NFL Draft 2014: Defensive Prospects with Most to Gain from Huge 2013-14 Campaign
Expectations have long been formed for the 2014 draft class, and preseason draft boards have been floating around the Internet since the 2013 draft concluded.
But a number of prospects still have a lot to prove during the 2013 season.
Here's a look at five defensive prospects who are assumed to be among the elite players in the 2014 draft class but still have a lot riding on their 2013 performances.
Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
With Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine now in the NFL, Timmy Jernigan becomes the focal point of the Florida State Seminoles defensive line.
Jernigan made just two starts a season ago, against Murray State and Savannah State, so the jury is still out on how he'll hold up in a more prominent role. However, in limited duty, Jernigan showed off legitimate first-round potential during his sophomore year.
Despite playing only a reserve role, Jernigan finished fourth on the team with eight tackles for loss and was a consistent disruptive force on the interior defensive line.
Assuming Jernigan can maintain his success in a more prominent role, he should establish himself as one of the top defensive tackles in the 2014 draft class.
Adrian Hubbard, LB, Alabama
Adrian Hubbard stepped into a starting role as a sophomore and was a strong contributor on Nick Saban's defense.
However, Hubbard failed to maintain his consistency throughout the season and needs to demonstrate the ability to contribute on a steady basis week after week.
While improvement is necessary in order to consider Hubbard an elite pass-rusher among the 2014 draft class, few coaches prepare their players for the pros better than Saban—and all signs point to Hubbard making the necessary strides during his redshirt junior year.
Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack was a first-team All-MAC selection a season ago and arguably the best all-around defensive player in the conference entering the 2013 season. He's been starter since his freshman year in 2010 and has relatively little to prove in terms of his legacy at Buffalo.
However, success in the MAC is always taken with a grain of salt by NFL scouts. Mack is a solid prospect already, but all eyes will be on him every time the Bulls take the field in 2013. If Mack can respond and continue to elevate his game, scouts will take notice.
The first round is a lofty goal for Mack, but one that is attainable if he continues to make the strides he has steadily made throughout his career.
Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida
After an impressive freshman campaign at Notre Dame, Aaron Lynch transferred to South Florida for personal reasons and was forced to sit out the entire 2012 campaign. As a result, Lynch's stock may be the most volatile of any player on this list.
Lynch has the raw skills of an elite pass-rusher and should thrive at South Florida. If he picks up where he left off—or, better yet, shows improvement—he will immediately be mentioned as a potential high first-round selection.
However, if Lynch is slow to regain his form, his stock will immediately fall and he may be forced to return to South Florida for another season in order to rebuild some momentum.
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Anthony Barr is already presumed to be a top-10 selection—in fact, he's already at No. 5 on Mel Kiper Jr.'s big board (subscription required).
Despite the early season hype, however, Barr still has a lot to prove in 2013.
Barr lined up on the offensive side of the football during his first two seasons at UCLA, before shifting to linebacker prior to the 2012 season. As a result, Barr is still raw and needs to continue his development in order to solidify his spot among the elite prospects.
While Barr is a legitimate top-10 talent, his ranking on the preseason lists is based on the assumption that he continues his development. With a solid season, he could be this year's Dion Jordan. But if he falters, Barr will tumble down draft boards.