Rising College Football Juniors Who Are NFL-Ready Now
Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could have left college after two years. But how often does a player like Clowney come along? Once every few years? Once a generation?
The demands of football make it difficult, if not impossible, for a player to be ready for the NFL right out of high school. However, there are a select few who could make the jump in less than three years after leaving high school—the minimum requirement.
With college football at a crossroads, more and more players are leaving early searching for a paycheck. If the three-year rule was lifted, many more would make that decision earlier.
Which rising juniors (redshirt or otherwise, along with redshirt sophomores) are actually NFL ready now, though? We take a look in the following slides.
Florida State QB Jameis Winston
Jameis Winston is a redshirt sophomore this year, meaning he is three years removed from high school. Barring a major surprise, he will undoubtedly go pro in the 2015 draft. As he should.
Winston was NFL ready yesterday. If he had the option to leave after the 2013 season, there's a reasonable chance he would have. And he might have been in the discussion as a No. 1 pick.
Winston has everything pro organizations look for in a franchise player: ideal size (6'4", 235 pounds), good arm strength and leadership qualities. In addition to leading Florida State to a national championship in 2013, he became the second straight freshman, redshirt or otherwise, to win the Heisman.
It's not often guys are ready to go pro one or two years into their college football careers. If nothing else, there's a physical maturation that has to take place. Winston is about as close as they come, though.
Georgia RB Todd Gurley
Football may not be a running back's game anymore—at least not to the level it used to be—but Georgia's Todd Gurley is the best at his position.
Recently, B/R's Michael Felder ranked Gurley the No. 17 player in all of college football—tops among all running backs.
At 6'1" and 232 pounds, Gurley is the epitome of the power back. He's not going to be the fastest person on the field, but he does have excellent burst and is going to be one of the hardest to bring down. In a day where running backs take on "role player" jobs, Gurley can do it all, including catch out of the backfield.
He's the Bulldogs' best offensive weapon. If he could leave for the NFL before the three-year rule, he would have. He's good enough to be an immediate contributor at the next level already.
After an injury-filled sophomore campaign in 2013, he should have been able to move on.
Miami RB Duke Johnson
Like Gurley, Miami running back Duke Johnson had his 2013 season cut short because of an ankle injury.
Unlike Gurley, Johnson is lightning in a bottle. In the eight games before his injury, Johnson averaged 6.3 yards per carry and had six touchdowns.
Whether it's in the return game or taking a handoff, Johnson is the score-from-anywhere threat that gets people excited. It seems like Johnson is a living, breathing highlight reel.
When you have that kind of athleticism and speed, the ceiling at which you can play is almost always high. NFL organizations draft on what a player can do, not necessarily what they've done in college. His position coach at the next level is going to coach him up anyway.
And Johnson can pretty much do it all.
Stanford OL Andrus Peat
It can be difficult for offensive linemen to make an immediate impact at the college level. Stanford tackle Andrus Peat is obviously the exception.
As a true freshman in 2012, Peat, a former 5-star prospect, played in 13 games and averaged about 20 snaps per game (according to GoStanford.com). As a sophomore last season, Peat started all 14 games for the Cardinal and was named an All-Pac-12 second-team selection.
With so much emphasis on pass protection, Peat would be a valuable draft pick at the left tackle position. CBSSports has Peat rated as the No. 1 offensive tackle for the 2016 class—should Peat decide to return for his senior season.
If he's considered one of the best tackles in the 2015 draft, though, he'll have a lot of thinking to do.
Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon
You may be noticing a theme by now, which is that many running backs are ready for the NFL by the time they reach their second or third year in college.
That has a lot to do with the shelf life at the position combined with the demands.
Alabama has had a recent string of excellent running backs and T.J. Yeldon is just the latest. For his two-year career, Yeldon has averaged more than six yards per carry with 27 total touchdowns. He has a unique blend of size, speed and power that makes him one of the all-around best backs in the country.
Yeldon looked like he was NFL-ready after his freshman season in 2012. All the '13 season did was affirm that he's been ready to move on for a while.
Auburn LB Kris Frost
Auburn linebacker Kris Frost is starting to hit his stride. As a middle linebacker for the Tigers in 2013, Frost competed for playing time with then-senior Jake Holland.
However, Frost, a soon-to-be redshirt junior, and his skill set should be better utilized as an outside linebacker in 2014. Here's what B/R's Barrett Sallee said about the move last month:
Frost is big, has fantastic lateral movement, is good in coverage and quick to the football, which makes him more dangerous in space than McKinzy. Now he's going to have that space to work with on top of a foundation of success late last season that he can build off of.
Frost was productive for Auburn—he had 13 tackles and a forced fumble in the SEC and BCS championships last season—despite not being the full-time starter.
Now out in space more, Frost will be able to better showcase his abilities. If the NFL is looking toward upside, Frost has it. His position switch makes for a riskier take, but Frost should prove he's ready to move up the ladder in short order.
Michigan TE Devin Funchess
With players like Texas Tech's Jace Amaro and North Carolina's Eric Ebron, tight ends are showing they're ready to jump to the NFL as soon as possible.
Michigan's Devin Funchess is right there with them.
A semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, Funchess was second on the team last season in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (six).
And therein lies Funchess' greatest asset: his hands. He's a great receiver who is able to beat out defenders for the ball. What's more is that he has excellent speed. He's still not the best blocker, but at 6'5" and 230 pounds, he acts like a big-target wide receiver.
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Like others on this list, Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs is coming off a season-ending injury.
If Diggs had it his way, he would probably go ahead and declare for the NFL so that he can finally get paid for his talent. He has little to prove by coming back for another season.
Diggs has been an impact player for the Terps since arriving on campus as a freshman in 2012. He averages an impressive 16 yards per reception for his career, showing just how much of a deep threat he can be.
A broken fibula ended his '13 season, but he still finished statistically as the second-leading receiver on the team. He has excellent speed and is fluid in open space. He would be a solid addition to any NFL roster right away, as he grows in other aspects of his game.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. Michael Felder contributed to this list.