Around this time two years ago, I had a pretty good handle on how the 2011 NFL Draft was going to go. With standout prospects like receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Cam Newton in the field, it was fairly easy to arrange the available talent in a logical order, and the first 10 picks played out exactly how I thought they would.
I wish I felt that comfortable about the top 10 this year, but it's far, far less cut-and-dry. There's no obvious hierarchy in terms of talent. Just look at the offensive tackle position: Some think Luke Joeckel is the top dog, while others like Eric Fisher more. I don't think I've ever seen a draft class that presented as many legitimate options for teams making early picks.
So when I sat down to update my Hot 100 list, I was hardly surprised that the rankings had shifted significantly since I last did this exercise back in February, before the NFL Scouting Combine. Bjoern Werner, for instance, dropped from No. 2 to No. 26; his replacement at No. 2, Ezekiel Ansah, rose from No. 11.
One thing to note about this class: While the top talent doesn't stand out as much as it did in years past, there are more gems to be had in the middle and lower tiers than there have been in previous drafts.
Before we delve into my list of the 100 best prospects, remember that I graded these guys according to tried-and-true benchmarks. This is how the numbers stack up. Ansah isn't No. 2 just because I like him second-best; he's there because that's where his grade puts him.
NOTE II: If he were 100 percent healthy, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore would be ranked somewhere between No. 15 and No. 20.
1) Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M (Prior rank: 1)
He'll be able to start and contribute in the NFL right away, thanks to his excellent technique; he understands hand placement. Joeckel was extremely well-coached at Texas A&M, where he'd been a starter since Day 1.
2) Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU (11)
Way back in October, before anyone really knew who he was, I picked Ansah as a prospect to watch; I've enjoyed watching his rise since. The relative football newbie is a unique individual in terms of how quickly he seems to have taken to the game. Some guys can play for years without grasping the nuances of competing on the defensive line as well as Ansah has in this early phase of his career.
3) Dion Jordan, OLB/DE, Oregon (10)
Just a few years ago, Jordan was a reserve tight end who was called in and informed he'd be switching to defense. So what did he do? Turn himself into one of the hottest defensive prospects in the draft. I'm still impressed with this, too: Rather than hide behind a torn labrum, Jordan postponed surgery so he could work out at the NFL Scouting Combine. That really speaks highly of a guy.
5) Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan (7)
I think what really cemented me on Fisher was how well he played against Michigan State last season. That's what you look for when you're evaluating guys from small schools and lesser conferences: How do they stack up against better teams with better players? Well, in his test, Fisher didn't blink.
6) Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama (8)
Milliner is a very good blitzer; he reminds me of Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ike Taylor when he comes off the corner. He's also very instinctive. There are guys who can cover but aren't instinctive; for example, they don't time their jumps right, giving their man room to make a play. You don't see Milliner letting that kind of thing happen.
7) Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (4)
I've watched this young man grow and mature over the past year as a player and a person, and he's left a very good impression on me. He used to be kind of a shy guy, but when you talk to him now, he comes across as much more authoritative. I don't question his work habits and I know he has a strong arm and good accuracy. He's also been very durable. Anyone who doubts him should just pop in tape of West Virginia's 2012 Orange Bowl matchup against Clemson, during which Smith logged six touchdown passes.
8) Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee (17)
Patterson, who has just one year of major college experience under his belt, is a high-risk, high-reward prospect. His old coach at Tennessee, current Dallas Cowboys receivers coach Derek Dooley, told me that Patterson can be a head coach's delight -- though whoever becomes his offensive coordinator will have to coach him to bring his talent out.
9) Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida
Rhodes has a history of struggling with off coverage, which was why I ranked him at No. 28 in February. Since then, however, he's done a great job working to get better, recognizing his weakness and doing his best to fix it; everybody who works him out now says he's improved in off coverage quite a bit.
10) Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU (15)
Mingo is a very good person. Whenever I need to get ahold of a player at LSU, I call Mingo, and in about 10 minutes, I've got the guy on the phone. He possesses tremendous speed and quickness, but needs to get stronger. Here's the question: Is Mingo -- who didn't lift at LSU's Pro Day or at the combine -- the kind of guy who will put in the work in the weight room? I think the answer is yes.
11) Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma (14)
Any time you take somebody who has hopes of being a quarterback at a major college program and tell him he's going to play another position -- which is essentially what happened to this former high school/junior college signal-caller at Oklahoma, where he bounced from tight end to offensive tackle -- that person's going to have to deal with quite a culture shock. The Sooner coaching staff -- specifically strength coach Jerry Schmidt -- should get credit for doing a tremendous job with Johnson, making him stronger and turning him into a top prospect. I won't be surprised if the Miami Dolphins trade up from No. 12 to draft him.
12) Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame (25)
A very good receiver, Eifert worked hard to improve his blocking and now excels at that, as well. He doesn't have any weaknesses and is also a quality person. Incidentally, that seems to be a trend in this draft class; I haven't run into any bad apples yet.
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14) Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina (22)
With 48 college starts under his belt, Cooper's another guy who can contribute right away as a rookie. Historically, when a guy starts more than 40 games in college, he's almost a cinch to compete at a high level in the NFL. Cooper can play either center or guard.
15) Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri (13)
One thing I really like about Richardson: When I asked him why he went to junior college, he told me it was because he didn't pay enough attention to academics in high school, and he said he'd learned his lesson. It stands out when a guy owns up to something like that. He's also strong, long-armed, athletic and quick, and he plays hard.
16) D.J. Fluker, OL, Alabama (24)
Big players look small next to the gargantuan Fluker (6-foot-5, 339 pounds), a strong offensive lineman with good punch. According to his coaches, his best position is right tackle.
17) Tavon Austin, WR, West
I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Austin is going to be a huge matchup problem in the NFL. You don't normally like small players (Austin measures 5-foot-8 1/2), but he can do everything, whether it's catching passes, lining up in the backfield or returning kicks and punts. He doesn't always catch the ball cleanly, but he's very competitive. I'm not sure he'll play every down, but he'll definitely make an impact. I can see him coming in on third down and running draws and screens. With his quickness and speed, he has the potential to dominate.
18) Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina (39)
Williams has a great story: After high school, he spent some time working a manufacturing job before heading back to the gridiron, making his way to North Carolina via Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. Williams is very, very competitive and has good work habits.
19) Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia (19)
I wonder about him because he moves around really well, but doesn't seem to make the tackles you would expect a guy with his ability to make. Still, he could turn out to be very good. He's another risk-reward guy.
20) Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame (20)
Of all the players in this class, I probably had the hardest time evaluating Te'o. Watch him against Oklahoma, and he's really good; watch him against Alabama, and he's not. He started all four years and can play all three linebacker spots. You worry some about his speed, but he's another guy who plays faster than his times. He's going to be scrutinized very hard when he enters the league.
21) Matt Barkley, QB, USC (31)
I respect Barkley and think we've been too harsh on him. I think he's going to prove a lot of us wrong. I'm not saying he's necessarily going to be all-world or anything, but he's going to be a good quarterback. Barkley is dedicated to the game and has great work habits.
22) Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah (5)
A heart problem kept him from working out at the combine, but that appears to be behind him now. Still, Lotulelei wasn't consistently competitive in college; he'd do some really good things, and then he'd kind of take a little rest sometimes. That's the kind of thing that guys grow out of, of course, but I'm just grading these players based on what I've seen, and not necessarily on what they might do in the future.
23) Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State (54)
Watson must have serious leadership qualities; at Marist College, the native of England was named a captain of the basketball team. He also must be a quick learner; the football novice played just one season on the gridiron after transferring to Saddleback College before becoming a starter at Florida State. I think he can play left tackle in the NFL.
24) Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas (18)
Vaccaro showed me something the other day. In Austin to interview with an NFL team, he left early, explaining that he had to get back to his young son in Brownwood, about three hours away. After visiting another team the other night, he again went straight to his son rather than going to Austin. You have to admire a guy who does that. He's a quick player with good cover skills. Vaccaro just needs to be on his best behavior from now until the draft.
25) Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (29)
Lacy is a complete back with outstanding instincts for a runner. His nickname is "circle button," thanks to his trademark spin move. He's a good blocker with outstanding strength who doesn't get knocked back. Lacy's hands are good, though not great, and he's very quick.
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26) Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State (2)
27) EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State (36)
28) Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia (9)
29) Margus Hunt, DE, SMU (35)
30) Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington (40)
31) Darius Slay, CB, Mississippi State (NR)
32) Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M (6)
33) Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford (23)
34) Robert Woods, WR, USC (51)
35) Eric Reid, S, LSU (52)
36) Kawann Short, DT, Purdue (41)
37) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson (26)
38) Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (32)
39) John Jenkins, DT, Georgia (30)
40) Kyle Long, OG, Oregon (68)
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91) Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky (45)
92) Datone Jones, DE, UCLA (33)
93) Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina (60)
94) Tharold Simon, CB, LSU (NR)
95) Stansly Maponga, DE, TCU (NR)
96) Kevin Reddick, LB, North Carolina (96)
97) William Gholston, DE, Michigan State (97)
98) Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois (98)
99) Marquise Goodwin, WR, Texas (58)
100) Jeff Locke, P, UCLA (100)