As we get closer to the 2013 NFL Draft, we hear more and more about the supposedly lackluster crop of prospects teams have to pick from. You know the chorus: There's no clear-cut No. 1 pick. There aren't any instant superstars-in-waiting. While that's true, I think this class is underrated and actually much better than many people think.
Every draft is different. People think having a lack of attention-grabbing names means it's a bad year to be drafting. No one in this class can match 2012 headliners Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III or 2011 standout Cam Newton -- in fact, last year's eighth overall pick, Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, would probably be the first player off the board this year. But several high-ceiling prospects will be entering the league in 2013. Moreover, the second-tier talent (players who will be picked from 11 to 50 or so) is better than the talent at that level in last year's draft. This is going to be a quality draft, despite what folks are saying.
With that in mind, I've put together a list of prospects who project as top-notch future starters, guys who are going to make multiple Pro Bowls in the years to come. They don't have the highest profiles -- this class is heavy on standout offensive and defensive linemen -- but they do have the size, speed, strength and football smarts to suggest they'll be studs in the long term, with a better-than-average chance of starting in 2013.
You won't find any quarterbacks on this list (all come with too many question marks). And you won't find the kinds of prospects who flash plenty of potential, but are far from sure things. (Tavon Austin might very well thrive in the NFL, but his lack of size would make him an exception to the rule.) This list, arranged in alphabetical order, is made up of players who will stand out years from now as gems of this draft class.
Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU
Ansah was among a group of defensive ends picked out to practice linebacker techniques at the NFL Scouting Combine, and it was just unbelievable how well he mastered dropping into space and reacting to the ball. This versatility significantly boosts his long-term potential. He'll do equally well whether he's working as an outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense or as a defensive end in a 4-3. The Ghana native's story is already amazing, given how little football experience he has; multiple Pro Bowl appearances will simply make it more so.
Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
When I first started looking at Cooper, I wasn't blown away, but he's the kind of player who grows on you. He has the kind of body build (6-foot-2 1/8, 311 pounds) that would easily allow him to get up to 330 pounds. Cooper has amazing foot quickness. He's strong enough to take people on, but he can also pull, and he's smart. (He could probably be a very, very good center.) He's an example of how an offensive lineman who exhausts his eligibility learns so much more about being a football player than a guy who comes out early.
Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
This guy is something else. Some guys have heavy feet -- the ground pounders of the game. But Fisher, who completed the short shuttle in 4.44 seconds at the combine, has really light, quick feet -- probably the best feet of any offensive lineman in this class. Fisher is like a carbon copy of San Francisco 49ers tackle Joe Staley, only a little bit taller (Fisher is 6-7 1/4; Staley is 6-5). He has long arms (34.5 inches), which made his ability to throw the bar up 27 times all the more impressive. Fisher has put his time in, and he's worked hard. The former high school basketball player is an athlete.
Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Of all the offensive tackles we have on this list, Joeckel is probably the most ready to compete at a high level. He's also probably the best technician -- with the best hand placement -- of the group. He'll be a lot like -- but not quite as good as -- Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas. He and Fisher are each strong (both recorded 27 reps on the bench press at the combine); the two of them are just about two peas in a pod. Joeckel will be playing in this league for a long time.
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
Jerry Schmidt, the weight coach at Oklahoma who does a great job developing players like Johnson, thinks this guy has as much potential as any Sooner lineman he's ever been around. Johnson played quarterback at Kilgore junior college and spent time at tight end and defensive end at Oklahoma before switching to the offensive line. He's big (6-6, 303 pounds) and fast (4.72-second 40-yard dash). Once he gets some experience, I could see him becoming a perennial Pro Bowler for a number of years. When his team was getting walloped by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, Johnson was the exception, doing a tremendous job of blocking Damontre Moore.
Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon
Jordan has real star potential. He could have used a torn labrum as an excuse for not working out at the combine, but he didn't; the only thing he didn't do was lift. I love the attitude of anyone who works out when they don't have to. I also love his length (6-6 1/4). Jordan is very fast, with good change-of-direction ability and long arms. Given Jordan's attitude, aggressiveness and athleticism, there's a good chance that his drafting team will have a star on its hands.
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Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
No cornerback has ever been taken with the first overall draft pick, and it's not likely to happen this year, either. But if the Kansas City Chiefs -- who already took care of their needs at quarterback (maneuvering for Alex Smith) and offensive line (franchising Branden Albert) -- want to use this spot to boost their secondary, Milliner would be well worth a look. With his size and speed, he's the prototypical corner everyone's looking for, like a faster Darrelle Revis. Milliner makes plays, boasting really good ball-reaction skills. I think he's going to be very, very good and visit the Pro Bowl many times.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
Mingo's past productivity is not quite as good as you want it to be, but he's probably the best athlete of this group; he's like the small forward who out-hustles everyone on the basketball court. He's long, fast and can turn the corner. Mingo has the skills needed to play the position and can work with his hand on the ground or in space. He needs to play with better leverage and take on blockers more effectively, but he'll learn how to do that.
Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Warmack is probably as dominant an offensive lineman as I've seen in college football recently. He's not that fast, but he's great at getting to the second tier. I think he's largely the reason that Alabama's running game was so good. He'll be a fantastic inside pass protector and should help immensely against the Haloti Ngatas and Henry Meltons of the world.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Vaccaro is one of the most aggressive defensive backs to enter the draft in a while, a tough guy who reminds me of Brian Dawkins. He looked great in drills, showing very good recognition skills; his ability to read the offense and make plays with his vision and expertise will overcome OK-but-not-great speed. If he can replicate what he did at the college level, he'll be an excellent pro player for a long time to come.
GUYS WHO MISSED THE CUT
2013 Pro Days Schedule By Date
Between the combine and the draft, prospects work out for scouts at individual pro days at their respective schools. Full schedule.
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Floyd has a lot of upside as a strong playmaker. I just wish he was a little taller. I think he's good, but I'm not sure he'll be exceptional.