2012 NFL Draft: 8 Players Trending Toward the First Round
For me, the most fun part of the draft is watching for the college players that come out of nowhere and end up as first-rounders.
Last year, Cam Newton did just that, won a national championship for his team and was drafted with the first overall pick by the Carolina Panthers.
This year, there are a few players who have already taken the country by storm and are heading toward being considered for first-round status.
Here are eight:
1. Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt CB
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Yeah, a Vanderbilt player. If he were a couple of inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier, it wouldn't even be a question as to where he'd fall in the draft.
As it is, at 5'11" and 188 lbs, he's still big enough to be serviceable in the NFL.
Hayward is a natural ball hawk, picking off six interceptions in the 2010 season and deflecting 17 passes. This season, he's already picked off four. To do the math for you, he's on track to grab nine interceptions this year.
That's probably good enough to be first in the FBS.
He's a phenomenal player and, since he is a Vanderbilt student, he's probably pretty smart. NFL teams are going to love him, and even in this very strong cornerback class, he's good enough and more than talented enough to be a first-round pick.
2. Andrew Datko, Florida State OT
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Things may be going pretty poorly for Florida State, but they're going very well for their left tackle on the draft boards.
Datko played extremely well for FSU so far and looks like a prototypical NFL left tackle. Unfortunately for him, he is out with a shoulder injury that may keep him out for the rest of the season. Doesn't matter.
With the new rookie wage scale, teams can draft two highly rated tackles for cheap, and that's what quite a few will be doing.
To make things even better for Datko, a lot of teams are needing new tackles. With Matt Kalil, Jonathan Martin and Riley Reiff all due to be off the board in the first 15 picks, we could see a run for tackles similar to the run for quarterbacks in 2011.
Datko is considered the fourth or fifth best tackle in the country, and even if he doesn't play the rest of the season, he has a very good chance to be drafted in the first round.
3. Andre Branch, Clemson DE
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Hopefully things will turn out better for Andre Branch than they did for his former teammate Da'Quan Bowers.
Much like the Clemson team as a whole, Branch is taking the country by storm. Despite getting a lot of double teams, Branch has 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss and six sacks this season.
Now that his team is beating up the rest of the ACC, he and some of his teammates are getting a lot more attention from NFL scouts. As long as Clemson keeps winning and he keeps being a disruptive end, Branch will get more looks as the season progresses.
While Quinton Coples is the top-rated end, most of the rest of the guys at the top of the rankings are better suited as rush linebackers. If a team that runs a 4-3 decides it needs a defensive end, then Branch is likely its guy.
4. Brandon Thompson, Clemson DT
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Andre Branch isn't the only standout Clemson defender. With Jerel Worthy having a somewhat disappointing season, scouts are looking for this year's top defensive tackle and it just might be Thompson.
Like Andre Branch, Brandon Thompson also sees a lot of double teams (when teams aren't double-teaming Branch). Like Branch, he is more on the radar of NFL scouts because of how well his team is doing.
Thompson has 20 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss so far. While his production doesn't match up with Branch's, as Branch starts to be the lineman that offenses focus on, Thompson will start seeing fewer double teams and his production will increase.
There are only a few prototypical 4-3 defensive tackles worth taking in the first couple of rounds. If a team decides they need one, they could grab Thompson before Day 2.
5. Dwayne Allen, Clemson TE
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Yeah, lots of Clemson players. Unlike some of his teammates, Dwayne Allen has been on everyone's radar from the get-go, but even so, tight ends don't go in the first round unless they are a real special talent.
Dwayne Allen might just be that kind of talent.
From all reports, Allen is a ridiculously hard worker. Former teammate Da'Quan Bowers said that Allen always asked Bowers to go at him extra hard in practice to help him get better.
NFL coaches eat that kind of stuff up.
With a lot of teams needing receivers, I wouldn't be surprised if a late first-round pick was spent on taking a super-talented, hard-working tight end with blocking ability, soft hands and great size (6'4" and 255 lbs) instead of reaching for a wide receiver.
6. Jarius Wright, Arkansas WR
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Coming into the season, Greg Childs was the receiver to watch from Arkansas. Six weeks into the season, that has changed.
In this deep wide receiver class, three players (Justin Blackmon, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd) have separated themselves from the pack. The second-tier receivers are now competing against one another to get noticed.
With 33 receptions for 554 yards and six touchdowns, Wright is doing a pretty good job of making himself look better.
He is shorter than teams would prefer at 5'10", but that's no shorter than DeSean Jackson. He's far from first-round status right now, but if he keeps showing good speed and puts up big numbers, he could end up a first-rounder regardless of his height.
7. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama DE/OLB
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In this great rush linebacker class, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw has emerged as one of the top players at his position.
At 6'2" and 263 lbs, Upshaw is a monster and is big enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. However, he'll probably fit best as a rush linebacker for a team that runs the same 3-4 scheme as Alabama.
There are lots of great prospects at the rush linebacker spot, but some have raised some red flags, so Upshaw is steadily moving up the ranks.
Alabama is rolling and now that it has knocked off Arkansas and Florida; the only threatening team on its schedule is LSU. If the Tide win against the Tigers, they're off the national championship. If they lose, they're off to the Sugar Bowl. Either way, they'll be a top-five BCS team by the season's end.
Teams that win national championships or big bowl games tend to get their prospects noticed. Even among such a great rush linebacker class, Upshaw will stand out and get taken off the board by the first team he makes sense for.
8. Robert Griffin III, Baylor QB
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Before the start of this season, I wouldn't have said that Robert Griffin III could be a first-round quarterback, but boy was I wrong.
I've made a complete 180 in my opinion of him, and I now think he's talented enough to be the second or third quarterback off the board.
He's also apparently very intelligent. He's a political science major who has been an academic All-Big 12 and has made the Dean's List twice.
It took him until Week 5 to have as many incompletions as he's had touchdowns. Yes, Baylor was mostly playing poor competition, but that's an impressive statistic no matter who you're playing.
Baylor is about to start playing a lot tougher competition. Next week they visit Texas A&M, then Oklahoma State before hosting Missouri. They end the season hosting Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas.
If he can keep up the impressive play for the whole season, he'll be a lock for the first round and may even be a top-five pick.