This is the time where I start to really dive into film, and get a better sense of who the top players in the 2013 draft are. One thing that has continually proved itself, and a statement that I've heard echoed over, and over again is that most of the draft will be based on evaluations from December, not from Indianapolis. The combine is a dog and pony show, that media and fans take far more seriously than teams do. Obviously interviews are important, as are the medical examinations that take place, but for all the vaunted talk of 40-times, and Wonderlics, when it's all said and done players are taken at almost the spot they were projected in late 2012.
Today I'm only looking at the top 15 picks, with the Carolina Panthers locked in to the 14th slot. I'll have a far more complete mock draft as we draw closer to the draft, but for now -- based on early film study, here is how I think it will go. Archive this for posterity, and making fun of me later.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
You know who doesn't really care what people think of him? Scott Pioli. With the Chiefs' general manager returning, there will be overwhelming pressure for Kansas City to take the top-rated quarterback, but this would be a misstep for a team who already have a lot of talent. Offensive tackle may not be a glaring need in year one, but this is a safe, smart pick to solidify Kansas City's offensive line, as the Chiefs will aim for a quarterback in the second or third round, hoping to find the next Andy Dalton or Russell Wilson.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Much like Kansas City, there will be a lot of pressure for a quarterback here -- but the Jaguars choose to wait also, and no, it's not because of Tim Tebow. Jacksonville were one of the worst teams at stopping the run in 2012, and a new general manager has to start putting reliable talent on the lines. Lotulelei may not be the pass rushing force that Ndamukong Suh was coming out of Nebraska, but he's a ten-year answer at an important position.
3. Oakland Raiders: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
It's not their most glaring need, but the Raiders can't resist the draft's best quarterback. The risk is that Smith is a product of his college offense, and that it won't translate to the NFL -- but as we've seen with rookie quarterbacks this year, if a team is smart and can integrate aspects of his college scheme then they can have early success. The Raiders have the luxury of sitting Smith for a season behind the aging, yet effective Carson Palmer, and try to rebuild their team.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Like most of the teams in this top five, the Philadelphia Eagles probably need a quarterback too -- but with Geno Smith gone, they'll give Nick Foles another season under a new GM. After parting ways with Jason Babin mid-season, the Eagles take their second first-round defensive line player in as many years, hoping that Werner, and 2011 first round pick Fletcher Cox will shape their defensive line for years to come.
5. Detroit Lions: Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
In Carolina we saw first-hand what a leader at middle linebacker can do for a defense, even in his first year. Manti Te'o may not have the measurables that Luke Kuechly did, but those same intangibles are all there. Not only does he give the Lions a stout linebacker they desperately need, but his high-character will help a defense that often plays too aggressively, and immaturely.
6. Cleveland Browns: Damontre Moore, OLB/DE, Texas A&M
I'll let others gush over Georgia's Jarvis Jones, because I think as a rush linebacker Damontre Moore is the better option. Cleveland have put a lot of work into their lines over the last two drafts, but they need pass rush help in the worst possible way. Brandon Weeden buys another season to win over a new front office, and the Browns hope that Moore echoes his former teammate Von Miller.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Assuming Andy Reid is ultimately the man in Arizona, it's natural that he stays with Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals have a near-elite defense, and plenty of weapons on offense, but they were the most sacked team in the NFL this season. Lewan gives them their left tackle of the future, and Reid can build the team from there.
8. Buffalo Bills: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
The Bills have come so close to getting their QB on multiple occasions, and finally they're able to pick their spot. Prior to the season Matt Barkley was a near-assured #1 pick, but an unexpected drop in accuracy paired with questionable decision making have pushed him a little further down.
9. New York Jets: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Rex Ryan sticks to what he knows, and will attempt to overcome the Jets' ineptitude at quarterback with an overwhelming defense. Last year's first-round pick Quinton Coples overcame some huge immaturity issues to put forward a 5.5 sack season, now the Jets pair the second-year defensive player with the raw ability of Jarvis Jones, who some believe to have top-three potential.
10. Tennessee Titans: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Finishing 26th in pass defense, the Titans have missed Cortland Finnegan who they lost to free agency. At 6-1, 199 lbs this would be a good replacement for a team in need of a lot of help in a lot of areas.
11. San Diego Chargers: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The run on Aggies continues with right tackle Jake Matthews. This is another team who need a lot of help in a lot of areas, but helping to protect Philip Rivers should be paramount for a new head coach in San Diego.
12. Miami Dolphins: Keenan Allen, WR, California
Ryan Tannehill performed better than anyone expected his rookie year, as a relatively inexperienced quarterback threw for over 3,200 yards. What became apparent that rookie season was how few weapons the Dolphins had at wide receiver. Keenan Allen is the best WR in the class, and while the Panthers will take a good long look at the Greensboro, NC native -- they wont get a chance. Trading away Brandon Marshall gave Miami options, but they have to give Tannehill a playmaker.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jonathan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Greg Schiano has a nucleus in Tampa Bay, and he recognized the need to revamp the Buccaneers' secondary when he took Mark Barron with a top-ten pick last year. Now he returns to the well with a big cornerback, who will help Tampa Bay's woeful pass defense in a quarterback heavy division.
14. Carolina Panthers: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
This is making an assumption that Ron Rivera remains the Carolina Panthers' head coach. There are two things we've seen him value out of defensive players: Attitude and versatility. The 335-pound nose tackle offers the Panthers a replacement for the aging Ron Edwards, and has the perfect combination of size and athleticism to play in a 4-3 or 3-4 front. A tireless, relentless motor -- Williams' teammates have praised his toughness, and leadership by example. He may not be a player who penetrates into the backfield a lot, but he's excellent at manipulating the point of attack, and will make everyone on the defensive line better. Flanked by two 10-sack defensive ends, this is a prospect that should give fans' goosebumps.
15. New Orleans Saints: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
There aren't words for how bad New Orleans' defense was in 2012, and they hope to finally get some true DL help with the SEC leader in tackles by an interior lineman. Given they don't have a second round pick due to the bounty scandal, they need to hit this one out of the park.