|Barkevious Mingo has all the physical tools, but his play-making has been suspect. (US Presswire)|
Entering the final month of the regular season of college football, scouts are beginning to look past athletes with great potential to focus on players who have turned potential into tangible production.
Texas A&M's Damontre Moore and Missouri's Sheldon Richardson didn't enter the 2012 season with as much hype as other SEC defensive linemen but each has starred in his first season in the league.
Inconsistency from preseason Heisman candidates Matt Barkley (USC) and Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) has their stock sliding with NFL teams looking to the draft for a potential franchise signal-caller. On the other hand, as the months get colder it is becoming increasingly difficult for scouts not to acknowledge the hot hand of North Carolina State's Mike Glennon and Alabama's AJ McCarron.
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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 struggling this season, Lotulelei hasn't received the national exposure that his ranking among NFL scouts warrants. His highly celebrated performance against Southern Cal and NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior center Khaled Holmes Oct. 4 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.
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 October 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. * Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: Medical concerns will ultimately dictate Jones' final draft grade but there is no questioning his ability to make impactful plays when he's on the field. Just as he did a year ago against Florida (four sacks), Jones was dynamic in an October 27 upset over the Gators, logging a career-high 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He forced and recovered two fumbles, leading to his being named the Walter Camp, Bronko Nagurski and SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
5. * Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M: Scouts talk all the time about the important 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 has dominated, leading the country in tackles for loss (17) and ranking second in sacks (10.5).
6. 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.
7. 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, however, 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.
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 of the two.
10. * 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 has just three sacks and four tackles for loss thus far this season. With top-ranked Alabama on tap Saturday, Mingo could certainly re-energize his stock with a breakthrough performance.
11. * Keenan Allen, WR, California: An exceptional and 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.
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. * 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.
14. Johnathan 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.
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 leads the SEC with an average of 2.14 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 (23 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, four sacks) than his teammate, Mingo, but isn't as quick when changing direction. With a frantic home crowd making the snap count difficult to hear, LSU's pass rushers should have a good chance at making big plays against top-ranked Alabama November 3.
18. 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.
19. * Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri: Whereas some of the top defensive tackles in the country lack eye-popping statistics, Richardson is enjoying a breakout campaign for the Tigers, thus far accomplishing the rare feat of leading his team in total tackles (57) from the interior defensive line. Richardson gaudy tackles numbers haven't just been pedestrian stops either, as in the case of his tackle, forced fumble and 60-yard return in Mizzou's Homecoming victory October 27 vs. Kentucky.
20. * 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 October 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.
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. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame: While perhaps lacking the elite breakaway speed that has helped Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski emerge as relatively instant NFL stars, Eifert's 6-5, 252-pound frame and excellent ball skills make him a legitimate mismatch. In today's pass-happy NFL, that could be enough to earn a late first-round selection.
23. 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 prospect he's been labeled. Some scouts are struggling to even give him a first-round grade, at all.
24. * 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 possessed prior to tearing his ACL a year ago against Florida. Hunter has struggled with consistency thus far this season, however, dropping some relatively easy passes that could have gone for big gains (or scores) in high profile games against Alabama, Mississippi State and Florida.
25. 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 against a surprisingly dangerous pass-rushing Toledo defense. Physical and athletic, Fisher will compete to be the first senior offensive tackle drafted come April.
26. * Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia: Jarvis Jones gets much of the hype for the Bulldogs and for good reason, but since returning to the field after serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Ogletree has averaged nearly 10 stops a game, demonstrating the combination of size and athleticism to play inside or out at the next level.
27. * Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Reid entered the 2012 season with plenty of fanfare but hasn't produced many game-changing plays. Though I love his physicality and closing speed, there is growing sentiment that Reid lacks the fluidity and coverage skills to remain at free safety in the pass-heavy NFL. Reid seems to be pressing this season and a bone-headed personal foul against Texas A&M on Oct. 20 will not go unnoticed by scouts.
28. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina: NFL teams are generally loathe to spend first-round picks on guards but with the steady Cooper, an exception may have to be made. Cooper has excellent agility, demonstrating the ability to quickly get to the second level and block on the move. His terrific blocking has helped Tar Heels' running back Giovani Bernard -- a legitimate high round prospect himself -- rush for an average of nearly 133 yards per game this season.
29. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Having been knocked out of two games with head injuries in just a season-and-a-half as the Razorbacks' starting quarterback, Wilson's ultimate draft grade could hinge on his medical report. Scouts like his arm strength and toughness and were hopeful that he was past this year's early season inconsistency. A tough game against Ole Miss (two interceptions in a home loss), however, once again has his stock slipping.
30. * Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee: Considering that he's only played eight games at the FBS level thus far, it would be easy to simply look past the stellar play Patterson has put forth as a receiver, runner and kick returner for the Vols -- especially given that defenses have often focused on stopping Hunter. Patterson is a bit rough around the edges as a route-runner, but the 6-3, 205-pounder is undeniably a playmaker.
31. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama: With only 13 tackles so far this season, 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.
32. Dallas Thomas OL, Tennessee: NFL scouts love versatility in their offensive linemen and Thomas certainly possesses that, having starred at left tackle and guard throughout his career for the Volunteers. As he's done each game this season, Thomas began the game against South Carolina on Oct. 27 inside at left guard but proved more than capable of sliding back to the blindside against the nation's top defensive end Jadeveon Clowney when injuries forced the Vols to shuffle their offensive line.
Just Missed the Cut:
33. * Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
34. * Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
35. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
36. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia
37. Mike Glennon, QB, North Carolina State
38. * Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
39. * AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
40. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU