Big Board: Underclassmen dominate top 10 spots in early draft projections

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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After a dominant junior season, Justin Blackmon is the clear No. 1 receiver in the 2012 draft. (Getty Images)  
After a dominant junior season, Justin Blackmon is the clear No. 1 receiver in the 2012 draft. (Getty Images)  

All bowl games are always a must-watch for scouts, but a couple of big games had a particularly strong impact on my ranking of the top 32 prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft.

The stars came out to play in the Fiesta Bowl when Andrew Luck and a pair of his offensive linemen -- right guard David DeCastro and left tackle Jonathan Martin -- solidified their rankings. Oklahoma State junior wide receiver Justin Blackmon celebrated his final game in style with three touchdown receptions in the overtime win before announcing his intentions to go pro in a postgame interview.

The news wasn't so positive in every marquee bowl game, however. An overall disappointing performance by Clemson in a 70-33 trouncing at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl bounced two Tigers -- tight end Dwayne Allen and pass rusher Andre Branch -- from my top 32. Creating a Big Board at this point in the year isn't necessarily designed to predict the first 32 picks of the 2012 NFL Draft. With 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*: Despite the loss to Oklahoma State, Luck once again proved his brilliance on a national stage, attacking the Cowboys' defense with his arm and legs and exhibiting tremendous football intelligence. Say what you will about Griffin's upside, Luck is as close to a sure-thing as they come.

2. 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.

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, may just be the most physically gifted player in the country.

4. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor*: Though frankly he was outplayed by Washington sophomore quarterback Keith Price in the Alamo Bowl, RG3 continues his rise up the board with a sparkling performance that would serve as a proper sendoff for the Heisman Trophy winner into the NFL. Griffin's athleticism is superb but at a listed 6-2, 220, I question whether he has the frame to handle leaving the pocket as often in the NFL as he did at this level. Griffin has shown extraordinary accuracy on medium-range and deep throws this season, however. That trait, along with his mobility and poise, is what has scouts drooling.

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 of the draft, was 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.

6. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State*: Dominating the Stanford secondary to the tune of eight catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns, Blackmon emphatically staked his claim as a top ten prospect -- though his straight-line speed remains a concern for some.

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. 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, as well.

9. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa*: Reiff was challenged by an athletic Oklahoma defense and, quite frankly, was beaten on occasion. However, he demonstrated the quickness in pass protection and physicality in the running game scouts are looking for in a prototypical blindside tackle.

10. '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.

11. 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 as a pass blocker.

12. 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.

13. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: There is a lot to like -- a strong 6-3, 224-pound frame, enough speed to attack deep and be considered a legitimate high-level split end prospect. He slipped a few spots down my board after a rather pedestrian performance against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Floyd was largely handled by talented redshirt sophomore Xavier Rhodes and made his two biggest catches of the night -- including a juggling touchdown -- only after Rhodes injured his left knee. Floyd was sidelined late in the game with an "upper body injury" that could play a role in determining his stock moving forward.

14. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina: Let's be clear: Coples is the most physically gifted defensive lineman in the draft. At 6-6, 285 pounds physically-speaking, he'll earn first-round grades from scouts working for 3-4 and 4-3 clubs, alike. Coples has developed a me-first reputation, however, and doesn't play with enough snap to snap consistency to earn the top ten grade from me that his talent obviously warrants. Coples' uninspiring play has been evident all year long and was just as obvious in UNC's 41-24 trouncing by Missouri in the Independence Bowl.

15. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: Wright led the Holiday Bowl with seven receptions but "only" registered 91 yards and a touchdown. His statistics likely would have been much more impressive had Baylor not been able to run the ball left, right and down the middle against Washington (482 yards, eight touchdowns).

16. Courtney Upshaw, OLB, 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. I like him best attacking the line of scrimmage and think he's a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, though he's strong and tenacious enough to play on the line at defensive end for 4-3 teams as well.

17. 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.

18. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: A veteran Georgia offensive line was challenged by exotic blitzing from Michigan State but Glenn held his own, not relinquishing any of the four sacks the Spartans forced in their Outback Bowl victory. The 6-5, 350-pounder moved outside to left tackle as a senior but the majority of his starts come inside at guard, where many scouts view his NFL future.

19. 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.

20. 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.

21. 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.

22. 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.

23. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: While easy-chair scouts are quick to point out that Dennard was beaten by South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery for 148 yards and a touchdown, I'd argue that the Nebraska cornerback actually did a pretty solid job against the much bigger Jeffery for much of the day. The fact that Dennard was beaten over the top for a 78-yard gain midway through the second quarter by Jeffery should be much more disconcerting that the Hail Mary touchdown Jeffery caught over the entire Nebraska secondary to end the half.

24. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State*: The headliner in a dominant Michigan State unit that led the Big Ten in both run and total defense, Worthy proved his ability to take over games with five tackles, including two for loss against Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

25. Mohammed 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.

26. Peter Konz, OC, Wisconsin*: The Badgers came up one second (and 25 yards) short of tying Oregon and sending the Rose Bowl into overtime. But you certainly can't blame that on Konz, who toughed it out on a left ankle he dislocated November 12. The 6-5, 315 pound Konz is remarkably light on his feet and could offer immediate help for a team at any of the three interior positions.

27. 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.

28. Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina: With another four tackles, including 1.5 sacks against Nebraska in the Gamecocks' Capitol One Bowl victory, Ingram proved that he's capable of making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage regardless of the opponent. His quick feet and versatility intrigue scouts for 4-3 and 3-4 teams, alike.

29. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M: In terms of physical talent, there is 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.

30. 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.

31. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: Fleener was limited to just two catches for 19 yards before an ankle injury forced him to the sidelines in the Fiesta Bowl. The playmaking Fleener averaged more than that per reception (19.6) last season and led the Cardinal with 10 touchdown catches.

32. Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska: Crick missed the final eight games of the Huskers' season, including the Capitol One Bowl with a torn pectoral, but that won't keep scouts from grading the 2010 All-American as a first-round talent based on his potential to line up inside or out depending on the defensive scheme of the team that drafts him come April.

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