USC receiver Marqise Lee (9) and UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr (11) will… (Los Angeles Times and Associated…)
Put down the leather ball. Pick up the crystal ball.
The showdown Saturday between UCLA and USC will give spectators a glimpse of at least a dozen future NFL players, and maybe more. The rosters are packed with prospects, and, in a departure from recent years, there may be more Bruins than Trojans who will wind up playing on Sundays.
In recent years, the NFL scales have tipped heavily in favor of USC, which boasts 85 draft picks since 2000, with 37 of those having been selected in the first or second rounds. During that period, UCLA has had 28 picks, nine of whom were chosen in the first two rounds.
To get a better feel for what type of budding pro talent will be on the Coliseum field, The Times asked three NFL team scouts to identify the dozen most intriguing prospects in the game, regardless of their class or draft eligibility. The scouts spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information.
It's an academic exercise in fantasy football for a number of reasons.
First, scouts do not fully evaluate a player until he is a) eligible for the draft, b) has declared he's leaving school early for the draft, or c) is likely to leave early for the draft. Partly as a courtesy to the NCAA, its de facto farm system, the NFL does not want its scouts to evaluate underclassmen. There will be ample time to study those players — and that typically involves watching every one of their college snaps — when they are eventually eligible. There's no real advantage to getting an early jump.
A few of the players on this list are underclassmen and have not been put under the microscope. Their best qualities have caught the attention of scouts, but their game video has not been dissected to determine precisely what they can and cannot do on the field.
Second, this is not a projection of where these players will be selected. Teams place a higher value on certain positions — quarterback, of course, along with left tackle, pass rushers and cornerbacks.
Myles Jack, UCLA, linebacker and running back: Jack, a freshman, stands out on both sides of the ball. The evaluators called him the best pure player on the field, one with uncanny skills, particularly for someone a year removed from high school.
Scout 1: "I think he's a better linebacker, but he's been really impressive playing both ways. He just does things naturally on the football field as far as seeing things, reacting. He's a very physical and explosive player. He seems to have all the attributes to be a very good football player in the NFL three or four years from now."
Scout 2: "He just jumps out at you. So instinctive, and that's just as a linebacker making plays all over the field. As a runner, he's violent. He's got really good power for his size, runs behind his pads and has really good speed. … True freshmen are still 18 years old. It's really rare to see someone that polished."
Scout 3: "He sells out on both sides of the ball. He makes a lot of plays in coverage, and for a true freshman that's very rare. You can have a guy play for four years and not make plays in coverage."
Anthony Barr, UCLA, linebacker: Barr switched to linebacker last season from offense and exploded onto the scene, leading the nation with 131/2 sacks and earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He was such a play-wrecker, his UCLA coaches once pulled him out of the lineup during practice so they could run their offense.
Scout 1: "He's the most athletic guy out there, especially with his speed. You can see a few holes in his game, but he's going to be a high pick, regardless. … People have to remember it's only his second season at the position, and he's only going to get better, get stronger, learn to play the blocks better. In terms of pure athletic ability and rush off the edge, he's special."
Scout 3: "Teams have really accounted for him better this year. Last year he snuck up on people. … I'm sure there have been games this year when he's been really frustrated because teams have gone out of their way to eliminate him as their first priority."
Marqise Lee, USC, receiver: After catching a Pac-12-record 118 passes last season, Lee has struggled through shoulder, knee and shin injuries this year. He's a junior, and many people are expecting him to leave for the NFL after this season.
Scout 2: "He hasn't had near the production he had last year, but he's been hurt too. He's a talented kid. He's fast, good hands, not a big guy, but he's got good enough size."
Scout 3: "After the coaching change, and when things settled down at quarterback, you could see him come back to form. Still not where he has been in the past, and I don't think he'll get there this year, but obviously the guy has shown for several years what he can do. … I think he can be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but a step below that tier of top-end, Pro Bowl-type guys."