Two weeks ago, we reviewed how the top 10 picks of this year's NFL draft could play out, and the list included a number of impact underclassmen. That trend continues with our initial look at the top 50 prospects, with four of the top five being juniors and 22 of the 50 being non-seniors.
The draft process shifts once again to the Feb. 21-27 NFL combine, where several players that have not yet obtained household-name status get the chance to jump up the draft board with workouts inside the RCA Dome. Two years ago, Fabian Washington went from a possible third- to fifth-round prospect to a bona fide first-rounder when he flashed across the 40-yard dash in sub-4.3 times. So while a few of these names might raise eyebrows now, they could become the draft's darlings in Indianapolis.
Here is how our initial draft board looks after the completion of the Senior Bowl and practice sessions for the Texas vs. the Nation contest in El Paso, Texas.
1. Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Georgia Tech – Easily one of the most talented players evaluated at a single position in the past 10 years. Even with the high number of rookie receivers that have failed to generate numbers early in their careers, Johnson is the type of kid that you simply cannot pass on, especially after he runs in the 4.4-range at 230-plus pounds and jumps 40-plus inches in the vertical. Would Detroit Lions president Matt Millen pass on such a talent if he is on the board at No. 2?
2. JaMarcus Russell, quarterback, LSU – His improved mechanics and ability to throw the long ball have made him the new darling of this draft. He stormed his way past Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, vaulting himself into the top five on many boards and drawing some comparisons to Vince Young in terms of stepping into a starting role much earlier than anticipated. Outside of his pure physical tools, Russell's greatest asset is his ability to keep focused on his receivers downfield when facing pressure or being on the move.
3. Joe Thomas, offensive tackle, Wisconsin – A knee injury ruined his chance to declare early a year ago, but he rebounded quickly this season and now stands to be the first lineman taken with nearly everyone tabbing him as a franchise-type tackle thanks to his combination of size, strength and footwork. He won't get past Arizona if he is still on the board at No. 5.
4. Jamaal Anderson, defensive line, Arkansas – Having flashed potential as a sophomore, he came on like gangbusters this past season. He consistently harassed opposing quarterbacks, setting up others to make plays and creating turnovers and pressure on most series. His long arms, pass-rush potential and versatility make him a valuable option to anyone searching for a front-four playmaker.
5. Adrian Peterson, running back, Oklahoma – His long-term durability will be the only issue that holds him back from being rated top five on everyone's board. He is a pounding-style rusher that will be expected to carry the ball 300-plus times early in his career. The thought process behind running backs like him who run high and are susceptible to big hits is that they will wear down earlier than others and start to slide in terms of production after just three to four years. However, his upside value for those first few seasons might be too high to pass up for teams needing a star runner.
6. Brady Quinn, quarterback, Notre Dame – Quinn's stock has taken a bit of a slide over the past month between his average Sugar Bowl performance and inability to perform at the Senior Bowl. He has great experience and intangibles to go along with more than enough arm strength and the tutelage of coach Charlie Weis the past two years. Teams plan to hone in on the throwing portion of Quinn's workout, whether it's at the combine or his pro day, so those results will count most when determining how high he can go.
7. Alan Branch, defensive line, Michigan – He's a big-bodied defender that is drawing interest from teams no matter the defensive scheme. Several 3-4 teams see him as a possible defensive end, while others would like to see him slotted at defensive tackle or over the center depending on the type of 4-3 scheme. Branch possesses the best size of anyone at this position in the draft, but he can be a bit of a finesse player at times. That will concern those who want him to take up space as opposed to attacking the line of scrimmage.
8. Gaines Adams, defensive end, Clemson – The best outside pass rusher available in the draft, Adams is able to create havoc as an attacking up-field defender, and at times this season he showed signs of becoming more of an all-around player. His pass-rush skills will be hard to overlook on draft day, especially since there is no depth at the position.
9. Reggie Nelson, defensive back, Florida – One of the primary reasons why the Gators won the national championship, Nelson has the ability to be evaluated as a corner in a Cover 2 scheme, but most feel that he will be most successful as a free safety. His attitude, playmaking skills and potential to make an immediate impact will make him this year's version of Donte' Whitner.
10. Marshawn Lynch, running back, California – Potentially the most complete running back in the draft, Lynch has both game-breaking speed and terrific hands out of the backfield. A recent off-field issue was avoided, but he will be closely monitored by teams who are likely to do a recheck of his background during the combine. Teams looking for a back that can contribute in a variety of roles will prefer Lynch over Peterson.
11. Amobi Okoye, defensive tackle, Louisville – He's probably the fastest riser on most team's draft boards. Okoye went from being rated as a solid Day 1 prospect to storming up the charts with a fantastic effort at the Senior Bowl. The 19-year-old prodigy earned rave reviews for both his on-field play and off-field maturity. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were to deal down, he could be the object of their desire.
12. Ted Ginn, Jr., wide receiver, Ohio State – The success of Devin Hester will allow Ginn's value to soar thanks to his ability to contribute in a variety of ways as a receiver, return man and possibly even cornerback. He may be one of the three fastest players in the draft, but he has a little bit of a slim build. He also has put the ball on the ground a few times during his career. Both factors have concerned teams thinking about taking him with a high first-round choice.
13. Aaron Ross, cornerback, Texas – His eye-opening senior campaign has driven up his stock more than expected. Ross has taken over the position's top ranking from Marcus McCauley, who failed to live up to expectations, thanks to his aggressiveness and terrific natural ball instincts.
14. LaRon Landry, safety, LSU – He's a top-notch two-way defender that brings a lot of confidence, experience and ability to play at a high level against both the run and pass. Landry could be taken among the first 10 choices.
15. Charles Johnson, defensive end, Georgia – One of the best pure pass rushers who is much more athletic than advertised, Johnson has the ability to run in the 4.7 range or better at over 270 pounds. He is a little shorter than ideal, but he plays with great strength and leverage at the point of attack.
16. Lawrence Timmons, outside linebacker, Florida State – A superb athlete, he is still learning the proper technique for the position, but he covers a lot of ground and makes big plays from sideline to sideline. Timmons has a better body type than former teammate Ernie Sims. Also, he is thought to possess sub-4.5 speed and tremendous agility.
17. Tony Ugoh, offensive tackle, Arkansas – Pound for pound, he is thought to be one of the most athletic players in the draft, even though he is a 300-pound-plus offensive lineman. He needs to show more fire as a finisher, but teams love his quick feet.
18. Jon Beason, linebacker, Miami – While he may not be the second-coming of Jonathan Vilma, Beason is just a notch below with the ability to play either inside or outside based on the scheme.
19. Adam Carriker, defensive line, Nebraska – A big, physical lineman, he made his mark with a great week at the Senior Bowl. His junior campaign featured more production, but Carriker's ability to play throughout the line and impressive wins in one-on-one drills at Mobile have pushed him back up towards the top half of the first round. Teams employing a 3-4 scheme have him rated as the top-rated defensive end.
20. Darrelle Revis, cornerback, Pittsburgh – This good-sized defender has excellent speed, ball skills and the added bonus of top-notch return skills. His workouts will help lift his grade since the majority of this year's best receivers are over 6-foot-1 and he offers the best combination of size, speed and cover skills.
21. Dwayne Jarrett, wide receiver, USC – A tremendous three-year playmaker, Jarrett was able to show both vertical speed and dependable hands against top-level competition. He ran past defenders against Michigan, including star corner Leon Hall. If Jarrett cracks the 4.5-second mark in the 40-yard dash, his grade could rise even higher.
22. DeMarcus Tyler, defensive tackle, North Carolina State – Nicknamed "Tank," he eats up space off the snap and showed much greater consistency as a senior. His ability to help collapse the pocket could position him within the top 20 picks should there be an early run on defensive linemen.
23. Anthony Spencer, defensive end/outside linebacker, Purdue – Fast-rising pass rusher that holds that new beloved title of "hybrid" since he has 4-3 teams evaluating him at defensive end and 3-4 teams as an outside linebacker/standup defensive end. He will be one of the "workout warriors" of the combine, especially if he turns out a 4.6 40 time at 270 pounds.
24. Brandon Meriweather, defensive back, Miami – He has overcome the nasty midseason fight against FIU to convince teams that he may indeed be the top-rated safety thanks to his all-around skill level. Meriweather has the ability to be evaluated at cornerback, but most think he could be a great supporting figure to teams that need an over-the-top safety who can also cover the slot receiver one on one.
25. Jarvis Moss, defensive end, Florida – He's a young, talented pass rusher with rare tools, but he's still a work-in-progress in terms of being an all-around defender. Moss gets too tall off the line at times, giving away his body, and he lacks the bulk to anchor his side against bigger, more physical linemen.
26. Dwayne Bowe, wide receiver, LSU – His ability to stretch the field, combined with a one-of-a-kind size/speed combination, has helped move him in position to be taken in the first round. Bowe caught the ball very well during Senior Bowl week, and his improved play has been attributed to the fact that he had offseason Lasik surgery to correct his vision.
27. Robert Meachem, wide receiver, Tennessee – A highly productive, tall receiver with very good yardage-after-the-catch ability, Meachem jumped into the draft with the belief that he could be a top-tier player. A shift in attention away from receivers could cause him to go lower than I have him rated, as the position may take a backseat to both sides of the line and defensive backs.
28. Leon Hall, cornerback, Michigan – He is listed as a top 10 pick all over the place, but he lacks the true straight-line speed to hang with most of the top-rated receivers in this draft. Hall will be a solid pro because of his work ethic, instincts and ability to read/see the ball early and make plays. However, you can't leave him alone in man coverage all day without having a big play or two occur against you.
29. Joe Staley, offensive tackle, Central Michigan – There are other linemen with bigger names, but Staley has the best upside of the available offensive tackles on the board. He has better footwork, is still growing into his body (he's a former tight end) and played with more leverage and strength than previously seen during the latter part of this season. Staley's best football is still ahead.
30. Greg Olsen, tight end, Miami – Olsen is a tricky guy to judge, since he was not great in any one area this season and seemed to lose concentration at times in games. His skill level as a receiver will intrigue teams that need a playmaker in the middle of the field, but if he doesn't up his game, he will slide down several spots on this board before draft day.
31. Levi Brown, offensive tackle, Penn State – He's an experienced and athletic lineman, but he did not stand out this season after getting banged up early. Brown is now looking to rebound with a big week at the combine. Some teams will find it hard to pass him up earlier than this spot, but I have doubts about him ever reaching his full potential.
32. Patrick Willis, inside linebacker, Mississippi – A terrific defender that brings an emotional presence to the field, Willis showed much better range than anticipated during Senior Bowl practices. Both the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers seemed to keep a closer eye on him throughout the week in Mobile. In fact, Niners linebacker coach Mike Singletary appeared to enjoy coaching the former SEC standout.
33. Chris Houston, cornerback, Arkansas – He's a name that may not yet be too familiar with draftniks, but opposing SEC offensive coordinators noticed his standout play against top-rated receivers such as Dwayne Bowe and Robert Meachem. He can run with the best of them, showing keen awareness against the pass. He also displayed a fair amount of aggressiveness with his willingness to support the run.
34. Zach Miller, tight end, Arizona State – He will battle Greg Olsen to be the first tight end taken off the board, but Miller may lack the pure foot speed to be selected in the first round. His blocking skills are far and away above Olsen, but he may be more of a short-to-intermediate type receiver at the next level.
35. Victor Abiamiri, defensive end, Notre Dame – He's an impressive guy in terms of size, speed and pass-rush ability, but his game still comes far too often in waves rather than a consistent flow. Abiamiri will get picked more on that potential than the level of play we have seen so far.
36. Paul Posluszny, outside linebacker, Penn State – At one time, just a year ago in fact, he could have declared and potentially been taken among the first 10 choices. The knee injury Posluszny suffered at the end of his junior campaign slowed him down early this season, but he plays with such dedication, emotion and will power that his effort didn't decrease. If he goes toward the bottom of the first round, a playoff-caliber team will add a player with great intangibles.
37. Daymeion Hughes, cornerback, California – His stock has fallen on several boards based on his lack of ideal speed, but he makes up for it with savvy ball skills and the quickness and athleticism to make plays if left out on an island full time. He has also been a very productive return man during his college career.
38. Tanard Jackson, defensive back, Syracuse – Jackson proved he is for real after his showing at the Senior Bowl. He was moved between cornerback and safety during the week, and that flexibility vaulted him above several other recognizable names. His stock is rising as we head into the NFL Combine.
39. Jay Moore, defensive end/outside linebacker, Nebraska – He went from the guy playing opposite Adam Carriker to a possible late first-round choice thanks to great size/speed ratio and ability to chase down the quarterback. His three-sack performance at the Senior Bowl did not hurt his chances of being a surprise first-rounder.
40. Sidney Rice, wide receiver, South Carolina – Rice is a smooth-striding receiver who has made so many big plays after the catch while showing the ability to make the difficult catch in traffic. There is a group of similar receivers that could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to as low as the third round based on how they work out and how the draft plays out.
41. Josh Wilson, cornerback, Maryland – If Vegas set odds on who would be the fastest player at the combine, I would let it roll on Wilson. He has flashed signs of becoming a top-flight defender, but he will bite on a double-move route or get caught flatfooted on some plays. He is very aggressive and has the ability to be a factor in run support, which is rare for a kid that can run sub-4.3.
42. Ryan Kalil, center, USC – He's the premier technician at the pivot spot for this year's draft, but he lacks great bulk and can get shoved around at times if playing with a man lined up over him. Still, there are fewer and fewer of those huge, space-eaters in the league and this kid has all the intangibles to be a 10-year starter in the middle of the line.
43. Justin Blalock, offensive line, Texas – He started out last season as a possible top 10 pick, but he has not been a great finisher the past year or so. Also, his body type and footwork are more geared towards him playing an interior line spot at the next level. A late-season knee injury has some concerned as he had his knee wrapped during each of the Senior Bowl practices.
44. Baraka Atkins, defensive line, Miami – Labeled as an underachiever by many earlier this season, myself included, Atkins stood out at the East-West Shrine game with his body type and raw athleticism. He runs like a deer at 275 pounds and was in top shape in the sense that he looks like he can carry 285 to 290 pounds without sacrificing any of his speed. That said, he has lapses with his technique and needs to learn to make better use of his hands. If he slides into the mid-to-late part of the second round, he could be a steal.
45. Marcus Thomas, defensive tackle, Florida – Yes, I know about his background with the off-field problem that cost him the chance to complete his senior campaign, but I also see the type of production and havoc he can cause on an opposing offense. He has first-round ability and has started to revive hopes of being taken early by jumping out several times during the Texas vs. the Nation practices. Several evaluators also noted his decision to skip Super Bowl party week for the chance to interview with teams. That helped put him back on the first day map.
46. Anthony Gonzalez, wide receiver, Ohio State – There are some on the Columbus campus that believe the Buckeyes lost their best receiver when Gonzalez declared, and that is high praise when you consider his teammate, Ted Ginn Jr., could be a top 10 choice. The ultra-competitive Gonzalez has great hands and has been timed in or around the 4.3 range in the past. He will turn heads and could move into late first-round consideration if he's clocked that fast in the 40 at the combine.
47. Brian Leonard, running back/fullback, Rutgers – The question will remain right up to the draft whether he is a running back or fullback in the pros. However, there is no question that he has all the necessary skills to be successful. His intangibles, competitive nature and willingness to go all-out on every down will make him a well-loved teammate, and he can line up in such a wide variety of positions that even Bill Belichick couldn't find enough time to draw up all the ways he could make use of him.
48. Quentin Moses, defensive end, Georgia – He's another prospect that had an up-and-down senior campaign. He still has terrific pass-rush skills, but he failed to excite at the Senior Bowl and had a very ordinary body type that made some wonder if he has a great desire to work hard in the weight room.
49. Ben Grubbs, offensive guard, Auburn – Most teams will not spend a high draft choice on an interior lineman, but when they start looking for them in the second and third rounds, he should be the first to come off the board. While others have played both tackle and guard, Grubbs exhibited quick feet and good enough strength to anchor his spot inside throughout his college career. A few other guard/tackles could challenge for this position, but Grubbs looked the best of the pure guards at the Senior Bowl.
50. Ryan McBean, defensive line, Oklahoma State – A true wild card that has come on like gangbusters since the start of his senior campaign, McBean passes the eye test with rave reviews, and he even cut out some of the extra bulk and body fat leading up to the Senior Bowl. At 275 pounds, McBean looks to have the frame to carry 290 without a problem. He showed an impressive blend of quickness, power and raw skill level in one-on-one drills.