The NFL is truly a copycat league. That is, at least in most cases.
Now, surely teams won't be emulating the controversial practices that helped the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl title during the 2009 season, not after commissioner Roger Goodell's historically unrelenting crackdown on the organization in response to the Bountygate scandal. You can bet they've been paying close attention to the business model the New York Giants have administered, with Big Blue's philosophy of stockpiling high-end pass rushers a vital component to the franchise's enviable recent success.
Jerry Reese was widely panned for his selection of Jason Pierre-Paul with the 15th overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. The critics viewed the addition of a wonderfully gifted yet incredibly raw defensive end with only one year of proven production at the major college level as a needless and risky inclusion to a team that already contained a pair of established sack artists on the roster.
Two years later, the Giants general manager's bold move is now being hailed as a stroke of genius after Pierre-Paul quickly blossomed into an All-Pro defender and invaluable contributor to New York's victory in Super Bowl XLVI this past season.
The immediate impact of Von Miller and Aldon Smith, two top-10 choices from last year's draft who each played critical roles in the sudden 2011 turnarounds of the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, has further illustrated just how important a premier pass rusher is to a team's chances for contending for a championship.
Of course, quarterback remains the sport's glory position, which is just one reason why all the buildup to this draft has almost exclusively been centered around the blue-chip duo of Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III, both of whom are already locked in as the top two picks in some order, and explains how the continued rise of Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill has become such a hot topic for debate.
But in the two weeks between now and when the best and brightest of the 2012 rookie class convene upon New York's Radio City Music Hall to find out their professional destinations, expect to learn a lot more about players like Southern California's Nick Perry, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Clemson's Andre Branch, Syracuse's Chandler Jones, Boise State's Shea McClellin and West Virginia's Bruce Irvin. All fit the mold of the new breed of edge rusher whom teams are seeking to build their high-pressure defenses around as they search for their own Pierre-Paul, Miller or Smith, and the relevance of the position to today's game has caused their stock to soar as a result.
So without any added hype, The Sports Network presents its first 2012 NFL mock draft, with a brief explanation of each team's possible direction along with a few projected trades thrown in for a bit of fun:
1) Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford -- Jim Irsay has tried his best to provide some mystery as to which of the two coveted quarterbacks the Colts will take with the top choice, and Griffin's exceptional showing during the scouting process has made the decision a little less clear-cut as it was back in January. Still, Indy has been locked in on Luck as Peyton Manning's successor ever since it secured the No. 1 spot, and the Stanford prodigy hasn't done anything to make the team change its thinking.
2) Washington Redskins (from St. Louis): Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor -- The Redskins have already gone on record that they'll be selecting whomever's still available between Griffin and Luck, as if the three premium draft picks they shipped to the Rams to move up to No. 2 wasn't evidence enough that the club didn't intend to address its most obvious need. Washington may prefer Griffin anyway, as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner's mobility and intelligence are tailor-made for head coach Mike Shanahan's offense.
3) Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT, Southern California -- General manager Rick Spielman has told anyone who'll listen that he's open to fielding offers to move down, and trading out makes some sense considering the Vikings' abundance of holes. But unless he can coerce Cleveland to flip-flop if the Browns are dead set on landing Tannehill, the best course of action may be staying put and grabbing Kalil, who's head and shoulders above the other left tackle candidates in this class and should be a 10-year fixture.
4) Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama -- While it's no secret the Browns will be exploring an upgrade on the modestly skilled Colt McCoy in this draft, Tannehill's limited track record (just 20 starts at Texas A&M) and inconsistent college career may cause some reservations at a pick the franchise simply can't whiff on. Richardson, regarded as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, is a much surer bet and can immediately lessen the burden of whomever is under center next season with his hard-to-find rushing skills.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU -- It's common knowledge that the Bucs love Richardson and would probably snare him here if he's still on the board. Bringing in the draft's best cover corner wouldn't be a bad consolation price if Richardson not there, though. Though Tampa signed Eric Wright in free agency to help shore up its leaky secondary, Ronde Barber just turned 37 and Aqib Talib is in the last year of his contract and has some pending legal issues, so additional aid could still be of use. It also wouldn't be surprising if the Buccaneers attempt to trade down and gain some more picks.
6) St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State -- The Rams' lack of a bona fide No. 1 receiver has made Blackmon a very popular mock ever since their blockbuster deal with Washington, but it shouldn't be a foregone conclusion. Opinions are mixed on whether the two-time Biletnikoff Award recipient has the deep speed and separation skills to merit going this high, and St. Louis also has large voids to fill in the secondary and across both lines. Still, there's little question he can bring a needed boost to one of the league's most anemic passing attacks.
7) Jacksonville Jaguars: Nick Perry, DE, Southern California -- The Jags only managed 31 sacks last season and don't have a reliable pass-rushing presence opposite end Jeremy Mincey, and Perry had a productive three-year career at USC and blew up the NFL Combine with his athletic prowess. He'd be somewhat of a reach at this point, but general manager Gene Smith has pulled some surprises with high picks in the past. Jacksonville also could use some more weapons for young quarterback Blaine Gabbert, so Blackmon may be an option if he falls, but the character-conscious Smith could balk at Notre Dame phenom Michael Floyd due to a history of off-field incidents.
8) Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M -- The Dolphins have been searching for a quality young quarterback for seemingly forever and likely wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on Tannehill if the Browns pass. It's a perfect landing spot for the former Aggie, as he played collegiately under new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and can be eased into duty with veterans Matt Moore and David Garrard currently on the payroll.
9) Carolina Panthers: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis -- The Panthers have the makings of a dangerous offense for years to come after striking gold with 2011 Rookie of the Year Cam Newton, so repairing a defense that was abysmal in head coach Ron Rivera's debut will be the focus. Though he wore an underachiever's label at Memphis, the 345-pound Poe has the brute strength and uncanny quickness to develop into a force who can bolster the team's greatest area of weakness, the middle of the line.
10) Buffalo Bills: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame -- Most draftnicks have the Bills targeting Iowa standout Riley Reiff to fortify an opening at left offensive tackle, but the former Hawkeye isn't a top-10 talent and Buffalo likes the promise of 2011 fourth-rounder Chris Hairston. General manager Buddy Nix generally maintains a best-player-available philosophy in the first round, and the talented Floyd better fits that bill while also filling a need for a big-bodied complement to Stevie Johnson in the passing game.
11) Kansas City Chiefs: Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State -- Personnel guru Scott Pioli has always been a big believer in investing heavily on the offensive and defensive lines, and Cox was one of the most formidable stoppers in the prospect-rich SEC the past two years. He can contribute immediately as an interior rusher on nickel downs as well as give the Chiefs insurance in case impending free agent Glenn Dorsey isn't re-signed at season's end.
12) Seattle Seahawks: Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois -- One of the Seahawks' sore spots last season was the absence of a consistent edge rusher alongside veteran end Chris Clemons, a situation the team expects to rectify in the draft's first two days. Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks as a junior with the Illini, is an ascending player with similar qualities to Clemons in terms of speed and hustle and would make a nice bookend. Seattle also may have interest in Perry, who was recruited to USC by Pete Carroll and fits the club's defensive criteria.
13) Arizona Cardinals: Melvin Ingram, OLB, South Carolina -- Surrendering their second-round pick as part of last summer's Kevin Kolb trade will force the Cardinals into a tough decision unless they're able to move down, as both the offensive line and the pass rush must be upgraded. With the way this draft may shape up, finding a player who can put heat on the quarterback could be more difficult in the middle stages, and there's next to chance they'll be able to get one the caliber of Ingram, who's drawn comparisons to Pittsburgh Pro Bowler LaMarr Woodley, in the third round.
14) Dallas Cowboys: Mark Barron, S, Alabama -- The Cowboys usually aren't very tight-lipped about the players who strike Jerry Jones' fancy, and the two names most linked to the team's plans have been Poe and Barron. Though the latter often battled injuries during his tenure with the Crimson Tide, he'd bring a more physical and athletic dynamic to the back end than the present projected starting tandem of Gerald Sensabaugh and Brodney Pool.
15) Philadelphia Eagles: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina -- Last month's trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans allows Philly to focus on drafting for talent as opposed to plugging in holes. Coples may have the highest ceiling of any defensive lineman in this year's crop, but questions about his toughness and desire have worried prospective suitors and could possibly cause his stock to slip. Capable of playing both outside or along the interior, his versatility should appeal to an Eagles team that traditionally places a high priority on the defensive line.
16) New York Jets: Andre Branch, OLB, Clemson -- The Jets have been connected with virtually every top-tier pass-rushing prospect and are sure to emphasize that aspect with one of their early selections. They've shown particular interest in Ingram and personally worked out Branch, a speedy but somewhat unpolished player with a lot of upside who's best suited to stand up in a 3-4 front.
17) Cincinnati Bengals (from Oakland): Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College -- Middle linebacker doesn't seem to be at the top of the Bengals' wish list at first glance, but incumbent Rey Maualuga has encountered questions about his instincts and struggled in pass coverage during his three-year career. There are no such concerns about Kuechly, who's universally lauded for his intelligence and all-around abilities as one of this draft's safest choices. And he's a Cincinnati native to boot.
18) Cleveland Browns (projected trade with San Diego): Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor -- With an astounding 13 picks, the Browns have the capability of maneuvering up the ladder and zeroing in on the players they most desire. And Wright, perhaps the most polished member of this year's receiver group, appears to be very high on their board as a potential field-stretcher for an offense that's woefully devoid of playmakers. He's also believed to be on Chicago's radar at No. 19 as well, so a trade may be necessary to reel him in. Cleveland could wait until the second round to address its quarterback situation, with Michigan State's Kirk Cousins a possibility.
19) Chicago Bears: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse -- The Bears could explore a number of different avenues, as the offensive line is littered with mostly marginal players and they're still a little short at wide receiver even after the offseason trade for Brandon Marshall. A young pass rusher to team with Julius Peppers is also on the checklist and they may not be able to afford to wait until the second round to take one. Jones, the younger brother of UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, has been rocketing up draft boards following a strong performance on the workout circuit and offers an intriguing blend of size, length and tenacity.
20) Tennessee Titans: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin -- Unsuccessful pursuits of Scott Wells and Jeff Saturday in free agency was a good indicator that the Titans aren't overly pleased with the work of starting center Eugene Amano, and Konz could provide a younger and cheaper replacement if the club is comfortable with some durability issues he experienced in college. As the product of a Wisconsin program renowned for churning out good NFL linemen, his technique and preparation aren't in question.
21) Cincinnati Bengals: Courtney Upshaw, DE, Alabama -- After losing key cogs Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene in free agency, the Bengals are on the lookout for reinforcements to the defensive front. Upshaw had been touted as a possible top-10 pick early in the draft process as a scheme-versatile pass rusher, but a lack of lateral agility exposed at the combine will likely limit him to a down lineman in 4-3 looks. Still, his track record of production as one of the stalwarts of a vaunted Alabama defense offers some value at this spot.
22) San Diego Chargers (projected trade with Cleveland): David DeCastro, G, Stanford -- A rash of injuries over the course of last season revealed San Diego's paucity of depth along the offensive line, and perennial Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman's forced retirement due to concussion problems only compounds those problems. General manager A.J. Smith would be doing cartwheels if indeed he's able to trade down and still obtain a pro-ready replacement in DeCastro, a durable technician who excels in pass protection.
23) Detroit Lions: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama -- The secondary was the Achilles heel of an otherwise terrific bounce-back 2011 campaign for Detroit, as evidenced by the more than 900 passing yards the defense allowed over the team's last two games, and that was before starting corner Eric Wright left via free agency. Standing nearly 6 feet, 2 inches with long arms, Kirkpatrick has the size and physical demeanor to thrive in the Lions' press-coverage scheme, though a recent run-in with the law could cause a club that just had two players arrested on marijuana charges to pause. Detroit also is in the market for an heir apparent to 34-year-old left tackle Jeff Backus, with Reiff, Ohio State's Mike Adams and Stanford's Jonathan Martin all possible targets.
24) Pittsburgh Steelers: Donta Hightower, ILB, Alabama -- The run on Crimson Tide defenders could continue here, with James Farrior's offseason release creating an opening at inside linebacker and declining veteran Larry Foote merely a stopgap option. The 265-pound Hightower would seem to be a sensible fit as run-stopping thumper who played in a 3-4 system at Alabama and can blitz. With Rashard Mendenhall's status for next season unknown due to a knee injury, plucking a running back early on also wouldn't be surprising.
25) Green Bay Packers (projected trade with Denver): Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State -- The Packers got by with using undrafted free agent-types at the outside linebacker position opposite Clay Matthews during their 2010 title run, but that inability to bring consistent outside pressure was the biggest reason for the team's defensive downturn last season. A high-motor player with some pass-rushing skills, McClellin has vaulted himself into first-round consideration after demonstrating better-than-expected athleticism and fluidity at the combine, and he's the high-character prospect that general manager Ted Thompson loves. With the Patriots reportedly on McClellin's trail as well, Thompson may have to move up to get him.
26) New England Patriots (projected trade with Houston): Michael Brockers, DL, LSU -- Brockers' on-field accomplishments aren't commensurate with a first-day selection, as the draft-eligible sophomore only managed two sacks and started one year on a loaded LSU defense and wasn't very impressive at the Combine. However, he's just 21 years old with the prototype frame for a difference- making 3-4 end, and scouts believe he's only scratching the surface of his potential. With extra picks in both the first and second rounds and a need for an influx of youth on the defensive line, New England is one team that may be able to roll the dice on such a boom-or-bust player.
27) New England Patriots (from New Orleans): Bruce Irvin, OLB, West Virginia -- Mark Anderson and Andre Carter accounted for exactly half of the Pats' 40 sacks last season, but Anderson is now in Buffalo and Carter may not be brought back after getting hurt late in the year. Irvin is undersized and owns a rather sketchy background, but the former Mountaineer is an explosive athlete with 4.5 speed who showed next-level pass-rushing prowess as a collegian, and the possible early run on 3-4 outside linebackers could further boost his already soaring stock.
28) Denver Broncos (projected trade with Green Bay): Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut -- The Broncos' projected starters at defensive tackle heading into the draft are 33-year-old Justin Bannan and 31-year-old Ty Warren, who hasn't played a regular-season down the last two years because of injuries. Needless to say, Denver can sorely use a young interior plugger with the ability to penetrate like Reyes, who's received high marks for his work ethic and leadership as much as for his athletic gifts.
29) Baltimore Ravens: Cordy Glenn, G, Georgia -- Strong recent drafts should have the Ravens well prepared for the departures of several key veterans, but the loss of left guard Ben Grubbs may be the most challenging one for head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome. The task would be considerably easier if Glenn, a remarkably nimble 345-pound mauler who may be quick enough to handle right tackle in the pros, is still around at this late stage.
30) San Francisco 49ers: Devon Still, DE, Penn State -- The additions of a re- energized Randy Moss and Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham helped stabilize what had been a dire situation at wide receiver for the defending NFC West champs, allowing them to concentrate on supplying depth to both the offensive and defensive lines. Still, the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, has the size and agility to earn time as a two-gap end in the Niners' 3-4 arrangement and assist an inside rusher on passing downs.
31) St. Louis Rams (projected trade with Houston thru New England): Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State -- If the Rams decide to use their first pick on a wide receiver, odds are they'll spend one of their two early second-rounders towards repairing a run defense that ranked 31st in the league last year. Worthy's strength and ability to play with leverage gives him a good chance to start immediately as part of the team's latest rebuilding effort.
32) New York Giants: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State -- Last season's Super Bowl champs enter the offseason thin at defensive tackle, so Worthy or Reyes would be logical candidates if either makes it this far. Brandon Jacobs' exodus and Ahmad Bradshaw's brittleness also makes running back a position that Reese will likely earmark in the first three rounds, and Martin's powerful style and team-first attitude should appeal greatly to head coach Tom Coughlin as well.