As NFL offenses become more sophisticated, finding pass-catchers who provide difficult matchups has taken on increased importance -- and athletic tight ends who can stretch the seam have never been more valuable.
A trio of underclassmen could turn a solid 2014 class of tight ends into arguably the most exciting positional group in the draft. North Carolina's Eric Ebron, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Oregon's Colt Lyerla each has the size, athleticism and ball skills to become immediate difference-makers. Should they all declare early, we could see three tight ends drafted in the opening round for the first time since 2002.
The Big Board isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the projected selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 32 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.
1. Jadeveon Clowney*, DE, South Carolina (6-6, 268): Three tackles for loss and two sacks in his first two SEC games (Georgia, Vanderbilt) should quiet some of Clowney's critics. With the bar set so high due to preseason hype, he's going to have a hard time living up to the billing. Clowney is a difference-maker in the mold of Julius Peppers and Mario Williams but he could fall lower than expected on draft day should the team with the first pick have any concerns at quarterback.
2. Teddy Bridgewater*, QB Louisville (6-3, 220): In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passing and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production (71.8 completion percentage, 1,214 yards, 14 TDs, one INT) is due to stellar accuracy. The biggest knock scouts have on Bridgewater is his slight frame and level of competition. These concerns won't keep him from challenging Clowney as the top pick, should each make the NFL jump after their junior season.
3. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA (6-4, 238): As the No. 5 pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Ziggy Ansah showed just what a breakout season can do for a pass rusher. Barr, a former running back, exploded onto the Pac-12 last year to the tune of 21½ tackles for loss and 13½ sacks. He has been just as dominant in 2013, earning my top grade among senior prospects, regardless of position.
4. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 305): Any question about Matthews' ability to hold up at left tackle may have been answered with a dominating performance against Arkansas and SEC-leading sack-master Chris Smith on Sept. 28. Athletic, physical and technically sound, Matthews is every bit the NFL prospect that former teammate Luke Joeckel was a year ago. Joeckel, of course, wound up being selected No. 2 overall by Jacksonville.
5. Cyrus Kouandjio*, OT, Alabama (6-5, 312): Some questioned the wisdom of moving Barrett Jones from left tackle (where he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC's best lineman) to center in 2012. The reason for the switch was Kouandjio, a physically blessed athlete who some have compared to former Redskins Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels, the No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama in 2000.
6. Louis Nix III*, DT, Notre Dame (6-3, 326): With broad shoulders, a thick lower half and surprisingly quick feet, Nix is a classic run-stuffer with enough burst and determination to threaten the pocket. Though the Irish lost to Oklahoma last weekend, Nix fared well against the Sooners and senior center Gabe Ikard, a legitimate NFL prospect himself, notching five tackles.
7. C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama (6-2, 232): While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass.
8. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (6-1, 225): Less-than-ideal size will always bring some detractors but critics are finding it tougher to identify flaws in Boyd's game. He was more efficient than dominant in the Tigers' conference opener vs. NC State on Sept. 19, tossing three touchdowns against zero interceptions. A true dual-threat quarterback, Boyd is earning comparisons to Pro Bowl passers Russell Wilson and the late Steve McNair.
9. Brett Hundley*, QB, UCLA (6-3, 227): Hundley, one of three potential blue-chip redshirt sophomore quarterbacks in the Pac-12 (with Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Stanford's Kevin Hogan), remains a bit rough around the edges but his size, athleticism and easy throwing motion have scouts excited about his upside.
10. Marcus Mariota*, QB, Oregon (6-3, 214): Boasting a skill set that is drawing comparisons to 49ers star Colin Kaepernick, Mariota is quickly proving he's far from a product of Oregon's fast-paced offense but an emerging blue-chip quarterback prospect. Mariota's traits are exciting but with opponents rarely challenging Oregon in the second half, scouts are left to largely project the redshirt sophomore's ability to play well in the clutch.
11. Sammy Watkins*, WR, Clemson (6-1, 200): In three games against FBS competition (Georgia, NC State, Wake Forest), Watkins is averaging seven catches for 112 yards and a score. Clemson's high-powered offense inflates his production somewhat, but scouts are enamored with Watkins' playmaking ability.
12. Antonio Richardson*, OT, Tennessee (6-6, 332): Nicknamed "Tiny," Richardson and his game proved anything but last season at left tackle for the Vols. Richardson is certainly a bit raw after just one season of starting action but he's shockingly smooth for a man of his size. With more consistency, Richardson's stock could skyrocket.
13. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (6-7, 310): Possessing an incredible combination of size and athletic ability, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career with the Wolverines.
14. Marqise Lee*, WR, Southern Cal (6-0, 195): Firing Lane Kiffin might satisfy the USC faithful for the moment, but new head coach Ed Orgeron isn't likely to suddenly turn around the Trojans' woeful offense. Lee has been productive with 30 receptions through five games, but the big plays that have characterized the reigning Biletnikof Award winner's career to this point have been largely nonexistent in 2013. He is also recovering from a "very minor" knee sprain.
15. Bradley Roby*, CB, Ohio State (5-11, 190): The Buckeyes used to churn out first-round defensive backs and Roby appears likely to rekindle the tradition. While his physicality was impressive against Wisconsin, Roby was torched by the Badgers' Jared Abbrederis, who had 10 catches, 207 yards and a touchdown. Scouts are eager to see if Roby rebounds this week on the road against undefeated Northwestern.
16. Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor (6-5, 335): A dominating drive blocker who projects best at guard but spent the entire 2011 season protecting Robert Griffin III at left tackle, Richardson is massive, powerful and shockingly athletic.
17. Eric Ebron*, TE, North Carolina (6-4, 245): A highly athletic and versatile prospect who stars not only as a matchup nightmare and powerful in-line blocker but also as an occasional defensive end. Ebron's exciting athleticism was on display against Georgia Tech on Sept. 21, as he caught six passes for 108 yards and a dazzling one-handed touchdown.
18. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU (5-10, 182): Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today's NFL, but agility and ball skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012. He went down with a shoulder injury in TCU's win over SMU, but the injury isn't expected to keep him sidelined for long.
19. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State (6-2, 226): Shazier might be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts would prefer but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender that offenses must account for on every snap.
20. Cameron Erving*, OT, Florida State (6-5, 310): Erving played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle but looked like a natural when moved to left tackle a season ago. Long, balanced and athletic, he's a hidden factor in the impressive early play from freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.
21. Stephon Tuitt*, DL, Notre Dame (6-5, 303): Offseason sports hernia surgery may have played a role in Tuitt adding 20 pounds. Early on the extra weight seemed to be slowing him. Consecutive strong performances against Michigan State (six tackles) and Oklahoma (five tackles, one tackle for loss), however, are reassuring.
22. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo (6-3, 248): With an eye-popping 56 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and 11 forced fumbles already on his r½sum½ entering the 2013 season, rest assured that scouts knew Mack well. He has established himself as a legitimate star after strong performances against Ohio State and Connecticut.
23. Timmy Jernigan*, DT, Florida State (6-2, 298): Losing productive pass rushers Bjoern Werner, Cornelius Carradine and Brandon Jenkins to the NFL is certainly going to hurt the Seminoles but Jernigan's explosive hands make him a terror up the middle.
24. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU (6-3, 235): While Ziggy Ansah received most of the hype at BYU, Van Noy was far and away the more consistent defender, registering an eye-popping 22 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks in 2012. Van Noy's all-around game was again demonstrated Sept. 21 vs. Utah as he finished with a game-high 10 tackles, including 1½ for loss.
25. Austin Seferian-Jenkins*, TE, Washington (6-6, 267): A two-sport star for the Huskies (football, basketball), ASJ provides a unique combination of size, overall athleticism and ball skills, making him a true mismatch for opponents. Scouts are eager to see how he handles the physical challenge Stanford will provide Saturday.
26. Lache Seastrunk*, RB, Baylor (5-9, 210): Baylor hasn't been challenged (they've outscored Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe 209-23) but Seastrunk has been as dominant as scouts expected, averaging a stunning 10.97 yards a carry over his first three games. Seastrunk is an "air back" with the agility, balance and stop-start ability to elude defenders.
27. Mike Evans*, WR, Texas A&M (6-5, 225): Like his famous quarterback, Johnny Manziel, Evans is a redshirt sophomore but he could have quite the decision to make after the season if he continues to star in the SEC. Few players dominate Alabama but that is precisely what Evans did Sept. 14, hauling in seven passes for 279 yards and a 95-yard touchdown.
28. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 300): Overshadowed by all of the talent on the Aggies' roster, Ogbuehi is an exciting prospect in his own right. A standout at right guard a year ago, Ogbuehi (pronounced ah-BOO-hee) stands to make a lot of money if he continues his early stellar play at right tackle.
29. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix*, FS, Alabama (6-1, 208): Death, taxes and Nick Saban-coached defensive backs earning first-round grades are among the sure things in life. Clinton-Dix has an exciting combination of athleticism and instincts, but scouts may have to rely on his previous game tape as the star was suspended indefinitely from the team on Oct. 2, reportedly for accepting a loan from Alabama assistant strength and conditioning coach Corey Harris.
30. Colt Lyerla*, TE, Oregon (6-5, 250): With NFL prospects at virtually every position, gaudy statistics are tough to come by for Oregon pass-catchers, and Lyerla has caught just two passes in three games this season. Boasting an extraordinary combination of size and speed, it isn't difficult to imagine Lyerla lighting up pre-draft workouts in much the same way that Vernon Davis did in 2006.
31. Johnny Manziel*, Texas A&M (5-11, 210): Not every team will be willing to overlook the distractions that come with Johnny Football, but as dual-threat quarterbacks are becoming more and more popular in today's NFL it is impossible to ignore Manziel's unique playmaking ability.
32. Anthony Johnson*, DT, LSU (6-3, 305): Flanked by Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery a season ago, Johnson looked like the next LSU first-round defensive lineman. Johnson recorded an interception against Georgia, but otherwise rarely stood out in the highly anticipated SEC showdown.
Just missed the cut
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Trent Murphy, DE/OLB, Stanford
Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama
Jordan Matthews, WR, South Carolina
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
Denzel Perryman*, ILB, Miami
Ed Reynolds*, FS, Stanford