In preparation for the 2014 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.
Since taking over following the 2010 season, James Franklin has steadily built the Commodores into a formidable SEC opponent, with the head coach demonstrating an eye for recruiting, quality teaching and alert game-day decision-making. That is why even with the loss of all-time leading rusher Zac Stacy and quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the Commodores boast the NFL-ready talent to prove last season's 9-4 record was no fluke.
Wideouts Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd generate most of the attention – and for good reason. The pair form the SEC's most prolific duo of receivers and each has the length, athleticism and production to generate strong interest from NFL scouts.
The talent is just as rich in Vanderbilt's secondary, where seniors Kenny Ladler and Andre Hal appear on the verge of joining former teammate Casey Hayward (Green Bay Packers) in the NFL.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: Seven
2013 NFL Draft picks: Two – RB Zac Stacy (St. Louis Rams, fifth round), OG Ryan Seymour (Seattle Seahawks, seventh round)
Top Vanderbilt prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
Matthews' junior campaign may have been the best season Vanderbilt has ever seen at the wide receiver position. Matthews led the SEC in both catches (94) and receiving yards (1,323) and scored eight times, earning consensus all-conference honors in 2012. The talented pass-catcher showed signs of breaking out the year before, catching 36 passes for 715 yards (19.86 average) and five touchdowns over the final eight games in 2012. Matthews' production against SEC talent is impressive. The question scouts now have for him is how well he'll be able to adjust in with Austyn Carta-Samuels and not Jordan Rodgers delivering the passes.
Matthews may not wow during workouts because he appears to have less-than-ideal straight-line speed. Like his cousin Jerry Rice, however, he is a very savvy route-runner with quickness, balance and a deceptive gliding gait that helps him out-run angles and make big plays against the SEC's best athletes. He sports an NFL-ready frame (including long arms and big hands) and tracks the ball like a pro, as well, showing the body control and hand-eye coordination to make difficult receptions throughout the catch radius.
Vanderbilt fully realizes what a reliable weapon Matthews has become and they move him around on offense to create mismatches. Matthews possesses the size (and enough speed) to play outside, as well as the toughness to handle duties in the slot. His experience in these roles only adds to Matthews' impressive package of talent and technique, making him one of the more pro-ready wideouts in the country.
2. FS Kenny Ladler (6-0, 205, 4.57)
Ladler enters his senior campaign with 26 career starts already on his résumé and seemingly poised to emerge as one of the most highly regarded free safeties of the 2014 draft class.
Ladler looked like a future star at strong safety as a true freshman in 2009, playing in all 12 games and starting nine contests (including the final eight) to earn a spot on the All-Freshman team as voted by SEC coaches. He slipped to five starts in 2010, however before emerging as the Commodores' full-time free safety a season ago. With Matt Elam, Eric Reid and Baccari Rambo (among others) generating plenty of press, Ladler was lost a bit in the shadows but he quietly put together a fantastic season, leading the ‘Dores with 90 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack. He also contributed two interceptions and a forced fumble.
Ladler's production isn't of the eye-popping sort that typically results in all-conference votes. He is alert in coverage, however, and is a reliable open-field tackler. Ladler will drop his shoulder for the big collision when he can but is just as likely to break down and grab ahold of the ball-carrier with long, strong arms to make the secure wrap-up stop. His sound play carries over to special teams, where he's a regular on the punt return and punt coverage units, making him that much more attractive to scouts.
The best offensive lineman at Vanderbilt since the Chicago Bears selected offensive tackle Chris Williams in the first round of the 2008 draft, Johnson has started 38 consecutive games for the Commodores, lining up at left tackle, left guard and center. He'll get his chance to significantly boost his stock in 2013 by lining up at the premium blindside position.
Regardless of which position he lined up, Johnson has good initial quickness and flexibility, as well as surprising upper body strength to contain his opponent. His ability to slide in pass protection and run block effectively at the second level is sure to intrigue zone-blocking teams. Johnson has never been called for holding at Vanderbilt.
Johnson's quickness, balance, versatility and durability is impressive but scouts may have concerns about his frame. Johnson 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.
4. CB Andre Hal (5-11, 186, 4.52)
Taking over a starting role with Casey Hayward moving on to the Green Bay Packers, Hal showed the form to make his former teammate proud, racking up 48 tackles and 14 passes broken up to earn Second Team All-SEC honors by the AP in 2012. Both of his interceptions a season ago came against Tyler Bray and Tennessee's talented receiving corps. Hal's two pick-offs (and the 68 yards he posted in returns) earned him the SEC's Defensive Player of the Week honors (11/17/12) and helped spark the Commodores to a 41-18 rout of the Volunteers.
Considering the number of passes broken up, scouts will want to see more big plays from Hal in 2013. Physically-speaking, however, he looks the part of an NFL cornerback, sporting a well-built frame and possessing light feet, balance and speed. His athleticism led to Hal starting at kick returner for the Commodores in 2011 and he averaged 23.8 yards per attempt, taking one back 96-yards for a score against Georgia.
Hal is frequently asked to play off receivers at Vanderbilt. He has a quick, low back-pedal and a smooth turning motion to run with receivers. He's quick out of his breaks and shows a burst and good hand-eye coordination to slap away passes. He possesses the cover skills to potentially shoot up boards as a senior but to do so he must show more aggression as a tackler.
Other Vanderbilt prospects worth watching:
ILB Chase Garnham (6-2, 234, 4.76)
A former outside linebacker, Garnham made the transition inside a season ago and enjoyed quite a breakout performance, leading the team with 12.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks among his 84 stops. He'd played well a season earlier (51 tackles, 5.5 for loss, two sacks) but a groin injury sidelined him for three full games and parts of two others. Well-built and athletic, Garnham could intrigue scouts from 3-4 and 4-3 teams, alike.
WR Chris Boyd (6-4, 205, 4.57)*
Matthews is certainly the headliner at Vanderbilt but Boyd has actually been the better big play threat for the Commodores, scoring 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Boyd led the ‘Dores with eight scores as a redshirt freshman and teamed with Matthews to give Vanderbilt the most prolific duo of receivers in the SEC last season, catching 50 passes for 774 yards. Like Matthews, Boyd possesses excellent size and deceptive speed.
Boyd is one of five Vanderbilt players indicted on charges involving an alleged rape. Police say Boyd gave one of the other four defendents advice on how to cover up the crime. Boyd has been suspended for his role in the incident. The other four players were dismissed from the team on June 29 and face rape charges. Each have pleaded not guilty.
K Carey Spear (5-10, 190, 4.88)
In his first full season of starting action, Spear emerged as one of the SEC's elite kickers, nailing 20 of 24 field goal attempts, all 27 PATs and averaging 60.6 yards per kickoff (including 22 touchbacks). He's hardly just another unathletic kicker, as well, notching three physical tackles on kick return duties in 2012. Spear was named to the Preseason All-SEC team in 2013. If he can build upon his impressive junior campaign amid this spotlight, he could rise into draft-worthy consideration.