NFL Draft 2012 Top 25 Big Board
The NFL draft is tons of fun.
Whether you're getting laughed at for calling Tim Tebow an elite prospect, or getting laughed at for calling Cam Newton an elite prospect, or laughing at yourself for calling Jason Pierre-Paul a poor prospect, there's a good deal of chuckling involved.
This year, the top spot's a little easier to nail down, but big boards aren't about when a player will hear his name called; they're about projecting which players will find success in the play-for-pay ranks.
So, since you already know who No. 1 is, let's start at No. 25 and take a look at some of 2012's best options.
You can start laughing after you click "next."
25. Billy Winn, DE, Boise State
At 25th overall, I have Winn higher than most, but just look at that hair. Who wouldn't want him on their team? How could that slip off the Big Board?
In all seriousness, while Winn didn't enjoy a lot of mainstream mentions, he still deserves his spot here. He was an underrated playmaker along an underrated Boise defensive front, and he possesses a savvy not always found in 6'3", 300-lb linemen.
He has the size, strength and length you look for in a likely 5-tech at the next level, and he's quick enough off the snap to create pressure while still maintaining enough of an anchor to hold when teams run directly at him.
He could stand to work on his endurance, especially if he wants to be a full-time starter, but he's much more athletic than he gets credit for, and there's a chance he could also contribute at left defensive end in a 40-front.
24. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
There's not a lot to say about Burfict that hasn't already been loaded into a cannon and fired into the skull of every fan who's ever watched an Arizona State game.
You know about the anger issues and the lack of control. And you know about his tendency to overrun plays and dive wildly at nothing in an attempt to collapse a running back's lungs. And it's no secret that his aggressive nature often leads him in the opposite direction of the actual play.
But he's also an athletic freak who knows how to strike fear into his opponents with an uncanny ability to uncoil and launch himself through ball-carriers.
Believe it or not, he possesses some of the best pure tackling form of any linebacker I've seen in years, and if he lands with a coach who can harness his fury, he'll leave plenty of teams wondering why they didn't draft him earlier.
23. David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
There's no doubt that this is Trent Richardson's running back class. And Lamar Miller has made plenty of noise as the No. 2 in most minds. Even Chris Polk is getting more billing than Wilson, right or wrong.
But Wilson's no slouch, and he's one of this crop's most underrated options.
He has the speed to reach and turn the corner on a consistent basis, and he keeps his balance when changing directions as well as any back in this class. He's not a bruiser by any means, but his nimbleness on inside runs is something many runners would love to have, and he has the straight-line quicks to turn any carry into a score.
22. Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
Charles may not be quite the prospect that fellow tight end Dwayne Allen is, but he's not far off at all.
With the NFL turning tight ends into receivers at a record pace, Charles' natural pass-catching skills and insane body control for a man his size will be welcome assets come April. He's not a finished product, but he has the speed to get behind linebacker consistently, and he catches the ball very cleanly.
He could stand to shore up his blocking, but let's be honest, he'll be used more as a receiving option than a battering ram, and he's quick enough off the line and tough enough over the middle to make an early mark in the NFL.
21. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Jerel Worthy was once again a key cog in an impressive defense, though his lack of consistency is somewhat alarming.
Still, he's a wide body who sticks himself in the middle and refuses to be moved more often than not. Add to that his underrated initial quickness and ability to get into the backfield where he can disrupt plays before they start, and you get a likely first-rounder in a shallow defensive tackle class.
When he's on, he's a 6'3", 305-lb machine who doesn't allow offensive linemen to get under his pads and gives better than advertised effort when tracking plays from the backside.
20. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
You won't find Reiff this low on many lists, and you could certainly make the argument that he's worthy of a top 10 slot. I just don't see the sure-thing elite tackle that so many seem desperate to find.
As a run blocker, he flashes plenty of potential, but he's inconsistent when it comes to getting under a defender's pads and churning to drive him off the ball. He also has a habit of getting sloppy with his footwork and losing balance when trying to reach speed rushers off the edge.
He's certainly long enough and athletic enough to blossom into a solid starter in the NFL, and there's no denying his toughness or durability, but for now he looks more like a right tackle with a shot at swinging over to the left than a first-day starter on the blindside.
19. Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
With Devin Taylor at one defensive end spot and freshman Jadeveon Clowney snatching up every available headline, there wasn't a lot of room for Ingram to make much preseason noise.
Luckily for Ingram, the tape doesn't roll in the preseason.
Once the games started, so did the production from the 6'2", 270-lb senior. Ingram seemed to disappear for stretches midseason, but closer glimpses at his performances show a guy with a motor that never stops and a penchant for using his lack of height to his advantage.
He rarely stands up off the line and does a nice job winning at the point of attack with above-average leverage and a knack for earning early control over offensive linemen. He's quicker than most off the snap, and his time at linebacker is a testament to his versatility.
18. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
Coples is a top 10 prospect on most lists, and that's fine. He's a huge defensive end who was wildly productive as a junior and plays for a school known for churning out elite prospects at the position.
It's hard to fault him for losing some production when you consider the extra attention he faced on a weekly basis in 2011, but the fact remains that offenses seemed to figure him out this season.
With such great focus placed on him by opposing teams, Coples needed to develop a few extra moves in his arsenal, but he never seemed quite comfortable changing it up against the better tackles he faced, and there were flashes of a guy who had long relied on natural ability to make plays.
His size and athleticism will earn him a lofty draft spot, but teams expecting him to contribute in a major way from Day 1 may be in for a longer wait than they're hoping to endure.
17. Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina
It's almost like North Carolina should have been devastatingly smothering on defense this season, but things don't always work out for the highly-talented Tar Heels on defense.
Even with Coples and Brown flying around the field, this unit was far from perfect. Still, that's no reason to overlook the type of prospect Brown has become.
His speed (reportedly below 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) is no secret, and teams will drool over the thought of Brown tracking runners from sideline-to-sideline, but it's his versatility that really makes him an ace option in the 2012 draft.
He can drop into coverage and hang with just about anyone he's asked to blanket, and he's not limited to just one position, either. UNC's scheme allowed him to hone his skills as both a rush linebacker in 30 fronts and as an outside player in the 4-3.
And, of course, there's that speed we mentioned.
16. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson
This year's defensive tackle class is weak, especially after what we've become accustomed to the past two seasons, but Thompson's no slouch, and he was a major part of Clemson's surprising 2011 success.
He's not going to wow anyone reading a stat sheet, but he's proven to be effective as both a penetrator and an anchor.
His first-step quickness allows him to get into opposing backfields and disrupt plays before they start, and he manages to hold his ground against double teams as well as any defensive tackle in this class. Both skills make Thompson an attractive option for 40- and 3-front schemes, a trait that often leads to a nice spot in the draft.
Again, he won't really wow you with any one play or ability, but he's been ultra-consistent this year, and he's only starting to scratch the surface of what he can do.
15. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
He's as good as any tight end to come out in the past three drafts. At 6'4", 255 lbs, he easily passes the eyeball test, and he backs it up with some incredible skills as a receiver.
Unlike Orson Charles, Allen is an effective blocker who understands hand placement and leverage at the point of attack. He'll be able to stay on the field for running downs, which is something that many tight ends can only do at the expense of receiving skill.
Of course, that's no problem for the athletic Allen, who possesses soft hands, excellent body control and a physicality that's rarely seen in quick, pass-catching types.
His route-running isn't perfect, but he boxes out well and is easily agile enough to beat linebackers on underneath routes.
14. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
He may have missed the most important part of Notre Dame's bowl loss to Florida State, but you only had to see one play in that game to understand what type of player Floyd is and can become.
He has excellent size and a strong build for a wide receiver, and his wrists are built for plucking balls in traffic, no matter the attention paid to him by opposing secondaries.
He uses his big frame to box out smaller defenders, and he's become quite adept at high-pointing passes and watching the ball into his hands.
Floyd dropped some weight in order to gain some quickness this season, and it apparently worked. He's clearly the third-best receiver in this class, but his physical nature, sure hands and almost uncanny focus when the ball's in the air will make him a first-rounder.
All that's left is working on his separation and balance in and out of cuts. Once he figures out how to maintain his speed when changing directions, he'll have a real shot at becoming an elite professional receiver.
13. Ronnell Lewis, LB, Oklahoma
Lewis has plenty to work on to become a complete player, and he's not yet ready to stay on the field for every down, but the potential here is off the charts.
For starters, he hits like nothing I've ever seen, Vontaze Burfict included, and his viciousness as a tackler is enough to earn him immediate playing time on special teams. But that's not all. As a defensive end at Oklahoma, he was forced to add a few pass rush moves to his preferred "run past you like you're not even there so I can harm your quarterback" method.
The explosiveness, short-area quickness and relentless nature are all there, and you'd be hard pressed to find a player who relishes crushing ball carriers as much as Lewis. Again, he needs some refinement to become a complete player, but he can contribute from Day 1 as an edge rusher, whether with his hand in the dirt in a 40-front or as a rush 'backer in a 3-4.
12. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Kirkpatrick looks like the perfect cornerback on paper. At nearly 6'3", he possesses the length to match up with even the tallest receivers and affect more passes than most. And, for a guy as tall as he is, he doesn't sacrifice much quickness.
Like most taller defensive backs, staying low and maintaining balance and acceleration when changing directions doesn't come naturally, but he's closer to elite in these areas than any 6'3" corner I've ever seen.
He uses his long arms well to redirect receivers off the line, even though he could certainly stand to add some upper body strength. Still, he's very aggressive in run support, can fly across the field to make the play and is loaded with potential at a position that's never out of demand in the NFL.
11. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
11th overall is mighty high for an offensive guard, but DeCastro backs up the lofty ranking with his consistent play and nearly flawless technique. He's one of a kind.
He's almost never caught turning back toward the quarterback, and he's much more athletic than most guards his size. He can take over in the running game, displaying excellent drive and balance once he locks onto his man, and he has the quickness and balance to get to the second level and break down in space before engaging his target.
His footwork is superb, and he does as good a job as anyone at keeping his butt down and maintaining a strong anchor at the point of attack without sacrificing any lateral mobility.
Someone will end up with a starter for the next 10 years.
10. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
When you notice that Kuechly has racked up somewhere near 47,000 tackles (slight exaggeration) in his time at Boston College, calling his instincts "elite" is pretty redundant.
You don't make as many tackles, week in and week out, as Kuechly without having an uncanny knack for diagnosing plays and flowing to the football almost before the offensive players do the same.
Sure, he's slightly undersized, and he's not the most athletic player to don a helmet, but when has that ever stopped him? He immediately recognizes the offense's plans, gets himself into position consistently and wades through traffic like a hungry cop.
He strikes ball carriers almost instantly and displays nice flexibility and awareness when dropping into zone coverage. There's nothing Kuechly can't do, and his track record is as impressive as any in this draft class.
9. Jon Martin, OT, Stanford
Martin's much more athletic than you'd expect for a sizable tackle in a run-first offense, but that hasn't done anything to limit his power when asked to clear a hole outside.
He quickly gets into position, finding his way under the defender's pads and earning leverage almost immediately before using a massive frame and great upper body strength to drive his target off the ball and often onto his back.
He moves very fluidly in the open field and has no trouble breaking down and engaging his man at the second level when asked. And he keeps a wide base with excellent balance at the point of attack, using his long arms to keep defenders away from his frame when protecting some quarterback that's supposed to be pretty good.
Throw in the smart, efficient angles he takes to his targets and his supernatural awareness when faced with extra pressure off the edge or inside, and it's almost easy to see why Andrew Luck has been so successful in college. He'll be a blindside protector from Day 1.
8. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Plenty of people will glance at Jeffery's soft statistical year and assume that defenses figured him out and exposed weaknesses that were previously hidden by natural talent.
However, when you also factor in that the played with Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw as his quarterback, his stats seem pretty damn impressive.
Of course, numbers are only part of the process, and Jeffery has plenty to offer beyond his sometimes strong touchdown marks. He possesses a massive frame for a wide receiver, and he's excellent at using it to box out smaller corners. And at 6'4" 233lbs, every corner is a smaller corner.
His hands are huge and sticky, and his wrists are strong enough to pluck the ball in traffic with relative ease. He can track long passes over his shoulder and never seems to lose concentration no matter how many defenders are chomping at his heels.
His burst off the line is good enough, and he's nearly impossible to redirect at the snap. He won't wow anyone with his straight-line speed, but with his size, strength and knack for finding soft spots in zone coverage, he won't have to.
7. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
There's nothing left to say about RG3. He has the amazing athleticism that NFL teams are quickly learning to covet at the quarterback position. He has the arm strength to flick the ball 40 yards down the field. And he made major strides with his accuracy in 2011.
He's a one-man offensive wrecking crew, and his natural skill set only comes around about once a decade.
There are flaws in his game that he's been able to hide with uncanny talent, but since when is that necessarily a bad thing? Don't listen to anyone telling you he's better than Andrew Luck, but playing second fiddle to one of the greatest quarterback prospects in history is nothing to be ashamed of.
He's super smart, has really honed his delivery and is clearly an excellent leader who can command a huddle and a locker room. As long as his frame can hold up at the next level, he'll be his own brand of nightmare for NFL defensive coordinators.
PS - He's not Cam Newton, Michael Vick or Tim Tebow. It's okay to be a dual-threat quarterback with no clear NFL comparison. In case you were wondering.
6. Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama
Probably the biggest surprise on the list, but Upshaw's worth the faith. What's not to like about a monstrous pass rusher with shoulders wider than most houses and a frame that basically dares blockers to try their luck at getting in his way?
He's clearly been working on the details of rushing the passer, and it's shown on the field this season. He's developed a better arsenal of pass-rush moves, eschewing his old habits of simply bulling into every offensive linemen he face, and it's made him a more complete player.
Not many rush linebackers can hold up at the point of attack the way Upshaw can, and he plays with excellent leverage on an extremely consistent basis. He uses his hands well to keep his body clean, and he fights his way through traffic relentless, displaying the ability to coil and unleash on his targets.
He's not the quickest guy to attempt a career as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he can close in a hurry and always seems to reach paydirt when chasing a quarterback from anywhere on the field. He can set the edge against the run and bends well enough to snap around the edge when rushing the passer.
Improvement every season is never a bad thing, and he's had no problem understanding a difficult scheme that asks a lot of its players.
5. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
It's hard to believe, but Blackmon found a way to top his amazing 2010 season this year. That's a testament to his work ethic, something that's evident in every snap he plays.
He never stops working to get open, and although that usually doesn't take long, his ability to move toward open areas when his quarterback is in trouble is a desirable trait. Of course, his route running is precise enough to make most secondary adjustments a moot point, and he's never shied away from a catch to save his own body.
He can line up at any receiver spot, equally as comfortable in the slot as he is split wide, and he works down the field just as well as he works underneath it. His straight-line speed won't break any stopwatches, but he's plenty fast enough to get behind corners and safeties when you combine his quicks with his savvy.
A physical player with excellent ball skills, it actually looks like it'd be difficult to overthrow him or find a way to put the ball in a spot outside his tracking zone. His hands are soft and big, and he watches the ball like a hawk without letting it get into his body. He'll be the first receiver off the board in April, and that's exactly the way it should be.
4. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Claiborne somehow entered this season ranked behind Dre Kirkpatrick, Jayron Hosley, Alfonzo Dennard and even Chase Minnifield on most boards, but that's changed in a hurry.
Sure, he gets less national billing than teammate Tyrann Mathieu, but make no mistake, he's the best cover corner on the LSU roster, and he's shown a penchant for making plays against the run that most didn't think he had the frame to accomplish.
His instincts as a corner are second to none, not just in this class, but in most crops no matter the year. He quickly finds the ball, gets himself into position and affects the pass without wasting any motion or giving up any separation. He gets his head around in a hurry and rarely finds himself needing to use his closing speed.
That speed might cause him to drop in the eyes of some once the combine rolls around, but his technique and recognition skills are so elite that he's able to overcome any lack of elite quicks. He has soft, strong hands, too, which is never a bad thing for a cornerback.
3. Matt Kalil, OT, USC
It doesn't tell the whole story, but the fact that Kalil was good enough to keep Tyron Smith on the right side when the two shared time on the USC offensive line is a pretty strong testament to his skill.
It's hard to find any real weaknesses in Kalil's game, and although some seem to think he's a good bit below the Joe Thomases and Jake Longs of the world, he's every bit as elite a prospect in my mind.
He possesses a great combination of size and athleticism, and his footwork has been honed by years of experience in a drop-back system that put the blindside onus squarely on his shoulders. He keeps great balance even when asked to reach wide around the edge, and he bends with ease at the knees.
Bull rushers find it difficult to knock him backward due to his strong anchoring, and he often gets the better of his opponents due to a violent initial punch and his long arms backed up by above-average upper body strength. Blitzing doesn't seem to affect him, either, and he's clearly a very aware player who keeps his head on a swivel and never fails to notice an extra pass rusher.
To top it all off, he plays with a gritty mean streak and really seems to enjoy finishing blocks into the turf.
2. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Last season, I was very high on Mark Ingram, and I didn't think I'd see another running back I'd like as much for at least a few seasons.
I was wrong.
Trent Richardson, in my opinion, is the best running back prospect since Herschel Walker, and he has the potential to enjoy a better professional career.
His balance is uncanny, and he's never driven backward, even when he's caught off-guard during a cut. Of course, that makes sense considering he never fails to run with excellent pad level, whether he's changing directions or bursting through the hole with elite explosiveness. He breaks tackles like a ram on acid, and his powerful lower body makes him nearly impossible to bring down even when defenders get a clear shot.
His core strength is as good as any running back's in the past 20 years, and there's never a time when he wastes motion or decelerates to change directions. He's a bruiser inside, but also possesses the vision and lateral quickness to avoid direct contact through the line. As a receiver, he's underrated, possessing soft hands and adequate zone awareness, and he never shies away from contact as a blocker in the backfield.
Speed seems to be a question with some evaluators, but he's plenty fast enough to run away from defenders once he's in the open field, and he reaches top speed in a hurry. Defenders are often lulled to sleep by his workhorse ways just in time to fall to the ground as he shocks them with his lateral mobility and sneaky-quick cuts.
Running backs have had a hard earning lofty draft spots in recent years, but Richardson should have no trouble reversing that trend.
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Who'd you expect?
If you're dying to read any of the rave reviews of Luck's pro prospects, simply type his name into your favorite search engine, watch just about any Stanford game over the past three seasons or call Peyton Manning.
I hear he's a big fan.
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