Pro Player Comparisons for 10 of College Football's Top Stars

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2017

Pro Player Comparisons for 10 of College Football's Top Stars

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    Louisville's Lamar Jackson is one of college football's most versatile, exciting players.
    Louisville's Lamar Jackson is one of college football's most versatile, exciting players.John Raoux/Associated Press

    College football fans love their team's stars. But their grasp on the game's top players is fleeting at best.

    The NFL's draft rules, which allow players to declare for the draft following three years in college, allow standouts to get an early start on their professional careers. That forces fans to savor what they get from said players while they can.

    We're roughly two weeks away from the NFL draft, where numerous high-profile prospects (including eight of 2016's top 11 Heisman vote-getters) will learn their professional destinations. And once the 2017 draft concludes, the hype cycle will begin for the 2018 draft and those beyond it. As such, we decided to break down the 10 most talented college players and evaluate how they compare to former and current pros.

    How are they similar? How do they differ? Let's take a look. 

Washington QB Jake Browning

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    Jake Browning developed into one of the top quarterbacks in college football in 2016.
    Jake Browning developed into one of the top quarterbacks in college football in 2016.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

    Similar attributes: Last fall, an understated California quarterback made his presence known in a huge way for Washington. Sophomore Jake Browning led the Huskies to the College Football Playoff, throwing for 3,430 yards with 43 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Are there any obvious comparisons for Browning in the NFL? How about another California native in Aaron Rodgers?

    Rodgers had a great two-year career at Cal, throwing for 5,469 yards and 43 touchdowns against 13 interceptions en route to becoming the Green Bay Packers' first-round selection in 2005. Both Browning and Rodgers have poise in the pocket and are accurate downfield passers, with the ability to run a little if necessary. Is Browning Rodgers 2.0? No, but he has similar size (both stand 6'2") and the ability to develop.

    Notable differences: Few players have the arm strength of Rodgers, and that includes Browning. The sophomore's production dipped at season's end, as he threw for a combined 268 yards in the Huskies' final two games. He had offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing arm, and durability could be a concern for him moving forward. 

Boston College DE Harold Landry

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    Harold Landry's return for his senior season was huge for Boston College.
    Harold Landry's return for his senior season was huge for Boston College.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: Denver Broncos LB Von Miller

    Similar attributes: Boston College was fortunate to get Harold Landry back in the fold for 2017. After all, he had a monster junior year in 2016, piling up 51 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and an FBS-best 16.5 sacks. He's the first FBS sack leader to return for his senior season since Texas A&M's Von Miller did so in 2010. That's a natural comparison, too.

    Landry is listed at 6'3", 249 pounds; Miller is 6'3", 250. Both possess excellent pass-rush skills, and if Landry's decision to come back works out as well as Miller'she was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL drafthe'll be a happy man.

    Notable differences: Landry is considered more of a defensive end, while Miller plays as an edge linebacker for the Denver Broncos. Both have excellent pass-rush skills and speed, but they could fit in slightly different roles once Landry finds himself in the NFL.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

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    Baker Mayfield makes things happen for Oklahoma's offense.
    Baker Mayfield makes things happen for Oklahoma's offense.Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

    Pro-player comparison: Johnny Manziel

    Similar attributes: For the state of Texas, Baker Mayfield was the one that got away. Mayfield began his career as a Texas Tech walk-on, then wound up at Oklahoma and developed into a star. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist has led OU to a pair of Big 12 titles and a College Football Playoff appearance, throwing for 3,965 yards with 40 touchdowns against eight interceptions last fall.

    Like Manziel, Mayfield is a fiery leader who plays with his emotions on his sleeve and isn't afraid to take hard hits, bounce back up and go for more. He can also make plays with his legs and has a knack for the dramatic. However, like Manzielwhose NFL career is on hold following personal and legal issuesMayfield had some off-field issues crop up this spring when he was arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

    Notable differences: Manziel has a stronger arm than Mayfield and superior ability to make throws on the run. He is also a faster, more elusive runner. As a Texas A&M redshirt freshman, he rushed for 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns. Mayfield, meanwhile, rushed for 177 yards and six touchdowns last fall. Mayfield returned for his senior season and is a likely middle-round pick in the 2018 draft; Manziel's potential earned him a first-round selection from the Cleveland Browns.

Clemson DT Christian Wilkins

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    Christian Wilkins is a monstrous defensive tackle for Clemson's talented roster.
    Christian Wilkins is a monstrous defensive tackle for Clemson's talented roster.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Pro-player comparison: Cincinnati Bengals DT Geno Atkins

    Similar attributesChristian Wilkins is one of the most dynamic defensive linemen in the nation. In two seasons at Clemson, the junior has shown he can play either defensive tackle spot and defensive end. He's coming off a strong sophomore season with 56 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks at end, and he's expected to play tackle this fall. Wilkins stands 6'4" and 310 pounds, and he mixes power, agility and edge-rush talent. He also has a similar body type to Atkins, who's listed at 6'1", 300 pounds. If Wilkins winds up like Atkins at the next level, the team that drafts him will be elated.

    Notable differences: Wilkins is slightly larger than Atkins and could put on more weight at the NFL level, which would make him more of a tackle than an end. He is also not yet the productive pass-rusher that Atkins is, as the latter notched 20 sacks for the Bengals over the past two seasons combined. But Wilkins is perhaps more athleticas his game-changing catch of a fake punt in the 2015 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma showedand still unquestionably has room to grow. 

Houston DT Ed Oliver

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    Ed Oliver is a force to be reckoned with on Houston's defensive line.
    Ed Oliver is a force to be reckoned with on Houston's defensive line.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: Miami Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh

    Similar attributes: Former Houston head coach Tom Herman has moved on to Texas, but he left an excellent parting gift for new head coach Major Applewhite: sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver. The 6'2", 290-pound Oliver had an incredible freshman season, making 61 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and five sacks while earning first-team All-America honors.

    Much like former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh, Oliver was nearly unblockable, fighting through double- and triple-teams with athleticism and power. He's only a sophomore, but NFL scouts are assuredly infatuated with him already. Oliver is a nasty, powerful player (in a good way) who could be one of the next great NFL defensive tackles.

    Notable differences: At 6'4" and 305 pounds, Suh is a larger player than Oliver, and he is known for his overaggressive style on the field, which has led to multiple fines connected to personal fouls. He is also a more proven pass-rusher with 24 collegiate sacks at Nebraska and 47 sacks across seven NFL seasons. However, Oliver has time and room to grow as a pass-rusher. 

Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

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    Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of college football's most versatile players.
    Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of college football's most versatile players.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: Arizona Cardinals DB Tyrann Mathieu

    Similar attributes: Alabama's defense has consistently been one of the nation's best under head coach Nick Saban, and despite graduation losses, don't expect the Crimson Tide to miss a step this fall. It helps to have players like Minkah Fitzpatrick in the fold. Fitzpatrick can play any position in the secondary (corner, safety, nickelback) and play them all well. Last fall, he had 62 tackles and six interceptions. And much like former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, he has a nose for the big play, with four interception returns for touchdowns in 2016.

    Notable differences: Fitzpatrick and Mathieu are different physically. Fitzpatrick is 6'1", 203 pounds, while Mathieu checks in at 5'9", 186 pounds. Fitzpatrick is a far longer, lankier player than the Honey Badger, but he also hasn't displayed the aptitude for kick returns. Regardless, his versatility and all-around coverage skills will take him a long way in the eyes of NFL scouts. 

Penn State RB Saquon Barkley

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    Saquon Barkley has developed into one of college football's best backs.
    Saquon Barkley has developed into one of college football's best backs.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: New York Jets RB Matt Forte

    Similar attributes: Penn State enjoyed a return to glory last fall, rolling to a surprise Big Ten championship and just missing the College Football Playoff. A huge cog in that success? Tailback Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore. Barkley is one of college football's top backs and will be a strong Heisman Trophy candidate as a junior. He has abilities of many standout backs, but he compares favorably to New York Jets tailback Matt Forte, who has rushed for 9,415 yards and 52 touchdowns in nine NFL seasons. Like Forte, Barkley has excellent speed and great cutting ability.

    Penn State running backs coach Charles Huff told 247Sports' Chris Hummer that he agrees with the comparison, saying, "You wouldn't expect somebody his size, being 220-plus pounds, to run a 4.39, and he has that. The size he has will allow him to be durable, that's why I say Matt Forte. A guy with good size and is more durable."

    Notable differences: At 5'11", 223 pounds, Barkley is slightly smaller than Forte, who measures in at 6'2", 218 pounds. He is a patient runner but is also more explosive than Forte. However, Forte, who has 517 career catches for 4,379 yards and 20 touchdowns as a professional, is a more polished receiver out of the backfield. That said, Barkley has time to mold his game and turn himself into one of the NFL's top all-around backs. 

Florida State S Derwin James

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    Derwin James is a special, versatile defender for Florida State.
    Derwin James is a special, versatile defender for Florida State.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: Jacksonville Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey

    Similar attributes: Florida State will be a strong contender for an ACC title and a College Football Playoff berth this season. The Seminoles have a talented roster, and it certainly doesn't hurt to get star safety Derwin James back from a torn meniscus that scuttled his 2016 season after two games. James is one of the nation's best defenders, and he has taken the mantle as FSU's most versatile defender from current Jacksonville Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey fit in as both a corner and safety in his time at FSU, just like James can do.

    Notable differences: James is an even more versatile player than Ramsey. He plays all over the field, sliding in at both safety spots, cornerback and linebacker as a freshman while rolling up 91 tackles with 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He is a true Swiss Army knife for FSU's defense. Expect him to line up at multiple positions again this fall, which will enhance his value as one of the nation's best overall defenders. 

Southern California QB Sam Darnold

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    Sam Darnold turned around USC's 2016 season after taking over at quarterback.
    Sam Darnold turned around USC's 2016 season after taking over at quarterback.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pro-player comparison: Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck

    Similar attributes: Southern California's 2016 season pivoted once Sam Darnold became starting quarterback. Darnold led the Trojans to nine consecutive wins to end the season, including a thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State. USC will be one of the nation's most intriguing teams this fall, and Darnold, a redshirt sophomore, will be one of its most talked-about players. He stands 6'4" and 225 pounds and has a similar build to another former Pac-12 quarterback, Andrew Luck, who is listed at 6'4", 240 pounds.

    Darnold is cool and calm in the pocket, much like Luck, and he has a solid arm and the athleticism to scramble for a first down if needed. He'll get plenty of attention from NFL scouts this fall, much as Luck did while at Stanford.

    Notable differences:  Darnold is comparable to Luck, but he doesn't have the arm strength that the Stanford product possesses. With only one year of starting experience under his belt, Darnold has room to grow as a leader on the field, something we'll discover more this fall with a brighter spotlight on the Trojans. However, the third-year USC player has the potential to be a top overall selection in the NFL draft, much like Luck was in 2012. 

Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

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    Lamar Jackson had an amazing sophomore season for Louisville.
    Lamar Jackson had an amazing sophomore season for Louisville.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Pro-player comparison: Michael Vick

    Similar attributes: Lamar Jackson broke out in a big way as a Louisville sophomore last fall. Jackson ran over, around and through opposing defenders on his way to a Heisman Trophy, throwing for 3,543 yards with 30 touchdowns against nine interceptions and adding 1,571 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground.

    Jackson can become draft-eligible at season's end, and the comparison is obvious: He's like a young Michael Vick. Both displayed tremendous speed and elusiveness in college, and both were able to make things happen with their arms, too. Jackson is an electric player, much like Vick, and he has room to improve.

    Notable differences: While the recently retired Vick is listed at 6'0", 210 pounds, Jackson is taller (6'3") and only slightly heavier. He is a lankier player who needs to put on some weight to take the pounding that he will inevitably take in the NFL. And while the eras of offense are different, Jackson has been more productive than Vick was in college. In two seasons at Virginia Tech, Vick threw for 3,504 yards with 22 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and rushed for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns. It's unclear exactly how Jackson will project to the NFL, but he has significant athletic potential.