In any given year, it's not unusual to have two football prospects competing at the same position to be among the first few selections in the NFL Draft. Just last year, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy battled to be the first defensive tackle off the board, while Trent Williams and Russell Okung battled it out at offensive tackle, and Eric Berry and Earl Thomas jockeyed for position at safety.
The 2011 NFL Draft is not different. From mock draft to mock draft, the Top 10 picks can look radically different; that's due to the unusual amount of intra-position competition going on this year. Here, we highlight six such positions - and among those dozen prospects, all can legitimately argue their worth as Top 10-worthy.
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert vs. Cam Newton. This is the big battle, as both of these players are competing to be the Carolina Panthers' selection with the No. 1 overall pick. There's little question that both of these players are supremely talented - they're big, strong, fast athletes with strong arms - and they also share many of the same question marks (collegiate offensive system, lack of experience chief among them). Newton is viewed as the bigger gamble thanks to off-field concerns, but Gabbert is a risky proposition in his own right. Scouts love Newton's athleticism, poise and pocket awareness, while Gabbert gets high marks for his intelligence, leadership ability, and work ethic.
Wide Receiver: A.J. Green vs. Julio Jones. After Jones tore up Combine workouts in Indianapolis - on a broken foot, mind you - draft nerds everywhere quickly shouted down the idea that Jones could usurp Green as the first wideout off the board come April. It's very easy to argue that Green is better than Jones, but league insiders have been hinting that Jones may be off the board first since January. This is not a new development. If Green is still the first receiver off the board, Jones is definitely nipping at his heels - but don't be surprised if reality ends up being the opposite of perception. Jones may be a more universal fit when it comes to offensive schema, but Green has the potential to be one of the game's truly elite deep threats.
4-3 Defensive End: Da'Quan Bowers vs. Robert Quinn. There may not be an intra-positional competition between two players with more question marks than at defensive end. Bowers, a junior out of Clemson, buckled in the face of enormous expectations to the tune of two mediocre seasons to start his college career; he then exploded onto the scene by leading the nation in sacks as a junior. His one-year-wonder status is compounded by a knee injury that will keep him out of pre-draft workouts until April. Quinn, meanwhile, is coming off a year-long suspension for accepting illegal benefits, and there's the minor issue of his entering the league as perhaps the only athlete in recent memory to play his (high-contact) sport with a (benign) brain tumor. But because both of these players can rush the passer, they'll be off the board very early.
3-4 Defensive End: Cameron Jordan vs. J.J. Watt. Among the positions and players listed here, Jordan and Watt are going to have the toughest time cracking the Top 10 simply because they don't play high-impact positions. That is not to claim that 3-4 end is unimportant; quite the opposite - and Jordan and Watt are among the best five-technique prospects in recent memory. Watt, the junior, is a former tight end enjoying a break-out campaign, and is arguably the better athlete between the two. Jordan, the senior, is the more experienced and more versatile of the two - and is a fine athlete in his own right. Both of these players could be considered as early as No. 7 overall to San Francisco.
Defensive Tackle: Marcell Dareus vs. Nick Fairley. This isn't quite the Suh v. McCoy battle of 2010, but Dareus and Fairley are both dominant interior players with the potential to carry that dominance up to the professional ranks. Most believe that Dareus has slipped ahead of Fairley in the pecking order thanks to his incredible athletic performances at 319 pounds, but Fairley - who unlike Dareus is fighting the stigma of being a one-year wonder - has been equally impressive in speed and quickness drills as Dareus has been with his power and explosion. It's still too early to count Fairley out, despite whispers of his being a boom-or-bust prospect.
Cornerback: Prince Amukamara vs. Patrick Peterson. Many people believe that Peterson is the best player available in this year's draft class. That's not an unreasonable stance - Peterson has the fewest question marks athletically, on tape, and regarding his character of any player available this year. He is a phenomenal athlete that makes plays whenever he's on the field, and his skills as a kick and punt returner just add more value to his stock. Amukamara, however, has gotten some praise as a better pure coverage player than Peterson, even while getting hit for his poor 2010 performance against Justin Blackmon and Oklahoma State. Peterson will likely go first, but again, don't be surprised by how closely Amukamara follows.