Tennessee QB Tyler Bray
Nineteen of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft were early entrants, so one should expect that underclassmen will make up at least half the players selected in the first round in 2013.
That said, underclassmen are the most difficult players to project to the draft. Many redshirt sophomores and juniors will break out as top prospects in the upcoming college football season. But considering most have not had considerable starting experience, it is hard to project which ones those will be.
Could anyone have predicted at this time last year that Robert Griffin III would be the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft?
Still, the window is certainly open for underclassmen to be major factors in how the first round plays out. Outside of a few top seniors such as USC quarterback Matt Barkley, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and Alabama guard Barrett Jones, few players can be considered solid first-round selections at this point.
Here are the 20 underclassmen who are most likely to end up as first-round picks should they declare for the 2013 NFL Draft.
As a redshirt sophomore, Jones was a likely top-20 selection had he declared for the draft in 2012. Jones made a smart decision to return to school. But assuming he has a strong redshirt junior season, he will likely declare in 2013 and be a potential top-10 pick.
Jones was a first-team AP All-American as a sophomore, and his game projects well to the next level as an outside linebacker. Jones is a tremendous athlete with a nose for the football. He is both a skilled edge- rusher and a solid run-stopper.
Jones projects to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but he would also be a good fit as a strongside linebacker in a 4-3. While most of these underclassmen are projections, Jones just needs to keep building off his play last season.
As the NFL has become an increasingly pass-happy league with teams frequently using sets with three or more receivers, cornerbacks have much more frequently become top-10 picks in recent years. David Amerson, entering his junior season, could become the next top-10 cornerback if he declares in 2013.
Amerson had an incredible breakout season as a sophomore, leading the nation with 13 interceptions. At 6'2", Amerson has ideal height for a cornerback. He is fluid in pass coverage and has tremendous ball skills.
Amerson proved in his sophomore season that he has the potential to be a shutdown cornerback and a big playmaker. He will certainly be tested in 2013, but will have the opportunity to establish himself as the nation’s best defensive back.
Huge is an accurate description of Jonathan Hankins’ size, and he also has huge upside. Hankins displayed his potential in a strong sophomore season, but he could become an even more dominant force as a junior.
Hankins has a game reminiscent of New England Patriots star Vince Wilfork. At a listed 317 pounds, Hankins is a massive man, but he is quick and disruptive at the line of scrimmage. Hankins’ size will have teams paying attention to him as a nose tackle, but like Wilfork, he is a versatile defensive lineman with the potential to line up as a 4-3 under tackle or as a 3-4 defensive end.
There are few 2013 underclassmen who have shown as much potential as Hankins. If he plays to that potential, he could end up as a top-5 pick.
LSU’s tremendous defense has produced many first-round picks in recent years, and the 2013 draft class should be no different. Their top prospect is rising junior Sam Montgomery, who could emerge as the top pass-rushing defensive end in the class.
Montgomery led LSU’s talent-laden defense with nine sacks last season, and those numbers were not simply the product of the system. He is an explosive pass-rusher with a tremendous burst at the line of scrimmage and effective technique.
Montgomery’s game is still developing, but it will come as a surprise to no one if he emerges as an All-American defensive end. If Montgomery becomes an elite pass-rusher and declares for the draft, he could be a top-5 choice.
Montgomery is not the only first-round pass-rusher who could emerge as a 2013 first-round draft pick in his junior season. Barkevious Mingo, who lines up across from him, is also a dynamic talent at defensive end.
Mingo is undersized for a defensive end, but he is still growing and developing as a player. Mingo has an even better burst than Montgomery and is not only an explosive pass-rusher but also a very solid run-stopper.
Mingo may project best as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he also has potential as a 4-3 defensive end. He runs the risk of being overshadowed by Montgomery. But if the two players can complement each other, Mingo has the potential to be a top-10 pick.
Eyes have been on Jackson Jeffocat, who was ranked No. 2 in his recruiting class by ESPN, since he was a high school standout. After a quiet freshman season, Jeffcoat emerged in his sophomore year with eight sacks and could be ready to become one of the nation’s standout pass-rushers.
Of all the potential pass-rushing defensive end in the 2013 draft class, Jeffcoat has the highest upside. He has a tremendous combination of size and athleticism for a 4-3 defensive end, and he has displayed the ability to beat blockers with his explosiveness and bring pressure into the backfield.
Jeffcoat’s game is still raw, but he has shown glimpses of his immense potential and looks ready for a breakout junior year. With a strong junior season, he has top-10 potential if he enters the 2013 draft.
Although he is only entering his junior season, Faulk is the most polished and well-rounded offensive tackle prospect in the 2013 draft class.
Faulk is a powerful run blocker and solid pass-protector at left tackle. Faulk does not have great feet and could end up being better suited to play right tackle. But he has proven himself as one of the nation’s best offensive tackles against tough SEC defensive lines.
At the least, Faulk looks to be a very solid starting NFL right tackle who could continue playing left tackle at the next level. He is a likely mid-to-late first-round pick.
While Chris Faulk of LSU is the most polished offensive tackle who could declare for the 2013 draft class, Joeckel has the most talent and upside. As Ryan Tannehill’s lead pass-protector last season, he emerged as a standout left tackle prospect.
Joeckel led an Aggies’ offensive line that allowed only nine sacks last season, the third-fewest in the nation. A long, angular offensive lineman, he has the look of an NFL left tackle and is a fluid pass-protector and a strong run-blocker.
Joeckel is very powerful and uses his hands well. He sometimes struggle with speed rushers, but his game has made tremendous strides. He has the skill to emerge as the top offensive tackle prospect in the 2013 draft class, which could make him a top-10 pick.
Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas has received most of the early hype among junior quarterbacks who project as 2013 draft prospects, but Thomas is a raw player who needs to make serious strides as a passer before he should be a first-round pick.
The junior quarterback with the most talent and upside, in my opinion, is Tennessee’s Tyler Bray.
Bray’s sophomore season was derailed by a broken thumb. But when healthy, he has shown tremendous potential over the past two seasons. He has ideal size and a great arm, and the ability to make challenging downfield throws. He needs to become more consistent with his accuracy, but he should be expected to make big strides in his junior season.
Bray may be better served spending two more years at Tennessee. That would give him time to develop into possibly the No. 1 quarterback prospect for the 2014 draft class. However, he is the most promising underclassman QB in the 2013 draft class, whose top quarterbacks should be USC’s Matt Barkley and Arkansas’s Tyler Wilson.
Some draft analysts, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., have compared Taylor Lewan to Jake Long, another famous Michigan alum and one of the NFL’s best left tackles. Lewan is not quite as talented as Long was at Michigan. But entering his junior season, he is developing into a top NFL prospect at left tackle.
Lewan has tremendous height and length for an offensive tackle and is a strong blocker who uses his hands well. Lewan is not overpowering and needs to improve on his leverage, but he anchors well and is efficient as a pass- and run-blocker.
Lewan’s game is still developing, but if he continues to progress, he will emerge as a top offensive tackle prospect should he declare for the 2013 draft.
As a sophomore last season, Tyrann Mathieu, also known as the “Honey Badger," was the most dangerous defensive playmaker in college football. He had two interceptions, 11 passes defended, six forced fumbles, two fumble-return touchdowns and two punt-return touchdowns.
Now entering his junior season, his potential draft stock for 2013 is uncertain, as he is an undersized cornerback who is inconsistent in coverage. That said, his playmaking ability is second to none, and it is hard to imagine that he will not find a way to be an impact player at the next level, both on defense and special teams.
If Mathieu continues to be the big playmaker in his junior season, I like his chances to end up as a mid-first round selection.
Keenan Allen had a breakout sophomore season with 98 receptions for 1,343 yards. If he builds on that, he could be the top wide receiver selected in the 2013 NFL draft.
Allen has a great combination of size and speed. He also has the hands, route-running ability and strength to be a quality NFL starting wide receiver. Allen may not quite be a No. 1 wide receiver at the next level, but he is a playmaker who can make an impact on the passing offense.
Whether Allen should declare for the 2013 draft, and how high he could be selected, will be determined by his performance in his junior season. But he has the talent to end up as a first-round choice.
Robert Woods has been very productive in his first two seasons at USC and has vaulted to the top of most media wide-receiver rankings for the 2013 draft class. However, while I do believe Woods is a first-round talent, he is a player whose stock is likely to fall from its current high point.
Woods is a skilled receiver with great hands who runs great routes and has great speed and agility. However, he lacks the ideal size and strength to be a No. 1 NFL wide receiver. Although he is a productive playmaker who catches the ball well, he may not be worth a top draft pick.
All of that said, Woods certainly should be a first-round pick, assuming he has a strong junior season and decides to declare for the draft.
Carrington Byndom is not yet a household name, partly due to being overshadowed by Texas teammate Quandre Diggs, another tremendous cornerback who made an immediate impact as a freshman. Byndom, however, has the talent to be a first-round pick after his junior season.
Byndom is a sound, fluid cover corner who has good ball skills and plays with physicality. He has a great combination of size and athleticism for the position, and his game has progressively improved over two seasons.
If Byndom has a strong junior season, expect him to move his way into the mid-to-late first round should he declare for the 2013 draft.
Tyrann Mathieu is not the only LSU junior defensive back with first-round potential. As a sophomore, Eric Reid was arguably the best safety in the nation, and he is expected to be the top safety in the 2013 draft class, should he declare following his junior season.
Reid is a well-rounded safety. He has the right combination of size and athleticism. He is a fluid pass-coverage safety as well as a solid tackler and run-stopper. He has good ball skills and is able to handle all the duties of the free safety position.
Reid is unlikely to be a major difference-maker as a playmaker at the next level, but he has proven his talents by being among the standouts in a loaded LSU defensive backfield. Reid has the game to be a starting NFL free safety and a good chance to be a 2013 first-round pick if he has another great season.
At a listed height and weight of 5’8’’ and 165 pounds, size is definitively a major concern for Nickell Robey. Other than his small stature, however, there is much to like about Robey’s game.
Robey is an instinctive, physical cornerback who plays bigger than he stands. He has great speed and quickness, and reacts quickly in order to break up passes.
Robey is a potential shutdown cornerback who challenges the football rather than allowing catches in front of him. If it were not for his size, Robey would project as a certain first-round pick in the 2013 or 2014 draft. But given his talent, he should still sneak into the late first round.
Considering Marcus Lattimore a top prospect for the 2013 draft is somewhat of a wild card. Lattimore is recovering from a torn ACL. If he does not make an immediate return to form from his knee injury, he would be smart to play out his eligibility over two seasons.
Still, if healthy, Lattimore stands out in the potential 2013 class of running backs.
Prior to his injury, he was making a push in the 2013 Heisman race. He is a complete back who has good size, speed and quickness. He has the power to run between the tackles, is effective in blitz pick-up and catches the ball well out of the backfield.
Whether Lattimore declares for the 2013 draft likely depends on the status of his recovery from knee surgery. But with a strong junior season, look for his draft stock to soar.
Like his quarterback Tyler Bray, Hunter’s sophomore season was derailed by injury, in his case a torn ACL. Hunter does not have much playing experience, but he has shown flashes of brilliance when he has been on the field and has more upside than any other potential entrant at wide receiver in the 2013 draft class.
At 6’4’’ with top-end speed and incredible leaping ability, Hunter looks like a basketball player on the football field. Hunter has size and strength to go along with his natural athleticism, and although his hands must become more consistent, he has shown the ability to make spectacular catches.
Hunter’s best assets at the next level could be his ability as a deep threat and end-zone receiver. But he also has the potential to be a standout, all-around No. 1 wide receiver. If he makes a full recovery from injury and immediately gets on the same page as his quarterback, he could be in for a big year, which could make him a first-round selection.
Florida State pass-rushing defensive end Brandon Jenkins is a rising senior who is one of the safest bets to be a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. However, Bjoern Werner, his teammate who lines up opposite him, may have even more potential as a pass-rushing end.
Werner exploded onto the scene in his sophomore season with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. He has great size for a defensive end, is very athletic and has a tremendous burst off the line of scrimmage.
Werner’s game against the run is still quite raw, but if he continues to progress, Werner could work his way up into Round 1 of the 2013 draft.
Nearly every draft class has a sleeper quarterback who rises from mid-round status or obscurity into a first-round pick. My best bet to do that in the 2013 draft is rising TCU junior Casey Pachall.
He took over last season for none other than Andy Dalton, a 2011 second-round pick who turned a tremendous career at TCU into a very efficient rookie season for the Cincinnati Bengals. As a sophomore, Pachall put up great numbers, breaking Dalton’s school records for pass completions, passing yards and completion percentage.
Pachall improved consistently over the course of last season, and like Dalton, he played his best in big games, including a 473-yard, five-touchdown performance in TCU’s memorable upset of then-undefeated Boise State. Pachall proved to have the intangibles that Dalton had at TCU, but he also has more prototypical size and athleticism, as well as a stronger arm.
Pachall has not emerged as a first-round talent yet, but it may not be too long before he does. Dalton’s early success should help Pachall, whose stock will rise if he continues to play as well or better than Dalton at TCU.
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