|Jonathan Martin (left) should be a strong left tackle in the pros for years to come. (Getty Images)|
Stop the presses: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is the top prospect in the Pac-12.
Luck has been NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated prospect for two years running. He's arguably the best prospect produced in Palo Alto since former Stanford quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway forced his way out of Indianapolis and into the waiting arms of Denver in 1983.
But Luck himself would remind you that he has two first-round talents on his offensive line making his life a whole lot easier.
Left tackle Jonathan Martin and left guard David DeCastro, both juniors, led one of the best O-lines in college football in 2010. This season, the pressure rises with three new starters to break in, but scouts have little doubt the group will remain stout.
Martin -- known at Stanford as "Moose" -- might lose top offensive tackle billing in the 2012 class to Southern Cal's more athletic Matt Kalil. However, that does not mean scouts won't project Martin as a longtime NFL starter at left tackle, worthy of a mid-first round grade.
He has the requisite size and strength to handle NFL defenders with some experience, and his wide base makes it difficult for defensive ends to push him into the pocket. However, that same wide stance limits his ability to adjust to secondary rushes with balance; a minor adjustment this season or when working with NFL coaches should be sufficient to correct that flaw.
DeCastro, rated a top-10 center prospect nationally coming out of Bellevue High School in Washington, chose The Farm for its academics and rising football program under then-head coach Jim Harbaugh.
DeCastro does a fine job keeping Luck from feeling interior pressure in pass protection. However, it does not take long to realize DeCastro's main role in the Cardinal offense: get out in front of run plays and clear second-level defenders for Stanford ballcarriers. His mobility, agility and tenacity taking out targets in the open field would make revered Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi -- the Godfather of the concept of the modern-day pulling guard -- very proud.
Neither Martin or DeCastro play "finesse" football. Under Harbaugh, Stanford was known as the most physical team west of Lincoln, Neb. The intensity and on-field attitude displayed by both, tempered with their intelligence off the field, makes them coveted prospects.
Since Luck has said he is planning to leave school after the 2011 season to enter the NFL, it would not be surprising to see Martin and DeCastro follow. They can expect first-round grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee if they request such advisement, giving the Cardinal multiple picks in the top 32 for the first time in 20 years -- when offensive tackle Bob Whitfield and fullback "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell were the eighth and ninth picks of the 1992 draft.
Top 10 PAC-12 prospects for the 2012 draft
1. *Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford 6-4/235/4.73
(* denotes underclassman) The attributes that put Luck in elite company of Elway and Peyton Manning -- size, arm strength, accuracy, mobility (453 rushing yards), athleticism, intelligence and toughness -- make him the total package scouts look for in players at the position. Those attributes give scouts no reason to believe he won't succeed in most any offense. He's in a new system this season but few hiccups are anticipated, especially if his O-line and receivers (including the deepest tight end group in the nation) do their part. One area in which he needs to work: Resisting the urge to float passes into small openings downfield, rather than checking down or throwing the ball away. NFL coaches will appreciate the playmaking mentality, but will ask him to embrace the idea of living to fight another play.
2. *Matt Barkley, QB, Southern California 6-2/220/4.74
Barkley and Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones could be fighting for the No. 2 spot in the quarterback (and overall) rankings if both decide to leave school early. Barkley does not have the size or arm strength of Luck or Jones, and his downfield accuracy is suspect. He looks quite capable of moving the ball down the field and his poise and moxie still make him a solid quarterback prospect. Improving his completion percentage (62.6 in 2010) and leading USC to a few big wins this season will cement his status as the potential NFL starter most expected he'd become when he graduated a semester early from famed Mater Dei High School.
3. *Matt Kalil, OT, Southern Cal 6-6/295/5.05
Protecting the blind side of Barkley falls on the shoulders of Kalil, who looks to follow his brother Ryan, the starting center for the Carolina Panthers, in 2012 or 2013. Matt Kalil possesses the typical tall, athletic left tackle build that carried Nate Solder and Anthony Castonzo into the top 20 picks of the 2011 draft. Kalil relies on his athleticism and length too much, and scouts would like to see him play with more consistent fire. But when his technique is sound and flashing a nasty streak, it is clear he has a future playing on Sundays.
4. *Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford 6-6/304/5.29
The first-team all-conference pick not only must protect Luck, but also help DeCastro create running lanes for junior Stepfan Taylor and other Cardinal backs. Martin's strength sealing the edge helped the team finish with 214 yards rushing per game, ranking 17th in the nation.
5. *Vontaze Burfict, ILB, Arizona State 6-3/252/4.67
The most highly-touted high school recruit ever to sign with Arizona State has earned a reputation as a battering ram who excels between the tackles yet has the speed to reach and finish plays at the sideline. His late hits and constant verbosity on the field have also been noticed by scouts, and his flammable personality isn't endearing to all evaluators; continuing that lack of discipline could cost Burfict in the draft, no matter how intimidating a player he becomes in 2011.
6. *Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon 5-11/170/4.49
One of the most exciting playmakers in the nation, Harris makes quarterbacks pay for poor throws and punters are toasted for line-drive punts. Harris has very good hands and elusiveness in the open field. His slight frame may worry scouts, but Harris is certainly not contact-shy against larger receiver or supporting the run. The success of similarly-built corners like Samari Rolle and Duane Starks in recent years might allow Harris to maintain his first-round status if he again provides excitement on defense and special teams this year -- though his arrest for extreme speeding this offseason did not impress NFL general managers.
7. *David DeCastro, OG, Stanford 6-5/312/5.22
NFL teams have proven themselves willing to use first-round picks on interior offensive linemen. And although DeCastro might not be quite as athletic as mid-first round picks Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, he is just as talented as Danny Watkins, Philadelphia's first pick last April at number 23 overall--and has more experience playing his future position.
8. *T.J. McDonald, FS, Southern Cal 6-2/205/4.54
Many scouts remember how T.J.'s father, Tim, played an important role in helping USC win a Rose Bowl and the San Francisco 49ers win two Super Bowls in the mid 1980's and early 1990's. Now they are anxious to see how far the apple has fallen from the tree. The junior safety certainly possesses the size teams like, displays nice range in coverage, makes big hits across the middle whenever possible, and has shown a proclivity to high point jump balls. Improving his consistency as a tackler and showing the discipline to stay "deeper than the deepest" will push him up boards as the top safety prospect in the country.
9. Alameda Ta'amu, DT, Washington 6-3/330/5.22
The big-bodied nose tackle began to fulfill his potential as a junior, garnering honorable-mention all-conference notice from Pac-10 coaches by stuffing the run and penetrating into the backfield regularly to disrupt plays. Ta'amu lacks closing speed to produce high tackle totals, especially outside the box, but space-eaters with his athleticism are still rare enough to earn solid top 40 grade.
10. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford 6-6/248/4.77
The country's best all-around senior prospect at the tight end position, Fleener stretches the field with his size and agility while also providing some fair in-line blocking. Andrew Luck will utilize his fellow Cardinal's height and hands in the red zone, and the heady Fleener also presents a target to his quarterback when the play is extended. Given the same chances former Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski received with the Patriots as a rookie, Fleener could produce similar results.
Five more to watch
1. *LaMichael James, RB, Oregon 5-09/185/4.42
In today's NFL, specialization at the running back position gives smaller backs a chance to shine. James' lack of bulk will be a detriment, but he appears more explosive as a runner and receiver than last year's top small back, Atlanta Falcons fifth-round pick Jacquizz Rodgers.
2. *Chris Polk, RB, Washington 5-11/215/4.48
Polk has already gained more than 2,500 yards rushing in his two-year career for the Huskies, using powerful running and above-average straight-line speed. Having already undergone two shoulder surgeries, problematic for a back who seeks contact while carrying the ball 250 times a season, he'll be red-flagged by some GMs.
3. Trevor Guyton, DE, California 6-3/289/4.86
Cal defensive ends Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan have landed in the first round of the draft the past two years. Guyton may not be as highly-rated, but he could be a top-50 pick as a 3-4 defensive end because of his quickness as a pass rusher and use of leverage playing the run.
4. Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington 6-1/205/4.50
Possesses all of the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, but his inconsistent hands and average physicality have not impressed scouts. Losing quarterback Jake Locker to the Titans in last April's draft may also hurt his production in 2011.
5. Ryan Miller, OG, Colorado 6-8/312/5.32
Miller the size to play right tackle, and has some experience there, but he'll need to prove at the Senior Bowl he has the lateral agility to stay outside against NFL ends. His power, length, and ability to stay low despite his heights make him a potential starter inside, as well.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ChadReuter.