Editor's note: This mock draft was posted prior to USC QB Matt Barkley announcing he will return to the Trojans for his senior season.
College bowl season is in full swing and early-entry players have begun declaring for the 2012 NFL draft, and plenty of teams are out of the playoffs and beginning draft preparations, so what better time to offer up my initial first-round projection for 2012?
The order below represents the current inverted NFL standings, with the league's strength-of-schedule tiebreaker determining the order for teams with the same record (teams with the lower opponent winning percentage get the worse pick).
Much can and will change as the playoff field is set and postseason results shuffle the lower part of the board, but this early look offers some perspective on where prospects might land given what we know at this point.
The board is split evenly, with 16 players each from the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, but three quarterbacks and seven offensive players overall are in the top 10.
The SEC leads the way with 10 prospects in this projection, followed by the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 with six each. Among individual schools, Alabama is tops with four players on the list (all in the top 15), while Stanford (3), USC (2), Baylor (2), North Carolina (2), South Carolina (2), Oklahoma (2) and Mississippi State (2) also contribute multiple prospects.
* = juniors and third-year sophomores
Andrew Luck*, QB, Stanford
Luck is a once-in-a-generation quarterback prospect, and Colts legend Peyton Manning will be 36 next season and is coming off multiple neck surgeries. Given the financial implications, it looks like the smart decision is to draft Luck and part ways with Manning.
St. Louis Rams
Matt Kalil*, OT, USC
The Rams need to better protect the investment they made in 2010 No. 1 overall pick QB Sam Bradford, and current LOT Jason Smith has not lived up to expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in 2009. Given Kalil's size and athleticism, he is ready to step in right now and take over at left tackle.
Morris Claiborne*, CB, LSU
Claiborne is the premier cover corner in the 2012 class, and the Vikings rank 30th in the NFL in pass defense (260 ypg). He has size, fluid hips, good top-end speed and outstanding body control, and he excels at locating and attacking the ball over his shoulder.
Trent Richardson*, RB, Alabama
Richardson is a more complete back than former Crimson Tide teammate Mark Ingram, the No. 28 pick to New Orleans in 2011. Richardson has a rare combination of size, speed, power, agility, burst and versatility, and is the rare exception to the don't-take-an-RB-in-the-top-10 rule.
Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
The Jaguars have a pressing need at defensive end, and while Coples is not a speed rusher, his blend of size, power and quickness allows him to be a productive pass-rusher (17.5 sacks the last two seasons) and disruptive against the run.