More NFL draft: Top defensive prospects
MOBILE, Ala. – He wasn't in the BCS title bout, so he didn't get the "he's-the-best-ever" gushing afforded Texas' Vince Young. And he didn't play in college football's epicenter, so he has no idea what the superfluous fawning must have been like for Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
Like his name, when it came to hype, Jay Cutler was as flashy as the Quaker on your box of oatmeal.
But you're going to see him sparkle soon enough. With the typical orgy of scouts, agents, coaches and personnel types at the Senior Bowl this week, Cutler's appearance was eagerly anticipated. Maybe only Virginia offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was being watched as closely. But Ferguson was already a known commodity. He probably would have been one of the NFL's top 10 picks last season.
Cutler, on the other hand, has risen from relative anonymity at Vanderbilt to become one of the most intriguing prospects on the rise.
"He's all over the place at times. You can see he's trying hard to impress people. But I think he's definitely got the (guts) to handle the position," one NFC personnel man said. "He'll tighten some things up at the next level – some of his footwork and stuff. Give him some time, and maybe he's the best of the bunch this year."
That's a bold suggestion considering the stratospheric stock reports on Bush, Leinart and Young. Then again, it's still late January. There's plenty of time for opinions to change with the scouting combine coming next month and a slew of personal and campus workouts leading up to the April 29-30 draft. But it's never too early to hash out the preliminary list of upper-tier prospects.
Heading into February, here's the initial top 10 on offense:
1. Reggie Bush, running back, Southern California
There's not a lot to say about Bush that hasn't been said. And just from taking a litmus test at the Senior Bowl, it sounds as if most personnel people expect him to be the Houston Texans' selection at No. 1 overall. Whoever chooses Bush gets arguably the most explosive player in college football – someone who will be able to affect the running and passing games and even add some spark to special teams. Think of a running back version of Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, although maybe not as tough. And don't pull out the questions about LenDale White being subbed in for Bush in certain situations. It was the same way last year with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.
2. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, tackle, Virginia
He could start in an NFL game tomorrow. And like Williams last season, Ferguson has been the big dog at the Senior Bowl, drawing a ton of attention in one-on-one pass rush drills during the North team's practices. He fared very well against Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka, who is widely considered one of the two best defensive ends in the draft and a possible top-15 pick. One NFC scout raved about Ferguson's agile feet and called him "a more physically gifted (version of Carolina's) Jordan Gross." The one concern remains his size – he's not a mauler or massive for an offensive tackle at 295 pounds. But the feeling among personnel people was that Ferguson would be able to add at least another 15 pounds on the NFL level without hurting his superior quickness.
3. Matt Leinart, quarterback, Southern California
Lest we forget, Leinart was last year's Vince Young – the guy who we said should have left after his junior season because his value would "never be higher." In hindsight, that was true. Unless he crashed and burned in workouts, Leinart would have been the No. 1 pick. And his prize for waiting is giving scouts an extra year to nitpick. His arm is good but not great. Right now, Leinart's biggest assets are his leadership qualities, his ability to throw a ball with accuracy and touch, and the fact that he's played in a more conventional offense than Young. Without a doubt, Leinart could see Young jump ahead of him in personal workouts, but it's just as likely that Leinart makes a sharp run right up to the draft and solidifies himself behind Bush.
4. Vince Young, quarterback, Texas
We've heard all the superlatives about Young, but people need to chill out until he goes through some workouts for teams. He has size, speed and athleticism, but he's further away from being NFL-ready than Leinart (that doesn't mean Leinart will be better in the long run, though). The issues that are waiting to be picked apart will be heard over and over again in the next few months, most notably Young's release mechanics and his ability to take snaps, drop back and set up in the pocket with good form. Clearly, he has top-notch leadership abilities, good arm strength and tons of potential.
5. Jay Cutler, quarterback, Vanderbilt
Hands down, the best quarterback at the Senior Bowl this week. Unless he wipes out in the game, Cutler should have some serious momentum heading into the Feb. 23-26 combine. One scout said Cutler could be the guy who makes up the most ground leading up to the draft, a la Philip Rivers in 2004. Landing in the draft's top five picks isn't out of the question. He has size (6-foot-3, 219 pounds) and an above average arm, but personnel people talk about his intangibles a lot – he's tough and a natural leader, and a little bit of a slinger. Don't be surprised if you hear comparisons to Brett Favre in that regard. Cutler did get into some trouble in college, so character is a slight concern.
6. Vernon Davis, tight end, Maryland
If he played at a higher profile school like Florida or Miami, Davis would be a far more recognizable name. Think: Kellen Winslow Jr. Davis is that good. Physically, he's rock solid at 6-3 and 250. Scouts say he has the full combination in terms of a receiver – he has good hands, uses his body well, is a leaper and is capable of making breakaway plays. The natural question is how he will fare as a blocker, since he's been such a big-time receiving tight end. But he's a weight-room freak, so strength won't be the issue.
7. DeAngelo Williams, running back, Memphis
The Senior Bowl practice roster listed Williams at 5-10 and 217 pounds, but that's a pipedream. Williams is more along the lines of 5-8 and 210. He's super compact and looks strong. Say what you want about small backs in the NFL – there are quite a few – but there are going to be size questions about Williams right up to the draft, especially about his ability to pick up the blitz. He's drawing some split opinions at this point. Some think he's capable of being a franchise running back, while others question if he's going to be durable enough and able to gain tough yardage in the NFL. It still sounds like he's the No. 2 back behind Reggie Bush, but there was a definite buzz about USC's LenDale White among personnel people this week. If Williams doesn't show great speed at the combine, it wouldn't be a shocker to see him fall behind White.
8. LenDale White, running back, Southern California
White has the potential to make plenty of hay by draft time. Everyone knows about his size (6-2, 230) and ability to be a tough runner, but a lot of people will be waiting to see how he times out in the 40-yard dash and agility drills. There was a lot of positive buzz about White among personnel people here, even though White wasn't part of the event. It's expected that he will show great ability as a receiver out of the backfield at the combine. The lingering questions are whether White will be dedicated enough in pass protection (some think he isn't) and whether he'll buy into the idea of being a tough, physical runner rather than one who tries to be too creative behind the line of scrimmage.
9. Winston Justice, tackle, Southern California
Had Justice stayed in school for his senior season, he probably would have been a top-10 pick next year and battled Wisconsin's Joe Thomas as the best tackle in the 2007 draft. For now, though, he's considered the next best thing beyond D'Brickashaw Ferguson. There is some debate whether or not Justice can be a left tackle in the NFL. Some think he'll be a staple on the right side. His character was brought into question after being suspended the entire 2004 season for making false threats with a fake firearm. That left Justice working himself back into playing shape when he should have been polishing off his skills. But the fact remains – from the time he became a starter as a freshman in 2002 – he was USC's best lineman whenever he was on the field.
10. Santonio Holmes, wide receiver, Ohio State
A lot of people expected Holmes to round into a more complete wideout this season, and that's exactly what he did. Though he doesn't have prototypical size (5-10, 186), he's tough and has enough speed to be the most attractive wideout in a relatively lukewarm class of receivers. Scouts believe Holmes has good acceleration, but they question whether he will be able to get off the line of scrimmage cleanly. There's been criticism that he wasn't the most polished route runner at Ohio State, either. If he turns in good numbers at the combine – the 40-yard dash, vertical and shuttle will be important – he should solidify himself as the No. 1 wide receiver. But don't be shocked if someone else leapfrogs him with more impressive measurables (Florida's Chad Jackson is a good candidate).