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The Top 32 of 2012

National Football Post

The 2012 NFL Draft is in the books, which means draftniks are already compiling their 2013 mocks.

Here at the College Football Report we care only about what players do on Saturday afternoons (although we sometimes have to report some off-the-field drama during the week as well). But in terms of how these players project to the field on Sundays, I'll leave that to fellow NFP colleagues Wes Bunting and Greg Gabriel.

So today, I offer you my 32 best players (because there are 32 teams in the NFL) in the college game — based on their 2011 production and how I project them to fare in 2012.

1. QB Matt Barkley, USC: He continues to get better with each season and arguably should have been in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony last December after recording 39 touchdowns against just seven interceptions with a nearly 70 percent completion rate. The Trojans are no longer on probation, and they could find themselves in the BCS title race all season.

2. QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas: The most impressive trait of the Arkansas signal-caller is his toughness. He was roughed up against Alabama and Texas A&M last season but never quit, and he’s poised for a huge senior season in Fayetteville even without some of his best weapons from last season and a new head coach patrolling the sideline.

3. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson: The dynamic playmaker made a huge splash on the national scene as a freshman, hauling in 82 passes for over 1,200 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns while being a true threat in the return game. In that Chad Morris offense, his numbers may increase this fall — and that’s a scary thought.

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Marcus Lattimore
ICONMarcus Lattimore made an early impact on the college scene as a freshman in 2010.

4. RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina: Because of his knee injury last season, Lattimore has seemingly gone under the radar in the offseason Heisman Trophy conversation. But if the bruiser returns to full health after ACL surgery, the junior could pick right back up where he left off.

5. WR Marqise Lee, USC: It’s amazing that there is a better receiver on the USC roster than Robert Woods, but Lee’s debut campaign in 2011 was incredible: 73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s a YAC machine because of his breakaway speed, and he’s a nightmare for Pac-12 defensive backs.

6. RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin: He may not have the bright NFL future as some of his peers, but it’s awfully difficult to find a more productive running back in the nation after he recorded 40 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 rushing yards in 2011. Whether it’s between the tackles or kicking it to the outside with his shiftiness, Ball is just the next in a long line of productive Badger RBs.

7. OLB Jarvis Jones, Georgia: Jones thrived as a sophomore in coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme, racking up 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He can get to the quarterback off the edge and stuff the running back. A real joy to watch.

8. WR Robert Woods, USC: Along with Marqise Lee, Woods gives quarterback Matt Barkley the two best pass-catching options for any quarterback in the nation. The junior recorded 111 catches for nearly 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall. He is a smooth route runner and makes playing the position look easy.

9. CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU: Despite his size, the Honey Badger plays like a beast, forcing six fumbles and recording two interceptions last fall. But his biggest contribution may have been game-changing returns against Arkansas and Georgia in the SEC Championship game. He was a Heisman finalist as a sophomore, and it will be interesting to see if he elevates his game in the defensive backfield with Mo Claiborne and Brandon Taylor gone.

10. RB D’Anthony Thomas, Oregon: Chip Kelly struck gold by landing Thomas, who put together an incredible freshman campaign, in his Class of 2011. He recorded 16 touchdowns, including seven on the ground, along with 1,200 total yards. And if you saw him in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, he actually managed to make LaMichael James look slow — that’s how much speed he possesses. He can line up anywhere on the field but is best in the slot or as a receiver out of the backfield.

11. QB Collin Klein, Kansas State: Klein may have been a bigger name on the national scene last year if not for the spectacular season by Big 12 counterpart Robert Griffin III at Baylor. The senior dual-threat QB notched 40 touchdowns, including a whopping 27 on the ground, and he’s improving as a passer.

12. QB Geno Smith, West Virginia: Another year in Dana Holgorsen’s offense will make Smith an even more prolific performer — and that’s a scary thought for Big 12 defenses. He excelled in 2011 in his first season in the scheme, throwing for nearly 4,400 yards, and he could be primed for a dark horse run at the Heisman.

13. CB David Amerson, N.C. State: As a sophomore, Amerson recorded an incredible 13 interceptions to lead the nation. The 6-3, 190-pounder is sound supporting the run and has the speed to stay with the nation’s best receivers.

14. LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame: The heart and soul of Notre Dame’s defense is back for a final season in Bob Diaco’s unit. In 2011, he recorded five sacks and 128 tackles — including 13.5 stops for loss. He has really developed in all areas of being a LB, and he’ll look to have his finest season yet.

15. DE Sam Montgomery, LSU: The LSU defensive line remains deep and filthy, and there’s some who believe Montgomery isn’t even the best player among the crop of talent. But the junior brings veteran leadership and a strong, athletic presence off the edge. He recorded nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last fall.

16. QB Denard Robinson, Michigan: The dual-threat quarterback knows that he cannot toss 15 interceptions in 2012 if the Wolverines want to return to a BCS bowl game. Although he often chucks “arm punts” down the field, he remains one of the most electric playmakers in the country after accumulating 36 touchdowns in 2011. The hope is that he can avoid getting banged-up as much as he has in the past.

CONTINUE TO PAGE 2 FOR PLAYERS 17-32

17. RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska: With the exception of maybe Montee Ball and Silas Redd, no one running back is as important to a team as Burkhead is to Nebraska. He takes some of the rushing load off of dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, and he should be in the Heisman discussion all season long if the Cornhuskers remain in the Big Ten race.

18. DE Barkevious Mingo, LSU: The junior defensive lineman recorded eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2011 while rotating in and out of the game along the deep LSU line. While he is a pass-rushing force, he also plays the run very well. We heard his name a lot last fall; expect to hear it even more in 2012.

19. WR Keenan Allen, California: The junior receiver recorded nearly 100 catches for over 1,300 yards last season while dealing with a quarterback in his first year starting in Jeff Tedford's Cal offense. He has very good size, speed and strength at 6-3 and 195 pounds, and he has sure hands as well.

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Tyler Eifert
ICONTyler Eifert should see his numbers rise in 2012 with Michael Floyd onto the NFL.

20. TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish need to make up for the lost production of receiver Michael Floyd, so expect Eifert’s numbers to jump from his solid 2011 totals of 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns. He has good size, hands and quickness, so he already serves as a de facto wide receiver in Brian Kelly’s offense.

21. DT Kawann Short, Purdue: The junior is one of the better pass rushers from the tackle position, registering 6.5 sacks along with 17 tackles for loss in 2011. The run-stopping machine is often overlooked because he plays in West Lafayette, but the 6-3, 310-pounder is certainly a first-round NFL talent.

22. LB Shayne Skov, Stanford: The middle linebacker was the best player on the Cardinal defense before suffering a season-ending knee injury and only playing in three games last fall. Back for his senior season, he will be even more relied upon as Stanford breaks in a new quarterback — making a strong defense and run game even more imperative for David Shaw’s squad.

23. OL Barrett Jones, Alabama: The Outland Trophy winner and All-American has excelled at right guard and left tackle in his time in Tuscaloosa. And this season, he will try his hand at center, where he will replace William Vlachos, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy as the country’s top center last season. The 6-5, 311-pounder has never played center before, but this kid is a winner. Don’t expect any dropoff in production to occur.

24. WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia: As an inside receiver, few players are as exciting to watch with the ball in his hands as Austin, who is one of the most dynamic players in the country. The senior will get even more looks in this offense no matter whether he is lined up in the 'diamond' formation or in the slot. Clemson and LSU found out in 2011 just how dangerous Austin can be wherever he is lined up on the field.

25. WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee: Da’Rick Rogers may get more pub, but the 6-4, 200-pound junior has shown this spring that he is healthy and ready to bounce back from the torn left ACL he suffered in the Vols’ third game last season. Before the injury, he was leading the SEC in receptions and receiving yards per game. And he’s eager to prove that his freshman campaign — which included seven touchdowns and a per-catch average just shy of 26.0 — was just the beginning of something special.

26. QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: The veteran Sooners signal-caller has his detractors, but no one can deny his productivity in Norman throughout his career. He looked a bit lost when Ryan Broyles, OU’s top receiver, went down with injury last year. But if Trey Metoyer can carry over his strong spring to the regular season, Jones may have a new top weapon as well as a journey toward the BCS title game.

27. QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech: The big dual-threat signal-caller started off 2011 slowly, but he had a huge second half as he became more comfortable in the Hokies offense. He was always a run threat, but he has a strong arm as well. If he limits his mistakes, he could have more leeway in his second year as a starter.

28. DT/DE John Simon, Ohio State: The Buckeyes defensive lineman can harass the quarterback as well as stop the run. Jonathan Hankins sometimes overshadows the 6-2, 270-pounder, but Simon’s consistency and flexibility is crucial to the fortunes of the Buckeyes defensive line. He has starting experience at both defensive tackle and end, and his motor is non-stop.

29. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousin of current NFLers Clay Matthews and Casey Matthews headlines an offensive line that, along with fellow tackle Luke Joeckel, is one of the biggest strengths of the entire A&M squad. His pass-blocking ability is elite, and he’s one of the best tackles in the country.

30. DE Brandon Jenkins, Florida State: The Seminoles have one of the filthiest defensive lines in the country, and the unit will be even stronger with their Class of 2012 haul. But the senior Jenkins is the headliner of the bunch, and he passed up NFL riches to play one more year in Tallahassee. He’s quite simply one of the nation’s best pass rushers and is the leader of FSU's defense under coordinator Mark Stoops.

31. QB Keith Price, Washington: The junior seamlessly took over for Jake Locker in Seattle last fall, recording 36 touchdowns and holding his own in Washington’s Alamo Bowl showdown with Robert Griffin III and Baylor. The sky is the limit for Price, who has the coaching of Steve Sarkisian to lean on.

32. DE Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: I could have easily taken Jeffcoat’s linemate Alex Okafor here, as the pairing combined for 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 2011. But I think Jeffcoat, who was the top defensive recruit in the Class of 2010, could win Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2012. His consistent pressure off the edge in Manny Diaz’s defense could lead to a huge season.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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