|Quenton Coples hasn't shown expected explosiveness off the edge. (US Presswire)|
The early reports this spring projected the 2012 NFL Draft to once again be dominated by stud defensive linemen.
Through the first three weeks of the 2011 season, the well appears to have run dry.
For the last few years, NFL teams needing an infusion of talent and size along the defensive line had an extraordinary bounty from which to choose. A full third (11) of the first round of last April's draft was devoted to defensive linemen. The year before, the total number was smaller (seven), but included the best defensive tackle many of us have ever seen -- Ndamukong Suh.
This year's class of defensive linemen features great names with impressive resumes. With very few exceptions, however, the play of these highly touted defensive linemen has left a lot to be desired, making it possible for strong quarterback, offensive tackle and cornerback classes to leap to the forefront.
The expectations for North Carolina's Quenton Coples, Nebraska's Jared Crick and Michigan State's Jerel Worthy might be too great. Or perhaps their play will pick up soon. What is becoming clear as we approach the first-quarter marker of the season, is that these are three of the headliners of a position group that has so far failed to meet expectations. As a result, all three take a tumble on the Big Board.
Creating a Big Board at this point in the year isn't necessarily designed to predict who will be the first 32 picks of the 2012 NFL draft. Obviously, with a full season, all-star games, workouts and interviews each playing critical roles in determining a player's final grade, much will change between now and April.
(* denotes underclassman)
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford*: With the exception of one poor decision -- a near interception by Arizona's Trevin Wade -- Luck was his typically efficient self in Stanford's Pac-12 opener. His combination of intelligence, poise and accuracy will make him an immediate standout in the NFL.
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2. Matt Kalil, OT, Southern Cal*: Matt, the younger brother of Panthers' star center Ryan, is still prone to the occasional lapse in technique, but the game comes so easy to him it is possible to envision him joining his brother as a Pro Bowler soon into his pro career.
3. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal*: Lacks the size and monster arm scouts are hoping for, but has taken his game to another level in his third season as the starter. Has improved his recognition of defenses and, as a result, is beating defenses with his eyes as well as his arm.
4. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State*: Through the first three games of 2011, Blackmon has carried on just as he left off during his Biletnikof-winning sophomore campaign -- averaging well over 100 yards and a score each contest.
5. Quenton Coples, DE, North Carolina: Coples was moved back and forth from LDE to RDE against Virginia, but it still didn't result in significant production (three tackles) from the player many scouts rated as the nation's elite senior prospect. Some wonder if perhaps Coples' lack of burst means he'll eventually have to move back inside to defensive tackle -- where he starred last season.
6. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa*: Miscommunication with his linemates resulted in giving up a sack against a talented Pittsburgh front seven, but otherwise Reiff continued to demonstrate the combination of size, athleticism and technique that likely will result in a first-round selection.
7. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama*: Asked to carry the load against Penn State, Richardson did precisely that -- rushing for 111 yards and two scores against a defensive line loaded with pro talent.
8. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: Rated the top senior prospect in the draft by some scouts heading into the season, Dennard must get back onto the field to justify his lofty grade. He's missed the first three weeks of the season with a muscle strain in his leg and is barely hanging on to his top grade at the position because of it.
9. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: Jenkins will have to reassure scouts of his maturity, but his talents are obvious -- especially at this level. After being named the Gulf South Conference Special Teams Player of the Week against Glenville State, Jenkins returned a fumble 49 yards for what turned out to be the winning score against Abilene Christian in a showdown between the D-II powerhouses.
10. Jeff Fuller, WR, Texas A&M: Caught five passes for 79 yards in the Aggies' tuneup against Idaho before their big conference opener this weekend against Oklahoma State. The five put him at 174 career catches for A&M, breaking the school record.
11. 'Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama*: Kirkpatrick showed off the unique combination of size, speed and physicality against Penn State that could result in a high first round grade.
12. Donte Paige-Moss, DE, North Carolina*: A more explosive edge rusher than teammate Coples, Paige-Moss is bigger and stronger this season and though not dominant statistically so far, looks poised to enjoy a breakout campaign..
13. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson: Clemson's offense got most of the attention for their impressive victory over defending BCS champion Auburn, but it was their defense that limited Gene Chizick's group to only three points in the second half. Thompson's strength and quickness resulted in four tackles (including a tackle for loss).
14. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina*: Physically dominant at this level due to his incredible size advantage (6-4, 233), but needs to be a more consistent route-runner and hands-catcher to warrant his hype.
15. Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska: The Huskers are winning games largely due to their ability to score points -- not their ability to stop others from doing so. Crick racked up six tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack against the Huskies, but hasn't been the dominant force through the first three weeks that his hype would lead you to believe.
16. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford*: An athletic left tackle who has capably protected Andrew Luck's blindside. Looks smaller than his listed 6-6, 304 pounds and may lack the physicality for some schemes.
17. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma*: Give Jones credit, he made the plays Oklahoma needed to win on the road against Florida State, but Jones again struggled with poise when taking snaps from under center or when pressured by the Seminoles.
18. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College*: Kuechly recorded a game-high 18 tackles and an interception to lead to Boston College's first touchdown of the 2011 season, but at 6-2, 235 pounds, he lacks the bulk scouts prefer for the middle, limiting his pro grade.
19. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: Glenn struggled in the opener against Boise State, but has rewarded my faith in him since with much improved play at left tackle. He may not be able to remain here in the NFL, but looks like a possible future Pro Bowl candidate on the inside.
20. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama: After a couple of warm-up games, Barron and a talented Crimson Tide secondary will get their first real test this weekend against a gifted Arkansas passing attack.
21. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M: Tannehill (6-4, 230) entered last year as a standout receiver for the Aggies, but after taking over for incumbent starter Jerrod Johnson at quarterback midway through the season, he showed flashes of brilliance and led the Aggies to the Holiday Bowl. Tannehill is undeniably a project, but has all the tools to emerge as a first-round prospect if he continues to develop in former Green Bay Packers' head coach Mike Sherman's pro-style offense.
22. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State: 25. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State: Winn's size, speed and athleticism proved too much for a talented Georgia offensive line in the Broncos' impressive season-opening win (three tackles, including 2.5 for loss). Winn has been impressive in other games against top competition and only needs to play with more consistency to warrant a first round selection.
23. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon*: Harris finally saw some playing time against Nevada (after sitting out the season-opener against LSU due to a suspension), but did little to change his grade in his 2011 debut.
24. Vontaze Burfict, ILB, Arizona State*: Burfict possesses the ideal combination of size, speed and explosiveness, but played recklessly against Missouri, too often dropping his head to go for the highlight reel hit, rather than wrapping up securely.
25. Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame*: The junior wasn't able to stop Michigan's explosive Denard Robinson from taking over the game last weekend, but did show better speed than I'd previously given him credit for possessing. Due to his greater consistency, he could leapfrog Burfict as the top MIKE 'backer of the draft.
26. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU*: I thought at least some of Claiborne's success in the past was generated due to opponents being forced to target him rather than Patrick Peterson. Claiborne, however, has been even better thus far in 2011 with Peterson gone to the NFL. Claiborne was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his two-INT performance against Missouri State, demonstrating rare fluidity and ball skills for the position.
27. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: Floyd's talent has never been the question. At times, he's been unstoppable. To earn a spot in the first round, he'll need to prove to scouts he's matured, especially off the field.
28. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina*: Not the caliber of ball-hawk that some of the other top corners available in 2012, Gilmore is a sound tackler and one of the most aggressive run defenders of the group. Some view him as a potential candidate to move to safety in the NFL.
29. Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin*: An underclassmen center rarely deserves mention in any first-round conversation, but Konz has a special set of skills with size and strength inside and fluidity when blocking at the second level. He's capable of joining the Pouncey twins, Alex Mack (Cleveland Browns) and Eric Wood (Buffalo Bills) as the fifth center drafted in the first round in the past four drafts.
30. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State*: The 6-3, 310 pound junior flashes impressive quickness off the snap, but simply disappears too often to warrant the hype he's received. Until opponents have to account for him on a play to play basis, he'll continue to slip down my board.
31. Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina: The linemen playing in front of him get most of the attention, but Brown has been North Carolina's most active defender. He leads the team in tackles (24), tackles for loss (four) and sacks (2.5) through three games. He's a terrific athlete, but isn't as physical as I'd like.
32. Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina*: For as talented as the South Carolina defensive line is, they've struggled to get to the quarterback, posting only two sacks collectively over the first three games. The 6-7, 265-pound Taylor has burst, flexibility and is surprisingly effective against the run -- as his nine tackles (including seven solos) against run-heavy Navy demonstrated.