Early look at the top 20 NFL draft-eligible college football players taking the field in 2024 season

The deadline for players to declare for the 2024 NFL Draft has passed, so you can be reasonably confident which players on your favorite teams will be back on campus next year. Well, of course, that’s unless they enter the transfer portal when the spring window opens.

While there’s been plenty of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about the current state of college football (some of which is deserved), there’s no denying that the age of NIL has led to far more star players returning to school in recent seasons. It used to be easy to know who would be leaving for the NFL. Is he likely to be drafted? He’s gone. Now, players have the opportunity to weigh the finances. Are they better off going to the NFL as a mid to late-round pick when they could earn more money in school next season while also maybe even improving their draft stock?

If you need proof of concept, three of the 20 players I included on this list last year are back among the group heading into 2024. They also play for the same team. As you can see, this list isn’t an exact science. I’m not simply listing the top 20 prospects for the 2025 NFL Draft. It’s a mixture of NFL Draft stock and worth to their current team. I also mix things up by position.

If there’s anything to learn from this year’s list, it’s that next year’s draft class looks to be heavier on the defensive side of the ball. There’s plenty of time for new names to emerge, but last year, we were confident guys like Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Marvin Harrison would be top-five picks. This year, I couldn’t tell you who the top QB will be on anybody’s board a year from now. There’s a good chance it won’t be one of the three names listed below, but we’ll start there anyway.

Top 20 NFL draft-eligible players in 2024 season

Quinn Ewers, QB, Texas: Ewers is somewhat of a polarizing prospect. He came into college as one of the top QBs in his class, but he’s dealt with injuries throughout his two seasons as a starter for the Longhorns. When healthy, he’s displayed plenty of the talent that made him an enticing prospect and helped get the Longhorns to the College Football Playoff. If he shows improvement with new weapons in the SEC next season, he has a chance to be taken first overall.

Cam Ward, QB, Miami: Ward nearly declared for the draft this year but was lured to Miami, where he’ll have a chance to improve his stock with a Hurricanes team looking to compete for an ACC title. Ward has been inconsistent at times but had a strong season with Washington State. He has the ability to make something out of nothing that few others possess.

Carson Beck, QB, Georgia: Few QBs in the country impressed me more than Beck in 2023. He looked a bit timid early in the season but flipped a switch and became one of the better passers in the country. Honestly, some guys may go in the first round this year that I’d prefer Beck over. He has a legitimate chance to be the No. 1 pick next season.

TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State: Henderson was on this list last year, but, much like the 2022 season, he dealt with injuries that kept him out of a few games. He still averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and will be a featured player in what should be one of the best offenses in the country. Plus, while running back is not a highly coveted position in the draft’s early rounds, few backs in the country have the big-play potential Henderson does when he’s healthy.

Luther Burden, WR, Missouri: Burden was one of the top players in the 2022 recruiting class, and after a slow start as a freshman with Mizzou, he blew up in 2023. He caught 86 passes for 1,212 yards and helped lead the Tigers to a Cotton Bowl. He’s a nightmare for any defender out of the slot and could be on track for an even bigger season in 2024.

Evan Stewart, WR, Oregon: Like Burden, Stewart was one of the top receivers in the 2022 class. Unlike Burden, Stewart performed slightly better as a freshman than in his sophomore season. Still, most of that can likely be attributed to circumstances beyond Stewart’s control. Stewart has since transferred to Oregon, where he’s seen as the replacement for Troy Franklin in the Ducks’ offense. If Stewart puts together a big year in gold and green, he could play his way into the first round.

Emeka Egbuka, WR, Ohio State: Egbuka was on this list last season along with teammate Marvin Harrison Jr., but Egbuka struggled with injuries. He still finished with 41 catches for 515 yards in 10 games but averaged only 12.6 yards per reception after posting 15.6 in 2022. Regardless, he’s an incredible talent who will enter 2024 as the top receiving option in the Ohio State offense. That’s usually the first step toward being a first-round pick.

Josh Conerly Jr., OT, Oregon: Much like the QB class for next season, I’m not confident about who will be seen as the top tackle in next year’s draft. Last year, it was Penn State’s Olu Fashanu and Notre Dame’s Joe Alt. Several candidates could step up this year, and Conerly is one of my favorites. Oregon’s offensive line was a significant strength last season, and Conerly was excellent in pass protection. He has the production and the traits to garner NFL attention.

Donovan Jackson, G, Ohio State: Buckeyes everywhere you look! Seriously, Ohio State has done an excellent job convincing guys to return to school next year. Jackson isn’t the biggest name, but he’s a crucial player for the Buckeyes. Overall, the Ohio State offensive line was underwhelming in 2023, but Jackson stood out for his ability to hold up in pass protection and move people out of the way in the run game.

J.T. Tuimoloau, EDGE, Ohio State: Tuimoloau is the third member of Ohio State who was on this list last season and is returning for another run. He didn’t have as many tackles for loss in 2023 as in 2022, but he was still a nightmare for opponents as he tallied 37 pressures this season. He’ll be part of an Ohio State defensive line that should be one of the best in the country.

Jalon Walker, EDGE, Georgia: Honestly, the way things have gone in recent years, I could get away with listing Georgia’s two-deep for this story and hit on more players than I missed. Walker has a chance to emerge as a top edge rusher in the class next season. He led Georgia with five sacks in 2023 but would probably get more if playing in a scheme that blitzed more than Georgia. He’s long, quick, strong, athletic and versatile. He’s basically everything you look for in a prospect.

Walter Nolen, DL, Ole Miss: My apologies to Texas A&M fans who have already seen Evan Stewart on this list and now get Nolen thrown in their faces. Like Stewart, Nolen was one of Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting wins who will play elsewhere in 2024. Nolen’s a monster who does monster things, and he will show up at Ole Miss as the best player on its defense from Day 1 and could be a Day 1 NFL Draft pick.

Mason Graham, DL, Michigan: Remember that guy on the Michigan offensive line who terrorized Ohio State, Alabama and Washington? He will be back next year because he isn’t eligible for the draft! Graham wasn’t some unknown in the 2022 recruiting class, but he wasn’t considered an elite prospect out of high school. He’s considered elite now, though. Interior defenders who can stop the run and blow up pockets from the inside are some of the most coveted players in the sport, and Graham fits the bill.

Kenneth Grant, DL, Michigan: As does his teammate! Like Graham, Grant was a four-star prospect in the 2022 class who has developed into a monster at Michigan. He’s a giant human being who is just as capable of picking you up and throwing you out of his way as he is chasing down a running back in the open field. Seriously, writing up these last five players has my heart racing about next year’s defensive line class. 

Barrett Carter, LB, Clemson: Jeremiah Trotter led Clemson in tackles this season and will be one of the top linebackers taken in the draft, but I’m higher on Carter than Trotter. Carter is big and strong enough to help in the run game, but he’s quick enough and has the athleticism to help out in pass coverage, too. These are the traits you need to be a three-down off-ball linebacker at the NFL level right now, and should Carter continue down his current path, he’ll be a coveted player next spring.

Danny Stutsman, LB, Oklahoma: I don’t know that Stutsman has the athleticism to wow you in a combine setting, but he’s got enough to succeed at the next level. Plus, I don’t care what his cone drill looks like; just put on the tape and watch Stutsman play. He’s a heat-seeking missile who flies to the ball and puts an end to the play. He had 104 tackles for the Sooners this year, including 16 tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception.

Travis Hunter, CB, Colorado: Colorado got a lot of attention in 2023, and while there was more flash than substance overall, Hunter is flash, substance and a future first-round pick. I have him listed as a corner here, but if he wanted to play receiver at the next level, he could easily prove to be a first-round pick on that side of the ball. He’s an incredible football player who has a chance to be a perennial All-Pro at corner, just like the man coaching him in Boulder, Colorado.

Will Johnson, CB, Michigan: Johnson is the third Michigan defender from its 2022 recruiting class on this list, but he was the highest-profile player of the three and has lived up to the billing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Long, strong, athletic and with a bulldog demeanor that’s coveted at corner. There isn’t an assignment he’s unwilling to take on, nor is there one he can’t win. Any time you’re tasked with shadowing guys like Marvin Harrison Jr. and Rome Odunze, and you succeed in slowing them down, teams will notice.

Denzel Burke, CB, Ohio State: Burke isn’t the tallest corner, but his length makes up for it. He didn’t show up at Ohio State as a ready-made corner, but he’s gotten better each season with more experience, and his 2023 season was his best yet. Ohio State getting him to return for another year is a massive win for the Buckeyes and could prove to be a bigger win for Burke.

Malaki Starks, S, Georgia: Georgia had an incredible secondary this season, and it might be better in 2024. Starks is a dream prospect at safety. He possesses everything you want in a player from a physical and talent perspective, and he combines it all with the mentality of a player who could be a captain of your defense for a decade. He’s easily one of my favorite players in the country, regardless of position.

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