By Nate Davis, USA TODAY
Let's punt the urge to grade the 2012 NFL draft at this moment. History strongly suggests that drafts can't be fairly evaluated until at least three years have passed, so it's folly to assign A's, B's and F's just days after the dust has settled. However, our unalterable first impressions have already made their imprints, so here's a rundown of our initial reaction after watching 253 picks come off the board.
First impression: Loved it
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: What a job by GM Kevin Colbert and his staff, who seemed to get impact players in the first five rounds. After years of relying on a patchwork offensive line, G David DeCastro (Round 1) and T Mike Adams (Round 2) join C Maurkice Pouncey and LT Marcus Gilbert on what may be an elite group this season. LB Sean Spence (Round 3) and 348-pound NT Alameda Ta'amu (Round 4) look like starters no later than 2013. And RB Chris Rainey (Round 5) is a home-run threat the team didn't have in its backfield or return game.
2. New York Giants: GM Jerry Reese had five selections in the first four rounds and seemed to masterfully adhere to his penchant for taking the best player while simultaneously addressing need with all five choices. Don't be surprised to see first-round RB David Wilson leave a much bigger footprint in 2012 than Ahmad Bradshaw.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: They're not known for their draft prowess, but Mike Brown might have secured at least a half-dozen starters beginning with CB Dre Kirkpatrick and G Kevin Zeitler in Round 1. They added multiple wideouts (Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones) to supplement A.J. Green and a pair of defensive tackles (Devon Still, Brandon Thompson) who may eventually anchor the line. They even signed free agent LB Vontaze Burfict, a boom-or-bust prospect who essentially arrives with no risk assumed.
4. New England Patriots: They broke with their tendency and moved up the board twice for blue chippers rather than amassing lower and/or future picks. First-round DE Chandler Jones and ILB Dont'a Hightower are perfect additions for a defense that struggled in 2011, and even Round 7 CB Alfonzo Dennard could be an impact player if he shakes his legal issue. Laudable win-now moves for a team seemingly on the cusp of a fourth Super Bowl title.
5. Green Bay Packers: Like New England, they atypically opted to move up instead of down multiple times. GM Ted Thompson patched a defense that allowed the most yards in the NFL last season with a pass rusher (Round 1 OLB Nick Perry), base end (Round 2 DL Jerel Worthy), and a cover man (Round 2 CB Casey Hayward), who could pave the way for Charles Woodson to move to safety. No reason to think Green Bay won't be in the Super Bowl mix again in 2012.
6. Indianapolis Colts: After getting Andrew Luck off the top, new GM Ryan Grigson invested six of his next seven choices into rebuilding the offense around Peyton Manning's successor. It appears Grigson did well, especially by grabbing Stanford TE Coby Fleener, who brings instant chemistry with Luck to the equation.
7. Baltimore Ravens: Impact player for defense (LB Courtney Upshaw, a gift in Round 2), check. Offensive line reinforcements, check. Depth at offensive skill positions, check. Another nice job by GM Ozzie Newsome? Sure looks like it.
8. Philadelphia Eagles: All too often, the center of their defense proved the Achilles' heel in 2011. Coach Andy Reid clearly seems to understand that and traded up in Round 1 for highly regarded DT Fletcher Cox. After previously acquiring MLB DeMeco Ryans, Reid continued investing in the second level by getting Mychal Kendricks in Round 2 before landing another top-notch pass rusher in Vinny Curry. Fourth-round CB Brandon Boykin may even stem the loss of Asante Samuel. Dream Team part deux?
9. Dallas Cowboys: This crop will be defined by Jerry Jones' bold stroke to bolt up to No. 6 for CB Morris Claiborne at the expense of a second rounder. For a team seemingly on the cusp of big things, it appears like a nice gamble. Keep an eye on sixth-round TE James Hanna.
First impression: Liked it
10. St. Louis Rams: They ended up with five of the top 65 choices, and all of them (DT Michael Brockers, WR Brian Quick, CB Janoris Jenkins, RB Isaiah Pead, CB Trumaine Johnson) could develop into core players, and yet each has serious questions too. We would've liked to have seen a better mix of apparent "can't-miss" talent (Claiborne or WR Justin Blackmon) coupled with the projects. But all that aside, kudos to the Rams for the pre-draft trade out of the No. 2 slot, one that still leaves them holding two future first rounders courtesy of Washington.
11. Minnesota Vikings: Nice job extracting four picks from Cleveland while moving down one spot to No. 4, where GM Rick Spielman made the right choice by taking T Matt Kalil to safeguard QB Christian Ponder. Minnesota also reinforced its spotty secondary, beginning with a move back into Round 1 that netted S Harrison Smith and a nice third-round acquisition in CB Josh Robinson. The rebuild seems to be coming along nicely.
12. Cleveland Browns: They paid through the nose to move up one rung to No. 3 for Alabama RB Trent Richardson and rolled the dice on 28-year-old QB Brandon Weeden 19 spots later. But they needed to close the talent gap between themselves and their AFC North foes, each of them playoff teams in 2011. Second-round T Mitchell Schwartz should start on Day 1, and keep an eye on LB Emmanuel Acho, whose brother Sam emerged as a solid player for the Cardinals as a rookie in 2011.
13. Washington Redskins: This draft will forever be defined by the hefty price paid for QB Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 overall pick and perhaps the only rookie the 'Skins will start in 2012. The choice of promising Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins in Round 4 has generated plenty of criticism, but it makes some sense given the team's long-standing problems with quality and depth under center not to mention the prospect that Cousins could be trade away at a later date a la Matt Schaub or Kevin Kolb.
14. Kansas City Chiefs: They've lacked a roadblock on their defensive line for some time, so we loved the choice of athletic 346-pound NT Dontari Poe 11th overall, especially given the ability to groom him under the watch of coach Romeo Crennel. GM Scott Pioli also upgraded his offensive line and made a nice grab by getting Alabama DB DeQuan Menzie in the fifth. Sexy? No. QB prospect? No. But this is a sneaky good roster.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: We liked the addition of three potential starters (S Mark Barron, RB Doug Martin and LB Lavonte David) in the first 58 picks but pause at the choice to pass on the opportunity to take Claiborne in the top five.
16. Carolina Panthers: They avoided picking for need (defensive line, No. 2 receiver) and went for quality with Round 1 LB Luke Kuechly and Round 2 G Amini Silatolu. If fifth-round CB Josh Norman of Coastal Carolina pans out, this is an impactful haul.
17. Miami Dolphins: They took Ryan Tannehill eighth overall, the franchise's first Round 1 investment in a quarterback since Dan Marino in 1983 and a sign Miami is committed to building with patience since Tannehill can develop behind Matt Moore and David Garrard . T Jonathan Martin may prove second-round larceny and the same goes for Round 4 RB Lamar Miller. Miami still appears to need help at wideout after dealing Brandon Marshall.
18. San Diego Chargers: GM A.J. Smith probably needed to knock this draft out of the park and may very well have succeeded. OLB Melvin Ingram could be a gift after he fell to 18th and DL Kendall Reyes (Round 2) and S Brandon Taylor (Round 3) could contribute immediately. TE Ladarius Green (Round 4) and C David Molk (Round 7) are nice prospects who offer hope with TE Antonio Gates and C Nick Hardwick slowing down.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars: They seemed to get two difference makers in Blackmon (after dealing up to No. 5 overall) and pass rusher Andre Branch in the second round. Taking a punter in Round 3 will expose GM Gene Smith to raised eyebrows, but he's definitely improved the parts around second-year QB Blaine Gabbert in recent weeks.
20. Arizona Cardinals: We thought they'd support QB Kevin Kolb (or is it John Skelton?) with an offensive lineman in Round 1 after the team gave up 54 sacks a year ago. Instead they assisted the quarterbacks by taking WR Michael Floyd, a decision that looked really good when Ole Miss T Bobby Massie fell to them in Round 4.
21. Buffalo Bills: GM Buddy Nix picked up a pair of promising corners (Stephon Gilmore, Ron Brooks) and offensive linemen (Cordy Glenn, Zebrie Sanders), allowing them to upgrade talent while filling cracks. This team is inexorably moving toward snapping its league-high 13-year playoff drought.
22. Atlanta Falcons: In fairness, this light draft has to be partially assessed alongside last year's decision to surrender multiple picks for WR Julio Jones. Still, GM Thomas Dimitroff snared a score by getting C/G Peter Konz 55th while third-round OL Lamar Holmes may also improve last year's blocking issues.
First impression: Ummm ...
23. San Francisco 49ers: Given GM Trent Baalke's recent track record, it's probably folly to question any move he makes. But did he overreach for WR A.J. Jenkins in Round 1? Should he have continuously passed on quality offensive line help, waiting until Round 4 to get it? Yet aside from that, second-round RB LaMichael James should make an instant impact on offense and special teams . Getting pass rusher Cam Johnson in the seventh could be a heist.
24. New York Jets: Their top two picks, DE Quinton Coples and WR Stephen Hill, have displayed enormous physical gifts but also come with red flags. Both could be impact players if coach Rex Ryan gets Coples to combine his Julius Peppers-esque talent with consistent effort; speedy Hill should instantly stretch defenses, but this raw prospect may not catch many more balls in 2012 than he did playing in Georgia Tech's triple-option offense.
25. Houston Texans: They adhered to their board in Round 1, adding pass rusher Whitney Mercilus to an already formidable defense. GM Rick Smith dealt out of Round 2 but is apparently hoping mid-round wideouts and blockers (or players currently on the roster) can step up after Houston jettisoned the right side of its offensive line in free agency and failed to secure an impact receiver opposite Andre Johnson. Fourth-round DE Jared Crick may be a catch.
26. Seattle Seahawks: GM John Schneider has made an early living mining gold in the mid-to-late rounds and free agency, and his choice of RB Robert Turbin in Round 4 looks like a score. Yet Schneider's first three picks - Round 1 DE Bruce Irvin, Round 2 LB Bobby Wagner and Round QB Russell Wilson - have exposed him to immediate criticism.
27. New Orleans Saints: Despite the looming prospect of defensive player suspensions in the wake of the team's bounty scandal, it seems they aren't too worried about adding reinforcements, dedicating three of their five picks to offense. Round 3 DL Akiem Hicks (who played collegiately in Canada) could be a windfall.
28. Oakland Raiders: New GM Reggie McKenzie's hands were basically tied by the lack of choices he inherited. Maybe third-round OL Tony Bergstrom gets onto the field early, but this was basically about replenishing depth. The addition of WR Juron Criner in Round 5, who's big (6-3, 224 pounds) but not especially fast (4.68 speed), perfectly encapsulated the philosophical transformation in Oakland.
First impression: Maybe the second impression will be better. 29. Detroit Lions: GM Martin Mayhew has done a phenomenal job rebuilding this rising team's talent. But it's possible none of his 2012 selections will start this year, though we applaud the decision to finally get a promising tackle with the first-round choice of Riley Reiff, who could push RT Gosder Cherilus or earn playing time at guard. Second-round WR Ryan Broyles is battling back from an ACL tear but looks like a slot guy, much like 2011 second-rounder Titus Young. And will third-round CB Dwight Bentley be able to quickly make contributions to a secondary that needs them? We like the long-term outlook for Oklahoma LBs Ronnell and Travis Lewis.
29. Detroit Lions: GM Martin Mayhew has done a phenomenal job rebuilding this rising team's talent. But it's possible none of his 2012 selections will start this year, though we applaud the decision to finally get a promising tackle with the first-round choice of Riley Reiff, who could push RT Gosder Cherilus or earn playing time at guard. Second-round WR Ryan Broyles is battling back from an ACL tear but looks like a slot guy, much like 2011 second-rounder Titus Young. And will third-round CB Dwight Bentley be able to quickly make contributions to a secondary that needs them? We like the long-term outlook for Oklahoma LBs Ronnell and Travis Lewis.
30. Chicago Bears: First rounder Shea McClellin is a good-looking player, but is he big enough (6-3, 260 pounds) to play defensive end in the NFL? Second rounder Alshon Jeffery has flashed promise in the past, but will he be too big (he ballooned to the 240-pound range in college) to play wideout in the NFL?
31. Tennsessee Titans: We would've preferred upgrades to the air defense early on with pass rushers or cover guys. Second-round LB Zach Brown seems like a frivolous and perhaps risky pick. But we've been wrong when prematurely grading Tennessee's drafts before (see Chris Johnson in 2008).
32. Denver Broncos: They moved out of the first round and seemingly added little immediate help, odd since it seems like they are in win-now mode after the arrival of 36-year-old QB Peyton Manning. Perhaps they're right about their first choice (DT Derek Wolfe early in Round 2), but they bypassed multiple chances to get more highly regarded run stuffers. Getting QB Brock Osweiler later in the round was also a bit of head scratcher. Our favorite pick was C Philip Blake in Round 4.