We're deep in the heart of football season, in both the college and pro games. For rabid pigskin fans, it's never too early to start planning for the future and exchanging hypotheticals about what players belong where, what teams need help at what positions and so on and so forth.
So even though the 2011 NFL Draft isn't for another six months, it's still as good a time as any to try to put together a ranking of the top 30 prospects that could emerge as the next class of NFL talents.
Look no further for a very premature ranking of 30 players who could make a big move on draft day, and who may be playing for an NFL team near you come the 2011-2012 NFL season (as long as a collective bargaining agreement gets agreed on, that is).
With his brother Maurkice already plying his trade for the Pittsburgh Steelers, expect Florida Gators offensive lineman Mike Pouncey to join the family business and be drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft.
Plenty of teams will need help along the offensive line, and Pouncey presents a polished building block for teams looking to improve in the trenches. Even in spite of the tough year the Gators program has suffered through, the pedigree and performance from Pouncey remains a strong asset that should carry him into the pros. He could even pan out as a relative steal if taken late in the first round, if he fulfills his potential as a starting lineman for years to come.
After dealing with injuries during what was shaping up to be a stellar 2009 season, Seminoles quarterback Christian Ponder has enjoyed a very strong 2010-2011 season in Tallahassee. He's struggled through a few tough games, particularly against Oklahoma, but his game remains suited for the NFL.
This draft class features a few potential future starting quarterbacks. Ponder deserves to be included as one of the QBs selected in the first round for a team looking for an answer down the road at the most important position.
A torn hamstring ended the Fighting Irish's tight end's season prematurely this year, but his talent and ability as a pass catcher is undeniable. Even though he'll be coming off a major leg injury heading into the draft, a team will be getting a solid value if he's selected late in the first round.
Tight end has increased in importance in the NFL, as quarterbacks now lean more and more on the position as a sort of safety valve when facing a tough pass rush. Rudolph will step into whatever situation he's faced with in the NFL and give his quarterback a steady target with consistent pass-catching ability, as well as the possibility of breaking off a big play on any given pass.
Game-changing special teams players are a valued commodity in today's NFL, and kick returners especially have been able to carve out an impressive niche for themselves in recent years.
Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles is a wide receiver who excels at running back kicks, and he presents a good value for a late first-round team looking for an upgrade both at receiver, and in the return game. Broyles is enjoying a solid junior season for a quality Oklahoma team, and he adds two positives in both receiving and returning that teams won't pass up in the draft.
Dont'a Hightower tore up his knee and missed Alabama's drive to a national title in 2009-2010, as he was injured after only three games and missed the remainder of the season.
Now back and fully healthy, Hightower has enjoyed a solid junior season as part of an Alabama defense that has again got the team in position to be a contender for a national title in a wide-open NCAA/BCS season.
Hightower is the prototypical size of an NFL linebacker at 6'4" and 260 pounds. And he has the athleticism required to play against the run and the pass even at the high NFL level. He will be a valuable addition to any team's defense for 2011.
A senior cornerback, nicknamed "The Cat," Brown has a good chance of planting himself in an NFL secondary for years to come once his career as a Texas Longhorn is complete. Texas has produced high-quality professional defensive backs over the years, and the 2011 class features a few members of the Longhorns secondary that could be playing professionally come 2011. I expect Brown to be one of that group and to see him selected late in the first round.
No guarantee that the junior skips his senior year at the University of Florida and elects to go pro, but if he does, he is a sure-fire first round talent. He has the one-on-one cover skills that NFL teams covet. And he would follow in the footsteps of recently-drafted Joe Haden to become a useful and impactful man in an NFL secondary, even starting as soon as his rookie season.
He's already proven quite a bit as a Gator, considering he's played a big role for Florida since his freshman year in 2008. So I would not be surprised to see him declare after a disappointing 2010 season in the Swamp.
Pictured: Not Von Miller
A bit undersized at 6'2", Miller has still enjoyed a very strong campaign at Texas A&M. He considered turning pro after last season, but he should make the jump at the end of the 2010 season.
As a pass rusher he brings the most to the table, and that may be his biggest asset to a future NFL employer. His size may keep him from being an elite run-stopping linebacker. But his ability and instincts in getting to the quarterback will make him a useful NFL defender.
Ras-I Dowling is big for a corner at 6'2" and over 200 pounds. But his size combined with his speed to stay with top-flight receivers is what makes him one of the top defensive back prospects in this draft.
Dowling also has a reputation as a hard-hitter who can physically wear down opponents. And NFL teams are always looking for injections of physicality on the defensive side of the football. His only real question mark is his long-distance speed, so NFL teams may weigh his ability to keep up with receivers on longer routes.
One thing not in question will be his physical tools and those alone should see him picked in the first round in 2011.
Derek Sherrod is an offensive lineman whose stock is on the rise, and I expect him to be a major contributor along an NFL team's offensive line come 2011. He was just named to two midseason All-American lists, with the most prestigious being courtesy of Sports Illustrated—a lot of hype for a player toiling on an under-the-radar SEC team.
Still, Mississippi State's running attack is third in the storied SEC—an impressive feat—and Sherrod is considered the anchor. He will be a big addition to an NFL squad.
A defensive lineman adept at getting to the quarterback, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward will be a valuable prospect for an NFL team looking to bolster its pass rush. Heyward has been an impressive sack-generator throughout his Buckeyes career, and he seems likely to enjoy a solid NFL career chasing down passers.
He is a big man at 6'6", so his biggest shortcoming is getting around the edge via speed and quickness. It will be harder for him to overpower offensive lineman in the NFL. But he may enjoy a career at defensive tackle in the pros, using his size to burst through the middle of an o-line.
Either way, Heyward should be a top 20 talent heading into the 2011 draft.
Locker has experienced an up-and-down senior year at Washington, having some great games mixed with some truly dreadful games (such as his performance against Nebraska). Still, he's been playing in a pro-style offense and has big-time arm strength and agility. And he should continue to be viewed as a franchise quarterback.
His accuracy is what has come and gone as a passer throughout his career, but NFL teams will take a chance on his cannon throwing arm and athleticism. He is one of a few high-quality quarterbacks available in this draft, and I see him making a franchise looking for answers at the quarterback position very happy in the 2011 draft.
Floyd's numbers at Notre Dame are not eye-popping this year, but his talent has always been considered elite and NFL material. The fact that he's had to adjust to playing with Dayne Crist at quarterback, and that he's had to figure things out in Brian Kelly's brand-new offensive system, has to be considered when evaluating Floyd's season.
He still has the hands, speed and size required of a solid NFL wideout. I expect him to be a first rounder for a team looking for help at wide receiver. He's got experience playing in a pro offense, thanks to his time under departed Irish coach Charlie Weis, and I expect teams to value him in the middle of Round 1.
Ayers is most renowned for his ability to force turnovers, something that NFL defensive coordinators always want to add to their units.
It also helps that Ayers has the perfect build for an NFL linebacker at 6'4" and 250 pounds. And he is also extremely fleet of foot when chasing after receivers, running backs and quarterbacks.
His biggest hole in his game is playing against the run, but his versatility, speed and size will still see him taken early in the 2011 draft. He's a quality prospect at linebacker for an NFL team.
The second Texas Longhorn defensive back projected here, Aaron Williams is a cut above even his own teammate, Curtis Brown, as a potential NFL defensive back. His game is refined even for a young-ish player, as Williams is only a true junior in this 2010 season.
He could elect to return to Austin for his senior year, but if he heads into the NFL Draft, teams will love his ability at playing both the pass and run equally effectively. He is an excellent tackler and more than holds his own in coverage, making him a dream come true for an NFL secondary coach.
At 6'7" and 300 pounds, Castonzo is an ideal size for a tackle in the NFL. He also comes from a program at Boston College well-known for producing quality offensive lineman (New York Giants guard Chris Snee comes to immediate mind), and he has been starting at BC since his freshman year in 2007.
He will step right into a big role in the NFL along a team's offensive line, and he has experience playing at both left and right tackle during his college career.
Ryan Kerrigan has had a great year in his senior season at Purdue, the culmination of an impressive career on the defensive line for the Boilermakers. He is a sack machine who has also forced his fair share of turnovers, two skills that are much-coveted by NFL teams. He's also getting national attention for his efforts at Purdue, landing on the short list for a number of defensive awards based on his 2010-2011 season so far.
He has the size to succeed as an NFL defensive lineman, and has also shown an ability to run around opposing offensive lineman to get free and chase a quarterback. He is an intriguing, late-blooming NFL prospect that could stand to benefit greatly from his senior season.
He achieved the rare double-double of a Heisman Trophy and national championship last year at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide are once again in the hunt for a national title. But I think this will be the last year in college for junior Mark Ingram. Once he declares, he should slot right in to the middle of NFL Draft boards.
He is an elite runner who can get to the edge on occasion. But he thrives the most when running between blockers and making defenders miss, with an exquisite skill for squeezing into spaces and churning through would-be tacklers.
The biggest knock on Ingram is his lack of breakaway speed and the fact that he's a bit under-sized physically, potential drawbacks in the NFL. But as a part of an NFL rotation at running back, Ingram will be an extremely useful pro.
A late-bloomer who wasn't a consistent starter until his senior year at Miami, Allen Bailey has all the physical tools to vault him towards the top of the 2011 NFL Draft. He is physically chiseled and has seen time at both defensive end and tackle, making him a versatile option for NFL teams.
He is extremely raw, though, as he apparently lacks technique and polish in his pass-rushing abilities. At Miami, he's shown an ability to bust plays up in the backfield and accumulate tackles for losses. That penchant, combined with his speed off the edge, makes him a sure-fire coveted NFL prospect.
Jones is the perfect size for an NFL receiver at 6'4" and 220 pounds, and he has all the pass-catching skills required to best utilize his elite size. He's been occasionally inconsistent in his college career, as his best statistical season was way back in his freshman campaign. When Alabama won the national title, Jones was still its primary receiver. But Mark Ingram and the running game carried the load.
Jones' 2010 season has been a good one, surely increasing his already high stock. His inconsistencies will need to be smoothed over in the NFL, but he stands to be a potential No. 1 receiver in the pros.
An elite defensive end, Bowers has haunted ACC quarterbacks this year as a junior. He's had a great year at Clemson, showing the fulfillment of his potential as a pass rusher and game-changing defensive end.
He seems to have picked the perfect time to have his most consistent, strongest year in college, and as a result, his 2011 stock is surging.
A stalwart defender in the Alabama defense, Marcell Dareus is one of the top defensive lineman who might declare for the 2011 draft. He will make a big impact in an NFL defense from the early stages, graduating to the pros to follow in the footsteps of his recently-drafted former Crimson Tide defensive teammates.
Dareus has unbelievable strength to power through offensive lineman, with room to lose a few pounds and potentially gain some quickness along the line. His game could improve once in the pros, but he will no doubt be a top 10 talent should he declare.
It could be quite the strong quarterback class in 2011 if all potential draftees declare, and one of the best available would be Arkansas Razorback Ryan Mallett.
Mallett has a cannon arm and has been prolific under center for Arkansas. He has the size and strength to withstand the beating an NFL quarterback usually takes. Teams looking for a building block will do well to put their faith in Mallett as their primary passer of the future.
This is a draft that also could be loaded with defensive end talent, and arguably the most talented is Clayborn of the Iowa Hawkeyes. One of the main reasons that Iowa is contending in the Big Ten this year has been the play of the stand-out defensive end, who may slip a bit on draft day due to off-the-field issues.
His talent is undeniable and he should find himself up in the top 10 on draft day, barring any setbacks.
Tangled up in controversy and barred from competing in NCAA football permanently, Quinn was always regarded extremely highly for his physical abilities. I still think he will be highly regarded heading into the NFL.
Even though he was a part of the tumultuous agent scandal that ran across college football, Quinn has all the pass-rushing abilities as a defensive end to make a huge impact in the NFL right out of the gate.
Teams may decide to pass on Quinn due to the off-the-field issues, but whoever takes him will get a high-quality pass rusher.
Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley will see his stock rise up, as the Tigers have enjoyed a banner year which has thrust them to the top of national polls. As a result, Fairley should be the top defensive lineman of the 2011 class right now. His size and strength will allow him to make an impact professionally, whether it be at end or tackle.
It's rare that a draft has two unbelievably talented cornerbacks available and projected at the top of the draft, but this is one of those years. Nebraska's Prince Amukamara is an elite defensive back with great coverage skills, to go along with a nose for the ball. He will be a huge boost to whatever secondary he's added to in the NFL.
Green is another highly-talented player that has run afoul of the NCAA during the 2010 season, this time for selling his jersey illegally, resulting in a suspension from competing. Regardless, Green has all the physical tools to be at the very top of the draft come spring of 2011. Teams will be forced with a tough choice if Green declares for the draft and skips his senior season, as his make-up will remain a question, but his skill will not.
Patrick Peterson is, hands down, the best defensive back in college football, and deserves to be rewarded wtih a No. 2 selection in the 2011 draft. He has the most skill at the position to come out of college in many years, probably surpassing last year's No. 7-overall pick, Florida's former corner Joe Haden.
Peterson is a Heisman contender in his junior year, after having an all-SEC sophomore campaign that really got his name in the minds of NFL talent evaluators.
Peterson will make a big impact in the NFL should he declare for 2011.
The biggest question for Andrew Luck will be whether or not he'll declare for the 2011 draft. He has two more years of eligibility at Stanford, so it's no sure thing. But if he does declare, he should be the first player chosen on draft day.
He is ready for the pro game now, and has carried Stanford's offense through a mostly successful season in Palo Alto. He has the best arm of all quarterbacks potentially available, has the most NFL-ready build, and is the most accurate and consistent of all the passers out there.
He is the type of player that franchises build around, and he is the ideal No. 1-overall pick, in that he's a quarterback ready to lead an organization.