College football has many great players, but not all of them will make it into the NFL. Even fewer will become highly-touted first round prospects. Those who are will get a lot of attention and hype in 2017, from fans, analysts, and NFL people alike.
Here’s a list of eight players who, if all goes well, will likely be highly-touted first-round picks in next April’s NFL Draft.
1) Sam Darnold, QB, Redshirt Sophomore, USC
All eyes will be on the USC quarterback once the season gets underway, as he has a legitimate chance of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft if he has a good enough season and other things fall his way. It will be an interesting study in how he handles pressure; Darnold wasn’t even the starter at the beginning of last season, and even as he was lighting up the Pac-12, expectations weren’t as high as they will be now. This is a USC team with playoff aspirations and a player surrounded by lots of Heisman hype.
If Darnold proves he’s the real deal, he’ll easily be a top-five pick at minimum. Consider that he threw for 31 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards despite not even starting his first game until the end of September.
Of course, Darnold is only a sophomore. If things don’t work out the way he hopes in 2017, he can always stay in school for another season. He may choose to return for his junior season even if he does light it up this coming season.
2) Josh Rosen, QB, Junior, UCLA
There’s less hype around Rosen than there is surrounding Darnold, but the pair of L.A. quarterbacks will be in a fascinating battle both on and off the field.
After a strong freshman campaign, Rosen found himself where Darnold is now — a much-hyped sophomore who was expected to be a top draft pick if he met expectations in 2016. Instead, he lost three of his first six starts before suffering a season-ending injury, leaving him with a lot to prove in his junior season.
If Rosen comes back and recaptures the form that made him one of the best freshmen in the country in 2016, he will rocket up the draft board and make himself a top-ten pick. The skills that made him one of the country’s most coveted recruits are still there, and he seems to have grown up a little in the process. Health will be key, and his supporting cast will have to pick him up, but Rosen too could land in the top five in 2018.
3) Josh Allen, QB, Junior, Wyoming
The third quarterback on preseason draft boards, Allen doesn’t get the publicity of Darnold and Rosen because he plays at a smaller program in Wyoming. He may well be the most intriguing pro prospect of the three, with all the requisite physical tools you look for in a signal-caller.
Allen threw for 3,203 yards in 2016, and you’d expect him to do at least that well again.
Allen will have a harder time getting publicity, but as evidenced by Carson Wentz, NFL scouts are everywhere and will jump on the hype train if they think there is sufficient reason to. Allen may well be that dark horse quarterback who vaults into the top five on the back of a great season at a small school.
4) Saquon Barkley, RB, Junior, Penn State
Likely the best non-quarterback offensive skill position player to enter next year’s draft, Barkley looks poised for a huge season at running back for Penn State. He racked up 1,496 yards rushing in 2016 and should easily eclipse 1,500 in 2017 as long as he stays healthy. He’s also a threat receiving out of the backfield, having picked up 402 yards through the air, and a tally of 22 total touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions look poised for big things in 2017, and Barkley will be a big part of it. He has a chance to be the Leonard Fournette of next year’s draft class — a strong, elite back who makes himself a top-five selection in a big season that could even see him contend for the Heisman Trophy.
5) Arden Key, LB, Junior, LSU
Key has a chance to end up being the top defensive player in the 2018 draft. The gifted pass-rusher had offseason shoulder surgery and will be eased into the season slowly, but once healthy, he may wind up being the SEC’s best defender.
Likely a top-ten selection, the junior collected 12 sacks in 11 games in 2016, breaking LSU’s single-season sack record.
Key took an abrupt, unexplained leave of absence in February, and between that and the shoulder surgery, there are some questions. Those have nothing to do with the talent, though, and an injury-free season should see him dominate SEC offenses again and easily come in as a top-ten draft pick next April.
6) Mike McGlinchey, OL, Redshirt Senior, Notre Dame
The offensive line position may not be sexy, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team that can succeed without a good one. That’s what makes guys like McGlinchey so valuable.
The Notre Dame tackle would have been a first-round pick in 2017 had he elected to leave school, but he decided instead to return for one final season in South Bend.
It’s a risk, certainly, for a guy who was already viewed as NFL-ready. An injury-free season, though, should establish him as one of the higher-rated prospects on draft boards everywhere next April. He won’t get the hype, and he’ll fly under the radar, but he could wind up being a top-five caliber pick. Teams love stalwart offensive linemen like that.
7) Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Junior, Alabama
The gifted defensive back is the star of Alabama’s talented defense, and he’s poised for big things heading into his junior year. Capable of playing all across the secondary, he looks like a cornerback at the NFL level, and a very good one at that. The All-American is a playmaker, having returned two of his six interceptions for touchdowns in 2016.
Fitzpatrick has every chance to rise up draft boards in 2017. Alabama will be very good again, and though there are more physical defensive backs, there are few more skilled or disciplined. Fitzpatrick has all the attributes to be a star, and he should be the latest in a long line of top Alabama DBs to make their way to the NFL next April.
8) Christian Wilkins, DL, Junior, Clemson
The junior has been a vital part of Clemson’s defensive line, and his versatility is a plus, too — he has displayed the ability to play anywhere in Clemson’s front four. Responsible for 17.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks over his Clemson career, he’s likely to be considered for All-American honors once again in 2017.
More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that, with another strong season, he’ll likely be a high draft pick who should be able to walk in and start on day one for an NFL team.
Wilkins has been an All-American both inside and outside, and NFL teams will be very, very interested in that level of skill and versatility.
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