Without a doubt, the story of the 2012 NFL Draft class will be its quarterbacks.
It's easy to make that statement, as you can make it about nearly any of the annual "League Player Selection Meetings" because of the importance of the position. But the talent and depth likely to be available to teams could make the 2011 class pale in comparison.
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Stanford redshirt junior Andrew Luck was simply born to play quarterback in the NFL. His lineage -- Oliver Luck, his father, was an NFL quarterback -- physical attributes and mental makeup would have made him the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, so there's no reason to believe that he won't be the No. 1 pick barring injury or unforeseen meltdown.
Fellow underclassmen Landry Jones (Oklahoma) and Matt Barkley (Southern Cal) are in the fight for the No. 2 quarterback spot and project as early-to-mid first-round picks. Teams like Jones' NFL size and arm strength, though his accuracy and decision-making must improve in 2011 if he is to challenge for a top 10 overall spot. Barkley lacks Jones' size and arm, but is quite accurate and could remind scouts of a cross between former Trojan quarterback Mark Sanchez and 2011 12th overall selection, Christian Ponder.
The senior class is led by very talented players, all of whom have question marks about their NFL potential. Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor is similar to this year's top prospect, Cam Newton, but needs a Heisman Trophy-winning season (in only five games) to earn scouts' respect as a passer and playmaker. Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) and Nick Foles (Arizona) have much of what NFL teams want in their quarterbacks, but need to play more consistently than they did last season to land in the top 50 selections.
There is plenty of talent beyond the quarterback position.
The top prospects available at each position, both seniors and juniors who could potentially declare after a strong season, are listed below.
Rating every group as above-average, average or below-average also provides a sense of the quantity and quality available.
No rising redshirt sophomores were included in these rankings, as their youth and lack of experience is just not enough to project them to the next level.
1. Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) 6-3/205/4.80/1-2
2. Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) 6-6/235/4.48/1-2
3. Nick Foles (Arizona) 6-5/245/4.95/1-2
4. Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) 6-4/220/4.84/2
5. Ryan Lindley (San Diego State) 6-4/218/4.86/2-3
6. Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) 6-4/220/4.65/3
7. G.J. Kinne (Tulsa) 6-2/215/4.67/4
8. Chandler Harnish (Northern Illinois) 6-2/220/4.73/4-5
1. Andrew Luck (Stanford) 6-4/235/4.73/1
2. Landry Jones (Oklahoma) 6-4/220/4.74/1
3. Matt Barkley (USC) 6-2/220/4.74/1
In addition to all of the passers mentioned above, scouts want to see the progress of Tannehill, whose play as a runner and passer in 2010 displaced ineffective senior Jerrod Johnson and helped the team to six consecutive wins before their bowl game defeat. Kinne and Harnish won't impress scouts with their size, but have a lot of potential as athletic passers.
1. Cyrus Gray (Texas A&M) 5-10/198/4.47/2-3
2. Dan Herron (Ohio State) 5-10/205/4.52/3
3. Montel Harris (Boston College) 5-10/200/4.54/3
4. Tauren Poole (Tennessee) 5-11/214/4.54/3-4
5. Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati) 5-10/200/4.38/3-4
6. Jeff Demps (Florida) 5-8/190/4.26/4
7. Marc Tyler (USC) 5-11/228/4.54/4
8. Doug Martin (Boise State) 5-9/201/4.49/4-5
9. Brandon Bolden (Ole Miss) 5-11/214/4.59/4-5
10. Jermaine Thomas (Florida State) 5-11/190/4.47/5
1. Trent Richardson (Alabama) 5-11/220/4.52/1
2. Knile Davis (Arkansas) 6-0/220/4.43/1-2
3. LaMichael James (Oregon) 5-9/185/4.42/2
4. Andre Ellington (Clemson) 5-10/190/4.39/2
5. Chris Polk (Washington) 5-11/215/4.48/2
More than a dozen underclassmen entered the 2011 draft, leaving a group of good, but not great, senior backs for NFL teams to choose from next April. Look for juniors Richardson and Davis to be selected higher than the top back in this year's draft, Mark Ingram (28th overall to New Orleans), because of their combination of strong running and pure speed. James, Ellington and Polk all have legitimate chances of being top 64 picks. Teams will find stronger backs like "Boom" Herron and Ford and speedsters in Demps, Pead and Thomas throughout the draft, resulting in a position run in the third and fourth rounds similar to what we saw last weekend.
1. Cody Johnson (Texas) 5-11/250/4.68/5-6
2. Joe Halahuni (Oregon State) 6-2/252/4.73/5-6
3. Joe Suhey (Penn State) 6-1/228/4.76/6-7
4. Chad Diehl (Clemson) 6-2/265/4.72/7
5. Drake Dunsmore (Northwestern) 6-3/235/4.76
None worth top 100 consideration
The fullback position isn't as coveted as it once was, but Johnson may be intriguing to teams looking for a power back to complement their speedsters. Arkansas FB Broderick Green tore his ACL in May and will miss the entire season, but could've been our top-rated prospect at this position. Halahuni is a solid receiving H-back prospect for the next level, while Suhey and Diehl could be late-round picks as blockers and special teame contributors.
1. Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) 6-3/228/4.52/1-2
2. Jeff Fuller (Texas A&M) 6-3/215/4.52/1-2
3. Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma) 5-11/185/4.54/2
4. Juron Criner (Arizona) 6-4/210/4.60/2
5. Greg Childs (Arkansas) 6-3/217/4.57/2-3
6. DeVier Posey (Ohio State) 6-2/213/4.52/2-3
7. Jermaine Kearse (Washington) 6-2/205/4.52/2-3
8. Dwight Jones (North Carolina) 6-4/215/4.57/3
9. Marquis Maze (Alabama) 5-10/182/4.43/3
10. T.Y. Hilton (Florida International) 5-10/183/4.44/3-4
11. Chris Owusu (Stanford) 6-2/200/4.47/3-4
12. Jarrett Boykin (Virginia Tech) 6-2/215/4.54/3-4
13. Marvin McNutt (Iowa) 6-4/215/4.60/4
14. Nick Toon (Wisconsin) 6-3/218/4.57/4
15. Chris Rainey (Florida) 5-9/178/4.34/4-5
1. Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) 6-1/208/4.54/1
2. Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) 6-4/232/4.56/1
3. Russell Shepard (LSU) 6-0/188/4.48/1-2
4. Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers) 6-2/218/4.57/1-2
Blackmon and Jeffery may be the top two receivers in his class if they perform as expected in 2011, but unlike most recent drafts, it appears that the senior class of receivers will not be dominated by underclassmen entrants. The decisions of the top six senior pass-catchers listed below not to come out early, even though they could have all been top 100 selections, could make this as strong a group as has been available to teams in some time (thus the inclusion of 15 players at his position).
Off-field issues could overcome the talent of Blackmon and Floyd, but excellent 2011 seasons by the two strong downfield playmakers may allow teams to forgive and forget. NFL-sized receivers Jeffrey, Fuller, Criner, and Posey may all take big steps forward if their quarterbacks come through this fall, while Childs, Kearse and Jones must work with new passers in their final season and Shepard could be an elite talent if he actually gets the ball consistently in 2011. Smaller receivers Hilton, Maze, Rainey will gain fans in scouts due to their toughness and/or speed. McNutt, Toon, and Boykins all have the size teams like in mid-round number two-receiver prospects.
1. Michael Egnew (Missouri) 6-6/235/4.73/1-2
2. David Paulson (Oregon) 6-4/242/4.76/2-3
3. George Bryan (North Carolina State) 6-5/265/4.83/3
4. Coby Fleener (Stanford) 6-6/245/4.85/3-4
5. Ladarius Green (Louisiana-Lafayette) 6-6/230/4.73/4
1. D'wayne Allen (Clemson) 6-4/255/4.76/2
2. Orson Charles (Georgia) 6-3/240/4.64/2-3
Scouts hoping to find more difference-making tight end prospects available to them in next year's draft after a weak group this season will be disappointed. Egnew is still learning the position, but has a chance to push himself into the first round because of his size and strong hands. Allen and Charles aren't elite prospects as juniors, and the rest of the players listed below have fair receiving skills but lack explosiveness to crack the draft's second round.
1. Nate Potter (Boise State) 6-6/295/5.07/1-2
2. Mike Adams (Ohio State) 6-8/305/5.28/1-2
3. Levy Adcock (Oklahoma State) 6-5/318/5.23/1-2
4. Andrew Datko (Florida State) 6-6/305/5.14/2
5. Matt Reynolds (BYU) 6-6/322/5.38/2
6. Elvis Fisher (Missouri) 6-5/295/5.23/2-3
7. Matt McCants (Alabama-Birmingham) 6-7/295/5.26/3
8. Mike Ryan (Connecticut) 6-5/333/5.28/3
9. Trevor Olson (Northern Illinois) 6-6/306/5.29/3-4
10. Mitchell Schwartz (California) 6-5/312/5.49/3-4
1. Jonathan Martin (Stanford) 6-6/305/5.29/1
2. Matt Kalil (USC) 6-6/295/5.05/1
3. Riley Reiff (Iowa) 6-6/300/4.94/1-2
4. Xavier Nixon (Florida) 6-5/300/4.97/1-2
Luck may get the headlines, but Martin is the one protecting his blind side. Kalil, brother of Carolina Panthers' center Ryan, was so good he kept 2010 ninth overall pick Tyron Smith (Cowboys) on the right side of the formation. Reiff and Nixon weren't as consistent as you'd like as sophomores, but both have the ability to be exceptional players as they mature.
Much like this year, there are a lot of good, but not great, senior tackles that will fill up the second-fourth rounds. Potter has been on teams' radars because of Boise's success in recent years, and Adams and Datko are also multi-year starters for great programs. Adcock hasn't received much hype yet as a junior college transfer, but his strength and athleticism could allow him to jump up boards. Thick tackles Reynolds and Ryan could be good right tackle prospects, and lesser-known players Olson, McCants and Schwartz will greatly intrigue teams.
1. Kelechi Osemele (Iowa State) 6-5/335/5.43/1-2
2. Kevin Zeitler (Wisconsin) 6-4/315/5.29/2
3. Stephen Good (Oklahoma) 6-6/300/5.12/2-3
4. Ryan Miller (Colorado) 6-8/312/5.32/2-3
5. Rokevious Watkins (South Carolina) 6-4/325/5.36/3
6. Cordy Glenn (Georgia) 6-5/324/5.34/3
7. Chris Jacobson (Pittsburgh) 6-3/290/5.12/3-4
8. Jaymes Brooks (Virginia Tech) 6-2/296/5.09/3-4
9. Joel Foreman (Michigan State) 6-4/310/5.45/4
10. Lukas Nix (Pittsburgh) 6-6/305/5.12/4-5
1. David DeCastro (Stanford) 6-5/312/5.22/2
2. Barrett Jones (Alabama) 6-4/301/4.97/2-3
Iowa State hasn't had a first-round pick since 1973 (RB George Amundson), but that streak could end in 2012; Osemele has a chance to be selected as a tackle, but could be dominant at guard if teams do not believe he has the athleticism to play outside. Zeitler's combination of strength and agility give him a chance to be selected very high, and Good, Miller, Watkins, and Glenn all have "top 100" written all over them. There's no dominant underclassman like former Florida Gator and current Pittsburgh Steeler Maurkice Pouncey in this draft, but if DeCastro or Jones come out teams will be happy to add them to their squads as probable tough long-time starters.
1. Mike Brewster (Ohio State) 6-5/295/5.12/2
2. Ben Jones (Georgia) 6-3/300/5.26/2-3
3. William Vlachos (Alabama) 6-1/290/5.23/3
4. David Molk (Michigan) 6-2/285/4.99/3-4
5. Moe Petrus (Connecticut) 6-2/295/5.09/4
1. Peter Konz (Wisconsin) 6-5/313/5.16/2
2. Ben Habern (Oklahoma) 6-3/292/4.96/2-3
After a down year at the position in 2011, NFL quarterbacks will be happy to see the five pivot men below coming into the league. Brewster's athleticism and the toughness of the other four seniors listed below (despite some possessing smallish frames) will endear them to scouts. Konz is yet another in a long line of Wisconsin centers likely to be a top 100 pick whether he comes out early or stays in Madison for the 2012 season, and Habern would add even more quality depth to his group with an early exit from Norman.
Chad Reuter is Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.