10 Most NFL-Ready Players Who Aren't Eligible for 2017 Draft

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2016

10 Most NFL-Ready Players Who Aren't Eligible for 2017 Draft

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    The trend of underclassmen declaring for the 2017 NFL draft will continue, but college football gets to keep its elite sophomores for two more years.

    Several talents are physically prepared—though not quite on Leonard Fournette's level from 2015—and productive enough that they'd potentially be a high-round selection after next season.

    However, the players will stick around through the next two campaigns, collecting accolades and All-American honors while boosting their stocks for 2018.

Cameron Smith, USC

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    A 6'2", 245-pound linebacker, Cameron Smith surged into the USC starting lineup and dominated right away.

    Smith notched double-digit tackles in three of his 10 appearances and finished his freshman campaign with 78 total. He recorded just eight fewer stops than team leader Su'a Cravens despite missing the final four games due to a knee injury.

    "He's one of the more intuitive kids we've seen," USC head coach Clay Helton said during the season, per ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura. "He's playing on a very, very high level. It's unbelievable for a freshman."

    Smith—who also snatched three interceptions—will be a fixture on the Trojans defense.

Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh

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    Jordan Whitehead didn't need long to make an impression at Pitt.

    The versatile weapon starred at safety by amassing 108 tackles and six pass breakups. He was named the ACC's Rookie and Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    Whitehead also contributed at running back. The freshman tallied 10.2 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns.

    "He's going to be real great," former teammate and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said, per Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "You can put him anywhere on the field and he's going to execute no matter what."

Christian Wilkins, Clemson

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    Christian Wilkins logged a single start in 2015, but that didn't stop the defensive tackle from becoming a force.

    "He can do it all," head coach Dabo Swinney said, per ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "He can play shade, 3-technique, he can play end. He’ll probably play a little end for us. Just a dynamic, dynamic player."

    While the 6'4", 315-pounder's primary job is to clog the middle, he recorded 33 tackles with two sacks last year.

Saquon Barkley, Penn State

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    Running backs are committed to taking a beating. The sooner they get paid for the bruising, the better.

    Saquon Barkley has two more years of unpaid hits to take, but he'll be shaking plenty of tacklers like in 2015. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry, accumulated 1,076 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Barkley added 20 catches for 161 yards.

    "I knew he was good, but I wasn't expecting all that," teammate Andre Robinson said, per Greg Pickel of PennLive.com. "He's an amazing player, there's not much wrong with his game, and he has a huge ceiling if he does all the right things."

    Barkley will be a top running back in 2018.

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

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    Quarterback problems and head coach Kevin Sumlin's hot seat owned Texas A&M's headlines, which overshadowed Christian Kirk's breakout year.

    He broke the 100-yard barrier in three of the first four games en route to registering 1,009 for the season. Kirk caught 80 passes—seven of which were touchdowns—and also returned two punts for scores, showing off his big-play prowess.

    "You can do a little toss pass and it goes for 45 yards," former coordinator Jake Spavital said of Kirk, per Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News. "It's fun to watch. He's very talented, very driven."

    NFL teams can never have too many playmakers. Kirk will be a high-priority target in two years.

Mitch Hyatt, Clemson

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    Reliable left tackles are coveted pieces for every offense. Mitch Hyatt has given Clemson a consistent force on the edge.

    A 6'5", 295-pounder, Hyatt started all 15 games and logged a school freshman-record 1,049 snaps, per David Hood of TigerNet.com.

    "He's played left tackle like he was a senior," Swinney said last season, according to Paul Myerberg of USA Today. "It's just been amazing. It's near impossible to do what Mitch has done. It's a rare thing."

Derwin James, Florida State

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    Jalen Ramsey headlined Florida State's secondary, but Derwin James was even more productive.

    In 2015, the safety piled up 91 tackles with 9.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks, broke up four passes and forced a pair of fumbles.

    "That dude is smart, quick, rangy, has height, has length, fast, smart," Houston head coach Tom Herman said, per ESPN.com's Jared Shanker. "He's a step ahead and when he hits you, he's physical. To see all that in a true freshman is real remarkable. ... Anybody in America would take him right now."

    Anybody. Including NFL teams.

Josh Rosen, UCLA

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    The 2016 quarterback class lacked a clear-cut franchise signal-caller at the top. NFL teams might've thought higher of Josh Rosen than Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.

    UCLA head coach Jim Mora—the former leader of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks—believes so, at least.

    "In my opinion he (would have been) the best quarterback in the draft and he would've gone first," Mora said on The Rich Eisen Show, per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com.

    Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman.

Malik Jefferson, Texas

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    Head coach Charlie Strong has steadily stocked the Texas roster with talent, and Malik Jefferson is arguably the best.

    "NFL scouts are already raving about Malik Jefferson," Bleacher Report's Matt Miller said. "The arrow is pointing way up on the Texas sophomore linebacker."

    Jefferson amassed 61 tackles with seven for loss and 2.5 sacks, notching six quarterback hurries as well. He broke up three passes, forced a fumble and recovered one.

    The 6'3", 232-pounder was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Calvin Ridley, Alabama

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    Calvin Ridley arrived at Alabama with large expectations, and the wide receiver has only helped the hype increase.

    "He's a faster Amari Cooper," ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill said on the Out of Bounds radio show, per Jordan James of SEC Country. 

    Ridley surpassed the Tide legend's freshman receiving record, finishing with 89 receptions for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught at least six passes in nine games.

    It won't be a surprise when the 6'1" Ridley is a first-round pick in 2018.