In another thread, Chadman asked the eternal question...do we draft for need, or take the best player available?
Well, the answer is a combination of the two...we draft the best player available at a position of need. By that, I mean that we may spend our first round pick on a d-lineman, o-lineman, free safety, cornerback, or inside linebacker. We may draft an OLB, RB, TE, or WR in this draft for depth purposes, but I think those choices will be made in the mid-to-late rounds, not with our premium picks.
Looking at the first round possibilities at those designated positions of need...let's break it down:
The best cornerback and inside linebacker, Florida's Joe Haden and Alabama's Rolando McClain, will likely be gone before we pick at #18, and the second best CB and ILB would not be value picks at #18, so the only way that we take a CB or ILB in the first without trading up or down would be if Haden or McClain happened to fall to #18 (unlikely, but still a possibility worth considering).
Among the d-lineman, we likely will not take a 3-4 DE in the first round for a second year in a row after taking Ziggy with our first pick last year. However, we could take a nose tackle, considering the age of Hampton and Hoke, and the fact that Casey is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Alabama's Terrence Cody and Tennessee's Dan Williams are possibilities.
Among the o-lineman, there aren't any elite centers or guards worthy of being picked at #18, but we could possibly get an offensive tackle, which is normally hard to find where we typically pick in the late first round. Since Willie Colon will likely be a restricted free agent again if no new CBA is ratified, we can keep Colon for one more year while the rookie OT gets accustomed to the pro game. Or, if we sign an OT who is good enough to start as a rookie (remember, Michael Oher was taken with the 23rd pick in the first round last season, and he was a productive starter in Baltimore), perhaps the new o-line coach may decide to try Colon at guard, which previously o-line coach Larry Zeirlein was unwilling to consider. The top 3 OT's will likely be off the board in the top half of the first round (Oklahoma State's Russell Okung, Maryland's Bruce Campbell, and Rutgers' Anthony Davis), so we would be looking at the 4th or 5th best OT (such as Iowa's Bryan Bulaga or Oklahoma's Trent Williams).
Among the free safeties, Tennessee's Eric Berry is the cream of the crop (being compared favorably with Ed Reed) but he will likely be taken in the top 6 or so. I mentioned in another thread that if he happens to fall unexpectedly to #10 because teams do not tend to emphasize safety as much as other positions...particularly free safety (remember, no one expected Michael Crabtree to fall to #10 last year), then we should trade our 1st and 2nd round picks to Jacksonville so they could take Tim Tebow at #18 and recoup the 2nd round pick they traded to the Patriots last year. Getting Troy back and adding Berry would be transforming a secondary without any playmaking skill into a secondary with elite playmaking skill overnight. However, that situation is not all that realistic (just my yearly pipe dream). The more likely scenario would be to take the second best free safety on the board, Texas' Earl Thomas. Even though I am not among those folks recommending drafting USC's Taylor Mays to play strong safety and moving fellow Trojan Troy Polamalu to free safety, that remains a possibility as well.
At this point, I would be surprised if our first round pick was not one of these 8 players (listed in alphabetical order).