Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones ranks with Georgia's A.J. Green as the class of the wide receiver group for the 2011 NFL Draft. * * *
More than ever before, the NFL Draft winds are set to blow through Charlotte.
The Carolina Panthers own the first pick in the draft, and assuming they don't trade it, they'll be the first to the podium on April 28 for the first time in franchise history.
Understandably, lots of the chatter between now and then will center on what the Panthers will do with the No. 1 pick, but the draft doesn't end when Carolina makes that fateful pick. More than 250 additional selections that will help shape the future of the NFL will be made over three days, with the Panthers set to add to their roster each day.
Beginning today, I'll take an extensive look at the draft's top prospects, position by position. In addition to rankings courtesy of NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock – along with my commentary on some other prospects that I find intriguing - I'll also put a face on each position group with profiles of top-notch players as well as prospects of local interest.
We'll get things started with a look at the top wide receivers in the draft pool.
MAYOCK'S CHOSEN FEW
A.J. GREEN6-4, 211 pounds, GeorgiaRanks second in school history with 23 touchdown receptions despite playing in just 32 games…Declared for the NFL Draft following his junior season and missed seven games his last two seasons – four because of an NCAA suspension in 2010 and three because of injuries in 2009…Excels at every skill required of an NFL wide receiver, highlighted by flawless hands and mature route running.
JULIO JONES6-2, 220, AlabamaBlew away observers at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.39 in the 40 and a combine-best 11 feet, 3 inches in the broad jump – on a broken foot…His numbers for the Crimson Tide weren't as overwhelming – he averaged five touchdowns a season – but he was slowed by injuries and the presence of Heisman Trophy running back Mark Ingram. … His strength places him among the better blockers and tackle-breakers in the class.
TITUS YOUNG5-11, 174, Boise StateThe only senior in Mayock's top five, he stands as the Broncos' all-time leading receiver with 3,063 yards…Numbers could have been even more impressive if he hadn't missed most of his sophomore season for violating team rules…By far the lightest of the elite receivers in the draft, making durability a concern…A big-play receiver with return skills to boot.
JONATHAN BALDWIN6-4, 228, PittsburghBurst onto the scene in 2009, when he averaged 19.5 yards per catch and scored eight times…Didn't repeat that success last season, with 15.6 yards per catch and five touchdowns thanks in part to inconsistent quarterback play…Has great size but still working toward consistently exploiting it.
TORREY SMITH6-1, 204, MarylandNoted mostly for his game-breaking abilities on special teams, Smith became hard to handle as a receiver in 2010, nearly matching the total production from his first two seasons with 67 catches for 1,055 yards and a school-record 12 receiving touchdowns…Had 14 catches for 224 yards and four touchdowns versus N.C. State…Broke the school record for all-purpose yards with 5,183 in just three seasons.
STRICKLAND'S SECOND LOOK
LEONARD HANKERSON6-2, 209, MiamiOutside of the universal top two of Green and Jones, I like Hankerson as much as anyone else on the board…Started slow with the Hurricanes given that observers compared him to Andre Johnson out of high school, but lived up to the hype his last two years…Broke Michael Irvin's school record with 13 touchdown receptions in 2010…Has that hard-to-measure "knack" when it comes to locating and catching the ball.
RANDALL COBB5-10, 191, KentuckyAn intriguing prospect who can do it all, as evidenced by his four-game stint as the Wildcats' starting quarterback as a true freshman…Nearly 2,400 all-purpose yards last year, highlighted by 1,017 receiving yards and nearly 1,000 return yards as well as 424 rushing yards…Makes up for small frame by doing everything well and not taking plays off.
JERREL JERNIGAN5-9, 185, TroyWhether he's on the receiving end or backed up in the return game, he's one of those players who knows how to make people miss…The Sun Belt Conference's all-time leader with 262 receptions, 3,128 receiving yards and 5,971 all-purpose yards…Some are concerned about his level of completion, but he had double-digit receptions against Louisiana State, Georgia and Oklahoma State.
EDMOND GATES6-0, 192, Abilene ChristianMade his mark at the NFL Scouting Combine, recording the fourth-best 40 time and second-best broad jump regardless of position…Dominated Division II defenders in 2010 with 66 catches for 1,182 yards and 13 touchdowns…Like perennial Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates - no relation – was a basketball player first, playing hoops at Tyler Junior College…His dismissal from Tyler after one season and relative lack of football experience are concerns.
GREG LITTLE6-3, 220, North CarolinaA physical specimen who looks like a pass-catching tight end in street clothes…Played every skill position but tight end in college – recruited as a wide receiver but played at running back and a few snaps at quarterback before settling into wideout spot in 2009…Had 62 catches that year – the fifth most in school history – but hasn't played since...Was ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA for receiving inappropriate benefits from an agent.