Some NFL franchise — Jacksonville? Houston? Or, shockingly, Atlanta? — will face a future-altering decision in May 2014 when they're faced with the top pick in a pretty loaded NFL Draft. Choose right, and the road back to respectability could be smooth. Choose wrong, and it's another year in the wilderness.
We're here to help, by laying out competing cases for two compelling options for the top pick. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Even without Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who recently announced his decision to return to school, the 2014 quarterback draft class is drawing comparisons to the storied 1983 class that produced three Hall of Famers in the first round. Is there any chance that the team owning the first pick of the draft — a team that by definition is almost certainly weak at the most important position on the field — won’t use its most precious commodity to fill its most urgent need?
The crown jewel of this year’s treasure trove of quarterbacks has spent this season laboring in the obscurity of the American Athletic Conference, but his relative lack of exposure to the average fan doesn’t mean he’s not a known commodity in war rooms across the league. Louisville Cardinals coach Charlie Strong has given the keys to his pro-style offense to Teddy Bridgewater, and the junior has responded with the kind of season one would expect from the nation’s premier signal-caller. Heading into Louisville’s season finale with Cincinnati, Bridgewater had completed 245-of-345 passes (71%) for 3,268 yards, 25 touchdowns and only three interceptions, for a passer rating of 172.8, third-best in the nation. The Cards are a miracle UCF comeback away from being in the national title picture, and in that game, a contest that inexplicably eliminated Bridgewater from the Heisman race, the quarterback did his part, completing 29-of-38 passes for 341 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Bridgewater excels in the measurables; he’s 6'3" with a rocket arm and good touch to every level of the field. And the intangibles — football IQ, reading defenses, leadership, that elusive quality known as “pocket presence” — are off the charts. He’s ready-made to step in and lead a franchise out of the wilderness, Andrew Luck-style. As with Luck, any struggling franchise would be lucky to have the chance to select the Cardinal ruler of the 2014 draft class.
– Rob Doster
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
What is this? Mario Williams vs. Vince Young: Part Deux? Of course the physically superior, “can’t miss” pass rusher is a better prospect than the fringe franchise quarterback with high boom, high bust potential — just like in 2006, when the Houston Texans controversially picked Super Mario over local legend V.Y. with the No. 1 pick. Williams has 75.5 sacks in 110 games. Young is out of football after 58 total TDs and 63 turnovers over 60 games (50 starts).
There’s no guarantee Clowney is going to be the next Williams or that Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater — the current consensus top quarterback in the 2014 draft class — will follow in Young’s long stride to obscurity. But the signs are all there.
Clowney is a beast of a defensive end, weighing in at 6'6" and 274 pounds, while possessing a skill set not seen since Julius Peppers went No. 2 overall behind Fresno State quarterback David Carr in 2002. How did those careers turn out? That’s right, Peppers has 118.0 sacks in 182 games while Carr is out of the league following 74 total TDs and 93 turnovers in 94 games (79 starts). Another example of a pass rusher with obvious All-Pro talent panning out while his debatable quarterback counterpart flamed out.
While Clowney is best known for his helmet-popping tackle for a loss, forced fumble and fumble recovery against Michigan’s Vincent Smith in last year’s Outback Bowl, the Gamecocks’ premier player is more than a one-hit wonder. The dreaded end tested off the charts before South Carolina spring ball — running a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash.
My advice to the NFL general manager with the No. 1 overall pick is to take the next Williams or Peppers, not the next Young or Carr. Go with Clowney over Bridgewater.
– Nathan Rush