With spread offenses continuing to have an impact on how NFL teams construct their defenses, traditional inside linebackers are quickly becoming a unique endangered species -- a group with too much room to roam.
Many teams have long resisted drafting inside linebackers in the first round. Only linebackers with elite athleticism -- or pass-rush ability -- generally earn a spot among the top 32.
The Big Board isn't a mock draft, however. 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.
After dominating performances were turned in last week by Stanford's Shayne Skov (nine tackles, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) and Wisconsin's Chris Borland (13 tackles, 2½ for loss, two sacks vs. BYU), each make their debuts on my list.
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.
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 (71.4 percent completion rate with 24 touchdowns against just three interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offenses that forces him to make tough throws. Bridgewater's slight frame and level of competition are concerns.
3. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73): A running back until last season, Barr exploded in 2012 to the tune of 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He has had some flashy moments again this year but like Clowney, Barr hasn't been as good in 2013 as he was a year ago, struggling especially against Stanford and Arizona in recent weeks. Scouts 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): Due to a sprained knee, Mariota was rendered relatively immobile against a physical and sound-tackling Stanford defense in a Nov. 7 loss. Without his legs keeping defenders off-balance, Mariota struggled a bit with his accuracy and awareness (fumbling twice). The elite traits are plain to see but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the redshirt sophomore elect to return to Eugene for at least another year of development before making the NFL jump.
5. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, 5.14): Any question about Matthews' ability to hold up at left tackle may have been answered with a dominating performances against Arkansas' speedy Chris Smith and Mississippi's powerful Robert Nkemdiche this season. The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliché true -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
6. WR Sammy Watkins*, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49): Watkins was one of the few Clemson Tigers who appeared unfazed by Florida State's speed. Watkins accounted for nearly double the all-purpose yardage of any other Clemson player against the Seminoles, demonstrating the explosiveness and soft, reliable hands that help him project as a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
7. 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.
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.
9. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66): With an eye-popping 56 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and 11 forced fumbles already on his resume entering the 2013 season, rest assured that scouts knew Mack well. The best player outside of BCS schools, he stepped up with dominating efforts against Ohio State and Connecticut this year to establish himself as a legitimate top 20 prospect.
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.
12. QB Johnny Manziel*, Texas A&M (5-11, 210, 4.45): Scouts will poke holes in Manziel's grade after the season due to less-than-ideal size and the distraction he may prove to be off the field. However, it is impossible not to simply marvel at his magical ability on the field, including during his possible swan song at College Station, throwing for 446 yards and five touchdowns in a victory against Mississippi State. Showing the same remarkable elusiveness as a year ago and improved arm strength, Manziel is a first round pick whenever he elects to leave College Station.
13. 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 has played much better of late, however, and is simply too gifted to fall far on draft day should the junior elect to leave South Bend early.
14. TE Eric Ebron*, North Carolina (6-4, 245, 4.67): Ebron doesn't get nearly the national attention of Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins or other highly regarded tight ends, but scouts are fascinated with his rare combination of size and speed. The UNC staff was so enamored with Ebron's athleticism and physicality that they lined him at defensive end at times last season. The junior needs polish, but is precisely the type of physical mismatch the NFL is looking for in today's tight end.
15. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 310, 5.04): 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. Lewan has been the obvious bright spot upfront for Michigan, which has struggled with injuries and penalties.
16. 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 looked unblockable at times in Minnesota's Oct. 26 upset of Nebraska, logging two tackles for loss, including a sack.
17. 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) stands to make a lot of money if he continues his early stellar play at right tackle. He informed the media Oct. 18 of his intentions to return to College Station for his senior season, but an undisclosed injury which sidelined him for two games (UTEP, Vanderbilt) may cause him to change that decision.
18. 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. Eight tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a blocked kick and a pass broken up against Oregon State on Oct. 26 earned Murphy my Top Prospect of Week Nine. Murphy projects best as a 4-3 defensive end.
19. WR Marqise Lee*, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51): Lee has been hampered by a knee injury and unsteady play at quarterback this season, but he has also dropped too many passes. A year after scoring 14 touchdowns as part of a Biletnikof campaign, Lee only has two in 2013. While his production is a concern, Lee's talent is obvious. If he falls out of the top 20, someone is going to get a steal.
20. 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 that role than Amaro. Scouts are beginning to mention the name Jimmy Graham when discussing the Red Raiders' junior, a comparison which could catapult Amaro into the top spot among all tight ends by May.
21. DT Louis Nix III*, Notre Dame (6-2, 345): Regarded as a potential top 10 prospect heading into the season, Nix has struggled this year. At least some of his struggles can be attributed to a knee injury, which Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said would require surgery following the season. After resting his knee against Air Force and Navy, Nix returned against Pittsburgh on Nov. 9 and enjoyed his best game of the season.
22. 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. Scouts love Richardson's talent, but the extended splits in Art Briles' scheme fooled us before with former first round picks Jason Smith (No. 2 overall in 2009) and Danny Watkins (No. 23 in 2011).
23. 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.
24. OLB Ryan Shazier*, Ohio State (6-2, 226, 4.58): 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. The Buckeyes' leading tackler and most consistent defender, Shazier stood out in their comeback win against Iowa.
25. OLB Vic Beasley*, Clemson (6-3, 235, 4.55): Beasley led Clemson with eight sacks in limited duty as a sophomore and already has 10 through nine games in 2013. Like most of the Clemson Tigers, Beasley struggled against Florida State, the most talented team he'll face in the regular season. Beasley is similar to surprise 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin for his slim frame and explosive burst, but Beasley also flashes rather than dominates.
26. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-3, 215): Carr's staggering production (69.5 completion percentage, 32 TDs, four interceptions) is certainly inflated by head coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack but there is no denying Carr's talent, including his big-time arm. If Carr follows older brother David's footsteps and lights up Senior Bowl practices, he'll erase any doubt as to the identity of the top senior quarterback prospect in the country.
27. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-11, 197): The success of the Seattle Seahawks' long, physical press cornerbacks could push several into the first round, including Dennard -- an instinctive, tenacious defender who leads the top-rated Spartans defense.
28. OT Antonio Richardson*, Tennessee (6-6, 332, 5.16): Boasting an exciting combination of size, athleticism and power, "Tiny" looks like the second coming of former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl LT Erik Williams. Richardson's physical talent is obvious but he has struggled with mental breakdowns this season, drawing numerous penalties.
29. 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. His stellar coverage (six tackles, two passes broken up) against Oklahoma on Oct. 5 earned him the Top Prospect of Week Six.
30. 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.
31. 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 four interceptions through nine games and has returned five kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.
32. 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 (5½ tackles for loss, two sacks through eight games), some of this is due to the extra attention he has received after winning the Morris Trophy a year ago as the Pac-12's best defensive lineman (over Dion Jordan and Star Lotulelei, among others).
Just missed the cut:
OT Brandon Scherff*, Iowa
RB Bishop Sankey*, Washington
DT Dominique Easley, Florida
OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
WR Jordan Matthews, South Carolina
QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU
OG David Yankey, Stanford
DE Michael Sam, Missouri
DT Ego Ferguson*, LSU
ILB Chris Borland, Wisconsin
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. He can be found on Twitter @RobRang.