It's never too early to start seriously breaking down the annual list of underclassmen who are making themselves eligible for the NFL draft, as it once again looks as though they will dominate the first-round proceedings in late April.
The deadline for underclassmen to enter the draft was this past Friday, Jan. 15, with the list expected to be finalized late today, the deadline for college football's top stars to change their minds and return to school.
As NFL evaluators descend upon the Sunshine State to scout prospects at the annual Shrine game this week, with 28 of the NFL's 32 teams already turning their full attention toward rebuilding in the offseason, Pro Football Weekly breaks down the top 10 underclassmen in this year's draft:
1. Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy — A strong, disruptive, explosive inside rusher who has been dominating the college football scene since he stepped onto the field, McCoy has warranted higher grades from NFL evaluators than Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh and stands a legitimate chance to be the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
2. Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant — Bryant's season was derailed by an NCAA suspension for lying to NFL investigators, and overall maturity and character questions will require closer examination. But Bryant is a game-changing No.1 receiver with elite speed and ball skills and is in a class of his own among receivers.
3. Iowa OLT Bryan Bulaga — A determined, ornery blind-side protector with a good football-playing temperament in a physical, run-first conference, Bulaga fits a similar profile as Jake Long when he came out of Michigan in 2008 and could easily be the first offensive tackle drafted.
4. South Florida DE Jason Pierre-Paul — An exceptionally athletic natural bender with the burst and fluid movement skills to bring heat off the edge, Pierre-Paul has a similar skill set as the late Gaines Adams had coming out of Clemson, but he may take some time to adapt to the pro game after having to go the junior-college route.
5. Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford — Bradford was forced to miss most of his junior season with multiple shoulder injuries, but he has the mental makeup desired to command an NFL offense and exceptional intangibles to unite a team.
6. Florida CB Joe Haden — Haden needs to become more disciplined in coverage, but his rare athletic traits, strength and foot speed will make the explosive corner the most coveted in this year's cornerback crop.
7. Rutgers OLT Anthony Davis — Still young and immature, Davis is extremely athletic and has the foot quickness to mirror elite NFL pass rushers in the pros and become a 10-year starter if he proves he can keep his weight under control after a major payday.
8. Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan — A big, strong, high-motor base end who will play the run as well or better than he creates a pass rush, Morgan is not an elite athlete, but he is the most polished and complete defensive end in this year's draft.
9. Tennessee S Eric Berry — A tough, physical, instinctive ballhawk with playmaking ability, Berry can make a Troy Polamalu-type impact on an NFL secondary.
10. Alabama ILB Rolando McClain — An excellent-sized, instinctive middle 'backer with outstanding football intelligence, McClain is tailor-made for the NFL game and will command heavy interest from teams employing "30" fronts.
Other underclassmen who easily could fit into the first round, listed by position:
Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen — Played in a pro-style offense under Charlie Weis and will warrant earlier interest than his talent suggests in a QB-needy league.
Notre Dame WR Golden Tate — A less polished and more thickly built version of Panthers WR Steve Smith.
Illinois WR Arrelious Benn — Big, strong and physical with the ball in his hands, Benn could still fit into the first round despite a disappointing, injury-plagued junior season in a new offense.
Georgia Tech WR Demaryius Thomas — The understudy of former Yellowjackets WR Calvin Johnson, Thomas is a rare-sized receiver with big-play ability but inconsistent hands.
Florida DE Carlos Dunlap — A raw underachiever with a rare combination of size and athletic ability.
Texas FS Earl Thomas — An undersized, playmaking ballhawk who is fluid enough to transition to cornerback.
PFW has launched its brand-new NFL Draft Newsletter series, with the second issue now ready for mailing and a third issue focusing on underclassmen to be published in the next few weeks. Produced by PFW's player personnel department under the direction of Nolan Nawrocki, the series consists of four information-packed issues. For more info or to subscribe — click here for PDF e-pub or here for print format. You can also find details about other draft-related publications in the PFW store.