|Morris Claiborne (left) and Dre Kirkpatrick lead a strong group of cornerbacks in the 2012 NFL Draft class.|
The top storylines of nearly every draft revolve around top-10 talents at quarterback, running back, offensive tackle and defensive end. It is, therefore, no surprise that Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil and Quinton Coples have become household names over the past few months.
NFL teams not only must study the top prospects at "sexy" positions, but also players in those spots who could play roles in their schemes. This year, the depth of the four aforementioned position groups in this are generally average, with potential difference-makers available in the early rounds, solid contributors in the middle rounds and a few potential surprise starters in the late rounds of the draft.
But general managers looking for interior linemen on offense or defense, or wide receivers and cornerbacks to battle downfield in the passing game, will benefit from especially strong talent in this draft. Those begging for help in the back half of the defense or looking to load up on tight ends to emulate the Patriots' 2011 passing attack, however, could be disappointed.
Positions of Strength
SEC first-round cornerback talents Morris Claiborne (LSU), Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama) are likely to step into starting roles on the outside as rookies. But it's the potential starters likely to hear their names called Friday night in Radio City Music Hall that make this group among the deepest in the draft class.
Dwight Bentley (Louisiana-Lafayette), Jamell Fleming (Oklahoma), Jayron Hosley (Virginia Tech), Josh Robinson (UCF) lead a strong contingent of top 100 cornerbacks. Later on, small-school prospects Asa Jackson (Cal Poly) and Micah Pellerin (Hampton) join feisty players from bigger programs in Ron Brooks (LSU) and Terrence Frederick (Texas A&M) as potential starters or heavy contributors.
The receiver classes in the past two drafts were a bit down, but this year's crop undoubtedly reverses that trend. In addition to the top two prospects, Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) and Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), and a bevy of top 50 selections from Baylor's Kendall Wright to Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers), teams will also find quality pass-catchers throughout the rest of the draft.
If A.J. Jenkins (Illinois), Marvin Jones (California), Marvin McNutt (Iowa), DeVier Posey (Ohio State), Tommy Streeter (Miami) are still available on Saturday, some teams are going to get bargains. And big-bodied receivers like Junior Hemingway (Michigan) and slot/returner prospects like Devon Wylie (Fresno State) bring exceptional value on the final day of the proceedings.
Interior Offensive Line
Guard David DeCastro (Stanford) could be the highest guard selected since Chris Naeole was picked 10th overall by then-head coach Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints in 1997. Center Peter Konz (Wisconsin) might join DeCastro in the first round, or give the Badgers a one-two punch in the second round, where teammate Kevin Zeitler is expected to go.
Teams waiting until Saturday to pick up potential starters inside might be rewarded. Tough-minded guards Lucas Nix (Pittsburgh) and underrated Derek Dennis (Temple) and Desmond Wynn (Rutgers) are possible steals, along with pivot men David Molk (Michigan) and Garth Gerhart (Arizona State).
There might not be any tackles selected in the top 10 picks. A run of five or six could fill out the rest of Thursday night's selections, however, and a hustling interior presence like Brandon Thompson (Clemson) would be a bargain if still waiting around for his name to be called Friday evening.
The depth of the group is impressive, with nose tackles Mike Martin (Michigan) and Alameda Ta'amu (Washington) and athletic three-techniques like Jaye Howard (Florida) littering the middle of the draft. Taking a chance on intriguing project picks Akiem Hicks from University of Regina (Canada) and Dominique Hamilton from Missouri might pay off in year two or three.
Shallow Scouting Waters
Even if college defensive ends Andre Branch (Clemson) and Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) are picked in the first round as 3-4 rush linebackers, there are not a lot of inspiring second-level defenders in this draft. North Carolina's Zach Brown and Nebraska's Lavonte David could be good second-round picks if their inconsistency and lack of size, respectively, keep them from the first.
Teams might force players like Bobby Wagner (Utah State) and James-Michael Johnson (Nevada) into the second round due to their needs at the position. Demario Davis (Arkansas State) and Josh Kaddu (Oregon) could be third-round picks, as well, because of teams' lack of excitement about later-round linebacker prospects.
Stanford's Coby Fleener might have run himself into a first-round selection with his sub-4.5 40-yard dash at his pro day. If team needs push him out of the top 32 selections, however, he would join Dwayne Allen (Clemson) and Orson Charles (Georgia) as second-round picks who will quickly make an impact with their new teams. But Allen's average speed and Charles' average size (and untimely DUI arrest) haven't endeared them to teams looking for elite talent at the position.
While some athletic receiver-types (Ladarius Green from Louisiana-Lafayette, Deangelo Peterson from LSU) will be selected in rounds three through seven, coaches are not expecting more than one or two to become consistent contributors. Potential H-backs Drake Dunsmore (Northwestern) and Brad Smelley (Alabama) give teams utilizing that sort of player some hope they'll find a valued reserve.
General managers have known most of the year that they should not rely on this year's draft class to produce a ton of playmaking safeties. Alabama's Mark Barron has enough all-around game to carry high value, and the stock of Notre Dame's Harrison Smith soared both from a strong combine workout and from a dearth of top 100 safety talent.
Each year a couple safeties turn out to be starters despite being picked late; fifth-round picks Kendrick Lewis (Kansas City) and Kam Chancellor (Seattle) and seventh-rounder Kurt Coleman (Philadelphia) are three examples from the 2010 draft. The competitive Brandon Taylor (LSU) and athletic Aaron Henry (Wisconsin) are two of the leading candidates from this year's class -- unless teams are so worried about finding talent in the deep secondary that they nab Taylor and Henry earlier than expected.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter