You might think the end of the NFL draft is a somber moment for those of us that cover the event throughout the season.
It's actually the opposite.
After studying and analyzing the same players over the past 12 months, getting to know next year's collection of prospects in May and June is refreshing. The same games examined multiple times in anticipation of this draft become almost brand new, as the focus changes to different matchups and areas of the field.
Here are five college players per position I'll be watching more closely over the summer and certainly keeping a close eye on next fall.
- Matt Barkley, USC, 6-foot-2/230 pounds
- Tyler Wilson, Arkansas, 6-3/220
- E.J. Manuel, Florida State, 6-5/238
- *Tyler Bray, Tennessee, 6-6/213
T-5. *Aaron Murray, Georgia, 6-1/211
T-5. Landry Jones, Oklahoma, 6-4/229
Barkley's the likely top dog here because of his pedigree and ability to run a pro-style offense, but it could be a very deep group if Wilson keeps the Razorbacks machine on the move without Bobby Petrino on campus and the strong-armed Manuel and Bray fulfill their potential.
Even though Lattimore and Davis are both coming off injuries, they are still the most talented backs in the country. Depth here is severely lacking in elite talent, though the speed of Barner and Ellington and power of Ball and Michael (if he can stay healthy) will intrigue scouts.
A stronger assemblage of bruisers and H-back types this year means teams will be able to find more players to fill those roles throughout the mid-to-late rounds in the 2013 draft.
Woods' speed and agility will aid Barkley's Heisman campaign -- just as Rogers (and teammate Justin Hunter, if healthy) could with Bray if Tennessee becomes a surprise contender in the SEC East. Allen should finally get his due as a playmaker this season, while Williams hopes the departure of Robert Griffin III doesn't hurt his production significantly.
There will be more tight ends for scouts to choose from in next year's draft. The athletic Eifert and Fauria are potential first-round picks, while Ertz, Stoneburner and Lutzenkirchen are all likely to be starting in the NFL sooner than later.
Lewan may be this year's version of Kalil if he continues to get stronger. Fluker's a massive road grader who has better feet than expected. Matthews is the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, but his strong play is what gets him on this list. Faulk and Wagner have the girth and just good enough footwork to play immediately as rookies, even if it's on the right side of the line instead of the left.
Interior Offensive Linemen
Once again, teams will be able to find very good talent for the middle of their offensive lines, with the 2011 Outland Trophy-winning Jones leading the way. Holmes and Cooper will be immediate starters in the pivot, while Warmack and Warford are big bodies who move the line of scrimmage.
- Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas, 6-5/250
2.Bjoern Werner, Florida State, 6-4/272
- Alex Okafor, Texas, 6-4/260
- *William Gholston, Michigan State, 6-7/275
- *Ronald Powell, Florida, 6-4/250
There are loads of possible pass-rush stars in next year's class, including two athletic, long and strong members on the Longhorns' line: Jeffcoat (son of former NFL defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat) and Okafor. German-born Werner is still learning the game, but flashed real talent and a non-stop motor. Gholston has as much talent as anyone, but needs to play with more discipline to earn a high draft grade. Meanwhile, Powell, a former No. 1 overall recruit, could begin to reach his high ceiling this season.
Hankins is this year's version of Dontari Poe -- a huge athletic specimen who played end and tackle for the Buckeyes. 2011 Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Lotulelei will be a household name (pronounced lo-too-leh-lay), while Alabama's Williams could be another versatile Tide performer going to the pros.
The SEC is again loading the NFL with pass rushers. Jones was a Butkus Award finalist in his first year at Georgia after transferring from USC. The tall and lean LSU duo of Mingo and Montgomery constantly harassed QBs off the edge standing up and with their hand on the ground. Jenkins could have a bounceback season, while Hodges is just another talent from "Linebacker U" who could play inside or outside in the NFL.
Nick Saban knows how to recruit linebackers -- and fully utilize their talent. Mosley was lost at times behind big names like Upshaw and Hightower, but he is a big hitter and quick closer. Reddick and Minter are two others who will come out from the shadows in 2012, while everyone already has seen Te'o effectively plug the middle for the Irish. Skov is coming back from injury, but would have been considered top 50 if he came out this year due to his size and heady play.
Even if Amerson doesn't have half as many interceptions in 2012 as he did in 2011 (13, a national high), scouts will still appreciate his size/speed combination. He and Mathieu could end up at safety, though for different reasons -- Mathieu could play a Troy Polamalu role for an NFL team. Banks and Poyer are two under-the-radar playmakers worth watching as they finish their eligibility.
After two years of weak safety classes, scouts should be much happier with this group. Reid is a star in the making. McDonald hopes to follow the footsteps of his father (13-year safety Tim McDonald) into the NFL, but needs to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing 2011. Lester, Jefferson and Rambo are three more strong top-50 possibilities.
Hopkins and Sturgis were the two Lou Groza finalists who didn't win the award as the nation's top kicker (it went to Texas A&M's Randy Bullock). Allen won the equivalent for punters in 2012 (46.1-yard average, 28 fair catches forced in 83 punts), but Clark and Locke might fight him for the Ray Guy in 2012 with their booming kicks and big hang-times.