Last year at this time, we had no idea when free agency would happen. This year it's back to normal, and that's a good thing. It doesn't make things any easier to project, of course, but it's really hard to look at the draft board and assess team needs without free agency in mind. Typically, when I'm putting together the mock draft, I'm always balancing all those elements -- team needs, the knowledge of what a team is thinking on prospects, what kind of moves they can make in free agency, what kind of players they might lose in free agency. So as you read the mock, make sure you're keeping that aspect in mind.
Please also note a couple of things. For one, I can't reflect trades -- and I expect to see several. Secondly, a few positions could move as coin flips determine draft spots for teams that had the same record during the season. Those will take place at the combine, so the official draft board still isn't totally set. As always, read on and let me know where you think I'm off.
More Kiper NFL draft content:
* Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
While the public relations drama continues between Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning, there's little drama surrounding whom the Colts will take with the No. 1 pick. I doubt Luck throws next week at the NFL combine, but his status among evaluators really isn't in question. Arm talent, strength, size, smarts, leadership, intangibles -- it's all there. The only question is whether he'll be serving an apprenticeship under Manning, but my guess right now would be that he won't have to.
* Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma St.
I've said before this pick could be in play. Cleveland, Washington or maybe even Miami could slide into this spot if they want to make a move at quarterback, but Blackmon goes here in this mock because I'm not able to reflect trades. It will be interesting to see if Blackmon is willing to run in Indy. He could bypass it and wait for his pro day given his current status. St. Louis is in desperate need of a weapon in the passing game, and will get one with one of its first two picks. Remember, it could also lose Brandon Lloyd in free agency.
* Matt Kalil, OT, USC
The Vikings need to upgrade at left tackle, and Kalil is the rare one who could step into that position right away at the NFL level. Great feet, arm length, athleticism and finishing skills as a run-blocker make him a very complete prospect. I can see the Vikings tempted if Blackmon is around here, which he very well could be, because they're also lacking weapons in the passing game. They could also go for a cornerback. It'll be one of three, all top needs.
* Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
Given the makeup of the roster, and the fact that they have two first-round picks and can really enhance the level of young talent, I think the Browns are far more likely to look at a young QB prospect than get into the bidding war for a veteran like Manning, or even Matt Flynn. One question I have is whether Cleveland stays at this spot and hopes Griffin is still around, or gets aggressive and moves up to No. 2 and guarantees they get their guy. Given his experience, leadership qualities and overall skill set, I don't see it as much of a leap for Griffin to be a Week 1 starter in 2012.
* Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
I'll say it again -- don't simply dismiss the idea that Richardson could land here because of the presence of LaGarrette Blount. A great running team now needs more than one good back, and Richardson is by far the best back on the board this year. As well, if the Bucs are going with a "best player available" mantra early on -- very possible given a wide range of needs -- Richardson would make a lot of sense here. Blount has power, but he's far more limited as an all-around back than Richardson. The Bucs were actually below league average in yards per rush in 2011, and could look to improve there.