2012 NFL Draft Preview

Dan Klausner's personal look at the 2012 NFL Draft.

Admittedly, I haven't been as diligent with my draft coverage as in years past; still, I'd like to think I've done enough research to put out a worthwhile preview. But first, just in case you want a refresher or feel the need to judge my legitimacy when it comes to player evaluation, here are the position previews I wrote for last year's drafts: Quarterback, Running Back/Fullback, Wide Receiver, Tight End, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Cornerback, Safety. Now, for the 2012 edition.

Quarterback

I shared my thoughts on Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III back in December.

The Best, 1A: Andrew Luck - Stanford - 6040 / 234

Again: An athletic version of Peyton Manning.

The Best, 1B: Robert Griffin III - Baylor - 6023 / 223

In any other draft year, he'd be the first overall pick. Here's the RGIII excerpt from my December article:

My favorite quarterback in this class is definitely Robert Griffin III, or RG3. He deservedly won the Heisman Trophy Saturday night and has taken the country by storm this season, starting with the very first game against TCU. Everybody is hopping on the bandwagon and the hype is only going to build as the draft approaches. Because RG3 is that exciting to watch. More importantly, he's good. I just love everything about his game. RG3 doesn't have Luck's measurables, but there's not a single player in college football who's smoother or throws a prettier ball. Just the way passes come out of RG3's hand lets me know he's a special breed. Some of the throws he makes are simply amazing and leave the viewer in awe. I can't even tell you how many times I've watched him play this season and said, "Wow" or "Yeah, he's a pro." Honestly, his game reminds me of what we're seeing from Aaron Rodgers right now. RG3 is a freak athlete who can move the pocket and extend plays with his legs. He is always looking to pass first, and that's the best part about him. But just in case he can't pass, RG3 also has the kind of speed that allows him to race by defenders and pick up chunks of yardage. He could have been an Olympic hurdler if not for football. I actually think RG3 is the best pure athlete I've seen at the quarterback position since Michael Vick. The resemblance is mainly due to their similar statures (Vick is 6-0 and RG3 is 6-1) and the fluidity of their motion - you know, the ability to juke defenders into shame. I'll go ahead and say RG3 will run under a 4.5 at the Combine and have scouts drooling (more than they are already).

RG3 throws pinpoint darts, but it's a very catchable ball that leads the receiver and lets him do something after the catch without breaking stride. He is deadly with intermediate throws and can also effortlessly fling the ball down the field with zip and authority. I just always keep coming back to this: It's really fucking fun to watch RG3 play. If he was Luck's size, he'd be challenging the golden child for the top overall pick, there's no question in my mind about that.

I value intelligence and accuracy more than anything in a quarterback prospect, and RG3 has both in spades. He's smart and sharp with a unique, likable, and infectious personality, as well as a top student; comes across very positively when interviewed, and even has a healthy dose of swagger I view necessary to being a winner. As for accuracy, it is without question the best part about RG3's tangible skill set. He's supremely accurate. On every kind of throw. Two numbers: 18 and 20. The first is the number of touchdowns RG3 had thrown through the first four games of the season, and the second is the number of incompletions he threw during that span. Mind-blowing, even if two of those opponents were Stephen F. Austin and Rice. Two more numbers: 72.4 and 10.84. The first is RG3's completion percentage on the season (lowest for a single game was 61.8%), and the second is his yards per attempted pass. Just think about how ridiculous that is. Every time he goes to throw the ball, it's equivalent to a first down.

Lastly, I think there's a lot to be said for where RG3 has had his success - not at some storied powerhouse football school with a long tradition of winning and sending players to the pros. He did it at Baylor. RG3 has brought Baylor football from total irrelevance into the national consciousness and single-handedly built and established a brand. He is the reason Baylor can dream about one day being a BCS championship-caliber program, and his legacy is sure to live on. I don't think the immense responsibility and burden of leading an NFL franchise will faze RG3 one bit. That's why the Washington Redskins should do everything in their power to draft him - RG3 is the quintessential candidate to be the franchise savior and iconic player who ends the past 20 years of hopelessness in DC.

Well, the Redskins did do everything in their power -- and then some -- to get him.

How Could I Have Forgotten: Brandon Weeden - Oklahoma State - 6036 / 221

Weeden's been talked about since last season because he's the classic baseball-prospect-turned-quarterback, and a pretty good one. He's the guy who's been throwing to top overall wide receiver prospect Blackmon. Weeden completed an extremely high percentage of his passes this season and was lethal in the redzone. Yeah, he looked ugly coming in cold at the Senior Bowl, but all the guy did in college was win. And win big showdown games against other top tier quarterbacks. Like Andrew Luck (the prodigal son). Like Robert Griffin III (twice). Like Landry Jones (who's rated highly but kinda sucks; Weeden has beaten him twice, as well). Even Nick Foles (twice), who will get drafted.

While the age (28) discrimination is always a factor, it just means Weeden will be expected to start immediately. He, Trent Richardson, and Greg Little (who's a stud and has the talent to get much better) make for a good offensive skill position trio in Cleveland. What about poor Colt McCoy? Looks like the Browns expect Weeden to beat him out for the starter position in camp.

Overrated: Brock Osweiler - Arizona State - 6067 / 242

I don't get the recent hype for Brock Osweiler. Seriously, if he wasn't nearly 6'7" with a strong arm, I wonder if he'd even get drafted. I watched five Arizona State games in their entirety this past season (Mizzou, USC, @Oregon, Arizona, @Boise State), and the number of times I found myself muttering "this guy sucks" with regard to Osweiler... well, it happened a lot. Even though he had good games -- against Mizzou and USC, for example -- my impression of him is much more negative than positive. Osweiler might be the tallest QB in the draft, but he sure doesn't play like it. He hardly utilizes his size and has this ugly, three-quarters throwing motion that's slow and elongated and results in him slinging the ball more than throwing it. A guy who's 6'7" should never even have it be a possibility that his passes could get batted down at the line of scrimmage, but it happened to Osweiler enough that I might as well have been watching Michael Vick throw the ball. What's the point of being tall if you don't take advantage of it? If that's not enough, the nose of the ball on Osweiler's throws often pointed downward, which resulted in passes that fell short of the intended receiver by a few yards. As someone who watched Donovan McNabb for ten years, let me tell you that there is nothing more infuriating to me than a quarterback who short hops wide open receivers because of poor mechanics that lead to, among other things, throwing a ball with severe downward action.

Osweiler's measurables are appealing, but his play, on the whole, is not.

Underrated #1: Russell Wilson - Wisconsin - 5107 / 204. Love Hustle Wilson's game. Commanding field general and tremendous athlete who can make plays with his legs. Only negative is height, which Wilson helps mitigate with a Drew Brees-esque over-the-top release and uncanny ability to find throwing lanes.

Underrated #2: Austin Davis - Southern Mississippi - 6014 / 219

Underrated #3: G.J. Kinne - Tulsa - 6011 / 234

Running Back

The Best: Trent Richardson - Alabama - 5091 / 228

I don't do this very often, but... duh. Anybody who watched Alabama the season before last knew Richardson was worlds better than Mark Ingram and a future bona fide star in the NFL. I even wrote as much in last year's draft preview of the running back position. What happened in 2011 only further confirmed the notion.

Next Best: Doug Martin - Boise State - 5091 / 223

What I wrote about him in September:

Doug Martin is a dual threat who started to emerge in 2009 before really breaking out in 2010, when he had 1260 yards on 201 carries (6.3 average), 28 receptions for 338 yards, and 14 total touchdowns (12 rushing, two receiving). He has an ideal, compact build, keeps his pad level low, runs HARD, patiently waits for his blocks to set up, and displays excellent vision and burst when attacking the hole. Martin is a shifty runner with an array of moves who's also strong and breaks tackles. He's been timed in the sub-4.5 range but doesn't appear to have that extra gear once he gets in the open field; while Martin has has shown the ability to break off long runs if he gets a step, I've also seen him get caught from behind a bit too much for my liking. Though I wouldn't classify him as explosive/dynamic or a home-run threat (which is really the only negative I can think of), Martin is a solid, steady, and dependable three-down workhorse of a back who excels in pass protection and has the look of a future starter at the next level. He strikes me as one of those guys who won't necessarily wow you too much over the course of a game, but looking back on the stats you'll see he went for 125 yards and at least one touchdown on 25 carries.

Sleeper: Isaiah Pead - Cincinnati - 5097 / 197

Finally started to get some recognition for his standout performance during Senior Bowl week, but the truth is Pead's play has been worthy of recognition the past three seasons. He's the kind of dual threat perfectly suited for today's game and is a player I really like a lot. I think Pead could start in the NFL, though he'd probably be more dangerous as part of a two-headed monster because that would allow him to also utilize his explosiveness and dynamic ability to return kicks. Here's what I wrote about him leading up to the Senior Bowl:

The other Bearcat at the Senior Bowl is running back Isaiah Pead, who just happened to be named Big East Offensive Player of the Year. And if you've watched any Cincinnati games over the past few years, you know he's a shifty dual threat with dynamic skills and a future in the NFL. Explosive and elusive instead of powerful, though I do think his toughness as a runner is understated - he routinely finishes strong and fights for extra yards. Sets up blocks and only needs a sliver of daylight to break a big play; lightning quick in and out of the hole and very dangerous if he can get to the outside. Routinely leaves would-be tacklers looking for their jockstraps. Once Pead gets into space, that's when he really excels.

Underrated #1: Chris Polk - Washington - 5106 / 215

Wrote this about him in January 2011:

Remember this name. Not only will Chris Polk be a professional running back, he'll be a damn good one. He can run by or over defenders, it's just a pick-your-poison type of conundrum. Unjustly overshadowed by the overrated Jake Locker this season, Polk made sure everyone knew he's the best player on that Huskies team with his dominating performance against Nebraska in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl (what the...?) At 5'11", 215 lbs, and with speed in the 4.4 range... really, what more could you want from a physical standpoint? With the departure of Locker to the NFL, it's not outrageous to suggest Polk could lead the nation in rushing next season.

Underrated #2: Adonis Thomas - Toledo - 5086 / 185

Here's what I wrote about him in September:

The senior tailback had a breakout season in 2010, when he ran for 1098 yards on 175 carries (6.3 average), added another 372 yards on 31 receptions (12.0 average), and scored ten total touchdowns (eight rushing, two receiving). Thomas is undersized and not a workhorse back by any stretch of the imagination, but he's a versatile dual threat with 4.45 speed. Despite tallying just 47 yards on 14 carries against last week (which included a touchdown), Thomas hurt the Buckeyes with six receptions for 111 yards. He's a quick, explosive, fast-twitch, deftly agile athlete who darts around the field and can make defenders miss in space. Enticing talent, flashes serious big-play ability.

The Little Guy: Rodney Stewart - Colorado - 5066 / 180

Typically compared to Darren Sproles, as is the destiny of players with such a build. In reality, Stewart isn't as fast as Sproles, but he's got the same kind of wiggle with short-area burst and quickness.

Deep Sleeper: Jonas Gray - Notre Dame - 5097 / 225

Built like a brick shithouse and able to blend power with grace as a runner. Honestly, Gray is probably only in here because I witnessed the run that put him back on the map as a prospect. It also happened to be his first career rushing touchdown. For a high school superstar who arrived in South Bend with enormous hype, Gray epically failed to live up to expectations his first three seasons. It took until his senior season to break out, but it happened in a big way. After exploding through the Pittsburgh defense for a 79-yard touchdown run -- the aforementioned first of his career -- Gray went on to score at least one touchdown in each of the Fighting Irish's next seven games while splitting carries with celebrated starter and future top draft prospect Cierre Woods. Unfortunately, a torn ACL during the home finale against Boston College cut Gray's breakout season short; he finished with 114 carries for 741 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Wide Receiver

The Best, 1A: Justin Blackmon - Oklahoma State - 6011 / 207

Good athlete, strong, playmaker, tremendous body control, reliable go-to target who was especially clutch in third down situations. Excels in the red zone. Makes tough catches but also dropped a few too many passes for my liking as a result of not looking the ball into his hands. Not an explosive vertical threat, but he's great in the middle of the field and his strength allows him to break tackles and make things happen after the catch.

The Best, 1B: Michael Floyd - Notre Dame - 6030 / 220

Great athlete, strong, uses his body well and wins 99.9% of one-on-one battles/jump balls, makes some simply ridiculous catches. Ideal size/weight/speed for the position. Has had trouble with alcohol in the past, but seems to have matured and learned from his mistakes. Where Floyd pales in comparison to Blackmon most, however, is when it comes to gaining yards after the catch, as I never really recall seeing him make the first guy miss or break tackles. That's a concern because at his size, yards-after-the-catch is something Floyd should bring to the table.

The Freak: Stephen Hill - WR - Georgia Tech - 6036 / 215

When you're nearly 6-4, weigh 215 pounds, and can run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, it's going to make scouts and player personnel executives drool. The height-weight-speed trifecta will never not be sexy; it's the reason Hill was getting hype going into the Combine. This is a guy who played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech and therefore had limited opportunities to make catches and have an impact on games. But when Hill did a get a chance, he almost always made it count. He averaged a preposterous 29.3 yards per catch on 28 total receptions (820 yards total) this past season. That number just blows my mind, regardless of how much more likely it is for a triple-option attack to hit big plays in the passing game when the defense is so focused on stopping the run.

The thing about Hill is, he has all the athletic ability in the world and will make some catches that drop your jaw, but is just as likely to lose concentration and drop an easy pass that would otherwise result in a big play. It's infuriating to witness and happened far too frequently. Now, Hill did look really good in the gauntlet drill and caught everything thrown his way at the Combine, but I trust what I see in live game action above all else. Aside from the drops, you have yourself one very attractive wide receiver prospect. His physical traits and performance at the Combine evoke memories of fellow former Yellow Jacket and current Denver Bronco Demariyus Thomas.

Underrated #1: Jordan White - Western Michigan - 5116 / 208

I've had a soft spot for Jordan White since the 2010 season. He measured a little shorter than I thought, but it didn't change my opinion. You can view the scouting report I wrote for him at igglesblitz.com. Below is the except from my Senior Bowl preview:

Actually first wrote about him before last year's Combine, when I mistakenly thought he had entered the draft. It's amazing to me how underrated and undervalued Jordan White still is, especially in light of the ridiculous senior season he just had - 140 catches (led the nation), 1,911 yards, and 17 touchdowns! Not a bad way to improve upon the 94-catch, 1,378-yard, 10-touchdown campaign he had in 2010.

You probably saw him in a number of SportsCenter highlights this past season - that tends to happen when a player goes for at least 12 catches in a preposterous 8 of 13 games. That includes a 16-catch, 238-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Toledo in a 66-63 loss (a game in which another of my favorite wide receiver prospects, Eric Page, went for 9 catches, 168 yards, and 5 - yes, 5 - touchdowns) and a 13-catch, 265-yard, 1-touchdown performance against Purdue in the Little Caesars Bowl. He also went for 12 catches and 119 yards in an opening week loss to Michigan.

Granted, injuries have plagued White throughout his college career, but there's no denying his cartoonish, video game-esque production. The only negative to his game is that he's not a burner, but, honestly, it doesn't matter because his speed looks good enough to me and his acceleration more than makes up for it anyway. White is just a phenomenal wide receiver - athletic, strong, powerful, tough (catches the ball through contact better than anyone I can remember), reliable, not afraid to go over the middle, and has perhaps the best hands of any wide receiver in his draft class (rarely will ever see him let the ball get into his body). So pure, a natural at the position, makes some simply insane catches (just go to YouTube), and is dangerous when he turns upfield. Trust me, Jordan White is the real deal.

Underrated #2: Derek Moye - Penn State - 6041 / 209

Criminally underrated, actually, and overshadowed by the horrific sexual abuse scandal that defined this past season at Penn State. I saw Moye make some simply unbelievable catches and believe his lack of recognition is due more to poor quarterback play than his own skills. He's got the size, speed, athleticism, and, perhaps most importantly, body control to make an impact in the NFL. Go back and watch some Penn State games from the 2010 season, and you'll see what a stud Moye can be. Whichever team drafts him (likely on the third day) will be getting itself a real steal.

Tight End

The Best: Coby Fleener - Stanford - 6056 / 247

Fleener's a big play threat (averaged ~20 yards per catch this past season) who can stretch the field. Incredible athlete with soft hands and can run; was a favorite target of Andrew Luck, and you couldn't watch a Stanford game without realizing his obvious talent.

Sleeper: Taylor Thompson - Southern Methodist - 6057 / 259

Need a TE/DE hybrid? This is your guy. Hell, he played DE in college but started to get looks as a potential TE in the months leading up to the draft. Has the measurables and athletic ability to make the transition but obviously remains a major project.

Deep Sleeper: Lamont Bryant - Morgan State - 6053 /223

Bryant is listed as a tight end, but given his size/weight ratio and the fact that he ran a 4.39 at his pro day (officially listed at 4.45), it's more likely he translates into a WR in the NFL. Need more evidence that this guy has NFL measurables? He posted a 43" vertical and put up 19 reps on the bench and his broad jump, shuttle, and cone drill results were in line with the wide receivers. Dude's a freak.

Have I ever seen him play? No. Have I ever even seen a highlight tape? No (come on, YouTube). Has he ever run an NFL route? Probably not. Do I like the raw skill set? Hell yes.

Deeper Sleeper: Derek Carrier - Beloit - 6033 / 238

I know what you're thinking... Beloit?! I did, too. Did anybody even know that school had a football team? I didn't. With only 1300 students and being a, you know, tiny liberal arts school in the midwest, Beloit College isn't exactly a place where one would expect to find a potential NFL draft prospect. And for the most part, no NFL scouts found a potential NFL draft prospect at Beloit College -- he came to them. Derek Carrier essentially introduced himself to the NFL at the University of Wisconsin's pro day on March 7 (take a look at his measurables). By the end of the event, scouts and player personnel executives were scrambling to find out more and putting in requests for tape of Beloit's games. I guess that'll happen when a guy literally comes out of nowhere and manages to outshine a slew of NFL draft prospects at a major school's pro day.

Deepest Sleeper, 1A: Chase Ford - Miami - 6065 / 255

Deepest Sleeper, 1B: Josh Chichester - Louisville - 6060 / 233

Offensive Line

I'll level with you here: Offensive line is the position I feel least comfortable evaluating. I didn't delve into the prospect pool too much and therefore would rather not offer my opinion instead of just talking about of my ass.

Defensive End

The Best: Chandler Jones - Syracuse - 6045 / 266

The hype for Chandler Jones has picked up considerable momentum over just the past few weeks, and, as is protocol, every draft analyst has rushed to watch film and submit his scouting report. Now the scuttlebutt has him going in the top-20. I won't say I'm not surprised that Jones has been getting an inordinate amount of love recently, but I've been on board this train since I watched him dominate West Virginia and relentlessly harass Geno Smith -- for whom I was tuning in -- during upstart Syracuse's 49-23 evisceration of the Mountaineers. Jones finished with six total tackles and two sacks and was in the backfield all game. It was one of those whoa-who's-this-fucking-guy moments, or what Howie Roseman would call the "blink" test. The measurables check out, too, especially those long 35.5" arms. I don't care about Jones's 4.87 in the 40 because I've seen the kind of quickness he possesses in the trenches.

All you've really heard about at the defensive end position in this draft has revolved around Quinton Coples, Courtney Upshaw, Whitney Mercilus, and Nick Perry, but don't be surprised if it turns out Jones is the first one off the board.

Note: Brother, Arthur, who also matriculated at Syracuse, plays for the Ravens.

Sleeper: Tyrone Crawford - Boise State - 6042 / 275

I've been pumping up Crawford since September (see report below), and I remain enamored with his skill set. It took some time, but all the other draftniks out there finally caught on. When I first wrote about Crawford, he was projected as a late-round pick; now he's expected to be taken in the second or third round.

Watch out for this guy. Crawford is an athletic freak with great size, 4.75 speed, and the raw skills to dominate. His quickness, acceleration, explosion, and strength make for a deadly combination. A junior college star who transferred to Boise State prior to the 2010 season, Crawford led the Broncos in tackles for loss (13.5) as a backup, to go along with seven sacks. He came into 2011 as a starter and immediately made his presence felt against Georgia, totaling five tackles (one for loss) and 1.5 sacks. The Windsor, Canada native has undeniable NFL talent and all the tools to succeed at the next level. It's just a matter of getting more playing time, refining his technique, and learning to harness his tremendous ability. Tyrone Crawford, remember the name. He and Billy Winn, who's actually considered the better prospect, make that Boise State defensive line a destructive force.

Defensive Tackle

The Best: Fletcher Cox - Mississippi State - 6035 / 298

Just as unbelievable and breathtaking a size/weight/speed specimen as Dontari Poe, perhaps even more so -- Cox ran a 4.79 at nearly 6-4 and 298 pounds! That's totally insane, and it's no fluke, either. He really is a special athlete and unique player. Cox is quick, explosive, sudden, relentless, and has "whoa"-eliciting ability. When I watched him play, he reminded me of Tommie Harris. Cut his teeth in the SEC and was a terror on the interior, routinely penetrating into the backfield and blowing plays up (5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2011). Combine the rare, remarkable physical skills with that "high motor" and versatility (can play DT or DE), and, well, is there any way Jim Washburn and the Eagles don't have Cox atop their board? Scuttlebutt is that the Eagles will attempt to move into the top-10 (it'll take their first second round pick) to get him.

Edit: Love this story. Good pick, Iggles. Cox is perfect for Washburn's "Wide 9" scheme. Also, he is from a place called Yazoo City. Yazoo City! Come on, that's awesome.

The Enigma: Dontari Poe - Memphis - 6041 / 346

Even in the weeks leading up to the Combine, I had more than a few friends tell me, "Holy shit, I want this Dontari Poe monster." Poe justified their affection, as he was by far the biggest story at the Combine. You simply do not find human beings of Poe's size who move like he does. I've never seen a guy 6-4 and 346 pounds run a sub-5.0 40-yard dash. I mean, that shouldn't be possible, and it's completely mind blowing. Then he showed his mammoth build wasn't just for show either by putting up 44 reps on the bench. When you look at Poe, however, you wouldn't think he weighs nearly 350 pounds. He carries his weight so well and is an unprecedented physical specimen - for that reason alone his potential is through the roof. Then you go beyond Poe's measurables and workout numbers and look at his game tape. The unbelievable quickness and explosiveness off the snap is evident, but he was far too often inconsistent with his play, and you didn't see the intensity that, when combined with his physical gifts, would have made him unstoppable. He'd deftly spin away from a blocker and run down the ball carrier one play, then loaf and look disinterested the next. As such, it's fair to wonder if Poe is a guy who was used to getting by on natural talent and therefore never felt the need to work extensively at his craft. He's very raw with little to no technique when it came to using his hands and developing counter moves. There's no way Poe ever should've been able to get blocked by just one offensive lineman, especially in Conference USA, so the fact that he was on numerous occasions while at Memphis is definitely a troublesome trend. Then again, even in the game where Poe didn't have an impact on the stat sheet, he still controlled the line of scrimmage and took up space. Reports are that he's come across well in the interviews and is a good kid who's coachable and wants to get better, a player who's not content with merely being talented but who has the desire to be great.

Poe is perhaps the draft's biggest boom/bust player. To me, he's the Jason Pierre-Paul of defensive tackles. Poe has what it takes from a physical and athletic standpoint to be a dominant force, and it'll be up to his position coach in the pros to help him harness that tremendous ability. A versatile, scheme-flexible player who could be a DT in a 4-3 and both NT and DE in a 3-4, if Poe goes to the right environment and situation, he'll blossom into the monster you envision when thinking of a man his size moving the way he does.

My Favorite: Derek Wolfe - Cincinnati - 6047 / 295

Another guy whose bandwagon I've been on for some time now. Here's what I wrote about him leading up to the Senior Bowl:

Don't care if he's undersized as a DT (I'm sure teams that run a 3-4 will have interest in him as a DE), I know Wolfe can flat out play. He's quick, disruptive, and deceptively strong with a tremendous burst off the ball; uses leverage to his advantage and is a crafty player who looks very polished. At times Wolfe was simply unblockable as both a run stuffer and pass rusher; consistently penetrates into the backfield and wreaks havoc on opposing offenses - and when I say "consistently", I mean literally every game. He's a better athlete than most give him credit for and can move all over the defensive line. Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year, finished with a staggering 21.5 tackles for loss (1.65 per game) and 9.5 sacks. Classic overachiever who'll be overlooked and passed on because of his unsexy measurables, but some team is going to get itself one hell of a player in the mid-to-late rounds. Here's to hoping it's the Eagles, who have a pretty favorable track record when it comes to picking guys from Cincinnati (Trent Cole, Brent Celek, Jason Kelce). In fact, I say it should be team policy to draft one or two players out of Cincinnati each year.

Underrated #1: Brandon Thompson - Clemson - 6020 / 314

Underrated #2: Kendall Reyes - Connecticut - 6037 / 299

Underrated #3: Mike Daniels - Iowa - 6004 / 291

Inside Linebacker

The Best: Luke Kuechly - Boston College - 6024 / 242

So, I'd say all those questions about the Nagurski, Ditka, and Outland Trophy winner's athleticism were answered during the Combine in Indy a few months ago. Emphatically, too. Kuechly's performance reminded me of Ryan Kerrigan's from last year. Despite incredible productivity and mounds of impressive game tape, those who needed to find something to nitpick focused on a supposed lack of athleticism (also known as whiteness). And, just like Kerrigan did last year, Kuechly destroyed the Combine and put to rest any doubt about his athletic ability, which, really, was the only part of his skill set ever in doubt. The guy's a special player and will be a stud in the middle of some lucky NFL team's defense for a decade.

Next Best: Dont'a Hightower - Alabama - 6022 / 265

A 3-4 ILB who should be an immediate NFL starter. Huge, imposing physical specimen, strong as an ox and displays top notch instincts. A standout on Alabama's defense the past two seasons. Limited in coverage but great against the run and has a penchant for demolishing the ball carrier. He's also got deceptive speed and quickness.

Underrated: Audie Cole - North Carolina State - 6041 / 246

From my Senior Bowl preview:

Certainly looks the part - dude's built like a brick shit house. I watched a few NC State games this season (including the hilarious Maryland contest; stood out against Maryland last season, too) and really liked Cole's game. Lacks athleticism but is strong, instinctive, and a dangerous blitzer. Should be able to play inside in either a 4-3 or 3-4 or strong side in a 4-3. Makes up for 4.8 speed by being a step ahead and knowing where the play is going.

The Bum: Vontaze Burfict - Arizona State - 6011 / 248

Watch this clown not get drafted. What a fuck-up. Did Burfict even train for the Combine? Judging by his flabulous appearance and overall performance, it sure doesn't appear that way. A 5.09 in the 40, 30" vertical, and 8'8" broad jump (all worst among linebackers) cast a whole hell of a lot of doubt about him as an athlete. Then you combine that with how awful Burfict came across in his interviews, and, well, it's not looking good for the former All-American. Perhaps the worst part of it all, however, is that he seems to have absolutely zero self awareness nor the ability to take responsibility for his actions - instead choosing to blame his college coaches, which I'm sure NFL teams loved to hear. The Combine only reaffirmed the prevalent doubts surrounding Burfict; he's immature and alarmingly undisciplined but has his head so far up his ass that he doesn't even realize it. His week in Indy can't be described as anything other than a colossal disaster. I just wonder if the humiliation and indignity that will come with falling so far in the draft - or possibly not even getting drafted at all - might serve as a wakeup call for Burfict to get his shit together. The desire to prove people wrong can be one hell of a motivator, and it's probably the only thing he'll have going for him.

Outside Linebacker

The Best: Shea McClellin - Boise State - 6032 / 260

Versatile player who can play standing up or with his hand on the ground. Always impressed me when I watched Boise State. Athletic, fundamentally sound, high motor, elite instincts. Has everything you look for and will be an immediate starter. Considered one of the safer prospects in the draft. Most common NFL comparison: Mike Vrabel.

Sleeper #1: Demario Davis - Arkansas State - 6016 / 232

Below is what I wrote in my Senior Bowl preview (and for igglesblitz.com), when Davis was still relatively unknown and projected as a sixth or seventh round pick, at best. As I suspected, he greatly improved his stock in the months leading up the draft and most projections I see now have him going in the third round.

A player who I think will be a riser in the coming months. Knew his name from draft websites, but first got a chance to watch him in the GoDaddy.com Bowl and was blown away. Obtained some torrents of Arkansas State games from the season and came away even more impressed, especially because Davis played behind a defensive line that moved around a lot and didn't occupy blockers like a normal front four. As a result, he had to be very adept at taking on blockers and flashed the ability to stack and shed. Davis is a tremendous athlete - Arkansas State offensive coaches actually wanted him on that side of the ball last season - for the position who can run (wouldn't surprise me if he ends up being the fastest linebacker prospect not named Zach Brown); he's a true sideline-to-sideline guy who quickly diagnoses what's going on and also makes plays in the backfield. Very fluid in his movements and drops; comfortable in coverage and can hang with running backs and tight ends. As I watched Davis play, the one thought that came to mind over and over again was that he looked like a pro. Honestly, I can't believe he hasn't gotten more hype, regardless of playing at Arkansas State. Oh, and the cherry on top is that Davis is a fundamentally sound tackler. He exhibits great form, maintains leverage, is strong at the point of attack and impact; wraps up and exerts real "pop" upon contact, more often than not driving the ball carrier backwards. Unquestioned emotional leader of one of the nation's best overall defenses. Intriguing prospect with obvious NFL skills and the potential to be a starter - worth keeping an eye on.

Sleeper #2: Miles Burris - San Diego State - 6015 / 246

Easily one of my favorite players in all of college football. I watched SDSU in 2010 to get a look at Vincent Brown (one of my 2011 draft sleepers and a guy who's going to break out in a big way this upcoming season) and was instantly drawn to Burris. One of those down-and-dirty, gritty types who just plays hard and physical and is everywhere on the field. Excellent tackler who has a knack for blitzing and getting to the QB as well (led the Aztecs in tackles with 76 and in sacks with 8). Actually tested better athletically than I anticipated. Versatile, could play all three linebacker positions. Gonna be a good NFL player. Burris will probably start out as a special teams ace, but he'll eventually become a starter. I'm confident of that and am hoping the Eagles take him in the middle rounds.

Cornerback

The Best: Stephon Gilmore - South Carolina - 6004 / 180

Morris Claiborne is the popular pick here, but Gilmore tops my list at the position. I just like his physicality and ability to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage. Gilmore is an incredible athlete with good size and excellent speed, but he's also got a gritty, in-your-face style that endears me. I first noticed him during the 2010 season when I watched #19 South Carolina upset #1 Alabama, 35-21. I tuned in at the time to get a look at cornerback Chris Culliver, who I regarded as one of last year's most underrated prospects. Yet it was the starting cornerback opposite Culliver who grabbed my attention, and that was Stephon Gilmore. He racked up 9 tackles, 2 sacks, and was smothering in coverage. I've been a fan ever since.

Underrated: Casey Hayward - Vanderbilt - 5113 / 192

From my Senior Bowl preview:

The best college cornerback you've never heard of; underrated and under-hyped, but a guy who I think can start in the NFL from day one. Hayward won't really stand out from a physical standpoint or because he's got blazing speed, yet when you watch him play it's obvious he's legit. Instincts, intelligence, technique, and overall feel for the game are second to none. Flashes excellent ball skills with the hands of a wide receiver (seven interceptions this season, 15 total in his college career) and had multiple dominant performances, including in the Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati. Hayward shut down Alshon Jeffery in the South Carolina game and had six passes defended -- two of which should've been intercepted -- against Arkansas when charged with covering the likes of Joe Adams (see below) and Jarius Wright (though he did give up a touchdown to Wright). Willing, solid tackler for a corner who attacks the ball carrier and never shies away from the physical parts of the game. Just looks like a pro and has apparently been drawing rave reviews during the Senior Bowl practices.

The Guy Who Came Out of Nowhere: Chris Greenwood - Albion - 6012 / 193

Literally just read about this guy five minutes ago. Division III player who put on a show at the Michigan pro day and instantaneously made himself a legitimate draft prospect. Simply stupid measurables (see here). Ideal size/weight/speed for the cornerback position.

Free Safety

The Best: Brandon Hardin - Oregon State - 6030 / 217

Hardin missed the 2011 season because of a left shoulder injury that required surgery, so he kind of fell off the radar a bit. Nevertheless, he put himself firmly back on the radar during pre-draft workouts. At 6-3, 217 pounds, and with speed in the 4.4 range, Hardin is the perfect physical specimen to quarterback a secondary. A gifted athlete with length, explosion, and range, he played cornerback for the Beavers but is widely viewed as a free safety at the next level. Hardin is strong, unafraid to get physical with wide receivers or when encountering a ball carrier, and can match up with anyone. One issue: Not much of a playmaker and only had one interception during his college career. Nevertheless, you simply don't find many secondary players of this size/weight/speed caliber, and for that reason alone Hardin is worth a selection. I see him as a stronger, faster, and more athletic version of Brandon Browner (also a former Beaver).

Boom/Bust: George Iloka - Boise State - 6035 / 225

From my Senior Bowl preview:

Rare physical specimen for the safety position. I wrote about him back in September (Doug Martin, too). The thing that really stood out to me from the Senior Bowl weigh-in is Iloka's wingspan, which was measured at 81 3/8"; given the way the NFL is trending with the evolution of the tight end position, Iloka's size, length, and athleticism present a possible solution to that matchup problem for defensive coordinators.

Full text of the report from September for those who don't feel like clicking on the link:

First off, Iloka definitely passes the eye test. He's got excellent size for the position with 4.5 speed and has been a major contributor since his freshman season. A former wide receiver in high school, Iloka took seamlessly to the safety position immediately. He's a ball hawk who's long, athletic, fluid, and plays fast. Not only does Iloka excel in pass defense, but he's improved considerably as a tackler over the course of his career. He's also a capable blitzer who has shown the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. I really like Iloka's game a lot and believe he has the potential to be an impact player at the NFL level. I will be keeping a close eye on him tonight.

Sleeper: Justin Bethel - Presbyterian - 5116 / 200

Intriguing small school prospect who seems to project more as a free safety at the next level (he played CB in college). Looked really good in the drills at the Combine, which is where I first learned about him, and has been garnering a lot of attention ever since. Mel Kiper has him as part of his "underrated" group.

At worst, I envision Bethel as an ace special teamer who will block a few kicks -- just as he did NINE times in college -- because of his freakishly long arms (76 3/4" wingspan).

Strong Safety

The Best, 1A: Mark Barron - Alabama - 6011 / 213

Overall, this is a weak safety class, but it just so happens that the best prospect at the position is also, in my opinion, one of the better prospects in the entire draft. I've watched Mark Barron for years at Alabama, and it was always apparent that he'd be an immediate NFL starter and impact pro. He's stronger against the run than in coverage (though he's much better in coverage than is the norm for strong safeties and has plenty of experience matching up with receivers one-on-one), but I still think he's as safe and sure a pick as Luke Kuechly, and whichever team drafts him will have found its starting strong safety for the next decade. Barron's as good as they come at the position, and for that reason I'm hoping he doesn't fall to the Cowboys at #14.

The Best, 1B: Brandon Taylor - Louisiana State - 5111 / 209

Leader of that vaunted LSU defense and always noticeable on the field. Love his game. Smart, reliable, able to play in the box or in coverage (better than Barron in this respect). Like Barron, I think he's a safe pick and a lock to start for an NFL team for the next decade.

Next Best: Harrison Smith - Notre Dame - 6016 / 213

What I wrote about him leading up to the Senior Bowl:

Big, strong, physical, speed in the 4.5 range. Ideal size and build for the position. While he's listed as a strong safety and thought to be most effective in run support, I think Smith's coverage ability is very underrated. Notre Dame's always on TV, so he's gotten a lot of exposure and always looked pretty good matching up one-on-one with tight ends (the game against Michigan State was by far his best in coverage). Smart, confident, mature player who exudes leadership and is a dependable tackler.

Underrated: Matt Daniels - Duke - 5116 / 212

Fast, instinctive, and a tackling machine. Four-year starter.

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