The two weeks between conference championship games and the start of the 35-game bowl season provided scouts time to catch up on players they might have missed earlier in the year and set up their rankings. The job's difficulty is compounded with almost daily additions made to the draft player pool as highly regarded underclassmen decide where they want to spend the 2012 season.
Creating a Big Board at this point in the year remains more of a projection than a prediction of the first 32 picks of the draft. Until the draft pool is official and all-star games, workouts and interviews begin, much will change between now and April.
(*-prospect is an underclassman)
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford*: Luck characterized himself as "absolutely" ready to play at the NFL level. I share his confidence. Forgot the questions about Luck's arm strength. While perhaps lacking a Matthew Stafford or Cam Newton rifle for an arm, Luck's anticipation and accuracy are as impressive as any quarterback I've ever scouted in 12 years in this business. Whether to the Colts or any other team, Luck will be the first pick of the 2012 draft.
2. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern California*: I'm not willing to agree with Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian that Barkley should be drafted higher than Luck, but I do believe the Trojans junior has narrowed the gap and is an elite prospect who would generate No. 1 overall consideration in most drafts.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama*: It is difficult to grade any running back as a top-five pick -- the value of the position simply doesn't warrant it. But Richardson might be the most physically gifted player in the country.
4. Matt Kalil, OT, USC*: Kalil isn't as fundamentally sound and consistent as scouts would like, but he has such great size, athleticism and balance that a top-five pick (and future Pro Bowls) would appear likely in his future should he choose to leave school.
|More on NFL Draft|
|NFL coverage on the go|
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 overall pick in '11 -- was last year. Claiborne was beaten on a few occasions early by Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, but went on to enjoy a strong game, including notching his sixth interception of the year.
6. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor*: Griffin's ascension continues. In accepting the Heisman Trophy he displayed yet another quality that will endear him to general managers and owners -- the charisma needed to be the face of an NFL franchise. Along with Griffin's remarkable combination of athleticism and accuracy on the deep ball, his rise up the board could push him past Barkley and even Luck as the elite prospect of the 2012 draft -- as "unbelievably believable" as that may sound.
7. 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, as well.
8. 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 might keep him out of the top half of the first round.
9. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: Big, physical and (like Blackmon) faster on the field than he will 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.
10. Devon Still, DT, Penn State: Still's talent has always been obvious, but until this season it lay 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.
11. 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 pro ready capable of helping immediately at either left or right tackle.
12. 'Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama*: Kirkpatrick's size, speed and physicality combination 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.
13. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford*: Martin's size (6-6, 305 pounds) 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. What they don't have to wonder about are Martin's light feet and balance in pass protection. Some scouts grade Martin higher than either Kalil or Reiff.
14. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College*: More decorated than a wedding cake, Kuechly was honored with the Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott Impact Trophy awards after leading the country in tackles for the second consecutive season. Manti Te'o's decision to return for his senior season at Notre Dame only increases Kuechly's stock. Kuechly isn't likely to be drafted in the top 15 but his game makes him a pick without great risk.
15. 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 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 consideration.
16. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: Griffin gets the hype, but the playmaking Wright is a legitimate first-round talent, himself. At 5-10 and 190 pounds, Wright is significantly smaller than many of the other top receivers in this draft, but he brings very good speed and open-field running skills. Some scouts compare Wright to Carolina Panthers star Steve Smith for their similar build and explosiveness.
17. Courtney Upshaw, ILB, Alabama: Upshaw is among the most versatile defenders in the country and his 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.
18. 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 as the country's elite senior prospect at any position 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 his 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: LSU outclassed Georgia in the SEC title game, but don't blame Glenn. Since struggling early in his first season at left tackle, Glenn has become increasingly comfortable and it showed in a strong effort against the top-ranked Tigers and their NFL-caliber defensive line.
21. 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.
22. 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 four punts for touchdowns this season, including one Saturday against Delta State in the opening round of the Division II playoffs. The last time Jenkins faced Delta State he was thrown out of the game for allegedly throwing a punch, so the strong effort certainly won't be lost on scouts.
23. Mohammed Sanu, WR, Rutgers*: At 6-2 and 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.
24. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State*: Cox might be relatively unknown outside the SEC, but in winning the 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.
25. Nick Perry, DE, USC*: Upside is the key word with Perry. He enjoyed 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.
26. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson*: Allen helped create running lanes against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game and caught two touchdowns. The 6-4, 255-pound junior's strong all-around performance against quality competition moves him to the top of my tight-end rankings.
27. 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.
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. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: At 6-6, 245 pounds with better speed and hands than some of Stanford's wide receivers, Fleener has become Luck's favorite target.
30. Andre Branch, DE, Clemson: Branch was only officially credited with three tackles against Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, but his speed and power off the edge resulted in several big plays for the Tigers. At 6-4, 260 pounds, Branch has the size and athleticism to rush the passer standing up or with his hand on the ground.
31. Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina: Ingram may lack the height scouts prefer in defensive ends for the 4-3 alignment, but the 6-2, 270 pounder plays with leverage and has terrific quickness. That quickness even has teams searching for 3-4 rush linebackers intrigued by Ingram.
32. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami (Fla.)*: Miller only has one season as the Hurricanes' lead back, but in rushing for 1,272 yards -- third most in school history -- the redshirt sophomore already ranks among the elite backs from The U. At 5-11, 212 pounds, Miller has the size to be a featured back in the NFL and might be the fastest back in the country.