A bumper crop of underclassmen is making this year's draft class unexpectedly strong, and NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock goes so far as to dominate his player rankings on offense with non-senior prospects.
"I would've given you a completely different answer if you had asked me a month ago," Mayock said when asked if he considers this year's draft class strong. "On the offensive side of the ball, the draft is going to be dominated early by underclassmen. Six running backs, six wide receivers and four quarterbacks are all ahead of the highest-ranked senior. That's how much the class changed with the underclassmen coming in."
Mayock's top quarterbacks are Matt Stafford (pictured) of Georgia, Mark Sanchez of USC, Josh Freeman of Kansas State and Nate Davis of Ball State. Mayock sees the Jaguars as one of four teams likely to be interested in drafting a quarterback in the first round.
"Here's what I think is going to happen at the quarterback position. There are three gifted kids: Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman. Stafford will go to the Lions. Sanchez could go in the top 10. Freeman has the most work to do before he can start in the league but he has tremendous talent," Mayock said, adding the possibility that Detroit, which has the first overall pick, could decide to trade with the Patriots for Matt Cassel.
Mayock also consider the Jets and Chiefs quarterback-desperate teams, and can see the Jaguars selecting a quarterback "if they want to groom somebody.
"They need a left tackle and there has been major disappointment at the wide receiver position. I'm not suggesting they take a quarterback, but it should be in the discussion. I've got a lot of respect for Gene Smith and for the first time in a long while my perception is that there is a real solid marriage at the top between (Smith) and Del Rio," Mayock said.
Under Smith, the team's new general manager, the Jaguars profess to be committed to selecting the highest-rated player on the team's board. The Jaguars' priority need is left tackle and it's possible need and ranking could meet.
"There could be three left tackles. Jason Smith is my number one. He reminds me of Ryan Clady because he's got great feet and long arms and he's very athletic. He needs to develop in the run game. He's coming out of a two-point stance system," Mayock said of the Baylor product.
"Eugene Monroe is a really talented, finesse left tackle. He's the guy who kept Branden Albert at guard at Virginia. I'd like to see (Monroe) be more physical and aggressive but I don't think that's his nature. In the NFL you want a sumo wrestler with great feet and that's what he is. Andre Smith (Alabama) has great feet. He's had some weight fluctuations. I need to do more work on him before I say he's a top 10 pick," Mayock added.
The Jaguars have the eighth pick of the draft and Smith has said he'd be interested in trading down and acquiring more picks. The Jags have significant roster repair to effect but only have six picks in this draft. The hope is the quarterbacks will shoot up the board in postseason workouts and cause teams to want to move up in the order.
"Given where they are, with multiple needs, I think you have to stay open for business right up to the end of the clock, but you've also got to be ready to pull the trigger at eight. If you can't move out of there, you have to know you're going to get a good football player. Eight is early enough to know you're going to get one of several kids," Mayock said.
The Jaguars also have need on their defensive line.
"You're reaching a little bit for B.J. Raji (Boston College), but he'd be a logical guy. Tyson Jackson (LSU) is a 4-3 end who can also play in a 3-4 scheme," Mayock said of his top-ranked defensive tackle and defensive end.
What about a wide receiver?
"From the tape I've watched, (Crabtree) has great hands. A lot of people say Larry Fitzgerald and I think it's a fair comparison. Is Crabtree in the same league?" Mayock said. "I really think the Jaguars are going to do what they're saying, which is trust their board. I would have no problem at all if Crabtree was there at eight and they took him. I would say good job fellas, that's good value."
It is expected that one of the top left tackles will be available when the Jaguars pick. Crabtree isn't expected to fall to number eight. The big question continues to be at quarterback. Will the top guys get hot enough in postseason workouts to make the Jaguars' pick hot property?
"You never know who's going to work out and that bothers me. They like to throw to their own receivers. If I was Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman, I would throw any time they ask me because I have a great arm. Who's going to throw the ball and step up after that? Graham Harrell is a kid I'm rooting for but he had a bad Senior Bowl. I don't see him as an NFL starting quarterback," Mayock said. "I think there are some difference-makers at the top end of this draft. I really like the first three rounds of this draft."