2014 NFL Draft Preview: Ranking College Football's Must-Watch Pro Prospects

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2013

2014 NFL Draft Preview: Ranking College Football's Must-Watch Pro Prospects

0 of 25

    It's never too early to look ahead to the next NFL draft, especially this year. 

    While the 2013 class lacked high-profile prospects and elite skill position players, the 2014 group is filled with elite talent and is shaping up to be one of the best classes in recent memory. 

    It's tough to come up with an accurate list of the top prospects a year in advance, but as we prepare for the 2013 college football season, here are 25 names you need to be paying attention to.

25. Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame

1 of 25

    Stephon Tuitt is a prototypical 3-4 defense end who racked up a team-high 12 sacks and forced three fumbles during his sophomore year at Notre Dame.

    Due to his impressive length and natural athleticism, Tuitt has the potential to climb higher on this list if he improves his consistency in 2013. 

    Tuitt frequently wins with his bull rush, but at this stage of his career he lacks an array of pass-rush moves to consistently get into the backfield at the next level. His ability to anticipate the snap count is inconsistent at best, and he's often the last lineman to react. 

24. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon

2 of 25

    Colt Lyerla is essentially an over-sized receiver in Oregon's offense, but has the physical traits to be a more traditional tight end in the NFL.

    He isn't quite on the same level as Tyler Eifert at this stage of his career, especially due to his inconsistent blocking skills, but the two tight ends have similar physical attributes. 

    Lyerla will make an immediate impact in the league as a pass-catching tight end and has the overall skills to develop into a true three-down player.

23. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

3 of 25

    This isn't a great class for senior skill position players, but Matthews is one of the few with first-round potential. 

    He reminds me of Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks when he was at North Carolina.

    Like Nicks, Matthews isn't an electric playmaker and rarely shakes defensive backs with his speed alone. But he runs crisp routes and his incredible reliably hands and body control allow him to come down with the tough catches in traffic. 

22. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida

4 of 25

    Is Loucheiz Purifoy the next Devin Hester?

    After two standout years at cornerback and on special teams, the Gators are adding wide receiver to Purifoy's list of duties in 2013. 

    No matter how Purifoy's transition to receiver turns out, he has a bright future in the NFL as a cornerback. He's incredibly quick and has the natural athleticism to allow him to run with just about any receiver.

21. Marqise Lee, WR, USC

5 of 25

    Marqise Lee is one of the most well-known players on this list, but he isn't the top-10 prospect that many early mock drafts have made him out to be. 

    While Lee is dangerous after the catch, he lacks the elite measurables to project as a dominant force at the next level. 

    Lee's speed is decent, but nothing special, and he lacks the size to battle for contested passes against more physical cornerbacks. 

    Like his former teammate Robert Woods, Lee may be better suited as a No. 2 receiver, or even as a slot receiver, in the pros. 

20. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech

6 of 25

    Logan Thomas' junior year could not have been more disappointing. And if he doesn't turn things around, he won't be long for this list. 

    In terms of raw tools, however, Thomas has what it takes to be an elite NFL quarterback. 

    His measurables compare favorably to Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger, and he showed obvious signs of NFL ability during his sophomore year, and in brief moments in 2012. 

    Significant strides need to be made, but at this stage of the process, Thomas has to be considered a potential first-round selection. 

19. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson

7 of 25

    Tajh Boyd is a tough prospect to judge, because he shows flashes of Robert Griffin III-like ability, but the consistency is lacking. 

    Like RG3, Boyd is slightly undersized but he's an electric playmaker with his feet. 

    In order to solidify his spot on the first round, Boyd needs to demonstrate the ability to pick apart a defense from the pocket.

    For all the plays RG3 made on the run during his rookie year, what landed him in the first round of the draft was his potential as a pocket passer. Those are the tools that lead to long-term NFL success and Boyd has yet to show them on a consistent basis. 

18. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

8 of 25

    Kony Ealy has the size and athleticism to follow in Aldon Smith's footsteps and become the next great pass-rusher out if Missouri. 

    At this stage of his career, the production hasn't shown up just yet—he managed just 3.5 sacks during his sophomore year—but he showed the potential for a breakout year in 2013.

    If Ealy makes the expected strides during his junior year, he will solidify his place in 2014's first round.

17. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

9 of 25

    Austin Seferian-Jenkins is on his way to becoming the next Jerramy Stevens, right down to the inconsistent play and DUI arrests.

    Like Stevens, Seferian-Jenkins has the size and athleticism to be a dominant pass-catching tight end in the NFL. But can he stay out trouble?

    Aside from the obvious concerns stemming from the DUI, Seferian-Jenkins came up small in some big games for the Huskies a season ago, struggling against Stanford and Oregon. 

16. Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA

10 of 25

    Anthony Barr's place on this list is based solely on potential. 

    He's a freak athlete, but has only one year of experience on the defensive side of the football and is clearly still learning the position. 

    Barr's read-and-react skills are severely lacking at this stage of his career, and he is so hesitant about committing to a direction that, without knowing his background, you would think he was simply lazy. 

    Despite his obvious limitations, Barr still managed an impressive 13.5 sacks based purely on his raw athleticism, which is why scouts are so excited about his long-term potential. 

    If he makes the necessary adjustments in his second year on defense, Barr could skyrocket up this list.

15. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama

11 of 25

    Cyrus Kouandjio has the skills to be a dominant run-blocker, but is he athletic enough to be the prototypical left tackle in the pros?

    Kouandjio needs to improve his ability to stay low and play with balance in order to hold his ground against the NFL's elite pass-rushers. 

    Even if he can't play left tackle in the pros, if the 2013 draft is any indication, teams are becoming more open to selecting guards and right tackles early in the draft. At worst, Kouandjio should be considered D.J. Fluker's equal and come off the board in the same range. 

14. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State

12 of 25

    Ryan Shazier isn't your typical Big Ten linebacker. 

    He's an elite athlete with sideline-to-sideline range and the speed and hitting ability of a strong safety. Shazier has also demonstrated impressive read-and-react skills.

    Those who were fans of Arthur Brown will be high on Shazier as well. He's prototypical weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 and could easily shift play inside in the 3-4 as well. 

13. Sammy Watkins, WR Clemson

13 of 25

    Sammy Watkins is only scratching the surface of his potential, but after a somewhat disappointing sophomore year, it's probably wise to leave him just outside of the top 10.

    Since he set foot on the field at Clemson, Watkins has been an elite playmaker after the catch. What makes his NFL potential so intriguing, however, is the fact that he also has the size to be a more traditional downfield threat. 

    At this stage of his career, Watkins compares to Torrey Smith, but if he learns to use his size to his advantage and become more assertive when going up for contested passes, Watkins could become a more well-rounded receiver such as Greg Jennings.

12. Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers

14 of 25

    Looking for the next Brandon Marshall? Be sure to check out a Rutgers game this fall and focus on Brandon Coleman.

    At 6'5", Coleman already possesses the size of a possession receiver, but also has the explosive athleticism and leaping ability to make him an impossible matchup for defensive backs. 

    Coleman is also deceptively fast, as he takes long strides and gets up to full speed quickly. He's an exceptionally well-rounded receiver who will never be fully appreciated at the college level due to the poor quarterback play he suffers through.

11. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State

15 of 25

    Interior defensive linemen with Timmy Jernigan's athleticism don't grow on trees. So, despite primarily playing in a reserve role in 2012, Jernigan is already considered one of the top draft prospects at his position. 

    With the Seminoles entire defensive line heading to the pros, the stage is set for Jernigan to take over in 2013. 

    The only question that needs to be answered is, how will he hold up with the full attention of the offensive line focused on him. In 2012, he was hardly the primary concern of opposing linemen with Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine lining up on the outside, but Jernigan will be the driving force behind the Seminoles pass rush this year.

10. Kyle Van Noy, LB, Brigham Young

16 of 25

    Kyle Van Noy doesn't necessarily look like an elite pass-rusher, but he is an exceptionally fluid athlete and reminds me of Von Miller in many ways. 

    Van Noy has racked up 20 sacks over the past two season, including 13 during his junior year. With another strong campaign in 2013, Van Noy can solidify his spot as a first-round pick. 

    The Cougars have a number of high-profile games on the schedule, including Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin, which will give Van Noy a chance to prove himself in the spotlight. 

9. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU

17 of 25

    Jason Verrett, a junior college transfer, is slightly undersized at just 5'10" and 188 pounds. What he lacks in size, however, he makes up for with elite athleticism.

    Verrett's best asset is his ability to turn and play ball. He has a knack for turning himself into the receiver, and displays impressive body control and leaping ability, which allowed him to lead the Big 12 in interceptions and balls defended in 2012. 

8. Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame

18 of 25

    Louis Nix is an mountain of a man and a prototypical nose tackle.

    He compares favorably to Johnathan Hankins, but was much more consistent than the recent Giants draft pick in 2012. 

    For Nix to maintain his place among the top prospects in the 2014 draft class, he'll need to avoid a Hankins-like drop in production during his junior year. It's easy for a man weighing over 330 pounds to fall out of shape, so Nix's offseason will be crucial to his long-term draft stock.

7. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

19 of 25

    The NFL draft hasn't been kind to the Big Ten in recent years, but Bradley Roby will have a chance to become the first Big Ten defensive back selected in the first round since Leon Hall in 2007.

    Roby is a fluid athlete with elite speed and reminds me of Falcons first-round pick Desmond Trufant. 

    Like Trufant, Roby is versatile. He's willing to play press coverage and get physical with the receiver, but also capable of playing off. He should fit into any system, which definitely boosts his chance of coming off the board early in the first round.

6. Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida

20 of 25

    It's tough to rank a player this high after he sat out a full year, but Aaron Lynch has rare talent. 

    After a breakout freshman year at Notre Dame in 2011, Lynch transferred to South Florida and was forced to sit out the 2012 season. 

    He'll be back on the field in 2013 and should immediately begin terrorizing Big East quarterbacks.

    At 6'6 and close to 270 pounds, Lynch has the size and also the athleticism to be a dominant edge-rusher in the NFL.

5. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama

21 of 25

    Of all the great Alabama defensive prospects to enter the draft in recent years, C.J. Mosley has a chance to be the best of the Nick Saban era. 

    His impressive read-and-react ability and the way he explodes to the ball-carrier is reminiscent of a young Ray Lewis.

    To top it off, Mosley looks fairly comfortable dropping in coverage, making him a dangerously well-rounded linebacker who could play any of the three positions in the 4-3 scheme. 

4 Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

22 of 25

    Entering the 2013 season, Teddy Bridgewater has a leg up on the competition to be the No. 1 quarterback selected in the 2014 draft. 

    If there were any doubts about Bridgewater's ability to handle elite competition, he answered those in the 2013 Sugar Bowl against Florida. 

    That said, Louisville's Big East schedule won't do Bridgewater any favors. He and the Cardinals will be favored in every game, so any slip-up along the way will be heavily scrutinized. 

3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

23 of 25

    Jake Matthews is a near clone of his former teammate Luke Joeckel and will likely fill his shoes at left tackle this season. 

    Matthews is an elite athlete, but like Joeckel, he is incredibly well-rounded and will be considered a very safe pick early in the 2014 draft. 

    The only downside to following in Joeckel's footsteps is that everything Matthews does will be compared to the second-overall pick in the draft. Any mistakes will immediately be noticed. 

2. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan

24 of 25

    Considering how the 2013 draft played out, you have to wonder if Taylor Lewan regrets not turning pro after his junior year. 

    Lewan, who played defensive end until his senior year in high school, has an impressive blend of size and athleticism and looks like a prototypical left tackle. 

    It's entirely possible that the Chiefs would have made Lewan the No. 1 overall selection had he turned pro. 

1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

25 of 25

    Jadeveon Clowney's freakish blend of size and speed makes him the heavy favorite to be the first non-quarterback selected in next year's draft. 

    Clowney reminds me of a more polished version of Ziggy Ansah. 

    Like Ansah, Clowney can win with size and speed, but also has an incredible array of pass-rush moves which makes it difficult for even the most polished offensive linemen to contain him. 

    In the NFL, Clowney will immediately require consistent doubles-teams and will alter the way opposing teams game-plan for his defense.