College Football Preview: Top 25 NFL Prospects

Posted Aug 28, 2012

USC QB Matt Barkley is the clear cut No. 1 prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft heading into the opening weekend of college football. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

By Matt Feminis
Special to

1. Matt Barkley 7 QB USC Senior 
Barkley is the latest in a line of highly touted quarterback prospects from the Southern California region. However, with the exception of Carson Palmer, Barkley’s predecessors — most notably Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich, David Carr, Kyle Boller, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Jimmy Clausen — disappointed or busted out. Groomed since childhood to be an NFL quarterback, Barkley is an advanced passing prospect who will enter the pros with one of the most impressive resumes in recent memory, including four years experience running a pro-style offense and three years as captain. Over that span, Barkley has passed for more than 9,000 yards and notched 80 touchdowns while proving himself in pressure situations and steadily improving, as evidenced by his upward trending touchdown-to-interception ratios: 15:14 in 2009, 26:12 in ’10 and 39:7 in ’11. Barkley is sound fundamentally, exhibiting a quick arm with smooth action which enables him to complete a variety of throws with anticipation, timing, accuracy and touch. Able to scan the field and work through progressions, he also slides in the pocket with his eyes downfield, takes care of the ball in the red zone and operates the two-minute offense like a veteran. The senior signal caller and Heisman candidate would be the consensus No. 1 prospect with a bullet if he were three inches taller and possessed ideal arm strength (which he has yet to show). Nitpicking further, he lacks stature and strength to make plays in the grasp, is not a scramble threat and does not show innate improvisational skills. However, play action/timing passing will be Barkley’s bread and butter in the NFL where he projects as a franchise quarterback.

2. David Amerson* 9 CB NC State Junior 
Even if David Amerson’s (6-3, 194) bio is exaggerated, he looks every bit the part with outstanding size.  In his No. 1 jersey, Amerson is so smooth tracking and playing the ball in the air, oftentimes he looks like a receiver, especially given his long, athletic body. Manning the field corner position last season, he was a Thorpe Award finalist after starting all 13 games and logging 59 tackles with an ACC single-season record 13 interceptions (two touchdowns). Amerson carries a swagger and has field presence, figuratively and literally — his ball hawking prowess serves as a deterrent, but he displays fluid movement skills and impressive range when he is tested. Can shore up his tackling, but Amerson is blessed with prototypical size, cover skills and playmaking ability supplemented by keen instincts and a natural feel for the position that makes him scheme versatile. Has an opportunity to make a statement in NC State’s season opener against Tennessee WR Justin Hunter.

3. Jarvis Jones* 29 OLB Georgia RS Junior 
An all-state basketball player in Georgia, Jones began his college career at USC in 2009. However, he suffered a season-ending neck injury on Halloween night against Oregon, and was not cleared by USC doctors. Ultimately transferred to Georgia, was cleared medically and sat out the 2010 season per NCAA transfer rules. In 2011, Jones hit the ground running — was deployed on the strong and weak sides, with his hand in the dirt and as a “Joker,” racking up 70 tackles, 19 1/2 for loss and an SEC-leading 13 1/2 sacks with two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and 49 quarterback pressures. Additionally, the consensus All-American and Butkus Award finalist was named a team captain. He’s a natural stand-up linebacker, boasting explosiveness and pass-rush prowess off the edge. He’s highly athletic, plays on his feet, ranges to make plays and has closing speed to finish. Further, he has quick, strong, violent hands and knows how to use them. Jones, one of the best football players in the land and an elite pro prospect, should only get better and will be a lottery selection when he makes the jump. 

4. Logan Thomas* 3 QB VA Tech RS Junior 
Viewed by many as a tight end coming out of Lynchburg, Va., Thomas used his 2009 redshirt season and 2010 season backing up Baltimore Ravens 2011 sixth-rounder Tyrod Taylor to solidify himself as a bona fide quarterback. When he took the reins in 2011, Thomas made an immediate and pronounced impact by completing 234-of-391 pass attempts (59.8 percent) for 3,013 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also netted 469 yards and 11 touchdowns on 153 carries, amassing a school-record 3,482 yards of total offense. Listed at 6-6, 260 pounds, Thomas has rare stature in the pocket combined with very good arm strength to drill intermediate completions and nice touch to drop throws over defenders. He also boasts athleticism belying his size which forces teams to account for him as an effective, albeit fairly straightlinish, runner. In fact, Thomas’ run strength is comparable to that of a tight end, which at times prompts him to seek out defenders, lower his shoulder and barrel through contact, a precocious habit he will learn to forgo in the interest of preservation. With just 14 starts under his belt, Thomas is not a finished product. Last season, he lost to Michigan and twice to Clemson, completed just 49 percent on third down and fumbled 11 times. He could stand to improve his footwork and ball placement and generally speed up his mental clock and decision making, but his arrow is pointing up.  With continued experience, maturation and refinement, Thomas has clear upside as a starting quarterback in the mold of a more athletic Ben Roethlisberger.

5. Derek Carr* 4 QB Fresno State RS Junior 
The younger brother of Houston Texans 2002 first-overall selection David Carr, Derek Carr (6-3, 210) has a relatively low profile given his status as a junior on a west coast, non-BCS team. However, Carr is an athletic, competitive quarterback with impressive arm talent and first-round upside. Carr has a quick arm, fires from the ear and can make all the throws, including when forced to alter his arm slot or throw on the move or off balance. Elected captain as a sophomore, Carr likes to play and it shows, as he has desirable leadership and moxie. Is still rough around the edges (could stand to improve ball placement and his feel and footwork in the pocket), but has the look of a riser. Faces transition from Pat Hill’s pro-style offense to Tim DeRuyter’s spread attack in 2012 and will be without leading playmakers Devon Wylie (drafted fourth round, Kansas City Chiefs) and Jalen Saunders (transferred to Oklahoma).

6. Luke Joeckel* 76 OT Texas A&M Junior 
Joeckel (6-6, 310) protected the blind side of Miami Dolphins first-round pick Ryan Tannehill last season and logged practice experience blocking Denver Broncos 2011 first-rounder Von Miller the year before that. Already with 26 career starts, Joeckel is well-coached, dependable and aware with a balanced skill set which will enable him to handle the left side in the pros. Might not have elite arm length or athletic ability, but is rarely on the ground and understands how to sink his weight and fortify his base. Works his hands and feet in unison — has efficient kick-slide and short punch, can shuffle slide and mirror and shows recovery ability. Also seeks to bury defenders, indicating he should only improve as a run blocker when he learns to generate more power through his hips.

7. Taylor Lewan* 77 OT Michigan RS Junior 
Lewan did not play offensive line until his senior year of high school when he transferred to Chaparral High in Arizona, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him play, as the big left tackle’s physicality and nastiness seems to come naturally (short fuse and penalties were an issue early in his career). Listed at 6-8, 309 pounds, Lewan’s style of play is a throwback to the days when the Wolverines produced the likes of Jake Long, Jeff Backus, Jon Jansen, Steve Hutchinson and Jon Runyon. Lewan has good feet and balance and grip strength to control defenders. In the run game, he engages quickly, generates movement and pulls with conviction. Tough and competitive, Lewan plays through the whistle and seeks to bury opponents. He brings a sandpaper element and has potential to man the left side or become a Pro Bowl right tackle.

8. Barkevious Mingo* 49 DE-OLB LSU RS Junior 
Mingo (a.k.a. “KeKe”) is not a finished product, but his long, lean, athletic, 6-5, 240-pound frame is dripping with upside. Lined up opposite Sam Montgomery and alongside one of the nation’s deepest defensive tackle rotations (including Rams 2011 first-rounder Michael Brockers), Mingo tallied 46 tackles, 15 for loss and eight sacks in 2011. He jumps off tape when he pins his ears back and screams off the snap like a scalded dog. He possesses an exceptional combination of explosion, athleticism, flexibility and closing speed that enables him to pressurize the edge. Needs to bulk up in order to hold up better against the run and learn to play with increased pop and power in his hands, but is a sinewy, physically gifted rusher who will be sought after by aggressive 3-4 schemes.

9. Tyler Eifert* 80 TE Notre Dame RS Junior 
Following in the footsteps of Notre Dame products Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph, Eifert (6-6, 251) is the best tight end prospect in the country and projects as a first-round selection given his exceptional ball skills. Presents a big target and wide catching radius — is tough to catch on contact and athletic to make the spectacular grab. Is built like and moves like an oversized receiver, and his tracking ability, body control and soft hands can open up an offense. Eifert lacks elite top-end speed and acceleration and needs to get stronger in order to tussle in-line, but is a low-risk, instant impact prospect capable of stretching the field vertically, moving the chains on third down and starring in the red zone.

10. Chance Warmack 65 OG Alabama Senior 
An Atlanta, Ga. native, Warmack stepped into the left guard position vacated by Falcons 2010 third-rounder Mike Johnson and has started all 27 games the last two seasons. Warmack lacks ideal height and is a guard only, but he is NFL strong and solid in pass protection — has a stout base to anchor, heavy hands to control defenders and enough foot quickness to recover. Plays with leverage and generates movement in the run game, as he works to gain positioning and torque defenders. Also combo blocks and pulls effectively — leads through the hole, zeroes in on targets and eliminates them (flashes some nasty). Warmack projects as a plug-and-play guard, and will be a battle-tested trench warrior when he departs Tuscaloosa.

11. Jonathan Cooper 64 OG-C North Carolina RS Senior 
Cooper (6-3, 295) is not a headline-grabbing prospect, but he is one of the best football players in the 2013 draft class, having graded out at 86 percent with 46 knockdowns in 2011 despite coping with shoulder inflammation. What he might lack in length and girth — limited power to drive big bodies off the line — he makes up for with terrific athletic ability, balance and technical proficiency. Cooper shows a quick, effective, six-inch punch and keeps his hands inside, allowing him to control and steer defenders. He bends naturally, plays with leverage and understands angles and positioning. Excels in space — pulls with explosion, agility, depth and coordination. Cooper is an athletic, experienced, consistent performer who will appeal to zone teams and could be a candidate to convert to center like Kansas City Chiefs 2011 second-rounder Rodney Hudson.

12. Jesse Williams 54 DT Alabama Senior 
Williams (6-4, 320) has not taken a traditional path to SEC football, but he’s made remarkable strides conquering the learning curve. A tatted up native Australian who grew up playing rugby and basketball, Williams spent two years at Western Arizona Community College before quickly integrating himself as a starting five-technique on the Crimson Tide’s defensive line. Mild mannered off the field, Williams is a beast in the weight room and he’s learning to apply his outstanding press strength between the white lines. He can be a bear to block, as he flashes the ability to push the pocket, and has surprising movement skills supplemented by a consistent motor for a big man. Assuming he continues developing his technique, instincts and positional understanding, Williams’ best football is ahead of him and his scheme versatility to fit as a nose tackle or five-technique will make him a coveted commodity come April.

13. Michael Buchanan 99 ROLB-RDE Illinois Senior 
Ron Zook managed a mediocre 80-79 career record over head coaching stints at Florida and Illinois, but he certainly recruited NFL talent. Eleven Zook recruits were drafted in the first three rounds 2006-11, and Buchanan will increase that number (so too could junior outside linebacker Johnathan Brown). Buchanan notched 64 tackles, 13 1/2 for loss and 7 1/2 sacks, but was overshadowed by NCAA sacks leader and Houston Texans first-rounder Whitney Mercilus last season. Buchanan (6-6, 240) is long and lean with a projectable frame and impact pass-rush ability. Athletic and flexible, he is able to run the arc or redirect and accelerate in space — has a consistent motor, ranges to make plays and shows burst to close. After playing the “Bandit” end for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, he will be deployed as a playmaking “Leo” by new DC Tim Banks. Buchanan has to continue bulking up, improve his run defense and prove he can drop competently into coverage, but has clear growth potential and upside as a 3-4 rush linebacker or 4-3 right end.

14. Kawann Short 93 DT Purdue RS Senior 
A team captain and three-year starter, Short (6-3, 315) amassed 54 tackles, 17 for loss and 6 1/2 sacks with a forced fumble, two batted passes and two blocked kicks last season. Short, who reportedly squats 600 pounds and bench-presses 400 pounds, is a beefy interior presence with a stout base and strong hands who also shows the ability to penetrate and disrupt the backfield. He could stand to improve his conditioning level so that his motor runs more consistently, but the big man has starter-caliber size, play strength and quickness to fit inside a 4-3 front or serve as a movement nose in a 3-4. Will be a 24-year-old rookie.

15. Star Lotulelei 92 NT Utah RS Senior 
If Lotulelei hears his name called in the first round next spring, he will have earned it. Born in Tonga and raised in Utah, he won a state title his senior season and committed to BYU. However, he failed to qualify academically and spent 2007 delivering furniture and putting on bad weight. He attended Snow College (UT), where he played in 2008 and redshirted in 2009 (academics). Despite his relative inexperience, he drew a scholarship offer from Utah. Lotulelei, who had ballooned to 350-plus pounds (approximately 100 more than his high school days), rewarded the Utes’ coaching staff, transforming himself from an overweight underachiever to a future pro whom head coach Kyle Whittingham puts in a class with Utah products Luther Ellis and Sione Pouha. Lotulelei is married with two children, is scheduled to graduate and is a team captain who has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates. On the field, he won the Pac-12’s Morris Trophy as the league’s best lineman by starting all 13 games and notching 44 tackles, nine for loss and 1 1/2 sacks with a batted pass and forced fumble. Though he will turn 24 during his rookie season, Lotulelei (now listed at 6-4, 320 pounds of better weight) has the size, take-on strength and athleticism (see fake punt reception against Cal) desired of a nose tackle. He does not offer much in the way of pass rush, but Lotulelei could be a valuable, two-down, space eater in a 3-4 or 4-3 front.  

16. D.J. Fluker* 76 OT Alabama RS Junior 
A massive, physical right tackle for the national champion Crimson Tide, Fluker (6-6, 335) has sheer size and NFL strength to thwart a charge and plays with a load in his hands — packs a powerful, jarring punch and latches on and controls defenders. Is a day trip to get around and is surprisingly effective in pass protection, though he struggles to shift his weight, redirect and mirror quicker rushers. Isn’t ready for prime time just yet — needs to play with more consistent pad level, generate more power in the run game and improve his contact balance and sustain — but has clear upside to anchor right tackle or slide inside. Praised by teammates and coaches for his energy, Fluker inspires optimism he is capable of fulfilling his vast potential.

17. Le'Veon Bell* 24 RB Michigan State Junior 
Despite carrying 20 times in a game just once last season, Bell is equipped to handle a feature back’s workload in the NFL. Listed at 6-2, 244 pounds, Bell has an excellent combination of size, speed, strength, power and quickness. He has strong hips, runs with lean and finishes runs, enabling him to break tackles and churn out yards after contact. What sets Bell apart, however, is his ability to spin, hurdle and juke like a smaller back. The 20-year-old junior also boasts an effective stiff-arm and fumbled just once in 335 touches last season.

18. Robert Woods* 2 WR USC Junior 
The consensus No. 1 receiver recruit in the nation coming out of high school in California, Woods has lived up to the hype through two seasons at USC, piling up 176 receptions for 2,084 yards and 21 touchdowns from the flanker position. Fluid and fast, Woods accelerates off the line, changes gears and gets in/out breaks quickly to separate. Has outside speed, slot quickness, run-after-catch skills and versatility to return kicks. Needs to improve hand strength and eliminate concentration drops, but has enticing playmaking ability. Sat out spring practice while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle.

19. Eric Reid* 1 S LSU Junior 
In 2011, LSU and Alabama squared off in the most anticipated game of the college football regular season and the field was packed with future pros. Reid stood out, establishing himself as a prospect to watch. Manning free safety alongside strong safety Brandon Taylor (third round, Chargers), Reid started 13 games and totaled 76 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions with two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He’s big (6-2, 212), athletic, instinctive, field-fast and physical. Reid is capable of playing center field, matching tight ends or running the alley and shows explosive striking ability when he has a free shot. Reid does not look to have elite top-end timed speed and needs to get stronger in order to prevent leaking yardage when he’s required to square up ball carriers, but his interchangeability and playmaking should enable him to instantly upgrade an NFL secondary.

20. Dee Milliner*  CB Alabama Junior 
Milliner’s pedigree — elite recruit, true freshman starter, special-teams standout — suggests he could develop into a top-flight cornerback. Factor in his size (6-1, 199), speed, physicality and opportunistic production — 12 passes defended, including three interceptions and a touchdown as a sophomore nickel back — and Milliner has the look of an emerging first-round selection. And it doesn’t hurt that he's well-coached. Milliner has more upside than Houston Texans first-rounder Kareem Jackson, another Alabama product, and will be in the spotlight this fall with Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick gone to the NFL.

21. Tony Jefferson* 1 S Oklahoma Junior 
Jefferson (5-11, 212) made an immediate impact in Norman, excelling as the Sooners’ nickel back. He garnered Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors in 2010 and tallied 74 tackles, three pass breakups and four interceptions with 7 1/2 tackles for loss, 4 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble in 2011. Jefferson has an athletic, muscular physique and stands out on tape for his versatility and playmaking ability (see three-interception effort versus Ball State). Jefferson functions effectively in the box as a downhill defender (and blitzer), but also has coverage skills to line up over the slot. In 2012, he is slated to play a more traditional free safety position, and scouts will take note of his angles, range and closing speed. Jefferson might not have elite measurables, but he’s a smart, instinctive, interchangeable safety with a modern skill set that should play well at the next level. Has better upside than some safeties who have gone in the first two rounds the last few years.

22. Malliciah Goodman 97 DE Clemson Senior 
Goodman (6-4, 280), a South Carolina native, did not burst onto the scene for the Tigers, but appears to be trending upwards. As a freshman in 2009, he was named the Tigers’ Co-Rookie of the Year, then garnered Future Impact Player recognition in 2010. Last season, Goodman stepped into the defensive end spot vacated by Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2011 second-rounder Da’Quan Bowers and played the most single-season snaps (767) a Tiger lineman has ever played, posting 59 tackles, four for loss, two sacks and 14 hurries in 14 starts. This fall could be a breakout campaign for Goodman, who looks the part — has the dimensions of an NFL 4-3 base end, including long arms and meat hooks for hands that enable him to slap, swim and rip or stack the edge. Shows ability to disrupt the backfield, but would help himself by playing with more consistent leverage against the run and becoming more of a pass-rush finisher. If he puts it all together, he will rise into first- or second-round consideration and should develop into a solid, three-down end.

23. Johnathan Hankins* 52 DT  Ohio State Junior 
Hankins’ inclusion is projection-based, perhaps more so than most of the top prospects entering the season, as the 6-3, 322-pounder’s tape evaluation leaves something to be desired. However, with his sheer mass, a thick trunk and surprising movement skills, envisioning a stronger, better conditioned, more refined version of Hankins as an impactful interior defender 3-4 years from now is realistic. A flash player at this stage of his development, Hankins played a variety of techniques along the defensive front, including as a six-technique end, where he looked miscast. In the pros he could be best-suited drawing double-teams on the nose in a 4-3. In the meantime, he needs to develop his instincts, improve his recognition and play with more awareness to feel pressure, locate the ball and react quicker. Hankins flashes initial quickness to create a surge, but can take his game to another level with improved hand use, balance and effort.

24. Cory Lemonier* 55 DE-OLB Auburn Junior 
A well put together college defensive end, Lemonier (6-4, 246) earned first-team All-SEC honors as a true sophomore by recording 47 tackles, 13 for loss, 9 1/2 sacks and 15 hurries. While he lacks ideal flexibility off the edge, at a young age he shows a quick get-off and the ability to get to the quarterback. The upcoming season will be telling in terms of Lemonier’s pro projection, as he’s no longer classified as a “quick” end in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s (previously of the Atlanta Falcons) system. Lemonier’s run defense is far less consistent than his pass rush, and scouts will be watching to see improved strength at the point of attack. How he acquits himself on the strong side of the formation and how he moves with increased bulk will help determine if he’s viewed as a 4-3 end or a 3-4 linebacker conversion project. Could be a Steelers type in the making.

25. Knile Davis* 7 RB Arkansas RS Junior 
Davis (6-0, 226) is big, fast, strong and productive. Unfortunately, he’s also injury-prone. In 2010, he toted 204 times for 1,322 yards (6.5-yard average) with 13 touchdowns, but missed the 2011 season because of a fractured left ankle. When healthy, he shows good feet and balance and the ability to rip off long runs. Even with a healthy 2012 campaign, durability concerns and the diminished value of running backs could make it difficult to justify using a first-round pick on Davis, but he has potential to be very effective as a one-cut, downhill zone runner. If spring testing is an indicator of future performance, Davis is raring to go after a year off the field. He clocked as the Razorbacks’ fastest player, bench-pressed 415 pounds and squatted 570.