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Ten 2018 NFL Draft prospects to keep an eye on

Dec 21, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks to pass during the third quarteragainst the Brigham Young Cougars at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Now that the 2017 NFL Draft is in the rear-view mirror, those who love both the college and professional game are looking forward to the upcoming season. We’re excited to see how the rookies will perform and what that might mean for their new teams at the professional level.

We also really want to see the next generation of elite-level college talent bring themselves into the spotlight as they prepare for a potential career in the NFL. The 2017 college football season will surely have that.

From three quarterbacks who are already projected to be first-round picks to two running backs in major conferences looking to build off last season’s success, here are 10 potential 2018 NFL Draft prospects to keep an eye on this upcoming season.

Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA

Caption: Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen (3) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rosen already has that Southern California hype going for him. It’s the second-largest media market in the United States. And unlike other west coast cities, takes its college football very serious. The hype we’re seeing surround Rosen is very similar to what Brett Hundley dealt with following a superb freshman season with the Bruins in 2012.

Rosen had played in a grand total of 10 college games when Daniel Jeremiah — a former NFL scout — sent that tweet out back in November of 2015.

That right there is alarming. It sends a message about expectations surrounding a quarterback that has barely got his feet wet at the college ranks. As we said before, it compares to what Hundley dealt with back in 2012. Unfortunately for the current Green Bay Packers quarterback, he never progressed in his final two seasons at UCLA, only to find himself selected in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft as nothing more than a project quarterback.

These are two different quarterbacks. So it would be unfair to compare the two beyond that initial hype. What we do know about Rosen is that he has the prototypical frame at 6-foot-4 and boasts a rocket of an arm. Those are two things teams look for in a top-end quarterback prospect.

The hope here for Rosen is that he puts the shoulder injury and ensuing surgery behind him to prove that he can handle the rigors of the PAC-12 schedule. Should that happen, the junior will likely continue to improve on the field. He has all the natural talents to be an NFL quarterback. It’s now all about putting the injury and hype behind him while getting down to brass tax. If that happens, look for the talented youngster to be a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Derrius Guice, running back, LSU

An argument could surely be made that Guice was better than 2017 top-five pick Leonard Fournette with the Tigers last season. With Fournette having to handle injuries and sitting out LSU’s bowl game, Guice proved himself more than capable of shouldering the load as a sophomore.

All said, the former five-star recruit put up nearly 1,500 total yards and 16 touchdowns in his second season in Baton Rouge. He also averaged an absurd 7.6 yards per rush. What makes Guice’s sophomore season so special is the fact that he put up 15-plus rush attempts eight times, including a 37-attempt, 285-yard performance against Texas A&M and Myles Garrett.

At 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, Guice already has a stronger frame than Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook, both of whom went in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. There’s absolutely no reason to believe this youngster can’t shoulder the load for LSU heading into the season.

“The way (Guice) runs, my guess is half or more (of teams in the league) would take him over Fournette right now,” an anonymous AFC scout told Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes last December.

Now with Fournette in the NFL, Guice will have an opportunity to prove his worth as LSU’s top back against what continues to be dominant SEC defenses. How he responds after a brilliant sophomore campaign will surely dictate the youngster’s draft stock. But we would not be surprised to see him follow the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Fournette and McCaffrey as recent top-10 picks. That’s how good he is.

Sam Hubbard, defensive end, Ohio State

Sep 3, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) rushes the quarterback during the first half against the Bowling Green Falcons at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won the game 77-10. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

As we saw in the 2017 NFL Draft, edge rushers have become an extremely important aspect of the game. A total of seven outside pass rushers were taken in the first round alone, with that number hitting 17 in the first two days of the annual event.

The idea is simple. Now that the NFL has transitioned to a pass-happy league, defenses need to be equipped with players that can get to the quarterback from the edge.

Though, Hubbard himself is more of the Solomon Thomas ilk. And that’s what makes him such an intriguing prospect heading into the 2017 college football season. At 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, he’s a hand-down defensive end that can move inside to become a three-down player. This is a clear indication that Hubbard will be valued as a both an interior pass rusher and someone that can come off the edge.

In his first two seasons with the Buckeyes, Hubbard recorded a combined 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Last season saw him take on more of an every-down role with Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington having departed for the pros. It’s in this that he became a better all-around player.

That going to be big for Hubbard as a junior. Can he play the run nearly as good as he is when it comes to providing pressure on the quarterback? If so, it would not be a huge surprise to see him go top five.

Calvin Ridley, wide receiver, Alabama

Caption: Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley (3) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

What’s interesting here is that the 2017 NFL Draft class was seen as relatively weak at wide receiver. Despite this, three players at this position ended up going in the top 10. This tells us a story of an NFL that is starved for legitimate No. 1 wide receivers on the outside. That’s only magnified by the fact that Corey Davis (6-foot-2) and Mike Williams (6-foot-4) were the top two receivers off the board.

At 6-foot-1, Ridley has the size to be a true No. 1 outside receiver. And while he will have to put on some weight between now and the end of the college football season, there’s a whole heck of a lot to like about this Crimson Tide stud.

Ridley actually saw some regression as a sophomore last season, posting fewer receptions for less yards and touchdowns than he did as a freshman. But as most of us already know, stats themselves mean very little when it comes to scouting potential pro prospects.

We have to realize that Alabama put the ball up less last season under then offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin than it did in each of the previous two seasons. That’s why reception and yardage totals mean very little in the grand scheme of things. On tape, Ridley provides pretty much everything teams look for in a dynamic No. 1 receiving option.

“Like his predecessor Amari Cooper, Ridley will make scouts overlook the fact that he’s not an Alshon Jeffery-type physical receiver,” ESPN’s Alex Scarborough wrote back in March. “At 6-1, he is tall enough, and he reportedly ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash prior to last season.”

With speed to burn and at over 6-foot, Ridley just needs to bulk up some heading into his junior season to set the SEC world on fire. And considering Bama will open it up more for Jalen Hurts and the passing game under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the expectation here is that Ridley will have a ton more opportunities than he saw last season.

Tarvarus McFadden, cornerback, Florida State

What is not to like about this kid? First off, let’s just take a gander at his frame. He’s a prototypical outside cornerback at 6-foot-2, and McFadden surely does play with that size. He’s physical at the line, tremendous when it comes to tracking the quarterback and has amazing on-ball skills.

That all came out in a splendid fashion during his sophomore campaign, when McFadden put up a nation-high eight interceptions in his first extended playing time with the Seminoles. This all culminated in McFadden — still only a sophomore — being a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defensive player.

With fellow corner Marquez White having departed for the pros this season, McFadden will have an opportunity to shine by himself in Florida State’s defensive backfield. He already has the frame and the pure raw talent to be a top-10 pick.

If McFadden can fix some technique issues and show better hip fluidity in coverage, there’s a darn good chance he could be one of the top-five players off the board when the 2017 NFL Draft comes calling. That’s just how good this kid is at a still young age.

Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC

It will be the battle of top-end college quarterbacks in Southern California this upcoming season. A four-star recruit out of San Clemente, Darnold was named the Trojans’ starter three games into his red-shirt freshman season.

All he did was proceed to lead USC to eight consecutive wins, including a resounding Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. That last outing saw Darnold break the single-game Rose Bowl mark for passing touchdowns (five) and total yards (473).

At 6-foot-4 and 225, Darnold has the prototypical frame for an NFL quarterback. Surely, he’ll add a few pounds during the remainder of his college career as well.

What was so amazing about what Darnold did as a frosh last season is that he limited his interceptions to nine in 366 attempts. Considering USC’s offense is pro-style and requires the quarterback to go through more than one read, this is absolutely amazing for such a young signal caller.

There will be questions as to whether Darnold should enter the NFL after less than two full seasons as a starter in college. Some will say he should return for his junior season for more seasoning. That could very well be the right call. But how Darnold performs in 2017 will likely play the largest role in his decision-making process.

What we do know is that Mitch Trubisky was the second overall pick in this year’s draft after starting just a hair over two handfuls of games at North Carolina. We can also realistically draw the conclusion that Darnold was more impressive than the former Tar Heel at a younger age last season.

Malik Jefferson, linebacker, Texas

At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, Jefferson will have to bulk up to go against the big boys in the NFL. But this dude is about as athletic as they come. Last season saw the linebacker record 60 tackles (44 solo), nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He added a forced fumble and two passes defended for good measure.

The lingering question here is where Jefferson might play at the next level. He’s a sideline-to-sideline player in the ilk of rookie first-round pick Reuben Foster. Jefferson also flies to the ball in a hawking manner, very similar to what Jaylon Smith did for Notre Dame prior to being selected by Dallas in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The primary question here is where Jefferson will play under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who is expected to utilize a 3-4 scheme. We could see the junior play more of a pass-rush position out on the edge. There could also be somewhat of a hybrid role for him in this new defense.

Either way, there’s very little doubt that Jefferson has the frame, track record of success, raw talent and athleticism to be a dynamic performer for Texas in 2017. Should he build off what we saw from him in his first two seasons in Austin, it would  not be a surprise to see Jefferson land in the top-five next year. He’s definitely someone to watch.

Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State

With all due respect to Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman and the aforementioned Derrius Guice, Barkley enters the 2017 season as the nation’s top running back and a front runner for the Heisman. What he did last season for a rejuvenated Nittany Lions program is absolutely absurd.

Following up a freshman season that saw him go for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns, this former four-star recruit absolutely dominated as a sophomore. When all was said and done, Barkley recorded nearly 1,900 total yards from scrimmage with 22 touchdowns en route to earning Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year honors.

At 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds, Barkley is somewhat similar to Ezekiel Elliott when it comes to his build. The comparisons aren’t just when it comes to frame. Barkley might have the best combination of power-running ability and elusiveness that we have seen in the college game since Elliott dominated for Ohio State back in 2015.

Already showing off his athleticism to NFL teams, Barkley ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the Penn State Pro Day earlier this year. That’s better than the 4.47 Elliott run during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. This just goes to show us that all the skills are there for Barkley to be a top-end running back prospect heading into next year’s draft.

Arden Key, defensive end, LSU

Key was a dominant figure the minute he stepped on to the field for the Tigers as a freshman back in 2015. He finished that season having recorded 41 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in a part-time role. Once Deion Jones and other members of that vaunted LSU defense departed, Key took on a full-time role as a sophomore last season and did not look back.

The massive 6-foot-6 defensive end recorded 55 tackles, 12.5 for loss and 11 sacks en route to earning First-Team All SEC honors. His coming out party came in the season opener against Wisconsin and 2017 first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk, when Key recorded two sacks and put pressure on Badger quarterback Bart Houston throughout the game.

Key will surely draw comparison’s to Myles Garrett, who went No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Browns in this year’s draft. There’s a component to this, especially with each player having a plus-level bull rush. But we have to realize that Key still hasn’t grown into his 6-foot-6 frame and taken it to the football field of yet.

After weighing in at just 238 pounds this past season, Key is reportedly at 255 pounds. If the potentially dominant edge rusher maintains his elite athletic ability at this weight, it will only make him a better all-around prospect. After all, this would seem to indicate that his strength at contact would also increase.

More positive news. Key announced late last month that he will not sit out his junior season.

There had been some reports that he might not return to the team for personal reasons. That led some to speculation that the likely 2018 top-10 pick might just want to avoid being hit with a serious injury. Thankfully, this is not the case.

Josh Allen, quarterback, Wyoming

“You can put it in this books, Josh Allen will be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.”

First off, let’s stop with the insanity right now. Allen has thrown 379 passes at the highest level college football has to offer. And one person within the NFL believes he’s already the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Put the breaks on that for a second. Let’s actually watch Allen play as an upperclassman before drawing that conclusion.

Allen, a JUCO transfer from California, was stellar last season for Wyoming. He put up over 3,200 yards with 28 touchdowns. He also struggled against higher-end competition, throwing a combined eight interceptions against Nebraska, Boise State and BYU.

At this point, it’s all about projection. Experts project that Allen will take that next step as a junior in 2017. And in reality, there’s really no reason to believe he won’t.

Here’s a guy with a cannon arm who stands at 6-foot-5 and has displayed pinpoint accuracy at times on the field. It really is a sight to behold.

“He’s a big ol’ kid with a big arm, and he’s pretty athletic, too,” one AFC executive said late last year, via MMQB’s Albert Breer. “We gotta learn more about him, but the tools are there.”

The talent is there. The frame is there. The excitement is surely there. We now need to see Allen put it together for an entire season while displaying better decision-making tendencies. The good news for Allen is that his Cowboys open the season on the road against Iowa before taking on Oregon two weeks later.

This will give the young quarterback an opportunity to prove himself against better competition than what he will be going up against the Mountain West. It will also likely happen on a national stage. That’s big news for both Allen and those of us who are excited to watch him play on Saturdays this upcoming season.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi