<
>

Players with something to prove

The NFL draft has exploded in popularity in recent years, giving football-starved fans a much-needed fix in April and providing enough drama to engage even the casual fan. Every year fans watch as players skyrocket up draft boards while others plummet. While the spotlight shines brightest on these players and their stories during the spring, it's important to remember that this is a year-long roller coaster ride for many seniors. This is especially true for seniors whose draft status carries some question marks.

This season, DraftWatch will follow the paths of 15 senior prospects whose names should be called next April. Some project as early first-day picks and some as middle-to-late rounds picks, but all have the potential to move up or down draft boards over the next seven months.

In this relatively brief time, these prospects must demonstrate the ability to work on their weaknesses while continuing to exhibit their strengths. In addition, they must deal with potential injuries and off-field incidents, postseason workouts and combine performances and all sorts of things that could affect their draft stock.

Here are DraftWatch's 15 prospects:

QB Chris Leak, Florida
In 2002, Leak was one of the most sought-after high school prospects in the nation, and for good reason. He led his team to three consecutive North Carolina state championships and he threw a high-school record 185 touchdown-passes.

The problem is, Leak hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations since signing with Florida. While he is a four-year starter who has had a strong collegiate career, he has not distinguished himself from the rest of the quarterback class. Most expected to him to contend for the Heisman Trophy, not just earn a pot on the All-SEC second team, like he did in 2004. In addition, Leak's passing yards and touchdowns dropped last season, his first under head coach Urban Meyer.

Now he must bounce back and prove he can handle adversity while showing more poise in the face of pressure. If he can, he should be a first-day pick.

QB Kevin Kolb, Houston
High school players dream of having a true-freshman season like the one Kolb enjoyed in 2003, when he threw for 3,131 yards and 25 touchdowns and was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year. He also became just the fourth player in Division I history to throw for 400 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game.

However, his numbers dropped during his sophomore season in 2004, and he threw 15 interceptions last year as a junior. Though he still projects as a late first-day pick, making better decisions and taking care of the football this year would cause his draft value to skyrocket.

QB Tyler Palko, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh redshirted Palko in 2003, but he exploded onto the national scene the next year, when he threw for 3,067 yards and 24 touchdowns. His strong performance earned him All-Big East first-team honors, but he stumbled in 2005. Now he must prove that last year was a fluke or risk slipping from the middle to the later rounds. The southpaw gunslinger would certainly increase his value in the eyes of scouts if he shows he consistently can take what the defense gives him rather than forcing things in an attempt at the big play.

RB Lorenzo Booker, Florida State
Florida State started to take advantage of Booker's versatility and give him substantial touches during his redshirt sophomore season in 2003. He progressed steadily, becoming the Seminoles' second-leading rusher in 2004 and their leading rusher in 2005. However, he has just five career starts heading into this season, and there are concerns that he lacks the power of an every-down back. Now that he is a starter, he must prove he can handle a heavy workload and stay healthy, or he could slip to the second day of the draft.

RB Tyrone Moss, Miami
No other prospect on this list has more to prove than Moss. After getting substantial playing time in his first two seasons, Moss moved into the starting lineup in 2005 and didn't disappoint. In fact, he was named All-ACC. The problem is, he sustained a season-ending knee injury late in the year. And if the injury wasn't enough to scare teams away, Miami also suspended Moss a game for violating team policy. Though Moss could be a first-day pick, he must stay healthy and avoid any off-field incidents while showing that he still has the burst to turn the corner and the lateral mobility to cut back.

WR Rhema McKnight, Notre Dame
McKnight first cracked the starting lineup during his true sophomore season in 2003, and he immediately started flashing big-play ability. However, he didn't progress as hoped, and he sustained a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the 2005 season. Now he must prove the knee is healthy, improve his route-running, and catch the ball more consistently. If he can, he easily could go from a second-day pick to an early first-day pick.

WR Paul Williams, Fresno State
Scouts are excited about Williams' blend of speed, athletic ability and power. In addition, after failing to make much of an impact during his first two seasons, he caught 43 passes for 729 yards and seven touchdowns last year. However, Williams must continue to progress, because he hasn't even come close to realizing his potential. Improving his route-running, ability to adjust to the defense and his hands could cause him to go from a late- to an early-first-day pick.

TE Martrez Milner, Georgia
Milner lived in the large shadow of Leonard Pope the past three seasons, making his biggest impact as a blocker and on special teams. Now that Pope is playing on Sundays, it's Milner's opportunity to shine, and he must take advantage. Though he would benefit from showing more power at the point of attack, it's even more important he prove he can separate from linebackers and make the tough catch in traffic. A strong year likely will make him a third-round prospect, but he will slip to the second day if he doesn't make a substantial contribution.

OT Justin Blalock, Texas
Blalock is a four-year starter who was named a first team freshman All-America in 2003, and All-Big 12 in 2004 and 2005. He is a powerful run blocker who is versatile enough to line up at guard. However, he lacks ideal quickness and foot speed to be an NFL tackle. While he is a first-round talent, guards rarely get taken that early. Tackles, on the other hand, are more highly coveted, because they line up on the perimeter where they aren't as protected. Keeping that in mind, Blalock's draft value will benefit if he can show improved footwork and the ability to hold up on an island in pass protection.

OT Aaron Sears, Tennessee
Sears is a three-year starter who was named All-SEC following the 2005 season and has experience lining up at guard as well as tackle. He is in a similar situation as Blalock, because he might be a better fit at guard. The difference is that Sears has the quickness and athletic ability to hold up at tackle when he stays in good playing shape. It's when he carries too much weight that he has problems holding up in pass protection on the edge. If he can prove he is best suited to line up at tackle by having a strong season, he will be a first-day pick. He could slide to the second day if teams feel he will have to move to guard, so there is a lot on the line.

DE Loren Howard, Arizona State
Howard was a three-year starter at Northwestern before transferring to Arizona State in 2005. He is best known for his ability to anchor against the run and for his relentlessness. The problem is, his career has been marred by injuries. He sustained an ankle injury that required surgery in 2004, and he sustained a season-ending knee injury last year. It's critical that he get healthy and stay healthy, because another substantial injury could cause him to go from a potential third-rounder to a late-second-day pick. In addition, the fact that Howard doesn't make a lot of big plays will make it more difficult for him to bounce back in the eyes of scouts.

DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley, Michigan
Woodley is a three-year starter who has seen significant playing time since his true freshman season in 2003 and has extensive experience lining up at end as well as linebacker. That versatility will make him very attractive to NFL coaches who like to switch between three- and four-man defensive fronts. Unfortunately for Woodley, scouts aren't thrilled with his ability to defend the run, and he has had some problems staying healthy. If he can get stouter at the point of attack, avoid significant injury and make some big plays, Woodley projects as a first-day pick.

LB Kevin "Boo" McClee, West Virginia
Teams are always looking for players who show progress over the course of their collegiate career, and McClee certainly fits that bill. After redshirting in 2002, McClee has steadily improved over the past three seasons, earning All-Big East honors last year. Now he must continue to get better, which means improving his ability to read keys and shed blocks quickly. His ability to work on these weaknesses will be the difference between going late on the first day and early on the second day.

CB David Irons, Auburn
Irons attended Butler County Junior College before transferring to Auburn in 2004, and he was named All-SEC second team after starting 11 games in 2005. He has excellent cover skills and rarely gets caught out of position, but he has missed two seasons because of knee injuries during his six-year collegiate career. Avoiding another substantial injury is critical, and improving his ability to defend the run wouldn't hurt, either. At this point, Irons projects as a middle-round pick.

DC Daymeion Hughes, California
Hughes is a three-year starter that saw substantial playing time during his true freshman season in 2003 and he made a name for himself by recording five interceptions last year. In fact, he played so well that he is a Playboy and Blue Ribbon Preseason All-American. So it comes as no surprise he projects as a first-day pick. However, Hughes doesn't have the second gear to recover when he gets caught out of position and he doesn't always play with sound technique. If he gets burned for too many big plays this year, he could find himself slipping to the second day.