In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: Eight
2012 NFL Draft picks: Two -- CB Casey Hayward (Second Round, No. 62 overall), DE Tim Fugger (Seventh Round, No. 214 overall).
Pessimists will argue that head coach James Franklin may have a tough time this season matching the success Vanderbilt enjoyed last year, when he guided the Commodores to just their second bowl game appearance since 1982. Vandy only one two conference games (Mississippi, Kentucky) and have since lost their best player, Hayward, to the Green Bay Packers.
Optimists, however, will point out that Franklin's history of tuturing young quarterbacks was only proven again last year with the surprising late play of junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, also of the Packers.
With Rodgers and his second team All-SEC wideout Jordan Matthews back in the fold, Vanderbilt fans are excited to see if last season wasn't just a fluke but the beginning of a new era in Nashville.
Realistically, Vanderbilt will always struggle to compete with the dominant programs in the SEC. The university has significantly higher academic standards than many others across the country and due to their historically weak record (just one winning season in past 29 years), they don't receive the coverage of other SEC schools, making recruiting difficult.
These facts haven't stopped the trickle of NFL talent that comes through Vanderbilt, however. The Commodores generally produce one or two draftable prospects each season, with former first round picks Chris Williams (No. 14, 2008, Chicago) and Jay Cutler (No. 11, 2006, Denver) being their last blue chip talents of note.
Top five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. QB Jordan Rodgers (6-1, 212)
Just as his famous brother Aaron Rodgers did prior to learning under Jeff Tedford at Cal, Jordan Rodgers took the JUCO route through Butte College before signing on with Vanderbilt. He led Butte to the first undefeated season in school history and the 2008 JUCO national title by throwing for 2,219 yards and 19 touchdowns during his sophomore season. Rodgers redshirted his first year at Vanderbilt due to a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery. He began the 2011 season as the backup to Larry Smith but saw time throughout the year and excited the fans when his first attempt as a Commodore resulted in a 30-yard scoring strike against Elon. Rodgers was thrust into the starting role when Smith was injured against Georgia and he wound up starting the final seven games of the season, including the Commodores loss to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. As with any sibling of an NFL star, Jordan will be unfairly compared to his older brother. Frankly, Jordan is shorter and possesses significantly less sizzle on his fastball than the Packers' star. He currently ranks as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 18 quarterback for the 2013 draft and a borderline draftable prospect. Some scouts feel he is only earning any attention due to the success of his brother. There are elements to his game, however, that deserve closer inspection. Like his older brother, Jordan has quick feet and is a threat to scramble when the defense isn't paying attention. He finished second on the team a year ago with 420 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns. He also possesses very good touch and the courage to step up in the pocket and deliver passes with the defense bearing down on him. Rodgers was far from a superstar last season. He only completed 50% of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) but almost engineered upsets against Arkansas and on the road versus Florida. While these numbers fall far short of his brother's statistics in his first action at Cal (61.6% completion rate, 19 TDs-five INTs) there is enough here to keep a close eye on Rodgers' development this season as a possible late-blossoming prospect for the 2013 draft.
2. WR Jordan Matthews (6-3, 205)*
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Rodgers' insertion into the starting lineup was Mathews, who caught just five passes for 63 yards in Vanderbilt's first five games but corraled 36 balls for 715 yards and five touchdowns over the second half of the season. Matthews' run included a three game stretch against Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky in which he eclipsed the 100 yard mark and scored a touchdown in each game. Matthews had shown a flair for the big play as a true freshman a season earlier, as four of his 15 catches on the season (for 184 yards) went for scores but it was the instant chemistry he and Rodgers seemed to share last season that warrants his listing this high. For his efforts, Matthews was named to the All-SEC second team and there are those close to the program who believe he'll ultimately rival former Vandy standout Earl Bennett (Chicago Bears' third round, 2008) as the best talent the team has had at receiver in years. Matthews, a cousin of the legendary Jerry Rice, is a better football player than he is an athlete. While he led the SEC with a gaudy 19.0 yards-per-catch average last season, he has good (but not great) build-up speed. His size allows him to be moved inside and out in Vandy's offense, allowing the team to find him favorable matchups and has very good hand-eye coordination to haul in tough passes, including one-handed catches. Already included on the Biletnikof Award watch list as one of the country's top wide receivers, Matthews could continue his ascent up NFL draft boards with a strong junior campaign. He currently is ranked 10th on NFLDraftScout.com's list of the top receiver prospects for the 2014 draft class.
3. RB Zac Stacy (5-09, 210)
Some programs are known for consistently producing NFL caliber talent at certain positions. Vanderbilt is not among them, at least not when it comes to running backs. As crazy as it sounds considering that the Commodores compete in the ultra-talented SEC, Vanderbilt has never had a running back selected inside the initial seven rounds of an NFL draft during the modern era. The last time any Vanderbilt runner was selected came 32 years ago when the New Orleans Saints selected Frank Mordica in the ninth round. If preseason Second Team All-SEC pick Stacy (pictured above) is able to duplicate his record-breaking season from a year ago, however, he'll have a great shot at breaking this streak for the Commodores. Stacy has demonstrated legitimate playmaking ability throughout his career for Vanderbilt but until last season had struggled remaining on the field. He teamed with Warren Norman as true freshman to give the Commodores an exciting young backfield tandem in 2009. Stacy started four games and finished second behind Norman with 478 yards and three scores but an ankle injury hampered his effectiveness and Norman starred. Each struggled with injuries in 2010 with Stacy encountering both a knee sprain and a concussion and he only registered 331 rushing yards and just 32 yards on nine receptions. Last year, however, was a different story as Stacy remained healthy and showcased the talent he'd flashed during previous seasons. Last year he broke several team records, including the most yardage (1,193 yards) and rushing touchdowns (14) in a single season. Stacy has very good lateral agility and burst to and through the hole. He accelerates smoothly and can run away from defenders to make the big play. He also possesses soft hands out of the backfield and has experience as a punt returner. He'll need to prove to scouts that he can remain healthy again but the injuries he's sustained in the past have been relatively minor and the expectations are high that he'll deliver again this season.
4. OL Wesley Johnson (6-5, 285)*
A funny thing happened along the way when scouting Vanderbilt's intriguing skill-position talent, No. 67 kept making key blocks despite playing at different positions. After starting all 12 games of his redshirt freshman season in 2010 (in which he was named a Freshman All-American), Johnson was moved all around the offensive line last year. Playing virtually every snap a season ago, Johnson began the season at center, moved to left guard and then back to left tackle before finishing the season back at center. Regardless of which position he lined up, Johnson showed good initial quickness and flexibility, as well as surprising upper body strength to contain his opponent. Johnson is listed at 285 pounds, and frankly looks lighter than that. He has relatively narrow shoulders and hips and doesn't look like he'll be able to add much more than another 10-15 pounds perhaps to his frame so this fact will limit his potential pro grade in the eyes of some scouts. He's only a redshirt junior and therefore has two more years of collegiate eligibility to get bigger. Johnson showed enough lateral agility and balance to handle Florida's speed off the edge while operating at left tackle last season but may be best suited moving back inside to center or guard for a zone-blocking team. Regardless, the consistency and versatility that he's already demonstrated in his young career certainly deserves acknowledgement. Not surprisingly, he was named Vandy's Offensive Lineman of the Year last season and has already been named a team captain this season. If able to keep his initial quickness and add more mass and strength to his frame, Johnson could develop into one of the better, if relatively unheralded offensive linemen in the SEC this season. NFLDraftScout.com currently ranks him as the No. 19 center in the 2014 draft class.
5. OLB Archibald Barnes (6-4, 235)
As a child growing up in a military home, Barnes switched schools and ultimately positions often enough that he wasn't an especially highly regarded recruit despite possessing a nice combination of size and athleticism. He was a standout wide receiver when playing wide receiver for Alexander Patch American high school in Germany but saw more time at safety, outside linebacker and quarterback upon transferring to Berkley Prep in Tampa, Florida. As such, when he arrived at Vanderbilt Barnes was a work in progress, seeing most of his time on special teams in 2009-10 after redshirting in 2008. In his first two seasons of action for the Commodores, Barnes had registered a total of 26 tackles, including one tackle for loss and a forced fumble. Pushed into starting duty a season ago due to injuries, Barnes responded nicely. While still rough around the edges, he improved as the season went on, developing into one of the few Commodores' defensive players that opponents had to be wary of. Barnes played in all 13 games (starting the final nine) and registered 59 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a school-record 100 yards for a touchdown against Tyler Bray and Tennesssee. He also blocked a kick versus Cincinnati and enjoyed arguably his best all-around game versus
DE/OLB Walker May (6-5, 250)
DT Rob Lohr (6-4, 290)
OG Ryan Seymour (6-5, 305)
CB Trey Wilson (5-11, 195)
RB Warren Norman (5-10, 202)*
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team-by-team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.