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Intriguing defensive tackles bookend top 25 prospect list

Matthew Emmons / US Presswire
Despite tremendous skills, scouts have concerns over Nick Fairley's salty on-field demeanor.


With the start of the NFL Scouting Combine only two weeks away, scouts and coaches are in the midst of intense discussions regarding the 2011 NFL Draft class.

These meetings are often the first time that coaches are included in the evaluation process, and the introduction of background information doesn't have an impact on the grading scale at this point.

All-star games, however, have forced some scouts to reconsider their fall grades, as top prospects exceeded or fell short of expectations in workouts. While most teams operate under the premise that a performance at an all-star game can't hurt a player's grade, the impact of passing or failing the eyeball test ultimately results in prospects sliding up and down draft boards.

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Given the significant weight and impact of these games, let's take a look at my latest ranking of the top 25 prospects in the 2011 draft:

1. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: A dominant interior defender with outstanding physical tools, Fairley has the ability to play with finesse or power against the run or pass. Though questions about his work ethic and nasty on-field demeanor will concern some scouts, his remarkable ability to take over games makes it hard to supplant him at the top of the board.

2. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: A phenomenal athlete with outstanding speed and quickness, Bowers has natural rush skills off the edge and led the nation with 15.5 sacks. Some will tag him as a "one-year wonder" due to his dramatic jump in production from his previous years, but his exceptional talent and athleticism will lead scouts to bank on his tantalizing potential early in the draft.

3. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: Green is a big-play receiver with outstanding overall skills. He shows rare polish at the position and has the tools to thrive as a dynamic playmaker. If he posts impressive numbers in workouts, Green will enter the discussion as the possible top pick.

4. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: Peterson is a natural cover corner with exceptional physical tools. He can play from press or off, and shows a natural feel for the position. Throw in his big-play ability as a returner, and scouts are salivating over his outstanding skill set.

5. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama: Dareus is a rugged defensive tackle with excellent skills. He shows good strength and power at the point of attack, and possesses enough athleticism to slip through cracks when used on the move. With dominant interior defenders coveted at a premium, Dareus will intrigue teams looking for an instant impact on defense.

6. Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina: An explosive pass rusher with rare speed and quickness, Quinn races past offensive tackles on speed rushes. Quinn possesses the athleticism to develop an array of moves that could make him impossible to block on the next level. If he tests and interviews well at the combine, he could emerge as one of the draft's top picks, despite missing his final college season due to a suspension.

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7. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M: A dynamic edge rusher with explosive speed and quickness off the edge, Miller's sudden first-step puts immediate pressure on offensive tackles, and his evolving arsenal of rush moves has made him the premier 3-4 pass rusher in this draft. Given his exceptional performance against some of the country's top offensive tackles in rush drills, Miller is flying up draft boards as a potential impact player.

8. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: A crafty corner with good speed, quickness and athleticism, Amukamara's skill set translates well into any system, and he is one of the few polished cover corners in the draft.

9. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: A talented pass rusher with good quickness and athleticism, Clayborn shows natural skills off the edge and has the ability to take over when he is on his game. Although his motor doesn't run high at all times, his occasional flashes of brilliance make him an intriguing prospect.

10. Cameron Jordan, DE, California: Jordan is an athletic five-technique player with an outstanding motor. He is relentless in his approach and outworks blockers at the point of attack. Jordan was one of the most dominant defenders at the Senior Bowl, and his impressive combination of strength, power and athleticism makes him a possible match as a 3-4 defensive end.

11. Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: Solder is an athletic offensive tackle with good feet and movement skills. Although he is not a physical or aggressive blocker at the point of attack, his athleticism makes him an intriguing possibility at left tackle. His struggles in one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl raised some concerns about his readiness to be a premier tackle from Day 1, but his tremendous upside and potential makes him the top choice at the position.

12. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: A strong-armed quarterback with good instincts and intangibles, Gabbert struggled down the stretch, so his lofty status on draft boards could fall upon further review. Regardless, he is one of the top quarterbacks available in the draft, and he will carry a solid first-round grade based on his potential.

13. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: A big, talented playmaker with exceptional physical tools, Newton possesses rare size, strength and athleticism for the position, and made tremendous strides as a passer over the course of the 2010 season. While some of his production has been inflated due to Auburn's spread system, few can match his arm strength from the pocket. Questions about his character will also affect his status, but his winning pedigree and big-game performances will make it tough for teams to pass on his talent.

14. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: Jones is a dynamic receiver with excellent size and skills. He looks like a classic No. 1 receiver on film and could blossom into an all-star performer on the next level. With big, talented receivers coveted in most offensive systems, Jones will carry solid first-round grades on all boards across the league.

15. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: A talented interior defender with good strength and power, Liuget effectively occupies double teams and flashes sneaky athleticism while slipping through cracks. Although his sudden emergence will lead to a potential "one-year wonder" tag, he is too talented to pass up in the first round.

16. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA: Ayers is an athletic linebacker with outstanding instincts, awareness and versatility. He is capable of playing multiple spots on the second level and is a legitimate playmaker at the position. Given his quickness, he looks like a nice fit in a 4-3 scheme.

17. Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida: An athletic interior blocker with excellent movement skills, Pouncey -- the brother of Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey -- shows good instincts and awareness, and is capable of making all of the calls along the line. Throw in his ability to log snaps at center or guard, Pouncey should be an instant starter as a pro.

18. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: Kerrigan is a high-motor rusher with an explosive first step. He is relentless off the edge and routinely wins with his effort and energy. Although he still needs to develop a more complete array of rush moves, his blue-collar mentality will lead to success on the next level.

19. Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: A polished technician with good feet, balance and body control, Castonzo excels in the running game and is capable of thriving in a man- or zone-based blocking scheme. He helped himself with a solid showing at the Senior Bowl and could creep up draft boards once evaluators start to appreciate his overall game.

20. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: Watt is a high-motor edge player with the size and strength to play as a defensive end in a 3-4 or 4-3 front. He shows good first-step quickness, and his ability to anticipate the snap creates disruption at the point of attack. Throw in his relentless effort and energy, and it is easy to see why he carries a high grade heading into the combine.

21. Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State: Paea is a big run-stopper with outstanding strength and power. He routinely stuffs runs at the point of attack, and is an immovable anchor in the middle of the defense. Although an injury prevented him from fully displaying his skills at the Senior Bowl, he still ranks as a highly coveted player at the position.

22. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: Mallett might be the most talented passer in the draft. He can make all of the throws from the pocket, and shows good accuracy and touch on intermediate and deep throws. While his prickly personality and questionable mobility will cause some concerns, Mallett will be a tempting prospect for teams in desperate need of a quarterback.

23. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: A physical runner with exceptional feet, quickness and vision, Ingram shows an outstanding feel for finding cracks in the defense, and his rugged style allows him to run through tackles in the hole. He might not be an every-down back on the next level, but his skills will intrigue teams looking for a dependable front-line runner.

24. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: A big, physical blocker with the strength to move defenders off the ball, Carimi excels in the running game and appears to be an ideal right tackle prospect. He showed better-than-anticipated footwork and movement skills in pass protection during Senior Bowl workouts. He looks like a solid late first-round pick at this point.

25. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple: Wilkerson is a big-time player who is creating a buzz in scouting circles. He has the ability to play anywhere on the line in a 3-4 front and scouts are salivating over his potential to dominate on the next level. Given his versatility, size and skills, he is an intriguing prospect poised to make a late surge up draft boards.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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