Midway through the NFL and college football seasons, certain fanbases are already focusing in on the upcoming 2014 NFL draft. And for good reason.
If you're a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars or Tampa Bay Buccaneers—two winless teams—then you're already looking forward to next season and the potential talent that may be added this offseason through free agency and the draft. The good news is that it's draft season here, too, and more time will be devoted each week to breaking down the upcoming draft class.
Which players have helped themselves most over the last four weeks? Who is falling down draft boards? We'll keep you updated.
Current Projection: Early 2nd Round
When the 2013 college football season began, Michael Sam looked like a semiproductive college player with limited professional upside. That's why preseason projections are just that—projections.
Since the season started, Sam has been a terror for offenses to contend with. He's playing the role of edge-rusher exceptionally well and doing so against top-tier SEC offenses. Sam's nine sacks are tied for most in the nation among FBS schools, and his 13 tackles for a loss leads the nation.
Production alone isn't good enough for the NFL, though, and that's why it's important to note the athletic ability that Sam brings to the table. He's undersized at 6'2", 255 pounds to play defensive end in a conventional 4-3 defense, but in a 3-4 scheme, he's the ideal size for a stand-up outside linebacker. That's not to say teams running a 40 front wouldn't value Sam off the edge, but his natural position is likely linebacker.
The upward trend in Sam's game film is moving steadily, and his early second-round grade could become a first-round projection by season's end.
Current Projection: 1st Round
Texas A&M's Mike Evans has been one of the most productive players in college football early this season. Combine that game-day ability with his freakish size (6'5", 225 lbs), and you have a mismatch waiting to happen.
But what is the redshirt sophomore's NFL future?
During the A&M game on Saturday, I tweeted that Evans may not be an NFL wide receiver but more of a flex tight end. That's not a knock on Evans, as many took it to be, but a look at how to use him schematically. Because of his size and lack of straight-line speed, Evans will not likely be used like a conventional outside receiver.
What I love about Evans is his concentration in making tough catches, his body control adjusting to the ball and his poise and presence on sideline routes. He makes so many toe-tapping catches on the edge and in the end zone, and that's a skill that will translate to the NFL well.
The redshirt sophomore is a top-tier prospect whenever he decides to head to the NFL. That may be after this season, next season or even in 2016.
Current Projection: 4th-5th Round
Take a quick look at the numbers and you're likely to love the idea of Bishop Sankey. The junior running back is 5'10", 203 pounds and has made several highlight-reel runs this season, as he's gained over 900 yards rushing in seven games. Sounds great, right?
A look at Sankey's game film shows holes in the box score scouting report. Sankey doesn't break as many tackles as his YouTube highlights would have you believe, and for a running back with marginal open-field speed, that's an issue. Sankey, especially on inside runs, also struggles to quickly find the hole and cutback lanes. In my scouting reports, vision is one of the key traits a running back must possess, and I don't see great vision from Sankey.
If you're looking for a productive college running back, Sankey is your guy. If you're looking for a running back who will succeed in the NFL, he's done little to prove his talents will translate.
Current Projection: 1st Round
The days of the tweener are over in the NFL. Now, defenses are grabbing undersized athletes and finding ways to get them on the field as often as possible. Bruce Irvin may be the most well-known example, but every team in the league is now looking for that super-quick edge-rusher. Even if he's not big enough to play against the run right away.
The next in this line of defensive weapons is Clemson's Vic Beasley.
A smallish linebacker at 6'2", 235 pounds, Beasley shows exceptional strength to disengage from blockers and get to the quarterback. And getting to the quarterback is what he does best.
Like a slightly less athletic Von Miller, Beasley will likely have to learn to play standing up in the NFL. That's something he's capable of doing. Smart teams will look at his traits as a pass-rusher, his natural quickness and upside, and come away convinced of his first-round ability.
Current Projection: 1st Round
North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron has always been viewed as a one of the best at his position, but over the course of the season he's seen his stock soar. Now the Tar Heel has established himself as the best tight end in the upcoming draft class.
At least some of Ebron's rise can be attributed to the other tight ends he's competing with. Oregon's Colt Lyerla left the team. Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro announced he was not entering the 2014 draft. Even Austin Seferian-Jenkins at Washington has seen his stock drop due to injury and lack of production.
That leaves Ebron, who has backed up his reputation as an athlete on the field with jaw-dropping ability. While not a great blocker, Ebron is fantastic as a receiver. He's quick in and out of breaks, has the strength to fire off the line and beat press coverage and the burst to get into the open field after the catch.
Comparisons are always a little flawed and a little dangerous, but watching Ebron, I see a lot of Vernon Davis. If NFL teams agree, he'll be a first-rounder in May.
Current Projection: 3rd-4th Round
Brett Hundley looks like a franchise quarterback. He's big (6'3", 222 lbs). He's strong. He's mobile. What more could you want?
Well, accuracy and pocket presence are good places to start.
A key to quarterback performance is consistency, and so far this season, I've yet to see that from Hundley. Take the Stanford game, for example. Hundley was erratic while letting the Stanford pass rush hurry him through reads and fluster him in the pocket. You can make the excuse that the UCLA offensive line isn't very good—and it isn't—but good quarterbacks buy time in the pocket and get through their reads quick enough to overcome the offensive line.
Hundley is very much a project at this point in time. As a redshirt sophomore that's OK, but the key is for him to accept that there's work to be done. Instead of declaring for the 2014 draft, Hundley's focus should be on improving his accuracy, footwork and pocket presence for the 2015 class.
Current Projection: Late 1st Round
When evaluating draft prospects on game film, it's best to keep an eye open and an open mind as you look for truths about a player's abilities. Sometimes, when you're keeping that eye open, you notice another player and forget who you were watching in the first place.
That's what happens to me every time I try to watch Ohio State prospects Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. Instead of being able to focus on the well-known Buckeyes defenders, my eyes drift to No. 63 on the defensive line.
Michael Bennett first caught my eye during the team's game versus Buffalo. While waiting for Khalil Mack to take the field, I honed in on the Ohio State defensive line. From that point, Bennett was impossible to miss.
His first-step quickness is the best I've seen from a defensive tackle this season, and that allows him to consistently beat offensive guards and centers to the ball. While that would normally draw extra attention from blockers and cause a dip in production, Bennett has actually seen his production and impact go up as teams spend more resources trying to block him.
In a class that's likely to be light on defensive tackles, Bennett's stock is soaring.
Current Projection: Mid-1st Round
While other quarterbacks fall down the board, LSU's Zach Mettenberger continues to move up.
Mettenberger wasn't an unknown heading into the 2013 season, but he was a player you had to be careful with after an inconsistent 2012 season. That said, the talent was always there waiting to be developed. Now it has been, and Mettenberger is emerging as the top senior quarterback in the country.
The positives surrounding the big quarterback are cut from a quarterback checklist. Big, strong-armed, smart, patient and accurate to every level of the field. The quarterback's 2012 struggles in the pocket and with pressure have been fixed thanks to good coaching, and now he looks like a finished product heading into the last month of the regular season.
Mettenberger will have to prove that his one season isn't a fluke, but with his natural gifts and the improvement he's shown in just one season, it's easy to jump on this bandwagon.
Current Projection: Mid-1st Round
Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby entered the season as a potential All-American and top cornerback prospect. Then the season began.
The 2013 season has been up-and-down for Roby, who hasn't been as productive when asked to simply cover his man. Most notably against Wisconsin, where Jared Abbrederis owned him all day, Roby hasn't been as good turning and tracking his man.
That said, he's still the best cornerback in the class, just maybe not quite as elite as we once thought. What Roby does well—jam at the line of scrimmage, track the ball deep—he does very well. The issues that crept up in the Wisconsin game—guessing on routes, passing the receiver off to a safety that isn't there—can be chalked up to a bad game. The key is not to have multiple bad games.