Third in a series
PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki previews the top prospects for the 2011 NFL draft, by position. In cases where a listed prospect is playing in a bowl game, we identify that upcoming matchup.
The underclassmen ranks feature a bevy of talented, young pass catchers, including a pair of elite receivers in A.J. Green and Julio Jones. In total, there easily could be as many as 10 underclassmen who declare early and start the run on receivers. The senior class is not as deep but does feature a good number of slot receivers with speed to burn who can bring added value as return men. Juniors are marked by an asterisk (*), third-year sophomores by two (**). An "e" indicates number is estimated.
1. Jerrel Jernigan, Troy
5-8 7/8, 181, 4.36
Short but not small, Jernigan is quick and explosive with the ball in his hands and shows the ability to create after the catch and in the return game, really standing out as a kickoff returner. He has returned two kicks for TDs this fall, including a kickoff against Oklahoma State. He can do a better job of securing the ball in traffic, especially when he is stringing moves together, as he will flag it too carelessly when he is looking to cut and set up his next move. However, he possesses legitimate top-end burst and playmaking ability and has shown he can line up all over the field and make an impact. He may be best in the slot.
Don't miss: Jernigan's Trojans play Ohio in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at 9 p.m. ET Dec. 18.
2. Titus Young, Boise State
5-11 5/8, 170, 4.47
He's thin and wiry, and questions about his durability could worry NFL teams, perhaps even knocking him off some draft boards. What Young lacks in bulk he overcomes by how quickly he can eat the cushion of defensive backs. He's so fast that he often creates five steps of separation. He is an explosive downfield target with the elusiveness to factor heavily in the return game and flip the field. He was a bit immature upon his arrival, but with the NFL within his sights, he has improved his work habits and could bring value as a big-play weapon.
Don't miss: Young's Broncos play Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl at 8 p.m. ET on Dec. 22.
3. Dwayne Harris, East Carolina
5-10 1/8, 200, 4.50e
The Pirates' new staff has been using Harris heavily out of the slot, and he has not been quite as dynamic as he was a year ago, but that is not to say he is still not producing at a high level. He has very good run balance after contact and keeps his legs driving on contact. His ability to make defenders miss and string moves together stands out on tape, and he has shown he can create every time he touches the ball. Is still growing into his role as a returner and will be best working out of the slot in the pros.
Don't miss: Harris' Pirates play Maryland in the Military Bowl at 2:30 p.m. ET Dec. 29
4. Greg Little, North Carolina
6-2e, 215e, 4.55e
As one of a number of high-profile Tar Heels forced to sit out his senior season after receiving improper benefits, evaluators will have to revisit Little's junior tape to assess his talents. Character concerns alone will knock him out of consideration for some teams. He will still command interest, however, as a big, strong possession receiver with some run-after-the-catch ability and attitude. He lacks long speed, but he has the competitive speed to uncover and the strength to run through contact after the catch. He possesses NFL starter-caliber traits as a "Z" receiver and could garner attention in the first three rounds if he shows up in shape after the season and proves he is willing to do the little things to be great.
Don't miss: Little's Tar Heels play Tennessee in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at 6:40 p.m. ET on Dec. 30.
5. Edmund Gates, Abilene Christian
5-11 7/8, 190, 4.42
After Johnny Knox earned a Pro Bowl invite as a rookie, scouts were put on notice not to overlook this underpublicized program. Like Knox, Gates can flat-out fly and possesses the speed to run a hole in the wind. He is still raw, having come to Abilene to play basketball, and has dominated in only one season at the Division II level. Questions about his toughness and ability to play through pain could diminish his value, but as an outside-the-numbers, vertical threat, he can provide immediate value with speed that will keep defenses honest. He has been graded as highly as the second round by NFL evaluators and could become an Al Davis favorite once he finishes testing.
1. A.J. Green, Georgia*
6-4e, 210e, 4.45e
In the same class of receivers as Calvin Johnson coming out of Georgia Tech, Green has shown the ability to dominate since the time he arrived on the college football scene, making some unbelievable, acrobatic, one-handed grabs that few NFL receivers can make. After being suspended the first four games of the season for receiving improper benefits, he showed very well against one of the more talented CB tandems in the country, Colorado's. He has exceptional body control and hand-eye coordination and is surprisingly crafty. He can step into a starting lineup and factor as a No. 1 receiver readily, capable of taking the top off a defense and creating big plays. He's a top-10 cinch.
Don't miss: Green's Bulldogs play UCF in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at 3:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31.
2. Julio Jones, Alabama*
6-4e, 220e, 4.50e
A physical, West Coast receiver with the strength to power off the line, beat the jam and run through tacklers after the catch, Jones is a big receiver who plays big. He played hurt most of his sophomore season and has battled through a broken bone in his hand this season. The break required pins to be inserted and has taken away some of his physicality and limited his hand usage at the line, forcing him to miss most of the Mississippi game. However, he is such a competitor that he has risen above the pain and continued to produce at a very high level, appearing dominant against Tennessee and matching up well against LSU's Patrick Peterson. He will fit as a "Z" receiver in a West Coast offense.
Don't miss: Jones' Crimson Tide plays Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl at 1 p.m. ET Jan. 1.
3. Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State**
6-0e, 205e, 4.55e
Few receivers are as strong, physical or competitive as Anquan Boldin, but Blackmon plays the game with a similar football temperament. After being suspended one game for a DUI arrest, the redshirt sophomore returned to catch 13-173-1 against Baylor, not to mention running 69 yards around the corner for a score. He's intensely competitive, plays with confidence and has terrific ball skills, taking the ball away from defensive backs in the air as he did repeatedly to Nebraska's Prince Amukamara. He overcomes his lack of foot speed with deceptively sharp route running, strong hands and great concentration in traffic, running as fast as he needs to. Although he still needs to mature, his style of play would attract some interest in the top half of the first round if he were to declare.
Don't miss: Blackmon's Cowboys play Arizona in the Valero Alamo Bowl at 9:15 p.m. ET Dec. 29.
4. Michael Floyd, Notre Dame*
6-3e, 225e, 4.55e
Floyd has suffered through a period of bad Irish football and has been one of the few bright spots on a marginal team. What has stood out especially this season is his physicality in the blocking game, where he will ride defenders into the sideline. He uses his body well to get positioning and routinely wins in traffic. One of the greatest knocks is that he lacks elite, top-end speed, and too many catches are contested because of his inability to separate with speed or quickness. He does, however, have the toughness and field awareness to be effective inside in the short-and-intermediate passing game. And he tracks the deep ball very well, will climb the ladder to get it and really competes for the ball in the air.
Don't miss: Floyd's Fighting Irish play Miami (Fla.) in the Hyundai Sun Bowl at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 31.
5. Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh*
6-5e, 235e, 4.45e
A freakish athlete with unique speed and leaping ability for his size, Baldwin has had to deal with inconsistency at the QB position, which often forces him to make exceptional grabs far behind his body or stop in his tracks to adjust to it. He is a long strider who is not creative after the catch and is best working outside the numbers, where he can crack peanuts off the helmets of smaller defensive backs and consistently win the jump ball. He has terrific body length and leaping ability but has had some trouble against better cornerbacks such as Miami (Fla.)'s Brandon Harris, does not always play with confidence and is still immature and learning how to play the game.
Don't miss: Baldwin's Panthers play Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl at noon ET Jan. 8.
Coming Thursday: Top TE prospects
Don't miss out on PFW's brand-new NFL Draft mobile app for iPhone, Blackberry and Android — coming soon. It will provide the very best in player analysis and inside draft info. Watch ProFootballWeekly.com for an announcement when it becomes available. Also, be sure to get your copy of PFW's 2011 Draft Guide magazine (on sale March 1) and PFW's 2011 Draft Preview book (on sale March 29). Both publications will be available at retail outlets and at PFWstore.com.