|USC's Matt Kalil is one of the better offensive linemen in this year's NFL Draft. (US Presswire)|
Matt Barkley's decision to return to Southern Cal wasn't the first to have a major impact on the 2012 NFL draft, but it might have the deepest reverberations.
Junior offensive tackle Matt Kalil opted to turn pro a week before Barkley announced he'd be spending the '12 season trying to help coach Lane Kiffin win the national championship, not trying to win a starting job as an NFL quarterback.
The decision was surprising in this sense: Most NFL evaluators view Barkley as a top-10 draft pick.
It wasn't surprising in that many before him -- Peyton Manning, Matt Leinart, Eli Manning, Sam Bradford, Jake Locker and Andrew Luck, the No. 1 player on my board -- have made the exact same choice.
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*: Luck characterized himself as "absolutely" ready to play at the NFL level. I share his confidence. Forget 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. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama*: Richardson moves up a spot with Matt Barkley bowing out of the 2012 draft. It is difficult to grade any running back this high as the value of the position simply doesn't warrant it. Richardson, however, may just be the most physically gifted player in the country.
3. 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.
4. 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 of the draft last year. As such, it was no surprise when he took home the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, even over his playmaking teammate Tyrann Mathieu, a Heisman finalist.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor*: Griffin's ascension up the board continues -- and is expected to see an added boost with Barkley out of the mix -- as the Baylor quarterback showed in accepting the Heisman Trophy yet another quality that will endear him to general managers -- the charisma needed to be the face of an NFL franchise. This fact, along with Griffin's remarkable combination of athleticism and accuracy on the deep ball could make him a top-five pick.
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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 a No. 1 option in the NFL, as well.
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 has lied under the surface. Just as Phil Taylor rode a dominant senior campaign into a first-round pick, 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.
10. 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.
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 his technique, which is why Claiborne has leapt him on many draft boards.
12. 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. What they don't have to wonder about is Martin's light feet and balance in pass protection. Some scouts grade Martin higher than either Kalil or Reiff.
13. 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 that much more. Kuechly isn't likely to be drafted this highly, but he's viewed by most scouts among the safest talents in the country -- despite the fact he's just a junior.
14. 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 is slipping. His raw talent is undeniable and should generate top-10 consideration.
15. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: Griffin gets all of 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 speed and open field running skills. Some scouts compare Wright to Carolina Panthers' star Steve Smith for their similar build and explosiveness.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: LSU out-classed Georgia in the SEC Championship 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.
20. 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 No. 1 safety prospect.
21. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: As expected, Jenkins has been a man among boys at this level after starring at Florida. Scouts will investigate Jenkins' off-field antics closely, but won't lose sight of the fact that he's the most talented senior cover corner in the country and has returned four punts for touchdowns this season, earning All-American honors.
22. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State*: Cox may be relatively unknown outside of 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.
23. Nick Perry, DE, Southern Cal*: Upside is also the key word with Perry. The 6-3, 260-pound pass rusher led the Pac-12 in sacks and seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. With no bowl game for USC and Perry having already committed to the draft, he's getting a jump start in preparing for workouts. Based on the explosiveness evident on tape, that could lead to some eye-popping numbers.
24. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson*: At 6-4, 255 pounds, Allen possesses the blend of size, strength and athleticism that every team is looking for in a multi-dimensional tight end. The 2011 Mackey Award winner isn't a speed threat down the seam, but is a solid in-line blocker and possesses great hands and body control as a mid-range target.
25. 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.
26. 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 he's been as reliable as any receiver in the country this season.
27. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: At 6-6, 245 pounds and possessing better speed and hands than some of Stanford's wide receivers, Fleener has become Andrew Luck's favorite target.
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. Andre Branch, DE, Clemson: At 6-4, 260 pounds Branch has the size and athleticism to rush the passer standing up or with his hand on the ground. His teammate, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, entered the season with more acclaim, but it has been Branch who has taken his game to another level in 2011. In a weak year for pass rushers, Branch's explosiveness and versatility could result in a first round pick.
30. 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. He's so quick, in fact, that teams searching for 3-4 rush linebackers are intrigued by Ingram, as well.
31. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami*: Miller only has one season as the Hurricanes' lead back, but in rushing for 1,272 yards -- the third most in school history -- the redshirt sophomore had already etched his name among the elite backs hailing from The U. At 5-11, 212 pounds, Miller has the size to be a feature back in the NFL and may be the fastest back in the country.
32. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M: In terms of physical talent, there is no denying that Tannehill has the tools to warrant a first round pick. The 6-4, 225 pound quarterback has a strong arm, good touch and obviously rare athleticism for the position considering that he earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors as a receiver in 2009.