|Bjoern Werner has all the physical tools, but his instincts set him apart. (US Presswire)|
Game officials prompted headline attention in the NFL, but in college football the big storyline continues to be the dominant play of front seven defenders.
The need for quarterbacks could certainly push Southern Cal's Matt Barkley or West Virginia's Geno Smith to the top of the board by April, but this would be a classic case of need and positional value overtaking talent.
The top four prospects, and five of the top six, on my board will be earning their NFL paychecks terrorizing pro passers. 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 NFL draft-eligible prospects in the entire country.
Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk (*).
1. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Interior defensive linemen are rarely worthy of No. 1 overall consideration but 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. He also blocked a potential game-winning BYU field goal that was wiped out due to a penalty. Scouts can't wait to see Lotulelei face off against USC and their talented center Khaled Holmes Oct. 4.
2. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: Another week and another dominating performance for Jones. The All-SEC defender led the SEC in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (13.5) a season ago and was again a terror off the edge Sept. 22 against Vanderbilt, recording seven tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack. If he can convince NFL teams he's over the neck injury which led to his transferring from USC, Jones is a top-five lock.
3. *Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: Hankins closed the gap with Lotulelei with a dominating performance against a talented California offensive line Sept. 15. The Buckeyes slid the 6-3, 320-pound junior up and down their defensive line and he responded by collecting 10 tackles, including a sack just moments before Cal quarterback Zach Maynard threw the interception sealing the OSU win.
4. *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, 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 four games, Mingo had yet to record a sack.
5. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal: Barkley's Heisman hopes could be fading fast after another pedestrian effort against a conference opponent. A week after his struggles against Stanford, Barkley threw two interceptions (and two touchdowns) against Cal. 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.
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. At 6-4, 256, Werner has the size, strength and athleticism scouts are looking for. What is perhaps most impressive about him, however, are the instincts with which he plays.
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'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 10 pick.
8. *Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Overshadowed by some of the other talented defensive backs who 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 the Buckeyes’ preparation. He certainly should be. Allen boasts 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 four games, Smith has leaped into the thick of the Heisman race and could be on the verge of challenging Barkley as the top senior quarterback prospect in the country. The 6-3, 220-pound Smith possesses good mobility and the accuracy to attack defenses at all levels. He's currently completing 81.4 percent of his passes and has thrown 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
12. Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame: At 6-2, 255, Te'o has the bulk scouts love in a run-stuffing middle linebacker, but to earn a first-round selection in today's pass-happy NFL, linebackers have to prove they can remain on the field all three downs. Te'o is proving he can do precisely that, showing significant improvement in pass coverage this season. He entered his senior campaign with zero interceptions over his career, but has three already this season, including two Sept. 22 in the showdown against Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines.
13. *Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: Considering that he is the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews of Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans fame, greatness has been expected of Jake Matthews his entire life. He has 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 Joeckel, Matthews is the better and more physical run blocker of the two.
14. *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 has proven in each game since, however, that the fluke came against the Vols, not last season, as he's already intercepted three more passes in 2012, giving him 16 over his career, which leads the nation.
15. *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 despite not being on the same page with Barkley against Stanford, his big play ability has largely returned thus far in 2012.
16. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Considering all of 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 6.5 sacks a season ago, Short has already posted three sacks (including two Sept. 15 against 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.
17. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Overshadowed by Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright throughout much of his career, Williams has stepped to the forefront this season emerging as the country's elite senior receiver. The silky smooth 6-2, 205-pound wideout may lack the name recognition of the top junior receivers but his sharp routes and soft hands are highly regarded by scouts.
18. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: Whether at tackle, guard or center Jones has demonstrated 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 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.
20. *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 season ago before tearing his ACL against the Gators so it was easy to appreciate the comeback he's shown in leading the Vols with 76 receiving yards against a talented UF defense.
21. *Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Few of Montgomery's LSU Tigers teammates bared their teeth against Auburn Sept. 22 and Les Miles' bunch was fortunate to escape their SEC opener with a 12-10 victory. The 6-5, 260-pound Montgomery, however, was a star in recording 3.5 tackles for loss and earning the conference's Defensive Player of the Week award. Scouts love Montgomery's combination of size, athleticism and production, but want to see more flexibility and awareness in his game.
22. 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 top-rated senior quarterback, Matt Barkley. Scouts are worried about the head injuries he's suffered, however, as well as the fact that he didn't appear all the way back September 22 in a loss to Rutgers. While Wilson threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns, he also tossed two interceptions and completed just 53% of his throws.
23. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas: Longhorns' quarterback David Ash gets a lot of credit for Texas' 3-0 start this season but the real reason for Texas' turnaround has been the play of the defense, led by Okafor, a returning All-American. Scouts are eager to see if Okafor, who has registered a team-leading three sacks, is able to keep up the pressure with high-octane passing attacks (Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Baylor) facing the Longhorns over the next month.
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 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.
25. *Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Prior to breaking the thumb on his throwing hand a season ago against Georgia, 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 Bray's velocity and ball placement when he's allowed to set his feet.
26. 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 in the NFL Draft.
27. *Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama: It has almost become cliche to characterize the Alabama program under Nick Saban as a team that reloads rather than rebuilds. In the case of junior Milliner, who entered the 2012 season with 17 career starts and currently ranks among SEC leaders 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. 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, Aboushi 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.
30. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina: Cooper, like most of the Tar Heels, started off slowly Sept. 15 against Louisville. Based on the running lanes and strong pass protection he provided late, however, UNC nearly came back to beat the Cardinals after being down 36-7 at the half.
31. *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 tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (9.5) a season ago and is well on his way toward accomplishing that goal again, with three sacks in as many games to start the season.
32. *Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame: The NFL loves athletic mismatches and that is precisely what Eifert provides the Fighting Irish. The 6-5, 251-pound Eifert only has caught nine passes over Notre Dame's first four games but he's been spectacular when called upon, averaging a career-high 17.6 yards per catch thus far (approximately five yards more than his career average) and converting a critical third down in the Irish's impressive win over Michigan.
Just Missed the Cut:
33. T.J. McDonald, FS, Southern Cal 34. *Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama 35. *John Jenkins, DT, Georgia 36. *Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech 37. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina 38. Sean Porter, OLB, Texas A&M 39. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford 40. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State