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2012 NFL Draft: Ranking the Positions

Which positions are loaded at the top? Which are weak and which are full of sleepers?

Each and every NFL Draft is a totally unique experience. Draft day trades, team needs, rookie salary caps and positional trends all play major roles in who takes what player with which pick.

Positional depth may play the biggest role of them all in helping teams organize their big boards. Knowing when to reach for scarcity or pass because of quality second choices is key for any NFL GM on draft day.

So what positions are the deepest in the 2012 NFL Draft? Athlon ranks each position in this year’s draft complete with potential first-rounders, quality mid-round options and deep sleepers that are sure to surprise.

1. Wide Receiver

The 2008 recruiting class of wide receivers might have been the best collection of pass catchers to enter college at one time ever. Julio Jones and AJ Green have already provided a solid foundation for that assumption. But the rest of the ’08 wideout class will provide plenty of firepower for NFL teams across the country. There were 27 and 28 wideouts taken in the last two drafts respectively and this class could surpass those numbers with ease.

Potential First-Rounders (4):
Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State (6-1, 207), Michael Floyd, Notre Dame (6-2, 220), Kendall Wright, Baylor (5-10, 196), Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech (6-4, 215)

Day Two Picks (14):
Rueben Randle, LSU (6-3, 210), Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina (6-3, 216), A.J. Jenkins, Illinois (6-0, 190), Brian Quick, Appalachian State (6-3, 220), Joe Adams, Arkansas (5-11, 179), Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma (5-11, 192), Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers (6-1, 211), Nick Toon, Wisconsin (6-2, 215), TY Hilton, FIU (5-9, 183), Keshawn Martin, Michigan State (5-11, 188), Tommy Streeter, Miami (6-5, 219), Chris Givens, Wake Forest (5-11, 198), Danny Coale, Virginia Tech (6-0, 201), Marvin McNutt, Iowa (6-3, 216)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
DeVier Posey, Ohio State (6-2, 211), Jeff Fuller, Texas A&M (6-4, 223), Juron Criner, Arizona (6-2, 2224), Dwight Jones, North Carolina (6-3, 230), Eric Page, Toledo (5-9, 186), Greg Childs, Arkansas (6-3, 219), Devon Wylie, Fresno State (5-9, 187)

2. Cornerback

With the advent of intricate three-, four- and five-wide sets in the NFL, the need for talented covermen has pushed the cornerback position squarely into the first round. The bigger, less-fluid, less-agile cornerbacks can be easily converted into speedy safeties (see Dre Kirkpatrick or Stephon Gilmore) in case they aren't capable of man-up coverage. And much like the offensive tackle position, there is a high washout, or bust, rate at this position. More risks are taken at this position in the first round in an effort to find the next Darrelle Revis. The 2012 collection of covermen features some pure studs (Claiborne), plenty of mid-round depth and talent (Hosley, Johnson, Minnifield) and a couple of seriously talented late-rounders (Menzie, Harris). Expect a lot of CBs to go off the board in the first 100 picks.

Potential First-Rounders (4):
Morris Claiborne, LSU (5-11, 188), Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina (6-0, 190), Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama (6-1, 185), Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama (5-10, 193)

Day Two Picks (10):
Josh Robinson, UCF (5-10, 199), Dwight Bentley, UL Lafayette (5-10, 182), Trumaine Johnson, Montana (6-2, 204), Brandon Boykin, Georgia (5-9, 182), Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska (5-10, 204), Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina (6-0, 197), Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech (5-10, 178), Chase Minnifield, Virginia (5-10, 183), Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt (5-11, 192), Jamell Fleming, Oklahoma (5-10, 206)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
DeQuan Menzie, Alabama (5-10, 195), Sean Prater, Iowa (5-10, 190), Cliff Harris, Oregon (5-11, 175), Keith Tandy, West Virginia (5-10, 202)

3. Defensive Tackle

The value of this class is clearly in the first round. Interior defensive lineman are a rare commodity — like a book-end tackle, shutdown corner or great quarterback — and teams will reach for them. This group (other than possibly Dontari Poe) is well-deserving of its first-round grade. The SEC features two can’t-miss products while the Big Ten will provide two superstars within the first 40 picks or so. If Poe were to pan out as a sound first-round value, albeit an unlikely proposition, this class could provide five or six bona fide All-Pros.

Potential First-Rounders (6):
Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State (6-4, 298), Michael Brockers, LSU (6-5, 322), Jerel Worthy (6-2, 309), Kendall Reyes, UConn (6-4, 299), Dontari Poe, Memphis (6-3, 346), Devon Still, Penn State (6-5, 303)

Day Two Picks (7):
Brandon Thompson, Clemson (6-2, 311), Alamdea Ta Amu, Washington (6-2, 348), Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati (6-5, 318), Mike Martin, Michigan (6-1, 308), Mike Daniels, Iowa (6-0, 291), Billy Winn, Boise State (6-4, 294), Josh Chapman, Alabama (6-1, 316),

Athlon’s Sleepers To Watch:
DaJohn Harris, USC (6-3, 306), Loni Fangupo, BYU (6-1, 323), Marcus Forston, Miami (6-1, 301), Kheeston Randall, Texas (6-5, 293)

4. Offensive Guard

Guards are not first-round selections. They can be had in any round in the draft and traditionally are a big part of the middle rounds (3-5). There have been a total of three guards selected in the last three NFL Drafts, but 22 have been taken in rounds 3-5 over that same span. The depth and value in this class could come in the much-later rounds, however, as big-time recruits turned long-time starters on a BCS level will fly off boards. Names like Ryan Miller, Lucas Nix and Brandon Washington could all dramatically out-perform their draft status.

Potential First-Rounders (2):
David DeCastro, Stanford (6-5, 316), Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin (6-4, 314)

Day Two Picks (8):
Jeff Allen, Illinois (6-4, 307), Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State (6-5, 333), Amini Silatolu, Midwestern State (6-3, 311), Tony Bergstrom, Utah (6-5, 313), Adam Gettis, Iowa (6-2, 293), Brandon Brooks, Miami-OH (6-4, 353), James Brown, Troy (6-3, 306), Joe Looney, Wake Forest (6-3, 309)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Brandon Washington, Miami-Fla. (6-3, 320), Ryan Miller, Colorado (6-7, 321), Lucas Nix, Pitt (6-5, 317), Markus Zusevics, Iowa (6-5, 303)

5. Quarterback

This is a unique position to evaluate. It is the most important position on the field and it’s also the position with the most specific skillset in the game — mental make-up, arm strength, pocket presence, work ethic and more. Over the last three years, the NFL Draft has featured no fewer than 11 and no more than 14 signal-callers drafted. This season should feature a number that could top 14 easily. What makes this QB class special is the two names atop the list who are as sure-fire as any prospects in decades and the depth in the second and third round. There are more than half-a-dozen productive, big-framed winners in this group that each have a chance to start on the next level. This is the year to take a mid-round chance on a quarterback.

Potential First-Rounders (3):
Andrew Luck, Stanford (6-4, 234), Robert Griffin III, Baylor (6-2, 231), Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M (6-4, 221)

Day Two Picks (6):
Kirk Cousins, Michigan State (6-3, 214), Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State (6-3, 221), Brock Osweiler, Arizona State (6-7, 242), Nick Foles, Arizona (6-5, 243), Ryan Lindley, San Diego State (6-3, 229), Russell Wilson, Wisconsin (5-11, 204)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Kellen Moore, Boise State (6-0, 197), Case Keenum, Houston (6-1, 208), Darron Thomas, Oregon (6-3, 220), Chandler Harnish, Northern Illinois (6-2, 219)

6. Running Back

The biggest shift in drafting philosophy has taken place at the running back position. The modern version of the NFL will grind the life out of even the best backs in the nation in very short order. The physical nature of the game gives the average NFL runner a three- to five-year life span. This means investing first-round money on a running back is a much riskier proposition. To this end, only one back should be taken in the first round this weekend — and he is special and deserves it. Yet, the value at this position has been clearly defined as the second, third and fourth rounds. Look at the NFL’s leading rushers from last fall? Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy finished one, two and four in rushing last year and all three were second-round picks. Michael Turner was third and he was taken in the fifth. Arian Foster was fifth and was undrafted while Frank Gore was sixth and was taken in the third round. This class should match these trends and will produce some excellent runners — this is a much better running back class than experts are acknowledging.

Potential First-Rounders (1):
Trent Richardson, Alabama (5-9, 228)

Day Two Picks (14):
Doug Martin, Boise State (5-9, 223), David Wilson, Virginia Tech (5-9, 206), Chris Polk, Washington (5-10, 215), Lamar Miller, Miami-Fla. (5-10, 212), LaMichael James, Oregon (5-8, 194), Edwin Baker, Michigan State (5-8, 204), Bernard Pierce, Temple (6-0, 218), Robert Turbin, Utah State (5-10, 222), Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati (5-10, 197), Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State (5-8, 200), Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M (5-10, 206), Tauren Poole, Tennessee (5-10, 205), Terrance Ganaway, Baylor (5-11, 239), Chris Rainey, Florida (5-8, 180)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Dan Herron, Ohio State (5-10, 213), Davin Meggett, Maryland (5-8, 222), Lennon Creer, Louisiana Tech (5-11, 219), Vick Ballard, Mississippi State (5-10, 219), Darrell Scott, USF (6-0, 231)

7. Inside Linebacker

The role of the inside linebacker has avoided the massive paradigm shift that the outside linebacker is undergoing at the moment. A three-down inside tackler who can play both against the pass and the run is a rare commodity. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense and must be involved in everything that a defense does. From rushing the passer, filling against the run, dropping into zone or man coverages or chasing ball-carriers to the edge, the middle backer is the defense’s heart and soul. So it makes grading a prospect as a first-rounder that much more difficult. Luke Kuechly, however, might be the least risky prospect in the entire draft. He led the world in tackles and is a three-time all-everything middle linebacker. The intrigue and value at this position, however, is in the second and third rounds. Names like Kendricks, Wagner, Lewis, Burfict and Carder have Lofa Tatupu or Curtis Lofton written all over them.

Potential First Rounders (2):
Luke Kuechly, Boston College (6-3, 242), Dont’a Highower, Alabama (6-2, 265)

Day Two Picks (7):
Mychal Kendricks, Cal (5-11, 239), Bobby Wagner, Utah State (6-0, 241), Travis Lewis, Oklahoma (6-1, 253), Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State (6-1, 248), James Michael-Johnson, Nevada (6-1, 241), Tank Carder, TCU (6-2, 236), Emmanuel Acho, Texas (6-1, 238)

Athlon’s Sleepers To Watch:
Audie Cole, NC State (6-4, 246), Najee Goode, West Virginia (6-0, 244), Chris Marve, Vanderbilt (6-0, 239), Marcus Dowtin, North Alabama (6-1, 228), Jerry Franklin, Arkansas (6-1, 241)

8. Outside Linebacker

The proliferation of 3-4 schemes and unique defensive line-ups have increasingly blurred the lines between outside linebacker and defensive end. Courtney Upshaw, for example, could play either positions — as could Andre Branch, Shae McClellin, Bruce Irvin or Ronnell Lewis. Lavonte David is the top pure outside backer who fits into the traditional 4-3 role for an outside tackler. Once the big names are off the board at this position, 4-3 teams will find plenty of talent, value and upside in the mid-to-later rounds. Names like Bradham, Spence, Trevathan and Manning are all traditional strong and weakside backers. The pass-rushing OLB/DE hybrids will go much earlier.

Potential First Rounders (3):
Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (6-1, 272), Shea McClellin, Boise State (6-3, 260), Lavonte David, Nebraska (6-1, 233)

Day Two Picks (5):
Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2, 253), Zach Brown, North Carolina (6-1, 244), Bruce Irvin, West Virginia (6-3, 245), Keenan Robinson, Texas (6-3, 242), Nigel Bradham, Florida State (6-2, 241),

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Sean Spence, Miami (5-11, 231), Terrell Manning, NC State (6-2, 237), Danny Trevathan, Kentucky (6-0, 237),

9. Defensive End

There are some intriguing options at this position but GMs will likely have to take a risk if he wants a pure pass-rusher in the first round. Names like Coples and Ingram feel like future stars but there are loads of question marks surrounding other names like Mercilus, Branch and Perry. The middle of the class isn’t very deep either. So for a position that ranks behind only the QB and the LT in importance, 2012 looks like a week year for ends. Much like the safety position, however, your team could pass on a defensive end this year in hopes of getting in on a loaded 2013 DE draft class that should include Sam Montgomery, Alex Okafor, Barkevious Mingo, Jackson Jeffcoat, Devin Taylor, John Simon, William Gholston, Ronald Powell, Dion Jordan, Corey Lemonier and Kareem Martin.

Potential First-Rounders (6):
Quinton Coples, North Carolina (6-5, 284), Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (6-1, 264), Chandler Jones, Syracuse (6-5, 266), Nick Perry, USC (6-2, 271), Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (6-3, 261), Andre Branch, Clemson (6-4, 259)

Day Two Picks (5):
Vinny Curry, Marshall (6-3, 266), Olivier Vernon, Miami, Fla. (6-2, 261), Tyrone Crawford, Boise State (6-4, 275), Trevor Guyton, Cal (6-2, 285), Cam Johnson, Virginia (6-3, 268)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Jake Bequette, Arkansas (6-4, 275), Malik Jackson, Tennessee (6-4, 284), Taylor Thompson, SMU (6-6, 282)

10. Center

The quarterback of the offensive line is the least drafted position on the football field as roughly half-a-dozen centers are taken each year. The 2012 NFL Draft should be no different as only one prospect appears to be a first-round talent. There have been a total of 11 centers drafted in the last two years, including five in rounds six or later. However, if your team needs a center, there is some excellent value in the mid-rounds. The Big Ten claimed the top three centers in the nation last fall and all three should go relatively early this weekend. And all three should be excellent pros. If seven centers are drafted it will be the most since 2009.

Potential First Rounders (1):
Peter Konz, Wisconsin (6-5, 314)

Day Two Picks (4):
Ben Jones, Georgia (6-2, 303), David Molk, Michigan (6-1, 298), Michael Brewster, Ohio State (6-4, 312), Phillip Blake, Baylor (6-3, 311)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
William Vlachos, Alabama (6-0, 306), Quentin Saulsberry, Mississippi State (6-2, 304)

11. Offensive Tackle

The tackle is easily the most highly sought-after offensive line position. And based on salaries, protecting the blind side is the second most valuable skill in the NFL to throwing the football. This is why left tackles like Matt Kalil are selected in the top five each and every year. In fact, over the last three drafts, more tackles are taken in the first round than any other round in the draft. Fourteen tackles have been taken in the first round over that span. This is certainly a much weaker OT class than in recent memory, but it doesn’t mean that teams won’t move on a bookend if they feel he has what it takes. Upwards of six names could jump into the first round due to the lack of depth in the middle at this position. Once the top six or seven names are taken, look for the position to be non-existent until the much later rounds.

Potential First Rounders (6):
Matt Kalil, USC (6-7, 306), Riley Reiff, Iowa (6-5, 313), Cordy Glenn, Georgia (6-5, 345), Mike Adams, Ohio State (6-7, 323), Jonathan Martin, Stanford (6-5, 312), Bobby Massie, Ole Miss (6-6, 316)

Day Two Picks (4):
Mitchell Schwartz, Cal (6-5, 318), Zebrie Sanders, Florida State (6-5, 320), Donald Stephenson, Oklahoma (6-5, 320), Brandon Mosley, Auburn (6-5, 314)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Nate Potter, Boise State (6-6, 303), Matt Reynolds, BYU (6-4, 313), Marcel Jones, Nebraska (6-6, 316), Tom Compton, South Dakota (6-5, 313), Jeff Adams, Columbia (6-6, 306).

12. Safety

Needless to say, this isn’t a strong safety class. Mark Barron is the only sure-thing at the position as one SEC assistant coach told me that the Alabama safety was the best player in the SEC last year. He is the only dominant player at his position in this draft and should be the only player taken in the first round. There are some intriguing options in the middle rounds but there is very little depth at safety this year. Expect teams who may need a safety to pass this year and wait for 2013 — which will feature a loaded draft class of free and strong safeties that could include TJ McDonald, Eric Reid, Matt Elam, Ray-Ray Armstong, Tony Jefferson, Robert Lester, Kenny Vaccaro, Bacarri Rambo, Isaiah Johnson, Hakeem Smith and John Boyett.

Potential First-Rounders (2):
Mark Barron, Alabama (6-1, 213), Harrison Smith, Notre Dame (6-2, 213)

Day Two Picks (6):
Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State (6-0, 207), Brandon Taylor, LSU (5-11, 202), Antonio Allen, South Carolina (6-1, 201), George Iloka, Boise State (6-3, 225), Brandon Hardin, Oregon State (6-2, 222), Charles Mitchell, Mississippi State (5-11, 202)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
Trent Robinson, Michigan State (5-10, 195), Sean Richardson, Vanderbilt (6-2, 216), Kelcie Mccray, Arkansas State (6-2, 202), Eddie Pleasant, Oregon (5-10, 211)

13. Tight End

The tight end is one of the most interesting positions in the draft. Rarely does more than one tight end every get selected in first round. In fact, only one has been taken in the first frame in each of the last three years. Yet, nearly 40 total tight ends were taken overall in the last two drafts (39). In the modern spread, pass-happy NFL, the versatile tight end has become a dangerous weapon that every team acknowledges are important. But no one is willing to pay for them with high picks. Because this is a weaker TE class, it may not be the best Petri dish, but where tight ends are taken could be a trend to watch over the next few years. If more two tight end sets continue to crop-up around the league, the tight end will begin to move up into the first round.

Potential First-Rounders (1):
Coby Fleener, Stanford (6-6, 247)

Day Two Picks (7):
Dwayne Allen, Clemson (6-3, 255), Orson Charles, Georgia (6-2, 251), Michael Egnew, Missouri (6-5, 252), Ladarius Green, UL Lafayette (6-5, 238), James Hanna, Oklahoma (6-3, 252), Deangelo Peterson, LSU (6-3, 243), Adrien Robinson, Cincinnati (6-4, 267)

Athlon’s Sleepers to Watch:
George Bryan, NC State (6-5, 265), Kevin Koger, Michigan (6-3, 262), Evan Rodriguez, Temple (6-1, 239)

-by Braden Gall

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