With the number of underclassmen declaring for the 2014 draft expected to challenge — if not topple — last year’s record of 73 early entrants, the giving season may occur in early May rather than late December for NFL teams.
Scouts are especially excited about the quarterback class, which boasts one clear-cut first round talent in Fresno State senior Derek Carr and is expected to get a strong infusion with Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles and UCLA’s Brett Hundley among the talented underclassmen considering making the jump.
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.
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-6, 268, 4.65)* — There is no denying that by registering just three sacks (and zero forced fumbles) in the 2013 regular season, Clowney has filled to live up to expectations. He also enflamed concerns about his maturity with a Dec. 7 speeding ticket in which he was clocked at 110 mph. Clowney’s red flags are real, but so is his talent. In 13 years of grading prospects for the NFL Draft, Clowney competes only with former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers (2002) as the most gifted I’ve ever seen.
2. 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 (70.2 percent completion rate with 28 touchdowns against just four interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that forces him to make tough throws. Bridgewater’s slight frame and level of competition are concerns. Bridgewater’s poise will be tested in the Florida Citrus Bowl on Dec. 28 as he’ll be facing his hometown Miami Hurricanes in the game most believe will be his last at the collegiate level.
3. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73) – A running back until last season, Barr has emerged as one of the elite prospects in the country and is my top-rated senior at any position. A powerful and fluid athlete at his best rushing off the edge, Barr was named the 2013 recipient of the LOTT Impact Award with 62 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles over the regular season.
4. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-3, 215, 4.78) – Carr’s staggering production (70.1 completion percentage, 48 TDs, seven INTs) is 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. Back in 2002, older brother, David, sealed up the No. 1 overall pick with a dominant performance at the Senior Bowl. It isn’t out of the question that Derek could match the feat 12 years later.
5. 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.
6. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49)* — With 85 catches for 1,235 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013, Watkins erased any memories of his disappointing sophomore campaign. He is an explosive athlete with impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball. Unlike some of his teammates, Watkins played well against Clemson’s top opponents this season, including against Florida State South Carolina. Watkins’ matchup against Ohio State’s Bradley Roby in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 may be the most tantalizing one on one matchup of the bowl season.
7. 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. His ability in coverage played a huge role in the Spartans’ run to the Big Ten Championship, as was recognized with Dennard winning the Thorpe Award as the nation’s elite defensive back.
8. 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. Athletic and aggressive, Kouandjio could overtake some of the other top tackles in this class should he elect to enter the draft a year early.
9. OT Cameron Erving, Florida State (6-5, 310, 5.26)* – Erving played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, but looked like a natural when moved to left tackle a season ago, though he remains a bit inconsistent. Long, balanced and athletic, he’s a hidden factor in the dynamic play of freshman quarterback Jameis Winston and could enjoy a “quiet” ride into the top 10 of the 2014 draft just as former Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel did a year while blocking for Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
10. 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.
11. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66) – With a 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, 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.
12. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M (6-5, 300, 5.15)* – Overshadowed by all of the talent on the Aggies’ roster, Ogbuehi is an exciting prospect in his own right. A standout at right guard a year ago, Ogbuehi (pronounced ah-BOO-hee) took over for Jake Matthews at right tackle in 2013 and has excelled. Possessing long arms and light feet, Ogbuehi’s offers more upside than his more celebrated teammate, though he is not yet as polished.
13. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 225, 4.58)* — Like his famous quarterback Johnny Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he has a big decision to make after dominating the SEC most of the season. 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 struggled in his final two regular-season games, catching just eight passes for a combined 59 yards in losses to LSU and Missouri.
14. 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.
15. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon (5-10, 190, 4.52)* — Lost in the hype of Oregon’s offense are a number of highly regarded defenders, including Ekpre-Olomu, who combines great instincts, agility and physicality to shut down his side of the field. Ekpre-Olomu’s toughness on the perimeter played a significant role in Oregon’s win over Oregon State in the Civil War, as he posted 12 tackles (all solos), deflected three passes and intercepted another while helping to limit Beavers star WR Brandin Cooks.
16. 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. He certainly looked the part against Ohio State, dominating the action up front.
17. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 303, 4.89)* — Offseason sports hernia surgery may have played a role in Tuitt weighing 20 pounds more this season than a year ago, and early on the extra weight seemed to be slowing him. He played much better over the second half of the season, however, and his athleticism and frame project well to either scheme in the NFL.
18. 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 (58 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 14 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.
19. 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 hasn’t been a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro, who finished the regular season with 98 catches for 1,240 yards and seven touchdowns. Scouts are beginning to mention the name Jimmy Graham when discussing the Red Raiders’ junior. After dropping a few passes against Texas in his regular-season finale Nov. 30, Amaro will be tested against an aggressive Arizona State defense in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30.
20. 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, making him a bit of a boom-or-bust prospect at this early point.
21. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51)* — A nagging left knee injury has hampered Lee for much of the 2013 season, robbing the reigning Biletnikof Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy, he starred against Stanford Nov. 16, helping guide the Trojans to the upset win and seeming to solidify his stock – only to register a relatively nondescript six grabs for 69 yards in the Nov. 30 loss to UCLA.
22. 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.
23. 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.
24. 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. No one played better for the Buckeyes against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship than Shazier, who recorded 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a blocked punt against the Spartans.
25. 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, but 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.
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. QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida* (6-3, 230, 4.78) — A prototypically built pocket passer with good awareness and anticipation, Bortles looks the part of an NFL starting quarterback. Should he star in UCF’s Fiesta Bowl showdown with the explosive Baylor Bears, the junior may have a tough time ignoring the NFL buzz his play is building.
28. 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 Percy Harvin, the Biletnikof Award finalist is rewriting school and conference record books with 120 catches for 1,670 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season.
29. 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.
30. 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.
31. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington* (6-6, 276, 4.75) — The third-year junior didn’t enjoy the flashy season many projected, but that was largely due to the Huskies utilizing Seferian-Jenkins more as a blocker and decoy rather than as the focal point of their offense. He may not possess the straight-line speed of the two tight ends ranked higher on this list (UNC’s Ebron, Texas Tech’s Amaro), but the NFL will grade him highly for the same reason the Mackey Award Committee did – he’s the best all-around tight end in the country.
32. OG David Yankey, Stanford* (6-5, 314, 5.08) — Another impressive performance against two-time defending Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton has Yankey’s stock rising. Athletic and powerful, Yankey 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.
Just missed the cut:
DT Will Sutton, Arizona State
OLB Vic Beasley, Clemson*
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
RB Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona*
ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
QB Brett Hundley, UCLA*
WR Allen Robinson, Penn State*
FS Hasean Clinton-Dix, Alabama*
OT La’el Collins, LSU*
OG Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA*
DE/OLB Trevor Reilly, Utah
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
DT Ego Ferguson, LSU*
OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
*Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for www.NFLDraftScout.com, a property of The Sports Xchange distributed in partnership with CBSSports.com”