NFL front offices have long taken off-field issues seriously when compiling overall evaluations of prospects. Recent events will only heighten that emphasis, especially as teams watch the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens cope with the fallout from off-field issues involving their star running backs that have stirred heated national debates.
The impact on the field is very real as well, giving scouts significant pause when evaluating a 2015 NFL Draft class that is loaded with talent, but also includes several headliners who come with character red flags.
Much will change between now and the first pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. As it stands now, however, these are my top 32 NFL prospects in college football.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, 6-4, 215, 4.52, rJr, Oregon -- The Michigan State Spartans were supposed to be the toughest challenge of Mariota's career, but his combination of poise, arm strength, accuracy and mobility led the Ducks to a 46-27 win. There is no question that Oregon's speed and scheme aid his production, but Mariota's unique skill-set projects well to an NFL growing increasingly infatuated with dual-threat passers.
2. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, 6-5, 300, 4.98, rSr, Texas A&M -- Former Aggies Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews were the second and sixth overall picks over the past two years, and Ogbuehi has more talent than either of them. He stood out at right guard and right tackle the past two seasons, but his long arms and nimble athleticism have always projected him best to left tackle. Ogbuehi looked like a natural on the blind side in A&M's thrashing of South Carolina.
3. Leonard Williams, DE, 6-4, 290, 4.88, Jr, Southern Cal -- Don't blame Williams for the Trojans' shocking loss to Boston College. Just as he was in the big win over Stanford, Williams was easily the best player on the field. Strong, athletic and passionate, the Trojans' star boasts a skill-set similar to another with his last name, six-time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams, a long-time standout with the Vikings and now a member of the Seahawks. The Daytona Beach, Fla., native has been a standout in the Pac-12 from the start, earning the conference's defensive freshman of the year honors two years ago with 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks at defensive tackle and again last season with similar numbers at defensive end (74-13.5-6).
4. Randy Gregory, DE, 6-5, 255, Jr, 4.76, Nebraska -- The 'Huskers hit a home run in the junior college ranks with Gregory, who exploded for 66 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks during his first season of FBS football. Gregory needs to play stronger against the run but possesses all of the traits scouts are looking for in a pass rusher, including an explosive get-off, flexibility, long arms and active hands and tenacity. An "old" knee injury was aggravated in the season-opener against Florida Atlantic and required a scope Aug. 31. Every team in the NFL will be keeping tabs on who wins the battle Saturday between Gregory and Miami left tackle Ereck Flowers, currently ranked No. 19 on my board.
5. Brandon Scherff, OT, 6-5, 315, 4.93, rSr, Iowa -- Powerful, tenacious and technically sound, Scherff may just prove the best in the long line of NFL linemen tutored by coach Kirk Ferentz. Scherff won big points with scouts for his toughness, battling back from a torn meniscus and corrective surgery on Sept. 8 to start (and play well) against rival Iowa State five days later.
6. Landon Collins, SS, 6-0, 215, 4.53, Jr, Alabama -- Collins only emerged as a starter for the Tide after a season-ending injury to Vinnie Sunseri last season but once the true sophomore saw the field, there was no denying his ability. Collins remains a bit raw but his agility, speed and explosiveness as a hitter already has the NFL buzzing.
7. Jameis Winston, QB, 6-4, 235, 4.83, rSo, Florida State -- After throwing just 10 interceptions during his Heisman-winning 2013 season, Winston was picked off twice in a season-opening win over Oklahoma State. He will face a faster defense against Clemson -- assuming he gets on the field following his first-half suspension. On the field, Winston's size, arm and instincts give him the look of a franchise signal-caller. While poised on the field, Winston's reported actions off of it have been anything but. Winston's talent is clear, but he continues to display immaturity and a lack of quality decision making off the field.
8. Vic Beasley, OLB, 6-2, 235, 4.58, rSr, Clemson -- With pressure on the quarterback priority No. 1 on defense, teams are more willing than ever to trade size for speed off the edge. Like recent "undersized" first-round rushers Von Miller, Bruce Irvin, Barkevious Mingo and Dee Ford, Beasley boasts a lightning-quick first-step and the agility to stalk mobile quarterbacks.
9. Todd Gurley, RB, 6-1, 232, 4.52, Jr, Georgia -- NFL teams can debate whether it is prudent in today's pass-happy era to invest a first-round pick in a running back, but every time Gurley steps onto the field he proves his talent. Gurley's vision, power and acceleration for a man his size are rare, earning comparisons to Marshawn Lynch and former All-Pro Jamal Lewis from NFL scouts.
10. Andrus Peat, OT, 6-6, 312, 5.28, Jr, Stanford -- Peat possesses remarkable quickness and agility for a man of his size. With improved power and a nastier disposition on the field, he could leap to the top of the tackle rankings.
11. P.J. Williams, CB, 6-0, 190, 4.48, Jr, Florida State -- Williams will have to prove he's just as effective in 2014 without the terrific safety tandem of Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks, but he's fluid, fast and physical.
12. Sammie Coates, WR, 6-2, 201, 4.36, rJr, Auburn -- A knee injury and reliance on the running game at Auburn has limited Coates to just one reception (for 13 yards) through the Tigers' first two games, but the NFL isn't as interested in his production as his potential. Coates is a freakish athlete with breakaway speed and the size and strength to run through tackles.
13. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, 5-10, 185, 4.46, Sr, Oregon -- Instinctive, athletic and tough in run support, Ekpre-Olomu has stood out in the pass-heavy Pac-12 throughout his career. He doesn't possess the frame scouts would prefer, but the tape -- including a spectacular, sprawling interception against Connor Cook and the Spartans -- doesn't lie.
14. Dante Fowler Jr., DE, 6-3, 266, 4.84, Jr, Florida -- A talented pass rusher with experience at outside linebacker and all over the defensive line, Fowler is an intriguing athlete with range and flexibility. He was a man possessed against Kentucky, racking up six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, as well as four QB hurries.
15. Shilique Calhoun, DE, 6-4, 257, 4.72, rJr, Michigan State -- Calhoun earned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season (37 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), his first as a starter. He isn't yet as strong as his frame suggests but has the burst, balance and bend scouts covet on the edge.
16. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, 6-5, 225, 4.49, rJr, Oklahoma -- The character concerns which prompted Green-Beckham's transfer from Missouri will certainly require investigating, but there is no denying his blend of size, acceleration and ball-skills. The skill-set is so rare, in fact, that DGB is likely to earn first-round consideration in 2015 even with the NCAA ruling the junior ineligible to play this year.
17. Devin Funchess, WR/TE, 6-5, 230, 4.73, Jr, Michigan -- Funchess caught scouts' attention as a tight end early in his career, hauling in 11 touchdowns over his first two seasons. He has been even better at wide receiver this season, impressing with his combination of size, body control and strong hands. Funchess has to answer questions about his straight-line speed and will drop the occasional easy pass, but big receivers have never been more valued by NFL teams.
18. Marcus Peters, CB, 6-0, 198, 4.52, Jr, Washington -- Peters is a highly aggressive and physical press corner who entered his junior campaign with eight career interceptions and a knack for playing well against top competition. A sideline tirade earned Peters a one-game suspension (served Sept. 13 vs. Illinois) from new head coach Chris Peterson. If teams discover more character red-flags with Peters, he could be one of several talented but troubled players slipping down draft boards.
19. Lael Collins, OT, 6-5, 315, 5.12, Sr, LSU -- Collins doesn't get the national attention of other tackles in this class, but the big man is surprisingly agile in pass protection and is a mauler in the running game. Whether remaining at tackle or sliding inside to guard, he's a clear first round talent.
20. Amari Cooper, WR, 6-1, 205, 4.56, Jr, Alabama -- Cooper has great agility and first-step acceleration to generate big plays -- something that new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has wasted no time in capitalizing on. Cooper ranks among the nation's leaders in receptions and receiving yards. If he can keep up this production throughout the SEC schedule, Cooper could wind up the first receiver in Alabama history to win the Biletnikoff Award.
21. Ereck Flowers, OT, 6-5, 322, 5.26, Jr, Miami -- Perhaps not since the days of Bryant McKinnie have the Hurricanes boasted an offensive lineman with Flowers' combination of size, athleticism and dependability. Quick, powerful and competitive, Flowers helped silence NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin in the season-opener and could really make a name for himself if similarly successful in a key showdown against Nebraska's Randy Gregory, my No. 4 overall prospect.
22. Shawn Oakman, DE, 6-8, 275, 4.92, rJr, Baylor -- Shockingly athletic given his imposing frame, Oakman registered an eye-popping 12.5 tackles for loss last year as a reserve -- quite a feat considering it was his "rookie" season. He sat out his first two years of college football due to a redshirt (2011) and transfer from Penn State (2012) but jumps off the film. If he builds upon his early success (two sacks, a forced fumble), Oakman looks like a candidate to leap up draft boards this year.
23. Melvin Gordon, RB, 6-1, 207, 4.52, rJr, Wisconsin -- Gordon answered any questions about whether he possessed "SEC speed" by galloping for 140 yards and a touchdown (on just 16 carries) against LSU in the season-opener. Gordon's agility and acceleration are first-round worthy, but scouts want to see him produce as the bell-cow after playing a supporting role behind Montee Ball and James White the past two seasons.
24. Spencer Drango, OT, 6-5, 315, 5.10, rJr, Baylor -- Drango is lighter on his feet than his square-like frame suggests and is balanced, powerful and savvy. His recovery from back surgery and the struggles of past Baylor offensive linemen in the pros could make him one of the more highly scrutinized offensive linemen this fall.
25. Shaq Thompson, OLB, 6-2, 231, 4.56, Jr, Washington -- Anxious to get to their playmakers closer to the line of scrimmage, the Huskies moved Thompson to linebacker after he signed with the team as a highly regarded safety. The move certainly looked sound against Illinois on Sept. 13, when Thompson returned a fumble and interception for touchdowns, earning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. Thompson possesses excellent athleticism and is a reliable open-field tackler, but needs to show better strength and aggression at the point of attack.
26. Arik Armstead, DE, 6-7, 296, 4.97, Jr, Oregon -- The light finally seems to be coming on for Armstead, a former five-star recruit who previously split his time between the gridiron and basketball court with the Ducks. Massive, athletic and just now learning to use his natural strength to defeat blocks, Armstead has been one of the early risers of the 2014 season. If he can turn a flashy showing against Michigan State (five tackles, two tackles for loss, sack) into a breakout junior campaign, he's expected to make the early NFL jump. Given his tools, Armstead likely wouldn't last long on draft day.
27. Cameron Erving, OT, 6-5, 320, 5.16, rSr, Florida State -- Erving initially played defensive tackle for the Seminoles but successfully made the switch to left tackle in 2011. As he showed in allowing too much pressure off the edge against Oklahoma State in the opener, Erving remains a work in progress in pass protection but is aggressive, long and light on his feet. His matchup Sept. 20 against Clemson's speed rusher Vic Beasley (the No. 8 overall prospect on my board) will play a key role in determining if the Seminoles can successfully defend their ACC crown.
28. Danny Shelton, DT, 6-2, 323, 5.17, Sr, Washington -- It is important to keep his level of competition in mind (Hawaii, Eastern Washington) but any nose guard leading their respective team in tackles (24), tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (6.0) is certain to catch the attention of scouts. Shelton, a true wide-body with impressive strength and refined hand technique, has shown rare effort in pursuit for a man of his size thus far this season.
29. Brett Hundley, QB, 6-3, 227, 4.64, rJr, UCLA -- Hundley boasts an intoxicating combination of size, athleticism and arm strength that could earn him a top-10 selection. He isn't without flaws, however. Hundley, now in his third season as the Bruins' starting quarterback, has a frustrating tendency to drop his eyes and run at the first sign of a free rusher. Further, a hyper-extended elbow that sidelined him against Texas will require medical investigation.
30. Josue Matias, OG, 6-6, 331, 5.32, Sr, Florida State -- The second representative on my board from the best offensive line in college football, Matias, starting his third year at left guard, has the height and agility of a tackle but the power and nastiness scouts prefer on the interior.
31. Connor Cook, QB, 6-4, 220, 4.89, rJr, Michigan State -- Cook, in going toe-to-toe with Mariota, looked like the more polished NFL prospect for much of the Spartans' showdown with Oregon, exhibiting the grit, arm and mobility teams are looking for in a franchise quarterback. He was fooled on zone-blitzes by the Ducks and must show improved recognition as the year goes on, but is very much on the NFL's radar.
32. Carl Davis, DT, 6-4, 315, 5.24, rSr, Iowa -- A classic two-gap nose guard or five-tech defensive end, Davis is broad, powerful and almost impossible to move off the line of scrimmage.
Just missed the cut:
Ty Montgomery, WR, 6-2, 215, 4.42, Sr, Stanford
Jalen Mills, S, 6-1, 189, 4.53, Jr, LSU
Tyreek Hill, WR, 5-10, 185, 4.41, Jr, Oklahoma State
Jaelen Strong, WR, 6-4, 212, 4.55, rJr, Arizona State
Gabe Wright, DT, 6-2, 285, 4.98, Sr, Auburn
Trae Waynes, CB, 6-1, 183, 4.53, rJr, Michigan State
Denzel Perryman, LB, 5-11, 242, 4.72, Sr, Miami
Mario Edwards, Jr. DE, 6-3, 294, 4.88, Jr, Florida State
Bronson Kaufusi, DE, 6-7, 264, 4.78, Jr, BYU
Anthony Harris, S, 6-1, 190, 4.57, Sr, Virginia