So with the 2012 NFL Draft firmly in our 48 hour rear view mirror, it is absolutely time to set our sights on next year's crop of college football prospects.
Here I have listed my top 32 senior prospects heading into their final seasons. You will notice the group is dense on the defensive side of the ball, with many underclassmen expected to dominate the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end positions. It happens every year. However, the non-senior pass rushing group is loaded with edge talent. At least for the summer, I try to stick with only senior talent so keep that in mind when you do not see many of the impact names you expected.
Warning, the following contents are expected to drastically change over the next 360 days:
1. QB Matt Barkley (6'2/220), USC- Many already question Barkley's arm strength and admittedly I have plenty of games to watch before coming to a final conclusion, but it is tough to argue with his ball placement and experienced footwork. Sure, Barkley throws plenty of screen or swing passes in an offense that focuses getting the ball into their playmaker's hands, but he is already asked to make checkdowns at the line based on defensive positioning. I see him zip throws to the sideline after working through progressions frequently. Although he may not ultimately end the process as the top quarterback prospect, Barkley is the safest bet as of right now.
2. QB Tyler Wilson (6'3/220), Arkansas- We will see how Wilson performs under adverse circumstances next season after offensive minded head coach Bobby Petrino was fired only weeks ago. As for his on-field skills, Wilson has a little experience under center and frequently tests downfield coverage on vertical routes. Although his release is elongated, Wilson really whips throws all over the field but tends to overthrow his receivers occasionally. For the most part he is willing to stand in the pocket while working the progressions but Wilson lost many targets to this year's draft and may need to adapt to a new system quickly.
3. DT Star Lotulelei (6'3/325), Utah- There is a soft spot in my heart for beefy interior defensive linemen with high motors and penetration ability. Lotulelei fits that bill and he is the best prospect you have yet to hear about. A likely nose tackle at the next level, Lotulelei could be even more dominant if he bows his elbows less when extending and locates the ball sooner.
4. OLB Sean Porter (6'1/230), Texas A&M- An outside linebacker in the Aggies three man front, Porter crashes the edge under control and looks very comfortable in space. He is not quite the rare parallel bender on the outside that Von Miller was in college, but Porter's number "10" jersey sure does look like Miller's "40" on some plays. Porter's long frame, flexibility, tenacity, and active hands make him one of this year's top pass rushers.
5. DE Alex Okafor (6'4/260), Texas- I am expecting a big jump from Okafor who has a ton of natural ability but has yet to harness it into consistent success. In order to reach that potential, he needs to add strength to his length when engaging and take a more aggressive angle to the quarterback. Okafor should get double digit sacks since he posted 11 pressures as a junior.
6. WR Tavon Austin (5'8/176), West Virginia- Austin is an absolute burner that carries his speed throughout his routes while breaking into soft zones or when taking a short slant to the house with outstanding vertical ability. Sure he lacks desirable size, but Austin is a tremendous returner and his connection with quarterback Geno Smith could remind some of Robert Griffin and Kendall Wright's next year.
7. DT Kawann Short (6'3/310), Purdue- Short thrives on pushing the pocket from the interior, using an active upper body and driving his legs to constantly keep his opposition from anchoring. The interior force does not carry his weight extremely well and does struggle when he cannot instantly jolt an offensive lineman back on first contact, but Short does more than most space eaters.
8. ILB Manti Te'o (6'2/255), Notre Dame- A mainstay on the Irish defense since his freshman year, Te'o headlines the excellent group of 2013 linebackers. He stacks and sheds blocks from the inside linebacker position better than anyone in the 2012 and 2013 classes and even added some pass rush skills to his arsenal. A truly physical hammer from the second level, Te'o has enough speed, fluidity, and reaction quicks to make sideline tackle.
9. OLB Chase Thomas (6'4/240), Stanford- A powerful 3-4 outside linebacker, Thomas compares favorably to Connor Barwin and is the Cardinal's best pass rusher. He starts from a two or three point stance on and keeps a very low pad level to leverage well on the edge against the run or releasing towards the quarterback. It is difficult to not love how strong Thomas plays when engaging bigger offensive linemen.
10. C Barrett Jones (6'4/312), Alabama- Jones transitioned smoothly from left tackle to center, showing quick hands to gain positioning and a consistent grasp to control. He sits back in his stance well but Jones should improve his balance versus quick inside speed rushers and anticipation to hit targets at the second level.
11. FS TJ McDonald (6'2/205), USC- A rangy safety that brings the hammer at the tackle point, McDonald is one of this year's top prospects at any position. While others around him are standing flat footed, McDonald is clicking and closing on under routes or baiting the quarterback to test him vertically. McDonald tends to overrun ball carriers at times when his angles are too aggressive but he has the traits of becoming a reliable defender at multiple levels of the field.
12. CB Johnny Adams (5'11/175), Michigan State- The leggy corner is featured in press-bail coverage where he succeeds in mirroring receivers downfield. Adams does struggle against larger targets who use their strength and frame to shield him from the ball. But Adams does possess quality ball skills, feeling when to time contact at the catch point or undercutting routes for an interception.
13. OLB Brandon Jenkins (6'3/265), FSU- With 21.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries in his last two seasons, Jenkins offers pass rushing size and skills NFL teams look for. He has experience from two point and three point stances, but Jenkins does not maximize his excellent burst off the line since he struggles to disengage once in the offensive lineman's grasp.
14. RB Montee Ball (5'9/212), Wisconsin- There is a lot to like about the ultra-productive runner from Madison. Ball keeps his shoulders low while breaking many arm tackles because of it. He stays between the tackles with patience better than most college backs and can grind out the tough yards for a team or make a tackle miss in the open field with a slight wiggle. His 568 career rushes worry me the most.
15. DE Devin Taylor (6'6/260), South Carolina- A menacing blend of size and speed, Taylor is the next draft eligible member of the talented Gamecock defensive line. Playing mostly left defensive end, Taylor does not maximize his length yet to leverage and separate on the edge, but his natural quickness cannot be taught. Melvin Ingram took a giant leap during his senior season and Taylor may end up doing the same.
16. LB Kevin Reddick (6'2/240), UNC- On plays between the tackle, Reddick fills the hole quickly and with strength. However, he was frequently asked to cover the linebacker out of the backfield and struggled to stay out of no man's land. With Zach Brown departing, Reddick's role should grow and hopefully his wasted movements will diminish.