The 2011 NFL draft might have just ended, but the scouts are already turning their eyes toward next year. Remember, Cam Newton and Nick Fairley weren’t on the radar last year at this time, so there will be several out-of-the-blue high risers, but for now, here are 50 of the top players that everyone will be scrutinizing over the next several months.
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1. QB Andrew Luck, Stanford (Jr.)
Don’t assume he’s going to come out for the 2012 draft, either. If he really wants to be an architect, and if he really does like school like he says he does, he could pull a Tim Duncan and return for one more big campaign.
2. WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina (Jr.)
He doesn’t have the speed of Julio Jones or A.J. Green, but he’s freakishly big and has all the ability to be the next great big NFL wideout. He’s a pure No. 1 target who’ll stand out in a decent, but not great class.
3. DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State (Jr.)
The anchor of the Spartans defensive front is a big, strong rock in the middle, one who can play on the nose or work as a one-gap interior pass rusher if absolutely needed.
4. DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina
At 6-foot-4 and over 270 pounds, he’s an ideal 3-4 end. He might not put up huge pass-rushing numbers, but he’s big, athletic and extremely versatile.
5. LB Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (Jr.)
A tremendous run defender, as long as his injury history isn’t an issue, he’ll be the leader of an NFL linebacking corps for a decade.
6. RB Trent Richardson, Alabama (Jr.)
Freakishly strong and with tremendous wheels, he’ll be seen as a do-it-all back who’ll be a perfect part of any running back rotation.
7. FS Kenny Tate, Maryland
The latest superior athlete to come out of Maryland, Tate has 6-4, 220-pound size and corner speed. He’ll test off the charts at the Combine. In a safety-poor draft, he should’ve come out this year.
8. WR Jeff Fuller, Texas A&M
He won’t have the numbers compared to other top prospects, but at 6-3 and 215 pounds and with tremendous skills, all he has to do is run around a 4.5 and he’ll be one of the hottest players going into next April.
9. RB Knile Davis, Arkansas (Jr.)
If this was 15 years ago, he’d be in the hunt for the No. 1 overall pick. Hands are a bit of a problem and he’ll put the ball on the ground, but he could start for several NFL teams right now with his pass-catching ability and his downhill thumping style.
10. OT Mike Adams Ohio State
At 6-8 and with the frame to handle 330 pounds without losing a thing, he has dominant right tackle potential. He’ll need a lot of work, but he’ll test well and has the body to be a long-time starter.
11. WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame
The off-the-field issues will be addressed, and then they’ll be spun into a positive because Floyd will interview well. He has pro size, hands and playmaking ability. If he can run under a 4.5, he’ll be a must-have No. 2 target.
12. OT Nate Potter, Boise State
While he’s not a monster of a mauler, he’s a phenomenal pass protector who could be the prototype tackle for a zone-blocking scheme. He’ll be tremendous at the Combine.
13. OLB Nigel Bradham, Florida State
The only concern will be his foot speed. If he can pull off a 4.6 or better in the 40, the NFLers are going to find reasons to want a big, strong hybrid for the 3-4.
14. QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma (Jr.)
If Luck stays another year, Jones could be the big beneficiary. He’s not Sam Bradford, but he has the accuracy, the arm and the pro-style skills to be a turn-key starter. He’d have been a first-rounder this year.
15. DT Tydreke Powell, North Carolina
The 6-3, 310-pound big body for the interior has the strength and ability to play in any system, able to make plays behind the line and hold up as an anchor for the run defense. He’s still scratching the surface on his talent and has the potential.
16. OLB Zach Brown, North Carolina
While he’s not huge, he’s really fast. A 230-pound guided-missile linebacker who sprints on the North Carolina track team becomes a hot prospect in a big hurry. Brownshowed what he could do last year after suspensions ravaged the Tar Heels, finishing second on the team with 72 tackles.
17. ILB Luke Kuechly, Boston College (Jr.)
One of the most productive tacklers in college football over the last few years, the only question will be the measurables. He could stand to add about 10 pounds and he’s not fast enough to be a playmaker on the outside, but he’ll be a tape guy. A better football player than an athlete, scouts will overlook the shortcomings.
18. WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State (Jr.)
Ultra-productive with great hands, route-running ability, and home-run-hitting skills, he’s a pure No. 1 target at the next level. The measurables aren’t quite there, though, at around six feet tall and without the blazing speed. Don’t be shocked if he comes up with a 4.6 at the Combine.
190. DE/OLB Brandon Jenkins, Florida State (Jr.)
Size is going to be the problem for a 6-3, 245-pound blur into the backfield, but he should be the ACC’s premier pass rusher this season and should be primed for a spot on some NFL team’s outside in two years.
20. CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama (Jr.)
A superstar recruit among superstar Alabama recruits, he’s starting to come into his own as a playmaker. With 4.4 speed and 6-2, 190-pound size, the measurables are there, and he could be the first corner off the board if he can make any sort of splash in 2011.
21. OLB Travis Lewis, Oklahoma
The phenomenal all-around playmaker will be seen as a top hybrid and pass rushing force. The team’s leading tackler over the last three years probably would’ve been taken in the first round had he come out early.
22. RB LaMichael James, Oregon (Jr.)
He’s not going to bring any power whatsoever, and he’s not going to be a workhorse at the NFL level, but he’s going to blow the Combine away with the quickness drills. Everyone will want him as an explosive star of a rotation.
23. SS Mark Barron, Alabama
The NFL types will blow off the off-the-field issues, minor as they were, and will love the hard-hitting style, leadership and speed. He’s going to be a strong safety at the next level, but he can play any safety position without a problem.
24. RB Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M
Red hot after a great second half of last year, Gray showed excellent speed and quickness while proving to be a workhorse. He might not be all that big, but he’s a blazer.
25. SS Sean Cattouse, California
It all depends on how he keeps the momentum of last year going. He turned into a whale of a playmaker over the second half of the season and was great when the ball was in the air. There are few better tackling safeties in college football.
26. DT Jared Crick, Nebraska
While he’s not a big, bulky monster of a defensive tackle, he’s quick and athletic as an ideal 3-4 end or one-gap defender who can get into the backfield on a regular basis. His stats are going to be off the charts.
27. DE/OLB Vinny Curry, Marshall
Few in the 2012 draft will be better at getting into the backfield. At 6-4 and 250 pounds, he has room to get bigger and the frame to become more of an end in the hybrid role he’ll eventually play, but first he has to come up with a whale of a senior year to prove that 2010 wasn’t a fluke.
28. ILB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
While he’s not going to time fast, he’s a big, strong interior presence who can get into the backfield as easily has he can stop the run. He led the Tide in sacks last year and is one of the SEC’s biggest hitters, and as long as his workouts are fine, he’ll be a first rounder.
29. OT Matt Reynolds, BYU
A bit older than most prospects, he’ll get knocked down a few slots, but he’ll be a turn-key tackle who could start for several NFL teams right now. He’s not going to be a Pro Bowler, but he’ll be a solid starter.
30. LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame (Jr.)
It’ll all come down to the workouts, and he should time off the charts. He’s a peerless tackler and relentless at getting to the ball, and he has the right size for the middle or an inside position in a 4-3. Fast, strong and tough, he’s about to live up to all the prep hype and will be more than ready to be the centerpiece of a front seven.
31. CB Janoris Jenkins, Florida
He’d be a possible top 10 pick if it weren’t for the character issues – pot possession – that got him booted off the team by Will Muschamp. Now he’ll probably go somewhere in the late-second to early third round and he could drop further if he can’t get under a 4.5 in the 40. Based on pure football talent, though, he’s an NFL starter.
32. OT/OG Ryan Miller, Colorado
It might be a reach to grab a right tackle only in the first round, but the 6-8, 312-pound athlete is a good wall-off blocker who’ll eventually move inside to guard. He has the frame to put on more weight, but he has the athleticism to work on the outside early on.