NFL Draft 2013: Skill Position Players with Most to Prove Before April

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NFL Draft 2013: Skill Position Players with Most to Prove Before April
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With the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers playing on Sunday to determine the Super Bowl XLVII champion, the NFL world is finally set to shift toward April's draft.

The NFL Scouting Combine is a mere three weeks away, which gives players precious time to prepare themselves for a rigorous weekend's worth of poking and prodding.

The combine has long been overrated in its effective translation toward Sundays, but teams still continue to place a heavy emphasis on how players fare.

That's especially true for players hanging on the fringes of first-round contention. The Luke Joeckels and Jarvis Joneses of the world already have their names penciled on Roger Goodell's handshake list, but there are plenty of guys with a ton left to prove before April's festivities.

Who are these players?

Here's a look at a few first-round prospects who could benefit from a rise in stock over the coming weeks and months as they aim for a Thursday-night selection.

 

Giovani Bernard (RB, North Carolina)

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When Bernard decided to declare early, it seemed apparent he was the top running back in the 2013 draft class. Unfortunately for Bernard, no one told that to Alabama's Eddie Lacy, who has ascended up plenty of pundits' rankings and now is arguably a deadlock for top honors.

The folks at ESPN Scouts Inc. still have Bernard pretty far ahead of Lacy, but the polar opposite is true for CBS Sports' rankings.

Something tells me those evaluators will eventually reach a consensus, and it will be up to Bernard to prove he still deserves top-dog status.

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A smart, gifted runner, Bernard needed just two seasons to emerge as the most versatile running back prospect in recent memory. He went over 1,200 yards rushing as both a (redshirt) freshman and sophomore, and compiled 25 rushing touchdowns. 

Though his running ability is certainly enough to make him an interesting prospect, it's Bernard's ability to play all three downs that will attract teams. The former Tar Heel is undoubtedly the best pass-catching back in this class, hauling in 92 receptions over the past two seasons. He's also an adept pass-blocker, giving him versatility that Lacy doesn't really possess. 

North Carolina being ineligible to play in a bowl game undoubtedly hurt Bernard's stock on a superficial level. Bernard hasn't played in a meaningful game since Nov. 24, while Lacy destroyed Notre Dame's supposedly elite run defense in the BCS National Championship Game. 

It will be up to Bernard to remind scouts during workouts why he was considered college football's most complete running back during the regular season. If he's unable, Bernard could fall out of first-round contention altogether. 

 

Cordarrelle Patterson (WR, Tennessee)

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While there are plenty of offensive question marks in this class of players, there may be none bigger than Patterson. Depending on who you ask, the former Volunteers receiver is either far and away the most physically-gifted wideout in this pool of players or an inexperienced bust waiting to happen.

You won't find many people who take a middle-of-the-road stance on Patterson, who played just one season at Tennessee before declaring early. Truth be told, it wasn't all that productive of a season from a numbers standpoint.

Patterson made 46 receptions for 778 yards and five touchdowns this season, but his effectiveness came in big spurts. Over 200 of those yards came in a shootout against Troy, and Patterson had nine different games where he had three or less receptions.

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That contrasts directly with Patterson's teammate, Justin Hunter, who is also getting a ton of first-round buzz. Hunter outshone Patterson the entire 2012 season, grabbing 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns as Tyler Bray's top target.

Regardless, there are some, including ESPN's Mel Kiper, who have Patterson way ahead of his former teammate on their prospect rankings.

Why? Playmaking ability and versatility. Part of the reason Patterson made so few receptions was that he was a constant figure in the running game as well. He gained 303 additional yards and scored three more touchdowns on reverses and even some snaps at running back.

With speed, size and athleticism all in his favor, Patterson should emerge as a workout warrior. If his splits disappoint, though, Patterson's lack of collegiate production as a receiver could cause some teams to hesitate.

 

Robert Woods (WR, USC)

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Like many of his Trojan cohorts, Woods' 2012 season was a bitter disappointment. After coming into the season as a Biletnikoff trophy favorite, Woods put up a thoroughly disappointing junior season.

He finished with 76 catches and 11 touchdowns, but only had 846 yards, as USC languished through one of the more frustrating seasons from a preseason No. 1 team in college football history.

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To add insult to injury (or frustration), Woods became the offensive second fiddle behind Marqise Lee. The sophomore, who was Woods' second in command in 2011, emerged as the most dominant receiver in college football. Lee made 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns, and it was he who won the Biletnikoff over his once-favored teammate.

Woods' skills are still there. He's an excellent route runner with improving hands in traffic and his ability to stretch the field was mostly underutilized at USC. Woods' numbers say plodding possession receiver, but those who have seen him play know of his downfield ability. 

That's what makes the most important portion of Woods' entire pre-draft phase his 40-yard dash. While it's unrealistic to expect a blazing time from Woods, he'll need to stay in the 4.5-second range to keep his stock from cratering.

With three years of solid production under his belt, Woods should hear his name called in the first couple of rounds. But the only way Woods will be able to sneak into the end of the first round is by reminding teams why it was once him, not Lee, who was the face of the Trojans' receiving corps.

 

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