The 2011 NFL draft is just a few weeks away and things are finally beginning to come into focus.
All of our game-tape evaluations are in the books. From this point on the only minor shakeups to our draft board will be directly linked to information from NFL teams regarding player red flags such as durability and character concerns.
Plus, because the lockout is preventing NFL players from moving, free agency isn't changing team needs like it usually does.
I've expanded my latest projection to cover the first three rounds and here's how I see things playing out.
* Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Newton is not the No. 1 player on my board -- that would be Alabama DT Marcell Dareus -- and defensive tackle is as much of a need as quarterback, but I'm hearing a lot of buzz from people in the league that Carolina is leaning toward a quarterback. I'm also hearing the Panthers favor Newton over Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, and where there's smoke there's often fire. It's not that Gabbert's stock is falling, it's just that Carolina apparently likes Newton's incredible physical tools and immense upside.
* Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
The Broncos are in desperate need of a true impact defensive tackle to anchor new coach John Fox's 4-3 defense and will be holding their breath until Carolina picks. Denver will be thrilled if Dareus falls here because he fits the mold of an every-down difference-maker and also carries minimal baggage.
Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M
The Bills' most significant need is at left offensive tackle but there is not one on the board worth this pick and, although Gabbert would eventually provide a major upgrade at quarterback, Miller would be an immediate boost for a 3-4 defense that is in dire need of pass rushers. Former first-round pick Aaron Maybin has not realized his enormous potential and Miller is a plug-and-play impact rusher who could help fill the void by quickly becoming a double-digit sack man.
* A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
I'd sure like to be a fly on the wall in Cincinnati's draft room this year. It is clear as day that QB Carson Palmer has no intention of ever wearing a Bengals uniform again, but the team is standing firm to this point on Palmer as its starter, at least in the short term. Gabbert would make sense as a backup plan but I don't get the feeling the team is going to let Palmer off the hook that easily. Green is a higher-rated prospect anyway and has the physical tools to help the team move on after the departures of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Green's size, athleticism and ball skills will make him the next big NFL star at wide receiver.
* Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
With Miller off the board, Gabbert is a no-brainer here. The Cardinals might have a trying season in 2011 with a rookie quarterback at the helm but the team cannot believe that Max Hall or John Skelton is the long-term answer at the position. Gabbert might not be the first quarterback off the board but I believe his combination of intangibles, mental makeup and accuracy will make him the best quarterback from the 2011 class when all is said and done.