When the presumptive No. 1 overall draft pick opts to go back to school, it can really alter the draft process. As I detailed here, when Stanford QB Andrew Luck made that decision, dominos fell. And in over 30 years of evaluating talent, many of them for ESPN, this year sticks out as one that could have a lot of movement throughout the process leading to the draft. But it's time to get going.
As it is every year, the mock draft is a blend of my evaluations, hundreds of conversations with people who scout these prospects, people who have coached them and many who plan to. And there's always some gut calls. The usual ground rules apply: The mock draft reflects the current order. The last four picks are based on regular-season records, not predictions. Will there be trades? Of course. But those obviously can't be predicted. As always, juniors and draft-eligible sophomores are noted with an asterisk.
Let's get the season -- and the debates -- started ...
* Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
The No. 1 overall player on the Big Board, and one who can pay immediate dividends. Fairley isn't just a safe pick because of his excellent burst, violent hand action and ability to effectively penetrate and be a constant nuisance against both the run and pass; he also has the chance to be a dominant player regardless of system. Detroit and Tampa Bay drafted the top defensive tackles at Nos. 2 and 3 last year. Carolina should start earlier in 2011. A slight mean streak in a DT isn't the worst trait. Even Ndamukong Suh showed a bit of one this season.
* Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Denver CB Champ Bailey is a future Hall of Famer, but he's a free agent entering his 13th NFL season and Peterson has the physical skills to be an immediate starter in the secondary and a force in the return game. Denver has enough needs where it could go several directions with this pick, but getting the best size-speed combo in the draft, a guy who can help immediately, is a smart play. Simply an electrifying talent.
* Marcell Dareus, DE, Alabama
Buffalo has started to assemble the pieces for its 3-4 defense and Dareus has outstanding pass-rush skills and fits as a defensive end in the system. This is too early to take an offensive tackle in terms of value, but it's a good opportunity to land an ideal fit if the Bills don't want to trade down. I'm sure some Bills fans would clamor for a guy like A.J. Green in this spot, but after 2010 the Bills simply have to address the lines, and the development of Stevie Johnson limits the receiver need anyway.
* Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Rookie Carlos Dunlap came on late for the Bengals and finished with 9.5 sacks, but the chance to draft the best pure pass-rusher on the board and immediately have in place a more formidable pass rush is too much to pass up. Bowers has the skill-set, explosiveness and relentless pass-rushing skills of a No. 1 overall pick. He's a good value, even at No. 4.
* Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
The Cardinals were a mess at quarterback in 2010, and while Max Hall and John Skelton showed glimpses, both are projects, and there's no real solution in place for next season outside of a trade. Gabbert will be under the microscope during the testing process perhaps more than any other player, but at this stage he's the most NFL-ready QB in the draft. Arizona is in a tough spot: If the Cardinals pass on Gabbert, there won't be a QB who can do more for them sooner than Skelton or Hall later in the draft. Gabbert offers a strong arm, protoype size, reads the game well and has a lot of upside.