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Rang: Underclassmen make 2018 the year of the QB

— By Rob Rang, —

A record haul of underclassmen has significantly boosted the talent available to NFL teams in the 2018 draft, with scouts especially excited about bumper crops at quarterback, running back, guard and cornerback.
The focus will, of course, lie with the quarterbacks and for good reason. Five quarterbacks — USC’s Sam Darnold (No. 1 overall-rated prospect), UCLA’s Josh Rosen (2), Wyoming’s Josh Allen (21), Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (23) and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (29) — are all projected as first-round prospects, more than have been selected among the first 32 picks than in any first round this century.
While senior all-star games and the impressions made at the Combine and Pro Day workouts might shake up the final order slightly, this is my current, personal ranking of the top 32 NFL prospects available for the 2018 NFL Draft.

1. Sam Darnold, QB, Southern California, 6-3, 225, 4.74, redshirt sophomore
Darnold willed a largely young and inexperienced Trojans squad to a conference title and a berth in the Cotton Bowl, showing off the mix of talent and intangibles to project as a franchise quarterback in the NFL. Like any young player, Darnold has his flaws, most notably an elongated windup, which contributes to both fumbles and interceptions. He 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 most of his competition.

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 missing action in multiple games for the second consecutive season, however, it is fair to question Rosen’s durability. A brash, outspoken personality also raises concerns as to whether Rosen possesses the intangibles preferred as the face of the franchise.

3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, 5-11, 223, 4.49, junior
As arguably the elite pure athlete in college football, Barkley has a legitimate gripe for not being one of the Heisman finalists as voters apparently, were too focused on statistics rather than watching tape, as scouts will do. Although Barkley had only three games over 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.

4. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, senior
Recently voted the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Ted Hendricks Award winner (defensive end of the year), Chubb 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 running, Chubb wins not only with athleticism but hustle, physicality and refined technique, as well. He recorded career-highs in tackles (72), tackles for loss (23) and sacks (10) in 2017 posting similar numbers last year (56-21-10).

5. 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 can match Fitzpatrick’s combination of instincts, coverage skills and reliable open-field tackling. Fitzpatrick might 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 potential top-five prospect in the 2018 draft. Fitzpatrick, already Alabama’s career-record holder with four defensive touchdowns over his career, won the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik Awards, given annually to the nation’s top defensive back and overall defender.

6. 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.

7. DaRon 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, although I view him as the safest of this year’s defensive tackles.

8. Connor Williams, OT, 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 will end that streak this spring, despite 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. He is not as clean of a player as the Notre Dame’s Nelson, but plays a more important position (not to mention one with less depth) and therefore could be the first offensive linemen drafted in 2018.

9. 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.

10. Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia, 6-0, 225, 4.64, junior
No one was better on the brighter postseason stage than the reigning Butkus Award winner, who stood out against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game as well as against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and against Alabama in the national championship. 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 and Smith certainly possesses that, showing the agility, acceleration and instincts to truly be a sideline to sideline defender.

11. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama, 6-1, 190, 4.50, junior
The statistical expectations some placed on Ridley after breaking Julio Jones’ school record for most receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman (89 for 1,045) were, frankly, unrealistic given Alabama’s run-heavy offense. Ridley might not possess the eye-popping numbers of his peers, but scouts appreciate his polished routes, deceptive speed and strong hands.

12. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.37, junior
Ward might lack 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, when he did not allow a reception, intercepted a pass (at the 4-yard line) and made a terrific breakup 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 he saw plenty of playing time at nickel, actually tying with 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 make a similar impact as the one Lattimore — a legitimate rookie of the year candidate — had for New Orleans this season.

13. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech, 6-4, 250, 4.82, junior
Edmunds, whose older brother, Terrell, is a good looking NFL prospect at safety, racked up 100-plus tackles each of the last two seasons and garnered first-team All-ACC honors in 2017, and yet still appears to be just scratching the surface of his potential. It isn’t often that you come across traditional off-ball linebackers with Edmunds’ exciting blend of size, instincts and speed.

14. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, redshirt sophomore
Like Darnold, 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.” 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 Florida State’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.

15. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M, 5-11, 200, 4.39, junior
With three receivers being 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. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, junior
Like 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.

17. 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 played 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.

18. 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 only the start of Phillips’ criminally underrated 2017 campaign. Phillips actually led Stanford not only in tackles (100), but 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.

19. 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 only look the part, he is battle-tested, starting the last three years and showing steady improvement, ascending from third-team All-SEC accolades in 2016 to first-team honors in 2017 with 36 tackles and 11 passes broken up.

20. 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.

21. 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, frankly, 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. Allen left Wyoming with a year of potential eligibility remaining but graduated in his four years there, accepting an invitation (that could turn into the golden ticket) to the Senior Bowl.

22. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State, 6-1, 198, 4.49, junior
Do not mistake McFadden’s lack of eye-popping statistics in 2017 (30 tackles and 10 passes broken up) as evidence of a poor year as most opponents are opting 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.

23. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, 6-2, 200, 4.42, junior
A true dual-threat quarterback very much in the mold of a taller Michael Vick, Jackson is a potential difference-maker in the NFL if a team is willing to commit its offense around his unique talent. Although 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. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State, 6-3, 240, 4.67, redshirt junior
If there was a breakout player of the year award in college football, Vander Esch would be the runaway winner, going from 27 stops in 2016 to an eye-popping 141 tackles in 2017, earning the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award. He fell through the recruiting cracks a bit after playing eight-man football in tiny Riggins, Idaho (population 406), but is a clear-cut NFL athlete with the size, awareness and reliable open-field tackling skills to be a long-time starter at linebacker.

25. Marcus Davenport, DE, Texas-San Antonio, 6-6, 255, 4.77, senior
A former receiver who simply kept growing, Davenport dominated Conference USA, setting school records with 17.5 tackles for losses and 8.5 sacks this season and earning the league’s Defensive MVP honor, as well as an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Long, athletic and powerful (with good intangibles, to boot) Davenport possesses all of the traits to earn a first round pick — except for perhaps name recognition … for now.

26. 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 60 tackles, including 13.5 for loss and five sacks, over the 2017 season, but showed his competitiveness by accepting an invitation to the Senior Bowl.

27. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame, 6-7, 315, 5.27, redshirt senior
While not quite the physical dominator that his teammate, Nelson, is at guard, McGlinchey is a plug and play blocker, in his own right. The physically-imposing blue-collar blocker started the last two seasons at left tackle, taking over the blindside after Ronnie Stanley graduated to the NFL via his own first-round selection. Not as nimble as Stanley, McGlinchey would be better served moving back to the right (where he started the entire 2015 campaign) in the NFL, winning more with his length and strength than elite foot speed.

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 might be just as gifted as any of them. Although his statistics this season were solid (40 tackles, including six for loss and three sacks) the Casper, Wyoming, 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 only scratching the surface of his potential.

29. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma, 6-0, 220, 4.64, redshirt senior
With all due respect to No. 1-rated prospect (Darnold), the most accurate passer in the draft (Rosen), the quarterback with the highest upside (Allen) and the most exciting athlete at the position (Jackson), Mayfield might just be the best of the bunch in at least one important category: competitiveness. That fact, along with his mobility, accuracy (including on the move), and strength (arm and otherwise) all but guarantees that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner hears his name called in the first round.

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 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’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 only the bulldozer in the running game that his bulk suggests.

31. Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist, 6-3, 218, 4.58, redshirt junior
The Mustangs have not turned 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 combined touchdowns grabs over that time, including 12 this season.

32. Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa, 6-1, 185, 4.53, Jr
Every year some lanky cornerback draws the distinction of being this draft’s Richard Sherman, but Jackson might actually live up to the comparison. Like Sherman at Stanford, Jackson played 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 (eight) and passes broken up (26) over the regular season.

Just missed the cut:
Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State, 6-5, 315, 5.17, senior
Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville, 5-11, 192, 4.45, junior
Rashaan Evans, OLB, Alabama, 6-2, 232, 4.73, senior
Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State, 5-10, 220, 4.52, senior
Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas, 6-4, 317, 5.18, senior

Rob Rang is a senior analyst for, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and The Pro Football Hall of Fame