The 2013 NFL Draft may someday be cited for producing one of the most elite groups of defensive linemen in recent memory.
With eight senior defensive linemen among my top 32 prospects, I anticipate a first round in April full of pass rushers and run-stuffers -- and remember, that's before any underclassmen join in the fun. Missouri junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson announced he'll be making the NFL leap a year early and scouts anticipate that he'll soon be joined by many others. NFL teams, of course, would love to see this occur. Other than quarterback, defensive linemen rank as the game's most valued position.
The Big Board 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 potentially NFL Draft-eligible prospects in the entire country. The list includes potentially draft-eligible underclassmen considered likely to consider making the jump to the NFL early.
Underclassmen are denoted with an asterisk (*).
1. *Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: Following all-conference recognition each of his previous two seasons in the Big 12 and a newly minted All-SEC pick 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), he emerged as arguably the nation's safest prospect. Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel may win the Heisman Trophy but don't be surprised when he suffers a sophomore slump next season should Joeckel and/or his talented bookend, Jake Matthews (No. 7 on the Big Board) head off to the NFL.
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2. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: With the Utes struggling through a disappointing 5-7 campaign, their senior defensive tackle hasn't generated as much national attention as his play has warranted. Despite fighting constant double and triple-teams, Lotulelei registered 42 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks and four recovered fumbles this season, earning First Team All-Pac-12 accolades for the second consecutive season. Remarkably athletic at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, he's capable of shutting down running lanes and terrorizing quarterbacks, as well.
3. *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 October 27 upset over the Gators, logging a career-high 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
4. 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's dominated, leading the SEC with 20 tackles for loss and ranking just a half sack behind South Carolina's super sophomore Jadaveon Clowney as the conference's top sack-master with 12.5 quarterback take-downs.
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 season. 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, strong and reliable, he could be one of the few interior linemen to warrant top 20 consideration. I consider him to be one of the year's safest prospects, thus his extraordinary ranking.
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 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, left tackle Luke Joeckel, Matthews is the better and more physical run blocker of the two.
8. *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 Seminoles pass rusher ranks as one of the more intriguing defensive ends in the country. Werner led all ACC defensive linemen with 13 sacks and 18 tackles for loss this season.
10. 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.
11. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri*: Whereas some of the top defensive tackles in the country lack eye-popping statistics, Richardson enjoyed a breakout campaign for the Tigers, finishing just four tackles behind linebacker Andrew Wilson as Missouri's leading tackler this season with 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks this season. Richardson announced on Nov. 30 his intention to enter the 2013 draft.
12. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama*: Lanky (6-1, 198), physical and productive (SEC-leading 20 PBUs), Milliner has ascended draft boards all season long. The junior is one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award as the nation's elite defensive back and if he elected to leave Alabama early, he could wind up being the first cornerback selected in the 2013 draft.
13. 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. He enjoyed a monster game against Alabama and their duo of first round interior offensive linemen Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones in the SEC Championship, registering six tackles, including a sack.
14. 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 Nov. 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. Nonetheless, Barkley remains squarely in the first-round conversation for me.
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. *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 posted just four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss during the regular season. Against Alabama Nov. 3, Mingo registered just two tackles (both assists), half a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
17. *Jonathan 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 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.
18. *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 has enjoyed better production thus far this season (32 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.
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. 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. His value to the proud Alabama defense was demonstrated by how effectively Georgia was able to run up the middle when he was sidelined with a knee injury and how abruptly the Bulldogs' rushing success ended once Williams returned to the field.
21. *Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia: Jarvis Jones gets much of the hype for the Bulldogs and for good reason, but it was the ultra-athletic Ogletree who led Georgia with 98 tackles throughout the regular season despite the fact that he missed the first four games due to a suspension. The junior's athleticism, frame and closing speed could make him a greater fit at outside linebacker for some teams.
22. Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon: At a rangy 6-6, 243 pounds 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.
23. 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 Giovani Bernard -- a legitimate high round prospect himself -- rush for an average of nearly 133 yards per game this season.
24. 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.
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 averaged 154.83 yards 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 cliche 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.
29. Sharif 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 feature Percy Harvin, Austin has emerged as the top senior playmaker in the country. At just 5-09, 172 pounds 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. *Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Other than BYU's Ansah, there may not be a player in the country whose NFL draft stock has ascended as sharply this season as Barr's, a former running back who exploded this season in his first year at outside linebacker. Demonstrating his unique combination of size (6-4, 238) and explosiveness against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship, Barr recorded 1.5 sacks, giving him the nation's lead with 13.5 quarterback takedowns to end the regular season.
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 played for the Tide. It was Mosley's quick hands, in fact, that led to the deflected pass and catch short of the end zone that ended Georgia's chance at beating Alabama in the SEC Championship.
Just missed the cut:
33. Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia: Physical, aggressive blocker best suited to the right side in NFL.
34. *Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State: Lanky, physical cornerback best suited to a press scheme.
35. *Eric Reid, FS, LSU: Terrific in run support but questionable instincts, fluidity could make him a liability in coverage in the NFL.
36. Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma: Possessing the athleticism that once saw him line up at QB, TE and DE, Johnson has emerged as arguably the fastest-rising left tackle prospect in the country for the Sooners.
37. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Penetrating defensive tackle with a knack for making the big play.
38. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU: Athletic, explosive and natural playmaker (18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks), Van Noy is quite possibly the nation's most underrated prospect... until now.
39. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: Lanky ballhawk who must prove his speed to warrant first round consideration.
41. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Reminds me of Hall of Famer Curtis Martin for his balance, burst and reliability.
43. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Tough, strong-armed passer but history of head injuries could scare off teams.
44. Phillip Thomas, FS, Fresno State: A Thorpe Award candidate with an FBS-leading leading eight interceptions (including three he's returned for touchdowns), Thomas is the best safety most haven't heard of.
45. *Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina: Dazzling runner but size (5-10, 205) and durability are legitimate concerns.
46. *Brandon Jenkins, OLB/DE, Florida State: Productive speed rusher with medical questions.
47. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse: True field-general who could prove to be this year's Andy Dalton.
48. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor: Ultra-productive but route-running needs polishing.
49. *Da'Rick Rodgers, WR, Tennessee Tech: Character red-flags galore but undeniably an elite talent.
50. *Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Maturity concerns but boasts more arm talent than any other potentially draft-eligible quarterback.