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NFL comps for top prospects living up to preseason hype

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Alabama's Derrick Henry has already rushed for 243 yards and six touchdowns this season.

High expectations are difficult to handle. When everyone's telling you how great you are, it's easy to fall into a false sense of security, standing still as others working hard to reach the top of the mountain overtake you.

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After the first two weeks of the college football season, the players I've listed here haven't fallen into that trap.

In fact, these players are being (or will be) compared to some of the NFL's best talents. It's just part of the draft process, as scouts and general managers usually imagine that the prospect they're about to select can emulate the sort of playmaking ability of a player already getting it done in the league.

It's an especially dangerous game, given the unforgiving nature of media and fans when a player doesn't turn into the star he was once expected to become. But so far, these players look to be top prospects, and they're living up to some very lofty comparisons.

Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame
NFL comp: Aaron Donald
Donald is a now a superstar defensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams, and teams will be comparing incoming prospects to the former Pitt star. Enter Day. He'll measure something very similar to the 6-foot-1, 285 pounds that Donald did at the NFL Scouting Combine two years ago. And through the first two games of the season, Day is living up to the hype of being projected as the top three-technique tackle in the 2016 draft class. He's everything scouts want to see at the position: defeating cut blocks, penetrating gaps with quickness and swim/arm-over moves, holding up against double teams and hustling down plays. Day also makes plays from the five-technique spot, despite his lack of length.

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Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
NFL comp: Eddie Lacy
In some ways, Henry has had to deal with both high expectations as a Heisman Trophy contender this season and extreme scrutiny thanks to the failure of former Alabama star back Trent Richardson. Henry's decisiveness, as Wisconsin witnessed as he exploded for three touchdowns against them in the season opener, is one reason I expect him to be a better player than Richardson in the NFL. The most apt comparison to a former Tide back might be Lacy, who has been great for the Packers in the early stages of his career, using his strong downhill running to blast through tackles at the line. Henry (6-3) is taller than Lacy (5-11), giving him a higher center of gravity, so he'll need to run with a low pad level on Sundays, but nothing he's shown so far this season should dissuade scouts from thinking he can make the transition.

Jordan Jenkins, DE, Georgia
NFL comp: Khalil Mack
Jenkins leads the FBS with 6.5 tackles for loss in two games, with five coming against SEC foe Vanderbilt on Saturday. The 6-3, 253-pound defensive end could end up playing linebacker at the next level, but teams running a four-man front or multiple looks might believe he has the tools to continue playing primarily with his hand on the ground. His tenacity at the line of scrimmage against the run, as well as his relentless pursuit of quarterbacks trying to escape his grasp, will lead to comparisons to Mack, an emerging superstar for the Oakland Raiders. Jenkins will need to put up great combine numbers to prove to scouts that he can match Mack's explosiveness, but it's tough to deny Jenkins' potential as a professional playmaker.

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Tyler Johnstone, OT, Oregon
NFL comp: Joe Staley
The Ducks nearly pulled off a road victory against Michigan State last weekend, thanks to the heart of banged-up quarterback Vernon Adams, the team's exceptional talent at the skill positions and Johnstone's stout play up front. Considered a potential top-50 pick coming into the season despite coming off of two ACL surgeries, he performed like a top line prospect against the Spartans, anchoring and showing excellent lateral mobility against a first-round prospect for MSU, defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Scouts now see that Johnstone is the run blocker and pass protector they remembered from before his injuries, and continued play at that level will likely gain him comparisons to Staley, a four-time Pro Bowler for the 49ers.

Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
NFL comp: Randall Cobb
Shepard will be compared ad nauseam to Cobb during the upcoming draft process. Shepard's frame (5-10, 193) is reminiscent of the 5-10, 191-pound build that made teams wary of Cobb's potential as an every-down NFL playmaker, allowing him to slip to the Packers with the 64th overall pick in 2011. Shepard also showed his skills in a clutch situation last weekend, scoring the Sooners' final two touchdowns in their comeback win over Tennessee. He high-pointed a ball over a defender for the tying score with 40 seconds remaining in regulation, and then secured the winning points in double overtime with an impressive separate/catch/run play from the slot. That sort of versatility makes the Cobb comparisons worthwhile.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.



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