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When evaluating draft prospects, many people struggle to differentiate between grading a player on potential or "upside" versus evaluating and ultimately grading them as the football player that the currently are. The word "talent" is thrown around way too often when justifying a high pick projection.
I take a different approach. I grade primarily on three key criteria. They are (in order of importance):
2. Instincts & Awareness
I care more about these critera than size, speed, raw athleticism or statistics, as I believe history has shown that players who are strong in these three areas transition much better to the NFL than players who are high in "raw upside" but lacking in their consistency, instincts and fundamentals.
With these criteria in mind, here are 10 prospects who teams should be cautious of on day one:
1. Zach Brown - OLB - UNC
Brown possesses speed and explosiveness that today's NFL defensive coordinators salivate over. The speed is elite. Like, as in wide receiver-type speed. In college though, speed and explosiveness can mask other inefficiencies, such as sub-par instincts and bad tackling. Unfortunately, Brown displayed plenty of the latter two over the course of his time at North Carolina.
He struggles to shed blockers, takes less-than-impressive angles to the edges against the run, and isn't as fluid in coverage as some assume him to be. He's definitely an amazing athlete, and there's something to be said for that. But I have a feeling some scouts are mistaking "first round talent", which he may be, for a "first round linebacker", which he definitely is not.
2. Whitney Mercilus - DE - Illinois
Mercilus led the nation in sacks in 2011. There's definitely something to be said for a guy putting up such prolific numbers. But I have some serious concerns about his lack of technical consistency off the edge. His pad levels are extremely inconsistent off the snap, and when he gets too high on contact, he's easily pushed out of the play. He has some natural power to bull-rush or penetrate a single gap, and looks relatively good rushing from the inside which he did frequently at Illinois, but he's not nearly as natural off the edge.
Against the run, the instincts are sub-par and he's extremely stiff in the hips when attempting to break down or change direction in pursuit. As a traditional 4-3 end or even rush 3-4 'backer, I don't see the agility or technical consistency to warrant a top 32 pick. Looks more like a rotational inside rusher who could have an impact on the strong side if he can improve against the run, but as of now, that's his weakest area.
3. Alfonzo Dennard - CB - Nebraska
I haven't been nearly as high on Dennard as most scouts I've read. It's not that I don't love the tough, physical aspects of his game which are surprising considering his size. But downfield he struggles to stay engaged, and doesn't display the ball skills that Jenkins, Claiborne and Kirkpatrick show. Despite how physical he can be with receivers at the line, he doesn't appear to fight as hard through contact when defending the run, and his level of aggression can be volatile.
He's fast and quick enough to turn and run with speedy receivers outside, but he's late to break on comeback routes and lacks a natural feel for how to time his approach to the ball. In a press/zone type of scheme, his physicality and plus natural agility could allow him to shine, but he'll need to maintain a high level of aggression more consistently and become better against the run. He also tends to give up a lot of ground on crossing routes, as his hips just don't get around early enough. The tools are there for Dennard to be an above-average starting corner at the next level, but anytime a player's effort and instincts, together, are inconsistent, I have a hard time putting a first round grade on him.
4. Michael Brockers - DT - LSU
There's no doubt that Brockers has a ton of potential. He's long, powerful and possesses some natural burst off the snap. Like Coples, Brockers flashes the ability to disrupt from multiple spots along the front line. But I'm always skeptical of guys with only one solid year in school, particularly if that year yielded a showing of more "potential" than actual results, which was the case with Brockers in '11.
Again, people see the physical package, and the flashes of big time effectiveness, and automatically want to put the guy in the first round. The inconsistency and lack of experience leave him out of my top 32 though, and I think he has a ways to go before he's ready to be a consistent impact player at the NFL level.
5. Stephon Gilmore - CB - S. Carolina
Gilmore is a great athlete. He's played safety, corner, can return kicks, punts, you name it. He has the ability to be extremely versatile. Where I have concerns is in trying to figure out where he fits at the next level. He has NFL talent without question, but as a cornerback, he isn't as dynamic as his athleticism might lead scouts to believe he is. He tracks the ball well over his shoulder and can go up for it, but when asked to close on plays in front of him, he's often late to diagnose.
As big as he is for a corner, he's not as physical as he should be in press coverage, and he lacks route anticipation to consistently break on time underneath or know when his receiver is going to stop and come back to the ball. He'll lose a step in transition when flipping his hips, and his speed doesn't necessarily translate into great "recovery speed" to make up for ground given up. He may best fit at safety, but the unknown is what takes him out of the first round, for me. In fact, I've got him down as more of a high third round prospect.
6. Dont'a Hightower - LB - Alabama
Hightower is a big, physical linebacker who is more than adequate against the run, and closes on plays in front of him surprisingly fast for his size. He lacks fluidity in space though, diagnoses late too often and struggles to redirect quickly enough to consistently make plays outside the box. I love his aggression and power, but when engaging blockers he leads more with his shoulder than he should and could be more active with his hands. The coverage struggles are where I have the biggest concern, simply because you need your linebackers to be able to drop back and cover today in the NFL, plain and simple.
Do I think he has a place in the league? Absolutely. Could he be a starter? These days it's less about "starting" and more about how often a guy is on the field, and I see him as a guy who could instantly upgrade a run defense. He just isn't an every down 'backer which is what I think he needs to be to warrant a first round pick. This isn't a situation where I see a guy becoming a "bust" as much as it is one where I think he could be more of a strong role player than a game-changer at the next level.
7. Quinton Coples - DE - UNC
As much as I hate to beat an already very dead horse, Coples is an extremely polarizing prospect who warrants the close look, and his play has been erratic enough to justify major concern. Just as well, his potential is as close to limitless as anyone you'll find in this class, with an extremely rare combination of size and athleticism. There are two things that concern me about Coples. The first would be his effort. There are times he plays with a pinned throttle, and he has the potential to be extremely disruptive when doing so.
There are other times when he seems to coast, and rely just enough on his athleticism and strength to be an adequate factor in plays, but he isn't nearly as dominant. This won't work at the next level. Scouts love the former version, and are terrified of the latter. The second concern I have is more of the physical variety. He's a bit tight in the hips and struggles to redirect, particularly once he's in the backfield and asked to change direction in pursuit of a QB or RB. He possesses enough natural explosiveness, length and football smarts to compensate for it though, so really the effort is the chief concern here. And it's a big one. He'll be a first round pick, no doubt, but I've got a late first/early second round grade on him considering the motor issues.
8. Dontari Poe - DT - Memphis
I've looked pretty closely at Dontari Poe on tape, and there just isn't a whole lot that convinces me he's ready to transition and be a starter at the next level right away. Don't get me wrong, for a 350-pounder, this guy is an incredible athlete. He's not a big-belly clogger that you'd expect when you see his height and weight listed. He's got an extremely powerful lower half, and his combine bench press performance indicates he's no slouch in the upper half either.
But I still have the problem of actual game play which shows a guy who's inconsistent off the line, and doesn't appear to always know what his next move should be once engaged. When he stays low, the guy can be unstoppable and he has a surprising closing burst to go with pretty light feet and impressive change-of-direction ability. But the low pads just aren't nearly consistent enough. I'll admit I get excited when I think about what this guy could do if he's able to put it all together. But I have to be honest about the "right now", which only tells me there's more "potential" than anything else. And with the way I grade, that's just not enough to give this guy a definitive top-32 mark.
9. Nick Perry - OLB/DE - USC
I like the makeup that Nick Perry possesses, physically. He uses leverage extremely well despite being undersized for a traditional down defensive end, and possesses a natural burst off the snap to go with a growing collection of pass rush moves that make me think he could transition and become a consistent threat off the edge in the NFL. What concerns me is that he really only had the one good year ('11) and a significant number of his 9.5 sacks last year came in situations where the opposing QB held the ball too long.
There weren't many situations where he cleanly beat his man and got to the QB in rhythm for the sack. He bull rushed quite a bit at USC as well, which he won't have nearly as easy of a time doing at the next level against bigger, more powerful and agile offensive tackles. He's really going to have to continue to develop moves that rely even more on leverage, quickness and agility to be a consistent sack artist. I have seen some things that lead me to believe he'll continue to develop, which is why I have him in my top 32 currently.
10. Devon Still - DT - Penn St.
Devon Still is a naturally explosive lineman who gets off the snap consistently, and displays low pad levels to get penetration from the inside. Where he's inconsistent is with his effort, much like Coples. What I like about Still is that he played a lot better during his senior campaign in terms of effort, than he had in previous years, and he showed some improvement as far as technical consistency goes. I don't think he's very instinctive against the run and he'll engage his opponent with his head down at times, often causing him to lose sight of what's going on. He doesn't change direction very well, and he frequently finds himself too far over his feet and off balance.
He's the guy I worry about the least on this list though, as he has shown that he can improve, and the effort has gone up. He's not out of the woods yet though, and will need to keep the motor running high if he's to develop into the dominant player he's capable of being at the next level. Another fringe first rounder who I'd put somewhere between 27 and 32.