It's never too early to start planning ahead. It's not wrong to discuss an NFL Draft that is ten months away, either. With the Buffalo Bills working through June OTAs, now is as good a time as any to kick of Buffalo Rumblings' coverage of the 2011 NFL Draft with this primer.
Over those next ten months, the scouting staff here at Buffalo Rumblings will be watching dozens of college football games every week in order to give this community first-hand accounts of all of the big-name college players headed for NFL greatness. The idea isn't to assert ourselves as draft experts; rather, we're just looking to add an extra level of preparation to our highly-anticipated blog events every March and April.
After the jump, you'll find not the scouting staff's consensus top five seniors and juniors (that work won't be done until early next year), but my own top five pre-season rankings. Consider this the official kick-off to Rumblings' 2011 NFL Draft coverage, which will become much more consistent and efficient once, you know, college football games start. Have fun with this discussion, folks.
Top 5 Senior Prospects
1. Jake Locker, QB, Washington
6'3", 226 pounds
2009: 250/395 (58.2%), 2,800 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT, 28 sacks
Enters his senior season with ridiculous hype after being billed as the likely No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Has elite athleticism for the position, and a strong enough arm to make all the throws. Very technically sound. Still displays questionable decision-making, and isn't as productive as he should be. Whether or not he improves on a solid junior season and survives the hype are the big questions surrounding Locker.
2. Cameron Heyward, 3-4 DE, Ohio State
6'6", 287 pounds
2009: 46 tackles, 6 sacks
Prototypical 3-4 end that possesses the length and power to be a dominant run defender. Heyward is also a capable playmaker behind the line of scrimmage, which is somewhat rare for 3-4 end prospects. Has the frame to bulk up a touch and play the three-technique in a 4-3, so he's schematically versatile, but his best position without question is playing five-technique end. Coming off a dominant junior season, he's the early leader in an unusually strong year for five-technique prospects.
3. Von Miller, 3-4 OLB, Texas A&M
6'3", 240 pounds
2009: 43 tackles, 17 sacks
Exploded onto the scene with 17 sacks as a junior, including six in A&M's first two games. Is slightly undersized for a 3-4 OLB, and will likely always be a liability against the run because of it. Elite-level speed and quickness, combined with an uncanny pass-rushing knack, make him college's best pass rusher. Could play SAM in a 4-3, but his forte is rushing the passer; he belongs in a 3-4.
4. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
6'1", 200 pounds
2009: 60 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks, 1 FF
People will insist on harping on his straight-line speed, which is likely to be in the 4.5s. That's more than acceptable given his size, physicality and burst. Potentially elite man corner with good ball skills, a tremendous jam, and is excellent defending the run. An instant starter at corner, which is pretty rare for incoming rookies.
5. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
6'8", 313 pounds
2009: Starting LT
Flying under the radar a little bit; most don't see him as the best OT available entering 2011. Very capable as a pass blocker, with quick feet, long arms and solid technique. What sets Carimi apart is his run blocking - there is not a more dominant run blocker, period, in college football. Athletic enough to get you by in the long term on the left side, but has Pro Bowl potential as a rookie on the right side.
Honorable Mention Seniors: Greg Romeus (4-3 DE/Pittsburgh), Adrian Clayborn (3-4 DE/Iowa), Marvin Austin (4-3 DT/North Carolina), Anthony Castonzo (OT/Boston College), Allen Bailey (3-4 DE/Miami, FL)
Top 5 Junior Prospects
1. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
6'5", 270 pounds
2009: 52 tackles, 11 sacks, 2 FF
Burst onto the scene with an 11-sack sophomore season. Has prototypical size for a 4-3 end, which are becoming rarer by the moment as the NFL switches to a predominant 3-4 league. Natural pass rusher that is athletic enough in space to play standing up, so he'll appeal greatly to 3-4 teams as well, thanks largely to his incredible pass-rushing skills. Will benefit from playing on an absolutely loaded North Carolina defense. Has No. 1 overall pick potential.
2. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
6'1", 211 pounds
2009: 52 tackles, 2 INT, 1 TD
Last year, Ndamukong Suh was the best DT prospect to come along in years. Peterson carries the same label at cornerback. Rarely do you see a sophomore defensive back earn the respect of avoidance, but teams avoided Peterson's side of the field in 2009, even when running the football. Elite size, speed, athleticism and ball skills. This guy's got it all, and could end up being a Top 5 pick if he builds on his outstanding sophomore campaign.
3. Marcel Dareus, 3-4 DE, Alabama
6'4", 300 pounds
2009: 33 tackles, 6.5 sacks in 4 starts
Nick Saban doesn't like to play his underclassmen much, but Dareus was able to make several game-changing plays in a limited role, including a 28-yard interception return for a TD in the BCS National Championship Game. I've seen him listed anywhere between 275 and 306 pounds; suffice it to say, Dareus is a big dude with outstanding quicks for a guy his size. He'll start at 3-4 end in 'Bama this year, and could hit double-digit sacks. Something of an unknown, but has ridiculous potential. Also the most schematically versatile defensive lineman in the nation, as he has the capability of playing nose tackle or the three-technique, as well.
4. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
6'4", 207 pounds
2009: 53 receptions, 808 yards, 6 TD
Most expected a big drop-off in production with Matthew Stafford off to the NFL, but Green almost exactly matched his excellent freshman numbers despite a new quarterback and extra defensive attention. Elite length makes him a terror to defend in the red zone, and is the best deep threat in the nation. The best in a very, very strong junior wide receiver class.
5. Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh
6'5", 225 pounds
2009: 57 receptions, 1,111 yards, 8 TD; 1 rush, 61 yards
Green, Julio Jones and Michael Floyd get all the attention as far as junior receivers go, but Baldwin is just as good, if not better, than all of them. Possessing the size of a tight end, Baldwin is physical, has great hands, and plays well in space. Has impressive straight-line speed, but takes a while to get there, so he might struggle early in his NFL career to separate from defenders. He's going through a QB transition himself this year, but a year similar to the one he put up in '09 could make him a Top 20 pick.
Honorable Mention Juniors: Ryan Mallett (QB/Arkansas), Julio Jones (WR/Alabama), Mark Ingram (RB/Alabama), Michael Floyd (WR/Notre Dame), Aaron Williams (CB/Texas)