Alabama-Clemson III is one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the 2017 college football season – and not just by the fans. NFL scouts and general managers will be glued to the action as more than a dozen 2018 NFL Draft prospects fight it out for a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game – at least five of whom could go in the first round. With that in mind, we take a look at the top 10 draft-eligible prospects expected to play in the Sugar Bowl.
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
The best pro prospect on the field Jan. 1 will be Fitzpatrick. He may not be a prototypical physical specimen. At 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, he’s light for a safety. However, Fitzpatrick is one of the top defensive playmakers in the country.
Fitzpatrick has picked off nine passes in his three seasons in Tuscaloosa, four of which he took to the house. He also has 4.5 career sacks and a punt return for a touchdown. A consensus top-10 pro prospect, the junior won’t wait long to hear his name should he declare for the 2018 NFL Draft. Athlon Sports' initial mock draft projects him to go No. 8 overall.
2. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
Minkah Fitzpatrick has a chance to be the top defensive player taken in the draft, and Wilkins (above, right) is on the short list to be the top defensive lineman selected. Wilkins, listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, is a versatile player up front for the Tigers who plays both end and tackle, and produces at both spots having recorded 52 tackles, 9.0 tackles for a loss and five sacks during the regular season. Wilkins could fit at either position in the NFL depending on the scheme of the franchise that selects him. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. sees Wilkins as a top-10 selection.
3. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson
Kiper actually has another Clemson defensive lineman ranked one spot higher in his mock draft: Ferrell, who is eligible for the 2018 draft as a third-year sophomore. ESPN’s Todd McShay is even more bullish: he listed Ferrell No. 7 in his most recent mock draft.
Ferrell recorded 8.5 sacks during the regular season, which ranked second in the conference behind fellow first-round prospect Bradley Chubb of NC State. Using a unique blend of power and quickness, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Ferrell has 14.5 career sacks in just two seasons with the Tigers.
4. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Just one spot behind Clelin Ferrell in Todd McShay’s mock, Ridley is the fourth player on this list with top-10 potential. Ridley (right) has been a playmaker since Day 1 for the Crimson Tide, and has 216 career receptions for 896 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior ranked third in the SEC during the regular season with an average of 74.7 receiving yards per game, though he would likely have put up even more impressive numbers in an offense that throws the ball more.
5. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
The list of potential first-rounders rolls on with Evans, who is likely to be one of the top two inside linebackers selected. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound senior leads the Crimson Tide with 5.7 total tackles per game this year, racking up 57 stops in 10 games during the regular season. Evans also is tops on the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss and second with 5.0 sacks.
6. Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
Minkah Fitzpatrick gets most of the attention in the Alabama secondary, both from analysts and opposing coaching staffs, but Harrison is nearly as talented. And, since opponents shy away from the All-American Fitzpatrick, Harrison is free to make big plays. A 6-foot-3, 214-pound junior, Harrison led the Crimson Tide with 68 total tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions during the regular season. He added 3.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and three pass breakups.
7. Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
Payne (right) waited patiently for his opportunity to start at Alabama, but the 6-foot-2, 308-pound interior defensive lineman capitalized on the opportunity this season, as he leads the Crimson Tide with eight quarterback hurries. Payne, a junior who could sneak into the late first round if he declares for the draft, also racked up 45 tackles and a sack during the regular season.
8. Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson
There is a wealth of talent on the Clemson defensive line, as evidenced by the notion Bryant – a potential Day 2 selection in the 2018 NFL Draft should he choose to leave school a year early – is at least the third-best pro prospect in the unit, and possibly the fourth best when considering true sophomore Dexter Lawrence. Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end, ranked second on the team and fourth in the ACC with 7.5 sacks during the regular season.
9. Anthony Averett, CB, Alabama
Though he’s often overshadowed by his teammates in the secondary, NFL scouts have surely taken notice of Averett. Mel Kiper Jr. recently ranked the 6-foot, 185-pound senior as the No. 8 cornerback prospect in the draft. A two-year contributor for the Tide, Averett has 40 tackles, 2.0 TFLs and an interception so far this season.
10. Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
Harris has also shared the spotlight in the Alabama backfield, and though that has cost him an opportunity to put up huge numbers, the 5-foot-11, 221-pound junior has taken advantage of his opportunities. Harris has averaged an explosive 8.2 yards per carry in 2017, racking up 906 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns during the regular season.
Backfield mate Bo Scarbrough would also likely be drafted should he decide to forego his final season of eligibility, and the list goes on. Other Alabama players likely to play on Sundays in 2018 include wide receiver Robert Foster, defensive linemen Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier, defensive backs Levi Wallace and Tony Brown and punter JK Scott.
There is no shortage of future pros on the other sideline, either. Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel has played great this season, and defensive back Ryan Carter and offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder, Jr. should also get a look in an NFL training camp as well. All told, as arguably the most talented matchup of the season, the Sugar Bowl is sure to have the attention of all 32 NFL franchises.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.