It's a strange year. You have a league tied in knots over a labor agreement set to expire, public relations haymakers being thrown by both sides, uncertainty everywhere. But somewhere in the middle of the mess, there's still an NFL draft to look forward to. The draft, however, could be impacted. If the NFL Players Association and the owners don't agree to a deal, it will put a stop to draft-pick deals that involve players already in the league. Last year, pre-draft deals involving names like Brandon Marshall and Donovan McNabb shifted the board.
For my second mock of the year, the biggest attention-getter will be the rise of Cam Newton, who now is going within the first five picks. After that, there is a ton of movement, so as always, I look forward to the -- ahem -- helpful commentary and debate. (As always, an asterisk denotes non-seniors.)
* Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Fairley is hanging tough as my No. 1 overall player, remaining atop the latest Big Board. This is a defensive lineman with small weaknesses, such as leverage and composure, but he masks those as a dominant presence against the run, a remarkably instinctive pass-rusher who can overwhelm the opposition with speed, power or hand skills and explosiveness that would impress the late Reggie White. A safe pick in a draft position that will be hard to move from. And as I've said, a slight mean streak in a DT isn't the worst trait. Ask the Lions about Ndamukong Suh.
* Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
I can see Denver looking at Patrick Peterson here, but remember this is a team that could be looking at a system change up front. And in that vein, in Bowers the Broncos can take a player who could be a dominant pass-rusher as a 4-3 defensive end or stand up as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He is the most pure pass-rusher in the draft and can quickly add production at either spot. Further, given health and system changes, Denver can't assume great production from Elvis Dumervil. Bowers makes a lot of sense and can stay in orange.
* Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
From the day he landed on the Big Board for the first time, I've said that Newton's physical skills and underrated ability as a passer could lead him all the way to the top of the draft. In Buffalo, what you have is an ideal foundation for his career. The Bills can keep Ryan Fitzpatrick around and develop Newton at a slower pace. But given Newton's total package of skills and size, and his proven ability as a guy who can adapt, deal with adversity and win, he represents a real possibility to land in the top five.
* A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
It's hard to find a safer pick at the wide receiver position in recent years. Green already has imposing size, making him a deep threat and obvious red zone option, but he also offers refined route-running, good speed and the ability to bring down anything thrown in his direction. As for the need, it's doubtful that either Chad Johnson or Terrell Owens will be back for Cincinnati, leaving a big void on the outside. Regardless of what happens with Carson Palmer, the Bengals need to find a new target, and Green is a safe option.
Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
Joey Porter is unlikely to be back, and Miller would represent an immediate pass-rushing upgrade on the edge of Arizona's 3-4 scheme. The Texas A&M standout made his name in 2009 as a sack artist but developed a range of skills in 2010 and has become a complete player. He stands up well against the run and drops into coverage seamlessly.