|Michigan State's Jerel Worthy is one underclassman who would go in the first round. (US Presswire)|
The 2012 NFL Draft could prove a strong one -- especially at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback -- but only if this draft class is boosted by underclassmen.
Of the 32 players listed below, 19 are underclassmen. With nearly two-thirds of the best prospects in the country capable of spurning the NFL for another season of eligibility, scouts have widely differing views as to what positions will ultimately prove to be strengths and weaknesses of this year's rookie crop.
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 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.
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford*: When an athlete is the "consensus" top prospect in the draft for a year and a half it is only natural for some to poke holes in his game. Forget the questions about arm strength. Luck's anticipation and accuracy more than make up for this perceived shortcoming. Luck is worth the hype. He will be the first pick of the 2012 draft.
2. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama*: It is difficult to grade any running back this high -- the value of the position simply doesn't warrant it. However, Richardson is the elite talent likely to be available in 2012 not named Luck.
3. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal*: I'm not willing to agree with University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian that Barkley is worthy of being drafted higher than Luck, but Barkley has narrowed the gap and is an elite prospect in his own right.
4. Matt Kalil, OT, Southern Cal*: Kalil isn't as fundamentally sound and consistent as scouts would like, but he possesses such great size, athleticism and balance that a top-five pick (and future Pro Bowls) would appear likely in his future.
5. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU*: I argued that LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson was the top player in the 2011 draft. Shockingly, Claiborne has been even better this season than Peterson was in 2010.
6. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State*: Blackmon ultimately won't get drafted this high due to concerns about his straight-line speed, but he's virtually unstoppable at this level and will prove to be No. 1 option in the NFL.
7. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford*: In terms of consistent dominance, there hasn't been an offensive or defensive lineman I've graded higher thus far this season than DeCastro. Only the fact that he plays guard may keep him out of the top half of the first round.
8. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: Big, physical and (like Blackmon) faster on the field than he'll ever time off it, Floyd has the makings of a top-10 pick as long as he can convince teams he has the maturity to handle the pressure on and off the field that comes with such lofty expectations.
9. Devon Still, DT, Penn State: Still's talent has always been obvious, but until this season it was under the surface. Just as Phil Taylor rode a dominant senior campaign into a first-round pick, don't be surprised if Still is able to do the same, especially if he can follow Taylor's lead and enjoy a stellar week at the Senior Bowl.
10. 'Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama*: Kirkpatrick's size, speed and physicality are rare for the cornerback position. He remains a bit raw in his technique, which is why Claiborne has leapt him on many draft boards.
11. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa*: Possessing NFL size (6-6, 300 pounds), sound technique and better athleticism than his former teammate, Bryan Bulaga, Reiff is viewed by scouts as a pro-ready tackle capable of helping immediately at either left or right tackle.
12. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina: When playing at full effort, the 6-6, 285-pound Coples is arguably the elite defensive prospect in the country. Coples, who is lining up at defensive end this season after starring last year inside, hasn't been playing with the same intensity and thus is slipping. His raw talent, however, is undeniable and should generate top-10 pick interest.
13. Courtney Upshaw, ILB, Alabama: Among the most versatile defenders in the country, Upshaw's burst and strong, active hands make him a natural pass rusher capable of seeing the field early whether as a 4-3 defensive end or as either an inside or outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
14. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: Finally back to health, Dennard is showing signs of being the physical shutdown press corner that led some scouts to grade him this season as the country's elite senior prospect at any position.
15. Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame*: Instinctive, physical and athletic enough to beat backs to the edge, as well as remain on the field on third down, Te'o has emerged as the country's best all-around middle linebacker.
16. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford*: Martin's size (6-6, 305) and athleticism is very intriguing -- especially in a zone-blocking offense. Scouts wonder, however, if he has the physicality to be successful in every scheme.
17. 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 there in the NFL, but looks like a possible future Pro Bowl candidate on the inside.
18. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: Quarterback Robert Griffin III gets all of the hype, but the playmaking Wright may just prove to be the real star of the show. One of the few speedsters in a potentially very strong class of receivers, Wright is quietly flying up draft boards.
19. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State: Scouts will want to investigate Adams' maturity considering his suspension as part of Tattoo-gate, but since returning to the field for the Buckeyes, the 6-6, 320 pounder has proven himself to be the top senior offensive tackle in the country.
20. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State*: Worthy, a junior, continues to struggle with consistency, but defensive tackles with his combination of size, strength and quickness don't last long on draft day.
21. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma*: Jones has undeniably more impressive physical traits than Matt Barkley, my No. 2 overall prospect. Questionable poise and decision-making, however, make him a significantly greater projection in an NFL offense.
22. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: I am dropping Jenkins a bit not because I have any concerns about his talent but because he continues to make poor decisions. He was thrown out of North Alabama's loss on October 13 to Delta State and neither he nor his new teammates have played with the same fire since.
23. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama: A free safety for the Crimson Tide, I have some reservations about Barron being able to hold up at this position against top-notch NFL passing games. That said, his reliable open-field tackling and instincts make him the clear top safety prospect.
24. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers*: At 6-2, 215 pounds Sanu possesses rare size and physicality to play outside in the NFL. He lacks elite speed, however, which limits his draft stock despite the fact that he's been as reliable as any receiver in the country this season.
25. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State: Kellen Moore gets all of the hype, but Winn is clearly Boise State's best pro prospect. Winn has been impressive against top competition and at 6-3, 300 pounds has the versatility to play outside in the 3-4 or inside in the 4-3.
26. Orson Charles, TE, Georgia*: Charles lacks the size at 6-3, 242 pounds of the traditional tight end, but his athleticism, reliable hands and surprising physicality as a blocker makes him my top-rated prospect at the position.
27. Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina: Brown's elite athleticism is going to draw raves at the combine, but moderate instincts and physicality are potential red-flags that shouldn't be ignored.
28. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson: Thompson's quickness makes him arguably the best penetrating three-technique defensive tackle prospect in the country. The concern is that the 6-2, 305 pound Thompson doesn't project well in a 3-4 scheme, limiting the number of teams that may be interested in spending a high pick on his services.
29. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College*: Kuechly's instincts and open-field tackling skills are impressive, but he's not as stout as scouts would prefer for playing inside in the NFL and may lack the athleticism to make the switch to outside. Some scouts feel Kuechly ranks among the country's most overrated pro prospects.
30. Dontari Poe, DT/NG, Memphis*: At 6-5, 350 pounds, Poe certainly has the bulk scouts are looking for. What is most impressive about him, however, is that at this size Poe is also light on his feet and plays with a high-revving motor. Poe is only a junior and is clearly raw, but in a relatively weak defensive tackle class, he could fly up the board.
31. E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State*: Considering that their last starter -- Christian Ponder -- was drafted 12th overall by the Minnesota Vikings last year, it is surprising that Florida State has seen an improvement in the passing game this season. As impressive as Robert Griffin III has been for Baylor, Manuel's greater size and experience in a pro-style offense will lead to a higher draft day grade. Should he return for his senior season, Manuel could emerge as an elite prospect.
32. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson*: Though he doesn't possess the same athleticism as my top-rated tight end Orson Charles, Allen possesses greater size (6-4, 255) and enough speed to challenge linebackers. Just as importantly, Allen has matured this season into more of a leader for the Tigers after being a distraction early in his career.