|The 6-3, 320-pound Johnathan Hankins has been more impressive than Utah's Star Lotulelei. (Getty Images)|
Two years ago it was a little known junior college transfer named Cam Newton who guided the Auburn Tigers to the BCS title, collecting the Heisman Trophy and ultimately earning the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft.
While Robert Griffin III entered his junior campaign with more fanfare, his dramatic rise was nonetheless just as spectacular to behold.
By dominating a proud and talented Texas Longhorns defense in front of a record 101,851 fans at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith answered critics who questioned how well he'd perform in a big game.
In doing so, he not only took a huge step toward collecting the 2013 Heisman Trophy, he ascended to the top of some talent evaluators' draft boards -- including my own.
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. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Sure, Smith's eye-popping statistics (including an 81.4 completion percentage and 24-0 TD to INT ratio) are influenced by WVU's quick-strike offense and playmaking receivers, but that doesn't mean the 6-3, 220-pound senior quarterback hasn't earned the hype building around him. Some thought last week's matchup against Texas would expose him. Instead, by holding up in the face of a terrific UT pass rush in a frenzied foreign environment, Smith validated what scouts have come to know -- he has the elite combination of poise, ball placement, arm strength and mobility that ultimately could lead to him being the No. 1 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
2. * Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: It hasn't been the most impressive of seasons thus far for Big Ten fans, but they can take solace in the play of Ohio State's Hankins. The 6-3, 320-pound junior has been moved inside and out, exploded through one-on-one blocks and shown the ability to handle double-teams. He's been more impressive, despite playing tougher competition, than Utah's Star Lotulelei.
3. * Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: With all due respect to Hankins, Jones has been even more impressive against better competition. What he hasn't been, however, is consistent. Jones is a natural pass rusher and much better versus the run and in coverage than he's often given credit for. He was largely shut down in a highly anticipated matchup against Tennessee, however, has already missed a game this season due to injury (Florida Atlantic) and transferred to Georgia in the first place (from Southern California) after suffering a neck injury.
4. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Lotulelei entered 2012 as my highest-rated prospect overall and while he remains my top senior, he hasn't demonstrated the consistency I'd like, especially given the underrated talent that surrounds him. His highly celebrated domination against Southern Cal senior Khaled Holmes, NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated center, justified my lofty ranking and proved that he may just be the most aptly named player in the country.
5. * Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU: I am stubbornly keeping Mingo among my top five prospects because the long-armed 6-4, 240-pounder possesses the speed and agility NFL scouts crave in a developmental pass rusher. To put it bluntly, Mingo could be special. His play has been anything but thus far, however. He has just one sack over LSU's first six games and that went for two yards... against Towson.
6. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal: Though he'll likely be drafted high due to the value of the quarterback position and all of his intangibles, the simple fact is that the 6-2, 220-pound Barkley does not possess elite physical traits. I believe he'll wind up being a successful starting quarterback in the NFL, but Barkley is far from the guaranteed top-five prospect he's been labeled. Some scouts are struggling to even give him a first round grade, at all.
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 ten pick.
8. Manti Te'o, ILB, Notre Dame: It seems that every year there is a high-profile defender who earns some buzz as a Heisman contender. A few years back it was Ndamukong Suh. A year ago it was LSU's Tyrann Mathieu. This season, it is Te'o. With all due respect to Notre Dame's "skill-position" players, there is no question that the Irish's playmaking middle linebacker is the team's best player and biggest reason for their impressive 5-0 start. Fans sick of the "basketball on turf" style that has overtaken much of college football can't wait for Saturday when Te'o and the Irish take on the physically aggressive and well-coached Stanford Cardinal.
9. * Keenan Allen, WR, California: An exceptionally highly regarded prep prospect who originally was going to sign with Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide as a safety before joining his brother (quarterback Zach Maynard) at Cal, Allen possesses all of the physical characteristics to warrant a top 10 selection. Barring an upset, he will be the first receiver selected in the 2013 NFL Draft.
10. * 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'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.
11. 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.
12. * Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Blessed with an unbelievable combination of speed and size (6-5, 260) Montgomery looks the part of a top-10 pick. He's enjoyed better production thus far this season (18 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks) than his touted teammate, Barkevious Mingo, as well. Neither made a critical game-changing play when the Tigers needed it last week in an upset loss to Florida and there are some reservations about Montgomery's instincts and flexibility.
13. 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.
14. 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 15 career interceptions, three of which he's returned for touchdowns.
15. * 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 currently ranks among SEC leaders with six pass breakups, Alabama appears to have yet another first-round talent.
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 eight tackles for loss, four sacks (including two September 15 versus Notre Dame) and three blocked kicks 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. * Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State: The German-born Werner started off the 2012 season on fire, recording multiple tackles for loss and sacks in each of his first three games. As the competition has increased, however, Werner's production has dropped significantly. Though he still ranks among the nation's leading big-play specialists at defensive end with 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, only one of them has come in the past three games. Scouts like his athleticism, motor and instincts but there are whispers that perhaps he dropped too much weight in the off-season in an attempt to be more explosive. After playing last year at 6-4, 270 pounds, some believe he's closer to 250 now ...
18. * 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.
19. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas: In today's NFL, defensive ends are largely graded on their ability to wreak havoc on the quarterback. Okafor does not possess the elite explosiveness off the snap that generally warrants top-20 consideration but his physicality and hand usage are top notch. He used these skills to register two sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal in the showdown against Geno Smith and West Virginia, earning the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Week honors.
20. * Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee: At 6-4, 200 pounds Hunter has the physical traits to warrant top-20 consideration. He is starting to show the same explosiveness he'd possessed prior to tearing his ACL a year ago against Florida. Thus far, however, he's been much better against weaker opponents (averaging 117 yards receiving yards and two touchdowns) than he has versus SEC competition (61 yards, zero scores).
21. * Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Like the aforementioned Hunter, Reid entered the 2012 season with plenty of fanfare but hasn't yet produced the game-changing plays that characterized a 2011 campaign in which some felt he was actually the most consistent member of a secondary that featured Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Brandon Taylor, a third round pick by the San Diego Chargers (No. 73 overall).
22. * 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.
23. Jonathan Jenkins, DT, Georgia: At a massive 6-3, 358 pounds Jenkins is the behemoth in the middle that gives a talented Bulldogs' defense its biggest bite. Like most defenders of his size, Jenkins isn't going to post eye-popping statistics, but as the high draft selections of Dontari Poe (11), Phil Taylor (21) and Dan Williams (26) suggest, one dominant season on the inside can cause NFL teams to look past inconsistent production over a career.
24. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina: Offensive guards rarely earn first-round grades but considering the fact that a couple have been selected in each of the past two years, perhaps NFL teams are starting to realize the immediate impact they can have on an offense. At 6-3, 310 pounds, Cooper possesses a prototypical combination of size and athleticism for the position.
25. * Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia: Jarvis Jones gets much of the credit for Georgia's defense and rightfully so. The Bulldogs feature another playmaking linebacker in Ogletree, however, who jumped off the film this summer when I was reviewing last year's action. The 6-3, 234-pound junior was suspended for the first four games of this season but returned Sept. 29 versus Tennessee with a vengeance, recording a career and game-high 14 tackles, including three passes broken up, one of which led to an interception in a 51-44 victory over the Vols.
26. * Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon: At a rangy 6-6, 243 pounds, Jordan's length and explosiveness off the edge makes him a matchup nightmare for opponents. The junior, who led the Ducks a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, is earning high marks from scouts who believe he could be one of this year's most exciting "hybrid" prospects.
27. 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.
28. Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan: While he lacks the name recognition of some of his peers, the 6-8, 305-pound Fisher ranks among the top senior offensive tackles in the country, performing well in showdowns against Iowa, Michigan State and in his recent performance against Toledo on Oct. 6. Physical and athletic, Fisher will compete to be the first senior offensive tackle drafted in the 2013 draft.
29. 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. At 6-2, 205 pounds, Williams certainly looks the part and he had a monstrous performance against West Virginia (17 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns) that if not for Geno Smith likely would have landed him more national acclaim.
30. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: After missing much of Arkansas' humbling loss to Louisiana-Monroe and all of their SEC opener against Alabama, Wilson returned amid great fanfare to start against Rutgers. While his numbers were strong against the Scarlet Knights a closer look indicated that he was still holding the ball too long and taking some hellacious hits. These problems once again surfaced Sept. 29 versus Texas A&M, Arkansas' fourth consecutive loss. Wilson showed signs that he's working his way out of his early season funk in the Razorbacks' 24-7 win over Auburn Oct. 6, but he didn't throw a touchdown in the victory and has only four TDs (against four interceptions) over his last three games, overall.
31. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia: The Cavaliers have limped to a 2-4 record but that hasn't stopped Oboushi from establishing himself as one of the more talented offensive tackles in the country. He's let his temper get out of control on occasion, drawing a few penalty flags that the Cavaliers certainly haven't needed, but frankly, considering Virginia's four consecutive losses, it is good to see some fight out of one of their senior captains.
32. * Robert Woods, WR, Southern Cal: Woods established himself as a legitimate NFL prospect as a true freshman two years ago. Last year, his statistics were much more impressive (111 catches for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns). A closer look, however, revealed that much of Woods of production was a function of the Trojans' offense, rather than his own ability. Considering the struggles that prior USC standout receivers have had acclimating to the NFL, there is certainly precedence to keep in mind with how Woods might fare at the next level, especially considering that he's not even the most physically gifted pass-catcher on his own team (Marqise Lee). Frankly, Woods needs a strong performance this weekend against Washington just to remain in my top 32.
Just Missed the Cut:
33. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
34. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
35. Sean Porter, OLB, Texas A&M
36. * Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech
37. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina
38. * Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
39. * Levine Toilolo, TE, Stanford
40. * Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn