NFL Draft 2011: Jake Locker, Cam Newton and Others Generating Mixed Opinions
Every year leading up to the NFL draft, certain players are unfairly criticized or praised for various reasons.
Some players are considered too small for the NFL despite outstanding production in college. Others are lauded for their immense talent and athleticism, despite doing virtually nothing against NCAA competition. Even more have their draft status hindered by character issues stemming from problems that happened off the field.
At the end of the day, what really matters is how the individual player is able to perform when he's between the sidelines.
Productive players consistently slip through the cracks and get drafted in the middle rounds, while around half of the first round picks fail to meet expectations during their careers.
Mostly all of these players, the mid-round steals and the busts, generate differing views from critics in the months leading up to draft day; teams and scouts either love them or hate them.
What follows is a list of the 10 most polarizing prospects in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina
Heading into his senior season, Marvin Austin was considered to be among the best defensive tackle prospects for the 2011 NFL Draft. In fact, had Austin declared for the 2010 draft, it's likely he would've been selected in the first round.
Amid allegations players had illegal contact with agents, the NCAA launched an investigation of North Carolina's football program before the 2010 season. As a result, Austin was suspended for the year and was ultimately kicked off the team.
There's no doubting Austin still has talent, however.
In fact, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive lineman is incredibly big and strong for his age. He is tremendous at stopping the run and has a frame that can add weight. This should allow Austin to play either defensive tackle in a 4-3 or defensive end in a 3-4.
Austin also has elite horizontal quickness and a knack for getting to the quarterback. Only his motor, which can be inconsistent at times, and his reliance upon his athletic ability have served as knocks against him.
With NFL coaching, Austin should be able to refine his technique and add pass-rushing moves to his repertoire.
Austin is immensely talented. Now that he's going to the NFL, whether or not he had illegal contact with agents should be irrelevant.
One team will likely use a late first round selection to grab Austin. He should be a steal even in that area of the draft.
Allen Bailey, DE, Miami
Allen Bailey is a physical specimen. At 6-foot-4 and 288 pounds, "Freakzilla" owns almost every weight room record by a Miami defensive lineman.
Bailey has a 39-inch vertical, runs a 4.65 40-yard dash and can power clean nearly 400 pounds.
Miami strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey has had nothing but positive things to say about his young lineman.
"He is the freakiest of all the freaks since I've been here," Swasey said. "When he got here, he weighed 270, and I told the coaches, 'He's going to be 300, but it'll be a 300 like you've never seen before.'"
Bailey is indeed a sight to see, and stories surrounding his life only add to his mystique.
Bailey hails from Sapelo Island, Ga., and former UM coach Randy Shannon had to get on a boat just to be able to go recruit the kid. Bailey is also said to have once killed an alligator using nothing but a shovel.
But Bailey's resume contains more than just a few Odyssey-like tales. Between his junior and senior seasons, splitting time between tackle and end, Bailey recorded 14.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss.
He is noticeably dominant against weaker competition. However, his lack of explosiveness off the snap and his raw technique have made him seemingly disappear when playing against elite offensive linemen.
With his talent, there is no reason Allen Bailey won't have some amount of success in the NFL. After he becomes the talk of the town following the NFL combine, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Bailey selected in the first round.
Whether or not he lives up to that billing will come down to how hard his professional coaches are able to push him.
Ahmad Black, S, Florida
Listed at just 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Ahmad Black is the smallest safety in the 2011 NFL Draft. However, compared to all the other draft eligible defensive backs, Black may have had the most productive college career.
He is a tough safety with great awareness and leadership abilities. Black is also very willing to play through pain.
Black is a ball-hawk with great hands, recording 13 interceptions during his college career. He loves to tackle and possesses good hitting power for a guy his size.
During his senior season, Black recorded 109 total tackles (28 more than any other Gator) with one sack, two forced fumbles and five interceptions. He was named the MVP in the Outback Bowl against Penn State after recording two interceptions and returning one 80 yards for a touchdown.
Black may be small and will likely have trouble in pass defense against NFL tight ends, but he is a very sound football player.
Currently projected as only a third or fourth round draft pick, Black may prove to be a steal come draft day. Jets safety Jim Leonhard has already proven small safeties can succeed in the NFL. Black should be able to follow his example.
Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia
Noel Devine is easily the fastest and most explosive running back in the 2011 class.
Devine is incredibly agile and accelerates very quickly. He also has great vision and can instantaneously change direction .
With a small frame (5-foot-8, 180 pounds) and soft hands, Devine is probably nothing more than a change-of-pace/situational running back in the NFL. He has enough speed to be a game changer and will likely become a big special teams contributor wherever he goes.
His inability to break tackles or run in short yardage situations, along with durability concerns, will hinder Devine throughout the draft process.
NFL teams need only look at his stats to see how productive he can be though. During his sophomore and junior seasons, Devine rushed for 1,289 and 1,465 yards respectively, averaging more than six yards per carry during both years.
Although he wasn't thrown to that often, Devine also recorded 91 catches from his sophomore through senior seasons.
Devine is an explosive and versatile running back. He will be a welcome addition to any backfield that already possesses an every-down, grind-it-out running back like the Ravens have with Ray Rice or the Steelers have with Rashard Mendenhall.
With a price tag no higher than a third round pick, Devine is a game-breaker worth taking a chance on.
Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami
For the past two seasons, Leonard Hankerson has been the go-to target for the Miami Hurricanes' offense.
In 2009, Hank led the Canes with 45 catches for 801 yards and six touchdowns. He was the only receiver to record a catch in all 13 games. During his senior year in 2010, Hank hit a whole new level and recorded no less than three catches in any game.
Hankerson finished the year with 72 catches for 1,152 yards, and his 13 touchdowns broke Michael Irvin's single-season mark for a Canes receiver.
No prospect has helped his draft status as much this offseason as Hankerson has. With tremendous practices leading up to the Senior Bowl and an MVP-worthy performance in the game (five catches, 99 yards, one touchdown), Hank has proven he's ready to compete in the NFL right away.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Hankerson certainly possesses the size and strength to play at the next level. He is also an incredible route runner with very good hands. He does have the propensity to drop an easy catch every now and again though.
Hank's biggest knock may be his lack of top-end speed. His 40-yard dash time is in the 4.5 range, but he has a long stride and gets faster the deeper he is into a route downfield.
With his size, Hankerson is tough to bring down in the open field, and he makes for a great red zone target.
It won't be long before Hankerson is contributing to the ongoing record-setting 139-week touchdown streak by former Hurricanes players.
Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Jake Locker is going to be a bust in the NFL.
Yes, he is extremely athletic. He has tremendous pocket awareness, the size, speed and strength to avoid pass rushers. He's also great at keeping plays alive when his pass protection breaks down, and he's definitely not afraid to tuck the ball and run when the situation calls for it.
Locker has a great arm. Other than Ryan Mallet, he has perhaps the strongest quarterback arm in the 2011 draft. He can make all the throws you'd expect out of an NFL passer, and he has a lightning quick release to boot.
Locker is also a tremendous leader. He is always at his best with the game on the line, and he has the capability to put bad interceptions behind him. Quarterbacks need to have a short-term memory and excel when their team needs it most. Locker possesses both of these abilities.
Accuracy is not his strong suit though. Locker's completion percentage rates from his four years of school were, in order, 47.3, 53.8, 58.2 and 55.4. NFL teams tend to look at 60 percent as a minimum baseline for successful NFL signal-callers.
Locker also makes bad decisions at times. In college it's easier to get away with a bad read every now and again. In the NFL, quarterbacks pay for their mistakes more often than not. Locker threw 35 interceptions during three full seasons of college play.
Additionally, Locker has struggled mightily against good defenses. In two meetings this year with Nebraska, Locker went nine for 36 for 127 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also went seven of 14 and threw two interceptions against Stanford.
Locker dominated weaker competition, but struggled when playing against some of college football's better defensive teams.
With his draft status already slipping, it wouldn't be even a small surprise to see him struggle in the NFL. If he does have success though, Locker is a quarterback with a play style that should be fun to watch.
Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
At 6-foot-6 and weighing 240 pounds, Ryan Mallett has drawn a lot of comparisons to "Big" Ben Roethlisberger. These claims are largely without justification, however, as the two quarterbacks are completely different players.
First, Mallett has a much stronger arm than Big Ben. In fact, Mallett has one of the strongest arms college football has seen in a very long time. Like a hulking baseball pitcher, he really gets his legs behind his throws and generates a lot of zip on the ball.
Unlike Ben, Mallett isn't particularly mobile. He can move around adequately enough in the pocket and avoid a little bit of pressure, but unless his footwork drastically improves Mallett is going to get sacked a lot in the NFL.
His footwork also becomes an issue when trying to throw on the run. Mallett relies on having his feet set and being able to get his entire body behind the ball. This is what makes him an extremely dangerous passer when he's able to sit in the pocket and take his time to find an open receiver.
Mallett has excellent vision and for the most part, makes good decisions. But since he knows he has a very good arm, he has a propensity to force an occasional throw, leading to a bad interception.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino has groomed Mallett into one of the best quarterbacks in the college game. During his junior year, Mallett completed 64.7 percent of his passes and threw for 3,869 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He completed only 55.8 percent of his passes, in around the same number of attempts during his sophomore season.
The transfer from Michigan has the talent to be among the greatest Arkansas Razorback to ever play in the NFL.
The degree of Mallett's success will rely on two factors: the quality of his offensive line and his ability to improve his footwork to keep plays alive.
If Mallett falls into the right situation, with a good pass-protecting line, he could be a very, very dangerous passer.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
If you didn't expect Auburn's starlet to make this list, you must have been kidding yourself. In fact, no player has drawn more polarizing insight as to his NFL potential than Cam Newton.
Right off the bat, Newton will immediately be the biggest quarterback in the NFL. He may also be one of the league's best athletes. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, it's unthinkable Newton could run a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash.
Clearly Newton possesses the leadership abilities to be a successful NFL quarterback. Between Blinn Junior College and Auburn, Newton hasn't lost a single collegiate game and has won two different National Championships.
He also posted one of the best statistical seasons in college football history in 2010. As a passer, Newton threw for 2,854 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes. As a runner, he gained 1,473 yards on 264 carries (5.6 YPC) with 20 touchdowns.
Questions have been raised as to whether Newton can succeed in an NFL pro-style offense. He has good arm strength, but his mechanics and accuracy are questionable. Newton is known to overthrow his deep balls, and he can be erratic on intermediate throws when putting too much touch on the football.
Although he completed two thirds of his passes last season, a lot of those completions were the result of good play-calling by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, leading to wide-open targets. Newton's running abilities also require defenders to play a spy on him, so that opens up space in a defense as well.
Newton operated almost entirely out of the shotgun at Auburn. Scouts are unsure whether he can be a true drop-back passer who takes snaps from under center in the NFL.
Newton is about as talented an NFL prospect as the league has seen in a long time. With the expiration of the CBA preventing teams from trading players, he will almost surely be a first round pick by a team in need of a quarterback.
His career path should be an interesting one to follow.
Casey Matthews, LB, Oregon
As the younger brother of the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the NFL, Oregon's middle linebacker Casey Matthews should get a lot of attention from NFL teams.
In just two seasons in the NFL, the elder Matthews has recorded 23.5 sacks. Like his brother, he is a hard-hitting linebacker with long hair and a great motor. The comparison of their playing styles doesn't go much further than that though.
Unlike Clay, Casey plays on the inside. He has the ability to play all three linebacker positions in a 4-3 defense, but with his athleticism, Casey will likely settle into the middle before too long.
Casey is intelligent and a fundamentally sound tackler. He rarely gets caught out of position, and he is tremendous in pass coverage. The biggest concerns from scouts center on Casey's size and strength.
Clay Matthews had those same knocks against him when he came out of USC, but hard work and tremendous football fundamentals have already made Clay one of the best linebackers in the game.
In time, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see Casey excel as well. Unlike Clay, Casey doesn't do any one thing exceptionally well. Instead, he is a very well-rounded and consistent player.
Casey may never surpass his older brother, but he will almost certainly have success in the league. It amazes me scouts would continue to doubt him for the same reasons they doubted Clay.
If a guy can play, let him play. There's no need to get caught up in having a guy with prototypical size at every position.
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Nate Solder is the largest offensive lineman in the 2011 draft. He has a huge frame with long arms and big hands.
Solder stands 6-foot-9, weighing 315 pounds, but he's very athletic and has great footwork. He projects as a left tackle in the NFL and is much more developed in his pass protection than in his run-blocking.
He is also a very athletic lineman. Solder has great lateral quickness and can easily recover when beaten. He is also intelligent, has lots of experience and by all accounts, is a great leader.
However, Solder lacks the nasty streak the greatest linemen seem to possess.He's not overly strong, and he doesn't get a huge push in the running game.
Working with an NFL offensive line coach can solve these problems since he clearly has the size and athleticism to be an elite player.
At the very least, Solder should be an incredible pass-blocking left tackle for a very long time in the NFL. While just a kid, he will immediately own one of the biggest bodies in the league.
Solder is already projected as a first round pick, but he has as much potential as any player in the draft.