2011 NFL Draft: Mikel Leshoure, Jimmy Smith and J.J. Watt the Real Stars

Rob GregoryCorrespondent IIApril 13, 2011

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 20: Mikel Leshoure #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini runs past Bryce McNaul #51 of the Northwestern Wildcats on his way to a 339 yard rushing performance during a game played at Wrigley Field on November 20, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. Illinois defeated Northwestern 48-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We know about Patrick Peterson, Cam Newton, Mark Ingram and A.J. Green. Those guys are projected to be great players in the NFL, and rightfully so. But I think the picture is incomplete, because there are a few other names that people should really be buzzing about.

Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois 

Mikel Leshoure may play second fiddle to Ingram leading up to the draft, but the team that takes Leshoure (probably in the latter part of the first or somewhere in the second round) will likely end up with the best running back of the draft.

The best way to describe Leshoure is to just say that he looks an awful lot like Steven Jackson when running the ball. He’s big, fast and a more than capable receiver out of the backfield.

He runs angry and determined, and fights for every yard.

Leshoure also comes from a great program, the University of Illinois. Former Fighting Illini players like Rashard Mendenhall have fared very well in the NFL, and some draft experts liken Leshoure’s toughness to Mendenhall's fierce running style.

Leshoure was no slouch at the combine and now is projected as a draft selection of the New England Patriots.

His skills, speed, size, and determination, combined with a favorable landing spot might make Leshoure a star at the next level. 

Jimmy Smith, CB, CU 

Patrick Peterson is getting all the love at cornerback, and deservedly so.  But let’s not forget that Jimmy Smith is a close second— in terms of pure talent and projection at the next level.

Smith, like Peterson, has an amazing blend of speed and size, which means that he will match up well with all types of receivers—not only the big, physical guys like Brandon Marshall, but also speedsters like Desean Jackson. 

The phrase “shut-down corner” gets thrown around a lot these days, even though there are arguably only three guys in the NFL deserving of that title (hint: a Jet, a Bronco and a Raider). Revis is a clear “shut-down corner,” but beyond that it’s debatable (This coming from a huge Champ Bailey fan.)

Having a guy that shuts down an entire side of the field has a ripple effect on the whole defense. It makes it much easier to get after the quarterback, make plays on the ball, and limit the other team’s offense.

I say this because Jimmy Smith has all the makings of a "shut-down corner." His ability to stay on a receiver in coverage, and I mean right on the guy, plus his tremendous skills as a tackler, make Smith a likely star in the NFL. He is quick, agile, and disruptive.

Could he be the next Champ Bailey, another Colorado star? I wouldn't bet against it. 

J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin 

Here are the words and expressions that are often used to describe J.J. Watt: Resilient, focused, smart, great character, relentless on the field, determined to be great, great mental toughness, versatile, outstanding athlete and wonderful teammate.

Despite being a top performer in high school and college, as both a tight end and defensive end, J.J. Watt has been consistently overlooked and underestimated.

According to a Scouts Inc. report, Watt “shows very good closing burst for his size. No defensive lineman in this class does a better job of getting his hands up and affecting the QB's throwing lane.”

He is a disruptive force, an outstanding talent, and a guy with great technique.

J.J. Watt may rank below guys like Da'quan Bowers, but whichever team lands Watt may end up with the best DE of the draft and a potential Pro Bowler down the road. 

This last one may be more of a want, then an objective-based prediction, since after reading so much about Watt’s story and struggles, I just want to see this guy succeed at the next level.

But don’t think for a moment that he is just a good story. It's true he is a good-quality guy, who gives back to his community, works hard and plays the right way on the field. But he's more than that, and he’s determined to prove all of his doubters wrong.

So, far he has done that pretty well.