It's never too early to start thinking about the 2014 NFL Draft. Here are 10 players to watch this college football season that could end up being high draft picks next April. By Nick Klopsis
Defensive end, junior, South Carolina
Clowney quite possibly may be the best defensive end to come out of college since Julius Peppers in 2002. Clowney is a scary pass rusher who has the speed to get into the backfield with ease and the strength to punish opposing players (see: his bone-jarring tackle/forced fumble/one-handed fumble recovery against Michigan RB Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl). He’s a can’t miss talent who will be the consensus top prospect in the 2014 Draft -- if he declares.
Quarterback, junior, Louisville
Bridgewater burst onto the national scene at the end of last season when he led the Cardinals to a 33-23 upset of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. He put up good numbers all season, throwing for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns. He’s a smart pocket-passer who may turn out to be better than any of the quarterbacks taken in the 2013 draft. The big question: whether or not he declares after this season or sticks around for his senior year.
Quarterback, sophomore, Texas A&M
There are several questions surrounding "Johnny Football" entering this season that may affect his draft stock. The first is whether or not he'd even declare (He's a redshirt sophomore, thus satisfying the NFL’s “three years removed from high school” rule). The next is whether his Heisman-winning freshman year was the real deal or just a flash in the pan. Still another is whether he’s emotionally mature enough to handle off-field pressures at the next level. If all of these questions get answered, the electrifying Manziel could make a strong run at a high first-round pick.
Quarterback, senior, Clemson
Boyd enters the 2013 season as college football’s top senior quarterback, racking up 3,896 pass yards and 36 touchdowns in 2012. Boyd has the speed to be considered a dual-threat quarterback (514 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDs in 2012), but has a pass-first mindset and only leaves the pocket when he has to. He would be an ideal fit for any team looking to implement the spread-option offense that’s sweeping the NFL.
Wide receiver, junior, USC
Lee could be the most dynamic player in the 2014 draft, assuming he declares after this season. The 6-0, 195-pound wideout -- who also doubles as a member of USC’s track team -- is a speedy vertical threat who can stretch the field and return kicks. Lee is more athletic than Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and would likely be a top 10 choice if all goes according to plan this season.
Wide receiver, junior, Clemson
Watkins had a great freshman season in 2011 (1,219 receiving yards, 12 TDs), but disappointed a bit last year, recording only 704 receiving yards and three scores. The 6-1, 200-pound Watkins is a balanced wideout with good speed and hands. He should become Tajh Boyd’s No. 1 target, and a return to his freshman-level numbers is a good possibility. If that’s the case, he might jump to the NFL after this season and become a possible mid to high first-round choice.
Running back/punt returner, junior, Oregon
"The Black Mamba" is a versatile weapon who can play pretty much anywhere on the field. He scored 18 total touchdowns in 2012 (11 rushing, five receiving, one kickoff return, one punt return) and has great breakaway speed.
Outside linebacker, senior, UCLA
Barr is one of the more interesting names to watch in the 2014 draft. The senior joined UCLA as a running back, but a crowded backfield forced him to shift to linebacker before his junior season. He immediately became one of the Pac-12’s best defenders, racking up 13 1/2 sacks and 21 1/2 tackles for a loss in his first season on defense. He has scary speed and agility, and his technique should only improve with another year under his belt.
Tackle, senior, Texas A&M
Matthews, pictured here in the background, is the son of Hall-of-Famer Bruce Matthews and the heir apparent to 2013 No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel on the Aggies’ O-line. Matthews has played right tackle so far for Texas A&M but will slide over to the left side to protect Johnny Manziel. He’s a strong, physical presence, and is a better run blocker than Joeckel. Matthews should be a top-five selection in the 2014 draft -- and could be even better than Joeckel in the long run.
Tackle, junior, Alabama
Kouandjio is yet another in the line of Alabama linemen headed toward the NFL, joining last year’s trio of Chance Warmack (Titans), D.J. Fluker (Chargers) and Barrett Jones (Rams). Kouandjio has good size (6-6, 310 pounds) and is versatile enough to open up running lanes at right tackle or protect the quarterback at left tackle, where he’ll play this season.
Other names to watch: Stephon Tuitt, DE,j unior, Notre Dame; Taylor Lewan, OT, senior, Michigan; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, junior, Washington; A.J. McCarron, QB, senior, Alabama (pictured); C.J. Mosley, OLB, senior, Alabama; Lache Seastrunk, RB, junior, Baylor; Marcus Mariota, QB, sophomore, Oregon; Bradley Roby, CB, junior, Ohio State.