NFL executives and scouts have characterized the 2013 NFL Draft class as one that lacks superstar talent at the top of the board but is littered with quality prospects down the line.
John Elway, Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations, echoed that sentiment in a recent interview with The Denver Post.
"The draft is not top-heavy," Elway told the Post's Mike Klis. "So we feel we can get as good a player at No. 28 as we could at 10. It's not like last year, with (Andrew) Luck and RG3 (Robert Griffin III). The year before, with Von (Miller), (Marcell) Dareus, A.J. Green and Patrick Peterson -- (a) loaded top end. This is probably a deeper draft, but not nearly as many top-impact guys."
To be fair, the classes from 2011 and 2012 might rank as two of the best in NFL history, based on the immediate contributions of their members. From the record-breaking performances of Cam Newton and Aldon Smith to the emergence of unheralded stars like Russell Wilson and Alfred Morris, the recent success of first-year players has been remarkable. This year, however, evaluators are struggling to assess the elite, blue- and red-chip prospects.
Now, the lack of sizzle surrounding this year's class is partially attributable to the fact that the top prospects play on the offensive line. Most observers are conditioned to expect a quarterback or pass rusher to dominate the headlines leading up to the draft, but the 2013 class lacks a clear-cut franchise player at those respective positions. As a result, teams looking for certainty have turned their attention to exceptional prospects at non-premier positions.
With that premise as a backdrop, I've identified the elite, blue- and red-chip prospects in the 2013 class, based on film study and several conversations with scouts and coaches around the league.
*These players should earn Pro Bowl recognition early in their careers and rank among the top five players at their respective positions within two or three years. *
*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) Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
2) Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
3) Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
4) Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
5) Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
6) Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, DE, BYU
7) Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
8) Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
9) Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
10) Keenan Allen, WR, Cal
11) Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
12) Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
13) Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
14) Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
15) Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
The blue-chip class is established through film study and workouts. Scouts spend a significant amount of time determining whether each prospect has the requisite critical factors (traits like athleticism, football intelligence, explosiveness and production) to develop into a difference-maker. Blue-chip players dominated the college competition, for the most part, while exhibiting the traits that traditionally translate into long-term success at the NFL level.
Red-chip players, on the other hand, demonstrate several blue-chip qualities and characteristics but lack the consistent profile of their blue-chip counterparts. Whether it's because of sub-standard physical dimensions and athleticism or inconsistent on-field performance, players in the red-chip category are regarded as being a notch below elite. In the right system, however, they could emerge as Pro Bowl players. Several of these prospects will hear their names called in the first round, though scouts across the league are divided in their opinions as to their pro potential.
*These players should contribute as part-time players initially but should be starters by the end of the season. Additionally, they should be key contributors on special teams and provide timely playmaking in their designated roles. *
1) Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU
2) Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
3) Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
4) Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
5) Eric Reid, S, LSU
6) Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
7) Matt Elam, S, Florida
8) David Amerson, CB, N.C. State
9) Robert Woods, WR, USC
10) Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
11) Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
12) Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
13) Matt Barkley, QB, USC
14) D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
15) EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State
16) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
17) Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
18) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
19) Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
20) Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
Given the depth of talent available in the 2013 NFL Draft, several prospects will inevitably outplay their draft status to become immediate difference-makers. Here are five guys whom I believe will make an immediate impact for their respective teams as rookies:
1) Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: Seen as the premier defender in college football for most of the fall, Jones experienced a dramatic slide down draft boards across the league thanks to his injury history (Jones was diagnosed with spinal stenosis at USC and banned from participation by the team's medical staff) and an unimpressive workout performance at Georgia's pro day. However, let's not forget that Jones racked up 28 sacks, 45.5 tackles for loss and nine forced fumbles in two seasons against SEC competition, displaying an explosive first step and a relentless motor off the edge. Those are traits that translate well to the pro game, which is why I believe Jones could make an immediate impact as a pass rusher despite his deficiencies in speed and athleticism.
2) Keenan Allen, WR, Cal: The NFL rules prohibiting excessive contact down the field have made big-bodied pass-catchers nearly indefensible; receivers with size, athleticism and ball skills routinely dominate smaller defenders in space. That's why Allen should thrive as a No. 1 receiver despite his pedestrian time in the 40-yard dash (4.71 seconds at his pro day) and his lack of explosiveness. Allen's combination of skills (route running and ball skills) and physicality allows him to routinely get open against more athletic defenders; quarterbacks will be encouraged to target him with "50-50" down the field. Additionally, his versatility as a potential X, Z or H will enable imaginative offensive coordinators to move him around in various formations to create mismatches in space.
3) Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina: Williams has flown under the radar for most of the pre-draft process, but coaches and scouts around the league have fallen in love with his talent, tenacity and work ethic in recent weeks. Evaluators view him as a dominant interior defender who can wreak havoc as a run stopper or pass rusher at the next level. When I talked to Williams in studio for the NFL Draft Tracker podcast, he compared his game to that of Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals, who led all interior defenders with 12.5 sacks in 2012. With the coaches' footage verifying that comparison, Williams could surpass his counterparts to emerge as the premier defensive tackle in the 2013 class in his rookie season.
4) Eric Reid, S, LSU: Scouts were touting Reid as a "can't miss" prospect in 2011, but a disappointing final season in Baton Rouge seemed to cool his stock in draft rooms around the league. However, momentum is beginning to build again behind Reid, with evaluators paying close attention to his athleticism, leadership and football intelligence. He is a bright defender who can handle the responsibility of controlling the back end. Most importantly, Reid is an athletic freak with the size, speed and agility to thrive as a centerfielder in the deep middle. Given the increased frequency of balls thrown between the hashes in the NFL, Reid's overall game and football intelligence will help him become a star as a rookie starter.
5) D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama: The right tackle position has increased in prominence in recent years, with more NFL teams valuing an exceptional run-blocker on the strong side of the line. Fluker, who has surprising movement skills to match his massive frame and impressive power, is one of the best power blockers in the draft. He moves defenders off the ball and shows a relentless desire to finish blocks downfield. Fluker's capacity to dominate on the edges could transform the fortunes of a franchise looking to establish a powerful running game to the edges.