Talented Vols all face questions
New Tennessee Volunteers coach Butch Jones will likely begin his tenure in Knoxville without the services of junior QB Tyler Bray and junior WRs Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, all of whom are expected to declare themselves eligible for the 2013 NFL draft.
That's clearly a big hit for the Vols, but what does it mean for the draft class? Here's where the draft prospects of each player stand.
Steve Muench's Stock Report
Up: Fresno State S Phillip Thomas -- Thomas played well in his first two seasons and appeared ready to take the next step before breaking his fibula and dislocating his ankle during the 2011 preseason. He missed the entire season and flew under the radar coming into 2012, but he has turned heads with a breakout season. His eight interceptions lead the Football Bowl Subdivision, and he turned three of those picks into touchdowns. Thomas also has 82 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and four forced fumbles. He is a playmaker who makes quarterbacks think twice about throwing to his area and a big hitter who can make receivers hesitate over the middle. Thomas can get to the quarterback when asked to blitz, and at 6-0 and 208 pounds, he is a tough and aggressive run-stopper. While there is more tape to watch before we give him an official grade, I wouldn't be surprised to see Thomas move into the Day 2 conversation based on what I've seen.
Down: Mississippi State CB Johnthan Banks -- Banks has the size (6-2⅛, 185), length and enough top-end speed to develop into an effective press corner. He is a playmaker who reads quarterbacks and plays the ball well. Banks is the 2012 Thorpe Award winner and the second-ranked corner on our board, but he didn't play like it against Ole Miss in the regular-season finale. He failed to come up with a 50-50 ball at one point and was caught biting on play-action early on. More importantly, he had problems opening up and changing directions quickly. There are concerns about his ability to match up with smaller, quicker receivers, and teams might see him as more of a safety than a corner. The good news is that Banks has the size and plays the run well enough to transition to safety. The bad news is these issues could cause him to slide out of the first round.
Kevin Weidl's Stock Report
Up: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor
I recently watched film of Taylor's performance in Stanford's upset win at Oregon and remain convinced he could become a productive starter in the NFL. He doesn't have upper-echelon burst or top-end speed, but Taylor (5-8½, 215) has an NFL build. He runs low to the ground, has quick feet and good lateral agility for his size, shows instincts and patience, and has the ability to read and use blocks. I also like his power and balance to churn out hidden yards, and the fact that he comes from a pro-style system gives him somewhat of an advantage over other backs in the class in terms of making proper reads. Taylor isn't an exceptional receiver out of the backfield, but he does appear to have natural hands and can make some things happen after the catch. He has proved capable of handling a heavy workload and is the kind of runner who appears to get stronger as the game wears on. Taylor might not come off the board before the third round, but he has a chance to become an every-down back at the next level.
Down: Florida State QB EJ Manuel
I saw Manuel play live in 2012 and watched more tape of him recently, and there is a lot to like about his size (6-4⅝, 236), athleticism and above-average arm strength. However, his lack of anticipation on downfield passing windows is a concern. Manuel also showed a troubling inability to come up with big drives and big plays when his team needed them most. His struggles with the speed and pass rush of the Florida defense were notable. Manuel has the physical ability to buy time with his legs, but he doesn't show a lot of poise in the pocket. He is often too quick to pull the ball down and drop his eyes toward oncoming pass-rushers. Manuel could help himself during Senior Bowl week and in pre-draft workouts, but he looks like a developmental backup at the next level.
Scouts Inc. Observations
Muench: The 2012 quarterback class certainly hasn't disappointed, with five rookies starting and three -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson -- putting their teams in the playoff hunt. Ryan Tannehill has also made strides over the course of the season. All four are talented passers and above-average leaders, and they show the ability to extend plays and drives with their feet. It's that final category that separates the best of this year's rookies from the top 2013 prospects. Matt Barkley, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones and Tyler Bray all show a lack of mobility. That might mean the 2012 class could have more trouble staying healthy because players are exposed to more contact, and they might not get the same kind of roughing calls pocket passers can draw, but it is an issue. Today's NFL is all about disrupting the passing game and making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket, so quarterbacks who are more stationary targets do not have as much value as their more athletic counterparts.
Weidl: With several eligible nonseniors already announcing their decisions to stay in school or enter the draft, we're entering the time of year when the overall strength of the draft class will be determined. Many nonseniors have been high picks in recent years, and 2013 will likely be no different. The quarterback and wide receiver classes have seen talented additions with the trio of Tennessee skill players who have or are expected to declare, and there are 17 nonseniors among the top 32 prospects on our Scouts Inc. draft board. The outside linebacker class took a hit with C.J. Mosley's decision to return to Alabama, but a deep defensive tackle class should survive the decision by Notre Dame's Louis Nix III to return to school. Many others have yet to make their intentions known. Tracking their decisions and the impact of those decisions on the draft board will be one of the biggest draft storylines of the next few weeks.