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2012 NFL Draft tiers: Elite prospects, blue chips, red chips

It is not a coincidence the NFL's perennial title contenders are also the teams that routinely walk away with the best draft classes.

Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants are lauded for their ability to identify talented players at every stage of the draft, but they excel at hitting home runs with their early selections, particularly in the first round.

While every team hopes to find difference makers in the draft's opening round, the fact that these squads have consistently found blue chippers at the bottom of the first round is a tribute to their keen understanding of the draft board and how to identify overlooked blue chippers.

As a young scout for the Seattle Seahawks from 2000-03, I learned from Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan that most draft classes feature five to eight elite prospects and another 20 players who carry consensus first-round grades across the league. Although this group of 25 or so players with legitimate first-round grades fails to completely fill out the draft's opening stanza, the formula took into the account the different grading systems and player-specific preferences for various teams throughout the league, and provided our team with a quality pool of players to focus our efforts on.

Based on that premise and a few conversations with several scouts around the league, here are the three different tiers at the top of the 2012 draft class:

Elite prospects

These players should earn Pro Bowl recognition early in their careers, and rank among the top five players at their respective positions within two to three years.

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
4. Matt Kalil, OT, USC
5. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
6. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State

Blue chips

These prospects are regarded as difference makers, based solely on their talent. They should start as rookies and make immediate contributions to their respective teams.

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1. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
2. Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina
3. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
4. Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
5. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
6. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
7. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
8. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
9. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
10. Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
11. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
12. Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
13. Cordy Glenn, OG/OT, Georgia
14. Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
15. Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois
16. Mark Barron, S, Alabama
17. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
18. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
19. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
20. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State

With a definitive blue-chip class established through film study and workouts, scouts turn their attention to the next tier of players to determine the order of the borderline blue-chip prospects in the class. These players, who fall under the red-chip category, possess a few blue qualities (critical factors like athleticism, football intelligence, explosiveness and production), but lack the consistent profile of their blue counterparts. In the right system, however, they could emerge as Pro Bowlers and impact players. Some of these players will hear their names called in the first round, but scouts across the league were divided in their opinions on their pro potential.

Red chips

These players should contribute as part-time players initially, but finish the season as starters for their respective teams. In addition, they should be key contributors on special teams and provide timely playmaking in their designated roles.

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1. Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
2. Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama
3. Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State
4. Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson
5. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
6. David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
7. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
8. Devon Still, DT, Penn State
9. Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina
10. Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
11. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
12. Nick Perry, DE/OLB, USC
13. Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame
14. Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
15. Doug Martin, RB, Boise State

The aforementioned prospects listed in the red-chip category are firmly established as top-40 picks, with several expected to come off the board in the first round. Round selection isn't always the best indication of a prospect's pro potential, but I believe there are players on the red list who will make an immediate impact on the NFL based on their talent and potential. Here is a closer look at five red chippers who I expect to thrive as rookies:

1. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: With more teams heavily incorporating tight ends into their game plans, Fleener could become an instant star with his dynamic receiving skills. At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds with 4.5 speed, he is fast enough to make plays down the field, while also possessing the big frame to be an effective target between the hashes.

2. Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame: To combat the athletic tight ends that are beginning to take over the league, teams are looking for versatile safeties with the skills to play in space. Smith is not only capable of locking up in man coverage, but he is a ferocious hitter adept at playing near the line of scrimmage.

3. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami: The devaluation of the running back position will prompt some teams to bypass on runners early in the draft, but Miller is a home-run hitter with a game that reminds some evaluators of Tennessee's Chris Johnson. Given the importance of explosive plays to offensive production, Miller could be a surprise candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

4. Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska: The proliferation of the 3-4 has caused some to overlook talented Will linebackers ideally suited for Tampa 2 schemes. However, David is a speedy playmaker with the instincts and awareness to create disruption at the second level as a run-through player on the backside.

5. Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama: It's funny how a few workouts in shorts and T-shirts can alter the opinion on a good football player, but that certainly appears to be the case with Upshaw. He has been a dominant defender in the college football's toughest conference, and his consistent production on tape should outweigh the concerns regarding his athletic ability. Upshaw possesses all of the intangibles to be an effective pro as an edge player and should shine in a situational role during his first year.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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