As the NFLDraftScout.com staff pored over game tape and previewed each college football team this summer, it became apparent that despite a record 107 underclassmen leaving early for the NFL, the shelves remain quite stocked with talent.
In fact, with even greater talent at the premium positions of quarterback, pass rusher and offensive tackle, the 2015 NFL Draft could actually prove even richer than last year's haul if the mass exodus of young players jumping to the NFL early continues.
Oregon redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota sits atop NFLDraftScout.com's initial rankings but his perch is precarious with reigning Heisman winner and national champion Jameis Winston a worthy adversary if he elects to join the party after this, his redshirt sophomore campaign. Dane Brugler and I differ on which is the likeliest to earn the No. 1 overall pick at this point.
UCLA's Brett Hundley, also a redshirt junior, could play the Blake Bortles role and overtake both of them if the steady improvement he's made as a pocket passer the past two years continues in 2014. Seniors Sean Mannion (Oregon State) and Bryce Petty (Baylor) rank among the nation's most polarizing prospects.
Two particularly intriguing storylines to follow this year will be the uphill battles waged by two traditional powerhouses in college football attempting to re-assert themselves after recent tough times.
It has been six long years since the once-mighty Big Ten produced a top 10 pick in the NFL draft. That streak, however, appears likely to end in 2015. Iowa's Brandon Scherff is ranked behind Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi among offensive tackles but they comprise the top two senior prospects in the country, regardless of position. The pass rushers in the conference are even more formidable. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun earned the conference's Defensive Player of the Year last season as a true sophomore. Neither he nor Nebraska's Randy Gregory (also a junior) are quite in Jadeveon Clowney's class in terms of freakish athleticism but combined for an eye-popping 33 tackles for loss last season in their first starting seasons, respectively.
Equally fascinating should be the junior seasons of running backs Todd Gurley (Georgia), Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Mike Davis (South Carolina) and T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), each of whom has shown the talent to challenge the NFL's recent aversion to the position in the first round. Each is currently projected as a possible first round pick by NFLDraftScout.com.
A possible return to prominence for running backs is sharply contrasted with a relatively weak year at tight end and inside linebacker. The only potential first round tight end on the radar at this time is Michigan junior Devin Funchess, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound seam threat with limited blocking chops. Instincts, athleticism and physicality will make Miami's Denzel Perryman and UCLA's Eric Kendricks solid pros, but at 5-foot-11, 242 pounds and 6-foot, 230, respectively, neither possesses the size scouts prefer.
Even with the losses to the NFL following their run to the championship game, the Florida State Seminoles and Auburn Tigers rank as two of the most gifted programs in the country. The Seminoles have 15 prospects currently projected by NFLDraftScout.com to get drafted, tops in the country. Auburn is tied with rival Alabama with 10 players already viewed as clear pro prospects to lead the SEC. Louisville (nine), Baylor (seven), Maryland (seven), Colorado State (six) and Washington (five, all of whom are currently among NFLDraftScout.com's top 100 prospects) are a few programs across the country that could surprise this fall given their talent.