Everybody loves a top ten list. That’s why we do position rankings in tens, but we have to look at a lot more players than that to be accurate, and to compile our Top 100. Despite plenty of argument and indecision over which ten players are the best in the draft, the first ten were the easy ones. It’s the other 90 that get taxing. The Top 100 will be out on Wednesday morning.
But for now, here’s a taste with our top ten prospects in 2012.
1.) Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
The craziest thing about Andrew Luck is he still isn’t a senior. He could have come out last year as a red-shirt sophomore and challenged to be the top pick, but he returned to Stanford for his junior year where he also earned his degree. I don’t typically buy into the can’t-miss talk, but Luck is as close as it gets. He’s probably the best QB prospect to come out since Peyton Manning did in terms of living up to billing. Luck is smart, talented, surprisingly athletic and comes with a great pedigree having NFL bloodlines and working under Jim Harbaugh for his first three years. He can make all the throws, he thinks at an NFL level already, he is fundamentally sound and if you watch his combine tape and compare it to last year’s top pick, Cam Newton, they’re surprisingly similar. Andrew Luck is potentially the most underrated athlete in the draft because he’s cast into a mold as a traditional drop-back passer, but he could fit into almost any offense with his athleticism. The Colts will be very happy with Andrew Luck, provided they can put some weapons around him.
2.) Matt Kalil, OT, Southern California
Kalil comes from a good NFL bloodline and hails from a program that makes reputably good linemen. Kalil is the best to come out of USC in a while and that’s saying something, especially considering the Trojans have had tackles drafted in the first round, two of the last four years. Kalil is prototypical in every sense, he’s 6-7, 305, extremely strong, plays with good balance and is a little nasty. As a pass blocker Kalil would be able to handle protecting a quarterback’s blindside almost immediately in the NFL. Kalil has good technique and strength against most types of rush though he could improve laterally a little bit against speed rushers that can get the edge quickly. As a run blocker he’s impressive, with good initial burst and excellent technique. He doesn’t necessarily have the most quickness in the draft, but his hand placement and raw strength are more key to what he’s doing. The thing I like most about Kalil though is his high football IQ, he sees what the defense is doing with stunts and pre-play adjustments, he makes his own adjustments. His quarterbacks will thank him for it.
3.) Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
RGIII was the revelation of 2011. A true dual-threat quarterback with a high football IQ and off-the-charts athleticism. The Redskins have already made a bold move up the draft board to pick up the second pick, so it’s all but decided that Griffin will be playing in DC next year. This may sound crazy, but I think that was a good move by Washington. RGIII reminds me of what Tim Tebow would be like if Tebow had good mechanics and a better arm. Really, aside from mobility there’s not a lot of similarity between the two. Griffin is a solid passer with a lot of elusiveness while Tebow is a serviceable (that’s generous) passer who runs like a bull in a china shop. But between the ears, same kind of guy. Both are men of devout faith that value hard work and dedication, stay out of trouble and feel compelled to help others in their free time. They’re both wired to be winners. RGIII has all the tools and skills, and he has a fantastic mental makeup to be successful in the league. Plus, if you told people last August that the QB from Baylor would beat Oklahoma and Texas and win the Heisman trophy, you’d have probably gotten slapped or laughed at. It’s tough not to like RGIII.
4.) Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
The more I watch Reiff the more I like him. Reiff started for three years on the Hawkeye line and earned plenty of distinction in that time. The Big Ten is still a run-first league and Iowa is another program, under Kirk Ferentz who specializes in lineplay, that produces great NFL linemen. Reiff is no different. He’s got prototypical size, strength and technique and is ready to start now at either tackle spot. One thing Reiff does even better than Kalil is protect the edge, he has some of the best lateral quickness and strength of any lineman in the draft. The flipside of that is that stronger defenders can sometimes get into his pads and knock him back. That can be fixed. As a run blocker Reiff is nasty, he comes off the ball strong and hard, he combos from lineman to linebacker well and he is capable of getting a hat on men downfield when the situation calls for it. I think he’s more of a left tackle, but whatever side of the line he plays on Reiff will be dominant quickly in the NFL.
5.) Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Blackmon entered 2011 as the top receiver in the country and did little to change anyone’s mind about that. Not one, but two Biletnikoff awards have come his way, quite an encore to Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State. Blackmon is an elite prospect, bar none the best receiver in the draft, and that showed during his explosive college career. Blackmon is quick, strong and has great hands. He scored 38 touchdowns over the past couple seasons for the Cowboys and those skills will translate well into the NFL. Blackmon doesn’t possess elite top speed but he’s explosive in space and can make guys miss. He’s one of those players whose hands you want to try and get the ball into as often as possible, in any way possible. Case in point, go back and watch him take over the 2012 Fiesta Bowl. There are a few concerns with Blackmon, one being a college arrest, but on the field there aren’t a ton of flaws in Blackmon’s game. He played outside more at Oklahoma State but in the NFL I think he’ll likely need to transition inside and learn to play in the slot more than he was used to in college. He should be great there though, he’s extremely physical and has the strength and hands to make tough catches in traffic. He should be gone top six, but if he’s not don’t be shocked when some team jumps up for him.
6.) Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Richardson is the guy many non-fans believe the Buccaneers should select in the draft with the fifth overall pick. Given the recent trend with tailbacks though, five is high for any runner. That being said, Richardson pushes the envelope as potentially the best RB available in the draft since Adrian Peterson. It’s rare a kid lives up to his billing, but at Bama Richardson was recruited as one of the top players in the nation and he was living up to that title before the last guy, Heisman winner Mark Ingram, even entered the draft. How often do you hear about the reigning Heisman winner battling for playing time? The Tide had the luxury of that problem when Richardson started pushing Ingram two years ago. Last season, with the backfield to himself Richardson was a Heisman finalist and helped lead a very talented Crimson Tide squad to another national championship. I don’t think Richardson is a good fit in Tampa at five, but bar none he’s the best back in the draft and along with AP he’s arguably the most talented runner to come out in the past decade.
7.) Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Claiborne is the alpha corner in this draft, a solid tactician with great athleticism and good ball skills, but everything is relative. In other classes, Claiborne falls behind a bit, he would probably a mid-late round corner last year. I don’t think he’s better than Prince Amukumara (who missed the season with an injury) as of his entrance into the draft and his own coaches admit aside from technique he’s no Patrick Peterson. But he is a fantastic corner who comes from a great program and is used to big time football games. He’s also still learning the position (after originally coming to Baton Rouge as a receiver) so his ceiling is extremely high. I really do love Claiborne, but it is worth mentioning a lot of his stock is based in potential on an already impressive product. If you pick him, you’re putting a lot credence in what he could develop into as opposed to where he is at this exact moment. Make no mistake about it though, even where he is now he’ll still be able to start on almost any team in the NFL and he’s still the best corner in this class.
8.) Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
I’ve said it for the entire off-season, Luke Kuechly is my favorite player in the draft. I went up to Boston to cover the Eagles game against FSU this year and I’ll be honest, I was looking for reasons not to like the talented junior. His tackle numbers had to be inflated, I said to myself, no way one kid at BC makes this many tackles. He’s lead the NCAA in tackles pretty much his whole career, that’s funny business from BC I thought. Those numbers are not inflated. Luke Kuechly is THAT good. Within a single quarter he’d made a believer out of me. Talk about an instinctive, blue collar linebacker with a high football IQ, Kuechly may be the most well-equipped prospect mentally to come out in years. He’s not an elite athlete, but he plays smart and gets every last ounce out of the ability he does have. Just pop in the tape of Kuechly and you see a smart defender that maintains his own responsibilities before covering for his teammates. It’s not uncommon to see Kuechly force a run play outside covering his own gap and then make the tackle on the sideline in pursuit. That may not sound like much, but you don’t see any of the other guys on this list make those plays. He’s all over the field, he knows every guy’s assignment, he plays like he was in the other team’s huddle and off the field he is as hard a worker, and as high character a person as you can find. I’ll be honest, if Tampa reached for Kuechly at five I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. I think he’s that good.
9.) Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
Quinton Coples is the best defensive end in this class, but end is a bit of a misnomer because he’s played inside at tackle as well some too. Coples isn’t an elite pass-rusher, that’s worth pointing out right up front. Out of the box, he’s not equipped to contend with better NFL left tackles without adding some strength and improving his technique on the edge. The reason teams are so high on Coples is his versatility and ability to dominate at the point of attack. Coples is very stout against the run, where he is very fluid and uses his strength well. At 6-6 280 he’s a big, strong guy that may be best suited for a 3-4 scheme at end, but in a 4-3 he would be a great option to play outside on early downs and then slide inside in pass-rushing packages. He is currently an above average pass rusher with plenty of room to grow. He uses his hands very well and has great explosion, but he’s more of a bull rusher than a finesse guy right now. When he adds strength and irons out his technique around the edge, he may develop into a very good pass-rusher, but he’s not quite there yet. The other knock on Coples is his motor, which has been questioned from time to time, especially after a tumultuous transition inside to tackle mid-season in 2011. I don’t think a lot of that will be an issue, UNC was a program in turmoil the last couple of seasons and the team concept seemed to break down there at the end of the Davis era. I doubt Coples will have problems motivating himself in the NFL.
10.) Jonanathan Martin, OT, Stanford
The third of the offensive tackles I give a top-1o grade to Martin is a good combination of size, strength and intelligence. Martin has been protecting an NFL quarterback’s blindside for the past two years at Stanford. Of the top three tackles in this draft, Martin may have the highest ceiling because his issues are mostly technique-related, he has the prerequisite strength and athleticism to be elite, he simply needs some fine-tuning. Frankly, in a deep class it may have been smarter for him to go back another year and come out as the top-rated tackle in the draft next year, but this year he’s a close third behind Reiff and Kalil. Martin is a solid pass-blocker who can handle almost anything but does occasionally stop his feet and lose leverage. As a run-blocker he comes from a zone system and is effective but he lacks the strength to push heavier defenders back in the trenches. I think Martin may be a better option on the right side, at least at the start of his career as he adds strength and improves his technique.