The college football season is coming to a close soon.
Which means that NFL (and CFL) executives alike will get their war rooms cranked up to see which of the available NCAA prospects will best fit their needs come next April.
A lot of teams, particularly the Cleveland Browns, know already that they will be picking in the upper tier of the draft to be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington from April 26 to 28, 2018.
In advance of the draft, teams will run prospective recruits through the combine, which may or may not have an effect on a prospect’s status.
A few prospects from the 2017 draft have done well in their rookie campaigns, including Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville), Christian McCaffrey (Carolina), Deshaun Watson (Houston) and J.T. Watt (Pittsburgh).
We have had a look at available prospects and have picked the top candidate (in our estimation) at each position. Here they are, from offensive to defensive prospects (22 in all).
Quarterback – Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are 8-3 this year and ranked 19th in the polls, which probably means they’re not in line for CFP spot to challenge for the national title. But, it’s been a big, big year for senior QB Mason Rudolph. He is currently ranked no. 12 among all prospects (according to CBS Sports, which is one of the only linear rankings on the web) and is also the nation’s top passer in total yards with 4,553. In addition to that, he has 35 TD passes against just nine interceptions. Rudolph has had a pair of five-touchdown efforts this year, the latest against top-ranked rival Oklahoma (and highly regarded QB Baker Mayfield) on November 4. The Cowboys lost the game 62-52, but Rudolph threw for 448 yards and TD strikes of 33 and 35 yards among his quintet of scoring plays.
Wide Receiver – Courtland Sutton, SMU
At 6’4″ and 216 lbs., Southern Methodist star wide receiver Courtland Sutton is a big load for NCAA foes. He could be just as tough an assignment in the NFL. The highly ranked wideout has made the most out of the 62 catches he has made for the high powered Mustangs offence, totaling 1,017 yards so far for an average of 16.4 yards per catch. He is ranked third in the nation in TD catches with 12. In a poll of a few key NFL executives, Sutton was the choice of two out of five as the top wide receiver prospect in the nation. One said he “makes tough catches look easy” and the other said he had a “NFL body, legit vertical speed and very good hands.”
Wide Receiver – James Washington, Oklahoma State
Having the top ranked passing offence in the nation means also having one of the best wide receivers in the Oklahoma State package. Senior WR James Washington has made the most of his last season and should be a mid-first round pick in the draft (he is ranked 15th overall in the CBS poll). Washington, 6’1″ and 205 lbs., is currently first in the NCAA in receiving yards with 1,423 in 12 games, on just 69 catches for a sterling 20.6 average yards per catch. He, like QB Mason Rudolph, had a great game in a losing cause against fourth-ranked foe Oklahoma on Nov. 4, hauling in seven catches for 128 yards and a touchdown.
Tight End – Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
Mark Andrews has the football chops to go become what few Sooners’ tight ends have ever done, and that is go first round in the NFL draft. The last good one to go was current Arizona Cardinal Jermaine Gresham, who went 21st overall to Cincinnati in 2012 and is a two-time Pro Bowler. The only great one was Keith Jackson (13th overall in 1988 to Philadelphia), who won a Super Bowl (XXXI) and was a three-time All-Pro. For his part, Andrews is the only tight end ranked in the top 50 in receiving yards this season in the NCAA with 848 (on 51 catches in 12 games, including six TDs). With the Sooners tracking to a berth in the BCS playoffs, Andrews will get a chance to showcase his considerable talent on the big stage, in advance of the draft, where it’s expected he’ll go late first round, early second.
Running Back – Bryce Love, Stanford
It’s a horrible pun, but there may be a whole lotta Love to go around next April. Stanford junior Bryce Love has been crazy good this season, trampling over opponents to the tune of 1,848 yards in just 11 games. There has only been one game where he hasn’t scored one of his 16 TDs and that was against Notre Dame on Saturday night. But, he did roll up 125 yards on 20 carries to help the Cardinal defeat a ranked opponent 38-20. Love also rushed for a monumental 301 yards and three TDs against Arizona State on Sept. 30. The Wake Forest, NC native has far eclipsed his total stats from his freshman and sophomore seasons and seems poised to follow in the footsteps of Christian McCaffrey to be a mid to late first round NFL pick.
Running Back – Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley, who has been mentioned in Heisman Trophy conversations all season long, is more than just a punishing runner. He is 31st in college football with 1,134 yards (on 199 carries) but also has 594 yards receiving on 47 receptions. Barkley has also scored a remarkable 19 touchdowns, including three in a big win over Nebraska on Nov. 18. While his numbers are down this season, much of that is due to Big 10 defences keying on him, which has meant more room to operate for his offensive colleagues on the Nittany Lions. He has the kind of game-breaking speed and agility NFL teams will be looking for. He is ranked fifth in the CBS Sports poll of top draft picks. Honorable mention: Ronald Jones II (USC).
Offensive Guard – Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
Offensive guards aren’t normally seen well up in the prospect rankings, but there is Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, way up at no. 3. For very good reason, we say. The fact that all Irish runners have been able to roll up an astounding 3,349 yards this season is due in no small part to Nelson and crew’s blocking ability. One CBS NCAA beat writer described Nelson like this, ” a stupidly strong technician with impeccable footwork and ability to stymie counter moves.” There were others in the football media that suggested Nelson should be a Heisman Trophy candidate, given that his teammates gush about his ability and the fact he’ll be a top 10 draft pick next April.
Offensive Guard – Billy Price, Ohio State
It’s been a long time since a Buckeyes’ offensive guard has been taken in a NFL draft. It will be 12 years when Billy Price’s name is called in the 2018 draft, the last being Rob Sims in 2006 (128th overall). At 6’4″ and 312 lbs., Price is versatile enough to play all three offensive line positions (CBS has him as the second ranked guard on their list, at no. 44 overall), which he has done in his four-year career at Ohio State. He was the starting left guard on the 2014 team that won a national championship, blocking for the likes of Ezekiel Elliott. Coach Urban Meyer heaped a whole lot of praise on his prize lineman, saying recently that if he were in charge of an NFL team, he’d take center Billy Price with his first pick.
Offensive Tackle – Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
There are two offensive linemen rated in the top 10 of NFL draft prospects and Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown is currently no. 6. The Outland Trophy candidate for top lineman in the country has been key to Sooners QB Baker Mayfield’s quest to be the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner. Brown, a giant 6’8″, 360 lb. junior is one of six semi-finalists for the Outland, which has been won recently by NFL stalwarts like Luke Joeckel (Seattle) and Ndamukong Suh (Miami). The last Sooner to win it was former New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins OT Jammal Brown in 2004. Brown has played a massive role in the Sooners quest for a national championship, which they will likely get a shot at, being ranked second in the nation with a 11-1 record.
Offensive Tackle – Kolton Miller, UCLA
Like Orlando Brown, UCLA Bruins’ junior tackle Kolton Miller is another 6’8″ brute who scouts say has the tools to be a good left tackle in the NFL and that they are difficult to find. As the key handlers of the quarterback’s back side (most QBs are right handed and roll right to pass), it is not an easy position to play. Miller jumped into the top 20 of draft prospects (no. 17 as of Monday), and the only knock on him is that he has to develop some strength (he is 310 lbs. to Brown’s 260). Another thing that might hamper Miller’s chances is the fact the Bruins finished just 6-6 in Pac-12 play, which means they’ll only compete in a lower ranked bowl game in the near future.
Center – Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
Frank Ragnow’s shot at a possible Outland Trophy were gone when he suffered a high ankle sprain in a 52-20 loss to ranked Auburn on Oct. 21. The loss of the senior out of Victoria, Minnesota surely didn’t help a Razorbacks’ team that finished at 4-8 overall, last in the SEC West. Of his more notable accomplishments prior to the 2017 season, Ragnow didn’t allow a s single sack playing against top flight competition in the past couple of seasons. Even though he hasn’t played in over a month Ragno was still listed as the no. 65 prospect on the CBS list and at 6’5″, 319 lbs. he has the size and technical smarts to play any offensive line position in the NFL.
Defensive End – Bradley Chubb, NC State
The 2018 NFL draft class is top heavy with defensive players. Front and center is no. 2 overall prospect Chubb, who has been a sack-master in his four years with the Wolfpack and will most certainly be a top 10 pick. The outspoken leader of his team has 10 sacks this season and 25 in his superb NCAA career (all of them coming in the last three seasons and the most in NC State history). Chubb has been a monster this season against ranked opponents, recording seven tackles and two sacks in a win over Florida State (then no. 12) on Sept. 23 , as well as eight tackles and two sacks in a loss to then no. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 28.
Defensive End – Arden Key, LSU
It’s been a tough year for one of the NCAA’s top edge rushers, Arden Key. Shoulder, finger and knee injuries have taken their toll, limiting the Tigers single season sack leader (12 in 2016) to just eight games this year. Even still, he is ranked 13th on the CBS prospect list. He missed the first two games of the season, both wins against non-SEC opponents, then played the next eight. His best game for the 9-3 Tigers (ranked 17th in the nation), was a six tackle, two sack effort in a 40-24 victory against Ole Miss on Oct. 21. Key also had six tackles and a sack in a big win over Auburn on Oct. 21. Depending on how the rehab goes for the surgery he’ll have on an injured finger, Key should be a mid to low first round pick.
Defensive Tackle – Maurice Hurst, Michigan
The Wolverines, who are 8-4 this season and not looking at a national title, had the nation’s third best run defence heading into a 31-20 loss to Ohio State on Saturday. Maurice Hurst, who has been described as “the motor” to that defence, has earned his ninth overall placement on the CBS prospect rankings. At 6’2′ and 280 lbs., Hurst is a handful for opposition — read, Big 10 — offences. He has put together his finest season yet in a Big Blue uniform, recording 58 tackles (13 for a loss), 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Coach Jim Harbaugh has heaped all kinds of praise on Hurst, saying he’s a “disruptive force” with good quickness and tenacity.
Defensive Tackle – Derrick Nnadi, Florida State
In what was one of his last games with the Florida State Seminoles, senior DT Derrick Nnadi got to be “sod captain” in a win over rival Florida. He got to take a chunk of turf out of the Gators home field, to be placed in FSU’s “sod cemetery”, for having a great game. Nnadi recorded three tackles and 1.5 sacks in the 38-22 victory for the 5-6 Seminoles. He is currently ranked as the second best defensive tackle in the nation and 32nd on the CBS Prospect list. Nnadi hasn’t missed a game in three seasons and has 160 career tackles (23.5 for a loss), 12 sacks, three pass defences and three forced fumbles.
Linebacker – Roquan Smith, Georgia
At 11-1, the Georgia Bulldogs are ranked no. 6 in the nation and have a shot at gunning for a national title, especially if they can beat no. 4 Auburn in the SEC championship this coming Saturday. If they are to topple their SEC foes, junior linebacker Roquan Smith will have to be the tackling machine he has been this season. In Georgia’s only loss, a 40-17 defeat to Auburn on Nov. 11, Smith had his most tackles of the season with 12 (eight solo). He has a career high 100 tackles this season (62 solo), 8.5 of which were for a loss, as well as 4.5 sacks, two pass defences and a forced fumble. He is the highest rated linebacker on the CBS list and is the seventh-rated prospect overall.
Linebacker – Kendall Joseph, Clemson
The ACC final between no. 1 Clemson (11-1) and no. 7 Miami (10-1) is going to be a barnburner. In the middle of the mayhem that the top rated Tigers can bring from the defensive side is Joseph, the 23rd ranked prospect on the CBS list. He has missed a couple of games due to a leg injury this season, but is back in the line-up, much to the relief of head coach Dabo Swinney. Having played just 10 of 12 games this season, Joseph still recorded 79 tackles and a half sack, one season after registering 106 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 15 games as Clemson won the national title. He was big in the CFP Semi-Final last year, a 31-0 shutout of Ohio State, recording eight solo tackles and forcing a fumble. He also had six tackles against Alabama in the national championship game, a 35-31 triumph.
Linebacker – Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson
Riding shotgun with Kendall Joseph for the no. 1 Tigers is senior LB Dorian O’Daniel. The Maryland born product is having his finest season in advance of the big ACC championship tilt with the Miami Hurricanes this coming Saturday. Rated 30th by CBS, he could go higher with a monster showing against the ‘Canes, possibly followed by another in a CFP semi-final or final. In 12 games so far, he has reached career highs in tackles (80), tackles for loss (10.5), sacks (5.0), interceptions (2, both for touchdowns) and pass defences (5). O’Daniel’s biggest game this season was in a tight 14-10 victory over Auburn, where he had a season high 14 tackles (10 solo) and 1.5 sacks.
Cornerback – Joshua Jackson, Iowa
There are so many Josh Jackson’s playing high level sports, it’s important not to confuse Iowa’s Joshua Jackson with Virginia Tech freshman QB Josh Jackson or rookie forward Josh Jackson of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. The Hawkeyes’ Jackson, for his part, is ranked 19th by CBS and having a whale of a season in Iowa. He is co-leader in interceptions nationwide with seven, for a total of 163 yards and two TDs and is solo first in NCAA DI with 25 pass defences (18 passes broken up and seven interceptions). Jackson also has 47 tackles (34 solo) and a half sack in his first full season of Big 10 football. On Nov. 11, in a 38-14 loss to then no. 8 Wisconsin, Jackson scored 12 of his team’s 14 points with two of his seven interceptions on the season. With talent like that, if he isn’t a first round selection, it would be a crime.
Cornerback – Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
For our money, Colorado Buffaloes junior CB Isaiah Oliver should be ranked higher in the CBS poll. He’s currently at no. 50 but has had a pretty good campaign with 5-7 Colorado. Oliver has played but 10 of the team’s 12 games, absent in a win over Cal on Oct. 28 and a loss to Arizona State on Nov. 4. He’s been a very consistent back this season, tied for eighth in passes defended this season with 15, despite playing less games than most in that category (13 passes broken up, two interceptions). Otherwise, the Goodyear, AZ born Oliver has 26 tackles (20 solo). He should at the very least follow in the footsteps of 2017 grad Chidobe Awuzie, who was taken 60th overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
Safety – Derwin James, Florida State
Derwin James, after an injury-filled 2016 season, is back with a vengeance. The Florida State standout, ranked no. 1 on the CBS prospects list, has put it all together in his sophomore season (he retained that eligibility after playing just two games last year before being hurt). He has 72 tackles (five for a loss), a sack, two interceptions (including his first college pick six) and another 11 passes broken up. He was huge in his freshman campaign back in 2015, logging 91 tackles (9.5 for losses), 4.5 sacks, four pass defences and two forced fumbles. Scouts are already drooling over James’ immense talents, size (6’3″, 215 lbs) and athleticism. Too bad he won’t be playing for a national championship.
Safety – Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
Not far behind Derwin James is another safety lighting it up for a SEC powerhouse. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a junior out of New Jersey, has put in stellar work for the no. 5 ranked Crimson Tide (11-1), who just missed playing in the SEC championship game after losing to SEC West foe Auburn in their final regular season game Saturday, 26-14. Fitzpatrick had one of his best games all year, too, registering eight tackles and breaking up one pass (he has seven this season). All together, the no. 4 ranked player on the CBS prospect list has 52 tackles in 11 games, alogn with an interception and a forced fumble to go with the pass defences. He may or may not get a chance to showcase his wares in a CFP game but will play in a bowl game, for sure.