College Football Players Who Should Declare Early for the 2018 NFL Draft

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2017

College Football Players Who Should Declare Early for the 2018 NFL Draft

0 of 10

    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The regular season is over. Conference championships are decided. Bowl games remain on the schedule, but there's a massive payday looming on the horizon for many talented juniors.

    In most cases, college football's superstars will elect to chase that well-deserved check.

    Texas left tackle Connor Williams highlights the small group that has already officially declared for the draft. However, other respected players are expected to join Williams in the near futureand perhaps decide whether to play in a bowl game.

    Yes, some players either want to stay or would benefit form an extra year of seasoning. But heading to the NFL as a respected prospect is often a good decision.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

1 of 10

    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Alabama has a surplus of heavily recruited receivers, but Jalen Hurts rarely looked their directions in 2017. Instead, the sophomore leaned on Calvin Ridley all season long.

    Entering bowl season, Ridley has collected 55 catchesa stunning 41 more receptions than the next-highest Alabama player in 2017. And throughout three years with the Crimson Tide, he's reeled in 216 passes for 2,710 yards and 17 touchdowns.

    SMU's Courtland Sutton and Oklahoma State's James Washington are also respected prospects, but Ridley may be the best eligible receiver.

    Additionally, he turns 23 in a few weeks. Ridley is already old for college football, and he doesn't need to prove anything more.

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

2 of 10

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Derrius Guice was a popular preseason All-American pick. However, a brief injury combined with LSU's inconsistency in the first six games removed the junior from the national conversation.

    He didn't fall off draft boards, though.

    Guice put 276 yards on Ole Miss and scampered for 147 plus three touchdowns against Arkansas. Those performances helped him recover for a second straight 1,100-yard, 11-score campaign.

    The 2018 class is loaded with talented running backs, but Guice is a first-round talent and has no business reaching Day 2.

Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame

3 of 10

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    If you believe Quenton Nelson is the best interior lineman in college football, you won't find an argument here.

    The 6'5", 330-pounder has started at left guard for each of the last three seasons. In 2015, he lined up next to Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Ronnie Stanley. Over the last two years, Nelson has formed a powerful duo with potential Day 1 selection Mike McGlinchey.

    Nelson, a finalist for the Outland Trophy, is an enormous reason the Irish boasted the third-most-efficient rushing attack in the country. Per CFB Film Room, he hadn't allowed a sack through Week 10.

    There's no question Nelson can bolster an NFL offensive line immediately.

Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

4 of 10

    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Roquan Smith gathered 95 tackles in 2016, so the college football world knew he'd be a constant presence in that category. As a junior, though, the linebacker became a playmaker.

    After recording five total tackles for loss last season, Smith has notched 5.5 sacks this year. He enters bowl season with 113 tackles, 10.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and eight hurries. Plus, per Football Study Hall, Smith leads Georgia with 11 run stuffs.

    Smith deservedly won the Butkus Award, which is presented annually to the nation's top linebacker.

    The 6'1", 225-pounder is a reliable tackler and excellent in coverage. Especially if Georgia wins the national title, Smith has little reason to return for one final college season.

Derwin James, S, Florida State

5 of 10

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Derwin James had a few lapses in 2017, but the majority of his performances were positive.

    The rangy safety tallied 84 total stops with 5.5 tackles for loss, adding four hurries for a stingy Florida State defense. James broke up 11 passes and grabbed a pair of interceptions, too.

    After earning third-team All-ACC honors as a freshman and missing most of 2016 due to a torn meniscus in his left knee, he finally received first-team recognition.

    James, who is listed at 6'3" and 211 pounds, can solidify the middle of the field both as a tackler and in coverage. And with a serious knee injury in his past, it makes perfect sense for James to pursue that first-round paycheck.

Sam Darnold, QB, USC

6 of 10

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Will he stay or will he go?

    That question is currently floating around the football world, and there might not be a resolution soon. In October, Sam Darnold was reportedly unlikely to leave. But it's absolutely possible that the redshirt sophomore could change his mind.

    While Darnold isn't a perfect prospect, he fits what teams covet in a potential franchise quarterback. He's tall, has an NFL-caliber arm, understands progressions and offers decent mobility. It's a guarantee anonymous scouts will say he "checks all the boxes."

    Based strictly on ability, Darnold doesn't need to return. He's not a finished product, but he's a probably first-round pick.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama

7 of 10

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Minkah Fitzpatrick began his Alabama career at cornerback, but he shifted to safety out of necessity last season. Well, it turns out Fitzpatrick is a first-round talent either way.

    In 2017, he's notched 52 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception. Fitzpatrick now has 163 tackles, 23 PBU and nine picks during an impressive three-year stretch with the Crimson Tide.

    According to CFB Film Room, Fitzpatrick has allowed 183 yards on 17 receptions in 34 targets this season. In 2016, he ceded 17 completions for 242 yards in 37 targets.

    Considering the massive need for flexible defensive backs in the NFL, Fitzpatrick should be a top-10 pick.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

8 of 10

    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Similar to Darnold, Josh Rosen has a couple of flaws. The junior's confidence in his arm talent can result in head-shaking interceptions that could easily be avoided.

    But when Rosen throws in rhythm, he offers a simple reminder why NFL teams have monitored the quarterback for three years.

    Rosen only needed one season to back up the hype, completing 60.0 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman. Following an injury-shortened 2016, he's posted career-high marks with a 62.5 completion percentage, 3,717 yards and 26 scores.

    Barring an unexpected development, Rosen will be considered a potential No. 1 overall selection. Throw in the burden Rosen has faced of carrying a defensively challenged UCLA team for two years, and it's time for him to chase the NFL.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

9 of 10

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Everybody say it with me: Lamar Jackson is not a wide receiver.

    The most dangerous quarterback in the nation is best known for his running ability, but Jackson has steadily improved as a passer. Over the last two seasons, he's averaged 8.7 yards per attempt while throwing 55 touchdowns compared to just 15 interceptions.

    Yes, Jackson's accuracy can be inconsistent because of unrefined footwork. With the proper coaching, though, that's easily fixed.

    All it takes is one franchise to make an early draft entry worthwhile. And there simply cannot be 32 scouting departments unwilling to snatch the opportunity to help Jackson reach his enormous potential.

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

10 of 10

    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Saquon Barkley is not the best running back in college football. He is, however, the best college football player who is a running back.

    In three years at Penn State, he never rushed for fewer than 1,076 yards. Barkley also lifted receiving totals from 20 catches for 161 yards as a freshman to 28/402 in 2016 to 47/594 this season, when he also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

    Barkley can contribute immediately as a rotational runner, third-down back and returner. And that's the worst-case scenario for the versatile star.

    Barkley should be wearing an NFL uniform in 2018.