Analyzing Top Positional Players in the 2014 NFL Draft

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What History Can Teach Us About the Draft's Stars

Analyzing Top Positional Players in the 2014 NFL Draft

The NFL Draft started back in 1936, a time when there was no media coverage and nine rounds of selections.  That year, only 24 of the 81 drafted players opted to sign contracts and play in the National Football League.  The draft has changed dramatically over the past 70-odd years.  Last year, the 1st overall pick, Eric Fisher, signed a five-year contract worth more than $22 million dollars.  He’d have been crazy to turn that down.  Today, the draft is a 3-day event that consists of seven rounds with 32 picks in each.  As significant as the draft’s evolution has been, similar players pop up each and every year.  The top prospects of the 2014 NFL Draft are no different, and we can look to history to show us how they may perform over the rest of their careers.

My No. 1 QB – Blake Bortles (UCF)

What the experts are saying:
The 6’5”, 230-pound quarterback out of the Sunshine State has all of the physical tools that teams look for in a franchise pocket passer.  He’s big, has good mechanics, and is exceptional at evading rushers and extending plays.  He’s also a winner, going 22-5 at UCF and defeating Baylor in the school’s first ever BCS bowl appearance.  But Bortles played in the weak American Athletic Conference and operated largely out of the shotgun.  Stronger competition and more snaps under center may make his transition difficult.  Being an underclassman, he will need some time to develop and would benefit greatly from sitting for a few years behind an experienced quarterback.  If we were evaluating prospects based on the attractiveness of their girlfriends, Bortles may still rank No. 1 (see: Lindsey Duke).

Best Case Scenario:
Jon Gruden sees a little bit of Ben Roethlisberger in Blake Bortles.  Both are big-bodied field commanders who played at mid-majors in the collegiate ranks.  Roethlisberger was drafted 11th overall in 2004, won the award for offensive rookie of the year and became the youngest quarterback ever (at the time) to win a championship at the age of 23.  Roethlisberger currently owns 2 Super Bowl rings and is likely to end up in the NFL Hall of Fame after he retires.  The quarterbacks' size, accuracy, and origin mirror each other closely, but Bortles will need an elite coach and scheme to rival Big Ben’s success.

Worst Case Scenario:
I see a little more of Daunte Culpepper in Bortles.  Culpepper who also played at UCF was the 11th pick in the NFL Draft just like Big Ben.  At 6’4”, 265-pounds, the former Knight shares comparable physical attributes with Bortles.  Unlike Roethlisberger, Culpepper never won a championship and is now unemployed after bouncing around a bunch of teams throughout his career.  He wasn’t necessarily a bust, but without Randy Moss by his side and after a devastating knee injury, Culpepper’s career was largely uneventful.  Christian Ponder is a more recent example that fits Bortles’ mold.  Though not as big in stature as Blake, Ponder has wheels too, rushing adequately throughout his collegiate career.  He was drafted 12th overall, but is widely considered a bust, accounting for more turnovers than touchdowns since he was thrust into the starting lineup for the Vikings in 2011.  Scouts think Bortles has a high ceiling, but if he follows Ponder’s path, that ceiling may come crashing down very quickly. 

My No. 1 RB – Andre Williams (Boston College)

What the experts are saying:
In a draft class that is weak on running backs, Andre Williams might just be the best rusher.  As a senior at Boston College, Williams rushed for 2,177 yards, 18 TDs and finished 4th in Heisman voting.  Among backs, the BC grad had the combine’s best numbers in the areas of broad jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle.  Williams was not much of a receiver in college, but he is a workhorse on the ground.  However, many scouts are concerned that Andre is the product of a dominant offensive line.  Williams is a projected 3rd round pick.

Best Case Scenario:
Speed is the biggest question for Andre Williams. Sound familiar?  Earl Campbell lacked the same attribute, running a 4.6 40-yard dash back in 1978.  After winning the Heisman in college, Campbell immediately thrived in the NFL.  In his first year as a pro, Campbell led the league in rushing, was dubbed Rookie of the Year, and also won Offensive Player of the Year.  Earl was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best backs of all time.  Allegedly, when the two met at the Heisman award ceremony in 2013, Campbell gave Williams the title of “Little Earl”.  If his efforts take him anywhere near the level of this legend, Williams could be one of the NFL’s most productive backs in no time.

Worst Case Scenario:
Williams is 1 of 16 players to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single collegiate season.  After his senior year, the BC back joined Barry Sanders, Matt Forte, LaDainian Tomlinson, and many other greats in the prestigious 2,000-yard club.  However, Andre is probably closer in skill level to a Kevin Smith (2,567 yards) than he is to Sanders.  Like Smith, Williams will likely fall into the middle rounds because of some understandable doubts about his ability.  Though Smith is a different type of back than Williams, they face similar challenges transitioning to the NFL.  Scouts had doubts about Smith’s involvement in the pass game.  His speed was questioned, though he ran in the 4.4’s consistently at the combine and his pro day.  After playing only 5 years in the NFL, Smith accumulated less yardage (2,338) than he did during his entire junior season at UCF.  Williams would like to last longer than half a decade in the league, but considering the lowering shelf life of NFL running backs nobody would be too surprised if he was a free agent in 2020.

My No. 1 WR – Sammy Watkins (Clemson)

What the experts are saying:
Watkins was the fourth true freshman 1st team All-American in college history, along with Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk, and Adrian Peterson.  Barring injury, Watkins is the biggest sure thing in this draft.  He has world-class speed and is a natural receiver.  Watkins makes the most out of nothing with an incredible ability to make defenders miss after the catch.  He is also explosive in the return game, which is just an added bonus to already solid skill-set.  The only doubts about Sammy are his durability and the possibility that his production may have been a result of Clemson’s pass-heavy system.

Best Case Scenario:
Sammy Watkins could end up being a much better Percy Harvin.  Both players are speed demons that got a good amount of touches behind the line of scrimmage.  Both are incredibly dangerous returners that strike fear in opposing special teams units.  Both are highly susceptible to injury, sitting out many games during their college years because of ankle issues.  Both receivers left college early.  But, where the two differ is in the area of size.  Harvin never really ran over defenders at Florida, something Watkins loves to do.  Watkins is a few inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier than Harvin, which leads one to believe that the Clemson Tiger will be more productive and more durable as a pro.  Harvin’s career is young, but he has fared well in his few years as a professional decoy.  In any type of offense, Watkins has the potential to burn lots of NFL defenses very early in his career.

Worst Case Scenario:
Watkins has drawn comparisons to Donté Stallworth, who last played in the NFL for one game of the 2012 season with the New England Patriots.  Stallworth’s best year was with the New Orleans Saints, when he caught 8 TD’s.  At first glance, the receivers seem identical, with a slight advantage being given to Stallworth. Stallworth ran a 4.22 40, Watkins a 4.43.  Stallworth had a 39-inch vertical, Watkins 34 inches.  But Watkins is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Stallworth was coming out of college.  This could be the determining factor in differentiating the two receivers.  Although, if Watkins turns out to be a Stallworth clone, there will be one unbelievably upset general manager out there.

My No. 1 TE – Eric Ebron (North Carolina)

What the experts are saying:
The tight end needs to develop his blocking skills, but he is exceptionally talented as a receiver.  In 2013, Ebron set the ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 973.  At the college level, Ebron got away with his poor blocking ability.  In order to be an every down tight end at the next level he must get bigger and stronger.  6’4”, 250 might not cut it against the toughest defenders in the NFL.  Recent reports call him inconsistent and an egomaniac.  Still, Ebron runs the fastest 40-yard dash out of all tight ends and is universally regarded as the best athlete at his position.

Best Case Scenario:
Todd McShay believes that Eric Ebron is exactly like Antonio Gates when he was coming out of college.  In fact, he sees Ebron as more polished entering the NFL Draft.  Like Gates, Ebron played basketball in high school and scouts drool over his ability to emulate small forwards athletically.   Gates is 10 pounds heavier but both players stand at 6’4”.  Built primarily as a receiver, Gates has caught 87 touchdowns in his career and was selected as 1st team All-Pro twice.  At 33 years old, Gates is still playing in the NFL and is the 7th tight end in NFL history with more than 500 catches.  In today’s offensive league, Eric Ebron could end up being a lethal pass catcher that brings an immediate impact to any team.

Worst Case Scenario:
Ebron also looks like Kellen Winslow Jr. out of the University of Miami.  Winslow measured close to Ebron, at 6’4”, 251 pounds coming out of school.  The Hurricane was an All-American, a winner of the Mackey Award, and his dad was a former Hall of Fame tight end for the San Diego Chargers.  His draft analysis was essentially the same as Ebron: a “tremendous athlete” lacking “functional football strength” seeing “average results blocking”, and having a reputation as a “high maintenance” prospect (Sports Illustrated).  In 2013, Winslow was arrested for using synthetic marijuana while masturbating in his car in the parking lot of a Target in New Jersey.  Let’s hope Ebron’s career never reaches that low of a point.

My No. 1 OL – Greg Robinson (Auburn)

What the experts are saying:
Robinson is a physically impressive offensive tackle who led the way for Tre Mason and Auburn’s rushing attack this past year.  He is a great run blocker, has extremely long arms, and is very balanced and athletic in passing sets.  Robinson is the consensus No. 1 tackle in the draft; scouts’ biggest concern is his raw technique.  Having faced off each game against the best defenders in the nation from the SEC, Robinson has played at the highest competitive level to this point.  With his unique blend of size and strength, he has the potential to become a franchise left tackle protecting some lucky quarterback’s blind side for years.

Best Case Scenario:
Some scouts think Greg Robinson is a spitting image of Hall of Famer Larry Allen.  In 12 seasons, Allen was a six-time All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl 10 times.  At 6’5, 332 pounds, Robinson actually trumps the Sonoma State graduate (I verified that this school does in fact exist) in terms of size.  More than anything, the tackles are similar in the sense that they both grew up in a very challenging environment.  Robinson’s mother is a widow who struggles to make enough money to support her kids, two of which are currently in jail on drug related charges.  Allen’s story is eerily similar.  He grew up in Compton, being raised by a single mother, and was surrounded by drugs and violence, even being stabbed 12 times in the head as a 9-year-old child.  If their past similarities are any indication, Robinson and Allen may share a future in Canton before we know it.

Worst Case Scenario:
Tony Mandarich serves as a perfect example of an offensive lineman with unreal hype that ended up becoming a bust at the next level.  Although he was aided by steroid usage, Mandarich’s numbers looked very close to Robinson’s.  Both players were hailed as supreme athletes, and both tackles were featured in run-heavy college offenses.  Mandarich was supposed to be the most powerful professional of all time, but he failed to play more than 10 years in the NFL.  Being so big and supporting so much weight has its prices.  Robinson has no links to performance enhancing drugs, but he could easily become one of many forgotten big men whose potential never panned out.

My No. 1 DL – Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)

What the experts are saying:
Clowney was the No. 1 prospect leaving high school, and he has maintained that ranking after a short three-year college career.  At 6’6”, 265 pounds, Clowney is an athletic freak, even amongst the ultra-gifted SEC football players.  However, his athleticism hasn’t translated into much production over his collegiate career.  As a junior, Clowney registered only three sacks and has missed some games in college due to minor foot injuries.  He definitely passes the eye-test, but many scouts have questioned his on-field effort and his off-the-field conduct.

Best Case Scenario:
Clowney is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, which is precisely how scouts regarded Julius Peppers entering the 2002 NFL Draft.  Similarly, this defensive end’s work ethic was seen as shaky at best.  As Pat Kirwin wrote in the wake of the 2002 draft, “There are some questions about Peppers' motor and his ability to play hard all the time”. Both players had weaker junior campaigns than the strong numbers that were seen in their sophomore years.  However, a year after choosing Peppers, the Carolina Panthers found themselves in the Super Bowl.  Overall, Clowney looks to be a slightly smaller, more athletic version of Julius Peppers.  If Clowney can learn under a good defensive coordinator in a consistent scheme, watch out NFL, we may have a new sack leader on our hands.

Worst Case Scenario:
In 2000, the Browns drafted Courtney Brown out of Penn State with the No. 1 overall pick.  Brown was supposed to be the cornerstone of their defense after he had earned All-America honors and set numerous team records in Happy Valley.  Raised in South Carolina just like Clowney, Courtney Brown excelled on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball in high school and performed at a very high level before he entered the league.  At his Penn State pro day, Brown measured at 6’5”, 270 pounds, ran a 4.5 40-yard dash and generally amazed scouts with his athleticism.  There was no doubt that he was talented, but Brown left the league abruptly after six seasons tallying only 19 sacks.  Like Clowney, Brown sat out numerous games due to injury.  Coaches must be wary of issues such as injury and run-in’s with the law (if Clowney has any going forward), problems that can bring even the most accomplished athletes back down to earth.

My No. 1 ILB – Shayne Skov (Stanford)

What the experts are saying:
Skov has had a remarkable career at Stanford.  Shayne led a strong defense in tackles three years in a row on his way to becoming a Butkus Award finalist.  Measuring at 6’2”, 245 pounds, Skov is a good enough size to compete on a down-to-down basis in the middle of the field at the next level. On the field, he is an emotional and vocal leader, as well as a sure tackler.  Scouts love his instincts and relentless effort. Skov has had his fair share of troubles though, tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee in 2011 and being arrested for a DUI early in 2012.  Major doubts arise with his durability and his overall athletic ability.  Skov is projected as a 4th-5th round pick. 

Best Case Scenario:
Remember Zach Thomas?  Zach was another undersized inside linebacker picked in the 5th round.  Thomas clogged the gaps during his years at Texas Tech, but scouts weren’t impressed by his atypical size and speed.  The tremendous linebacker made up for his shortcomings with unparalleled tenacity and instinct.  With the Miami Dolphins, Thomas was a team captain who ranked as one of the NFL’s leading tacklers year after year.  Thomas earned seven trips to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 1998, despite lacking the “physical ability” to succeed in the NFL.  Shayne Skov looks to prove everyone wrong for all of the same reasons as Zach Thomas.  He may never be a Hall of Famer, but letting Skov drop too far in the draft could be a big mistake.

Worst Case Scenario:
In 2006, with the 18th overall pick, the Dallas Cowboys drafted Bobby Carpenter out of Ohio State.  Carpenter is slightly bigger than Skov but he too was heralded for his terrific instincts, work ethic, and aggressive play.  Scouts hesitated in declaring Carpenter pro-ready, citing his below average explosiveness and quickness.  The Ohio State linebacker also had a college ankle injury that threatened to contain his professional productivity.  Ultimately, scouts were right.  Carpenter is no longer in the league and he started only 3 games with Dallas in his few years with the team.  If Skov’s intensity and willpower aren’t enough to propel his NFL career, he and Carpenter may end up in the same boat.

My No. 1 OLB – Khalil Mack

What the experts are saying:
Khalil Mack had only one FBS offer in high school, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the premiere prospects in this class.  Weighing in at 6’3”, 250 pounds, Mack is a load coming off the edge to rush the passer.  Many teams consider Mack the best player entering the NFL Draft this year because of his versatility, supreme athleticism, and collegiate production despite being game-planned against week after week.  However, Khalil played in the MAC, one of the weakest conferences in the nation.  Other than that minor discrepancy, scouts see Mack as a guy who should be able to do great things on defense at the next level.

Best Case Scenario:
He finished college at a small school with 27 sacks and 55.5 tackles for loss.  Nope, I’m not talking about Khalil Mack.  Those are the numbers for DeMarcus Ware, 4-time All-Pro, who attended Troy University in 2005.  Mack leaves Buffalo with 28.5 sacks and 75 tackles for loss, so in a perfect world he would go on to have a more decorated career than the eventual Hall of Famer Ware.  Both players went to mid-majors where they terrorized defensive coordinators with their pass rushing abilities.  Their combine results only differ slightly in each category.   DeMarcus Ware may be nearing the end of his esteemed career, but Mack could replace him as the NFL’s scariest man off the edge of the line of scrimmage.

Worst Case Scenario:
Scouts talk about Mack like he has already been inducted into Canton.  The same comments were made about another linebacker in 2006 out of Wake Forest: Aaron Curry.  They aren’t cut from the same cloth (Mack is a rusher, Curry more of a run stopper).  But Curry serves as a reminder that not all highly touted prospects, namely big time linebackers from unproven colleges, succeed in the NFL.  Curry was drafted 4th overall, signed a 6-year, $60 million dollar contract, and shortly thereafter retired in 2012.

My No. 1 CB – Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State)

What the experts are saying:
Unless you’re a huge college football fan, you’ve probably never heard of Darqueze Dennard.  He wants to keep it that way.  That means he’s doing a good job.  Dennard is a lockdown corner and is coming off a career year in which he won the Jim Thorpe Award, annually presented to the nation’s best defensive back.  He led the Spartans’ top defense as a captain and is very experienced playing in man coverage. Dennard could use some work defending the run and because of his team’s defensive scheme, he has not truly shown his ability in zone coverage.  In addition to these negatives, the outstanding corner has had some trouble with injuries throughout his career (hernia, ankle, knee).  An injury to his left hamstring held him out of the NFL combine. 

Best Case Scenario:
Through 13 games during Dennard’s senior season, he was thrown at 111 times.  Just 17 of those passes were completed for a total of 91 yards.  These numbers equate to 0.8198 yards per attempt against Dennard. This number is the lowest ever since statistics started being recorded for corners about 50 years ago.  Who was the last cornerback to allow less than a yard per attempt?  Deion Sanders in 1988.  Sanders ended up winning the Jim Thorpe Award that year and now Dennard shares his place in the history books with the all-time great.  That’s a tough comparison to live up to but if Dennard comes anywhere near Primetime, he’ll be a mainstay in the NFL for years to come.

Worst Case Scenario:
The Arizona Cardinals selected Tom Knight, a cornerback out of the University of Iowa, No. 7 overall in the 1997 draft.  Dennard will likely fall past the No. 7 spot, due to team needs.  Both men played in the Big Ten and were big time playmakers for their respective schools.  Michigan’s Charles Woodson overshadowed the Iowa product in ‘97, but that didn’t stop teams from dreaming about Knight’s shutdown ability.  The corner lasted six lackluster seasons in the NFL recording just three interceptions over that span.  Dennard’s statistics would lead one to believe that he will be a star at the next level, but Knight shows that all of these players are busts until they prove something of themselves.

My No. 1 S – Deone Bucannon (Washington State)

What the experts are saying:
Bucannon is a 6’1”, 210-pound prospect who is known for his jarring hits across the middle of the field.  Notably, Bucannon was suspended for half of a game during the 2012 season for leading with his head against a defenseless receiver.  Nonetheless, he led Washington State in tackles that year.  The next year, he led the Pac-12 in tackles and tied for the lead in interceptions.  He is a four-year starter with an old school mentality who also contributed on special teams.  The safety impressed at the combine, topping his position in every area but the 20-yard shuttle.  Scouts dislike his tendency to play too aggressively and out of control.

Best Case Scenario:
Bucannon is a dangerous pick because of his mean streak and his gambling style of play.  Darren Woodson, who also played out west at Arizona State, had similar question marks entering the NFL Draft.  He was a ferocious hitter and was actually such a skilled tackler that he played linebacker in college.  Drafted in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys, Woodson started his career on special teams.  By the time of his retirement, Woodson had been invited to five Pro Bowls, won three Super Bowls and was a part of three All-Pro teams.  The former college walk-on now holds the record for career tackles for Dallas.  Both players measured in at 6’1” and about 215 pounds.  The similarities between the two are evident but Bucannon must prove his worth at the next level before he can be mentioned in the same breath as the Cowboys great.

Worst Case Scenario:
Roy Williams, another Dallas Cowboy, was billed as the next Ronnie Lott when leaving the Oklahoma Sooners.  He was praised for his athleticism, hard-hitting ability, and his size.  But in the league, Roy struggled mightily in coverage.  This lack of balance in defending the run and the pass is what worries some scouts about Bucannon.  Roy was built somewhat differently than Bucannon, at 6’0”, 225 pounds.  Regardless, their pre-draft analyses coincide in ways that signal comparable career paths.  Roy played for nine years in the league and while he didn’t put up the worst numbers, he didn’t live up to the hype either.  If Deone Bucannon can’t adjust to cover the NFL’s elite receivers, he may face the same fate as Roy.

By Evan Buhler

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