2012 NFL Draft: 25 Best Draft Prospects Who May Come Out Early

Daniel CiarrocchiCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2011

2012 NFL Draft: 25 Best Draft Prospects Who May Come Out Early

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    A record 56 underclassmen entered the NFL draft in 2011, and the 2012 NFL draft will provide plenty of young talent as well. 

    Of those 56 players, 15 were selected in the first round, and a similar ratio can be expected in 2012 with names like Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon and Landry Jones opting for the pros.

    And why not? With early entries like Cam Newton, A.J. Green and Julio Jones proving that professional success can come earlier than expected, the wave of 2012 talent has much reason to feel encouraged. 

    The same encouragement can be felt if you're a coach or general manager of a team in need of premier young talent, because there will be plenty of it on draft day.

1. Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, USC

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    Whichever team "sucks for Luck" will be handsomely rewarded, but often lost in this hype is the consolation prize to the team that just couldn't suck enough.

    Matt Kalil has proven he is the real deal by swallowing-up his collegiate competitors during his tenure at USC. His frame is massive enough to dominate the run game, and he also has the agility to counter the finesse moves of the NFL's elite pass rushers.

    At 6'7", 295 pounds, the junior has the athleticism to light-up this offseason's combine and could see his stock rise to the worth of a top-5 pick. The sky is the limit for this kid. 

2. Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State

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    Justin Blackmon could have been a first-round pick in 2011, but opted to return to Oklahoma State for his junior season.

    So far, it doesn't appear that the decision will hurt him. Blackmon is averaging over 100 yards and a touchdown per game, and continues to be a man among boys. He doesn't have the size that makes scouts drool, but his straightaway speed and precise route-running make him a special prospect.

    Blackmon continues to keep defensive backs in his rear-view mirror, and pretty soon, the rest of his draft class could be as well. If a wideout-desperate team finds itself in the top 5, they could do much worse than chancing an early pick on him. 

3. Landry Jones, Quarterback, Oklahoma

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    Landry Jones missed a crucial opportunity to make his draft stock soar with a game against Florida State by completing 18-of-27 passes for just 199 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in a hostile environment.

    Since then, Jones returned to the form which had scouts projecting him toward the top of the first round. A three-touchdown performance and 367 yards in a Red River blowout over rival Texas helped silence many of his doubters.

    For the year, Jones has completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,177 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions through six games. If his remarkable efficiency continues to parallel his remarkable physical attributes, Jones will be in the conversation for a top-5 pick. 

4. Matt Barkley, Quarterback, USC

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    Though only a junior, Barkley is a three-year starter in a pro-style West Coast offense, which can make for a smooth transition into the NFL.

    This season, Barkley has played smart football and limited his mistakes. With just four interceptions so far, the USC signal-caller is displaying maturity at an early age. Accurate throws to all parts of the field haven't hurt his draft stock, either.

    As always, there will be no shortage of teams in search of a franchise quarterback this summer, and Barkley should benefit by shooting up into top 10 consideration, especially if he continues to keep turnovers to a minimum. 

5. Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, South Carolina

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    Alshon Jeffery finished 2010 as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award and has built upon that momentum ever since.

    The versatile wideout boasts speed, leaping ability and a 6'4" inch frame, making him a formadible downfield threat. It has already shown at the college level, where he has averaged over 16 yards per catch over two and a half seasons.

    The NFL is a passing league, and a quarterback can never have too many weapons. Jeffery, like so many other juniors, could land in the 2012 NFL draft's top 10.

6. Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama

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    With more NFL teams opting to use a committee backfield, and with recent history showing that great running backs can be found in later rounds, not many teams like to take an early risk on talented backs.

    Trent Richardson is one of few exceptions to that rule of thumb. Playing second-fiddle to Mark Ingram, Richardson flashed brilliance by averaging 5.6 yards per carry. In a feature role in 2011, Richardson has stepped into the limelight by averaging 6.9 yards per carry and is already just 98 yards away from eclipsing the 1,000 yard plateau.   

    At 224 pounds, Richardson has a coveted combination of power and speed that will warrant a double-take from the eyes of teams with weak backfields. Expect to see Alabama running backs selected in the first round in consecutive years once April rolls around.

7. Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback, Alabama

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    Wide receivers are getting bigger and faster, which is exactly why Dre Kirkpatrick makes for such a great prospect.

    Kirkpatrick is a physical 6'3" inch corner and has the tenacity to erase dominant possession receivers from an offense. Speedy wideouts have given him problems in one-on-one scenarios, but the hard-hitting corner has made up for that by showing ability to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage.

    Even the best corners are susceptible to being beat deep, which is why the 65-yard touchdown he allowed to Florida receiver Andre Dubose shouldn't be too much of a concern. Kirkpatrick is the most consistent cornerback in the draft, and that should notch him top 20 status.

8. Morris Claiborne, Cornerback, LSU

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    The Tigers packed a devastating one-two punch on the perimeter in 2010 with Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne at cornerback.

    Quarterbacks had to pick their poison when this duo appeared on either side, and it was to Claiborne's benefit. As a sophomore, Claiborne tallied five interceptions and led the team with 11 passes defensed.

    Now, with the spotlight on him, Claiborne already has three interceptions in his first six games, and could play his way onto the roster of an NFL team that selects in the top 20. 

9. Vontaze Burfict, Middle Linebacker, Arizona State

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    Matt Barkley had his worst game of the season against Arizona State. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a big reason why. His 36-yard interception off a Barkley pass contributed to a 43-22 beatdown of their Pac-12 rivals.

    However, that's just one of many plays Burfict has made to earn himself the reputation of a disrupting force. In addition to his playmaking abilities, he is a sure-tackler with a fierceness that prompted an anonymous NFL scout to compare it to "what you'd get after you kick Ray Lewis' dog."

    Burfict has well-documented disciplinary issues both on and off the field, but if harnessed, he could become one of the NFL's most feared linebackers for years to come.

10. Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Iowa

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    Riley Reiff spent last season doing a fine job of protecting Ricky Stanzi, and in 2011, he has appeared dominant against a relatively weak schedule out of the gate. 

    Reiff has the prototypical strength of successful run blockers, but has remarkably good footwork for a man of 300 pounds. Because blindside tackles are considered so vital for an offense's success, Reilly could go as early as the top 10.

    It wouldn't be a bad selection, as Reilly should be a difficult test for many NFL pass rushers for years to come

11. Manti Te'o, Middle Linebacker, Notre Dame

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    Every team needs a presence in the middle of its defense, and Manti Te'o would be all of that and more at the NFL level.

    Te'o did not leave much room to improve on the stat sheet after compiling 133 tackles and 9.5 for a loss as a sophomore. Somehow, he's on pace to match that same tackle total despite being hampered by a mild ankle sprain, and already has 8.5 tackles for a loss in just six games. 

    The speed and bulk that Te'o possesses makes him an attractive option in both a 4-3 and 3-4 scheme. All that does is lengthen the list of possible destinations for a prospect who could quickly rise the ranks of the NFL.

12. Luke Kuechly, Middle Linebacker, Boston College

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    If Vontaze Burfict is a tackling machine, then Luke Kuechly is an entire tackling factory.

    Kuechly is a cerebral linebacker who always seems to know where the ball carrier is and has the ability to consistently bring him down without problem.

    Over his two-and-a-half year career, Kuechly has averaged over 13 tackles per game and is the lone bright spot on a dismal Boston College team in 2011. Through just six games, Kuechly already has 99 tackles and is on pace to shatter Lawrence Flugence's single-season record of 193.

    He is also on pace to earning himself a top 15 selection in this year's draft.

13. Brandon Jenkins, Defensive End, Florida State

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    As a sophomore, Brandon Jenkins ranked third in the nation with 13.5 sacks, which was good enough to earn him the Florida State's Most Valuable Player Award.

    In 2011, as a junior, Jenkins has drawn much attention from opposing offenses and has just two sacks in his first six games. It's a misleading statistic though, as Jenkins has still consistently generated pressure, with his team's matchup against Oklahoma being the only exception.

    Jenkins has the size of a 4-3 defensive end and the speed of a 3-4 outside linebacker. He is a worthy choice for any defensive scheme, and will likely get to the quarterback no matter what stance he is in.

14. Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, South Carolina

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    Stephon Gilmore is a big-play cornerback who also isn't afraid to get his uniform dirty. To complement his two interceptions and four passes defensed in 2011, Gilmore has shown an aggressive presence in defending the run with two games where he recorded over eight tackles.

    Gilmore has the speed and vertical ability to defend all levels of the field. He also boasts an ideal 6'1", 190-pound frame, and could be a smart pick for a team that missed out on Dre Kirkpatrick and Morris Claiborne.

15. Jayron Hosley, Cornerback, Virginia Tech

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    Some players just have a knack for getting the football. Jayron Hosley is one of them.

    Hosley led the nation as a sophomore with nine interceptions in 2010, and has tallied a ridiculous total of 11 in his past 15 games. His sure-handedness earned him the role as the Hokies' punt returner, in which he has done well, but not spectacularly.

    Hosley is another name that will likely be cast in Kirkpatrick and Claiborne's shadows. If he keeps up his ridiculous pace, however, no shadow will be big enough to contain him.

16. Jerel Worthy, Defensive Tackle, Michigan State

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    The 2011 and 2010 drafts were loaded with talent at defensive tackle. Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Marcel Dareus and Nick Fairley represented their positions well, but now it is Jerel Worthy's turn to run with the torch.

    Worthy has the versatility to be a 3-4 nose tackle, but projects much better as a wrecking ball in a 4-3 scheme. Worthy led the Spartans in 2010 with eight tackles for loss and four sacks, and is on pace to top both of those totals in 2011.

    The talent at defensive lineman appears much thinner in the 2012 draft class, but Worthy is a player who will counter that statement. Expect him to be drafted early in the second round, or late in the first round.

17. Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor

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    Dual-threat quarterbacks always make for great discussions come draft time, and Robert Griffin will be the centerpiece of those.

    The Baylor product blasted out of relative obscurity by not only posing a dynamic run-threat, but by boasting a quick release and pinpoint accuracy to all parts of the field in his first six games. Griffin has shown that he is not just a novelty run-first quarterback, but possesses the physical attributes, aptitude and accuracy to make it in the NFL.

    Cam Newton shot up draft boards last season with every big game he played and won. If Griffin continues to play at this caliber against stiff competition, don't be surprised to see him in the first round.

18. Ronnell Lewis, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Oklahoma

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    Ronnell Lewis gave Sooner fans a scare this offseason with academic eligibility issues, but now, he is giving them all much to cheer about.

    Lewis already matched his sack total from 2010, and continues to be a dominant force off the edge of the Oklahoma defense. His speed and awareness make him a pass-rusher who could play defensive end in a 4-3, as well as outside linebacker in a 3-4.

    With more NFL teams using hybrid defensive schemes, Lewis presents a versatile option for defensive coordinators and could be selected as early as the end of the first round.

19. Dwayne Allen, Tight End, Clemson

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    2011 held  the first NFL draft since 1999 where a tight end was not selected in the first round. In 2012, Dwayne Allen could start a new streak of first-round tight ends.

    Allen is a defensive coordinator's nightmare. With size, speed and a penchant for making big catches, Allen provides a formidable end-zone threat as well as a mismatch against defenders.

    At the collegiate level, Allen is powerful enough to mow through defensive backs, and fast enough to leave linebackers in the dust. It would be to the surprise of no one if that continues in the pros. 

20. Cliff Harris, Cornerback, Oregon

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    If teams are in need of a cornerback in 2012, then this will clearly make for a great draft. Cliff Harris is just another reason why.

    Harris, as a sophomore, led the nation with 23 passes defensed last season and also added six interceptions to his résumé. He also led the FBS with four punt-return touchdowns, and averaged a stellar 18.8 yards per return.

    Off-the-field problems may hurt Harris' draft stock, but a team that takes a chance on Harris in the second or third round may find quite a steal.

21. Mohamed Sanu, Wide Receiver, Rutgers

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    Come draft day, Mohamed Sanu will be able to relate to guys like Cliff Harris and Jayron Hosley. He will likely be eclipsed by other big names at his position.

    But that's not to assume Sanu won't have tremendous value. Sanu has dominated opposition this year, averaging almost 10 receptions per game and 10.1 yards per catch.

    At 6'2", 215 pounds, Sanu has the size to be a reliable possession receiver and the speed to keep defenses honest. He will likely go in the second to third round, but would be a welcome addition to any offense.

22. Dont'a Hightower, Middle Linebacker, Alabama

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    The nation's top-ranked defense attributes much of its success from having a pure tackler like Dont'a Hightower.

    After suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2009, Hightower has shown that it's a thing of the past by displaying keen lateral movement and swallowing up ball-carriers on a consistent basis. His athleticism, coupled with his familiarity of a pro-style base 3-4 defense will pad his draft stock significantly, and would be a worthy selection in the second round.

23. Devin Taylor, Defensive End, South Carolina

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    Devin Taylor, another young edge rusher in the 2012 draft class, is talented enough to garner second-round consideration from NFL general managers.

    Taylor is often the tallest player on the field, which is not something many defensive ends or outside linebackers can claim. At 6'7", Taylor has superb ability to bat-down passes and can still rush the passer. Taylor recorded 7.5 sacks as a sophomore, and has 2.5 sacks in 2011 after a slow start.

    As the South Carolina defense continues to improve, Taylor's performance should parallel that and eventually earn him a key role on an NFL defense. 

24. Ray Ray Armstrong, Strong Safety, Miami

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    Despite having to sit out four games for receiving improper benefits from Nevin Shapiro, Ray Ray Armstrong is still on the radar for NFL scouts everywhere.

    The versatile safety will likely be the first one taken off the board, due to his ability to make plays in coverage and behind the line of scrimmage as well. Armstrong recorded 4.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore and would be an aggressive force in the backfield of any NFL defense.

25. T.J. McDonald, Free Safety, USC

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    The centerfielder for the USC defense, T.J. McDonald, has proven to be more than just a coverage threat. NFL safeties are being asked to do more each year, and McDonald has the tools to answer the call. 

    Along with his three interceptions and 89 tackles as a sophomore, McDonald showed his presence at the line of scrimmage by recording a sack, three tackles for a loss and a blocked punt. As a junior, he's shown the same ability to create turnovers by recording two interceptions in his first six games.

    Safety is a thin position in the 2012 draft, but McDonald will be one of the first off the board.