College Football Players with Potential to Be a No. 1 Overall Pick

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2017

College Football Players with Potential to Be a No. 1 Overall Pick

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    Professional scouting departments work tirelessly to identify diamonds in the rough, but the best NFL draft prospects have already established themselves as household names.

    Though quarterbacks appear poised to dominate the early part of the 2018 draft, an offensive lineman or some defenders could steal the spotlight. Should that happen, it could mark the beginning of a trend; men in the trenches look like the top players in the 2019 class.

    With this list, we limited ourselves to three premier talents from the 2020 draft-eligible class since that group hasn't played a down at the college level.

    Following the honorable mentions slide, we dug into the 2018 and 2019 prospects, who were arranged alphabetically by last name.

Honorable Mentions

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    Draft-Eligible in 2018

    Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Running backs who can create for themselves are special. Saquon Barkley has showed that capacity, and his versatility is attractive. Barkley ran for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore and added 28 receptions for 402 yards and four more scores.

    Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: No matter if he pursues the NFL in 2018 or 2019, Lamar Jackson deserves more attention. Listed at 6'3" and 211 pounds, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has room to grow with his elite tools. Jackson improved significantly as a passer last season, so continued development with an already strong arm will put him squarely in the conversation.

    Arden Key, LB, LSU: Fair or not, Arden Key's brief personal leave will lead to predraft headlines that question his dedication. But when he's on the field, Key doesn't leave many wondering about his ability. The edge-rusher has collected 17 sacks in just two years.

        

    Draft-Eligible in 2019

    Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE, USC: The college football world hasn't yet seen Oluwole Betiku Jr.'s ceiling, and he's a work in progress anyway. A 6'3", 250-pound defensive end, Betiku has only played organized football for three years. While he would likely benefit from four years in college, Betiku should make an impact in 2017 before stepping into a large role. He's worth monitoring.

    Brian Burns, DE, Florida State: DeMarcus Walker racked up 16 sacks last season. That kind of production is supposed to be hard to replace, but the Seminoles have Brian Burns ready to take over. As a freshman, he collected 9.5 sacksincluding 4.5 over the last four games. What can he do as a full-time starter?

    Shea Patterson, QB, Ole Miss: We didn't anticipate seeing Shea Patterson in 2016, but Chad Kelly's season-ending injury pushed the prize recruit into action. Patterson showed off his dual-threat skills, throwing for 880 yards and six touchdowns and running for 169 yards. Two years with a loaded receiving corps at his disposal will show whether Patterson deserves consideration. It's probably a yes.

        

    Draft-Eligible in 2020

    Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: The No. 1 overall recruit in 2017, Najee Harris heads to the Crimson Tide with sky-high expectations. Fortunately for NFL teams, a deep backfield should limit the number of hits Harris absorbs until at least 2018. If his production matches his potential, Harris may have a top suitor ready to acquire his skills.

    Walker Little, OT, Stanford: Franchise left tackles don't always change a franchise—take Joe Thomas and the Cleveland Browns, for examplebut they certainly are valuable. Walker Little will likely be a three-year contributor for the Cardinal, who have produced seven offensive line picks over the last six drafts.

    Jaelan Phillips, DE, UCLA: Edge-rushers have become the second most important players on NFL rosters. It's why guys like Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Justin Houston have signed such massive contracts. Jaelan Phillips could follow in the path of Myles Garrett, whom the Browns snagged No. 1 overall in 2017.    

Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

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    Draft-eligible year: 2018 (draft-eligible since 2017)

    "Who the hell is that guy?"

    That's how much one NFL general manager who visited Laramie, Wyoming, liked Josh Allen, then an unknown starter for the Pokes.

    "I don't know anything about him, but I can tell you that with his physical stature, arm strength and accuracy, he's an NFL camp guy right now," another GM told Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, per Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer.

    The junior is now considered one of the nation's best prospects. But his sudden risewhich could be tempered by turnover among the Cowboys' other offensive skill players and centeralso means Allen could disappear from the radar as quickly as he arrived on it.

    Such is the fickle nature of scouting.

Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Draft-eligible year: 2019

    The San Diego Chargers picked Joey Bosa No. 3 overall in the 2016 draft. Nick Bosa is already ahead of his brother's pace.

    "Nick can probably get the little things a little earlier than Joey did," Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said, per Tony Gerdeman of TheOzone. "I arrived late [for Joey], Nick got everything I gave Joey his freshman year, and so I think that makes a difference. He's a year ahead toward his progression. He's done a great job, and he's locked in, and he's going to be a good player for us."

    Because the Buckeyes have such a loaded defensive line, Bosa has played both end and tackle. He registered 29 tackles, seven tackles for loss and five sacks as a freshman.

    NFL teams will be certain to track Bosa carefully as he approaches draft-eligible status.

Sam Darnold, QB, USC

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    Draft-eligible year: 2018

    Sam Darnold attracted the nation's attention with a 9-0 finish to the 2016 campaign. Overall, he posted a 67.2 completion percentage with 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

    Now a redshirt sophomore, Darnold is considered a first-round prospect. The question, though, is when he will declare.

    "I also had several sources close to Darnold tell me they wouldn't be surprised if Darnold played two more seasons at USC," NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah wrote July 5.

    Quarterbacks are subject to constant scrutiny and over-analysis, so strictly from a financial perspective, Darnold would be wise to leave the Trojans if he plays well again in 2017.

Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia

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    Draft-eligible year: 2019

    Georgia's quarterback competition in 2016 lasted one game. Perhaps it's fitting Jacob Eason might only last one pick in the 2019 draft.

    As a true freshman, Eason completed 55.1 percent of his 370 passes for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Those numbers should risenot only as he progresses individually but also as a young receiving corps develops around him.

    "You cannot help but to like Jacob," CBS analyst Gary Danielson said on 680 The Fan, per Rusty Mansell of 247Sports. "He is very much like [Matthew] Stafford, with type personality and that arm. He is the most NFL-potential quarterback that the league has seen since Stafford."

Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Draft-eligible year: 2019

    Rashan Gary had the least production of any non-true freshman listed (not counting our honorable mentions), but he was highly efficient while playing behind Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley. The 6'5", 287-pound athlete gathered 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack and six quarterback hurries.

    In other words, Gary is one of the safest breakout choices for 2017. Michigan will unleash him as a full-time starter who can align at either end or tackle and build around him.

    The last defensive tackle selected No. 1 overall was Ohio State's Dan Wilkinson in 1994. Between Dexter Lawrence, Ed Oliver and Gary, that streak will be in serious jeopardy two years from now.

Derwin James, S, Florida State

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    Draft-eligible year: 2018

    "Heat-seeking missile" is the description of choice for Derwin James, a hard-hitting Florida State safety.

    James burst onto the national scene as a freshman, amassing 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also forced two fumbles. In 2016, he notched 11 tackles and an interception in six-plus quarters of action before a knee injury derailed his year.

    But during the Seminoles' 2017 spring game, James was a nightmare to contain. That surely will carry over to the regular season, when the junior should solidify his place among the top prospects.

Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Draft-eligible year: 2019

    Don't take my word for it. Let Carlos Watkins convince you.

    "[Dexter Lawrence] is going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft," said Watkins, a fourth-round choice of the Houston Texans in April, per Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports.

    Lawrence powered his way onto the national scene as a freshman. The 6'5", 340-pounder amassed 62 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and six quarterback hurriesand blocked two kicks.

Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

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    Draft-eligible year: 2019

    Ed Oliver arrived at Houston as a 5-star recruit. And did he ever prove it.

    The defensive tackle earned first-team Associated Press All-America status, collecting 66 tackles and a stunning 22.5 tackles for loss. Additionally, he recorded five sacks, nine pass breakups, seven quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

    Oliver will spend at least two more seasons wreaking complete and utter havoc on the American Athletic Conference before turning pro.

    "The sky is the limit," then-Houston coach Tom Herman said, per Paul Myerberg of USA Today.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Draft-eligible year: 2018

    The 2017 campaign is especially important for Josh Rosen, who missed the second half of 2016 but also didn't play particularly well in the first half.

    When given a clean pocket, Rosen shows textbook traits. His footwork, throwing motion and release are picturesque. And since new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has a history of developing quarterbacks, Rosen's evolution should only continue.

    Not everything the junior does is ideal, of course. "His personality absolutely could be a problem for some teams," an NFC scout told Bleacher Report's Matt Hayes before the 2016 season.

    But at his best, Rosen looks like a franchise-changing quarterback.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

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    Draft-eligible year: 2018 (draft-eligible since 2017)

    Mason Rudolph, who could've garnered first-round attention in 2017, has consistently improved at Oklahoma State.

    After a successful 2015 campaign despite ceding short-yardage work to J.W. Walsh, Rudolph efficiently torched defenses last season. He posted a 63.4 completion percentage with 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions and chipped in six scores on the ground.

    The 6'5", 230-pound Rudolph seemingly checks all the scouting boxes (height, velocity, touch, progressions), so another productive year should push the gunslinger closer to the top of draft boards.

Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Draft-eligible year: 2018

    Interior defenders are rarely picked No. 1, but Christian Wilkins bends like an edge-rusher. In other words, he's really good.

    No wonder NFL.com's Chase Goodbread ranked him college football's "most freakish athlete." The 6'4", 310-pounder also landed at No. 9 on Bruce Feldman's annual "freaks list."

    Wilkins, who moonlighted at defensive end in 2016, gathered 48 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups and five quarterback hurries last season. Few linemen offer that level of disruption, and to accomplish that at his size is special.

Connor Williams, LT, Texas

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Draft-eligible year: 2018

    Tom Herman can build around his left tackle during his first season at Texas. Connor Williams is a brick wall.

    Williams surrendered just four quarterback pressures and one sack in 423 pass-block snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller has compared Williams to Joe Thomas, the Browns' future Hall of Famer.

    Despite the program's struggles last year, Williams earned second-team Associated Press All-America honors. His potential to stabilize an NFL offensive line would make him worth the No. 1 pick.

Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama

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    Draft-eligible year: 2019

    Jalen Hurts wasn't the only early enrollee to demand a first-string spot last season. Jonah Williams played right tackle for the SEC champions and also secured freshman All-America honors.

    And he's just getting started.

    "That dude is going to be a monster," defensive end Da'Shawn Hand said, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "Just wait. You'll see."

    Williams will replace Cam Robinson at left tackle, and NFL teams are surely eager to see how the sophomore performs.

                  

    All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from CFBStats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.