With a Heisman race as tight as any in recent memory, there has been plenty of talk this season about college football awards and whatever impact -- if any -- winning an award can have on a player's NFL draft stock.
The Heisman may be the most glamorous of the college football awards but in the eyes of some, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded annually to the nation's top defensive player, actually serves as a better indicator of NFL talent.
The award, sponsored by the Charlotte Touchdown Club and voted on by the Football Writers Association of America, was created in 1993. Since that time, all but former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald (now the team's head coach) has been selected in the NFL draft, with 11 of the 18 winners having earned selections in the first round. Some of the more celebrated past winners include Warren Sapp (Miami, 1994), Charles Woodson (Michigan, 1997), Champ Bailey (Georgia, 1998), Terrell Suggs (Arizona State, 2002) and Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska, 2010). Carolina Panthers' linebacker Luke Kuechly is the reigning winner after a historic 2011 season leading the nation in tackles while at Boston College.
Because of the Nagurski's unrivaled success among major college awards in forecasting NFL success, scouts may want to pay extra attention to this year's five finalists. Actually, scouts have already been focusing on these players. NFLDraftScout.com has, as well. The reason is simple -- they're terrific players.
Below is a list of this year's finalists, listed alphabetically. Underclassmen are noted with an asterisk*.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina*: Clowney signed with the Gamecocks as the most celebrated high school prospect in the country two years ago and his stellar play since has proven the hype was certainly well deserved. As a true freshman, Clowney was every bit the playmaker that Melvin Ingram was a season ago and Ingram, of course, wound up being selected in the first round by the San Diego Chargers. Clowney has 43 tackles in 2012, including 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Scouts have to admire the 6-6, 260 pound Clowney from afar for now as the earliest he could leave for the NFL would be after next season. While scouts can't publicly rank Clowney, I can. Simply put, I believe he's the best NFL prospect in the country.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia*: When healthy, Jones has been the most consistently disruptive of this year's finalists. Having missed two games this season, Jones currently leads the country in average tackles for loss per contest, posting 2.13 per game (17 total) and is second in the country in sacks per game (1.31). Adding to Jones' appeal is the fact that he's been especially good in high profile contests, especially against hated rival Florida (13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced and recovered fumbles) that earned him acknowledgement as the Nagurski Defensive Player of the Week -- the second week this season he's been so honored (Missouri). The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Jones is a terror off the edge rushing the quarterback, but he's also instinctive, physical and passionate against the run and in coverage. Of the four potentially draft-eligible prospects on this Nagurski list Jones is NFLDraftScout.com's highest-rated.
Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama*: The Crimson Tide may not be able to successfully repeat as BCS champions but in the eyes of scouts, Nick Saban's team remains the most talented in the country -- in large part due to their defense. While front-seven defenders CJ Mosley and Jesse Williams (among others) get the lion's share of the credit for Alabama's success on the defensive side of the ball, Milliner has been the Tide's most consistent defender. He leads the SEC with 14 passes broken up and has two interceptions, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. At 6-1, 198 pounds, Milliner possesses the length to compete against the bigger, physical receivers in today's NFL and is currently the top-rated cornerback in the country by NFLDraftScout.com.
Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame: As the undisputed leader of the undefeated Irish, Te'o is the perfect senior representative of this year's draft class. He might have given Kuechly a run for his money a year ago had the Notre Dame linebacker elected to come out early. Instead, he returned and committed himself to improving in pass defense. After collecting zero interceptions over his first three seasons in South Bend, Te'o has picked off six passes this season, one more than Milliner, the only defensive back to be named a Nagurski finalist. Physical, instinctive and tenacious, Te'o has recorded 92 tackles so far this season -- an incredible 40 more than any other Irish defender. I don't believe he'll wind up being selected as high as I've graded him, but the lofty ranking speaks to Te'o proving one of this year's safest prospects.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State*: If the Nagurski Trophy was awarded just based on the player's name rather than on his ability to impact games from the defensive side of the ball, the German-born Werner might still have earned a spot among the finalists. Werner, however, is much more than an interesting name or story, he's also among the best defenders in the country, earning a spot in the top 11 of Dane Brugler's and my current mock drafts. At 6-4, 255 pounds Werner is explosive off the edge and has ranked among the nation's leading sack artists all season long and currently has eight quarterback takedowns. He's not just a pass rusher, however, demonstrating surprising recognition as a run defender and in getting his hands up to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage (six deflections).