The 2014 NFL draft might be one year away, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to see which players you will need to keep an eye on during the college football season.
These are not predictions of which players will be drafted first overall or No. 10 overall but a watch list of players eligible for the 2014 class who I will begin my evaluations with this summer. It's worth remembering that last year, Logan Thomas, Matt Barkley and Tyler Wilson were top-10 prospects.
With all of those prefaces out of the way, here is a look at my top-50 watch list heading into the summer.
50. (No. 7 QB) Derek Carr, Fresno State (6'3", 212 lbs)
The brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, the Fresno State passer has the tools to move his way into the first round with another strong year.
49. (No. 9 DE) Dominique Easley, Florida (6'2", 280 lbs)
A versatile defender who can play defensive end or defensive tackle, Easley has to find his position. Ideally he gains 15 to 20 pounds and plays inside as a 3-technique pass-rusher.
48. (No. 8 DE) Scott Crichton, Oregon State (6'3", 263 lbs)
A nonstop player on the edge of the Oregon State defense, Crichton can generate tackles for loss and sacks coming off the line of scrimmage. He could be a nice candidate to stand up in a 3-4 scheme.
47. (No. 3 ILB) Shayne Skov, Stanford (6'3", 242 lbs)
One of the better inside linebackers in 2012, Shayne Skov has room to move up draft boards with his size and run-stuffing ability between the tackles. His instincts and awareness are upper-level.
46. (No. 8 CB) Jason Verrett, TCU (5'10", 182 lbs)
You may not know Jason Verrett—an underdog at the cornerback position—but you will soon enough. He's silky-smooth in coverage and has the skills to break on the ball and make plays.
45. (No. 2 FS) Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State (6'1", 203 lbs)
The man making all those tackles behind Arthur Brown? That was Ty Zimmerman. The Kansas State free safety has the range, explosion and tackling ability to be a high-level prospect in one year's time.
44. (No. 6 QB) Aaron Murray, Georgia (6'1", 212 lbs)
A winner at the position coming out of Georgia, but Murray lacks the size and arm strength to make plays down the field. If he can improve his downfield accuracy and vision, he could move up the board, but I see another Matt Barkley in Aaron Murray.
43. (No. 7 CB) Deion Belue, Alabama (5'11", 180 lbs)
Alabama has made a tradition out of putting defensive backs into the NFL recently, and cornerback Deion Belue is next. He doesn't have Dee Milliner's size, but he's arguably better in man coverage right away.
42. (No. 1 SS) Brian Blechen, Utah (6'2", 218 lbs)
Watching Star Lotulelei on film, it was easy to see Brian Blechen showing up and playing lights out in the defensive backfield. He has the size to be a hitter and the speed to show off nice range when running to the corners of the field.
41. (No. 6 OT) Zack Martin, Notre Dame (6'4", 305 lbs)
A right tackle at the next level, or potentially even a guard, Zack Martin will have a great 2013 season, but his short arms could keep him from ever being considered a true left-tackle prospect.
40. (No. 1 FS) C.J. Barnett, Ohio State (6'0", 202 lbs)
The Ohio State defense should be amazing in 2013, and free safety C.J. Barnett will have a lot to do with that. His range, size and instincts remind me of 2013 draftee Kenny Vaccaro.
39. (No. 6 CB) Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5'11", 188 lbs)
A physical cover man with good skills at the line of scrimmage, Dennard has the size and toughness to step into the NFL as a day-one starter in a man-heavy scheme.
38. (No. 5 CB) Quandre Diggs, Texas (5'10", 200 lbs)
The brother of NFL cornerback Quentin Jammer, Quandre Diggs has the size and quickness that NFL teams want. He doesn't have great height, but he's a dog in man coverage and very fluid underneath.
37. (No. 7 DE) Kony Ealy, Missouri (6'5", 260 lbs)
A player one scout told me was the "next Aldon Smith," Kony Ealy has game-changing potential and athletic ability, but to date he hasn't put that product on the field. If he does, Ealy could easily be a top-15 player.
36. (No. 5 OT) Ja'Wuan James, Tennessee (6'6", 324 lbs)
Lost in a year with some very talented offensive linemen available is Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James. He has the strength to be a dominant force in the run game and the length and quickness to excel in passing situations.
35. (No. 4 CB) Bennett Jackson, Notre Dame (6'0", 185 lbs)
With good length and nice hips in coverage, Bennett Jackson has the talent to shoot up the board with better consistency. We'll see how he looks without Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta helping him out in coverage.
34. (No. 5 QB) Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech (6'6", 258 lbs)
A top-10 player last season, Thomas went through a horrible run of games and saw his stock decline dramatically. He needs a huge rebound to hold his spot at No. 34 overall.
33. (No. 7 OLB) Trent Murphy, Stanford (6'4", 261 lbs)
A talented three-down outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, Murphy has the tools to be an impact player off the edge. A lack of elite pass-rushing skills will keep him out of the first round.
32. (No. 2 ILB) Andrew Jackson, Western Kentucky (6'1", 262 lbs)
Try scouting Quanterus Smith in 2013 without falling in love with Jackson in the middle of the defense. He's as tough as his namesake in the middle of the defense and draws comparisons to Brandon Spikes.
31. (No. 1 TE) Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington (6'6", 267 lbs)
A DUI arrest has Seferian-Jenkins' stock in jeopardy, but when he's on the field, there is no comparison to his size, speed and open-field ability.
30. (No. 6 DE) Kareem Martin, North Carolina (6'5", 260 lbs)
A true 4-3 defensive end, Kareem Martin continues the North Carolina trend of placing defensive linemen high in preseason watch lists. He'll have to produce without Sylvester Williams next to him, which could cause his stock to fall off.
29. (No. 5 DE) Morgan Breslin, USC (6'2", 250 lbs)
A high-level pass-rusher, Breslin needs to prove that his 2012 wasn't a fluke before he's ready to be moved up draft boards. The talent is here, though.
28. (No. 3 CB) Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6'0", 195 lbs)
A long, smooth cover man, Gilbert was on my list of potential 2013 draft underclassmen. He has the tools to be a day-one starter in the NFL.
27. (No. 1 RB) Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona (5'10", 197 lbs)
An explosive back in 2012, Carey has the speed to be a threat outside the tackles and the all-around ability that fits the mold of a Jamaal Charles or C.J. Spiller type of back.
26. (No. 4 DE) Will Sutton, Arizona State (6'0", 268 lbs)
A versatile defensive lineman, Sutton spent most of the 2012 season playing inside at tackle. He's a production machine, but limited height could be an issue for NFL teams.
The Notre Dame defensive line didn't have its best game against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, but defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt did.
Tuitt has versatility at the next level as a 3-4 defensive end in a 5-technique or as a 4-3 defensive tackle playing anywhere from a 0-technique all the way down the line. He's big at 6'5" and 300 pounds but doesn't look the part and plays with excellent leverage and quickness off the line.
Tuitt fills a major need in the NFL, as many teams are moving to a 3-4 scheme and need defenders ready to step into starting roles.
NFL Comparison: Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
BYU wide receiver Cody Hoffman has unreal size and deep-threat ability with his 6'3", 215-pound frame. Not only is he big, but Hoffman also does a great job moving up the field and even laterally when asked to change direction in his route tree.
Watching Hoffman, I see a gifted athlete with upfield skills that will terrify defenses. He's a safety-beater in that he can stretch the field vertically and challenge deep coverage. Put Hoffman on a roster with a strong-armed quarterback and watch him fly.
NFL Comparison: Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Ryan Shazier is an intriguing athlete, but NFL scouts are torn already on where he'll play in the NFL.
A pass-rusher in the Ohio State scheme, he's not big enough to play on the defensive line in the NFL at just 6'2" and 222 pounds. Instead, a team will need to use Shazier as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme or maybe even as a safety in a Kam Chancellor-style role.
Despite his lack of elite size, Shazier is a football player. Put the pads on, turn on the lights and watch him make plays.
NFL Comparison: Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers
One of the more pro-ready offensive linemen in the 2014 draft class, David Yankey has the reach and footwork to excel in space. He's quicker than you'd expect when you see his compact 6'5", 300-pound frame and plays with nice agility on the edge.
Yankey is a much better pass-protector than run-blocker, but with the NFL trending more and more toward being a passing league, that's what we look for from first-round talents at the left-tackle position.
NFL Comparison: Michael Roos, Tennessee Titans
Is A.J. McCarron the ultimate system quarterback or a winner you can't afford to pass on?
That will be the major debate during his senior season at Alabama as McCarron attempts his third straight national-championship run. There is no doubt that McCarron can win and manage the talent around him, but what can he do on his own?
The Alabama system hasn't allowed McCarron to take risks or try things down the field, and as such he's really only become a good read-and-react quarterback. We'll see if he can develop into a more flexible quarterback in 2013.
If so, his stock could shoot way up the board, but McCarron also has to be considered for a big move down boards if he can't shake the "system quarterback" label.
NFL Comparison: Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
Jordan Matthews has the speed, vision and excellent hand strength to be a starting wide receiver in the NFL.
At 6'3" and 205 pounds, Matthews has the size to play physical ball in traffic, but he can struggle too often to get free at the line of scrimmage. That's a coaching point for him in the offseason and something he can definitely get better at.
Looking at his NFL readiness now, one year early, you see a player ready to break out and become an upper-level wide receiver.
NFL Comparison: Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
It's almost a yearly occurrence now that an Alabama linebacker will be drafted in the first round. Trey DePriest is next on the list.
DePriest had to step up in 2012 to replace Dont'a Hightower and did well in his role as one of the team's inside linebackers. He has the strength to lock down the run on the inside and is mobile enough to make plays outside the box.
Looking at DePriest, I see a longtime starter on the inside in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense.
NFL Comparison: Dannell Ellerbe, Miami Dolphins
Good nose tackles are harder and harder to find in the NFL as more teams start using the 3-4 defense, or at least a variation of it. With that in mind, athletic big men in the middle like Louis Nix become more valuable.
Nix was Notre Dame's best defender against Alabama, showing a big weakness in center Barrett Jones' game by digging in and driving the middle of the 'Bama line off the ball. Nix's ability to drive the center back and create havoc at the line of scrimmage makes him incredibly valuable in a one- or two-gap scheme.
NFL Comparison: Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
Physical cornerbacks with size are always enticing to NFL teams, and when that cornerback has the skills to turn and run upfield? That's where the moneymakers are found.
Aaron Colvin can be that guy. The speed, size and agility are there for him to be a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL. Coming out of the Oklahoma defense, he's ready to play man-to-man early in his career and has the toughness to lock up in those situations.
Colvin is game-ready, and with his measurables and production on the field, he's primed to move up the board.
NFL Comparison: Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears
Jackson Jeffcoat has struggled with injuries—some small, one big—but when healthy he's one of the more naturally gifted pass-rushers you'll find. He shows excellent quickness off the ball as a right defensive end and has the strength to either shed blockers or bull-rush tackles off the line.
The key for Jeffcoat is to stay healthy. If he can do that and ease concerns about his injury history, he has high-first-round potential.
NFL Comparison: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
The 2014 draft should have a stronger quarterback class thanks to guys like David Fales.
Coming out of the San Jose State offense, Fales hasn't faced the best defenses in college football, but he has the size, arm strength, agility and footwork to be a very high-level starter in the NFL. With his ability to throw on the run and anticipate throws, Fales has that "it" factor we look for when the play breaks down and the quarterback has to improvise.
How high Fales goes in the 2014 draft will depend on his level of play this year with some key pieces to the San Jose State puzzle leaving school. If he can keep his play up, he could go top-five.
NFL Comparison: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
Jonathan Brown may not have elite NFL measurables, but he plays like a top-15 pick on the edge of the Illinois defense.
Brown has range, quickness and nice instincts to attack the ball in space. Much like Lavonte David for the Buccaneers, Brown is able to use his speed and athleticism as advantages and not get caught up in traffic, where due to smaller size he could get pushed around.
Brown is a complete player and one primed to move up the board with another strong season.
NFL Comparison: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The man who kept D.J. Fluker from moving to left tackle in Alabama, Cyrus Kouandjio is a solid player but not the elite prospect some may think.
Watching him play, I see a better right tackle than left. He doesn't have that quickness coming off the line of scrimmage that is so important for a left tackle. While he does have elite strength when punching and stunning defenders, his slow feet will likely push him to right tackle in the NFL or potentially even guard.
NFL Comparison: David Stewart, Tennessee Titans
Natural pass-rushers are hard to come by in the NFL, but Alabama's Adrian Hubbard is just that.
A player I thought could have challenged for a top-20 ranking in the 2013 draft class, Hubbard has the natural strength and quickness off the edge to be an impact player in a 3-4 defense. The Alabama defense doesn't always ask him—or allow him—to simply pin his ears back and go get the quarterback, but he has flashed the ability to do so.
Once unleashed in the NFL, Hubbard has the talent to be a star.
NFL Comparison: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Anthony Barr is an all-around nightmare at outside linebacker for NFL teams. His ability to make plays on running and passing downs has him poised for an early selection next year.
Barr has the quickness in space to drop back into coverage and the closing speed to get after the quarterback, but he also plays stout against the run and isn't afraid to come into the box and attack the ball.
Like a Sean Weatherspoon clone, Barr can impact the game no matter his assignment. He's multiple and productive when asked to simply go get the football.
NFL Comparison: Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons
One of the better all-around players in college football, Bradley Roby has a chance to push himself even higher into the first round with another strong season. He'll have to do it without some of his help up front from the 2012 campaign, but I have faith in Roby's ability to dominate again.
He's a big cornerback but has quick hips and light feet. That's a rare combination for guys with his build. Roby shows a clean ability to break on the ball and excels in both man- and zone-coverage schemes.
He's close to flawless as a prospect, and if he can continue to develop at the rate I expect, Roby will be a top-10 sure thing next spring.
NFL Comparison: Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
It's always tough to make comparisons for quarterbacks with rare abilities to run, throw on the move and take over games with their individual ability. But then Robert Griffin III happened, and those comparisons are much easier.
Tajh Boyd compares to Griffin not because of his skin color, but because of his football acumen. Watching the two play, you see a similarly quick release, an ability to pick up yards and threaten a defense on the ground, and a swagger that can lead to problems when the quarterback tries to do too much.
Boyd has to overcome the same questions Griffin did about his size and the offense he runs, but there's no doubting he's one of the most electric players in all of college football.
NFL Comparison: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
During the 2012 college football season, I would cue up a BYU game with the intention of watching Ezekiel Ansah. That always turned into a full-on watching of Kyle Van Noy.
The defensive end Ansah may have generated more hype and attention due to his entry into the 2013 draft, but Van Noy was the better player in the BYU defense last season. Now that he's on his own, we may see more attention being placed his way from offensive-line coaches, but that's just fine.
Van Noy has an elite skill set when asked to come off the edge and attack the quarterback. Much like a Von Miller type, he can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, as long as you let him go after the passer on third downs.
NFL Comparison: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
If you thought first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins was something, wait until you see his teammate.
Sammy Watkins is a special, special player with the ball in his hands. He has the quickness to evade defenders in space and the speed to run away from tacklers. The Clemson offense in 2013 should be a focus in how to get Watkins the ball in space.
With a top-tier quarterback and a smart head coach, Watkins shouldn't see a drop-off in production this year. If anything, it's more likely he moves up the board and challenges our No. 1 wide receiver for the top spot.
NFL Comparison: Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks
Jake Matthews was one of the highest-rated players in my 2013 draft prep, and heading into the 2014 class, he will be again. It won't come without a test, though.
Matthews will make the move to left tackle this year, replacing No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel in the lineup. Matthews could either propel himself way up the board at that spot or risk falling down some if he can't hang on the blind side.
In a worst-case scenario, Matthews comes in and is a dominant right tackle in the NFL for a decade, but he has a chance this season to prove he belongs on the left side moving forward.
NFL Comparison: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Taylor Lewan is a man.
Turn on the bowl-game performance he had against all-everything defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and you'll see a future All-Pro left tackle at work. Yes, Clowney had two very good plays against Lewan in that game, but he was otherwise held in check all night. That's the kind of work you want to see from a stud left tackle.
Lewan isn't quite at the Luke Joeckel level for me, but I do have him rated higher on potential than Eric Fisher. If he can live up to that hype and play like he did in 2012, Lewan will be the first tackle drafted.
NFL Comparison: Jake Long, St. Louis Rams
Teddy Bridgewater is a must-see prospect over the summer. Do what you have to do, but find a way to watch this smooth operator at work.
Bridgewater is damn near perfect as a prospect. Now he's not quite there as a player, but on potential you see an athlete with a quick release, a strong arm and the feet to pick up yards when needed. He has running ability, but he's not a run-first quarterback. Bridgewater manages pressure well and in the face of some stout pass-rushers was able to make plays down the field.
He's my No. 1 quarterback heading into 2014 and a strong candidate to be the first pick overall.
NFL Comparison: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The Alabama defense will send a large number of players into the early rounds of the 2014 NFL draft. That's not a surprise. At all. But the best player on that national championship roster is one to remember.
Linebacker C.J. Mosley has the size, strength and agility to play inside or outside linebacker. Similar to Dont'a Hightower in that way, his versatility is intriguing, but if I'm an NFL coach, I want Mosley on the edge getting after the quarterback.
Mosley bends the edge well with a mixture of speed, power and the agility needed to dip his shoulder and accelerate to the quarterback. He's a little bit of Clay Matthews when unleashed to rush the backfield but has a better all-around upside.
NFL Comparison: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
It's almost unfair to see how talented Marqise Lee is, but the 2013 season won't be as easy for him with a new quarterback throwing his way and without his partner in crime Robert Woods on the other side of the field.
It is very possible for Lee to have a worse season and still see himself drafted very high when the 2014 draft gets here. His deep-threat ability and athleticism make Lee as good of a wide receiver prospect as we've seen since A.J. Green and Julio Jones entered the draft together.
Lee has the all-around skills you want from a dominant wide receiver. He has the talent to be more than just a No. 1 target. Lee has the ability to truly dominate on the outside.
NFL Comparison: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
The man, the myth, the legend. Yes, Jadeveon Clowney is as good as you've heard. Maybe even better.
Mr. Clowney may not have a specific NFL position—he can play defensive tackle, defensive end or even outside linebacker depending on the scheme—but the one thing you should know about him is that he's very, very good.
Clowney's strength and speed defy the rules of how well a person should be able to move at a certain size. He's as perfect of a defensive prospect as I've ever seen and may ever see again.
Heading into 2013, Clowney sits with the same grade I gave Andrew Luck before the 2011 college football season: a perfect 10.
NFL Comparison: Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears