In the coming weeks, I'll be ranking the top prospects in each BCS conference as we move toward April's NFL draft. I begin with the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
(1) Patrick Peterson, CB, 6-1, 222 - LSU
Peterson enters the NFL with a lethal combination of size, strength, speed and athleticism. He's a lightning quick shutdown cornerback in a muscled safety's body. He has an elite defensive skill set, he's a tenacious worker, and just for good measure, he's a world-class kick returner. He also has the inherent cockiness which (like it or not) has become a virtual pre-requisite for the cornerback position in the NFL. All in all, Peterson is the closest thing you'll find to a "can't miss" prospect in this or any other draft.
(2) A.J. Green, WR, 6-4, 212 - Georgia
Green is so freakishly gifted and NFL ready that he may be able to step onto the field as a #1 receiver in week one. He has ideal size, great hands, elite athleticism, and astonishingly acrobatic body control. Sling the ball near him, and he'll come down with it. His uncanny ability to make virtually any catch will be a godsend to any struggling quarterback. (Think long and hard about that, Carolina Panthers.)
(3) Nick Fairley, DT, 6-4, 298 - Auburn
Equally skilled at stuffing the run and putting the heat on quarterbacks, Fairley has elite athleticism and footwork for his size. He's versatile enough to excel in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, and he could eventually develop into a Pro-Bowl caliber defensive lineman.
(4) Marcell Dareus, DT, 6-3, 309 - Alabama
Dareus may actually rank higher than Fairley on some team's boards, and like Fairley, he's versatile enough to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment. He has explosive power along with surprising agility for his size. He was less productive than Fairley in 2010, so I've ranked him a notch lower here, but they should both have terrific NFL careers.
(5) Julio Jones, WR, 6-4, 220 - Alabama
Jones is a big-time talent - in fact, he's A.J. Green's equal in terms of size and athleticism, although his inconsistent hands make him a bit less reliable. He's simply not the human vacuum cleaner that Green is. This caveat aside, teams will fall in love with his upside and potential, and he'll be a matchup nightmare and a dangerous weapon in the NFL. If his hands improve - and they likely will - watch out.
(6) Mark Ingram, RB, 5-10, 215 - Alabama
Ingram has the tools, talent and intangibles to become a great NFL running back. In fact, I'd love to rank him higher here, but the five young men listed ahead of him are every bit as talented at their own positions, and there simply isn't a premium placed on 1st round running backs these days. Not when late round (and even undrafted) steals have become remarkably abundant and successful at the position in recent seasons. That said, Ingram is too talented to slip past the mid to late first round, and he should make an immediate impact as a rookie.
(7) (TIE) Cam Newton, QB, 6-6, 250 - Auburn
Ryan Mallett, QB, 6-6, 238 - Arkansas
The NFL potential for both Newton and Mallett is ripe material for debate. In fact, the players ranked behind them on this list are safer bets to become solid, productive, long-term NFL starters. That said, there is no commodity more valuable in the NFL than a bonafide franchise quarterback, and both of these players possess that kind of huge upside, even as questions ring out about their perceived flaws. Newton, who played in a relatively unsophisticated, run-first spread option offense in college, has to prove that he can read defenses, master a pro-style offense and fit the ball into tight windows. Mallett excelled in a pro-style offense at Arkansas, but his poor footwork and slow release are technical flaws that could be problematic at the next level. Positives also abound: Both players are blessed with tremendous size; Newton has elite mobility and athleticism; Mallett may have the most powerful, cannon-like arm in all of football. I've called this a tie here, because I see it as a dead heat when respective strengths and weaknesses are weighed. As I've discussed on this site before, both players have boom or bust potential, and it'll be fascinating to watch their development in the coming years.
(9) Derek Sherrod, OT, 6-6, 312 - Mississippi State
Sherrod has the size, strength, footwork and tool-set to be a career left tackle - a position every franchise in the NFL places a premium value on. Battle-tested in the SEC trenches, he's the #1 offensive lineman on many draft boards and a virtual lock to be a first round selection.
(10) Mike Pouncey, OG, 6-4, 310 - Florida
Offensive guards don't typically carry the same premium as tackles, but Pouncey is an elite prospect for the position, and even his DNA carries a veritable blue-print for NFL success. His twin brother, Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, was named to the Pro-Bowl during his stellar rookie campaign. The fact that the Steelers could use more offensive line help likely ensures that Mike won't slip past them at the end of round one, if he lasts that long.
Other potential SEC first rounders
Drake Nevis, DT, 6-1, 285 - LSU
Justin Houston, OLB, 6-3, 258 - Georgia