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Big Board: Clemson defenders on the rise

(TSX / STATS) -- Deshaun Watson and an extraordinary group of draft-eligible skill position talent earned the spotlight last season for the national champion Clemson Tigers.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant is making his own waves but if the Tigers return to their third consecutive title game, it will be difference-makers along the line of line of scrimmage -- third-year stars Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Mitch Hyatt -- leading the way.

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

The calm, clutch play Darnold showed in USC's double-overtime win over Texas is precisely why he entered the year as my top-rated prospect and has only strengthened his position since. Critics will quibble with the slight wind-up in Darnold's throwing motion or point out his admittedly disappointing touchdown to interception ratio (7:6 through three games), something I attribute more to the new supporting cast around him this season. Darnold is the cleanest quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck and the strong favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick whenever he makes himself eligible.

2. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, rSoph

James and the Seminoles will play only their second game of the season in Week Four, visiting North Carolina State after Hurricane Irma postponed a showdown with rival Miami. He is coming off of a solid, if unspectacular start in the season-opener against Alabama, recording six tackles, including one for loss in the 24-7 defeat. Projecting James this high is a risk, as he missed all but the first two games of last season with a torn meniscus. However, he looked like a future NFL superstar as a freshman, standing out on a 2015 squad loaded with NFL prospects. He is a moveable chess piece with big plays on tape while playing defensive back, linebacker and edge rusher, projecting best as a hybrid safety/linebacker role in the NFL.

3. 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 Dalvin Cook, more dynamic in the open field than Leonard Fournette and without the off-field concerns which dogged Joe Mixon, Barkley is a rare bell-cow running back worthy of top five consideration. His matchup against Josey Jewell and a proud Iowa defense in Week Four is must-see scouting.

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. The comparison held true in Week Three with Rosen alternately dazzling (four touchdowns and 463 yards passing) and disappointing (two INTs, including a pick-six) in a loss at Memphis.

5. 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.

6. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, Jr

Guice is not the freakish combination of size and speed that his predecessor Leonard Fournette is but he may prove an even more effective all-around back, a theory 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, recording 224 yards and four touchdowns over the first two games of the season.

7. Arden Key, DE, LSU, 6-5, 238, 4.74, Jr

After offseason shoulder surgery, Key made his much-anticipated season debut in Week Three against Mississippi State. The results were far from what he and the Tigers hoped with the edge rusher recording just three tackles (including half a sack) as the Bulldogs dominated the line of scrimmage and the scoreboard, alike, winning 37-7. Key, is not yet as polished as some of the other top edge rushers in this class but he offers an ideal combination of length and speed off the corner and is noticeably bigger this year with room to grow. Similar in many ways to LSU predecessor Danielle Hunter (who had 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, Sr

Ranked 17 spots higher than his cousin, Nick (the star running back at Georgia), Chubb deserves family bragging rights after a breakout 2016 campaign in which he recorded career-highs in tackles (58), tackles for loss (22) and sacks (10.5). 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 and tenacity. Through three games this season, Chubb has 14 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and a sack with a high profile matchup at Florida State looming in Week Four.

15. 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 résumé, including 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (along with a team-high 24 QB hurries) a season ago. Ferrell stood out last week against Auburn, using his combination of burst off the ball and length to apply consistent pressure off the edge and record six tackles, as well as a sack and forced fumble.

16. 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.

17. 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 25 combined touchdowns grabs over that time, including four in a Week Two win over North Texas. He was the obvious focus of TCU's game plan last week with the Horned Frogs limiting Sutton to just one catch for zero yards in a wild 56-36 victory.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. 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. Landry needs to bounce back in Week Four against defending champion Clemson after getting largely shut down last week by Notre Dame, officially registering just a single tackle in a 49-20 drubbing.

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. 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.

23. DaShawn Hand, DE, Alabama, 6-3, 282, 4.87, Senior

With just six combined sacks over his first three seasons at Alabama, Hand has been unable to live up to the lofty expectations of recruiting experts, many of whom tabbed him as the No. 1 prep edge rusher in 2013. Hand looks the part of an NFL player with a powerful, well-proportioned physique, long arms and impressive timed speed for his size. Unfortunately, while fast in pursuit downfield or on the track, Hand shows below average initial quickness off the ball, thus far limiting his effectiveness as a rusher.

24. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State, 6-4, 265, 4.76, rJr

Powerful, fundamentally sound and tenacious against the run and pass, alike, Hubbard is one of the better all-around defensive ends in the country and comes with relatively high floor. That said, Hubbard does not possess the quick-twitch explosiveness to consistently threaten the edge, recording just 3.5 sacks a season ago.

25. 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. A highly touted signee three years ago who earned the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors in 2015, Jefferson already possesses an NFL-caliber build and athleticism and has shown improved instincts this season.

26. 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.

27. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.43, Jr

Ward served as the nickel corner alongside 2017 first round picks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley last season, tying with Lattimore for the team lead with nine passes broken up. It won't be difficult for him to beat that mark as Ward registered a FBS-leading six pass breakups in a Week One win over Indiana, alone. Few have challenged him since. Ward may lack the starting experience and length scouts would prefer but he is a superb athlete who plays bigger than his size.

28. 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.

29. 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, saw his tackles for loss jump from 6.5 in 2015 to 11.5 last season. If his 2017 debut against Florida (five tackles, including one for loss) is any indication, Hurst may be in for another big jump this season.

30. 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 and is expected to undergo surgery, potentially impacting any thoughts about leaving early for the NFL.

31. 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 605 career touches already, however, there will be questions as to how much punishment his body has absorbed at the college level.

32. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State, 6-4, 230, 4.59, rJr

If the pressure of a replacing a legend like Dak Prescott bothered Fitzgerald last year, he sure did a terrific job of hiding it, turning in one of the more statistically impressive debut campaigns of any quarterback in SEC history, accounting for 4,160 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns (24 passing, 19 running). Even better than his statistics were the improved passing, command of the offense and overall poise he showed in a Week Three blowout win over LSU, a 37-7 drubbing in which Fitzgerald threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 88 and two scores.

Just Missed The Cut:

Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan, 6-5, 330, 5.39, Sr

Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah, 6-1, 320, 5.22, Sr

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

--Rob Rang is a senior analyst for

Updated September 20, 2017

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