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NFL Draft 2012: Ranking the 20 Biggest Difference Makers in the Draft

Chris RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2012

NFL Draft 2012: Ranking the 20 Biggest Difference Makers in the Draft

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    The 2012 NFL draft is rapidly approaching, and each franchise is beginning to work on big boards while fans are pouring over mock drafts and making wish lists. For the players themselves, the countdown has begun, and nervousness begins to settle in as the day approaches.

    Most players will have to go through individual workouts and attend the NFL Combine, but for a selected few, it has already been decided that they are can't-miss prospects that will be off the board early. A player's body of work and off-the-field endeavors are extremely important, and teams are sure to not miss a thing.

    Certain players have the ability to change a franchise’s fortunes on their own. These special athletes will come in and potentially change a franchise for years to come. The NFL draft is where dreams come true or are shattered, and this is true not only for the players but franchises as well. Each pick is critical and could set a franchise back for many years.

    Here’s the 20 biggest difference-makers in the draft that will change teams for the better:

20. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami

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    Lamar Miller is a shifty running back that has a chance to be a star in the NFL. He has the ability to beat teams by running or catching the ball.

    Miller is a talented back that has great agility and can bust a huge run after one cut. His vision is good, and once he breaks away, his straight-line speed ensures that most won’t be able to catch him, even at the professional level. If Miller can add some strength and improve his pass-blocking ability, he will become a complete back.

    Miller may not have the hype or awards that another running back in this class has, but he can turn out just as good, if not better. NFL teams would be wise to not miss out on Miller or he might hurt them later.

19. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M

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    Ryan Tannehill is the third-best quarterback in the draft, but that doesn’t mean he will make a bad NFL quarterback. In fact, Tannehill has all the tools to succeed.

    Tannehill has an excellent arm and is great at throwing on the run. He is accurate but struggles to read defenses at times. Tannehill is known for his great academic success and should have no issue learning an NFL playbook and studying film of his oppnents.

    Tannehill will be selected by a team with a need at quarterback, and he has the potential to be a starter from Day 1. With the proper coaching, Tannehill can develop into a franchise quarterback.

18. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama

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    Janoris Jenkins is a proven corner that played for the Florida Gators before being dismissed because of off-the-field issues. His track record on the field spoke for itself as he started his freshman year in the SEC.

    Jenkins is an athletic freak who has an absolutely amazing ability to read a play and react accordingly. His speed is his main asset, but the way he can predict routes and proceed to shut down receivers is uncommon. He is as effective in zone as he is playing man, and is solid against the run as well.

    Jenkins certainly will fall in the draft because of his issues off the field, but the team he falls to will get a gem. If surrounded by the right people, Jenkins will stay out of trouble and have a potentially fruitful professional career.

17. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Boston College

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    Luke Kuechly recorded 183 tackles in one season. While stats aren’t necessarily indicative of how a prospect will turn out, it says a lot about the potential he has.

    Kuechly is the right size if he wants to play the inside linebacker position in the big league. He isn’t the most amazing athlete, but he doesn’t need to be when he is such an intelligent player. Kuechly takes great routes to the ball carrier and disrupts play while moving through a lot of traffic. The only thing lacking in Kuechly’s game is a pass rush, but it is doubtful he will be doing much of that in the future.

    NFL teams that need a leadership presence at the inside linebacker position, and more importantly production, need to take Kuechly if the opportunity arises.

16. Nick Perry, DE, USC

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    Nick Perry is a defensive end that ran a 4.5 40-yard dash while terrorizing the quarterbacks of the high-flying Pac-12.

    Perry is a freak that has no issue getting to the quarterback on most plays, and the transition to the NFL shouldn’t be too difficult. Perry is excellent at exploding off the snap and disrupting a play instantly. His strength is something he needs to work on, but will no doubt get stronger as the draft approaches. Against the run, Perry is stout but sometimes over purses, something that good coaching can eliminate.

    Perry will join an NFL team and instantly upgrade a pass-rush. Perry has the potential to be a Trent Cole caliber defensive end in the NFL, and only one team will be lucky enough to go along for the ride.

15. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State

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    Jerel Worthy is an explosive defensive tackle that doesn’t have flashy stats but is a nuisance for every offensive line he plays against.

    Worthy is an extremely strong and space-eating tackle that consistently pressures the quarterback and is effective against the run. He is 310 pounds and will only continue to get stronger once entering the league. His experience against the great offensive linemen in the Big Ten will prove pivotal once he reaches the NFL.

    Worthy has the potential to break a game open when his team needs it most. He takes up a lot of blockers while disrupting the timing of plays, and NFL teams weak in the trenches would be wise to move Worthy up their draft boards.

14. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford

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    David DeCastro is a gigantic guard that never received enough credit for his play while his quarterback Andrew Luck stole the spotlight. If it weren’t for DeCastro, Luck might not be such a highly touted prospect.

    It’s rare to see DeCastro get beat in any way at all. In pass blocking, he is relentless and simply hasn’t let his quarterback get touched in a long time. What’s most impressive is the fact DeCastro excels at blocking on the move, which is why most running plays involved DeCastro bouncing to the outside to pave the way.

    DeCastro is easily the best guard in the draft, and for teams that struggle on the interior of the offensive line, DeCastro is the answer. He will probably never receive the proper recognition, but his quarterback and running back will sure know what he does for them every down.

13. Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama

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    Courrtney Upshaw is an interesting prospect that is primarily a pass-rusher. Upshaw will get looks from teams that run both a 3-4 and 4-3.

    Upshaw is athletic enough to play any linebacker spot in a 3-4, and could serve as a defensive end in a 4-3. Upshaw is very good at pass-defense and surprisingly good at defending the run given his small frame. Upshaw relies on his athleticism to beat offensive linemen to the quarterback as well as cover tight ends and receivers.

    Upshaw is one of those players that won’t have an amazing game each time, but when he does, he is the difference. For NFL teams that struggle to get to the quarterback, Upshaw is a no-brainer in the first round.

12. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa

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    Riley Reiff is a 6’6" 300-lb monster hailing from Iowa. Reiff is a prototypical NFL left tackle, and an extremely athletic one at that.

    Reiff’s most admirable trait is how quick he is on his feet. Speed rushers at the collegiate level never stood a chance against him, and most bull-rushers were locked up instantaneously. In terms of run-blocking, Reiff would easily find his way into the linebackers and secondary most of the time.

    NFL teams struggling to protect their expensive franchise quarterback’s blind side would be wise to do everything they can to acquire Reiff. Reiff has a long career ahead of him as a professional, and the quarterback he protects is going to owe him many, many fancy dinners.

11. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina

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    Alshon Jeffery was a man among boys in the SEC while playing at South Carolina. His size at 6’4" and 229 pounds combined with his A.J. Green-esque circus catches made him arguably the best receiver in the conference.

    The biggest problem with Jeffery is his route running, which is something that will take time to develop. Besides that, he can out-jump anyone for a catch thanks to amazing hand-eye coordination. Once Jeffery breaks into the open field, he is near-impossible to bring down because of his size.

    Jeffery may not be the best receiver in this draft, but he definitely has the potential to be a star in the NFL. A team lacking at the receiver position could steal Jeffery in the middle of the first round.

10. Devon Still, DT, Penn State

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    Devon Still is a run-stuffing machine at the defensive tackle position. At 310 lbs, he would fit nicely into most NFL defensive lines looking for a boost against the run.

    Still has had an injury problem throughout his career, but when he has made it on to the field, he has been a force. He isn’t the best pass-rusher, but still manages to consistently irritate quarterbacks because he takes up two offensive linemen allowing other to get to the quarterback.

    Still is an amazing grab for any NFL team that had difficulty stopping the run last year. If picked up by the right defensive unit, Still will be a problem in the NFL for a long time.

9. Quinton Coples, DT, North Carolina

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    Quinton Coples burst onto the scene in 2011 as a defensive end who made the move inside to defensive tackle due to team needs. He proceeded to record 10 sacks and rise up draft boards instantaneously.

    Coples is great at rushing the passer, but at 285 lbs might be a better fit for defensive end in the NFL. Despite his size, he is extremely strong and possesses a powerful bull rush. His long arms allow him to keep his distance from his opposition while rushing the passer.

    An NFL team looking for a hybrid defensive lineman needs to look no further than Coples. He could add more weight to play tackle if needed, but regardless of the position, Coples will be haunting NFL quarterbacks for a long time.

8. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame

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    Michael Floyd’s injury history and issues with the law will drop him on draft boards, but that doesn’t change the fact he is a game-changing receiver on the field. Floyd has the intangibles and size at 6’3" and 224 lbs to be a break-out star next year.

    Floyd has an elite vertical in the same vein as A.J. Green. He has questionable hands but can beat anyone that lines up across from him. He has quick feet that allow him to run crisp routes. He isn’t known for his speed, but his long strides allow him to break away.

    Floyd is a gamble, but in the right environment he can succeed. His talents on the field will allow him to compete in the NFL from Day 1.

7. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama

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    Dre Kirkpatrick is a massive lock-down corner hailing from Alabama. Standing at 6’2" Kirkpatrick is taller than most at his position.

    Besides the physical measurements, Kirkpatrick also possess the imperative intangibles. He is great in press-coverage and is just as effective in zone because of his physicality and ball skills.

    Kirkpatrick is a natural leader that is accredited as having an unmatched work ethic. His skill and ethic will make his transition to the NFL a simple one. Kirkpatrick may not be on top of this list, but NFL defenses looking to improve should have him high on the top of their wish-lists.

6. Matt Kalil, OT, USC

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    Matt Kalil is the best offensive lineman in this year’s draft—and it’s not close. Kalil is a massive tackle standing at 6’6" and 295lbs.

    Besides those impressive stats, Kalil is extremely athletic and quick for his size. Some will argue he was surrounded by elite talent, but it’s hard to discredit his entire body of work when watching him play on film.

    Kalil is a major difference maker because he can join an NFL line and immediately improve the unit. Dominating in the trenches is where NFL success begins, and Kalil will do just that for whatever team is lucky enough to select him.

5. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama

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    Trent Richardson possesses an unhuman combination of power and speed that was hidden behind Mark Ingram—the only running back selected in the first round of last year’s draft. Now Richardson is set to share that honor with Ingram.

    Richardson was the main focus of an offense that contributed to a BCS National Championship victory this past season. Richardson has great NFL size standing at 5’11" and 224lbs.

    Richardson has amazing vision and hits the hole with power. He has deceptive speed for his size and is durable enough to carry the load for the entirety of the season. Richardson breaks tackles with ease and is very comfortable catching passes out of the backfield.

    Richardson is probably the most sure-fire star in this draft and will carry a franchise for years to come.

4. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU

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    Morris Claiborne is a large, physical corner that caused fits for opposing offensive coordinators all season. Claiborne emerged from the shadows after star teammate Patrick Peterson left in the draft last year—and he made the most of the opportunity.

    Claiborne is at his best in man coverage, especially press-coverage, but is solid in zone as well. He doesn’t give up many yards after catch because of his physicality.

    The only knock on Claiborne is he converted from wide receiver. However, Claiborne will only continue to better learn the position and gain more weight. Claiborne will be a main cog in an NFL secondary for a long time.

3. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

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    Robert Griffin III is the only player in the draft that can compete with Andrew Luck as the best player in the draft.

    Griffin is a freak athlete with great NFL quarterback measurables standing at 6’2" 220 lbs. Where he is picked will certainly benefit from the success Cam Newton had last year, given the similarities between the two.

    Griffin is a fourth-year junior coming off of winning a Heisman trophy while throwing for 36 yards and almost 4,000 yards.

    Griffin is a dual-threat quarterback who is deadly accurate while throwing on the run and can beat a team with his legs if given enough room to run. Griffin will land on a team with a need at quarterback and start immediately, and he will have an extremely positive impact while helping to turn a franchise around.

2. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State

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    Justin Blackmon stepped out of Dez Bryant’s shadow and hasn’t looked back. The 6’1" 215-lb receiver is set to take his talents to the NFL, and may turn out better than Bryant.

    Fans don’t have to search long to see how much of an impact a rookie receiver can have on an NFL franchise. Last year A.J. Green was selected and proceeded to turn around one of the worst teams in the league. Blackmon shares the same potential Green had in that he can dominate NFL defenses early in his career.

    Blackmon is a physical receiver who beats press-coverage with ease and has great hands. His physicality makes him a threat for yards after the catch.

    Whichever team decides to take a risk on Blackmon will find a potential franchise-changing receiver.

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford

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    The “Suck for Luck” campaign has finally concluded, and it’s almost certain the Indianapolis Colts will select Luck with the No. 1 overall pick.

    Luck is far and away the best quarterback to enter the draft in the past few years. At Stanford, Luck played in a pro-style offense and simply decimated any and all competition he encountered.

    Luck has prototypical size, arm strength, accuracy and vastly underrated mobility, which means an extremely smooth transition to the NFL. Add in his outstanding academic profile, and Luck is easily the biggest difference-maker in the draft and will change a franchise for the next decade and beyond.

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