The draft analysis game is subjective at best, and there are many things the media doesn't know (or can't reveal) about this or that draft prospect. Often by the time NFL teams are rating their players and putting together their big boards based on information they already have, the media horde is just catching up to what's going on. As a result, the guy who's firmly entrenched on every NFL board with scouting grades by late January could move up and down the media mock drafts like a jumping bean until draft day. These names are by no means conclusive, but based on the array of information we've seen from all sorts of sources, here are 10 players who seem to have seen their stock rise in the last year.
Andy Dalton, QB, TCU
It's amazing what intangibles and "quarterback wins" will do. Dalton ran a spread offense at TCU and was buttressed heavily in his alleged win total of 42 by one of the best defenses in the nation at any level of college ball, but no player has risen up more mocks and analyst draft boards than Dalton. The winning attitude and mindset? Unquestionably present. But the tools Dalton uses on the field aren't always as sharp as they need to be at the next level — he struggles to consistently make throws downfield with posts and in the seams, and when he's running right before he throws, he's often doing it to cut the field in half and minimize his reads. From a tape perspective, Dalton's more like a second-rounder, but I've seen mock drafts by professional analysts that have him as high as eighth overall to the Tennessee Titans. It's mystifying.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada
Now, here's an interesting cat. Kaepernick just blew it up in Chris Ault's Pistol offense, becoming the only quarterback in NCAA history to pass for over 10,000 yards and run for over 4,000. He may look like a run-option quarterback to those who discount the Pistol as a gimmick offense, but watch the tape a little closer and watch how he keeps his eyes downfield even when playing read-run. He's got a slightly funky throwing motion, but can absolutely make all the NFL throws — a former standout pitcher, Kaepernick has a rocket arm, but can dial it back for throws requiring more timing. Postseason performances have him as a solid second-round prospect, but don't be surprised if he's the fast riser on Thursday and a lot of people are adding his name to their spell-check somewhere in the first round.
Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor
Before the Senior Bowl, Watkins was best known for his amateur fire-fighting exploits in his home of British Columbia. But the man who replaced Jason Smith at left tackle at Baylor kicked inside to guard and blew people away with his natural affinity for the position. Watkins is 27 years old, and he's only played American football for four years, but his tape shows an amazingly strong player in his upper and lower body, and he's got enough agility to get to the second level and make people feel pain. Mike Pouncey will be the first pure guard gone in his draft, but don't be at all surprised if Watkins goes late in the first round.
Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
During the 2007 combine, it seemed that everyone was talking about one defensive back as a guy who was going to have to transition from cornerback to safety — this kid simply couldn't trail speed receivers and might struggle in space. That player's name? Darrelle Revis. Whoops! Amukamara isn't quite as talented as Revis, but the similar complaints about his skill set make no more sense — this is a pure speed cornerback with exciting agility and some of the best potential of any player in this class. It seems that other eyes are catching up, as the Fresh Prince has risen on many mocks from late first round to top 10.
D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas
Pay no attention to that fourth-round grade on the board on that recent ESPN Bill Parcells special — Williams has been gaining traction since a Senior Bowl in which he showed that he may have the best hands of any receiver in his class, no matter the position. He's a little small to be a pure blocking tight end, and some teams may have trouble thinking outside the box with a move tight end in the first two rounds, but it only takes one team to get the value of this Chris Cooley-style player.
Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Before an incendiary performance at the scouting combine, in which he set the pace in every drill despite a broken foot he didn't even want to tell anyone about, Jones moved from the middle first round in a lot of minds to a virtually guaranteed top-10 spot. Factor in the fact that he also played part of the 2010 season with a broken hand. This is a power receiver with a great desire to play — imagine Terrell Owens without all the drama, and you may have his ultimate upside.
Tyron Smith, OT, USC
Smith played right tackle for the Trojans at 280 pounds, but bulked up to 307 in time for his workouts. He's a potential pick in a lot of ways — he'd be making a pretty big jump from right to left, he's just 20 years old, and he's never actually played on that 27 extra pounds, but in an NFL that demands agility at every position, Smith's pure athleticism has seen him shoot up into the top 10 in most mocks.
Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
Another under-the-radar performer who caught a great buzz at the Senior Bowl, Sherrod may turn out to be the most immediately pro-ready tackle in this draft — he does all the little things well, can kick over to the right side seamlessly, and plays with more of a nasty streak than people give him credit for. Currently projected as a low first-round pick, Sherrod boosted up to there and may head up even further.
Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor
Senior Bowl yet again — anyone else want to decline that invitation? Yeah, we didn't think so. At 6-foot-4 and over 330 pounds, Taylor amazed in practice by showing the kind of quickness and agility you'd expect to see from a 290-pounds wide, three-tech pass-rushing tackle. You could almost see guys like Rex Ryan, Dom Capers and Mike Nolan, who make their bones on linemen who can play different roles in multi-faceted lines, imagining what Taylor might look like for them. Now an almost certain first-round pick.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple
Temple isn't a "small school" per se (I tend to think of Division III schools when I think of that label), but the buzz around Wilkerson is unusual for a guy playing interior and five-tech end/tackle for a less-heralded program. But when people started seeing Wilkerson coming off the edge in pressure situations with astounding quickness for his size (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), he shot right past similar players from bigger schools. Don't be surprised if he's a late first-rounder.