BALTIMORE — The first round of the 2011 NFL draft takes place in New York City next Thursday with plenty of uncertainty and intrigue — and indifference from some disenchanted fans — as the football freeze unthaws for draft weekend.
It will be interesting to see how the draft unfolds during the lockout. Usually, free agency takes place before the draft, but not this year, so draft philosophies will be changed. Players can't be traded, so that could cut down on the number of trades. And with a rookie wage scale likely to be in place post-lockout, teams might be willing to gamble on high-risk players since it won't cost them as much to roll the dice.
There is also no consensus No. 1 pick at the moment, which clouds things even more. But I've got a feeling the Panthers will pounce on Cam Newton atop the draft and we'll see how things shake out for the NFL's 32 teams — including your Baltimore Ravens — from there.
Here's my final crack at guessing how the first round of the 2011 NFL draft will go down:
1. Panthers: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. With a rookie wage scale likely to be in place after the lockout and Jimmy Clausen in Carolina as a backup plan, the Panthers can roll the dice on the supremely-gifted Newton, who has more upside than any quarterback — and perhaps any player — in this year's NFL draft.
2. Broncos: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. The Broncos, who have a new coach (John Fox) and a new defense (back to the 4-3), will have their choice of the draft's top defenders. Patrick Peterson, Von Miller and Dareus would each bring something to the table, but the Broncos beefing up their defensive line seems most likely.
3. Bills: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. Buffalo will give serious thought to taking a QB here, but if the Bills aren't sold on Blaine Gabbert, they can wait until early in the second round to grab one of the second-tier quarterbacks. If that's the plan, they should select Miller, who is widely-regarded as a can't-miss prospect.
4. Bengals: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. If the Bengals phase out Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco — and they should — they will need a new quarterback and No. 1 receiver. They are rumored to be hot and heavy for Andy Dalton, who would be a huge reach, so why not fill the other projected need with the draft's best wideout?
5. Cardinals: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. In the Cardinals' ideal world, one of the draft's top quarterbacks would fall in their lap at No. 5. (If not, they would win a nice consolation prize in Miller or Peterson.) Gabbert comes from a spread offense, but Ken Whisenhunt can attempt to mold him into his next Ben Roethlisberger.
6. Browns: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Like the Broncos, the Browns also have a new coach, Pat Shurmur, who plans on switching his defense to a 4-3, so new personnel is needed up front. With Shaun Rogers gone, the Browns need a dominating presence in the middle. We'll see if Fairley cares enough to become that player.
7. 49ers: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. A potential lockdown cornerback and one of the draft's cleanest prospects, Peterson could be snapped up by any of the teams picking ahead of the 49ers. Yes, even the Panthers. But I would be surprised if he slides past the 49ers, who could use his play-making skills in their secondary.
8. Titans: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. Quinn has done well in rehabbing his image and re-raising his stock after sitting out the 2010 season for violating NCAA rules. The Titans need to improve their pass rush, and will get their choice of Quinn or Da'Quan Bowers. Right now, Quinn appears to be the safer selection.
9. Cowboys: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. Watt, who racked up 11.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss in two seasons at Wisconsin, is quick enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and stout enough to hold up against the run as a five-technique end in the 3-4. The Cowboys have a need for the latter, so Watt is the pick here.
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