Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl study game tape throughout the college football season, both for their work in previewing games every week and in their evaluations of NFL draft prospects. So we asked them to take a look at the best freshmen in the country in the hopes of identifying college football's next stars. Here are their rankings and scouting reports of the nation's best first-year players.
This has been a good season for freshmen.
From the key contributors to LSU's undefeated campaign to a pair of electrifying Pac-12 playmakers to a dynamic dual-threat Big Ten QB, there were talented and productive first-year players to be found across the country.
Of our top 25, eight hailed from the SEC; the Pac-12 was the conference with the second-most participants with five (each of the six BCS conferences were represented). Several skill position players -- six running backs and six wide receivers -- made the cut, including three of our top five.
In coming up with this list, we took into account both on-field production and future collegiate potential. And while some of the players on this list could certainly end up on NFL draft boards sometime in the near future, these rankings are not intended to reflect pro potential. Instead, we are looking for the players poised to dominate college football over the next few seasons.
Here are our rankings and scouting reports of the 25 best freshmen in the nation in 2011:
Key stats: 77 rec | 1,153 yds | 11 TDs | 15.0 avg
Analysis: The game seems to come easily to Watkins, who is remarkably well-developed for a freshman. He is physical and shows the ability to break tackles after the catch, and he is also a smooth athlete with good top-end speed. Watkins will occasionally fight the ball on some shorter pitch-catch opportunities, but overall his hands are strong and he shows the ability to make difficult catches in traffic -- and does a great job of tracking the deep ball. He's missed nearly two full games due to injury, so offseason flexibility and weight training will be important, but his production is outstanding for a first-year player.
Key stats: 33 tackles | 6.0 sacks | 2 FF
Analysis: Clowney will continue to get bigger and stronger, but he already looks like a grown man in pads, has an outstanding frame and is well-proportioned for his age. He's not an elite speed rusher but shows the versatility to rush off the edge as well as inside. Clowney shows good closing burst to the ball carrier and can hit like a truck, and while he is still learning how to use his hands and needs to play with more consistent gap discipline, Clowney has the physical tools to develop into a high draft pick two or three years from now. He is already highly productive in the SEC.
Key stats: 28 tackles | 4.0 sacks | 5 TFLs
Analysis: Lynch's first step, power, hands and range all stand out on film. He is explosive for his size and can apply pressure off the edge when he lines up at defensive end. He plays with above-average pad level and has enough lower-body strength to make him tough to move off the ball when lined up inside. That's impressive considering Lynch is listed at 265 pounds. He's also an effective hand fighter with good upper-body strength who can get off blocks and track down the ball carrier whether he's defending the run or rushing the passer.
Key stats: 847 rush yds | 4.7 avg | 6 total TDs
Analysis: Crowell shows quick feet and the ability to stop and start quickly, and his patience and feel for running lanes is impressive for such a young back. He lacks elite top-end speed but has burst through the hole and can bounce inside runs to the sideline once he hits the second level. Crowell also runs hard and with good balance, but he'll need to get stronger to break more tackles in the future. He also flashes natural hands in the passing game and can develop into a big-time weapon in the passing game, but his instincts and experience are not yet up to par in that area. Finally, Crowell gets in good position as a blocker but needs to get stronger and more aggressive.
Key stats: 440 rush yds | 8.3 avg | 571 rec yds | 13.6 ypc | 16 total TDs
Analysis: Thomas is a versatile weapon who can contribute as a receiver, runner and return specialist, and his suddenness and wiggle in space really jump out on tape. He's both quick and fast, and his route-running and ball skills are developing quickly. Thomas lacks the polished running skills (patience, vision) of current Ducks star LaMichael James, but has a bigger frame and better top-end speed. He appears to be in line to carry the offense next season.