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December 17, 2008

NFL draft: Looking at the top underclassmen

With the Jan. 15 deadline date looming, underclassmen have less than a month to declare for the 2009 NFL draft. A record 53 underclassmen declared last year, and this year's class looks to be just as big and possibly even more talented. Mike Lombardi, Andrew Brandt and Wes Bunting of the National Football Post break down this year's top 30 underclassmen. (NOTE: Texas QB Colt McCoy and Georgia DT Geno Atkins plan to return to school and were not included on the list.)

1. FS Taylor Mays, USC

THE BUZZ: Mays has the build of an outside linebacker (6 feet 3/230 pounds) and runs like a cornerback. Mays is a ballhawk in the secondary and also does a great job being a physical force in attacking the line of scrimmage.

2. LB Brandon Spikes, Florida

THE BUZZ: Spikes is an instinctive, athletic middle linebacker who flies around and makes plays all over the field. He is the heart and soul of Florida's defense and is the type of player you can build a team around. He showcases excellent power in the run game and good fluidity against the pass. He's a do-it-all athlete who likely will be the first linebacker off the board.

3. WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech

THE BUZZ: The first two-time Biletnikoff Award winner looks to be the top wide receiver prospect. He possesses a rare blend of body control for his size (6-3/214) and does an excellent job going up and attacking the ball. He has been extremely productive at Texas Tech and has the type of physical skills to become a top-flight receiver at the next level.

4. DT Terrence Cody, Alabama

THE BUZZ: "Mount Cody" has been flying up draft boards all year because of his ability to take up blockers and be stout at the point of attack. Cody is a great athlete for his size (6-5/365); he can move down the line and defeat blockers away from his body. But he is at his best playing the nose and stuffing run lanes inside. He's a two-down lineman who will be ideal for any 3-4 team.

5. OT Andre Smith, Alabama

THE BUZZ: The Outland Trophy winner has done an excellent job creating holes for the powerful Alabama rushing attack and protecting QB John Parker Wilson. He has struggled with speed rushers at times this season and might be best-suited to play on the right side or inside at guard. Either way, Smith is a light-footed lineman with the body control and agility to play just about anywhere on the line.

6. QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma

THE BUZZ: The Heisman Trophy winner is an extremely accurate passer who displays the ability to go through progressions quickly and find his "hot" man. He has a bit of an awkward throwing motion and lacks ideal arm strength, but he knows how to guide an offense and will only get better the more he matures.

7. RB Chris Wells, Ohio State

THE BUZZ: He's a well-built, physical back who does a great job making distinctive cuts at the line of scrimmage and attacking downhill. Wells possesses surprisingly agile feet for his size and displays an explosive jump cut. He exhibits more-than-adequate burst to hit the hole and will have an impact as a workhorse back at the next level.

8. DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma

THE BUZZ: McCoy has been a dominant force, consistently splitting double teams and causing havoc in opponents' backfields. He displays an explosive first step and plays with natural leverage inside. His 6 sacks were top among the Sooners' interior linemen, and the attention he gets inside opens up pass-rushing opportunities for everyone around him.

9. WR/RB Percy Harvin, Florida

THE BUZZ: Has there been a more explosive playmaker this season than Harvin? Harvin plays at another speed, and has the quickness, body control and agility to consistently make men miss. He has improved significantly as a receiver this season and exhibits the ability to line up at a handful of spots at the next level.

10. TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma

THE BUZZ: Gresham is a wide receiver in a tight end's body (6-6/262). He is a long, well-built athlete who looks as if he could add even more girth and not lose any of his speed. He has the ability to make plays down the seam and will create a ton of mismatches in the passing game. Gresham does lack experience as a blocker and displays some inconsistencies catching the ball, but his ability to make plays in the passing game far outweighs those concerns.

11. DE Aaron Maybin, Penn State

THE BUZZ: Maybin's stock has climbed all season, thanks in part to his 12-sack performance. Maybin displays an excellent first step off the edge with the length and closing speed to shed blocks and get after the passer. He plays surprisingly well at the point of attack for a 245-pounder and is atop the defensive end rankings.

12. QB Matthew Stafford, Georgia

THE BUZZ: Stafford is a prototypical pocket passer. He possesses the size, arm strength and confidence to make all the throws at the next level. But he has been inconsistent with his accuracy and ability to read coverages this season. He likely will benefit greatly in the draft from a poor senior quarterback class, but he hasn't had the junior season many anticipated.

13. OT Eben Britton, Arizona

THE BUZZ: Britton has flown under the radar all season, but he possibly has been the most impressive left tackle in the nation. His length, body control and smooth footwork make him nearly impossible to get around on the outside. He has been dominant in both the run and pass game this season, and he hasn't been called for a penalty in 2008.

14. CB Vontae Davis, Illinois

THE BUZZ: Davis is an extremely gifted athlete who has the size (6-0/204) and explosion to be a force at the next level. Davis does a nice job staying in a receiver's back pocket and closing quickly on the ball. He has the ability to consistently undercut routes, but he needs to do a better job being patient in his backpedal and trusting his technique.

15. WR Jeremy Maclin, Missouri

THE BUZZ: Maclin is one of the most explosive receivers in the nation, and he has the size and body control to consistently gain separation on routes at all levels. He has improved dramatically on his route-running ability and is becoming a much more natural receiver. He is a playmaker in every sense of the word and is dynamic with the ball in his hands.

16. OT Russell Okung, Oklahoma State

THE BUZZ: Okung is a long, lean tackle who displays excellent feet and body control on the outside. He does a nice job reaching the corner and is fundamentally sound redirecting in space. Okung needs to add a little more girth and power to his lower half, but he certainly has the feet and athleticism to play left tackle in the pros.

17. DT Sen'Derrick Marks, Auburn

THE BUZZ: Marks is an explosive tackle who has the first-step quickness and ability to shoot gaps and be disruptive inside. He is a bit undersized (6-1/295), but he plays with good leverage and has the closing speed and body control to get after the ball. He seemed to have worn down a bit late in the season, but he plays with reckless abandon and has a motor that never stops.

18. RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia

THE BUZZ: Moreno might be one of the most instinctive runners to come along in years. He has great stop-and-go ability in the open field, and he has the skill set to run with power and vision inside.

19. DE Everette Brown, Florida State

THE BUZZ: Brown is a long-limbed, flexible athlete who displays the first-step explosion and balance to reach and turn the corner on tackles. He exhibits a much stronger lower body than his size (6-4/252) would indicate, and he does a nice job playing low and shedding blocks off the edge. Brown has been productive and looks to have solidified himself as a first-round pick.

20. LB Mark Herzlich, Boston College

THE BUZZ: The ACC's defensive player of the year has the fluidity and quickness to drop into coverage and rush the passer. Herzlich has a nose for the ball and is consistently around the action. He is a fierce tackler who will fight and scrap for every inch. He may be best-suited to play outside in the 3-4, but his passion, instincts and toughness are unmatched.

21. RB LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh

THE BUZZ: McCoy is an extremely gifted athlete who breaks down and exhibits impressive lateral mobility for a guy his size (5-11/210). McCoy has excellent agility in the open field and has shown a new toughness in his game this season. His 1,403 rushing yards and 299 receiving yards show he can be an ideal dual threat at the next level.

22. OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma

THE BUZZ: Williams has flown under the radar playing on the star-studded Oklahoma offensive line. The funny thing? He has been the most impressive lineman. Williams is scheduled to take over the left tackle spot vacated by Phil Loadholt next season. But Williams looks to be a much better prospect; he has the quickness, power and body control to handle the right or left side in the NFL.

23. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland

THE BUZZ: Heyward-Bey has possibly the most intriguing size/speed ratio of any athlete in the draft class. Blessed with 4.3 speed, Heyward-Bey (6-2/206) has the length and ball skills to track down just about any deep ball in the passing game. He is more of a one-trick pony at this stage and needs to become a better route runner, but he possesses the explosion to be a consistent vertical threat at the next level.

24. DE Greg Hardy, Ole Miss

THE BUZZ: Hardy displays good fluidity and redirection skills off the edge, with the balance to dip his shoulder around the corner. He plays a lot stronger then his frame (6-5/255) would indicate, and he does a nice job mixing up his outside speed rush with his inside move.

25. CB Sean Smith, Utah

THE BUZZ: He's a tall (6-3), long-limbed cornerback with good flexibility and redirection skills for his size. Some scouts are looking at him as a possible free safety, but Smith has the foot quickness and range to be an ideal bump corner. Smith has made plays all season and has continued to fly up draft boards. His performance against Alabama WR Julio Jones in the Sugar Bowl could go a long way in determining his prospects for the 2009 draft.

26. DE George Selvie, USF

THE BUZZ: He's a pure speed rusher who possesses an elite first step. He lacks some power against the run game and doesn't display the type of lateral mobility needed to sidestep blocks. But he has the ability to consistently rush the passer and might be best-suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 set.

27. CB D.J. Moore, Vanderbilt

THE BUZZ: Moore has played at a high level all season. He has a good burst out of his backpedal and does a nice job staying in a receiver's back pocket. He seems to struggle with bigger receivers and is too easily shielded from throws. Moore is an instinctive, pesky corner who might be best-suited to play in a "Cover 2" scheme.

28. RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson

THE BUZZ: Spiller is an explosive, quick-twitch athlete who seems to get up to top speed instantly. He is dynamic in the open field and has the agility to consistently make people miss. Spiller showcases better power and vision between the tackles than he is given credit for, and he could end up being a Steve Slaton-like player.

29. TE Jared Cook, South Carolina

THE BUZZ: Cook is a former wide receiver who has found a home at tight end. He shows the ability the put his hand on the ground as a traditional tight end or split out wide. He has an explosive first step and the deep speed to get downfield. He still needs to become a better blocker, but he has the athleticism to warrant some late first-round interest.

30. QB Tim Tebow, Florida

THE BUZZ: How can you not consider this man to be one of the nation's top 30 underclassmen? Sure, NFL scouts don't agree on what position he will play, and he is extremely raw as a passer because of an elongated throwing motion. But he is a dominant, physical athlete who has the intangibles and work ethic to succeed somewhere at the next level.

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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