2012 NFL Draft Preview

Please take a look at our NFL Draft position primer as published April 7, 2012.  Feel free to make comments as well as pass this along to others.  Also, check back soon for some quick thoughts on the NFL Draft.   We will be posting often beginning next week (April 16th), and will also be blogging DURING the draft.

The 2012 NFL Draft Preview

April 5th, 2012

DRAFT PRIMER BY POSITION

(The cheat sheet)

 

We’re about 3 weeks away from the NFL draft.  In this report we will briefly discuss the strength of each position in the NFL Draft, along with some early expectations.  This report is coming out a little earlier than usual so no doubt there will be some changes, but this should serve as a decent guide through the three day process.

QB: The QB class of 2011 was considered deep by many, but absolutely full of uncertainty, starting at the top with Cam Newton.  The class of 2012 is not nearly as deep, but perhaps never in our 30+ years of covering the draft have we seen a better top two QB prospects.  Andrew Luck is the deserving #1 QB in this draft.  He’s a natural leader and technically elite.  Accuracy is important in our world and Luck completed >71% each of the last two years.  He has a chance to be elite.  Next is RG III.  Griffin has been our favorite QB, well, since Archie Manning!  We “discovered” him in during his ’08 freshmen year and our annual college football preview reports have continually called him the most valuable player in college football to his team three years running.  He’s got the “it” factor, plus all the accuracy and speed you would want in today’s NFL QB.  The gap is huge to the next QB prospect, presumed to be A&M’s Tannehill.  As a SR, Ryan’s % dropped to 61.6% and he had a 29-15 TD-int ratio.  The upside is that he worked in a pro style offense but he’s a work in progress despite strong measurables, especially as it comes to reading coverage’s.  The order of the next group in the eyes of draft “experts” would be OK St’s Weeden, ASU’s Osweiler, Michigan St’s Cousins and Arizona’s Foles.  Weeden, 29 in October has the accuracy and confidence to make it in the NFL but has to improve his delivery point and cut down on turnovers.  He’s a bit slow and in his Pro Day he missed on way too many passes.  The very tall Osweiler has some elusiveness but his footwork is less than ideal and with just 15 college starts he needs plenty of work in reading defenses.  He has the arm strength.  Cousins is similar to ACE favorite Dalton of last year, but not quite to his level.  He’s smaller, but a coach on the field with plenty of big game experience.  He’s not very athletic and won’t fit for many teams due to average arm strength but should contribute in the NFL.  Foles is slow and played in a system that had too many check downs for us to get excited about.  His Pro Day also revealed some weak areas.  Sleeper QB’s include Russell Wilson (small but athletic, big improvement in ’11), Ryan Lindley (cannon arm but zero accuracy), Kellen Moore (elite in college but his game may not transfer to anything but an NFL back-up) and BJ Coleman (small college QB has good mechanics but a rather poor TD-int ratio considering the level of competition).

On Draft Day: Luck goes #1 to Indy, with RG III going to Shanahan and Washington.  Our readers know full well what we think of the Redskin coach, so we wish RG III the best of luck.  Cleveland and Miami are the obvious teams in need of QB’s but we would easily add KC to the list as Cassell is mediocre at best.  In an ideal situation the Browns would draft RB or CB at #4 and Tannehill at #22, which is closer to his true value.  In this draft we would expect Tannehill to be drafted by pick #8 (Miami).  As of April 4th we feel Weeden, Cousins and Osweiler will all get round two calls and Foles a call in round three.  Lindley could go next (late 3rd or 4th), followed by Wilson and some others (much) later on.

RB: The ’12 RB group looks a bit better and deeper than a year ago.  RB’s tend to be under-drafted, as a majority of teams split carries now and past drafts have proven that you can get strong or sometimes elite talent in the mid to late rounds or even after the draft (ACE rated RB Foster, for example).  Still, guys like Minnesota’s Peterson are well deserving of a top selection.  The clear #1 RB in this draft is Alabama’s Trent Richardson.  He is a 3-down back with size, speed, receiving and blocking skill.  He is better than his former running mate Ingram, easily able to break tackles.  He is strong in ball protection too.  It’s completely unclear who falls next in the RB pecking order.  Each team will have its own preferences but the next group should include Lamar Miller, David Wilson and Doug Martin, probably followed by Chris Polk and speedy LeMichael James.  Miller has underrated speed and has plenty of carries left in him with just one season of being featured at Miami Fla.  He’s able to find and explode in run lanes but is not terribly instinctive.  He can kick return.  He’s a complete work in progress as a blocker.  Wilson has every measureable necessary with elite open field speed, but is he capable of being the sole RB as Richardson and Miller could be?  He may have more upside than Miller, but the risks include facing a softer slate of opponents, a tendency to bounce a bit looking for holes, and a fumble problem (7 in ’11) that needs to be corrected.  Martin has power and instincts but is likely not a breakaway back.  He’s not as fast as Miller or Wilson but may be a better receiving option.  Polk has speed similar to Martin, which means he has average speed but he never disappointed at Washington and can get physical in moving the pile.  James of course ran in the more funky Oregon spread attack but has elite cutting ability, has speed, and can catch.  Dangerous in the open field, he won’t be a sole RB for a team and may not be a between the piles player.  Any number of players could hit the draft board next.  They include Brandon Pierce (can run inside or out with decent speed, but not a blocker or receiver), Robert Turbin (came off serious injury to put up strong #’s, can run, catch or block and has solid leg drive), Vick Ballard (downhill RB with no wiggle but tough to slow down and plenty of TD’s) and Isaiah Pead (Bearcat RB is super fast and shifty but not as productive when asked to carry the offense when his QB went down).  Sleeper RB’s we like include the underutilized Herron from Ohio State and 3rd down back Rainey of Florida.  Several other RB’s are going to get roster looks this summer and even be drafted ahead of a couple of those listed above.

On Draft Day: Typically RB’s slide some in the draft, but at the top we expect Richardson to go to Cleveland at #4 or Tampa at #5.  Miller or Wilson might sneak into the 1st round, but these two should be gone no later than the top part of round #2.  Martin is solidly in the 2nd round (as of 4/4), with James and Polk 2nd day (2nd or 3rd round).  Pierce, Turbin, Ballard and Pead could be drafted by close of business Friday or just as easily slip into rounds 4-5.  Guys like SD St’s Hillman, A&M’s Gray, Rainey, Herron, Tennessee’s Poole and a couple of others should all be drafted.

WR: The class of ’08 was as weak as we’d seen in the last decade.  The ’09 class was better, but not by much.  The ’10 class had some depth to it, but just one legit day one talent in Dez Bryant.  The ’11 class had two legit top 12 WR’s (Green, Jones) and a half dozen others with top 50 grades.  This draft has one top 10 WR (Blackmon), a top 20 WR (Floyd) and four others who may hear their name drafted in round one.  OK St’s Blackmon is #1.  He’s nearly impossible to cover in man, has strong hands and runs strong routes.  He is fast enough and can stiff arm his way to the open field.  Is he elite?  Maybe not, as he is a bit shorter than the NFL’s super WR’s and has occasional lapses in concentration which quite honestly has us worried.  Fix that and he’s worthy of top 5 status.  Notre Dame WR Floyd is simply very productive.  He wins the battle for the ball in traffic and had 28 TD’s in 30 games played.  He is a very capable run blocker.  Like many WR’s, attitude is an issue, with multiple off-field issues (alcohol).  Baylor’s Wright is shorter than these two but a natural pass catcher who gets open and has great body control.  He’s not a polished route runner and does not have big hands but has plenty of experience and is worthy of 1st round status.  South Carolina’s Jeffrey has his friends and foes.  He has the vertical and we like his red zone potential but he hasn’t shown the speed to separate and his junior year was far better than his senior year after the Gamecocks sputtered at QB.  His long arms are an asset.  Like Jeffrey, LSU’s Randle is liked by some but not all.  He’s a big target who improved his production every year, catching 53 passes in ’11 despite sub-standard QB play.  He may be more of a possession WR who fights to get the extra yards but lacks superstar speed.  He has some real upside.  GT’s Hill played in the triple option so his touches were minimized.  He’s super fast and can really leap but he’s as raw as they come running routes.  He knows how to block.  There are occasional drops but teams needing speed at WR will give him a long look.  “Experts” have about 7 WR’s in the next group, but by draft day some will fall and others will rise.  These 7 include WR’s Sanu (Rutgers, tough to tackle, an elite possession WR with little speed), Givens (Wake Forest, fast, productive and changes directions easily but raw as a route runner), Quick (App St, upside for this productive WR but speed is average and he played in a simplified offense), Jones (Cal, rising right now, strong possession WR with good route awareness but few TD’s), Criner (Arizona, would be higher but too slow right now,  catches everything in sight), Toon (Wisconsin, great bloodlines, but never 100% healthy, savvy with underrated speed) and Childs (Arkansas, athletic and sneaky fast, played in a pro style offense but is something missing?).  We could mention a dozen or so more WR’s in a fairly deep group.  Three of the ones we like include Illinois’ Jenkins (athletic and fast, with soft, natural hands), Oklahoma’s Broyles (day two WR before his serious injury but smaller WR is a natural in ball catching) and FIU’s Hilton (dynamic personality and jack of all trades, fast, with elite return ability).

 

On Draft day: Assuming Blackmon stays out of trouble he is probably going to be gone by pick #6 (Rams).  Floyd could go as high as #7 (Jacksonville) or may slip down, but should easily be drafted on or before SD’s pick at #18.  Wright looks like he’s going in the mid-20’s at this point, with Randle and/or Jeffery candidates to sneak into the back end of round one.  Of course unpredictable teams like SD and the NYJ could call their name earlier, and WR happy Cincy could be calling at #21.  Houston sits at #26 and taking any of these last 3 WR’s would be a smart move.  GT’s Hill has a round one shot as well.  As usual we will have 25-30 WR’s rated, with another small group receiving * (also-eligible) ratings so expect multiple WR’s to be drafted in each and every round.

TE: Last year’s TE group was called the weakest we’d seen in 15-20 years!  This year’s group is not much better, and lacks quantity!  Three TE’s are separated from the rest of the group, with only a handful of others likely to be rated by us.  The top 3 are Coby Fleener (Stanford), Orson Charles (Georgia) and Dwayne Allen (Clemson).  The tall Fleener is polished, has 50 games of experience and was productive, of course with QB Luck at the reins.  He is NOT a blocker.  Charles is smaller but stronger and could go before Fleener but not everyone is in love with his game.  Allen is a bit slower than these two but changes directions well and has soft hands.  He has to become a better run blocker.  A pair of fast TE’s include UL Laff’s Green and Missouri’s Egnew.  Green is weak for a TE but a highly productive receiver with large hands.  Egnew is more athletic but after catching 90 passes in ’10 he slipped down to a still productive 50 last year.  He’s a move the chains guy who also is not a great blocker.  In fact, this entire TE group shows below average blocking skill.  Other names being bandied about include Peterson of LSU (athletic former WR who can’t block), super slow Harkey of UCLA (a blocking TE, rare in this group, but tested very WEAK and has zero athletic ability), Paulson of Oregon (high character, smaller TE was somewhat productive) and Provo of Syracuse (smaller TE was productive and is a willing blocker, but not really all that good in either phase).

On Draft Day: Fleener or Charles could get a late 1st round call, but in this draft it is possible that TE will be ignored on day #1.  Expect these two to be gone by pick #40 however and Allen not much later than that.  The NFL is a copycat league so you can expect teams to over-draft TE based on recent success from teams like New England and New Orleans.  This means that instead of waiting to round four and beyond a couple of TE’s could sneak into the 3rd round.  In our eyes any player chosen after the top 5 is strictly developmental, so hopefully teams who do select the lower tier TE’s are not bypassing other, more critical needs.

 

OL: There have been some amazing OT classes of late (the ’08 class was special).  The ’11 draft class was solid.  This OT class is fairly weak at the top, and after that we expect many OT’s to be drafted but the failure rate to be higher than normal.  With OT such a critical position in the NFL teams need to make the right decisions.  Matt Kahil is the clear #1 OT. He’s solid in every area and has textbook balance and technique.  He should be a decade long starter.  OT Reiff is considered a top 10-15 draft eligible OT, but most likely his best position will be RT.  He’s good in space.  He went 21-1 as a wrestler which had to help him in footwork preparation.  Stanford’s Martin grades out 3rd, but how good is he?  With the benefit of protecting the elite Andrew Luck, we’ll need to find that out in the NFL.  He’s probably better as a run blocker at this point, but can he move the pile in short yardage situations?  He can block effectively on the move.  As of this writing we are noticing Mike Adams as rated next, followed by Zebrie Sanders and Bobbie Massie.  Adams anchors well, yet spends a bit too much time on the ground.  He has a character question but showed up well in post-season drills.  Sanders was agile on the field but not agile in combine drills.  He’s awfully slow despite quick feet at the snap.  Massie is a RT that needs to fix his technique.  He is not as good in space and showed a bit of stiffness on the field.  The next group of OT’s might include Cal’s Schwartz (versatile back-up type with average strength), Troy’s Brown (also versatile, with OG possibilities who is a bit inconsistent), Utah’s Bergstorm (older RT prospect who can fit in a power blocking scheme), and Allen of Illinois (finesse blocker who lacks on field awareness in our eyes).

OG has its stars, but also flattens out after just a few prospects.  The top two are Stanford’s DeCastro and Georgia’s Glenn.  DeCastro is strong but not elite in stopping bull rushes.  He does everything else well and reminds us of a young Steve Hutchinson.  Glenn is versatile, flexible and understands blocking angles.  He played LT in ’11.  He’s far more inconsistent on game day.  The next group includes Zeitler from Wisconsin, Osemele from Iowa State, Silatolu from little Midwestern State and Brandon Washington from MFla. Zeitler makes few mistakes with that Wisky breeding and is a low risk player but with minimal upside.  His best fit is in a zone blocking system.  Osemele has short area skill but is not great on the move.  He has much to learn in pass protection and his limited range won’t help.  Silatolu was a small college All-American LT.  He’s athletic but understandably raw, with a nice upside.  Washington failed in his combine drills and is best in short spaces.  He’s still young, but thus far speed rushers will beat him.  Nate Potter (Boise) could play OT or OG and if 100% healthy (shoulder) might be considered with the above group.  Sleeper OG’s include converted DT Kelemete (Washington), athletic run blocker only Rishaw Johnson (Cal-PA), Nix of Pittsburgh and current draft riser Brooks from Miami Ohio, who has OT and OG experience and is fast and powerful, but weight is an issue and his technique must be refined.

For the 8th year in a row OC has a clear leader and a handful of other draft eligible guys.  Peter Konz heads the list.  He’s a physical run blocker, best in short areas.  His biggest issue is staying healthy, although his overall strength is also in question.  The next three centers are much farther down the list.  Ben Jones played in the SEC (Georgia), Michael Brewster in the Big 10 (Ohio State) and Philip Blake the Big 12 (Baylor).  Other draft possibilities include Molk (Michigan) and Saulsberry (Miss St).

On Draft Day: We project 3-4 OT’s, 2 OG’s and maybe Konz to go in round one.  Kalil is the current favorite to go #3 to Minny.  Reiff will most likely go in the 10-15 range.  Martin is slipping, but is likely gone by the early 20’s.  Mike Adams is still considered a 1st round pick but that could change.  Massie and Sanders fit in round #2.  Another 3-5 OT’s will probably be drafted on the 2nd day, but mostly in the 3rd round.  Plenty of OT prospects will go on the final day.  OG DeCastro is probably going in the 10-19 range.  We think he could be special with the right team.  OG Glenn might sneak into the teens but should be off the board by the mid to late 20’s.  Zeitler fits in about the mid-2nd round with the next group mostly falling in the 3rd round or lower.  NFL teams often overlook OG in favor of more glamorous positions, especially in the 1st 3 rounds so look for more day 3 action here.  As for Center, Konz might sneak into the 1st round but it’s not a guarantee.  Perhaps someone like Ben Jones sneaks into the late part of the 2nd round but more likely the next OC goes in the 3rd round.

DE: The NFL places a high premium on sack specialists these days and with more teams using a 3-4 defense than ever before, many college DE’s are being moved to OLB.  This is both due to scheme as well as size, as many of the DE’s lack the bulk to stay there in the NFL.  For this DE class, several players are without a true position and will be tried at both DE and OLB.  The top DE’s at the present time are Coples and Ingram, with Perry and Mercilus just about in the same conversation.  Coples is the top player IF he wants to be.  He’s played multiple positions but would be best suited as a 4-3 DE.  He was productive, but inconsistent and called immature by some.  Ingram is a hybrid DE/OLB prospect.  He’s crafty, can handle TE blocks and stuff the run, and has some coverage experience.  Hurting him are his short arms.  Perry led the Pac 12 in sacks last year and is strong and fast!  Some project him to a 3-4 OLB but we think he doesn’t show enough LB instincts.  Mercilus was quiet until exploding on the scene in ’11.  Also fast, he forced 11 fumbles in his 3-year career.  He’s going to be a bit raw, especially with smart fakes by creative NFL QB’s.  Clemson’s Branch carries a sack presence and was productive but has to work on run D recognition.  Chandler Jones (Syracuse) has some athleticism and decent straight line speed.  He’s well regarded but can get beat on the edge.  Vinny Curry (Marshall) was a pest in opposing backfields and his experience is solid but he lacks speed and would be a stretch to move to OLB except as a situational pass rusher.  Nebraska’s Crick was hurt much of ’11 but seems to have a nose for the ball.  He lacks the speed to be a true pass rusher so finding a position for him might be difficult, but he’s the type of player that will find a way to contribute.  Other DE’s getting some attention include Boise DE’s McClellin (playmaker, but may need to move to 3-4 OLB), Crawford (best trait is his ability to anchor), and North Carolina’s Paige-Moss (currently with ACL tear, versatile, but clashed with coaches and fans).

 

On Draft Day: This DE crop is not elite, but NFL teams love pass rushers and will push the envelope looking for help.  As a result, Branch should be the 5th DE to make round #1, and Jones could make it a six-pack.  Ingram and Coples could go in the top 12 as long as Coples’ attitude does not get in the way.  Mercilus will probably be gone by #18 and Perry no later than the mid-20’s.  Curry and others fit in the 2nd round but due to a drop in talent after that we could see a break before additional DE’s are chosen.

DT: 2010 was a banner year for DT.  Suh, McCoy, Dan Williams, Odrick, Price and Alualu all were drafted early.  Darius, Fairley, Liuget, Taylor and Wilkerson were chosen early in 2011.  This DT group is varied, with more nose tackle candidates but fewer “safe” round one players.  At the present time there is a top three group and another two right behind them, followed by a handful of others that have much to prove.  Poe of Memphis plays NT.  He is super strong and flashes the ability to occupy two blockers.  He’s decently quick for a big NT.  The issue is production.  He played on a bad Memphis team but didn’t seem to improve from year to year.  Poe will be drafted early based on potential, not productivity.  Cox of Miss St can play anywhere along the DL.  He’s fast but lacks the vertical.  He’s a “nice” player, but not an impact guy in our eyes and might struggle a bit vs. the run.  Still of Penn State can play the nose but he too is inconsistent.  Fatigue has been an issue.  Fatigue was an issue for Michigan State’s Worthy, but when fresh he helped MSU lead the Big 10 in run D and in # of sacks.  Rising on most charts is LSU’s Brockers.  His stats were impressive in ’11 and he was a force in the BCS title game, but he’s slow and not as strong as most DT’s.  Like past LSU DL he could disappoint and become more of a rotational NFL player.  Two other DT’s getting attention include Reyes of UConn and Thompson of Clemson.  Reyes is seasoned, versatile, and very strong.  He’s better than those ahead of him in short areas.  Thompson has a nice 1st step and also displays some strength.  He’s not a pass rush threat.  Other DT’s in the mix include Ta’amu (Washington, NT, regressed ’11 but has potential), Fortson (MFla, strong, but came out too early off a 5-game season), Chapman (Alabama, lacks lateral agility and off injury, unlikely to be ready to start the season), Randall (Texas, lighter rotational DL who is versatile), Martin (Michigan, strong, fast and productive, but undersized), Roy (Nevada, undersized but strong, he may need to play DE to avoid being engulfed by opposing OL) and Winn (Boise, can play DT in 4-3 or 3-4, has to step up vs. larger NFL OL).

On Draft Day: Poe could go as high as #9 to Carolina, which would be a nice fit with Rivera as HC.  Brockers is moving up fast and might be gone by #15.  Cox is in the top 15-20 mix.  Still, Worthy and Reyes will be strongly considered after that, with two or all three selected in the 1st round.  Probably about five or six additional DT’s will go on day #2 and another ten or so on day #3.

LB: LB’s are always a funny group to evaluate.  DL and CB get over-drafted, while LB’s often slip despite massive college career production.  OLB’s generally go faster than pure ILB’s, especially with the 3-4 D becoming even more popular.  That being said, ILB Kuechly may be the highest rated LB in this draft.  All he did was collect 532 tackles in 3 years!  Expected to be average in the combine agility drills, Luke surprised all by timing fast with solid lateral agility.  He’s already highly instinctive.  A pair of Alabama LB’s will challenge for top honors.  OLB Upshaw is a natural in run D and seemingly never gets fooled.  He can sack as well but timed slow and needs experience dropping into coverage.  ILB Hightower is another Saban product with a high football IQ.  He has range, cover ability and run stopping skill.  Could he be underrated?  OLB’s Brown (North Carolina) and David (Nebraska) are next.  Brown is fast and can easily cover sideline to sideline but relies more on his speed than his ability to diagnose plays.  David is not all that strong, but just makes plays.  He’s a cover LB with solid instincts.  There is no order to the next group of LB’s and that group is 10-15 strong.  ILB’s of note include Wagner (Utah St, 3-year WAC tackle leader, can play any LB spot) and Kendricks (Cal, straight-line fast Pac 12 defensive POY but a two-down guy who won’t be a cover LB).  Not mentioned is ASU’s fiery Burfict who is slow, selfish, lacks instincts and is a penalty machine.  Once thought of as a top 20 pick, Burfict is an elite hitter but as his combine showed, terrible in preparation.  OLB’s of note include Spence (MFla, instinctive and always in position but short and weak), Irvin (West Virginia, pass rushing OLB with plenty of on-field skill but major character flaws), Bradlam (FSU, led team in tackles last 3 seasons with quickness and agility although he does overrun plays and lacks strength at point of attack) and Massaquoi (Troy, slow and undersized but productive and can be coached up).  LB’s Ronnell Lewis and Travis Lewis, both from Oklahoma are clearly in the mix.  Ronnell is fast and strong, but undersized.  Maturity is an issue, as the team advised him to come out early!  Travis has less upside but has the experience and the instincts.  He was highly productive but as a MLB will not be able to shed NFL OL blocks.  We could list additional LB’s, some of which may go ahead of the last grouping but may not be as versatile or not as well liked by us at the present time.

 

On Draft Day: Kuechly has been occasionally mentioned as a top 10 pick.  He will probably go in the 12-20 range.  Upshaw could sneak ahead of him because of his position and versatility.  Hightower should sneak into the 1st round.  Zack Brown is likely to go in the upper half of the 2nd round.  David deserves a 2nd round grade but the real LB run figures to come in the 3rd round and again somewhere on the 3rd day.  By the end of the draft we figure 25-30 LB’s is the likely range drafted.

CB: The CB talent looks a bit stronger than the past 3 seasons.  The clear #1 choice is Claiborne from LSU.  He’s not blazing fast but is a pure cover CB who can turn and run and just like former teammate Peterson carries strong KR skill.  His Wonderlic score of 4 will raise eyebrows but Peterson scored a 5 and survived as a rookie.  Three solid CB’s will vie for the next spot.  Janoris Jenkins, like Jimmy Smith of a year ago carries more baggage than a family of four going on a three week vacation but he’s zone savvy, fast, and productive.  Kirkpatrick, again from Alabama, has zone cover ability with solid instincts, although he can get overaggressive.  He needs a strong coaching staff to keep him focused so what team drafts him DOES matter.  Gilmore of South Carolina is another best suited to zone pass defense.  He’s got serious speed, nice agility, helps vs. the run and can help in the return game.  He has DB versatility but his tackles did decline in ’11.  So many teams need CB’s and the list of eligible draftees at this position is huge.  Here are 10 CB’s who might make NFL teams very happy in the long run.  Minnifield-Virginia: Instinctive with solid bloodlines but weak.  Denard-Nebraska: Sure tackler but can get beat over the top.  Johnson-Montana: Shows promise and can be coached up, but may lack NFL CB speed.  Norman-Coastal Carolina: Physical, gambling CB with agility but lacks recovery and transition speed.  Hosley-VT: Fast, zone CB with solid ball skill.  Good punt returner but plays undisciplined and misses some tackles.  Boykin-Georgia: Boom or bust cover CB supports run despite his 5’9” frame.  Robinson-UCF: Athletic zone CB with elite speed, agility and flexibility.  Held WR Green down in ’10 bowl effort.  Johnson-ISU: Cover CB but best with intermediate routes due to subpar speed.  Fleming-Oklahoma: Closes well and is an effective hitter.  He could go to safety with his range but was less productive vs. the run.  Hayward-Vandy: Ball hawk with solid instincts but a bit slow for man coverage and lacks overall power.  Sleeper picks and other picks we like include Steed (Furman), Judie (A&M), Prater (Iowa), Bolden (ASU) and Bentley (UL Laff).

On Draft Day: Claiborne will be gone by the 6th pick and probably sooner.  Jenkins, Kirkpatrick and Gilmore figure to hear their names called the 1st day, but when and in what order is a mystery right now.  Probably 14th (Dallas) is the earliest any of this group will go, and 31st (New England if they stay in the round) a possibility for the 4th, especially if it’s the versatile Gilmore.  The next group may have to wait, and once again the order of selection is a mess right now.  Watch for a mini-run on CB’s once the first or second name is called, possibly in the late 2nd or early 3rd round.  We suspect at least a dozen CB’s will be gone by close of business Friday, with many more to follow in the sleeper rounds.

Safety: The ’10 safety group was one of the strongest ever, especially at the top.  NFL teams used to shy away from drafting safeties early but the position has become more valuable.  We noted that Eric Berry was one of the best safeties to emerge in years and he did not disappoint.  He is a “cover safety”, a new term used as NFL teams ask players at this position to do more than just freelance.  Every draft year is different, and the safety crop in ’11 was very weak!  In fact, it was not until the 2nd round that any safety was drafted, with the top three selections coming at 45, 54 and 93!  Unfortunately, this safety group is even weaker, with the exception of #1 choice Barron.  Yet another Alabama product, Barron is an in the box safety who understands angles and can fit the cover safety role.  He hasn’t yet run to demonstrate his speed, and his open field tackling has been called into question but he’s going to be fine when not in space.  Next on the board appears to be Harrison Smith from Notre Dame.  He’s productive with some LB experience as well.  He can’t be left alone and must improve his footwork but would be an asset in zone situations and is a good tackler.  It’s hit or miss with any other safety in this draft.  Antonio Allen (South Carolina) has some versatility and on-field production but won’t help much in coverage.  Martin of Oklahoma State is a FS who can play some in space but needs plays in front of him.  Iloka from Boise was a consistent FS performer with great height and long arms to disrupt passes but did not make enough game changing plays.  Other safeties with promise and perhaps upside include Brandon Taylor (LSU), Janzen Jackson (McNeese St) and Duke Ihenacho (San Jose St).  Taylor is fast and played on a top tier team, with strong #’s despite the talent in front of him but needs plays to be in front of him.  Jackson has NFL measurables but productivity was low and the # of off-field red flags is high.  Ihenacho missed ’10 but came back to near 100% last year.  He’s one of the better zone safeties who can run support and is one we think should be valued higher.

 

On Draft Day: Barron could go to Dallas at #14, and will go in the 1st round somewhere.  Smith looks like he’s solidly marked for a 2nd round selection.  The rest of the group is penciled in for rounds 3 and lower.  Maybe a team or two with a desperate safety need will reach later in round #2, but even selecting some of these safeties in round #3 would be considered a reach in many eyes.

Specialists: It’s never easy to rate PK’s and Punters.  A majority of rated PK’s wash out or end up on multiple teams before sticking.  Top rated Punters fare better, but more often than not an undrafted punter will stick on an NFL roster.  We have been a bit lucky rating Punters over the years and last year our top rated PK and Punter (undrafted) played above the norm as rookies for the Eagles.  Even better was watching Dallas FINALLY filling a need by signing our #2 rated PK (Bailey) after the draft and lockout ended.  Prior to this year it was expected that Georgia would deliver the top rated PK (Walsh) and Punter (Butler).  Walsh had a terribly inconsistent season while Butler was decent, but lacks great leg strength and his best year was in ’09.  Our top Punting prospect is Anger (Cal).  Several PK’s are in the mix to be drafted, but as of now we have not rank ordered them.

As for return specialists, we went on record as saying the 2010 group was the best group we had ever seen!  That group did not disappoint, and we got on teams such as Green Bay for completely ignoring such a talented and deep group last year.  The ’11 group was talented, although not quite as talented as that amazing ’10 field but interestingly enough the Packers DID sign a pair of return specialists and the results showed just what they were missing.  This year’s group may not have a sure fire return specialist but plenty of players can excel in the NFL returning kicks if given that chance.

On Draft Day: One of the reasons we have not yet ranked the PK group is because we do not believe any PK will (or should) be drafted, at least not until the 7th round.  We would not even consider drafting a PK before the 7th round unless the team in question has already filled its primary needs.  Of course Washington routinely loses 2-3 games each year due to poor kicking so for them we would sign numerous PK’s after the draft.  Only Cal Punter Anger should be drafted before the 7th round and not long before that round, especially if other needs remain unfilled.  Someone may take a chance on Butler in the 7th round.  As for specialists, the smaller ones, those who would not have a chance to make the team any other way, can be signed after the draft.  CB Claiborne is an example of a top tier player with strong return ability.  WR’s Hilton and Wylie (Fresno) are examples of a mid tier players with dual skills.

With the final pick…the Indianapolis Colts are on the clock.  Each of the past four years we have tried to predict the final pick.  We narrowly missed in ’08 with ESPN amazingly playing up our projection.  We changed our projected last pick in ’09 from the correct choice to an incorrect choice.  We had the Lions taking a return specialist (Banks or Holliday) in ’10 and missed when they took unrated WR Toone.  Our pick last year went late in the 6th round.  It’s a 1,000 to one shot at best, but it’s fun to try.  We will lock this “guess” in two days before the draft, but for now we have a player in mind that was an overachiever at the University of Kentucky.  Danny Travathan is a 4-3 OLB who was so productive that he led the SEC in tackles the past two seasons!  He can blitz, forced 11 fumbles and has some zone experience.  He’s not overly strong.  We were never on the same page with Ex-GM Polian’s defensive selections but did not care in the least as his atrocious defensive track record is well documented in failed draft picks as well as rock bottom defensive statistics.  Whatever they do, tired NFL fans will be watching as another great NFL draft draws to its conclusion.  By this time, team draft scouts will already be signing priority free agents (the term used for undrafted college players) and we will be starting to put together our 35th annual NFL draft report.  That report is likely to come out in June, after a well deserved football break with several exciting vacation destinations on the horizon.  Enjoy the draft!

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