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October 1, 2008

NFL Draft: Ranking the underclassmen

RELATED: Early look: NFL draft top 100 prospects | Ranking the position groups

A record 39 underclassmen were selected in the 2008 draft, and the 2009 draft could break that record. Michael Lombardi, Andrew Brandt and Wes Bunting of National Football Post rank this year's underclassmen for the 2009 draft class. Remember that college scouting is a continual process that changes on a week-to-week basis.

1. Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia Stafford is the nation's most natural pocket passer and exhibits an intriguing blend of accuracy and arm strength. He has all the physical tools to become a top-flight quarterback at the next level, but his maturity and awareness in the pocket are the things that make him such a highly rated prospect.

2. Andre Smith, OT, Alabama A road-grader on the outside who plays with great power and leverage in the running game. He has the size to play on the right side, but it is his athleticism and quickness that make him special. A rare athlete for his size, he could excel at a variety of positions on the offensive line. He needs to keep his weight in check.

3. Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia One of the most natural and instinctive runners in years, Moreno features great vision through the tackles with elite quickness and change-of-direction skills. He runs with great balance and power while consistently making the first man miss and accelerating upfield.

4. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech An ultra-productive player who uses his blend of size (6 feet 3) and body control to consistently make plays on the outside. He runs sharp, precise routes for a man his size, and has the ability to separate on all levels. A natural receiver with good hands and strong wrists, he's a consistent jump-ball threat.

5. Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Auburn The most explosive and disruptive three-technique tackle in the nation. Marks has been playing at an extremely high level this season and does an excellent job firing off the line at the snap and shooting gaps inside. He plays low with a powerful leg drive, and showcases the suddenness to get off blocks. He looks like the cream of the crop among underclass defensive linemen in the SEC.

6. Brandon Spikes, ILB, Florida A sideline-to-sideline linebacker who makes a ton of plays on all levels on the field. Spikes is a long, angular athlete who possesses a strong lower body and is just as comfortable stacking and shedding at the line as he is dropping off in coverage. An emotional leader who is always around the ball, he's the type of player around which you can build a defense.

7. Geno Atkins, DT, Georgia If Marks is No. 1 among underclass tackles, then Atkins is No. 1A. Atkins is a bit undersized but is extremely quick off the snap. He uses his arms well to disengage from blockers, and has the body control and suddenness to get upfield. He has a great motor and displays good closing speed, and never stays blocked for long.

8. Taylor Mays, FS, USC Mays is built like a linebacker (6-3/230), but is fluid and re-directs as well as some corners in the NFL. A natural bender who can dip and explode out of his breaks. Showcases good straight-line speed and range, but it's his instincts and nose for the ball that really have scouts buzzing. The most physically gifted safety to enter the draft since Sean Taylor.

9. Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois The brother of San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, Vontae is blessed with the same kind of natural athleticism. He's an explosive, quick-twitch athlete who exhibits excellent straight-line speed and change of directions stills. He is comfortable in press coverage and loves to play physical. He isn't afraid to stick his head in and make tackles.

10. Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri Maclin possesses elite speed (4.38) and good size. But it's his body control and quickness that makes him so intriguing to scouts. Maclin's ability to stop on a dime and change direction is second to no one in the NCAA. He reminds some scouts from an athletic standpoint of Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Hester, but he is a far more polished receiver and route-runner.

11. Greg Hardy, DE, Ole Miss An angular, explosive end who has the initial burst and speed to consistently reach the corner and dip around the edge. But it's his ability to be physical as a pass rusher when using his counter move inside and bull-rushing tackles backward that makes him extremely difficult to block on the outside.

12. Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma A long, rangy tight end with good size and overall girth. Gresham possesses soft hands and does an excellent job attacking the ball over the middle and going up at the highest point to grab it. A great athlete with good initial burst and straight-line speed, he can consistently threaten the seam and make plays down the field.

13. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland An ultra-athletic receiver with elite top-end speed, the former track star plays as fast as his 4.37 speed indicates. He possesses a long frame and has good body control. He does a nice job going up at the highest point and making plays on jump balls. But Heyward-Bey is a raw route-runner who needs to continue to polish his overall game. Still, he is a playmaker.

14. LeSean McCoy, RB, Pittsburgh He broke onto the scene last season and hasn't looked back. McCoy possesses nice size, but it is his initial burst and first two steps that make him dynamic. He displays good lateral mobility and toughness inside, and has the speed to explode into the second level. Still, he needs to become a bit more patient at the line of scrimmage.

15. Percy Harvin, WR, Florida An absolute playmaker, but does he have a natural position? Harvin has been used more on the outside at wide receiver this season and is becoming more comfortable running routes and separating out of his breaks. But he is an intriguing running back in space who can create mismatches. He could be at his best used in a Reggie Bush-type role.

16. Rico McCoy, OLB, Tennessee McCoy is one of the nation's most explosive and fluid linebackers. He is compact, smooth in and out of breaks and does an excellent job getting a deep drop in zone coverage. He's an ideal Cover 2 'backer with a nose for the ball. He has excellent leverage and power as a tackler.

17. Ricky Jean-Francois, DT, LSU Another explosive SEC tackle who does a great job firing out of his stance and shooting through inside gaps. He uses his hands well to stay off blocks, and possesses long arms and sudden lateral quickness. Jean-Francois lacks some power in his lower half and struggles being physical and driving his way upfield when engaged.

18. George Selvie, DE, South Florida Selvie might have the most explosive first step off the edge in the nation. He displays a flexible stance, and gets off the ball and upfield instantly. But he lacks great body control and needs to add a counter-move inside. If his initial rush is stalled, he struggles shedding and getting off blocks. He's more of a one-trick pony at this stage.

19. Ciron Black, OT, LSU A big, girthy tackle with long arms and a strong upper body. When Black gets his hands on you, the battle is over. He has smooth lateral footwork and re-directs well on an island. He has the quickness to handle speed off the edge and the power to really drive defenders off the ball. Black has a smooth, compact punch and re-coils quickly. He is always balanced and rarely over-extends in pass protection.

20. Chris Wells, RB, Ohio State A physically well-built back with a rare blend of quickness for his size. He possesses great change-of-direction skills and the ability to make a man miss in the hole. Wells runs with a good pad level and gets north-to-south quickly. He has good vision inside, but has taken his fair share of knocks already. Some NFL teams worry about his long-term durability, but he looks like a powerful, workhorse back at the next level.

21. Myron Rolle, SS, Florida State A well-built, instinctive safety who does a nice job reading and reacting quickly to plays and consistently being around the ball. He has all the physical tools you look for and the smarts to ball-hawk at the next level. But Rolle is an excellent student he's a Rhodes Scholar candidate who may have more of a passion for the books than for football. If he ever devotes his full attention to football, he could be something special.

22. Mark Sanchez, QB, USC A first-year starter, he has displayed good poise and arm strength from the pocket. Sanchez is able to make all the NFL throws with good zip and does a nice job setting his feet and throwing with proper mechanics when he gets outside the pocket. He needs to continue to improve his touch underneath, but he is a nice athlete with good size who buys time in the pocket and throws accurately on the move.

23. Auston English, DE, Oklahoma A throwback, blue-collar defensive end who plays with more power and strength then his size (6-3/254) would indicate. English has a good first step, but it's his balance and body control that enable him to get under tackles and dip around the corner. He rushes the passer with good hand technique. Combine that with his high-running motor, and English never stays blocked for long.

24. Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama Cody, an unheralded junior college transfer, continues to move up draft boards with his consistent and dominant play inside. Cody is 6-5 and 378, but plays with good flexibility and exhibits the ability to anchor into his stance and take on a double-team. He has been nearly impossible to move inside and eats up blockers. He will garner first-round attention and will be appealing to teams that run a 3-4 defense and are searching for a massive nose tackle.

25. Maurice Evans, DE, Penn State He had 12.5 sacks last season and got his first this season against Illinois after he returned from a three-game suspension. Evans is a short, stout end, with good lower-body strength and power. He has the burst and speed to turn the corner, but it's his ability to play with leverage that makes him difficult to block. Evans has good closing speed and reminds some scouts of Raiders defensive end Derrick Burgess.

26. Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Missouri He's a tackling machine who runs sideline-to-sideline and makes a ton of plays in pursuit. He has excellent closing speed and a nose for the ball at the line of scrimmage. Weatherspoon is comfortable in space, and does a nice job reading and reacting in zone coverage and breaking on a ball in front of him. He possesses an impressive athletic skill set and moves more like a safety than a linebacker.

27. DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma A high strider who is fluid in the open field and does a good job changing directions at full speed. Murray runs with a high pad level between the tackles, and has the burst to explode into the secondary and outrun defensive backs on the outside. He needs to learn to run with more patience, but you can't question his outright athleticism and playmaking ability.

28. Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State Freeman has grown leaps and bounds in the art of quarterbacking since his freshman season. He is a much more consistent passer, and can scan the field and quickly go through progressions. All the physical tools are there, and he has one of the most impressive arms in the nation. If he continues to improve his footwork, he should be in the first-round mix.

29. Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU LaFell is a long, lean wide receiver with good speed and strength after the catch. But it is his concentration and body control that make him such an intriguing prospect. Nearly every game, LaFell catches a ball away from his body that just makes you say, "Wow." He displays good burst out of his breaks and runs sharp, precise routes. He is one of the more polished receivers in the nation.

30. DeMarcus Granger, DT, Oklahoma Granger has been out the past couple of weeks because of a foot injury and will miss at least another two games. But he has the size (6-3/306) and quickness to be disruptive inside. He does a nice job holding the point of attack against the run and has the ability to split a double-team with his combination of burst and power off the ball. He uses his hands well to shed blocks but needs to play with a more consistent motor and mean streak.

Nationalfootballpost.com is a new football insider Web site featuring Andrew Brandt, the vice president of the Green Bay Packers for the past nine years, and Michael Lombardi, who has worked in NFL front offices for 22 years - including nine years with Cleveland and eight with Oakland.



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