August may just be the beginning of the football season for most, but the scouting process for next April is already well under way at NFLDraftScout.com.
Predicting player performance is never going to be an exact science -- due to injury, issues off the field or simply a poor season, some of the prospects on this list will fall out of my Top 32 as we move forward.
Remember, a year ago at this time, Arizona State middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Texas A&M wide receiver Jeff Fuller looked like potential first-round prospects. Of course, there will be several others who catapult themselves into consideration with impressive efforts in 2012. Few, for example, anticipated Robert Griffin III or Michael Brockers rising to stardom when projecting the value of the 2012 draft class. The "Big Board" isn't a mock draft. It is a ranking of the best potentially NFL-eligible prospects in the country. Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk (*) and NFLDraftScout.com is underlining their talent, not recommending an early exodus to the pro game. If the 2013 draft were held today, here are the top 32 prospects teams should be considering. Based on a strong first look, the 2013 draft could be chock full of quarterbacks and defensive linemen.
1. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: The reigning Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's most dominant defensive lineman, the 6-3, 325-pound Lotulelei is earning comparisons from regional scouts to former Oregon Duck and current Baltimore Ravens' star Haloti Ngata.
2. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal: Barkley's lack of ideal size (6-1, 218) and arm strength mean that he's no shoo-in as the No. 1 overall prospect for the 2013 draft, but his accuracy, mobility and experience in a pro-style offense would have earned him a spot in the top five in 2012.
3. *Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU: An explosive edge rusher with the frame (6-4, 240) to intrigue scouts operating for NFL teams utilizing the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, alike, Mingo's speed, agility and surprising strength could result in a monster 2012 season.
4. *Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: Blessed with a similar combination of size (6-3, 335), strength and athleticism as Dontari Poe, Hankins could see a similar rise up draft boards. Like Poe, however, Hankins' lofty grade is based more on his potential than his play thus far.
|N.C. State's Amerson had a spectacular 13 INTs last season. (US Presswire)|
6 *Keenan Allen, WR, California: While USC's Robert Woods earned most of the hype in the Pac-12 a year ago, Allen is similarly gifted and at 6-3, 205 pounds has even better size than the Trojans' star. Despite inconsistent play at quarterback last season, Allen caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns.
7. *Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: The baby-faced Joeckel may look young, but in earning all-conference accolades at left tackle after each of his first two seasons in the Big 12 he has shown the patience and technique of an NFL veteran. The test could be tougher this season against SEC competition, but if Joeckel is up to the challenge he could join his former quarterback Ryan Tannehill as a top 10 pick.
8. *Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Overshadowed by talented defensive backs that have been churned out regularly from LSU in recent seasons -- Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and current CB Tyrann Mathieu -- Reid has quietly established himself as the elite safety.
9. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: As the featured pass rusher in Georgia's 3-4 scheme, Jones led the SEC with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season, demonstrating not only natural pass rush skills but impressive overall athleticism and a high-revving motor. As productive and passionate as Jones was in 2011, NFL teams will be sure to check out the neck injury that led to his transfer from Southern Cal, where he'd originally signed as a highly regarded prep in 2008 and played as a reserve in 2009.
10. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Blessed with a strong arm, good mobility and the toughness to take a shot and still deliver passes, there is a lot to like about the Arkansas quarterback. Scouts would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach with Wilson as he acclimates to John L. Smith's offense after starring in Bobby Petrino's wide-open attack and being aided by a supremely gifted receiving corps that included Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, each of whom was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.
11. *Robert Woods, WR, Southern Cal: Possessing more unique traits than No. 5 overall pick Justin Blackmon, Woods is pro-ready despite entering just his junior season with the Trojans. Consider that last season, as a true sophomore, he broke Keyshawn Johnson's school and conference record with 111 catches for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns.
12. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE/OLB, Texas: More athletic than his higher-rated teammate Okafor, Jeffcoat projects nicely as a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 rush linebacker due to his burst upfield, lateral agility and natural pass rush skills. He lacks Okafor's strength at this time, but as the son of former NFL standout defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, he knows better than most what it takes to make it at the next level.
13. *Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee: Listing Hunter this high is certainly a projection, as he missed most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL. When healthy, however, the 6-4, 205 pound Hunter showed a rare combination of size, straight-line speed and ball skills to compete with USC's Woods, Cal's Allen and Clemson true sophomore Sammy Watkins for the right to be considered among the country's truly elite receivers.
14. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Frankly, had this Boilermaker had the type of season he enjoyed in 2012 (54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks), fans across the country would know the 6-3, 305 pounder's name by now. Short has a thick, wide frame and plays with excellent strength and leverage, making him a potential nose guard candidate.
15. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas: An arrest in May might create some doubt with scouts about Okafor until they've fully investigated his background. But his game provides plenty of answers about who he is on the field. Okafor doesn't possess elite speed off the edge but is powerful, well-schooled in his hand technique and has a high-running motor.
16. Jonathan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: Eight of the 15 defensive backs drafted in the first round since 2010 have come from the SEC. The 6-1, 185-pound Banks looks poised to keep up the tradition. Scouts are always looking for players capable of making game-changing plays. Banks intercepted five passes a season ago and forced three fumbles. He has 12 interceptions over his career, three of which he returned for touchdowns.
17. *Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State: Blessed with as talented a roster as there is in all of college football, you can expect a great deal of buzz this season around the Seminoles. While he's overshadowed a bit, the German-born junior might be the most pro-ready prospect on the team already due to his size (6-4, 273), strength and tenacity.
18. Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame: He can't boast the gaudy tackle numbers that Luke Kuechly produced at Boston College, but pro scouts will certainly see first-round characteristics in this middle linebacker. With another stellar campaign, Te'o will wrap up his Notre Dame career as the first Irish defender to earn a first-round draft selection since defensive end Renaldo Wynn was selected No. 21 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1997.
|The mobile Thomas is reminiscent of Cam Newton. (US Presswire)|
20. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Overshadowed by Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright a season ago, Williams quietly emerged as one of the more consistent playmakers in the country in his own right. He caught 59 passes for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, and that was as Baylor's No. 2 option. Sure, catches might be tougher to come by with RGIII now a member of the Washington Redskins, but the 6-1, 205-pound Williams should once again light up Big 12 secondaries and could be the first senior receiver selected come April.
21. Margus Hunt, DE, SMU: It has been over a quarter century since the last time a SMU Mustang was selected in the first round (1986), but in the Estonian-born Hunt, Southern Methodist may have the unique talent needed to warrant such a lofty selection. A two-time gold medal winner in the 2006 World Junior Championships (discus, shot put), Hunt was deservedly listed as the No. 1 "Freak" athlete of 2012 in Bruce Feldman's article as his combination of size (6-7, 288), strength (35 reps of 225 pounds), speed (4.70) and explosiveness (36-inch vertical jump) add up to off-the-charts measurables. In just three seasons of college football, Hunt has an astounding 14 blocked kicks.
22. *Chris Faulk, OT, LSU: With so much attention heaped upon their defense a season ago, Faulk's spectacular first season starting at left tackle for the Tigers didn't get the national attention it warranted. If the baby-faced 6-6, 325-pound Faulk performs as well on the blind side again, he'll get plenty of attention, too.
23. *Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: While perhaps not quite as athletic as his linemate Mingo, the 6-5, 260-pound Montgomery showed surprising agility and speed last season considering he missed most of the 2010 campaign with a torn ACL in his right knee. Despite being hampered with the recovery, Montgomery led the Tigers with nine sacks a season ago and looks poised for a monster 2012 campaign after reportedly adding nearly 30 pounds to his frame during the offseason.
24. *D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama: Having produced four first-round picks in back-to-back drafts, the Crimson Tide may have to wait longer than they've grown accustomed to see their first player drafted in 2013 but no coach more consistently produces talent than Nick Saban. Fluker doesn't often get the media attention that his linemate Barrett Jones receives but as the more physically gifted player, the powerful run blocker could hear his name called first.
25. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford: Considering the talent on Stanford's offense a season ago, it is easy to understand why Thomas was overshadowed, but he shouldn't have been with the production he enjoyed. The 6-4, 240-pound Thomas registered 52 tackles, including 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks and also forced five fumbles. He plays with similar hustle and instincts as Shea McClellin, who the Chicago Bears selected No. 19 overall last April.
26. *Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan: Arguably the most physically imposing player in the country, the 6-7, 302-pound Lewan looks like the second-coming of Jake Long wearing No. 77 in the Michigan maize and blue. Lewan, who only made the switch to offensive line as a senior in high school, is certainly behind the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft in terms of development, but the size, athleticism and mentality are in place to resume the Wolverines' tradition of churning out quality NFL offensive linemen.
27. Sean Porter, OLB, Texas A&M: Despite measuring in at just 6-2, 230 pounds, Porter was asked to rush the passer off the edge in the 3-4 scheme utilized under head coach Mike Sherman. With new head coach Kevin Sumlin bringing in a 4-3 scheme, Porter's speed and agility could prove even more effective against the run and in coverage.
28. *William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: At an imposing 6-6, 278 pounds, Gholston lacks the burst upfield as a pass rusher that makes so many of the nation's other defensive ends so intriguing. But his length and strength make him an intriguing candidate as a five-technique capable of setting the edge for a 3-4 defense.
29. *Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina: Lattimore, like fellow SEC star Justin Hunter, will have to prove that he's over the torn ACL that ended his 2011 season prematurely to warrant listing this high. Just as Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were the unquestioned top backs each of the past two seasons, however, there is no doubt that if Lattimore is healthy, he's established himself as a superstar.
30. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, Texas: Vaccaro strongly considered entering the 2012 NFL Draft after a sparkling junior campaign in which he earned first team all-conference honors with 82 tackles, including two sacks and two interceptions. Instinctive, athletic and physical, he looks poised to join the long line of former standout defensive backs from Austin to earn a top 50 selection.
31. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Unfairly compared to former Sooner and 2010 No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford, Jones has enjoyed statistical dominance with the Sooners while struggling at times with decision-making and ball-placement when forced to move his feet. He has the combination of size, arm strength and experience, however, to leap right back into high first-round consideration should he improve his poise in a muddied pocket.
32. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina: Overshadowed by his more hyped linemate, guard Jonathan Cooper (who, himself, is a top 50 candidate for the 2013 draft), the 6-7, 315-pound Williams caught the attention of scouts with a standout first season at right tackle in 2011. A strong second season on the edge could lead to Williams leaping ahead of other, more publicized players as the first senior offensive tackle off the board in 2013.