The competitiveness and bright lights of Rivalry Week is an important proving ground for hundreds of NFL Draft prospects.
For some, it's the final on-field test before hitting the pre-draft circuit of all-star games, the Scouting Combine and pro days. Others still have conference championship and bowl games ahead, but disappointing seasons can quickly be forgiven with a dominant effort against a top rival, something that South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, Notre Dame defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt and Southern Cal wide receiver Marqise Lee no doubt realize.
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. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-6, 268, 4.65)* -- Clowney has failed to live up to our astronomical expectations, but scouts aren't as concerned with his mediocre production as the media seems to be. When on the field, Clowney remains a dominating presence capable of making the game-changing play on each snap of the ball. He produced his best game of 2013 in a highly anticipated rematch with Tennessee left tackle Antonio Richardson on Oct. 19 and faces Tajh Boyd and Clemson this weekend in what is very likely his final game in Columbia.
2. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-3, 220, 4.65)* -- In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passes and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. His success (71 percent completion rate with 25 touchdowns against just three interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that forces him to make tough throws. Bridgewater's slight frame and level of competition are concerns but make no mistake, he's the heavy favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 draft should he come out.
3. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73) -- A running back until last season, Barr exploded in 2012 and has continued his playmaking ways as a senior. Barr ended Matt Barkley's college career with a huge hit a year ago against the Trojans and scouts are anxious to see what he'll do for an encore against USC. The UCLA coaches rave about his work ethic, and Barr is a terrific pass rusher capable of beating tackles off the edge with speed and power.
4. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon (6-3, 214, 4.52)* -- Only three redshirt sophomore quarterbacks have left early for the NFL over the past 23 years (Michael Vick, Tommy Maddox and Todd Marinovich) but Mariota's exciting skill set could force him to make a tough decision. He's blessed with a combination of size, speed and arm talent that compares favorably to San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and he's much further along at a similar point in his collegiate career than the former Nevada star. Despite statistics that argue otherwise, however, Mariota isn't as accurate as Bridgewater and could improve his grade by returning for another season of college action.
5. OT Cameron Erving, Florida State (6-5, 310, 5.26)* -- 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 dynamic play of freshman quarterback Jameis Winston and could enjoy a "quiet" ride into the top 10 of the 2014 draft, just as former Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel did a year while blocking for Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
6. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49)* -- After a disappointing sophomore season a year ago, Watkins has returned to the dominating ways he displayed as a true freshman. Watkins is an explosive athlete with impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball. He was one of the few Tigers to rise to the challenge against Florida State's speed and physicality earlier in the year and will be similarly tested on the road this week against South Carolina.
7. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, 5.14) -- The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliche true that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He has played well at left tackle this season after starring at right tackle for his first three years. Matthews is a terrific football player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency. He is not, however, an elite athlete and some view his future back on the right side in the NFL.
8. OLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (6-2, 232, 4.56) -- 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. Mosley lacks the bulk scouts want in a pass rusher but his awareness in coverage is special. Auburn's running game will provide a different kind of test, however, in the Iron Bowl.
9. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66) -- With 72.5 career tackles for loss, Mack's statistics jump off the page. Against the most gifted opponents he faced this year (Ohio State and Connecticut), it was his game that jumped off the screen. His size, instincts and agility as an edge rusher make him equally intriguing to teams operating out of a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
10. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 225, 4.58)* -- Like his famous quarterback Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he could have quite the decision to make after the season if he continues to dominate the SEC. Deceptively fast and possessing great body control as well as timing, Evans is an exciting split end prospect who reminds scouts of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Vincent Jackson.
11. OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (6-5, 312, 5.12)* -- Some questioned the wisdom of moving Barrett Jones from left tackle (where he had 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 Bowler Chris Samuels, the No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama in 2000. Auburn's speedy edge rusher Dee Ford will be one of Kouandjio's stiffest tests this season.
12. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-3, 215) -- Carr's staggering production (69.7% completion rate, 39 TDs, four interceptions) is certainly inflated by head coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack and a legitimately talented receiving corps, but there is no denying his talent. Frankly, his release and velocity are as impressive as any college quarterback in the country. Don't be surprised if Carr winds up in the top 10 should he continue to throw this well in Fresno's bowl game and at the Senior Bowl in Mobile.
13. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-11, 197) -- Quick feet, loose hips and a fluid turning motion make Dennard a classic cover corner capable of shutting down half the field. His ability in coverage plays a big role in Michigan State's stellar defense. The quality of receivers he has faced in the Big Ten is a concern, however.
14. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M (6-5, 300, 5.15)* -- 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) took over for Jake Matthews at right tackle in 2013 and has excelled. Possessing long arms and light feet, Ogbuehi offers more upside than his more celebrated teammate, though he's not as polished.
15. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina (6-4, 245, 4.67)* -- Ebron possesses a jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism that has earned comparisons to 49ers star Vernon Davis. Like Davis, however, Ebron struggles with consistency, relying too much on his athleticism rather than dedicating himself to learning the finer techniques of the position. Ebron announced he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 draft.
16. DE Trent Murphy, Stanford (6-6, 261, 4.85) -- Used as a standup outside linebacker as a well as a down defensive lineman for the Cardinal, Murphy is equally impactful in the passing game, running game and on special teams due to his instincts, physicality and awareness. Despite surprising overall athleticism, Murphy projects best as a 4-3 defensive end.
17. TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (6-5, 260)* -- The NFL is looking for seam threats rather than extra blockers at tight end in today's game and there hasn't been a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro. Scouts are beginning to mention the name Jimmy Graham when discussing the Red Raiders' junior, a comparison which could help catapult Amaro into the top spot among all tight ends by May.
18. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51)* -- A nagging left knee injury has hampered Lee for much of the 2013 season, robbing the reigning Biletnikof Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy, he starred against Stanford November 16, helping guide the Trojans to the upset win and solidifying his stock.
19. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 303, 4.89)* -- Offseason sports hernia surgery may have played a role in Tuitt weighing 20 pounds more this season than a year ago, and early on the extra weight seemed to be slowing him. He played much better over the second half of the season, but with nose guard Louis Nix III out for the season Tuitt could face additional attention from opponents. He'll be tested this week against by Stanford, which boasts one of the nation's toughest and most talented offensive lines.
20. OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor (6-5, 335, 5.27) -- 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. While the rest of the Bears struggled against Oklahoma State, Richardson turned in another strong performance.
21. OC Travis Swanson, Arkansas (6-4, 318) -- If Richardson is the elite interior lineman of the 2014 senior class, Swanson ranks as a close second. Athletic, powerful and versatile (some view him as a potential guard convert), Swanson will continue former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema's tradition of churning out quality NFL prospects along the offensive line.
22. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (6-2, 226, 4.58)* -- Shazier may 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. Last week against Indiana, Shazier was the first Buckeye to rack up 20 tackles in a game since A.J. Hawk. Don't be surprised if he does it again this week against Michigan.
23. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (5-11, 210, 4.45)* -- Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy while on the move make him a mesmerizing prospect, but red flags were raised with his second poor showing against LSU. Bottled in the pocket by the Tigers, Manziel was unable to throw his receivers open and he struggled, throwing multiple interceptions for the fourth time this season. The NFL rules have never been more accommodating to dual-threat passers, but consistent accuracy from the pocket remains the most critical element to quarterback play at the next level.
24. WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State* -- Beavers coach Mike Riley has made a career out of finding undersized pass-catchers to star in his offense, but Cooks is a different level of athlete than Sammie Stroughter, Markus Wheaton and the Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz). Boasting a combination of elusiveness, acceleration and toughness that is earning comparisons to Percy Harvin, the Biletnikof Award finalist is rewriting school and conference record books with 110 catches for 1,560 yards and 15 touchdowns so far this season.
25. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon (5-10, 190)* -- Lost in the hype of Oregon's offense are a number of highly regarded defenders, including Ekpre-Olomu, who combines great instincts, agility and physicality to shut down his side of the field. Ekpre-Olomu, who has seven career forced fumbles, is earning comparisons to Chicago Bears star cornerback Charles Tillman for his ability to tear the ball away. Scouts can only hope that Ekpre-Olomu and OSU's Cooks get locked up in the Civil War.
26. QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU (6-5, 235) -- The strong-armed Mettenberger has made impressive strides in his second season as LSU's starter and first in Cam Cameron's offense. Mettenberger is drawing comparisons to Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger due to his size and strength in the pocket as well as his courage to attempt dangerous (but necessary) passes. Unfortunately, he's also relatively immobile like the AFC North stars, which makes protecting him critical if he is to have anything close to their success in the NFL.
27. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 310, 5.04) -- Possessing an impressive combination of size, strength and toughness, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career with the Wolverines. Lewan lacks elite athleticism, however, and some feel his future lies on the right side in the NFL.
28. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200) -- In terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill-set than the Cowboys' star. Gilbert ranks among the nation's leaders with six interceptions this season, and has returned just as many kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.
29. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6-6, 311, 4.95) -- Blessed with an extraordinary combination of size and athleticism, Hageman could join Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe as recent big defensive tackles whose real rise up draft boards doesn't begin until the Scouting Combine. Hageman has looked unblockable at times but he struggles with consistency.
30. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (5-10, 182, 4.49) -- 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, and he's tied for the lead in PBUs again this year (14) while recording two pass thefts. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz.
31. DT Will Sutton, Arizona State (6-0, 305) -- Perhaps due to concerns about how he would hold up in the NFL, Sutton gained weight for his senior season and hasn't been as dominant as last year, when he recorded an astounding 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Though Sutton's production has tailed off, he remains a difference-maker in the middle due to his quickness, punch and ability to tie up multiple blockers.
32. ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford (6-2, 245) -- I'll be the first to admit it, I'm a sucker for instinctive, physical inside linebackers and that is precisely what Skov has proven himself to be over his distinguished career. While Skov may lack elite straight-line speed, his diagnosis skills, power and ability to make big plays have stood out in each of Stanford's biggest games this season.
Just missed the cut:
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington*
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa*
OG David Yankey, Stanford
FS Hasean Clinton-Dix, Alabama*
OLB Vic Beasley, Clemson*
OT La'el Collins, LSU*
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA*
RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
OLB Dee Ford, Auburn
DE/OLB Trevor Reilly, Utah
OT Greg Robinson, Auburn*
DT Ego Ferguson, LSU*
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. He can be found on Twitter @RobRang.