92 picks, including three of the first 33. New England holds Carolina’s second-rounder, and could hold an auction all day Friday for teams looking to move up for any quarterbacks that slip past Day 1. It would be a surprise if the Patriots don’t pick up some team’s first-round pick for next year.
San Diego has five of the first 89 picks. Chargers G.M. A.J. Smith needs to restock his talent base and is never afraid of moving around.
What positions are the weakest in this draft?
It’s a bad year to need a premier tight end, safety or running back. Notre Dame’s Kyle Rudolph should be the first tight end off the board, a solid option sometime in Round 2.
At least two running backs have been taken in the first round of every draft since 1963, a streak that will end this year. Alabama’s Mark Ingram looks like the top back and he may not go until round two. Don’t expect a safety to go in round one either.
The cornerback class is strong at the top with Patrick Peterson, Prince Amukamara, and Jimmy Smith, but the depth is lacking if you are looking in the middle rounds.
Who are this draft’s wild cards?
Jimmy Smith, Colorado cornerback: Some people believe Smith has the best press cornerback skill set in this class, in the same mold of Nnamdi Asomugha. His off-field questions remind a lot of others Tampa’s Aqib Talib, a supreme talent that hasn’t been able to stay out of trouble.
The Eagles won't let Smith get past them at No. 23, if he gets that far.
Phil Taylor, Baylor defensive tackle: Nose tackles that can play in a 3-4 defense are nearly impossible to find. Taylor has a top-15 skill set, but he was inconsistent in college at best. He’s going to make some G.M. look like a genius or an idiot, probably in the first round.
Blaine Gabbert, Missouri quarterback: He has the agent that elite QB prospects have, with the arm and athleticism to match. The reality is Gabbert wasn’t very effective in college and shows questionable pocket presence. He's like Alex Smith as a prospect the draftniks fell in love with despite plenty of warning signs.
Nick Fairley, Auburn defensive tackle: After a dominant showing in the BCS title game, a lot of smart people thought Fairley might go No. 1 overall. Questions about his motor and strength have knocked him down mock drafts, but he could be a big impact player right away.
How will fan anger about the labor uncertainty manifest at Radio City Music Hall?
This draft could go down in history as the one where fans boo commissioner Roger Goodell mercilessly; the draft where handshakes replace man hugs on stage; a draft as awkward as a crisp baseball hat worn with a crisp suit.
The league must be apprehensive about the reception Goodell will receive every time he hits the stage. For the first time since the labor uncertainty started, fans can express their anger toward a work stoppage that has no justification.
The fans that show up to the draft to hear names called off index cards are not your average fans. They are the fans that wait in interminable lines just to be part of anything NFL-related.
They buy jerseys, tickets, Personal Seat Licenses, overpriced beers and satellite television packages. They gladly pay outrageous sums for parking, fantasy football league fees; they gobble up and suck down whatever advertisers the NFL tells them to. They pay for it all because they love football with an intensity they can’t explain.
The NFL has done an incredible job over the years cultivating this love. On Thursday night, at a time of unprecedented popularity and wealth for the league, Goodell must face those fans while simultaneously taking them for granted and threatening to take football away.
Perhaps the narcotic of the draft will sedate the upper deck, but we doubt it. Fans at the draft last year showed no mercy on Ben Roethlisberger, and he wasn’t even in the building.
At a time when fans rightfully feel like they are being taken for granted, I expect their voices to be heard.