The first month of college football is almost over, and with that I am digging deeper into the film room to review the top 32 players on my Big Board.
Individual matchups each week are key to how well a player performs on the big board. Another big week by Justin Blackmon helped him secure a spot in the Top 10, while having another week to study quarterback Matt Barkley has him free-falling.
The NFL regular season is at Week 4, which is when mock drafts and team needs start rolling out in earnest. Here’s a look at which players you can expect to see making up the first round of the 2012 draft.
Last Week: 27
Bruce Irvin has taken the hard road to success at West Virginia. A high school dropout, Irvin first played ball at the JUCO ranks before signing with West Virginia. His hard work has paid off, and Irvin is on the verge of being a legitimate Top 50 player for the 2012 draft—regardless of class.
Irvin is undersized for the NFL if he intends to play at his college position of defensive end. Ideally he would move back to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but don’t rule out playing defensive end for a team using a wide-nine defense similar to what the Philadelphia Eagles or Indianapolis Colts use.
Last Week: NR
T.J. McDonald is one of the players I’ve highlighted to spend more time on this week. I love what McDonald brings to the field, but as with most big safeties in college football, I’m worried about his ability to turn and run. Can McDonald keep up in man coverage against a speedy tight end, and does he show the range to cover the field in deep thirds?
Those are the two questions I will be searching for answers to once USC takes on an opponent worthy of scouting. That should happen this weekend versus Arizona and quarterback Nick Foles.
Last Week: 29
The South Carolina Gamecocks have an impressive defensive line assembled in Columbia this season. The best of the bunch looks to be defensive end Devin Taylor.
Taylor is the type of quick-burst athlete that NFL general managers fall in love with. He figures to see work in the pre-draft process at both defensive end and outside linebacker.
Last Week: 24
Just when I think I have a read on Courtney Upshaw, he has a bad game and ends up moving down the rankings.
The primetime game versus Arkansas was the perfect showcase for Upshaw to show off his NFL ability. But it never surfaced, and Upshaw did very little to make an impact on this game. Upshaw has to come up bigger in these spots. So far this year Upshaw is not showing the burst or pass rushing ability that landed him on my preseason watch list.
Another bad week and Upshaw will be out of my Top 32.
Last Week: 32
It’s hard to argue with Michael Floyd’s raw talent. I have been very vocal in the past about his off-field issues causing serious red flags for me. What keeps Floyd in the Top 32 is his amazing natural ability.
In a big game for Notre Dame this weekend against Pitt, Floyd was used as a decoy in the passing game. Given a huge stage to prove his value to NFL teams, Floyd caught four passes for 27 yards. While statistics do very little to tell the story of a player, it’s notable that Notre Dame chose to go away from Floyd in this game.
Last Week: 18
The effort and drive are not there for Jerel Worthy, and for that reason he’s moving down and on the verge of out on the Big Board.
Worthy has Top 15 talent, but the motivation is lacking. Defensive tackles will be held to the Ndamukong Suh-standard from now on, and while Worthy has the athleticism to make disruptive plays, he doesn’t bring the fire that Suh does on every play.
In a draft class lacking elite talent at defensive tackle, Worthy has a chance to move himself back toward the top with a great finish to the season.
Last Week: 30
In four games versus what could be called below-average talent, Chase Minnifield has rarely been tested by opposing quarterbacks. That’s a trend we can expect to see the entire season.
Minnifield is showing improved play against the run, which helps erase one black mark on his scouting report from last season.
Players with Minnifield’s size and speed will find a spot in the NFL. If he can keep up his new-found ability in run support, Minnifield has a chance to shoot up the board.
Last Week: NR
You cannot ignore Jeff Fuller after the performance he had against Oklahoma State on Saturday. Fuller has been on and off the big board this season, but he is officially here to stay after solidifying early impressions about his play.
Anyone questioning Fuller’s athleticism or red zone ability will be pointed to the Oklahoma State game, as Fuller silenced doubters with his exceptional play.
In a class loaded with talented receivers, Fuller will be a late first-round target for playoff teams hoping to get better at receiver.
Last Week: 21
Other scouts that I bounce ideas off of swear by Brandon Thompson as the elite defensive tackle in this class. I haven’t seen it yet.
Florida State’s undersized interior offensive line did a good job against Thompson in a game that should have been his coming-out party. Instead, Thompson logged just one impact play on my scorecard. That’s not enough against an FSU line that is below NFL quality on the inside.
Thompson has never been a big player statistically, but even his impact away from the ball is being marginalized this season.
Last Week: 22
While I largely dismiss the use of statistics in scouting, one number that I do put faith in for linebackers is the solo, or unassisted, tackle stat.
This gives us a raw number of how many plays the linebacker makes without any help from his teammates. It’s a key for tracking just how valuable a linebacker is in space.
Luke Kuechly stands out from the crowd here. No player in FBS football has more solo tackles than Kuechly’s 39 through four games. Combined with his exceptional ability in coverage, Kuechly’s open-field tackling skills make for one very solid middle linebacker prospect.
Last Week: 23
Zach Brown is enjoying his best season yet as a Tar Heel, and I’m taking notice.
Brown is showing an ability to rush the passer that had not surfaced previously in his role on the North Carolina defense. This season they are letting him attack the backfield more, and it’s paying off for Brown’s draft stock.
The one knock on Brown has been his size, and at 6’2” and 230 lbs, he won’t make it as a pass-rushing outside linebacker—but adding this skill set to his toolbox only helps his draft stock.
Last Week: 20
Stephon Gilmore originally hit my radar as a Top 32 player because of his ability to make tackles in the open field—something fewer cornerbacks are doing well each year. Gilmore was different in that he was not afraid to go after the ball carrier.
Gilmore has transitioned from a good cover man and great tackler to a very good cover man, excellent tackler and a threat as a blitzer off the edge. He’s also dangerous with the ball in his hands on turnovers.
Keep Gilmore’s name in mind once the draft process heats up. He could be a surprise mention as the best cornerback available.
Last Week: 19
Dennard finally took the field after sitting out the first three games with a leg injury. In the win over Wyoming he did very little, but it’s great to see him back on the field.
Next week’s matchup against Nick Toon of Wisconsin will be a can’t-miss battle between two very good draft prospects. If Dennard can shut down Toon, he’ll start to move back up the board. A great game by Toon would help put the underrated Badger way up on our rankings.
Last Week: 17
Anyone waiting for a big game from Brandon Jenkins this year should have left the Clemson game Saturday night happy with the play of the Florida State defensive end.
Jenkins’ pass-rushing ability is going to make him a lot of money next year in the NFL. This draft is heavy on cornerbacks, quarterbacks and offensive tackles—but pass rushers are always a priority draft pick for NFL teams. Jenkins’ current play might put him in the Top 10 before it’s all said and done.
Playing against very good talent in the ACC definitely helps Jenkins’ cause. Keep an eye on this athletic pass rusher who keeps moving up the board.
Last Week: 25
The big jump for Cliff Harris is less about what he’s done in 2011, and more about what he did in 2010. While preparing for the Landry Jones/Matt Barkley piece, I could not ignore the exceptional play of Harris at cornerback.
No other corner in this class has the success in press man coverage that Harris does, and except for Morris Claiborne no one has shown the ability to jam the receiver and turn and run like Harris can.
Yes, there are off-field issues to address, but Harris’ talent is Top 10.
Last Week: 10
Should Matt Barkley enter the 2012 NFL draft, it’s very likely he would be drafted higher than No. 17 overall due to the needs at quarterback, but that doesn’t mean he should be.
The Arizona State defense showed what happens to Barkley when pressured, as he threw two interceptions and relied far too often on the checkdown pass this weekend in a loss.
Barkley, more than any top player in this class, is the product of an excellent system at USC. Let’s see what happens when USC and Oregon face off on November 19. Barkley will show his true colors against a top-flight NFL-level cornerback (Cliff Harris) in that game.
Last Week: 14
Crick missed this week’s game against Wyoming with a head injury. He is expected to be back next week against Wisconsin in a game that will help define just how good Jared Crick is.
The preseason expectations have been huge for Crick the past two seasons, and you could argue that he hasn’t lived up to those lofty goals set by the media. A big game against an always tough Wisconsin offensive line will help Crick move back up the board.
Last Week: 31
Each week I sit down to watch Robert Griffin take the field, I am more impressed by his ability as a passer. Forget for a moment what Griffin can do outside the pocket and look at his passing ability this season.
Griffin, playing in a scheme that doesn’t rely on checkdowns and short passes, is leading the NCAA in passing efficiency. That says a lot about a quarterback who is airing it out regularly.
Throw in the fact that Griffin is a dangerous runner and you have the 2011 version of Cam Newton—minus the controversy.
Last Week: 16
All scouts, whether working for a team or the media, have “their” guys each year. You fall in love with a player’s ability and it becomes your responsibility to carry the torch for them as draft prospects.
For me, last year, it was Von Miller. This year, it’s Lamar Miller.
Miller isn’t getting the recognition nationally that he deserves for what has been an amazing early-season performance at Miami. As a draft prospect, Miller is even more impressive.
His burst from the backfield is among the best in the nation. He runs with great pad height and has the patience of a seasoned veteran—but he’s only a redshirt sophomore.
Should Miller enter the 2012 draft, there is no way he falls out of the first round.
Last Week: 15
Dre Kirkpatrick is still living off of his excellent reputation to some extent. For an elite cover corner he‘s being targeted more than any other first-round prospects at the position—but Kirkpatrick is responding. He has eight passes defensed this season in four games.
Kirkpatrick has the skill set of an elite cover man, especially in zone coverage. NFL teams hoping to find the next Nnamdi Asomugha will be enamored with the talented Crimson Tide cornerback from the opening of the offseason.
Kirkpatrick will have many chances to prove his worth over the next eight weeks of SEC play. Keep an eye on him.
Last Week: 13
When watching Riley Reiff you can’t help but see an elite NFL offensive tackle. While many will laud Riley’s play at left tackle, I actually see a right tackle in the mold of Eric Winston. And that’s pretty damn good.
Reiff has the strength and size required of a right tackle, but he combines a quickness and athleticism that most right tackles in the NFL lack.
Drafted as a left tackle, Reiff could become very good. If he ends up on the right side, Reiff could be great. That’s not to say Reiff couldn’t carve out a very good 12-year career at left tackle, but he could be something really special on the right side.
Last Week: 12
It’s no longer popular to place running backs high in NFL draft rankings, what with the days of the running back by committee and undrafted stars leading the league in rushing.
Look at the NFL this morning and the player leading the league in rushing (Darren McFadden) was a Top 4 pick in the first round. Running backs are still valuable at the top of the draft, if they have elite talent.
Trent Richardson does. He’s as well-rounded as any back since McFadden’s days at Arkansas. In fact, turn on film of Richardson and you will see a player closer to LaDainian Tomlinson than any back I’ve scouted since Tomlinson entered the league.
Last Week: 9
Morris Claiborne has me more excited than any of the other talented cornerbacks in this draft class. His size, strength at the line and speed are simply amazing. Claiborne has it all.
The win over Mississippi State only further solidified Claiborne’s ability. With two interceptions in the game, Claiborne turned the tide of the game late. That ability to take over the game when it matters reminds me most of a Heisman Trophy-winning cornerback running around in Green Bay these days.
It’s too soon to put Charles Woodson-like expectations on Claiborne, but I’m telling you the talent is there for him to be a very similar player.
Last Week: 6
The Missouri defense isn’t that good, but they sure did make Landry Jones look average on Saturday night.
In a week where I had already moved Jones down after extended film study, he did nothing to warrant a second look in the night game versus Mizzou. Throwing two interceptions and failing to get the ball vertical outlines many of the problems I have with Jones’ game.
The bottom line is that Landry Jones is still a very good quarterback prospect in a league that has a huge hole at quarterback. He will find himself drafted high, probably higher than No. 9 overall, but he has a lot of questions to answer before I am willing to sign off on him as an elite prospect.
Last Week: 11
You could easily argue that Donte Paige-Moss has done nothing this year to warrant a Top 10 spot on the Big Board—but you could also argue that no player in the country has more raw ability as a pass rusher.
Donte Paige-Moss is a bit of an enigma thus far, but the potential is too great to overlook. His size and speed combination makes for a scary product at outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Once DPM learns the intricacies of the game, he’ll be special.
Patience is needed with a prospect as green as DPM, which is why he’s getting more leeway than other players this week.
Last Week: 3
Another North Carolina defender who isn’t quite living up to expectations is Quinton Coples. A preseason Top 5 player on most boards, Coples has yet to make a huge impact this season.
You cannot overlook Coples' ability, though. He’s played both defensive tackle and end at UNC and has exceptional talent and athleticism as a complete defensive end. Players with this level of potential and production aren’t found in the college ranks often.
Coples takes a move down this week in part because of the play of others who were behind him, but also because I am still waiting for his breakout game this season.
Last Week: 7
If you want to talk about breakout games, look no further than Justin Blackmon’s performance against Texas A&M. Forget the statistics, even though they were amazing, and look at what Blackmon did on the field. He was a man among boys.
Blackmon brings an athleticism and strength to the position rarely seen from college receivers. You cannot help but compare him to former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant.
There is a lot to like about Blackmon. He should compete for a Top 10 spot once the 2012 draft rolls around.
Last Week: 5
Jonathan Martin continues to impress week to week. His ability not only as the blindside protector for Andrew Luck, but in his run-blocking in the game, keeps him near the top of the Big Board.
Martin will get criticized for his lack of bulk at the position, but with so many NFL teams running a zone scheme up front these days, Martin should find himself in a great position at the next level.
The best comparison would be Ryan Clady, as Martin is a lean tackle with great mobility. Like Clady, Martin should be a lock for the top of the first round.
Last Week: 4
I have been asked a lot about putting Alshon Jeffery over Justin Blackmon when Blackmon has the better numbers. I’ll say it again—statistics do not matter.
Jeffery is still the better NFL prospect of the two. He’s faster, taller, stronger and makes better plays downfield. Until Blackmon can best Jeffery in these areas, he’ll stay No. 2.
Jeffery isn’t having a great season statistically, but that will not keep NFL general managers from falling over themselves to draft him should he enter the 2012 draft.
Last Week: 8
As part of my Landry Jones/Matt Barkley piece, I was required to spend a lot of time with the USC offense’s tape. I came away impressed with Matt Kalil.
Kalil is quite underrated when it comes right down to it. His ability as a pass protector is bar none the best in college football right now. He’s also a dominant athlete, something he showed in blocking a field goal attempt two weeks ago.
For the money, I’d take Kalil as my left tackle and forget about the position for the next 12 years. He’s in the upper echelon of tackles I’ve seen in my time.
Last Week: 2
Vontaze Burfict was once again all over the field in the Arizona State beatdown of USC this weekend. Notching five tackles and an interception, Burfict once again showed the impact he can have from any spot on the field.
Want him to rush the passer, he’ll do it as well as anyone. Burfict has four sacks through four games. Critics will chastise Burfict for freelancing too often, but what many fail to see is that is his role on the ASU defense. He’s a rover, and the coaching staff sees his ability to read the play and pursue the ball as his strength. Making Burfict a classic middle linebacker would be a phenomenal mistake, at the college or NFL level.
Last Week: 1
Another week, another No. 1 ranking for Andrew Luck.
When was the last time NFL fans actively talked about their team losing for the rights to draft a player? The “Suck4Luck” campaigns may be in jest, but you can bet there will be many more discussions throughout the season as teams win or lose late games that will alter their draft standing.
Luck is holding up his end of the bargain with exceptional play each week.