With the 2010 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before the 2011 scouting combine begins on Thursday, we'll be taking a closer look at the 40 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest difference-makers when all is said and done.
We conclude our pre-combine series with the Shutdown 40's top player: LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson came into his junior campaign wanting to prove that he was the NCAA's best defensive back. His subsequent Bednarik (the country's best defender) and Thorpe (best defensive back) awards proved that he had reached his goal. Peterson was rated as the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year coming out of high school in 2007, so great things were expected right away.
He made some plays in 13 games during his freshman year, but things really started to pop in his sophomore season, when he made first-team SEC and second-team All-American. By the time 2010 rolled around, quarterbacks had learned to stay away from his side of the field, but he still put up good numbers (four interceptions and six passes defensed) and added a great ability as a return man with 26 punt returns for 418 yards and two touchdowns, as well as 29 kick returns for 851 yards.
In three seasons, Peterson intercepted seven passes for 171 return yards and a touchdown, as well as 22 passes defensed and 129 tackles (99 solo). It's an interesting draft class in that even the best players have parts of their games that need work. If there's one guy in this class who could hit an NFL field right now without a hitch, Peterson would be the guy.
Pros: Trails and catches his receiver in man coverage very well; has the discipline to shadow on quick underneath routes without giving up too much of a cushion. Jumps routes with impressive speed and will contort his body to make a play. Times his jumps very well, and has a keen sense to come down with the ball, whereas lesser pass defenders are satisfied to simply bat the ball away.
On any kind of return – punt, kick or interception – he takes smooth but very quick strides, has a great eye for gaps, kicks into second gear at the right time, and keeps going after contact. Has stunning recovery speed, but needs it less and less. Reads quarterbacks very well and doesn't generally bite on play-fakes. Always has a sense of where he is in the play, and he doesn't engage in gratuitous athleticism -- every move has a purpose. Knows how to play the ball and avoid penalties without getting lost and detached from the receiver in the process. Doesn't stick with his target if the ball's going elsewhere.
Cons: While it's difficult to find flaws in his coverage skills, Peterson has a tendency to bite on double moves, and he's more conversant in man coverage than in zone. That said, he's got overwhelming football awareness and prodigious talent.
Conclusion: Peterson has said that he wants to run a 4.2-40 at the scouting combine -- if he actually does that (especially at 6-foot-2, 211) and also does as well in the defensive back drills as he's expected to do, he has an outside shot at becoming the first cornerback drafted first overall in the history of the NFL. As the league develops more of a passing emphasis, it's going to happen. We've already seen safeties shoot up two rounds from where they might have been a decade ago, and if Peterson manages to be the one to break that glass ceiling, it wouldn't be a surprise, because he's the best player in the 2011 draft class.
More Shutdown 40
40 -- Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State | #39 - Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
| #38 - Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor | #37 - Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas | #36 -- Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami | #35 -- Danny Watkins, OL, Baylor | #34 - Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State | #33 -- Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State | #32 - Mike Pouncey, OL, Florida | #31 - Nate Solder, OT, Colorado | #30 - Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame | #29 - Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois | #28 - Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State | #27 - Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA | #26 - Brandon Harris, CB, Miami | #25 - Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin | #24 -- Jake Locker, QB, Washington| #23 -- Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado| #22 - J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin | #21 - Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois| #20 - Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State | #19 - Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland | #18 - Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue | #17 - Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama | #16 - Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa | #15 - Tyron Smith, OT, USC | #14 - Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri | #13 - Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College | #12 - Cam Newton, QB, Auburn| #11 -- Cameron Jordan, DL, Cal| #10 - Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri | #9 - Julio Jones, WR, Alabama | #8 - Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska | #7 - Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama | #6 -- Robert Quinn, DE. North Carolina | #5 - Von Miller, OLB, Texas A & M | #4 -- A.J. Green, WR, Georgia | #3 - DaQuan Bowers, DE, Clemson | #2 -- Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn