The Best Ever: Top 10 Draft Prospects at Each Position

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterNovember 3, 2011

The Best Ever: Top 10 Draft Prospects at Each Position

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    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.

Quarterbacks

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    Quarterbacks: 2001-2012

    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.

    Rank Player School Year
    1 Andrew Luck Stanford 2012*
    2 Matt Ryan Boston College 2008
    3 Sam Bradford Oklahoma 2010
    4 Drew Brees Purdue 2001
    5 David Carr Fresno State 2002
    6 Carson Palmer
    USC 2003
    7 Matthew Stafford Georgia 2009
    8 Vince Young Texas 2006
    9 Philip Rivers NC State 2004
    10 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.

    Notably missing: Michael Vick and Eli Manning. I wasn't high on either player, and both have gone on to success in the NFL.

Running Backs

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    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.

    Rank Player School Year
    1 Adrian Peterson Oklahoma 2007
    2 LaDainian Tomlinson TCU 2001
    3 Trent Richardson Alabama 2012*
    4 Cedric Benson Texas 2005
    5 Darren McFadden Arkansas 2008
    6 Reggie Bush USC 2006
    7 Jonathan Stewart Oregon 2008
    8 Steven Jackson Oregon St 2004
    9 Jamaal Charles Texas 2008
    10 Chris Perry Michigan 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.

Fullbacks

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    Fullbacks: 2001-2012

    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.

    Rank Player School Year
    1 Peyton Hillis Arkansas 2008
    2 Lawrence Vickers Colorado 2006
    3 Brian Leonard Rutgers 2007
    4 Greg Jones FSU 2004
    5 Le'Ron McClain Alabama 2007
    6 Jacob Hester LSU 2008
    7 Garrett Mills Tulsa 2006
    8 Cory Anderson Tennessee 2007
    9 Kyle Eckel Navy 2005
    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

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    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.".

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Michael Crabtree Texas Tech 2009
    2 David Terrell
    Michigan 2001
    3 Calvin Johnson Georgia Tech 2007
    4 Charles Rogers Michigan State 2003
    5 Larry Fitzgerald Pittsburgh 2004
    6 Andre Johnson Miami (FL) 2003
    7 Roy Williams Texas 2004
    8 A.J. Green
    Georgia 2010
    9 Alshon Jeffery South Carolina 2012*
    10 Braylon Edwards Michigan 2005

    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 End

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Vernon Davis Maryland 2006
    2 Todd Heap Arizona State 2001
    3 Jeremy Shockey Miami (FL) 2002
    4 Heath Miller Virginia 2005
    5 Kellen Winslow II Miami (FL) 2004
    6 Brandon Pettigrew Oklahoma St 2010
    7 Greg Olsen Miami (FL) 2007
    8 Marcedes Lewis UCLA 2006
    9 Dustin Keller Purdue 2008
    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

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Joe Thomas Wisconsin 2007
    2 Jake Long Michigan 2008
    3 Leonard Davis Texas 2001
    4 Russell Okung Oklahoma St 2010
    5 Mike Williams
    Texas 2002
    6 Robert Gallery Iowa 2004
    7 Andre Smith Alabama 2009
    8 Eric Winston Miami (FL) 2006
    9 Trent Williams Oklahoma 2010
    10 Matt Kalil USC 2012*

    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

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Steve Hutchinson Michigan 2001
    2 Chris Snee Boston College 2004
    3 Branden Albert Virginia 2008
    4 Justin Blalock Texas 2007
    5 Davin Joseph Oklahoma 2006
    6 Eric Steinbach Iowa 2003
    7 Logan Mankins Fresno State 2005
    8 Danny Watkins Baylor 2011
    9 Stefan Wisniewski Penn State 2011
    10 Duke Robinson Oklahoma 2009

    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.

Center

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    Centers: 2001-2012

    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Jeff Faine Notre Dame 2003
    2 Alex Mack Cal 2009
    3 Nick Mangold Ohio State 2006
    4 David Baas Michigan 2005
    5 Maurkice Pouncey Florida 2010
    6 Andre Gurode Colorado 2002
    7 Ryan Kalil USC 2007
    8 Eric Wood Louisville 2009
    9 Lyle Sendlein Texas 2007
    10 Max Unger Oregon 2009

    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 End

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Julius Peppers North Carolina 2002
    2 Mario Williams NC State 2006
    3 Dwight Freeney Syracuse 2002
    4 David Pollack Georgia 2005
    5 Terrell Suggs Arizona State 2003
    6 Chris Long Virginia 2008
    7 Ryan Kerrigan Purdue 2011
    8 Shawne Merriman Maryland 2005
    9 Andre Carter Cal 2001
    10 Tyson Jackson LSU 2009

    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

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Ndamukong Suh Nebraska 2010
    2 Glenn Dorsey LSU 2008
    3 Richard Seymour Georgia 2001
    4 Haloti Ngata Oregon 2006
    5 Gerard Warren
    Florida 2001
    6 B.J. Raji Boston College 2009
    7 Marcell Dareus Alabama 2011
    8 Tommie Harris Oklahoma 2004
    9 Gerald McCoy Oklahoma 2010
    10 Nick Fairley Auburn 2011

    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

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Von Miller Texas A&M 2011
    2 Derrick Johnson Texas 2005
    3 Keith Rivers USC 2008
    4 Aaron Curry Wake Forest 2009
    5 Brian Orakpo Texas 2009
    6 D.J. Williams Miami (FL) 2004
    7 Karlos Dansby Auburn 2004
    8 Ernie Sims FSU 2006
    9 Boss Bailey Georgia 2003
    10 DeMarcus Ware Troy 2005

    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

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    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Patrick Willis Ole Miss 2007
    2 Vontaze Burfict Arizona State 2012*
    3 Jerod Mayo Tennessee 2008
    4 Jonathan Vilma Miami (FL) 2004
    5 Jon Beason Miami (FL) 2007
    6 Rolando McClain Alabama 2010
    7 Dan Morgan Miami (FL) 2001
    8 Nick Barnett Oregon State 2003
    9 A.J. Hawk Ohio State 2006
    10 Kevin Burnett Tennessee 2005

    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.

Cornerbacks

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    Cornerbacks: 2001-2012

    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Patrick Peterson LSU 2011
    2 Joe Haden Florida 2010
    3 Antonio Cromartie FSU 2006
    4 Quentin Jammer Texas 2002
    5 Leon Hall Michigan 2007
    6 Terence Newman Kansas State 2003
    7 Darrelle Revis Pittsburgh
    2007
    8 Prince Amukamara Nebraska 2011
    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.

Safeties

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    Safeties: 2001-2012

    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.

    Rank Player Team Year
    1 Sean Taylor Miami (FL) 2004
    2 Eric Berry Tennessee 2010
    3 Ed Reed Miami (FL) 2002
    4 Earl Thomas Texas 2010
    5 Michael Huff Texas 2006
    6 Roy Williams Oklahoma 2002
    7 LaRon Landry LSU 2007
    8 Michael Griffin Texas 2007
    9 Brandon Meriweather Miami (FL) 2007
    10 Troy Polamalu USC 2003

    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.