|BYU's Ezekiel Ansah is earning Jason Pierre-Paul comparisons from scouts. (US Presswire)|
As the regular season ends for most FBS programs, so does the first critical stage of the 2013 pre-draft process.
There is plenty yet to be learned and written about the class of 2013 and several key landmarks will play a role in determining the order prospects will be selected in the NFL Draft April 25-27.
Scouts closely evaluate player performance in conference championship games, followed soon by the bowl games, the all-star circuit and player workouts at the Scouting Combine and Pro Days.
The most obvious and important factor in where prospects are ultimately drafted should be based on how well they performed on Saturdays throughout their collegiate career. Talent evaluators make the mistake of moving players up or down based on potentially trivial details such as 40-yard dash times or the number of repetitions lifted on the bench press.
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With the regular season winding down, it is time for scouts to ramp things up. I'll start by increasing the Big Board to Top 50.
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 50 best prospects who could be available for the 2013 draft. The list includes draft-eligible underclassmen considered likely to make the jump to the NFL.
Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk (*).
1. * Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: Having earned all-conference in his two previous seasons in the Big 12 and likely to be a shoo-in for All-SEC honors this year, Joeckel has cemented his stock as the top offensive tackle in college football. In answering the unique challenges presented by LSU (speed, explosiveness) and Alabama (size, power) in recent weeks, he's emerged as arguably the nation's safest prospect.
2. * 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 against Florida (four sacks), Jones was dynamic in an Oct. 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.
3. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: With the Utes struggling this season, Lotulelei hasn't received the national exposure that his ranking among NFL scouts would normally warrant. Lotulelei's performance against Washington wasn't noteworthy from a statistician's perspective. The light-footed 320 pounder only registered two tackles. One of them was for a sack, however, on one of the few plays in which the Huskies were foolish enough to dedicate only a single blocker on the reigning Morris Trophy winner. Expect Lotulelei to repeat as the conference's top defensive lineman and to earn a top-five pick come April.
4. * 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 tackles for loss (20) and tied with Western Kentucky's Quanterus Smith as the nation's leader with 12.5 sacks.
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. 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.
7. * 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.
8. * 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 virtually all of the physical characteristics to warrant praise as the top receiver potentially eligible in the 2013 draft. To earn a top-10 pick, however, he'll have to prove his health (he suffered a knee injury Oct. 27) and straight-line speed.
9. 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 over the past month, however, have his stock slipping. Even with the struggles, scouts love Smith's combination of size, arm strength, accuracy and mobility. For Smith to recoup his stock he might need to attend and perform well at the Senior Bowl.
10. * 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's 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 Oct. 27 vs. Kentucky.
11. * 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 four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss thus far this season. Against Alabama Nov. 3, Mingo registered just two tackles (both assists), half a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
12. 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.
13. * Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State: Blessed with a quick first step, heavy hands and surprising instincts given the relative lack of time the German-born Werner has in the game, the Seminole pass rusher ranks as one of the more intriguing defensive ends in the country. For all of the hype revolving around the Notre Dame-Southern Cal matchup, talent evaluators might be even more intrigued by the greater number of NFL prospects in the Florida State-Florida game November 24, headlined by the 6-4, 256-pound Werner.
14. * Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State: In terms of pure talent, Hankins deserves to be ranked among the top five prospects in the country. Possessing light feet and shocking overall athleticism for a man listed at 6-3, 320 pounds, Hankins can be a superstar. Unfortunately, Hankins' motor too often appears to be in neutral rather than overdrive. After registering an impressive 11 tackles for loss in a breakout sophomore campaign, the Buckeye defender has only four this season, including just one sack. There is no denying Hankins' upside but his soft build and inconsistent effort will force teams to question where he'll find motivation once he starts cashing big NFL paychecks.
15. * 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.
16. * 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 (31 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks) than his teammate, Mingo, but isn't as quick when changing directions and therefore I'm lower on him than many, including my peers at NFLDraftScout.com.
17. * 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 16 passes broken up this season, Alabama appears to have yet another first-round talent.
18. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal: There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Barkley is going to lose on the significant gamble he took in electing to return to USC for his senior season. After only one multi-interception game during his junior campaign, Barkley has had six in 2012, including what may prove to be the final four games of his career as the quarterback suffered a shoulder injury in USC's loss to cross-town rival UCLA November 17. Scouts value Barkley's leadership, poise and accuracy on the move but there are plenty who scoff at giving him a first-round grade based on the 6-2, 230-pound quarterback's less than ideal measureables.
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. Despite being the obvious focus of every opponent's blocking scheme since talented teammate Jackson Jeffcoat was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Okafor leads the Big 12 with eight sacks.
20. Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon: At a rangy 6-6, 243, Jordan's length and explosiveness off the edge make him a matchup nightmare for opponents. The senior led the Ducks a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks but hasn't been quite as productive this season (10.5 tackles for loss, five sacks). He is, however, earning high marks from scouts who believe he could be one of this year's most exciting "hybrid" prospects as he's so athletic Oregon has asked him to line up as a quasi-cornerback at times.
21. 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.
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. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama: With only 21 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, however, and as he proved in a breakout performance (seven tackles, one tackle for loss) against LSU November 3, he is a difference-maker against pro-style offenses that feature the run.
24. * 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.
25. * Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee: Considering that he's only played 10 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 Justin Hunter. Patterson is a bit rough around the edges as a route-runner, but the 6-3, 205-pounder is undeniably a playmaker. He's averaging 154.5 all-purpose yards per game, easily the most of any player in the SEC.
26. 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.
27. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU: A native of Ghana who tried out for basketball and lettered in track before giving football a try in 2010, Ansah had 10 total tackles to his credit entering the 2012 season and was barely a blip on most scouts' radar. A few months later and comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul are almost becoming cliché in the scouting community as the 6-5, 270-pounder blessed with extraordinary athleticism and power seems to be improving week to week.
28. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: Whether at tackle, guard or center Jones has demonstrated that he's dependable against the elite competition in college football. His head coach Nick Saban has said on many occasions that Jones is one of the top players he's ever been around and has compared the reigning Outland Trophy (nation's top interior lineman) and Jacobs Blocking Trophy (SEC's best blocker) to Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. Jones slipped after a less than sterling performance against Texas A&M but remains firmly in first-round contention.
29. * Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida: With so many talented defensive linemen playing in the SEC, Floyd hasn't generated the buzz that his talents warrant. Used predominately at defensive end a season ago, the 6-3, 303-pound junior was moved back inside to his more natural defensive tackle position this year and has stepped up his play, including earning Co-SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for a five tackle, three tackle for loss performance in Florida's narrow 14-7 victory over Missouri.
30. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia: Used in much the same fashion as a receiver, runner and returner as the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin, Austin has emerged as the top senior playmaker in the country. At just 5-9, 172, Austin may not have been viewed as worthy of first-round consideration a few years ago but in today's wide-open NFL that rewards mismatches, Austin could prove among the more valued commodities on draft day.
31. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia: With the Cavaliers only 3-6 on the season, national recognition has been tough to come by for Aboushi, but the powerful left tackle plays with the physicality, toughness and determination that NFL offensive line coaches will fall in love with. I'm not convinced that he has the light feet to remain on the blindside against NFL speed but I do believe he could quickly make the transition to right tackle or even be moved inside guard as an NFL rookie.
32. * C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama: The knock on many of the Alabama linebackers under Nick Saban in past years has been that while strong and tough, they've lacked agility and instincts in coverage. These, however, are precisely the traits that make Mosley unique. He may prove a better fit, in fact, outside in a predominately 4-3 alignment in the NFL rather than the 3-4 scheme in which he's starred for the Tide.
Just missed the cut33. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: Lanky ballhawk who must prove his speed to warrant first-round consideration.
34. * Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Terrific in run support but questionable instincts, fluidity could make him a liability in coverage in the NFL.
35. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Penetrating defensive tackle with a knack for making the big play.
36. Dallas Thomas OL, Tennessee: Versatile offensive lineman well-schooled against elite competition.
37. * Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State: Lanky, physical cornerback best suited to a press scheme.
38. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama: Road-grader who could remain at RT or be moved inside in NFL.
39. Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State: High effort defender too often overshadowed by talented teammates.
40. * Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Has the arm, mobility and toughness but size (6-1, 210) limits his stock.
41. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Reminds me of Hall of Famer Curtis Martin for his balance, burst and reliability.
42. * Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Former running back just scratching the surface of his potential.
43. * Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford: More athletic than Notre Dame's Eifert but isn't as reliable a blocker.
44. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Tough, strong-armed passer but history of head injuries could scare off teams.
45. * Brandon Jenkins, OLB/DE, Florida State: Productive speed rusher with medical questions.
46. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse: True field-general who could prove to be this year's Andy Dalton.
47. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Ultra-productive but route-running needs polishing.
48. * Da'Rick Rodgers, WR, Tennessee Tech: Character red-flags galore but undeniably an elite talent.
49. * Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina: Dazzling runner but size (5-10, 205) and durability are legitimate concerns.
50. * Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Maturity concerns but boasts more arm talent than any other potentially draft-eligible quarterback.