— By Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com —
With all due respect to the passion created in the rivalries and the apples-to-apples comparisons in senior all-star games, bowl games provide the best opportunity for scouts to evaluate prospects.
Among the factors are the unfamiliar opponents, opportunity to heal (or get out of shape) after such a long layoff and a brighter spotlight.
Perhaps the most fascinating matchup from a talent standpoint comes in the Rose Bowl, where Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith will be tasked with shadowing and slowing down Oklahoma Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield might earn a first-round pick but is not currently among my personal Top 32 NFL prospects. A strong performance against Georgia’s fierce front seven (or at the Senior Bowl), however, could help him leap up the board, joining four other quarterbacks.
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. Darnold threw for a very respectable 17 touchdown passes to only three interceptions since September, however, and was the obvious difference in USC’s 31-28 victory over Stanford and its Heisman Trophy finalist Bryce Love in the Pac-12 title game. To be clear, Darnold has his warts — an elongated throwing motion is the biggest concern — but is accurate (including on the move), athletic and tough. He also comes with a pro-caliber build, offense and media market, making the projection to the next level simpler than with most of his competition. Simply put, he possesses the best mix of talent and intangibles in this year’s potential quarterback class.
2. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, 6-3, 220, 4.97, junior
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. A brash, outspoken personality also raise concerns as to whether Rosen possesses the intangibles preferred as the face of the franchise.
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 class 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, in my opinion, the elite defender) in the 2018 draft. Fitzpatrick, already Alabama’s career record-holder with four defensive touchdowns, won the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik Awards, given annually to the nation’s top defensive back and overall defender, respectively.
4. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, 5-11, 223, 4.49, junior
Arguably the most elite pure athlete in college football, Barkley has a legitimate gripe for not being one of the Heisman finalists; voters, apparently, were too focused on statistics rather than watching tape, as scouts will do. Though Barkley had only three games in the regular season in which he carried the ball 20-plus times, he possesses the size and toughness to be effective running between the tackles. 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.
5. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, senior
Chubb, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Ted Hendricks Award winner (as the top defensive end), is as polished as it gets in this class at defensive end, offering a game very similar to last year’s top edge rusher, Derek Barnett. A former linebacker whose commitment to maximizing his talent has earned him captain roles the past two years, Chubb wins not only with athleticism but hustle, physicality and refined technique. He recorded career-highs in tackles (72), tackles for loss (23) and sacks (10) in 2017, posting similar numbers last year (56-21-10).
6. Connor Williams, OT, Texas, 6-5, 320, 5.31, junior
The Longhorns have not produced a first-round pick on offense since Vince Young was selected No. 3 overall by Tennessee in 2006, but Williams will end that streak this spring, already announcing his intention to enter the 2018 draft and choosing to skip the Texas Bowl to avoid risking injury, notable given that he missed seven games this season with a left knee injury (torn meniscus; ACL and MCL sprain). When healthy, Williams is a bit of a throwback, showing the power and aggression as a run blocker that scouts covet, along with the athleticism, balance and girth to stone pass rushers, projecting as a legitimate NFL left tackle.
7. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson, 6-3, 310, 5.04, junior
With all due respect to Kelly Bryant and Clemson’s dynamic offense, the defending champion Tigers are back in the playoff because of a ridiculous collection of talent along their defensive line, starting with Wilkins. From his off-beat personality to his versatility along the line, Wilkins is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He possesses the burst to split gaps and wreak havoc on the inside, as well as excellent instincts to get his hands into passing lanes, setting a school record (for defensive linemen) with 10 passes tipped in 2016. In a potentially very good class of defensive tackles, Wilkins’ unique agility could earn him top billing.
8. Vita Vea, DT, Washington, 6-4, 344, 5.34, redshirt junior
Vea is one of the true freaks of the 2018 draft. 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 — voted by media as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and by Pac-12 blockers as the most dominant defensive lineman — is a prototypical nose guard 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. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame, 6-5, 325, 5.23, redshirt junior
It isn’t often that NFL teams are willing to invest a top 10 pick in an interior offensive lineman, but Nelson’s talent is so obvious — and the need for blockers in the NFL so critical — that a team may opt to choose the pro-ready masher simply because it would allow it to essentially forget about the position for a decade. Massive and shockingly mobile, Nelson can dominate at the point of attack as well as in space, projecting as a future Pro Bowl guard, like his Notre Dame predecessor Zack Martin, now a star in Dallas.
10. Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama, 6-2, 308, 5.38, junior
Payne might 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. Payne’s value lies with his ability to be a two-gap run stuffer not a consistent pass rush threat, which could earn him a lower spot on draft boards, given the focus on the pass in today’s NFL, though I view him as the safest of this year’s defensive tackles.
11. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, redshirt sophomore
James took plenty of ribbing for a disappointing start to the year after an offseason in which he was proclaimed to be “the next Sean Taylor.” But after shaking off the understandable rust, given that he missed most of 2016 with a knee injury, James starred, showing off the combination of range, physicality and big-play chops that helped him stand out amid all of FSU’s athletes even as a true freshman. A modern safety who truly blends the traits of a linebacker and cornerback, James is a movable chess piece on defense and the clear-cut top safety in the 2018 draft. He announced his intention to leave early for the NFL on Dec. 5 and will not play in the Independence Bowl, finishing with 84 tackles and two interceptions on the year.
12. Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia, 6-0, 225, 4.64, junior
No one was better on conference championship weekend than Smith, who earned MVP honors in the victory over Auburn by recording a game-high 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and two fumble recoveries. As the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions proved the past two years with the first-round selections of “undersized” linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarrad Davis, respectively, speed is valued above all else in today’s game; Smith certainly possesses that, showing the agility, acceleration and instincts to truly be a sideline-to-sideline defender. His matchup against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl should be fascinating.
13. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson, 6-4, 265, 4.78, redshirt sophomore
It might seem like hyperbole to suggest that three Clemson defensive linemen could earn top 20 selections in the 2018 NFL Draft but, frankly, if true sophomore Dexter Lawrence were eligible, he would crack the list, as well. The prototypically built Ferrell is the most productive of the bunch, leading the dominant Clemson defensive line in tackles (57), tackles for loss (16) and sacks (8.5) to prove that last season’s breakout campaign (50-12.5-6, along with a team-high 24 QB hurries) was just the tip of the iceberg.
14. 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. He has taken the next step this year, emerging as Alabama’s clear top target and a difference-maker when called upon. A late enrollee at Alabama, Ridley is a bit older than most of the top prospects, turning 23 this month.
15. 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 run-after-the-catch threat as a pass-catcher and returner. 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. Forget that his numbers this season (58 catches for 730 yards and seven touchdowns) dropped from the previous two years (82-969-8) as the Aggies struggled with inexperience at quarterback.
16. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn, 6-1, 203, 4.50, junior
Scouts can check off a lot of boxes with Davis, a physically-imposing corner with the long arms and athleticism necessary to match up with the monster receivers playing on the perimeter in today’s NFL. Davis does not just look the part, he is battle-tested, starting the past three years and showing steady improvement, ascending from third-team All-SEC accolades in 2016 to first-team honors this year with 36 tackles and 11 passes broken up.
17. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, junior
Like the rest of his LSU teammates, Guice started the season slowly but appears to be hitting his stride, eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive year and improving as a receiver. 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. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State, 6-1, 198, 4.49, junior
Do not mistake McFadden’s lack of eye-popping statistics this season (27 tackles and eight passes broken up over the regular season) as evidence of a poor year, as most opponents opted simply to ignore his side of the field after he recorded an FBS-leading eight interceptions last season — his first as a starter. 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.
19. Arden Key, DE, LSU, 6-5, 240, 4.74, junior
With his long arms, explosive get-off and rare flexibility to scrape the corner, Key is the most gifted edge threat likely to be available in the 2018 draft. It will not be lost on scouts that he enjoyed his most productive game of the season (eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss) in the big matchup with Alabama and that he boasts a terrific track record, setting the LSU single-season record with 12 sacks as a true sophomore. A late recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and a lack of strength at the point of attack in the running game, however, are among the concerns scouts will have to “unlock” with the gifted but inconsistent junior.
20. 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 exciting traits, Allen remains very raw, failing to show the accuracy and poise in losses to Iowa and Oregon this season that are required if he is to be successful in the NFL. Allen missed the final two games of the regular season with a sprained AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder injury but ended his college career in fine form in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions in a victory over Central Michigan. He announced his intentions to skip his senior season and enter the draft after the game.
22. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.37, junior
Ward lacks the imposing frame of some of this year’s other top cornerbacks, but no one has quicker feet and pure man-to-man cover skills, as was yet again demonstrated in the Big Ten championship game, when he did not allow a reception, intercepted a pass (at the 4-yard line) and made a terrific break-up of another. Technically speaking, Ward only has started one season after playing behind 2017 first-round picks Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans) and Gareon Conley (Oakland), but saw plenty of playing time at nickel, actually tying Lattimore for the team lead in pass breakups with nine over 13 games. He is a plug-and-play “starter” at nickel with the upside to be much, much more.
23. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, 6-2, 200, 4.42, junior
Jackson 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 is improved in terms of accuracy, he remains a work in progress as an NFL passer because he routinely stares down his primary target. Further, while Jackson is noticeably bigger this season, he remains undersized by NFL quarterback standards, a significant concern given his playing style.
24. Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford, 6-3, 290, 4.96, Jr
It is rare that an interior defensive lineman leads his team in tackles but that is just the start of Phillips’ underrated 2017 campaign. Phillips actually leads Stanford in tackles (100), tackles for loss (17.5) and sacks (7.5) while drawing the focus of every opponent’s blocking scheme. Phillips does not possess the dominating traits to excite scouts but his instincts, quickness, physicality and intensity consistently stand out on tape.
25. Mike McGlinchey, OT, 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 only improved this season after he shut 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
While he may lack the fluidity and straight-line speed to handle cover duties in every scheme, Harrison is an easy player to like, offering an exciting blend of size, explosiveness and a knack for making big plays at critical moments. He led the Tide in solo (39) and total tackles (68) over the regular season, as well as interceptions (three), including an impressive pick while covering LSU running back Derrius Guice (No. 17 on this list). Harrison is a physical tone-setter very much in the mold of former Alabama and current New York Giants’ star Landon Collins.
27. Billy Price, C/OG, Ohio State, 6-3, 312, 5.19, redshirt senior
Built like a cinder block (and just as tough), Price’s initial quickness and power play a key role in the Buckeyes’ offensive attack. Price could have made the jump to the NFL a year ago and earned top 50 consideration, starring at guard the past three seasons. Instead, he returned and proved his versatility, making the switch to center, the position I believe he is best suited to playing in the NFL.
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. Though his statistics this season were solid (40 tackles, including six for loss and three sacks) the Casper, Wyo., native 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. He is an explosive athlete, however, who seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential.
29. 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 who 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 “tweener” frame. Hurst was a proven difference-maker at Michigan, recording 59 tackles, including 13 for loss and 5.5 sacks over the 2017 regular season, and he showed his competitiveness by accepting an invitation to the Senior Bowl.
30. Orlando Brown, OT, 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 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’s 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.
31. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU, 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 31 touchdown grabs over that time, including 12 this season.
32. Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa, 6-1, 185, 4.53, redshirt junior
Every year some lanky cornerback draws the distinction of being this class’s Richard Sherman, but Jackson might actually live up to the comparison. Like Sherman at Stanford, Jackson played both wide receiver and cornerback in college, a fact that honed both players’ route anticipation and ball-skills. Questions about schematic fit pushed Sherman into the fifth round of the 2012 draft. In part because of the trail Sherman blazed, scouts won’t make the same mistake with Jackson, who led the country in interceptions (seven) and passes broken up (25) over the regular season.
Just missed the cut:
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia, 5-10, 228, 4.54, senior
Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State, 6-5, 315, 5.17, senior
Marcus Allen, FS, Penn State, 6-1, 207, 4.55, senior
Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College, 6-2, 250, 4.76, senior
Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville, 5-11, 192, 4.45, junior
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and The Pro Football Hall of Fame