The start of the college football season signals the beginning of a fact-finding mission for NFL scouts. Most will enter the fall with a host of questions surrounding the top prospects in the country, with the answers ultimately determining which guys remain at the top of the board come draft day.
With the season just days away from kicking off, here are some top questions NFL teams will want answered this fall:
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Is Clowney worthy of No. 1 overall pick?
Jadeveon Clowney has dominated the college football conversation since splattering Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl with what will go down as one of the most spectacular highlights in college football history. Although Clowney is certainly more than a one-hit wonder based on his impressive career resume (21 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss), the lofty comparisons to some of the NFL's legendary defensive ends have set the bar at an unprecedented level for a player entering his third season of major college football.
The anointing of Clowney as the likely No. 1 pick is premature considering few scouts have extensively studied his game at this point (the NFL prohibits evaluators from compiling information on prospects before they are eligible for the draft, or three years removed from high school). While the hype suggests he is King Kong on the edge, the tape must reveal a dominant player who terrorizes opponents consistently rather than make splash plays on occasion. Moreover, scouts must come away convinced he can handle the pressure associated with being a No. 1 pick by continuing to dominate the SEC as a pass rusher and run defender despite facing host of tactics designed to minimize his effectiveness as an edge player.
Can Johnny Football do it again?
Johnny Manziel took the college football world by storm with a sandlot game built on flash and improvisation. The Heisman Trophy winner accounted for more than 5,000 yards of total offense, including an SEC-best 1,410 rushing yards. Most impressively, he carried the Aggies to a surprising 11-win season that included an upset win of the eventual BCS champions on their home turf.
Given Manziel's overwhelming success as a redshirt freshman, scouts want to see what he can do for an encore against defensive coordinators better prepared to defend his unorthodox game. They also will want to see if Manziel can continue to thrive when defenses force him to play extensively from the pocket. While he has certainly demonstrated the high football IQ, awareness and passing skills to pick apart defenses with his arm, his ability to do it against changing looks and blitz pressures will test his mettle as a quarterback.
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Scouts will also want to assess how well Manziel performs under the intense scrutiny he will face from media members intent on picking apart his every move. From his body language on the sideline to his interactions with his teammates, Manziel will be subject to daily analysis from every talking head in the college football world, including yours truly. Therefore, he must demonstrate the on-field maturity and leadership skills associated with franchise quarterbacks, while also displaying marked improvements in his game as a pocket passer. If he checks the boxes in those key areas, he could emerge as a viable option for an NFL team in need of a game-changer under center, should the redshirt sophomore, as many suspect, enter the draft early.
Who is next freakish athlete to emerge?
Each year, the NFL draft features a prospect that rises from obscurity to become a top-15 pick based on athleticism and potential. In the 2013 NFL Draft, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and Kyle Long emerged as first-round picks despite having limited experience at their respective positions. Their collective combination of size, speed and athleticism keyed their meteoric rise up the charts, while also validating the fact that scouts value explosive athletes at a premium in the draft.
Looking at the college landscape, I believe scouts will pay close attention to Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell, Florida's Louchiez Purifoy, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Oregon's Colt Lyerla and Kent State's Dri Archer based on their impressive physical dimension and explosive athletic attributes. Their penchant for splash plays are enough to tantalize scouts willing to bank on potential at the next level. Can any of them emerge as a franchise-caliber difference-maker at the next level? We'll know a lot more five months from now.
How deep is the 2014 QB class?
The disappointment surrounding the 2013 quarterback class will certainly dissipate when scouts take a glance at a deep and talented pool of signal-callers thriving in the college game. At this point, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Alabama's AJ McCarron, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Miami's Stephen Morris are the headliners, but the class could also feature young talents like UCLA's Brett Hundley, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
Let's not forget sleeper prospects like North Carolina's Bryn Renner, San Jose State's David Fales and Fresno State's Derek Carr. Throw in wild cards like Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas and Georgia's Aaron Murray, and the pipeline is full.
The challenge for evaluators, however, will be identifying the right kind of quarterback for the changing landscape of the NFL. With more teams flirting with various elements of the read-option, athletic quarterbacks are gaining traction in meeting rooms, while traditionalists still favor classic pocket passers with enough athleticism to avoid the nimble rushers in pro football.
Factor in the number of NFL teams employing up-tempo tactics, the quarterback needs to have the football aptitude to process information quickly at the line and make sound decisions with adjustments and checks. With leadership and mental toughness also a part of the evaluations, scouts will have to spend a lot of time on the road determining the right fit for their respective situation.
Top OT prospect: Lewan, Matthews or Kouandjio?
The fact that a pair of offensive tackles went 1-2 in the 2013 draft continues to fuel the notion that an elite offensive tackle is the second-most important position on offense. This is particularly true in today's pass-happy NFL in which teams routinely put the ball up 30-35 times to take advantage of the rules favoring the passing game on the perimeter.
With that in mind, scouts are paying close attention to the development of Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio this fall. Each possesses the size, length and athleticism teams covet in left tackles, and have gained valuable experience playing in pro-style offenses that put them in isolated situations against elite pass rushers. This not only makes the evaluation easier because scouts are able to see them do what they will be asked to do on Sundays, but the fact that they play in fairly balanced offenses makes it easier to project their potential as elite NFL players. Given a full slate of games and intriguing matchups to compare and contrast the talented trio, scouts should be able to determine which player is worthy of wearing the crown as the top offensive tackle in the college football.
Other players I'll be watching
» Keep eye on BYU WR Cody Hoffman as an underrated possession receiver in the 2014 draft. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior led the Cougars with 100 receptions for 1,248 yards with 11 touchdowns, while displaying a polished game between the hashes. He is a superb route runner with excellent body control, and shows sneaky speed and quickness as an open-field runner with the ball in his hands. He is a big-bodied playmaker adept at coming down with 50-50 balls in traffic. An NFC scout told me Hoffman was the "best-looking receiver" he's seen from a physical standpoint, and that his size could be imposing at the next level. He added that Hoffman could be a "monster" on special teams given his strength and physicality as a receiver.
» Arizona State DT Will Sutton will test scout's prototypical standards for interior defenders. The 6-foot-1, 288-pound senior is arguably the top defensive playmaker in the Pac-12 with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012, but his substandard physical dimensions will make it difficult for evaluators to pull the trigger on him early in the draft. Most teams prefer interior defenders to have long arms and measure greater than 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds. At a notch below those dimensions, Sutton could have problems getting around blockers effectively despite his impressive first-step quickness and burst. Sutton told me at the Pac-12 Media Day earlier this month that his quickness and ability to play with leverage compensated for his lack of size. He believed he could pattern his game after Geno Atkins, the Cincinnati Bengals' slightly undersized Pro Bowl defensive tackle, to become a force at the next level.