|Tyler Bray opened eyes last season before a thumb injury derailed him. (US Presswire)|
Matt Barkley might have been unable to beat the Stanford Cardinal in four tries but he remains the leader in the clubhouse at the quarterback position for the 2013 NFL Draft.
He was hardly the only quarterback to make a significant move this week. By sitting out the showdown with No. 1 Alabama, it is clear that Arkansas team doctors felt Tyler Wilson suffered a traumatic head injury. Wilson remains one of the country's most talented passers but with head injuries knocking him out of two games in only 15 career starts, his stock has slipped enough that West Virginia's Geno Smith passed him up on the Big Board. Not only that, Tennessee junior Tyler Bray is nipping at Wilson's heels.
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 draft-eligible prospects in the country.
Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk.
1. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Interior defensive linemen are rarely worthy of No. 1 overall consideration. One might have a tough time telling that to BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall after he watched Lotulelei post seven tackles (six solos), a tackle for loss, forced fumble, and two passes broken up Sept. 15. BYU lost when it missed a 34-yard field goal with just seconds remaining. The Cougars only had that chance after the Utah crowd stormed the field, drawing a penalty, after Lotulelei had blocked the potential game-winner from 51 yards out.
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2. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: Jones, who led the SEC in tackles for loss (19½) and sacks (13½) a year ago, demonstrated his playmaking ability against Missouri on Sept. 8, 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 that led to his transfer from Southern Cal, Jones is a top-five lock.
3. *Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: Hankins closed the gap between he and Lotulelei with a dominating performance against a talented California offensive line Saturday. The Buckeyes slid the 6-foot-3, 320-pound junior up and down their line and he responded by collecting 10 tackles, including a sack just moments before Cal quarterback Zach Maynard threw the interception sealing OSU's win.
4. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern California: Barkley's struggles against Stanford were disappointing. They were not his doing alone, nor particularly surprising. Barkley's talented receivers struggled to get off press coverage and the Cardinal pass rush manhandled USC up front. Barkley's lack of elite physical traits makes him somewhat vulnerable on his perch as the top quarterback prospect for 2013, but make no mistake about it, in the eyes of scouts he remains one of the country's best players.
5. *Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU: An explosive edge rusher with the frame (6-4, 240) to intrigue scouts of NFL teams using 4-3 and 3-4 schemes alike. Mingo's speed, agility and surprising strength earn elite grades. Gaudy statistics are tough to come by at LSU due to the presence of so many playmakers, but scouts will want to see Mingo's potential start turning into production once conference play begins. Through three games, Mingo has yet to record a sack.
6. *Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State: The Seminoles took a major hit in losing two-time All-ACC defensive end Brandon Jenkins to a Lisfranc injury but have seen Werner, a native German, blossom into a legitimate All-American candidate. Say what you will about the level of competition FSU has faced to this point, but while hardly seeing the field after halftime in the Seminoles' first three games, the 6-4, 256-pound Werner leads the country with 6½ sacks.
7. *Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: The baby-faced Joeckel might look young, but in earning All-Big 12 accolades at left tackle after each of his first two seasons 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 former Aggies QB Ryan Tannehill as a top-10 pick.
8. *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.
9. *Keenan Allen, WR, California: Allen was contained by stellar play from the Ohio State secondary Sept. 15, but it was clear he was the focus of their preparation. He certainly should be. Allen has an extraordinary combination of size (6-3, 210 pounds) and acceleration -- perhaps that's why Nick Saban originally signed him to play at Alabama.
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 looks poised to continue that trend, especially if he keeps making big plays. Banks has 14 career interceptions, three returned for touchdowns.
11. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Through three games, Smith has leapt into the thick of the Heisman race and could be on the verge of challenging Barkley as the top senior QB prospect. The 6-3, 220-pound Smith has good mobility and the accuracy to attack defenses at all levels. He's currently completing a mind-boggling 88 percent of his passes and has thrown nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.
12. *Robert Woods, WR, Southern California: Despite his eye-popping production last season, 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 despite not being on the same page with Barkley against Stanford, his big-play ability has largely returned thus far in 2012.
13. Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame: Rather than succumb to the emotions swelling after the passing of his girlfriend and grandmother in the days preceding Notre Dame's showdown with Michigan State, Te'o seemed to channel them, guiding the Irish to their first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2005 with 12 tackles, including a tackle for loss, and two pass breakups. The gutty performance earned the respect of fans, opponents and NFL scouts alike.
14. *Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: Considering he is the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, greatness has been expected of Jake Matthews his entire life. He has lived up to the lofty expectations, starting since his freshman season at right tackle for the Aggies. While not as athletic as teammate Joeckel, Matthews is the better and more physical run blocker.
15. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: With all the talented front-seven defenders Purdue has churned out over the years it is a mystery to me why Short doesn't get more nationwide attention. After registering 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks a season ago, Short has already posted three sacks (including two Sept. 8 vs. Notre Dame) this season. Scouts would like to see him gain strength but he has excellent vision and lateral agility to make the play when opportunities are near.
16. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Overshadowed by Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright in 2011, 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 as Baylor's No. 2 option. How's this for proving he's a legitimate No. 1 target? Williams caught eight passes for 138 yards in Baylor's first game (SMU). He caught seven passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns in their only other game (Sam Houston State) thus far.
17. *David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State: Amerson was beaten soundly in N.C. State's opener against Tennessee, fanning the suspicions that his breakout 13-interception season in 2011 was a fluke. The returning All-American proved against Connecticut on Sept. 8, 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 a 10-7 win.
18. 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.
19. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE/OLB, Texas: More athletic than well-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, 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.
20. 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 ever earn first-team All-SEC honors and a more talented athlete than Barkley. The head injury Wilson suffered in the first half of what turned out to be a shocking loss to Louisiana-Monroe could give NFL teams pause when determining his final pro stock. Calling out his teammates following Arkansas' humbling 52-0 loss to Alabama might rub some scouts wrong, as well.
21. *Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee: The Volunteers may have lost in their SEC opener against Florida but the Tennessee faithful can take some solace in the fact that the 6-4, 200 pound Hunter seems to be regaining his explosiveness. Hunter looked like a future first-round pick a year ago before tearing his ACL against the Gators. It was easy to appreciate the comeback he has shown in leading the Vols with 76 receiving yards against a talented UF defense.
22. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas: Though an arrest in May will certainly give scouts something to question, Okafor's game provides plenty of answers. He doesn't have elite speed off the edge but is powerful, well-schooled in his hand technique and has a high-running motor.
23. *Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: While not quite as athletic as 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 ACL in his right knee. Despite being hampered by the recovery, Montgomery led the Tigers with nine sacks. With the conference schedule beginning this weekend (at Auburn), scouts will be watching to see if the 30 pounds he reportedly gained over the offseason leads to even better production.
24. *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 2008 No. 1 overall pick 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.
25. *Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Before breaking the thumb on his throwing hand a year ago vs. Georgia, Bray was dazzling, throwing for 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions. He missed his toughest competition while injured, 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-pound Bray's whip-like throwing motion, there is no denying his velocity and ball placement when he's allowed to set his feet.
26. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, Texas: Vaccaro strongly considered entering the 2012 draft after a sparkling junior season in which he earned first-team all-Big 12 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 in the NFL Draft.
27. *Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama: It has almost become cliché to characterize Saban's Alabama program as a team that reloads rather than rebuilds. In Milliner's case, who entered the 2012 season with 17 career starts and currently is tied for the SEC lead with six pass breakups, Alabama appears to have yet another first-round talent.
28. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama: Offensive linemen rarely get the limelight but it might be even worse for Warmack than most. Not only do the skill position and defensive stars for 'Bama generate virtually all of the attention, Warmack is overshadowed even among the Tide's blockers. Athletic and powerful, he just might be the best pure guard in the country.
29. *William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: At an imposing 6-6 and 278 pounds, Gholston lacks the burst up the field as a pass rusher that makes so many of the nation's other defensive ends so intriguing. His length and strength make him an intriguing candidate as a five-technique capable of setting the edge for a 3-4 defense. To earn a first-round grade, he'll need to show better containment integrity than he did vs. Notre Dame on Sept. 15.
30. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina: Cooper, like most of the Tar Heels, started off slowly against Louisville. Based on the running lanes and strong pass protection he provided late, however, UNC very nearly came back to beat the Cardinals after being down 36-7 at the half.
31. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia: The Cavaliers were blown out by Georgia Tech on Sept. 15 but don't place the blame on their talented left tackle. Fresh off a performance that earned him the ACC's Offensive Lineman of the Week for his efforts against Penn State, Oboushi dominated the Yellow Jackets, impressing with both his athleticism and toughness. Frankly, I haven't seen a more impressive performance from any senior left tackle this season.
32. *Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn: NFL teams love SEC defensive linemen and Lemonier has proven over his career to be a standout. He led the Tigers in both tackles for loss (13½) and sacks (9½) last season and is well on his way toward accomplishing that goal yet again, with three sacks in as many games to start the season.
Just missed the cut:
33. T.J. McDonald, FS, Southern Cal
34. *Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
35. *Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
36. John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
37. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina
38. Sean Porter, OLB, Texas A&M
39. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford
40. *Da'Rick Rodgers, WR, Tennessee Tech