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No slam-dunk top pick this year

The draft is the only game in town. In every NFL town.

In the midst of the lockout, the one piece of business that has not ground to a halt is the draft. None of the 32 teams are allowed to be in contact with their players, but they've been free to handle all the scouting and testing and interviewing that goes into making their draft picks.

Those picks begin Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall. Here's how the first round might go.

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1. CAROLINA (2-14) can't go wrong with the first pick of 2011 because so much went wrong in 2010 for the Panthers. This is a team in need of help almost everywhere, and with no free agency during the lockout, it needs to get things right in the only open avenue for improvement.

So where will the Panthers look for immediate aid? Perhaps quarterback. Or defensive line. Or anywhere else on the defense. Or on offense, for that matter. This is a team with virtually no strengths heading into the 2011 schedule — if there is a season.

On the theory that quarterback really is the most important position, give the Panthers a Heisman Trophy winner.

CAM NEWTON, QB, AUBURN.

2. DENVER BRONCOS (4-12)

No questions, here: Broncos must address an awful defensive front, even with Elvis Dumervil returning from injury. Another SEC standout:

MARCELL DAREUS, DT, ALABAMA.

3. BUFFALO BILLS (4-12)

Bills might be tempted to go for a quarterback, but their needs in their defensive front seven are huge after making only 27 sacks in 2010. They will think about Auburn's Nick Fairley before grabbing the best linebacker in this crop.

VON MILLER, LB, TEXAS A&M.

4. CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-12)

Team dysfunctional either admits Carson Palmer really won't come back, or calls his bluff. Owner Mike Brown's stubborn streak gets the best of him, he ignores QB needs and takes the most ready player in the entire draft.

PATRICK PETERSON, CB, LSU.

5. ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11)

Cardinals have to blink twice when they see the quarterback they wanted fall to them. Drop the talk of trading for Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb when the lockout ends.

BLAINE GABBERT, QB, MISSOURI.

6. CLEVELAND BROWNS (5-11)

Browns wait to address their defensive holes in the second round and beyond. They use as much time as it takes him to run a 40 to announce ...

A.J. GREEN, WR, GEORGIA.

7. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (6-10)

Undaunted by his missing last year because of an NCAA suspension, 49ers get the bookend for Patrick Willis and a linebacker who can stop the run as well as Willis can.

ROBERT QUINN, LB, NORTH CAROLINA.

8. TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10)

Like Buffalo and Cincinnati, Tennessee opts to find its QB of the future in a later round and finds the pass rusher it needs. But Titans need to be patient because he's coming off a slow recovery from knee surgery.

DA'QUAN BOWERS, DE, CLEMSON.

9. DALLAS COWBOYS (6-10)

Jerry Jones thinks long and hard about adding another game-breaking receiver in Julio Jones, but instead pulls the trigger on a protector for returning quarterback Tony Romo.

TYRON SMITH, OT, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.

10. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (6-10)

Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen don't hesitate to go for that versatile wideout the division-rival Cowboys passed on.

JULIO JONES, WR, ALABAMA.

11. HOUSTON TEXANS (6-10)

A good place for the Texans, who have plenty of defensive players to choose from to help Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. Debating between linebacker and secondary, they grab a cornerback for the second straight year, this a royal one.

PRINCE AMUKAMARA, CB, NEBRASKA.

12. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-10)

Had Amukamara been available, the Vikings would have taken him. Now, they ponder — hey, you get 10 minutes, guys — before gambling a bit for their quarterback.

JAKE LOCKER, QB, WASHINGTON.

13. DETROIT LIONS (6-10)

Another team that wanted Amukamara now must look elsewhere. The search lands at the offensive line and ...

ANTHONY CASTONZO, OT, BOSTON COLLEGE.

14. ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-9)

The biggest need is a wideout, but the Rams will wait because they can't get true quality there. Instead, they bolster the defensive line with a big presence.

COREY LIUGET, DT, ILLINOIS.

15. MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9)

Despite louder and louder rumblings that Dolphins have soured on Chad Henne and want to upgrade at quarterback, they fill the spot directly in front of him.

MIKE POUNCEY, C, FLORIDA.

16. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (8-8)

When you play the Colts and Texans twice a year, you must have a pass rush. The Jags don't and are happy to grab one of the better sackmasters in this draft.

RYAN KERRIGAN, DE, PURDUE.

17. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2)

(Pick acquired from Oakland)

As if Bill Belichick actually will make this pick and not trade down. Assuming the lockout prevents him from swapping draft picks — not likely — Belichick opts to upgrade the pass rush.

ALDON SMITH, DE, MISSOURI.

18. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7)

They would have loved for Jones to have fallen and they might even move up to get him. If the Chargers stay here, they pick the third straight defensive end to go.

J.J. WATT, DE, WISCONSIN.

19. NEW YORK GIANTS (10-6)

Both lines could use improvement, with age more of a factor on the offensive side. The rest of the offense is coming around, with several players entering their prime. Pouncey would have been a nice fit, but he's gone.

GABE CARIMI, G, WISCONSIN.

20. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (10-6)

GM Mark Dominik has been blowing smoke about perhaps six quarterbacks going in the first round, hoping it distracts other teams and the player he truly wants falls to 20th. That player might be ...

ADRIAN CLAYBORN, DE, IOWA.

21. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-6)

Offense is the bigger need, but there's no true fit here who is a better player than what's available on defense. Particularly ...

AKEEM AYERS, LB, UCLA.

22. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6)

Indy's offensive line wasn't special last year, and when you have Peyton Manning throwing the ball, you need to make sure the line is not a weakness. The Colts will strengthen it, debating between tackles from Colorado and Mississippi State.

NATE SOLDER, OT, COLORADO.

23. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6)

Solder is gone, which leaves the Eagles, also eager to improve their blocking unit, looking at Sherrod. But they also are intrigued by Baylor's Danny Watkins, who played hockey in Canada — and liked to drop the gloves. If he doesn't help the Eagles, maybe he can contribute to the Flyers.

DANNY WATKINS, G, BAYLOR.

24. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5)

Somehow, one of the top defensive ends slips to a team in desperate need of DEs. No reason for New Orleans to think twice.

CAMERON JORDAN, DE, CALIFORNIA.

25. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9)

Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider give lots of thought to taking a quarterback here with uncertainty surrounding Matt Hasselbeck. They find better value, even this deep in the first round, at defensive end.

CAMERON HEYWARD, DE, OHIO STATE.

26. BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4)

Baltimore needs help at cornerback and has enough strong leadership on its defense in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to keep in line a player who has had trouble in college. Few other teams can make that claim.

JIMMY SMITH, CB, COLORADO.

27. ATLANTA FALCONS (13-3)

Most teams prefer to avoid local products, concerned with the pressure that adds and worried they might be too familiar with the prospect. Most teams don't draft as well as the Falcons, though.

JUSTIN HOUSTON, LB, GEORGIA.

28. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2)

The only club with two picks in the opening round — provided Belichick uses both, or either — the Patriots upgrade their backfield with the first running back selected.

MIKEL LESHOURE, RB, ILLINOIS.

29. CHICAGO BEARS (11-5)

An hour after he appeared ready to be selected, Sherrod finally comes off the board as the Bears bolster a shaky offensive line that played beyond expectations for much of 2010.

DERK SHERROD, OT, MISSISSIPPI STATE.

30. NEW YORK JETS (11-5)

Rex Ryan says you can never have enough pass rushers. Or cornerbacks. Which one here, Rex? That's easy after Auburn's Fairley falls down the board over questions whether he's a one-year wonder.

NICK FAIRLEY, DT, AUBURN

31. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4)

Cornerback is problematic if Ike Taylor leaves. Even if he stays, the Steelers could use another guy in pass coverage.

AARON WILLIAMS, CB, TEXAS.

32. GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-4)

With so many veterans returning from the injured list, the Super Bowl champions have the luxury of truly taking the best available player. Are they sold that the knee problems for 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram have been overblown? Or will they take Muhamad Wilkerson or Brooks Reed for the D-line.

None of them.

MARTEZ WILSON, LB, ILLINOIS.

48. OAKLAND RAIDERS (8-8)

The Raiders got value for this pick — albeit a first-rounder also was part of the cost — when they dealt for Richard Seymour. Choosing so low, it's a lottery who might be left. If it's a cornerback to replace the almost-certain-to-depart free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, then ...

RAS-I DOWLING, CB, VIRGINIA.