It’s early, but everyone wants to know who are the top senior and select junior prospects for the 2012 NFL draft. Here are my top 32 senior and junior eligible prospects for next April’s draft. Let’s get this college football season started. — Mike D.
1. Andrew Luck — Quarterback, Stanford
Luck is my highest-rated college quarterback prospect for the pros since Troy Aikman was at UCLA.
2. Quinton Coples — Defensive End, North Carolina
Coples has skills similar to former Tar Heel Robert Quinn, who the St. Louis Rams took in the opening round in April. Long, very lean pass rush ace who can turn the corner in a flash. Coples racked up 15½ tackles for losses, 10 quarterback sacks and 10 pressures in 2010.
3. Landry Jones — Quarterback, Oklahoma
Jones is not as athletic as former Sooner QB Sam Bradford, but he is an accurate downfield passer who possesses excellent size and very good arm strength. He also is a student of the game. In two seasons as a starter, Jones has completed 62.5 percent of his throws for 7,916 yards, 64 touchdown passes and 26 pass interceptions.
4. Alshon Jeffery — Wide Receiver, South Carolina
Alshon looks a lot like what Arizona Cardinals All-Pro end Larry Fitzgerald did at the University of Pittsburgh. Big, strong, very physical end who has deceiving open field moves and speed.
5. Matt Kalil — Offensive Tackle, USC
Kalil has some strong football genes running through him. His dad, Frank, played in the USFL in the 1980s, and his brother, Ryan, is an All-Pro center with the Carolina Panthers. Kalil started at left tackle for the Trojans, keeping Tyron Smith — the 9th overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys — at right offensive tackle. Kalil, a 6-6, 300-pounder, has quick feet, excellent lateral movement skills and does a very good job tying up the quick pass rushers coming off the edge.
6. Jonathan Martin — Offensive Tackle, Stanford
The 6-6, 310-pound, two-year starter at left tackle was instrumental in giving QB. Andrew Luck plenty enough time to lead the PAC-10 in passing efficiency. Martin has great size, quick feet, long arms, and he is a first-rate technician.
7. Matt Barkley — Quarterback, USC
On the verge of being an elite quarterback at the college level — Smart, efficient, accurate and a great leader, but he has been a bit streaky as a passer.
8. Justin Blackmon — Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
The former prep basketball standout reminds me so much of former Alabama standout and 2011 Atlanta Falcons No. 1 pick Julio Jones. The 6-1½, 220-pound end is physical, not intimidated running the inside pass routes, has excellent hands and is dangerous out in space. Last season Blackmon caught 111 passes for 1,782 yards, averaged 16.1 yards per catch and scored 20 TD’s.
9. Donte Paige-Moss — Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, North Carolina
Another UNC top defensive line prospect who is starting to live up to his high school press clippings, Paige-Moss has tremendous edge quickness and pass rush potential. He racked up 13½ tackles for losses and seven quarterback sacks in 2010. He could play defensive end or as a standup outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment in the pros.
10. Brandon Jenkins — Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Florida State
Jenkins looks an awfully lot like Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith, who the San Francisco 49ers selected in Round 1. Jenkins is super quick off the snap, very flexible to bend the edge and has excellent closing speed to the QB.
11. Zach Brown — Outside Linebacker, North Carolina
Brown is a tremendous all-around athlete who excelled as a running back in high school. He was a tremendous prep wrestler and a sprint champion in track. Brown has tremendous foot speed and lateral quickness, and he also excels dropping back in coverage. Zach was in on 72 tackles and had three pass interceptions in 2010.
12. Alfonzo Dennard — Cornerback, Nebraska
Dennard was somewhat lost in the shadow of Prince Amukamara last season, but this 5-10, 205-pound cover man has been well-schooled at Nebraska. He has excellent foot speed, very good recovery ability and finds the ball quickly in flight. Dennard intercepted four passes and had seven pass break-ups last season for the Cornhuskers.
13. Jerel Worthy — Defensive Tackle, Michigan State
Worthy is a disruptive force in the middle. The 6-2¾, 310-pounder is strong at the point of attack, he has very quick reaction skills, and he does an excellent job pushing the inside pocket. Worthy recorded 40 tackles, eight tackles for losses and four QB sacks in 2010.
14. Riley Reiff — Offensive Tackle, Iowa
The 6-5½, 300-pound left tackle has flashed some dominating traits as a run blocker and pass protector for the Hawkeyes. Reiff has quick feet, long arms and has been well trained at Iowa. The three-time South Dakota state wrestling champion has excellent tie-up skills and first-rate body balance ability.
15. Travis Lewis — Outside Linebacker, Oklahoma
Lewis is always in the thick of the action. Lewis has led the Sooners in tackles each of the past three seasons, and he has recorded 360 tackles, 47½ tackles for losses and eight pass interceptions during his college career. He's one of the most instinctive college players I have graded over the past five college seasons.
16. Chase Minnifield — Cornerback, Virginia
Minnifield’s dad, Frank, was one of the top cover men in the NFL in the 1980s. Minnifield has good size, outstanding ball reaction skills and excellent recovery speed. Minnifield intercepted six passes in 2010, and his trackdown skills with the ball in flight are first-rate.
17. Courtney Upshaw — Outside Linebacker, Alabama
This young man has great size, (6-2, 260), he is very physical at the point of attack, and he can accelerate quickly when heading up the field. He led Alabama in tackles for losses with 14½ and quarterback sacks with seven in 2010. His foot speed and pursuit skills are outstanding for a big man.
18. Michael Floyd — Wide Receiver, Notre Dame
Floyd has had multiple run-ins with the law due to alcohol, but if he can straighten out his life the 6-3, 222-pound end is one of the most intimidating offensive players in college football. Floyd has great size, he knows how to block out smaller defenders with his big body, and he has deceiving foot speed. He holds the Irish record for touchdown catches with 28, and he is second in school history with 171 catches.
19. Jared Crick — Defensive Tackle/End, Nebraska
The 6-4¾, 288-pound interior defensive lineman has been a dominant player for the Cornhuskers over the past two seasons. He's a very good overall athlete who runs the field effectively from sideline to sideline. Crick is quick off the snap, and he does a good job pushing the inside pocket. Crick has recorded 143 tackles, 32 tackles for losses and 19 quarterback sacks over the past two seasons.
20. Devin Taylor — Defensive End, South Carolina
Taylor, a 6-6½, 255-pound All-SEC performer in 2010 looks as though he is on the verge of developing into a star college player. The former South Carolina state champion in the triple jump as a prepster has long arms, a very quick initial step off the snap and first-rate closing speed in attacking the ballcarrier. Taylor registered 13 tackles for losses, 7½ QB sacks and eight pass break-ups in 2010.
21. Dre Kirkpatrick — Cornerback, Alabama
The 6-2, 195-pound junior is starting to develop into the elite cover man everyone thought he would turn out to be when he came out of Gadsden City High School in Alabama. The former Parade magazine and USA Today newspaper All-American has great size for a cornerback, a huge wingspan to knock away potential completions and very good recovery skills. He also is being coached by the one of the very best defensive backs mentors in college football in Nick Saban.
22. Cliff Harris — Cornerback/Punt Returner, Oregon
Harris is a dynamite performer as a one-on-one cover cornerback and as a punt returner. Harris has had some off-the-field problems with speeding tickets, but he has shutdown skills as a cover man and first-rate ball reaction skills. The 5-10½, 170-pound “blanket” cover man intercepted six passes and had 17 pass deflections in 2010. Harris is also a tremendous punt return artist with great speed and elusive openfield moves. He averaged 18.8 yards per runback in 2010, and he brought four punts back for scores.
23. Trent Richardson — Halfback, Alabama
With Mark Ingram off to the New Orleans Saints, Richardson is now the bellcow runner for the Tide. The former high school All-American running back from Escambia High School in Florida has the running skills, foot speed, elusiveness and the ability to gain extra yardage after initial contact, to be in the running for the Heisman Trophy in 2011. The 5-10½, 222-pounder runs low to the ground, he has another gear to kick into out in the open field, and he averaged 6.2 yards per rush in 2010. Richardson is also a good receiver coming out of the backfield.
24. Vontaze Burfict — Inside Linebacker, Arizona State
Tough, very powerful “Mike” linebacker who is physical at the point of attack, he has no let up on the throttle when on the field. The 6-2, 252-pound inside linebacker has recorded 159 tackles, 15½ tackles for losses and caused four forced fumbles over the past two seasons for the Sun Devils. Burfict reminds me a lot of current New York Jets standout inside linebacker David Harris.
25. Jeff Fuller — Wide Receiver, Texas A&M
Fuller's dad, Jeff Fuller, was an intimidating hitter playing safety for the San Francisco 49ers, and the young Fuller is an intimidating force on offense. The 6-3, 220-pound end has excellent size, sure hands and outstanding box-out skills, keeping defenders away from the football. He is fearless running the crossing patterns and has first-rate eye-hand coordination. Fuller caught 72 passes for 1,066 yards and a new school record 12 TD’s in 2010.
26. Brandon Lindsey — Outside Linebacker/Defensive End, Pittsburgh Lindsey, a 6-1¾, 252-pounder from Aliquippa High School in Pennsylvania, has quickly developed into one of the top edge rushers in the country. Lindsey has a very quick initial burst upfield, and he has outstanding lateral foot speed. Lindsey recorded 51 tackles, 17½ tackles for losses and 10 QB. sacks in 2010. Lindsey comes from an athletic family. His dad, John, played basketball at Memphis State, and his brother, Willie, played football for Northwestern.
27. Kirk Cousins — Quarterback, Michigan State
The 6-2½, 210-pound senior has recorded three straight seasons of completing over 60 percent of his throws. He's a super smart, very accurate passer who has a quick release, and he is a tremendous leader on and off the field. Reminds me a lot of Andy Dalton from TCU. Cousins has thrown for 5,815 yards and 41 touchdowns for the Spartans.
28. Ray Ray Armstrong — Strong Safety, Miami (Fla.)
Armstrong, a former prep quarterback, has developed into an intimidating hitter and physical presence in the Hurricane secondary. Armstrong has great size at 6-3½, 215 pounds. He is rangy, and the former signal-caller matches up very well in one-on-one coverage situations. Armstrong recorded 79 tackles, 4½ tackles for losses, and he intercepted three passes in 2010.
29. Morris Claiborne — Cornerback, LSU
The former high school quarterback turned cornerback in college more than held his own last season starting opposite Patrick Peterson. The 5-11½, 180-pound speedster has very good ball reaction skills, quick feet, excellent recovery speed, and he really upgraded his technical skills as a sophomore. He has a shot to be a huge breakout performer in 2011.
30. Brandon Thompson — Defensive Tackle, Clemson
The 6-2, 315-pound noseguard has been a major inside defensive force for Clemson the past two seasons. Thompson is built low to the ground, he is very strong in the upper-body, and he is stout when holding his ground against multiple blockers. The big man in the middle recorded 56 tackles, 7½ tackles for losses and had 15 QB pressures as a junior. He could well emerge in 2011 like Phil Taylor did at Baylor in 2010.
31. Manti Te’o — Inside Linebacker, Notre Dame
Te'o, a two-time recipient of the Gatorade Prep Player of the Year in Hawaii, has developed into one of the top defensive forces in college football. Last season the very physical and active inside linebacker recorded 133 tackles, 9½ tackles for losses, and he had three pass break-ups. The 6-2, 250-pounder really runs the field well for a big “Mike” linebacker.
32. Stephon Gilmore — Cornerback, South Carolina
Another standout prep cornerback turned cornerback in college. The 6-0, 192-pound cornerback has excellent one-on-one coverage skills, quick feet, outstanding ball reaction skills and first-rate recovery speed. Gilmore is also double-tough in run support. Last season Gilmore led South Carolina in tackles with 79, and the 1st team All-SEC cornerback also picked off three passes. Stephon is a real defensive playmaker for the Gamecocks.
At the 2011 Manning Passing Academy, Mike chats with former NFL quarterback and Bachelor star Jesse Palmer about SEC football.