When it comes to the very select segment of the Buffalo Bills' fan base that is already looking ahead to the 2011 NFL Draft, most of the focus is on the highest-rated quarterback prospects. Two seniors (Washington's Jake Locker, Florida State's Christian Ponder), a junior (Arkansas' Ryan Mallett) and a sophomore (Stanford's Andrew Luck) are certain to get the bulk of attention from Bills fans desperate for the team to land a top-flight signal caller next April.
As such, during our weekly scouting reports throughout the 2010-11 college football season, we'll be dedicating a weekly post to the progress of each of those four players - and one more post to the rest of the players in the nation.
For this weekend's scouting piece, we're going to leave those four quarterbacks out of the conversation - rest assured we'll have many more conversations about those players in the not-too-distant future. Instead, we're going to focus on the rest of the class of players eligible for the 2011 NFL Draft, and in particular the rich pool of top-level talent available at two key positions - 3-4 defensive end and wide receiver. Quite simply, there are an unusual amount of highly-talented prospects at these positions, and that's worth fleshing out a little bit.
3-4 (five-technique) defensive end
Unlike the receiver position, which we'll cover in a moment, the five-technique position is actually spearheaded by a strong group of seniors, and strengthened with a junior or two. But it's a junior who has created the most buzz to this point, and likely has the highest upside of any of his positional peers.
Alabama junior Marcel Dareus hasn't even been a full-time starter under Nick Saban, but playing all along the defensive line, he's been highly productive when he's seen the field. He raised some eyebrows with a pick-six return in the BCS National Championship Game in January, and he's got ideal size and strength for the position. His stock, however, is quite volatile, as scouts are curious to see how he responds to not only becoming a starter, but playing along a line that lost two quality contributors in and .
Three seniors - Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Miami (FL)'s Allen Bailey - are all legitimate Top 15-type prospects, as well. Furthermore, all are much more proven on the gridiron than Dareus, as these three standouts combined for 141 tackles and 24 sacks during the 2009 season. Clayborn is the best pass rusher of the group, as he burst onto the scene with 11 sacks in '09 after registering just four in his first two years combined. Heyward, the best physical specimen of the group (6'6", 287), is the best run defender, with the length and power to be a dominant force as a five-technique end. Bailey is the most athletic, and thus the most scheme versatile, but his forte is rushing the passer, as well, as his 12 career sacks will attest to.
Two more juniors can be safely added to this conversation, though they're not yet great fits for the five-technique spot. Scouts are waiting to see what happens with Nebraska's Jared Crick - how he handles being the focal point of that defense now that is a pro, and how his light 6'6", 260-pound frame holds up against double- and triple-teams all season. Crick was a force to be reckoned with in '09, but Suh gets a lot of that credit. Crick is very similar to another former Cornhusker, , but has a higher ceiling if he bulks up. Meanwhile, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers is a phenomenally gifted athlete, with a tremendous first step for a man his size (6'4", 280), but has not yet blossomed into a dynamic pass rusher. He's got the size to play the five-technique, and already exhibits enough dominance against the run to play that position, but scouts will be disappointed if Bowers doesn't emerge as a scheme-versatile pass rusher.
Slap an asterisk next to this position, because this will only be a strong group in 2011 if a whole bunch of juniors decide to leave their respective schools early. Should they not, LSU's Terrance Toliver would likely be the positional headliner, but he looks to be a mid-second round prospect at very best. He's a good player, but totally pales in comparison to the elite juniors in the nation.
A.J. Green of Georgia is getting the most hype, and with good reason - he's been a dominant player since he first set foot on college gridiron. He's averaged 16.2 yards per reception and scored 14 touchdowns through two excellent seasons despite receiving constant attention from opposing secondaries and losing his star quarterback, , after his freshman season. Green's an elite deep threat, and another strong showing could cement his status as a Top 5 prospect.
Three more juniors - Julio Jones (Alabama), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) and Jonathan Baldwin (Pittsburgh) - make up the rest of the elite group of juniors, and all of them grade out similarly. Like Green, Jones has been a star since his first game as a freshman, though in Bama's run-happy scheme, he rarely gets the chance to show off his skills, having registered just eight touchdowns in two seasons despite a tough-to-defend 6'4" frame. Floyd put up excellent numbers in his first two seasons at ND (92 receptions, 16 touchdowns), but scouts are curious to see if that production continues with out of the picture. Baldwin will be catching passes from a new starting quarterback, as well, and is the only player here who wasn't a stand-out as a freshman, but his eye-popping career average of 20.2 yards per reception prove his worth as a deep threat. A second straight outstanding season could allow Baldwin to challenge Green for the status of best receiver in the nation.