I haven’t done one of these in a while, so here are my top 32 prospects as of mid-March.
1. Nick Fairley, DT/DE, Auburn: Very few players are capable of taking over games from the heart of the trenches. Fairley is dominant against the run and the pass, showing very few weaknesses in his game. He should be in the same class as Ndamukong Suh, Haloti Ngata, and Darnell Dockett very soon. Carolina, Denver, and Buffalo all desperately need an inside presence like Fairley on their team.
2. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: Green has the unbelievable combination of height, hands, and explosiveness that every team covets minus the diva attitude. A skinnier Calvin Johnson comes to mind.
3. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: Yes, Julio Jones is in my top three because he brings a toughness and physicality to the receiver position that you just don’t see these days. His frame has to remind you of Andre Johnson, and he ran a sub-4.4 on a broken foot. A rare blend of toughness and talent who appears to be a very, very safe pick.
4. Marcell Dareus, DT/DE, Alabama: Dareus is stout against the run and will beat pretty much any guard in the league one-on-one. He’s not quite as dominant as Fairley, but he’s as complete as they come and can play in any scheme. It’s very hard to envision a scenario where he’s not a high level starter within the next two or three seasons.
5. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: Peterson has all the talent in the world, plays aggressively, and is also a dynamic return man. While he plays with sound technique, I don’t see the elite instincts of Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha. However, he should be a very good starting cornerback and return man at the next level.
6. Von Miller, OLB, Texas AM: An ideal 3-4 linebacker, Von Miller is the best pass rusher in this draft class and comparisons to DeMarcus Ware are legitimate. His frame appears to be maxed out at 246 pounds though and likely won’t be all that good in a 4-3. A perfect fit for Arizona or San Francisco.
7. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina: A phenomenal pure pass rusher who can thrive in any defense. His athleticism is astonishing and reminds me of a taller Dwight Freeney the way he runs the arc. However, he’s been out of football for a year and still needs to develop better pass rush moves.
8. Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: A natural fit as a 4-3 end who looks like a man among boys on the field. He is big and disruptive, but there are some questions about him being a one year wonder, his health, and rawness.
9. Ryan Kerrigan, DE/OLB, Purdue: Kerrigan isn’t nearly as physically gifted as the pass rushers in front of him, but he is a great fit as a 4-3 end and has very developed pass rush moves. He is also a master of the forced fumble, and looks to be more pro-ready than Quinn or Bowers, though he doesn’t have quite as much potential.
10. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: Carimi is much more sound in pass protection than people give him credit for. What isn’t in question is his experience, prototypical size, and run blocking skills. He’s a very well-rounded tackle who shouldn’t be written off as a right tackle. Just because he’s not a finesse player doesn’t mean he’s not good enough to handle the best pass rushers in the league.
11. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: Very fundamentally sound, a willing tackler, and unbelievably instinctive, Prince has everything teams are looking for in an NFL corner. What bothers me is that Justin Blackmon won their battle decisively in 2010, and Amukamara will have to match up with players as good or better than him every week in the NFL.
12. Tyron Smith, OT, USC: A physical marvel who looks the part of a franchise left tackle. He’s more polished than people give him credit for, but he’s always played on the right side in college.
13. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: Not an elite edge rusher, but Watt can do so many other things well. He is a disruptive force and is great at batting passes down at the line of scrimmage. He can thrive as an end in either the 4-3 or 3-4 and will enjoy success with any team that drafts him.
14. Corey Liuget, DT/DE, Illinois: Liuget is extremely stout against the run and offers enough in terms of pass rush and lateral quickness. He’s not quite as complete or dominant as Fairley or Dareus, but he will be a solid starter in pretty much any scheme.
15. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Not a blazer, but Ingram simply knows how to run the football. His instincts, power, and toughness will make him an excellent and complete back in the NFL. If he’s paired with a home-run hitter, he could lead one of the most dangerous backfields in the league.
16. Mike Pouncey, G, Florida: Pouncey is a much better fit at guard than at center where he will be able to show his elite lateral mobility. He is easily the best puller in college football and will be a great fit for a team that relies on the screen game. He can provide depth at many positions, and has no major flaws in his game.
17. Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia: I love how Dowling plays the game. He’s a physical corner who is smart and instinctive and has good ball skills. He answered my questions about his long speed at the combine, and he’s a player that reminds me an awful lot of Malcom Jenkins, who eventually moved to free safety.
18. Rahim Moore, S, UCLA: Moore is a ballhawk in the defensive backfield, and quarterbacks will throw away from him in zone coverage. While he won’t deliver the knockout blow, he’s a reliable tackler who won’t be much of a liability in run support.
19. Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: Baldwin is really a special talent at 6’5″, and he has plenty of production to match his frame. He will win jump balls as often as anybody in this draft class and is a true vertical threat who is tough to outleap for the ball. He’s still raw, but should be a dangerous weapon down the road.
20. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA: Ayers doesn’t really look like a star to me, but there’s no questioning his versatility. He can play in any scheme, rush the passer, drop into coverage, and stop the run. He’s a three down player with no glaring weaknesses, although he isn’t a true difference-maker.
21. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: The character concerns with Mallett have been blown way out of proportion. He’s got the strongest, most reliable arm in this draft class and has shown that he is capable of moving his offense up and down the field against the nation’s toughest competition week in and week out.
22. Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: Castonzo isn’t a dominant player in any phase of the game, but he appears to be a well-rounded tackle who can be a steady starter on either side for somebody.
23. Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor: I haven’t seen Taylor much in game action, but he is the prototype nose tackle for the 3-4 and the way he takes care of his body tells scouts a lot about his work ethic. Talent, work ethic, and playing a critical position will get you drafted in the first round these days.
24. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE/DT, Temple: I would have liked to have seen a little more dominance on the part of Wilkerson, who played against lesser competition. However, he’s a perfect fit as a 5-technique and performed well against Penn State.
25. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri: There’s no denying Smith’s pure talent. He’s long, lanky, and has a great burst. In many ways, he reminds me of Robert Quinn, but he’s not quite as smooth. He could be a great pass rusher, but he has to refine his game and get stronger before he can really make an impact in the NFL.
26. Orlando Franklin, OG, Miami: Franklin is nimble, powerful, and nasty. He has everything teams covet in guards, and will be a steal in the third round, where he will probably be drafted. Think Todd Herremans, but his potential does not end there.
27. Cameron Jordan, DE, California: In my opinion, Jordan has been a little too overhyped over the last month. He’s a solid 3-4 end who plays with very good technique, but I don’t see anything overly special about him.
28. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: Clayborn will be a 4-3 left end at the next level, and while he will be a good one, he will never be an elite pass rusher. He is stout against the run and can get to the quarterback, but nothing he does makes me fall off my rocker. He also has a bizarre shoulder condition that sort of freaks me out.
29. Johnny Patrick, CB, Louisville: Patrick is a very underrated prospect who has good size, length, and speed. Unlike most other corners in this class, he plays bigger and faster than he measures and is a fierce competitor on the gridiron. I love his aggressiveness and confidence.
30. Aaron Williams, CB, Texas: Williams is a long cover man who can fit in pretty much any system. He’s willing to tackle and is a fluid athlete. Apparently, he had a poor combine though and he isn’t all that polished.
31. Ryan Williams, RB, Virginia Tech: A complete back with very good balance and vision, Williams can break the big one but can also withstand a heavy load of carries in the NFL. He only has one productive college season though.
32. Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado: Supremely talented, Jimmy Smith has the chance to be the next great NFL cornerback. However, his character concerns appear to be serious issues and many teams are dropping him off their boards entirely.
Did not make the list: QB Cam Newton, QB Blaine Gabbert, OT Nate Solder, OT Derek Sherrod, DE/OLB Justin Houston, DE Cameron Heyward, DT Stephen Paea, CB Brandon Harris