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10 College Football Players Who Will Make or Break NFL Draft Stock in 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2014

10 College Football Players Who Will Make or Break NFL Draft Stock in 2014

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Technically, every player who plans to enter the 2015 NFL draft will make or break his stock next season. The game tape provided from his final year of college will go further than almost any other factor in determining where he's drafted.

    To wit, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller came out with a mock draft last June that had Aaron Lynch going No. 7 and Tajh Boyd going No. 8 overall, while players such as Greg Robinson, Blake Bortles and Khalil Mack were nowhere to be found in the first round.

    It happens every season—and often in the most unexpected places.

    Some players, though, are in a more precarious position than others. Usually because they are seniors (which make up the majority of this list), one bad season could send them tumbling down the draft board, while one good season could send the shooting toward the top.

    Let's take a look at who qualifies.

RB Michael Dyer, Louisville

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    No one can deny Michael Dyer's talent.

    At Auburn, he gained more than 1,000 total yards as a freshman in 2010 and a sophomore in 2011, winning the Most Valuable Player award in the BCS National Championship win over Oregon. 

    Since then, though, his off-field issues have forced Dyer to transfer from Auburn to Arkansas State, Arkansas State to Arkansas Baptist College and Arkansas Baptist College to Louisville. 

    Dyer had a few moments for the Cardinals last season, but a hip injury forced him out of the lineup, and senior Senorise Perry blocked his playing time regardless.

    In 2014, however, Dyer is being counted on to play a bigger role under new head coach Bobby Petrino, whose offense should be conducive to Dyer's success (despite his spot behind Dominique Brown).

    This is his last chance to salvage his draft stock.

DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Dante Fowler is the keystone player on Florida's defense.

    The Gators are sound at every level but lack one truly impactful pass-rusher outside of Fowler, who will line up in the hybrid Buck position. His charge will be crystal clear: get to the quarterback.

    Because of his freaky measurables (6'3", 277 lbs.) and ability to move around, Fowler will be drafted in the first two rounds regardless. He's shown enough potential on tape for that to be the case.

    However, if he plays as well as Will Muschamp and Co. expect this season, Fowler could make a Jarvis Jones-like rise up draft boards next offseason and crack the first half of Round 1.

DE Markus Golden, Missouri

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Can Markus Golden handle being "the guy" for Missouri?

    Recruited as an inside linebacker out of JUCO in 2012, Golden backed up Kony Ealy and Michael Sam on the SEC's best defensive line last season, tallying 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

    With extra playing time, those numbers should, ostensibly, go up. But Golden will find the going much tougher in his second season with the Tigers; where once he was an afterthought in game plans, now he will be the focus of opposing protection schemes.

    How he fares will determine his NFL fate.

WR Austin Hill, Arizona

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Austin Hill tore his ACL during spring camp last season, ending his 2013 campaign before it ever got a chance to begin.

    That was a mighty shame, too. Hill led Arizona with 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns on 81 receptions as a sophomore in 2012, fitting like a glove into Rich Rodriguez's offense. 

    First and foremost, Hill must prove his knee is healthy enough for NFL teams to trust. Daniel Berk of the Arizona Daily Star said he looked "close to 100 percent healthy and should be fully there by the time the season starts," which is encouraging news from spring camp.

    Beyond that, though, he must also make tangible improvements to help whichever first-year starting quarterback he's playing with. Matt Scott isn't walking through that door.

    If he does both of those things, Hill will be an intriguing slot receiver for NFL teams to study.

QB Brett Hundley, UCLA

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Dangnabbit. Doesn't this feel a little too much like the Matt Barkley conundrum?

    There are a few important differences. Unlike Barkley, who returned after a great junior year but murdered his draft stock with a poor senior season, Hundley would still be eligible to return for his redshirt senior year in 2015. He has a buffer.

    However, as he likely could have been a first-round pick after this season, it is reasonable to expect Hundley will declare regardless of how he plays next year. The only question is whether he'll still be a first-round pick or if he'll fail, again, to correct his inconsistent mechanics.

    If he doesn't—i.e., if he succeeds—Hundley has what it takes to be more than just a first-round pick. He could realistically sneak into the top five.

    He could also drop out of the first few rounds entirely.

    (Bonus: B/R's Adam Kramer wrote a great feature on Hundley's decision to return in 2014. You all should give it a read.)

LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee

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    Wade Payne

    On the basis of individual production, it is hard to find a better linebacker prospect than A.J. "The Beast" Johnson.

    He racked up 80 tackles as a freshman in 2011, 138 as a sophomore in 2012 and 106 as a junior in 2013, finishing first on the team those latter two seasons. However, for all of his individual merit, Johnson has never led a defense that didn't get gashed against SEC offenses, which make those numbers look slightly worse in context.

    According to Wes Rucker of 247Sports, most analysts suggested Johnson was a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round pick when he was mulling leaving school early, which explains why he has returned. He wants to improve that stock with a rosy senior season, a year where his personal accomplishments are mirrored in the team's.

    In that case, Johnson would be hard to ignore.

QB Chuckie Keeton, Utah State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Chuckie Keeton is a fan favorite—not just at Utah State but to the whole college football-watching populace. He's got the same faux jeri curl and number (16) as Russell Wilson, and it would come as a shock to exactly no one if he, one day, had a similar NFL career.

    If he wants to be drafted at a decent spot, however, Keeton must prove last year's torn ACL is behind him. So much of Keeton's game relies on confidence—both inside and out of the pocket—that it would be devastating to watch him come back with the yips.

    Keeton couldn't participate in full during spring practice, but head coach Matt Wells called his progress "right on track" after he threw in one-on-one passing drills during late March, according to Kurt Kragthorpe of The Salt Lake Tribune.

    For the good of the realm, let's hope he stays that way.

QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    I wrote at length in January about Miller's potential draft stock and what he must do to become a top 10 selection.

    It's more realistic than people think. He doesn't seem like an NFL quarterback, but the paradigm defining that term has shifted. Miller can do things outside the pocket that most running backs are incapable of, and he's proven capable of throwing the ball well enough when charged with doing so.

    That 'enough' must disappear after his senior season, however, if he plans on being drafted in the first round. He must prove he can throw the ball well. Especially after having lost some of his favorite weapons and skill positions, Miller must be more precise and consistent than he has in years past.

    If he is, the (early) first round will come calling.

CB Damian Swann, Georgia

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    Stephen B. Morton

    Damian Swann has everything the NFL looks for in cornerbacks.

    He is 5'11" and long and glides around the field with fluid ease. He is a terrific athlete and a terrific overall cornerback.

    Or at least he was two years ago.

    That all changed in 2013, however, as Swann took marked steps back in coverage. He was beaten routinely, and not just for short gains. He did not look like the player he once was.

    Now a senior, this is Swann's last chance to get back on the NFL radar. With new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in from Florida State, where he coached up a deep and dominant secondary, the excuse of "he's being coached by Todd Grantham" will no longer fly.

    Let's see if Swann can respond.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State

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    Karlos Williams, a former blue-chip safety prospect, made his transition to offense look good when given the chance last season, rushing for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 91 carries.

    However, a good portion of that work came in mop-up duty, as Williams was fighting for early-game touches with Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.—two of the better backs in college football.

    Now is Williams' chance to prove his worth at the position. He won't be a workhorse—FSU still has depth, and Jimbo Fisher likes to share the wealth in the backfield—but he will be the lead dog and given enough touches to compete for a spot on the All-American teams.

    If he does, Williams will look like one of the rare talents worth spending an early draft pick on at running back. If not, he will find himself lumped in the middle rounds with all of the others (who aren't named Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon).

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