Chad Henne, Michigan: Based on his junior film, I rated Henne as the top quarterback prospect entering this year. The early loss to Appalachian State and struggles with injury dropped Henne down my board a bit, but I've always been a huge fan of his ability. Trailing perhaps only Joe Flacco in terms of pure arm strength, Henne is among the most accurate deep ball passers in this draft and has uncanny touch.
There remain concerns by some over Henne's decision making and poise. However, in leading an unranked Michigan squad to an upset #12 Florida in the Capitol One Bowl and posting a dominant performance during the Senior Bowl week, Henne confirmed his mental toughness and leadership. In terms of physical ability, there simply isn't a better thrower in this draft than Henne.
Ray Rice, Rutgers: With so much attention being heaped upon the other talented underclassmen running backs of this class, Rice doesn't get the attention he deserves. While obviously shorter than most scouts would prefer, I've always felt that shorter backs -- if they have agility, long speed, and explosiveness -- have an advantage in that they can hide behind their offensive linemen for an extra split second and give defenders limited space in which to target.
The 5-08, 199 pound Rice surprised many when he ran for over 2,000 yards last season -- the first back in Big East history to do so. He'll surprise many more over the course of his NFL career. Two years ago some thought I was crazy for touting a 5-07, 207 pound Maurice Jones-Drew as one of the more underrated prospects for the 2006 draft. Rice lacks MJD's breakaway speed, but he has plenty of speed and might just be the most powerful back -- pound for pound -- in this draft.
Jacob Hester, LSU: If looking for a more traditional lead blocking fullback, West Virginia's Owen Schmitt would be my choice here. In today's NFL, however, fullback has become a position of versatility. With the undersized Ray Rice at running back, I want a reliable short yardage runner lining up at fullback.
There isn't a back in the country more reliable in this area than Hester. In fact, one could argue that Hester -- based on his multiple key 4th down conversions for the Tigers -- was just as vital to their National Championship run as any other LSU player, including the great Glenn Dorsey.
Jordy Nelson, Kansas State: There may not be a player on this list who can rank with Nelson in terms of how significantly he's risen up my board based on his senior season. It is impossible to argue with the All-American's production, but in terms of scouting, I don't focus much on statistics.
Nelson has the size (6-3, 215), speed (4.51), strong route-running, and secure hands I want in a possession receiver. He played with a chip on his shoulder at the Senior Bowl and was consistently able to get open against better athletes.
Dexter Jackson, Appalachian State: One of the simplest, but greatest pieces of advice I've been given from NFL scouts is to trust my own eyes over others' reports when it comes to grading players. In ten years of scouting, few players have as consistently impressed me as Jackson. With two long touchdowns against Michigan in Appalachian State's stunning opening week upset, Jackson started a season-long rise up my board.
A surprise by some to be invited to the East-West Shrine Game, Jackson was so dominant there he was a late injury replacement at the Senior Bowl -- the first Mountaineer to ever be invited to Mobile. Despite coming in midweek, Jackson proved to be one of the more explosive receivers at the Senior Bowl and was electric again at the Combine. As the pressure rose, so did this kid's performance.
Jermichael Finley, Texas: There is no denying Finley is an unfinished product. If he had remained in college for another year and worked on his strength and blocking, I feel he could have been a first round candidate in 2009 or 2010. Still, in a class full of good, but not great tight end prospects, Finley's upside ranks among the elite.
He didn't run as well as expected at the Combine, but at 6-5, 243 pounds, I see Finley as this year's best combination of size potential, body control, and hands. The NFL Advisory Committee gave Finley a 4th round grade when he petitioned for their advice. I believe he deserves consideration by the mid second round.
Mike McGlynn, Pittsburgh: Based on his toughness, dependability, and versatility, McGlynn is the epitome of what Rang's Gang is all about. Conversations I've had with offensive line coaches at the Senior Bowl just confirmed what I already suspected about the former Pitt star -- he is the most versatile offensive lineman to enter the draft in years.
A veteran of 47 games for the Panthers, McGlynn saw most of his time at right guard, but at 6-4, 311 pounds he has the size and lateral quickness to move outside to tackle and the deep-snapping skills to be groomed as a center.
John Greco, Toledo: I characterized Nick Kaczur as one of the more underrated offensive linemen in the 2005 draft and was not at all surprised to see him develop into a very capable starter at right tackle for the Patriots. Greco, like Kaczur, predominately starred at left tackle for Toledo, but projects best at right tackle or even inside at guard based on his physicality and hand play.
His lack of elite athleticism will cause Greco to slip to the middle rounds -- especially considering the unusually high number of talented tackles this year -- and at that point, he'll prove to be a steal, just as Kaczur, taken 100th overall..
Eric Young, Tennessee: In missing the final six games of his senior season due to a torn quadriceps, Young is likely going to be drafted at a point of ridiculous value.
Considering that he has experience at both tackle positions and, in my opinion, projects best at guard, Young, like many of the other linemen on Rang's Gang, offers spectacular versatility. When healthy, Young is the most athletic of the bunch; enough so that some teams will view him as a left tackle prospect.
Chad Rinehart, Northern Iowa: Rinehart is a career left tackle, but his lack of lateral quickness makes him a better fit inside at guard. His ability to use his hands well shows up on film, but I reserved judgment on him until watching him switch to guard against elite competition at the Senior Bowl. There, I was impressed with Rinehart's tenacity and athleticism. He isn't flashy, but in the middle rounds, Rinehart should provide excellent value.
Mike Pollak, Arizona State: Pollak continues a strong ASU tradition of producing NFL caliber centers in over the last decade (Grayling Love, Drew Hodgdon, Scott Peters, Grey Ruegamer).
Blessed with strength and rare athleticism for the position, Pollak seemed to improve with each passing game in 2007, culminating with a strong performance in the Senior Bowl. With his toughness and lateral quickness, a team could slide Pollak over at guard, as well.
Reggie Smith, Oklahoma: Smith, along with Chad Henne, could break my only rule of eligibility for Rang's Gang and ultimately end up being selected in the first round. With questions lingering about his playing speed, however, I feel he'll likely end up in the second round. That said, Smith is among the more versatile and dependable defensive backs in this draft.
I don't know that he'll ultimately remain at cornerback, as I estimate him at more of a 4.55 guy on the field and feel that his marginal deep speed is hidden by Oklahoma's aggressive pass rush. In a two deep scheme, however, Smith has the instincts, break on the ball, and tackling ability to star. In a more traditional scheme, he may need to move back to safety. Either way, in a year blessed with many talented defensive backs, but few sure things, Smith -- who has never allowed a touchdown reception in his career -- is among the safer bets.
Justin Tryon, Arizona State: With a highly ranked cornerback on one end, I'm willing to take a bit more of a gamble on the other. Tryon, at 5-09, 190 pounds, lacks elite size, but he has very good timed speed (4.42) and is even faster on the field due to his instincts and late acceleration.
A JUCO transfer, Tryon proved to be an immediate impact defender for the Sun Devils in 2006 and stepped up his game with the arrival of Dennis Erickson. I view Tryon as one of the more underrated cornerbacks in this year's draft and won't be surprised at all when he, despite being drafted late, ends up contributing early in his career as a cornerback and return specialist.
Johnny Dingle, West Virginia: At a shade under 6'1 and 1/2, the 265 pound Dingle lacks the height most teams prefer at end. At 24 years old, he'll drop a bit down the board, as well. I'm considerably higher on the Florida transfer than many, however, due to his physicality at the point and rare lateral quickness.
He lacks the instincts and straight line speed to make the switch to linebacker, and is thus, likely to make his impact as a third down pass rush specialist. However, in that role, as a mid round prospect, I feel that Dingle is one of the better of the mid round defensive ends.
Trevor Laws, Notre Dame: Laws lacks the size to fit every scheme, but as a three technique under tackle, he is one of the year's better looking prospects. In posting an eye-popping 112 tackles this season, Laws moved from a late round prospect to a potential first day pick.
While he isn't as strong on the field as his 35 reps at the Combine would indicate, he plays with good leverage, excellent burst, and uses his hands well to disengage and make plays at the point of attack. His relentless play was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise abysmal season for the Irish.
Lionel Dotson, Arizona: If Dotson played for a higher profile team, he likely would be characterized by many as one of the more intriguing middle round defensive tackles in this class. Dotson, 6-4, 296 pounds, has the size teams are looking for inside and has the combination of lateral quickness, tenacity, and hand play I look for in a developmental defensive tackle.
He needs to add strength to his lower body, as he too often is driven off the ball, but he improved throughout his career at Arizona and enjoyed a strong week of practice at the East-West Shrine game. At his size, he also projects nicely outside in the 3-4 scheme. Dotson may not be flashy, but he plays with a high motor player and has legitimate upside -- a combination that few DTs in the 2008 class outside of the top prospects can claim.
Eric Bahktiari, San Diego: For small school prospects to earn consideration for Rang's Gang, they have to either absolutely dominate their level of competition or impress at a senior all-star game. Or, as in the case of Bahktiari, they can do both. The only non BCS-prospect to earn the distinction of being a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's best defensive end, Bahktiari was every bit the one-man wrecking crew for the San Diego defense as quarterback Josh Johnson was for the Toreros offense. He broke the Football Champion Subdivision (formerly I-AA) record with 19.5 sacks in 2007 and showed at the Texas vs. Nation game that he could handle the step up in competition.
While he is a bit undersized at 6-3, 259 pounds, Bahktiari uses his burst off the snap to generate immediate pressure and has the lateral quickness to flatten out and pursue down the line. Possessing the instincts that could lead some teams to view him as a future linebacker conversion, I feel Bahktiari is at his best as a 3rd down pass rusher. In this role, considering that he's likely to go late in the second day of the draft, Bahktiari could prove to be a major steal.
Wesley Woodyard, Kentucky: Woodyard is one of the more polarizing prospects of this year's defensive prospects. Some view him as a strong safety, others as an outside linebacker, and still others as too much of a 'tweener to be effective at either position.
While he'll struggle a bit in taking on blocks, Woodyard is athletic and instinctive enough to sift through the trash and make plays on the move from the weakside position. In the 4-3 alignment, with capable defensive linemen protecting him from blocks, I feel the ultra-productive Woodyard can translate his talents from the SEC to the NFL and prove quite effective.
Bryan Kehl, BYU: Playing out of the Mountain West Conference, Kehl hasn't received a great amount of national exposure, but his combination of instincts and athleticism rank among him among the better, more versatile OLBs of the draft.
In fact, while there are flashier athletes with better numbers, Kehl is viewed by many as one of this year's safer talents at the position. After serving an LDS mission, he'll enter the league a bit older than most rookies (24), but he has the experience, intelligence, maturity, and athleticism to make an immediate impact.
Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma: I admit it. I'm a sucker for instinctive middle linebackers with explosive hitting ability. Lofton is exactly that. He only has one starting season under his belt and Oklahoma's history of producing over-hyped collegiate stars with limited NFL production (with the exception of Tommie Harris) is a bit disconcerting. Slower than expected times at the Combine (4.77) don't worry me in the slightest due to Lofton's instincts and combination of hand play and lateral quickness in sifting through blocks.
He gets to the ball carrier quickly and brings the pain when he arrives, as evidenced by his 157 tackles -- the most by any defender of the Bob Stoops era -- and his four forced fumbles. I was higher on Lofa Tatupu and DeMeco Ryans than most and am again with this kid. I see Lofton as having an immediate impact at the next level and quite possibly posting better career numbers than several of the linebackers drafted ahead of him.
Thomas DeCoud, Cal: In a weak class at safety, DeCoud (pronounced DAY-coo) has the athleticism and reliable open field tackling to surprise at the next level. He doesn't make enough plays on the ball, coming through with only 7 passes broken up and 1 interception in 45 games, but the 4.50 speed he showed in workouts translates well onto the field.
I've been impressed with his smooth transition in coverage over his past two years as Cal's starting free safety and felt his athleticism stood out at the Senior Bowl. A former cornerback and special teams standout (six career blocked kicks), DeCoud is an ascending talent.
Marcellous "Tyrell" Johnson, Arkansas State: Despite earning Sun Belt Conference first team honors three years in a row and winning conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007, the most high profile all-star game Johnson was invited to was the Hula Bowl. Scouts characterized Johnson as an instinctive player with only average athleticism.
While he impressed at the Hula Bowl, it wasn't against the elite talent needed to ease scouts concerns about his level of competition. In his only opportunity to compete against the elite -- at the Combine -- Johnson may have posted the most impressive (and least talked about) workout of the year. Every year there is a "surprise" second round pick or two… Johnson is a candidate for such honors.
April 8, 2008 - In scouting hundreds of players each year in preparation for the draft, it is impossible not to develop some favorites. Before explaining what "Rang's Gang" is, let me explain what it isn't. The following list isn't a ranking of the best talent per position. It isn't a projection for the 2010 Pro Bowl. It isn't necessarily even a list of underrated prospects.
Rang's Gang is the collective answer to the question I'm most often asked: "If you were running a team and you needed a (insert position here), who would you take?
Of course, anyone could compile a list of the top prospects per position and call them the surest things of the draft. There is a reason, after all, that those are the players teams pick first.
Therefore, there is only rule for eligibility on Rang's Gang: No first round prospects.