In my role as draft analyst for 900 Football Links (http://www.900footballlinks.net) my list of players who will have a better NFL career than many drafted higher than them in the NFL draft is a popular feature. While I don’t always hit, I have had some solid players on my list over the years. In 2008, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Tashard Choice were three of my four running backs. In 2009 Mike Thomas, Mike Wallace and Johnny Knox were on my list of receivers. Last year at running back, undrafted LeGarrette Blount and playoff star James Starks were on my list. At wide receiver undrafted Blair White and productive rookie Emmanuel Sanders were on the list, not to mention tight end Jimmy Graham of the Saints. Below is this year’s list:
Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) – In my opinion Mallett is the best passer in the draft. If not for his leadership concerns he would be the first quarterback off the board for non-West-Coast-offense teams (he lacks mobility, but does have good feet to escape the rush in the pocket). Well, I listen carefully and I heard one of the TV talking heads I respect mention that other players at the Senior Bowl seemed to gravitate towards the kid. We’ll see what happens over time, but I believe Mallett will be the best quarterback to come out of this draft.
Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) – This kid is a physical marvel. He is a big kid with tremendous athleticism and speed. Oh, and he has a rifle of an arm. He was invited to, and turned heads at the 2010 Manning Passing Academy. If a team thought Tim Tebow could be a star, this kid can out-Tebow, Tebow. For me, a clinching factor was that based on the information I have been able to obtain, Kaepernick had the second highest grade at the Combine of the quarterbacks on the Wonderlic indicating on top of everything, the kid is smart.
Ricky Stanzi (Iowa) – I liked what I saw of Stanzi at the Senior Bowl. He is a rhythm passer who completed 64% of his passes his senior year while throwing only 6 interceptions and 25 touchdown passes. Stanzi has good size with a good throwing motion and a quick delivery. While most are talking about seven quarterbacks going in the first two rounds of the draft, I would make that eight and add in Stanzi, who I would feel better about drafting than a couple of those other seven quarterbacks.
Josh Portis (California Pa.) – Looking for a nice late round sleeper; how about Portis? While he has the small school on his resume, keep in mind he started at Florida and transferred to Maryland before landing at California (Pa.). Many look at that as a negative, I don’t. It shows that what I see with my eyes, was also witnessed at one time by Division I schools. Portis could be the top athlete amongst this year’s crop of quarterbacks and he has a live and accurate arm. During the Combine while I was watching the big names throw, I kept saying who is QB13? Portis popped often during the passing drills. And if you don’t think that is important, remember, this is where some doubt first crept in regarding Cam Newton.
DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma) – You’re kidding me, right. Why isn’t this kid mentioned with the top backs in the draft? He’s a tad less than 6’0″ and a solid 213 pounds. He ran 4.38 forty, and yes his speed is more straight line than shifty, but there are a number of teams that employ the one cut and go scheme for their runners. And did I mention in addition to rushing for 1,214 yards last year he caught 71 passes. Murray will be a steal in the draft.
Roy Helu Jr. (Nebraska). Helu Jr. is an interesting prospect. He is fast (4.42 forty), very quick 4.01 short shuttle) and makes sharp cuts (6.67 three-cone). He also is a good athlete. However, before you place the term workout warrior on him remember, he ran for 1,245 yards last season for an impressive 6.6 yards per rush average. At minimum, Helu Jr. will be a nice fit in a two-back system.
Delone Carter (Syracuse) – A short, compact back in the mold of Ray Rice, Carter has strength (27 bench presses) quickness (4.07 short shuttle), speed (4.46 in the forty at his Pro Day) and athleticism (37″ vertical, 10’0″ broad jump). Although short, Carter is a good between the tackles runner who will out-produce his draft position and be a very productive NFL back.
Anthony Allen (Georgia Tech) – There are a number of bigger backs in this draft. Allen is one I like a lot. Allen, at almost 6’1″, 228 pounds, has the attributes of a smaller back. Especially impressive are his quickness (4.07 short shuttle), change-of-direction skills (6.79 three-cone) and his athleticism and explosion (41.5″ vertical, 10’0″ broad jump). So while others talk up big backs like Alexander Green of Hawaii, I’ll keep my eye on Allen.
Leonard Hankerson (Miami) – Yes Green and Jones are the top wide receivers in the draft. However, don’t sleep on Hankerson. He is sneaky fast, can make highlight-reel catches and is real gamer. The best way I can explain my gut feel for Hankerson is that he looks like he would fit in perfectly as a Green Bay Packers’ receiver. Tough, can catch over the middle, can make plays down field,can get YAC, and of course like the Packers’ receivers, will drop the occasional easy pass.
Edmond Gates (Abilene Christian) – The recent success of Johnny Know and Bernard Scott from Abilene Christian certainly can’t hurt Gates draft prospects. First, and most importantly, let me say he looked natural and fluid catching the ball and running routes at the Combine. Next let me say he has track speed (4.35 forty), is quick and makes sharp cuts, and is a very explosive athlete (how’s an 11’2″ broad jump and a 40″ vertical). In time, this kid will be a playmaker in the NFL. I like this kid a lot.
Jeff Maehl (Oregon) – The recent success of Devon Bess, Jason Avant and even Dominque Zeigler are a good measuring stick for Jeff Maehl. He doesn’t have great speed (runs in the 4.6 range in the forty), but is extremely quick (3.94 short shuttle) and makes sharp cuts (6.42 three-cone). Both his short shuttle time and his three-cone time were phenomenal. Add to this that he has great hands and is a savvy receiver and you just may have the next Wes Welker. He could be that good.
Vincent Brown (San Diego State) – Brown really caught my eye during the Senior Bowl. Unfortunately, he didn’t put up numbers that made me believe he will be a star in the NFL. However, he is a gamer, who makes plays and has outstanding hands. His workout will see him slip and some team will grab him on day three and get a productive receiver, one who will contribute to his team’s success much more than many of the receivers drafted higher than him.
Aldrick Robinson (SMU) – This waterbug is fast, slippery and strong for his size. At 5’9″ 5/8″, 184 pounds, he is small by NFL standards. However, talented, small receivers have been successful recently in the NFL. Robinson could be next.
Dane Sanzenbacher (Ohio State) – Sanzenbacher is the type of receiver you don’t expect much from but he gets open, makes catches, and even gets some YAC. More quick and sharp-cutting than fast, Sanzenbacher (3.97 short shuttle, 6.46 three-cone) could carve out a nice living in the NFL as a reliable #3 wideout who helps his offense move the chains.
Ricardo Lockette (Fort Valley State) – A receiver to keep an eye on late in the draft is Ricardo Lockette. Receivers who are 6’2″ and run a 4.35 forty don’t grow on trees. He popped during Combine workouts showing good hands and looking like a solid developmental prospect.
Rob Housler (Florida Atlantic) – Personally, if I was looking for a pass catching tight end, this is the kid I would draft. At 6’5 3/8″, Housler is the fastest tight end in this draft class and has excellent hands. He is not currently a very good blocker, but has the competitiveness and desire to develop into a decent blocker in time. Even though he isn’t coming in as a former basketball player, Housler could be this year’s Jimmy Graham.
Jordan Cameron (USC) – While Houlser isn’t a former basketball player, Cameron is. His production on the field in college was minimal, but from what I read and hear (as well as watching him during Combine drills), he has shown the potential to blossom in the NFL. He is worth a shot and could be a diamond in the rough.
Greg Smith (Texas) – Not invited to the Combine, Smith may not hear his name called during the draft. However, he would be a valuable addition to an NFL roster. He is a willing blocker and reliable receiver and will be a solid backup tight end. He stood out at the East West Shrine Game catching 4 balls for 77 yards. He is also a long snapper.
Brandon Fusco (Slippery Rock) – Fusco has excellent feet and long arms for a center. This is not a great draft for centers, and in the long run, Fusco could be as good as any that come out of this draft.
Jason Kelce (Cincinnati) – With quickness matching many of the larger receivers and running backs in the league, and his toughness, you would think Kelce would be high on many team’s draft boards. However, he is very light for a center and may not have the frame to put on a lot of weight. However, he is worth a shot late in the draft as a player who has an interesting upside.
Danny Watkins (Baylor) – I know he is one of the top guard prospects in the draft; however, he may slip because of his age (26). Still, I believe Watkins is a player that can be plugged in day one as a starter and will provide 8 or 9 years of solid play.
David Arkin (Missouri State) – Arkin popped for me during the East West Shrine Game. He is not getting a lot of play with draft experts, but, he has quick feet, is a competitor and a solid athlete for a guard. He will need time to develop and learn better technique, but has the skill set to be a starter down the line.
Stephen Schilling (Michigan) – Schilling is a strong kid who will be best served at guard in the NFL. Schilling was very productive in college and will, at worst be a valuable backup where he could fill in at tackle as well as guard. I see a long NFL future for him, even if he is never a top starter.
Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State) – Sherrod is the most underrated offensive lineman in the draft. Some tackles may have more athleticism, but he has great feet, a nasty disposition, and was, in my opinion, the best offensive lineman at the Senior Bowl. In my mind he is a definite first round pick and long term will be one of the top three offensive tackles that will come out of this year’s NFL Draft.
Marcus Cannon (TCU) – Cannon is a massive tackle with good strength, quick enough feet, and good short area speed. He isn’t the right fit for all teams, but in the right system he could be a steal.
Jarriel King (South Carolina) – Looking for a developmental offensive tackle; how about King? King has the ideal build for a tackle including long arms and big hands. He has great short area speed, good feet and is a good athlete for a kid his size. However, he is raw and will have to be developed. In time, he has the skill set to be a valuable contributor to an NFL roster.
J. J. Watt (Wisconsin) – I know Watt has been climbing up draft boards as the draft approaches, but he hasn’t moved up enough. At 6’5 3/8″, 290 pounds, Watt is much more than just a 3-4 defensive end. He could be a starter in a 4-3 who kicks inside ala Justin Tuck of the Giants in the nickel to rush the passer. As big as he is, Watt had a 4.21 short shuttle and a very impressive 6.88 three cone, a number running backs would be proud of. On top of that this big man had a 37″ vertical and a 10’0″ broad jump, numbers that would translate well for the tweener ends moving to 3-4 outside linebacker. Watt is a physical specimen with talent and a non-stop motor. He is a top 10 talent and the number one defensive end on my board in a draft with excellent talent at defensive end.
Cameron Jordan (California) – Jordan has excellent size at 6’4 1/4″, 287 pounds. He has excellent instincts playing the run and is one of the better 3-4 defensive ends to enter the draft in the last few years. He will be a very good NFL player, one that gets more recognition from teammates than from fans.
Sam Acho (Texas) – Acho could be an end in a 4-3 defense or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He has good pass rushing skills, and has good pursuit skills verses the run. With all the talent at the top of the draft for pass rushing conversion defensive ends, Acho could get lost in the shuffle. However, he will be a solid NFL player and, I believe, could be a Cliff Avril type of defensive end.
Justin Trattou (Florida) – Trattou, an undersized defensive end, played very well at the East West Shrine Game, but did not get an invitation to the Combine. However, he can rush the passer and has acceptable measureables indicating he could translate that skill to the NFL. He was a bit light (249 pounds) at his Pro Day. Personally, I think he has the frame to carry more weight and become contributor as a rotation player at defensive end.
Phi Taylor (Baylor) – Big nose tackles (Taylor is 6’3 1/4″, 334 pounds) are often hit or miss. Taylor, a strong kid with good athleticism for a player his size, will be a hit. He is ideal as a run stuffer in the middle of a 3-4 defense. He will occupy blockers and make plays.
Marvin Austin (North Carolina) – Austin was dismissed from the team before the season began for accepting benefits from an agent. If he played he could have been a top 15 pick. Austin’s workout numbers, across the board, were impressive and amongst the top at his position in the draft. He is strong, athletic and has quick feet for a player his size. He has the ability to dominate and, while there is some risk associated with drafting him, his upside is just too high for a smart team to pass.
Ian Williams (Notre Dame) – Williams is just starting to round back into form after suffering a knee injury late in the season. However, he has the ability to dominate a game as a run-stiffing defensive tackle and looked great at the Senior Bowl.
Brandon Bair (Oregon) – Bair is an undersized defensive tackle who could be a great fit as a defensive end in a 3-4 defense. He has the speed, quickness and athleticism to make that transition. He is a nice sleeper for 3-4 teams.
Martez Wilson (Illinois) – While some have him as the top rated inside linebacker, I don’t think enough has been made about just how special this kid could be. He ran a 4.44 forty, is very athletic and has good movement skills. Plus he is a tackling machine who gets to the ball carriers in a flash and hits them hard. He also has plus pass rushing skills. He is a top 15 talent who may not be drafted until round two.
Greg Jones (Michigan State) – Jones is proof that my list is not all about measureables. His workout numbers are pedestrian. However, his has great instincts, is always around the ball and is a sure tackler. He could be a star as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Nick Bellore (Central Michigan) – Bellore really impressed me at the East West Shrine Game playing both the run and the pass. Bellore can find and maneuver to a ballcarrier very quickly. Best of all for 3-4 teams, he should be available late in the draft and could develop into a starter. He reminds me a bit of Gary Guyton of the Patriots.
Ore Lemon (Oklahoma State) – A tough, tough football player with limited athleticism but major football smarts. When you look at him on the field you say wow. In workouts you say, I can’t draft this kid. Personally, on a team that plays a 3-4 defense, I would grab him late and I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked his way onto the field and made a major contribution.
Justin Houston (Georgia) – A defensive end and sack artist in college, this 270 pound kid has great strength (30 bench presses), speed (4.63 in the forty), movement skills (6.95 three cone) and explosion and athleticism (36.5″ vertical, 10’5″ broad jump). He will make the transition to 3-4 outside linebacker very well and will be a difference-maker on the field.
Dontay Moch (Nevada) – Moch is another defensive end who will make his living at linebacker in the NFL. This kid is as good of an athlete as there is in the draft. He ran a 4.44 forty at 248 pounds, and had 42″ vertical and 10’8″ broad jump. As developmental players go he is a good one. He also showed the ability to drop into coverage at the East West Shrine Game and during Combine workouts.
Brian Rolle (Ohio State) – Rolle is one of my favorite players in the draft. He is only 5’9 5/8″, 229 pounds. However, he is strong as an ox, fast as a deer and changes direction like a rabbit successful escaping a fox. He is a perfect fit for a team that plays the Tampa Bay style of defense. He could be the next Derrick Brooks. Keep your eye on this player. If he is selected by the right team in the right system, he could be very special.
Scott Lutrus (Connecticut) – Lutrus is a highly respected team captain and leader of his defense. While he played mainly inside in college, he may be a bit light for that role in the NFL. Instead, he will be a solid SAM in a 4-3 defense. He did miss some time with stingers his last two college seasons, but if teams are convinced he can regain his form of two years ago, he could be a good get late in the draft. He is a much better athlete than many think and has the quickness and speed to cover backs and tight ends.
Curtis Brown (Texas) – Color me very impressed. I like this kid. He has excellent cover skills and is a confident corner. At his Pro Day, on a fast track, he ran a 4.40 forty (as compared to around a 4.50 at the Combine). He also had a 4.00 short shuttle, a 6.59 three-cone, a 39.5″ vertical and a 10’8″ broad jump at the Combine. The one negative on him is that he didn’t get many interceptions at Texas. I’ll live with it. He is the most underrated cornerback in the draft and will have an excellent NFL career.
Brandon Harris (Miami) – Harris is a coach’s son and a kid of very high quality. He is another confident corner and one who will be a better pro than college player. He will succeed where some others with more size and better measureables fail.
Ras-I Dowling (Virginia) – Talk about the perfect combination of size (6’1 3/8″, 198 pounds), speed (4.40 in the forty) and athleticism (38″ vertical, 10’8″ broad jump), Dowling fits the bill on paper. Better yet, he also looks good on game film, and as his workout numbers show, he has recovered from his injuries. While I have him on this list, but he is one prospect who could go higher in the draft than many think.
Kendric Burney (North Carolina) – Burney looked like the best player on the field in the Senior Bowl. He showed excellent cover skills, was a sure tackler, had good positioning, and broke to the ball well. His workout, however, was below standard. His speed, in particular, was very disappointing. So where does Burney stand? He is falling down draft boards. However, he is a very good football player with terrific instincts which helps compensate for his below average speed. I can see him performing well as free safety or for a team that plays zone coverage. He may not go as high as I first thought, but I wouldn’t bet against this kid making a team and having an impact.
Richard Sherman (Stanford) – At 6’2 5/8″ Sherman has excellent height for a corner. He also has a 38″ vertical and an 11.0″ broad jump). With 4.49 speed and good coverage skills, Sherman was made to cover the taller NFL receivers, and I believe he will do that very well. However, his height and lack of quickness could hurt him against the small, quick receivers. Sherman could be a first for a forward-thinking coach; a player who starts against certain teams/ receivers, and is inactive in other games.
Aaron Williams (Texas) – Williams will be looked at both at cornerback and at free safety. He makes my list as a free safety. At safety, Williams’ smarts and instincts will serve him well. He will also provide a team with the flexibility to cover receivers man-to-man when offensive alignment calls for it. It will be like having a safety who is also nickel corner.
Rahim Moore (UCLA) – While Moore is the top safety on my draft analysts’ boards, this is a case where I believe the player’s value is being minimized. Moore had 10 interceptions in 2009. He has a nose for the ball. He is also, quietly, a very efficient tackler. He is a safety prospect that teams should be getting more excited about.
Joe Lefeged, (Rutgers) – Lefeged is a player I like more than most. However, I have been right before, especially at safety where players like Morgan Burnett, Bob Sanders (I had a first round grade on him), Patrick Chung, Courtney Greene, Tyvon Branch, Thomas DeCoud, and Melvin Bullitt have populated my list. Lefeged is a box safety who is a tackling machine and has the speed (4.42 in the forty), quickness (4.13 short shuttle), change-of-direction skills (6.82 three-cone) and athleticism (36.5″ vertical, 10’2″ broad jump) of a cornerback. I liked him before his Combine workout, I loved him after. He will be an absolute steal in this draft.
Shiloh Keo (Idaho) – Keo is a box safety, who hits like a truck, is very strong and has unbelievable quickness and change-of-direction skills to track down running backs in the hole. Keo’s workout backs up his game play. His 3.90 short shuttle and 6.55 three-cone, along with his 24 reps at 225 and his football smarts mean that he is out maneuvering offensive players just as they are ready to rip off big yards. He is not the best in coverage so he will need to go to a team that has a box and weak safety, not that plays them interchangeably. However, on the right team he could be a force. Worst case, he will be a top special teams player.
Chris Culliver (South Carolina) – Culliver is part of the new breed of safeties that can cover over the top or step out and play a receiver man to man. With 4.36 speed, and excellent quickness and athleticism, Culliver will be a valuable member of a team’s secondary even if he is just someone who plays is nickel and dime defenses.