5 Players Who Would have Been Top NFL Draft Picks If They Were Eligible

Brent SobleskiJune 22, 2022

College Football: SEC Championship: Alabama Will Anderson Jr. (31) in action vs Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta, GA 12/4/2021 CREDIT: Kevin D. Liles (Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X163878 TK1)
Set Number: X163878 TK1

The 2022 NBA draft opens for business Thursday evening at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Wait, you thought this article was about future NFL talent? It is. But a significant differentiation exists between the two sports in regards to eligibility standards.

The NFL currently requires a prospect be three years removed from high school before he's deemed eligible to play. Whereas, the NBA demands a one-year requirement before entering the draft.

The general argument in favor of the extended waiting period centered on the vast majority not being physically or mentally prepared to endure the rigors of professional football. This isn't the case with everyone, though.

The likes of Adrian Peterson, Trevor Lawrence and even Derek Stingley Jr., who became this year's third overall pick, showed how silly the NFL's standing can be when it comes to truly elite talent. But 14 years have passed since Maurice Clarett challenged the standard only to have the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit rule against his case.

Even so, the possibility of a young superstar rising through the ranks and challenging the league again isn't out of the question. Had the rules changed prior to the 2022 draft, multiple previously ineligible prospects would have heard their names called very early in the process.

Five in particular stand out as top talents who wouldn't have waited long to hear their names called.

QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

COLUMBUS, OHIO - NOVEMBER 20: C.J. Stroud #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws a pass during the first half of a game against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Ohio State's C.J. Stroud is DraftKings' current favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft. Had he been eligible, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year would have almost certainly been the top quarterback selected in the 2022 draft.

This incoming crop of quarterbacks turned into one of the weakest groups in recent memory. The Pittsburgh Steelers chose Kenny Pickett with the 20th overall pick—which made him the lowest-drafted QB1 this century. No other signal-caller heard his name called until the third round.

Stroud, meanwhile, produced a fantastic campaign during his first season as the Buckeyes starter.

The 20-year-old became the only FBS quarterback to finish top four last season in completion percentage (71.9), average yards per attempt (10.1), touchdown passes (44) and quarterback rating (186.6). To expand on his productivity, Stroud was the nation's most accurate deep passer during the 2021 regular season and posted the highest rate of accurate passes over his last nine starts (including postseason), according to Pro Football Focus.

Some may argue in favor of Alabama's Bryce Young as the top quarterback prospect for next year's class. After all, he is the current Heisman Trophy winner. The difference lies in physical attributes. The 6'3", 218-pound Stroud has a much sturdier frame than the 6'0", 194-pound Young. The old prerequisites for playing the position have changed over time, but teams still prefer to have the bigger, strong option behind center if the talents are comparable.

In this case, the redshirt sophomore has an opportunity to put together a pair of outstanding seasons, win more accolades and claim the top spot among a much deeper quarterback class.

RB Braelon Allen, Wisconsin

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 30: Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) runs the ball for a gain during the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Arizona State Sun Devils on December 30, 2021 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wisconsin's Braelon Allen is the closest person to replicate what Adrian Peterson did as a freshman at Oklahoma. In some ways, the current collegian is even more impressive.

The second-team All-Big Ten performer took the Big Ten Conference by storm before he even turned 18 years old. He ran for 1,268 yards, and his average of 6.8 yards per carry tied with fellow freshman TreVeyon Henderson for the nation's best among backs with 150 or more carries. For comparison, Peterson ran for 1,925 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per tote as a freshaman, though he carried the ball 153 more times. On the other side of the spectrum, freshman Derrick Henry managed 35 carries for 382 yards in a loaded Alabama backfield.

These two comparisons are important because of their physical stature. Both Peterson and Henry always looked larger than life, capable of running through and past defenders. Allen, too, is a sculpted 6'2", 238-pounder.

Now eligible to vote, Allen is physically different than anyone else at the position and maybe in all of college football. The running back cleaned 405 pounds when he was just 16 years old, and he's bigger, thicker and stronger after being in the Badgers' weight program for a full year.

"A lot of the stuff he does is freakish, whether it be in the weight room or out here," tight end Jake Ferguson, whom the Dallas Cowboys drafted in this year's fourth round, told reporters. "Just being able to block for him, it’s awesome. Him just running through people’s faces is pretty cool to watch. … He's running hard. I keep telling him, ‘Just run through somebody’s face.'"

Physically, Allen could be one of the NFL's top backs right now.

TE Brock Bowers, Georgia

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 31: Brock Bowers #19 of the Georgia Bulldogs warms up prior to the game against the Michigan Wolverines in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Not a single tight end heard his name called in this year's first round. Brock Bowers will be a first-round pick as soon as he becomes available.

As a true freshman, Bowers led the national champion Georgia Bulldogs with 56 receptions, 882 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He ranked third among all tight ends in receiving yards, first among those with 50 or more receptions at 15.8 yards per catch and first in touchdown receptions.

The 6'4", 230-pound target is already an instant mismatch in the passing game, which is where today's tight ends hold the highest value. His ability to adjust to the ball and highpoint passes with strong hands and fantastic body control makes him difficult to cover, even when a defender is in position.

"Once he got into contact, he’s got really good toughness," Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart told reporters in December. "He’s got great lower body strength. He’s got great pass-catching radius and good speed. These things combine to make for a good tight end.

"The fact that he’s been so composed has surprised me the most. There's not been a moment too big for him. It doesn't matter to him whether he's playing in the backyard or playing our defense against the scout team or he's playing Clemson in the opening game, for him he wants to do it the right way. It’s important to him to do it the right way."

Typically, tight ends must be considered special to earn their way into first-round consideration. Bowers might already be a top-10 talent.

Edge Will Anderson Jr., Alabama

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 10: Alabama Crimson Tide LB Will Anderson Jr. (31) lines up on defense during the Alabama Crimson Tide versus the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship, on January 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Travon Walker wouldn't have been the No. 1 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars this year had Alabama's Will Anderson Jr. been available.

Sure, Walker has unreal physical traits that made him worthy of the status, but he's far from a polished prospect and nowhere near the disruptive force the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year is.

Clearly, those within college football saw Anderson as the far superior player considering the hardware he won. Granted, a player can't bring collegiate accolades with him to the professional game. But Anderson earned the recognition because he's a complete game-wrecker.

Last season, the 20-year-old led the FBS with 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss. He had 12.5 more tackles for loss than any other player at that level. His 81 quarterback pressures led everyone as well, according to PFF. Oh, he led the nation with 60 pressures during his true freshman campaign, too.

The 6'4", 243-pound Anderson isn't built like other edge defenders considered worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. Courtney Brown, Jadeveon Clowney, Myles Garrett and even Walker were all around 6'5" and 265-plus pounds with long levers and outstanding physiques. Still, Anderson is an explosive athlete capable of blowing by blockers. At the same time, he doesn't quite fit the typical standards for being an elite talent at the position.

His constant disruption, ability to bend and closing burst on the quarterback may be a little more reminiscent of another Alabama great, Derrick Thomas. To be sure, it's a lofty comparison. But Anderson is college football's most dominant edge-rusher over the last two decades.

DL Jalen Carter, Georgia

AUBURN, ALABAMA - OCTOBER 09:  Jalen Carter #88 of the Georgia Bulldogs pressures Bo Nix #10 of the Auburn Tigers during the second half at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 09, 2021 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Aaron Donald made everyone look at the defensive tackle position differently. He showed a premium pass-rusher doesn't need to work off the edge full-time.

Generally, an edge-rusher is counted among the premium positions. But a defensive tackle can be just as valuable, if not more so, based on his ability to create pressure.

Among an absolutely loaded Georgia defense—which featured this year's No. 1 overall pick, as well as the reigning Butkus and Outland Trophy winners—Carter often looked like the best player on the field.

As a true sophomore, the 6'3", 310-pounder led all Power Five interior defenders in pass-rush win rate, per PFF. He also led all returning SEC defensive tackles in overall grade.

Carter is a tenacious and competitive defender, and the Bulldogs coaching staff expects to get even more out of him this fall.

"I took him off kickoff returns, I wanted [him to be fresh to rush the passer] and he was pissed at me," Smart told reporters in January. "I thought he was going to beat me up over there when I told him he couldn’t go on kickoff return, because he wanted to go on kickoff return. He had been playing defensive line, he had blocked the field goal, played on offense, and played fullback.

"So he’s a talented player, and the sky’s the limit for him."

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.