|LSU D-lineman Barkevious Mingo is a handful coming off the edge. (US Presswire)|
Texas A&M and Missouri discovered last weekend what NFL scouts already know -- football is played at a different level in the SEC. Sparkling performances from several SEC standouts led to several conference representatives making a big push up the Big Board, including a breakthrough into the Top 32 for Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray and Georgia's "Big" John Jenkins, who pushes his way onto the honorable mention list. This isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or what order NFL teams might be selecting in April. It is simply a ranking of the 40 best potentially NFL Draft-eligible prospects in the entire country.
Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk (*)
1. Star Lotulelei , DT, Utah: The Utes may have lost to their in-state rival Utah State last week, but one can't blame Lotulelei, the reigning Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's top defensive lineman. Despite facing constant double-teams, Lotulelei (Lo-too-leh-lay), registered four solo tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
2. Matt Barkley , QB, Southern Cal: Barkley's lack of ideal size (6-1, 218) and arm strength means 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 top-five selection this past April. He threw for a career-high six touchdowns in a birthday win over Syracuse.
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3. * Barkevious Mingo , DE/OLB, LSU: An explosive edge rusher with the frame (6-4, 240) to intrigue scouts operating for NFL teams that utilize 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.
5. Jarvis Jones , OLB, Georgia: Jones, who led the SEC in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (13.5) a season ago, demonstrated his playmaking ability against Missouri, almost single-handedly ruining the Tigers' SEC debut with nine tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. If he can convince NFL teams he's over the neck injury which led to his transferring from USC, Jones is a top-five pick.
6. * 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's 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-ten pick.
7. * Eric Reid , FS, LSU: Overshadowed by some of the other talented defensive backs that have been churned out regularly from LSU in recent seasons, Reid has quietly established himself as the elite safety in the country.
8. * Keenan Allen , WR, California: In his first two games Allen has scored touchdowns as a receiver, runner and punt returner. Considering the fact that he's 6-3, 205 pounds, it is easy to understand why scouts are mesmerized by Allen's combination of size and athleticism.
9. * Bjoern Werner , DE, Florida State: The Seminoles took a major hit in losing two-time All-ACC defensive end Brandon Jenkins to a Lisfranc (foot) injury, but saw Werner more than pick up the slack against Murray State, recording an eye-popping five tackles for loss and four sacks in limited duty. At 6-4, 272 pounds, this German native could be well on his way to becoming an All-American, himself.
10. Johnthan 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 certainly looked poised to continue that trend in last weekend's SEC West showdown against Auburn, recording not one but two interceptions to place him in a tie for the NCAA career lead of 14 with N.C. State's David Amerson.
11. Tyler Wilson , QB, Arkansas: Blessed with a strong arm, great toughness and a gunslinger mentality, there is a lot to like about Wilson, the first Arkansas quarterback to earn First Team All-SEC honors and a more talented athlete than top-rated senior quarterback, Matt Barkley. The head injury Wilson suffered in the first half of what turned out to be a shocking loss to Louisiana-Monroe, however, could give NFL teams pause when determining his final pro stock. It is the second time in only 15 career starts Wilson has been knocked out of a game due to a head injury.
12. * David Amerson , CB, North Carolina State: Amerson was beaten soundly in N.C. State's opener against Tennessee, flaming the suspicions that his breakout 13-interception season of a year ago was a fluke. The returning All-American proved against Connecticut, however, that his focus was back as he recorded his first interception of the season and broke up the potential game-winning touchdown to seal NC State's 10-7 win.
13. * Logan Thomas , QB, Virginia Tech: Thomas isn't as polished as either of the two senior quarterbacks I rank ahead of him, but the upside on this 6-5, 254-pound monster is through the roof. With his combination of size, mobility and accuracy on the deep ball, comparisons to Cam Newton are growing.
14. Jackson Jeffcoat , DE/OLB, Texas: More athletic than his more hyped teammate Alex 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.
15. Kawann Short , DT, Purdue: Frankly, had this Boilermaker had the type of season he enjoyed a year ago for an SEC school (54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss 6.5 sacks), fans across the country would know the 6-3, 305 pounder's name by now. So far this season, he's been just as disruptive, recording three sacks (including two last week versus Notre Dame) and blocking two kicks.
16. * Robert Woods , WR, Southern Cal: Despite his eye-popping production of a season ago, Woods wasn't the same dynamic playmaker as a sophomore that he was in 2010 as a nagging ankle injury robbed him of his trademark agility and acceleration. Woods is healthy now, however, and has been dynamic thus far in 2012, snaring four touchdowns in just two games.
17. Alex Okafor , DE, Texas: Though an arrest in May will certainly give scouts something to question Okafor about, his game provides plenty of answers. Okafor doesn't possess elite speed off the edge but is powerful and well-schooled in his hand technique and has a high-running motor.
18. Manti Te'o , ILB, Notre Dame: He has the prototype 'Mike' linebacker frame at 6-2, 255. Te'o will have to prove he's capable of making plays in coverage to earn a first-round selection, but he has worked to do precisely that, recording the first interception of his career in a season-opening win over Navy.
19. * 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 that he missed most of the 2010 campaign with a torn right ACL. 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 off-season.
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 a season ago, and that was as Baylor's No. 2 option. Sure, catches might be tougher to come by with RG3 now a member of the Washington Redskins, but the 6-1, 205-pound Williams should once again light up Big 12 secondaries this season and could be the first senior receiver selected come April.
21. * 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.
22. Barrett Jones , OL, Alabama: Whether at tackle, guard or center Jones has demonstrated that he's dependable against the elite competition in college football. I'm not going to go as far as Nick Saban and mention the name of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews when making a case for listing the defending Outland Trophy and Jacobs Blocking Trophy award winner here, but... oops, I guess I just did.
23. 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.
24. Dee Milliner , CB, Alabama*: It has almost become cliché to characterize the Alabama program under Nick Saban as a team that reloads rather than rebuilds. In the case of the true junior Milliner, who entered the 2012 season with 17 career starts and recorded five tackles, an interception and four pass breakups in the nationally televised showdown against Michigan, Alabama appears to have yet another first-round talent.
25. Jonathan Cooper , OG, North Carolina: It may have been against weak competition (Elon), but too many of running back Giovanni Bernard's impressive runs came behind terrific blocks by Cooper to warrant keeping him off this list. In a strong year for guards, Cooper may be the best of them.
26. * Justin Hunter , WR, Tennessee: Hunter looked tentative in his first game of the 2012 season after missing much of last year with a torn ACL, but he certainly didn't against Georgia State, catching eight passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns. To warrant the top-20 hype he's received, however, he'll need to keep up his playmaking ways against SEC competition, including this week against Florida.
27. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford: Considering the talent on Stanford's offense a season ago, it is easy to understand why Thomas was overshadowed == but, frankly, 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, whom the Chicago Bears selected No. 19 overall last April.
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. Geno Smith , QB, West Virginia: Like he was against Clemson a year ago in the Orange Bowl, Smith was dynamic in the opener versus Marshall, completing 32 of 36 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns. The 6-3, 220-pound Smith possesses good mobility and the accuracy to attack defenses at all levels == a combination that could continue to push him up the board.
30. 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.
31. Jake Matthews , OT, Texas A&M*: Considering that he is the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, greatness has been expected of Jake Matthews his entire life. He's lived up to the lofty expectations, starting since his true freshman season at right tackle for the Aggies. While not as athletic as his teammate, left tackle Luke Joeckel, Matthews is the better and more physical run blocker of the two.
32. Tyler Bray , QB, Tennessee*: Prior to breaking the thumb on his throwing hand a season ago, Bray was dazzling, throwing for 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions. He missed his toughest competition while injured last year, however, and was far less accurate when he returned (three TDs/four INTs), leaving scouts to question who was the real Tyler Bray. While some will have concerns about the gangly 6-5, 215 pounder's whip-like throwing motion, there is no denying that Bray's velocity and ball placement have returned. The junior has completed 73.7 percent of his passes thus far, with six touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Just Missed the Cut:
33. Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
34. T.J. McDonald , FS, Southern Cal
35. Chance Warmack , OG, Alabama
36. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina
37. Corey Lemonier , DE, Auburn*
38. Jesse Williams , DT, Alabama*
39. John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
40. Tyler Eifert , TE, Notre Dame*