The days and hours leading up to every NFL Draft are consumed by late rumors of character red flags regarding top prospects and potential trades that can shake up the first round. But 12 months of scouting this draft class -- from game film to all-star events to league sources -- has crystallized 10 predictions entering Thursday's start to the festivities:
1. A maximum of four quarterbacks will be picked in the first round.
There's a lot of talk about five or more quarterbacks picked in the first round of this year's draft. But it's important to remember that teams are very willing to pump up quarterbacks to media members that they have no intention of selecting that early so other teams feel the need to move up to get "their guy."
My belief is that despite all of the hype and misinformation put out there by teams, Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert will be selected in the top 10, while Washington's Jake Locker and/or Florida State's Christian Ponder will be picked late in the round. If teams pay attention to the 50-50 chance of finding a starting quarterback in the QB-heavy drafts of 1983 and 1999, as well as the lack of success for even a fourth signal-caller in the first (Rex Grossman, 2003; J.P. Losman, 2004) they'll wait a bit to find a signal-caller and instead pick an immediate starter at another position of need.
Look for either Locker or Ponder, along with Andy Dalton (TCU), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) and Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) to be selected in the second or early third rounds.
2. Mark Ingram and Mikel Leshoure will be picked in the first round.
The NFL has been a run-first league for quite some time, but common perception is that running backs won't go in the first round because of the importance of the passing game and attrition at the position. In 2008, five backs were selected in the first round, while three came off the board within the top 32 picks in each of the past two drafts.
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Alabama's Mark Ingram won't get past Tampa Bay at 20 because of his strength, balance and rare vision. Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, who is ahead of Ingram on some boards due to injury concerns regarding the former Heisman Trophy winner, will not get past New Orleans, New England or even Green Bay at 32 as 2010 breakout rookie James Starks and veteran Ryan Grant have both lost significant time to injuries in recent years.
3. Kyle Rudolph will not be available to Atlanta at pick No. 27.
The combination of Rudolph's recent workout, a weak tight end class and a strong rookie year by New England's 2010 second-round pick Rob Gronkowski won't allow Rudolph to fall out of the top 25 picks. Also, the lack of a true first-round value at wide receiver increases Rudolph's value -- he could easily line up in the slot to stretch defenses down the seam and use his superior size to get open against nickel backs or linebackers. If the Rams, Dolphins or Giants decide not to select him, a team could rise up from the late-first/early-second (including Atlanta, if they value him that strongly) to secure his services.
4. At least two players in nearly everyone's first round mock draft will fall into the second or third round.
Quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen (2010) and Brian Brohm (2009) were supposed to be first-round picks due to the value at the position. This year, it's quite possible Ryan Mallett will not be called in the first round due to similar leadership and even stronger off-field troubles.
Outside linebacker Sergio Kindle was believed to be fairly certain to hear his name in the first round last year. Kindle's health issues kept him out of the first 32 despite his length and speed. This year that could unfortunately happen to Iowa's standout defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Although it's difficult to see proof that Erb's Palsy has robbed Clayborn or strength in his right arm, general managers may be a bit concerned that issues may begin when he faces veteran NFL offensive linemen.
Offensive tackles Eben Britton (2009) and Charles Brown (2010) also failed to reach the first round the last two seasons despite expectations it could happen. The top candidate for that surprise fall is Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod who, although athletic and solid, is not always considered the strongest or most intense lineman by pro coaches.
And finally, Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson is not viewed to be as NFL-ready as some believe. That could make him this year's version of Linval Joseph, a similarly-sized East Carolina defensive tackle projected by some to be a late first-round pick last year.
5. Florida International CB Anthony Gaitor will be the first player drafted who was not invited to this year's scouting combine.
Recent history of the top-rated players not invited to work out and talk to scouts in Indianapolis at the annual scouting combine include several talented cornerbacks. Travis Fisher (selected in the second round of the 2002 draft by St. Louis), Shawntae Spencer (second, 2004, San Francisco) and Usama Young (third, 2007, New Orleans) were the first non-combine participants to be selected in their drafts. Gaitor's frame (5-10, 177) and speed (4.48 40) aren't exceptional, but his physicality and ability in coverage was so great FIU coaches used him around the line of scrimmage consistently as a senior to prevent opponents from taking him out of the game by avoiding his side of the field.
6. North Carolina wide receiver Greg Little will benefit from Mike Williams' success in Tampa Bay in 2010.
Williams had troubles staying in school at Syracuse, missing the entire 2008 season due to supposed academic fraud and also reportedly quitting the team when notified of an upcoming suspension in 2009. A top 50 talent, Williams fell into the fourth round of last year's draft. But his 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns will make teams less willing to allow another talented player in Little to fall that far in the draft. Little's suspension for receiving benefits from an agent cost him the 2010 season, and his attitude in interviews has not impressed scouts, either. But the athleticism he displayed at the combine and the upside (62-724-5) he showed in 2009 at receiver after switching from running back wouldn't allow him to fall out of the top 75.
7. Jimmy Smith's off-field concerns won't keep him out of the top 25.
It's pretty simple: talent rules in the NFL. Smith's size/speed combination (6-2, 211, 4.42) and ability to shut down even elite receivers like Georgia's A.J. Green with physicality and quick feet at the line of scrimmage are just too enticing for teams to pass on -- despite multiple arrests and failed drug tests at Colorado -- when they have to game-plan against top receivers every week. Even with the recent troubles of Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib (picked 20th in 2008) and off-field issues of Antonio Cromartie (19th, 2006, San Diego), teams won't allow Smith to fall outside the top 25. Eagles coach Andy Reid has proved willing to take chances on talented players with troubled pasts. Given the team's need to improve that position group, Philly's No. 23 pick seems a good landing spot if Smith is still available.
8. UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers will not make it out of the top 20.
This year's linebacker group is quite thin, especially when looking for experienced 4-3 stack 'backers with coverage ability. Even though most in the media project Ayers as a 3-4 rush linebacker only, watching film of Ayers makes it clear he is capable of playing multiple positions. One team potentially buying into his skills is Detroit, which uses a four-man front with 3-4 principles. Julian Peterson played on the strong side for head coach Jim Schwartz, and there's no reason to believe Ayers can't fill the same role. Tampa Bay could also view Ayers as an immediate starter it can pick up with the 20th selection. In between those two spots, New England and San Diego are 3-4 teams strongly considering his services at picks 17 and 18.
9. The Colts' second-round selection will surprise -- and likely succeed.
Bill Polian is considered one of the best talent evaluators in the league, but has gained notoriety for selecting players that few expect with his mid-to-late second-round picks. He drafted former Iowa safety Bob Sanders in the second round when most teams thought he was too short, and received better-than-average production from players like Kelvin Hayden, Tim Jennings, Idrees Bashir and Pat Angerer. Potential surprising second-rounders this year include Indiana offensive tackle James Brewer, Iowa safety Tyler Sash, LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis, Clemson defensive back Marcus Gilchrist and Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
10. Boise State receiver Titus Young will not be chosen in the top 50 picks, but will still have a good NFL career.
Media members are starting to float Young up their boards because of his elusiveness and strong hands. The problem is, teams are not typically willing to use a premium pick on a player of top 50 value with character concerns, including being suspended for most of a year for the ubiquitous "violation of team rules." Comparisons to Philadelphia Eagles star receiver DeSean Jackson, who would have been a top 15 pick himself if not for attitude and character questions, are a bit of a reach. Young does have the speed, hands and elusiveness to be a nice No. 2 receiver and excellent return specialist, however, making him a good find in the late second round.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.