The NCAA and NFL football seasons are far from over, but for the truly prospect-crazy, the NFL Draft is always in season. Buffalo Bills fans care not whether the Bills finish 1-15 or 2-14; they want to know whether the team will get a chance to select junior quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford next April when the Bills, inevitably, have the first selection.
Even as NFL fans and teams begin to make firm evaluations of players, though, dozens of early-round hopefuls have been jockeying for position in next year's Draft for months. Some players have broken out in a big way this season, while others have disappeared at key moments and may tumble down the draft board.
Which 20 guys have done themselves the most favors with prospective NFL teams this season? Who will rise from modest second-round money to first-round riches? Who has already made the jump into top 10 discussions? Read on.
Big Number 92 helped the Tigers oust Alabama this week and was named National Defensive Player of the Week. He racked up six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in that game alone.
Nevis has hardly had an off game all season, showing off a full repertoire of skills as a highly mobile force in the middle of the defensive line. His performance against Florida guard Michael Pouncey, whom many consider a top prospect at that position, proved he is an elite defensive tackle in the toughest conference in the country.
He has answered a lot of questions about his size (6'1", 285 pounds; hardly a lightweight but a bit small for an NFL DT) by dominating more thoroughly than ever in the running game this year. Nevis was already a potential first-rounder, but now he seems almost sure to go sometime in the top 32 picks.
Smith is as good a run blocker as you would expect a man of his tremendous size to be, and gained a bit in playing time over his first three seasons by clearing paths for the Hokies' running backs. He did little aside from blocking, though, and had scored only two total touchdowns in three seasons entering this year.
Smith has been a revelation in 2010. He scored his fifth touchdown of the season against Georgia Tech Thursday, despite playing through a chest injury for part of the season.
He is still no stud, but he will almost certainly get picked during the latter rounds, which was hardly a given before the season began. Smith has the sky for his ceiling if he continues to improve his agility, and could be the next coming of Keith Jackson.
Leshoure is only a junior and may yet elect to stay in school and work on being a top-tier back in the 2012 Draft. But that is not the point. A year ago, it was hard to imagine Leshoure would have such a legitimate dilemma.
Leshoure had a good sophomore season, but he has broken out in a huge way this year—nine rushing and three receiving touchdowns already, not to mention 1,154 all-purpose yards. He has turned the dial to ridiculous in the past two games, with eight total touchdowns.
Carimi has the size and agility to play at the next level, but scouts have never been wild about him. His build is almost that of a skill position player, which some thought would take away from his ability to handle powerful bull rushers.
Instead, Carimi has thrown himself around the offensive backfield, often blocking more than one player at a time. His engine never stops running, and that has translated into two major statement games wherein Carimi has shut out the Big Ten's best defensive pass rushes. Scouts remain inexplicably skeptical in some circles, but in the end, Carimi has earned himself a late first-round selection that looked unlikely before the season.
Carter stands 6'2" and weighs in at only 240 pounds, a bit undersized even if he moves into a pass-rushing linebacker role. For that reason, scouts had seen him as a late-round pick and part-time player at the NFL level. Carter entered the season as a less-than-superstar player at a non-BCS school; his draft outlook was not good.
In 2010, though, Carter has been everywhere. He has 44 tackles, 14 for loss and has added nine sacks. He has also notched five quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Carter's speed was a known quantity, but he has demonstrated his strength and tackling ability in 2010 and now stands a great chance of being drafted in the middle rounds—a far cry from his preseason prognosis.
The small, speed-oriented rusher has been in vogue in the NFL for a while, but more traditional defensive ends like Julius Peppers and Mario Williams have proved that the best and most consistent path to the quarterback is still straight through the offensive player.
Bowers stands 6'4" and weighs 280 pounds, making him just the kind of guy to fit that mold. Bowers had only four sacks in his first two seasons of playing time with the Tigers, but has 13 already this season—tops in the nation.
He might have gone on day two of the draft prior to this season, but it was hardly a certainty that he would be a second-round selection. He had something to prove, and he has already done so. If he does not go in the first round now, it will surprise everyone.
Sherrod was relatively unheralded even as a junior, despite a 6'6", 305-pound frame. The consensus among scouts seemed to be that he let power rushers get inside his pads and drive him backward too often, and that was a fair accusation at times. Like almost every other top tackle prospect in this year's class, Sherrod favors length and agility, rather than pure power.
This season, though, he has left little room for criticism. He has earned the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week award three times this year and, without adding much weight or obvious bulk, he has learned to muscle up against power pass rushers and in the running game. He may yet become the top tackle on the experts' draft boards.
Dalton has been at the helm of the TCU offense ever since arriving on campus, but he hardly garnered any serious consideration as a top draft-ready quarterback prior to this season. Size (he stands a sturdy 6'3") and athleticism have never been at issue for Dalton, but his chops as a pure passer have been on display all year in 2010.
The result is a quick climb up the draft chart for quarterbacks in a year when other elite prospects (Nathan Enderle and Jake Locker, especially) have come back to the pack. Dalton now has a chance to go in the first round in April.
Taylor is a tall guy at 6'2" and weighs in on the right side of 300 pounds, so he could even move to guard if needed down the road. In the meantime, he hits like a truck when he gets a chance to come straight off the line and block for runners. Taylor got little run during his early years (as most centers do) but has earned a sliver of spotlight this season as the Utah offense has run wild.
Taylor is one of those guys who has benefited as much from the improvement and increased visibility of his team (last week's drubbing from Dalton's TCU squad notwithstanding) as from his own emergence. Still, he now has the attention he deserves as one of the nation's best centers and a sure second-to-fourth round pick.
In a year that has seen the Huskies steamroll their way through the MAC toward a third straight bowl berth, Spann has broken out in a big way. Never the full-time starter prior to this season, he has over 1,000 yards on the ground through nine games.
At 5'9" and a shade under 200 pounds, Spann is a bit undersized, and his hands are so small that he could occasionally have trouble holding on to the ball. Still, after an impressive season like this one, he could follow a path blazed for him by NIU alumnus Garrett Wolfe, whom the Bears drafted in 2007 and who has played a key role on special teams and occasionally as a complementary back.
Jenkins has always had the skills, but his size (a shade under six feet) and inconsistency made him an almost certain four-year guy who would need to build his draft stock well into his senior year. No more.
Jenkins put the clamps to Georgia's elite wide receiver A.J. Green, and in doing so made his case as one of the three best cornerbacks in next year's draft. He projected as a second-rounder when the season began, but now that he looks like a top-half of the first round type of guy, he might forgo his senior season.
Luck had hardly any room to rise, as some had him at the top of the draft board even before this season. If he elects to come out after his junior year now, though, he will be the utterly unquestioned top pick.
Luck has thrown 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions this season, totaling over 2,200 yards in only nine games. He has Peyton Manning size (6'4", 235 pounds) but quite a bit more mobility—witness his 401 rushing yards on the season.
He would have made mega-bucks even before this impressive campaign, but he may have earned himself the rarefied riches that only come with being far and away the best option on the board.
Love has taken advantage of the weaker-than-usual crop of tackles by stepping forward to join the top tier in 2010. He stands 6'5" and weighs in at 315 pounds, so he has the size and strength for the position. He is the opposite of many of his peers in some respects, in that he must improve the finesse dimension of his game—especially his footwork—rather than the power dimension.
Love was no candidate for first-round consideration at the outset of the season, but he may merit a Top 25 pick.
Devlin has history on his side, as he plays for Joe Flacco's alma mater and has a similar profile. Given Flacco's surprisingly quick success in the NFL, teams may be more inclined to look at Devlin.
On the other hand, he has a fair amount to overcome. In an offense that usually favors the spread passing game (Devlin attempted 344 passes in 11 games last year), Delaware has gotten a bit more balanced. Devlin has been ultra-efficient, completing over two-thirds of his 197 passes and throwing seven touchdowns against just one interception. Still, the lack of big-time stats may work against him.
Overall, though, Devlin has proved what those who took an interest in him hoped he would this year, operating well even outside the sort of volume offense that had been the norm in Delaware. He could go as soon as the third round.
Paea is a classic fill guy in the middle of a defensive line, forcing double teams with his sheer size (6'1", 315 pounds) and muscle. He was a stout run stopper in 2009, but has risen to the top 10 on some draft boards this year by becoming a more disruptive force in the passing game. He has four sacks and has wrought havoc in backfields all season long. He often lacks the speed to run down backs for the tackles, but he forces plays to go wholly different directions than the offense had intended.
He fires off from his stance like, well, a cannon, and is excellent in both the run and passing games. Cannon's emergence as a top prospect has been aided by the rise of TCU to elite status, and he could rise even further if the team continues its torrid run.
Cannon's colossal size (he weighs in a shade over 350 pounds) has some concerned, but his sheer power and his all-trunk build scream pulling guard if he does not work out as an NFL left tackle. He looks like a solid prospect, and his ability to avoid wild weight fluctuations will help quiet scouts' concerns about his body.
When Miller elected to stay in school after recording 17 sacks last season, many thought it could only hurt his draft stock. He tumbled on 2011 boards before the year began.
He may yet go lower than he was projected in the 2010 draft, but he has worked hard to become more complete and has done an excellent job this season. At 6'3" and 243 pounds, he needs to be able to drop into occasional pass coverage to be a good NFL 3-4 linebacker, and he has improved by leaps and bounds in that department.
He also had his best game of the season (eight tackles and two sacks) against Oklahoma last week, the best possible time to showcase what he can offer at the next level.
The ideal defensive end in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL, Watt has been a breakout superstar and helped Wisconsin surprise ostensible Big Ten elites Ohio State and Iowa. He recorded just 44 tackles and four sacks all year in 2009; he already has 43 and six sacks this season.
Watt has length (he's at least 6'5") and bulk (292 pounds) and can rush the passer without getting dangerously wide of his run responsibility. He has all the tools to play in the NFL, and a typical Wisconsin defender's motor to fuel that game. The Green Bay Packers, incidentally, could use someone exactly like Watt to fill out their talented defensive front.
Maehl was a fringe prospect entering 2010, a guy who had good but not great skills in every important facet of the game at wide receiver. He caught 53 passes in 2009 for 696 yards, but he was not a superior talent in any way.
This year, he has already eclipsed his career highs: 54 catches, 746 yards and an impressive 10 touchdowns, all of which are only symptoms of a larger change in the way he plays. Maehl is not a huge player, but he has developed the ability to use his body perfectly in getting position and creating separation. If he finishes the season strong, he is a top-tier receiving prospect.
All the JUCO transfer Newton has done is run away from the field in the Heisman Trophy race and lead Auburn to the brink of a national title game appearance. Alleged improprieties aside, his on-field performance has boosted him from a late-round sleeper who would realistically never have come out to an almost surefire late first-round pick.
The best thing for Newton may actually be to stay in school and get more seasoning, but that may not be an option if the NCAA and the media continue to hound him this way. While he waits to hear what his future holds, Newton will have to content himself with the notion that he is college football's best player and biggest surprise so far this season.