Curry, Jason Smith lead elite tier

More from McShay

Todd McShay slots the first-day prospects in this year's NFL draft, including those who are elite and those who are just on the fringe of the second round. To see this and more, become an ESPN Insider.Insider

All 32 NFL draft rooms are fully stocked with prospect rankings -- both by-position and regardless-of-position -- when draft day rolls around. General managers package these rankings in a number of different ways in order to streamline the information and help maintain perspective. This is critical during the stressful and sometimes frantic 30-plus hour stretch known as draft weekend.

The "Stacking the Board" document we have shared with you in the past -- and will make available once again on ESPN.com in early April -- is an excellent example of one way to organize rankings. It gives the evaluator a quick way to compare player values round-by-round and from one position to the next.

The "Tier Rankings" document is yet another tool general managers can utilize to maintain perspective of the strengths and weaknesses of a given class.

Since the draft has been broken into two days and seven rounds for several years now, it has been commonplace for a prospect to be labeled as a "second-rounder" or a "Day 2 player." The problem is, these categorizations are too broad.

Tier rankings should be more specific in order to make them more trustworthy during crunch time. The key is allowing the skill levels of the players to dictate the size of a given tier. For example, I believe this year's Elite tier is three players deep, compared to six players for last year's Elite group.

If followed properly, the tier rankings serve two important purposes. First, they can help a team avoid reaching to fill a need at a certain position. Second, they provide a clearer sense of trade value in a given draft. While the commonly used Trade Value Chart is helpful, it must be adjusted annually to match the strength of each draft class, and that's where the tiers come into play.

While the rankings below will change slightly between now and April 25, this is an early look at what I consider to be the top seven tiers of talent in the 2009 class. This is not a mock draft, nor is it a reflection of where I think a player will be selected. It's simply my view on where the top prospects rank in relation to the overall strength of the 2009 draft class.