NFL Draft: Juniors on the rise

Wes Bunting

It's been just over a week since the NFL issued its official list of eligible underclassmen for the 2009 draft. The number stands at 62 underclassmen. Names such as Michael Crabtree, the Texas Tech receiver, and Andre Smith, the Alabama tackle, immediately jumped toward the top of the draft class.

However, much like 2008 draft picks Branden Albert, the left tackle from Virginia, and Jerod Mayo, the linebacker from Tennessee, there are a few juniors who have not been properly evaluated and have a chance to move up draft boards. Albert and Mayo received second/third-round grades when they declared for the draft in mid-January, only to end up being selected in the top half of the first round.

The National Football Post breaks down five junior prospects from the 2009 class who have the talent to make that same leap up draft boards in the next several weeks.

DT SenDerrick Marks, Auburn (6-1, 295)

NFL player comparison: Anthony McFarland

Marks is an explosive, quick-twitch tackle who does a great job getting off the ball and bursting into opponents' backfields. He is a true one-gap defensive lineman who makes his living splitting the double team and using his quickness and leverage to get after the ball. He was ranked at the top of my defensive tackle ratings until the halfway point of the season, as he single-handedly carried the Auburn defense for quarters at a time. But his 6-1, 295-pound frame seemed to wear down as the season went on. He was really the only playmaker for Auburn inside and was consistently the key to every opposing offense's game plan. Marks finished the year with only one sack but was consistently fighting his way into opponents' backfields and making the lives of SEC quarterbacks absolutely miserable. Scouts are already starting to take notice of his elite first step, and his second/third-round grade is already starting to rise. Marks is a bit scheme limited, but interior pass rushers are always in high demand in the NFL. I fully expect Marks to shoot up draft boards after his combine performance, and he should put himself in position to warrant a first-round grade.

CB/FS Sean Smith, Utah (6-3, 210)

NFL player comparison: Nnamdi Asomugha

Smith had a productive junior season, totaling five interceptions and eight passes defended. However, he saved what may have been his best performance for the Sugar Bowl, where he fared very well in man coverage against freshman phenom Julio Jones. Smith has a long, angular frame and possesses great bend and redirection skills for his size. At 6-3, Smith is an imposing press cover man with the ability to consistently re-route receivers and turn and run down the field. His flexibility for his size is unmatched, and he exhibits an ability to find the ball and go up at the highest point. Smith is considered a CB/FS tweener, and there are concerns about his redirection skills in off-coverage. But much like 6-2 press corner Nnamdi Asomugha of the Oakland Raiders, Smith should do well if allowed to play mostly press coverage at the next level. As of now, Smith is a bit of an unknown and is being looked at more as a second-round pick. But if he runs as well as expected (sub-4.5), I can't see many teams passing on his tremendous upside in the first round.

TE James Casey, Rice (6-4, 245)

NFL player comparison: Chris Cooley

Casey is still something of an unknown, even among hardcore college fans. So here's the bottom line on him: 104 receptions for 1,217 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns in 2008. Those totals don't include his 231 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns and two touchdown passes. Yes, Casey has played QB, RB, WR and TE since he joined the Rice football team in 2007, following a four-year stint playing minor league baseball. Casey is one of the most naturally-gifted football players to come along in years and is more than just a small-school, jack-of-all-trades athlete. He has run in the 4.65 range, and if he runs that well at the combine, it might propel him all the way up to the end of the first round. Currently, he looks more like a second/third-round selection, as scouts are still a bit skeptical of this type of production. However, Casey's combination of physical skills and overall football talent are unmatched and should have him soaring up draft boards in the coming months.

WR Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina (6-1, 210)

NFL player comparison: Chad Johnson

Nicks turned in one of the most impressive bowl performances of the season, finishing with eight catches, 207 yards and three touchdowns against West Virginia in the Meineke Bowl. The problem is, Nicks isn't an ideal downfield threat and isn't going to run in the 4.4 range at the combine. However, what jumps out about Nicks is that he's likely the nation's most polished route-runner. He displays impressive body control and coordination when asked to change directions and does a great job sinking into his cuts and exploding out of his breaks. He does a great job gaining initial separation on short and intermediate routes and is an absolute bear to bring down after the catch. Now, even with the sub-4.3 speed of fellow junior wideouts Percy Harvin and Darrius Heyward-Bey likely to grab all the attention following the combine, I still expect Nicks to rise up draft boards and make an immediate impact. He's as NFL-ready as any receiver in the class, and even though he's currently viewed as a second-round pick, I don't think there's any way he escapes the first 25 selections.

CB Asher Allen, Georgia (5-10, 198)

NFL player comparison: Eugene Wilson

It will be virtually impossible for Allen to jump toward the head of a very talented cornerback class, although I fully expect him to move up from his current third/fourth-round grade. Allen is a bit undersized, but he possesses a thick build, smooth backpedal and good ball skills in man coverage. He led the Georgia secondary with seven pass breakups in 2008 and was consistently one of the best cover men in the SEC. He showcases the ability to get in and out of his breaks cleanly and looks very natural in both bump and off coverage. Currently, Allen ranks somewhere just outside the top 10 in the cornerback class. However, look for him to put himself in position to come off the board during the second round in the coming weeks, ahead of more publicized senior corners such as Victor Harris, Domonique Johnson and Mike Mickens.

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