With agents officially allowed to begin their recruiting of underclassmen on Dec. 1, it won't be long before the player pool for the 2012 NFL Draft will be clear.
The 2012 senior class of prospects is solid, particularly at wide receiver and cornerback. It also lacks headliners at premium positions -- quarterback, offensive tackle and defensive end. If the '12 draft is going to be anything more than ordinary, NFL teams will need to see a significant stream of underclassmen declare early.
Take my own rankings as an indication of just how critical a role the underclassmen could play in defining the strengths and weaknesses of this draft. My seven highest-rated prospects are underclassmen. The vast majority (20) of the 32 players listed below would be entering the NFL by leaving amateur eligibility unused.
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.
(*-prospect is an underclassman)
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 search for ways to poke holes in his game. Forget the questions about arm strength. Luck's anticipation and accuracy more than make up for this perceived slight. Luck is worth the hype and will be the first pick of the 2012 draft, regardless of which team owns the rights to the pick.
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2. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal*: I'm not willing to agree with University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian that Barkley should be drafted higher than Luck, but the Trojans junior has narrowed the gap and is an elite prospect in his own right.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama*: It is difficult to grade any running back this high as the value of the position simply doesn't warrant it. Richardson, however, might just be the most physically gifted player in the country.
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, the fifth pick this April, was last year.
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 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: His talent has always been obvious, but until this season it stayed under the surface. Just as Phil Taylor rode a dominant senior campaign into the first round, however, 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, as well.
10. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa*: With NFL size (6-feet-6, 300 pounds), sound technique and better athleticism than former teammate Bryan Bulaga, Reiff is viewed by scouts as a pro-ready tackle capable of helping immediately at either left or right tackle.
11. 'Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama*: Kirkpatrick's combination of size, speed and physicality is rare for the cornerback position. He remains a bit raw in technique, which is why Claiborne has leapt him on many draft boards.
12. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina: When playing with passion, 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 inside last year, hasn't been playing with the same intensity and is slipping because of it. His raw talent, however, is undeniable and should generate top-10 consideration.
13. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: Quarterback Robert Griffin III gets all the hype, but the playmaking Wright is a legitimate first-round talent himself. At 5-10, 190 pounds Wright is significantly smaller than many of the other top receivers in this draft, but he brings very good open-field running skills. Some scouts compare Wright to Carolina Panthers star Steve Smith for their similar build and explosiveness.
14. 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.
15. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor*: Griffin's athleticism and touch on the deep ball make him a very intriguing pro prospect, but it was the poise and toughness he showed in upsetting Oklahoma that really caught my eye. Griffin isn't nearly as polished as Luck or Barkley, but he could prove a real gem, nonetheless.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College*: Kuechly locates the ball as quickly as any defender in the country and he is a reliable open-field tackler. He finished second in the entire country with 158 tackles as a true freshman in 2009. He led the country last season (183) and averaged nearly 2.5 more tackles per game this season.
19. 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.
20. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: At 6-5 and 348 pounds, Glenn is not going to remain outside at left tackle as he has been asked to play this season for the Bulldogs. NFL scouts, however, will do their homework and watch the 2010 tape on Glenn at left guard, where his power and surprising athleticism made him a more consistent force last season than Mike Pouncey was for the Florida Gators. Pouncey was selected 15th overall by the Dolphins.
21. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama: Barron is a free safety for the Tide, but I have some reservations about him being able to hold up at that position against top-notch NFL passing games. That said, his reliable open-field tackling and instincts make him the clear No. 1 safety prospect.
22. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford*: Martin's size (6-6, 305) and athleticism are very intriguing -- especially in a zone-blocking offense. Scouts wonder, however, if he has the physicality to be successful in every scheme.
23. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: As expected, Jenkins has been a man among boys at this level after starring at Florida. He's the most talented senior cover corner in the country and has returned three punts for touchdowns this season. He and the Lions will face Delta State this weekend in the FCS playoffs. The last time Jenkins faced Delta State he was thrown out of the game for allegedly throwing a punch. Scouts will be watching to see if Jenkins is able to exact some revenge or again lose his cool.
24. Mohammed Sanu, WR, Rutgers*: At 6-2, 215 pounds, Sanu has 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 has been as reliable as any receiver in the country this season.
25. 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.
26. 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.
27. Orson Charles, TE, Georgia*: Charles lacks the size of the traditional tight end at 6-3, 242 pounds, but his athleticism, reliable hands and surprising physicality as a blocker make him my top-rated prospect at the position.
28. 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.
29. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State*: Cox might be relatively unknown outside of the SEC, but in winning conference defensive lineman of the week four times this season, his opponents certainly know him. Scouts do too, as the 6-4, 295 pounder has the size, strength and athleticism to play in either a three- or four-man front.
30. Nick Perry, DE, Southern Cal*: Upside is also the key word with Perry. He's enjoying a breakout season for the Trojans and appears to be just scratching the surface of his potential. Sources close to the team tell me that Perry could run in the 4.6s at 6-3, 260 pounds, which will intrigue teams needing pass rushers for the 4-3 and 3-4 alike.
31. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: At 6-6, 245 pounds and with better speed and hands than some of Stanford's wide receivers, Fleener has become Luck's favorite target. Fleener is the unquestioned top dog among senior prospects, but is in a battle with Georgia's Orson Charles and Clemson's Dwayne Allen (juniors) to be the top tight end in the country.
32. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson*: Allen doesn't appear to have the straight-line speed to challenge the seam like Charles or Fleener, but at 6-4, 255 pounds he is strong enough at the point to contribute as a blocker and has very good body control and hands for such a large man, which makes him a dangerous weapon.