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04-05-2011, 09:15 PM

NFL Draft: Focusing attention on what matters most; intangibles

By Rob Rang
April 5, 2011Tell Rob your opinion!

Taking into account all of the major requirements -- performance on the field, interviews, Combine workouts and medical grades -- four prospects emerged as the class of the 2011 draft: Patrick Peterson, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus and A.J. Green.

This does not mean I anticipate these four players being the first four picks of the draft, however.

The Big Board is my ranking of the players available, regardless of position.
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I'm fortunate in that I don't have to follow the same rules as NFL teams. Because of the inherent value of the quarterback position, NFL teams are forced to push passers and pass rushers higher on the board than safer players from so-called "lesser" positions. Cam Newton, Da'Quan Bowers and Nick Fairley, for example, all very likely will wind up being selected higher than most or all of my fantastic foursome -- despite the fact that each carry with them significant red flags. If my sources in the league are to be believed, my fifth-rated player, Alabama running back Mark Ingram might slide on draft day -- possibly even out of the first round entirely. Some might argue that should cause me to re-think my grade of the 2009 Heisman winner. It hasn't. I'm confident that three years from now Ingram will have established himself as one of the stars from the 2011 draft class.

Anyone can recognize talent. I'm most interested in identifying players who, along with that talent, possess the maturity, intelligence and work ethic to become NFL stars. If I was building a team from scratch with only the current draft class to choose from, this is the order in which I'd select them.

1. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: Standout corner with the ability to impact the game as a returner, Peterson is the best player in the draft.

2. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M: A pass-rushing phenom with the Aggies, Miller answered any questions about his coverage ability at the Senior Bowl and overall athleticism and maturity at the Combine.

3. Marcell Dareus, DT/DE, Alabama: Strong, stout and quick, Dareus can play inside and out in either scheme. He might lack the upside of the some of the other DL in this talented group, but is the safest of the bunch.

4. AJ Green, WR, Georgia: Sure, Julio Jones overshadowed Green at the Combine. But put on the tape -- Green's size, body control and hands are reminiscent of a young Larry Fitzgerald -- and Green is faster.

Mark Ingram: The next Emmitt Smith? (Getty Images)
Mark Ingram: The next Emmitt Smith? (Getty Images)
5. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Ingram erased any concern about his speed with times in the high 4.4s to low 4.5s at his Pro Day. Ingram's rare combination of vision, balance, burst and low center of gravity remind me of only one back: the NFL's all-time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith.

6. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina: The most explosive pass rusher in the draft, Quinn is capable of becoming a star off the edge for either a 4-3 or 3-4 team. That kind of versatility could equate to a top-seven pick.

7. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: Putting to bed any concern about his straight-line speed at the Combine, the All-American cornerback might have secured a top-10 selection in 4.38 seconds.

8. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: Jones' Combine workout was as surprising as it was impressive. That said, the 4.3 speed he demonstrated in Indianapolis was never evident on the field for the Crimson Tide.

9. Cameron Jordan, DE, California: Showed everyone at Senior Bowl (and confirmed at the Combine) what I've been saying for months -- Jordan is arguably the most versatile defensive lineman in a class blessed with a lot of them.

10. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: Despite the fact that he led the nation with 15.5 sacks, Bowers doesn't boast great quick-twitch explosiveness, as his disappointing Pro Day workout proved. His length and strength, however, make him a quality run defender and the best all-around 4-3 defensive end of the draft.

11. JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin: At 6-5, 290 pounds, Watt has the perfect blend of size and strength (34 reps of 225 pounds) to star as a 3-4 defensive end. He then demonstrated much better overall athleticism at the Combine to reassure teams that he could remain outside in the 4-3.

12. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: Proved the rare agility and straight-line speed at the Combine that has led some to label him as the most talented player in the draft. I have concerns about his maturity and work ethic once he gets a multi-million dollar contract.

13. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: Size, arm strength, good accuracy and a quick release, Gabbert has all of the tools to be a top-five pick. I have too many concerns about his deep accuracy to rate him higher than the surefire stars of this draft.

14. Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: Athletic, intelligent and durable, Castonzo is this year's safest offensive tackle. He might never make a Pro Bowl, but could lock down the blind side for a decade.

15. Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida: With size, strength and the athleticism to block at the second level, Pouncey's ability to stand out against SEC competition make him an easy first-round pick.

16. Tyron Smith, OT, Southern Cal: In terms of pure talent, Smith is this year's best offensive tackle, but his experience is on the right side, his future lies on the left and scouts have questioned his maturity. He'll impress when he works out at USC's Pro Day March 30.

17. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: Competes with his former teammate, Nick Fairley, as the most talented player in this draft, and made strides at his Pro Day. However, he still has a long way to go if he is to be successful in a traditional pro-style offense against NFL competition.

18. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: Lots to like about Kerrigan's hustle and production, though his thinner lower body and marginal hand play are concerns.

19. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: He has an explosive burst, good flexibility and the upper-body strength to compete immediately. Liuget is a classic three-technique defensive tackle who is earning grades closer to Dareus and Fairley from some teams than many realize.

20. Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri: Smith's burst off the snap and long arms are two elite physical characteristics which could make him a star pass rusher in the NFL. With only moderate lateral agility and flexibility, he's probably only a defensive end -- and doesn't fit as an outside linebacker for most teams -- which limits interest.

21. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: A road grader with enough size and reach for pass protection, Carimi would be best is moved to right tackle in the NFL.

22. Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor: Don't let his marginal tests at the Combine or the fact that he's 26 years old distract from the fact that Watkins is the toughest, nastiest interior lineman in this class. He might not be drafted in the first round, but will one day be viewed as a steal if he doesn't.

23. Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: I'm higher on Sherrod than most and view him as an ideal swing tackle capable of stepping in immediately and well worth first-round pick.

24. Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor: A top-20 talent athletically but are teams satisfied with his answers to questions about his suspension and transfer from Penn State?

25. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: Came in a bit shorter (6-2 5/8, 281) than preferred at defensive end, raising some concerns about how well he'll transition to the pro game. I like Clayborn's game and don't worry about his drop in statistics, but wouldn't be surprised if he slips a bit on draft day.

26. QB Jake Locker, Washington: One impressive 30-minute throwing session at the Combine does not erase four years of inaccurate passing, but it does provide evidence that Locker might be capable of improving his accuracy with better technique.

27. Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, Temple: Position-flexible and scheme-versatile, Wilkerson might be considered a top 20 lock had he played in the Big Ten or SEC rather than the MAC.

28. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA: Ayers boosted his stock with scouts by reassuring them that the athleticism they'd seen on tape was no figment of their imagination. Ayers needed a vastly improved workout at UCLA's Pro Day March 29 after a disappointing Combine -- and he produced.

29. Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: Solder's weak base and moderate strength are concerns, but his rare size (6-8, 314), athleticism and flexibility make him an ideal left tackle prospect.

30. Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado: Smith proved that he has legitimate speed (4.42) and agility with a prototype 6-2, 211-pound frame to remain at cornerback in the NFL. However, his moderate ball skills and significant character red-flags could push him out of the first round.

31. Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State: Ponder is shorter (6-feet-2) and more injury-prone than I'd prefer, but the grittiness he's shown in coming back from two arm surgeries to win Senior Bowl MVP honors and upstage more naturally gifted quarterbacks at the Combine is admirable. His short- to intermediate-level accuracy, mobility and intelligence make him the ideal fit in the West Coast offense.

32. Aaron Williams, CB/FS, Texas: Williams needed a strong workout to ease concerns scouts raised about his fluidity and straight-line speed after a disappointing workout. I believe Williams can play press corner in the NFL, but wouldn't be surprised to see him moved to safety.

33. WR Torrey Smith, Maryland: Possessing a rare combination of size (6-1, 204) and pure speed (4.41), Smith's ability to impact the game as a vertical threat and kick returner makes him my No. 3 rated wideout.

34. Rodney Hudson, C, Florida State: Shorter than preferred, but the tape doesn't lie. Hudson earned the Jacobs' Blocking Trophy as the ACC's top blocker as a junior and senior because he combines great quickness and technique with underrated power. 35. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State A dominant Sugar Bowl against Arkansas boosted Heyward's stock, but the reality is he'll provide very little as a pass rusher in the NFL. He's a safe bet as a five-technique and if teams are convinced his elbow is recovering on schedule, could sneak into the late first round. 36. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas I was saying it before it became cliche: Mallett has the best arm in the draft in the draft. It's his head and feet I don't trust enough to give him a first-round grade.

37. Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois: A big back (6-0, 232) with power and acceleration, Leshoure could prove a better player in the NFL than he was in college. Considering that he rushed for 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, that's saying something.

38. Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh: Possessing enough quickness to get the corner, a strong bull rush to push the pocket and the tenacity to make plays after his initial move is handled, Sheard is the last of this year's "safe" defensive ends. 39. Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky Mr. Versatility for the Wildcats, Cobb's quickness, soft hands and willingness to go over the middle make him the year's top slot receiver.

40. Ben Ijalana, OG, Villanova: A dominant left tackle at the FCS level with the long arms to potentially play left tackle in the NFL. There is a lot to like about him, but quite frankly I couldn't pull the trigger in the first round considering his lack of experience against top competition. Had he been able to compete at the Senior Bowl and combine against top prospects, it might have been a different story.

41. Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State: The epitome of the "bull in a china shop," label, Paea's power can ruin plays before they have a chance to begin. He doesn't possess the vision and agility to make enough plays outside of the tackle box to warrant a first-round pick.

42. Marcus Cannon, OT, TCU: At 6-5, 358, Cannon doesn't fit every offense, but he's a potentially dominant right tackle in a drive-blocking scheme.

43. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame: At 6-6, 259, Rudolph has the size I'd want in an all-around tight end. He's the best at the position this year, but his production was enhanced by Notre Dame's offense and his struggles with durability are concerns.

44. Brandon Harris, CB, Miami (Fla.): Athletic and competitive, Harris possesses a lot of the traits I look for in a cornerback, but too often was beaten at the critical moment despite being in good position to make the play, including by Notre Dame's Michael Floyd in the Sun Bowl.

45. Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina: Undeniably a first-round talent, there was too many me-first characteristics to his game even before his season-long suspension. I'd be willing to take a gamble on him in the mid-second round, but not earlier.

46. James Carpenter, OT, Alabama: Capable of starting early in his career at right tackle, inside at either guard position or even sliding over to left tackle -- where he played for the Tide -- in a pinch, Carpenter's versatility and toughness make one of the safer players at an important position in this draft. 47. Justin Houston, DE, Georgia I'm not as high on Houston as others. He does flash a terrific burst off the snap as a traditional defensive end, but I question his ability to hold up against the run and don't believe he has the instincts to be effective in coverage.

48. Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia: Dowling entered the 2010 season as a top-20 pick, but suffered through a disastrous senior campaign full of leg injuries. Assuming he gets a clean bill of health, he'll be drafted in the second round and prove to be a steal.

49. Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Troy: Possessing elusiveness and the electric speed to turn the routine play into a long touchdown, Jernigan -- not Boise State's Titus Young -- will prove the best of the second-tier receivers in this class.

50. Ryan Williams, RB Virginia Tech: Quick to and through the hole, Williams' vision, balance and acceleration could make him a star in the NFL -- if he can stay healthy.

Rob Rang is Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.