Every season a handful of prospects emerge from nowhere or from under the radar to surface among scouting circles. Looking back at the past three drafts there are several examples.
In 2011, a pair of Auburn prospects -- QB Cam Newton and DT Nick Fairley -- stormed on to the scene leading the Tigers to a national championship while cashing in as top 15 picks with Newton being taking first overall by Carolina. In 2012, Kansas City DT Dontari Poe (Memphis) and New England DE Chandler Jones (Syracuse) both used strong years to earn first-round selections. Last year, Detroit DE Ezekiel Ansah (BYU) and Chicago OG Kyle Long (Oregon) were the two big names who burst onto the scene.
This year has been no different as there are plenty of prospects who have elevated their level of play and are becoming household names. Not all will be first-round selections but their production on the field certainly has them on the radar for this May's draft.
Below is a look at some of the players that have caught my eye on tape lately. Some are underclassmen and obviously their status will ultimately rely on whether they declare at the end of the season or not.
UCF QB Blake Bortles* (6-4, 230)
Bortles was not heavily recruited out of high school. In fact, Central Florida was one of the few schools to recruit him as a quarterback as many other wanted him to play tight end. After sitting down to watch four coaches copy tapes of him (Penn State, Louisville, South Carolina and Houston) and I came away very impressed.
Bortles has a sturdy build and strong stature for the position. The ball doesn't always come clean off his hand but he has the arm strength to make all the NFL throws. Bortles still makes some questionable decisions but has strong field presence and a good understanding for situational football.
He sets and understands where he is protected. He also displays above-average pocket presence and does a nice job of feeling pressure. Bortles has above-average mobility to maneuver around the pocket and work through progressions, and flashes the athleticism to extend plays and pick up yards with his feet when need be.
Most impressive, the junior quarterback shows a clutch gene which he displayed on the road against Louisville. Bortles showed great poise orchestrating a come-from-behind, 75-yard, fourth-quarter game-winning drive while out dueling Teddy Bridgewater
Bortles is coming off another fourth quarter comeback against Temple this past weekend. He has the Knights at 8-1 and in control of the American conference, which would earn an automatic BCS birth. Bortles is beginning to create a buzz among scouts. If he declares, don't be surprised if he ends up in the first-round conversation as the draft process unfolds.
Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks* (5-10, 185)
Cooks has been on a tear this season as he leads the FBS with receptions (100), receiving yards (1,443) and is second with receiving touchdowns (14). He lacks ideal size but has a strong build and plays with a highly competitive demeanor.
On tape, Cooks has a natural feel for the position. He is a polished route-runner that does a nice job of working defenders in his stem and shows savvy at the top of his routes to create separation. Cooks is aggressive and fearless in traffic and shows reliable hands and body control to snatch the ball away from his body.
His best attribute comes after the catch as he shows above-average elusiveness, open field vision and flashes an extra gear to take it the distance when getting into space. Cooks' game resembles that of Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith and he could be in the early Day 2 mix should he declare after the season.
Florida State OLB Telvin Smith (6-3¼, 218)
After sharing time with Vince Williams last year, Smith has stepped into a fulltime starting role at the "mike" linebacker. He plays with infectious passion and energy and has developed into the leader of a Seminoles defense that ranks near the top of nearly every statistical category.
On tape, Smith shows quick diagnostic skills and above-average playmaking instincts. He is an exceptional athlete that holds up well in space as tackler and plays sideline-to-sideline. While he lacks ideal bulk and point of attack skills, he does a great job of absorbing contact to shed blocks and does a nice job of working through traffic near the box.
Smith's strength comes with his versatility. He excels in coverage with range and the fluidity to hold up in man coverage. He also times pressures well and has an elite closing burst when getting a run at the quarterback.
While he lines up at the middle linebacker in college, Smith's best fit will be as a "will" linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at the next level. His lack of ideal bulk will get called into question, but he has a long and favorable frame to put on weight and get to around 230 pounds. Smith looks to be square in the Day 2 range and could end up in the second round before it's all said and done.
Boston College RB Andre Williams (5-11½, 227)
Williams has been the workhorse for the Eagles this season and is a big reason why Boston College is bowl eligible with a 6-4 record right now. The power back has 14 touchdowns, eclipsed the 100 yard rushing mark in eight of 10 games, rushed for more than 200 yards four times and is coming off a career high 339 yards against North Carolina State on Nov. 16.
Getting a live look at him against North Carolina earlier in the year, Williams is a chiseled 227 pounds and has a thick trunk. He is hammer that runs with excellent pad level, power and balance and consistently churns out yards after contact. He has quick feet and shows strong body control as a runner with the ability to turn his pads and squeeze through creases for a bigger back. While he doesn't have exceptional burst out of his cuts he is a long strider that has deceptive long speed to finish.
Williams lacks elite vision and is a not a natural pass-catcher. He also has a lot of work to do in terms of improving technique in pass protection. However, reports from scouts is that he is going to test well at the combine and could work his way into the third round as a solid No. 2 back at the next level.