10 College Football Stars Most Likely to Start in the NFL in 2015

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2015

10 College Football Stars Most Likely to Start in the NFL in 2015

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    Winslow Townson/Getty Images

    A great deal of 2014 rookies became instant NFL starters, highlighted by the wide receiver class of Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, et al. They were joined by polished defensive players such as Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosley, seniors who entered the NFL pro-ready.

    But who will follow in their footsteps next season?

    To answer that, we looked not for the 10 best overall draft prospects but for the 10 that are the best finished products.

    Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, for example, has the tools to be a top-five pick—and rightfully so. And there's a chance he turns those tools into a fine rookie season. But there are less-raw players out there with a better chance of starting from Week 1.

    Injuries were also taken into account, most notably with regard to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who would have made this list (with ease) if not for the question of his ACL surgery.

    Sound off below and let us know whom else you'd add.

OT La'el Collins, LSU

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    La'el Collins will not be a Day 1 starter at left tackle—although that may be his future position—but he is good enough to crack a starting lineup at right tackle or either guard spot.

    The 6'5", 321-pound lineman was a three-year starter at LSU and earned his reputation as one of the best run-blockers in college football. He is agile for a player his size, which allows him to get upfield and block at the second level, and he's plucky in pass protection, too.

    Scouts are all over the board on Collins' future, some thinking he's a first-round tackle, others thinking he's a second-round guard, others thinking he's a second-round tackle, others thinking he's a first-round guard, etc. But once he gets into training camp and has a chance to start hitting people, none of that will matter.

    "It rarely looks pretty, [but] he consistently gets the job done," Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com wrote of Collins.

    Getting the job done always beats looking pretty.

WR Amari Cooper

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    Amari Cooper isn't a can't-miss, measurables-jump-off-the-page receiver such as Sammy Watkins last season or even former Alabama star Julio Jones. He is "only" 6'1", after all.

    But what Cooper lacks in height, he makes up for with fluidity and polish. He runs NFL-caliber routes and gets in and out of breaks like a Pro Bowler. Even when opponents tried to double him and take him out of the game, he managed to get open with consistency.

    His 124 receptions led the country in 2014.

    When you combine that level of polish with what appears to be underrated speed—Cooper told Andrew Gribble of AL.com he ran a 4.31 40-yard dash without any sort of training last offseason—you get a player who can start from day one. He may not be the star he was at Alabama, but Cooper is much too good to bench.

RB Melvin Gordon

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    Melvin Gordon has surprisingly fresh legs for a 2,500-yard rusher.

    He had 343 carries this season, but before that Wisconsin managed his touches judiciously, using him as a change-of-pace back behind James White and/or Montee Ball. There is not a ton of wear on his tires despite him nearly breaking the single-season rushing record.

    More than that, though, Gordon has NFL-ready speed and explosiveness. He is a downhill runner with deceptive power and impressive vision to find the cutback lane.

    He is built like a professional running back but runs with the youth of a college running back. That is the ideal combination.

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    Marcus Mariota did not play his best game against Florida State and will suffer the inevitable blowback of all "surefire" No. 1 draft picks.

    Don't believe it.

    Whatever high-ranking analyst or anonymous source comes out and says Mariota is overrated, or that he's "too introverted" to lead a team, is either lying or stupid or both. He isn't, he's not, and he's been every bit as good as his numbers have suggested at Oregon.

    At 6'4", 219 pounds with a powerful arm and skill-player speed, Mariota checks every box one looks for in a quarterback. If he goes to Tampa Bay, there is no way Mike Glennon or Josh McCown starts over him. Ditto that for Zach Mettenberger in Tennessee.

    There just isn't.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville

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    DeVante Parker had a ridiculous senior season that could have—if not for injury—ranked right up there with Amari Cooper.

    He finished the year with 855 yards on 43 catches despite playing just seven games. He averaged 1.3 fewer yards per game than Cooper and 5.95 more yards per reception. And he did it with a revolving door of quarterbacks that featured two ill-prepared freshmen.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projected Parker as the No. 12 overall pick for the Cleveland Browns, saying he "can replace Josh Gordon and give whomever the quarterback is a high-pointing threat who is successful working down the field or on intermediate routes."

    No matter where he goes, those things are true.

DE Shane Ray, Missouri

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Shane Ray comes with an NFL-ready skill—burst off the edge—and is only now starting to realize his potential.

    The 6'3", 245-pound pass-rusher spent last offseason working on his body and came back with a chiseled frame and improved his run defense and block-shedding. He is a strong, hardworking player on the outside with the frame and technical skills to contribute early.

    Ray is a physical specimen on par with former BYU and current Detroit Lions lineman Ziggy Ansah, only Ray is more polished coming out of school. Whether he's playing with his hand down in a 4-3 or (more likely) standing up in a 3-4, he will see the field early.

OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Like La'el Collins, Brandon Scherff's NFL position is a question. He may be a left tackle. He may be a right tackle. He may be a guard.

    He will not be a backup.

    Unless he goes to a team with no handoffs in its playbook, Scherff will be a valued addition to whichever team drafts him and quickly improve their ground game. He is 6'5", 230 pounds, stupid powerful and one of the best run-blocking prospects in years.

    Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com praised Scherff for his motor, saying he plays "snap to whistle every time," but he noticed some issues in pass protection—the same issues that might force him to start his career at guard. But if Zack Martin could make the move from tackle to guard look so easy, there is no reason Scherff can't follow suit in 2015.

DT Danny Shelton, Washington

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    USA TODAY Sports

    You can't teach size, and you especially can't teach athletic size.

    That's what makes Danny Shelton so special.

    The 6'2", 339-pound nose tackle had an All-America season in 2014 and only seems poised to get better as his work ethic (his biggest question mark) matures in the professional ranks. Either way, the raw tools are there for him to contribute as a first-year player.

    Shelton had nine sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss and one epic highlight in which he barrel-rolled his way to the quarterback this season.

    It's scary to think that this might be the tip of the iceberg.

CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State

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    Trae Waynes is the best all-around cornerback in the draft. There are better athletes (Marcus Peters), better technicians (Alex Carter) and better run defenders (Jalen Collins), but all of those players have weaknesses that teams will have to draft them in spite of.

    Waynes does a little bit of everything.

    At 6'1", 182 pounds, he has solid size for the position and has learned press-man tactics under coordinator Pat Narduzzi. He has the speed one expects from the son of former track stars and the toughness one expects from a Mark Dantonio-coached product.

    "The predraft numbers project Trae as a likely first-round selection, and there's no question that he'll be an outstanding corner at the next level," Dantonio said in a statement released by the school.

    It shouldn't take him long to make an impact.

DL Leonard Williams, USC

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Leonard Williams is the closest thing to a "cant-miss" prospect in the draft class. It is hard to see him not becoming a Pro Bowler.

    That doesn't mean he'll be a Pro Bowler as a rookie, necessarily, but it does mean he'll start in Week 1. There aren't many 6'5", 300-pound linemen with the speed to play end and the strength to play tackle, and even fewer who exert as much passion as Williams does.

    "His quickness and an effective swim move there make him virtually impossible for interior linemen at the collegiate level to handle him one-on-one," Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com wrote of Williams.

    Interior linemen at the NFL level won't fare much better.


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