In what has evolved into a sort of football Noah's Ark, identifying the premier two players at a position, no matter the order, has become a relatively easy core for NFL scouts. After that, though, the evaluation process gets a bit stickier, and certainly subjective. And for many teams in the league, "3" is a crooked number that can lead straight to draft peril.
"It's the point where the decisions probably get a little tougher and the discussions a little more (contentious)," said Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert, when asked about deciding on who might be the third-best prospect at a position. "Usually, the top guys define themselves, separate themselves from the rest of the pack. After that ... well, that might be where the 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' thing starts to play a part."
The 2011 draft in four weeks offers some good examples. In some order, Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert figure to be the top two quarterbacks off the board. At wide receiver, it's A.J. Green of Georgia and Alabama's Julio Jones. And LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amakamura are the consensus top cornerbacks. But who comes after those players at the three positions?
NFLDraftScout.com has Washington's Jake Locker rated as the No. 3 quarterback, Maryland's Torrey Smith as the third wide receiver and Jimmy Smith as the corner in line. But in all three cases, there is a significant drop-off after the top two prospects at the position, and No. 3 isn't guaranteed to even hear his name called in the first round.
Said one general manager at the annual league meeting in New Orleans last week: "Take a poll of (personnel directors) about the quarterback position, ask them who comes after Newton and Gabbert, and the answers will be all over the place. After you get two-deep or so at any position, it's going to be more about system and fit. That No. 3 spot in the batting order has always been a tough one for agreement or consensus. It's just not this year."
Indeed, in 2010, everyone seemed to agree that Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy were by far the two best defensive tackle prospects. But it was a guessing game after that (Dan Williams went No. 26 to Arizona). The year before, Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez were the top quarterback prospects and the No. 3 spot pretty much depended upon personal preference (Josh Freeman went No. 17 to Tampa Bay). That same year, Jason Smith and Andre Smith were the highest-rated tackles, but one could have flipped a coin after that between Eugene Monroe (No. 8, Jacksonville) and Michael Oher (No. 23, Baltimore.
Historically, the third spot in the draft pecking order at a given position probably is open to debate.
Not only among fans and amateur "draftniks", but in war rooms as well.
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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.