UPDATE: The final mock draft has been updated with some new picks and information as of Thursday afternoon.
It's a crazy year. Based on what I know, I was tempted to wait all night. Things are still changing. Boards are shifting. But every year, you always wait for that first domino to fall. Teams can have their boards set up, and you may have a pretty good idea of what they look like, but it doesn't matter if you have Polaroids of all 32 boards sitting in front of you when that first trade happens or when that first against-the-grain gut call gets made. You tear up the mock and start to enjoy the spectacle and the unpredictability of it all. This year, given all the combinations and trade options in play, I feel like starting that first rip before the first pick is announced. But that's also what makes this fun.
In the end, it comes down to the players. Despite the labor mess, a lot of dreams will come true this week, and it's a thrill to get to be a part of that scene. Below is my last look at how I can imagine things going down based on team needs, evaluations, many sources and, of course, my own grades.
Enjoy the draft, and keep an eye out for my daily updates on picks I liked or didn't like, and the grades file when it's all said and done. As always, an asterisk denotes non-seniors. My final 2011 Big Board is here for a value reference.
* Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Is he the top player on my Big Board? No. But it's hard to blame a franchise in Carolina's position for falling in love with the extremely high ceiling of Newton. As I said when I projected him here before, there are immediate needs, and there is a decision that you believe will change the direction of your franchise for years to come. While I'm not certain Carolina isn't still listening for the right offer for this pick -- if you've heard me at all lately, you'll know I see this is one of the more unpredictable top 10's I can ever remember -- if the Panthers really see Newton as a transformative player who can be both a Pro Bowl quarterback and face of the franchise who draws a lot of buzz, they make this pick. If talent alone was all they were concerned with, Newton would be an easy choice. But this pick also requires a belief in his development and maturity. Will the Panthers have the patience to let him develop on the bench?
Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M
Based on what I know, there are several guys that have been and will be in play here on the defensive side of the ball. But if you want dynamic upside, it's hard to go wrong with Miller. In Denver, he can be the SAM linebacker, a devastating option when the Broncos want to get after opposing QBs. Miller is a smart, explosive, natural pass-rusher with the speed to track down QBs and also drop into coverage, then play the run down the line. Miller is a special talent and is a common pick as the rookie who can provide the most immediate impact.
* Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
There are several guys Buffalo could take here to bolster its defense, but Dareus makes a lot of sense. A scheme-versatile player who can be a disruptive, penetrating force as an interior lineman, or a fantastic pass-rusher as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, he's a safe pick. He doesn't have remarkable quickness, but his agility and versatility at a full 319 pounds is the stuff of an elite lineman. Saying that a guy is the top defensive lineman drafted in this class is to say a lot.
* A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
We know that Cincinnati is still dealing with questions at quarterback, but whether the Bengals' answer is to trade Carson Palmer, somehow keep him or perhaps try to import the likes of Kevin Kolb, Matt Hasselbeck, Donovan McNabb or someone else, they'll need to help whoever will be throwing the ball in 2011 and beyond. This is one I'm sticking with -- by drafting the best pure pass-catching talent in the draft, they help the QB, and also fill holes from obvious departures. Green is an immediate starter and a rare big-time, physical, fast receiver who has the route-running skills and understanding to help right away.
* Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
This is a spot where I'll stamp a big "TRADE POSSIBILITY" tag on my notes as the picks start to come off the board. But if the Cardinals don't make a move for a pick that could turn into Kolb or some other veteran quarterback, Peterson is the guy they should take. He's the best overall talent in the draft, the No. 1 player on my Big Board and, even if he's not dealt, well, is it so bad to have the best player in the draft all the way down at No. 5?