We are three weeks into the 2011 college football season, which means great things for NFL draft fans.
As a general rule in my years as a scout, whether independent or working with a team, you must see a player three times before you are prepared to write up a report on him. The three-game rule gives you a chance to make a first impression of the player, then see him a second time to check your first impression and then a third and final time to really dig in and check your findings from the first two games.
A saying you will hear a lot from me is to not fall in love with a player after one game. After three games, though? Go right ahead.
Many college football teams have played just two games, but some are heading into their fourth game this week. With a great deal of football already having been played, here’s my updated look at the top 32 players for the 2012 NFL draft.
One disclaimer: Only some juniors and redshirt sophomores are listed. Guys like Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o are not listed because at this time I am not predicting them to enter the 2012 draft. That could change on a weekly basis.
Last Week: 29
The fact that Floyd is second in the NCAA in receiving yards means very little when scouting his NFL ability. You can love what Michael Floyd does on the field, but dig a little deeper and there are flaws both on and off the field.
Floyd has two red flags on my Week 3 notes.
1) His routes are sloppy. Floyd will too often rely on supreme athleticism to beat up on NCAA-level cornerbacks. In three games this season, Floyd has not faced one cornerback with NFL potential. He’s getting away with rounded-off corners, half-assed releases when the ball is away and a lack of consistent route running. When Notre Dame faces an elite cornerback, this won’t get it done.
2) Floyd has three alcohol-related arrests on his record since 2009. Some people might tell you this doesn’t matter, and it does vary depending on whom you talk to. In my book, three arrests for the same problem creates a pattern. This is more than a kid making a mistake. Three strikes is a serious issue.
Last Week: 32
Andrew Luck may be the best player in the 2012 draft class, but the most exciting could certainly be Baylor’s Robert Griffin III.
Griffin, a junior at Baylor, is college football’s best threat as a run/pass quarterback. There are some concerns about his height—he’s listed at 6’2”—but you cannot doubt his ability to move the ball through the air and on the ground. Griffin has looked impressive through two games, showing improved accuracy and a deep ball that will intrigue NFL scouts.
Of the 250 players on my watch list right now, no one has moved up as much this year as Griffin. If he keeps playing at this level once Baylor gets to conference play, I’ll have to move him up again.
Last Week: 28
Chase Minnifield is a very good cover corner, so don’t think too much about his moving down this week. Minnifield has yet to do anything on the field to change my preseason evaluation of him, which is that he’s a very good late first-round option as a cornerback and kick returner.
Many will be quick to make a comparison to former Virginia cornerbacks and top 35 picks Ras-I Dowling and Chris Cook. Here’s the deal: Minnifield is a better prospect. He was fourth in the country with six interceptions last year and excels as a zone coverage cornerback. He’s also very well coached by Al Groh’s staff at Virginia.
Once Virginia gets into ACC play, Minnifield will have his chance to shine.
Last Week: Not Ranked
You cannot talk about the best players in college football without mentioning Devin Taylor. The question is, what position does he play in the NFL?
Taylor is an excellent pass-rusher. He has the burst, speed and agility that scouts love in a rush end. But at just 260 lbs stretched over a 6’7” frame, Taylor lacks the strength to hold up against the run at the point of attack and can be a liability when expected to anchor the line.
Some may say this makes him an ideal player for the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense, which may be the best case for him since he does have experience dropping into coverage.
No matter where Taylor plays at the next level, he’s too talented as a pass-rusher to be overlooked.
Last Week: Not Ranked
Every year you hear about a college safety who is built like a linebacker but runs like a cornerback. Those players rarely live up to expectations, as they are too stiff to flip their hips in coverage or are too aggressive and never learn to play deep coverage. Taylor Mays is a great example of this.
Ray Ray Armstrong just might be the exception. Miami is notable for producing some of the best safeties in the NFL, and Armstrong is the next in that great line of playmakers from “The U.”
Armstrong hasn’t seen the field yet this year, as he’s serving a suspension for violating NCAA rules on receiving benefits from a booster, but his impact should not be discounted over off-field issues that do not involve criminal charges.
Last Week: 31
When you look at the best teams in the NFL right now, most feature a dominant pass-rusher like LaMarr Woodley, Clay Matthews or DeMarcus Ware. Bruce Irvin has the potential to end up in that same mold.
Irvin is a pass-rushing nightmare off the edge for West Virginia. The speed with which Irvin crashes the backfield has made him a fast-rising player on our board. If you want to see what a top-end first step looks like from outside linebacker, check out Irvin and West Virginia next weekend.
So what’s keeping Irvin so low on the board? At just 235 lbs, he needs to bulk up by at least 10 lbs. There is also the fact he’s very one-dimensional as a player. Irvin is excellent at rushing the passer, but he struggles in coverage.
Last Week: 24
Beating up on North Texas is not a good game to view when hoping to scout the Alabama players listed on my Big Board. As such, Crimson Tide players aren’t moving much this week.
One thing we can take away from the game was the flexibility of Hightower to play multiple positions. Alabama head coach Nick Saban continues to move Hightower back and forth between inside and outside linebacker in the many different fronts Alabama is using.
Hightower has played middle linebacker but looks to be moving to outside linebacker at least temporarily as a rush end. That ability to play in the middle and rush the passer from the edge gives Hightower an advantage over the other linebackers in this class.
Last Week: 23
Cliff Harris’ suspension was lifted on September 10, which led me to believe we’d see Harris lined up at cornerback and returner for the Oregon Ducks game against Nevada. But it never happened.
Harris saw limited time in the game, as coach Chip Kelly said he needed to earn his job back. That’s not good news for Harris or NFL draft scouts hoping to get a read on the talented but troubled cornerback.
KOHD TV in Oregon also noted that Harris, when he did play, was sporting a large wrap on his left hand. Harris might not only be coming off suspension, but he could be hurt as well.
Harris is on notice. Another bad week and he’s in danger of falling completely off the big board.
Last Week: 30
As mentioned on the Dont’a Hightower slide, it was almost impossible to take anything away from the Alabama victory over North Texas. However, I did see some things from Courtney Upshaw that warranted his moving up this week.
Upshaw is the ideal linebacker for today’s NFL. He’s versatile enough to rush the passer off the edge, line up at defensive end or stand up and play the middle of the field at MIKE linebacker. A smart coach, like Bill Belichick, will find a spot for an excellent linebacker like Upshaw.
The Alabama schedule gets a bit tougher here in the coming weeks, which will give us a chance to see Upshaw against higher-level blockers and schemes.
Last Week: 11
My good friend Dan Kadar, an excellent draft analyst in his own right, has Zach Brown ranked as the No. 1 outside linebacker in the country. I don’t disagree with the ranking, but Brown has yet to impress me as much as he did last season.
Brown is an undersized, athletic weakside linebacker who needs to make plays against the run and in pass coverage. He is not a pass-rusher, so there is a limit on impact plays that really make a player stand out.
The move down of Zach Brown is due to a preseason over-ranking more than anything. I could not in good conscience rank an outside linebacker in the top 12 who cannot rush the passer.
Last Week: 21
Luke Kuechly does it all. For the money, there is not a better coverage middle linebacker in college football today. Teams running a classic 4-3 defense will fall in love with the ability that Kuechly shows in reading the offense and reacting to the ball.
Fans love comparisons, so here’s one for you: Kuechly has the upside of a Brian Urlacher. The two players are very similar in that Kuechly is an excellent read and react linebacker who can drop into the deep middle and track the ball as well as shut down the run between the tackles.
I’m not saying Kuechly will be at Urlacher’s level in the NFL, but the potential and similarities are there.
Last Week: 17
The 2012 NFL draft class at defensive tackle is a letdown compared to the last two years. There is no Ndamukong Suh here; there’s not even a Nick Fairley. The most solid player of the group is Clemson’s Brandon Thompson. Notice I said most solid, not most talented.
Thompson is a safe pick at defensive tackle. You know what you’re getting here. Thompson has a great skill set as a three-technique tackle who will penetrate the gaps in the offensive line and create pressure on the backfield. What he won’t do is make impact plays by dominating the interior of the offensive line.
I like Thompson, and he’s a great late first-round prospect, but compared to the first-rounders from the last two classes, he leaves something to be desired.
Last Week: 25
Stephon Gilmore is on the move, folks. Take notice of the Gamecocks’ talented shutdown cornerback.
A bit underrated in the preseason, Gilmore has to be considered one of the best cornerbacks in the 2012 class with the suspension of Cliff Harris and the injury to Alfonzo Dennard.
Gilmore, who’s been healthy and eligible, is shutting down the opposition. A junior at USC, Gilmore has the size and speed that NFL scouts will go crazy for. He’s also dangerous with the ball in his hands and can make impact plays attacking the football.
One game I will be revisiting is South Carolina versus East Carolina. Gilmore struggled in this game, but it warrants a second look before making a massive change in his grade.
Last Week: 12
Alfonzo Dennard was my No. 1 preseason cornerback thanks in part to a great 2010 season opposite first-round pick Prince Amukamara. Dennard hasn’t been able to back up that performance in 2011, as he’s been out with injury.
Dennard missed his second straight game this weekend against Washington and hasn’t seen the practice field since mid-August due to a pulled muscle in his leg. I promised last week that Dennard would move down if inactive.
Last Week: 22
Jerel Worthy is one of the most frustrating players in college football. He’s hot and cold, on and off. If Worthy would give complete effort for an entire game, he could dominate. But he’s not giving full effort, and no matter how talented he is, he’ll have to drop eventually if this pattern continues.
I worried about effort last year from both Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus, but both players turned it on late in the year and played consistent football. Worthy needs to take a page from their notebooks.
In a weak defensive tackle class, Worthy could be a top-10 pick if he gets his act together.
Last Week: 18
In a close loss to the No. 1 team in the country, Brandon Jenkins was a bright spot for the Florida State defense against the Oklahoma Sooners’ high-powered offense.
Jenkins is another of those hybrid, versatile players who will beat you at defensive end or outside linebacker. Watching him Saturday night against Oklahoma, I couldn’t help but see Aldon Smith (the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 class).
Like Smith, Jenkins is a lean player with excellent burst and vision off the edge. He also has strong hands and long arms, which make him a weapon off the edge. He’ll rack up a fair share of tackles by simply grabbing on to the runner when he tries to run by him.
Keep an eye on Jenkins—he could be moving up by the end of the month.
Last Week: 20
Lamar Miller is the real deal. The running back position may be slightly devalued in the NFL today, but for a talented player like Miller, NFL teams will make an exception.
A dangerous runner, receiver and return man, Miller dominated the Ohio State defense Saturday. His acceleration to the line of scrimmage is as good as any running back entering the draft over the last three years.
He’s more than just burst though. Miller has the patience to let blocks develop, and he’s smart enough to level his pads and run. There’s no juking from Miller. He’s not afraid to run through the line.
Miller has the complete package to play running back in the NFL and is only a redshirt sophomore.
Last Week: 15
Dre Kirkpatrick is a question mark in my book at this point, and like his teammates listed here already, I am waiting until Alabama plays a legitimate contender before making huge changes to their rankings.
Kirkpatrick may be a better free safety in the NFL rather than playing cornerback. He hasn’t showed the quick-twitch ability to flip his hips and run with faster receivers. His size is impressive, and he could be a good press cornerback prospect, but if the speed isn’t there to turn and run, you cannot trust him in press coverage.
Kirkpatrick’s stock is unchanged this week, but I will have a close eye on Alabama versus Arkansas this weekend.
Last Week: 16
Some scouting services will list Jared Crick at defensive tackle. I’m not even going to pretend like he won’t be a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. Crick is the 2012 version of J.J. Watt, and that’s a damn good thing.
The 3-4 defense, or a variation of it, is being used in most NFL defensive huddles these days. That means you need a big body at defensive end who can stuff the run, penetrate the gaps, get to the quarterback and slide down to defensive tackle to play a two-gap alignment. No one in college football does this better than Crick.
Just like Watt last year, Crick’s stock will soar throughout the season. NFL teams want a safe player who can contribute immediately without headache. That’s Crick to a T.
Last Week: 14
Riley Reiff is not a lock to enter the 2012 draft. If he does, he’ll hear his name called early enough to justify leaving Iowa one season early.
A standout left tackle prospect from a college that historically produces excellent NFL products, Reiff has NFL general managers excited about the potential of finding a franchise left tackle in the middle of the first round. Reiff has all the tools to be dominant in the NFL.
Being coached by Kirk Ferentz definitely helps Reiff’s stock.
Last Week: 13
There is nothing to say about Richardson this week. He played as well as expected against an inferior opponent (North Texas). What I keep going back to was Richardson’s play against Penn State last week.
Richardson dominated the game very quietly, providing Alabama with a solid run game but also making key plays as a blocker on passing downs and as a safety valve to the quarterback when no blitz was coming.
Richardson is the safest pick at running back since Adrian Peterson left Oklahoma. The talent is there for him to start in the NFL right now.
Last Week: 8
The comparisons between Donte Paige-Moss and teammate Quinton Coples will last all season. Both look excellent.
Paige-Moss is the more explosive and exciting pass-rusher, something he’s proven early this season. The speed and power that Paige-Moss brings from the outside when rushing the passer is something offensive tackles do not expect from a lanky defensive end.
It helps that Donte put on weight for the 2011 season, but he’s still a bit lean for my taste at defensive end. A move to outside linebacker in the NFL seems most likely for him, but he has zero experience in coverage.
If any player can shake up the 2012 draft, it will be Donte Paige-Moss. Pass-rushers with his ability are a rare breed.
Last Week: 7
Matt Barkley has been statistically impressive for USC this year, including his five-touchdown game against Syracuse this weekend. But I’ll say it again: Statistics do not matter, especially for quarterbacks.
What I need to see from Barkley is an ability to see the field and distribute the ball. So far this season he’s locking on to wide receiver Robert Woods, which is working very well, but it doesn’t show me that Barkley can read the entire field.
There are also concerns about Barkley’s size. He’s listed at 6’2”, which would be sufficient for an NFL quarterback, but it’s something to watch once the postseason rolls around.
Having said all that, Barkley is a legitimate franchise quarterback prospect. Any NFL team would be happy to find him waiting for it outside the top five picks next April.
Last Week: 19
Morris Claiborne enters the top 10 this week as my No. 1 cornerback, taking the place of injured Alfonzo Dennard. He’s worthy of the move up.
Claiborne has been dominant this season against top competition. LSU’s cornerbacks are always productive, but Claiborne was exceptional in shutting down Mississippi State on his way to becoming the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
Claiborne has yet to show a weakness this year in taking over as the No. 1 cornerback at LSU after the team lost Patrick Peterson to the NFL draft. Peterson ended up being the No. 5 overall pick to the Arizona Cardinals. Claiborne has similar potential.
Cornerbacks with Claiborne’s size, speed and intelligence don’t last long in the first round.
Last Week: 9
Take your pick of Matt Kalil, Riley Reiff or Jonathan Martin as the best left tackle in college football. There’s not a wrong answer.
Kalil has the pedigree that NFL coaches love. His brother Ryan is an All-Pro center in Carolina and has been one of the most skilled interior linemen in the NFL since he was drafted by the Panthers. Matt is just as talented.
The bookend left tackle has been dominant for the USC offensive line, but he flashed his athleticism Week 2 by blocking a late field goal attempt by Utah. How many left tackles would have the athleticism to pull that off? Not many.
Last Week: 10
Justin Blackmon is a great example of why three games are the minimum for scouting a prospect. Coming into the season I had soured a bit on Blackmon after reviewing last season’s film, even though he was statistically God-like in 2010.
Through three games this season, Blackmon has won me over again.
You can argue that Blackmon isn’t the biggest or fastest receiver, but neither was Terrell Owens, and he did all right for himself. Take the ego away from Owens and you have Justin Blackmon.
He’s strong, quick off the line, elusive with the ball and possesses a work ethic not expected from an All-American receiver.
Last Week: 3
Landry Jones may have led No. 1 Oklahoma to a big win at Florida State on Saturday night, but his draft stock took a bit of a hit.
Jones tossed three interceptions in the game, which is definitely telling considering the FSU defense was the most NFL-like he’ll see this season. Jones looked erratic, throwing too many passes outside his receivers, often relying on excellent catches from his pass-catchers to save plays.
Jones has the talent to become a very high draft pick next spring, but he needs to show up bigger against elite talent before can be considered a competitor to Andrew Luck.
Last Week: 5
A stud junior left tackle prospect, Jonathan Martin doesn’t have the pedigree of Matt Kalil, and he doesn’t come from the storied NFL factory like Riley Reiff. He’s just better than them.
Martin combines athleticism, strength and flexibility into one, making him the 2012 draft’s best left tackle prospect. Martin does it all, dominating as a run blocker in Stanford’s Week 1 and 2 wins but showing the elite pass-protection tools that make him a top-five player in its Week 3 showdown against Arizona.
Martin, barring something major between now and January, will be a lock for the early first round.
Last Week: 6
Give Alshon Jeffery a top-tier quarterback and the college football world would be on fire. Jeffery has yet to post dominant statistics, as the South Carolina offense relies on the running game of top 2013 draft prospect Marcus Lattimore. Don’t let the lack of huge numbers fool you—Jeffery has it all.
The 2011 draft gave us two receivers drafted in the top six picks, A.J. Green and Julio Jones. The 2012 draft is anchored by Jeffery and Justin Blackmon, two guys equally capable of a high draft choice.
Jeffery’s all-around game separates him from Blackmon. The size advantage and deep-ball ability for Jeffery make him an elite wide receiver prospect as good as any we’ve seen.
Last Week: 4
Quinton Coples does everything you could want a defensive end to do. He’s a powerful pass-rusher with great burst and excellent strength. He has the size to slide down to defensive tackle, a position he played very well until a move to defensive end in 2010.
Coples will draw comparisons to Mario Williams and Julius Peppers, and on an athletic level those comparisons are fair. Coples has backed up the lofty compliments with a dominant 2010 season and the makings of a great year in 2011.
NFL general managers need to see that Coples can survive on the edge in one-on-one situations against elite tackles. The sooner he can prove that, the faster he will become a legitimate contender for the No. 2 overall ranking.
Last Week: 2
With nine tackles in a tight loss to Illinois, Vontaze Burfict showed doubters that he can line up at middle linebacker and play a classic role as a read and react ‘backer. With four sacks through three games, good for second-best in the country, Burfict is showing that his ability as a pass-rusher separates him from the rest of the pack.
Linebackers with the physical skill set of Burfict don’t come around often, and those that do cannot hold a candle to Burfict’s level of aggression and violence on the football field. If Burfict can learn to harness his tenacity, he’ll be unstoppable.
What you will find once the draft rolls around is that NFL scouts and general managers love guys who play with the passion of Burfict. Look around the league at James Harrison and Ndamukong Suh, two of the best at their positions. Burfict’s style of play matches theirs.
Last Week: 1
What Andrew Luck does on a week-to-week basis only justifies what we’ve seen over the last two years at Stanford.
Luck is the perfect prospect for today’s NFL. He’s mobile in the pocket, smart with the football and has an arm good enough to make every throw on the passing tree with the perfect level of touch and velocity. If you could paint a picture of a prospect, Luck would be your quarterback.
Stanford and Luck will not see any future first-round draft picks at cornerback all season. Wait for a bowl game to see what Luck can really do.