A look at third-year sophomore prospects

With so many questions surrounding the rookie salary pool after the 2010 draft, this year’s draft class could have the most underclassmen ever. As a result, NFL officials are not only gearing for an onslaught of junior entries but also a talented group of third-year sophomores. In the past, we’ve seen only a couple of highly rated third-year sophs like Larry Fitzgerald and Knowshon Moreno enter early and have a direct effect at the top end of the draft. But with the uncertainty of the rookie salary pool beyond 2010, this could be the largest group of third-year sophomores ever, all hoping to cash in and get a piece of potentially the draft’s final big payday.

Here’s an early look and at some of the nation’s top eligible sophomores.

The top three

QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (6-7, 238)

Mallett currently leads the SEC in passing yards (1,903) and touchdown passes (15) and possesses a skill set that’s second to none. He’s a tall, strong-armed passer who has the ability to make all the throws in the NFL with ease and is absolutely full of upside. Now, he’s far from a finished product and is still learning how to decipher defenses and be decisive in the pocket. But a player with his skill set will not be ignored for long on draft day. He’s nowhere near ready to step in and lead an NFL offense, but he possesses the overall talent to eventually take over as a starter, and I honestly can’t see a QB with his type of talent falling outside of the first round.

S Earl Thomas, Texas (5-10, 197)

Thomas isn’t the biggest or most physically imposing safety in the country, but he’s a fluid defensive back who exhibits impressive closing speed and always seems to be around the football. He has impressive balance and body control in his drop and always seems to have his feet under him ready to break on a play. He currently has five interceptions to go along with 33 tackles and has the makings of a real ball-hawking defender at the next level. I could see Thomas maybe needing a year of seasoning to adjust to the NFL game, like any other redshirt sophomore, but he definitely has the talent and overall instincts to warrant a starting spot at the next level.

ILB Chris Galippo, USC (6-2, 255)

Galippo has done a nice job not only replacing former USC All-American pick Rey Maualuga inside, he’s also quickly carving out his own niche as one of the nation’s top middle linebackers. He’s second on the Trojans in tackles (48), displays impressive closing speed for a guy his size and always seems to be around the football. Obviously, Galippo would be better served staying at least one more year at USC to improve his draft stock, but after looking over the weak senior middle linebacker class, he has to realize that he would quickly rank near the top of the group if he declares.

Others worth monitoring

RB John Clay, Wisconsin (6-1, 247)

A powerful inside runner who has the ability to wear down opposing defenses and simply gets stronger as the game goes on. Exhibits good natural running ability, but needs to lose some weight to maximize his potential at the next level.

RB Chris Rainey, Florida (5-9, 174)

An explosive playmaker who has the ability to make a man miss and take it the distance every time he touches the ball. He’s never going to be a featured back at the next level, but he possesses the athleticism to develop into a real X-factor on an NFL offense.

OT Blake DeChristopher, Virginia Tech (6-5, 312)

A physical force on the right side of the offensive line who possesses the power and natural strength to consistently create a big push in the run game.

DE Matt Conrath, Virginia (6-7, 270)

A tall, long-armed lineman who plays with a motor and is developing into quite a five-technique defensive end in Al Groh’s 3-4 defense. He has a frame that can certainly fill out and offers a nice bit of upside at the next level.

ILB Barquell Rivers, Virginia Tech (6-0, 237)

Currently leads the Virginia Tech defense in tackles and possesses the power and range to consistently make plays on all levels of the field.

ILB Brandon Maye, Clemson (6-3, 230)

A tackling machine inside who possesses a nice blend of power, fluidity and range for the position.

OLB Travis Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2, 232)

Possesses impressive athleticism for a guy his size and is at his best playing in space and working in pursuit.

S Tyler Sash, Iowa (6-1, 210)

An instinctive, ball-hawking safety who has consistently made plays in the pass game this season.

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