A record 106 underclassmen have declared for the 2018 NFL Draft, but not all of them are equipped to make a big splash as professionals. On the flip side, some of the best players in this upcoming draft will be underclassmen who are ready to take the NFL by storm.
The latter group is what we’ll be taking a look at here. From quarterbacks ready to assume the mantle of franchise cornerstone, running backs who are equipped to become instant stars, and defensive stalwarts who have all the chops, these are the top-20 underclassmen entering the 2018 NFL Draft.
Saquon Barkley, running back Penn State
Forget about underclassmen — Barkley is the best overall player in the 2018 NFL Draft, regardless of position. Because he’s a running back, he’s not likely to be considered for the top pick, especially since the Cleveland Browns are in desperation mode to land a franchise passer. But he is almost assuredly going to be a top-five pick come April.
Think Le’Veon Bell with more speed. This young man will probably run around a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and has miles of tape to show off that game-breaking speed (like this). He’s just an incredible playmaker who has the entire package — blazing speed, size (5-foot-11, 230 pounds), vision, acceleration, power and agility. Barkley is also insanely good at receiving and is going to make an exceptional pro.
Roquan Smith, linebacker, Georgia
Instant. Impact. That’s what you’re getting if you draft this outstanding junior linebacker out of Georgia.
A bit “undersized” at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Smith more than makes up for any size concerns with sideline-to-sideline speed, elite football IQ and instincts, and an incredible knack for showing up around the ball at just the right time. He’s also agile enough to make a big impact in the passing game, making him an ideal linebacker for today’s pass-happy NFL. He’ll be an instant starter and is likely to be a top-10 pick this April.
Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA
Arm talent galore. Rosen is so smooth throwing the ball. And he can drop it into a bucket with the sweetest touch. Though not as mobile as Sam Darnold or Josh Allen, Rosen is the best pure passer in this draft. He also possesses that something extra that gives him the ability to play at his best under pressure, which we saw time and time again the past few years at UCLA.
Aside from the personality issues some teams will likely wrestle with, Rosen’s biggest red flag is that he’s been banged up throughout his college career. Whether that’s a result of awful protection or just him being injury prone remains to be seen.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back, Alabama
For my money, Fitzpatrick is the second-best overall defender in this upcoming draft (senior Bradley Chubb being the No. 1 guy). He has elite athleticism and instincts. He has a knack for creating turnovers and then taking them to the house for six (like this). He also has the size (6-foot-1, 200-plus pounds) and speed to have success against the NFL’s top receivers.
Even better, Fitzpatrick is extremely versatile. He can play in the box as a safety. He can cover the slot. He is an outstanding corner and is also capable of playing deep in the middle of the field. He’s a defensive coordinator’s dream and will come off the board early in Round 1.
Connor Williams, offensive tackle, Texas
This young man (and I mean young, as he’s still just 20) has all the makings of an elite NFL left tackle. Blessed with prototypical size (6-foot-5 and 320 pounds), Williams also has some incredible feet for a big man. He’s technically sound, as strong as a bull and rarely gets beat by speed off the edge. The big issue Williams has is that his health is a bit of a red flag. He missed a good chunk of his junior season with a knee injury, so it’s going to be imperative that he tests well and shows no ill effects during the pre-draft process.
Derwin James, safety, Florida State
James has that terror factor, which, for defenders is awesome. He’s huge for a safety, at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and hits like a Mack Truck. He’s also a physical freak who we expect will post otherworldly numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine as his natural athleticism shines through.
James missed almost all of the 2016 season with a knee injury and didn’t put together as much outstanding tape this past year as his first season with the Seminoles. However, this young man is widely viewed as an elite defensive prospect who has the ability to become a cornerstone player at the next level.
Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC
Could Darnold have benefited from staying at USC another year? Yes. Absolutely. But we don’t begrudge the young man for striking while the iron is hot.
Though he doesn’t possess a cannon for an arm, Darnold can make all the throws necessary at the next level. He also has something else that puts him above of all the other quarterbacks in this year’s class. It’s that certain, undefined “it” factor that helps him pull rabbits out of a hat when the going gets tough (like this). He just has a certain grit about him. No matter how many awful throws he makes into coverage, he also has a short memory and comes back with a vengeance.
Orlando Brown, offensive tackle, Oklahoma
Following in the footsteps of his father, who played 12 seasons in the NFL as a right tackle, Brown is a behemoth (6-foot-8, 345 pounds) people mover who has a very high ceiling as a pro. He started 39 games at Oklahoma, all at left tackle, but might project better playing the same position his father did at the NFL level. Regardless of where he plays, Brown has the potential to become a dominant lineman if he can remain healthy and sharpens up his pass-blocking technique.
Vita Vea, defensive tackle, Washington
Speaking of people movers, Vea utilizes every ounce of his 6-foot-5, 340-pound frame to devastating effect. He’s extremely explosive coming off the ball and routinely put college offensive linemen on their behinds en route to the ball. Vea’s ability to both stuff the run as a roadblock nose tackle and attack the backfield as a pass rusher makes him a rare bird, indeed. He’s going to be drafted in the first round this upcoming April, of that I have no doubt.
Courtland Sutton, wide receiver, SMU
There’s a real chance this little-known player will be the first receiver taken off the board in April. Playing for SMU, Sutton wasn’t seen by many people during his collegiate career, but he produced some outstanding numbers (195 catches, 3,220 yards and 31 touchdowns) and has a prototypical No. 1 receiver frame at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds.
Sutton is tremendous at attacking the ball at its highest point and has a knack for coming down with 50-50 balls. If he sparkles during the Senior Bowl, his stock will be on a meteoric rise heading into the combine.
Joshua Jackson, cornerback, Iowa
After appearing in 16 games his first two seasons at Iowa and doing very little to impress, Jackson emerged as a dynamo during his junior campaign for the Hawkeyes. He started 13 games, racking up 48 tackles to go along with a staggering 18 pass breakups and eight interceptions, two of which he returned for six points against Wisconsin. He’s a long, lean cornerback who loves to play a physical brand of football that NFL teams will covet. He’s a first-round talent who shouldn’t last past the first half of Round 1.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville
Jackson is a rough-cut gem. He might just be the most talented player in this draft when it’s all said and done. He’s most definitely a quarterback, rather than a receiver as many have suggested, though there’s no doubt he needs to sharpen up his mechanics if he’s going to have long-term success at the next level.
When it comes to the ability to create offense, however, Jackson is a class of his own. He runs better than most running backs and has the ability to put masterful touch on his passes (like this). I, for one, cannot wait to see what this young man does as a pro and fervently hopes he lands in the right spot with people who know how to develop him.
Derrius Guice, running back, LSU
Like many LSU offensive playmakers before him, Guice has a chance to be a better pro than he was a collegiate athlete. That’s pretty amazing considering he’s racked up 2,868 yards and 29 touchdowns from scrimmage the past two years. Playing on an offense that was almost completely devoid of any passing threat, he was still able to generate positive results on a regular basis.
Guice has the size (5-foot-11, 218 pounds) and strength to become a bell-cow running back at the NFL level and actually has more impressive change-of-direction skills than his predecessor, Leonard Fournette.
Denzel Ward, cornerback, Ohio State
After watching three of his former Ohio State teammates get drafted in the first round last year, Ward emerged as the team’s No. 1 corner in 2017. He’ll most certainly follow in their footsteps as a first-round pick in 2018 thanks to his tremendous cover-corner abilities — two picks and 24 pass breakups the past two years. Though he’s a bit undersized, at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, Ward has long arms, plays with a chip on his shoulder and utilizes tremendous footwork, typically dominating bigger receivers.
Ronald Jones II, running back, USC
There were more than a few games this year in which Jones was clearly the best offensive player on the field for the Trojans. Blessed with breakaway speed, Jones is a threat to take every single ball he touches to the house for six points. A highly productive player for three years at USC, Jones finished his college career having racked up 3,899 yards and 42 touchdowns from scrimmage, 20 of which were scored in 2017. He’s a do-it-all running back who can play all three downs and should be one of the first backs taken in the draft.
Isaiah Oliver, cornerback, Colorado
Colorado continues to pump out some underrated, excellent cornerbacks. Oliver is the latest example of this. He’s a tough-as-nails cover guy who quickly taught opposing quarterbacks not to test him and almost always seemed to get his hands on the ball when they did. He’s exceptionally quick at identifying routes and attacking them, oftentimes arriving at the ball quicker than the receivers he covers. Oliver could potentially fall into Round 2 but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him land in the top half of Round 1, either.
Mark Andrews, tight end, Oklahoma
Much like Evan Engram was a year ago, Andrews isn’t going to be a traditional in-line tight end at the NFL level. If anything, he’s a massive slot specialist. But what he does well is extremely valuable in today’s NFL, and we expect him to be drafted in the latter half of Round 1 or early in Round 2 as a result. All he does is make big plays in the passing game. In three years at Oklahoma, Andrews hauled in 112 passes for 1,765 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s going to be extremely productive as a pro and should quickly become a heavily-targeted player as a rookie.
Arden Key, defensive end, LSU
Though his final season at LSU didn’t go according to plan, there’s no doubt about Key’s ability to get to the quarterback. Blessed with prototypical size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds), Key also has long arms and an explosive first step. Injuries were an issue for Key in 2017, but his production as a whole in the SEC the past three seasons is more than enough evidence to suggest he’ll be able to cut it at the next level.
Calvin Ridley, wide receiver, Alabama
Here’s a young man who was almost completely wasted playing on the run-heavy offense of Alabama. He wasn’t targeted often enough in his final two seasons, and when he was targeted all too often balls sailed over his head deep down the field. Even still, Ridley finished his career at ‘Bama with 224 catches for 2,781 yards and 19 touchdowns — far from chopped liver.
The best thing Ridley does is that he just knows how to get open. Utilizing exceptional route-running skills, above-average quickness and speed, this young man is going to be a huge boon to a pass-heavy offense with a quarterback who sees the field and knows how to distribute.
Kolton Miller, offensive tackle, UCLA
A raw product, Miller might just end up being the best offensive tackle to come out of this draft class. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-8, 310 pounds, Miller started all 13 games for the Bruins this past year and is an excellent pass-protecting tackle. Because he only played one year at left tackle, however, Miller might end up starting his NFL career on the right side if he’s drafted to a team that already has a solid option on the blind side. In time, we fully expect him to become a cornerstone left tackle in the NFL, however.