With the annual scouting combine in the rearview mirror and only Pro Day workouts ahead, the elite talent in the 2011 NFL Draft is beginning to separate from the rest of the pack.
Taking into account performance on the field, interviews, combine workouts and medical grades, four prospects emerged as the class of the 2011 draft: CB Patrick Peterson, LB Von Miller, DL Marcell Dareus and WR A.J. Green.
This does not mean I anticipate these four players being the first four picks of the draft.
The Big Board is my ranking of the best players available, regardless of position. I'm fortunate in that I don't have to follow the same rules as NFL teams.
Because of the inherent value of the quarterback position, NFL teams are forced to push passers and pass rushers higher on the board than safer players from so-called "lesser" positions. Cam Newton, Da'Quan Bowers and Nick Fairley, for example, all very likely will wind up being selected higher than most or all of this foursome -- despite the fact that each has significant red flags.
Anyone can recognize talent. I'm most interested in identifying players who, along with that talent, possess the maturity, intelligence and work ethic to become NFL stars. If I were building a team from scratch with only the current draft class to choose from, this is the order in which I'd select them:
1. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Standout corner with the ability to impact the game as a returner. The best player in the draft.
2. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
A pass-rushing phenom with the Aggies, Miller answered any questions about his coverage ability at the Senior Bowl and showed overall athleticism and maturity at the combine.
|Marcell Dareus might not have the most upside, but he's one of the safest players to be found. (Getty Images)|
Strong, stout and quick, Dareus can play inside and out in either scheme. He might lack the upside of some of the other defensive linemen in this talented group, but is the safest of the bunch.
4. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
Julio Jones overshadowed Green at the combine. But the game tape will show that not only is Green faster, his size, body control and hands are reminiscent of a young Larry Fitzgerald.
5. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Displayed rare agility and straight-line speed at the combine and some have labeled him the most talented player in the draft. I have concerns about his maturity and work ethic once he gets a multi-million dollar contract.
6. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
Based on 2009 game tape, Quinn is the most explosive pass rusher in the draft. He wasn't as impressive in drills as expected, however, especially considering that he's had a year to prepare.
7. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Despite the fact that he led the nation with 15.5 sacks, Bowers doesn't boast great quick-twitch explosiveness, likely limiting his effectiveness as a pass rusher in the NFL. His length and strength, however, make him a quality run defender and the best all-around defensive end in the draft.
8. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Jones' combine workout was as surprising as it was impressive. That said, the 4.3 speed he demonstrated in Indianapolis was never evident on the field for the Crimson Tide.
9. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
Putting to bed any concerns about his straight-line speed at the combine, the All-American cornerback may have secured a top-10 selection in precisely 4.38 seconds.
10. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
At 6-5, 290 pounds, Watt has the perfect blend of size and strength (34 reps of 225 pounds) to star as a 3-4 defensive end. He demonstrated much better overall athleticism at the combine to reassure teams that he could remain outside in the 4-3. Taking into account his stellar intangibles, Watt made the single biggest jump in this week's Big Board rankings.
11. Cameron Jordan, DE, California
Showed everyone at the Senior Bowl -- and confirmed at the combine -- what I've been saying for months: Jordan is arguably the most versatile defensive lineman in a class with many of them.
12. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Forget the fact that he came in a little smaller and slower than we all hoped, Ingram's rare combination of vision, balance, burst and low center of gravity remind me of only one back: the NFL's all-time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith.
13. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB Missouri
A long-armed, explosive athlete who should only get better with time, Smith is somewhat similar to South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul, who was picked in the first round by the Giants last year. If given time to develop, he could become a star, but is quite raw at this point.
14. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Size, arm strength, good accuracy and a quick release, Gabbert has all of the tools to be a top five pick but didn't do himself any favors by declining the opportunity to compete at the combine.
15. Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
Athletic, intelligent and durable, Castonzo is this year's safest offensive tackle. He might never make a Pro Bowl, but could lock down the blind side for a decade.
16. Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida
With size, strength and the athleticism to block at the second level, Pouncey's ability to stand out against SEC competition makes him an easy first-round pick.
17. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Competes with his former teammate, Nick Fairley, as the most talented player in this draft. But as he demonstrated with an unimpressive throwing session at the combine, he has even further to go if he is to be successful in a traditional pro-style offense against NFL competition.
18. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Came in a bit smaller (6-2 5/8, 281) than many elite defensive ends, raising some concerns about how well he'll transition to the pro game. I like him and don't worry about his drop in statistics at Iowa from 2009 to '10, but wouldn't be surprised if he slips a bit on draft day.
19. Tyron Smith, OT, Southern Cal
In terms of pure talent, Smith is this year's best tackle -- but his experience lies on the right side, his future lies on the left and scouts have questioned his maturity. He'll impress when he works out at USC's Pro Day March 30.
20. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
A road-grader with enough size and reach for pass protection, Carimi would be best off moving to right tackle.
21. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
Overshadowed a bit by Fighting Illini prospects Mikel LeShoure and Martez Wilson, Liuget will wind up the earliest drafted and best NFL player of the trio.
22. Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
Proved that he has legitimate speed (4.42) and agility despite his 6-2, 211-pound frame to remain at cornerback in the NFL, but his moderate ball skills and significant character red flags could push him down the board.
23. Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor
Don't let his marginal tests at the combine or the fact that he's 26 years old distract from the fact that Watkins is the toughest, nastiest interior lineman in this class. He might not be drafted in the first round ... but will one day be viewed as a steal if he isn't.
24. Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Solder's weak base and moderate strength concern me, but his rare size (6-8, 314), athleticism and flexibility make him an ideal left tackle prospect.
25. Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
I'm admittedly higher on Sherrod than most, but see him as an ideal swing tackle capable of stepping in immediately and well worth a first-round pick.
26. Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor
A top 20 talent athletically, but will have to answer questions about his suspension and transfer from Penn State to get drafted that high.
27. Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, Temple
The best defensive lineman no one seems to be talking about ... yet.
28. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Lots to like about Kerrigan's hustle and production, though his thinner lower body and marginal hand play are concerns.
29. QB Jake Locker, Washington
One impressive 30-minute throwing session at the combine does not erase four years of inaccurate passing, but it does provide evidence that Locker might be capable of improving with better technique. 30. Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland
Currently leads Kentucky's Randall Cobb in the tight race to be third WR due to greater height, straight-line speed.
31. Christian Ponder, Florida State
Ponder is shorter (6-2) and certainly more injury-prone than preferred, but I like the grittiness he's shown in coming back from two arm surgeries to win Senior Bowl MVP honors and upstage more naturally gifted quarterbacks at the combine. His short-to-intermediate level accuracy, mobility and intelligence make the West Coast offense his best fit.
32. QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
As a member of the media, did I appreciate his unwillingness to explain his character concerns in Indianapolis? No. But as a talent evaluator, I did appreciate his strong and accurate passing the day after his media day meltdown. In the NFL, talent -- not media savvy -- wins games.
TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame -- injury
DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State -- injury
DT Stephen Paea, Oregon State -- injury
OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
RB Mikel LeShoure, Illinois
C/OG Rodney Hudson, Florida State
WR Randall Cobb, Kentucky
ILB Martez Wilson, Illinois
CB Brandon Harris, Miami (Fla.)
CB Aaron Williams, Texas