The NFL is a notorious copycat league, so the trends we saw emerge that helped the Patriots and Giants reach Super Bowl XLVI will certainly be mimicked by other teams next season.
The value of accuracy and poised quarterback play was never clearer than when Eli Manning engineered an 88-yard game-winning touchdown drive, which followed seven fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season. And the pass rushers capable of disarming the growing group of elite quarterbacks are almost as critical on the defensive side of the ball.
By contrast, in winning the Super Bowl despite possessing the league's least productive rushing attack in the regular season, the Giants also provided substantial evidence to support the theory that running the football simply isn't as important as it used to be. Thus, while there are several quarterbacks and pass rushers among my Top 32, there is only one running back and one middle linebacker.
Trends will only continue to work if teams are able to find the talent to fit them. Fortunately, in the 2012 draft, the talent at the current positions of great value is significant.
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford*: Put simply, Luck is worth the hype. It isn't just that he possesses all of the physical traits to be the No. 1 overall pick. His intelligence, anticipation and poise are phenomenal. Say what you will about Robert Griffin III's upside, Luck is as close to a sure thing as it gets in the NFL draft.
2. Matt Kalil, OT, Southern Cal*: Kalil isn't as fundamentally sound and consistent as scouts would like, but he possesses such great size, athleticism and balance that a top-five pick (and future Pro Bowls) would appear likely in his future.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama*: Considering how the running back position has been devalued in today's NFL, it would be easy to rank Richardson lower. The reality is, however, Richardson's elite talent transcends trends. He is an elite talent blessed with size, burst and incredible power who will make an immediate impact.
4. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU*: A silky smooth cover corner with extraordinary ball skills, Claiborne is more technically refined that his former teammate Patrick Peterson, who was selected fifth overall last year by the Cardinals and was voted to the Pro Bowl. The 2011 Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top cornerback, Claiborne should earn a similar draft day grade.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor*: The Heisman winner possesses as extraordinary a combination of speed and touch on the deep ball as the NFL has ever seen but isn't without warts. The adjustment from the same offense that helped Kevin Kolb produce eye-popping collegiate numbers is a significant one and could force his future NFL team to have a plan in place for 2012 before RG3 can reasonably be expected to play well at the professional level.
6. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State*: The reigning two-time Biletnikof winner as the nation's top wide receiver, Blackmon is unquestionably the top talent at this position in the 2012 draft. His size and strength made him virtually unstoppable at the collegiate level but if he is to earn a similar grade to former top five picks Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, he'll have to answer questions about his straight-line speed.
7. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford*: In terms of consistent dominance, there hasn't been an offensive or defensive lineman I've graded higher thus far this season than DeCastro. Only the fact that he plays guard may keep him out of the top half of the first round.
8. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa*: The most versatile of a trio of three offensive tackles I rate as potential top-10 picks, Reiff has the athleticism and size to remain outside at left tackle but has starting experience at guard and right tackle, as well.
9. Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama: Among the most versatile defenders in the country, Upshaw's burst and strong, active hands make him a natural pass rusher capable of seeing the field early. I like him best attacking the line of scrimmage and think he's a perfect fit as 3-4 outside linebacker. He's strong and tenacious enough, though, to play on the line at defensive end for 4-3 teams, as well.
10. Michael Brockers, DT, LSU*: At an estimated 6-5, 305 pounds, Brockers is one of the few defensive linemen in this class with the size, strength and athleticism to fit in both the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Leaving after just his redshirt sophomore season, Brockers is a bit raw. Teams would be wise to remember the struggles former Tigers Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson had acclimating to the NFL, but there is no denying Brocker's spectacular upside.
11. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina: Let's be clear. Coples is not only the most physically gifted defensive lineman in the 2012 draft, he's also the most talented senior prospect at any position. At a shade under 6-6 and 281 pounds physically-speaking, he'll earn first-round grades and fits in any defense. Coples has developed a "me first" reputation, however, and doesn't play with enough snap-to-snap consistency to earn the top-10 grade that his talent obviously warrants. That despite enjoying a dominating week of practice at the Senior Bowl.
12. 'Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama*: Kirkpatrick's January 17 arrest for marijuana possession will lead to plenty of questions from scouts at the Combine, despite the fact that the charges were ultimately dropped. Kirkpatrick lacks the ball skills and fluidity of the other two cornerbacks on my Big Board, but could be a star in a press-man scheme that takes advantage of his size and physicality.
13. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford*: Martin's size (6-6, 305) and athleticism is very intriguing -- especially in a zone-blocking offense. Scouts wonder, however, if he has the physicality to be successful in every scheme. What they don't have to wonder about is Martin's light feet and balance in pass protection. Some scouts grade Martin higher than either Kalil or Reiff as a pass blocker.
14. Devon Still, DT, Penn State: Still's talent has been obvious throughout his career, but until a breakout senior season in which he earned recognition as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year it simmered below the surface. Still's inability to play in the Senior Bowl (due to a sprained toe) was disappointing and for some will re-energize concerns about his consistency and intrinsic motivation.
15. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: A dynamic big-play threat lost in the shadows behind Robert Griffin III's Heisman season, Wright has drawn comparisons from scouts to Steve Smith (Panthers) and DeSean Jackson for his speed and elusiveness.
16. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: Scouts will have to determine whether they can trust Jenkins to stay out of trouble once he's been given an NFL contract, but the former Florida Gator ended any debate about his ranking as the elite senior cover corner in the 2012 draft with a strong week of practice at the Senior Bowl.
17. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama: Instinctive, physical and a significantly more reliable open field tackler than he was earlier in his career, Barron has established himself as the unquestioned top safety of the 2012 draft.
18. Melvin Ingram, DE/LB, South Carolina: The 6-2, 276 pound Ingram might be the most versatile front-seven defender in the draft. He's lined up inside and out in the Gamecocks' 4-3 defense but may project better at outside (or even inside) linebacker in the 3-4 due to his athleticism and power.
|Lombardi Trophy winner Luke Kuechly is expected to go in the first round. (US Presswire)|
20. Dontari Poe, DT/NG, Memphis*: At 6-5, 350 pounds, Poe certainly has the bulk scouts are looking for. What is most impressive about him, however, is that at this size Poe is also light on his feet and plays with a high-revving motor. Poe is only a junior and is clearly raw, but in a relatively weak defensive tackle class, he could fly up the board.
21. Nick Perry, DE, Southern Cal*: Upside is also the key word with Perry. The 6-3, 260-pound pass rusher led the Pac-12 in sacks and seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. With no bowl game for USC and Perry having already committed to the draft, he's getting a jump start in preparing for workouts. Based on the explosiveness evident on tape, that could lead to some eye-popping numbers.
22. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: At 6-3, 224 pounds, Floyd has the size, strength, route-running and reliable hands to intrigue any team in search of a split end. He passed up on an opportunity to head off scouts' questions about three alcohol-related incidents over his career by electing not to participate in the Senior Bowl.
23. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: He measured 6-5, 346 pounds at the Senior Bowl and then demonstrated surprising agility, boosting his chances at remaining at left tackle. While good outside, he was even better at left guard as a junior and may be best served moving back inside in the NFL. If he played with greater intensity Glenn could rank among the elite offensive line prospects in the 2012 draft.
24. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State*: Cox may be relatively unknown outside of the SEC, but in winning the conference defensive lineman of the week four times this season, his opponents certainly know him. Scouts do too, as the 6-4, 295 pounder has the size, strength and athleticism to play in either a three- or four-man front.
25. Peter Konz, OC, Wisconsin*: Some universities produce highly ranked prospects. Wisconsin goes beyond that with offensive linemen. They're highly rated offensive linemen aren't just drafted high, they quickly prove their worth in the NFL due to the size, strength and impressive technique. Konz is the unquestioned top center in the draft and is athletic enough that some teams believe he could step in immediately at guard, if needed, as well.
26. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M: In terms of physical talent, there is no denying Tannehill has the tools to warrant a first-round pick. The 6-4, 225 pound quarterback has a strong arm, good touch and obviously rare athleticism for the position considering that he earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors as a receiver in 2009.
27. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State*: The headliner in a dominant Michigan State unit that led the Big 10 in both run and total defense, Worthy has the build of a run-stuffer (estimated at 6-3, 320) but has remarkable burst off the snap, making him an intriguing pass rusher, as well. Only bouts with inconsistency push him outside of the top 20.
28. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State: At 6-7 and 323 pounds Adams is a virtual mountain of a man best suited to playing right tackle in the NFL. He saw most of his time at the Senior Bowl (and his career) operating on the blindside so there will be an adjustment period for him as a rookie, but in a weak senior class of tackles he's the player with the best combination of size, strength, mobility and experience against top competition.
29. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: Quite frankly, Dennard struggled a bit at the Senior Bowl but it is important to note that he, like all of the other cornerbacks in the game, were asked to play primarily off-man coverage. Dennard excels in press man. In the right system he's still a first-round prospect despite others' overreactions.
30. Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska: Crick missed the final eight games of the Huskers' season, including the Capitol One Bowl and Senior Bowl with a torn pectoral, but that won't keep scouts from grading the 2010 All-American as a first-round talent based on his potential to line up inside or out depending on the scheme of the team that drafts him come April.
31. Andre Branch, DE, Clemson: Possessing a combination of size (6-4, 265) and athleticism to intrigue scouts for 4-3 and 3-4 teams, Branch is likely to earn a selection in the first round due to the value placed on pass rushers. However, Branch's inconsistency troubles me, as did his last-minute decision to opt out of the Senior Bowl.
32. Rueben Randle, WR, LSU: Despite earning All-SEC accolades in 2011, Randle didn't post eye-popping numbers as a junior (53 catches for 973 yards and eight touchdowns). He has been a standout in the conference since signing as an extremely highly touted prep prospect and has made significant gains each year. I have similar grades for Randle, Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, but see greater physical upside with the former LSU star.