The last time the NFL draft's No. 1 pick entered February as such a fluid commodity, the Cleveland Browns ended up taking defensive end Courtney Brown over linebacker LaVar Arrington. Such monumental draft flubs are made in April, but not until after months of sometimes fruitless dissection – which begin this week at the NFL's annual combine for college talent.
The No. 1 pick isn't the sole spot up for grabs this season, either. Indeed, there are multiple debates raging entering this week's orgy of stopwatches and medical charts. Scouts have yet to find a consensus on several likely top-10 picks, whether it's sorting out the best between muddled pairs of quarterbacks (Alex Smith vs. Aaron Rodgers), wide receivers (Braylon Edwards vs. Mike Williams) and cornerbacks (Adam Jones vs. Antrel Rolle), or pinning down the franchise player in a trio of running backs (Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown or Carnell Williams).
The debates and fluctuations begin in earnest. For now, here's our preliminary top-10 list, which will be updated leading up to the April 23-24 draft. Keep in mind, this list is not a predicted draft order.
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
1. Braylon Edwards, wide receiver, Michigan
People will bring up former Wolverines receiver David Terrell as a cautionary tale, but we're told it's a bad comparison.
There are a lot of things scouts like about Edwards – he's big (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) and fast, and he showed commitment to Michigan by staying in school for his senior season when he could have been a first-round pick last year. The move paid off, with his stock steadily rising right into the top five.
The more people see of him, the more they seem to love him. The chief concern is dropped passes, something that he improved upon during his final year at Michigan. He's a likely top-five selection with a shot at being taken No. 1 overall.
2. Cedric Benson, running back, Texas
He's built like a cinder block (5-10, 223) and put up great numbers over his four years with the Longhorns. He's well-rounded as a runner and pass-catcher, but he's not going to make a lot of gigantic plays like, say, LaDainian Tomlinson. Beyond that, you don't hear many resounding negatives about him, which is strange for how picky teams get about running backs.
The speed is an issue, and he's not really all fire-and-brimstone in the leadership department. But he's still considered the best back in a healthy year at his position. Benson is a top-10 lock with a shot at No. 1.
3. Alex Smith, quarterback, Utah
Like Rodgers, he's light (210 pounds) but has the height (6-4) working in his favor. Unlike Rodgers, he didn't get a ton of exposure before this season. That's not to suggest scouts didn't know about him, but it's fair to say teams are anxiously awaiting his workouts to sharpen their reports.
He's picked up buzz from the analysts as the favorite for the No. 1 overall pick, but that still could change when teams start measuring his arm strength and accuracy on long throws. His ability to take off and run in college was a plus (631 yards and 10 touchdowns) but with his build, NFL teams won't want him doing that on their level.
Still, he's got the ability to move around and operated in a somewhat complex offense in college, so only his arm strength could knock him out of the top three.
4. Ronnie Brown, running back, Auburn
Like Benson, he's big (5-11, 230) and expected to be a more complete running back by both catching and receiving. Unlike Benson, he has another gear when he gets into the open field, and some think that ability could make him a more consistent big-play threat. Brown didn't carry a full workload at Auburn, either, splitting time with Carnell Williams.
Some question whether Brown has the ability to turn on a dime behind the line of scrimmage if his hole closes off or whether he can consistently make defenders whiff in one-on-one situations. We heard at least one comparison to Detroit's Kevin Jones.
5. Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Cal
He'll be this year's "throwing motion" guy. People will talk about whether he's too "jerky" or "mechanical" and speculate whether that will need to be fixed. But like the criticisms about Philip Rivers last season, it probably won't hurt Rodgers in the long run.
What might be weighed against him is his stature (6-2, 210), considering most teams still value the 6-4, 220-pound prototype. Whatever the case, Rodgers is expected to show adequate arm strength and accuracy in his workouts and stay in the top-10 mix, though the No. 1 spot might be a slight stretch.
6. Derrick Johnson, outside linebacker, Texas
He's still thin (6-3, 232), but one scout we spoke to thinks he will be able to push his weight to the 240s without a loss of his exceptional speed. There has been some criticism of his ability to take on blockers, but that could be something solved with added weight and strength.
Even with guys like Antrel Rolle and Adam Jones, Johnson is widely considered the best defensive player in the draft, especially given his room to grow. He's a top-10 lock, but with the draft being so top heavy in offense, it will be hard for him to get into the top five.
7. Adam Jones, cornerback, West Virginia
He's fast and athletic, but also small (5-10, 190). There's bound to be a spirited argument between Antrel Rolle and Jones because each seems to lack a certain trait the other possesses.
Jones showed he could rough up players in college, but there is some worry he might be a player like Jamar Fletcher, whose size limitations have hampered his transition to the NFL. The plus for Jones is that he's athletic enough to stick with any receiver, even the big ones.
The only question is what happens when the ball gets there, and he's matched up with a player like Houston's Andre Johnson. He's a lock to be in the top 10, unless he times out poorly in the 40-yard dash.
8. Antrel Rolle, cornerback, Miami
He's starting to look like one of the guys who will draw the most disagreements. He drew raves from one scout we talked to late in the season, not to mention a handful of Miami products in the NFL who worked out alongside Rolle in the summer.
The big question seems to be speed, though when we asked Jets receiver (and former Hurricane) Santana Moss about Rolle earlier this year, the first words that came out of his mouth were "He's fast."
Apparently some are skeptical, and Rolle's stock will depend on dispelling that. He is a fringe top-10 guy right now, and could solidify himself in that mix or fall later into the first round depending on his 40-yard dash times.
9. Carnell Williams, running back, Auburn
He's not big (5-10, 205) and that becomes a serious concern when you consider two of his seasons at Auburn ended with an injury. But he's oozing with talent, and the reality is that if he were 20 pounds heavier and maintained his current level of play, he'd make a strong push to be No. 1.
Even for his lack of size, he's a tough man to bring down and has proven speed. But the durability questions and lack of developed receiving skills put him on the fringe of the top 10.
10. Mike Williams, wide receiver, USC
He's got a ready-built body (6-4, 230) for the NFL, but that size might be a negative if he can't improve his speed. A scout we talked to said if he can post even one time in the 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash, he could leap into the draft's top three or four.
While some have criticized Williams for using his size advantage too much to overmatch opponents, others think he has the room to adjust and play a more disciplined game once he faces more cornerbacks that can handle his size. The year away from football, after he failed to gain entry into the draft last season along with Maurice Clarett, is a large concern especially given the time it takes receivers to make an impact in the NFL.
Williams is on solid top-10 footing and is more likely to move up than down. He could make the biggest leap of all the elite players attending this week's combine.