2014 NFL draft Big Board: Top 40 prospects entering the scouting combine
The 2014 scouting combine begins on Thursday, and for the next week, the NFL news cycle will be all about the ups and downs of the best draft prospects in the country as they do everything they possibly can — both on and off the field — to get that one last rise in the eyes of every executive, coach and scout in the league. Every combine week sees players rise and fall for all kinds of reasons, and that informs the draft process all the way through.
This is where the draft process starts in earnest. As a last-minute barometer before it all begins, here’s one Big Board to consider as the combine approaches.
1. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Bridgewater may or may not be the best overall player in this draft class, but I believe that he’s clearly the best player at the most important position, which is why he’s up top here. With his mobility, ability to make the palette of NFL throws and field awareness, Bridgewater has the comprehensive skill set needed to succeed at the next level. At times, he reminds me of an embryonic Aaron Rodgers.
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Production and motivational concerns will dog Clowney through the combine and into the rest of the draft process, because narratives are written as such. But there’s still the tape to watch, and that tape shows a player that nearly every opponent is arrayed against to a ridiculous degree. Clowney can still disrupt and make things happen from multiple gaps, and that’s why he’s a special player.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The most technically sound and practiced offensive lineman in this draft class. Matthews gets pushed back once in a while, but there isn’t a better overall blocker, or one more ready for the rigors of the NFL.
4. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson doesn’t yet have Matthews’ agility or technique, but he’s already got more of both than you’d expect from a pure mauler. And make no mistake, Robinson can maul — at times, he’ll just level the defenders he’s blocking over and over. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if some line coaches saw Robinson as the more appealing prospect and he went before Matthews somewhere in the top five.
5. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
A truly special player built for any scheme, in multiple roles if need be. Possessing impressive speed for his size (6-foot-3, 248 pounds), Mack can rush from the edge or head inside on stunts just as adeptly as he can line up at linebacker depth and blow up run plays.
6. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The most explosive receiver in this class, Watkins draws comparisons to everyone from Percy Harvin to Julio Jones. Hit him on a bubble screen or end-around, and he’s a good threat to take it to the house. And in space, he explodes off the snap through seams and secondaries.
7. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Mosley is the best pure inside linebacker since Luke Kuechly. Not only is he a rare player in a field awareness sense, he also possesses impressive versatility. Mosley loves to come down against the run and mix it up, but he’s just as adept in coverage.
8. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
If you need a pure burner with size for the go or deep post route, Evans could be your man. Some will ding him for a lack of total route awareness, but that’s discounting the number of adaptations he had to make after the play broke down with Johnny Manziel as his quarterback. He’s an ideal offensive cornerstone for any team with a mobile quarterback where improvisation and play extension is a factor.
9. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
An athletic marvel, this former running back absolutely explodes off the snap, and if he’s not blocked correctly, will wreak havoc in any enemy backfield. Barr is still learning the finer points of the position he switched to before the 2012 season, and there are dings on the tape as a result, but there are few more intriguing investments in this year’s class.
10. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Dennard isn’t just a potential lockdown pass defender; he can also blitz and face up against blockers when dealing with running backs. Dennard led the Spartans with four picks and 10 pass breakups, and he’s as impressive playing trail coverage as he is when jumping routes.
11. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Lee’s stock has slipped in some quarters because people tend to think of him as an undisciplined player who freelances too much … but given Lane Kiffin’s fundamentally limited and constricting passing concepts (not to mention the school’s relative talent deficit at the quarterback position over the last few years), I’m willing to give Lee the benefit of the doubt. At his best, he reminds me of Reggie Wayne in his ability to run patterns and get open with smooth speed and acceleration. A high-quality asset who will be even better with good coaching.
12. Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Another Colts comparison — Ford reminds me of Robert Mathis at times in the ways he turns things over in the open field. He’s got great explosiveness and outstanding awareness in the open field, and he closes on the ballcarrier in a big hurry. He still has some issues in pass coverage, and I’d like to see him dip-and-rip with more consistency, but those things can be ironed out with good coaching.
13. Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
It’s quite rare to see an athlete of Nix’s size (6-2, 345 pounds) get through blockers and gaps with speed, but the tape doesn’t lie — Nix is an unusual player from that perspective. He’s got the strength and technique (including a devastating swim move) to make life very difficult for every NFL center he faces.
14. Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
If other NFL teams are going to try and copy the Seattle defensive template (hint: they are), one step is to find atypically-built linemen who can attack from different gaps in different ways. Hageman is such a player. At 6-6 and 318 pounds (with room for slightly more weight if need be), Hageman has been dominant as a nose shade and three-tech tackle, and has the base agility to become a run-stopping five-tech end in certain defenses.
15. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Let’s set the YOLO lifestyle claims aside for the time being, because you’ll hear all sorts of things both positive and negative about that. As a pure football player, Manziel comes into the NFL at the perfect time. QBs from Ben Roethlisberger to Cam Newton have proven that mobility is a virtual must for today’s signal callers, and Russell Wilson has shown that you can get things done with an exceptional football sense even if you’re not 6-3. Manziel doesn’t have Wilson’s demeanor or acumen (yet), but he’s a rare improviser in a positive sense. The problem? There are parts of his tape where he looks just about undraftable. The positive? A play or two after that clip, you’ll see him make a play that leaves you (and the defense) gasping. A rare risk/reward player, but his first-round status is undeniable.
16. Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may get more decisive nods from some because he played in an NFL-ready defense, but Pryor is the flashier — and splashier — safety. Because of his pure field speed, Pryor is able to take an extra split second reading plays, and he closes on the ball with acceleration and authority. Pryor is also fearless when playing the run, though he needs to learn to corral all that athleticism in short spaces.