AFC South: Robert Quinn
But there were some players on the other side of the ball who deserve to be honored for their play this season.
The problem is deciding who deserves it more than the other players.
The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year will be named this weekend.
ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss the top candidates for the award.
Wells: Bill, it appears that defensive player of the year is a wide-open race this season. There are a number of different players who deserve to win it. Robert Mathis in Indianapolis, Carolina's Luke Kuechly, St. Louis' Robert Quinn, Seattle's Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman, who you cover on a regular basis. Who do you think deserves the award?
Wells: I'm sure some people will call you and I homers, but I've got to give the edge to Mathis because he was a one-man wrecking crew on defense. It was personal and team oriented for Mathis. He wanted to prove the he could still be a force without playing alongside of Dwight Freeney. Mathis had no problem talking about how that added fuel to his already flaming fire. He backed it up by leading the league in sacks with 19.5. He ended up accounting for 46.4 percent of the Colts' sacks this season because they only had 42 as a team. Mathis used his infamous chop down on the quarterback's passing arm to force a league-leading eight fumbles. Those eight forced fumbles led to 35 points for Indianapolis. The Colts struggled at times defensively during the season. They would have been really bad if they didn't have Mathis on the roster. You covered games involving Seattle's Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman three times, including the NFC Championship Game. Is there a legitimate argument for either one of them to be DPOY?
Williamson: Oh, certainly on both Seattle players. Again, lots of great candidates here. Sherman and Thomas are among the best defensive players in the league and they are a big reason why the Seahawks are preparing to play in the Super Bowl. Thomas is a tone-setter at the back end of a special defense. Sherman is probably the best cornerback in the NFL and one of the best players in the game regardless of position. The 49ers tested him with the game on the line in the NFC title game and they lost because of it. There are really no wrong answers here. I can't knock Mathis or any of the other candidates. But I just think Bowman deserves to win the award because of his overall impact on the game. There's really no way for offenses to avoid him. Mike, do you think Mathis is a complete player or is he a top candidate solely on his pass-rush prowess?
Wells: This is where the argument doesn't favor Mathis. He rarely dropped back into coverage because he's a pass-rushing linebacker. I'm not saying he isn't capable of being in pass coverage, but I haven't seen him do it enough because coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense is all about getting after the quarterback with Mathis. His ability to pressure the quarterback trickles down to players like linebacker Jerrell Freeman and the entire secondary. It allows them to gamble on the ball more defensively. Some may consider Mathis a one-dimensional defensive player, but he does that one thing well. Seattle's Russell Wilson and Manning, the two starting quarterbacks in this weekend's Super Bowl, can validate that because Mathis sacked both of them during the regular season.
Is Bowman's ability to defend pass coverage the main reason you give him the edge over Mathis?
Williamson: No, it's just his overall game. Again, he impacts it in every way. Look at his stat line: There's nothing he didn't do. He was making plays on first, second and third down. And, yes, he was just as apt to make a play 15 yards downfield as he was at the line of scrimmage. In fact, on his interception return for a touchdown, he was supposed to blitz but he read the play and darted back into coverage. He had 118 solo tackles, the second most in the NFL this season. Again, there are no wrong answers here, but for me Bowman is the best answer.
Mathis' team, Team Jerry Rice, beat Luck's team, Team Deion Sanders, 22-21 in Honolulu.
Luck was the No. 1 overall pick in the Pro Bowl draft and started at quarterback over Carolina's Cam Newton, who had more votes than him. But it's understandable that Luck started since he was playing for his head coach.
Luck was 5-of-7 for 80 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His lone touchdown pass came on a flea flicker play where Kansas City's Jamaal Charles tossed the ball back to Luck, who launched a pass to Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson that looked like it would be intercepted . Jackson went up into double coverage and hauled the pass in.
Luck's interception happened when St. Louis' Robert Quinn tipped his pass and Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict picked it off. It's a good thing Luck won't have to see Quinn anytime soon again. Quinn sacked the Colts' quarterback twice during the regular-season meeting that St. Louis won 38-8.
The NFL did away with the traditional AFC-NFC Pro Bowl teams in favor of a draft. That meant there would be opportunities for teammates during the regular season to go against each other on Sunday.
Mathis didn't get an opportunity to sack Luck. Mathis, who led the league in sacks with 19.5, finished with four tackles.
Why wouldn’t it happen that way?
We’ve all seen Luck work his magic before. You spend Monday morning standing around the watercooler talking about how much of a joy it is to watch Luck rescue the Colts.
But something happened on Sunday afternoon in front of 66,004 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Rams jumped on Indianapolis and made sure they weren't going to be Luck's 11th come-from-behind victim in just 25 games.
The Rams embarrassed the Colts, handing them their worst home loss in the Luck and coach Chuck Pagano era, 38-8.
“They beat us in every single phase,” Pagano said. “We just didn’t do anything. And I take full responsibility as the head football coach, did not have this team ready.”
Is it time to panic?
No, the Colts are still in first place in the AFC South by two games. But Sunday was a dose of reality -- the kind that causes you to spend the night tossing and turning in bed -- that they cannot continue to think they can constantly come back from first-half deficits.
That plan was risky even when veteran receiver Reggie Wayne was in the lineup. The Colts won’t survive playing that way without him even if they did manage to get away with falling behind and coming back against Houston on Nov. 3. The Colts can't do it with so many players out with injuries, a weak receiving group outside of T.Y. Hilton and an offensive line that can’t protect Luck.
The Colts have trailed at the end of the first quarter in five of their nine games this season.
“Regardless of what happens, we know what we have,” Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. “Like I said, our mental mentality, our toughness, our belief in one another has not wavered. They were the better team today. They outplayed us, period.”
The Rams tried to help Indianapolis cure its slow starts when they were called for a taunting penalty on the opening kickoff and then a neutral-zone infraction. Not even a free 20 yards could help the Colts, though.
The Colts got to St. Louis’ 42 before defensive end Robert Quinn beat Anthony Castonzo for the strip sack on Luck. Quinn’s sidekick on the other side, Chris Long, picked up the loose ball and ran 45 yards for a touchdown.
A short touchdown run by running back Zac Stacy followed, then a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown by rookie Tavon Austin, and an 81-yard touchdown reception by him sent the Rams into the half with a 28-0 lead.
There was never a feeling that the Colts would make it a game in the second half. There shouldn’t have been any hope, not with Luck trying to avoid Quinn and Long from sandwiching him and a running game -- if you want to call it that -- rushing for 5 yards in the first half.
The Colts finished with 18 yards rushing on 14 attempts, and Luck was sacked three times, was hit seven times and matched his season total in interceptions with three.
“We knew coming into this game after last week’s game [at Houston] that we’re not going to be able to consistently spot teams three-touchdown, four-touchdown leads and be able to come back,” Pagano said. “And we can’t count on executing well on both sides of the ball and special teams for 30 minutes of the game. You got to do it over 60 minutes.”
Luck, as he’s done throughout his short career with the Colts, didn’t get discouraged. After the game he addressed the media, then walked around the locker room slapping hands and offering words of encouragement to his teammates before finally making his way to the shower.
That’s what the Colts will need from Luck off the field to go with his competitiveness on it because they'll likely encounter another situation like Sunday at some point in their remaining seven regular-season games.
“It’s a tough business,” Pagano said. “It’s not for the meek. It’s for grown men. Everybody in that locker room, coaches and players, we got broad enough shoulders to handle it. You sit there and you dwell on it and dwell on it; we ain’t got time to dwell on it.”
Any time the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans meet, memories of Super Bowl XXXIV are sure to come to the fore. In one of the greatest Super Bowl finishes of all time, the Rams emerged with their lone championship during their time in St. Louis.
A lot has changed since, but neither team has managed to get back to the promised land and it seems like a long shot either will this season. This week, the Rams and Titans renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss some things worth watching, including an interesting role reversal for one of the key figures in that Super Bowl.
Wagoner: Well, it's pretty obvious what the big story is going to be this week. Jeff Fisher is facing his former team for the first time since taking over as the coach in St. Louis. As is to be expected, Fisher is downplaying that whole angle, but you were around him a lot in his years in Nashville. Do you expect Fisher to have a little something extra for his old team this week?
Kuharsky: It would be so much better if it were in Nashville. Then we’d have the crowd reaction as a part of it, too. Still, it’s intriguing. He will definitely have something (or some things) drawn up that he feels will uniquely exploit the schemes and styles of his former underlings Mike Munchak, Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams. If those things work, I’d expect Fisher will then talk about how one of his assistants who was once in Tennessee -- Chuck Cecil, Dave McGinnis or even Ray Sherman -- was instrumental in the design. Fisher didn’t leave with hard feelings, and I believe he wishes the organization well. Still, any proud former employee in this sort of circumstance wants to outperform the former employer. He’s talked about it meaning more for the guys on the roster who were once Titans.
Jared Cook had a monster opening day but has been quiet since. Cortland Finnegan missed some time hurt. What’s the status of those guys?
Wagoner: Cook has really struggled dealing with teams giving him more attention and, more specifically, being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and downfield. He stopped on a route last week against Seattle, and it resulted in an interception. The Rams have gone back to more of a power running scheme that has also limited his snaps because he doesn’t bring much to the table as a blocker. Finnegan won’t say it, but I believe he was banged up at the beginning of the season; his first four games were downright brutal. He returned last week against Seattle, and for now he’s working exclusively in the nickel as the team’s third corner rather than just bumping inside in those situations. Given that he’s only a little more than a year into a monster contract, it’s hard to categorize him as anything but a disappointment for the price.
A lot will be made of the Fisher-Tennessee connection, but I’m more intrigued by the Gregg Williams situation. The way things went down with him and the Rams, and between Williams’ son Blake and the Rams, had to have created some tension on all sides. What has Williams’ impact been down there in Tennessee, and what exactly is his role?
Kuharsky: By title, he’s senior assistant/defense. In practice, he’s not-quite defensive coordinator. Gray is still calling the plays, but Williams’ influence is undeniable. This defense had no personality or attitude last season. Now it’s the backbone of the team. It mixes it up and disguises its looks up front, it blitzes more often and it plays far more man-to-man. Bernard Pollard has been a great fit who has talked with swagger and backed it up. Some guys most people have never heard of -- defensive end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou -- have been very good additions. Williams certainly had a say in bringing those guys in. He has stayed in the background and seems comfortable there. I would imagine he and Gray are excited to put together a plan to make Kellen Clemens uncomfortable.
How do you think Clemens will respond in his second start since Sam Bradford went down?
Wagoner: To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Mr. Dennis Green, Clemens proved last week against Seattle that he is what we thought he was. He’s a tough, gritty, consummate professional who can occasionally extend plays with his legs and make something happen. He’s also consistently inaccurate, a bit indecisive and has a knack for costly turnovers (though his two interceptions Monday night weren’t completely his fault). Another week to work with the starters should help, but he was a bit sore after Monday night’s game against Seattle. The Rams don’t need him to throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns, but they do need him to convert in the red zone and not turn the ball over.
There are something like 16 players from the Fisher era remaining in Tennessee, one of whom is running back Chris Johnson. The Rams have been better defending the run the past two weeks, but they need to prove they can keep doing it. It appears Johnson has struggled after the team made efforts to help him in the offseason. What’s going on with Johnson, and is he (and the Titans' offensive line) capable of taking advantage of the Rams’ run defense?
Kuharsky: The Titans are built on a philosophy of throwing it when they want to, not when they have to. That’s a mistake because the revamped line and Johnson are not equipped to run it they way they think they can. Jets fans get a kick out of this, but to a large degree the Titans' hope things will get better comes from Shonn Greene. The bigger back was brought in as a compliment to CJ, but he got hurt in the opener and made it back only the week before the bye; he has hardly played. They need him to emerge and contribute. Based on current numbers, the Rams are the third-softest run defense the Titans will have seen this season. If they can’t run Sunday, it will really speak to their issues.
Chris Long and Robert Quinn looked really good against Seattle. Have they been giving everyone problems like that?
Wagoner: Quinn certainly has. Through the first half of the season, he’s really starting to realize his immense potential. I believe he’s the Rams’ best player right now, and have felt that way since the beginning of the season. He’s an athletic freak who gives slower tackles problems. He feasts on inferior players, but he can get it done against good tackles as well. Long was banged up earlier in the season but has battled through it and is starting to find his stride. Given the situation on offense right now, the Rams need this duo to take over games on a regular basis and set the tone for a defense that, before last week, had largely disappointed this season.
Now the No. 2 overall selection in last April’s draft is dealing with some different emotions.
Embarrassment, mainly. But a little bit of shame, too.
Not because he has to use what is essentially a small tricycle to support his right foot to get around. It’s the fact that his mother, Reecanne, flew into Jacksonville on Sunday night so she could take care of Joeckel, who isn’t able to drive and has limited mobility.
That he was able to joke about feeling like a kid again shows just how quickly Joeckel has rebounded mentally from what happened during the first quarter of the Jaguars’ 34-20 loss to St. Louis on Sunday afternoon. His right leg got caught underneath him when several players rolled into his right leg at the end of a running play and he suffered a fractured right ankle.
Joeckel said he most likely will need surgery but the final determination has not yet been made. It’s not a career-threatening injury, and Joeckel is already talking about being aggressive with is rehab so he’s about to be back on the field before OTAs next spring.
"I see myself coming back before that," he said. "I don’t really know a timeline right now but I want to get back as soon as possible. I want to have a full offseason. I want to come back and start getting back into football as soon as possible.
"Not really thinking that far in the future, but this is kind of just a bump in the road but I’m not looking at it as being that serious. I’m going to come back better from it."
Joeckel admitted Monday that the most frustrating part of the injury was that it occurred during his first game at left tackle. He had started the first four games of the season at right tackle but the Jaguars traded starting left tackle Eugene Monroe to Baltimore early last week and moved Joeckel back to his natural position.
He played well in his 12 snaps, keeping defensive end Robert Quinn -- who came into the game with five sacks -- away from quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
"That was probably the hardest part. I finally get to live my dream, play left tackle in the NFL, and got less than a quarter and then this happens," Joeckel said. "You know, God puts you in these situations and the only thing you can take from it is to get stronger. Just got to call on Him, call on the people that are really important in my life that’ll help me through this and come back better and stronger from all of it.
"I felt like I was getting better every week. Moving over to the left side I felt good in that first quarter. It was good to go back. It felt comfortable. My set felt better. This is hopefully just a bump in the road in a successful career."
J.J. Watt should compete with Antonio Smith for a starting spot while they can both play on third down, says John McClain.
Watt is redundant says Jerome Solomon, who would have preferred Nick Fairley. I think Fairley isn’t a 3-4 fit, however.
Watt’s a Howie Long; he’s a bigger Jared Allen says Watt’s high school coach. From Jeffrey Martin.
It’s a safe pick, but Houston Diehards would have preferred Robert Quinn or Cameron Jordan.
Chris Polian said Anthony Castonzo is in at left tackle at this point, says Mike Chappell. The team hadn’t run through a single scenario where he lasted until No. 22.
Castonzo is just what the Colts need, says Bob Kravitz.
Peyton Manning’s remarks about tanking a concussion baseline test were a joke, says Mike Chappell.
It’s a safe pick and a smart pick and Donald Brown could be the biggest beneficiary, says Nate Dunlevy.
Blaine Gabbert is now the face of the franchise’s future, says Vito Stellino.
The Jaguars saw an unexpected opportunity with Gabbert and seized it, says Tania Ganguli.
Gene Smith’s now tied to Gabbert, says Gene Frenette.
Drafting Gabbert puts Jack Del Rio on a hotter seat, says Frenette. I am not so sure. He may be able to say, “Well, I was starting a rookie quarterback.”
In Jake Locker, the Titans see a leader, says Jim Wyatt.
There is no indication that Bud Adams meddled in this one, says David Climer.
The focus will now turn to the defensive line, says John Glennon.
Brad Hopkins reviews the first round.
More details on Locker from Wyatt.
No. 8 -- Tennessee Titans
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
“I'll stick with Fairley here. As I've said before, defensive line probably falls lower on the list of team needs behind the obvious question of who will be taking snaps, but it's not a minor need. And to get the most productive interior lineman in the college game last year, a player who was simply unblockable against really good competition, is a solid get for the Titans at No. 8 overall. Fairley gives you immediate help at a key position and he offers the value of a top-five pick. Disruptive versus both the run and the pass, he will help this defense now and the Titans can look for a linebacker later on. Why has Fairley fallen? For me, it's just mainly because of the fact that, while brilliant in that one season, he has less of a body of work. But he's by no means dropping on talent questions.”
My thoughts: If Blaine Gabbert falls to the spot, this blows up. Otherwise, if Fairley doesn’t go here, how far might he fall after the team where his Auburn defensive line coach now works passes on him?
No. 11 -- Houston Texans
Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
“The Texans have needs all over the defensive side of the ball and I also think they're looking to move off this pick for the right package of picks. But if they can't get a deal done and stick at No. 11, Smith represents a ton of upside for a defense that really needs to add some pass-rushing help opposite the great Mario Williams. Again, a lot of the problems in the Houston secondary started up front. I think they should find the tools Wade Phillips needs to get to opposing quarterbacks in his scheme, and Smith will remind him of Ware, a real matchup headache to be used on the edge of that 3-4.”
My thoughts: Trading up isn’t a crazy idea if you consider the potential cost. But Smith can rush and that’s what they need. Don’t knock him because he’s not Von Miller or Robert Quinn.
No. 16 -- Jacksonville Jaguars
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
“Earlier in the draft process, Kerrigan was saddled with the tweener tag, but that's not the worst problem in the world. Guys like DeMarcus Ware have heard the same and went in a similar range. What Kerrigan can do is line up on the edge and cause problems in opposing backfields. The Big Ten is loaded with talent at the tackle position and nobody could consistently stay in front of this guy. Jack Del Rio will love his relentlessness and motor, and quarterbacks will learn quickly to find out where he's lined up while going through reads. Jax needs the pass-rush, and Kerrigan can help.”
My thoughts: Kerrigan is such a popular pick for the Jaguars and Gene Smith made such an unpredictable call last year with Tyson Alualu at No. 10. So we might all miss by a lot here.
No. 22 -- Indianapolis Colts
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
“One more pick that stays at least relatively the same from previous mocks, I just really like the fit. The Colts have to improve on the offensive line and even while Peyton Manning is a maestro working out of the shotgun, they need to be able to do more both in the run game and in pass protection. I had another O-lineman here in previous mocks, but Solder also offers a smart, athletic tackle who has been consistently rated as a first-round option. Indy has brought in some quarterbacks to work out, but Solder is more of an immediate help to a team still thinking about titles.”
My thoughts: Is it finally a time where need and value and outside desire all line up for the Colts and we see a semi-predictable pick? I would think Peyton Manning and the running backs hope so.
I think my blog network brethren would say the same thing I do: Most of my thinking in our combined mock draft came from an educated connecting of the dots that combines what I know about my teams’ draft philosophies, what I know of teams' needs, who’s available in this context, what I’ve been told, what my gut says and what I've been calling for.
So Kevin Seifert over at the NFC North isn’t saying Andy Dalton is the 12th-best player in the draft. He’s reiterating what he’s been writing about how quarterbacks have to have a higher value and how Minnesota has to have one.
Three of my four picks for the AFC South line up with what I’d call the conventional thinking at this point. Maybe I outsmart myself with the Colts, but I’ll explain myself in a second.
Here’s a bit more than I was able to offer in my comments in the mock, which you’ll find here.
Titans at No. 8 – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
I think the defensive rebuild has to go inside-out. I think the character concerns on Fairley are overblown or are something that line coach Tracy Rocker, who worked with him at Auburn, and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray can handle. I think that the Titans can find ways to turn him into a consistently productive player. But maybe this match is too easy. The alternatives would be a defensive end, though Da'Quan Bowers has dropped for them because of his knee, or quarterback if they choose to be bold.
Texans at No. 11 – Aldon Smith, DE-OLB, Missouri
Somehow, I sense that Smith has become unpopular with a good share of Texans fans. His name certainly lacks the juice of Von Miller or Robert Quinn. But plenty of teams would like to get their hands on Smith, who’s an intriguing option as an outside linebacker in Houston’s new 3-4 defensive front. He’s got intriguing size at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds. The best defensive player in this scenario may be Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, but rushing the passer is not what he does best and that’s what the Texans need most.
Jaguars at No. 16 – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Too easy a fit? Perhaps. But when GM Gene Smith said last week that there are a lot of guys who, like Kerrigan, fit into the formula he likes, there is no doubting that Kerrigan does. Still, who among us saw Smith taking Tyson Alualu at No. 10 last season? We could see another surprise. Smith loaded up on defensive linemen last year. If he takes Kerrigan or another end now, it should be the last defensive linemen for a while, and he should move on to secondary and receiver help. Cameron Jordan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward are all heavier. But with a rugged interior, the Jaguars need speed more than size.
Colts at No. 22 – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
Everyone and everything says offensive line. And I could have taken Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi or Derek Sherrod here. I just think the odds of Bill Polian doing what we all expect are low. While there will be one and should be more than one offensive linemen for Indianapolis in this draft, Polian won’t let the need steer him. Two years ago we all had the Colts liking Peria Jerry, but he went to Atlanta three spots before Indy took Donald Brown. I hear Liuget is a better fit that Jerry would have been. More interior push helps Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and Liuget would help the run defense.
We spent three days last week emailing back and forth and compiling a mock put together by eight divisional bloggers. John Clayton stood in for the NFC East.
Perhaps we add some different insight to the speculation. Perhaps we echoed prevailing wisdom. (I can raise my hand on that, as you will see.)
At any rate, we know we’re mostly wrong, and we’re eager to write names in draft slots in ink instead of pencil when things kick off Thursday evening. Here’s hoping this helps tide you over.
Analysis: The Panthers are aware of upside and downside with Newton. But a team that has to compete in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman for the foreseeable future realizes it has to get a franchise quarterback to have a chance in the NFC South. Time to take the big leap on Newton. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: The Broncos are thrilled to see Carolina go with a quarterback, allowing them to pick from the entire defensive board. Denver goes with Dareus because he's a perfect fit and he's ready to instantly impact the NFL's worst defense. (Bill Williamson)
Analysis: The Bills have a great opportunity to land a potential franchise quarterback and don't plan on drafting in this territory again. GM Buddy Nix repeatedly has said the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter means it's the perfect time to draft a quarterback and let him grow. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: Drafting a receiver this high is risky, especially when quarterback Carson Palmer is talking retirement. So there's nothing wrong with going safe and taking arguably the best player in this draft. (James Walker)
Analysis: It's tough to second-guess the Cardinals under this scenario with the top two quarterbacks off the board. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton needs outside pass-rush help and fresh legs at linebacker. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: I think the Browns should go defense with Robert Quinn and Nick Fairley still available. But our AFC North readers voted for Green when making our mock draft board. He gives quarterback Colt McCoy a legit No. 1 receiver. (James Walker)
Analysis: The 49ers have needs in the secondary, too, so Prince Amukamara could be an option. Quinn was suspended for last season and previously returned from surgery to relieve pressure associated with a benign brain tumor. The question on Quinn is whether the 49ers' medical people would sign off on him. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: A DT with Fairley's power and feet can impact the entire defense, and the Titans need a big transformation on that side of the ball. Still, the gaping hole at quarterback means they may look to maneuver. If they love Jake Locker, it's even possible they'd take him here. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: Jerry Jones may be tempted to trade down, but the revamping of the offensive line is long overdue. Smith has the best upside of any tackle in the draft. (John Clayton)
Analysis: Even though Mike Shanahan will be looking to improve his defense with the first pick, it's going to be hard to pass on a fast wide receiver and the second-best non-quarterback offensive player available in the draft. (John Clayton)
Analysis: The Texans are out of range for Miller and Quinn, who'd be huge additions. Trading down to a team that wants a quarterback here and landing an OLB later in the first would be ideal. I think they address the front before the secondary, and Smith can rush from the outside, helping the whole D. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: A team desperate for a quarterback can't wait for one to fall to them in the second round. Without a third-round pick, trade-up options are limited. Sometimes you just have to jump. (Kevin Seifert)
Analysis: A speedy playmaker in the back end would enhance the Lions' defensive rebuild. (Kevin Seifert)
Analysis: With the top two receivers gone, the Rams get arguably the highest-rated defensive lineman available at this point. Watt has the versatility to play more than one position. He would give Steve Spagnuolo welcome depth on the line, upgrading and diversifying the rotation instantly. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: The Dolphins' interior line has been chaotic for the past three years, and Pouncey is a versatile player who can line up at center or guard. If the Dolphins truly are sold on Ryan Mallett, they might make a splash by taking him here because they don't have a second-round pick to use on a quarterback. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: GM Gene Smith made it clear recently that Kerrigan is hardly the only "Gene Smith guy" who could be available here. But Kerrigan's résumé, college captaincy and work ethic make him a fit considering an edge pass-rusher should complete the defensive line reconstruction. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: If he's still on the board here, the Patriots likely won't be deterred by Bowers' knee injury. Bill Belichick always is searching for value and isn't afraid to draft injured players and give them time to heal. The Patriots drafted Brandon Tate in the third round in 2009 even though he was healing from reconstructive knee surgery. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: The Chargers are thrilled the Cal pass-rusher is on the board. The intense, high-character Jordan is one of the team's top-rated pass-rushers. He should give this team an instant spark. (Bill Williamson)
Analysis: Like the Cowboys, the Giants let their offensive line get too old. Even though Mike Pouncey would have been tempting to take at this spot if he were available, the Giants need a tackle more than they do a guard. (John Clayton)
Analysis: The Buccaneers have a huge need for a pass-rusher. Houston's the best on the board. Time for the Stylez G. White (4.5 sacks last season) era to end. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: The Chiefs are relieved Tampa Bay didn't take Wilkerson. He is a versatile player who will fit in with this defensive line and should help this young defense continue to improve. (Bill Williamson)
Analysis: Yes, there are good offensive line options here and Bill Polian could pounce on Nate Solder or Gabe Carimi. But the Colts are rarely in range of a top interior defensive lineman and Liuget's penetration means he helps the rush and the run defense. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: The Eagles have spent a lot of time investigating Smith's character and determined he's too talented to let pass. The Eagles need cornerback help, but if Smith is gone, they will look at a right tackle or right guard. (John Clayton)
Analysis: The Saints don't need an immediate star. But he can be the heir apparent to Will Smith and contribute in a defensive end rotation for a year or two before becoming the main piece of this defensive line. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: The players taken 22nd through 24th could appeal as well. Some locals will groan if the Seahawks pass up Jake Locker, but Ingram represents the value pick. Seattle wants to trade down. GM John Schneider was with Seattle in 2000 when the team drafted another Alabama back, Shaun Alexander, in the first round. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: The Ravens love drafting monsters on their front seven, and Heyward would be a good value at No. 26. He has an NFL pedigree and adds another threat to get to the quarterback. (James Walker)
Analysis: The Falcons would really love to get a pass-rushing defensive end, but the board is pretty empty. They can fill that need whenever free agency starts. For now, they'll switch things up and look for an "explosive" player on offense. Baldwin is a huge receiver and could be the perfect complement to Roddy White. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: Another value pick for the Patriots if Solder still is on the board. The Patriots must stabilize their offensive line. Left tackle Matt Light went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season but is a free agent and will turn 33 in June. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: Looking to trade down, the Bears are stunned to find one of the draft's top tackles still available. Carimi is an immediate starter. Thanks, fellow bloggers. (Kevin Seifert)
Analysis: The Jets' primary needs are to improve their pass rush and along the defensive line. Ayers can rush the passer and help in coverage. That kind of versatility makes it easier for Rex Ryan to deploy his tricky, aggressive defensive tactics. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: Steelers catch a break with both Williams and Miami cornerback Brandon Harris still on the board. Williams' versatility and physicality give him a slight edge, and he fills the team's biggest need at corner. (James Walker)
Analysis: With Ayers off the board, the Packers continue their succession plan at offensive tackle. It's a luxury afforded to the Super Bowl champions. (Kevin Seifert)
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.
Dream scenario: A run on quarterbacks means the team has more to choose from on defense, and while Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller is too much to hope for, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn is there for them to snatch up at No. 11. Quinn would be inserted as a starting outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme run by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Plan B: A trade down with someone looking to come up for a quarterback would be nice, as the Texans could use extra picks to replenish the defense. In such a scenario, a spot in the middle or high 20s could be used on an outside linebacker like Georgia’s Justin Houston, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers or Arizona’s Brooks Reed. But if they remain at No. 11, Missouri’s Aldon Smith is a guy who could help them.
Dream scenario: They may not value an offensive tackle with the 22nd pick, but it seems like it’s time that they should. Ideally, they’d have their choice between Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi, Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo and Colorado’s Nate Solder. Carimi, who got great experience at Wisconsin, gets the nod from a team that is in the middle of Big Ten country.
Plan B: Who’s the value guy who’s slipped? That’s the man the Colts are most likely to pounce on, but I can’t predict who it’ll be. A quality defensive tackle can do a lot for the defense, and if Illinois’ Corey Liuget is still available, he could be a guy the Colts like. He’s drawn comparisons to Anthony McFarland, and while McFarland didn’t work out well, the qualities he had that were appealing are still appealing.
Dream scenario: Even for a dream, the idea of a safety worthy of the 16th overall pick is far-fetched. So we’ll move past that. If they love a quarterback, they could have some appealing options. Otherwise, I see GM Gene Smith sticking with his foundation-building plan, and that would mean a defensive end. If they want bigger, it’s Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt. If they want faster, it’s Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan. Aldon Smith would also be an option. Picking among all three would be a great spot.
Plan B: We’ll stick with the foundation plan and turn to the interior offensive line. Florida’s Mike Pouncey could be a rock at guard or center (if he can learn to snap) for a long time and looks to be the sort of fixture the Jaguars would love to stock the roster with.
Dream scenario: Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert slips to No. 8 while a team or two jump up to grab non-quarterbacks in the top seven. The Titans would have their quarterback of the future, with offensive coordinator Chris Palmer set to tutor Gabbert as soon as the lockout ends, while the pressure to get a veteran who can hold down the fort eases a bit since the Titans get one of the top rookies.
Plan B: With the top two quarterbacks gone, the Titans address defense and hope Auburn tackle Nick Fairley can be an impact guy whose interior play can have a positive bearing on the other 10 defenders on the field with him.
Here’s what he’s got the AFC South doing.
Tennessee Titans, No. 8
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Scenario 1: Fairley makes the most sense at this point and he has tremendous upside. He's worth the pick from a talent standpoint, but there are legitimate questions about his football character and if the Titans pass, that will be the reason.
Scenario 2: [Prince] Amukamara is worth the pick and would fill one of the Titans' top five needs.
Scenario 3: If [Julio] Jones were to fall this far, Tennessee would consider taking him given Kenny Britt's recent off-field issues, or if he were available it might provide an opportunity to trade back with a team like the St. Louis Rams and perhaps address need at quarterback with someone like Washington's Jake Locker.
My thoughts: I’m on board with Fairley if things unfold as expected with the top seven players. If Blaine Gabbert or Patrick Peterson somehow slip, I think they’d pounce. Among players likely available, I think Locker is second-most likely to Fairley, with Jones next.
Houston Texans, No. 11
Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
Scenario 1: Taking Quinn is the best-case scenario outside of [Von] Miller somehow falling this far. Quinn would be a nice complement to fellow OLB Connor Barwin, one of the best ILB tandems in the league in DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, and difference-maker Mario Williams up front.
Scenario 2: If Quinn is gone, then a 5-technique like [J.J.] Watt or California's Cameron Jordan would be the pick.
Scenario 3: The Texans could be forced to weigh value against philosophy here if the players above are gone. Amukamara would be the value pick, but I tend to think they would lean toward Missouri DE Aldon Smith because new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is determined to upgrade the front seven.
My thoughts: Quinn would feel like a home run. If he’s gone, I feel like one of those more rugged ends who could play in a 3-4 would be the value, though Smith would fill the more the outright need. Amukamara would surprise me.
Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 16
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Scenario 1: General manager Gene Smith likes safe, high-motor, strong-character picks who can contribute right away, and Kerrigan fits that mold perfectly.
Scenario 2: If the Jaguars were to take a chance with this pick, it could be on Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers and his knee issues.
Scenario 3: Their three other top needs are reaches here, so reaching for Locker or moving back for another quarterback might be a possibility.
My thoughts: Kerrigan is an easy match to make, but he’s not the only high-motor, hard-worked Smith is going to have a crack at here. They already have a DE with knee questions in Aaron Kampman, and I suspect they’d fear Bowers. Watt or Smith are possibilities.
Indianapolis, No. 22
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Scenario 1: Solder is a no-brainer. The Colts gave up the fewest sacks in the league last year, but that was mostly due to QB Peyton Manning getting the ball out quickly. But Solder has the athleticism to help in protection when he's ready to step into the lineup. More importantly, he's already a monster at 6-foot-8 and 319 pounds and would help upgrade a running game that finished 29th in the league (92.7 yards per game) last season.
Scenario 2: Liuget is the higher-ranked prospect and is a strong possibility as the kind of quick, penetrating defensive lineman the Colts like.
Scenario 3: If the top four offensive tackles are off the board, Indianapolis could reach for Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod.
My thoughts: As soon as a player or a position is deemed a no brainer for the Colts, I get scared. One of the top four offensive tackles sure looks like a match. I don’t see them looking to Sherrod as he seems a bit like Tony Ugoh. I could certainly see Liuget. Is there a receiver value here?
The better get would be a top-flight outside linebacker.
Todd McShay says in this Insider piece that the top five players in this draft who will translate well to the spot in the NFL are Von Miller of Texas A&M, Robert Quinn of North Carolina, Brooks Reed of Arizona, Akeem Ayers of UCLA and Justin Houston of Georgia. (Aldon Smith would be third, but they like him beefed up and playing end in a 4-3.)
The one we’ve heard talked about least for the Texans is Reed, who shares the same Scouts Inc. grade as Ayers, a point better than Houston.
“Reed lined up at defensive end in college and flew under the radar in 2010 after an ankle injury slowed him in '09, but studying tape of a healthy Reed reveals the quick first step, violent hands and nonstop motor to be a difference maker as a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. How quick is his get-off?
“Reed's 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash (1.54 seconds) was the fastest among all defensive linemen who worked out at the NFL combine. With his skills he would be a great fit for the Jets late in the first round.”
Those sound like some skills the Texans could certainly use as well as Wade Phillips looks for players to go with Connor Barwin outside. Maybe No. 11 is too high for Reed, but if they like him and can scoot back some he could be an appealing target.
So away we go…
Tennessee Titans, No. 8
McShay: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
"The Titans picked offensive skill players in the first round in 2008 and 2009 (RB Chris Johnson, WR Kenny Britt), but this year could mark a second straight defensive lineman in the first round after Tennessee took DE Derrick Morgan in 2010. Fairley is the most naturally gifted interior pass rusher in this draft and has a lot of upside, but the Titans need to decide if they are willing to take a chance on a player who could be a perennial Pro Bowler or turn into the next big DT bust thanks to questionable work ethic and football character."
Beyond the first round: Second -- Arkansas QB Ryan Mallet; Third -- Texans CB Curtis Brown.
"Defensive line probably falls lower on the list of team needs behind the obvious question of who will be taking snaps, but it's not a minor need. And to get the most productive interior lineman in the college game last year, a player who was simply unblockable in a number of key games, is a solid get for the Titans at No. 8 overall. Fairley gives you immediate help at a spot they need to address, and he offers the value of a top-five pick. Disruptive versus both the run and the pass, he will help this defense now, and they can look for a linebacker later on."
Kuharsky: Fairley is almost a consensus guy for the Titans at the spot and I understand the rationale and am very intrigued. But if there are concerns about him dogging it once he gets a big payday, the Titans had better sniff them out. A new regime doesn’t need a big dose of that. And it shouldn’t put too much stock into the opinion of one guy, considering former Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, now in the same post with the Titans, is brand new.
Houston Texans, No. 11
McShay: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Temple
"With [Von] Miller and [Robert] Quinn gone there is no outside linebacker on the board who can address the Texans' need for a pass rusher, and while California's Cameron Jordan or Wisconsin's J.J. Watt could also be the pick I believe Wilkerson has more upside than any other 3-4 end in this draft. Houston also has a need at cornerback, but new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips believes that if he has a solid front seven he can live with an average secondary."
Beyond the first round: Second -- Georgia OLB Justin Houston; Third -- Temple S Jaiquawn Jarrett.
Kiper: Quinn, LB, North Carolina
"Houston has needs all over the defensive side of the ball, and Quinn is the best player still on the board if they can get him here. A gifted natural pass-rusher, Quinn sat out all of 2010, but his talent should overcome any questions about rust. A physical specimen, Wade Phillips can find a way to use Quinn in his scheme, and DeMarcus Ware will be what he has in mind when he gets Quinn into camp. Yes, the secondary needs help, but the fastest way to make that group look better is get a pass rush."
Kuharsky: In my eyes, Quinn is more attractive than Wilkerson, who I’ve not seen this high anywhere I can remember. With so much defensive line talent available, if the Texans went McShay’s direction with Quinn off the board, they simply have to be right that Wilkerson is a better fit than all the other defensive ends still sitting there at this spot.
Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 16
McShay: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
"The Jaguars have bigger needs but defensive end offers the most value here. I would be tempted to take a shot on Bowers or the upside offered by Missouri's Aldon Smith here, but Jags GM Gene Smith has proved he will take the player with the higher floor rather than the higher ceiling. Kerrigan has some limitations but Jacksonville knows exactly what it would be getting, which is a player with the overall skill set to immediately push for a starting job opposite Jaguars DE Aaron Kampman."
Beyond the first round: Second -- Washington LB Mason Foster; Third -- WR North Carolina Greg Little.
Kiper: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
"Another guy I'm sticking with from the previous mock, Smith offers a raw talent package with a lot of upside. He's a player who could easily have been a top-10 pick in 2012 had he stuck around Missouri for another year of development. The Jags went for veterans to spackle over the holes at defensive end last year, but it's time to develop some edge talent to go with what is a really promising defensive interior. Smith is an ideal developmental option who can still help in 2011."
Kuharsky: I think McShay’s line about Gene Smith and floors versus ceilings is the single most interesting thing out of either of these files. I'll have to spend more time with it to see if I consider it totally accurate. From what I’ve heard and read, it seems Kerrigan is more ready to have an impact now, and he fits a lot of Smith's criteria.
Indianapolis Colts, No. 22
McShay: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
"This one is a no-brainer. The Colts' offensive line has struggled mightily over the last couple of seasons and Indianapolis must upgrade there. Not only do the Colts need to protect the face of their franchise in QB Peyton Manning, they also need to address a running game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season. Solder is a good fit for an offense that emphasizes quickness and athleticism over brute strength."
Beyond the first round: Second -- DL Iowa Christian Ballard; Third -- Wisconsin G John Moffitt.
Kiper: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
"One more that stays the same from previous mocks, I just really like the fit. The Colts have to improve on the offensive line and even while Peyton Manning is a maestro working out of the shotgun, they need to be able to do more both in the run game and in pass protection. Castonzo is a smart, versatile tackle who has been consistently rated as a first-round tackle option. Indy has brought in some quarterbacks to work out, but Castonzo is more of an immediate help."
Kuharsky: I don’t know that I will ever be able to give you a super-quality read on which of the top tackles is the best fit for the Colts. If only USC’s Tyron Smith is gone as in Kiper's scenario, having their pick of the second tackle in the draft seems like an awfully good situation for the Colts. McShay's got Solder to Indy as the fourth tackle. Whoever is there, if Bill Polian feels like the gap between the tackle options at No. 22 and a second- or third-round tackle isn’t so big, he could grab a blue-chipper at another position.
Chris Mortensen, Trent Dilfer and Mel Kiper talk about the state of the Texans and what they need to do to improve.
While Mortensen points to first-year improvements on Wade Phillips' résumé, Dilfer scoffs at the notion that the switch to a 3-4 comes with transformational fairy dust. He says the back half of the Texans' roster is "pathetic."
Kiper thinks North Carolina's Robert Quinn could be a great fit as an outside linebacker in Phillips' system.
I like the sound of that.
Speaking briefly Tuesday night before a charity event, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt offered nothing substantive on his quarterback-needy team’s feelings about the quarterback prospects.
But the guy running the team’s draft is also in need of a couple of defensive linemen, and joined the chorus raving about the talent available.
“I think it’s going to be very tempting because I think there will be 14 or 15 defensive linemen that go in the first round,” he said. “So that’ll make an interesting choice for a lot of people in the first round.”
NFL Draft Scout rates seven ends and two tackles as clear first-rounders and another two ends and four tackles as possible first-rounders. Some of those ends could wind up as pass-rushing outside linebackers in a 3-4.
At the NFL scouting combine, many of the hot defensive linemen expressed pride in the strength of their position in this draft.
“I look at it like, if you go back in the history of watching football, before the game was started, it started up front,” said Marcell Dareus, the Alabama tackle who's expected to be the first defensive lineman off the board. “Some people were scared and backed up off the ball. But the real bulls stayed up front and played the game.”
The compelling group that could have guys coming to try to hit Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub and slow Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson includes a guy who plays the guitar and the drums (Clemson end Da'Quan Bowers), another who had a brain tumor removed five years ago (North Carolina end Robert Quinn) and a third who started out not in football, but in rugby (Oregon State tackle Stephen Paea).
I asked one college scout from the AFC and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to pair each AFC South team with a defensive lineman likely to be available at each team's slot. Here’s what they said.
Tennessee (No. 8)
"Add him to a young Derrick Morgan and Titans would have bookend defensive ends with pass-rush ability for many years. Look at the Titans' current DEs: Jacob Ford (potential free agent) is a nickel pass-rusher; Dave Ball (free agent and injuries) is a rotational player only; Jason Babin (free agent) is a one-year wonder and honestly just a pass-rusher; William Hayes is a base/run-down end. So the need is there for sure. Players that can play the run and rush the passer usually never hit free agency, they aren’t allowed to because they are so hard to find. If there wasn’t a issue with the knee, Bowers wouldn’t be there at eight."
Williamson: Auburn tackle Nick Fairley or Quinn
“Value and upside. Both players are dripping with upside, but have some questions. The Titans' new line coach, Tracy Rocker, comes from Auburn and already has a relationship with Fairley. He is just too good of a prospect to pass up at that point of the draft. And Tennessee’s line has enough guys already that they could sort of ease either player into his respective role.”
Texans (No. 11)
Scout: Wisconsin end J.J. Watt
"A great choice for a 5-technique player. High motor, excellent size with potential to add to frame, great kid with a huge upside. I am ignoring obvious pass-rushers because they are outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense and you wanted a lineman. The [Texans] are in need of a pass-rusher more than a 5-technique end -- Mario Williams, Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith all fit that position. Amobi Okoye is a quick nose tackle, but not a true nose. They will need to upgrade that spot as well, but there is not a value nose tackle for them with the 11th pick."
Williamson: Watt or Cal end Cameron Jordan
“For Houston, I think they would love to get a 5-technique like JJ Watt or Cameron Jordan. Nose tackle is the bigger need, but taking [Baylor’s] Phil Taylor there is too early.”
Jacksonville (No. 16)
Scout: Missouri end Aldon Smith
“An excellent pass-rusher. Young, inexperienced but has a huge upside. Should grow into his frame and maintain athletic ability. They lack true pass-rushers. Larry Hart is a situational rusher at best. Austen Lane is a run-down player… at best. Derrick Harvey hasn’t worked out. And they are already solid in the middle. [Miami end] Allen Bailey, [Iowa end] Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Jordan are too close to what they have already. The only other option would be [Purdue end] Ryan Kerrigan, but he and Aaron Kampman are similar in skills and limitations. Aldon has true edge pass-rush ability.”
Williamson: Aldon Smith
“I like Smith a lot for Jacksonville. They are set at tackle, so they only would look for an end up front in my opinion. He is loaded with upside. And with all this defensive line talent in this draft, he could be a real value pick where they select.”
Indianapolis (No. 22)
Scout: Illinois tackle Corey Liuget
“He would be a great choice for them. A very athletic defensive tackle with size, effort and upside. He can play the run as well, but helps with pressure on inside. He is a very good combo DT playing run/pass equally well. They are set at defensive end. Jerry Hughes will come around and they will have three solid players at the spot. Liuget adds to depleted interior group.”
Williamson: Taylor or Liuget
“Indy might pounce on Taylor to clog up the middle or if Corey Liuget is still there, he would be ideal. I would say it is unlikely, but Bill Polian doesn't care about what others think and he likes 'his type of players' ... so Drake Nevis from LSU could be someone he really likes.”