NFL Draft 2018: Way-too-early ranking of top Pac-12 prospects

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) speaks to an ESPN reporter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still very early for 2018 NFL Draft talk, but here are the top eight prospects from the Pac-12 in next year’s class.

The 2017 NFL Draft is less than a week away, but it’s never too early to think ahead to next year and the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Pac-12 probably doesn’t have as many total scintillating prospects as the Big 10 or SEC, but the conference is top-heavy with some of the highest ceiling prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Part of the intrigue in looking ahead a full year is whether or not players declare for the draft and forego NCAA eligibility or whether they decide to return for another year at school to include another year of seasoning at the college level.

Injuries play a role at same level, whether it is a player not wishing to risk injury or a player returning for another year because injuries impacted a player’s draft status.

In 2018, four of the top eligible quarterbacks in the draft hail from the Pac-12, all of whom could be franchise signal callers, or could just as easily become the next Ryan Leaf. With a solid 2017 campaign, Royce Freeman could rise to the top of the running back class. Big, strong backs with exceptional pass catching ability and elusiveness are hard to find.

Let’s have a look.

Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins center Scott Quessenberry (52) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

8

Scott Quessenberry

OC, UCLA

Scott Quessenberry is big enough to play guard at the NFL level. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, he has the frame to play guard or simply be a larger center. This is important to note because Jim Mora and his staff love Quessenberry’s leadership qualities (part of the reason he is at center), but typically guards are drafted higher and receive better compensation in the NFL.

Quessenberry is coming off a Pac-12 second team selection season. He also earned a Pac-12 honorable mention in 2014. In 2015, he was sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury.

Improving draft stock

Getting more experience at the center position could prove valuable for Quessenberry. He already has starting experience at guard, has put on weight throughout college, and displayed versatility. The 2015 shoulder injury is of minor concern, but he returned looked even stronger after the surgery in 2016.

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Huskies wide receiver Dante Pettis (8) scores a touchdown ahead of Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Marlon Humphrey (26) during the first quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

7

Dante Pettis

WR, Washington

Dante Pettis and John Ross were a lethal tandem for quarterback Jake Browning in 2016, as well as on special teams for the Huskies.

Pettis should have more opportunities in 2017 as the top returning receiver with Ross being a likely first rounder in the 2017 NFL Draft. Pettis nearly doubled his yardage totals in 2016 (822 compared to 414 in 2015) after going from option three to option two at receiver, while Browning’s experience made the Huskies more confident throwing the ball.

Ross had 1,150 yards in 2016 as the team’s top option at receiver, perhaps a figure to keep in mind as Pettis prepares his goals for 2017.

Improving draft stock

Pettis could stand to bulk up for the NFL ranks. His elusiveness has helped him on special teams, but a few extra pounds would help solidify Pettis as a viable option on the outside.

Dec 27, 2016; San Diego , CA, USA; Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) runs with the ball during the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Qualcomm Stadium. Minnesota won 17-12. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

6

Luke Falk

QB, Washington State

Luke Falk continued to post video game-type numbers in his junior season in 2016. Many quarterbacks have put up similarly impressive numbers in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, but few, if any, have been successful in the NFL.

Falk earned a Pac-12 second team selection in 2016 with a second straight season tossing 38 touchdowns. He completed 70 percent of his passes while throwing 11 interceptions. In 2015, he completed 69 percent of his passes and threw just eight interceptions.

For the second straight season, Falk also threw for more than 4,000 yards, tallying 4,468 in 2016 and 4,561 in 2015. Falk’s rapid release is a major strength and he has good arm strength.

Improving draft stock

Falk has to work on masking his eyes. He has a tendency of staring down his targeted wide receiver. While Falk has a quick release, he gives up too many easy interceptions.

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans defensive back Iman Marshall (8) celebrates making an interception against the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

5

Iman Marshall

CB, USC

Iman Marshall is a potential lockdown cornerback in the NFL, having already proven to be one at the college level. He has great size at 6-feet 1-inch and 200 pounds.

Marshall had eight deflections in 2016 and nine deflections in his freshman season in 2015. He had three interceptions both during the 2015 season and again in 2016.

In 2015, he finished with 67 tackles, while that number dipped to 52 tackles in 2016. Marshall did shine brightest in key games in 2016, finishing with a season-high nine total tackles and three passes defended in a narrow 21-17 win against Colorado.

Improving draft stock

Marshall is extremely physical and possesses solid technique with the ability to jam receivers, but he’s been flanked by All-American Adoree Jackson his first two seasons. So, the question is: How will he fare with less talent surrounding him?

Sep 10, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks running back Royce Freeman (21) reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the third quarter at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

4

Royce Freeman

RB, Oregon

The 5-foot-11, 230-pound back returns for his senior season following a challenging 2016 season. Freeman rushed for 945 yards, although that figure was just a little more than half of his 2015 total of 1,836 rushing yards in 2015.

Freeman’s decline in total rushing yards had more to do with fewer touches than an actual major drop in production. Freeman had 168 carries in 2016 compared with 283 carries during the 2015 campaign.

Oregon spent most of 2016 trying to come back from deficits, leading to a decline in the overall running game. Of course, losing top offensive coordinator Scott Frost didn’t help either. Oregon’s scoring average went from 43 point per game in 2015 down to 35 points per game in 2016.

Improving draft stock

Freeman’s lone weakness is pass protection. If he shows a willingness to block and improves his technique, he should be one of the top running backs in the 2018 class.

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning (3) throws against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter in the 2016 CFP semifinal at the Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

3

Jake Browning

QB, Washington

The third four-star recruit from the 2015 class hailing from the state of California, Browning headed north to Washington and, like Rosen, earned a starting spot in his true freshman year.

Last season, Browning progressed with a season that earned him Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Browning tied the Pac-12 record with 43 touchdown passes. He threw just nine interceptions and had 3,430 passing yards while completing 62 percent of his passes.

While Browning loses a first-round talent in John Ross, he still has Dante Pettis and the team’s slot receiver Chico McClatcher returns along with tight end Drew Sample.

Improving draft stock

Browning is coming off shoulder surgery and will need to prove he is fully recovered. He looked less than 100 percent against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Was it a product of injury, or Browning simply struggling against a dominant defense?

Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen (3) against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the first quarter at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2

Josh Rosen

QB, UCLA

Another California high school phenom, ‘Chosen Rosen’ also arrived on a Los Angeles college campus following many prep accolades.

Unlike Darnold, Rosen started right away as a true freshman. Rosen threw for more than 3,000 yards and also won the Archie Griffin award in 2015. Last season, Rosen had strong numbers before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Rosen has a 6-foot 4-inch, 210-pound frame and a strong arm. Rosen doesn’t have Darnold’s mobility, but he does have some scrambling ability.

Improving draft stock

Rosen doesn’t always throw with anticipation. On the whole, his decision-making is solid, but in 2015 against BYU, he threw three interceptions and took five sacks due, at least in part, to an inability to anticipate the defense. Fair or unfair, there will be questions as to how he is able to return from shoulder surgery that kept him out most of last season.

Nov 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) is pressured by Oregon Ducks linebacker Troy Dye (35) during a NCAA football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

1

Sam Darnold

QB, USC

Sam Darnold is entering his redshirt sophomore season, but he had such a strong season in 2016 that he earned the Archie Griffin award given to the Pac-12’s top offensive freshman.

Articles claiming Darnold came out of nowhere are misnomers because Darnold was a four-star prospect in the recruiting class of 2014 and earned offensive scout team player of the year during his redshirt year.

Darnold finished the 2016 season with 31 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions and threw for 3,086 yards while completing 67 percent of his passes. Boasting a 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame with solid scrambling and mobility plus accuracy, Darnold could earn his way to the top of the first round with another solid season.

Improving draft stock

Darnold mainly just needs more experience. This will be his first full season as a starter. He is draft-eligible for 2018 but would forfeit two years of NCAA eligibility.

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