|Like Andrew Luck, David DeCastro (right) leaves Stanford early and is in the Big Board's top 10. (US Presswire)|
The impact from a record-breaking 65 underclassmen granted early eligibility will be felt the moment Roger Goodell announces the 2012 NFL Draft open.
In the modern history of the NFL, no draft has ever begun with 10 consecutive underclassmen selected before the first senior. Last year, the Broncos took the first senior, Texas A&M's Von Miller, second overall. In 2010, the Lions selected the first senior, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, second overall. There is much to be determined before the draft begins, of course, but underclassmen make up my top 10 and 20 of my 32 top-rated prospects overall.
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 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*: Luck is worth all of the hype he has inspired. It isn't merely that he possesses all of the physical traits to earn the No. 1 overall pick. His intelligence, anticipation and poise are phenomenal. Say what you will about Robert Griffin III's upside, Luck is as close to a sure thing as it gets in the NFL draft.
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*: Considering how the running back position has been devalued in today's NFL, it would be easy to rank Richardson lower. The reality is, however, Richardson's elite talent transcends trends. He is an elite talent blessed with size, burst and incredible power who will make an immediate impact.
4. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor*: The Heisman winner possesses as extraordinary a combination of speed and touch on the deep ball as the NFL has ever seen, but isn't without warts. The adjustment from the same offense that helped Kevin Kolb produce eye-popping collegiate numbers is a significant one and could force his future NFL team to have a plan in place for 2012 before RG3 can reasonably be expected to play well at the professional level.
5. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU*: A silky-smooth cover corner with extraordinary ball skills, Claiborne is more technically refined than his former teammate Patrick Peterson, who was selected fifth overall last year by the Cardinals and was voted to the Pro Bowl. The 2011 Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top cornerback, Claiborne should earn a similar draft-day grade.
6. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State*: The reigning two-time Biletnikoff winner as the nation's top wide receiver, Blackmon is unquestionably the top talent at this position in the 2012 draft. His size and strength made him virtually unstoppable at the collegiate level, but if he is to earn a similar grade to former top-five picks Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, he'll have to answer questions about his straight-line speed.
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 might keep him out of the top half of the first round.
8. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa*: The most versatile of a trio of three offensive tackles I rate as potential top-10 picks, Reiff has the athleticism and size to remain outside at left tackle but has starting experience at guard and right tackle, too.
9. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford*: Martin's size (6-feet-6, 305) and athleticism is quite 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 Kalil or Reiff as a pass blocker.
10. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama*: NFL teams will certainly have some tough questions for Kirkpatrick following a Jan. 17 arrest for marijuana possession, but there is no denying his talent on the field. Ideally a press corner due to his length and speed, Kirkpatrick is viewed by some teams as the top cornerback in the 2012 draft.
11. Devon Still, DT, Penn State: Still's talent has always been obvious, but until this season, it was lying under the surface. Just as Phil Taylor rode a dominant senior campaign into a first-round pick, however, don't be surprised if Still can do the same -- especially if he can follow Taylor's lead and enjoy a stellar week at the Senior Bowl, as well.
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 successive season. Manti Te'o's decision to return for his senior season at Notre Dame 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 only a junior.
13. Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama: With a team-high seven tackles, including a sack and numerous pressures, Upshaw was recognized as the BCS title game's defensive MVP. Playing well in bowl games is nothing new for the Alabama pass rusher; he earned the same accolades after posting five tackles, including three for loss and two sacks in a 2011 Capital One Bowl thrashing of Michigan State. 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 I think he's a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He's strong and tenacious enough, though, to play on the line at defensive end for 4-3 teams, as well.
14. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor: A dynamic big-play threat lost in the shadows of Robert Griffin III's Heisman season, Wright has drawn comparisons from scouts to Steve Smith (Panthers) and DeSean Jackson for his speed and elusiveness.
15. Dontari Poe, DT/NG, Memphis*: At 6-5, 350 pounds, Poe certainly has the bulk scouts want. 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 class of defensive tackles, he could fly up the board.
16. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: A veteran Georgia offensive line was challenged by some exotic blitzing from Michigan State, but Glenn (6-5, 350) held his own, not relinquishing any of the four sacks the Spartans forced in their Outback Bowl victory. He moved outside to left tackle as a senior but the majority his starts came inside at guard, where many scouts view his NFL future.
17. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama: Instinctive, physical and a significantly more reliable open-field tackler than he was earlier in his career, Barron has established himself as the unquestioned top safety of the 2012 draft.
18. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame: At 6-3 and 224 pounds, Floyd has the size, strength, route running and reliable hands to intrigue any team in search of a split end. He passed up on an opportunity to head off scouts' questions about three alcohol-related incidents over his career by electing not to participate in the Senior Bowl.
19. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina: Let's be clear. Coples (6-6, 285) is the most physically gifted defensive lineman in the draft. He'll earn first-round grades from scouts working for 3-4 and 4-3 clubs. Coples has developed a me-first reputation, however, and doesn't play with enough snap-to-snap consistency to earn the top-10 grade from me that his talent obviously warrants. Coples' uninspiring play has been evident all season long and was just as obvious in UNC's 41-24 trouncing by Missouri in the Independence Bowl.
20. Michael Brockers, DT, LSU*: Brockers is one of the few defensive linemen in this class with the size, strength and athleticism to fit in both the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Leaving after his redshirt sophomore season, Brockers is a bit raw, and teams would be wise to remember the struggles former Tigers Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson had acclimating to the NFL, but this is no denying Brocker's spectacular upside.
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 might be relatively unknown outside of the SEC, but in being named the conference's 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, USC*: 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. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State*: The headliner in a dominant Michigan State unit that led the Big 10 in both run and total defense, Worthy has the build of a run-stuffer (estimated at 6-3, 320) but has remarkable burst off the snap, making him an intriguing pass rusher, as well. Only bouts with inconsistency push him outside of the top 20.
25. Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin*: Some universities produce highly ranked prospects. Wisconsin goes beyond that with offensive linemen. Their O-linemen aren't merely drafted highly, they quickly prove their worth in the NFL due to the size, strength and impressive technique. Konz is the unquestioned top center in the draft and is athletic enough that some teams believe he could step in immediately at guard, if needed, as well.
26. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M: In terms of physical talent, there is no denying Tannehill (6-4, 225) has the tools to warrant a first-round pick. He 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.
27. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami (Fla.)*: Miller was the Hurricanes' lead back for only one season, but in rushing for 1,272 yards -- the third most in school history -- the redshirt sophomore has 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 might be the fastest back in the country.
28. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers*: At 6-2 and 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 even though he has been as reliable as any receiver in the country this season.
29. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: Built more like a running back than a cornerback, Dennard plays with the physicality and aggression I love to see at the position. His lack of ideal height (a shade under 5-10) is a concern but he's a relatively safe prospect who has generally played well against top competition.
30. Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska: Crick missed the final eight games of the Huskers' season, including the Capital 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.
31. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson*: Allen gets the nod over two other closely rated tight ends (Stanford senior Coby Fleener, Georgia junior Orson Charles) because he has the bulk (6-4, 255) to contribute as a blocker and the soft hands and body control to be an effective security blanket. Fleener and Charles are better big-play candidates down the seam, but Allen's all-around game earned him the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end and could push him into the first round.
32. Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina: Ingram (6-2, 276) might be the most versatile front-seven defender in the draft. He has lined up inside and out in the Gamecocks' 4-3 defense but might project better at outside (or even inside) linebacker in the 3-4 due to his athleticism and power.