The calendar has turned to 2009, and Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay offers fearless predictions for the new year, including the schools, players and NFL teams that will surprise on draft day:
Detroit could follow the lead of the Miami Dolphins, who drafted Michigan LOT Jake Long first overall last season, and look to build their future around Alabama junior LOT Andre Smith. The 6-4, 341-pound Smith is not as polished as Long but is more physically gifted. Taking Smith would still afford the Lions the chance to get a quarterback project such as Ball State's Nate Davis a little further down the line. They also need to beef up their defensive front. This year's class is loaded with talent at defensive line and linebacker, and if Detroit follows the lead of some of the most successful teams in the NFL and builds from the inside out, it could come out a huge winner.
2. A record-setting number of underclassmen will enter the 2009 draft. The current record for underclassmen is 62, set in 2006, but that number will be surpassed this year. In fact, the first four players off the board at each of the offensive skill positions could be non-seniors: Bradford, Stafford, Davis and Kansas State's Josh Freeman at quarterback; Knowshon Moreno, Chris Wells, LeSean McCoy and C.J. Spiller at running back; and Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin and Darrius Heyward-Bey at wide receiver.
3. No senior quarterback will be drafted in the first three rounds in 2009. Cullen Harper of Clemson and Curtis Painter of Purdue were the top senior signal-callers entering the season, but they bombed in 2008 and were passed on the draft board by a group of six draft-eligible underclassmen (Bradford, Stafford, Davis, Freeman, USC's Mark Sanchez and Florida's Tim Tebow. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell is the top-rated senior at this point, just ahead of Sam Houston State's Rhett Bomar, who transferred from Oklahoma before the 2006 season.
4. At least seven and as many as nine players from USC's 2008 defense will hear their names called in the draft. Coach Pete Carroll and his staff have compiled an epic collection of talent, and it's no surprise they finished 2008 among the national leaders in most defensive categories and are being talked about as one of the best defenses in college football history. ILB Rey Maualuga, S Taylor Mays and OLB Brian Cushing all have first-round grades at this point, while DT Fili Moala, S Kevin Ellison and OLB Clay Matthews all rank among the top six at their respective positions. Throw in late-round prospects like CB Carey Harris, DE Kyle Moore and S Josh Pinkard, and it could be a historic draft day for the Trojans.
Todd McShay is the director of college football scouting for Scouts Inc. He has been evaluating prospects for the NFL draft since 1998.