While next April's draft is a long time from now, it never hurts to check in on future NFL stars ahead of time. Hopefully the Panthers get a lower pick in 2004, especially compared to years past. Regardless of what happens on the field next season, there will be plenty of talented prospects ready to be selected.
The Top Ten
(Note: these are my personal rankings and subject to change immensely during the course of the college football season)
1. Tommie Harris, DT, Oklahoma (Jr.) – A physical freak, Harris has been the foundation of Oklahoma's stifling defense the past few seasons. He had an incredible freshman year, but was slowed in the later half of 2002 by injuries. Chasing down Roy Williams (Texas) in the backfield of last year's Sooner-Longhorn clash showed the type of ability he has. Not without faults, Harris needs to be more aggressive against double teams and become a factor for the entire game (he disappeared at times in several contests and seemed to be content to have his teammates do the work). Overall, Harris is one of the most gifted defensive tackles in recent memory and will be a sure top ten pick.
NFL comparison: Warren Sapp
2. Vince Wilfork, DT, Miami FL (Jr.) – Harris may be number 1, but Wilfork is only a shade behind. Blessed with tremendous size (6-2, 338) and an explosive first step, Wilfork practically lives in the backfield. He can quickly penetrate and apply pressure or use his mass to engulf running backs that dare run to his side. Like Harris, Wilfork needs to become an impact player for the full duration of the game. With some refinement of his technique, Wilfork could be just as good as Harris at the next level.
NFL comparison: Bigger version of Corey Simon
3. Reggie Williams, WR, Washington (Jr.) – Fast and big. Those two words pretty much sum up everything scouts say about Williams. At 6-4 and weighing 225 pounds, Williams is a huge target in the David Boston/Terrell Owens mold. His most impressive game was when he outplayed cornerback Quentin Jammer (a top five pick in ‘02) in the Holiday Bowl. Williams was a freshman at the time and on many occasions had the senior Jammer in his hip pocket.
He gets great separation from defenders and uses his superior leaping ability (40") on any corners he can't blow past. While not a dazzling open-field threat, Williams has more than enough straight-line speed to find pay dirt. His concentration needs to improve if he truly wants to be an elite player though. Much like Charlie Rogers (drafted #2 by Detroit), Williams will make the spectacular catch one play then drop an easy one the next. If he can rectify this, Williams should be a star for years to come.
NFL Comparison: Terrell Owens
4. Roy Williams, WR, Texas (Sr.) – Williams surprised many when he stayed for his senior season. Although he probably would have been a top five pick regardless, he had some hamstring issues in 2002 and probably didn't accomplish all the goals he set for himself at Texas. Still an amazing player, Williams has been tabbed as "NFL ready" ever since he set foot in Austin. Though many analysts and scouts see Williams as the definitive #1 pick in next year's draft, there are some issues to consider. Although big, he's smaller than Reggie Williams, a similar talent at the receiver position. There are also some concerns with his health, as some new injury seems to hamper him every season. Williams is also not a pure burner and will have to be more precise in his routes to get open in the NFL. Overall, Reggie Williams seems to have more physical talent and upside than Roy at this point, but both are tremendous prospects that will not fall out of the top ten.
NFL Comparison: Keyshawn Johnson
5. Eli Manning, QB, Ole Miss (Sr.) – Like his brother and father before him, Manning seems to be on the path for a bright future at the quarterback position. Many feel the younger Manning could be the best of the bunch. Eli is quite similar to his older brother Peyton in mechanics, size, and arm strength (though a tad more athletic). He had some trouble last year working without a running game and dealing with numerous dropped passes. However, the talent is all there and Manning should become a franchise-type player for whichever team that drafts him.
NFL Comparison: Chad Pennington
6. Chris Gamble, CB, Ohio State (Jr.) – Gamble burst on the scene during Ohio State's national championship run, shining after being converted to cornerback. Like current All-Pros Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey, Gamble is a two-way player that can impact a game in almost every single facet. Gamble locked up with some of the best wide receivers in the nation last year (Braylon Edwards, Bryant Johnson) and more than held his own. In fact, he shut down #3 pick Andre Johnson when the two meet in the Fiesta Bowl. Gamble is still learning the position and will have to rein in some of his free-wheeling when he has to face NFL receivers. His potential is unlimited though, and whenever he decides to declare he will most likely be one of the first defensive backs selected.
NFL Comparison: Charles Woodson
7. Sean Taylor, S, Miami FL (Jr.) – The prototype for his position, Taylor can do everything that is demanded from the modern-day safety. Incredible size (6-3, 225) and 4.4 speed makes Taylor the model for future safety prospects. He has incredible burst to the ball and is a big hitter. A true ball-hawk, Taylor uses his strong build to bully receivers who come within his reach. Although he hasn't quite reached Ed Reed's (former Cane and first round pick) playmaking ability, Taylor is already a much stronger tackler and has better measurables. Basically, Miami is one of the few schools that can keep pumping out players as good or better than their graduated upperclassmen (ex: Edgerrin James/Clinton Portis/Willis McGahee) and Taylor is their latest example.
NFL Comparison: A taller and faster Brian Dawkins
8. Derrick Straight, CB, Oklahoma (Sr.) – Straight has been a consistent part of Oklahoma's defensive prowess the past few seasons, and looks to have a big senior year. He's gone up against some of the Big 12's finest receivers and more than held his own. The one thing that strikes observers of Straight is how fluid he is on the field. He has adequate size to handle taller receivers and is aggressive in run support. Not a true burner, Straight uses his quickness and natural instincts more than anything. Whoever is the first defensive back taken in 2004, Straight will definitely be in the mix.
NFL Comparison: Patrick Surtain
9. Rashaun Woods, WR, Oklahoma State (Sr.) – Despite the wealth of talented players in his conference, Woods has managed to gain national attention thanks to his big games against rival Oklahoma and their renowned defense. In 2001 he made a circus catch over top five pick Roy Williams during their upset win at Norman and followed that up with a 12-catch, 226 yard, 3 touchdown performance in their victory the following year. Woods posted some gaudy statistics against other opponents as well; in 2002 he totaled 106 receptions, 1695 yards and 17 touchdowns. All of this while playing for Oklahoma State, not exactly a powerhouse in the world of college football. Woods doesn't have eye-popping deep speed or size, but what he does have is great ball skills and consistent production.
NFL Comparison: slightly bigger Isaac Bruce
10. Robert Gallery, LT, Iowa (Sr.) – Although not as heralded as many of the other top prospects for next year, Gallery may end up eclipsing them all. He was considered by many to be the best lineman at Iowa last year, which included 2nd rounders Bruce Nelson and Eric Steinbach. Gallery has impressive athletic ability and perfect size. A mauler in the run game and a more than adequate pass blocker, Gallery looks to be a high first rounder when he finishes college. He has everything a scout or GM could want in a left tackle and should continue to improve.
NFL Comparison: a young Willie Roaf