The envelope, please, on the top underclassmen in the draft.
I asked former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who was in the midst of finalizing the club's preliminary draft board when fired early this month, to examine the record 73 underclass players who declared for the draft and pick the top 10, in his mind. His view of the junior board:
First of all, Jan. 28 is a dangerous time to commit to "top players" in any category, particularly underclassmen. There is still a lot of work to do before we know who and what these players are. Sometimes players look better with less information. NFL rules don't allow teams to officially scout underclassmen during fall campus visits, and scouts can't comment publicly on them either. When scouts go into school visits in the fall, they are not allowed to ask questions about underclassmen when speaking with coaches, trainers and any other support staff. Obviously, scouts and team officials with relationships with coaches or other school officials might glean some information regarding the players prematurely, but the understanding is clear on campuses: We're there to scout the fourth-year players, not anyone younger.
So you might ask, "Well, how do you have an idea about how the underclassmen will be rated so soon after they've declared?" I'll give you an example. I went to Tallahassee this year to scout Florida State prospects. Four other Chiefs' scouts were on campus as well during the year. We all watched tape, and we watched practice. When it comes to defensive end Bjoern Werner, for instance, we obviously saw him stand out on tape and in person. So it's not difficult to understand why he's so highly regarded by NFL teams: Watching Florida State, Werner's production jumps out at you.
This draft may have a record number of underclassmen, but it may not be the quality that people are expecting. How I see the top 10 juniors now, keeping in mind the fact-finding on them will be ongoing for the next three months before the draft:
1. Luke Joeckel, T, Texas A&M.
Strong candidate for the first overall pick. Three-year starter at left tackle in the Big 12 and never red-shirted. A true height-weight-speed prospect who plays with good athleticism and body control. Will play early while he develops better hip and core strength. Good teammate too.
2. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama.
One of the youngest players in the draft (20), but a very experienced corner from the best-coached DB group in the country. Milliner has the flexibility, intelligence and experience to play outside corner and also line up in the slot. Should contribute on special teams early in his career.
3. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida.
Also 20, Floyd is a strong, athletic defensive lineman who, at 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, has position and scheme versatility. Good competitor and tough player against the run and pass. Not great sack numbers, but consistently disruptive in the pass rush, and the type of player who makes those around him better by making the offense concentrate so much on stopping him.
4. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State.
Born in Germany, Werner learned football while at a Connecticut prep school as an exchange student. Played just two prep years before signing with Florida State. Two-year starter at left end in FSU's base and sub packages who shows surprising natural instincts, good hand strength and athletic ability. Pretty impressive to see he had 13 sacks in the ACC in the 2012 season.
5. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State.
At 6-3 and 335, he still has the athleticism to line up at multiple positions on the line -- not just at the nose. Active and instinctive, and showed improvement from 2011. Very good player versus the run that needs to continue to improve his every-down consistency.
6. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama.
Low-mileage rusher (355 carries in three seasons with the Tide) who played behind two outstanding backs early in his career (Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson). Averaged 6.8 yards per rush in his college career behind an offensive line better than some NFL lines. Good receiving skills, and a willing blocker. He should be an every-down back in the NFL.
7. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia.
Began his college career at USC in 2009 and transferred closer to home after suffering a neck injury his true freshman year. Highly instinctive and productive college player, but at 6-3 and 241, could be a tough positional fit. Dominated certain games (Florida), disappeared in others (Alabama).
8. Keenan Allen, WR, Cal.
Originally committed to Alabama out of HS, but decided to join his QB brother Zach to play together at Cal. Allen is a big (6-3, 210), savvy and highly competitive WR who has played the slot and outside. Lacks top speed, but is very natural and quick. In a WR class that appears to lack elite players, he may be the best.
9. Alec Ogletree, MLB, Georgia.
Tremendously talented athlete at 6-3 and 232, and should be an every-down NFL inside 'backer or middle 'backer. Has the skill and ability to contribute immediately all defenses as well as special teams. Jumps off the tape and could have the most upside of any underclassman in the draft. But some off-the-field issues will need to be studied before giving him a final grade.
10. Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State.
Three-year starter who was hampered this season by a knee injury that he played through. Good height-weight-speed prospect at 6-6 and 255 who right now is more receiver than blocker. I'm high on his ability to produce as an offensive tight end right now in the more wide-open NFL offenses. He's what we call an "F-type'' tight end, a receiver who can play off the line probably more productively than as a blocker right now.