Coming up with the list of the top 150 prospects is never an easy task. From watching countless hours of game film, to in-person scouting at training camps, combines, 7-on-7 tournaments and college camps, to interviewing coaches about players, the task is daunting. There have been more than 10,000 players at events attended by ESPN Recruiting's scouts and we have already put together close to 1,500 scouting reports and will have 3,000 reports on the nation's top players by the time signing day rolls around.
This year's ESPNU 150 -- our sixth edition of the rankings -- was a challenge for a variety of reasons. Choosing the top part of the 150 was the easy part and we came away as confident as we've ever been about that portion of the rankings, which is anchored by as deep a group of elite linemen (offensive and defensive) as we've seen. The top four players -- DE Jadeveon Clowney (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe), DT Anthony Johnson (New Orleans/O. Perry Walker), DE Ray Drew (Thomasville, Ga./Thomasville County) and OT Christian Westerman (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) -- are linemen. In all, six of the top nine and eight of the top 20 play on the line.
It's kind of fitting that the final ranking for the Class of 2010 had three defensive linemen at the top of the list, and the first ranking for the Class of 2011 has three defensive linemen at the top. Impact defensive linemen can be tough to find, and when you see prospects with the tools to fit that role, it is hard to look past that.
This year's 150 has three players with the tools to make a splash in college and quickly. At the top is Clowney, a special talent who could have vied for the top spot in several previous classes. While there are plenty of elite players around the county, Clowney set the bar for this class and is a wonderful combination of size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds), speed and athleticism. Johnson at No. 2 is a 6-3, 295-pound DT prospect with the tools to make an impact at a position where it isn't always easy to find impact players. Drew at No. 3 is a lot like Clowney in that he is a big kid (6-5, 253 pounds) who can run and has the tools to be a real chore to handle. All three players could potentially be dominant, game-changing defenders and while they have the tools to make an instant impact, they also all show room to grow as players. That is impressive and a little scary, and a big reason why they find themselves in the first three slots.
It's also a special year for elite offensive linemen. We can't remember seeing three players like Westerman, Cyrus Kouandjio (Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha Catholic) and La'El Collins (Baton Rouge, La./Redemptorist) in one class. These three are special players and franchise tackles. They are all at least 6-5 and 281 pounds with the frames to add bulk and the upside to keep improving. While it's always dangerous to look too far in the future when talking about 17-year-old players, these three all have the potential that could make them NFL first-round picks one day.
That's not to say there aren't some talented skill position players in the Class of 2011. There are two RBs, Isaiah Crowell (Columbus, Ga./Carver) and Malcolm Brown (Cibolo, Texas/Byron M. Steele), in the top seven; two WRs, Charone Peake (Reobuck, S.C./Dorman) and George Farmer (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra), in the top 13; and two QBs, Jeff Driskel (Oviedo, Fla./Paul J. Hagerty) and Braxton Miller (Huber Heights, Ohio/Wayne), in the top 16. All things being equal, offensive tackles, defensive linemen, cornerbacks and quarterbacks will get the nod over running backs, wide receivers and safeties.
That's what makes it tough for some players' rankings. For example, we struggled with what to do with James Wilder (Tampa, Fla./Plant). One of the most physically gifted and talented athletes in this year's class, the 6-foot-3, 219-pounder plays RB and OLB/D-line now, but projects as an attacking, hybrid-type OLB in college. He has the physical attributes and skills to be a potential impact player, but because he's caught in between positions here, we have him ranked No. 8 in our initial rankings behind some potentially dominating linemen and two of the country's best running backs.
Speaking of the other running backs, there was a big debate over where to rank Crowell and Brown. While they are so close in production, they are so different in the way they get things done. Crowell, who is ranked No. 5, might be a slightly taller version of former Clemson back C.J. Spiller. He has better speed and quickness than Brown and is more of a game-breaker. Brown, who is ranked No. 7, is more in the style of Adrian Peterson. He's a downhill, big power back. Their contrasting styles made the argument fun, but they could be 1A and 1B for backs; it was that close.
Where this class takes a turn is once you get past the top 50. The talent level becomes much more similar here and it's tougher to rank the players. While there is still plenty of talent here, it's a little less refined. The top 50 players are all very, very good now and also have a high ceiling on what they can become. The players below that level are good, but still have some work to do now to be better in the short term, as well as developing their upside for the future. That makes it trickier to gauge just how good they will be.
And just because a player was ranked lower doesn't mean he can't go on to have success in college. Remember, this is an inexact science of projecting 17-year-olds with many unknown variables that often do not manifest themselves until the prospect reaches the next level. RB Mark Ingram wasn't a top-50 player (he was No. 108) in the Class of 2008 and he just won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship at Alabama. QB Andrew Luck was No. 61 in 2008 and the Stanford QB is projected to be a top pick -- if not the No. 1 pick -- in next year's NFL draft. OL Bryan Bulaga was No. 96 in the Class of 2007 and he was just selected in the first round of this year's NFL draft.
Those are past examples of players who weren't as polished in high school but had high upside that just needed to develop. This year's class has a few of those kinds of players as well. A few examples:
• OT Bobby Hart (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./St. Thomas Aquinas), No. 36 in the ESPNU 150, is still developing and growing into his body, a scary thought considering he's already 6-5, 298 pounds. He is a competitive and promising prospect with great tools to work with and the ability to become an anchor on the line at the college level.
• At 6-2, 200 pounds, OLB Ryan Shazier (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation), No. 71, is an undersized high school defensive end who is going to take some time to develop as a true outside linebacker in college, but when he does, this explosive edge rusher could be a difference-maker.
• RB Brandon Williams (Brookshire, Texas/Brookshire Royal), No. 73, might be overshadowed a bit by the great running back talent in Texas this year, but the potential is obvious. Once Williams gets into a full-time college weight training program and adds size to his blazing track speed, he could emerge as one of the better backs to come out of this 2011 class.
• QB Bubba Starling (Gardner, Kan./Gardner Edgerton), No. 107, is a 6-5 prospect with a monster arm (90 mph fastball), but plays in a run-oriented offense that utilizes him like Tim Tebow. He is raw right now in terms of mechanics, but has all the tools to groom.
• OT Jordan Prestwood (Plant City, Fla./Plant City), No. 129, is a 6-6, 265-pound TE who is athletic and could develop into a great college tackle with patience and time.
In the past when we've done the rankings, it seemed as though there was a smaller elite tier, then a next level and then another drop-off. But this year, it seems as though there are more elite players and then instead of having two drop-offs, there's just one with a bigger number of similarly talented players. It was to the point where we could have really just swapped out the last 30 players who didn't make the 150 with the final 30 who did and we wouldn't see that much of a drop-off in talent. That's how close it was.
But one important thing to remember: This is just the initial rankings, and how players start does not necessarily mean this is how they'll end up. This process is never over. Yes, we've watched hours of film and seen many of these players in person, but we'll continue to watch how they play this season as well as how they do in postseason all-star practices and games. This is just the beginning, and as we have learned, the evaluation process -- much like the recruiting process -- is never-ending.