|Luke Joeckel's effort against top LSU defenders raises his stock even higher. (US Presswire)|
The SEC's domination of the current and past BCS standings isn't a secret.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most powerful of the power conferences has also proven to be a virtual football factory for the NFL. Nine former SEC standouts were selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, more than from any other conference. The conference led the way two years ago with 10 players selected. Those who believe the conference is being overrated won't like my list of the top NFL prospects, as it also has a strong SEC flavor to it. In fact, over half of my current top 32 prospects hail from Southeastern Conference.
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: With the Utes having lost all three of their Pac-12 games so far, it has been easy to overlook the dominance from their senior defensive tackle. His highly celebrated performance against Southern Cal and NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior center Khaled Holmes Oct. 4, however, showed just what a one-man wrecking crew Lotulelei can be. He isn't the consensus No. 1 overall pick but few scouts expect that he'll make it out of the top five.
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2. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State*: Like Lotulelei, Hankins lacks the eye-popping numbers to spark media and fan excitement. Scouts, however, see a remarkably athletic defender who at 6-3, 320 pounds can line up at nose guard, defensive tackle and even as a five-technique defensive end and command double teams.
3. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M*: Despite having earned all-conference accolades each of his two seasons starting at left tackle in the Big 12, talent evaluators wanted to see how well Joeckel would be able to handle the transition to the speed and power of the SEC. Joeckel has performed brilliantly, including shining against LSU's Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo on Oct. 20. Just as Matt Kalil emerged from the pack to be the unquestioned top blocker in the draft a year ago, Joeckel, a junior, is beginning to pull away from the rest of the class.
4. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: In breezing through the first half of the regular season to post 24 touchdowns against zero interceptions, Smith appeared to have won the inside track to the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 draft. Shockingly pedestrian performances against Texas Tech and Kansas State over the past two weeks proved just how difficult it is to maintain steady brilliance throughout an entire season. Even with the struggles, scouts love Smith's combination of size, arm strength, accuracy and mobility.
5. 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 start. I don't anticipate that Te'o will ultimately be drafted this high but he ranks among the relatively "sure things" of this year's draft class.
6. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia*: When healthy, Jones has proven capable of taking over games as a pass rusher, run defender and even in coverage. Unfortunately, his medical grade could push him down the board. Jones has struggled with various injuries this season (groin, shoulder, ankle) and transferred to Georgia after team doctors at the University of Southern California refused to clear him following a neck injury. Jones is expected to return this week in a highly anticipated matchup against Florida.
7. * Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU: I am as fascinated by Mingo's athleticism, flexibility, explosiveness and surprising strength at 6-5, 240 pounds as every other talent evaluator but at some point all of those traits have got to start turning into big plays. Mingo's upside appears to be limitless but he's currently tied (with two others) for third on LSU's defense with three sacks. To warrant top-10 buzz, Mingo has to make more plays.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M*: Scouts talk all the time about the importance of judging players as their level of competition increases. With the Aggies making the jump to the SEC and Moore, specifically, switching from A&M's "Joker" position to full-time defensive end, some expected him to need time to acclimate. Instead, at a relatively lean 6-4, 250 pounds, he's dominated, leading the country in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17) as well as pacing all down defensive linemen in total tackles (62).
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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 the true junior Milliner, who entered the 2012 season with 17 career starts and currently leads the country with an average of 2.5 pass breakups per game, Alabama appears to have yet another first-round talent.
16. 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. He'll need to be even better now with his counterpart Jackson Jeffcoat being lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle.
17. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU*: Blessed with an unbelievable combination of speed and size (6-5, 260 pounds) Montgomery certainly looks the part of a top 10 pick. He's enjoyed better production thus far this season (21 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) than his teammate, Mingo, but isn't as quick when changing direction. He was held to just two tackles (one solo) and half a tackle for loss by Joeckel in a showdown with Texas A&M Oct. 20.
18. 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.
19. 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. Hunter has struggled with consistency thus far this season, however, including dropping a potential touchdown against top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 20.
20. Jonathan Jenkins, DT, Georgia: At a massive 6-3, 358 pounds Jenkins is the behemoth in the middle who 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.
21. 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.
22. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State*: After starting off the season on fire, the German-born Werner appeared to cool off as the Seminoles began conference play. A strong performance against Miami Oct. 20 (three tackles, including 1.5 sacks), however, eased concerns that the 6-4, 255 pounder had dropped too much weight from a year ago. Blessed with a quick first step, heavy hands and surprising instincts given his relative lack of time in the game, Werner ranks as one of the more intriguing pass rushers in the country.
23. Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia*: A pair of JJs -- outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and the aforementioned nose guard Jonathan Jenkins -- receive most of the hype for Georgia's defense, but the play of Ogletree has been impressive since he returned from the four-game suspension that marred his season. At 6-3, 234, Ogletree perhaps projects better on the outside than he does at inside linebacker in Georgia's 3-4 alignment. He has the physicality and athleticism to play either role.
24. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina*: Taking the ultra-talented SEC by storm two years ago as a true freshman, Lattimore has always demonstrated future NFL talent. While not the breakaway threat that Trent Richardson was for the Crimson Tide, Lattimore plays with similar toughness and physicality. Even better, he seems to be regaining his lateral agility and acceleration, raits that often take more than the year it has been since Lattimore tore his ACL against Mississippi State Oct. 15, 2011.
25. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri*: A highly regarded prep prospect who is only now coming into his own, Richardson was nearly unstoppable in a highly anticipated matchup against Alabama on Oct. 13. Despite often facing double teams, he registered a game-high 14 tackles, including the sack of A.J. McCarron that briefly sidelined the Tide's star quarterback.
26. Eric Reid, FS, LSU*: 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). There is growing sentiment that Reid lacks the fluidity and coverage skills to remain at free safety in the pass-heavy NFL.
27. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama: With only 11 tackles so far this season (including only one solo stop), this native Australian has hardly provided an all-world performance thus far, statistically speaking. The 6-3, 320-pounder possesses phenomenal strength, even for Alabama (and Australia) standards. Capable of lining up inside at nose guard or moving outside as a five-technique defensive end, he's earning much more attention from NFL scouts than the national media.
28. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: No one is going to confuse the University of Kentucky with a top NFL defense, but it seemed as if the Wilson scouts were expecting to see this season had finally arrived Oct. 13 with a five-touchdown, zero-interception performance. Wilson has battled injuries and turnover around him this season, but scouts remain intrigued by his toughness and arm strength.
29. 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 most recent performance against Toledo on Oct. 6. Physical and athletic, Fisher will compete to be the first senior offensive tackle drafted come April.
30. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame: While he doesn't have the elite breakaway speed that has helped Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski emerge as NFL stars, Eifert's 6-5, 252-pound frame and excellent ball skills make him a legitimate mismatch. That could be enough to earn a late first-round selection.
31. Robert Woods, WR, Southern Cal*: Woods has played a featured role in USC's dynamic offense since stepping onto the field two years ago as a true freshman. He is a reliable route runner who flashes the ability to make the highlight-reel reception, as well as the elusiveness and speed to be dangerous after the catch. Among Pac-12 receivers, he ranks a distant third (in my opinion) -- to his teammate, true sophomore Marqise Lee, and Cal's Allen -- as an NFL prospect.
32. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short entered the 2012 campaign having already established himself as one of the country's top defensive tackles after registering 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks a season as a junior. This season, the big plays have continued but Short has struggled against physical run blockers. He was largely pushed around in high profile matchups against Wisconsin and Ohio State the past two weeks.
Just missed the cut:
33. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
34. * Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
35. * Levine Toilolo, TE, Stanford
36. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia
37. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
38. Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina
39. * Shariff Floyd, DT, Florida
40. * Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech