Pass-rushers always rank high on NFL wish lists come draft season. The pickings were slim in 2008, which in my opinion led to some teams reaching for overrated talent such as Vernon Gholston (Jets, No. 6 overall) and Derrick Harvey (Jaguars, No. 8 overall). Depending on how many of the top underclassmen leave school early, there could be a much deeper crop of sack artists in next April's draft.
Below is a breakdown of the top five pass-rushers that could be available in the 2009 draft. The rankings are based purely on pass-rushing potential, not overall skill level. (* denotes draft-eligible underclassmen)
1. Everette Brown*, DE/OLB, Florida State
Brown is peaking down the stretch. Six of his nine sacks this season have come in FSU's last three outings. Brown is a bit undersized but he is fast and athletic, and he is a perfect fit as a rush-linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He is using his initial quickness, body control and closing burst to generate pressure both around the corner and on inside stunts. A fourth-year junior, Brown is practically a lock to bolt school early for the 2009 draft. If that's the case, he will be in the mix to be the first of his kind -- the 'tweener DE/OLB hybrid -- selected.
2. Brian Orakpo, DE/OLB, Texas
Orakpo displays good anticipation, above-average initial burst and he hugs the rail tightly when turning the corner as an edge rusher. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior also displays more power than his frame would indicate. He uses quick and strong inside moves to keep opposing offensive tackles guessing. Orakpo was off to a torrid start with nine sacks in Texas' first eight games but he suffered a setback with a sprained left knee in the Texas Tech loss and did not play last week versus Baylor. Durability concerns could hurt Orakpo, but I still believe he's first-round material.
Despite missing nearly three full games with a high ankle sprain, Selvie still has five sacks to his credit this season. When he's fully healthy, no pass-rusher in college football is more feared. Last year he led the nation with 31.5 tackles for loss and finished second with 14.5 sacks. While he lacks ideal size (6-3½, 250) and top-end speed, Selvie is instinctive, quick, powerful and relentless. He projects as a mid-first round choice in either 2009 or 2010.
4. Jerry Hughes*, DE/OLB, TCU
Hughes has burst onto the national scene as one of the most disruptive defenders in college football this season. He currently leads the nation with 14 sacks in 11 games played (1.27 per game). At 6-2 and 242 pounds, Hughes will make the move to rush-linebacker in the NFL. In addition to his outstanding initial burst and speed to turn the corner, Hughes displays enough fluidity to occasionally drop into coverage at the next level. There's no word regarding his intentions following this season but Hughes looks like first-round material whenever he throws his hat in the NFL draft ring.
5. Greg Hardy*, DE, Ole Miss
Hardy can be an absolutely devastating pass-rusher when he flips the switch. Just check out his 1.5-sack showing versus Florida this season or his three-sack performance versus Alabama last year. Problem is, his motor runs as hot-and-cold as any defender in college football today. He also is dealing with a nagging foot injury that kept him out of the Auburn game and may do the same versus Louisiana-Monroe this Saturday. Needless to say; Hardy's boom-or-bust qualities are a turnoff to many NFL teams.
10 others worth mentioning
" Clint Sintim, OLB, Virginia
" Michael Johnson, DE/OLB, Georgia Tech
" Jermaine Cunningham*, DE, Florida
" Auston English*, DE/OLB, Oklahoma
" Brandon Graham, OLB, Michigan
" Brandon Williams*, DE, Texas Tech
" Sergio Kindle*, OLB, Texas
" Antonio Coleman*, DE/OLB, Auburn
" Cody Brown, DE/OLB, Connecticut
" Connor Barwin, DE/OLB, Cincinnati
The Top 32
Below is a look at our updated rankings of the top 32 prospects for the 2009 NFL draft. The top 10 is unchanged and the underclassmen continue to dominate the rankings as Missouri's Jeremy Maclin is knocking on the door of the top 10 and Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham has cracked the list. Until the official decision date in mid-January, we will continue to include in our top 32 and overall rankings all underclassmen we deem worthy of a first-day (Rounds 1 and 2) grade.
(Note: * denotes draft-eligible junior; ** denotes draft-eligible third-year sophomore)
Todd McShay is the director of college football scouting for Scouts Inc. He has been evaluating prospects for the NFL draft since 1998.