The current trend of quarterbacks being selected first at the NFL Draft might change in 2013 according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
The past four drafts have featured a quarterback hearing his name called first, but Mayock doesn't see a sure-thing for the first overall pick. He doesn't see an immediate standout quarterback among the group either.
In a national conference call conducted on Presidents' Day, Mayock shared his initial view on some of the 333 players set to attend the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next week.
"The top end of the draft, the top 10 picks, I don't see the difference-makers like we've had the last several years," Mayock stated.
The respected analyst doesn't view a quarterback to be a slam dunk for the top overall pick. In his mind, it could actually go to an offensive lineman, just like Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long, the last non-quarterback taken first overall back in 2008.
The Kansas City Chiefs hold the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, but won't have to make a decision on how to use it for some time. Until the draft begins on April 25, all the attention will be in Indianapolis for the combine where on-field drills can be seen on NFL Network from Feb. 23-27.
Doing homework on the nation's top prospects remains a critical process for the San Francisco 49ers. The team holds 14 picks in April's draft, including three projected compensatory picks.
Furthermore, the 49ers hold eight picks within the first five rounds and six selections in the final two rounds. General Manager Trent Baalke and his personnel staff put the 49ers in great position to bolster the roster by acquiring additional third, fifth and sixth-round selections in last year's draft.
The homework part of the draft equation is especially critical with a record number of 74 underclassmen entering this year's draft. Mayock considers himself to be in the same boat.
"This draft is a little bit different than previous drafts, in that because of all those junior underclassmen that have declared this year," Mayock noted. "I think we probably have better depth than we've had in the last 10 years."
Difference-makers might be harder to find this year according to Mayock, but there's plenty of intriguing players to examine.
In particular, Mayock believes four offensive linemen are worthy of being taken No. 1 overall. That group includes Alabama guard Chance Warmack, North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper, Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher.
The NFL Network analyst feels like position shouldn't dictate where a player is drafted.
"I don't care whether it's Warmack or Joeckel," Mayock stressed. "People will tell me I'm crazy that a guard can't go No. 1. I think (Warmack) is the best player in the draft, so I would argue that."
In regards to the 49ers, a team that holds the No. 31 selection in the first round, Mayock said he felt like wide receiver and defensive line could be potential, first-round targets for the defending NFC champs.
In his hour-long call, Mayock said he had two receivers with first-round grades (Tennessee wideout Cordarelle Patterson and California wideout Keenan Allen).
With many mock drafts placing Patterson in the top half of the first round, Mayock spent more time elaborating on the talents of Allen and Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams as possible targets for San Francisco.
"They could use another play-maker there," Mayock said of the 49ers. "And if Keenan Allen was there, I'd be really interested in him at 31. I think Terrance Williams from Baylor is a big height, weight, speed guy that can run. He's interesting at 31."
Allen, Mayock's No. 2-rated wide receiver, will have to answer speed questions at the combine.
"If he's a 4.4 guy, (you) bang the table – he's a top 25 pick," Mayock said of Cal's standout play-maker known for being a sure-handed wideout. "If he runs 4.55-4.58, there are going to be a lot of questions about him."
Just like the receiver position, on-field drills will be crucial in differentiating the quarterback talent available in this year's draft. Unlike years past where top-tier prospects withheld from throwing at the combine, most of this year's talent will look to throw at the combine. Of Mayock's top-5 rated passers, only USC's Matt Barkley (ranked No. 2) will not participate in throwing drills as he looks to recover from a late-season shoulder injury that caused him to miss two games and the Senior Bowl.
Mayock's top passers, West Virginia's Geno Smith, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon, Syracuse' Ryan Nassib and Oklahoma's Landry Jones, all stand to move up draft boards with a strong showing at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Other passing prospects Mayock will be monitoring include of a pair of ACC prospects: Florida State's E.J. Manuel and Duke's Sean Renfree.
Throwing in the various on-field drills remains important for all draft-hopeful offensive play-makers, but it's only a portion of what the talent evaluators will evaluate prior to April. Closed-door meetings with NFL coaches and personnel staffs will also be a huge portion of the league's annual job fair.
Perhaps that's where this year's running back class stands to make their biggest impact at the combine. Last season's first-round crop featured three running backs in the top 32 selections, including David Wilson, a Virginia Tech prospect, who impressed teams by showing up to his individual interviews wearing a suit and tie. Wilson eventually was selected No. 32 overall by the New York Giants.
Mayock doesn't see many clear-cut running backs with first-round grades in this year's bunch. Mayock, however, believes Alabama running back Eddie Lacy could be the first runner drafted.
The other running backs in Mayock's top-5 behind Lacy will look to differentiate themselves at the combine. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball displayed a downhill running style in a productive collegiate career, but will need to demonstrate better pass-protection skills at the pro level. Another running back with question marks is South Carolina standout Marcus Lattimore, who is three months removed from tearing three knee ligaments and dislocating his right knee. Lattimore won't do any physical drills at the combine, but aims to show NFL doctors just how far his rehabilitation has come in three months.
"It's important for him," Mayock said of Lattimore, South Carolina's all-time leader with 41 touchdowns. "I think he goes somewhere in the third round. And that's, you know, if he was a late‑one to a mid‑two (when) healthy, then I think a third round is fair for him because you're probably going to get your most production starting two years out."
Mayock foresees early production from the top-ranked tight ends in this year's bunch: Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz.
"Both those kids are what today's tight ends are all about; an ability to move around and do different things," Mayock said. "They're both big enough to lineup in line if you asked them to."
In Mayock's mind, Eifert is the better blocker of the bunch, but noted that both tight ends are better at getting off the line of scrimmage and catching the ball downfield.
Questions marks might be rampant for the offensive skill players in this year's draft crop, but the same can't be said for the maulers up front.
Mayock raved about the offensive line class, a group that features six tackles he's given first-round grades.
In the case of Fisher, the No. 2-rated tackle, Mayock sees several similarities between Fisher and 49ers two-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley.
Both tackles attended Central Michigan, too.
"From my perspective, when I put his first tape on and was able to see him all week at the Senior Bowl, the first thing I thought of was Joe Staley," Mayock said of the CMU prospect who figures to be a "prototype left tackle."
Mayock said he doesn't see "much difference" between Fisher and Joeckel, the No. 1 rated tackle.
Mayock also made it clear that the top interior talent like Warmack and Cooper warrant consideration in the top 10 picks.
"Warmack from Alabama is the best football player I saw on tape this year," Mayock said. "And Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina is just a tiny notch behind him. As a matter of fact, Cooper's probably a better athlete. If either of those players are on the board at 10, I'd jump all over them.
"I could care less about whether or not that's a position of value or not. Remember especially this year, if I had to list a top eight or 10 players, they'd probably be offensive linemen or defensive linemen. I'm not seeing some of those impact guys in some of the skill positions."