NFL Draft: USC quarterback Sam Darnold remains at head of class

By The Sports Xchange  |  Nov. 22, 2017 at 6:08 PM
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NFL scouts take Rivalry Week every bit as serious as the most ardent fan.

Sure, when it comes to projecting college players to the next level, talent is more important. But every scout in the league is looking for players who rise to the occasion when the lights are brightest.

That is certainly the case this week with passionate rivalry games like Alabama vs. Auburn, Ohio State vs. Michigan and Florida vs. Florida State (among others) vying for attention. For scouts, the premier showdown may be between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and its vaunted defense led by future first round picks Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da'Ron Payne and Ronnie Harrison squaring off against Auburn's stellar rushing attack.

With the regular season winding down, here is the latest Big Board, my personal ranking of the Top 32 NFL prospects in the country.

1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC, 6-3, 225, 4.74, redshirt sophomore

There is no denying that Darnold struggled early this season, throwing two interceptions in each of USC's first three games as the Trojans dealt with massive turnover on offense. In the eight games since the poor start, Darnold owns a very respectable 17-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, quieting his critics. To be clear, Darnold has his warts -- an elongated throwing motion is the biggest concern -- but he is accurate, athletic and tough. He also comes with a pro-caliber build, offense and media market, making the projection to the next level simpler than most of his competition. Simply put, he possesses the best mix of talent and intangibles in this year's potential quarterback class.

2. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, 6-3, 220, 4.97, junior

As he demonstrated against USC in the primetime showdown with Darnold, Rosen possesses many of the traits to project as a franchise quarterback, including intelligence, a lightning-quick release, accuracy to all levels of the field and plenty of velocity. After now missing action in multiple games for the second consecutive season, however, it is fair to question Rosen's durability, as well as whether he possesses the intangibles preferred as the face of the franchise.

3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, 5-11, 223, 4.49, junior

Barkley is the elite player in college football and the easy favorite among non-quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy. He possesses the size and toughness to be effective running between the tackles but it is his elusiveness and breakaway speed as a perimeter runner, receiver and returner that has NFL scouts salivating. In terms of immediate impact ability, Barkley is comparable to recent Top 10 picks Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.

4. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS/CB, Alabama, 6-0, 201, 4.52, junior

With today's pass-happy NFL offenses, versatile defensive backs are more important than ever and no one in this can match Fitzpatrick's combination of instincts, coverage skills and reliable open-field tackling. Fitzpatrick may lack the elite fluidity and change of direction of today's top cover corners but his route anticipation and physicality make up for it, allowing him to project as a top five prospect (and arguably the elite defender) in 2018. Fitzpatrick tweaked his hamstring and missed virtually all of the rivalry game against LSU but not before showing impressive makeup speed to break up a potential score.

5. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson, 6-3, 310, 5.04, junior

From his off-beat personality to his versatility along the defensive line, Wilkins is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He earned All-American honors at defensive tackle as a true freshman, recording an eye-popping 84 tackles before moving out to defensive end last season and boosting his big plays, registering 13 tackles for loss (among 56 total stops) and setting a school record among defensive linemen with 10 passes broken up. Wilkins' ability to disrupt the passer as well as the running game helps him stand out in a potentially very good class of defensive tackles.

6. Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama, 6-2, 308, 5.38, junior

Payne may lack the imposing size and burst of some of the other top defensive linemen but his pure strength (including a 545-pound bench press) and motor stand out, even among the NFL junior varsity team that is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Payne's value lies with his ability to be a two-gap run stuffer not a consistent pass rush threat, which could earn him a lower spot on draft boards given the focus on the pass in today's NFL. He and Alabama's stout defense will face its stiffest challenge with Auburn's running game.

7. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, senior

Simply put, over the first half of the season Chubb has been the most dominant defensive player in college football. His 62 tackles through 10 games include 23.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, numbers very much in line with the 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks he posted during last year's breakout campaign. A former linebacker whose commitment to maximizing his talent has earned him captain roles the past two years running, Chubb looks like one of this year's safest prospects -- winning not only with athleticism but hustle, physicality and refined technique, as well.

8. Connor Williams, OT, Texas, 6-5, 320, 5.31, junior

The Longhorns have not produced a single first-round pick on offense since Vince Young was selected No. 3 overall by Tennessee back in 2006, but Williams is a strong bet to end that dubious streak. Williams is a bit of a throwback, showing the power and aggression as a run blocker that scouts covet with the athleticism, balance and girth to stone pass rushers, as well. Further, Williams showed his toughness and talent by returning to the field Week 12 against West Virginia after suffering a knee injury (torn meniscus, ACL and MCL sprain) on Sept. 16 against USC.

9. Vita Vea, DT, Washington, 6-4, 344, 5.34, redshirt junior

In terms of raw ability, Vea competes with only Houston true sophomore Ed Oliver as the most exciting defensive line prospect in the country. As his size suggests, Vea can dominate as a run-stuffer. He is also incredibly athletic for a man of his size, surprising opponents with his initial burst and speed in pursuit. Vea is a prototypical nose guard with a blend of size, power and athleticism likely to earn comparisons to former freakish first rounders Haloti Ngata and Dontari Poe as the draft approaches.

10. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, redshirt sophomore

After an offseason in which he was labeled as "the next Sean Taylor," James struggled to shake off the rust from last year's knee surgery, notably missing open field tackles and failing to deliver big plays early in the year. Since, James has looked like more of his previous self, enjoying standout performances against Louisville (eight tackles), Boston College (13 tackles) and Syracuse (three tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and four passes broken up), including the partially-blocked field goal which secured the Seminoles' 27-24 win over the Orange. A modern safety who truly blends the traits of a linebacker and cornerback, James is a moveable chess piece on defense sure to intrigue NFL coaches.

11. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M, 5-11, 200, 4.39, junior

With three receivers earning top 10 picks a year ago, the NFL's thirst for playmakers has never been more obvious, and Kirk is this year's most dynamic pass-catcher. Like current Detroit Lions standout Golden Tate, Kirk possesses the squatty frame of a running back, using terrific lateral agility, balance and pure speed to be a threat to score any time he touches the ball as a receiver or returner.

12. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama, 6-1, 190, 4.50, junior

Expectations were huge for Ridley last season after breaking Julio Jones' school record for most receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman (89 for 1,045). A stacked roster and the development of young Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts resulted in less production (72 for 769 yards) for Ridley last season, but his polished routes, deceptive speed and strong hands remain just as impressive on tape and he has taken the next step this year, emerging as Alabama's clear top target and a difference-maker in the win over Mississippi State. A late enrollee at Alabama, Ridley is a bit older than most of the top prospects, turning 23 in December. Ridley's potential one-on-one matchup with Auburn's star cornerback Carlton Davis (No. 23 on this board) is must-see scouting.

13. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame, 6-5, 325, 5.23, redshirt junior

It isn't often that NFL teams are willing to invest a top 15 pick in an interior offensive lineman but, like his former Notre Dame teammate Zack Martin, Nelson's pro-ready game is obvious. In fact, he very well should have been named MVP for Notre Dame's 49-14 pasting of USC as it was behind he and fellow potential first round pick, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, that the Irish ran the ball for an astounding 377 yards on 47 carries (an 8.0 yard per rush clip!). The massive Nelson is a plug and play guard, showing off the initial quickness, vice-like grip and sheer mass scouts covet inside.

14. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson, 6-4, 265, 4.78, redshirt sophomore

Players as young as Ferrell rarely make the Big Board this early in their respective collegiate careers, but the prototypically built edge rusher is a unique talent with an already impressive resume, including 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (along with a team-high 24 QB hurries a season ago). He is often overshadowed by the "other" talent along Clemson's defensive line but projects very well to the NFL due to his initial burst, length and closing speed.

15. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming, 6-4, 233, 4.76, redshirt junior

If someone were to draw up the physical prototype for an NFL quarterback, it would look a lot like the strapping, rifle-armed, and shockingly athletic Allen. Unfortunately for all of his raw traits, Allen remains very raw, failing to show the accuracy and poise in losses to Iowa and Oregon that are required in the NFL. Allen was not helped much by his teammates in these losses, however, and his head coach, Craig Bohl, proved with his last quarterback, Carson Wentz, that he knows how to develop talent at the position.

16. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State, 6-1, 198, 4.49, junior

After recording an FBS-leading eight interceptions last season -- his first as a starter -- McFadden has a lot of work to do to duplicate his incredible debut. Do not mistake McFadden's lack of eye-popping statistics this season (26 tackles and five passes broken up over the first 10 games), however, as evidence of a poor year as most opponents are opting simply to ignore his side of the field. Though his focus as a tackler and in coverage can wane, at times, McFadden offers an exciting upside with the quick feet, instincts and soft hands scouts covet.

17. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, junior

Like the rest of his LSU teammates, Guice started the season slowly but appears to be hitting his stride, eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive year and improving as a receiver. Guice is not the freakish combination of size and speed of his predecessor Leonard Fournette. Frankly, he is built more like another star NFL rookie running back -- Kansas City's Kareem Hunt. Like Hunt, Guice possesses a squatty, powerful frame as well as excellent balance through contact and the burst to gain chunk yardage.

18. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma, 6-7, 358, 5.47, redshirt junior

The prodigal son of the late Orlando "Zeus" Brown (a 13-year veteran who played with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens), the Sooners' behemoth blocker's sheer size and strength make referring to him as "junior" almost laughable. While lacking the nimble feet to likely remain at left tackle in the NFL (where he's started the past two years for the Sooners), Brown's rare arm length, powerful base and surprising balance make him a quality pass protector and not just the bulldozer in the running game that his bulk suggests.

19. Arden Key, DE, LSU, 6-5, 240, 4.74, junior

With his long arms, explosive get-off and rare flexibility to scrape the corner, Key is the most gifted edge threat likely to be available in the 2018 draft. It will not be lost on scouts that he enjoyed his most productive game of the season (eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss) in the big matchup with Alabama and that he boasts a terrific track record, setting the LSU single-season record with 12 sacks as a true sophomore. A late recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and a lack of strength at the point of attack in the running game, however, are among the concerns scouts will have to "unlock" with the gifted but inconsistent junior.

20. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, 6-2, 200, 4.42, junior

Jackson quite literally ran away from the competition for the Heisman Trophy a season ago, showing off the raw speed and playmaking ability that has earned him plenty of comparisons to 2001 No. 1 overall selection Michael Vick. A true dual threat, Jackson is a potential difference-maker in the NFL if a team is willing to commit its offense around his unique talent. Though Jackson is improved in terms of accuracy, he remains a work in progress as an NFL passer because he routinely stares down his primary target. Further, while Jackson is noticeably bigger this season, he remains undersized by NFL quarterback standards, a significant concern given his playing style.

21. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.37, junior

Ward was overshadowed a year ago by eventual first-round cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans) and Gareon Conley (Oakland) but he saw plenty of playing time at nickel, actually tying with Lattimore for the team lead in pass breakups in 2016 with nine over 13 games. This season, Ward has been even more productive in the PBU department (12 through 11 games), showing off the lightning-quick feet, hands and savvy to project as a "starting" nickel-back early in his NFL career and perhaps much, much more.

22. Billy Price, OG, Ohio State, 6-3, 312, 5.19, redshirt senior

A three-year starter and reigning All-American guard, Price is about as safe as it gets in early NFL draft prognostication. He could have made the NFL jump a year ago and been one of the first interior offensive linemen selected but is improving his stock this season by proving his versatility and making the switch to center, the position some scouts believe he is best suited to playing in the NFL. Built like a cinder block (and just as tough), Price's initial quickness and power play a key role in the Buckeyes' offensive attack.

23. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn, 6-1, 203, 4.50, junior

Lanky press cornerbacks are all the rage in today's NFL and Davis possesses the skill-set to take full advantage of an average senior crop to jump into the first-round conversation. A starter as a true freshman, Davis earned third-team All-SEC honors last season and looks well on his way toward bigger honors in 2017, ranking among the best in the power-conference in passes broken up. He possesses the stop-and-go quickness, loose hips and long arms scouts are looking for and could boost his stock further with more willingness in run support, as well as turning more breakups into interceptions.

24. Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford, 6-3, 290, 4.96, junior

Following the same destructive path which helped former teammate Solomon Thomas vault up draft boards a year ago, Phillips has proven a one man wrecking crew in the Pac-12 this season, actually leading the team in tackles (80), tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (five) from his defensive tackle position. Quick, physical and instinctive, Phillips is a classic penetrator projecting best as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a traditional 4-3 alignment.

25. Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia, 6-0, 225, 4.64, junior

As the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions proved the past two years with the first-round selections of "undersized" linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarrad Davis, respectively, speed is valued above all else in today's game. While lacking ideal size, Smith's range, instincts and physicality show up against the run and pass, alike. He leads the Bulldogs in tackles by a wide margin, with nearly as many stops (91) through 11 games as Georgia's next two defenders combined (99).

26. Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama, 6-2, 214, 4.57, junior

A major question mark heading into last season (his first as a starter), Harrison rewarded the faith of the Alabama coaching staff by emerging as a legitimate star by year's end, finishing second only to Butkus Award winning linebacker Reuben Foster for the team lead in tackles (86) and proving to be a big-play magnet. When under control, Harrison can also be a weapon as a hitter, specializing in cleaning up the play with a stiff shoulder to stop a ball-carrier in his tracks. Highly regarded for his physicality as a tackler, Harrison showed off the instincts and ball-skills to suggest that he is not just a run-stuffer with an impressive interception against LSU in the Week 10 showdown.

27. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan, 6-2, 282, 4.93, redshirt senior

With today's focus on the quick passing game in the NFL, "undersized" defensive tackles who can collapse the pocket from the interior are much more valuable than in previous years. Hurst, the son of the former New England Patriots cornerback of the same name, combines the initial burst to split gaps with the toughness and strength that belie his frame.

28. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame, 6-7, 312, 5.27, redshirt senior

With a full season of starts at both left tackle (2016) and right tackle (2015) already under his belt in Notre Dame's pro-style attack, McGlinchey entered his final year of college football as one of the more established blockers in the country and his stock has only improved in shutting down high profile opponents (like Boston College's Harold Landry and USC's Rasheem Green) since. McGlinchey is not in the same class of athlete as his former teammate and 2016 first-round pick, Ronnie Stanley (Baltimore Ravens), but NFL offensive line coaches will appreciate his experience, versatility and technique.

29. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State, 6-0, 312, 5.17, senior

As so-called "undersized" Pro Bowlers like Aaron Donald and Jurell Casey are proving, height may be overrated when it comes to projecting success at defensive tackle. Nnadi's bowling ball-like build, active hands and sheer power make him a nightmare to stop on the inside. Nnadi earned First Team All-ACC honors a year ago despite being overshadowed by others and is highly regarded by scouts for his relentless style of play.

30. Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist, 6-3, 218, 4.58, redshirt junior

The Mustangs have not churned out a top 50 NFL selection since 1986 but clubs on the lookout for a prototype split end will certainly be intrigued by Sutton, a physically imposing receiver with the height, strength and aggression to beat NFL defensive backs for contested passes. Sutton has averaged nearly 17 yards per reception since 2015 with 28 combined touchdowns grabs over that time, including nine thus far this season.

31. Taven Bryan, DT, Florida, 6-4, 293, 4.96, redshirt junior

The Gators have churned out at least one first-round defender in each of the past five drafts and if those close to the program are to be believed, Bryan may be just as gifted as any of them. He certainly lacks production to this point, registering just 34 tackles (including just five for loss) in the first 27 games of his career. He is still very much a work in progress, too often blowing through or past would-be blockers only to locate the ball too late to do anything about it. The NFL loves upside, however, and the Casper, Wyoming, native offers plenty of it.

32. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia, 5-10, 228, 4.54, senior

Powerful, agile and boasting underrated straight-line speed, Chubb gashed Kentucky for 151 yards in Week 12, giving him 1,045 yards on the year. In doing so Chubb joined Georgia legend Herschel Walker as the only Bulldogs to ever eclipse the 1,000 yard rushing mark three times in their careers. Scouts will have to weigh the fact that Chubb comes with plenty of carries under his belt (currently 701) but his career average of 6.37 yards gained against mostly SEC competition speaks volumes, as well.

Just missed the cut:

Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State, 6-5, 315, 5.17, Sr

Jamarco Jones, OT, Ohio State, 6-5, 310, 5.27, Sr

Marcus Allen, FS, Penn State, 6-1, 207, 4.55, Sr

Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson, 6-5, 305, 5.04, Jr

Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College, 6-2, 250, 4.76, Sr

Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and The Pro Football Hall of Fame

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