With football season coming to a close, it's time to look ahead to next year's NFL draft at college players who will have an impact at the next level.
In today's NFL landscape, with extensive scouting combines and pro days coming up in next few months, a lot can change between now and April. But we still have an early pulse on which players will be able translate their success to the NFL.
Here's my take on which position groups in this year's draft class have the highest collective upside heading into 2014.
This year's crop of signal-callers is top-heavy with a group of elite QB prospects expected to be taken early in the draft.
Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel are the biggest names eligible to be drafted after this season, while others such as Fresno State's Derek Carr and Central Florida's Blake Bortles have pushed their names into the conversation with strong 2013 campaigns. And don't forget about the steady hand of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron.
Bridgewater has long been the favorite to be the top quarterback drafted, although there are whispers he could be returning to Louisville for his senior season. His draft stock is as high as ever following a junior year in which he passed for 3,523 yards with a 70.2 completion percentage, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated recently predicted the Houston Texans would select Bridgewater with the first overall pick:
Manziel's exploits as a dual-threat quarterback are well known by now, and it will be interesting to see how his talents will translate to the NFL if he declares early, as expected.
Meanwhile, Ian Rapoport of NFL Media recently spoke to a general manager who said he could see Carr becoming the first player taken in the draft:
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com polled five NFL executives about the 2014 NFL draft, and two of them pegged cornerback as the deepest position group. One in particular singled out some of the top available prospects: "I've seen a lot of good cornerbacks this fall. Guys like (Aaron) Colvin (Oklahoma), (Lamarcus) Joyner (Florida State), (Justin) Gilbert (Oklahoma State) and (Jason) Verrett (TCU) are all really good players. There's also a bunch of talented underclassmen that could come out early."
Meanwhile, Rob Rang of CBS Sports labeled Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as the only surefire first-round cornerbacks of the draft class.
With the NFL's pass-heavy nature, good defensive backs are at a premium. This position group might not be as top-heavy as others, but look for solid cornerback contributors to be drafted throughout the first three or four rounds of this draft.
In his latest mock draft, Rang offered some high praise of UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, whom he predicted would go to the St. Louis Rams with the No. 2 pick: "Boasting one of the league's better pairs of defensive ends in Robert Quinn and Chris Long may not keep head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead from adding yet another pass rusher in Barr, regarded by some as the safest defensive prospect in the draft."
The 6'4", 245-pound Barr made the switch from tailback to outside linebacker in the spring of 2012 and has progressed into a defensive monster. He has 62 tackles this year, including 20 for loss, and 10 sacks.
Along with Barr, players such as Alabama's C.J. Mosley and Buffalo's Khalil Mack figure to step right in as contributors in 2014. Mosley recently was recognized for his stellar play in 2013, as noted by Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
Mack, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the nation's best outside linebackers out of the spotlight with Buffalo, as detailed by Martin Rickman of SI.com. Listed at 6'3" and 248 pounds, Mack totaled 94 tackles (19 for loss) and 10.5 sacks this season.
Three offensive tackles, Eric Fisher (No. 1), Luke Joeckel (No. 2) and Lane Johnson (No. 4), were selected in the first four picks of the 2013 draft, and the position group will be strong again in 2014.
One executive spoke glowingly to Jeremiah about this year's crop of offensive linemen: "This is going to be another great year for offensive tackles. Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) and Taylor Lewan (Michigan) are both top-10 guys and there several other potential first-round guys. I've also seen some quality interior linemen."
In his latest mock draft, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report speculated that five offensive linemen could be first-round picks. Other top prospects at tackle include Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Florida State's Cameron Erving, along with underclassmen such as Auburn's Greg Robinson and Iowa's Brandon Scherff.
Stanford guard David Yankey and Arkansas center Travis Swanson highlight the elite prospects on the interior line positions for a group that figures to make major contributions in 2014 and beyond.
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