Right after every NFL Draft, an avalanche of way-too-early mock drafts are published, educated shot-in-the-dark predictions of the first round of the following year's draft, and their accuracy is perpetually brutal.
This article is a small step toward combating the widespread imprecision by providing essentially off-the-radar potential first-rounders well before they could jump into the Round 1 conversation.
After all, no one had Baker Mayfield being picked within the first 32 selections a year out, much less going No. 1 overall. The same is true for Kyler Murray.
1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
After Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has helped two shorter, initially overlooked quarterbacks win the Heisman and then go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, the latest Sooners quarterback deserves to be mentioned here. And he's a fascinating case. The No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in the country in the 2016 recruiting class, per 247Sports' composite rankings, Hurts started at Alabama as a freshman in 2016, won SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and the Crimson Tide lost in the national title game to Deshaun Watson and Clemson.
The next season, he was the starter on a 13-1 Alabama team before getting benched at halftime in the national title game against Georgia in January 2018 for Tua Tagovailoa, who's never relinquished the first-string gig at Alabama. Hurts' 2016 and 2017 film showed an ultra-conservative passer who didn't turn it over much but wasn't making tight-window or anticipatory passes. He didn't have good pocket presence either. After completing 62.8% and 60.4% of his throws in 2016 and 2017 at a combined 7.63 yards per attempt, when he got on the field as a junior for the Crimson Tide, he looked much more comfortable as a passer. Hurts completed 72.9% of his throws at 10.9 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and two picks.
And now he's in Riley's offense, the most glamorous in college football, a scheme that produced three of the four highest passer efficiency rating seasons (Murray in 2018 and Mayfield in 2016 and 2017) in history. Hurts will throw to CeeDee Lamb, a future early pick who's coming off a 1,158-yard, 17.8-yards-per-reception, 11-touchdown season, along with a variety of super-talented skill-position players in Oklahoma's souped up Air Raid scheme. Following his brilliant transfer decision, Hurts absolutely has a prime opportunity to go in the first round of the 2020 Draft.
2. Mustafa Johnson, DL, Colorado
Johnson, a junior-college transfer, was typically the best defensive player on the field for the Buffaloes in 2018. He finished the season with 15.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, an impressive stat line that included four games with two or more tackles behind the opponent's line of scrimmage.
At 6-2 and 285 pounds, Johnson has the ideal body type of a penetrating three technique defensive tackle in today's NFL. He has a quick burst and demonstrated a solid arsenal of pass-rushing moves, plus the ability to sustain speed in the backfield to chase down quarterbacks and ball-carriers. Colorado used him as an end in three-down-linemen looks in 2018, but he'd be most effective shooting gaps closer to the football.
With strong-armed quarterback Steven Montez returning for his senior year along with the dynamic wideout Laviska Shenault set to be a junior and a few other draftable players on defense, the Buffaloes are set up to have a strong season in the Pac-12. Some big performances from Johnson in key games would be huge in getting him on the first-round radar.
3. Cole McDonald, QB, Hawaii
McDonald faltered down the stretch in 2018, as three of his final four games featured a completion percentage of 50% or below, and he tossed six touchdowns to six interceptions. However, the 6-4, 220-pound sophomore got off to one of the hottest starts in all of college football last season.
He went over the 300-yard mark in each of his first four contests -- two of which were 400-plus yard performances -- with 15 touchdowns and no picks. McDonald marched into October with a 24:2 touchdown to interception ratio.
His disappointing ending to a promising second season at Hawaii can't be ignored. Neither can his blistering start. He has traditional NFL quarterback size, and while McDonald has somewhat of an elongated delivery, his film features a plethora of impressive long throws with plenty of velocity. All check marks on his NFL resume.
Also, he's operating a spread, run-and-shoot offense at Hawaii, a similar attack to the super-trendy Air Raid offense currently infiltrating the pro game. Five years ago, McDonald's offense would've worked against him during the draft process. If McDonald lights up the stat sheet in 2019 and doesn't have a late-season downward spiral before entering the draft, the offense he ran in college very well could be viewed as a positive.
4. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB, Vanderbilt
There's a good chance Vaughn would've been my RB1 in the 2019 class had he declared. I'm serious. His film showcased the best blend of size, agility, vision, contact balance, and acceleration of any draft-eligible runner. He decided to return to Vanderbilt for his senior season, so my final thoughts on him have been tabled.
The compact 5-10, 215-pound transfer from Illinois ran the ball 157 times for 1,244 yards (7.9 yards per attempt) with 12 scores on the ground in 2018. He's the leading returning rusher in the SEC, and his 7.9 yards-per-carry average was more than one full yard ahead of the second-highest average among qualifying ball carriers in the conference (Alabama's Najee Harris, 6.6).
Vaughn looks effortless running the football, his cuts are deadly but seemingly easy for him to deploy, and while he's not a back looking for contact, weak arm-tackle attempts rarely faze him.
Last season, he toted the rock 10 times for 54 yards with a score against Notre Dame. Against Georgia, nine carries for 79 yards. Florida? Seven attempts for 56 yards. Vaughn didn't simply pad his stats against weak opponents. He capped off a spectacular season with 243 yards on 18 carries with two scores in the bowl game against Baylor. While Vanderbilt may not be a eight- or nine-win team in 2019, he does play in the high-profile SEC. If featured more, Vaughn has the talent to emerge as a sleeper first-round candidate. Hat tip to Barrett Sallee for this suggestion.
5. Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher has quite the track record with producing early draft picks at the quarterback position. He was the offensive coordinator at LSU when JaMarcus Russell went on to be the first pick in the 2007 Draft. Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel, both first-round picks, were coached by Fisher at Florida State. Former Heisman winner Jameis Winston was the top overall pick in the 2015 draft and has had an up and down career so far, although his career 7.6 yards per attempt average is the 10th-highest figure among the 34 quarterbacks who've attempted at least 750 passes since he entered the league.
I know what you're thinking. Fisher's highest drafted quarterbacks have been busts (the jury's still out on Winston). And that's true. They have. But he and his system were impressive enough to put those inherently flawed signal-callers on enough of a pedestal for them to be selected in Round 1.
As a freshman, in Kevin Sumlin's spread offense, Mond was flashy as a runner but deficient as a pocket passer. In Year 2 with the Aggies, under Fisher, his pocket-passing proficiency was significantly better. The 6-2, 210-pound quarterback's completion percentage increased from 51.5 to 57.3, his yards-per-attempt average went from 6.1 to 7.5, and he tossed eight touchdowns and six picks in 2017 then 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2018.
Fisher isn't molding an overachieving walk-on here. Mond was the No. 3 dual-threat signal-caller in the country in the 2017 recruiting class behind Tagovailoa and Tate Martell, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. While Mond struggled against Alabama, completing less than 50% of his passes while tossing two picks to just one touchdown, he torched eventual national champion Clemson to the tune of 430 yards through the air with three touchdowns and no interceptions at 57.5% completion. With plenty of high-profile games on the 2019 schedule at Texas A&M and Fisher calling the shots on offense, Mond has a fantastic opportunity to jump into the first-round conversation during the upcoming college football season.
6. Darrell Taylor, EDGE, Tennessee
In 11 games for the Vols in 2018, Taylor racked up eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss. His eight sacks are the most among any returning defender in the SEC. He also forced three fumbles last year and had two in 2017.
Watching Taylor's film was a blast. I saw a dynamic athlete with requisite ability to tightly bend the edge then accelerate to the quarterback. He was ridiculous in the game against Georgia. Taylor finished with three sacks, two tackles for loss, and a pair of forced fumbles against arguably the best offensive line in the conference.
He tallied a whopping four sacks against Kentucky, which means the vast majority of his sacks game in two outings. However, Taylor's pressure generation was respectably consistent. Also, he's a chiseled 6-4 and 250-255 pounds.
On an upstart Tennessee team in the SEC, Taylor will have ample opportunity to showcase his electric burst and pass-rushing skills in nationally televised games this season en route to, for him, hopefully being the most recent Tennessee first-round pick since Derek Barnett was picked by the Eagles at No. 14 overall in 2017.
7. James Wiggins, S, Cincinnati
Going super deep here, and I'll call Wiggins the least-likely prospect to become a surprise first-rounder in 2020. Wiggins popped on film in 2018 with four interceptions to go along with five pass breakups and 54 tackles for the Bearcats during his sophomore season.
Notably too, Wiggins made Bruce Feldman's "Freak List" before the 2018 season. Feldman, of the The Athletic, wrote the following on the Cincinnati safety: "He benches 405, squats 675 and has tremendous burst, broad jumping 11-0, vertical leaping 37 inches and timing 4.40 in the 40."
On film, Wiggins showed uncanny ability to close on the football in coverage, and he authored a walk-off pick six in overtime against SMU in 2018 when he cut underneath a shallow cross on a 3rd-and-short and took it to the house for the win.
Wiggins hails from South Florida, an NFL hotbed, and was once a Miami commit. Even if Wiggins isn't on the radar during or immediately after the 2019 season, if he builds on this strong second season at Cincinnati and then erupts at the combine, he will have the makings of being a late draft-season riser who could ultimately land in the late portions of Round 1.