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Injury to top tight end prospect has NFL scouts scrambling

When Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham underwent season-ending knee surgery last week, the NFL scouting community began to start the process of re-evaluating one of the gems of the 2010 draft class.

Going into the season, Gresham was widely hailed as the top player at his position based on his extraordinary talent, but his unfortunate injury (torn cartilage in right knee) threatens to diminish his standing in the minds of some scouts.

Although Gresham's talent and production throughout his collegiate career suggest that he has the potential to impact the game on the pro level, the fact that scouts will be unable to see his continued development in 2009 will prevent some from tabbing him as a first-round pick. Cynical evaluators will question whether he will be able to regain the explosiveness and athleticism that made him such a star during his time in Norman. This makes Gresham a gamble, and he's already starting to take a bit of a tumble in most war rooms.

Team doctors and medical personnel evaluate the severity of prospects' injuries and offer their recommendations based on their long-term projections. Those forecasts are often influenced by the player's previous injury history and/or the severity of his most recent injury. The ability of a prospect to potentially pass a team physical becomes a major factor in the draft process.

Top tight end prospects

Gil Brandt ranked Jermaine Gresham as the top senior tight end prospect and Bucky Brooks had him ranked No. 4 overall before the Oklahoma standout suffered a knee injury. **Brandt's tight end rankings**

Some of this information will not be discovered until a prospect shows up at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The length of the prospect's recovery period plays a significant role in the decision-making process.

In Gresham's case, his rehabilitation is scheduled to take five months, and that would afford him the opportunity to work out for scouts at the combine and/or during the spring workout period. This would allow him to answer some of the questions regarding his ability to return to an elite level. By posting numbers (40-yard dash times, various agility times and bench press) comparable to his previous workout measurements, Gresham can alleviate most of the concerns about his health and long-term potential.

Additionally, scouts will still grade Gresham based on the spectacular film that he has compiled during his time at Oklahoma. While missing most of his senior season prevents scouts from having a recent look at his talent, a savvy evaluator will study his previous tape and make a projection on his pro prospects. Other injured prospects have been able to maintain a high stature in the scouting community despite missing critical parts of their final season.

Last year, Cornelius Ingram fell into this category. The former Florida standout missed all of 2008 while recovering from a torn ACL, but was still selected in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles based on his potential alone. Though Ingram eventually suffered a subsequent knee injury during training camp, the fact that he was still selected despite missing his entire senior season suggests that he will remain on the radar.

Gresham's situation may be likened to that of Antonio Cromartie. The ChargersPro Bowl cornerback missed his entire junior season at Florida State with a knee injury but still managed to sneak into the first round of the 2006 draft, despite missing the entire year and entering the draft early. While Gresham is far more accomplished as a college player than Cromartie was, the fact that Cromartie still went high in the draft suggests that Gresham could still very well maintain his early-round status when it is all said and done.

Injuries, unfortunately, are part of the game, but they don't necessarily derail a prospect's chances of maintaining a high rating on the draft board. With Gresham succumbing to a knee injury, we will soon see if that theory applies in the 2010 draft.

Games this week on the radar of NFL scouts

Tennessee at Florida, 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
There is a long line of NFL players who have entered the league from these two traditional SEC powers. This year all eyes are on QB Tim Tebow and his continued development as a passer. The Heisman Trophy winner has completed 64 percent of his passes for 425 yards with five touchdowns and only one interception through two games. Although those numbers are on par with his career statistics, scouts are interested in watching Tebow throw effectively against a stellar Vols' defense that features a host of talented players, including safety Eric Berry. If Tebow can complete a few pro-style throws against tight coverage, his draft status will continue to rise in the eyes of many scouts. In addition to watching Tebow's progress, scouts are casting an eye towards his top target, Riley Cooper, to see if he has the potential to develop into a quality pro receiver down the road. For the Vols, Rico McCoy is garnering a lot of attention. The fleet-footed linebacker has been lauded for his speed and scouts want to see how he matches up in space with the Gators' explosive set of skill players. If McCoy can display the skills to function as a possible three-down linebacker, he could enhance his draft stature.

California at Minnesota, Noon ET Saturday
The battle between the Minnesota WR Eric Decker and Cal CB Syd'Quan Thompson is the marquee matchup here. Decker has torched the Big Ten the past two seasons and is regarded as one of the top receiving prospects in the 2010 draft. As a big, physical pass catcher with outstanding athleticism, Decker excels at working between the hashes and is a fearless playmaker in key moments. He is also a legitimate red-zone threat with the size to overwhelm smaller defenders in jump-ball situations. Although Thompson ranks as one of the top cover men in the country, he is an undersized corner at 5-foot-9 and 191 pounds. However, he makes up for his physical deficiencies with outstanding instincts and awareness. Scouts will pay close attention to his matchup with Decker to determine if he has the wherewithal to cover prototype receivers on the next level. How well he fares in this intriguing battle could determine if he shoots to the top of the charts.

Florida State at BYU, 7 p.m. ET Saturday
It will be interesting to see how Max Hall directs a high-powered aerial attack against the Seminoles' pro-style defense. The BYU quarterback has raised his profile with stellar performances against Oklahoma and Tulane, but scouts are still trying to assess if Hall is simply a "system" QB racking up gaudy totals in the team's wide-open offense. He will have the opportunity to show off his arm strength and make pro-like throws against a Seminoles' defense that is loaded with speed. While scouts are tuning in to the Cougars' offense, they will also pay close attention to tight end Dennis Pitta. The prolific pass catcher, who tallied seven receptions for 90 yards against Oklahoma in Week 1, has been compared to Chris Cooley in some circles and scouts are anxious to see if he can post another stellar performance against a defense loaded with pro prospects. For the Seminoles, keep an eye on Patrick Robinson. The ball-hawking corner has displayed outstanding cover skills during his career and will be tested by the Cougars' relentless aerial assault. With many scouts touting Robinson as the top corner in the 2010 draft class, a strong performance could cement his status as a possible first-round pick.

Nebraska at Virginia Tech, 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
A pretty good battle in the trenches between the Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh and Virginia Tech OG Sergio Render will be on display. This physical matchup will give scouts an opportunity to witness Suh's superior strength and run-stuffing skills against a powerful drive blocker at the point of attack. Whereas Suh is widely regarded as one of the top guys at his position, this matchup gives Render an opportunity to elevate his status. Expect a knock-down, drag-out brawl between these highly touted prospects.

West Virginia at Auburn, 7:45 ET Saturday
Scouts view this as a five-star game due to the intriguing battle between Auburn DE Antonio Coleman and West Virginia OT Selvish Capers on the edge. In Coleman, scouts see an athletic pass rusher with exceptional speed and quickness. His explosive initial burst poses problems for offensive tackles unable to get out of their stance. Additionally, he possesses a combination of rush moves that allows him to win routinely off the edge. Capers, on the other hand, is an unrefined offensive tackle with the size and movement skills to challenge Coleman off the edge. While scouts still rate Capers as a work in progress, he can make a move up many draft boards with a solid performance against Coleman.

Sleeper to watch: WR/KR Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati

The 2008 Big East Special Teams Player of the Year has been touted by many scouts as the best returner in the 2010 draft class and his stock continues to rise after he scored four touchdowns last week against Southeast Missouri State. Gilyard, who became the first player in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision competition (formerly Div. I-A) to score via rush, reception and return in a game since 2005 (Maurice Jones-Drew), finished with 197 all-purpose yards in a spectacular performance that included a 53-yard punt return score and six receptions for 111 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Although Gilyard has enjoyed big games on a national stage in the past (he amassed 365 all-purpose yards against Oklahoma in 2008), he gets another chance to showcase his impressive all-around skills in a marquee matchup with Oregon State. Gilyard is already drawing comparisons to Pro Bowl special-teamer Joshua Cribbs, and an impressive showing against the Beavers could cement his status as an early round prospect.

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