2014 NFL Draft: Clemson players headline ACC prospects

Streeter Lecka

The ACC is loaded with pro talent and could rival the SEC to be the top conference in regard to prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft.

For the conference previews we've been running, they've often come in around 20 players. The Southeastern Conference pushed out to 25, because S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C. The Mid-American Conference was only 15 because it's inconceivable even that many players will get picked in the NFL Draft.

Before starting this list, my expectation was to list 20 players, drop in a few more to watch and that would be it. But going through the all-new expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, the legitimate 2014 NFL Draft prospects continued and continued. There were even a few in the prospects to watch filler that probably deserve a write-up -- namely Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller and Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell.

But they didn't quite make the cut. Fuller because I liked the others better. Cockrell solely because I just need to do more work on him. I could easily recite his stats from last season (13 pass breakups!), but I haven't done quite enough work on him to this point to have an opinion.

However, here are 25 players I do have an opinion about in the ACC. Who did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

1. Sammy Watkins | 6'1, 200 pounds | Wide receiver | Clemson *
Watkins will face new challenges this season as he shifts to being more of an outside receiver. He's securely back as Clemson's No. 1 wide receiver following the departure of Deandre Hopkins. On the outside, Watkins will get to show of his pure speed and elusiveness after the catch. He's one of the more exciting players in college football and will get utilized in the NFL on pass, run and special teams plays.

2. Tajh Boyd | 6'1, 225 pounds | Quarterback | Clemson
As we begin the search for a quarterback to challenge Teddy Bridgewater to be the first drafted next year, Boyd is often the first that comes to mind. He improved considerably last season and looks more comfortable sticking in the pocket. Boyd's passing numbers year over year may be similar, but his ball placement was better.

3. Christian Jones | 6'4, 232 pounds | Outside linebacker | Florida State
At his size, you'd expect Jones to be a pass-rushing force. But he's really not, registering zero sacks a season ago while leading Florida State in tackles with 95. But this season, Jones will switch from the weak side to the strong and be expected to get after the passer. As a draft prospect, that should help Jones. He's proven himself as capable of playing the run and dropping back in coverage.

4. Kareem Martin | 6'5, 260 pounds | Defensive end | North Carolina
Martin is intriguing as a pass rushing prospect because he has one absolutely known trait: a quick first move. For a pass rusher, it's an essential. But this season, Martin needs to start showing the ability convert that quickness and speed into power. If he does that, he's a top 64 pick.

5. James Hurst | 6'7, 305 pounds | Offensive tackle | North Carolina
Hurst enters his fourth year as a starter at North Carolina. He has quick feet and gets to the ouside in the hurry, which makes him a natural to block speedy left ends. Hurst's length also makes him attractive as a tackle in the NFL. He has some technique issues to get past, though. Namely, Hurst has to get better hand placmenet and take on power ends better.

6. Tim Jernigan 6'2, 298 pounds | Defensive tackle | Florida State *
For a stout defensive tackle, Jernigan moves around like a fleet-footed linebacker. In that sense, he's similar to Henry Melton of the Chicago Bears. He's a good hand fighter and can hold his spot on the line against stronger interior offensive linemen. But his lack of quickness off the snap is what keeps Jernigan back. He's often the last player to move at the line of scrimmage, which is pretty incredible given involved he gets in plays.

7. Jeremiah Attaochu | 6'3, 240 pounds | Outside linebacker | Georgia Tech
After fitting in perfectly as a 3-4 pass rushing linebacker, Attaochu will play more with his hand down this season as Georgia Tech shifts to a 4-3. He led Georgia Tech with 10 sacks and showed a quick first move and lateral agility to chase down the ball carrier. It will be interesting to see what Attaochu does this season when he doesn't have to worry as much about coverage responsibilities.

8. Stephen Morris | 6'2, 218 pounds | Quarterback | Miami
No quarterback in college football this season may have a better arm than Morris. He can absolutely launch the ball. In his first season as a full-time starter, Morris showed the potential to be a starting quarterback at the next level. This season he'll need to place the ball better and improve on an average compleition percentage (58.2).

9. James Wilder Jr. | 6'2, 229 pounds | Running back | Florida State *
If there is to be a running back that charges into the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, it may be Wilder. Whenever there is this kind of combination of size, power, speed and athleticism, NFL teams will notice. Wilder gets overlooked largely because he shares carries with Devonta Freeman. But he is the total package running back who is physically ready for the NFL. There are some character issues worth monitoring going forward, though.

10. James Gayle | 6'4, 255 pounds | Defensive end | Virginia Tech
Gayle's speed off the edge is what will get him on an NFL roster next year. He fires off the line of scrimmage effortlessly and will be a star at the NFL Scouting Combine next February. The strange thing about Gayle is that he hasn't been overly productive as a sack artist throughout his career. He has just 16 in 26 starts and 40 games played. But the talent is there, Gayle might just need some refinement.

11. Cameron Erving | 6'6, 320 pounds | Offensive tackle | Florida State *
After moving over from the defensive line last season, Erving gradually improved throughout the 2012 season. As the season progressed, Erving got better and graded out at 73.6 percent over his final six games. Because of his natural athleticism, there is a chance Erving could be this year's version of Lane Johnson – a raw offensive tackle who skyrockets up the draft due to his upside and quickness.

12. Seantrel Henderson | 6'8, 345 pounds | Offensive tackle | Miami
The college career for Henderson has been rocky. One of the most highly touted players to ever sign with Miami, Henderson has been suspended, gone through a bout of home sickness, had back surgery and been in a car accident. The NFL Draft advisory commitee gave Henderson a third-round grade after last season, so he turnred for his final year with the Hurricanes. He's a powerhouse right tackle prospect who projects as a starter if he remains disciplined on and off the field.

13. Eric Ebron | 6'4, 245 pounds | Tight end | North Carolina *
When you watch Ebron, it's easy to see a young Heath Miller. Ebron is solid to good across the board. He's a dependable pass catcher, a sound route runner and an aggressive blocker. While he doesn't have overwhelming size, Ebron likes to make a play on the ball and can often out-leverage defenders.

14. Devin Street | 6'3, 192 pounds | Wide receiver | Pittsburgh
Because of the questionable quarterback play at Pittsburgh the past few seasons, Street often gets overlooked. He was the Big East (RIP) leader in receptions with 73 last season to go along with 975 yards and five touchdowns. Street effortlessly gets off the line of scrimmage and obviously has some natural length. The catch on Street is that he's not particularly physical, nor is he a speed burner. But he projects as a solid No. 2 or 3 pass catcher for a team that needs a receiver with some size.

15. Antone Exum | 6'1, 220 pounds | Cornerback | Virginia Tech
Exum has moved around Virgina Tech's defense from rover to safety to cornerback. As a cornerback, which he played last season, Exum stood out. He picked off five passes and obviously has a size advantage over many receivers. Exum would be higher on this list had he not torn his ACL and meniscus in January. He's already been ruled out for the Alabama season opener and you have to wonder if he'll be 100 percent during the season.

16. Bryn Renner | 6'3, 226 pounds | Quarterback | North Carolina
Few quarterbacks finished the 2012 better than Renner. Against NC State, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Maryland, Renner had 1,328 yards passing, completing 70 percent of his throws for 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Renner is a gutty quarterback who will stick in the pocket and doesn't mind taking a hit. He reads the defense fairly well, but doesn't have the kind of physical tools that will blow you away.

17. Lamarcus Joyner | 5'8, 190 pounds | Cornerback | Florida State
This season Joyner is finally switching over from safety to corner. With his physical playing style and range in the secondary, Joyner could be a star on a team that predominantly runs zone coverage. You'll be hard-pressed to find a player that can get up to top speed faster than Joyner. Joyner also adds value as a kick returner.

18. Tre Boston | 6'1, 205 pounds | Safety | North Carolina
In each of his three seasons at North Carolina thus far, Boston has gotten better. What makes him so good as a prospect is that he looks to have a high ceiling. He's a physical and active safety capable of playing the run and the pass. He was North Carolina's leading tackler a season ago with 80 tackles and has eight career interceptions. At a time when NFL teams are looking for safeties who can play receivers in man coverage, a player like Boston will be in demand.

19. Morgan Moses | 6'6, 335 pounds | Offensive tackle | Virginia
After starting three seasons at right tackle, Moses is shifting to the left to replace Oday Aboushi. At times last season, Moses was the considerably better prospect. Moses suprisingly can get out on the move and can be dangerous run blocking on the move. Because of that, and his nature size at 335 pounds, he will get some looks at guard in the NFL. In pass blocking, he's a little heavy footed but can use his power to dominate.

20. Rob Crisp | 6'7, 298 pounds | Offensive tackle | North Carolina State
There was some expectation that Crisp was going to have a break out junior season in 2012. A blue chip recruit, that never happened because of injury. That's been the story for the majority of Crisp's career at NC State. He showed signs as a sophomore of being a legit NFL prospect by not allowing a sack starting at right tackle all season. But he missed the first four games of last season and didn't look healthy all year. Now on the left side, Crisp could be another one of those tackle prospects that steadily rises up draft boards as the season wears on.

21. Alex Amidon | 6'0, 182 pounds | Wide receiver | Boston College
If an NFL team is looking for a steady late-round wide receiver willing to go over the middle, Amidon will be an intriguing option. He's willing to get physical despite his size and will put his body on the line to make tough catches. Amidon put together a good 2012 season with 78 receptiosn for 1,210 yards and seven scores. Another season like that and he should lock up an all-star game bid.

22. Darryl Cato-Bishop | 6'3, 266 pounds | Defensive end | North Carolina State
Cato-Bishop may not be a top-level pass rusher (he had 5.5 sacks last season), but he's a strong player. He's a classic right end in a 4-3 scheme because he can get up the field enough and can hold his own against the run. Cato-Bishop also has some experience playing defensive tackle.

23. Isaiah Johnson | 6'2, 208 pounds | Safety | Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech's leader in tackles last season with 87, Johnson makes more of an impact in the run game than in pass coverage. He's a hard-hitting safety, but not much as a pass defender.

24. Jemea Thomas | 5'10, 195 pounds | Cornerback | Georgia Tech

Converting from safety, there is a lot to like about Thomas. He moves around the deep quarter of the field effectively, and can hit. There's going to be some questions about his ability in man coverage. But he should be fine on zone plays. He was second on Georgia Tech last season with 86 tackles.

25. Logan Thomas | 6'6, 258 pounds | Quarterback | Virginia Tech
Ugh. Where to begin with Thomas? At this point last year, he was on the fast track to being a top 10 pick in the draft. A freaky combination of Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger. Then the season started. Plainly, he was not good until the final games of the season. But by then, Thomas was exposed as a passer who seemed most comfortable throwing while falling backward or getting hit. His ball placement was off and he too often threw into double coverage. But that potential is too enticing. If NFL Draft prospects were tangible items, Thomas would be the best drug. You know it's not something you should be into, and it'll probably burn you in the end, but the ride will be fun.
Quite frankly, Thomas could or should be considerably higher on this list. Or he could just the same be completely left off it. Thomas is among the weirder prospects to follow this season.

More players to watch:

Vic Beasley | 6'3, 225 pounds | Defensive end | Clemson *
Malcolm Bunche | 6'7, 327 pounds | Offensive tackle | Miami *
Ross Cockrell | 6'0, 182 pounsd | Cornerback | Duke
DJ Coles | 6'4, 235 pounds | Wide receiver | Virginia Tech
Aaron Donald | 6'0, 275 pounds | Defensive tackle | Pittsburgh
Phillip Dorsett | 5'9, 187 pounds | Wide receiver | Miami *
Devonta Freeman | 5'8, 208 pounds | Running back | Florida State *
Kyle Fuller | 6'0, 193 pounds | Cornerback | Virginia Tech
Prince-Tyson Gulley | 5'10, 192 pounds | Running back | Syracuse
Sean Hickey | 6'5, 285 pounds | Offensive tackle | Syracuse *
Derrick Hopkins | 6'0, 306 pounds | Defensive tackle | Virginia Tech
Dontae Johnson | 6'2, 195 pounds | Cornerback | North Carolina State
Brandon Linder | 6'6, 316 pounds | Guard | Miami
Quintin Payton | 6'4, 210 pounds | Wide receiver | North Carolina State
Tim Scott | 5'11, 190 pounds | Cornerback | North Carolina *
Marquis Spruill | 6'0, 224 pounds | Middle linebacker | Syracuse
Bryan Stork | 6'3, 312 pounds | Center | Florida State
Brandon Thomas | 6'3, 305 pounds | Offensive tackle/Guard | Clemson
Asa Watson | 6'4, 235 pounds | Tight end | North Carolina State
Louis Young | 6'1, 196 pounds | Cornerback | Georgia Tech

Transfer to note:

Pete Thomas | 6'6, 236 pounds | Quarterback | North Carolina State
Thomas is the transfer of all transfers in college football this season. He's a quarterback with incredible size and unquestionable potential. At Colorado State, he started for two seasons, throwing for 4.269 yards and 18 touchdowns. He did so while completing a solid 63.5 percent of his passes. But to realize his potential, Thomas will first have to win the starting job with the Wolfpack. That's no sure thing in new head coach Dave Doeren's offense.

Redshirt sophomore to watch:

Jabari Hunt-Days | 6'3, 252 pounds | Middle linebacker | Georgia Tech **
Hunt-Days quickly came into his own as a redshirt freshman last season with 84 tackles. With Georgia Tech moving to a 4-3 system, Hunt-Days should only see his stats increase. He's strictly a run-stopping linebacker, but could get better in pass coverage. It's unlikely he comes out after this season, but his size and strong tackling make him an intriguing prospect.

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