The NFL’s early entry deadline into the draft always plays a huge role in ranking teams for the next season. There’s a handful of key players that could depart college football for the NFL after this season, which could force a lot of changes in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2013. It’s never too early to think about next season, so it’s time to examine some of the key players that could depart for the NFL Draft, which will also play a huge role in determining the top 25.
15 Key Underclassmen Who Will Impact the 2013 Draft and College Football's Top 25
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Boyd has been the perfect fit in Chad Morris’ spread attack at Clemson, leading the Tigers to back-to-back 10-win seasons. Over the last two years, he has thrown for 7,378 yards and 67 touchdowns. At 6-foot-1, Boyd doesn’t have ideal size for the NFL. However, he has been one of college football’s most productive quarterbacks the last two seasons and won ACC Player of the Year honors for 2012.
Impact on Clemson: Boyd is expected to file his papers with the NFL Draft advisory board and make a decision after the bowl game against LSU. The junior could benefit from another year at the college level and throwing to Sammy Watkins certainly can’t hurt his stock. As long as Boyd returns, Clemson is the heavy favorite to win the ACC. Without him? The Tigers remain a likely top-25 team, but the race to win the ACC is wide open.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
In his first season carrying the full workload for Michigan State, Bell rushed for 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns on 350 attempts. The Ohio native had three 200-yard efforts this season, including 210 in the 17-13 win over Boise State. Bell has 3,201 rushing yards in his career and has 76 receptions for 518 yards. He doesn’t have elite speed but is workhorse that can handle 25-30 carries every game.
Impact on Michigan State: Although quarterback Andrew Maxwell had some bright spots in 2012, Bell carried the Spartans’ offense. If he chooses to go to the NFL, Michigan State would have a hard time replacing Bell’s production with one player. If the junior does return, he should be in the mix for All-America honors.
D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
As most expected coming into this season, Fluker took the next step in his development into one of college football’s best offensive linemen. The Alabama native started every game over the last two years and earned first-team All-SEC honors this season. Fluker was picked as a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports for his performance in 2012. At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, the junior has the size to be a force in clearing the way for running backs in the NFL.
Impact on Alabama: With Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack departing for the NFL, Alabama’s offensive line is already shorthanded going into 2013. Fluker is projected as a top 50 pick and is unlikely to return to Tuscaloosa for next season. Assuming he does leave for the NFL, Alabama’s offensive line will have three new starters and will be the team’s biggest weakness going into 2013.
Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
After dominating defensive lines in the Big 12, the jump in competition to the SEC didn’t bother Joeckel in 2012. The Arlington native has made 38 consecutive starts and was a first-team All-SEC selection this season. Joeckel is a sure-fire first-round pick and would likely be selected among the top 10 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Impact on Texas A&M: If Joeckel and fellow tackle Jake Matthews leave for the NFL, it’s not out of the question Texas A&M’s offense will take a step back next season. Add in coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s departure, and the Aggies have some significant question marks to address in spring practice. It’s early to talk about 2013 rankings, but losing Joeckel would make it difficult for Texas A&M to surpass Alabama and LSU in the SEC West standings.
Related Content: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2013
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
Jones has been one of the nation’s top defensive playmakers over the last two years and is a back-to-back first-team All-SEC selection. The Georgia native started his career at USC but transferred after suffering a neck injury in 2009. Jones is a key presence in Georgia’s 3-4 scheme, as his speed and athletic ability is a perfect fit for coordinator Todd Grantham to attack opposing offenses.
Impact on Georgia: The Bulldogs have significant question marks on defense next year, and this unit could get even worse if Jones decides to enter the NFL Draft. Considering he is listed among the top 25 prospects and his injury history, the junior linebacker is likely headed to the NFL. Georgia has five senior starters on the defensive depth chart and could lose Jones and fellow linebacker Alec Ogletree to the draft. Without Jones in the lineup, the Bulldogs pass rush will suffer in 2013.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan has been a stalwart on Michigan’s offensive line for the last three seasons. The Arizona native started all 13 games at left tackle in 2011 and matched that feat in 2012, along with earning the Big Ten’s award for the best offensive lineman in the conference.
Impact on Michigan: Lewan will have a chance to improve his draft stock in the bowl, as he blocks South Carolina defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. Depnding on the other early entries, the junior could be the second offensive lineman off the board. The Wolverines are already losing guard Ricky Barnum, center Elliott Mealer and guard Patrick Omameh, so if Lewan departs, this unit will have four new starters in 2013.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Matthews wasn’t as decorated as teammate Luke Joeckel was in 2012, but the junior still had an outstanding season. The Texas native earned third-team All-America honors and was a first-team selection on the All-SEC squad. Matthews enters the bowl game with 32 consecutive starts.
Impact on Texas A&M: If Joeckel and Matthews decide to return, Texas A&M will have the best set of offensive tackles in college football. However, both players are considered first-round talents, so it’s hard to envision either returning to College Station. Matthews has excellent bloodlines in the family, as he is the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. If the Aggies lose their top two tackles, the offense will take a step back in 2013.
Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Milliner came to Alabama as one of the top prospects in the nation and has easily lived up to expectations. As a freshman, he played in all 13 games and was a freshman All-SEC selection. Milliner saw extensive snaps as Alabama’s third cornerback in 2011 and was a unanimous All-America selection in 2012.
Impact on Alabama: Milliner is projected as the draft’s top corner and a likely top-10 pick. The Crimson Tide has depth in the secondary, especially as freshmen Geno Smith and safety Landon Collins get more comfortable in the defense. Although Smith, John Fulton and Deion Belue are a solid trio of corners to build around in 2013, Milliner’s ability to shut down one side of the field will be missed.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
With Mingo and Sam Montgomery coming off the edge, LSU had no trouble generating a pass rush in 2012. The Tigers averaged 2.5 sacks a game and held opponents to only 101.8 rushing yards per contest. Mingo’s numbers dipped slightly from 2011, as he had only four sacks and 33 tackles. Last year, the Louisiana native registered eight sacks, 15 tackles for a loss and 46 tackles.
Impact on LSU: Although he had a down year on the stat sheet, Mingo is still regarded as a first-round talent for the NFL Draft. The junior is quick off the line of scrimmage, which has translated into back-to-back years of at least 10 quarterback hurries. Losing Mingo would be a blow to LSU’s pass rush, but the Tigers have a track record of developing defensive ends under coach Les Miles and coordinator John Chavis.
Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
The Tigers always seem to produce elite defensive linemen and 2012 is no different. Montgomery and teammate Barkevious Mingo are projected top-25 selections for the 2013 NFL Draft. Montgomery suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2010 but bounced back with nine sacks in 2011 and seven in 2012. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, the South Carolina native has the size to be an every-down lineman in the NFL.
Impact on LSU: The LSU coaching staff always does a good job of identifying the next standout defensive lineman, so even if Montgomery and Mingo leaves, the Tigers should be fine up front. However, there will be a dropoff early in 2013. If both ends return, LSU could make a run at the preseason No. 1 spot.
Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Moore played in a 3-4 rush end position during his first two years in College Station and had no trouble adapting to the defensive line this season. The Texas native had 14 sacks in 2010-11 and nearly matched that total with 12.5 in 2012. Moore also recorded one forced fumble, 80 tackles and 20 tackles for a loss this year.
Impact on Texas A&M: Coach Kevin Sumlin is on a roll on the recruiting trail, but his biggest challenge will be keeping Moore, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews on campus next season. Moore is projected as a first-round pick and could be the second defensive end off the board. The Aggies showed improvement on defense under new coordinator Mark Snyder this year and losing Moore would put a lot of pressure on underclassmen Julien Obioha and Tyrell Taylor next season. Texas A&M has a chance to win the SEC West in 2013 but losing Joeckel, Matthews and Moore would likely keep it from getting to 10 wins.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Although Mosley technically doesn’t start every week, there’s little doubt he is one of the best linebackers in the nation. The Alabama native led the team in 2012 with 99 tackles, recorded four sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble. Mosley was picked to the All-SEC freshman team in 2010 and was a key cog in Alabama’s national championship season in 2011.
Impact on Alabama: Building an elite defense is never a problem for coach Nick Saban, but the Crimson Tide is losing linebacker Nico Johnson and could have Mosley depart for the NFL. Johnson and Mosley are key leaders in the linebacking corps and help get the rest of the defense on the same page. Even if Mosley leaves, the cupboard is far from bare. Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are rising stars in the SEC.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Murray has been a solid three-year starter for the Bulldogs, tossing 90 touchdowns and 9,664 yards during that span. The Florida native recorded a career-best 3,466 passing yards in 2012 and tossed only three interceptions. Murray was a second-team All-SEC selection last year and finished second nationally in pass efficiency. The junior has all of the intangibles needed to succeed in the NFL but checks in at only 6-foot-1.
Impact on Georgia: The Bulldogs should be one of the favorites to win the national championship in 2013 – if Murray returns to Athens. Geno Smith, Mike Glennon and Matt Barkley are expected to be the first three quarterbacks off the board in the NFL Draft, so Murray is a fringe first-round selection. If the junior quarterback returns, he will be in the mix for All-America honors, especially with all five starters coming back on the offensive line. If Murray decides to leave, Hutson Mason and Christian LeMay will compete for the starting job.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Werner has taken one of the nation’s most interesting paths to All-America honors in 2012. The Germany native played only two years of high school football in the United States and got better each season at Florida State. Werner recorded 23 sacks and 35 tackles for a loss through the first three years in his Seminole career. He was selected as the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year for the 2012 season.
Impact on Florida State: Werner is projected as top-15 pick, so it would be a surprise if he returned to Florida State. The Seminoles are also losing ends Brandon Jenkins and Tank Carradine, which will place a lot of pressure on Mario Edwards and Giorgio Newberry to step into a starting role next year. Florida State also has a new defensive coordinator in 2013, so there will be a transition period for this unit.
Robert Woods, WR, USC
A season with 73 catches is usually a pretty good year for any receiver. For Woods, that’s not exactly the case. After catching 111 passes in 2011, the junior’s numbers dropped to only 73 catches and he had just one 100-yard effort. Woods had ankle surgery after the 2011 season, which may have played a part in his drop in production.
Impact on USC: With Matt Barkley expiring his eligibility after the Sun Bowl, the Trojans have a lot of work to do on offense before next season. Even if Woods leaves, USC could have one of the Pac-12’s best receiving corps, as wideouts Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor return, along with tight end Randall Telfer.
5 Other Potential Departures to Watch for 2013
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Eifert led Notre Dame with 44 receptions and 624 receiving yards this season and if he declares, is projected to be the first tight end off the board in the 2013 draft.
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Floyd’s numbers aren’t huge on the stat sheet (41 tackles), but his presence on the interior changes a game from beyond the box score. Floyd is considered a fringe first-round pick by most experts but could rise on the draft board with a strong combine. If Floyd returns, he will help anchor one of the SEC’s best defenses.
Louis Nix III, NG, Notre Dame
Although Manti Te’o is a major factor in Notre Dame’s run defense, the emergence of Nix has been huge. Literally. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, Nix clogs the middle, which allows Te’o and the other Fighting Irish linebackers plenty of room to patrol. Brian Kelly announced in mid-December he expects Nix to return in 2013.
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes already lost one player to the NFL Draft (Johnathan Hankins) and could see another depart. Roby was one of the Big Ten’s top corners in 2012, recording 63 tackles, two interceptions and 17 pass breakups. Roby is a third-year sophomore but could benefit from another year at Ohio State.
Matt Elam, S, Florida
If he declares, Elam could be the first safety picked in the draft. The Florida native ranked second on the team with 65 stops and recorded four picks in 2012. Elam was a first-team All-SEC selection this season.
Others to Watch:
David Amerson, CB, NC State
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia (declared for NFL Draft)
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA (expected to return)
Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Dominique Easley, DT, Florida
Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (declared for NFL Draft)
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
Silas Redd, RB, USC
Eric Reid, S, LSU
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Cierre Wood, RB, Notre Dame
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2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Offensive Tackles
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2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Outside Linebackers
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2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Defensive Ends