NFL personnel say draft boards are largely set by players' performance in helmets and pads, but each year there are notable adjustments made following the 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 anticipate those four players being the first four picks of the draft.
The Big Board is my ranking of the players available regardless of position.
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I'm fortunate in that I don't have to follow the same rules as NFL teams. Because of the inherent value of quarterbacks, NFL teams are forced to push passers and pass rushers higher on the board than safer players at 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 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 would 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.
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 overall athleticism and maturity at the combine.
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.
|A.J. Green: A faster Fitzgerald? (Getty Images)|
5. 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.
6. 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 are about his maturity and work ethic once he gets a multimillion-dollar contract.
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 while serving a suspension.
8. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: He led the nation with 15½ 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, when 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 drafted in the top five. I have too many concerns about his deep accuracy, however, 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 never was evident on the field for the Crimson Tide.
12. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: At 6-feet-5 and 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 also demonstrated much better overall athleticism at the combine to reassure teams that he could remain outside in the 4-3.
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. 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.
15. Mike Pouncey, G, Florida: 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.
16. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: Competing with former teammate Fairley to be among the more talented players in this draft, and made strides at his pro day. However, he still has a long way to go if he is to be successful in a traditional pro-style offense against NFL competition.
17. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: Came in a bit shorter (6-2 5/8) than preferred as a 4-3 defensive end, raising some concerns about how well he'll transition to the pro game. I'm neither concerned nor worried about his drop in production last season, but wouldn't be surprised if he slips a bit on draft day.
18. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: Lots to like about Kerrigan's hustle and production, though his thinner lower body and marginal hand play are concerns.
19. 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.
20. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB Missouri: Smith's burst off the snap and long arms are elite attributes, and as a result he projects as a potential star pass rusher. But he is only moderate in other areas -- lateral agility, flexibility -- and projects exclusively as a defensive end in NFL, ruling out teams who had envisioned him as a 3-4 linebacker.
21. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: A road grader with enough size and reach for pass protection, Carimi would be best off at right tackle.
|Corey Liuget compares favorably to higher-rated defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley. (US Presswire)|
23. Danny Watkins, G, 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 make the first round, but will 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: With his position and scheme versatility, Wilkerson might be considered a top-20 lock if only he had played in the Big Ten and not the MAC.
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. 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 his accuracy with better technique.
30. Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State: Ponder is shorter (6-2) and certainly more injury-prone than I would 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.
31. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State: A classic five-technique lineman who played his best in big games, Heyward projects very well to the NFL on his own accord. 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.
32. Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland: Currently leads Kentucky's Randall Cobb in the tight race to be third WR because of greater height and straight-line speed.
TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame -- injury
DT Stephen Paea, Oregon State -- injury
DE Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh
RB Mikel LeShoure, Illinois
C/G Rodney Hudson, Florida State
WR Randall Cobb, Kentucky
CB Brandon Harris, Miami (Fla.)
OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
CB/FS Aaron Williams, Texas
QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas