— By Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com
– It is often said that nothing is more important than a first impression, but in the scouting world, it is more of a case of what have you done for me lately.
After struggling with inconsistent play early in the year, No. 1 overall prospect Sam Darnold has largely righted the ship as have flashy athletes coming off surgery like Florida State safety Derwin James and LSU edge rusher Arden Key. That’s good because the spotlight only gets brighter with this week’s critical conference showdowns.
Updated every two weeks in preparation for the 2018 NFL Draft, these are the top 32 NFL prospects (potentially eligible) in college football.
–1. Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California, 6-3, 225, 4.74, redshirt sophomore
There is no denying that Darnold struggled early this season, throwing two interceptions in each of USC’s first three games as the Trojans dealt with massive turnover on offense. In the seven games since the poor start, Darnold owns a very respectable 15-5 TD to INT ratio, quieting his critics. To be clear, Darnold has his warts — an elongated throwing motion is the biggest concern — but he is accurate, athletic and tough. He also comes with a pro-caliber build, offense and media market, making the projection to the next level simpler than most of his competition. Simply put, he possesses the best mix of talent and intangibles in this year’s potential quarterback class.
–2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, 5-11, 223, 4.49, junior
Barkley is the elite player in college football and the easy favorite among non-quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy. He possesses the size and toughness to be effective running between the tackles, but it is his elusiveness and breakaway speed as a perimeter runner, receiver and returner that has NFL scouts salivating. In terms of immediate impact ability, Barkley is comparable to recent top-10 picks Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.
–3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS/CB, Alabama, 6-0, 201, 4.52, junior
With today’s pass-happy NFL offenses, versatile defensive backs are more important than ever and no one in this draft can match Fitzpatrick’s combination of instincts, coverage skills and reliable open-field tackling. Fitzpatrick may lack the elite fluidity and change of direction of today’s top cover corners, but his route anticipation and physicality make up for it, allowing him to project as a top-five prospect (and arguably the elite defender) in 2018. Fitzpatrick tweaked his hamstring and missed virtually all of the rivalry game against LSU, but not before showing impressive makeup speed to break up a potential score.
–4. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson, 6-3, 310, 5.04, junior
From his off-beat personality to his versatility along the defensive line, Wilkins is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He earned All-America honors at defensive tackle as a true freshman, recording an eye-popping 84 tackles before moving out to defensive end last season and boosting his big plays, registering 13 tackles for loss (among 56 total stops) and setting a school record among defensive linemen with 10 passes broken up. Wilkins’ ability to disrupt the passer as well as the running game helps him stand out in a potentially very good class of defensive tackles.
–5. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, 6-3, 220, 4.97, junior
Rosen is the most accurate passer potentially available in the 2018 draft, but his stock is dropping on my board after scouting him in person when he and the Bruins visited Washington in Week 9. Film review will tell you that Rosen possesses many of the traits to project as a franchise quarterback, including intelligence, a lightning-quick release, accuracy to all levels of the field and plenty of velocity. After now missing action in multiple games for the second consecutive season, however, it is fair to question Rosen’s durability, as well as whether he possesses the intangibles preferred as the face of a franchise.
–6. DaRon Payne, DT, Alabama, 6-2, 308, 5.38, junior
Payne may lack the imposing size and burst of some of the other top defensive linemen, but his pure strength (including a 545-pound bench press) and motor stand out, even among the NFL junior varsity team that is the Alabama Crimson Tide. As his statistics last season (36 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks) suggest, however, Payne’s value lies with his ability to be a two-gap run-stuffer not a consistent pass-rush threat.
–7. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, senior
Simply put, Chubb has been the most dominant defensive player in college football. His 53 tackles through nine games include 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, numbers very much in line with the 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks he posted during last year’s breakout campaign. A former linebacker whose commitment to maximizing his talent has earned him captain roles the past two years running, Chubb looks like one of this year’s safest prospects — winning not only with athleticism, but hustle, physicality and refined technique, as well.
–8. Vita Vea, DT, Washington, 6-4, 344, 5.34, redshirt junior
In terms of raw ability, Vea competes with only Houston true sophomore Ed Oliver as the most exciting defensive line prospect in the country. As his size suggests, Vea can dominate as a run-stuffer. He is also incredibly athletic for a man of his size, surprising opponents with his initial burst and speed in pursuit. Vea is a prototypical nose tackle with a blend of size, power and athleticism likely to earn comparisons to former freakish first-rounders Haloti Ngata and Dontari Poe as the draft approaches.
–9. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M, 5-11, 200, 4.39, junior
With three receivers earning top-10 picks a year ago, the NFL’s thirst for playmakers has never been more obvious, and Kirk is this year’s most dynamic pass-catcher. Like current Detroit Lions standout Golden Tate, Kirk possesses the squatty frame of a running back, using terrific lateral agility, balance and pure speed to be a threat to score any time he touches the ball as a receiver or returner.
–10. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, redshirt sophomore
After an offseason in which he was labeled as “the next Sean Taylor,” James struggled to shake off the rust from last year’s knee surgery, notably missing open-field tackles and failing to deliver big plays early in the year. Since, James has looked like more of his previous self, enjoying standout performances against Louisville (eight tackles), Boston College (13 tackles, PBU) and Syracuse (three tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and four passes broken up), including the partially-blocked field goal that secured the Seminoles’ 27-24 win over the Orange. A modern safety who truly blends the traits of a linebacker and cornerback, James is a moveable chess piece on defense sure to intrigue NFL coaches.
–11. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama, 6-1, 190, 4.50, junior
Expectations were huge for Ridley last season after breaking Julio Jones’ school record for most receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman (89 for 1,045). A stacked roster and the development of young Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts resulted in less production (72 for 769 yards) for Ridley last season, but his polished routes, deceptive speed and strong hands remain just as impressive on tape and he has taken the next step this year, emerging as Alabama’s clear top target. A late enrollee at Alabama, Ridley is a bit older than most of the top prospects, turning 23 in December.
–12. Connor Williams, T, Texas, 6-5, 320, 5.31, junior
The Longhorns have not produced a single first-round pick on offense since Vince Young was selected No. 3 overall by Tennessee in 2006, but Williams is a strong bet to end that dubious streak. Williams is a bit of a throwback, showing the power and aggression as a run blocker that scouts covet with the athleticism, balance and girth to stone pass rushers, as well. Williams is reportedly “close” to returning to the field after suffering a knee injury September 16 against USC.
–13. Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame, 6-5, 325, 5.23, redshirt junior
Nelson should have been named MVP for Notre Dame’s 49-14 pasting of USC because behind he and fellow first-round blocker Mike McGlinchey (No. 25) that the Irish ran the ball for an astounding 377 yards on 47 carries (an 8.0 yard per rush clip!). Nelson has starred at left guard, showing off the initial quickness, vice-like grip and sheer mass scouts covet inside. Their matchup against an athletic Miami defensive line in Week 10 is a must-see for scouts.
–14. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson, 6-4, 265, 4.78, redshirt sophomore
Players as young as Ferrell rarely make the Big Board this early in their respective collegiate careers, but the prototypically-built edge rusher is a unique talent with an already impressive resume, including 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (along with a team-high 24 QB hurries a season ago). He is often overshadowed by the “other” talent along Clemson’s defensive line, but projects very well to the NFL due to his initial burst, length and closing speed.
–15. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming, 6-4, 233, 4.76, redshirt junior
If someone were to draw up the physical prototype for an NFL quarterback, it would look a lot like the strapping, rifle-armed, and shockingly athletic Allen. Unfortunately, for all of his raw traits, Allen remains very raw, failing to show the accuracy and poise in losses to Iowa and Oregon that are required in the NFL. Allen was not helped much by his teammates in these losses, however, and his head coach, Craig Bohl, proved with his last quarterback, Carson Wentz, that he knows how to develop talent at the position.
–16. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State, 6-1, 198, 4.49, junior
After recording an FBS-leading eight interceptions last season — his first as a starter — McFadden has a lot of work to do to duplicate his incredible debut. Do not mistake McFadden’s lack of eye-popping statistics this season (13 tackles and five passes broken up over the first six games), however, as evidence of a poor year as most opponents are opting simply to ignore his side of the field. Though his focus as a tackler and in coverage can wane, at times, McFadden offers an exciting upside with the quick feet, instincts and soft hands scouts covet.
–17. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, junior
One week after gashing Mississippi for 276 yards on a healthy 12.5 average per run clip, Guice found the going much tougher against Alabama, earning every bit of his 71 yards on 19 carries (3.7). Guice is not the freakish combination of size and speed that his predecessor Leonard Fournette is. Frankly, he is built more like another star NFL rookie running back – Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt. Like Hunt, Guice possesses a squatty, powerful frame as well as excellent balance through contact and the burst to gain chunk yardage.
–18. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan, 6-2, 282, 4.93, redshirt senior
With today’s focus on the quick passing game in the NFL, “undersized” defensive tackles that can collapse the pocket from the interior are much more valuable than in previous years. Hurst, the son of the former New England Patriots cornerback of the same name, combines the initial burst to split gaps with the toughness and strength that belie his frame.
–19. Arden Key, DE, LSU, 6-5, 240, 4.74, junior
Like Darnold (No. 1) and James (No. 10), Key’s play appears to be improving by the week with arguably his flashiest performance of the year coming at Alabama in Week 10. Key, who missed the Tigers’ first two games of the year after offseason shoulder surgery, recorded eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss against the Tide. Blessed with a rare combination of explosive quickness and length, a healthy Key can be a nightmare as an edge rusher, as he was last year when as a true sophomore he set the LSU single-season record with 12 sacks. Key needs to get stronger against the run, a fact that Alabama took full advantage of, including on an early second-quarter touchdown jaunt by Bo Scarbrough right through the “Key-hole.”
–20. Orlando Brown, T, Oklahoma, 6-7, 358, 5.47, redshirt junior
The prodigal son of the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown (a 13-year veteran who played with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens), the Sooners’ behemoth blocker’s sheer size and strength make referring to him as “junior” almost laughable. While lacking the nimble feet to likely remain at left tackle in the NFL (where he has started the past two years for the Sooners), Brown’s rare arm length, powerful base and surprising balance make him a quality pass protector and not just the bulldozer in the running game that his bulk suggests.
–21. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, 6-2, 200, 4.42, junior
Jackson quite literally ran away from the competition for the Heisman Trophy a season ago, showing off the raw speed and playmaking ability that has earned him plenty of comparisons to 2001 No. 1 overall selection Michael Vick. A true dual threat, Jackson is a potential difference-maker in the NFL if a team is willing to commit its offense around his unique talent. Though Jackson has improved in terms of accuracy, he remains a work in progress as an NFL passer because he routinely stares down his primary target. Furthermore, while Jackson is noticeably bigger this season, he remains undersized by NFL quarterback standards, a significant concern given his playing style.
–22. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.37, junior
Ward was overshadowed a year ago by eventual first-round cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans) and Gareon Conley (Oakland), but he saw plenty of playing time at nickel, actually tying with Lattimore for the team lead in pass breakups in 2016 with nine over 13 games. This season, Ward has been even more productive in the PBU department (11 through nine games), showing off the lightning-quick feet, hands and savvy to project as a “starting” nickel back early in his NFL career and perhaps much, much more.
–23. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn, 6-1, 203, 4.50, junior
Lanky press cornerbacks are all the rage in today’s NFL and Davis possesses the skill-set to take full advantage of an average senior crop to jump into the first-round conversation. A starter as a true freshman, Davis earned third-team All-SEC honors last season and looks well on his way toward bigger honors in 2017, ranking among the best in the power conference in passes broken up. He possesses the stop-and-go quickness, loose hips and long arms scouts are looking for and could boost his stock further with more willingness in run support, as well as turning more breakups into interceptions.
–24. Billy Price, OG, Ohio State, 6-3, 312, 5.19, redshirt senior
A three-year starter and reigning All-America guard, Price is about as safe as it gets in early NFL draft prognostications. He could have made the NFL jump a year ago and been one of the first interior offensive linemen selected, but is improving his stock this season by proving his versatility and making the switch to center, the position some scouts believe he is best suited to playing in the NFL. Built like a cinder block (and just as tough), Price’s initial quickness and power play a key role in the Buckeyes’ offensive attack.
–25. Mike McGlinchey, T, Notre Dame, 6-7, 312, 5.27, redshirt senior
With a full season of starts at both left tackle (2016) and right tackle (2015) already under his belt in Notre Dame’s pro-style attack, McGlinchey entered his final year of college football as one of the more established blockers in the country and his stock has only improved in shutting down high-profile opponents (like Boston College’s Harold Landry and USC’s Rasheem Green). McGlinchey is not in the same class of athlete as his former teammate and 2016 first-round pick, Ronnie Stanley (Baltimore Ravens), but NFL offensive line coaches will appreciate his experience, versatility and technique.
–26. Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama, 6-2, 214, 4.57, junior
A major question mark heading into last season (his first as a starter), Harrison rewarded the faith of the Alabama coaching staff by emerging as a legitimate star by year’s end, finishing second only to Butkus Award-winning linebacker Reuben Foster for the team lead in tackles (86) and proving to be a big-play magnet. When under control, Harrison can also be a weapon as a hitter, specializing in cleaning up the play with a stiff shoulder to stop a ball-carrier in his tracks. His interception against LSU last week showed off the instincts and ball skills that have scouts excited.
–27. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State, 6-0, 312, 5.17, senior
As so-called “undersized” Pro Bowlers like Aaron Donald and Jurell Casey are proving, height may be overrated when it comes to projecting success at defensive tackle. Nnadi’s bowling ball-like build, active hands and sheer power make him a nightmare to stop on the inside. Nnadi earned first-team All-ACC honors a year ago despite being overshadowed by others and is highly regarded by scouts for his relentless style of play.
–28. Taven Bryan, DT, Florida, 6-4, 293, 4.96, redshirt junior
The Gators have churned out at least one first-round defender in each of the past five drafts and if those close to the program are to be believed, Bryan may be just as gifted as any of them. He certainly lacks production to this point, registering just 34 tackles (including five for loss) in the first 27 games of his career. He is still very much a work in progress, too often blowing through or past would-be blockers only to locate the ball too late to do anything about it. The NFL loves upside, however, and the Casper, Wyoming, native offers plenty of it.
–29. Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College, 6-2, 250, 4.76, senior
Landry led the country with 16.5 sacks as a junior, surprisingly opting to return for his senior season. Though the Eagles have exceeded expectations in 2017, Landry’s production is down with “just” five sacks through the first nine games of the season. Landry lacks elite size, but he possesses terrific burst and bend off the edge, showing the balance, core strength and athleticism to handle either stand-up or hand-down rush duties in the NFL.
–30. Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist, 6-3, 218, 4.58, redshirt junior.
The Mustangs have not churned out a top-50 NFL selection since 1986, but clubs on the lookout for a prototype split end will certainly be intrigued by Sutton, a physically imposing receiver with the height, strength and aggression to beat NFL defensive backs for contested passes. Sutton has averaged nearly 17 yards per reception since 2015 with 28 combined touchdown grabs over that time, including nine this season.
–31. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State, 6-4, 250, 4.76, junior
Whereas his aforementioned teammate, Nnadi (No. 28), lacks a traditional NFL build, Sweat boasts a prototypical frame for an edge rusher with a chiseled musculature and exceptionally long arms. The No. 1 rated prep defensive end when he signed in 2015, Sweat registered seven sacks in his final eight games last season. With opponents focusing more attention on him, Sweat’s production this season has not yet been as impressive (43 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks through eight games), but his talent is obvious on tape. A surgically repaired left knee could impact Sweat’s final draft status.
–32. Malik Jefferson, ILB, Texas, 6-2, 240, 4.66, junior
Anyone who watched the Longhorns nearly upset USC or Oklahoma surely noticed Jefferson as he was virtually everywhere, dazzling with his combination of size and speed while creating explosive collisions. Concerns about his instincts, however, could lead to questions about his best fit in the NFL.
Just missed the cut:
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia, 5-10, 228, 4.54, senior
Jamarco Jones, T, Ohio State, 6-5, 310, 5.27, senior
Marcus Allen, FS, Penn State, 6-1, 207, 4.55, senior
Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford, 6-3, 290, 4.96, junior
Mitch Hyatt, T, Clemson, 6-5, 305, 5.04, junior
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and The Pro Football Hall of Fame