Defense rules atop the mock draft board

The NFL season is nearing an end, but the draft order is as much up in the air as the playoff picture. As it stands now, though, the Carolina Panthers are holding on to the No. 1 overall pick.

Here's a quick look at how the top pick and the rest of the top five might play out if the draft were held today. Four defensive players and one skill-position player make the cut right now, and all five are underclassmen.

1. Carolina Panthers -- Stanford QB Andrew Luck

There are questions about whether John Fox will still be coaching the Panthers after this season and whether the front-office leadership will remain in place, and don't forget that 2010 second-round pick Jimmy Clausen is currently the starting quarterback.

However, if I'm making this pick I bite the bullet and take Luck, who will get the highest grade Scouts Inc. has given a quarterback since Matt Ryan in 2008. Luck projects as one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL in the not-too-distant future and a coach and/or general manager might get only one chance to draft a player like that. Luck could end up staying in school for another year, but until we hear that for sure he's the top player on our board.

2. Denver Broncos -- Auburn DT Nick Fairley

The Broncos' leadership structure is also in flux and it's not clear what defensive scheme Denver will run in 2011, but Fairley (6-foot-4.5, 299 pounds) has a unique build and the talent to be a force in an odd or even front. One NFL scout recently compared him to versatile New York Jets DL Trevor Pryce. Given the mess that is Denver's defense, I think they have to take the best player available, and in this scenario that would be Fairley.

3. Cincinnati Bengals -- Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers

Carson Palmer's days in Cincinnati are clearly numbered and the Bengals would have to pull the trigger on Luck if he were somehow available. But with Luck off the board and no other quarterback worth a $30 million investment, they can still fill their need for a big-time defensive end. Bowers is a natural pass-rusher who led the FBS in sacks this year and also has the size and strength to become a very good run stopper in the NFL.

4. Arizona Cardinals -- North Carolina DE/OLB Robert Quinn

The Cardinals are yet another team in need of a young quarterback to build around, but because supply does not meet demand at the top of this year's board, Quinn is the next-best option. He can bring the pass-rush element Arizona lacks, and while he could bulk up and play end in a 4-3 defense, Quinn is a better fit in a 3-4 scheme like the one the Cardinals run. The NCAA declared Quinn ineligible for 2010 because of impermissible benefits, but by all accounts he is a hard worker with good character and still rates this highly based on his 2009 game film and pass-rushing potential.

5. Detroit Lions -- LSU CB Patrick Peterson

The Lions are close to turning the corner and much of their ability to do so will depend on whether QB Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, but the best thing they can do from a draft standpoint is continue to get better on defense. Cornerback is Detroit's weakest position and Peterson is a perfect fit with the size, instincts and rare athleticism to develop into one of the top five cover corners in the NFL in the near future.

Looking ahead

With two weeks remaining in the NFL season, there are still plenty of other teams that could end up in the top 10 when the draft order is finalized, and all have a variety of needs. Here's a look at the seven other teams with records of 5-9 or worse and the remaining players in our overall top 20 (including their rank and grade) plus the other big-name quarterbacks on the board. Players and teams listed on the same row are not necessarily meant to be paired together.

There are plenty of options for each team, and while we don't feel the other top quarterbacks warrant a top-10 grade, there are sure to be some who disagree and would like to see their team bring a signal-caller into the fold early in the first round. Feel free to tell us in the comments section which player your favorite team should draft, or where your favorite college player would fit in.