I was in favor of including trades in ESPN.com's third annual Blog Network mock draft, but the consensus was they would further cloud the muddy snapshot we already have of this draft. After all, with three days remaining until the first round begins, it isn't totally clear who the Carolina Panthers will take with the No. 1 overall pick -- let alone who will follow at No. 2, No. 3 and so on.
As a result, my goal was to make the best pick for each NFC North team regardless of the slot I was drafting in. It left me taking a leap from conventional wisdom for one team but also put me in position to provide the other three teams what would seem to be near-ideal scenarios. My picks, which we made last week, and explanations are below. Some picks took longer to justify than others:
My pick: TCU quarterback Andy Dalton
Simmer down: About five minutes after filing my pick, a colleague called and (jokingly, I think) asked how I felt about taking a third-round player with the No. 12 overall pick. That sentiment helps illustrate my first reason for taking any quarterback, let alone Dalton, at this spot.
The quarterback position has grown to the point where it can't be valued along the same lines as other positions. I don't have an exact formula for the comparison. But to me, having merely an above-average quarterback is more important than having a 10-sack man at defensive end or a 10-year fixture at left tackle. Without competent quarterback play, those 10 sacks and that stability on the line can carry a team only so far.
The Vikings have needs at positions other than quarterback, but they won't move forward as a franchise without beginning the process of building toward a long-term answer at the position. Recent history has shown us that teams in similar situations almost always need to use a first-round pick to ensure themselves a player who has the potential to fill that role. In fact, 20 of the NFL's 32 teams finished last season with a starter acquired via the first round. The Denver Broncos could unveil No. 21 (Tim Tebow) this season.
I'm not necessarily suggesting that Dalton, or any of the other quarterbacks who remained after Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert left the board, is the 12th-best player in the draft. I'm saying you throw out conventional rankings when you're in a situation like the Vikings' and recognize that getting a long-term starter at quarterback is worth the No. 12 overall pick.
Trading down was not an option, and I'm not sure I would have done it if it were. The Vikings aren't the only team in this situation, and chances are a team they partner with to trade down will be in search of a quarterback themselves. The Vikings' lack of a third-round pick leaves them with limited value to send in return, and their chances of even a second-tier prospect being available with their second-round pick at No. 43 overall is limited at best.
Why Dalton? I won't pretend to have evaluated his film, or that I would have known what to look for even if I had. I landed on him in part after crossing out a few other options.
We've discussed the accuracy issues of Washington's Jake Locker before. Put it this way: If he improves substantially at the NFL level, he'll be the exception to the rule. Arkansas' Ryan Mallett doesn't strike me as leader material. And in comparison to Florida State's Christian Ponder and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, I thought Dalton had the best chance to excel in an offensive system that will be similar to what the Atlanta Falcons installed with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008.
To be clear, this is the worst-case scenario to be in. Quarterback is the one position where need has to trump value. For those of you who think the Vikings should wait until next season, you're assuming they'll be in a better draft spot than No. 12 or that the annually limited college supply will somehow be enhanced in 2011. The Vikings have put themselves in this position by willfully ignoring the reality of Brett Favre's impending retirement. To me, they haven't given themselves much choice in the 2011 first round.
13. Detroit Lions
My pick: Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara
Breathe easy: Admittedly, my head was spinning when this pick arrived after all the possibilities we've discussed. Every offensive lineman was available except for USC's Tyron Smith. Unsurprisingly, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers had slipped out of the top 10. Two of the top three cornerbacks, Amukamara and Colorado's Jimmy Smith, were on the board. Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith was gone, but several other defensive ends -- including Bowers, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Cal's Cam Jordan -- were still there.
In the end, I did what I imagine Lions general manager Martin Mayhew would do -- take a deep breath and calmly make a defensible decision. I won't begin to tell you that I know for sure that Amukamara is the best player among those remaining, or that the Lions agree with media analysts who suggest he is the second-best cornerback in the draft. But based on the information we have, and the indisputable evidence that cornerback is the Lions' biggest need, it sure seems a logical choice to make.
29. Chicago Bears
My pick: Wisconsin offensive Gabe Carimi
Jump for joy: Truth be told, I almost botched this pick. Carimi wasn't among the players I planned on choosing from. To me, this is the value of an eight-person mock as opposed to a single drafter. You have different ideas and different philosophies weaved throughout the round, much like the actual draft.
I don't think there is any doubt the Bears want to upgrade their offensive line, and if their evaluation is anywhere close to that of most media analysts, they'll jump at the chance to get Carimi at No. 29. He would have an excellent chance to start right away, probably at right tackle, and would give the Bears some immediate structure to their cloudy personnel arrangement along the line.
Last year at this time, few media analysts thought Iowa's Bryan Bulaga would fall into the final third of the draft. But he did, and the Green Bay Packers -- who, like the Bears, had an acute need for offensive linemen -- wasted little time turning in their draft card. I see a similar situation should Carimi still be available when the Bears hop on the clock.
32. Green Bay Packers
My pick: Mississippi State offensive lineman Derek Sherrod
Nod your head: Offensive linemen were slower to go than expected in this mock, leaving two of our teams with opportunities to fill needs here. The Bears would get an immediate starter in Carimi, and the Packers could do the same with Sherrod.
Sherrod would give the Packers a number of short- and long-term options. He could conceivably play left guard if Daryn Colledge doesn't return. In the long run, he could be an option at right tackle if Bulaga eventually moves to the left side.
In either event, don't expect Packers general manager Ted Thompson to pass on a more talented player in order to draft an outside linebacker, where the Packers have a greater short-term need. If Sherrod ranks higher than the remaining linebackers on the board -- and in this draft, UCLA's Akeem Ayers wasn't available -- he could without question draft a player like Sherrod.