|Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press|
|Ohio State DT Cameron Heyward, son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, is among 2011's top draft prospects.|
The draft is barely in the books, but scouts have already turned their focus to next year's prospects.
In looking at the senior class, next year could be heavily influenced by the defensive side of the ball. While pass rushers always rank at a premium, 2011 is similar to 2010 in that it is loaded with quality defensive tackles that have the potential to provide an instant impact.
Still, when all is said and done, a quarterback could end up being the No. 1 overall pick.
While it's important to remember that these are tentative projections that are bound to change due to a number of factors (production, injuries and/or character concerns), let's take a look at some of the top prospects in the 2011 senior class:
1. Jake Locker, Washington, QB: Locker is an athletic quarterback being groomed in a pro-style scheme under Steve Sarkisian. He made dramatic strides last season, and his continued development as a pocket passer gives him the best chance of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011. With his physical tools, running ability and intangibles, Locker is shaping up to be the kind of franchise quarterback scouts covet at the top of the board, and would be a natural fit in any style of offense.
2. Adrian Clayborn, Iowa, DE: Clayborn is a disruptive edge player, who can rush the passer or defend the run. He excels at creating negative plays, producing 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. With pass rushers always at a premium, Clayborn is viewed as a top-10 talent heading into next season.
3. Marvin Austin, North Carolina, DT: Austin's an interior rusher with superior quickness and burst. He's adept at working angles, and his surprising movement skills make him intriguing as a nose tackle or three-technique. Also graced with exceptional strength and power, Austin's undoubtedly one of the top interior defender prospects.
4. Cameron Heyward, Ohio State, DT: The son of former Pro Bowl running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who passed away in 2006, has been on the rise after putting together a solid junior campaign. He led the Buckeyes with 6.5 sacks, and has the combination of size (6-foot-5, 288 pounds) and power to make him an ideal fit in multiple schemes as a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end.
5. Bruce Carter, North Carolina, LB: Carter naturally flows from sideline-to-sideline, and possesses the burst to run down ball carriers from the backside. He's also a difference-maker in the kicking game with five blocks last season. Given his multi-faceted game and big-play ability, it's not surprising Carter is widely considered the top player at his position.
6. Ras-I Dowling, Virginia, CB: Dowling has jumped to the top of the charts due to his impressive combination of size (6-2, 200), speed and talent. He's an imposing physical presence and shows ball skills and awareness in coverage. Although some scouts will view him as a potential safety, Dowling can cement his status as a top-flight corner with another solid season.
7. Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin, OT: Carimi is a rugged blocker with solid all-around skills. He's a surprisingly polished technician who displays quick feet and good hands. Though his game continues to need some refinement, Carimi has all of the tools to develop into an elite offense tackle as a pro.
8. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College, OT: The Eagles have a strong reputation for producing quality NFL offensive linemen, and Castonzo is poised to become the latest to carry on the tradition. The big (6-7, 295), imposing blocker has enticing potential, but needs to keep honing his technique to become a special prospect.
9. DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson, S: McDaniel made a major splash last season by leading the ACC with eight interceptions as a junior. He's a natural ball hawk, but can also be a hard-hitter with the ability to be a difference-maker against the run. With the safety position evolving in the modern game, McDaniel's versatility makes him an attractive option.
10. Von Miller, Texas A&M, OLB: Miller led the nation with 17 sacks last season, and is one of the few hybrid prospects with extensive experience in the 3-4. Miller specializes in creating instant pressure off the edge with first-step quickness. His knack for creating disruptive plays will stand out in the minds of evaluators. With more teams incorporating some version of the 3-4 in their playbooks, Miller will garner a lot of attention.
11. Allen Bailey, Miami, DT/DE: Bailey has the ability to line up at defensive end or tackle in a 4-3 scheme. He's a high-motor player with an exceptional first step and burst. Although Bailey has the size (6-4, 288) and strength to play rough and rugged at the point, he possesses the athleticism to work a blocker's edges. With seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss, scouts are intrigued by his disruptive potential.
12. Curtis Brown, Texas, CB: Brown is in line to become the next Longhorn star in the secondary. An electrifying athlete with outstanding speed, Brown could be a rare shutdown corner. Adept at playing in press coverage, Brown routinely blankets receivers and can do so without safety help. Though some will pick apart his game for having just one interception last season, his cover skills rank among the best in the college game.