The 2017 college football season began like any other -- with quarterbacks getting all of the fanfare.
But another position group has risen to the forefront.
A trio of underclassmen defensive tackles -- Clemson's Christian Wilkins, Washington's Vita Vea and Alabama's DaRon Payne -- are already cracking the top 10 and the competition is fierce behind them. The three "other" defensive tackles making up this week's Big Board, in fact, may very well help this group overtake the quarterbacks and prove the "big" story in next spring's draft.
Updated weekly in preparation for the 2018 NFL draft, these are the top 32 NFL prospects (potentially eligible) in college football.
1. Sam Darnold, QB, Southern Cal, 6-3, 225, 4.74, Redshirt Sophomore
After taking the world by storm a year ago, Darnold has not been as impressive this season. Critics quibble with the slight wind-up in Darnold's throwing motion or point out his admittedly disappointing touchdown to interception ratio (12:9 through six games), something I attribute more to the new supporting cast around him. For all of the talent at quarterback this season, no offers a combination of physical talent and intangibles like Darnold, which is why he remains at No. 1 overall on my board and the easy favorite to be the first pick whenever he elects to make himself eligible.
2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, 5-11, 223, 4.49, Jr
Given the number of quality running backs drafted into the NFL a year ago, it may surprise some that the most gifted runner in the country -- Barkley -- returned to the college game this fall. Bigger than either Christian McCaffrey or Hunt, more dynamic in the open field than Fournette and without the off-field concerns which dogged Joe Mixon, Barkley is a rare bell-cow running back equally effective running the ball or catching it. Barkley is worthy of top five -- and perhaps even No. 1 overall -- consideration.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS/CB, Alabama, 6-0, 201, 4.52, Jr
Looking for the next top 10 NFL draft pick for Alabama? Focus on Fitzpatrick, who while bouncing back and forth between starting at cornerback and safety over the past two seasons for the Tide has already set the school record with four touchdowns scored off of interceptions. Fitzpatrick is athletic enough to handle corner duties in the NFL but his build, instincts and physical, reliable tackling project even better to safety.
4. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, 6-3, 220, 4.97, Junior
Past injuries and an outspoken personality may scare off some but no one in this class spins the ball better than Rosen, a trio of reasons why the junior reminds me a bit of a young Jay Cutler. Despite less games so far this season than many of his competitors Rosen leads the nation with 2,135 passing yards and an impressive 17 touchdowns (against five interceptions). Rosen's tendency towards reckless throws, however, will make him a polarizing prospect -- just as Cutler was out of Vanderbilt back in 2005.
5. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson, 6-3, 310, 5.04, Jr
From his off-beat personality to his versatility along the defensive line, Wilkins is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He earned All-American honors at defensive tackle as a true freshman, recording an eye-popping 84 tackles before moving out to defensive end last season and boosting his big plays, registering 13 tackles for loss (among 56 total stops) and setting a new school record among defensive linemen with 10 passes broken up. A natural penetrator with terrific first-step quickness, Wilkins projects best inside as a three-technique at the next level.
6. Vita Vea, DT, Washington, 6-4, 344, 5.34, rJr
In terms of raw ability, Vea competes with only Houston true sophomore Ed Oliver as the most exciting defensive line prospect in the country. As his size suggests, Vea can dominate as a run-stuffer. He is also incredibly athletic for a man of his size, surprising opponents with his initial burst and speed in pursuit. Vea is a prototypical nose guard with a blend of size, power and athleticism likely to earn comparisons to former freakish first rounders Haloti Ngata and Dontari Poe as the draft approaches.
7. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M, 5-11, 200, 4.39, Jr
With three receivers earning top 10 picks a year ago, the NFL's thirst for playmakers has never been more obvious and Kirk is this year's most dynamic pass-catcher. Kirk possesses the squatty frame of a running back, using terrific lateral agility, balance and pure speed to be a threat to score any time he touches the ball as a receiver or returner.
8. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, rSoph
There is no point in sugar-coating, James has not lived up to his hype thus far this season. A few physical tackles aside, James did not stand out against Alabama in a Week One loss and surrendered a long touchdown in Week Four to North Carolina State (another loss) in which he was left flat-footed and in the dust on what should have been a routine open-field tackle. James does lead the Seminoles in tackles (23) over the first four games of the season and may just be shaking off the rust after missing most of last year with due to torn cartilage in his knee.
9. DaRon Payne, DT, Alabama, 6-2, 308, 5.38, Jr
Payne may lack the imposing size and burst of some of the other top defensive linemen but his pure strength (including a 545 pound bench press) and motor stand out, even amongst the NFL junior varsity team that is the Alabama Crimson Tide. As his statistics last season (36 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks) suggest, however, Payne's value lies with his ability to be a two-gap run stuffer not a consistent pass rush threat.
10. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama, 6-1, 190, 4.50, Jr
Expectations were huge for Ridley last season after breaking Julio Jones' school record for most receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman (89 for 1,045). A stacked roster and the development of young Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts resulted in less production (72 for 769 yards) for Ridley last season but his polished routes, deceptive speed and strong hands remain just as impressive on tape and he has taken the next step this year, emerging as Alabama's clear top target. A late enrollee at Alabama, Ridley is a bit older than most of the top prospects, turning 23 in December.
11. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, Sr
Ranked 21 spots higher than his cousin, Nick (the star running back at Georgia), Chubb deserves family bragging rights following a breakout 2016 campaign and strong start to this season, including earning ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors following impressive performances in wins over Florida State and Syracuse. Named a captain as a true junior after the former linebacker gained 25 pounds of muscle in the off-season, Chubb has the work ethic to go along with his strength, technique and tenacity that show up against the pass and run, alike.
12. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, 6-2, 200, 4.42, Jr
Jackson quite literally ran away from the competition for the Heisman Trophy a season ago, showing off the raw speed and playmaking ability that has earned him plenty of comparisons to 2001 No. 1 overall selection Michael Vick. A true dual threat, Jackson is a potential difference-maker in the NFL if a team is willing to commit its offense around his unique talent. He undeniably remains a work in progress as a pocket passer, however, still staring down his primary target and showing erratic accuracy, overall, when penned in the pocket. Jackson is noticeably bigger this season but remains undersized by NFL quarterback standards, a significant concern given his playing style.
13. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, Jr
Guice is not the freakish combination of size and speed Leonard Fournette is, but he might prove an even more effective all-around back. The theory is supported by the fact that he led the SEC with 1,387 rushing yards (averaging 7.6 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns despite splitting carries. Guice has a squatty, powerful frame as well as excellent balance and a determined running style which help him consistently bounce off would-be tacklers.
14. Arden Key, DE, LSU, 6-5, 255, 4.74, Jr
Key has yet to click in 2017, recording a combined six tackles in three games since offseason shoulder surgery delayed the kickoff to his junior season. It is easier to dismiss Key's lack of production, however, given the rangy frame and explosive get-off reminiscent of LSU predecessor Danielle Hunter (who recorded 12.5 sacks for the Minnesota Vikings in 2016). With some refined technique, Key could be even more effective in the pass-happy NFL than in the SEC; a scary thought considering that he recorded 14.5 tackles for loss, including 12 sacks a year ago.
15. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming, 6-4, 233, 4.76, Redshirt Junior
If someone were to draw up the physical prototype for an NFL quarterback, it would look a lot like the strapping, rifle-armed, and shockingly athletic Allen. Unfortunately, for all of his raw traits, Allen remains very raw, failing to show the accuracy and poise in losses to Iowa and Oregon that are required in the NFL. Allen was not helped much by his teammates in these losses, however, and his head coach, Craig Bohl, proved with his last quarterback, Carson Wentz, that he knows how to develop talent at the position.
16. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson, 6-4, 265, 4.78, rSoph
Players as young as Ferrell rarely make the Big Board this early in their respective collegiate careers but the prototypically-built edge rusher is a unique talent with an already impressive resume, including 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (along with a team-high 24 QB hurries) a season ago. He is often overshadowed by the "other" talent along Clemson's defensive line but projects very well to the NFL due to his initial burst, length and closing speed.
17. Billy Price, OG, Ohio State, 6-3, 312, 5.19, rSr
A three-year starter and reigning All-American guard, Price is about as safe as it gets in preseason NFL draft prognostication. He could have made the NFL jump a year ago and been one of the first interior offensive linemen selected but should only improve his stock by returning and proving his versatility, making the switch to center this season. Built like a cinder block (and just as tough), Price's initial quickness and power play a key role in the Buckeyes' offensive attack.
18. Connor Williams, OT, Texas, 6-5, 320, 5.31, Jr
The Longhorns have not produced a single first round pick on offense since Vince Young was selected No. 3 overall by Tennessee back in 2006 but Williams is a strong bet to end that dubious streak. Williams is a bit of a throwback, showing the power and aggression as a run blocker that scouts covet with the athleticism, balance and girth to stone pass rushers, as well. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a knee injury September 16 against USC that is expected to sideline him for much of the season, potentially impacting any thoughts about leaving early for the NFL.
19. Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College, 6-2, 250, 4.76, Sr
Landry led the country with 16.5 sacks a season ago, surprising many with his decision to return for his senior campaign. Landry lacks elite length but he possesses terrific burst and bend off the edge, showing the balance, core strength and athleticism to handle either stand-up or hand-down rush duties in the NFL. After recording just one tackle in a high profile matchup with Notre Dame in Week Three, Landry was back to his playmaking self against Virginia Tech October 7, notching seven tackles, including three sacks.
20. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State, 6-1, 198, 4.49, Jr.
After losing Jalen Ramsey early to the NFL and Derwin James (my top-rated defender in 2017) to injury, any question about the depth and talent in the Seminoles' secondary was emphatically answered by McFadden last year, who simply tied for the national lead with eight interceptions in his first starting season. McFadden offers an exciting upside with the quick feet, instincts and soft hands scouts covet, though his focus as a tackler and in coverage can wane.
21. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame, 6-7, 312, 5.27, rSr
With a full season of starts at both left tackle (2016) and right tackle (2015) already under his belt in Notre Dame's pro-style attack, McGlinchey entered his final year of college football as one of the more established blockers in the country and his stock is rising after helping silence Landry in Week Three. He is not in the same class of athlete as his former teammate and 2016 first round pick, Ronnie Stanley (Baltimore Ravens), but NFL offensive line coaches will appreciate his experience, versatility and technique.
22. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn, 6-1, 203, 4.50, Jr
Lanky press cornerbacks are all the rage in today's NFL and Davis possesses the skill-set to take full advantage of an average senior crop to jump into the first round conversation. A starter as a true freshman, Davis earned Third Team All-SEC honors last season and looks well on his way towards bigger honors in 2017, leading all SEC defenders with eight passes defended over the first six games. He possesses the stop-and-go quickness, loose hips and long arms scouts are looking for and could boost his stock further with more willingness in run support, as well as turning more breakups into interceptions.
23. Taven Bryan, DT, Florida, 6-4, 293, 4.96, rJr
The Gators have churned out at least one first round defender each of the past five drafts and if those close to the program are to be believed, Bryan may just be as gifted as any of them. He certainly lacks production to this point, registering just 27 tackles (including five for loss) in the first 25 games of his career. He is still very much a work in progress, too often blowing through or past would-be blockers only to locate the ball too late to do anything about it. The NFL loves upside, however, and the Casper, Wyoming native offers plenty of it.
24. Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist, 6-3, 218, 4.58, rJr
The Mustangs have not churned out a top 50 NFL selection since 1986 but clubs on the lookout for a prototype split end will certainly be intrigued by Sutton, a physically imposing receiver with the height, strength and aggression to beat NFL defensive backs for contested passes. Sutton has averaged nearly 17 yards per reception since 2015 with 26 combined touchdowns grabs over that time, including seven thus far this season.
25. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma, 6-7, 358, 5.47, rJr
The prodigal son of the late Orlando "Zeus" Brown (a 13-year veteran who played with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens), the Sooners' behemoth blocker's sheer size and strength make referring to him as "junior" almost laughable. While lacking the nimble feet to likely remain at left tackle in the NFL (where he's started the past two years for the Sooners), Brown's rare arm length, powerful base and surprising balance make him a quality pass protector and not just the bulldozer in the running game that his bulk suggests.
26. Malik Jefferson, ILB, Texas, 6-2, 240, 4.66, Jr
Anyone who watched the Longhorns nearly upset USC at home in Week Three surely noticed Jefferson as he was virtually everywhere, recording 11 tackles -- including a game-high nine solos -- as well as two tackles for loss. Scouts are enamored with Jefferson's combination of size and speed as well as the explosive collisions he creates, though concerns about his instincts could lead to questions about his best fit in the NFL.
27. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan, 6-2, 282, 4.93, rSr
With today's focus on the quick passing game in the NFL, "undersized" defensive tackles who can collapse the pocket from the interior are much more valuable than in previous years. Hurst, the son of the former New England Patriots cornerback of the same name, combines the initial burst to split gaps with the toughness and strength which belie his frame.
28. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson, 6-5, 295, 5.08, Jr
Skill position superstars earned most of the hype on the Clemson offense a year ago but Hyatt played a key cog in the Tigers' national championship run. Hyatt is well suited to Clemson's spread offense, showing light feet and good balance for a nearly 300 pound offensive lineman. To boost his NFL stock, he'll need to continue to get stronger at the point of attack.
29. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State, 6-0, 312, 5.17, Sr
As so-called "undersized" Pro Bowlers like Aaron Donald and Jurell Casey are proving, height may be overrated when it comes to projecting success at defensive tackle. Nnadi's bowling ball-like build, active hands and sheer power make him a nightmare to stop on the inside. Nnadi earned First Team All-ACC honors a year ago despite being overshadowed by others. His five tackles for loss (through four games) this season lead the team and he is only two behind James for tops on the team in total tackles (21), as well.
30. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State, 6-4, 250, 4.76, Jr
Whereas his afore-mentioned teammate, Nnadi, lacks a traditional NFL, Sweat boasts a prototypical frame for an edge rusher with a chiseled musculature and exceptionally long arms. The No. 1 rated prep DE when he signed in 2015, Sweat registered seven sacks in his final eight games last season. A surgically repaired left knee could impact Sweat's final draft status but his talent (and potential for a breakout season) is obvious.
31. Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama, 6-2, 214, 4.57, Jr
A major question mark heading into his first season as a starting safety, Harrison emerged as a legitimate star by year's end, finishing second only to Butkus Award winning linebacker Reuben Foster for the team lead in tackles (86) and proving to be a big play magnet. When under control, Harrison can also be a weapon as a hitter, specializing in cleaning up the play with a stiff shoulder to stop a ball-carrier in his tracks, though risky pursuit angles and grabby hands in coverage must be improved in 2017.
32. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia, 5-10, 228, 4.54, Sr
Chubb surprised many with the decision to return to Georgia for the 2017 season after proving the health of his surgically-repaired knee with 1,130 rushing yards, including eight touchdowns. As his squatty frame suggests, Chubb is powerful. He also shows excellent vision, balance and lateral cuts to elude defenders, as well. With 653 career touches already, however, there will be questions as to how much punishment his body has absorbed at the college level.
Just Missed The Cut:
Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.37, Jr
Jerome Baker, OLB, Ohio State, 6-1, 225, 4.62, Jr
James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State, 6-0, 205, 4.50, Sr
Dante Pettis, WR, Washington, 6-0, 192, 4.49, Sr
Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma, 6-4, 254, 4.77, rJr
--Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, owned and operated by The Sports Xchange