|MSU's Kirk Cousins might not be viewed as a first-rounder, but he is on many scouts' radars. (Getty Images)|
Juniors Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley and Robert Griffin III dominated the college football headlines in 2011, and many scouts feel this year's senior class of quarterbacks isn't getting the attention it deserves.
Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill has all of the physical traits scouts are looking for and has maintained his standing as the top-rated senior quarterback in the 2012 draft. Tannehill struggled late in games this season, but the fact that 2011 was just his second year as the starting quarterback makes scouts optimistic that his poise will develop with time. In today's pass-happy NFL, quarterbacks with the 6-4, 225-pound Tannehill's tools rarely slip out of the top 32 based on upside and projections of what he can become with time to develop.
Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, Arizona's Nick Foles and San Diego State's Ryan Lindley aren't currently viewed as likely first-round candidates. However, scouts believe it is only a matter of time before each generates second-round buzz, if not fringe first-round chatter as TCU's Andy Dalton did as winter turned to spring in 2011.
Of the three seniors in the 2012 second-tier, Cousins is the most polished. The 49-7 whipping Michigan State took a year ago at the hands of Alabama in the Capital One Bowl won't soon be forgotten by scouts. Cousins has improved his accuracy and poise in the pocket this season and has the leadership skills coaches crave at the position. One highly ranked scout characterized Cousins as "this year's Dalton" and a player who will steadily climb boards as teams go through the interview process.
The 6-5, 240-pound Foles clearly has the build and production in Arizona's spread offense to pique the interest of scouts. Foles lacks the foot speed preferred in most West Coast Offense-based schemes, but teams in search of a classic drop-back passer see a lot of similarities in Foles to Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans.
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Perhaps the most intriguing of the group, Lindley, unlike most quarterbacks coming from a spread offense, has legitimate NFL arm strength. Lindley has been able to rely on his big arm throughout his collegiate career, but remains quite the project from a technical standpoint. One scout characterized Lindley as having "some Brett Favre to him" in that Lindley's answer to covered receivers has at times been to simply throw passes harder. Given a year or two to polish his footwork, a team could have something with the San Diego State star.
Six quarterbacks among the first 64 picks sound unrealistic? Remember, just last April six passers -- Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick -- went in the top 36.
Scouts Wishing Upon a Falling Star?
Though few outside of the state of Utah know his name, no prospect in the country has generated more buzz from NFL scouts than Utes junior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
Listed at 6-4, 330 pounds, Lotulelei (pronounced lo-too-leh-lay) played every position along the Utah defensive line in 2011, drawing double-teams at every stop. Nevertheless, he registered 38 tackles, including tying for the team lead with nine tackles for loss. His opponents in the Pac-12 certainly recognized his value, voting the junior the winner among defensive linemen for the Morris Trophy -- the only major college football award voted strictly by opposing players.
Powerful, instinctive and shockingly agile for his size, some scouts have compared Lotulelei to another former Polynesian player who played his collegiate football in the west -- former Oregon Ducks' and current Baltimore Ravens' standout Haloti Ngata. Like Ngata, Lotulelei's value lies not only in his awesome physical talents, but in his versatility. Scouts don't have to project him as a nose guard, defensive tackle or strong-side defensive end. They've seen him dominate in each of these roles -- which is why Lotulelei's announcement this week that he is returning to Utah for his senior season is so perplexing.
It is certainly admirable to see Lotulelei make his own education and loyalty to his Utah coaching staff and teammates a higher priority than an NFL payday, but some are questioning the wisdom behind such a decision.
Lotulelei, married and with two children, didn't even request a grade from the NFL Advisory Committee before making his decision. That must have been great news for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who with just a few phone calls likely would have heard the same rumblings I have -- that Lotulelei is the elite defensive talent in the west and may unknowingly be turning down a top 20 selection.
'Most Complete Senior Linebacker' Plays for Utah State?
North Carolina outside linebacker Zach Brown is generally considered the best senior at his position. Alabama and South Carolina have senior defensive ends in Courtney Upshaw and Melvin Ingram who many project as outside linebackers in the NFL and likely first round choices. At 6-4, 240 pounds North Carolina State's Audie Cole.
They aren't the players, however, that scouts are increasingly hailing as the best all-around senior linebacker in the country.
That would be Utah State's Bobby Wagner.
Though he's earned first-team All-WAC honors after each of the past three seasons, Wagner isn't well known nationally. Had his Aggies been able to pull off their opening week upset over defending BCS champion Auburn, that might have changed.
Scouts didn't miss Wagner's effort against the Tigers, noting that the 6-0, 232 pounder was "the best player on the field" in racking up 10 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack.
"[Wagner] is the most complete senior linebacker in the country," one scout said.
Wagner had 147 tackles in 2011 for the Aggies, ranking eighth nationally with an average of 11.31 per contest. It is the fourth consecutive year that his tackle total has improved and gave him 445 stops for his career.
While shorter and lighter than scouts would prefer at inside linebacker, Wagner has long arms, which he uses well to disengage from blocks. He also possesses excellent vision, patience and impressive closing speed. Though he primarily played inside linebacker for Utah State, he also lined up outside and even on the defensive line this season.
"Look smart later by putting him in the second round now," another scout said. "He's got a lot of buzz around him right now. Watch him fly up the board if he gets into a Senior Bowl and people see that those stats aren't just from playing weaker competition. He's just a good player."
- Each year the NFL Advisory Committee is slammed with requests from underclassmen seeking to gauge their grade from pro scouts. Most of the elite underclassmen request a grade. Whether they come out or go back, no one was surprised to learn that Barkley, Griffin, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne asked for feedback. There are some surprising names also requesting grades, sources tell me, including San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman and Oregon safety John Boyett.
- Another junior rumored to be exploring the jump to the NFL is Syracuse safety Phillip Thomas, who was suspended November 18 for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Despite playing two games less than his teammates, Thomas led the Orange in tackles (83) and the entire Big East conference in interceptions (six).
- Notably absent in the quarterback conversation for many scouts any more is Oklahoma junior Landry Jones. That's because scouts expect Jones to return for his senior season. "He's an awfully talented guy," one scout said, "but he's had a disappointing year. He could return and with a big senior season jump right back up into that top 10 mix."