Whether there's an NFL lockout or not, the 2011 NFL Draft will go on as scheduled. While that's somewhat relieving to NFL fans facing the prospect of a world without football by April, there's also little doubt that the league's labor issues could make the draft process look radically different this year, as well.
That was a topic of discussion at last week's 2011 Senior Bowl practices, where members of the media covering the event had an opportunity to mingle with NFL scouts and league insiders. Tony Pauline (Sports Illustrated, DraftInsiders.net) was present in Mobile last week, and in a Senior Bowl wrap-up article, he spoke to the possible implications of a work stoppage on the NFL Draft.
Finally, with the ever present labor negotiations a constant topic of conversation in Mobile and the potential of a long lock out looming, the consensus is there will be a lot of surprise selections in April’s draft. Talented but raw prospects that will need time to develop are likely to fall by the wayside in favor of the lesser athletic yet more "NFL ready" players. Teams feel taking a developmental player in the first few rounds will be a waste of time since they are likely to miss out on rookie mini-camp, OTA’s and a host of other off season training critical for their development. In essence, depending on the length of the presumed lockout, 2011 could be a washout for a number of incoming rookies.
It's an interesting theory, and one that seems realistic - particularly when considering that the NFL's free agency spending spree won't happen until a new labor agreement is reached, likely after the 2011 NFL Draft has concluded. Teams still have needs, and the uncertainty of post-new CBA free agency could not only lead teams to let projects slide, but to focus more on their own needs rather than taking the best player.
Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that this single-season phenomenon in which "potential" is a dirty word at Radio City Music Hall comes to fruition. Which players would slide down boards? Which would rise? Which might not move on boards, but would be viewed in a different light? Here's a stab at finding four names in each category.
"Project" Players That Might Slide
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri and Jake Locker, QB, Washington. Everyone is aware that there isn't a polished player at quarterback this year, but among the players at the top of the list, Gabbert and Locker might suffer the most. Gabbert, a junior, has just 26 starts under his belt - and while teams like his upside and raw tools, he'll need a lot of coaching before he's ready to play. He'd still be a first-round pick, but Top 5 speculation would seem off base. Ditto for Locker, who despite having a lot of experience is still technically unsound, and nowhere ready to start immediately.
Tyron Smith, OT, USC. NFL scouts love Smith's upside. But his story is well-known - he played at around 285 pounds in his junior season as a Trojan, and even if it turns out that he's up to around 300 for the NFL Combine, he still never played at left tackle at the collegiate level. That is far too significant a factor for a team to take Smith too early, particularly when there are a lot of experienced tackles available.
Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri. Like quarterbacks, pass rushers typically have a transition period between being effective college rushers and effective NFL rushers. There's a lot to like about Smith - he's a marvelous athlete - but the redshirt sophomore has just two years of playing time under his belt, and doesn't have a polished repertoire of pass-rush moves. There is a deep, veteran group of defensive linemen available this year, and that might hurt Smith.
"NFL Ready" Players That Might Rise
Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College. Though he played guard at the Senior Bowl - simply to see if he could - NFL teams like Castonzo. He's vastly experienced, carries great program pedigree, and can slide into a starting lineup from day one, even if it's just at right tackle. What's more, Castonzo has the length, quick feet and athleticism to eventually play the left side, so though he continues to fly under the radar a bit, he's a nice mix of readiness and upside.
Cameron Jordan, DE, California and Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue. There are several defensive linemen that could be listed here, but Jordan and Kerrigan are particularly intriguing not just because they're already considered mid-first rounders, but because of their versatility. Jordan, who blew up at the Senior Bowl, is athletic enough to play 4-3 end, and big and strong enough to play five technique in a 3-4. Kerrigan was an ultra-productive edge rusher in Purdue's 4-3, but many 3-4 teams are looking at him as an outside linebacker. It shouldn't surprise anyone if these two players begin to warrant Top 10 consideration.
Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. Quietly, Amukamara bides his time while LSU's Patrick Peterson gets all the hype (and it's not unwarranted, of course) at cornerback. Some scouts believe that Amukamara is the better cornerback; those same scouts usually question if Peterson has a true pro position, or if he'll perpetually be stuck between corner and free safety. Either way, Amukamara continues to fly under the radar, but he's an outstanding prospect that could eventually be talked about as a Top 5 pick again.
Prospects That Might Be Re-Evaluated
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina. Few question Quinn's talent, and only a few more question his production. However, he's a junior entrant with the experience of a sophomore thanks to his 2010 suspension. Athletically, he is NFL-ready, as he's expected to weigh in the 260 range at the Combine. Character questions aside, however, teams will need to seriously consider whether Quinn's talent and production are as meaningful after a year away from the game.
Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. Pauline touched on Miller's surprising Senior Bowl in the article linked at the top here; you're encouraged to read it. Basically, it boils down to this: teams that run the 3-4 weren't thrilled when Miller weighed in at just 237 pounds - he'll have trouble setting the edge at that weight, even with impeccable leverage - but 4-3 teams were very impressed with his strong week of dropping into coverage and playing in a new scheme. Miller might not shift in the grand scheme of things, but you might see 3-4 teams place less emphasis on him early, while 4-3 teams might slide him up their boards.
Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State and Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State. Paea and Heyward are the biggest prospect names currently out of the pre-draft process due to injury. On the field, these are two of the best, most experienced defensive linemen in the nation. Off it, you have to wonder if Paea's meniscus, and the elbow injury that required Heyward to undergo Tommy John surgery, will affect each player's NFL-readiness. As prospects, they're ready to contribute, but if they can't get on the field right away, they may slide. However, the idea that there may not be OTAs and mini-camps may actually help injured prospects like Paea and Heyward.