By Rob Rang
As is a matter of course, the hype entering the 2013 NFL draft will focus on the quarterbacks and other skill-position players.
But NFL teams needing help along the line of scrimmage will be thrilled with the quality and quantity of the behemoths in next year’s rookie class.
Star Lotulelei and Johnathan Hankins have proven worthy of their preseason grades as top-five-caliber athletes, but breakout performances by a trio of SEC defensive tackles — Georgia’s Jonathan Jenkins, Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson and Alabama’s Jesse Williams – that are causing pro talent evaluators to alter their rankings. The emergence of these run-stuffers is hardly the only story. Offensive and defensive linemen make up six of my top nine prospects and 18 of the top 30 overall prospects who could be available in the 2013 draft.
This isn’t a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or what order NFL teams might be selecting in April.
It is simply a ranking of the 40 best potentially NFL draft -eligible prospects in the entire country.
Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk (*).
1. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: With the Utes winless in three Pac-12 games so far, the dominant play of the senior defensive tackle has been easy to overlook. A highly celebrated performance against Southern Cal and NFLDraftScout.com’s top-rated senior center Khaled Holmes October 4, however, showed just what a one-man wrecking crew Lotulelei can be. With “just” 24 tackles, including six tackles for loss and two sacks through six games, Lotulelei might not have the statistics to earn a great deal of headline buzz, but he’s a must-see attraction for NFL scouts.
2. *Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: Like Lotulelei, Hankins lacks the numbers to spark media and fan excitement. Scouts see a remarkably athletic defender who at 6-3, 320, can line up at nose guard, defensive tackle and even as a five-technique defensive end and command double teams.
3. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: In breezing through the first half of the regular season to post 24 touchdowns against zero interceptions, Smith appeared to have the inside track to the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 draft. A shockingly pedestrian performance against lightly regarded Texas Tech proved just how difficult it is to maintain steady brilliance throughout an entire season. Smith and the Mountaineers won’t have to wait long to get a chance at redemption with No. 4 Kansas State traveling to Morgantown Saturday.
4. *Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: With all due respect to Hankins, Jones has been even more impressive against better competition. What he hasn’t been, however, is consistent. Jones is a natural pass rusher and much better versus the run and in coverage than he’s often given credit for. He was largely shut down in a highly anticipated matchups against Tennessee and South Carolina, however, has already missed a game this season due to injury (Florida Atlantic) and transferred to Georgia in the first place (from Southern California) after suffering a neck injury.
5. Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame: It seems that every year there is a high profile defender who earns some buzz as a Heisman contender. A few years back it was Ndamukong Suh. A year ago it was LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu. This season, it is Te’o. With all due respect to Notre Dame’s “skill-position” players, there is no question that the Irish’s playmaking middle linebacker is the team’s best player and biggest reason for their impressive 6-0 start.
6. *Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU: I am as fascinated by Mingo’s athleticism, flexibility, explosiveness and surprising strength at 6-5, 240 pounds as every other talent evaluator but at some point all of those traits have got to start turning into big plays. Mingo’s upside appears to be limitless but he has just two sacks over LSU’s first seven games. Perhaps his biggest test of the season comes this week when he faces the top duo of offensive tackles in the country in Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews.
7. *Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: The baby-faced Joeckel may look young but in earning all-conference accolades at left tackle after each of his first two seasons in the Big 12, he’s shown the patience and technique of an NFL veteran. The test could be tougher this season against SEC competition — especially this week against LSU’s Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo — but if Joeckel is up to the challenge he could join his former quarterback Ryan Tannehill as a top 10 pick.
8. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama: Offensive linemen rarely get the limelight but it might be even worse for Warmack than most. Not only do the “skill position” and defensive stars for ‘Bama generate virtually all of the attention, Warmack is overshadowed even among the Tide’s blockers. Athletic and powerful, he just might be the best pure guard in the country.
9. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M*
Considering that he is the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews of Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans fame, greatness has been expected of Jake Matthews his entire life. He’s lived up to the lofty expectations, starting since his true freshman season at right tackle for the Aggies. While not as athletic as his teammate, left tackle Luke Joeckel, Matthews is the better and more physical run blocker of the two.
10. *Keenan Allen, WR, California: An exceptionally highly regarded prep prospect who originally was going to sign with Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide as a safety before joining his brother (quarterback Zach Maynard) at Cal, Allen possesses all of the physical characteristics to warrant a top 10 selection. Barring an upset, he will be the first receiver selected in the 2013 NFL draft.
11. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal: He’ll likely be drafted high due to the value of the quarterback position and all of his intangibles. But the simple fact is that the 6-2, 220-pound Barkley does not possess elite physical traits. I believe he’ll wind up being a successful starting quarterback in the NFL, but Barkley is far from the guaranteed top five prospect he’s been labeled. Some scouts are struggling to even give him a first-round grade, at all.
12. *Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Blessed with an unbelievable combination of speed and size (6-5, 260) Montgomery certainly looks the part of a top 10 pick. He’s enjoyed better production thus far this season (21 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) than his teammate, Mingo, but isn’t as quick when changing direction. He’ll face a stiff test Saturday against the Aggies’ terrific tackle duo of Joeckel and Matthews.
13. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: Whether at tackle, guard or center Jones has demonstrated that he’s dependable against the elite competition in college football. I’m not going to go as far as Nick Saban and mention the name of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews when making a case for listing the defending Outland Trophy and Jacobs Blocking Trophy award winner here, but… Oops, I guess I just did.
14. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: Eight of the 15 defensive backs drafted in the first round since 2010 have come from the SEC. The 6-1, 185-pound Banks certainly looks poised to continue that trend, especially if he keeps making big plays. Banks has 15 career interceptions, three of which he’s returned for touchdowns.
15. *Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan: Arguably the most physically imposing player in the country, the 6-7, 302-pound Lewan looks like the second-coming of Jake Long wearing No. 77 in the Michigan maize and blue. Lewan, who only made the switch to offensive line as a senior in high school, is certainly behind the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft in terms of development but the size, athleticism and mentality are in place to resume the Wolverines’ tradition of churning out quality NFL offensive linemen.
16. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama*: It has almost become cliché to characterize the Alabama program under Nick Saban as a team that reloads rather than rebuilds. In the case of the true junior Milliner, who entered the 2012 season with 17 career starts and currently leads the country with an average of 2.8 pass breakups per game, Alabama appears to have yet another first round talent.
17. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas: In today’s NFL, defensive ends are largely graded on their ability to wreak havoc on the quarterback. Okafor does not possess the elite explosiveness off the snap that generally warrants top 20 consideration but his physicality and hand usage are top notch. He used these skills to register two sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal in the showdown against Geno Smith and West Virginia. He’ll need to be even better now with his counterpart Jackson Jeffcoat being lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle.
18. *Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee: At 6-4, 200 pounds Hunter has the physical traits to warrant top 20 consideration. He is starting to show the same explosiveness he’d possessed prior to tearing his ACL a year ago against Florida. Thus far, however, he’s been much better against weaker opponents (averaging 117 yards receiving yards and two touchdowns) than he has versus SEC competition (61 yards, zero scores).
19. Jonathan Jenkins, DT, Georgia: At a massive 6-3, 358 pounds Jenkins is the behemoth in the middle that gives a talented Bulldogs’ defense its biggest bite. Like most defenders of his size, Jenkins isn’t going to post eye-popping statistics but as the high draft selections of Dontari Poe (11), Phil Taylor (21) and Dan Williams (26) suggest, one dominant season on the inside can cause NFL teams to look past inconsistent production over a career.
20. Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon*: At a rangy 6-6, 243 pounds Jordan’s length and explosiveness off the edge makes him a matchup nightmare for opponents. The junior, who led the Ducks a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, is earning high marks from scouts who believe he could be one of this year’s most exciting “hybrid” prospects.
21. *Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia: A pair of JJs – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and the afore-mentioned nose guard Jonathan Jenkins – receive most of the hype for Georgia’s defense, but the play of Ogletree has been impressive since he returned from the four-game suspension that marred his season. At 6-3, 234, Ogletree perhaps projects better on the outside than he does at inside linebacker in Georgia’s 3-4 alignment. He has the physicality and athleticism to play either role.
22. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina*: Taking the ultra-talented SEC by storm two years ago as a true freshman, Lattimore has always demonstrated future NFL talent. While not the breakaway threat that Trent Richardson was for the Crimson Tide, Lattimore plays with similar toughness and physicality. Even better, he seems to be regaining his lateral agility and acceleration — traits that often take more than the year it has been since Lattimore tore his ACL against Mississippi State October 15, 2011.
23. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri*: A highly regarded prep prospect who is only now coming into his own, Richardson was nearly unstoppable in a highly anticipated matchup against Alabama Oct. 13. Despite often facing double teams, he registered a game-high 14 tackles, including the sack of A.J. McCarron that briefly sidelined the Tide’s star quarterback.
24. *Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State: The German-born Werner started off the 2012 season on fire, recording multiple tackles for loss and sacks in each of his first three games. As the competition has increased, however, Werner’s production has dropped significantly. Though he still ranks among the nation’s leading big play specialists at defensive end with 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, only one of them have come in the past four games. Scouts like his athleticism, motor and instincts but there are whispers that perhaps he dropped too much weight in the off-season in an attempt to be more explosive. After playing last year at 6-4, 270 pounds, some believe he’s closer to 250 now…
25. *Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Reid entered the 2012 season with plenty of fanfare but hasn’t yet produced the game-changing plays that characterized a 2011 campaign in which some felt he was actually the most consistent member of a secondary that featured Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Brandon Taylor, a third round pick by the San Diego Chargers (No. 73 overall). There is growing sentiment that Reid lacks the fluidity and coverage skills to remain at free safety in the pass-heavy NFL.
26. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama: With just 11 tackles so far this season (including only one solo stop), this native Australian has hardly provided an all-world performance thus far, statistically-speaking. The 6-3, 320-pounder possesses phenomenal strength, even for Alabama (and Australia) standards. Capable of lining up inside at nose guard or moving outside as a five technique defensive end, he’s earning much more attention from NFL scouts than the national media.
27. Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan: While he lacks the name recognition of some of his peers, the 6-8, 305 pound Fisher ranks among the top senior offensive tackles in the country, performing well in showdowns against Iowa, Michigan State and in his most recent performance against Toledo October 6. Physical and athletic, Fisher will compete to be the first senior offensive tackle drafted come April.
28. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame: He doesn’t have the elite breakaway speed that has helped Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski emerge as NFL stars, Eifert’s 6-5, 252-pound frame and excellent ball skills make him a legitimate mismatch. That could be enough to earn a late first-round selection.
29. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M*: At a relatively lean 6-4, 250, Moore possesses the frame to add muscle mass and boasts impressive acceleration to make big plays behind the line of scrimmage. He’s used these traits to help rack up a gaudy 52 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks already this season; each of those totals lead the Aggies.
30. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short entered the 2012 campaign having already established himself as one of the country’s top defensive tackles after registering 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks a season as a junior. This season, the big plays have continued but Short has struggled against physical run blockers. Other than a blocked kick (his fourth of the year), Short and the Boilermakers are pushed around October 13 against Wisconsin to the tune of 467 rushing yards.
31. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: No one is going to confuse the University of Kentucky with a top NFL defense but it seemed October 13 as if the Wilson scouts were expecting to see this season had finally arrived with a five touchdown, zero interception performance. Wilson has battled injuries and turnover around him this season but scouts remain intrigued by his toughness and arm strength.
32. *Robert Woods, WR, Southern Cal: Woods has played a featured role in USC’s dynamic offense since stepping onto the field two years ago as a true freshman. He is a reliable route-runner who flashes the ability to make the highlight reel reception, as well as the elusiveness and speed to be dangerous after the catch. Among Pac-12 receivers, he ranks a distant third, in my opinion to his teammate, true sophomore Marqise Lee and Cal’s Allen, as an NFL prospect.
Just Missed the Cut:
33. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
34. Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn*
35. Levine Toilolo, TE, Stanford*
36. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia
37. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
38. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina
39. Shariff Floyd, DT, Florida*
40. Da’Rick Rodgers, WR, Tennessee Tech*