Philadelphia, PA – The 2013 NFL Draft just ended but that doesn't mean we can't start looking ahead to next year's annual event.
The 2013 class was considered by many to be one that lacked the flashier names and potential superstars of past years. That won't be the case a year from now with a ton of star power likely to be available.
Chief among those players is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The 6-foot-6 junior was an absolute force in 2012, terrorizing quarterbacks while playing in the SEC. To put that in perspective the conference set a NFL Draft record with 63 selections this year. Clowney has already been cutting his teeth against NFL-ready competition and with another year under his belt the transition to the professional level may be as seamless as any player before him.
In 2012, Clowney was sixth in Heisman voting and finished tied for second nationally with 13.0 sacks. Clowney made a big statement in important games as well, such as when he recorded 4.5 sacks in a 27-12 win over rival Clemson. Perhaps his most memorable effort was the punishing hit he laid on Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl that was still making the rounds on highlight shows in April.
Perhaps the only name that would grab more headlines next year than Clowney would be that of defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. With the moniker 'Johnny Football' the Texas A&M freshman lit up the college football world last season en route to earning a trophy case full of awards and honors including the nation's highest. A stellar athlete with speed and an ability to make plays on the run, Manziel would bring instant excitement and publicity to any NFL team willing to make the pick. Manziel will be just a sophomore next season but after seeing Matt Barkley slip to the fourth round in this year's draft, Manziel may opt to come out in 2014.
Another Aggie, offensive tackle Jake Matthews, might actually go higher than the quarterback he will be protecting this season. Offensive linemen are never considered the 'sexy' pick but every team is in constant need of talented players in the trenches. Matthews may just be the best option for any team trying to rebuild up front, especially if he can repeat as a First-Team All- SEC member.
Another offensive linemen to watch is tackle Cyrus Kouandjio from the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds he is the ideal height and size for the professional level and as was mentioned with Clowney, is already seeing some of the talent he could come up against once he starts playing on Sundays.
Staying in the SEC, which seems to be the closest thing to an NFL feeder program at this point, another defensive player that could be picked day one in 2014 is Alabama's C.J. Mosley. The senior linebacker was a Consensus First- Team All-American and All-SEC performer in 2012 and a finalist for the Butkus Award. Mosley wasn't just great as an individual performer as he was one of the key cogs in the Crimson Tide's National Championship winning defense that ranked at the top of the nation in most statistical categories.
Though they would like to make you think so, the SEC is not the only conference in college football and won't be the only conference to have players drafted early in the first round.
Wide receiver Marqise Lee went into last season at USC as second fiddle to Robert Woods and without the name recognition of Matt Barkley. By year's end Lee was without a doubt the most dangerous offensive weapon for the Trojans and arguably of any team in the country. Lee won the Biletnikoff Award and was a consensus All-American selection in a sophomore season in which caught a FBS best 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Pac-12 will also have some defensive players at the top of many NFL team's draft boards ,especially if UCLA defensive end Anthony Barr lives up to the considerable hype he has accrued. Under first-year head coach Jim Mora, Barr really strived in his junior season as he recorded 13.0 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss en route to a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection. A talented and versatile athlete, Barr can shift from the end to outside linebacker which would make him extremely attractive to any professional squad.
Speaking of defensive playmakers, cornerback Bradley Roby of Ohio State is another first-round lock if he continues to play to the degree he did in 2012. Though he did not post eye-popping numbers (63 total tackles, 17 passes defended, 2 INTs) in 2012, he still considered entering this year's draft. Buckeye fans will be thrilled to see him back on the field this season though, especially after he was such an integral part of an Ohio State team that went 12-0.
Next year might just be dominated by the state of South Carolina as Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins could join Clowney at the top of the national rankings and in the top 10 of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Like Roby, Boyd had to think before deciding to return to the Tigers for his senior season. After seeing fellow ACC member E.J. Manuel of Florida State be selected as the first quarterback in this year's draft, Boyd may be regretting that slightly but should also feel tremendously optimistic about 2014. Like Manuel, Boyd is a dual-threat quarterback that can run and pass. In 2012 alone he threw for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns, while rushing for 218 yards and five more scores. Like Manuel, Boyd was extremely accurate (67.2 completion percentage) but unlike Manuel, Boyd was actually named ACC Player of the Year.
Watkins however, did not enjoy similar success in 2012. After smashing records and gaining national attention as a freshman in 2011, Watkins missed the first two games of 2012 due to an arrest and then once he returned, played in the shadow of DeAndre Hopkins for most of the year. Hopkins, and his 1,405 receiving yards, were taken 27th overall in the 2013 Draft by the Houston Texas. That leaves a hole in the Clemson receiving corps that Watkins is more than capable of filling. Though his production suffered last season (57 receptions, 708 yards, 3 TDs) Watkins is a freakish athlete with lethal speed that should return to form and in doing so, raise the eyebrows of a number of NFL scouts.
There will be another signal caller that many teams may consider as the building block for their franchises in Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. The knock against Bridgewater is of course that he played in the diluted Big East Conference and even worse this season will be in the American Athletic Conference. Those aren't exactly the same leagues as other star players on this list. However Bridgewater seemed just fine against some of the nation's best in January when he led the Cardinals to a steam-rolling of the SEC's Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Bridgewater threw for 266 yards and two scores and was named the game's MVP, all while dealing with the country's No. 1 pass defense. Bridgewater was sixth in the nation in completion percentage during the regular season and could be even better this fall.