This is not a mock draft or an attempt to predict a future that will get here in due time. Instead, consider this a friendly heads-up—a watch list for the spectacular—and a small group of immensely talented players who have the makeup to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Heading into this past offseason, it was all about former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. He was an overwhelming favorite to be the top selection the following May—riding the waves of a hit that was replayed roughly four trillion times in the months leading up to the season.
He eventually delivered on these early expectations, although the path followed was anything but expected.
This year’s batch of likely candidates doesn’t feature a Clowney. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a transcendent player in this group, but the discussion is different. It includes more names, fewer assumptions.
Although terms like “need” and “fit” loom large when it comes to the No. 1 pick, greatness typically trumps all. In the scouting world, however, greatness is usually appreciated at a handful of positions above all others.
Quarterback, offensive line and defensive line are where the scouts turn to first. It’s why you won’t see Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or Alabama safety Landon Collins on this list, although all are mandatory viewing come fall.
As for the positions that scouts salivate over and the talents that look the part physically, here is a handful of players to consider for the top spot with vacancy to be had.
Marcus Mariota (Oregon, QB)
Over the past two seasons, Marcus Mariota has accounted for 78 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions.
It’s also worth pointing out that his first interception last year came in Week 13 on a play (and a drop) that would have no business in a video game.
He is certainly aided by Oregon’s uptempo system, a system that he fits brilliantly in, but simplifying his success to an offense doesn’t take into account his plethora of tools.
At 6’4”, he has the size, and he is already listed at 215 pounds on his Oregon bio. If he can conquer his Stanford demons in 2014—and he’ll get an appetizer against Michigan State on September 6—you’ll have to dig long and hard to find holes in his game.
"He’s my top-rated quarterback and player for 2015 at this point in time,” Bleacher Report's NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller said. “If he continues to make big plays after adding some much-needed bulk in the offseason, he could be a surefire No. 1 overall pick if a quarterback-needy team lands the selection."
Those who tune in selectively will talk about the legs first—and he is gazelle-like in the open field when he wants to be—but it’s his arm that is most intriguing. It is spectacular, and he will continue to harness it in ways that push Pac-12 defenses to the brink.
Oh, and he’s entering his junior year.
Cedric Ogbuehi (OT, Texas A&M)
The run on Texas A&M offense linemen will continue, at least for one more season. After Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews were taken in the top 10 of the NFL draft, Cedric Ogbuehi has the opportunity to take it one step further.
With Joeckel and Matthews stealing headlines, Ogbuehi has quietly excelled the last few seasons. Had he left after his junior season, he might have even cracked the first round. Instead, however, he’s back at A&M for his senior year, where he’ll inherit the left tackle spot and a new quarterback to protect.
"Texas A&M has become an offensive tackle factory, but Ogbuehi is the most athletic of all their recent studs,” Miller said. “He's played right guard, right tackle and now left tackle, which will help his NFL transition greatly. If I had to bet on a tackle being a top-five pick, it would be him."
He has the build (6’5”, 300 pounds) and a recent draft pedigree to stand behind. He’ll also be blocking for one of the nation’s best stable of running backs, headlined by Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams.
Look for him to move large human beings backward—at a new position—soon.
Jameis Winston (Florida State, QB)
The scouting process on him will be complex—whenever he decides to leave—although there’s clearly an abundance of talent. You don’t stumble into a Heisman; it doesn’t matter how much talent there is around you.
Mechanically, Jameis Winston can still tighten up his game, and he will. What Winston showed off in his one and only season as starter—which is easy to forget—is his powerful arm and massive 6’4”, 240-pound frame that can be difficult to bring down.
He also has the improv gene, the kind of thing that can be difficult to describe on a scouting report and taxing on your DVR. He is, despite still having ample room for growth, required watching.
“Winston is not the flawless prospect many will tell you he is, and he still needs work,” Miller said. “But he has as much raw talent as anyone in college football.”
What does Winston have in store for an encore? Despite the loss of wideouts Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, the team is still ripe with playmakers. And with a full lineup of less-than-stellar ACC defenses on the docket, the numbers will still be there.
Where the scouts take it from there is another conversation entirely.
Andrus Peat (Stanford, OT)
He’s not quite a household name yet, but that will change.
Andrus Peat is the latest and greatest in a recent run of magnificent linemen at Stanford, and he might be the most athletically gifted yet. At 6’7” and more than 310 pounds, he’s still growing into his body. And, as he enters his junior year, he’s still learning the nuances of the position.
Still, Peat started at left tackle for one of the nation’s most dominant offensive lines in 2013, and the buzz surrounding his play is only just beginning to churn.
“He's not getting enough love, and he’s tough as nails,” Miller said on Peat. "He's so good at locking on and driving defenders downfield in the run game, and I've seen him take guys to the third level. He could be in play for the top tackle spot."
The bigger question for Peat: Who will be running behind him?
Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney—the team’s lead rushers the past two seasons—are gone. They combined to rush for 3,230 and 34 touchdowns the past few seasons, which says plenty about the people creating holes.
Just pencil in the starter—whoever it ends up being—for 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. With guys like Peat moving bodies, you could average 3.5 yards per carry in this offense.
Randy Gregory (Nebraska, DE)
In 2012, Randy Gregory was viewed as one of the top JUCO players in the nation. When he arrived at Nebraska, the 6’6”, 245-pound defensive end instantly became one of the most explosive defensive players in the nation.
Gregory closed out the season with 10 sacks in his final eight games for the Cornhuskers. With another offseason under his belt, he’s expected to add more weight to his Clowney-like frame and continue to develop at the position.
His interception and touchdown return against South Dakota State gives you an idea of just what kind of athlete he is. This all looked far too easy.
"He could have been the second defensive end drafted in 2014, and he is my top-ranked defensive player for next year,” Miller said. “His quickness, flexibility and violent style of play are all exactly what you want from a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker.”
He is, quite simply, a terror. And he will continue to be a terror, putting Big Ten quarterbacks in difficult positions while giving curious scouts plenty to think about.
Others To Keep an Eye On (and Enjoy)
Leonard Williams (Southern Cal, DT): A 2013 All-American and a defensive lineman who can play every position (and play them all incredibly well). His versatility is rare, and at 6’5”, 290 pounds he can fly. He’s coming off a torn labrum, but it shouldn’t slow him down once the season starts.
Brett Hundley (UCLA, QB): He’s not on the same development path as the quarterbacks mentioned above, but he has incredible physical tools and more room for growth than anyone mentioned. He’ll have to take significant strides to enter the conversation, but these are strides he can make.
Mario Edwards Jr. (Florida State, DE): The defensive ends listed here will certainly post better sack numbers, but none present the physical presence that Edwards brings. He’ll tip the scales at nearly 300 pounds this year, and there aren’t many 300-pounders built like this. A freak in every sense of the word, his development could be dazzling.
Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.