LSU cornerback is clearly the best
Close followers of the draft can tell a hundred stories about teams that drafted great athletes with hopes of turning them into something resembling a finished product on the football field. But in the process we occasionally overlook the stories of players whose athleticism was so good it almost made you overlook the fact that they already were elite football players.
Consider my recent look at the best top-10 picks of all time. Rod Woodson, the top athlete in 1987, fell to No. 10. Deion Sanders, the top athlete in 1989, landed at No. 5. Charles Woodson landed at No. 4 in 1997. Even Ronnie Lott fell to No. 8 in 1981.
A common denominator: All were cornerbacks. (Yes, Lott was a corner at USC and was a Pro Bowl player at that position for San Francisco before he moved to safety.) Which brings us to LSU corner Patrick Peterson, the best defensive player in this draft.
Good personnel people have known for years that they must build a team from the middle out. Start at quarterback, build the lines and let the rest fall into place. But Peterson is that rare talent who can make his mark on the game from the periphery. His athleticism is remarkable -- at a little more than 6-foot and 219 pounds, he runs in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash, and his game is refined.
As a cover corner, he can turn his hips, explode out of the backpedal and change directions easily. In run support, he can be a force. As big or bigger than many running backs, Peterson can discard wide receivers who try to block him. And his ball skills are remarkable. He locates well, has great hands and attacks the ball like it's being thrown to him.
Peterson might not be as close to the ball off the snap as Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, or be in position to rush the passer like Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. But where he's lined up shouldn't take away from what he is, clearly the best defensive player in the draft.
Mel Kiper has been the premier name in NFL draft prospect evaluations for more than three decades. He started putting out his annual draft guides in 1978, and started contributing to ESPN as an analyst in 1984. For more from Mel, check out his annual draft publications or his ESPN home page. He can also be found on Twitter here.
Mental toughness gives him an edge
Three of the four elite players in the 2011 draft class play on defense -- Alabama DT Marcell Dareus, Texas A&M OLB Von Miller, LSU CB Patrick Peterson -- and teams drafting early in the first round would do well to bring in any of the three.
However, there are plenty of reasons I put Dareus at the top of the defensive class and in the No. 1 overall spot on my board.
At 6-foot-3 1/8 and 319 pounds, Dareus has the size and versatility to play anywhere along the defensive line. He comes from an Alabama scheme run by Nick Saban (arguably the greatest defensive mind in college coaching) that taught him to play in multiple schemes and fronts. He will be able to immediately grasp the system of the team that drafts him.
Dareus has very good first-step quickness, the size and strength to two-gap (taking on blocks and controlling the gap to either side of the blocker), and powerful hands that he uses well when disengaging from blocks.
Although not on the same level as Auburn DT Nick Fairley as a pass-rusher, Dareus can win with quickness or power, is disruptive and never stops moving his feet. I think Dareus can be a five- to seven-sack defensive tackle and be one of the NFL's elite run defenders.
In addition to all the physical tools, Dareus has the mental toughness and drive to succeed. Lack of discipline is one of the reasons so many highly drafted defensive tackles become busts, but I have no such worries with Dareus.
He lost his father at an early age, saw his mother confined to a wheelchair and then die of congestive heart failure and dealt with the death of a high school coach who had taken him in. (See Jeffri Chadiha's recent ESPN.com profile of Dareus.) Those close to him say he has always escaped to the football field. He has been to the depths and back and is willing to put in the work.
All that adds up to the best defensive player -- and, in my mind, the best overall prospect -- in the 2011 class.
Todd McShay is the director of college scouting for Scouts Inc. He has been evaluating prospects for the NFL draft since 1998. Follow McShay on Twitter: @McShay13