While most of NFL nation is gearing up for the start of training camps at the end of the month, the scouting process for next April's draft is already in full swing. Grades for more than 1,400 draft eligible college seniors recently were sent to league franchises by National, the predominant scouting organization in the NFL.
Almost two dozen franchises belong to National, which collects data on potential NFL prospects and then shares the information with member teams. Franchises pay a fee of more than $100,000 and, in many cases, donate one scout in the effort to collect the data on players across the country.
Scouts assigned to National travel the country during the spring, measuring, timing and watching hours of film on college players who will be seniors during the upcoming campaign. Information is gathered on players' character, work habits, injury history and other attributes important to NFL teams. Reports, which can be several pages long, are processed on every player then sent to the teams which belong to National. (Most of the NFL teams that don't use National subscribe instead to BLESTO, and a few teams aren't associated with either scouting service.)
The seniors are assigned several grades based on different criteria, with playing skill being the most prominent grade of all.
Grades range as high as 9.0, which represents a potential superstar, to as low as 1.0, given to a player whose football career will likely finish in college. Only on rare occasions are players handed grades of 8.0 or higher. Top-rated players usually receive a grade of 7.0 or higher, which translates into a possible first round pick. Grades of 6.0 or higher represents a prospect with the potential to be a top seventy-five selection in the following year's draft.
Of the graded seniors in 2009, Ndamukong Suh, Greg Hardy and Brandon LaFell all received a 7.0, the highest grade of the class. Nebraska's Suh went on to become the second pick in April's draft. LSU's LaFell was a third-round choice while Hardy fell into the sixth round after a disappointing senior season at Ole Miss, proving these pre-season grades ultimately take a backseat to on-field performance.
Moving toward the 2010 season, it looks like once again next year's draft will offer plenty of talent on the defensive line and at offensive tackle. The senior class is weakest at wide receiver, tight end and running back.
Here are the top 25 NFL prospects from the senior class as graded by National.
Prince Amukamara/CB/Nebraska/7.3: Amukamara offers NFL size (6-feet, 201 pounds) which he uses to shut down opponents regularly. His game has shown tremendous improvement the past two seasons and scouts are excited about his upside.
Adrian Clayborn/DE/Iowa/7.3: Clayborn is a terrific pass rusher who must improve his skills defending the run.
Mark Herzlich/OLB/Boston College/7.2: Herzlich's grade is equal to the one he received last year after his cancer diagnoses.
Allen Bailey/DL/Miami-Fl/6.9: For years the Miami program put quality defensive linemen into the NFL yet they've not had one selected in the first round since 2004 (Vince Wilfork). Bailey, who can play a variety of positions up front, is set to reverse the recent trend.
Von Miller/OLB/Texas A&M/6.9: Miller will begin the season as the premier 3-4 outside linebacker.
Greg Romeus/DE/Pittbugh/6.8: Romeus has been a force for the Panthers defense since his freshman season. He's a terrific athlete with an NFL body (6-5, 267).
Marvin Austin/DT/North Carolina/6.7: Austin draws a variety of opinions in scouting circles. His physical ability is on a par with any defender in the senior class. His gameday intensity is not.
Christian Ponder/QB/Florida State/6.7: Ponder, who already completed his Master's Degree at FSU, scored a big number on the pre-season Wonderlic. He lacks the eye-popping stats on the college level yet is considered the most NFL-ready passer in the senior class.
Jake Locker/QB/Washington/6.7: Scouts applauded Locker's decision to return to college for another season. He has the athletic skills and leadership ability to be the centerpiece of a franchise yet needs to improve the consistency of his throwing mechanics.
• ANDREW PERLOFF: Analyzing Ponder-Locker debate and more draft observations
Stephen Paea/DT/Oregon State/6.5: Paea, who measures 6-1½, 306, compares favorably in style and substance to another Pac-10 performer, former first-round pick Sedrick Ellis.
Anthony Castonzo/T/Boston College/6.5: Castonzo is a tall (6-7) and athletic pass protector with the ability to hold down the all important left tackle position at the next level.
Pernell McPhee/DE/Mississippi State/6.4: The junior college all-American was a dominant force in the SEC during the 2009 season, his first at MSU. McPhee is a terrific pass rusher who holds up well defending the run.
Stefen Wisniewski /C/Penn State/6.4: Wisniewski plays a smart and tough brand of football, just like his Pro-Bowl father.
Jeremy Beal/DE/Oklahoma/6.3: Beal has been a disruptive force the past two seasons, combining for 34.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks.
Ross Homan/LB/Ohio State/6.3: Many in the scouting community think Homan is a better NFL prospect than former Buckeye star James Laurinaitis.
DeMarcus Love/T/Arkansas/6.3: Love is an athletic tackle who will get consideration at guard from a number of teams.
DeMarco Murray/RB/Oklahoma/6.3: Murray, the highest rated senior running back on the list, must stay healthy to maintain a high draft grade.
Niles Paul/WR/Nebraska/6.3: Paul, a terrific possession wideout, is an enticing target who measures 6-1, 222.
Jimmy Smith/CB/Colorado/6.2: Smith possesses outstanding size/speed numbers (6-2, 201, 4.46 forty time). He has a large upside and was wise to return for his senior season.
Ras-I Dowling/CB/Virginia/6.2: Dowling is another well-sized cornerback at 6-1½, 199. His ball skills and overall game significantly improved last season.
Jabaal Sheard/DE/Pittsburgh/6.2: Sheard is a terrific player and a solid pass rushing end yet can be overlooked playing on the same line as Greg Romeus.
Jerrell Powe/DT/Mississippi/6.2: Powe is the premiere nose tackle prospect from the senior class. He could easily make a big move up draft boards starting in September.
Bruce Carter/OLB/North Carolina/6.2: Carter is one of the most complete linebackers in the nation and a three-down defender with instant starting potential at the next level.
Derek Sherrod/T/Mississippi State/6.2: Sherrod is fundamentally sound and gets the most from his ability at left tackle.
Rodney Hudson/C-G/Florida State/6.1: One of the better zone blocking linemen in the nation, the Seminoles offensive guard has been graded at center by a number of teams.