The players listed below might end up being the best performer in the draft by the time all is said and done with the NFL careers. They might not be the first taken at their respective positions, but if I put a team on the field, they need to be "Tough as Nails" as this starting unit;
Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
One of the fastest rising stars at the quarterback position, many "draft experts" had this Wolf Pack passer as low as a sixth-round prospect back in January. After a stellar week at the Senior Bowl practices, followed by yet another impressive performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Kaepernick began his accent up many teams' draft boards. His recent invitation to attend the 2011 draft festivities in New York City speaks volumes for what has happened when coaches watched game film on this former highly regarded pitching prospect.
Few quarterbacks in the collegiate ranks boast the blend of talent that Kaepernick possesses. He is the only player in NCAA annals to throw for over 10,000 yards and run for over 4,000 yards in a career and the only quarterback in college annals to amass over 1,000 yards on the ground and 2,000 aerial yards in a season in back-to-back seasons, much less accomplish that feat in each of his last three campaigns.
Kaepernick is also the only college quarterback to run for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive campaigns. Missouri's Brad Smith is the only other collegiate passer to rush for over 1,000 yards three times in a career, but did not produce that feat in consecutive seasons. The Wolf Pack offensive captain joined West Virginia's Pat White (4,480 yards from 2005-08) and Missouri's Brad Smith (4,289 yards from 2002-05) as the only major college quarterbacks to rush for over 4,000 yards in a career.
Kaepernick closed out the 2010 campaign with 1,206 yards rushing and 3,022 yards passing, joining Vince Young of Texas (3,036 passing, 1,050 rushing in 2005) and Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan (3,652 passing, 1,122 rushing in 2007) as the only major college players to ever rush for over 1,000 yards and throw for over 3,000 yards in the same season.
Compares To…Donovan McNabb, Washington
Kaepernick is an athletic "stallion" in the mold of McNabb during Donovan's prime. He needs to add some bulk to his frame to absorb punishment at the next level and undergo some mechanical refinement (wind-up and low release point), but I challenge anyone to find another quarterback eligible for the 2011 draft that has his arm strength, running ability and quickness. His arm rivals that of Joe Flacco's, his ability to avoid the rush reminds me of Vince Young and his swagger is favorably compared to that of Matt Ryan's. He's just not utilized to his best assets by the Nevada coaches, as he should be in a pro-style offense, rather than be confined to a "pistol" type of scheme.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Indianapolis, Tennessee, San Francisco, Oakland, Miami, Kansas City, New England, Seattle
It is strange that one of the most quarterback needy teams, the Minnesota Vikings, never even scheduled a workout or a visit with a player who is regarded to have the strongest arm and best athletic skills for any quarterback in this draft. The Colts are looking for an eventual replacement for Peyton Manning and the Nevada QB might prove to be their version of Aaron Rodgers – a talented youngster who could be afforded time to develop behind an NFL legend before taking over the helm. What makes this pick even more ideal is Kaepernick's already established relationship with Peyton, having attended the Manning Passing Camp, where he received top honors prior to the 2010 season. New England could also be a nice place for Kaepernick to learn behind Tom Brady. With the Pats' slew of early round draft choices, they could easily afford to bring in someone to eventually take over for Brady. Oakland is a logical residence for Kaepernick, as their head coach, Hue Jackson, has had considerable success turning athletes into quality pro passers. Tennessee and San Francisco have shown considerably strong interest and could opt for Kaepernick early in round two. Miami, Kansas City and Seattle have all burned the "midnight oil" looking over the QB's films, but realize that he will not be around past the late first/mid second round stage of this year's draft.
Randall Cobb, Kentucky
Pittsburgh Steelers fans have grown to expect the "Davey vs. Goliath" nature from Hines Ward to be commonplace on game day. Much like Ward, Cobb is a tough hombre with outstanding blocking skills. Versatility is his middle name, as he's starred at quarterback, running back, all three receiver positions, as a return specialist and a gunner on special teams. No, he does not sell popcorn in the stands duringhalf time, but he does also hold for field goals and placements, in addition to serving as the blocking back on the punting unit. Standing just a shade over 5-10, teams look for the smaller receivers to have explosive speed, but Cobb has excellent route running skills and has made quite a nice living going over the middle and turning a short pass into a long gainer.
Cobb arrived at Kentucky as a quarterback before the team moved him to wide receiver. In addition to catching the football, Cobb also served as the team's punt and kickoff return specialist, as well as their placeholder on field goals. In an effort to get him the more touches, Kentucky started running Cobb out of the "Wildcat" formation. He experienced so much success out of that formation that the team has dubbed their version the "WildCobb."
In 35 career games at Kentucky, Cobb accumulated 4,674 all-purpose yards and ranks fourth all-time at the school in that category. His mark is surpassed only by Derek Abney (5,856; 2000-03), Rafael Little (5,343; 2004-07) and former teammate Derrick Locke (4,973; 2007-current). In 2010, Cobb set the Southeastern Conference season record for all-purpose yardage with 2,396 yards, breaking the previous mark of 2,310 yards by Darren McFadden of Arkansas in 2007.
Compares To…HINES WARD, Pittsburgh
Wouldn't it be fitting to see Cobb come out of the first round wearing a Pittsburgh cap next to the commissioner on the draft podium. Just look at his body of work – as a receiver, he pulled down 144 tosses for 1,661 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a ball carrier, he amassed 1,313 yards with 22 scores while averaging 5.76 yards per attempt. As a passer, he completed 62-of-122 tosses for 689 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 24.57 yards on 44 kickoff returns and 9.82 yards with a pair of scores on 63 punt returns. Place Cobb in the slot receiver position and some team is going to see that while he might not have sprinter's speed, he is perfectly capable of coming out of his breaks cleanly and gobbling up the cushion. Yes, he might lack ideal size, but he has quick feet, very good hands and more than enough power to beat the jam. He has that smooth weave and good leverage, along with quick transition to accelerate through speed cuts and outstanding separation agility, as he knows how to sink his hips, carry route depth and slide to create lanes.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Baltimore and Atlanta
Ward is not going to last forever and Limas Sweed failed to live up to his first round status. Mike Wallace can easily stretch the field, but Cobb would be an instant replacement for Antwaan Randle-El in the slot for the Steelers, giving less-than-mobile QB Ben Roethlisberger not only another receiving option, but probably the best receiver in the draft picking up the blitz. Indianapolis has invested quite a few draft picks in upgrading the receiving unit in recent years, but injuries have taken their toll on Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez. The Colts prefer bigger receivers, but also enjoy one of the best scouting departments in the industry that have been taught the most important aspect in a player's resume is production, not a tape measurer. Kansas City needs a playmaker to take the constant double pressure off Dwayne Bowe. Imagine what former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis could have done with Cobb and Bowe, along with a healthier Dexter McCluster handling receiving chores. Roddy White is in the same boat as Bowe – a lack of a playmaker at the other receiver position to take pressure away from him. Matt Ryan loves to go over the middle, Cobb's area of expertise.
EDMUND GATES, Abilene Christian
ACU has been producing some nice late-round finds in recent years, one which was Gates' cousin, Cincinnati tailback Bernard Scott. A raw route runner who really did not dedicate himself to his craft the first two years, Gates would close out his career earning favorable comparisons to former Wildcats receiver Johnny Knox (Bears). Most draft experts feel that Gates is a likely midround selection, but some feel he could sneak into the back end of the second round, which would be the earliest a Wildcats receiver has been taken since Johnny Perkins went to the Giants in round two of the 1977 draft.
Gates' road to the NFL could be a great idea for a Hollywood movie, as his path to the gridiron was filled with lots of twists and turns along the way. As a scrawny freshman at Vernon High School, Gates would not put on a football uniform again until walking on the Abilene Christian campus six years later.
"I just felt like I had no future in football, Gates related to Joey D. Richards of the Abilene Reporter-News in a recent interview. "I thought I would never grow. My dad is 5-7, so I thought I would be that small all my life. I thought I'd never go to the NFL being that small." A guard on the Vernon basketball team, he turned his thoughts — and dreams — instead to basketball.
The 2010 season saw the senior earn All-American and All-Lone Star Conference honors. He gained at least 100 yards receiving in seven games, led the Wildcats with a career-best 66 receptions for 1,182 yards and thirteen touchdowns. He registered 53 first-down grabs and had a hand in setting up 33 ACU scoring drives with his catches (28 touchdowns/5 field goals).
Compares To… Lee Evans, Buffalo
Like Evans, Gates' best asset is his quickness. He is a relative neophyte as a football player, having not taken up the sport again until 2007 after playing just his freshman prep season of organized ball. He showed great strides as a route runner in 2010, but has work in front of him to refine his route running skills. He will likely be a nice project for a patient coach, but with added reps, there is no reason to not think that he will be productive at the next level.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Chicago, Kansas City, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego
Like most teams, the Bears look for bigger receivers, but Cobb might be the "total package" to remind offensive coordinator Mike Martz of his Rams "Greatest Show on Turf" days with Az-Zahir Hakim. The Chiefs and Rams need an energy boost to their less than inspiring receiving units. St. Louis is especially thin if Demario Alexander, Mark Clayton and Steve Avery fail to return from their myriad of injuries in 2010. The Bengals have all but said good-bye to Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, or whatever he wants to call himself these days (anything but a soccer player) could be following Owens to the unemployment line.
Tandon Doss, Indiana
Offseason hip surgery could see Doss slide back into the midround picture, but teams are fully aware of his capabilities for producing big plays. He's a big, physical receiver, but his recent workout for teams left most convinced that he is still not fully recovered from his injuries. He shows tremendous focus looking the ball in and is also a capable return specialist. He is very comfortable playing in the slot, where his size and power saw him consistently manhandle the physical safeties and the smaller nickel backs. Still, hip, shoulder and knee issues kept him from performing at peak level in 2010, though most NCAA receivers would have loved to have put up his numbers last season.
Versatility is Doss' strong suit, as he did it all for the Hoosiers. In addition to duties as a wide receiver, he also returned kickoffs and punts, and even took snaps as a quarterback in Indiana's wildcat formation, in addition to generating big plays running out of the backfield on the reverse. He was the Big Ten Conference's most productive all-purpose threat over the past two seasons and his exploits have garnered all-league honors.
Doss started all 11 games he played in during the 2010 season. He ranks sixth in school history with 1,854 receiving yards and, as a senior, became just the sixth player in Big Ten Conference history with 1,000 or more kickoff return yards in a season.
Compares To…Brandon Tate, New England
Doss is a bit faster than Tate, but both take great pride in their physicality on the field, as they have had great success powering their way through press coverage to come up with the clutch catch underneath. Doss has impressive timed speed and impressive leaping skills, but is utilized more as a possession receiver because of his ability to move the chains and get the tough first down. He is a smart, savvy player who knows how to settle into the soft areas on the field and use his frame to shade defenders from the ball. He is not going to simply fly past defenders, but he is a master at locating the soft areas over the middle and breaking arm tackles.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore and New York Jets
The Pats are looking for more size at the receiving position. Wes Welker will more likely handle slot chores for New England, allowing Doss to shift outside, where he can eventually team with Brandon Tate to give the team more physicality at the wide-out slots. Buffalo was very pleased with the progress shown by youngsters Steve Johnson, David Nelson and Donald Jones last year, and will have speedy Lee Evans returning from the injury list, but Chan Gailey likes the way that Doss can break tackles and run with good body lean. Baltimore needs to replace aging Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh has made enough noise over his unhappiness due to a lack of playing time that the Ravens might just cut the two vets and bring in a few big receivers on draft day. The Jets would like Santonio Holmes to return, but don't seem that willing to extend the same offer to Braylon Edwards, as his work ethic and erratic play grated on the coaching staff last season.
Virgil Green, Nevada
Green's record-setting position performance at the NFL Scouting Combine made teams take immediate notice. Granted, he's not in the Vernon Davis (49ers) category stats-wise, but he can certainly give Davis a run for his money in the agility tests. And who is to say that he won't put up impressive numbers in a pro-style offense? Playing in the Pack's "pistol" offense, the tight end is usually the last receiving option, but in 2010, he led the Western Athletic Conference with 17 touchdown-resulting blocks.
His blocking skills, especially in the second level, allowed the Wolf Pack to become the first team in NCAA history to boast three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season, as they accomplished that feat in 2009 (QB Colin Kaepernick gained 1,183 yards, while running backs Vai Taua had 1,345 and Luke Lippincott picked up 1,034).
Green pulled down 11 scoring strikes during his final three seasons, and during that span, it took two or more tacklers to stop him on 21 catches. As a senior, he managed to grab a career-best 35 passes for 515 yards (14.71 ypc) and five touchdowns.
Compares To…Owen Daniels, Houston
Green is much quicker than Daniels, but both have made a nice living by their ability to locate and settle into the soft zone areas. Green has more power when breaking initial tackles, but both show the forward body lean and leg drive to make it tough for third level defenders to take them down in one-on-one situations. I see Green being used more in motion than the traditional tight end position, but don't think for one minute that because of his lack of ideal size at the position that he won't win battles in the trenches as a blocker. In a system that requires their tight ends to work underneath, Green is a nice fit.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Atlanta, Denver, Miami and Tampa Bay
The Falcons know that Tony Gonzalez is seriously considering retiring, but he seems to have taken Green under his wing and the entire staff seems to feel that Green's hidden talent as a receiver is about to emerge. The Broncos are also looking for a quality pass catcher, but might go the veteran route and sign Kevin Boss away from the Giants once the free agency period is allowed to commence. Richard Quinn and Tony Coats, the top two tight ends on Denver's depth chart, combined for just one reception last season. Anthony Fasano caught 39 passes in 15 games for the Dolphins last year, but he is never going to be confused for a receiver that can stretch the field like Green can. The Bucs are looking for a "poor man's" version of the 49ers' Vernon Davis and Green certainly matches up to Davis in the agility tests. Kellen Winslow had 66 receptions last year, but he's had numerous surgeries on his legs and based on his stormy relationship during his days in Cleveland, his prima donna attitude might be a detriment in the locker room for such a young Tampa Bay squad.
POWER RUNNING BACK
Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
Leshoure finally got his opportunity to show what he could do as a starter in 2010 and did little to disappoint. He is a powerful inside runner, more in the mold of the Rams' Steven Jackson, but has a long way to match up to the Rams' franchise player as a receiving threat. With Mark Ingram receiving a few red flags due to medical concerns over his knee, Leshoure could end up being the only running back selected in the first round of the draft. For those draftniks out there, keep a close eye on Leshoure's backup last season, Jason Ford, as more than a handful of scouts feel that Ford might be the Illini's best running back prospect in the last decade.
Leshoure burst on to the national scene as a junior, ranking fifth in the nation and second in the Big Ten Conference with an average of 130.54 yards per game. His 1,697 rushing yards set a school record and his 17 touchdowns tied the school record. He also finished second in the league with an average of 145.62 all-purpose yards per game in 2010. The third-leading active rusher in the Big Ten with 2,557 yards, the Illinois tailback also etched his name into the school and conference record books.
Compares To…STEVEN JACKSON, St. Louis Rams
Unlike Jackson, Leshoure may not rank as the most complete back in the nation, largely because of a lack of natural hands as a receiver, but he will prove to be a big load for defenses to handle. He has above-average toughness and runs with deceptive power. He breaks tackles easily and can turn on the jets when turning the corner. He's the type that can light up the score board once he sees daylight.
Leshoure's deceptive speed and inside running ability makes him more suited for a one-back system, as he never seems to tire. Blocking is a work in progress, but he does show willingness. He does need to do a better job of sustaining vs. the blitz, as he does not always get his hands into a defender's chest, but with some technique refinement, he could be adequate in this area.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: Green Bay, New Orleans, Miami, Washington and Denver
Teams don't seem willing to invest an early first-round pick in a running back anymore, mostly due to the wear and tear than makes a featured back's career shorter than most. The Packers will have Ryan Grant and James Starks compete for the starting job, as Brandon Jackson's uninspired performances leave the Pack with a gaping hole in the backfield. Leshoure could bring back memories of the John Brockington era with his physical inside running skills. New Orleans also is dealing with injury issues with their tailbacks – Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush, and could use someone with great success moving the chains, rather than a scat back type, as they already have one of those in Bush. Miami is not going to be bringing back Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, so they have a crying need for a featured ball carrier. The big question is if they feel that the 15th pick is where the team should take one. Washington and Denver both play with that Mike Shanahan mentality in the backfield – forget about speed and go for a back that can punish an opponent. If they follow that formula this year, Leshoure is the perfect fit. Clinton Portis and Knowshon Moreno have both proven to be too injury-riddled to perform those chores for the Redskins and Broncos, respectively.
SPEED RUNNING BACK
Jordan Todman, Connecticut
Replacing Donald Brown (Indianapolis) in the starting lineup, Todman proved that big things come in "little" packages. He established himself as one of college football's elite ball carriers, earning prestigious spots in the school and Big East Conference record books. He was originally recruited as a receiver because of his speed and immediately endeared himself to the coaching staff upon his arrival at the university.
Todman is a well-rounded runner. Toting a well-built, compact frame, the Husky tailback plays with effort and determination. Although no one will mistake him for a power back, few ball carriers run as hard as Todman, evident by the high amount of multiple tacklers that have been needed to bring him down on his rushing attempts (on 72 of his 2010 rushing attempts, at least two defenders were needed to stop him, including three or more on 32 of those runs).
The thing you notice about Todman is that much like San Francisco's Brian Westbrook during his prime, he maintains a good pad level and can bounce off would-be tacklers who make the mistake of not wrapping up. The All-American performer and 2010 Big East Conference Offensive Player of the Year also has the speed to reach the edge and the burst to accelerate up field in a hurry.
The junior finished the 2010 season leading the Big East Conference while ranking second in the country with an average of 141.25 yards per game on the ground. His average of 27.83 rushing attempts per game is the fourth-best average for a ball-carrier in a season among Big East players.
Compares To…Tiki Barber-ex New York Giants
Actually, Todman is a combination of several tailbacks. He has the leg drive and power that Barber and Baltimore's Ray Rice possess, the sudden burst and acceleration that compares well to Chris Johnson (Tennessee) and the special teams ability of Brian Westbrook (49ers) and Warrick Dunn (ex-Atlanta/Tampa Bay) displayed earlier in their careers. How the Doak Walker Award committee (nation's top running back) did not include him on even their top 10 list in 2010 defies logic. Do not be fooled by his size, as Todman can punish defenders that think they can handle him in one-on-one situations. His low center of gravity and strong lower frame makes it very hard for an opponent to knock him off his feet, as he pushes forward constantly to generate additional yardage.
Teams Showing the Most Interest: New England, New York Giants, St. Louis and Seattle
While New England has been linked to Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams, Todman is more suited for Bill Belichick's style of player – a blue-collar type with blue-chip pedigree. Todman might lack great size, but he's a surprisingly powerful runner (put up the weights 21 times at the Combine), evident by the fact that it took more than one defender to bring him down on 22.5 percent of his no-touchdown runs in 2010 (72-of-320). The Giants don't seem to be too crazy about bringing back Ahmad Bradshaw, mostly due to his fumble issues, but Todman has no fumble issues. Through 584 carries at Connecticut, he has turned the ball over just three times (0.05 percent). St. Louis is looking for a change of pace runner to spell Steven Jackson and Seattle is looking for more options than Marshawn Lynch in their backfield.
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