10 observations on National grades
Christian Ponder vs. Jake Locker will be the debate of 2011 NFL Draft
North Carolina's defense is dominated by NFL-ready prospects
Breaking recent trend, the 2011 draft could be light on left tackles
Preseason scouting grades often don't hold up to the rigors of the season, but they are important because they set the table for how NFL teams are going to watch the upcoming college football campaign. The highest-rated players are going to get the full attention of all 32 teams, so it's worth looking closer at how the scouting services judge the class of 2011.
Here are 10 observations on the recently released National grades...
1. Get ready for the QB debate.
Washington's Jake Locker and Florida State's Christian Ponder are tied for the top rating among senior quarterbacks, but they present very different packages to the NFL. Locker stands out for his physical skills, a strong arm and running ability. Ponder has been called more NFL ready despite not possessing prototypical size.
Locker showed under coach Steve Sarkisian that he can be more of a passer and that he doesn't have to take off as often. The NFL has shown little interest in running quarterbacks at the top of the first round, so Locker will have to keep developing in the pocket to be a top-10 pick. Even though his numbers improved last season (21 TDs, 11 INTs, 58.0 completion percentage), he's not there yet.
Meanwhile, Ponder scored a 34 on a preseason Wonderlic test and has already earned his MBA. He completed 68 percent of his passes last year and seems like he could adjust quickly at the next level. One of the potential negatives for Ponder is that his coach, Jimbo Fisher, made JaMarcus Russell look a lot better than he was at LSU. Ponder clearly doesn't have Russell's work ethic, so it's not fair to compare the two quarterbacks.
Why do I have the feeling we'll be revisiting this debate next April? Don't be surprised if the lower-profile Ponder is the one who ends up hearing his name called first.
2. The year of the defensive end.
After a weak draft for defensive ends in 2010, pass-rushers could dominate the class of '11. Only three DEs went in the first round in April, and they're all projects (Tyson Alualu, Jason Pierre-Paul and Derrick Morgan). Of this year's seniors, Adrian Clayborn (7.3), Miami's Allen Bailey (6.9), and Pittsburgh's Greg Romeus (6.8) have first-round grades to complement a number of talented underclassmen at that position who will be eligible to turn pro. The only caveat is that defensive ends tend to have great size, speed and strength numbers, so naturally they grade well in the preseason yet have a hard time backing it up on the field.
3. An overlooked star.
National may have undervalued another outstanding defensive end. Ohio State's Cameron Heyward got a 6.0, equivalent to a third-round grade. He had 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss last season while only playing about 60 percent of the snaps. Heyward should put up huge numbers playing more downs this season. It's surprising that Heyward isn't even the highest rated player on his team -- that would be linebacker Ross Homan at 6.3. Homan told reporters he got back a third-round grade from the NFL when he contemplated the jump before this year's draft.
4. Expect a quiet Prince.
Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara tied Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn for the highest rating at 7.3, but you might not hear about the talented Cornhusker all that much next season. No one is going to pick on Amukamara's side of the field. Other cornerbacks like Texas' Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown, Virginia's Ras-I-Dowling and LSU's Patrick Peterson may get more attention even though they don't have the same physical skills as the Nebraska star. Amukamara could step into the spotlight more if Nebraska decides to give him some offensive touches, like Michigan did with Charles Woodson.
5. Tar Heels' tough defense.
The North Carolina defense should be the Steel Curtain of college football this season. They have five senior defenders with at least a third-round grade, led by defensive tackle Marvin Austin at 6.7. That's not even taking into account junior Robert Quinn, a prospect some scouts think could develop into the next Julius Peppers.
6. The word on running backs.
Running backs don't typically merit high ratings, so Kansas State's Daniel Thomas doesn't have to worry about his 5.9 (third-round grade). The under-the-radar Thomas led the Big 12 in rushing and will have huge numbers this season. He'll should get more attention than the highest senior back on National's board, Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray (6.3) once he starts rolling up big games.
7. Still looking for left tackles.
If you saw "The Blind Side," you know the NFL has been left tackle-crazy for some time. According to National's grades, the top left tackles for the class of '11 haven't emerged yet. Boston College's Anthony Costanzo is the highest rated at 6.5. The highest tackle in many early mocks is Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, who graded out at 5.7. At least one tackle has gone in the top five in each of the past five drafts, but that trend could end next April.
8. Breakout Buffalo?
Colorado's Nate Solder is one left tackle who could rise up into the first round even though he got a 6.0 from National. He's 6-foot-9, 310 pounds with less than 8 percent body fat. Solder is definitely a workout warrior at this point, but could steal a lot of attention from the scouts who are all over the elite linemen prospects in the Big 12.
9. Beware the system QB.
Houston quarterback Case Keenum could rewrite the record books this season and has a shot to garner Heisman consideration. Just don't expect much out of the 6-foot-2 senior after that. National gave Keenum a 5.2 rating, slotting him between the fifth and seventh rounds. Apparently, National credits the system for Keenum's success. The NFL has shown interest in Houston QBs (Kevin Kolb went in the second round in 2007), but Keenum may not have the physical skills to make that leap.
10. Juniors dominate at wide receiver.
The low grades for senior wide receivers won't matter next April since the elite pass-catchers have been leaving early for the NFL. Georgia's A.J. Green, Alabama's Julio Jones, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and Pittsburgh's Jon Baldwin, all juniors, should make a splash in next year's draft. The No. 1 senior, Nebraska's Niles Paul, got a 6.3 and isn't in the same class with those outstanding underclassmen.