NFL Mock Draft: A surprise to the Niners at No. 7

“But I really have no clue who the Steelers are targeting with the No. 31 overall pick,” I explained.

“Dude, it’s a mock draft. Everyone does one. Do you want to see my Aunt Peggy’s? She’s got Mikel Leshoure going in the first round!”

With that gentle shove, I took my first stab at a mock draft and had a lot of fun. Maybe too much fun.

Within the first 16 picks, we have four quarterbacks off the board, two trades and one unforeseen development from Denver that sends one of the draft’s top-rated players falling to the 49ers (but not that top-rated player).

Will the Niners deal the No. 45 pick? The answer is inside:

1. PANTHERS
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn:
And Jimmy Clausen thought the first day of last year’s draft was a nightmare. At least Clausen, a second-round slider in ’10, gets the bad news immediately as Carolina makes Newton the first plutonium-grade-raw-material prospect to go No. 1 overall.

2. BRONCOS
Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU:
It doesn’t take long for the first jaw-dropper to arrive. With a selection that launches a thousand (OK, a million) epithets from 49ers fans (and one dazed look from presumptive No. 2 pick Marcell Dareus), Denver nabs an elite corner to pair with Champ Bailey. That pillow-soft front seven? The Broncos address that with two second-round picks.

3. BILLS
Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M:
The draft starts off about as well as the 2010 season for the Niners faithful, who have lusted (too much?) after Peterson and Miller for months. Meanwhile, in upstate New York, cheering fans push away nagging thoughts of Aaron Maybin 2.0.

4. BENGALS
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri:
Cincinnati grabs its quarterback of the future and Mike Brown reconsiders his no-trade stance on Carson Palmer. Brown immediately looks to the Bs — as in Baalke — in his Rolodex.

5. CARDINALS
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina: Arizona wanted Miller, but it settles for a nice consolation prize in the freakishly gifted Quinn, who will transition to linebacker in the Cards’ 3-4 scheme.

6. BROWNS
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: Browns coach Pat Shurmur inherited an underwhelming WR corps, similar to one he had as the Rams offensive coordinator last year. Now? Move over, Mohamed Massaquoi! Step aside, Chansi Stuckey! The Shurmur era will begin with a dynamic weapon on the outside.

7. 49ERS
Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama: Au revoir, Aubrayo? With Dareus falling to them, the Niners could let run-stuffer Aubrayo Franklin walk and have Dareus fill those XXXL cleats. The 49ers envision a seamless changing of the (nose) guard, similar to New England’s Ted Washington-to-Vince Wilfork baton pass in 2004.

8. TITANS
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: Tennessee misses Albert Haynseworth (and the Redskins wish the Titans had kept him).

9. COWBOYS
Tyron Smith, OT, USC: I stubbornly ignored the overwhelming Dareus-to-Denver sentiment, but it’s tough to find anyone who isn’t connecting Smith to the Cowboys. (Plus, I’ve got to get at least one of these picks right). Smith should help keep Tony Romo’s left clavicle intact.

10. RAMS (draft-day trade with Washington)
Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: St. Louis moves up to get Sam Bradford a No. 1 wideout (apologies to Danny Amendola). And Washington, which owns just two of the top 143 picks, gets some extra ammunition.

11. TEXANS
Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: Every quarterback was Tom Brady against secondary starved Houston last year. The Texans allowed an NFL-worst 100.5 rating to opposing signal-callers, an astronomical figure that makes a Prince the most sense (sorry).

12. VIKINGS
Jake Locker, QB, Washington: One of those ear-splitting they-did-not-just-do-that!! explosions follows Roger Goodell’s announcement of this pick. Draftniks become hysterical. Joe Webb becomes a wide receiver. And the Vikings note that their last quarterback – that Favre guy – completed 53 percent of his passes in college.

13. LIONS
Anthony Castonzo, OL, Boston College:
What to get the always-injured young franchise quarterback in your huddle? Detroit purchases Matthew Stafford Health Insurance with its selection of the 6-foot-7 Castonzo, a four-year starter at Boston College.

14. REDSKINS
Mike Pouncey, G, Florida: After taking LT Trent Williams at No. 4 overall last year, Washington grabs the draft’s best interior offensive lineman. Not the flashiest pick for a team with serious needs at quarterback and wide receiver, but it all starts up front, right?

15. CHARGERS (draft-day trade with Dolphins)
Cameron Jordan, DE, Cal: San Diego, which has five of the first 89 picks, trades up to beef up its pass rush with Jordan, who registered at least 9.5 sacks in his final three seasons with the Golden Bears.

16. JAGUARS
Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: It’s Pandemonium, Part 2 at Radio City Music Hall as Jacksonville publicly declares that it has gone ga-ga over Mallett’s rifle arm. That other stuff? They’ll sort it out as he develops behind David Garrard.

17. PATRIOTS
Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri:
With the Vikes and Jags making picks that have everyone losing their mind, the Pats make a selection that has everyone nodding their head. The raw and ultra-gifted Smith, a 21-year-old who left school after his sophomore season, had 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks as a freshman.

18. DOLPHINS
Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Why not trade back with few other teams targeting a first-round running back? With the potential departures of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown on the horizon, Miami zeroes in on what might be the draft’s lone bell cow.

19. GIANTS
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: Has it really been 12 years since the smashmouth Giants spent a first-round pick on an offensive lineman? In 1999, New York used the No. 19 pick to select Luke Petitgout. They’re expecting better production from the athletic, 6-foot-8 Solder, a converted tight end.

20. BUCAANEERS
J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: Tampa Bay’s surprise season wasn’t due to its pass rush. The Bucs ranked 30th in the NFL in sacks and Stylez G. White, who led the team, is an unrestricted free agent. They rejoice when Watts slips, slightly, to No. 20. (By the way, I just really wanted to write Stylez G. White).

21. CHIEFS
Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: I just tried to channel Scott Pioli and suddenly feel smarter. After last year’s stellar draft haul, Pioli pounces on Liuget, who has been drawing Gerald McCoy comparisons and top-10 buzz.

22. COLTS
Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: Indianapolis’ leaky line gets an industrial-sized Band-Aid in the 6-7, 327-pound Carimi, a four-year starter who was the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.

23. EAGLES
Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado: With Asante Samuel and Smith, the Eagles have a poor man’s Champ Bailey/Patrick Peterson combo. (Sorry to remind you that Peterson is a Bronco in this alternate universe).

24. SAINTS
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: New Orleans gets great value in Kerrigan, who led the nation tackles for loss (26) as a senior and finished his career 14 forced fumbles, an NCAA D-I record.

25. SEAHAWKS
Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State: Fear not, folks. Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick are still on the board (the crystal ball has the Niners trading up to snag one of them near the top of round 2).

26. RAVENS
Titus Young, Boise State, WR: Because it’s my mock draft and I say so. OK, this is probably too high for Young, but the Ravens desperately need some youth and speed on the outside … so they reach to grab some.

27. FALCONS
Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: Funny how terms such as “long-term arthritis” and “microfracture surgery” can send someone’s draft stock “plummeting.” The Falcons still take a chance on Bowers — once discussed as a No. 1 pick — and his reportedly balky knee. (This pick is preceded by 1,872 ESPN living-room shots of Bowers, on a couch, staring blankly ahead while surrounded by uncomfortable-looking friends and family).

28. PATRIOTS
Justin Houston, LB, Georgia: C’mon, another pass-rusher after taking Aldon Smith? How dare you question the Patriots like that. There have been questions about Houston’s sputtering motor. But don’t guys like this remain in fifth gear in New England?

29. BEARS
Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: This selection inspires something rarely seen: A smile from Jay Cutler.

30. JETS
Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor: New York needs a large individual to replace the recently released Kris Jenkins. Enter Taylor. All 330-plus pounds of him.

31. STEELERS
Danny Watkins, G, Baylor: Great draft-day story for the Pittsburgh media. Watkins is a 26-year-old former firefighter from Canada. According to my sources, he’s the only one of those in this year’s draft.

32. PACKERS
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: And the rich get … a stud who should have gone 10 picks earlier. Due to concerns about Clayborn’s lifelong shoulder condition, the champs happily add a dynamic piece to a front seven headlined by Clay Matthews.

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