Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley, Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel have taken turns the last several months as Mel Kiper's top projected selection in the NFL draft.
There should be no revolving top pick in next year's draft as long as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney stays healthy.
"I've seen enough on Clowney to know he would have been the guaranteed No. 1 pick this year," Kiper said. "With another great year, he's the No. 1 pick next year. He would have been the No. 3 or No. 4 pick last year after his freshman season."
This year's NFL draft begins tonight in New York City and runs through Saturday afternoon.
The 6-foot-6, 272-pound Clowney racked up 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season for the 11-2 Gamecocks. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and capped his sophomore year with a jarring hit of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl.
That Clowney is preparing for his junior season is great news for Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier and a problem for South Carolina's foes, but Kiper believes college superstars should have a choice.
"I don't think you should force a kid who is going to be the No. 1 pick to have to go back and risk injury for a sport that we talk about how injury-riddled it is," Kiper said. "He doesn't need to play another year, and he could have been guaranteed financial security for the rest of his life. He's a guaranteed No. 1 pick and he's forced to go back. That's not right.
"Kids should be able to make that decision. It's great for college football and it's good for the NFL because they get the development of the player, but for the kid and the family, it's not right."
Gruden's growing role
Although his name was linked to Tennessee's coaching search several months ago, former Oakland and Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden remains an ESPN analyst with an increasing role in the cable network's draft coverage. Gruden conducts a popular "Quarterback Camp" leading up to the draft and will assist in coverage beginning tonight.
"I take a lot of pride in having seen the players play a number of games," Gruden said. "Obviously with Mel Kiper and Chris Berman and the way the first round and second round goes now from the speed of the draft, I just try to be a good teammate and a good listener and take advantage of the 10 or 15 or 20 seconds or whatever time you have to give your input regarding the pick or the team that is on the clock's pick."
Gruden recently had this entertaining exchange at his "Quarterback Camp" with Tennessee's Tyler Bray:
"Peyton Manning couldn't beat what team when he was at Tennessee?" Gruden said.
"Florida," Bray replied.
"Who couldn't Tyler Bray beat?" Gruden asked.
"The whole SEC," Bray said.
Later than Sooner for Jones
Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford was the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, and the Sooners figured to have another on the way with Landry Jones. A 6-foot-4, 218-pounder, Jones threw for a staggering 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns in his career with the Sooners, but he was intercepted in 10 games last season, including each of the last seven.
"His performance leveled off from where he was early on, when he was considered to be the next Sam Bradford," Mel Kiper said. "Now you look at some bad decisions and some inaccurate throws. When he gets pressured in the pocket, some things break down fundamentally. The kid has talent and ability, and if he can harness that ability and develop that talent, you may have something.
"He went from being a first-round potential and a first-round talent as a young quarterback to somebody who leveled off and didn't progress to the point you expected and is now considered a third- or fourth-round pick."
Spurrier spurs Lattimore
Marcus Lattimore rushed for 2,677 yards in 29 career games at South Carolina but tore his left ACL in 2011 and his right ACL last season. Even healthy running backs aren't drafted as high as they once were, but Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier believes whichever team drafts Lattimore will be instantly improved.
"I've made a point to tell the world that if you've got Marcus Lattimore on your team, he makes everybody else better," Spurrier said. "He's the first guy in the meeting room and the weight room, and in workouts he always does a little extra. That stuff just rubs off on your teammates, and I tell people all the time that even though Marcus got hurt the last two years, our team was able to carry on.
"We only lost once in like 10 or 11 games without him because his influence on the team was just really something special. Whoever gets him is getting a class guy who will do exactly what the coaches ask him to do, and it will rub off on his teammates."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.