The Heisman Trophy is awarded annually to "the most outstanding player in college football," but receiving the honor doesn't guarantee success at the next level. In fact, history suggests the winner, despite an impressive collegiate résumé, is unlikely to make a prolonged impact in the NFL.
Of course, a number of mitigating factors always determine whether a prospect succeeds or fails at the next level. The fact that Heisman Trophy winners -- and digging deeper, Heisman Trophy candidates -- have produced a mixed bag of pro results prompted me to take a closer look at the 2013 finalists. Which guys have the most NFL potential? While it's challenging to make projections without knowledge of future teams and schemes, I believe I've studied enough tape on these prospects to make solid assessments at this point.
My intent is to rank how these players might fare in the NFL, counting down from least to most impactful. Now, the actual winner of the 2013 Heisman Trophy, redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, will be back at Florida State in the fall. Meanwhile, the other five finalists are in this May's draft class. So, I've decided to concentrate on the latter group -- with some analysis on Winston's future pro prospects at the bottom.
I'm sure some of you will object to my conclusions, and I'm more than happy to discuss/explain on Twitter (@BuckyBrooks).
Without further ado, here are the rankings in terms of pro promise:
5) Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois: Lynch finished his collegiate career as one of the most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks in NCAA history, piling up more than 10,000 yards of total offense and 100 combined touchdowns. Yet, he is destined to make a position change in the NFL due to serious questions about his passing skills from the pocket. With a likely move to safety in his future, Lynch will have to carve out a role as a special teams standout to initially make his mark in the league. Although he certainly displays the athleticism and toughness to earn a roster spot, Lynch will have to defeat long odds to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player at a new position.
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4) Andre Williams, RB, Boston College: Williams led the nation with 2,177 rushing yards during his final season at Boston College, exhibiting a powerful running style that made him nearly impossible to defend in the Eagles' old-school offense. However, scouts view Williams as a one-dimensional player with an overall game that doesn't translate well to the NFL. (Despite eclipsing 2,000 yards rushing, Williams didn't record a single reception last season.) Thus, he probably would make his biggest contribution as a short-yardage/goal-line specialist in a power-running offensive scheme. Although there's value to having a ground-and-pound back in the lineup, Williams will have to develop into a better receiver to have a chance to earn a role as a long-time starter.
3) Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason led the Tigers to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game as the bell cow of a run-heavy offense that pummeled opponents throughout the season. Despite being the focal point of every opponent's defensive game plan, the explosive downhill runner routinely found creases between the tackles, thanks to outstanding vision, burst and cutback ability. Of course, some scouts believe Mason's striking numbers -- including 164 rushing yards against Alabama, 304 in the SEC title game and 195 in the national title bout -- are just a byproduct of playing in an offense built on misdirection and deception. Thus, he might enter the NFL pegged as a change-of-pace back, forcing him to prove he can handle the load as a feature back in a pro-style scheme. If Mason makes his mark early in his NFL career as a part-time contributor, he could turn out to be one of the hidden gems in a deep and talented 2014 draft class.
2) AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: This is arguably the most underappreciated quarterback in college football, a prospect who compiled a 36-4 record and two BCS titles as a starter at Alabama. Despite McCarron's sparkling 77-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio, some observers question his potential as a franchise quarterback, dismissively labeling him a "game manager." Ironically, the ability to effectively manage situations is the biggest key to playing the position successfully at the NFL level, which is why I believe McCarron could be a long-time starter. He enters the league with a keen understanding of how to play winning football. Placed in the right environment, McCarron could guide a team into the postseason by playing like a point guard from the pocket. If he can continue his winning ways in the NFL, the former Crimson Tide standout might rank as one of the 2014 draft's biggest surprises when we review the class in a few seasons.
1) Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is viewed as a wild-card pro prospect -- largely due to his unorthodox playing style -- but it's hard to ignore his big-game moxie and production. At Texas A&M, Manziel routinely played his best against elite competition, which is why some scouts are all-in on his potential at the next level. Most importantly, Manziel's big-game savvy will entice a franchise to build around his skills as a player, increasing his chances of developing into an NFL star. Of course, stardom isn't exactly what coaches desire in a franchise quarterback, as winning is the ultimate goal every week. That said, when pursuing the brass ring in January and February, it definitely helps to have a signal-caller with the "it" factor in the huddle. With few quarterbacks capable of matching Manziel's alpha-dog personality and competitive spirit, it's quite possible Johnny Football exceeds expectations as a franchise quarterback at the highest level.
What about Jameis Winston?
As mentioned above, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner is not yet draft eligible. But what is the current feeling about his pro potential? Winston is the new prototype at the position. The Seminole signal-caller is a big, athletic pocket passer with supreme confidence, arm talent and leadership skills. He has shown the ability to will his team to wins in adverse situations (see: national title game), while also displaying the passing skills to make every throw from inside or outside the pocket. Additionally, he has showcased a high football IQ and great awareness in guiding Florida State's pro-style offense. While Winston must continue to refine his footwork and fundamentals, at this stage in his career, he is light years ahead of where most NFL franchise quarterbacks were early in their respective college tenures. Thus, he is currently on a path to becoming a transcendent star at the position, capable of reversing the fortunes of an NFL franchise.