We're now about 55 hours away from the start of the 2012 NFL Draft; it's officially crunch time. As such, it's time for me to opine about the ten prospects that I believe to be the best prospects available to teams starting at 8PM on Thursday night.
The Buffalo Bills, of course, are the current owners of the No. 10 overall pick, which is why I'm going ten deep in my ranking. In theory, the Bills should exit Round 1 of the draft with one of the ten best prospects on their board - assuming, of course, that they don't trade down. (Even if they do, however, it's not out of the question that they land one of their Top 10. That's the beauty of a debatable draft class like this one.)
The list of ten is, as always, after the jump. Which of them would you rather see on stage with Roger Goodell hoisting Bills colors on Thursday? Better yet, what does your Top 10 look like?
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford. The soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick is a safe bet to become an excellent starting NFL quarterback. That's hard to find these days, and his growth potential makes him an ideal top pick. Luck was sheltered a little bit by Stanford's offensive system - scouts who'd heard Luck was all-everything didn't see everything on tape - but there's no question that Luck is capable of doing just about anything asked of him as a passer. He's got elite potential.
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor. I believe there's an argument to be heard that Griffin is a better natural passer than Luck. I just don't believe that he's a better prospect than Luck at this point, simply because Luck is much more polished. Griffin, too, look like he'll be a high-quality pro passer. He'll be landing himself in a good situation, too, as Mike Shanahan can scheme around a talented quarterback with the best of them.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama. Rhetoric that Richardson is the best back to come into the league since Adrian Peterson is not overblown; after all, Peterson was the No. 7 overall pick just five years ago. In a draft class that's not long on Pro Bowl locks, Richardson is a lock to make Pro Bowls, period. He's an excellent running back and the epitome of a dying breed: the workhorse back.
4. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU. The NFL boasts a ton of good cornerbacks, but a lot of them are more athlete than cover guy (see: Cromartie, Antonio), and true cover guys are not easy to find. Claiborne has the look of a true cover guy: he's not the biggest, fastest or strongest player, but he plays his position at a very high level. He's got the potential to become a lock-down perimeter corner.
5. Matt Kalil, OT, USC. The fact that Kalil is even mentioned as a player that could slide on draft day speaks volumes about the current state of the NFL: pass protectors are valued slightly less in a passing league that emphasizes shorter routes and a quicker pace. Aside from strength, which Kalil can acquire quickly, he's got everything a plug-and-play starter requires on the blind side: size, range, feet and mobility. He'll play, and play well, for a long time.
6. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M. Say what you want about where he's been ranked and his inexperience as a starting quarterback. Tannehill has good tape, his flaws are largely coachable, and he plays the league's most important position. He has much of what constitutes an elite quarterback prospect: intangibles, physical tools and production (albeit in a small sample size). Yeah, he ranks this high based mostly on his position, but he's a very good quarterback prospect.
7. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. For weeks now, all we've heard about Blackmon is that while he's a very good receiver prospect, he's not the elite prospect of top draft picks that preceded him. You know what? Whatever. The NFL is now a league where good receivers can be stars - see Johnson, Stevie - and Blackmon is going to be a highly productive player not only over the long haul, but potentially immediately, which increases his draft-day value.
8. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina. Remember what I said about good NFL corners being more athlete than cover guy? Right now, Gilmore is more athlete than cover guy. Here's the thing, though: he's an outstanding athlete. Big, physical, aggressive corners that can run with top receivers and make plays on the ball don't come around often. Plus, he played in the SEC, where the competition is excellent. He's battle-tested. He'll make for a versatile, useful and highly productive NFL corner.
9. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama. Other than perhaps quarterback and kicker, there isn't a position in the league with more mediocre players holding down prominent roles than safety. That's going to change as the NFL evolves into a pass-first league, with players like Barron - big athletes that can defend the run and make plays in coverage - a hard-to-find commodity. Barron is an upgrade on all but the obvious, big-name strong safeties in the league. He's a sure-fire long-term starter in a draft class that doesn't have many of those.
10. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College. No, he's not the explosive, all-world athlete that teams crave at the linebacker position. That's about all Kuechly isn't. What he is: an ultra-productive, ultra-durable, ultra-intelligent, ultra-instictive linebacker that cleans up everything and makes a few plays here and there. The bonus, and that which makes him worthy of a Top 10 list: he does so with the ability, purportedly, to stay on the field for all three downs. Kuechly is going to be a great pro.