2011 NFL Mock Draft 3.0

The NFL combine has both underscored a lot about what we already knew, and shifted some prospects in the eyes of evaluators. Combine that with hints about a potential labor deal to come, and it makes this mock draft perhaps the most interesting thus far. In my comments, you'll see that how teams target certain prospects isn't just an indicator of need, but also one of leverage. If a labor agreement is reached, I believe you'll see trade flexibility that simply hasn't existed in previous years.

The biggest shift is at the top of the draft, where right now I see need balanced with leverage. Teams are now forced to not only consider the best player, but how much teams covet their draft position. Keep that in mind as you read -- and then comment. As always, an asterisk denotes non-seniors.

Carolina Panthers

Record: 2-14

* Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri

There's a thought process here that goes beyond need. For one, Gabbert impressed in Indy, and his pro day next week will help determine if he has the potential to land here. Two, I expect any labor deal that gets worked out will create a rookie salary scale that limits the massive bonuses for top picks, making it easier to trade up and down in the draft, which has become increasingly difficult. So it makes sense for Carolina to project that it could take one of the top quarterbacks and open up the trade options, in essence, saying, "To guarantee a shot at the one you prefer, talk to us." Lastly, while I still believe in Jimmy Clausen's chances given his youth, Ron Rivera could not be blamed for targeting his own vision of a franchise quarterback with a pick here or via free agency. It's a leverage position now, but also a potential pick. Part of it is up to Gabbert.

Denver Broncos

Record: 4-12

* Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

The Broncos are between defensive systems and have major needs along the defensive line, where their ability to stop the run was a problem, as was their pass rush, and they have a shot to take the best defensive lineman in a remarkably deep class. While many saw John Fox and John Elway watching the Auburn pro day closely, I believe that more of the conversations were focused on Fairley. He is scheme-versatile, very athletic for his size (which is back to 297 pounds as of yesterday) and a devastating penetrator at tackle; he helps immediately.

Buffalo Bills

Record: 4-12

* Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

Many were surprised at Dareus' measurements at the combine, where he weighed in at 319 pounds. And while Chan Gailey says his 2011 defense could resemble a hybrid -- either a 3-4 or a 4-3 depending on available personnel and matchups -- Dareus is a player who can fit any scheme well. With great quickness for his size, he can take up blockers and still provide a push as a 3-4 defensive end, perhaps solidifying that scheme for the Bills. A safe pick at No. 3.

Cincinnati Bengals

Record: 4-12

* Cam Newton, QB, Auburn

In 2003, Marvin Lewis' first year as head coach with the Bengals, the franchise drafted Carson Palmer, and had the discipline to start Jon Kitna all season and let Palmer learn the system while waiting to step in as the franchise quarterback. With Palmer on his way out, Lewis could do something similar in 2011, drafting Newton, letting him take a year to learn the system and plugging in an interim solution in the meantime. The Bengals could also consider moving this pick, similar to Carolina's position with Gabbert.

Arizona Cardinals

Record: 5-11

Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M

I'm sticking with this selection from the last mock. Joey Porter won't be back and Miller would represent an immediate pass-rushing upgrade on the edge of Arizona's 3-4 scheme. Miller, who has come a long way since a junior year in which he was considered mainly a sack artist, could certainly provide a pass-rushing presence for the Cardinals, but also has a great deal of athleticism and should hold up for three downs in this system.