Big Board: Underclassmen, especially QBs, make draft class deep
by Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com
Jan. 16, 2014 2:32 PM ET
More Draft: 2014 NFL Mock Drafts | Prospect Rankings | Latest news | Underclassmen
In large part due to a record-breaking number of underclassmen, the 2014 NFL Draft promises to be much stronger and deeper than last year's crop. The most obvious difference lies at the quarterback position where a trio of underclassmen -- Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida's Blake Bortles and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel -- could each wind up among the top five picks.
The order they're selected, however, could be a matter of personal preferences for the clubs picking that high because each comes with plenty of promise but also red flags.
The Big Board isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the projected selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 32 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL draft.
* denotes underclassman
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-6, 268, 4.65)*: There is no denying that Clowney failed to live up to expectations statistically-speaking. He also inflamed concerns about his maturity with two speeding tickets before the Gamecocks' bowl game. Clowney's red flags are real, but so is his talent. Imposing, explosive and more technically sound than many realize, Clowney competes only with former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers (2002) as the most gifted defensive end prospect I have ever seen.
2. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, 5.14): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliche true -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He has played well at left tackle this season after starring at right tackle over his first three years. Matthews is a terrific football player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency. He is not, however, an elite athlete and some view his future back on the right side in the NFL.
3. OT Greg Robinson, Auburn* (6-5, 320, 5.38): Redshirt offensive linemen rarely earn more than a whisper in scouting circles, but the buzz generating around the Tigers' star left tackle is venturing into deafening. Physical and tenacious, Robinson is a grizzly bear in the running game, mauling opponents with an exciting blend of size (6-5, 320 pounds), strength and athleticism. Auburn's reliance on the running game, however, has given Robinson few opportunities in pass protection, meaning he could struggle initially in this role. Robinson isn't as polished as Matthews, which is why he ranks behind the Aggies' star for me, but the redshirt sophomore possesses an extraordinary upside which could lead to his earning a higher selection come draft day.
4. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-3, 220, 4.65)*: In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passes and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. His success (71 percent completion rate with 31 touchdowns against just four interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that requires him to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and complete NFL throws. Those traits make Bridgewater an ideal fit in new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien's offense, making him the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft.
5. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49)*: NFL scouts love players who rise to the occasion in big games, and no one played better under the bright lights of bowl mania than Watkins. His 16 catches for 227 yards and two scores guided Clemson to a 40-35 victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Watkins is an explosive athlete whose instant acceleration, impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball should earn him Pro Bowl consideration early in his NFL career.
6. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73): Barr's emergence as one of the nation's elite NFL prospects has been well documented. A running back early in his career, Barr exploded in 2012 in his first season on the defensive side of the ball and backed it up with another spectacular campaign in 2013, including 65 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, earning him the Lott IMPACT Trophy. His burst, length and power make him tough to handle on the edge.
7. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66): With an FBS-record 16 career forced fumbles and record-tying 75 career tackles for loss, Mack's statistics jump off the page. Against the most gifted opponents he faced this year (Ohio State, Baylor, Connecticut), it was his game that jumped off the screen. His size, instincts and agility as an edge rusher make him equally intriguing to teams operating out of a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
8. QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida* (6-3, 230, 4.78): A prototypically-built pocket passer with good awareness, athleticism and arm talent, Bortles looks the part of an NFL starting quarterback. He is methodical in his set-up and delivery of the ball and is a bit inconsistent with his accuracy, but the mettle he showed in guiding UCF to several comeback victories in 2013 has scouts buzzing. Bortles isn't as polished as Bridgewater, but he may possess an even higher upside. A top 10 pick is likely and it isn't out of the question that he'll rank as the best quarterback for some, potentially including new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, whose Penn State team was beaten by UCF in 2013.
9. OLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (6-2, 232, 4.56): While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass. Mosley lacks the bulk scouts want in a pass rusher but his awareness in coverage is special. While the tape is phenomenal, Mosley has undergone multiple surgeries (knee, shoulder) over his career and could be the latest Alabama player to receive medical red-flags from some evaluators.
10. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51)*: A nagging left knee injury hampered Lee for much of the 2013 season, robbing the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State, however, Lee showed off his playmaking ability, hauling in seven passes for 118 yards and two scores. Lee's relatively slight frame could lead to durability issues in the NFL, but his first round skill-set is undeniable.
11. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-11, 197, 4.52): Quick feet, loose hips and a fluid turning motion make Dennard a classic cover corner capable of shutting down half the field. Dennard allowed only three completions in 31 passes of 15-plus yards targeted against him this season. His ability in coverage played a huge role in the Spartans' run to a Rose Bowl victory, and he won the Thorpe Award as the nation's elite defensive back. The only factor keeping Dennard from a selection in the top half of the first round is the question about his straight-line speed.
12. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina (6-4, 245, 4.67)*: Ebron possesses a jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism that has earned comparisons to 49ers star Vernon Davis. Like Davis, however, Ebron struggles with consistency, relying too much on his athleticism rather than dedicating himself to learning the finer techniques of the position. Ebron will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 draft.
13. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (5-11, 210, 4.45)*: Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy while on the move make him a mesmerizing prospect who will almost surely be drafted earlier than I rank him. While dynamic throughout his career - including in the Aggies' thrilling comeback over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- red flags were raised with mediocre performances against LSU and Missouri to end the regular season. Bottled in the pocket by both, Manziel was unable to throw his receivers open and he struggled. The NFL rule books have never been more accommodating to dual-threat passers, but consistent accuracy from the pocket remains the most critical element to quarterback play at the next level.
14. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 225, 4.58)*: Like Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he has shown star ability in dominating the SEC. Deceptively fast and possessing great body control as well as timing, Evans is an exciting split end prospect who reminds scouts of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Vincent Jackson. Of concern, however, is the fact that Evans does not possess elite top-end speed and struggled when defenders matched his physicality.
15. OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (6-5, 312, 5.12)*: Nick Saban questioned draft analysts for pegging Kouandjio as a first-round talent before the season, but given the junior left tackle's exciting skill-set the projection has been an easy one. Long-armed, athletic and aggressive, Kouandjio boasts many of the traits scouts are looking for in a potential Pro Bowl offensive tackle. However, a lack of elite foot quickness was exposed by the Oklahoma Sooners pass rush in their Sugar Bowl upset win over the Tide.
16. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-3, 215, 4.78): Carr's staggering production (68.2 completion percentage, 50 TDs, 8 INTs) was certainly inflated by head coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack and legitimately talented receiving corps, but there is no denying his talent. His release and velocity are as impressive as any college quarterback in the country. Unfortunately, Carr's career ended with a thud in a disappointing performance against Southern Cal in the Las Vegas Bowl. Hit early by an athletic USC front, Carr developed happy feet and misfired often in the 45-20 beat down. The loss left Carr 0-2 in bowl games and may add fuel to the speculation that he'll struggle with pressure in the NFL, just as his older brother, David, did after leaving Fresno State as the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 and playing behind a poor offensive line for the expansion Houston Texans. Carr needs to restore his slipping stock with an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl.
17. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 310, 5.04): Possessing an impressive combination of size, strength and toughness, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career with the Wolverines. Lewan was one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2013 campaign in Ann Arbor. Before drafting him, however, NFL teams will want to investigate Lewan's role -- if any -- in an alleged assault on an Ohio State fan following this year's Big Game.
18. TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (6-5, 260, 4.67)*: The NFL is looking for seam threats rather than extra blockers at tight end in today's game and there wasn't a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro, who finished the regular season with 106 catches for 1,352 yards, the most ever from a tight end in FBS history. Despite Amaro's size, he doesn't provide much as a blocker; he split out wide as a glorified slot receiver throughout most of his collegiate career. In this role he has proven to be a Jimmy Graham-like matchup nightmare for defenders.
19. DE Kony Ealy, Missouri (6-5, 275, 4.77)*: While teammate Michael Sam garnered more hype, scouts are increasingly intrigued by Ealy due to his impressive combination of size and athleticism. A highly versatile defender with experience inside and out for the Tigers, Ealy projects nicely to both the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments and the first-team All-SEC pick is just scratching the surface of his potential.
20. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 303, 4.89)*: Clowney isn't the only highly regarded defensive lineman who struggled under the burden of monstrous expectations in 2013. After dominating as a sophomore, Tuitt began his junior campaign out of shape (after missing spring due to hernia surgery) and struggled with consistency all season. Highly athletic and possessing the frame to star as either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, Tuitt's upside is just too tantalizing to ignore.
21. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (6-2, 226, 4.58)*: Shazier may be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts would prefer but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender that offenses must account for on every snap. Statistics don't always tell the story, but they do with Shazier. His 143 tackles, including an eye-popping 22.5 tackles for loss, not only led the Big Ten this season, they combine to rank among the best seasons from any Buckeye defender over the past quarter century.
22. WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State (5-10, 186, 4.52)*: Beavers coach Mike Riley has made a career out of finding undersized pass-catchers to star in his offense, but Cooks is a different level of athlete than Sammie Stroughter, Markus Wheaton and the Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz). Boasting a combination of elusiveness, acceleration and toughness that is earning comparisons to Tavon Austin, the Biletnikoff Award winner shattered school and conference records and has already announced his intentions to enter the draft.
23. DE Trent Murphy, Stanford (6-6, 261, 4.85): Used as a standup outside linebacker as a well as a down defensive lineman for the Cardinal, Murphy is equally impactful in the passing game, running game and on special teams due to his instincts, physicality and awareness. His play and production (62 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks) should have earned him the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award that went to Arizona defensive lineman Will Sutton. Though he has starred in Stanford's 3-4 scheme, Murphy projects best as a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL as he does not possess ideal athleticism.
24. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6-6, 311, 4.95): Blessed with an extraordinary combination of size and athleticism, Hageman could join Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe as recent big defensive tackles whose real rise up draft boards doesn't begin until the Scouting Combine. Hageman has looked unblockable at times, but he struggles with consistency.
25. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (5-10, 182, 4.49): Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today's NFL, but agility and ball-skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012. Through the end of the 2013 regular season he led again in pass deflections (16) while recording two pass thefts. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz.
26. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200, 4.52): In terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill-set than the Cowboys' star. Gilbert, a Thorpe Award finalist, led the Big 12 with six interceptions this season and has returned just as many kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.
27. OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor (6-5, 335, 5.27): A dominating drive blocker who projects best at guard but spent the entire 2011 season protecting Robert Griffin III at left tackle, Richardson is massive, powerful and shockingly athletic. Richardson was recognized with the Jim Parker Award as the nation's top blocker and headlines a strong class of interior linemen.
28. FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville (6-2, 208, 4.55)*: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater got the national attention. Pryor was overshadowed to some degree in the scouting community, too, but scouts are turning their attention to the instinctive and hard-hitting defender. He has the size, agility and physicality that every team is looking for to lead the deep patrol. Pryor is my top-rated safety of the 2014 draft class and projects as a first-round pick if he can assure scouts of his straight-line speed.
29. OC Travis Swanson, Arkansas (6-4, 318, 5.26): If Richardson is the elite interior lineman of the 2014 senior class, Swanson ranks as a close second. Athletic, powerful and versatile (some view him as a potential guard convert), Swanson will continue former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema's tradition of churning out quality NFL prospects along the offensive line.
30. OG David Yankey, Stanford (6-5, 314, 5.08)*: Stanford may have met its match against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, but don't blame Yankey for the loss. Athletic and powerful, the talented left guard is earning similar grades from some clubs as his former teammate, David DeCastro, the No. 24 overall selection of the 2012 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
31. DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State (6-3, 265, 4.73)*: Crichton will not test as well as Clowney or Ealy, but he has been the more consistent defender over his respective career, racking up an eye-popping 51 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks over the past three seasons. He has an impressive initial burst, uses his hands well to defeat blocks and plays a tough, tenacious brand of football that I expect will help him out-perform some of the players selected ahead of him in the NFL.
32. OL Zach Martin, Notre Dame (6-4, 308, 5.15): The vast majority of Martin's school-record 52 career starts have come at left tackle but his relatively square frame will earn him a projection inside to guard for many. Regardless of where he lines up, Martin plays with the controlled aggression I love along the offensive line, latching on and controlling opponents with excellent strength.
Just missed the cut:
DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State*
RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona*
DT William Sutton, Arizona State
CB Marcus Roberson, Florida*
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington*
FS HaSean Clinton-Dix, Alabama*
ILB Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut*
WR Allen Robinson, Penn State*
OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA*
DE/OLB Trevor Reilly, Utah
WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State*
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.