BCS National Championship Game: Top 2014 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2014

BCS National Championship Game: Top 2014 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Florida State vs. Auburn is the national title game we deserved—a fitting send-off to the BCS era, loaded with NFL draft prospects on both sides of the ball.

    The best prospect in the game is Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman trophy as a redshirt freshman and looked infallible all year. But as he is just two years removed from high school, he is not eligible to declare for the 2014 NFL draft. He'll be back in Tallahassee next season.

    Still, the final BCS title game is loaded with draft-eligible prospects, all of whom could stand to improve their stock with a good performance in Pasadena. Here's a primer of 10 guys to watch.

10. OLB Telvin Smith, Florida State

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    Smith is a safe pick and looks the part of a future 10-year NFL veteran—someone who might not necessarily start on or carry a good defense, but who's capable of playing some solid, rotational downs and making a play here or there, which will keep him employed for a long time.

    He'll fall a bit in the draft due to questions about his size (6'3'', 218 lbs), but Smith pops off tape as a strong athlete, a tough competitor and one of the most important pieces on FSU's defense.

    Rob Rang of CBS Sports acknowledged Smith as his top prospect of the week after the Seminoles destroyed Clemson this season, praising how his versatility helped them shut down Tajh Boyd and the Tigers' high-powered offense.

    As Rang notes, however, Smith isn't the first undersized linebacker to emerge as a prospect at Florida State, and many before him have failed in the NFL. To avoid becoming the next flameout, he'll need to add some weight without sacrificing any speed.

9. CB Chris Davis, Auburn

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    Chris Davis is (and will forever be) known as the guy who returned the field goal against Alabama, but he's enjoyed a fine season on defense as well. With decent size for the position (5'11'', 200 lbs), he has the potential to develop into a good dime cornerback and (of course) special teamer.

    Auburn's defense has been gashed on more than one occasion this year, though, and Davis' occasional lapses in coverage haven't helped. He's not bad in coverage per se, but at this point he's more of a big-play corner than a shutdown corner, which is rarely preferred by NFL teams.

    Like some of Auburn's other defensive prospects, Davis' stock is fluid entering the national title game. Tasked with stopping the likes of Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw, he has a chance to really improve his position with a strong performance.

    Likewise, he might also be exposed.

8. DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State

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    Jernigan is a technician with his hands, excelling in one-on-one combat rushing the passer. He can overpower you or run right around you, and he's a very good athlete for his position.

    At 6'2'', 292 lbs, Jernigan doesn't have ideal size to play defensive tackle in the NFL, and that appears to be the only thing holding him back. He'll never be a true, three-down, run-stuffing plug in the middle of a defense. He's more of a situational prospect.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that. Every team could use a guy like Jernigan, who also has an insatiable motor and drive to compete. As he has for Florida State this season, Jernigan will make his future team a better one.

7. OLB Christian Jones, Florida State

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    Jones is the ideal weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 NFL defense. Because of that, and because he would struggle to do anything else, there is a defined cap on how many teams might draft him. But he's the kind of guy who could threaten for early playing time.

    What makes him such an ideal weak-side 'backer? It starts with being fluid. Jones is very strong in coverage and has smooth hips on the edge. He matches up well with the new breed of NFL joker tight ends, which will make him a highly sought prospect. He's built for the NFL of 2014.

    With close-to-elite athleticism, Jones has a high ceiling at the next level. His run defense might put a cap on where he gets drafted, but there are a lot of things he does well. A number of teams could use a guy this talented.

6. DE Dee Ford, Auburn

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    Ford is the prototypical hybrid, capable of playing both end and outside linebacker at the next level. He gets a lot of pressure on the quarterback in various ways, so a clever defensive coordinator will love to employ him. Think along the line of Trent Cole. 

    He doesn't have the size (6'2'', 240 lbs) to play three downs along the line in the NFL, but he could excel on third downs getting after the passer. He's not a jack-of-all-trades, struggling at times in run defense and block-shedding, but he's a master of one. And that makes him a valuable addition.

    If he's drafted by the right team, Ford could be a 10-sack type of player at the next level. Look for him to go in the second or third round. Depending on how he performs in the pre-draft process, he could potentially go even higher, much like former teammate Corey Lemonier in 2013.

5. DB Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State

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    Joyner is one of the most interesting and divisive prospects in the draft. On production and production alone, he should definitely be a first-round pick. He's been one of the best defenders in college football for two seasons, and he's versatile enough to play both safety and cornerback.

    But he's small.

    Some teams will knock Joyner off their draft board, strictly on the basis of height (5'8'') and being a 'tweener. He'll never be a true No. 1 cornerback like, say, Richard Sherman, but he could be a valuable weapon defending the slot against shifty receivers like Wes Welker.

    There's also some Tyrann Mathieu to Joyner's game. He always seems to be around the ball and making big plays in big games. He seems like the kind of guy who will play with a chip on his shoulder if enough teams pass over him in the draft. In some ways, that's the best thing that could happen to him.

4. RB Tre Mason, Auburn

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    Mason improved his stock with a legendary performance in Auburn's (second) biggest game of the season, rushing for more than 300 yards against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. With another strong game against Florida State, he's a lock to go in the first three rounds.

    In some ways, Mason truly is a product of Gus Malzahn's offense, which will make some teams scared to take him. He's a one-cut-and-go type of runner with NFL speed and quickness, sort of like Chris Johnson, but not quite as fast. He's probably best-served as the lightning to someone's thunder.

    Running back is the most fungible position in football, so even after a fantastic junior season, Mason likely won't threaten to go in the first round of the draft. Still, after watching the impact of a guy like Giovani Bernard in his first season with the Bengals, it would not come as a shock to see Mason earn some playing time as a rookie.

3. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State

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    Kelvin Benjamin has helped himself more than almost any college player this season, becoming Jameis Winston's favorite red-zone target and popping up with a highlight grab seemingly every single weekend.

    Blessed with a rare physical profile (6'5'', 234 lbs) and solid speed, there seems to be no limit on how good Benjamin could be. He needs to refine his route running and improve against press coverage, but even becoming the next Calvin Johnson is not off the table.

    He's that good.

    This is a very strong wide receiver class, so it wouldn't be a shock to see Benjamin slip out of the first round, behind guys like Sammy Watkins and Marqise Lee. He's on the tier right behind them though, and with a strong performance at the combine, he could threaten to be drafted fairly close to them.

2. OT Cameron Erving, Florida State

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Erving is the most underrated piece of Florida State's offensive machine, keeping Jameis Winston's jersey clean each Saturday. Though his quarterback is mobile and plays well under pressure, Erving (and his fellow linemates) have ensured that he hasn't had to.

    People are starting to take notice, too. Erving won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, awarded annually to the best offensive lineman in the ACC, and ESPN's Mel Kiper has endorsed him as a top-10-caliber type of prospect. 

    He moves incredibly well for a man his size (6'6'', 320 lbs) and only seems to be scratching the surface of his potential. Fears that he might be the next Jason Smith exist, but few teams can afford to pass over Erving on the basis of comparison. He has a chance to be the stalwart of a franchise.

1. OT Greg Robinson, Auburn

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    It's boring, sure, but the two best prospects in the national title game are offensive linemen. Erving has been great for the Seminoles all season, but for the first time in 2013-14, he won't be the best left tackle on the field.

    Greg Robinson is one of the hottest prospects in college football and has a chance to ascend into the top 10 picks of the draft. Much like Lane Johnson in 2013, he has freaky speed and athleticism for an offensive tackle, which makes him a valuable commodity in spread, up-tempo offenses.

    The right team will need to draft him at the next level, for sure. But if it does, Robinson could become a Pro Bowl-caliber player—and fast. Men his size (6'5'', 320 lbs) with his type of speed don't grow on trees. If he performs well in Pasadena, don't be surprised if he even threatens to pass Jake Matthews of Texas A&M.