That's the million-dollar question for scouts around the NFL without a consensus choice as the top prospect of the 2013 draft class.
Although West Virginia's Geno Smith and USC's Matt Barkley will garner serious consideration as the first overall pick based on their value as potential franchise quarterbacks, the lack of a few blue-chip characteristics could prevent both guys from claiming the top spot. In addition, the possibility of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns or Carolina Panthers having the top pick could change the draft landscape, seeing as all three teams recently spent first-round picks on a quarterback.
Given the likelihood of those scenarios unfolding, scouts are furiously attempting to identify a player worthy of consideration as the biggest impact player in the 2013 class. While the aforementioned Barkley and Smith stand out on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and Lotulelei are the defensive crown jewels of the senior class.
I've previously discussed Te'o in this column, and he might be the best defensive player in the draft. But the inside linebacker position isn't valued at a premium, and that might lead teams to focus on Lotulelei and his rock-solid game.
I've watched tape of Lotulelei from this season, and I'm impressed with his combination of size, strength and athleticism. At 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, Lotulelei is a low-leverage player with outstanding first-step quickness. He explodes off the ball at the snap and shows tremendous pop when engaging with blockers. Most opponents are overwhelmed by Lotulelei's brute strength and power, resulting in consistent penetration into the backfield against the run. When Lotulelei isn't able to overpower blockers with bull-rush moves, he displays the athleticism and body control to win with quickness. He flashes the burst to chase down runners in a short area, and his ability to evade blockers at the point of attack with finesse moves is surprising, considering his size.
As a pass rusher, Lotulelei is a powerful penetrator with the capacity to walk defenders into the lap of the quarterback. Although his hand work and rush moves remain unpolished, Lotulelei's natural strength and power allow him to collapse the pocket from up the gut, forcing quarterbacks to move from their sweet spots. Lotulelei would be hard-pressed to develop into a double-digit sack artist from the interior, but his ability to press the pocket and alter the quarterback's timing is a valuable trait that coaches appreciate in the middle of a defense.
I would cite an inconsistent motor as Lotulelei's biggest weakness. He doesn't bring A-plus effort on every snap, and his lapses are disappointing for a player of his caliber. While some coaches will certainly gamble on his upside and potential, the risk of taking a player with a questionable motor could backfire in the long run. Given the hefty investment associated with the top pick of the draft, the team considering Lotulelei must dig deep into his background to see if it can flip the right switch to keep him motivated on an every-play basis.
Drafting at the top of the board is all about landing a franchise player. Lotulelei is certainly a player with that kind of talent and potential, but he must convince evaluators that he has the desire to dominate on the next level if he is to become the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
WORD ON THE STREET
West Virginia's Geno Smith is the top quarterback prospect on the majority of draft boards across the league, but that doesn't mean everyone is convinced he's a legitimate top-10 pick. An NFC South personnel executive recently cited Smith's hesitancy against the different looks thrown at him after midseason as a potential red flag. While Smith has maintained an impressive completion percentage (70.1) and a gaudy touchdown-to-interception ratio (35:5), the scout said Smith won't pull the trigger on "tight-window" throws at times for fear of tossing an interception. Unfortunately, those are exactly the types of throws Smith would need to make at the next level to be a great player. In addition, the scout didn't seem convinced that Smith possessed the requisite physical tools to merit consideration as a franchise-type player. While he acknowledged that a team in desperate need of a quarterback would likely view Smith in a different light, he said that the West Virginia star is not in the same class as prior QB prospects Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton.
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Boyd deserves the top spot on this list after accounting for eight touchdowns in the Tigers' 62-48 win over N.C. State on Saturday. Boyd completed 30 of his 44 passes for 426 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for an additional 103 yards and three scores. Those numbers would be remarkable for a quarterback against any level of competition, but to compile such a striking stat sheet against a bitter ACC rival suggests Boyd was truly at the top of his game when it mattered most for the Tigers.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Robinson entered the season as an unknown commodity, but in his sophomore campaign, he has emerged as the Nittany Lions' most explosive playmaker. Robinson tallied 10 receptions for 197 yards and three scores while leading Penn State to a 45-22 win over Indiana. The extraordinary performance pushed Robinson's season total to 73 receptions, shattering the school's single-season record. While NFL scouts can't take a long look at Robinson due to his status as an underclassman, a few more performances like this one will certainly put him on the watch list in the near future.
Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
The Cardinal's surprising suffocation of the Oregon offense in Saturday night's upset was largely due to the sensational play of Skov in the middle. The senior linebacker tallied 10 tackles (with one tackle for loss), while anchoring an aggressive defense that held the Ducks to just 198 rushing yards -- a low total for Chip Kelly's explosive bunch. Most importantly, the Cardinal surrendered just four runs of 10-plus yards and forced 10 negative runs on the day. Given Skov's impact on this stunning outcome, NFL scouts definitely will give him high marks as a disruptive playmaker.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Carey has toiled in relative anonymity for most of the season, but NFL scouts will start to take notice after the sophomore running back followed up a 366-yard explosion against Colorado with a 204-yard effort in a 34-24 win over Utah. The performance marked the eighth time that Carey surpassed the 100-yard mark this season. Most importantly, it was the eighth time that he logged 20-plus carries in a game, which revealed his durability and toughness as a workhorse runner. NFL coaches covet productive runners who have the fortitude and stamina to handle a heavy workload, and Carey will be on the radar of scouts across the league going forward.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Austin is one of the most explosive playmakers in college football. He cemented that reputation with his amazing performance in the Mountaineers' 50-49 loss to Oklahoma. Austin totaled 572 all-purpose yards on 33 touches (21 rush attempts, four receptions and eight kick returns), and scored two touchdowns. While Austin routinely posts big numbers, the fact that he blew up the stat sheet in his first career start at running back suggests the comparisons to Percy Harvin are valid. Given his overall versatility and explosiveness as a multi-purpose threat, Austin could be the first senior wideout taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
Bray is squarely on the radar of NFL scouts hunting for future franchise quarterbacks, but the junior has been mildly disappointing this season. Though his numbers would suggest that he has played extremely well (Bray has completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 3,319 yards with 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions), Bray has repeatedly come up small in the Volunteers' biggest games. In losses to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, Bray has a 7:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, routinely struggling to string together completions in critical situations. Against Vanderbilt in particular, Bray had difficulty connecting with open receivers, and his poor decisions under pressure led to a pair of turnovers that changed the complexion of the game. Although Bray certainly has the talent to excel at the next level, he needs to work on the finer aspects of his game before moving on to the NFL.