"In Depth Breakdowns of the Talent Available at Each Position"
By Rob "Boomer" Rang of
While we are still months away from the draft, itself, certain aspects of the proceedings are becoming increasingly clear. Of course, it will take months of exciting NFL action to determine the draft order, and the final rankings of players won't be completely ready until late April. That said, what have become increasingly apparent are the positional strengths and weaknesses of this draft. For example, like last year, defensive tackle is again, one of the great strengths of the draft. However, as opposed to last April, the running back position, unless it is strongly fortified by underclassmen, could turn out to be one of the weaker classes in recent memory. The following then, are three sections detailing the likely strength of positions. Those sections, quite simply, are labeled, "Strong," "Average," and "Weak."
Strong: The positions immediately following offer the deepest and most brilliant talent pools in the draft.
Defensive Tackle: Five defensive tackles were selected in the first round last season, and that unusually high number could be matched this April, as well. Tennessee's John Henderson leads the talented class, but Washington's Larry Tripplett, Wisconsin's Wendell Bryant, Fresno State's Alan Harper, Notre Dame's Anthony Weaver, and Alabama-Birmingham's Eddie Freeman all look like potential top picks. Add to this a list of underclassmen that include William Joseph, Jimmy Kennedy, Eric Manning, and Albert Haynesworth, and you start to see how truly rare of a class this could ultimately turn out to be.
Quarterback: Like 1999, much of the pre-draft hype will focus on the strong group of quarterbacks available. While there is a solid group of senior quarterbacks led by Oregon's Joey Harrington, Fresno State's David Carr, and Illinois' Kurt Kittner, this class could be historic if talented underclassmen like Miami's Ken Dorsey, Marshall's Byron Leftwich, Texas' Chris Simms, or Louisville's Dave Ragone decide to enter a year early. Even more eventual 1st round caliber QBs will consider coming out, but Southern Cal's Carson Palmer and UNLV's Jason Thomas will most likely stay in school, rather than risk a draft day disappointment.
Strong Safety: Simply put, this is one of the better classes in recent memory. While only the bluest of blue chip talents at safety usually make the 1st round, this draft could realistically see four to six strong safeties selected in the initial frame. Miami's defensive leader, Edward Reed, is likely the best all-around talent, but he is followed closely by Colorado's Michael Lewis, Texas Tech's Kevin Curtis, and Mississippi State's Edward "Pig" Prather. Perhaps the most intriguing prospect of all is Oklahoma's playmaking Roy Williams. Williams has seen time at free safety in the past, but was moved to strong safety this year to best utilize his strengths (run defense, instincts, etc.) and to minimize his weaknesses (pure speed, lateral quickness, etc.). An underclassmen, Mike Doss of Ohio State, could ultimately leapfrog all of these players should he choose to declare.
Tight End: While Washington's Jerramy Stevens, the most talented of the tight ends, is likely to return for his final season after fracturing his foot early this year, this is a very deep class. Colorado's Daniel Graham is the focal point of the entire Buffalo offense. LSU's Robert Royal is one of the better all around tight ends in the country, and simply is a rare athlete for the position. Purdue's Tim Stratton, the winner of the initial John Mackey Award for the nation's top tight end, is an excellent receiver, and there is a slew of underclassmen (Miami's Jeremy Shockey, Georgia's Randy McMichael, Florida's Aaron Walker, etc.) that could ultimately make this the strongest position in the entire draft.
Average: The positions immediately following offer average selections of talent. Generally, these positions either offer a few blue chip prospects, with questionable depth, or great depth, but no true standouts.
Middle Linebacker: With the help of some underclassmen, this group could go from being average to one of the very best in the draft. However, while it seems fair to predict that one of Kansas State's Terry Piece, LSU's Trev Faulk, and Arizona State's Solomon Bates will leave, most likely all won't declare. That said, this is a very solid senior middle linebacker class, as well. Robert Thomas is one helluva ball player, and Jason Sykes is simply a freak of an athlete playing in the middle. In fact, Sykes is such an athlete, there is talk that he will be better served moving to OLB in the NFL. With two of the more underrated players in the country playing at this position (Northwestern's Billy Silva and East Carolina's Pernell Griffin), this class can solve a lot of run stuffing needs for NFL clubs come this April.
Cornerback: The cornerback class this year is similar to last year's. It is a fairly deep class, with quality CBs likely being available throughout the 1st Day, but is simply not as deep as last season's class. That said, the truest difference between last year's draft and this year's is the talent at the top. The top few CBs this year all have questions. Senior Quentin Jammer is a potential superstar, but there still are questions about his legitimate speed and agility as a man to man defender. Some consider him a better free safety prospect. The best cover man in the country is Florida's Lito Sheppard. However, off the field concerns (as well as the fact that he is only a junior) cloud his draft prospects. The fastest corner in the country, Wisconsin's Mike Echols, is a better defender than his more heralded former teammate, Jamar Fletcher, but like Fletcher is a risk due to his height (5'8). Seniors like Dennis Weathersby of Oregon State, Keyou Craver of Nebraska, Mike Rumph of Miami, Sheldon Brown of South Carolina, and Andre Lott of Tennessee, however, are just some of the names that make still make this a solid draft for cornerbacks.
Offensive Line: This is a very solid year for offensive lineman, highlighted by a few future Pro Bowl talents. Miami's Bryant McKinnie heads the list. He was simply the best pass blocker in the country last season, and would have been a top 10 pick, and has just improved this year. His teammate, Joaquin Gonzalez is another talented tackle, as are seniors Mike Williams (another monster from Texas), and two intriguing talents from the Pac 10: Levi Jones of Arizona State and Langston Walker of California. This class could be greatly improved with the declaration of Florida's Mike Pearson and Florida State's Brett Williams. Pearson, in particular, is an intriguing prospect. Remember last April when Kenyatta Walker slid down the 1st round due to his lack of experience playing left tackle? Pearson is the 6'7, 295 pound, pass blocking phenom that kept him on the right side.
While there certainly is some 1st-2nd round caliber talent at guard, simply put, there is no Steve Hutchinson, so this class isn't up to last year's standards. Collegiate tackles like Mississippi's Terrence Metcalf, Oklahoma's Frank Romero, and Auburn's Kendall Simmons, project to guard due to their heights, and each is a solid talent. Pure guard prospects like Miami's Martin Bibla, Stanford's Eric Heitmann, and Colorado State's Broderick Lancaster all are being watched closely by scouts. Quite possibly, the two best guard prospects in the country, however, are underclassmen, and thus, this class' overall talent and depth ultimately depends on their intentions. Nebraska's Toniu Fonoti is a massive run blocker with the impressive combination of strength and quickness to become a very reliable pass blocker, as well. Florida State's Montrae Holland is another fine talent, and is developing in an offense and program that is more sophisticated that some NFL teams'.
This is one of the better years in terms of depth for the center position. Texas A&M's Seth McKinney may not end up being the first center chosen, but he'll likely be the best pro. He combines intelligence, dedication, and determination with solid athleticism. Colorado's Andre Gurode is a fine talent at both guard and center. Scott Peters of Arizona State, Chris Gibson of Oregon State, and the most athletically gifted talent of the bunch, Buckeye, LeCharles Bentley all make this a draft with which solid center prospects could be available throughout the top 4-5 rounds.
Outside Linebacker: Depending on where Kalimba Edwards, Dwight Freeney, and Jashon Sykes are eventually placed, this could end up being one of stronger positions in the draft. Edwards is one of the true top talents in the entire draft, and is a likely top 10 choice. Freeney is a passrushing terror at defensive end, but at 6'1, 250 pounds, he will likely have to be moved to OLB to get on the field. Sykes has a great combination of size, speed, and strength, and his questionable instincts might make him a better fit at OLB than in the middle, as he plays for the Colorado. Rocky Calmus is a slightly lesser version of 2000 1st rounder, Dan Morgan, which is to say that he is a future NFL standout, in my eyes. Seniors Napoleon Harris, Levar Fisher, and James Allen round out the top group of OLBs, though this group could be bettered by underclassmen Eddie Strong of Mississippi, Bradie James of LSU, and Saleem Rasheed of Alabama.
Wide Receiver: As usual, there is some great talent at wide receiver. That said, there doesn't seem to be the one super blue chip wideout like in year's past. Georgia Tech's Kelly Campbell is a speed demon that has developed into a very reliable weapon, but there is a concern as to how his 5'10, 175 pound frame will withstand the pounding of the NFL. The physicality of the NFL won't likely be the problem for seniors Marquis Walker of Michigan and Ron Johnson of Minnesota. Speed, however, could be. The best combination of size, strength, and speed in a senior wideout is clearly Hokie Andre' Davis. However, he still has a long way to go in terms of route development, consistency in his receiving skills, and just overall experience, as his first taste of organized football came only a few years ago as a junior high school, and he missed much of last season with nagging injuries. The two most complete receivers in the country, Jabar Gaffney of Florida and Antonio Bryant of Pittsburgh, are not only underclassmen, but have each had their share of off the field troubles. This draft does have good depth at receiver, and each of the players mentioned here are legitimate 1st to 2nd round caliber players, but none are "sure" stars like the David Terrells or Peter Warricks of the past two years.
Defensive End: Should Kalimba Edwards remain at OLB, and Julius Peppers elect to go back to school, this group could go from being one of the potentially best to one of the draft's worst. Peppers competes with only John Henderson and Bryant McKinnie to be the draft's top talent. After him, however, are question marks. While Tennessee's Will Overstreet is an underrated prospect in the mold of 49er John Engleberger, there are concerns due to his weight (255) and his ability to hold up at the point of attack. Alex Brown is one of the more physically talented players in the country, but until he can perform at a high level for 60 minutes, he will be questioned by NFL teams. Two seniors on the bubble of the "elite" defensive ends are UCLA's Kenyon Coleman and LSU's Jarvis Green. Both have flashed super ability in the past, but neither have yet shown the same burst or playmaking ability after battling through injuries last season. Two underclassmen that are intriguing scouts are Alabama's Kindal Moorehead and Texas' Cory Redding. Moorehead, however, will have to prove that he is all the way back from the Achilles injury he suffered last year, and Redding will have to continue to prove that he is a big time talent, and wasn't just a product of the mammoth DT combination of Shaun Rogers and Casey Hampton the Longhorns had last year.
Weak: The positions immediately following offer the comparatively least talented or shallowest positions in the draft. There may either be a complete lack of blue chip talent, or very little overall depth.
Free Safety: The free safety class has great potential, but in my mind at least, has serious questions, as well. The top free safety continues to be Florida State's Chris Hope. While he has proven to be an adept centerfielder in the past, he has yet to establish himself as a great run defender. Oklahoma's Roy Williams is still being looked at by some as a free safety. However, his blend of size and speed makes him much better suited to the strong safety position. Should underclassmen, Terrence Holt of NC State, Todd Johnson of Florida, and Ramon Walker of Pittsburgh. Holt, in particular, has looked like a future NFL star coming into his own this season. Regardless of these decisions, however, this is a position with great uncertainty, and could end up being one of the weaker positions of the draft.
Running Back: Deshaun Foster could be the next collegiate running back to burst onto the NFL and enjoy a 1,500 yard, 15 touchdown rookie campaign. That said, he could, and if history is any indicator, he more likely will instead get nicked up and struggle through the season. That, essentially, sums up this year's crop of running backs. Foster is clearly the top talent, but his inability to stay healthy has the NFL very concerned. Najeh Davenport of Miami is a potential star, as there are simply very, very few who have his size (6'2, 235) and speed (4.4-4.5). However, because of his great size, there are limitations to the offenses he will best fit in. Also, the fact that he has never had the opportunity to be the workhorse back with the Canes has some NFL teams questioning how he'd respond to just this type of situation in the pros. The only other senior on my top ten list is Northwestern's Damien Anderson. While some compare him to TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson, I see Anderson as much more similar to former Northwestern star, Darnell Autry. Anderson doesn't appear to have either the speed or power to be a great back in the NFL, and there is legitimate concern that he is ultimately a product of a wide open passing system that simply leaves gaping holes in the defense for him to run through. Unlike other positions, the running back situation doesn't necessarily clear up that if underclassmen declare. This is not to say there isn't NFL available. On talent alone, TJ Duckett of Michigan State, Derek Watson of South Carolina, William Green of Boston College, Antoine Womack of Virginia, Cedric Cobbs of Arkansas, Clinton Portis of Miami, and a host of others are all talented. That said, however, Duckett is a pure power back in the Jerome Bettis mold. Simply put, there are seemingly fewer and fewer offenses that will utilize Duckett in the one back offense that will best compliment his unique skills. Watson, Green, and Womack, though arguably the three best all-around backs in the country, are each off the field risks, as each of them has had problems with police and coaching staffs in the past. Cobbs might be the most athletically gifted of the bunch, but has, thus far, been slow to regain his form prior to major knee surgery. Finally, Portis has soared up the charts after a very impressive start to his junior campaign with the 'Canes, but hasn't been asked to be the go-to guy, and is reportedly very likely to remain in school for his senior season. A position with loads of obvious talent, but seemingly everyone has major question marks of some kind.