Last January Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck decided to return to Palo Alto for his redshirt junior season this fall. Luck was considered the consensus number one overall selection in the upcoming 2011 NFL Draft. Without the presence of the Cardinal signal caller in this year's class, the exact talent who should be considered as the top overall prospect selected, once the Carolina Panthers are on the clock to start the draft Thursday, is in question.
When fans make the rounds through the opinions of their favorite draft analysts, the waters become even more muddied. Of the multiple insiders who were approached by the Herald-Star Monday, four days before the event occurring, each regarded a different prospect as the top talent in the upcoming entry draft.
"(Alabama's) Marcell Dareus," was the name SportsIllustrated.com and Draftinsider.net's draft analyst Tony Pauline immediately responded. "He plays a priority position and was a three down defender. He has the skill set to provide versatility within both the 43 and 34 base defenses.
"He is the safest pick at the top."
The 6-3, 319-pound Dareus is a complete prospect with size, explosive ability, strength, and consistent collegiate production. The final point is key based on the multiple top prospects considered "one-year wonders." The NFL Network's Mike Mayock also has Dareus as the top rated prospect among this year's class.
If the defensive line isn't flashy enough, a skilled receiver may catch the fancy of the Panthers. The last wide receiver to be selected number one overall was Keyshawn Johnson by the New York Jets in 2006.
Georgia's A.J. Green may be next in line. Why?
"Because he's the most polished player available," FoxSports.com's NFL reporter Adam Caplan wrote.
Green missed the first four games of the 2010 season due to breaking NCAA rules, but the former Bulldog still managed 57 receptions for 848 yards and nine touchdowns through the final nine games of the season. He is 6-4, 211 pounds, runs smooth precise routes, and has the rare ability to catch anything within his radius.
Prior to a knee injury surfacing at the NFL combine in February, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers was the object of affection for many teams and was considered a strong possibility to be the first chosen
"Da'Quan has unteachable skills," his agent Joe Flanagan described. "Take, for example, one particular play against North Carolina. It was a sack from the right end spot. His lean was outstanding. The power of his stab tremendous. What he did during that play cannot be taught.
"One defensive coordinator told me that was the single most impressive play of any prospect he watched this year.
"It's the natural rare traits he shows like that which make Da'Quan special."
Despite these gifts Bowers' status remains up in the air completely reliant on each team's individual medical reports, but it's hard to deny his ability.
One player with similar off-the-charts skills without the question marks is LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. A cornerback has never been drafted number one overall.
"With all apologies to the very talented A.J. Green and Von Miller (of Texas A&M), I can imagine Peterson becoming a Charles Woodson-type difference-maker on defense, taking on the opponents' top receiver, moving inside to the slot if needed, or dropping into the deep half to make plays as a center fielder," CBSsportsline.com's draft analyst Chard Reuter explained.
ESPN's well established guru, Mel Kiper, also has Peterson ranked as his top prospect. There is plenty to like about his game.
"Patrick is the best player in the draft, period," Brian Martin, the founder of TEST Football Academy and Peterson's trainer exclaimed. "His cover skills, speed (a 4.34 forty yard dash timing), size (6 feet and 219 pounds), and return ability only around once every 20 years."
Martin has also been overheard describing Peterson's rare speed as nothing he has previously seen. These qualities force the cornerback into the conversation.
The name which wasn't mentioned was the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, Cam Newton. Newton has slowly worked his way into the favorite for Carolina's choice, yet his draft ranking is all over the boards according to the experts.
Much like those mentioned above, Newton's raw ability is off the charts.
He is 6-5 and 248 pounds. He runs like the wind. He can run over defenders. A cannon is attached to his right shoulder. He dominated unlike any other who have played at the highest level in the collegiate ranks.
If the draft itself were based only on pure athletic prowess, Newton would be the hand's down favorite to be chosen first. But the NFL isn't a game played purely through physical traits, particularly the quarterback position.
Newton lacks basic quarterbacking skills including anticipation, consistently throwing into tight windows, throwing receivers open, or even running a semblance of a NFL caliber offensive scheme. He is a great athlete pretending to be a quarterback at this juncture.
These are heavy options to weigh as Thursday draws ever near. Carolina certainly isn't in an enviable position, but one of these names will be called as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium and announces, "With the first overall selection, the Carolina Panthers select ..."