The NFL lockout might be threatening the start of training camps, but it hasn't slowed scouts' yearlong march in preparation for the 2012 NFL Draft.
Officials from teams subscribing to the National Football Scouting service (which researches and grades prospects year-round, as well as administering the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis) met before the Memorial Day weekend to discuss next April's senior prospects.
Based on the research of NFS and BLESTO, another scouting service used by a smaller set of teams, each team's regional scouts are given lists of players they must know before showing up on campus. They also use film review to eliminate small-school prospects in their area who may have good production but not the requisite size or athleticism to play at the next level.
General managers and scouting directors take the top 100 or 150 players from the list to review game tape during the summer and set up fall travel schedules. Whether checking out practices during the week or attending games on the weekend (often multiple games, one Thursday/Friday, one or two Saturday), GMs and top scouts want to eyeball the best prospects in game situations before the "silly season" of all-star games, the combine and pro days invade their draft boards.
Here are a dozen rising seniors catching our eye in film study, some of whom are already in the elite prospect category and others with a chance to be contenders for selection Friday night of draft weekend with strong senior years.
Donnie Fletcher, CB/FS, Boston College, 6-1, 200, 4.53 40-yard dash In his first year as a fulltime starter in 2010, Fletcher used his prototypical NFL corner size and length to intercept five passes. His relative fluidity, quick backpedal and ability to wrap up receivers to prevent yards after the catch allows Boston College coaches to play him off the line like a 5-foot-10 zone corner. NFL teams preferring to play their corners near the line also will like his ability to play the run, resulting in an early-round grade despite a less-than-flashy 40-yard dash time. There also will be some discussion about moving him to safety in the pros, as there was about Texas' Aaron Williams, Buffalo's 2011 early second-round pick.
Kendall Reyes, DE/DT, Connecticut, 6-4, 298, 4.93 Although he only had one tackle in the Huskies' 48-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, the initial quickness and power he showed in the second half of that game gave scouts a brief glimpse of Reyes' potential. The 2010 first-team All-Big East pick still is growing into his frame, having added about 60 pounds while in Storrs, and has been used at defensive end and tackle -- which means NFL teams could see him fitting easily in three- or four-man fronts.
Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette, 6-6, 236, 4.73 The Arizona Cardinals selected Florida Atlantic tight end Rob Housler in the early third round of the 2011 draft, and this year's lanky Sun Belt Conference tight end receiving threat may receive similar grades. Green's height, reliable hands and smooth strides makes him a tough assignment in the red zone and down the seam, and he has the foot quickness to be a good route-runner at the next level.
Trevor Guyton, DE/DT, California, 6-3, 289, 5.06 Former Cal five-technique defensive ends seem to have a habit of ending up first-round picks, as Tyson Alualu (No. 10 overall pick in 2010 by Jacksonville) and Cameron Jordan (No. 24, 2011, New Orleans) can attest. Guyton's stock may not be that high yet, but the strength and motor he displayed during the final four games of his junior season (5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks in his first career starts) will have scouts watching him very closely in 2011.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Florida International, 5-10, 183, 4.44 Another Sun Belt star makes the list, as Hilton's quickness and elusiveness with the ball in his hands as a receiver (59 receptions, 848 yards, five touchdowns receiving in 2010), red-zone Wildcat quarterback (30 attempts, 282 yards four TDs rushing) or returner (29 kickoff returns, 833 yards, two TDs; 20 punt returns, 126 yards) gives him a chance of breaking into the top 64 prospects next April. Comparisons to Sun Belt contemporary -- Troy's star receiver Jerrel Jernigan (No. 83, 2011 to the Giants) -- are unavoidable, but Hilton's smooth running and strong hands should remind scouts more of new Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young.
Travis Lewis, OLB/ILB, Oklahoma, 6-2, 232, 4.53 It's no surprise a four-year starter for a program like Oklahoma will be considered a top prospect in the draft. However, Lewis' reputation as a chase tackler on the weak side is challenged by anyone closely watching his film. His ability in coverage and willingness to take on and shed blocks between the tackles would allow him to fit in any system. After putting up what is likely to be a strong Combine workout, NFL teams may also wonder how he would work in a pass-rusher role, which he has not really been asked to take on in the Sooners' scheme.
Matt McCants, OT, Alabama-Birmingham, 6-7, 295, 5.26 McCants did not play football until his senior year in high school because he played tuba in the band. It is, therefore, not surprising that he still is growing both physically and in terms of technique. Conference USA coaches saw enough of his talent to vote him first-team all-conference in 2010, and another year honing his pass protection stance and increasing his strength in the weight room will lead to NFL teams considering him a worthwhile long-term project.
Tyler Nielsen, OLB, Iowa, 6-3, 235, 4.58 Even though Nielsen missed the final five games of his junior year because of a neck injury, scouts looking at his 2010 tape saw his potential to be a long-time starter at the next level. His ability to play over the tight end or make plays in man or zone coverage in a stack give him a shot to play on the strong side in any system. Not given a lot of chances to rush the passer in the Hawkeyes' scheme, he could surprise in that capacity as well. A healthy 2011 could result in his becoming a top 100 pick.
Kelechi Osemele, OL, Iowa State, 6-5, 355, 5.43 Osemele lacks the agility and recovery speed to stay at the left tackle spot he has held down for the Cyclones the past couple of seasons once in the NFL. Pro scouts and offensive line coaches, however, will stand on the table to convince their general manager to select him. His intelligence, massive frame, length and the exceptional tenacity he relies upon to finish blocks give him a chance to be an excellent player for a long time, especially for teams relying on a power running game.
Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati, 5-10, 198, 4.38 Oklahoma's defense will testify to Pead's talent, as the 169 yards he racked up using his quick feet, excellent straight-line speed and flashes of balance helped the Bearcats put a scare into the Sooners last fall. Though not the strongest runner, he will lower his pads at times and give effort in pass protection, giving him a shot at becoming a three-down back at the next level.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M, 6-4, 220, 4.65 Jerrod Johnson was supposed to impress scouts as the Aggies' quarterback in 2010, but Tannehill stole the show by putting up big numbers in the team's six-game winning streak and Cotton Bowl appearance. His work at receiver the previous two-plus seasons made it clear he would test defenses with his feet if plays broke down, but the arm strength and accuracy he displayed while leading A&M to big wins over Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma also intrigued scouts. Like most other college quarterbacks, Tannehill needs to improve reading coverage, handling interior pressure and his footwork. The fact he stepped in and played so well with nominal reps means the sky's the limit in 2011, especially with two more highly-regarded prospects, running back Cyrus Gray and receiver Jeff Fuller, on his side.
Tramain Thomas, FS, Arkansas, 6-0, 198, 4.52 The story of the 2010 Razorbacks was quarterback Ryan Mallett and the offense, but Thomas' play was good enough to earn a second-team All-SEC nod. He impressed scouts in last year's Sugar Bowl with closing speed to attack the run, reach either sideline to knock away passes or make the big hit (12 tackles, two forced fumbles and a pass break-up in the Sugar Bowl). Thomas also showed off his hands for the interception by making two in this year's spring games, in addition to the four he grabbed as a junior.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com.