I’ve decided to take a break from the tape (it’ll be back tomorrow with a heavy schedule of defensive talent) to preview some of the players I’ll be focusing on during the 2011 college season. There’s a strong possibility other names will come forward in the same way Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and JJ Watt managed last year. Twelve months ago I probably would’ve ranked Jeremy Beal (DE, Oklahoma) in the top-30, he went in round seven to Denver last month – so things can change. However, despite the obvious premature nature of this projection, these are the 50 players I’d recommend keeping an eye on. Remember, this is as much about highlighting certain players of interest rather than seriously attempting to project ‘the best 50’ in May.
#1 Andrew Luck (QB, Stanford)
Decorated quarterback who appears destined to be the #1 overall pick in 2012. Would’ve been the top choice this year had he declared.
#2 Matt Barkley (QB, USC)
May remain at Southern Cal for his senior year but close to Luck in terms of franchise potential. Deserves greater attention.
#3 Matt Kalil (OT, USC)
Brother of Carolina Panthers lineman Ryan, elite blindside potential and kept Tyron Smith at RT before he was drafted in the top ten.
#4 Jonathan Martin (OT, Stanford)
Part of a group which ranks as probably the best offensive line in college football. Ideal size, equally adept in pass protection or in the run game.
#5 Jayron Hosley (CB, Virginia Tech)
Playmaking corner who had nine interceptions last season. Lacks ideal size, but reminds me a little of Brandon Flowers. Kick return specialist.
#6 Quinton Coples (DE, North Carolina)
Perhaps best described as a more productive Cameron Jordan, Coples had 10 sacks last year and has definite top-ten potential.
#7 Knile Davis (RB, Arkansas)
Breakaway speed on a 6-0, 225lbs frame, Davis became an explosive part of Arkansas offense last year averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
#8 Bruce Irvin (DE, West Virginia)
Former JUCO prospect who recorded 14 sacks last year. This is a name you’ll hear a lot in 2011 for a WVU team that could really challenge.
#9 Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama)
He’ll get more work in 2011 with Mark Ingram now in the NFL. Similar combination of size/speed to Arkansas’ Davis.
#10 Alshon Jeffery (WR, South Carolina)
Mike Williams clone and even wears the same number for the Gamecocks. Quarterback problems could hurt his stock this year.
#11 Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama)
Despite everything, nobody can deny Jenkins’ elite skills as a cover corner. Talent warrants this rating, even despite off-field concerns.
#12 Jeff Fuller (WR, Texas A&M)
One of the few to shine despite being shadowed by LSU’s Patrick Peterson. If he becomes more consistent, he can be a top-15 pick.
#13 Landry Jones (QB, Oklahoma)
Physical potential but needs to work on his consistency and decision making. Has a great opportunity to work his way into the top-ten.
#14 Juron Criner (WR, Arizona)
Production will be high with Nick Foles returning and Criner has the complete package – size (6-4, 210lbs), speed and hands.
#15 Logan Harrell (DT, Fresno State)
Penetrating three-technique nobody talks about. Had 10.5 sacks in 2010 and if he can maintain quicks with an extra 10lbs, watch out.
#16 Mohamed Sanu (WR/RB, Rutgers)
The ultimate playmaker who suffers due to a chaotic quarterback situation at Rutgers. Hines Ward as a blocker and a point scorer with the ball in his hands.
#17 Brandon Jenkins (DE, Florida State)
Spin move needs some work, but showed flashes of a repertoire in a 13.5 sack 2010 season. LEO candidate for Seattle.
#18 Jonathan Massaquoi (DE, Troy)
Another LEO candidate with pass rushing qualities, like Jenkins he recorded 13.5 sacks last year.
#19 Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State)
Production shouldn’t suffer despite the loss of top offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. Not ideal size/speed, but incredible production.
#20 Jerell Worthy (DT, Michigan State)
Needs to become more consistent and hasn’t played up to his full potential yet. 2011 is a big year for Worthy.
#21 Peter Konz (C, Wisconsin)
The true star of Wisconsin’s dominating offensive line last year. Stood out in a big way whenever I watched the Badgers.
#22 Logan Thomas (QB, Virginia Tech)
Sleeper pick in that he’s 6-6, 245lbs and incredibly gifted. Red-shirt sophomore only, but has the talent to excel for the Hokies.
#23 Vinny Curry (DE, Marshall)
A third LEO prospect, Curry enjoyed a 12-sack season last year including an eye catching display against Ohio State.
#24 Mike Brewster (C, Ohio State)
Would enter the league capable of playing three spots on the offensive line. Could’ve been a high pick in 2011.
#25 Alfonzo Dennard (CB, Nebraska)
I had this guy ranked higher than Prince Amukamara. He could be the top senior corner.
#26 Dre Kirkpatrick (CB, Alabama)
Tall corner but looks stiff and gambles in coverage too often. If he improves and lives up to top billing, he can move up the board.
#27 Robert Lester (S, Alabama)
Eight interceptions last year and a sack for a player who can line up at cornerback or safety at 6-2, 206lbs.
#28 Riley Reiff (OT, Iowa)
Junior tackle who was arrested as an incoming freshman after leading police on a 20-minute foot chase. At least we know he’s agile.
#29 Stephon Gimore (CB, South Carolina)
Didn’t look good in the SEC title game against Auburn, but otherwise had a solid year and is one of a number of talent players at South Carolina.
#30 Kirk Cousins (QB, Michigan State)
Lacks physical tools like a big arm or agility, but if Christian Ponder can go 12th overall, Cousins can easily shoot up draft boards.
#31 Courtney Upshaw (DE, Alabama)
Ended the year strongly but the rest of the season wasn’t all that. Needs to prove he can be a consistent edge threat.
#32 Ryan Lindley (QB, San Diego State)
Owns the big arm but doesn’t always drive passes with great velocity. Can he take the next step to put his team, and his stock, on the map?
#33 Jared Crick (DT, Nebraska)
A player who makes you think top-15 prospect one play and late round pick the next. Having said that, nobody can argue with 18.5 sacks the last two years.
#34 Austin Davis (QB, Southern Miss)
Caught the eye in the bowl game against Louisville. Passes the eye test, even if physical qualities are not elite.
#35 Vontaze Burflict (LB, Arizona State)
Orthodox linebacker who is solid, but doesn’t make many game-changing plays.
#36 Cliff Harris (CB, Oregon)
Best value may be as a stunning return specialist, but six interceptions last year warrant attention as a junior in 2011.
#37 LaMichael James (RB, Oregon)
Hasn’t got the size and Oregon’s offense makes him difficult to judge, but it’s hard to watch James and not imagine someone taking a shot early.
#38 Ray Ray Armstrong (S, Miami)
The best player in Miami’s secondary last year, including Brandon Harris.
#39 Chris Polk (RB, Washington)
Under rated running back with 1415 yards last season. Could easily be a high draft pick in 2012.
#40 Travis Lewis (LB, Oklahoma)
Solid linebacker and immediate starter in the NFL. The heartbeat of the Oklahoma defense.
#41 Dwight Jones (WR, North Carolina)
6-4, 220lbs receiver with 946 yards and four touchdowns as a junior. Can he continue to progress?
#42 Chase Minnifield (CB, Virginia)
Another cornerback who had big production last year (six interceptions).
#43 Cyrus Gray (RB, Texas A&M)
Ended last season with seven straight 100+ yard games and ten touchdowns. Vital cog in the Texas A&M offense next year alongside receiver Jeff Fuller.
#44 Robert Griffin (QB, Baylor)
Can he become more than just an athletic quarterback? Natural born leader, good size, faultless character, mechanics aren’t poor but system makes it a tough judgement.
#45 Evan Harris (LB, Miami, OH)
Game changing linebacker who makes big plays – including six interceptions and two sacks in 2010.
#46 Andre Branch (DE, Clemson)
Has to live without two key defensive lineman (Bowers, Jenkins) and may see production take a hit.
#47 Donte Paige-Moss (DE, North Carolina)
Benefits from playing across from Quinton Coples. An outside linebacker or LEO prospect at the next level who never blew me away in 2010.
#48 John Brantley (QB, Florida)
Charlie Weis’ arrival in Florida will benefit Brantley and don’t rule out a bounce-back year for Tim Tebow’s successor. Simplified Weis passing game is a huge bonus.
#49 Devin Taylor (DE, South Carolina)
Lean defensive end who could do with adding weight to increase his strength.
#50 Brandon Lindsey (DE, Pittsburgh)
Outside linebacker or LEO prospect, had ten sacks last year but must feature without Jabaal Sheard.
Just missed: Greg Childs (WR, Arkansas), Tyler Wilson (QB, Arkansas), Marcus Forston (DT, Miami), Manti Te’0 (LB, Notre Dame), Mike Adams (OT, Ohio State), Michael Floyd (WR, Notre Dame)