The two scouting organizations that most NFL teams rely on for off-season scouting of college prospects -- National Scouting and BLESTO -- held their annual spring meetings just a few weeks ago. From these meetings come the rankings of senior prospects which NFL teams then use as a "starting point" from which to narrow the field of tens of thousands of collegiate players who would love an opportunity to play professional football to the relatively low number of 1,000 (or so) senior players who actually have enough athleticism and size to warrant taking a closer look.
Though much will be made of the player(s) who earn the highest preseason grades, take the cautionary tales of former top-rated prospects Michael Johnson (3rd round), Greg Hardy (6th round), Quentin Moses (3rd round) -- athletic pass rushers who slipped to mid rounds or later after disappointing senior campaigns.
The 2010-11 reports haven't yet made the rounds. However, after a beginning my scouting of senior prospects for the 2011 draft, there are only four players that I feel deserve consideration for the right to be called the "best senior prospect" entering next season.
Considering that the first eight players selected in the 2010 draft came from the Big 12 or SEC, these traditional powerhouse conferences could take a step back this year.... at least in terms of producing extremely highly rated preseason senior prospects.
Washington quarterback Jake Locker is my highest rated prospect. As I mentioned in this introductory 2011 article , however, Locker is far from the sure thing he's been labeled by some. We all know that quarterbacks often end up being selected No. 1 overall due to the value of the position, but for the National and BLESTO rankings, position value isn't necessarily taken into account. I'd be surprised, quite honestly, if Locker is the top-rated senior prospect for either organization.
The most NFL-ready of the top prospects and the player I believe to be the likeliest to have earned the top billing is Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward . Explosive enough to play defensive end and large enough to project inside at defensive tackle, the late Ironhead Heyward's son really came on down the stretch last season and due to his size and athleticism will be viewed by some as possessing unparalled upside.
It would be a bit ironic if Heyward earned the top mark in either list as another Big Ten defensive lineman, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn was unquestionably the better, more consistent player in 2010. At 6-3, 285, however, Clayborn may lack the size and upside NFL scouts require for a supremely high grade at this time. History has proven that the National and BLESTO scouts have often been more interested in elite athletes with a high upside rather than consistent football players.
Due to the upside conversation, yet another Big Ten standout has a chance to be the surprise top senior prospect. Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi has been compared to Joe Thomas since he arrived on campus. Though he's prone to mental lapses, there is no denying the 6-8, 315 pound Carimi has the athleticism to handle the blindside in the NFL. His fluidity and aggression could result in a high grade -- though he'll need to play with more consistency to ultimately earn this high of a draft selection.