NFL Draft 2012: 10 Reasons This Could Be the Best Draft Class Ever
'Tis the season for ridiculous statements:
"The 2012 NFL Draft class will be the best in the league history."
Yikes. That felt sacrilegious just writing it.
But, just how ridiculous is it? Are there valid reasons to believe that this year's draft class may go down as the best in memory?
To answer those questions, I must pose yet another question. If this is not the best draft class in memory, which draft class deserves that honor?
I must confess, even as a well-studied draftnik, I cannot tell you offhand which draft class should be widely considered the best ever.
So, if we can't even agree on which draft class is on top, who is to say this draft class is not capable of knocking this totally unknown ruler off the mountain top?
Let us examine some of the reasons it just might go down as the best draft class ever.
1. Quarterback Star Power
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When I first posed the question earlier on which draft class was the best of all time, the only one that popped in my head was the 1983 draft class, and there is really only one reason for that class to be rated so high: quarterbacks. That class produced three Hall-of-Fame-caliber NFL quarterbacks.
The 2011 draft class had quantity at the quarterback position. As I said many times, in that class you had a boatload of high-caliber players who notched a whole lot of prototypical factors for the position.
Between Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, T.J. Yates, Colin Kaepernick, Ricky Stanzi, Jake Locker and Andy Dalton, there were a whole lot of players that fit into upper-echelon size, athleticism, arm strength, production and winning record categories.
However, as much as I liked the group and figured there would be at least four long-term starters in the bunch, with potentially up to seven, the only true "star" I saw was Cam Newton. That class is a great example of a quarterbacks class that possesses quantity but not necessarily true star power.
The 2012 draft class is a different story.
Three of the quarterbacks in this class (Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill) rate on a talent basis ahead of my second-ranked quarterback from the previous class.
Two of the quarterbacks from this class (Luck and Weeden), I am confident enough to say, will definitely be throwing for 300-plus yards on a regular basis on Sundays, and one of them (Luck) is the best quarterback prospect I have personally ever witnessed.
And, of course, there's a fourth quarterback (Robert Griffin) who is an absolute boom-or-bust player that already notches incredible tangibles, unique intangibles and a fanatical fan following.
I may have been comfortable predicting that the 2011 quarterbacks class would produce four long-term starters, but this 2012 class should produce one—or two, with an outside shot of perhaps even producing three—Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks.
That's the sort of thing people remember about a draft class.
2. Quarterback Depth
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The star power is not the only aspect of the quarterback class that could make this draft class memorable.
As I said, the 2011 quarterbacks class was unique in its depth. However, the 2012 class is only slightly less deep.
In Russell Wilson of Wisconsin, I see a player whose prognosis of failure is only theoretical in nature. If Wilson were to become the next Drew Brees, can anyone that watched him play at North Carolina State or Wisconsin truly say they did not see that coming?
Size is an important trait in a quarterback. It helps you to absorb hits you take in the pocket, see over your line so that you can read the entire field, avoid getting balls batted at the line of scrimmage and stay confident amid a tempest of large, explosive bodies doing their best to murder you.
The problem with significantly downgrading Russell Wilson on size concerns is that none of those theoretical negatives associated with short stature have manifested consistently at the college level.
Russell Wilson shows as much vision, field awareness, and ability to progress through reads as any quarterback in this draft with the exception of Andrew Luck.
He does not get many balls batted at the line, and it is well to remember that quick and active feet are the easiest cure for cluttered passing lanes.
The only minor question I have about him that could derive from size issues is his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of play from the pocket.
Does this show aggressiveness and a playground football mentality which could be harnessed and used to produce big plays at the next level? Or is this jumpiness an instinct because Russell is smaller than everyone around him?
I am much more tempted to go with the former, rather than the latter.
On the other hand, Kirk Cousins is more guilty of the latter, in my opinion. I do not see a calm player in the pocket—I see one that is nervous about pressure and far too spontaneous, resulting in an extremely high rate of confusing and painful decision-making. Kirk is not a guy I would hold up as an example of this quarterback class' overall depth.
However, Ryan Lindley, B.J. Coleman, Chandler Harnish and even to some extent Brock Osweiler are players that I would hold up as examples of the depth of this quarterback class aside from Russell Wilson.
3. Tailback Star Power
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The best tailback prospect I ever personally witnessed coming out of college was Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma. His combination of speed, agility, raw power, vision and truly vicious mentality were just something highly unique for the college level.
However, it needs to be said that Trent Richardson is the best tailback I have witnessed coming out of college aside from Peterson. That is saying something. While I will not go quite as far as labeling him the next Adrian Peterson, the truth of the matter is that I want to say exactly that.
His blend of size, power, explosiveness, aggression and all-around game as both pass protector and pass-catcher are extremely unique to see coming out of college.
He comes into the NFL with an intimidation factor that you rarely see. Before he even plays a down of regular-season football, upcoming opponents will give him respect in the game planning.
That's a unique player to add to the list of baubles produced by a draft class. The quantity and flashiness of those baubles are the only thing that can justify a claim to being the best draft class ever.
4. Tailback Depth
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Tailback depth is not a unique phenomenon. In fact, you could probably claim depth at the tailback position in just about every draft.
The most running yardage belonged to a third-round pick, and the second-most to a fourth-round pick. The best yards-per-carry average among the 2011 rookie tailback class belonged to a sixth-round pick, the second- and third-best to third-round picks and the fourth-best to an undrafted free agent.
Yet, if there is something that makes this year's tailback depth unique, it is the number of tailbacks that have the potential to be significant load carriers at the next level.
Guys like Bernard Pierce, Cyrus Gray, Robert Turbin, Ronnie Hillman, Vick Ballard and Dan Herron all have the potential to carry significant loads at the next level, as they handled significant loads at the college level.
The fact that you can find a player as talented and compelling from a size standpoint as Jonas Gray all the way at the bottom area of the draft (because of a knee injury suffered this year) is a testament to this year's depth at the tailback position.
5. Wide Receiver Depth
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As with the tailback position, wide receiver depth in a draft class is not in and of itself unique. It is pretty common to find role players at the position throughout the draft.
This wide receiver class' depth is unique because I see potential starters going all the way into the third day of the draft.
There is no example quite like Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma. Broyles was capping off a historic career at Oklahoma when he tore his ACL. He finished his career with almost 4,600 receiving yards and 45 receiving touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Bryoles, the ACL tear will see him potentially fall all the way into Day 3 of the draft. That is the kind of bargain a team can find at this position later in the draft, if only they're willing to wait on a player to recover from an injury.
Another player that figures to be severely underrated is Devon Wylie of Fresno State.
The NFL is full of prototypes.There are perimeter deep threat receivers that threaten to blow the top off a defense. There are crisp and fluid route runners that are natural pass catchers and may be forgiven for a lack of elite top gear. There are brutally strong and explosive players that are physical mismatches with most corners in the league.
And then there are elusive run-after-catch/return-type players who you want to have the ball because they can make electric plays.
Most receivers in the NFL are some mix-and-match of the above four archetypes. For me, Devon Wylie notches three of the four archetypes.
He has genuine speed that times solidly into the 4.3 range and can blow the top off a defense, especially when coupled with his ability to spot the football in the air and adjust. The latter is important, as he will not just be a deep decoy. He will actually produce catches off the deep ball.
His feet are uncommonly quick, and his combination of quick feet, flexibility and body control make him a potentially quarterback-friendly route runner at the next level. He is also an electric return man possessing one of the highest punt return averages in college football.
The marvel for me is that you can find this kind of all-around ability and potential, if media draft boards are to be believed, in Day 3 of the NFL draft. That is one of the things that makes this receivers' depth unique.
6. Defensive Tackle Star Power
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The defensive tackle class is probably the most robust overall position in this year's draft.
The first aspect of the class that makes it unique is the pure star power. Fletcher Cox is, for me, the best overall player at the position, and he should be a headline player at the next level. His flexibility and dynamic range should make a lot of noise at the next level.
However, Dontari Poe is the guy with truly unique physical abilities that I am not sure I have ever seen before. He absolutely did not do things the right way at Memphis, but his raw acceleration off the line, size and strength are all highly uncommon.
I thought he showed a scrappiness and will, fighting through disadvantages he had from his own sloppy technique. If he starts to "get it" under the scrutiny of full time pro coaching, he could be a true star at the next level.
Besides Cox and Poe, there are other players that have the potential to be stars at the next level. There may legitimately be seven or eight players at the position, any of whose names could be called in the first round.
They range from the powerful players like Michael Brockers, Jerrel Worthy, Brandon Thompson and Alamaeda Ta'amu, to penetrating players like Devon Still and Kendall Reyes.
7. Defensive Tackle Depth
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Continuing with the defensive tackles, the simple fact of the matter is, when you can point to the eighth-rated player at any one position and dub him a potential first-round pick, you are dealing with a highly unique draft class.
Even when you get beyond the potential first-round prospects, you look at how a guy like Mike Martin of Michigan tested out athletically, and the way he uses his hands like a real nose guard, and that is a highly compelling player.
Look at how well Josh Chapman played as a nose at Alabama on a torn ACL, which is one of the most unique things I have ever witnessed in sports.
The fun doesn't stop there. Guys like Derek Wolfe of Cincinnati and Jaye Howard of Florida also look uniquely talented, and you will probably find them being taken on Day 3 of the draft.
And yet, when you delve even further, down to the real depths of this draft class, you find guys like Micanor Regis of Miami (FL) and DaJohn Harris of Southern Cal. You cannot help but wonder where players like them would have stacked up in a class that was not this loaded at the position.
8. Middle Linebacker Star Power
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The star power at middle linebacker really belongs to one prospect, much as the star power of the tailback class belongs to Trent Richardson.
I believe Luke Kuechly is a very uniquely talented middle linebacker. He is one of the best linebackers I have ever seen playing against the pass.
He has a rare ability to translate tendencies gleaned off game film into a feel for passing angles on the football field. As seen at the combine, he has all the athletic ability you can ask for, and it shows when he's closing on short, underneath passing options.
Kuechly gets criticized relative to someone like a Patrick Willis who came out at the same position, because there is a perception that not enough of Luke's plays were made at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The bottom line is Kuechly made just as many plays at or behind the line of scrimmage as Patrick Willis. The only reason for the perception that he didn't is because Kuechly also piled on a whole bunch of hustle-type plays.
His pure combination of athletic ability, awareness and motor allowed him to get in on plays down the field that many other linebackers would not be involved with.
There is something about a star middle linebacker, guys like Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas that carries a big following and a lot of respect.
I believe Kuechly will be that type of player, and as such he should be a nice ornament to hang on this year's tree.
9. Corner Depth
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I believe this year's corner class has some star power.
Morris Claiborne should be a fine player at the next level, everything you could want outside of a Charles Woodson or Champ Bailey type of prospect. But the fact that I don't have him as that kind of player makes me lean more toward highlighting this year's corner depth rather than pure star power.
That being said, and I am not sure how much I like the other corners slated to be taken in the first round outside of Claiborne.
However, a couple of players symbolize for me why I believe this year's corner depth is very unique.
One such player is Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight "Bill" Bentley, who showed a raw physicality in his game tape and really stuck to receivers like glue at the Senior Bowl. The lightning quick corner could fall to Day 3 of the NFL draft.
Another guy that has gotten absolutely no air play whatsoever, despite having racked up seven interceptions in the Mountain West Conference this year, is Larry Parker of San Diego State.
Parker can stay in the hip pocket of any receiver out there and has the ball awareness and feet to peel off his coverage and make an interception. Those worried about his speed should watch his game against Michigan, as he tracked down Denard Robinson from behind after he broke loose into the secondary.
Parker is truly an underrated player that makes this corner class depth unique.
10. Interior Line Quality
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Last, but not least, one more trophy to add onto this draft class' glass case is guard David DeCastro.
Interior linemen don't exactly get most peoples' juices flowing. However, the fact of the matter is that there are many observers, ranging from casual to expert, that believe DeCastro is the best guard prospect they have seen in a decade or more.
I would have to agree. I have not seen a guard prospect of this caliber since I have been following the NFL draft.
Add Peter Konz to the mix, whom I believe to be a genuine first-round-caliber center that doesn't necessarily come along every year, and you have an interior line unit that possesses some rare star power.