Let's start out by making one thing clear: This is not a mock draft. This is a list of the best 32 players in the 2011 NFL Draft.
The list includes two new players from the last edition. You'll see that 19 of my 32 players are defensive players, 14 of them being defensive linemen. They won't be drafted that way in the first round, but it should still be focused heavily on defense. However, these are the prospects I'll bang the table for, and here's why:
1. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
He is my favorite player in the country this year, and that hasn't changed. He has tremendous foot speed for a player his size. He can play the nose, the three-technique and showed that he can play the five-technique. From my perspective, I don't think he can possibly get past Denver at No. 2.
2. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
He's a special guy off the edge and reminds me an awful lot of DeMarcus Ware that way. However, he's not as big, so therefore won't generate quite as much power.
3. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
A lot of people think he might be the best player in this draft, and he might be. He has the return skills of a man 40 pounds smaller than he is. He has the ability to move, to press, to play off. He's a little tight in the hips, but I don't care. He's a great football player.
4. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Oh my goodness. If you have any questions about this kid, after being suspended the first four games last season, he came out in week five against two future NFL cornerbacks in the Colorado game and had seven catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. That includes one of the best back-of-the-shoulder catches I've ever seen in my life.
5. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
He's my No. 1 quarterback. He comes out of a spread offense, and his footwork needs to improve, but he has all the rest. He's athletic, has a big arm, loves the game of football, has anticipation to throw into small windows, and the accuracy to back it up. He could be the first guy off the board.
6. Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
From a measurable perspective, I think Quinn has rare and elite skills for a defensive end in the NFL. To me, the bottom line is that what he does as well, or better, than anyone in the last couple of years is he has an ability to get up the field and get to the quarterback. I see him primarily as a 4-3 defensive end. Even in a 3-4 scheme, he's a rush linebacker in which he almost exclusively rushes the quarterback. I'm always worried about one-year wonders, but he's the one I would bet on this year.
7. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
He's a warrior. He ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, but on tape I think he plays more like a 4.5 guy. That's what I think he plays at, and that's fine. His throwing radius, ability to run and ability to catch are phenomenal.
8. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
To me, he's a lightning rod. I was at his pro day workout, and from a foot-speed perspective, it doesn't get much better than what he can do. He ran through the bag drills, and it was ridiculous. However, he's a boom-or-bust guy. Right now, I have him here, but he's got more talent than that.
9. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
This kid is a gifted cornerback who can play press and can play off. Watch the game tape against Oklahoma State and Justin Blackmon, maybe the best one or two receivers in college last season, because there are some misnomers. Amukamara played a lot better than people give him credit for.
10. Tyron Smith, OT, USC
He played on the right side and came out as a junior and has the most potential of any tackle in the draft.
11. Cameron Jordan, DE, California
He's a good football player to start with, but has moved up because of scheme-versatility. He has a great motor, long arms, is stout against the run, and can push the pocket against the pass. He played the five-technique at Cal, and I know all the 3-4 teams really like him. What's interesting is the 4-3 teams are accepting him as a base end. Because of all that, he won't fall far. His stock is on the rise.
12. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
I believe this kid is the real deal. He's another prototype of a five-technique, a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. If you don't like him, put the TCU game tape on. The numbers weren't big, but the kid dominated.
13. Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
This young man has so much potential, it's scary. Put the 2009 game tape on against Russell Okung and Danny Watkins, and you'll get a better view of what he can do. He played through a lot of pain last season.
14. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
For me it's always been about the kid, not the quarterback. I buy into Newton the quarterback. Mechanically, he's so much better than Tim Tebow or Vince Young, both first-round picks. I've never been positive that football was critical in his life, but I'm starting to buy into the fact he cares. My only concern is after you pay him millions, will he still want to be the best quarterback in football?
15. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
If teams liked him on tape, they will still like him after his pro day, despite questions about his knee. On tape, he's an explosive defensive end. His workout forced teams to do a medical re-check. The bottom line for me is the tape, and Bowers has some significant tape. He has top-10 ability but is a one-year wonder.
16. Anthony Castonzo, OL, Boston College
I really believe he or (Tyron) Smith are the first tackle off the board. Castonzo is a tough guy in the run game. He has great feet as a former tight end. I love his upside, and he had a great week of Senior Bowl practice, although he didn't play quite as well in the game.
17. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
This is one of the angriest runners I've ever seen. He's a three-down back. This is a kid who can play 16 games and still want to play more. He can pass protect, catch the football, and has tremendous balance and vision.
18. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
He is much better on tape than I initially expected. There's no bad tape on him. You can put him in the middle of a 4-3 front. He's disruptive, quick and tough. Some of the 3-4 teams like him enough to look at him as a five-technique, which I don't think is his best position. He's steadily climbing up boards.
19. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Had 33 sacks, 14 forced fumbles. With this kid, you know what you're getting. You know what your floor is, and he might not have the same upside as some of these other kids. But I think he can play defensive end or stand up and be an outside linebacker.
20. Gabe Carimi, OL, Wisconsin
I think the kid is a plug-and-play right tackle. Throw him in there, and he's a starter on day one. And he's a starter for the next 10 years. He's got a little attitude, and there's something tough about him. He's a good football player.
21. Mike Pouncey, OL, Florida
He's like his brother Maurkice of the Steelers in that you can "plug and play" him. Somewhere between 17-25 is where a team will look at its board and will need a good interior lineman. He's not a wonderful athlete, but is a wonderful football player. I like him more at guard than center.
22. Nate Solder, OL, Colorado
Solder has a wonderful skill set, but he needs to get stronger and have more consistent technique. He reminds me of D'Brickashaw Ferguson in that he's a little bit underpowered, has great feet, and an awful lot of upside. That's value right there.
23. Jimmy Smith, DB, Colorado
He's a freakish athlete with significant off-the-field concerns. But there's a huge drop-off at cornerback after Peterson, Amukamara and Smith. He's long and physical, but he's too inconsistent, which is the reason he isn't higher up on the board.
24. Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina
From the time he started his season at the East-West Shrine Game, he's done a great job of rehabbing his image. He was the best player on the field in that game and had great numbers at the combine. You could see the power, explosion and great feet at his pro day. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't go somewhere between 20-32. I really believe he's too good of a football player to fall out of the first round.
25. Jake Locker, QB, Washington
His drop here isn't a reflection of anything other than the fact I think he's a one- or two-year project regarding getting comfortable in a pocket system and getting enough reps to be more comfortable in the pocket. He has first-round ability. He's as accurate on the edges as any quarterback I've seen on tape. I've talked to a lot of NFL quarterback coaches who believe, over time, his pocket awareness can be corrected.
26. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple
I really like Wilkerson, and I believe he's going to be a very good five-technique. He's a little bit of a developmental project, but at the end of the day someone is going to be a real good player. He reminds me of Trevor Pryce.
27. Cam Heyward, DT, Ohio State
If you watch the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, you might be convinced he's a top-15 pick. He's had injuries, he's a little inconsistent, and there's a question about where you play him, but he's got a great motor. To me, he's a five-technique, the defensive end in a 3-4. Some team at the end of the first round is going to get a bargain.
28. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
On tape, he's a natural edge pass rusher. He didn't perform well at the combine; ran in the 4.9 range in the 40. There are also questions about whether he can handle a complicated defense, both with his hand down or standing up. But he is a great athlete and a natural 3-4 outside linebacker.
29. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Fair or not, there is concern regarding one side of his body because of Erb's Palsy, which he has had since childhood. With the depth at defensive end, he's sliding a bit with the 4-3 teams. After his strong junior year, most would have called him a top-15 pick. I say watch the tape. He's a football player. Some people around the league are concerned, and I'm told he could slide into the second round. I say he's a first-round pick, and if he goes in the low 20s, what a great football player you're going to get.
30. Phil Taylor, DL, Baylor
He's one of the biggest risers in this draft class. There aren't many 334-pound defensive tackles in the league with the movement skills of this kid. Before last season, I thought he was a third-round pick. He got himself in shape and started flashing and dominating as the season went on. He's had some off-the-field issues, but I don't think a guy his size and with his movement skills gets out of the first round.
31. Danny Watkins, OL, Baylor
He plays with terrific balance and has the foot quickness to hold in pass protection. Despite his limited football experience, he engages very well with his hands and maintains a strong position.
32. Aaron Williams, S, Texas
Williams is a confident corner that should be able to contribute immediately as a nickel back. He lacks the hip fluidity to play on an island at the next level, but he has experience lining up over the slot and maintains proper position to take away the easy crossing routes.