Big Board: Skill positions making comeback, pushing Clowney

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The early portion of the college football season is showing the country what NFL scouts have been aware of for some time -- there is a wealth of talent spread across the country.

The 2014 draft class certainly appears much stronger than the previous crop. The talent is still rich among offensive linemen, but the skill position talent missing in 2013 has returned, including at quarterback, making presumptive No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney's perch a little more precarious than most 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.

(* indicates underclassman)

1. Jadeveon Clowney*, DE, South Carolina (6-feet-6, 268 pounds): Considering the preseason hype, it is fair to characterize Clowney's season-opening performance against North Carolina as less than spectacular. Three tackles and three QB pressures despite constant double-teams, hot and humid conditions and a bout with a stomach virus, however, is hardly cause for concern. The media may panic after one lackluster performance, but scouts won't and neither will I.

2. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 305): Matthews allowed one sack in his first collegiate start at left tackle but was otherwise dominant against Rice. He'll face a much tougher task when Alabama comes rolling in Sept. 14.

3. Teddy Bridgewater*, QB, Louisville (6-3, 220): Ohio hardly qualifies as elite opposition, but Bridgewater certainly looked like a future top pick in his dismantling of the Bobcats' secondary (23 for 28, 355 yards, five touchdowns, one interception). Accurate, athletic and intelligent, Bridgewater is Clowney's most obvious challenger to be the first pick of the 2014 draft.

4. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA (6-4, 238): As the No. 5 pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Ziggy Ansah showed 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 started the 2013 campaign just as he left off, recording two tackles for loss among his five stops against Nevada.

5. Cyrus Kouandjio*, OT, Alabama (6-5, 312): 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 Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels, the No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama in 2000.

6. Stephon Tuitt*, DL, Notre Dame (6-5, 303): Overshadowed by Manti Te'o and even nose guard Louis Nix III a season ago, Tuitt's length, power and surprising quickness will ultimately earn him the highest grade from NFL scouts.

7. Marqise Lee*, WR, Southern California (6-0, 195): The reigning Biletnikoff winner as the nation's top receiver, Lee has extraordinary agility and burst, making him a threat to score every time he touches the ball. But with the Trojans lacking experience at quarterback, Lee could struggle to duplicate his previous success. It took him eight catches to eclipse the 100-yard mark in the season opener against Hawaii, and he was visibly frustrated at times.

8. Bradley Roby*, CB, Ohio State (5-11, 190): The Buckeyes used to churn out first-round defensive backs. Roby, who has spectacular straight-line speed and quick hands, will renew the tradition. He will be making his 2013 debut against San Diego State after serving a one-game suspension for his part in a fight during the offseason.

9. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (6-1, 225): Less-than-ideal size will always bring some detractors. Critics are finding it tougher to identify flaws in Boyd's game after the Tigers' stirring victories over LSU and Georgia in his past two games. A true dual-threat quarterback, Boyd is earning comparisons to Pro Bowl passers Russell Wilson and the late Steve McNair from scouts.

10. C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama (6-2, 232): Athletic and instinctive, Mosley is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass. He's among the best all-around players in what appears to be a much stronger draft class, but his lack of elite size could keep him out of the top 10.

11. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (6-7, 310): With an incredible combination of size and athletic ability, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long. He'll have his hands full this week, however, as Notre Dame and its fearsome defensive line visit Ann Arbor.

12. Louis Nix III*, DT, Notre Dame (6-3, 326): With broad shoulders, a thick lower half and surprisingly quick feet, Nix III is a classic run-stuffer with enough burst and determination to threaten the pocket as well.

13. Sammy Watkins*, WR, Clemson (6-1, 200): It was Watkins, not USC's Lee, who was the more impressive pass-catcher as a freshman. Injuries and suspension led to a disappointing sophomore campaign for the Clemson star while Lee won the Biletnikoff Award. With an increasingly rare combination of size and athleticism, Watkins looked poised to rebound in 2013 in the season opener, hauling in six passes -- including a 77-yard touchdown to help the Tigers beat Georgia.

14. Aaron Lynch*, DE, South Florida (6-5, 248): With Tuitt and Nix, Lynch starred at Notre Dame before sitting out last season as a transfer. Long, athletic and powerful, Lynch boasts undeniable talent. Scouts want to see more maturity from him, however. They're also expecting big plays -- something Lynch was unable to accomplish with just three tackles in a surprising home loss to McNeese State in the Bulls' opener.

15. 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 offers immense upside.

16. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU (6-3, 235): Overshadowed by Ziggy Ansah, 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. He was similarly productive in the Cougars' 2013 opener against Virginia (four tackles, including 2½ for loss), but was unable to help lead BYU to a victory.

17. 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.

18. 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 surprisingly athletic.

19. 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, and proved up to the task of playing with the big boys in the Horned Frogs' 2013 season opener, standing out against LSU with seven tackles, a sack and three passes broken up.

20. Anthony Johnson*, DT, LSU (6-3, 305): Four former Bayou Bengals have heard their name called in the first round since 2008. Johnson will have his work cut out for him in Baton Rouge with Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery in the NFL, but his prototypical blend of size, power and athleticism makes him a strong bet to continue LSU's dominance along the defensive line.

21. 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.

22. 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.

23. Louchiez Purifoy*, CB, Florida (6-0, 185): An explosive athlete with a knack for making big plays at cornerback and on special teams, Purifoy is as talented as they come. He's a better athlete than football player, at this point, and must prove that he's mature enough to handle the big stage. He was one of six Gators suspended for the season opener.

24. William Sutton, DT, Arizona State (6-1, 288): Sutton is smaller than scouts would prefer but uses his natural leverage advantage well, slicing through gaps to terrorize opponents. Sutton led the Pac-12 in both tackles for loss (23½) and sacks (13) in 2012 and was voted the conference's most dominant defensive lineman -- over Star Lotulelei, among others.

25. C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa (6-6, 265): A throwback tight end capable of dominating opponents as both a blocker and receiver, Fiedorowicz (pronounced feh-DOR-uh-wits) may lack in name recognition and production (two catches, including one TD in season-opening loss to Northern Illinois) but not in talent.

26. Lache Seastrunk*, RB, Baylor (5-9, 210): Boasting a compact build with excellent vision, agility and burst, Seastrunk proved every bit the superstar once on the field for the Bears following a 2011 transfer from Oregon. He rushed for 112 yards and two scores on just 11 attempts against FCS Wofford in the Bears' season opener.

27. Eric Ebron*, TE, North Carolina (6-4, 245): Ebron is a highly athletic and versatile prospect. He is not only a matchup nightmare and powerful in-line blocker at TE but also stars as an occasional defensive end. He could leap to the top of the tight-end class with more consistency in 2013.

28. 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. His 2013 debut won't occur until a showdown with Illinois at Soldier Field on Sept. 14 after he was suspended for the Huskies' season-opening win over Boise State for an offseason DUI.

29. Trent Murphy, DE/OLB, Stanford (6-4, 261): Murphy registered 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks to lead the Cardinal in both categories a season ago. The stout, broad-shouldered athlete may project best as a defensive end rather than as a standup linebacker for some.

30. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 312): The Golden Gophers haven't produced a NFL first-round pick since the Patriots nabbed running back Lawrence Maroney in 2006, but that is precisely the sort of buzz the Minneapolis native is generating. The preseason first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle sparkled in a season-opening win over UNLV, recording five tackles, a pass broken up and a blocked field that was returned for a touchdown.

31. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo (6-3, 248): With an eye-popping 56 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and 11 forced fumbles already on his résumé entering the 2013 season, rest assured that scouts are well aware of Mack. Proving that his instincts and big-play proficiency could stand up when facing Ohio State (9½ tackles, 2½ sacks, interception returned for a touchdown), however, has Mack's stock soaring.

32. Adrian Hubbard*, OLB, Alabama (6-5, 252): Hubbard is the next Crimson Tide star on defense to keep an eye on. The lanky pass rusher recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and three forced fumbles in a breakout sophomore campaign and could be on the verge of much bigger things. His length, athleticism and versatility (lines up as a DE as well as OLB) is even more intriguing than his statistics.

Just missed the cut

David Yankey*, OG, Stanford
Colt Lyerla*, TE, Oregon
Jordan Matthews, WR, South Carolina
Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State
Donte Moncrief*, WR, Mississippi


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