Over the course of any college football season, players are bound to rise and fall down the fickle entity we call the draft board.
Most prone to these changes in stock are juniors––those who haven't had an extra year to realize their potential. When it happens it's a beautiful thing, and NFL scouts and pundits alike take notice.
Let's take a look at a way-too-early mock draft, focusing on some eligible underclassmen who have vaulted up the board.
*Draft order based on current NFL Standings*
1. Kansas City Chiefs: QB Geno Smith – West Virginia
The astounding success of Robert Griffin could propel dual-threat Smith over sure-thing pocket passer Matt Barkley. Either way: If the Chiefs are picking here, they aren't looking at anything but a quarterback. (That is, unless they're allowed to draft a head coach instead).
2. Carolina Panthers: DT Star Lotulelei – Utah
Even after using two third-round picks on defensive tackles in 2011, it's absurd that the position is still Carolina's biggest need. Fortunately, help could be on the way in the form of Lotulelei, who would immediately help fortify the middle of their defense.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Matt Barkley – USC
It would be tougher to give up on Blaine Gabbert so soon if Barkley didn't fall right into their lap. It'd also be tougher if Blaine Gabbert didn't keep playing like, well...Blaine Gabbert. You can't win without a quarterback, so the Jags are right to take the Golden Boy.
4. Cleveland Browns: DE Barkevious Mingo – LSU
After spending a fortune on strengthening the offense in the 2012 NFL draft, the Browns are forced to turn to the defense. The pass rush is suspect on multiple levels, and Mingo has the athleticism and versatility to play both end and linebacker.
5. New Orleans Saints: LB Jarvis Jones – Georgia
Featuring Jones as a "rising underclassman" by no means indicates he came out of nowhere. In fact, Bleacher Report's own Sigmund Bloom ranked him the No. 15 prospect heading into the season.
But now he's in a whole new stratosphere.
In fact, after a dominant performance against Florida this weekend, ESPN.com's Mel Kiper shuffled up his draft board, Jones came up on top!
Although Jones profiles as a 3-4 linebacker, it's hard to see the Saints––whose defense couldn't stop a nosebleed right now––passing on a versatile defender of Jones' caliber. With the ability not only to rush, but also to cover, Jones could be a fit in any system he wants.
6. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): OT Luke Joeckel – Texas A&M
Washington traded this pick to St. Louis in order to solve their biggest problem, quarterback. In a poetic feat of symmetry, St. Louis will use the pick they received to solve their biggest problem, offensive tackle. Unlike the uber-athleitc Jason Smith, whom the Rams drafted No. 2 overall, Joeckel is a technician, which makes him a far safer bet in the NFL.
7. Tennessee Titans: LB Manti Te'o – Notre Dame
For a team this hapless, the Titans have surprisingly few glaring holes on their roster. Colin McCarthy isn't the worst inside backer on the planet, but drafting Te'o––the best defender in college football right now––would be an undeniable improvement.
8. St. Louis Rams: G Chance Warmack – Alabama
They'd love to trade down and get better value on a receiver or safety, but drafting where they are, St. Louis goes after more help on the offensive line. Warmack is as safe a bet as there is in the draft. Between him and Joeckel, the Rams won't get much sexier, but they will get much better.
9. New York Jets: QB Logan Thomas – Virginia Tech
Thomas hasn't shown the hoped-for improvement in his junior season, but his eye-popping skill set will be too much for the Jets to pass up. His ceiling is high, but unlike some other QBs in this draft, his basement is just as low as the Jets' current "quarterbacks." This would not put an end to the drama.
10. Philadelphia Eagles: OT Taylor Lewan – Michigan
Andy Reid has a fetish for drafting linemen even when he doesn't need to. Now, for the first time in God knows how long, he actually does! Even if Andy is long gone, Jason Peters' injury is of the career-threatening variety. Look for Taylor Lewan to be protecting Nick Foles' blind side in Philly next year. God, I never thought I'd be saying that in 2012.
11. Cincinnati Bengals: WR Keenan Allen – California
More than anything, the Bengals need playmakers opposite A.J. Green, who faces constant double-teams from opposing secondaries. Keenan Allen knows the feeling. He gets less publicity than Robert Woods, but most scouts believe Allen is the better prospect. Bit of a stretch, but he fits a need.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DE Damontre Moore – Texas A&M
Moore has been impossible to block for two seasons now, but is only now getting the requisite adulation. Why? He's playing in the SEC.
With 10.5 sacks thus far in 2012, Moore has vaulted the likes of very qualified pass-rushers––Sam Montgomery, Bjoern Werner, etc.––who started the season ahead of him.
Moore has lived up to the huge shadow left to him by Von Miller and could help fortify a Bucs pass defense that has far underperformed their run unit this season.
Mel Kiper Jr. has him all the way up to No. 4 on his big board.
13. Buffalo Bills: WR Robert Woods – USC
Like Keenan Allen, Woods could also be seen as a stretch this early––especially with so many high-quality defensive linemen still on the board. But this is a need pick for Buffalo. Woods gives them an immediate upgrade opposite Stevie Johnson, which should allow them to finally get a good read of Ryan Fitzpatrick's future.
14. Detroit Lions: DE Bjoern Werner – Florida St.
The towering German had a late introduction to the game of football which, given his current rate of play, makes his ceiling unthinkably high. The Lions love mean pass-rushers and Werner fits the bill.
15. Oakland Raiders: CB Dee Milliner – Alabama
The Raiders' secondary consists of second-rate players and castoffs. Enter: Dee Milliner. The Alabama product is a true old-school Raider––despite playing a "finesse" position, he loves to hit people and get physical. He'll be the best Oakland has seen since Nnamdi.
16. Dallas Cowboys: DE Sam Montgomery – LSU
He put on a lot of size this offseason and now has everything it takes to be a productive 3-4 end. He's got a high-motor and,unlike the team we have drafting him, he's used to winning football games (sorry, I had to). Dallas has a need too––perfect fit.
17. San Diego Chargers: DT Johnathan Hankins – Ohio State
In real life, somebody would have traded up for Hankins by now. Here, he drops all the way to San Diego. Aubrayo Franklin isn't getting any younger in the middle of that defense, and Hankins has the size need to play NT in the 3-4.
18. Seattle Seahawks: DT Sharrif Floyd – Florida
A huge star coming out of high school, Floyd initially struggled to realize his full potential. But now he's playing like a star. He played very well against Georgia, and could be a real asset in Seattle, where the Seahawks could use some defensive line depth to supplement their all-world secondary.
19. Arizona Cardinals: QB Tyler Bray – Tennessee
At this point it's clear, crystal clear, that neither John Skelton nor Kevin Kolb is the answer at quarterback for Arizona. In real life, the incompetence of those two might have Arizona drafting high enough to get a better prospect. Here, they have to settle (well, not really) for the tantalizing upside of Tyler Bray's arm.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers: OT Eric Fisher – Central Michigan
As usual, the Steelers have a glaring need on the offensive line. Here they turn to mid-major prospect Fisher, a 6'8" bruiser with insanely long arms. He could plug in on either side of the line (presumably the Steelers haven't quite given up on Mike Adams) and be an immediate upgrade on what they have.
21. Indianapolis Colts: RB Le'Veon Bell – Michigan State
With the injury to Marcus Lattimore, things got a little muddled atop the running back big board. Fortunately, Le'Veon Bell has been proving all year that he deserves to be a first-round pick.
Unlike last year, where Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin lit up the air, Michigan State has had one of the nation's most bungling pass attacks in 2012. That's allowed defenses to key in on Bell with eight guys in the box.
And yet somehow, Bell still continues to astound with broken tackles, cutbacks and aerial assaults.
The Colts need a workhorse to build around, and Bell would complement Andrew Luck very well on first and second down.
22. Miami Dolphins: WR Justin Hunter – Tennessee
Perhaps in a less hypothetical draft, the Dolphins would have a shot at Keenan Allen or Robert Woods. Here they get Tyler Bray's favorite weapon, Justin Hunter, whose season has been a success just by staying healthy. He's 6'4" with burners, and although he's a project, he has the tools to become a great one––something Miami desperately needs at the position.
23. Denver Broncos: DT John Jenkins – Georgia
The interior of Denver's defensive line hasn't been the same following the loss of Broderick Bunkley. Jenkins is a massive space eater who goes 358 and doesn't move (particularly) bad for his size. He could help fortify the Broncos run defense with his gap-shooting abilities.
24. Green Bay Packers: OT Jake Matthews – Texas A&M
Matthews, whose partner Joeckel went earlier in this mock, doesn't get the praise he deserves, but he's an all-around solid tackle. We all saw what happened to the Packers offensive line in Seattle this year. Seems like a match made in football heaven.
25. Minnesota Vikings: CB Jonathan Banks – Mississippi State
Depending on how you view Christian Ponder, the secondary is clearly Minnesota's most glaring need. Drafting Harrison Smith last year helped, but now they could use some playmaking on the outside. Banks is a long, rangy athlete who can fit their scheme and make big plays.
26. New England Patriots: S Eric Reid – LSU
The Pats are always in the market for help in the back end, and Reid seems like the best candidate to give it to them. Tyrann Mathieu was supposed to be the LSU defensive back du jour in 2013, but his suspension and Reid's subsequent improvement have made him the guy.
27. Baltimore Ravens: DE Tank Carradine – Florida St.
Given the barrage of injuries they've incurred in 2012, the Ravens need as much defensive depth as possible. Carradine, a former JUCO star, has shown a mean streak this year for the Seminoles––just the way Baltimore likes it. He's big and strong too, and could be a nice addition for the Raven's hobbled defense.
28. San Francisco 49ers: DT Sheldon Richardson – Missouri
What do you give to the team that has everything? How about the best player left on the board. San Fran whiffed in the first round last year, taking A.J. Jenkins, so they'd be wise to take a safe bet here. Richardson can play in any system and would provide great defensive line depth for the Niners...not that they really need it.
29. New York Giants: OG Jonathan Cooper – North Carolina
Tom Coughlin takes a page out of Andy Reid's old book, drafting preemptive depth along his offensive line. The Giants look great on paper right now, so they'd be wise to take a guy who can fill in any injuries along the interior now and become a solid starter down the line. Cooper is that guy.
30. Chicago Bears: LB Alec Ogletree – Georgia
Ogletree, fresh off a suspension, made 14 tackles against Tennessee this year––a testament to his unprecedented raw ability. He's not polished, but as an athlete, he has the chance to be special.
Learning under the tutelage of Brian Urlacher, Ogletree could soon become the Bears' starter and a monster in the NFL.
He flies to the ball like a true Chicago Bear, and would willingly embrace the snarling attitude of their defense. Ogletree is a name to watch.
31. Houston Texans: OT Dallas Thomas – Tennessee
Houston could use some depth along the offensive line, and Dallas Thomas is probably the next best guy left on the board. He looked really good against a predictably stout Alabama defensive line last week which left some scouts drooling. Duane Brown needs another stud opposite him, and Houston might try to make Thomas that guy.
32. Atlanta Falcons: DT Sylvester Williams – North Carolina
As one would predict with a 7-0 team, the Falcons don't have too many glaring holes to worry about. The defensive line has gotten inconsistent down the stretch in recent years, which might indicate a lack of depth. Williams is probably going a few spots too low for his talent level and could help out big time in a rotational position.