The rookie class of 2010 hasn't gone through a full-contact practice yet, and some won't even take the field this month as late graduation dates prevent many players from joining their NFL team until June.
But already scouts are looking ahead to the 2011 NFL Draft.
National and BLESTO scouts are meeting starting next week to pare down the list of tens of thousands of senior college football players to the few thousand deserving a closer look from NFL teams. These meetings will officially begin the exhaustive 11-month process that concludes when roughly 300 players, including some underclassmen, are drafted into the NFL in April.
Over the course of the year many of the mysteries of the 2011 player pool will be solved. Among those at the top of many scouts' list are these three burning questions:
1. Is Jake Locker legit?
|Jake Locker has to work on his 36-26 TD-to-interception ratio. (Getty Images)|
There is no denying Locker's talent, potential or the value of the quarterback position. He enters the year as the top-rated senior prospect and the favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. To make that happen, Locker will have to match the significant leap in accuracy and in reading defenses that he showed in his first season under Sarkisian.
2. Comeback of Mark Herzlich?
Boston College outside linebacker Mark Herzlich was set to enter his senior season as the most highly touted defensive player in the country. Ndamukong Suh? Given a lower grade entering the year by NFL scouts than Herzlich, who won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award as a junior, showcased a blend of size (6-4, 238) and agility to easily project as a 3-4 pass rusher or remain as a playmaking OLB in the 4-3 alignment.
But Herzlich never took the field in 2009 for his senior season. He was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. The disease, which can be fatal, required chemotherapy and surgery, during which a steel rod was needed in his left leg to support Herzlich's femur. The treatment was effective as Herzlich was pronounced cancer free. He's been practicing with Boston College all spring in preparation for the upcoming season, though he did mostly conditioning work.
Herzlich's triumph over cancer is more than enough to make him a fan favorite. To remain a scout's favorite, however, Herzlich will have to recapture the range and instincts that helped him rack up 110 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and six interceptions (including two returned for TDs) in 2008.
3. Is the North Carolina defense really this talented?
Butch Davis came to North Carolina with the reputation as a defensive line wizard and a strong recruiter. If his 2010 Tar Heel defense is as good on the field as the prospects are individually on paper, players won't be the only ones drawing attention from NFL teams -- Davis could get another look, too.
Davis, whose four-year run with the Cleveland Browns (2001-2004) was highlighted with the Browns making the playoffs in 2002, has assembled a collection of defensive talent that could result in a breakthrough performance in the ACC and a strong baby-blue hue on NFL Draft day 2011.
NFLDraftScout.com currently ranks three UNC defensive players -- defensive tackle Marvin Austin, outside linebacker Bruce Carter and free safety Deunta Williams -- as the elite senior prospects at their respective positions and are currently viewed as potential first-round picks. The Tar Heels have two other seniors who are potential top-100 selections -- outside linebacker Quan Sturdivant and cornerback Kendrick Burney. All five, in fact, are currently rated among NFLDraftScout.com's top 32 senior prospects.
What's more, junior defensive end Robert Quinn might be the best of the bunch. The 6-5, 264 pound All-ACC pick posted 52 tackles last year, with 19 of them behind the line of scrimmage, including 11 sacks. He is already being compared to former Tar Heel great and 2002 No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers.
Scouts will have their hands full determining just how good each prospect might be at the next level. With so much talent on the field, it becomes easy for individual strengths to be highlighted -- and their relative weaknesses to be hidden or blurred.
The immediate NFL success experienced by many members (Brian Cushing, Clay Mathews, Rey Maualuga, Kaluka Maiava) of the 2008 Southern Cal defense -- the last defensive unit to earn this many top grades -- perhaps the Tar Heels won't be downgraded for having a strong supporting cast but rather each will be graded on his own merit.