For a second consecutive year, the National Football League's draft in New York City is being stretched over three days.
The first round will be Thursday night, with the second and third rounds Friday night and rounds four through seven beginning Saturday at noon. As the 32 teams enter their last few days of draft preparation, ESPN analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay share their thoughts about this year's event and more:
Andrew Luck has been touted as this generation's best quarterback prospect for the NFL draft since January 2011, when he elected to return for his redshirt junior season at Stanford.
The 6-foot-4, 234-pounder repeated as Pac-12 player of the year and finished a second consecutive season as runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. His career passing totals include 9,430 yards, 82 touchdowns and a 68.7-percent completion rate, and nobody questions his ability to win.
Stanford had experienced seven consecutive losing seasons when Luck became the starter in 2009, and he led the Cardinal to a 31-7 record and two BCS bowl games.
"Andrew Luck, in my opinion, is one of the best quarterbacks coming out going back to [Peyton] Manning or even [John] Elway," Kiper said. "I think he has everything it takes, and you just hope he doesn't end up being like Archie Manning was -- with a bad team and never getting any help. You hope they can build up the personnel base around Andrew Luck.
"There is no question about Andrew. If Andrew Luck doesn't look great, it's not his fault."
The Indianapolis Colts informed Luck this past Thursday that he will be the first player selected, as if that hadn't been known for months.
Luck may not have the rushing skills of last year's top overall pick, former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, but he's not a cinder block in the pocket, either. He had 957 career rushing yards (5.9 per carry) at Stanford and three runs of 50 yards or longer.
"He will work as hard as anybody and will do everything it takes to improve," Kiper said. "He is a team guy all the way, and if he's not successful, it's because the organization wasn't able to allow him to be successful."
Inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict was Rivals.com's No. 9 player nationally in the 2009 signing class, and his talent was evident from the day he stepped foot on Arizona State's campus.
Burfict made 11 tackles in a 20-17 loss at Georgia in '09, and he finished that season as a Freshman All-American and the Pac-10 freshman of the year. Yet after a troubling junior season and some very poor testing, the 6-3, 250-pounder may not get selected in the seven rounds.
"It's not just one thing with Burfict," Kiper said. "There are a lot of things that have come together. You think about the year that he had, which wasn't spectacular, and then the fact that he ran a 5-flat in the 40. There are the unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties that have been chronicled all year.
"You look at Vontaze Burfict as a guy who has probably dropped as much in this draft in terms of his rating as anybody in recent times."
Burfict led the Sun Devils with 90 tackles as a sophomore and was an All-America pick by The Sporting News, but that's when his troubles began surfacing. He was flagged for head-butting Oregon State's quarterback that season, and in a tight loss to Stanford he was called for a facemask penalty and then was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after arguing with the official.
Last season included more needless penalties, as well as a publicized fight with a teammate in the locker room. In his final college game, a 56-24 humiliation at the hands of Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, Burfict played sparingly, tallying one tackle and an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
"He went from an early-rounder to being talked about now as a sixth- or seventh-rounder to an undrafted free agent," Kiper said, "and he's in an inside linebacker group that quite frankly is very poor. There are not that many. This was a year where if you were an inside linebacker, you had a reasonable chance."
WHERE'S THE CHOMP?
With 19 first-round picks in the past 15 years, the Florida Gators have been a formidable presence in the NFL draft.
That presence will be placed on hold this year.
The Gators will not have anybody selected in Thursday's first round and may not have any in the second or third rounds. Running back Chris Rainey and defensive tackle Jaye Howard are considered Florida's only players who will be picked, and Kiper said he didn't even write up an evaluation on quarterback John Brantley.
Running back Jeff Demps had a chance to be in the fourth-round area, according to Kiper, but he has elected to focus solely on track.
"Florida right now is looking at a couple of guys who figure to be day three," Kiper said. "Rainey is the most interesting because he's got speed and versatility and certainly could fit with what a team is looking for in the third- or fourth-round area."
This projects to be Florida's worst draft since 1993, when defensive backs Lawrence Hatch and Will White went in the sixth and seventh rounds.
One former Florida player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, is viewed as a second-round selection after playing last season at North Alabama. Jenkins was arrested for marijuana possession in January 2011 and again three months later and was dismissed by Gators coach Will Muschamp, and the off-the-field concerns have not gone away.
"He was an elite cornerback in the SEC at Florida, and he was a man among boys at North Alabama," Kiper said. "If he had no red flags, I think he would be in the top 15 and at worst the top 20."
No player has had more pressure put on him by Kiper than Matthew Stafford, who was pegged as a future NFL top overall pick by the longtime analyst as a senior quarterback at Highland Park High in Dallas.
Stafford signed and enrolled early with Georgia in 2006, and he led the Bulldogs to a 21-5 record during the 2007 and '08 seasons. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft when he was selected by the Detroit Lions, thus making Kiper's bold statement a reality, but there was still the matter of whether he would excel on the highest level.
Injuries to his knee and shoulder resulted in Stafford playing just 13 games in his first two years with the Lions, but he stayed healthy this past season and threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. Detroit went 10-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
"He has certainly got as good of potential and as good of an upside as any quarterback in this league," Kiper said. "He throws the ball exceptionally well, and his arm strength is unparalleled. He's a leader. He's tough.
"What they've got to do is improve that offensive line and get a running game going, and they've got to upgrade that defense, because in a lot of games they couldn't stop anybody, but Stafford to me is an unquestioned franchise quarterback."
Stafford is among just four quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season.
NOT BEING INFLUENCED
Kiper has been with ESPN since 1984 and McShay since 2006, and they are the two most recognized draft analysts.
Whether giving their views on ESPN television, ESPN radio or through countless interviews, each is synonymous with the event. So wouldn't it make sense for agents representing talented players at smaller schools away from the national limelight to become buddies with these two?
"At one point or another, I've had the same conversation with all of them, and there are some agents that I trust more than others," McShay said. "The same conversation goes on over and over again. I tell them, 'Anything I say has zero effect on what an NFL team is going to do, so you're wasting your time trying to push a player on me. Nothing you say to me is going to change my opinion on a player.'
"I watch the film and I go to the workouts and the all-star games, and that's where I make my opinion and evaluate a player. The vast majority of agents have come to realize that, and the last few years I really haven't gotten a lot of phone calls. It used to be a lot worse."
SEC TO RULE AGAIN
In last year's NFL draft, five of the first six selections were Southeastern Conference players.
The SEC will not duplicate that feat this week, but the league does account for 12 of Kiper's first 25 projected selections. Alabama tailback Trent Richardson is picked to go fourth overall to Cleveland, and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is pegged fifth to Tampa Bay, and the conference is expected to make it six straight years with at least one first-round defensive lineman.
Kiper has Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox going 15th to Philadelphia and LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers going 25th to Denver. Both Kiper and McShay believe Cox has a chance to slip into the top 10.
"The more tape I watched of Fletcher Cox, the more he just grew on me," McShay said. "I love his versatility, and I think he plays the game hard. I think he can rush the passer both from the inside and the outside. On the outside he seals the edge and is stronger at the point of attack than when he plays on the inside, but I also see some ability to get after the quarterback with power moves and leverage moves as well.
"I think he's the best of a deep group, and I think he'll continue to get better."
Mississippi State had gone 14 years without a first-round pick until Green Bay selected offensive tackle Derek Sherrod last April. The Bulldogs have not had first-round selections in consecutive drafts since linebacker Johnie Cooks in 1982 and running back Michael Haddix in '83.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...