The best prospect ever is a big statement, but someone has to fill the position. Before taking a look at the best overall prospects that I've scouted since I began work in 2001, let's take a look at the best players at each position.
Andrew Luck has already been established as the best prospect I have ever seen, but people want to know who the best of the best have been. I'm giving in to your demands this week and publishing my top 10 players at each position over the last 12 years.
There are some big hits and big misses here, just like there are in any NFL front office. Enjoy.
Scouting a quarterback isn't brain science, at least not in the way some make it out to be. How can a scout pick successful quarterbacks over an extended period of time? Stick to your guns. I feel I've been accurate in picking quarterbacks over the last 10 years by not letting the talking heads alter my opinion.
|2||Matt Ryan||Boston College||2008|
|5||David Carr||Fresno State||2002|
|6||Carson Palmer ||USC||2003|
|9||Philip Rivers||NC State||2004|
Aaron Rodgers ||Cal||2005|
No Peyton Manning. No JaMarcus Russell. Surprised?
Manning entered the NFL draft in 1997, four years before I started working in the draft industry. While I was a fan of the draft back then, it wouldn't be fair to say I scouted any classes earlier than 2001.
How about JaMarcus Russell? I was not sold on Russell, at all. I had Brady Quinn ranked higher than Russell during the run up to the 2007 draft. That's one decision I'm glad I stuck with.
You'll notice with Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan that I like quarterbacks who can move in the pocket and also play well under pressure. Ryan established his coolness at Boston College in numerous comeback wins. Luck shows his own poise under pressure at Stanford.
The key component for a quarterback, though, is accuracy. If a quarterback can't get it done here, he's not going to rank on my board. This is lesson learned after 2006, obviously, since Vince Young grades out No. 8 overall.
Running Backs: 2001-2012
When looking for a great running back, it's important to find a player who has shown production in college. This is normally something I scream in objection to, but a good NFL running back needs to show the ability to make plays against a college defense.
|8||Steven Jackson||Oregon St||2004|
Ask 10 scouts what makes a great running back, and you're likely to get 10 very different answers. I've always felt burst, balance and strength were the key components to the position.
Players like Reggie Bush didn't excite me as much as others because I was never sure he could last in a pro-style offense. He hasn't.
Having said that, Cedric Benson and Chris Perry both entered the NFL as college backs with good power—but once they were in the NFL, neither player showed the same strength again.
There are rare locks that no one misses on. Guys like Adrian Peterson, who is a modern-day Walter Payton, or LaDainian Tomlinson are too good to miss out on. These players make scouting easy. It's sticking to your guns on a bust like Chris Perry or a third-round steal like Jamaal Charles that makes it complicated.
Scouting fullbacks is always a tough thing to do. This is a position, more than any other, where assigning a round value is pointless. Some teams love fullbacks, others don't carry one on the roster.
|10||Owen Schmitt||West Virginia||2008|
Take Peyton Hillis for example. Coming out of Arkansas, he was the lead blocker and sometimes runner in the Arkansas Razorback option offense. Drafted by the Denver Broncos, he was rarely used. Traded to Cleveland for Brady Quinn, he becomes a 1,000-yard rusher.
Hillis was a great athlete and capable runner, as are all the players listed here. Each of the 10 had versatility—five have played half back in the NFL, two at tight end. That's what I look for in a tight end. Being a great blocker can be taught. I look for athletes with a hard-nosed mentality and soft hands.
Wide Receivers: 2001-2012
One position where college production means absolutely nothing to me is wide receiver. A great wide receiver can suffer through college with a bad quarterback, while a semi-talented receiver and marginal draft prospect may have unbelievable stats thanks to an otherwordly quarterback or system. I call this the "Taylor Stubblefield Effect.".
|1||Michael Crabtree||Texas Tech||2009|
|2||David Terrell ||Michigan||2001|
|3||Calvin Johnson||Georgia Tech||2007|
|4||Charles Rogers||Michigan State||2003|
|6||Andre Johnson||Miami (FL)||2003|
|8||A.J. Green ||Georgia||2010|
|9||Alshon Jeffery||South Carolina||2012*|
Far too often it's easy to get enamored with amazing production (Charles Rogers) or freakish size (Roy Williams) and forgetting that a good receiver must be able to run exceptional routes, separate from defenders and catch the ball.
A player not on this list, DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, was downgraded because he lacked ideal size and was known as a sloppy route runner. What the scouting reports didn't show was that Jackson is insanely committed and dedicated. He threw himself into the Eagles' offense, trained with Jerry Rice and has become of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL.
It's easy to get too excited with statistics and size. Sometimes the combination pays off (Calvin Johnson), for others it does not (David Terrell).
Tight Ends: 2001-2012
A good tight end has to be a talented blocker and receiver, making this a surprisingly hard position to scout accurately. Here's where being keyed in on what the system each team runs is key. A player might work great for the Indianapolis Colts but be a horrible fit for the Chicago Bears. In this situation, it's best to grade players on an even plane, stating what they do well and what they do not.
|2||Todd Heap||Arizona State||2001|
|3||Jeremy Shockey||Miami (FL)||2002|
|5||Kellen Winslow II||Miami (FL)||2004|
|6||Brandon Pettigrew||Oklahoma St||2010|
|7||Greg Olsen||Miami (FL)||2007|
|10||Zach Miller||Arizona State||2007|
That is a lot of Miami Hurricanes.
For years the Miami campus was a great place to find tight ends. More and more scouts are looking for athletes at the position and then teaching them to be blockers. Vernon Davis and his 4.3 in the 40-yard dash was a Top 10 pick in the 2006 draft due to his athleticism and pass catching. The San Francisco 49ers have turned him into the best blocking tight end in the NFL.
There are several positions where I look for athletes who show a high ceiling and coachability. Tight end, wide receiver and linebacker are all positions where good coaching can transform a great athlete into an elite player.
All 10 players from this list have become good professionals due to scouting by this formula. That being said, tight end is probably the easiest position to project to the NFL.
Offensive Tackles: 2001-2012
Scouting offensive tackles and guards means looking for players to cover the left and right side. The key here is to look for what the prospect does well and does not do well, and then assigning the player to a system. For the most part, if a player lines up at right tackle in college, he will stay there in the NFL. You will see more left tackles make the switch to the right side.
There is no set standard for scouting left and right tackle in general, only in each individual war room.
|4||Russell Okung||Oklahoma St||2010|
|5||Mike Williams ||Texas||2002|
|8||Eric Winston||Miami (FL)||2006|
You can see from the list above that scouting offensive tackles is tough business. For every lock like Jake Long there is a Leonard Davis. For every Joe Thomas, a Mike Williams.
Tackles must be athletic, strong, agile and tough. This is a rare combination to find and develop. I like to look for tackles who dominate at the college level, but even with that as a baseline, it's easy to become overwhelmed with athletes like Trent Williams and Russell Okung. It's early in both careers, but neither player has lived up to expectations yet.
Offensive Guards: 2001-2012
Here's another position where college success almost always equals NFL success. Players like Steve Hutchinson, who was an All-American at Michigan, quickly become dominant at their position.
Guards must be quick and flexible enough to pull and trap, but strong enough to stand up against pass rushers. It's a tough position to play, but fairly easy to identify studs and duds.
|2||Chris Snee||Boston College||2004|
|7||Logan Mankins||Fresno State||2005|
|9||Stefan Wisniewski||Penn State||2011|
One trick to scouting for guards is to look for smaller left tackles. Guys like Logan Mankins and Danny Watkins make the move to guard in the NFL, while a bigger athlete at guard like Branden Albert can make the move to tackle in the NFL.
My one miss, and it was a big one, is Duke Robinson. Robinson was an elite college guard, but he started to regress in his senior season at Oklahoma. At the time, I thought he was on the fast track to All-Pro status. Turns out, he wasn't. Drafted in the fifth round, Robinson is out of the league.
A great center is the key to any offensive line. Finding one in the NFL draft can be an easy process. Look for a college center who's smart, strong and agile. College success from a player with baseline size, strength and agility equal a solid prospect.
|1||Jeff Faine||Notre Dame||2003|
|3||Nick Mangold||Ohio State||2006|
There are always misses. Max Unger was given a high grade due to his versatility on the Oregon offensive line, but he's yet to make his mark with the Seattle Seahawks. Other versatile linemen like David Baas and Andre Gurode were given high grades and have panned out.
What makes Jeff Faine the best all time? I've yet to see a center with Faine's level of smarts, strength and aggressive style of play from a college player.
Defensive Ends: 2001-2012
One of my favorite positions to scout has always been defensive ends. Modern day gladiators, a great defensive end can completely change the outcome of a game. Part athletics, part brute strength, defensive ends are the rarest of athletes.
|1||Julius Peppers||North Carolina||2002|
|2||Mario Williams||NC State||2006|
|5||Terrell Suggs||Arizona State||2003|
Defensive ends are among the worst boom-or-bust positions to scout. I've been lucky over the years and haven't missed too bad. If this were a list of the top 20, things would be different.
David Pollack is one of my favorite all-time players to scout, but injury cut short his career before a decision could be made on his talents. Chris Long is coming around as a pro under Steve Spagnuolo, but Andre Carter and Tyson Jackson haven't lived up to expectations.
The one that got away? Jason Pierre-Paul. I did have him ranked high, but not high enough, coming out of South Florida.
Defensive Tackles: 2001-2012
Before the 2011 NFL draft I went on record to say Ndamukong Suh was the best player I had ever scouted. He's now No. 2 after seeing Andrew Luck at quarterback. Still pretty good.
Defensive tackles, along with quarterbacks and defensive ends, seem to bust more than any other position. Even if you find a player with all the tools, busts are prominent.
|5||Gerard Warren ||Florida||2001|
|6||B.J. Raji||Boston College||2009|
I can thank my good friend Dan Kadar of MockingtheDraft.com, who worked with me at New Era Scouting, for pointing out the exploits of Haloti Ngata while at Oregon. I wasn't high on Ngata until the efforts of Kadar. Today Ngata is one of the NFL's best.
Glenn Dorsey was one of the best three-technique tackles I've ever seen, which makes it all the more frustrating to see him wasting his talents as a five-technique defensive end in the Kansas City Chiefs' 3-4 defense.
I generally look for quickness and strength from a defensive tackle. An underrated aspect is how well the player uses his hands to break free of blockers. Suh is the ideal combination of size, burst and strength. He's the new gold standard for defensive tackles.
Outside Linebackers: 2001-2012
Outside linebackers are becoming more important in the NFL as the 3-4 defense gets more popular. As there are two very different skills required to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, I'll instead look at individual traits, laying out the strengths and weaknesses of the player and then fitting him into a scheme.
|1||Von Miller||Texas A&M||2011|
|4||Aaron Curry||Wake Forest||2009|
|6||D.J. Williams||Miami (FL)||2004|
There's a big opportunity for busts here. Too often it's easy to become enamored with athletes who aren't solid football players. Keith Rivers and Aaron Curry were amazing college players, but neither has put in the work to get better at the next level, and each has failed to live up to his Top 10 draft status.
Derrick Johnson, D.J. Williams and Karlos Dansby have been successful moving to inside linebacker once in the NFL, bringing their speed to a position traditionally saved for stronger players.
Some may question DeMarcus Ware's ranking here, but remember he was a sack master at Troy, leaving the university with 27.5 sacks and had impressed me with a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.
Inside Linebackers: 2001-2012
Few players have caught my eye over the year like Patrick Willis did during his time at Ole Miss. Willis is my gold standard for inside linebackers. He's the perfect mix of speed, tackling ability and block shedding. Willis was my No. 3 overall player in 2007, behind only Adrian Peterson and Joe Thomas.
|1||Patrick Willis||Ole Miss||2007|
|2||Vontaze Burfict||Arizona State||2012*|
|4||Jonathan Vilma||Miami (FL)||2004|
|5||Jon Beason||Miami (FL)||2007|
|7||Dan Morgan||Miami (FL)||2001|
|8||Nick Barnett||Oregon State||2003|
|9||A.J. Hawk||Ohio State||2006|
Willis may be the best ever, but Vontaze Burfict could be right on his heels if he would learn to play under control. Willis and Burfict both possess rare athleticism for the position.
Rolando McClain caught my eye as a freshman at Alabama and continued to impress throughout his career. If he had stayed for his senior season and continued to develop, McClain would have made a strong case for No. 2 overall.
I know many scouts who all look for different things from middle linebackers. I want speed, aggressive style of play and great vision to see where the ball is going. Willis had the total package coming out of Ole Miss. Burfict has Willis-like potential.
I've mentioned other positions with high bust potential in this article. Cornerback is a position that relies heavily on speed and athleticism, but not purely these. Confidence, recovery speed and toughness don't always show up on film but are just as important to the position.
|6||Terence Newman||Kansas State||2003|
|7||Darrelle Revis||Pittsburgh ||2007|
|9||Marcus Trufant||Washington St||2003|
|10||Adam Jones||West Virginia||2005|
Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden both look good early in their careers, masking the fact that Antonio Cromartie was my highest ranked cornerback for five years.
Cromartie had it all, even coming off injury at Florida State. He was big, insanely fast and a playmaker at the position. While Cromartie has had a good career, his attitude and lapses in concentration have plagued his production in the NFL.
Another miss? Leon Hall is a very good NFL cornerback, but having him ranked ahead of Darrelle Revis in 2007 is one of my all-time blunders.
No college safety has ever come close to displaying the ability of Sean Taylor. While at Miami, Taylor became the ultimate playmaker. He had size, speed, vision and a tackling ability unrivaled at the position. When I look for safeties, Taylor is the standard I grade against.
|1||Sean Taylor||Miami (FL)||2004|
|3||Ed Reed||Miami (FL)||2002|
|9||Brandon Meriweather||Miami (FL)||2007|
While Taylor is up on a pedastal, Eric Berry was damn close to reaching Taylor-status during his time at Tennessee. The only thing keeping Berry from overtaking Taylor was a lack of size and tackling skill. Same for Ed Reed, who has my No. 1 ranked safety (thanks, Dan Bazal) for three years.
Reed was a playmaker like none-other, but he wasn't particularly strong as a tackler. You'll see by the ranking of players like Roy Williams (great tackler, poor speed) that my philosophy changed around 2004. Instead of strong tacklers with limited range, I now look for athletes who can make plays from centerfield.