Drake Maye, Joe Alt among college football stars entering the NFL Draft early

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The 2023 college football regular season has concluded (save for the Army-Navy game on Dec. 9), which means that many players will turn their immediate attention to the 2024 NFL Draft. Which prospects will opt out of their team’s bowl game? Who has already announced their intentions to enter the draft pool?

We’ll be tracking all the key developments between now and Jan. 15, the deadline for underclassmen to submit their names for the 2024 draft.

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Dec. 13: Notre Dame OT Joe Alt to enter draft, sit out Sun Bowl

Alt, a potential top-five pick, started the final 33 games of his Notre Dame career at left tackle. He announced on Instagram that, in addition to entering the 2024 draft, he’ll sit out Notre Dame’s Sun Bowl matchup against Oregon State — although, he did note that he’d travel with his team to the game. Alt was the No. 4 pick in Dane Brugler’s most recent mock draft.

A clean evaluation, Alt is the most well-rounded offensive lineman in the 2024 NFL Draft. At 6 feet 8 and 325 pounds, he is above average as both a pass protector and run blocker — and continues to get better and better. The best NFL offensive linemen are able to reset and quickly get back to the strengths of their body, and that’s the most impressive part of Alt’s young skill set. He has the rare ability to recover and get back to his power without sacrificing his balance.

The son of a former Pro Bowl left tackle, Alt is still just 20 years old but already has an All-American resume. I liked what I saw from him over the summer, but he went to another level as a junior and put himself in the conversation to be a top-five pick. The battle between Alt and Penn State’s Olu Fashanu for OT1 status will be an interesting race that will likely be split among NFL teams. — Dane Brugler

Dec. 12: TCU RB Emani Bailey turns pro after 1,200-yard season

Bailey is another member of the 2023 class who’s entering the NFL as an experienced, veteran “underclassman” — he played two seasons Louisiana (855 yards from scrimmage, eight TDs), then rushed for 1,209 yards and eight TDs this year, his second with TCU. Bailey led the Big 12 in yards per carry during the 2022 season (8.1), albeit on just 31 attempts.

At just 5 feet 9, 207 pounds, Bailey — in his only year as a full-time starter at TCU — ranked No. 4 nationally (minimum 200 carries) in yards after contact per rush among running backs last season (3.68). He’s a physical runner, despite his size, but his ability to cut with authority and shuffle through would-be tacklers with great burst helped him force 68 missed tackles, per PFF (No. 7 nationally).

Bailey (who clocked an 11.02 in the 100-meter dash in high school) was mostly a backup to Kendre Miller in 2022 and did not play behind a great line this past season, but he still managed more than 1,200 yards. His burst, agility and ability to adjust his body to throws also make him an interesting pass-catching option.  — Nick Baumgardner

Dec. 11: Drake Maye, potential QB1, opts out of bowl and enters draft

Maye landed at No. 3, to New England, in Dane Brugler’s most recent mock draft. The prolific North Carolina quarterback threw for a combined 7,929 yards and 62 touchdowns over the past two seasons, with 1,200 career rushing yards. 

Maye put himself high on the NFL radar during the 2022 season as a redshirt freshman and despite some ups and downs this season, he is still an expected top-three pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Cut from the same cloth as Justin Herbert, Maye is a good-sized athlete with a strong arm, scrambling skills and a ton of confidence. His tape shows the full passing inventory and I would argue he put more NFL throws on tape than any other quarterback in this draft cycle. He is also guilty of reckless decisions at times, but his talent and traits have NFL teams excited for his future.

Williams, who is expected to also officially declare soon, enters the draft process as the favorite for the No. 1 overall pick, but that isn’t a consensus with some teams believing Maye could be the first quarterback and player off the board. — Brugler

Dec. 11: Oregon RB Bucky Irving, OL Jackson Powers-Johnson both declare

Irving, whose college career started at Minnesota in 2021, will head to the NFL after rushing for 2,121 yards and scoring 20 total touchdowns over two years at Oregon. Powers-Johnson was a three-year contributor up front for the Ducks, playing both guard and center. 

Irving enters this draft class as a slippery, one-cut runner, having excelled as Oregon’s lead back the last two seasons. At 5-10, 195, Irving meets the size prototype to play in any kind of offense, and you can expect him to be a reliable runner and receiving option out of the backfield. Of 151 RBs with at least 100 carries this season, Irving ranked seventh in success rate and 16th in expected points added — meaning he was one of the nation’s best at getting his offense the yardage it needed.

Irving’s breakout at Oregon came after a promising freshman campaign at Minnesota, and he leaves college with more than 2,800 yards in his three years of play. Irving led all FBS running backs with 53 receptions, and he was a major piece in the offense’s passing efficiency. To maximize his utility, he will need to improve in pass protection, and there will be a ceiling on his explosive potential because of his average speed for the position. Irving is a reliable rotational piece though, and should carve out a comfortable role at the next level. — Diante Lee

The 2024 Rimington Trophy winner, Powers-Johnson was outstanding up front for the Ducks in his only season as a full-time starter. A powerful, well-balanced athlete at 6-3, 320, Powers-Johnson is quick off the snap both with his hands and his body. The 20-year-old plays with sound leverage and moves into the second level off combination blocks with relative ease.

Powers-Johnson was a big-time riser this season, as he saw mostly guard snaps as a reserve in 2022. Length limitations will likely keep him as a center in the NFL, though he repped at both guard spots — and even played a handful of tackle reps. He allowed just one pressure as a starter in 2023 and gave up zero sacks in more than 750 career protection snaps. — Baumgardner

Dec. 8: North Carolina WR Tez Walker to skip senior season

Walker, a Kent State transfer, missed the first month of the 2023 season while mired in a standoff with the NCAA over his eligibility. In eight games for the Tar Heels, he caught 41 passes for 699 yards and seven TDs. He had 1,045 yards and 12 touchdowns combined over two seasons at Kent State.

Despite missing the first month of the season, Walker quickly established himself as the most dynamic receiving threat for the Tar Heels offense the final few weeks of the season. His route running needs continued polish, but his long-striding speed and ball skills have him high on the NFL radar. — Brugler

BOOM! WR Devontez Walker @DevontezWalker from @UNCFootball has accepted his invitation to the 2024 Reese's Senior Bowl! #CarolinaFootball 🏈 #UNCommon #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️@JimNagy_SB @PaniniAmerica #RatedRookie pic.twitter.com/PtxeWkGHW9

— Reese's Senior Bowl (@seniorbowl) December 8, 2023

Dec. 7: Massive Florida State WR Johnny Wilson turns pro

Wilson, listed at 6 feet 7 and 237 pounds, averaged 18.0 yards per catch (84 catches for 1,514 yards) over two seasons with the Seminoles. He also scored seven TDs. Prior to a 2022 transfer to Florida State, Wilson played two years at Arizona State (18 catches for 243 yards and one TD).

One of the most physically unique prospects in the class, Wilson is a legit 6-foot-7 receiver who posted a verified 4.59-second 40-yard dash in high school. He’s also got 36-inch arms and a whole lot of burst. He rejuvenated his career with Jordan Travis and the Seminoles over the last two years, but there are issues. His hands, for one: Wilson had 11 drops over the last two seasons (and four in limited time at Arizona State). He also played in just nine games in 2023 due to multiple injuries. He’s good in the air, though not as dominant as his size might indicate.

The traits are wild. He feels like a Day 3 candidate who could rise with good testing numbers and a clean bill of health. — Baumgardner

Dec. 5: Penn State edge Chop Robinson takes first-round potential to the NFL

Robinson ranked No. 12 on Dane Brugler’s most recent 2024 NFL Draft board, and he was the No. 19 pick (Atlanta) in Brugler’s late-November Mock Draft. A transfer from Maryland to Penn State after the ’21 season, Robinson finished his college career with 20.0 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

One of the most athletic defenders in the class, the 254-pound Robinson could crack the 4.4 range in the 40. His jump numbers will be elite and so will his agility scores. A complete athlete with power and length, Robinson’s production at Penn State did not match the talent (four sacks and 26 pressures this season). There are consistency issues here, but when he’s right, he can take a game over.

Robinson is a more powerful version of Iowa State edge Will McDonald IV, who went first round last year. It should also be noted: The most sacks Micah Parsons’ had during a season at Penn State was six. There’s a lot more with Robinson than his college stats show. — Nick Baumgardner

Dec. 3: USC RB MarShawn Lloyd exits after one season with the Trojans

Lloyd opened his college career at South Carolina, where he had to sit out his freshman year (2020) with a torn ACL before compiling a combined 1,021 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs in 2021-22. In one year at USC, Lloyd rushed for 820 yards, caught 13 passes for 232 yards and scored nine touchdowns. He announced his NFL Draft intentions on social media.

A tough running, 5-foot-9 back, Lloyd’s production suggests he’s more useful than what Lincoln Riley drew out of him in 2023. Lloyd fits best in the kind of offense he just played in — more of a wide-open attack and shotgun run scheme — but he can be in the rotation as an outside-zone running back, as well. He averaged seven yards per carry this year by punishing light boxes, turning 19 percent of his carries into gains of 12 or more yards.

Still, his top gear isn’t elite, and he’s more of a one-cut/downhill style of runner than a shifty guy in the open field, so his ceiling is a bit limited. I like his hands out of the backfield, but he was poor in pass protection this year, and that will be an issue for him at the next level. He can be a decent backup option in the NFL. — Lee

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Dec. 3: Experienced Utah WR Devaughn Vele “excited for the next chapter in my life”

Vele, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound receiver, was a junior in eligibility despite spending five seasons on the Utes roster. A walk-on in 2019, Vele caught 55 passes for 695 yards and five TDs last season, and 43 passes for 593 yards and three scores this year.

A huge target, Vele  plays with a massive catch radius and enough athleticism/body control in the air to be a potential red-zone weapon. A former basketball palyer, Vele offers really good short-area quickness for a guy his size. Vele could definitely use more strength on his frame, and it will be interesting to see what he runs.

His career-best yards per route-run number, 1.81, came this year despite Utah’s QB issues — there’s not lot of yards after the catch happening here. — Baumgardner

Dec. 3: After a season that “didn’t go as planned,” Florida center Kingsley Eguakun turns pro

A 26-game starter over the 2021 and ’22 seasons, Eguakun, a redshirt junior, missed significant action this season because of an ankle injury. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has experience at both center and guard.

Dec. 3: Miami DT Leonard Taylor III forgoes senior season for NFL

Taylor, a five-star prospect in the 2021 class, made an immediate impact as a freshman (21 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks). He followed up with a breakthrough 2022 that saw him post 10.5 TFLs and 3.0 sacks. He announced his decision on Instagram.

A very explosive and versatile interior defensive line prospect who could wear a few different hats in the league, Taylor is at his best when he’s firing off the ball with leverage and allowing his athleticism and punch to dent the pocket. It’s not always consistent, though, as the compact Taylor can lose steam in pass rush after the initial punch — either because he wears out or just runs out of moves.

Pro scouts will be left wanting to see more violence from Taylor after going through his tape, but the athletic traits here are certainly top-100 worthy, if not closer to top 50. He needs to show more consistency. — Baumgardner

Dec. 2: Frank Gore Jr. will attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps

After a highly productive four-year college career at Southern Miss, Gore (759 career carries for 4,022 yards plus 75 receptions and 30 total touchdowns) announced that he will enter the draft. Gore is the son of former NFL running back Frank Gore, who rushed for 16,000 yards in one of the longest and most prolific careers the NFL has seen.

A slightly lighter runner than his dad was, Frank Gore Jr. (5 feet 8, 200 pounds) runs with a similar style: behind his pads and unafraid to drive through contact between the tackles for extra yards. Gore also shows terrific open field vision and great, quick feet. Once he finds daylight, he’s often looking to set up would-be tacklers for extra yards.

A former high school quarterback, Gore also threw seven TD passes in college. He finished with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and added 65 catches over four seasons. Size is a concern here, as Gore entered college around the 170-pound mark and might be maxed out at 200 pounds. — Baumgardner

Field level view 👀@stn_2lit | #SMTTT pic.twitter.com/PBZqqDZCyk

— Southern Miss Football (@SouthernMissFB) October 28, 2023

Dec. 2: Intriguing Wake Forest CB Caelen Carson joins the ’24 draft class

Carson ranked as Dane Brugler’s No. 6 draft-eligible underclassman cornerback preseason. In his fourth season at Wake Forest, Carson notched a career-high 42 tackles. However, he has not secured an interception since 2021, in part because opposing quarterbacks have avoided his side of the field. 

A long and physical fourth-year junior, Carson’s length and body control in coverage can be a problem for receivers of all shapes and sizes. He had some really good reps in coverage earlier this season vs. Keon Coleman and Florida State — but also lost a few times. Carson saw twice as much work from a target standpoint this season as he has in any other year at Wake Forest, and he held up relatively well.

He plays with really good feet in man coverage but can get a little careless and take unnecessary chances. He gets his hand on a lot of balls, though he did have just three picks in three years and allowed four TDs against in 2023 alone. — Baumgardner

Dec. 2: UMass RB Kayron Lynch-Adams heads to NFL off 1,157-yard season

Lynch-Adams played two seasons (2019-20) at Rutgers before transferring to Massachusetts, but he still had eligibility remaining. Nevertheless, he announced he would be “dream chasing” and entering the NFL Draft. Lynch-Adams accounted for 1,275 yards from scrimmage this season and rushed for 1,888 yards during his college career.

Dec. 1: Washington State QB Cameron Ward enters transfer portal, “will be evaluating entering the draft”

Ward spent his first two college seasons at Incarnate Word of the FCS, then transferred to Washington State ahead of the 2022 season. Technically, he had junior eligibility this year (although, he noted in his announcement that he’d be a grad transfer). Combined over his two seasons in Pullman, Ward threw for 6,968 yards, 48 TDs and 16 INTs.

Coming into the 2023 season, Ward was someone I would’ve considered a late Day 3 to UDFA-level passer. He made significant improvements to start this year, though, and looked much closer to the impressive young quarterback we saw at Incarnate Word. He was more efficient and explosive, and he showed an ability to use his legs to get out of trouble at times. He was still a bit rocky against pressure versus the better programs in the Pac-12 — he rushed throws to avoid contact or pressed too hard to get the ball on the perimeter, both of which led to mistakes.

Ward can make an NFL team as an arm and compete his way onto a 53-man roster, but I think it’s best for him to avoid this crowded QB class and play for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations next season. — Lee

Nov. 29: Clemson’s Nate Wiggins heads to draft as potential CB1

Wiggins, the No. 11 pick (Raiders) in Dane Brugler’s Mock Draft 1.0 released this week, wrote on Instagram that he’ll be “pursing a lifelong dream” by entering the 2024 NFL Draft. A first-team All-ACC performer this season, Wiggins finished his three-year Clemson career with three INTs (two off Drake Maye) and 24 pass breakups. 

Although his string-bean frame will give NFL teams pause, Wiggins has outstanding speed with the sudden footwork and hip flip to stay attached to routes. He has been targeted 41 times this season and allowed only one catch of 20-plus yards while committing just one penalty.

In a draft without a consensus CB1, Wiggins has the talent to be near the top of most draft boards around the league. — Dane Brugler

Nov. 28: Prolific Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen makes his draft announcement

Allen, who won’t turn 20 until January, announced that he will enter the 2024 NFL Draft. As a freshman in 2021, Allen rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 TDs. He followed that up with 1,242 yards and 11 scores last year, then another 984 yards and 12 touchdowns this season under a new coaching staff.

At 6 feet 2, 245 pounds, Allen is as tough as they come between the tackles and will rattle a defender’s teeth in pass pro if given the opportunity. A big man who can run on his toes, Allen is more than a one-cut downhill back and runs with a lot more wiggle than people might realize based on his size.

There are fumble concerns here, though, as Allen’s coughed the ball up nine times in three years (four this year, four in 2021). As much as he works after contact, ball security will be a question. — Baumgardner

Nov. 28: Clemson LB Jeremiah Trotter Jr. takes “the next step in a lifelong dream”

Trotter, the son of former NFL All-Pro linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, announced via Instagram that he will enter the 2024 NFL Draft. The true junior has had a combined 177 tackles and 28.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons.

Trotter enters the 2024 draft as one of the best blitzers and pursuit players at his position. He was one of the most productive defensive players in the ACC this season, too, finishing the regular season second in sacks (5.5) and fourth in tackles for loss (14.5). Trotter’s aggressive style gets him in trouble with missed tackles, and he’s got some work to do in coverage, but he flies around and can fit any scheme as an off-ball defender. — Lee

Nov. 28: Houston OT Patrick Paul accepts Senior Bowl invite, enters draft

The Senior Bowl jumped the gun a bit, announcing on Nov. 27 that Paul, a fifth-year junior, had accepted his invite to the all-star game. Less than 24 hours later, Paul officially announced his draft entry.

Paul’s traits will keep him in the first-round discussion throughout the process. The 6-foot-7, 308-pounder combines insane length (36 3/8-inch arms) with good feet and plenty of power. He still has technique issues, though, which is concerning from a fifth-year player — Paul can miss with his hands and lose reps to faster athletes. This is a good OT class, so Paul’s inconsistency could push him out of the first and provide great value to an NFL team on Day 2.

A three-year starter and two-time captain for Houston, Paul gave up just seven pressures in 495 pass-blocking snaps this season as PFF’s highest-graded Power 5 protector. — Baumgardner

Nov. 28: Miami safeties Kamren Kinchens, James Williams turning pro, per reports

Kinchens, an All-ACC first-team pick last year, and Williams, the Hurricanes’ leading tackler this season (73) both will test the draft waters, according to multiple reports. 

With 11 interceptions over the last two seasons, Kinchens put his fair share of splash plays on tape, which is why you often see his name pop up in the first-round conversation. But his body of work lacked consistency in 2023, specifically with his angles in coverage and pursuit. Most NFL team grades on Kinchens are currently in the third-round range, and it will be important for him to have a strong pre-draft process — including a spot in an all-star game, now that underclassmen are eligible.

Listed at 6 feet 5 and 215 pounds, Williams is an oversized safety. Or is he a long, lean linebacker? Nailing down his specific role will be the most important part of his NFL evaluation. He put together a strong 2023 season with the Hurricanes, leading the team in tackles and forced fumbles (two) while also making plays in coverage. — Brugler

Nov. 21: Illinois DT Jer’Zhan Newton and teammate Keith Randolph Jr. plan to enter the draft

Newton ranks No. 21 on Dane Brugler’s latest NFL Draft Big Board and is one of just two defensive tackles in the top 50 (Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro is the other). He finished his college career with 18 sacks, 27.5 tackles for loss and 187 tackles over four seasons. Randolph, with junior eligibility despite playing for the Illini since 2019, had 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks during a breakout 2022 season.

Newton’s run at Illinois featured dominant stretches. There’s not another DT in the 2024 class with more violent hands than Newton (6 feet 2, 295 pounds), who has the power and twitch off the snap to toss just about any lineman he encounters. He plays with great burst and leverage against the run and pass, and his punch can put even a well-based lineman on his heels.

An effective running back in high school, Newton had a combined 103 pressures in the last two seasons. Despite length and size concerns, he’ll have plenty of first-round grades as a pocket pusher.

Randolph, a 6-foot-3, 297-pound DT, was very effective on a terrific Illini defense in 2022 (32 pressures and 26 hurries). He faded in 2023, though, dropping to just 13 pressures in 10 appearances (he missed two games with an ankle injury). Randolph shows active hands and, like Newton, plays hard. However, he can play tall and lose power quickly. — Baumgardner

Nov. 20: Sleeper Yale OT Kiran Amegadjie declares

Though technically not an “early entrant” because Yale lists him as a senior, Amegadjie did have eligibility left. The 6-foot-5, 326-pound lineman suffered a season-ending quad injury in mid-October. The Senior Bowl’s Jim Nagy called him “the only sub-FBS player our staff felt could legitimately get drafted on Day 2 this year.”

In many ways, Amegadjie is exactly the type of developmental tackle all 32 NFL teams are looking for. He is extremely long (36 3/4-inch arms) with above-average feet and movements to reach his landmarks and handle space. After focusing on basketball for most of his life, he is still learning aspects of the position, but his coachability and football character are outstanding.

Amegadjie was receiving Day 2 draft grades from NFL scouts this fall, but his season-ending injury put his draft projection in limbo. We’ll know more after the combine medical checks. — Brugler

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(Photo of Frank Gore Jr.: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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