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Teams hop on 'D' train

While there is debate over who will be the first player selected in tonight's NFL draft, there is a clear consensus about the strongest position.

"The defensive line is the best part of this draft," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a conference call. "There are defensive linemen who have [good] grades that go all the way down to 18."

NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock is calling this the best defensive line class ever. He and other draft gurus project more than a dozen getting picked in the first round.

That would surpass the record 11 chosen in 2003. Nine were taken last year.

This defensive line draft has something for everyone -- tenacious edge rushers and stout interior run stuffers. For 3-4 defenses, there are tackles that can move to end and ends that are athletic enough to play outside linebacker.

"The defensive line is phenomenal," Mayock said, adding, "It's the best defensive end class I've seen. I've got nine with first-round grades."

Although defensive linemen will dominate, the draft also features some good offensive linemen, outside linebackers and wide receivers. With so many teams needing a quarterback, we could see an early run on the best passers.

Here's a position-by-position look at the prospects:

>Quarterbacks

*Top Shelf

Cam Newton, Auburn (6-foo-5, 248): Needs time to develop, but he's a physically imposing athlete with all the tools to become a star.

Blaine Gabbert, Missouri (6-4, 234): Smart, strong arm and great athletic ability. Also needs development time.

*Second Tier

Jake Locker, Washington (6-2, 231): Great athlete with good size and mobility. Must improve accuracy.

Christian Ponder, Florida St. (6-2, 229): Intelligence, toughness, accuracy and strong leadership skills.

Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (6-7, 253): Biggest arm in this class, but limited mobility and character concerns persist.

Andy Dalton, TCU (6-2, 215): Beyond all else, he's a winner (42-6 record and three bowl MVP awards).

Colin Kaepernick, Nevada (6-5, 233): Intriguing prospect with skills, but needs to adjust to pro-style offense.

*Sleepers

Greg McElroy, Alabama (6-2, 220): Limited athletically, but his football IQ, leadership and through-the-roof intangibles are worth taking a chance on.

Pat Devlin, Delaware (6-3, 225): Isn't the prospect fellow Blue Hen Joe Flacco was, but has the arm strength and accuracy to make it.

Nate Enderle, Idaho (6-4, 240): Big-bodied guy has decent tools that need to be polished.

***

>Running Backs

*Top Shelf

Mark Ingram, Alabama (5-9, 215): Emmitt Smith clone is a legit feature back with great balance, vision and burst through holes.

*Second Tier

Mikel Leshoure, Illinois (5-11 1/2 , 225): Between the tackles runner with good speed . . can be an every down player.

Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech (5-9, 212): Instinctive runner with tremendous field vision.

DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma (5-11 1/2 , 213): Jack-of-all-trades talent can contribute in a variety of ways.

Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma St. (5-7, 199): Short and compact with good speed, draws Ray Rice comparisons.

Daniel Thomas, Kansas St. (6-0, 230): Former quarterback is a strong, downhill runner.

Jordan Todman, Connecticut (5-8 7/8 , 203): Fast and elusive runner would make a good complementary back.

Delone Carter, Syracuse (5-8 1/2 , 222): Hard-nosed runner who is tough to tackle with his low center of gravity.

Shane Vereen, California (5-10, 210): Not particularly fast, but has some shiftiness.

Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon St. (5-5 7/8 , 196): Third down specialist and return threat plays with surprising toughness.

*Sleepers

Tywon Jones, E. Washington (5-11 1/2 , 194): His amazing measurables (4.33-second 40, 40-inch vertical leap) will catch someone's attention.

Johnny White, North Carolina (5-10, 205): Missed last four games with broken collarbone, but brings versatility as a runner, receiver and kick returner.

***

>Receivers

*Top Shelf

A.J. Green (WR), Georgia (6-3 1/2 , 211): Polished prospect who will make an immediate impact.

Julio Jones (WR), Alabama (6-2, 220): Physical receiver with tremendous speed ... played in a run first college offense, so talents weren't fully utilized.

*Second Tier

Torrey Smith (WR), Maryland (6-0 1/2 , 204): A little raw, but is blessed with exceptional physical gifts.

Jonathan Baldwin (WR), Pittsburgh (6-4, 228): Big target creates mismatches with size and athleticism.

Titus Young (WR), Boise St. (5-11, 174): Cat-quick and elusive, he could be a dynamic threat in the slot.

Leonard Hankerson (WR), Miami, Fla. (6-1 1/2 , 209): Big, sure-handed wideout makes tough catches and can get deep.

Kyle Rudolph (TE), Notre Dame (6-6, 259): When healthy, he flashes skill set similar to Rob Gronkowski's.

Randall Cobb (WR), Kentucky (5-10, 191): Versatile playmaker who can line up all over the field.

Jerrel Jernigan (WR), Troy (5-9, 185): Speedy slot receiver candidate who is tough over the middle.

Edmond Gates (WR), Abilene Christian (6-0, 192): Small-school speedster with good size.

Greg Little (WR), North Carolina (6-2 1/2 , 231): Former running back plays like one after catch.

*Sleepers

Austin Pettis (WR), Boise State (6-2 1/2 , 209): Super productive guy with a chance to be solid possession receiver.

D.J. Williams (TE), Arkansas (6-1 7/8 , 236): Mackey Award winner could be this year's Aaron Hernandez.

Robert Housler (TE), Florida Atlantic (6-5 1/2 , 248): Excellent receiving talent could surprise at next level.

Cecil Shorts III (WR), Mount Union (5-11, 205): Pass-catching machine dominated in same program that produced Colts star Pierre Garcon.

***

>Offensive Linemen

*Top Shelf

Tyron Smith (T), USC (6-5, 307): Only 20 years old, he has the maturing body and athleticism to grow into an elite left tackle.

Anthony Castonzo (T), Boston College (6-7, 305): This 54-game starter is an intelligent, hard-working left tackle prospect with the physical tools to excel at the next level.

Mike Pouncey (C/G), Florida (6-4 1/4 , 312): Though not as good as twin brother Maurkice, he has talent to become a productive NFL starter at center or guard.

Nate Solder (T), Colorado (6-8 1/4 , 314): Former tight end needs more polishing, but his athleticism, technique and 81-inch wing span make him worth a high pick.

Carimi, Gabe (T), Wisconsin (6-7, 315): Plays with confidence and a mean streak. ... Best fit is right tackle.

Derek Sherrod (T), Mississippi St. (6-5 5/8 , 312): Athleticism and long-term potential make him a desirable prospect.

Danny Watkins (G), Baylor (6-3 1/2 , 312): Physical inside run blocker whose advanced age (26) is countered by low mileage on body.

*Second Tier

Stefen Wisniewski (G/C), Penn St (6-3, 306): Versatility, character and outstanding bloodlines (dad and uncle played in NFL).

Benjamin Ijalana (T), Villanova (6-3 5/8 , 320): Versatile small school prospect will get looks at tackle, but might be moved to guard.

Marcus Gilbert (T), Florida (6-6, 330): An athletic, mature right tackle prospect with ideal size.

James Carpenter (T), Alabama (6-4 3/4 , 313): Has elite talent, but needs to display it consistently.

Orlando Franklin (T/G), Miami (6-6 1/2 , 313): College tackle has size and mobility to slide inside to guard.

Rodney Hudson (C), Florida St. (6-2 1/4 , 291): Undersized, but strong, tenacious and a solid technician.

James Brewer (T), Indiana (6-6, 323): Big man is raw, but has potential if healthy.

Jah Reid (T), Central Florida (6-7, 327): Massive run blocker started 41 games at UCF.

Marcus Cannon (G), TCU (6-5 1/2 , 364): Powerful college tackle could excel inside.

John Moffitt (G), Wisconsin (6-4, 319): First-team All-American is tough and aggressive.

Jason Pinkston (G/T), Pittsburgh (6-3, 313): Versatile, long-armed prospect can play inside or in space.

Will Rackley (G), Lehigh (6-3 1/4 , 307): His athletic ability and room to grow merit second-day consideration.

*Sleepers

Clint Boling (G), Georgia (6-4 7/8 , 310): Athletic run blocker has experience at tackle and guard.

Brandon Fusco (C), Slippery Rock (6-4, 306): Top blocker in Division II eager to show he can compete with big boys.

David Mims (T), Virginia Union (6-8, 331): He's got size, mobility and an incredibly long wing span.

***

>Defensive Linemen

*Top Shelf

Marcell Dareus (DT/DE), Alabama (6-3, 319): Playmaker has impressive combination of strength, quickness and versatility. Can excel in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense.

Nick Fairley (DT), Auburn (6-3 7/8 , 291): A one-year wonder, but what a wonderful year. Can be a Warren Sapp-like disruptive force.

Robert Quinn (DE), North Carolina (6-4, 264): Missed 2010 season, but could be a dominant NFL pass rusher.

Da'Quan Bowers (DE), Clemson: (6-4, 273): NCAA sacks leader was once viewed by some as draft's top prospect, but serious knee concerns have lowered his stock.

*Second Tier

J.J. Watt (DE), Wisconsin (6-5, 290): If you're a 3-4 defensive team looking for a prototype five-technique, this is your man.

Cameron Jordan (DE), California (6-4, 287): Not an elite pass rusher, but would fit any scheme.

Ryan Kerrigan (DE), Purdue (6-4, 255): Relentless pass rusher. Best in 4-3, but could play outside in a 3-4.
Corey Liuget (DT), Illinois (6-2 1/2 , 300): Very athletic three-technique penetrator.

Adrian Clayborn (DE), Iowa (6-3, 286): Power rusher with instincts and awareness against the run.

Muhammad Wilkerson (DT/DE), Temple (6-4 5/8 , 305): Versatile athlete possesses good size and long arms (85-inch wing span).

Cameron Heyward (DE), Ohio St. (6-5, 288): Son of "Ironhead" is good five-technique prospect who can bring heat off the edge.

Phil Taylor (NT), Baylor (6-3, 334) Massive run-stuffer with the strength to anchor and occupy blockers.

Jabaal Sheard (DE), Pittsburgh (6-3, 260): Big East defensive player of the year is a disruptive player who can also play linebacker in a 3-4.

Marvin Austin (DT), North Carolina (6-2, 312): Has all the tools to be a factor, if properly motivated.

Christian Ballard (DE), Iowa (6-4, 288): Overshadowed by Clayborn, but is just as capable of making plays all over the field.

Stephen Paea (DT) Oregon St. (6-1 1/4 , 303): Super strong interior run stuffer.

*Sleepers

Kendrick Ellis (NT), Hampton (6-4 7/8 , 336): Has the rare athletic ability to be a solid pro if character issues are in the past.

Allen Bailey (DE/DT), Miami (6-3, 278): Has a strong, thick build with adequate arm length and potential to be a solid contributor as a 3-4 end or 4-3 tackle.

Martin Parker (DT), Richmond (6-2, 300): Quickness, strong hands and athleticism will attract someone.

***

>Linebackers

*Top Shelf

Von Miller (OLB), Texas A&M (6-2 1/2 , 246): Super athlete with speed and leverage off the edge.

*Second Tier

Akeem Ayers (OLB), UCLA (6-3, 254): Versatile talent whose size and strength could make him a force in the NFL. Aldon Smith (OLB), Missouri (6-4, 263): College DE offers schematic versatility and 84-inch wingspan. Justin Houston (OLB), Georgia (6-3, 270): Ideal 3-4 edge rusher with size and speed. Brooks Reed (OLB), Arizona (6-2 1/4 , 263): College DE gets Clay Matthews comparisons because of relentless pass-rushing style. Martez Wilson (ILB/OLB), Illinois (6-4, 250): Played inside in college, but has the skills to be a dynamic outside rusher. Bruce Carter (OLB), North Carolina (6-1 1/4 , 243): Coming off an ACL tear, but is a solid all-around performer. Kelvin Sheppard (ILB), LSU (6-2, 250): Rising up draft boards because of size and play-making ability. Quan Sturdivant (ILB), North Carolina (6-1, 241): Has the size, speed and instincts teams look for in a MLB. Greg Jones (ILB), Michigan St. (6-0, 242): Players with his instincts and production do well in the NFL. Mason Foster (ILB), Washington (6-1, 241): A tackling machine with good speed, range and motor.

*Sleepers

Casey Matthews (ILB), Oregon (6-0 3/4 , 232): Has intelligence, instincts and strong NFL bloodlines. Dontay Moch (OLB), Nevada (6-1 3/4 , 239): Freakish athleticism gives him a chance to become good edge rusher. Sam Acho (OLB), Texas (6-1 3/4 , 257): Undersized DE has athleticism to make position switch. Colin McCarthy (OLB), Miami (6-1 1/4 , 235): High-energy player with a nose for the ball.

***

>Defensive Backs

*Top Shelf

Patrick Peterson (CB), LSU (6-0, 219): One of the best corner prospects in years. Incredibly athletic with elite size and speed. Prince Amukamara (CB), Nebraska (6-0, 206): All-around corner who can excel in man and zone coverage.

*Second Tier

Aaron Williams (CB), Texas (5-11 7/8 , 204): Impressive athleticism, quickness and fluid hips. Brandon Harris (CB), Miami (5-10, 191): Instinctive corner with great man coverage skills. Jimmy Smith (CB), Colorado (6-2 1/4 , 211): Big corner has great physical tools -- could be moved to safety. Rahim Moore (FS), UCLA (6-0, 202): Best all-around safety -- rangy with excellent ball skills. Curtis Brown (CB), Texas (6-0, 185): Leader with good awareness and a nose for the ball. Quinton Carter (FS), Oklahoma (6-1, 208): Physical in run game and has coverage skills. Ras-I Dowling (CB), Virginia (6-1, 198): Exceptional size and speed ... would have been in top three at position if not for injuries. DeAndre McDaniel (SS), Clemson (6-0, 217): Physical against the run and a rangy playmaker in coverage.

*Sleepers

Josh Thomas (CB), Buffalo (5-10, 186): With impressive athleticism and competitiveness, he could be next Bull in NFL. Davon House (CB), New Mexico St. (6-0, 187): Physical corner is willing tackler and aggressive in coverage. Kendric Burney (CB), North Carolina (5-9, 181): Underrated due to size, but he's athletic and plays bigger than he is. Robert Sands (SS), West Virginia (6-0, 221): Huge safety might get some looks at LB due to his physical tools. Deunta Williams (SS), North Carolina (6-2, 200): Hitter who can hold his own covering TEs.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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