The Big Board Is Back

Wednesday November 19th, 2014

It has been almost a year since I wrote one of these Big Board pieces. Unfortunately, the new College Football Playoff has created a heavier workload (read: a lot of hypothetical arguing) for us college football scribes. That leaves precious little time to project what might happen when the players we cover leave the NCAA’s protective cocoon and face paychecks, endorsement deals and all the other mortal dangers that come with playing professional football.

Also, this year’s mock drafts haven’t infuriated me as much as mocks have in years past. Maybe it’s because almost every FBS game is now on television, making it easier to follow players. Mocks are now based on actual production. They used to be based on box scores and media guide measurables; that used to drive me mad.

Just like last year, this list is not a projected draft order. It does not take into account NFL teams’ draft positions and needs. This is just a list of the best college players out there who have proven it on the field. Just as before, positions that carry a premium in the draft (quarterbacks, defensive tackles, pass rushers, offensive tackles) also carry a premium here. Positions that are devalued in the draft (tailback, guard, inside linebacker) are also devalued here.

You’ll also notice that this list contains a ton of juniors. They may not all enter the draft. But unless they’ve announced they’re coming back next year—or even if they’ve said their coming back and I don’t believe them—they’re eligible for the list.

Away we go…

2015 NFL Draft Big Board
1
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Marcus Mariota

QB, Oregon, R-Jr.

Mariota has the escapability and improvisational skills of Johnny Manziel in a much more prototypical quarterback body (6-4, 219). He has a big enough arm, and the question of whether he can transition from Oregon’s offense to a more traditional NFL scheme is becoming irrelevant; NFL teams now incorporate concepts commonly run by the Ducks. The most impressive thing about Mariota is that, when healthy, he can practically carry one of the best offenses in college football. When he had a bum knee last year, the Ducks had neither the offensive line nor the backs to generate much of a running game without their star quarterback. This year, Oregon’s O-line has been ravaged by injuries, but thanks to Mariota (and 230-pound freshman back Royce Freeman) the Ducks are 9-1 and have already clinched the Pac-12 North. Mariota is the best player in the college game, and it’s scary to think what kind of numbers he’d put up if he played behind a line like, say, Florida State or Alabama.

2
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Randy Gregory

DE, Nebraska, R-Jr.

Gregory was slowed by an old knee injury early this season, but he has rounded back into form. And that form is like something from another planet. Gregory is 6-6 with a wingspan that appears much longer, and he uses that length to grab and/or disrupt opposing quarterbacks. He has a lightning quick first step and a frame that suggests he won’t lose that quickness if he adds to the 245 pounds he carries now. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis has given NFL personnel people a great preview of all the different things Gregory can do, lining him up in a three-point stance, as a stand-up rush end, as a linebacker and occasionally dropping him into pass coverage. Like Jadeveon Clowney last year, Gregory is getting double-teamed and chipped like crazy. In nine games, he has six sacks and 14 hurries.

 

3
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Amari Cooper

WR, Alabama, Jr.

The mark of a great receiver is when everyone in the stadium knows he’s getting the ball and the defense still can’t keep him away from it. That’s Cooper. After a few uncharacteristic drops against LSU, Cooper caught eight passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State. Cooper is still averaging 130.3 receiving yards a game while playing against quite a few corners he’ll also see in the NFL.

 

4
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Leonard Williams

DE, USC, Jr.

Where do you want Williams to play? Three-technique? End in a 3-4? End in a 4-3? Maybe a little nose on passing downs? He can do it all, which is why he’ll get snapped up quickly.

5
Frank Franklin II/AP

Eddie Goldman

DT, Florida State, Jr.

The Seminoles can thank Goldman for the fact that they’re still undefeated. He essentially won the Clemson game for them. First, he blew up the Tigers’ center so thoroughly on a goal-line play that the center sailed a snap over quarterback DeShaun Watson’s head on the next play. A sure touchdown was erased. Later, Goldman stripped Tigers back C.J. Davidson when Clemson was driving, within field goal range, late in a tie game. Then, in overtime, Goldman dropped Watson for a four-yard loss and three plays later pushed two Clemson linemen into the gap tailback Adam Choice was supposed to run through to stuff a fourth-down play. The rest of Goldman’s season hasn’t been so dramatic, but he has been one of the nation’s best interior linemen.

6
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Jameis Winston

QB, Florida State, Jr.

The off-the-field stuff is going to hurt Winston on some draft boards, but all it takes is one team to take him. Some team will note that Winston reads defenses superbly and runs an offense similar to what he’ll be asked to run in the NFL. That team will notice he delivers the ball quickly and accurately and that he has had to carry the Seminoles’ offense this season in ways he never did last year. That team will then take a chance that Winston doesn’t do something else off the field that can harm the team’s on-field investment in him.

7
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Shaq Thompson

LB/RB, Washington, Jr.

Thompson is a linebacker in the NFL, but he has split time between linebacker and tailback of late in Seattle. At 6-1 and 228 pounds, he might be undersized for some defenses, but he’s perfect for a scheme that wants its linebackers to be able to play like safeties, and its safeties to be able to play like linebackers. This season, Thompson has 61 tackles, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. If those numbers seem a bit low, consider the fact that he spent a recent three-game stretch playing mostly tailback. During that span, he carried 52 times and averaged 7.2 yards a carry. Yes, 7.2 yards a carry. In the Pac-12. At his second position. That’s the kind of athlete he is.

8
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Shane Ray

DE/LB, Missouri, R-Jr.

Last month the guys at The Inside Read explained why Ray was moving up draft boards as quickly as he moves toward the quarterback. Ray has done nothing to dissuade that in the past few weeks. For the season, he has 16 tackles for loss, 12 of them sacks.

9
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

CB, Oregon, Sr.

Though NFL teams are looking for taller corners these days, Ekpre-Olomu plays bigger than his listed 5-10, 195-pound size. He can jam receivers at the line and smother them once they recover.

10
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Brandon Scherff

OT, Iowa, R-Sr.

Scherff had surgery to repair knee cartilage in September but didn’t miss a game. He has been one of a few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster season in Iowa City. (Plus he can hang clean 443 pounds three times, and you can’t). Also, don’t try to beat him on a blitz. He hates that.

 

11
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Mario Edwards Jr.

DE, Florida State, Jr.

As I wrote in August, the 300-pound Edwards is asked to do some less-than-glamorous things for the Seminoles, but he does them very well. He’s still setting the edge better than just about anyone in the country, and 10 of his 34 tackles have been for a loss.

12
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Landon Collins

S, Alabama, Jr.

NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout, calls Collins the best safety in the country. Watching a full game, it’s easy to understand why.

 

13
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Rashad Greene

WR, Florida State, Sr.

Like Alabama’s Cooper, everyone knows Greene is getting the ball yet he still manages to get open. Greene has led the Seminoles in receiving yards every year he has been in Tallahassee, and he’ll lead them in that category again this season. Even as Winston has faced more pressure, and even without Kelvin Benjamin to draw the defense’s attention, Greene has managed to become an even more reliable target. So far this season, he has 75 catches for 1,042 yards and five touchdowns.

14
David Madison/Getty Images

Andrus Peat

OT, Stanford, Jr.

If you asked an NFL general manager to dream up the ideal offensive tackle, the 6-7, 316-pound Peat would be what he’d come up with. Peat is long, lean and quick. At Pac-12 media days in July, Stanford coach David Shaw could think of only one tackle who compared to Peat. “I don’t know if there’s been anybody else in our conference, in the last eight years, that is as good as Andrus Peat has been and can be,” Shaw said, according to NFL.com. “In my entire career, nine years in the NFL, the only offensive lineman that was a step above of where Andrus can be is Jonathan Ogden—one of the best tackles to ever play.”

15
Chris Jackson/AP

Kevin White

WR, West Virginia, Sr.

White was a decent receiver for the Mountaineers before exploding this season. The 6-3, 210-pounder has caught 91 passes for 1,207 yards and eight touchdowns. White plays in a pass-happy offense, but that doesn’t mean his numbers are strictly the product of Dana Holgorsen’s system. He’s simply too good for most defenses to contain.

16
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Malcom Brown

DT, Texas, Jr.

The Texas draft drought will end early should Brown decide to skip his senior season. The 6-2, 320-pounder has said he won’t leave unless he receives a first- or second-round grade. If he keeps playing the way he has the past month, that’s a distinct possibility.

 

17
David Banks/Getty Images

Melvin Gordon

RB, Wisconsin, R-Jr.

If running backs weren’t so devalued in the NFL, Gordon would be even higher on this list. Saturday’s performance against Nebraska was incredible. Gordon broke the FBS record for rushing yards in a game despite sitting out the fourth quarter: he ran for 408 yards on 25 in the Badgers’ 59-24 win. Gordon is now averaging 8.6 yards per carry on the season.

18
Bob Leverone/AP

Vic Beasley

DE, Clemson, R-Sr.

Beasley might make or break his draft status at the Senior Bowl. He’s 6-3 and listed at 236 pounds but looks a little lighter. He has a blinding first step, and he closes on quarterbacks quickly, but can he handle the pounding he’ll take in the NFL? If Beasley can also prove he can play in space as an outside linebacker, teams will be thrilled to take him off the board.

19
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Dante Fowler Jr.

DE, Florida, Jr.

The Gators move the 6-3, 261-pound Fowler around to keep defenses from sliding the protection his way every time. Sometimes he’ll have his hand in the dirt. Sometimes he’ll line up as a stand-up rush end. Sometimes he’ll be a linebacker. That versatility will serve Fowler well at the next level.

20
Gerald Herbert/AP

Jalen Collins

CB, LSU, Jr.

Wait, isn’t this the guy who got owned by Amari Cooper at the goal line last week? Yes, but Cooper owns a lot of people. The 6-2, 198-pound Collins also was the primary coverage guy on Cooper, who was held almost 50 yards below his season average during that game. With his length and speed, NFL teams will be very intrigued by Collins.

21
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

DeVante Parker

WR, Louisville, Sr.

Parker returned for his senior year only to break a bone in his foot in August and miss half the season. Now, he’ll spend the remainder of the year catching passes from backup Reggie Bonnafon following starter Will Gardner’s season-ending injury. That isn’t exactly what Parker envisioned, but the 6-3, 208-pounder showed against Florida State and its armada of future NFL defenders why he belongs on everyone’s draft board. Against the Seminoles, in only his second game back this season, Parker caught eight passes for 214 yards. In three games, he has averaged 163.3 receiving yards.

22
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Trae Waynes

CB, Michigan State, Jr.

Waynes took second billing behind Darqueze Dennard last year, but it’s his show this year. Unfortunately, the Spartans don’t have a complementary player like Waynes was for Dennard. The Nov. 8 loss to Ohio State showed how important it is to have two great corners. Unfortunately for Michigan State, Waynes can’t cover everyone.

23
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

D’haquille “Duke” Williams

WR, Auburn, Jr.

It’s no coincidence that Auburn’s offense got less potent when the 6-3, 216-pound Williams went out with a knee injury against Texas A&M. He also missed the Georgia game but might be back in time for the Iron Bowl. A JUCO transfer who went to high school in LaPlace, La., Williams quickly emerged this season as Auburn’s best receiver. If not for Cooper, he might be the SEC’s best.

24
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Benardrick McKinney

LB, Mississippi State, R-Jr.

McKinney was a 6-3, 205-pound quarterback from Tunica, Miss., when the Bulldogs began recruiting him. He has grown into a 6-5, 249-pound inside linebacker who anchors the defense of a team with national title aspirations. Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com reported earlier this year that McKinney has a 34-inch vertical jump and runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at that size.

25
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jaelen Strong

WR, Arizona State, R-Jr.

A receiver as big as Strong (6-3, 215) shouldn’t be as dynamic in space as he is. He’s a matchup nightmare, and a big reason is his mind. Earlier this month, Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com explained that Strong keeps a notebook on everything defensive coaches say to the Arizona State secondary in team meetings. Why? Because Strong wants to know exactly how defenders are supposed to be playing him in certain coverages. That way, he already knows what he needs to do to counter their correct technique. If Strong studies hard enough, defensive backs can’t win.

26
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Leonard Floyd

OLB, Georgia, So.

Floyd is a true sophomore, but he would be eligible to enter the draft after this season because he went to prep school between high school and enrolling at Georgia in 2013. He has been limited by a shoulder injury of late, but Floyd still leads the Bulldogs with five sacks. One factor that could influence his decision to stay or go could be the fact that his freshman backup might be even better. Lorenzo Carter, who started in the injured Floyd’s place last week, might be very high on this list in two years.

27
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dak Prescott

QB, Mississippi State, R-Jr.

Forget the obvious Tim Tebow comparisons. (Prescott wears the same number, plays in the same offense for the same coach and has all those magical, intangible unicorn qualities.) Prescott looks capable of leading a team at the next level. His throwing mechanics are better than Tebow’s were at this point, and he’s a little faster. But after a three-interception performance in a loss at Alabama, Prescott will have to take better care of the ball.

28
Stephen Brashear/AP

Danny Shelton

DT, Washington, Sr.

Need someone to clog a couple of gaps or at least occupy a pair of offensive linemen on every play? This 6-2, 339-pounder is your man.

 

29
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

La’el Collins

OT, LSU, Sr.

Collins is probably better in the run game than he is in the pass game, but the 6-5, 321-pounder has quick enough feet to handle good rushers. It’s when he gets his hands on said rushers on run plays that he does real damage. Good luck disengaging.

30
Tony Gutierrez/AP

Cedric Ogbuehi

OT, Texas A&M, R-Sr.

Ogbuehi was part of the same recruiting class that included Luke Joeckel (No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft) and Jake Matthews (No. 6 overall in 2014). When Joeckel was in College Station, Ogbuehi played right guard. When Matthews slid from right to left tackle, Ogbuehi moved to right tackle. Ogbuehi started this season on the left side, but he wasn’t protecting the blind side of Johnny Football. He has had to help break in Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen. Two weeks ago, with right tackle Germain Ifedi out, Ogbuehi slid back to the right side and guard Jarvis Harrison moved to left tackle. Ogbuehi received a first-round grade after last season, but this season has not gone as planned. He can still play his way back up the board, and his speed and agility should help him plenty during the pre-draft process.

31
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Eric Kendricks

LB, UCLA, R-Sr.

Because UCLA’s defense throws so many looks at opposing offenses, Kendricks is quite versatile. Sometimes he plays as a 3-4 inside linebacker. Other times, the 230-pounder plays as a 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s productive in both roles, leading the Bruins with 114 tackles and two interceptions.

32
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Connor Cook

QB, Michigan State, R-Jr.

Like Winston, the 6-4, 218-pound Cook is the ideal size and has run an offense similar to what he’ll be asked to run in the NFL. Cook simply hasn’t been as productive as Winston. Still, before Cook won the starting job early in 2013, the Spartans’ offense was a liability. Now, it’s a strength. Teammates seem to want to follow him, and he seems eager to hone his craft.

33
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Hau’oli Kikaha

OLB, Washington, R-Sr.

Kikaha is tied for the national lead in sacks with 16.5 and holds Washington’s school record for career sacks. While it’s difficult to ascertain how much of his success is due to playing on the same defense as Shelton and Thompson, the 6-3, 246-pounder is not getting there by accident.

34
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Shilique Calhoun

DE, Michigan State, R-Jr.

Calhoun has an explosive first step and can turn on the jets to get to the quarterback. He’s also an excellent edge-setter, which isn’t sexy but is necessary at every level of football.

35
Julio Cortez/AP

Sheldon Day

DT, Notre Dame, Jr.

Day is a tad undersized at 285 pounds, but he is incredibly disruptive. Against Florida State, some NFL-bound linemen struggled to keep Day out of the backfield. Day has been doing that against just about everyone. He has 7.5 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries.

36
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Devin Funchess

WR/TE, Michigan, Jr.

Funchess plays receiver for the Wolverines, but the 6-5, 230-pounder likely will play as a flexed-out tight end in the NFL. That’s the weapon teams want. Funchess should feel like he’s on vacation when he gets to the NFL; at Michigan defenses know he’s quarterback Devin Gardner’s only option a lot of the time. Still, Funchess needs to be careful. He’s had a case of the drops of late, and he’ll need to prove his hands are reliable enough to warrant investing a high draft pick.

37
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Shawn Oakman

DE, Baylor, R-Jr.

Oakman’s surname is apt. He’s 6-9 and 280 pounds. He also was a bit of a project until this season. So far, he has 12 tackles for loss (six of them sacks), six hurries and three fumble recoveries. It’s still unclear whether Oakman will be able to fulfill all of his potential. It’s also unclear whether a player of his height will be able to get under shorter offensive tackles on run plays. Some NFL team will be quite willing to take the risk, because if Oakman puts everything together… wow.

38
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Todd Gurley

RB, Georgia, Jr.

Gurley was the best back in college football before the NCAA suspended him four games for selling his autograph. He was the best back in college football when he returned this past weekend against Auburn. Then he tore his ACL, and now he’s a question mark. How high he gets drafted will depend on how he recovers. Still, he’s worth a high draft pick if there is a chance he can get back to his pre-injury self.

39
LM Otero/AP

Eric Striker

OLB, Oklahoma, Jr.

At 6-0 and 220 pounds, size questions will plague Striker. But he’ll make plays in the NFL because he’s fast and because he never stops moving. He currently leads the Sooners in tackles for loss with 11.5, and he’ll lead them again next season if he decides to return to Norman.

40
Eric Gay/AP

Jordan Hicks

LB, Texas, Sr.

Even if Malcom Brown returns for his senior year, the Texas draft drought should end with Hicks or defensive end Cedric Reed. Hicks leads the Longhorns in tackles with 136, and 12 of those have gone for a loss. That may look like stat-padding, but the Texas defense has had to face a lot of plays and make a lot of tackles thanks to a fairly unproductive offense.

41
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Denzel Perryman

LB, Miami (Fla.), Sr.

The President will hit a ballcarrier. Hard.

 

42
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Tre’ Jackson

OG, Florida State, Sr.

Jackson moves effortlessly for a 330-pounder. That makes him light on his feet in pass protection, and it allows him to pull and blow open holes in the run game.

43
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Sam Carter

S, TCU, R-Sr.

Carter is an extension of Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson’s brain on the field. His instincts are great, and he brings good size to the secondary at 6-1 and 215 pounds.

44
David K Purdy/Getty Images

Bryce Petty

QB, Baylor, R-Sr.

Aside from having prototypical size and build for the next level, Petty is a fairly freakish athlete who isn’t asked to use that athleticism much in Baylor’s offense. He’ll have to adjust to a very different way of calling plays and reading defenses in the NFL, but he already started prepping this past offseason, working with quarterbacks coaches George Whitfield Jr. and Kevin O’Connell on NFL protection schemes and pre-snap reads.

45
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Ameer Abdullah

RB, Nebraska, Sr.

How can you not choose a back who is not only great in the run and the pass game, but who also has a plan for the zombie apocalypse?

46
Stephan Savoia/AP

Gerod Holliman

S, Louisville, R-So.

Holliman, who leads the nation in interceptions with 13, went to prep school, so he is in his fourth season out of high school. Holliman only emerged as a star this year, but that probably has something to do with the fact that Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith manned the safety positions quite capably in Holliman’s previous two seasons on campus.

47
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Cody Prewitt

S, Ole Miss, Sr.

Prewitt can cover a ton of ground, and he can deliver a vicious hit when he arrives. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, that’s an attractive package at safety.

48
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Justin Hardy

WR, East Carolina, Sr.

This former walk-on isn’t huge (6-0, 188), but he’s fast and can catch anything thrown near him. After a 15-catch, 188-yard performance against Cincinnati on Saturday, Hardy has 80 catches for 995 yards and seven touchdowns.

49
Carlos Osorio/AP

Nate Orchard

DE, Utah, Sr.

The 6-4, 255-pound Orchard is probably a linebacker in the NFL, and the Utes have been using him a little in a standup role this season. At the moment, he is tied with Washington’s Kikaha for tops in the nation with 16.5 sacks.

50
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Brett Hundley

QB, UCLA, R-Jr.

Hundley probably would have gone higher in the draft had he left school after last season, but he could still make an NFL team very happy. He has great size (6-3, 226), and he is mobile but would prefer to stay in the pocket. It’s tough to judge Hundley because it seems he’s never had a great offensive line in front of him, but he doesn’t take over games the way Winston and Mariota do. He has everything else.

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