Projecting 10 College Football Players Who Will Soar Up NFL Draft Boards
Quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen are controlling the early 2018 NFL draft discussion, but some potential sleepers are already demanding attention.
We'll see these standout college football players in leading roles during the 2017 season. They'll surge up draft boards at their position and, more importantly, in overall rankings. For our purposes, the ranking standard used was Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller's way-too-early big board.
Prospects not listed in that top 32 were considered, though the emphasis was on players outside the top 50—and in some cases, top 100—who are capable of climbing into that discussion.
For some of the highlighted players, other national outlets are already high on their abilities. However, they are still featured due to the lack of consensus among football media and as a way of saying the final predraft reviews will be overwhelmingly positive.
Daniel Carlson, K, Auburn
Where he stands: Kickers are rarely, if ever, represented on a draft board. Still, Daniel Carlson is a well-regarded specialist after connecting on 28 of 32 field goals in 2016.
What to expect in 2017: Carlson had a major impact last season, and Auburn's expected offensive improvement should lead to even more scoring opportunities. Ideally, of course, that means Jarrett Stidham is leading touchdown drives, but Carlson—who is perfect on 141 career extra-point attempts—will remain a large factor.
Where he'll end up: Specialists are typically selected in the fifth round or later. Carlson, however, has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Roberto Aguayo, Mike Nugent and Nate Kaeding as a second- or third-round pick. With a reliable 50-yard leg, Carlson would be deserving of the special attention.
Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State
Where he stands: Kalen Ballage, who rushed for 14 touchdowns last year, is not listed as one of Miller's top-10 running back prospects. That shouldn't be a surprise, considering the 2018 cycle boasts another deep group at the position.
What to expect in 2017: Although he shares the backfield with Demario Richard, Ballage offers much-needed versatility for the Sun Devils. He caught 44 passes last season, finishing third on the team with 469 receiving yards. New offensive coordinator Billy Napier can shape 15 touches per game around the rising senior.
Where he'll end up: Though the timeshare limits Ballage's ceiling of production, he'll enter the draft as a four-year contributor with less wear and tear. Ballage must be a more consistent playmaker, but his combination of speed and power as a 6'3", 230-pounder will be enticing for NFL teams on Day 2.
Heath Harding, CB, Miami (Ohio)
Where he stands: Entering his final college campaign, Heath Harding is not included in Miller's top 10 at cornerback. Harding has recorded 218 tackles, nine interceptions and 18 pass breakups during his three previous healthy seasons.
What to expect in 2017: Harding wants to ruin someone's day, and it doesn't matter whether "someone" is a running back or wideout. He's a willing tackler and has terrific form. Harding's greatest test this season will come against Notre Dame's Equanimeous St. Brown, and a strong showing in that matchup would establish Harding as a top CB prospect to watch.
Where he'll end up: What the senior lacks in stature (5'10", 188 lbs) he makes up for in athleticism and instincts. Harding will press for a Day 2 selection and top-15 ranking at the position, and that's no small achievement for a Group of Five corner.
Jack Cichy, LB, Wisconsin
Where he stands: Jack Cichy isn't found in Miller's top 10 at middle linebacker, though teammate T.J. Edwards checks in at No. 6. But after recording 60 tackles in just seven games last season, Cichy is safely on the scouting radar.
What to expect in 2017: Nicknamed for his breakout performance in the 2015 Holiday Bowl, "Three-Sack Jack" does a bit of everything for Wisconsin. He's a reliable run-stopper from sideline to sideline, decent in coverage and efficiently contributes as a blitzer. Cichy will be an integral piece of an elite defense.
Where he'll end up: Testing well athletically is essential for the 6'2", 223-pounder, who is terrific at reading, reacting and getting to the football both between the tackles and on the edge. As long as he puts together a healthy season, Cichy has Day 2 value.
Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP
Where he stands: Will Hernandez is a three-year starter for UTEP and returning second-team AP All-America honoree, but he has a national reputation to build in 2017. Currently, the senior is outside of Miller's top 10 at offensive guard.
What to expect in 2017: The 6'3", 330-pound is a monster up front. He's a sound pass-blocker who plays with a sturdy base, powerful run-blocker and violent finisher. Hernandez should be headed for his third straight All-C-USA award.
Where he'll end up: Hernandez, who has a pair of outings (Oklahoma and Arizona) scheduled for national TV, will steadily climb the rankings at his position. That shouldn't be confused with a rapid draft selection, but Hernandez will be among the first guards taken.
Duke Dawson, CB, Florida
Where he stands: Florida has recently enjoyed a steady stream of NFL-bound defensive backs, and Duke Dawson will continue the trend. He's one of the nation's top returning senior cornerbacks despite not being in Miller's top 10 at the position.
What to expect in 2017: Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson locked down the sideline last season, and one half of that responsibility now lands on Dawson's shoulders. As a reward, he'll have showdowns with LSU's D.J. Chark and Texas A&M's Christian Kirk, among others.
Where he'll end up: Dawson spent the 2016 campaign in the slot and excelled. If he can follow up that performance with a strong senior year, the 5'10" corner will have proved he can handle any spot in the secondary. That well-rounded skill set would make Dawson an appealing target for creative defenses on Day 2.
Tyrell Crosby, LT, Oregon
Where he stands: Tyrell Crosby basically missed the entire 2016 campaign, but he's still featured at No. 9 on Miller's early list at the position. In a loaded 2018 class of offensive tackles, that's an encouraging spot for the recovering 6'5", 320-pounder.
What to expect in 2017: While one offensive lineman doesn't make or break an offense, Crosby's return certainly bolsters the Oregon attack. He's an excellent run blocker who has shown the ability to become a steady blindside protector, and that combination will be an ideal fit for Willie Taggart's offense.
Where he'll end up: It really is a loaded group with Texas' Connor Williams, Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey and Clemson's Mitch Hyatt. However, Crosby should progress as a pass-blocker and solidify himself as a top-five tackle with the potential to sneak into the top three.
Mark Andrews, WR, Oklahoma
Where he stands: Given the offensive system, it was smart for Oklahoma to shift Mark Andrews from tight end to wide receiver. Looking ahead, though, he'll most often be listed as a tight end. Miller considers Andrews the No. 4 TE prospect.
What to expect in 2017: Andrews has been a complementary option behind Sterling Shepard (2015) and Dede Westbrook (2016). However, Baker Mayfield will likely be looking Andrews' way as the No. 1 option this season. The sheer volume of targets should show everything we need to know about Andrews.
Where he'll end up: Andrews would need to forgo his senior season, but his stock might not rise following Mayfield's departure anyway. Besides, after seeing three hybrid-type tight ends—two of whom were average blockers—go in the first round, there's a precedent in place for Andrews to assert himself as the position's top prospect and earn a late Day 1 slot.
Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan
Where he stands: Maurice Hurst is outside of Miller's top 50, but B/R's lead scout pegged the D-tackle at No. 10 among all defensive linemen entering the 2017 season.
What to expect in 2017: The upcoming campaign will be Hurst's first as a full-time starter, and he'll put up impressive numbers alongside Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. Because Hurst is such a reliable player in the middle, he'll allow Michigan to utilize Gary—a potential superstar—in several spots on the defensive line.
Where he'll end up: Clemson's Christian Wilkins is quite clearly the best prospect up front, but Hurst should be right behind. According to Miller's rankings, Hurst must surpass six defensive tackles standing between him and Wilkins. Consider this a vote of confidence that he'll do it.
Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
Where he stands: Rated as Miller's No. 43 overall prospect, Harold Landry is already squarely in the scouting eye. But the Boston College star is poised to make the biggest jump in the rankings among players listed in the top 50.
What to expect in 2017: Landry enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach and parties in the backfield. He's never cordially invited to the last activity, but quarterbacks must always be prepared to deal with the dynamic edge-rusher. Landry may lead the country in combined sacks and hurries.
Where he'll end up: Other than a franchise quarterback, no player is more desired than a playmaker on the edge. Barring a complete meltdown in 2017, Landry will have assembled an impressive college career highlighted by 50-plus tackles for loss, 30-plus sacks and no fewer than 10 forced fumbles. That level of production screams top-15 pick.
All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.