By Brian Kalchik @BrianKalchik on June 1, 2014
The 2014 NFL Draft is done, but the 2015 NFL Draft class is starting to take shape. So much is bound to happen over the next 12 months that will change everything in the 2015 class. Still, it's never too early to get a jump on evaluating and projecting the next blue-chip prospects. Here's a very early look at college football's top prospects for the 2015 NFL Draft, but only from every AP Top 25 team at the end of last season.
In two years with the Huskies, Shaq Thompson has averaged 76 tackles and six tackles for loss per season as an outside linebacker, while intercepting four passes and defending another 11. Thompson was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 player last season, and his ability to be a two-way linebacker will help improve his stock for the upcoming NFL Draft should he choose to come out.
Townsend finished last year as one of the SEC's top centers. Townsend started all 13 games anchoring the middle of the Commodore offensive line. Vanderbilt has experienced team success with Townsend in the starting lineup, going 16-4 record over the last 20 games. Townsend was credited with 53 blocks that led directly to either a touchdown or first down. With Jordan Matthews now in the NFL, Townsend is the best player for Vandy.
Laken Tomlinson will return as the starting right guard for a Blue Devils team that has drastically improved from his freshman season to his sophomore campaign. In 38 career games, Tomlinson has started 38 times. There's no coincidence that Duke's greatest three-year stretch came with Tomlinson in the lineup. Tomlinson is both an excellent pass and run blocker and will climb up the boards if he chooses to come out this season.
After rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on just over 200 carries last season, Melvin Gordon surprised many by not entering the 2014 NFL Draft, even though he was eligible as a redshirt sophomore. Gordon is now the feature back for a program that produced plenty of drafted running backs in recent years, and with another great season, Gordon could become the first running back drafted in the first round 2012.
Notre Dame is coming off its best showing in the NFL Draft in quite a while with eight players from the 2013 team getting picked. For this year, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels has a chance to be the best. Daniels went from 31 catches and no touchdowns during the 2012 season to 49 receptions and seven scores last year. With T.J. Jones and Troy Niklas now gone, Daniels will be the feature receiver this year with plenty of chances to succeed.
Jaelen Strong instantly became Arizona State's top receiving target last year, finishing with 75 catches for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. He'll likely put up bigger numbers this season without Marion Grice in the backfield and a good rapport with returning starter Taylor Kelly. Strong will be on top of the wide receiver rankings all season.
USC lost plenty of great players last year to the NFL Draft like Marqise Lee and Dion Bailey, but USC's best player will return this season. As only a junior, defensive tackle Leonard Williams will gain plenty of attention this year as not just one of the best defensive tackles, but one of the best players in this class. Should he decide to come out, Williams will be nothing less than a top-10 pick.
After having both Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews go in the top-10 the past two seasons as offensive tackles, the Aggies could have a player who is even better than both. For Cedric Ogbuehi, the tackle has taken his time to finally become the team's next left tackle. While being overshadowed by Joeckel and Matthews, Ogbuehi has started at guard and tackle. If Ogbuehi has another great year, he will be a top-five pick in the 2015 draft.
An unheralded player for the Cowboys, James Castleman has managed to be a solid contributor for Oklahoma State's defense. Castleman started all 13 games last year, finishing with 33 tackles and five tackles for loss as a defensive tackle. While the stats wouldn't warrant a top selection, Castleman's ability to take up a lot of space in the middle will be something that teams will have to look at.
Despite being draft-eligible as a redshirt sophomore, and being a surefire top-10 pick, Brett Hundley returned this year to help UCLA compete for a national title. Hundley has improved in each of his two seasons as a passer and runner. With another season to improve at both, Hundley could vie for being the first quarterback taken off the board in 2015 if he declares.
One of the holdovers from Louisville's efficient 2013 offense, DeVante Parker figures to thrive in new coach Bobby Petrino's high-octane offense. This scheme change should continue to boost his draft stock, which was already high even before he decided to return for another season. Parker had 55 catches for 885 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and, for his career, has 28 TDs and an average of 17 yards per reception.
If LSU left tackle La'el Collins declared for the NFL Draft last year, he certainly would have been a first-round pick, but in 2014, he can be in the discussion as a top-10 pick. In 2013, Collins started 12 games last year and helped the Tigers rush for a school-record 37 touchdowns. Last season was Collins' first as a tackle after playing guard, and in his first game, was the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after LSU's win over TCU.
After waiting behind Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, Bryce Petty wasted little time showing everyone that he was just as good as both. In 2013, Petty had a great season, throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three interceptions. Petty's 14 rushing touchdowns last year also makes Petty a great dual-threat player and one of the top quarterbacks in the 2015 draft class.
Defensive tackle is routinely one of the deepest positions in each NFL Draft, with 19 getting selected in 2014. The early list for that spot for next year looks as stacked as any, with Williams and Ohio State's Michael Bennett at the top of the list. Bennett had seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last year and should top those numbers this year, as Ohio State returns its entire defensive line.
As a sophomore last year, Stanford left tackle Andrus Peat showed everyone why he will be one of the top offensive linemen off the board in either 2015 or 2016. Peat helped Stanford become the 22nd-ranked rushing offense in the nation and the 11th-best unit in terms of sacks allowed. With both David Yankey and Cameron Fleming gone to the NFL, Peat will get more attention this year and will be in the discussion as a top draft pick.
For a team that lost their starting quarterback and running back to the NFL, Central Florida seems to be in a reloading mode this season, but with a player like Breshad Perriman, the Knights won't miss a beat. Perriman is UCF's most explosive receiver, averaging 20.8 yards per reception last year and having over 800 yards. Perriman also has an NFL-pedigree as his father, Brett, played 10 seasons in the NFL.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has been one of the best cornerbacks in the nation since his sophomore year, and his return to Oregon for his senior season was a surprise to most. Olomu has been one of Oregon's best playmakers on defense, recording seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles in three seasons. If Olomu can mature this season and relieve any concerns about his character, he can easily be a first-round pick in 2015.
Vic Beasley was one of the top pass-rushing defensive ends in college football last season, but Beasley was overlooked by players like Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack. As a defensive end and outside linebacker, Beasley had 23 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and four forced fumbles last season. Beasley has a chance to become this year's best pass rusher, and with that, a top-15 selection in 2015.
Despite an inconsistent season in 2013, Alabama's Amari Cooper is still considered to be the best wide receiver who could be in the 2015 draft class. As a freshman, Cooper had 1,000 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns as the Crimson Tide won the national championship. Last year, Cooper only had 736 yards and four touchdowns, but finished the season with 299 yards in two games. Cooper is too good to have another subpar season.
While his performance in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama served as Eric Striker's coming out party, he already established himself as one of the country's fastest rising defensive players in 2013. Striker finished the year with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, including three against Alabama. As a linebacker, Striker's versatility will make NFL GMs compare him to Anthony Barr, who went No. 8 overall in the 2014 Draft.
Missouri lost two significant pieces of its rock-solid defensive line in the NFL Draft, but the Tigers' depth in those spots means there shouldn't be much of a drop-off in 2014. Markus Golden has a big role in that transition. A converted linebacker, Golden registered 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss despite never starting one game thanks to the presence of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. With the spotlight on him now, Golden will shine in 2014.
A sleeper for the Heisman Trophy this season, South Carolina's Mike Davis could be in line to break numerous records at South Carolina. Davis managed to rush for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, including seven 100-yard games. Davis was also a good receiver out of the backfield with 34 receptions for 352 yards. With another great season in 2014, Davis could join Gordon as a first-round pick at running back.
With many of Michigan State's defenders gone from last year's team, defensive end Shilique Calhoun is now the most feared player on that defense. Not only was Calhoun a fierce rusher last year, but he also put points on the board. Calhoun had 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2013 and scored three defensive touchdowns. If Calhoun comes out this year, he will be a guaranteed first-round pick with potential to rise up the draft boards.
While injuries early in his career slowed his development somewhat, Kris Frost has done nothing but get better with each season. In 2013, Frost rotated at middle linebacker with Jake Holland, but, by the end of the year, Frost made plenty of big plays in big games. In the SEC championship game against Missouri, Frost had six tackles and a forced fumbles, and in the national championship game, he had seven tackles against Florida State.
We could have picked any of a dozen different Florida State players for the Seminoles, but it's hard to pass up the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Not only is Winston draft-eligible (having redshirted in 2012), but he is also the best quarterback and player in the country. Winston had 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns as a freshman. With plenty of offensive talent returning, Winston has the opportunity to become the No. 1 pick in 2015.
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