NFL personnel say draft boards are largely set by players' performances in helmets and pads, but each year there are notable adjustments following the scouting combine and pro day workouts.
Taking into account all of the major requirements -- performance on the field, interviews, combine workouts and medical grades -- four prospects emerged as the class of the 2011 draft: Patrick Peterson, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus and A.J. Green.
This does not mean I expect those four players to be the first four picks of the draft.
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The Big Board is my ranking of the 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 my fantastic foursome -- despite the fact that each carries with them 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 was 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. Peterson is the best player in the draft.
|A standout corner with the ability to impact the game as a returner, Patrick Peterson is the best player in the draft. (Getty Images)|
3. Marcell Dareus, DT/DE, Alabama: Strong, stout and quick, Dareus can play inside and out in the 3-4 or 4-3 schemes. He might lack the upside of the some of the other defensive linemen in this talented group, but he's also the closest there is to a sure thing.
4. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: So Julio Jones overshadowed Green at the combine. But put on the game film -- Green's size, body control and hands are reminiscent of a young Larry Fitzgerald, and Green is even faster.
5. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: Proved the rare agility and straight-line speed at the combine that has led some to label him as the most talented player in the draft. My concerns about his maturity and work ethic once he gets a multimillion-dollar contract force me to avoid such a label.
6. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Ingram erased speed concerns with times in the high 4.4s to low 4.5s at his pro day. 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.
7. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina: Based on 2009 tape, Quinn is the most explosive pass rusher in the draft. He wasn't as impressive in drills as expected after a year off serving a suspension.
8. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: He led the nation with 15.5 sacks, but Bowers doesn't boast great quick-twitch explosiveness, likely limiting his effectiveness as a pass-rusher in the NFL. His length and strength make him a quality run defender and the best all-around defensive end of the draft.
9. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: Put to bed any concerns about his straight-line speed at the combine, where the All-American cornerback might have also secured a top-10 selection in precisely 4.38 seconds.
10. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: With size, arm strength, good accuracy and a quick release, Gabbert has all of the tools to be a top pick. But I have too many concerns about his deep accuracy to rate him higher than the surefire stars of this draft.
11. 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.
|Strong, stout and quick, Marcell Dareus can play inside and out in the 3-4 or 4-3 schemes. (US Presswire)|
13. 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 blessed with a lot of them.
14. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri: A long-armed, explosive athlete who should only get better with time, Smith reminds me of Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants) from last year. If given time to develop, he could become a star, but he's quite raw at this point.
15. Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: Athletic, intelligent and durable, Castonzo might never make a Pro Bowl, but could lock down the blind side for a decade.
16. Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida: Size, strength and the athleticism to block at the next level, Pouncey's ability to stand out against SEC competition makes him an easy first-round pick.
17. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: Competing with his former teammate, Nick Fairley, as one of the most talented players in this draft, and made strides at his pro day. But he still has a long way 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 shorter (6-2 5/8, 281) than preferred as a 4-3 defensive end, raising some concerns about how well he'll transition to the pro game. I'm not concerned and don't worry about his drop in production last season, but wouldn't be surprised if he slips a bit on draft day.
19. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: Lots to like about Kerrigan's hustle and production, though his thinner lower body and marginal hand play are concerns.
20. Tyron Smith, OT, Southern California: 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.
21. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: A road grader with enough size, reach for pass protection, Carimi would be best off moving to right tackle.
22. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: Overshadowed a bit by ex-teammates Mikel Leshoure and Martez Wilson at Illinois, Liuget will wind up the earliest-drafted and best NFL player of the trio.
23. Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor: Don't let his marginal tests at the combine or the fact that he's 26 distract from the fact that Watkins is the toughest, nastiest interior lineman in this class. He might not make the first round, but he'll one day be viewed as a steal.
24. 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.
25. 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 there.
26. Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, Temple: The best defensive lineman no one seems to be talking about ... yet.
27. Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: Solder's weak base and moderate strength are concerns, but his rare size (6-8, 314), athleticism and flexibility make him an ideal left tackle prospect.
28. 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.
29. Jake Locker, QB, 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 his accuracy with better technique.
30. Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland: Currently leads Kentucky's Randall Cobb in the tight race to be third WR because of his greater height and straight-line speed.
31. Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State: Ponder is shorter (6-2) and certainly more injury-prone than I'd prefer, but the grittiness he has shown in coming back from two arm surgeries to win Senior Bowl MVP honors and upstage more naturally gifted quarterbacks at the combine stands out. His short-to-intermediate-level accuracy, mobility and intelligence make the West Coast offense his best fit.
32. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State: A classic five-technique end who played his best in big games, Heyward projects very well to the NFL on his own accord, and his NFL bloodlines (he's the son of former Saints standout Craig "Ironhead" Heyward) only help. If he can prove he's recovering from elbow surgery before the draft, he'll be a first-round pick.
TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame -- injury
DT Stephen Paea, Oregon State -- injury
RB Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
C/OG Rodney Hudson, Florida State
WR Randall Cobb, Kentucky
CB Brandon Harris, Miami
QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
DE Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh
CB/FS Aaron Williams, Texas