Who's Falling Down the Boards?

Who's Falling Down the Boards?

References typically reserved for financial markets will be bandied about freely during the NFL Draft April 25-26. The most common, of course, is the perceived rising and falling of players' "stocks."

Even the crawler at the bottom of the television screen rolling through recent selections is just a high-tech descendant of the long-abandoned stock market ticker tape.

As investors have discovered in recent months, those comparison are apt because the result of any speculation is unpredictable. Even at the top of the draft, there are many players with significant risk factors that may cause them to fall down draft boards - or fail to make an impact in the NFL - despite their college production and/or physical attributes. In any draft class, upwards of half of the top 50 selections will fail to meet lofty expectations.

The 19 potential first- and early second-round picks listed here all have the tools to excel in the NFL, but also have character red flags or concerns about their fit in the pro game which teams must consider.

Ten of the players listed chose to leave college early to pursue an NFL career. Underclassmen (denoted with an asterisk) are more likely to be considered risky prospects because they don't have a full body of work and/or they may have personal issues causing them to leave school. However, they are also among the most talented players in any draft.

That's what makes the NFL Draft more of an art than a science.

Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee (Could go as high as 9-13 overall, but his best value is in the 25-32 range)
Ayers really came on as a senior after earning All-SEC honors and holding his own against OT Michael Oher at the Senior Bowl. The fact he was only marginally productive before 2008 reminds scouts of former Vikings first-round pick Erasmus James (minus the injury history).

*Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers (21-25, 30-40)
Very productive for the Scarlet Knights with 149 combined catches the past two years, Britt also had major concentration lapses. Teams hope he has turned the corner, however, because of the way he played at the end of 2008 (1,048 yards receiving, six touchdowns in final eight games). He also tested better than expected at the combine, leading some to project him to Minnesota at the 21st overall pick.

*Everette Brown, DE-OLB, Florida State (9-12, 19-23)
Not only is Brown fighting the Florida State defensive end jinx (Alonzo Jackson, Andre Wadsworth, Reinard Wilson, etc), but 6-foot-1 and 5/8, 256-pound pass rushers don't often get top 15 consideration. His ability to make plays off the edge (21.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks in 2008) reminds some of Dwight Freeney, who went to Indianapolis at No. 11 in 2002. Others believe he is more comparable to Jerome McDougle (Philadelphia, No. 15, 2003) and are not sure he can make the switch to outside linebacker.

*Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois (14-18, 25-32)
NFL teams are not impressed with Davis' maturity level or ability to take hard coaching. His brother Vernon's somewhat slow progression as a tight end in San Francisco following stellar workouts that shot him up to No. 6 overall in 2006 did not help his cause, either. Still, Vontae Davis' excellent athleticism and willingness to play physically could entice a team to select him in the top 20.

Louis Delmas, S, Western Michigan (23-25, early-mid second round)
A very aggressive run defender with above-average athleticism, Delmas has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. However, his propensity to be over-aggressive in coverage and his lack of strength and questionable instincts may keep him from hitting his ceiling.

*Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State (15-19, early second)
Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, the top two-rated quarterbacks in this draft, could be on this list, too - all first-round quarterbacks are considered "boom or bust" prospects. But Freeman is considered the riskiest of the three, because along with excellent size and arm strength NFL teams must also consider his inconsistent decision-making and questionable leadership abilities. But the need for quarterbacks is so great, and this year's class so shallow, that a team will undoubtedly take a chance on his upside.

Jarron Gilbert, DT/DE, San Jose State (late first, late second)
Watching a 6-5, 288-pound football player jump out of a pool from a standing position is pretty amazing, but his athleticism did not always show up on the field. Gilbert was productive, however, making 22 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2008 in his third year as a starter. If he continues to improve his functional strength and consistency, he may be a fine 3-4 defensive end for years to come.

*Percy Harvin, WR, Florida (17-19, 25-30)
Harvin had one of the more important pro days on this year's calendar, and he nailed it. His ability to run crisp routes and catch the ball away from his body showed teams he's a slot receiver with game-changing potential. However, his long list of injuries and off-field red flags from high school have followed him through the pre-draft process.

*Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland (7-8, 17-22)
Scouts knew "DHB" was fast, but that 4.30-second 40-yard dash at the combine made him a potential top 10 pick. Although the 6-1 5/8 receiver has the 38.5-inch vertical to take the ball away from smaller defenders, Heyward-Bey has had similar hands issues to Britt during his career at Maryland. He also lacks polish as a receiver, which may come in time.

Michael Johnson, DE-OLB, Georgia Tech (26-31, mid-second)
Entering last season, the 6-7, 266-pound Johnson was considered a top 10 pick, despite starting only one career game, because of his length and outstanding athleticism. But he only flashed elite ability in a handful of plays each game as a senior, which gives teams pause about his ability to become the Pro Bowl-caliber player his combine tests (4.71 40, 28 reps, 4.37 short shuttle) suggest he could be.

Clay Matthews, OLB, Southern Cal (10-15, 23-29)
Teams love his bloodlines (grandfather, Clay Sr., father, Clay, Jr., and uncle, Bruce, were NFL veterans) and he tested as well as any linebacker at the combine. At the Southern Cal pro day, Matthews' ability to move in space and catch the ball wowed scouts. Some teams believe he could be the best USC linebacker in this draft, but others are a bit wary of any walk-on one-year starter, even if he comes from USC.

Rey Maualuga, ILB, Southern Cal (12-16, 23-27)
He made some money by running well at his pro day, erasing teams' memory of his hamstrung workout at the combine. And few in college football made bigger hits over the past couple of seasons. But there aren't many inside linebackers taken in the mid-first round, especially when teams have concerns about their character, instincts and ability to be a three-down player.

*Aaron Maybin, DE-OLB, Penn State (9-12, 19-23)
There is no question that Maybin has the closing speed and length to become an effective pass rusher at the next level. His stiff hips, lack of upper body strength and inexperience still make him a work in progress at both defensive end and linebacker. Scouts find players leaving after their redshirt sophomore year especially difficult to project.

*LeSean McCoy, RB, Pittsburgh (28-31, mid-late second)
At times, "Shady" looked like a first-round pick during his two years at Pitt. His vision and quickness occasionally made defenders look silly. But even if he had weighed in at 204 pounds in Indianapolis, like he did at his pro day, McCoy would have been the second-lightest back at the combine. He also has small hands and lacks elite speed and explosiveness. Coaches will also insist that he have four points of pressure on the football, instead of holding it away from his body, or else ball security will be a major problem.

William Moore, S, Missouri (early second, mid-late second)
Although the perception is player help themselves by returning for their senior year, Moore is an example of the opposite effect. He showed range and the ability to pound ballcarriers as a junior, but could not make many plays in 2008 and looked like a linebacker in coverage at the Senior Bowl, partially due to nagging injuries. If healthy and focused, a team may get the junior year version of Moore. His solid combine performance may have wrapped up an early second-round slot.

Michael Oher, OT, Ole Miss (6-10, 13-20)
A highly-recruited prospect out of high school, Oher has looked like a first-round pick since his freshman season in Oxford. He plays with a nasty streak and displays very good athleticism. However, he was not as smooth as Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe in position drills or tests at the combine and some teams are worried about his average strength, consistency and ability to handle adjustments on the left side of the line.

B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College (5-8, 9-12)
There aren't many concerns about Raji on the field. He was a dominant force inside and has much better athleticism than you'd expect at 330-plus pounds. But he missed the 2007 season due to academics, and his ability to remain focused and intense from play to play is questionable.

*Andre Smith, OT, Alabama (6-10, 13-16)
Leaving the combine early and running the 40 at his pro day shirtless may have cost him a chance at the No. 2 overall pick, but so may have his inconsistent play at left tackle - especially against elite defensive ends. Smith could be a dominant right tackle or guard, if his average lateral movement and light switch play prevents him from reaching his potential on the weak side. But teams typically do not spend a top 10 pick on right side of the line.

*Sean Smith, DB, Utah (23-32, mid-late second)
A former receiver, the 6-3 5/8, 214-pound Smith's size and ball skills are formidable. He's still learning the corner position, however, and is not strong enough or a secure enough tackler at this point to contribute as a safety. Nobody really knows whether he could be the next Nnamdi Asomugha or Mike Rumph.

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