I, Brandon Thorn, will be ranking and updating my personal top 5 as players officially declare for the draft, after the all-star games (East-West Shrine Game, Senior Bowl), after pro days, the NFL combine, and all the way up until right before the draft on May 8, 2014.
1a. Teddy Bridgewater/Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-3, 196 pounds, Louisville: Enough arm strength to make all the throws, needs to add at least 12-15 pounds, but has consistently shown the toughness necessary to play the position on the next level. Bridgewater has frequently played through injuries. Leading his team to a victory in the Sugar Bowl last season against a NFL-laden defense in the Florida Gators was extremely impressive. Bridgewater has improved his numbers in virtually every category in each season he has started: The 2011 season (64.5%, 14 TDs, 12 INTs), 2012 season (68.5%, 27 TDs, 8 INTs), and 2013 season (70.2%, 28 TDs, 4 INTs, with one more game to play). Bridgewater is a true pocket passer who can extend plays if he has to but by no means is it something he will do with regularity (only 204 rushing attempts in three years compared to 1,097 pass attempts). With Bridgewater’s underwhelming stature I don’t see him as being a lock for the No. 1 overall pick.
1b. Blake Bortles/RS Junior – 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, UCF: Every year there is a dark horse quarterback who seemingly shoots up the draft boards after being overlooked much of his career. This year it is Bortles. Blessed with ideal size for the position, Bortles uses it to his advantage, especially inside the pocket. There is no panic in Bortles. He uses his strong arm and impressive stature to keep calm and deliver consistent strikes down the field. Bortles stature is much more NFL-ready than any of the top quarterbacks in this class. The ability to extend plays with underrated athleticism gives Bortles another dimension to his game and a QB-guru in the NFL could develop him into a Ben Roethlisberger-esque type of player.
2. Johnny Manziel/RS Sophomore/21-years old – 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Texas A&M: Johnny Football has eyes on the back of his head on a football field and has demonstrated a very solid work ethic that often gets overlooked. His 2013 season shows how serious he is about turning himself into a better pro prospect than he was a year ago. Just look at his numbers: In 2012 Manziel threw 434 passes, completing 68.0%, with 26 TDs, and 9 INTs. In 2013 Manziel has thrown fewer passes (391, with one game to play), completed 69.1%, for more yards (3,732 yards), and more touchdowns 33 TDs. His rating has climbed from 155.3 to 170.4 and he has rushed 68 fewer times than in 2012. Manziel’s off-the-field behavior can be concerning but it isn’t enough for teams to take him off of their board. Manziel is dynamic, electric, and can certainly rejuvenate a franchise almost instantly (here’s looking at you Minnesota, Cleveland, and Jacksonville).
3. Derek Carr/RS Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Fresno State: Carr is the brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr which can serve as a blessing and a curse. It’s good because it has given him plenty of recognition but the bad part is not all of that has been good. His brother had a disappointing NFL career and the “pedigree” card gets pulled among scouts quite a bit, sometimes too much. Carr has the strongest arm in this class by a comfortable margin (his arm rivals the likes of Stafford, Flacco). Carr, like his older brother, tore through the competition in the Mountain West and this past season had a seven game stretch where he threw for 32 TDs and 2 INTs. Carr finished the year throwing 48 TDs and 7 INTs while completing 70.1% of his passes. The key is will the team that drafts him have weapons in place for him? At Fresno State Carr is used to having weapons galore so teams like Cleveland (with Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron) or Minnesota (with Cordarrelle Paterson, Kyle Rudolph, and Greg Jennings) would be much better fits than say, Jacksonville, who would benefit more from an improviser like Manziel while they add more weapons besides Cecil Shorts III.
4. Zach Mettenberger/Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, LSU: Mettenberger is a really interesting prospect because of his impressive size and very good arm strength. The hiring of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron from the Baltimore Ravens before the season has allowed Mettenberger to run a true NFL-style offense and he has really impressed. The torn ACL Mettenberger suffered at the end of the season will likely keep him out of most pre-draft workouts which may hurt him come draft time. Mettenberger has a calm demeanor on the field and has really matured since he was a freshman at LSU. Some team will have a steal in the middle of this draft if they can be patient and not require him to carry a franchise right away.
1. Ka’Deem Carey/Junior/21-years old – 5’10″, 196 pounds, Arizona:
Carey has had an extremely productive and underrated career for the Wildcats but is widely regarded as the most NFL-ready tailback in the nation. The junior is the school’s all-time leader in virtually every single-season and career rushing record as well as the Pac-12 all-time leader in others.
As a sophomore in 2012, Carey was a first-team All-American while rushing for 1,929 yards and 6.4 yards per carry average (YPC), to go along with 23 touchdowns. Carey had some monster games last year but none more so than a game against Colorado in which he became the Pac-12’s all-time leader for rushing yards in a single game with 25 rushes, 366 yards, 14.6 YPC, and 5 TDs. Carey has carried over that incredible production into this season in which he has accounted for 1,716 yards, 5.3 YPC, and 17 touchdowns. Carey has rushed 100+ yards in 15 straight games, a Pac-12 record.
Most impressively was when Arizona took on No. 5 Oregon and Carey carried them to a victory with an epic 48-carry, 206-yard, 4-TD masterpiece, demonstrating the ability to gain tough yards despite his size.
At 5’10″, 196 pounds, Carey possesses adequate enough size but plays with a ton of heart and is one of the most challenging backs in the nation to bring down with just one defender. Carey is constantly breaking tackles and runs like a player who is much more physically-imposing. Possessing great leg-drive and excellent durability, Carey is a relentless runner who also displays patience to let plays develop. This combination is extremely rare and invokes first-round credentials.
The one area that remains a question-mark for Carey is his straight-line, breakaway speed. Once the NFL Combine rolls around and the running backs run their 40-yard dash, no runner will have more on the line than Carey. If he can run under a 4.6 that should be good enough to solidify his place with the top dogs of this year’s class come draft time.
2. Bishop Sankey/Junior – 5’10″, 200 pounds, Washington:
No running back on this list has had a more productive season than Sankey who broke Corey Dillon’s school-record for most rushing yards in a season (1,695) with 1,775. Sankey also has 18 rushing touchdowns, giving him 35 for his career, also a school-record.
Sankey’s size enables him to maintain excellent leverage which combined with his aggressive running style and excellent lateral movement skills, makes him a legit workhorse runner. These skills plus his underrated catching ability (58 catches, 547 yards over the last two seasons) translate very well to the pro-level.
The most underrated skill that Sankey has is his vision and endurance. This makes the best fit for him in a zone-blocking scheme, a scheme that would utilize his patience as a runner to a tee, enabling Sankey to have a very long and very productive pro career.
3. Lache Seastrunk/RS Junior/22-years old – 5’10″, 210 pounds, Baylor:
The former Oregon Duck who transferred to Baylor in 2011 has lit up the Big-12 this season. Owning a staggering 7.8 YPC average on the season (to go along with 982 yards and 11 touchdowns) is telling in regards to the sort of big-play ability Seastrunk possesses.
With a compact frame to go along with incredible agility and quickness, scouts have fallen in love with Seastrunk’s potential as a dynamic offensive piece on the pro level. The one area of concern for Seastrunk is in his pass-blocking abilities, or lack thereof. Because Seastrunk plays in the system he plays in – one where the offense throws around 35-40 times a game – this aspect of his game has been put on full-display and the results haven’t been up to par.
The NFL is a league of details, especially for the running back. Pass-blocking is one of those overlooked aspects of earning playing time on a pro field, and is one of the skills Seastrunk hasn’t developed enough yet. In the grand scheme of his skill-set, this isn’t a major weakness, but it is the biggest concern with regards to his draft status. It should be noted that Seastrunk has zero catches on the season and while the running backs don’t get targeted much in Baylor’s offense, the stat is still somewhat disconcerting.
Overall, Seastrunk’s big-play ability and freakish athleticism put him in serious consideration for the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft.
4. Charles Sims/RS Senior/23-years old – 6′, 213 pounds, West Virginia:
Not only is Sims the dark horse of the group, he also has the best all-around skill-set on this list mostly due to his excellent pass-catching ability (think Matt Forte). Sims transferred from the University of Houston this past season so his polished skills could be put on further display in West Virginia’s spread system.
Sims hasn’t disappointed and has rushed 208 times, 1,095 yards, 5.3 YPC, 11 touchdowns to go along with 45 receptions, 401 yards, and 3 TDs. Sims is a real weapon out of the backfield who has been overlooked the entire season due to West Virginia’s disappointing 4-8 record.With his size/speed combo (with an estimated 4.45 40-yard dash) and excellent hands, scouts have already compared him to Bears RB Matt Forte because of his versatility and size.
The do-it-all back will be in contention for the first running back taken and as the off-season draft preparations progress, could separate himself from the pack entirely.
5a. Carlos Hyde/Senior/22-years-old – 6′, 235 pounds, Ohio State: Hyde has a very similar build to Arian Foster and flashes excellent quickness for a man his size in running between the tackles. I’m not sure of Hyde’s abilities as a pass-catcher because he only had 14 receptions this season, so in order to be a true No. 1 option these skills will need to be tested this off-season. Hyde’s 40-yard dash time will go a long way to help quell some concerns about just how well he will be able to get past the second-level of defenses. By all accounts Hyde is a legit workhorse type of runner who will be excellent as an in-between the tackles player on the next level.
5b. Jeremy Hill/Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, LSU
1. Sammy Watkins/Junior/20-years old – 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Clemson: Watkins is an ankle-breaking speedster who began his career as the fourth true freshman to be named a first-time All-American, linking his name with Adrian Peterson, Marshall Faulk, and Herschel Walker. Since then Watkins has had some blemishes on his record including being busted for marijuana and a few nagging injuries which caused his production to come back down to earth. Still, Watkins has done enough to show that he can be a Torrey Smith-esque receiver (only shiftier) on the next level. Right now Watkins is all but guaranteed as a top-30 pick, if he can run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, he could overtake Evans as the first receiver drafted.
2. Mike Evans/RS Sophomore/20-years old – 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Texas A&M: Evans has incredible size and the athleticism to match. What he has done this year in the SEC has been nothing short of amazing. There was a two game stretch when he was virtually unstoppable (18 catches, 566 yards, 5 TDs). Evans’ route-running is still raw but that’s from lack of experience running very many pro-caliber routes (something Texas A&M’s system doesn’t really do). Drafting Evans would give teams an instant red-zone threat that would need some time to fully develop into a legitimate No. 1 receiver. If Evans can display game-breaking speed at the combine, (4.5 or under) he would likely cement a top-15 selection in the draft.
3. Marqise Lee/Junior/22-years old – 6’, 195 pounds, USC: Lee is my favorite receiver in the class, namely because of all the adversity he has had to overcome at USC. Lee has dealt with crippling sanctions on his team, poor coaching, and inconsistent quarterback play. Lee has battled through the adversity and has shown a certain level of toughness that you just don’t see very often in receivers. Lee is a gritty football player who has the ability to take over games. In his second season Lee had one of the best seasons a receiver has ever had: 118 catches, 1,721 yards, 14 TDs, winning the Biletnikoff Award in the process. At 6’, 195 pounds, Lee is in the mold of Reggie Wayne physically and could be a steal at the end of the first-round. I don’t see Lee as a superstar on the next level, but rather a very solid player who could put together a long, productive career.
4a. Jordan Matthews/Senior/21-years old – 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, Vanderbilt
4b. Allen Robinson/Junior/20-years old – 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Penn State: Both of these players are dynamic receivers who use their big bodies and excellent hands to make the bulk of their catches. Matthews is a refined route-runner (think Keenan Allen) who is the most productive receiver in school history with tons of success against SEC defenses which cannot be overstated. Robinson is the rangier, more athletic player with a higher ceiling but more work to do to be as pro-ready as Matthews. You really couldn’t go wrong with either guy so until the combine comes around and we can get a true test of their athleticism, they will be tied.
5. Kelvin Benjamin/RS Sophomore/22-years old – 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, FSU: Benjamin is the true wildcard receiver of the draft. Benjamin’s late-season surge has put his numbers at 50 receptions, 957 yards, and 14 TDs on the season. His quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy largely due to his No. 1 target = Benjamin. Blessed with Calvin Johnson’s body alone makes him intriguing, let alone the obvious improvement he has made from last season. It appears that Benjamin could develop into a real weapon, but there are questions about his ability to separate from defenders. What will he run in the 40-yard dash? Can he get under a 4.6? If not, the second-round would likely be a more realistic option than the first.
1. Eric Ebron/Junior/20-years old – 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, North Carolina: The 2013 Second-team All-American broke Vernon Davis’ record for most receiving yards by a tight end in ACC history and set numerous school-records including most catches and yards for a season and career. Ebron is a phenomenal athlete who is surprisingly feisty and effective as a blocker and will stretch the field on the pro level right away. Needs to add another 10 pounds but he has from now until the combine to do so.
2. Austin Seferian-Jenkins/Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, Washington: Seferian-Jenkins is the most intriguing prospect at the position in this year’s class. If teams overlook the DUI-arrest earlier this year Seferian-Jenkins will get drafted before the aforementioned guys. With the most impressive size/speed/talent combination out of any tight end in this class, potential oozes out of the 2013 Mackey Award winner.
3. Jace Amaro/Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Texas Tech: Amaro has gradually improved each year at Texas Tech and really lit the college football world on fire this season. Amaro was named a First-team AP All-American and his 92 receptions and 1,240 yards were far and away the best numbers from any tight end this season. Amaro played a ton in the slot as a receiver and will be seen as a major weapon come draft time. There are some off-the-field concerns and although nothing major, Amaro hasn’t displayed any real sense of blocking prowess either.
4. Nick O’Leary/Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, FSU: O’Leary is a true “throwback” player who doesn’t wear gloves and loves to block. O’Leary’s versatility and ability to lineup in the slot, the backfield, or on the line of scrimmage make him extremely appealing to the NFL. A little undersized, O’Leary has the toughness to make up for his lack of size and has very soft hands as well. If O’Leary declares he will likely go somewhere in the 3-4 round range but could be a steal in a couple of years once he fills out of his frame a little more.
5. C.J. Fiedorowicz/Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Iowa: Fiedorowicz has underrated athleticism that didn’t get utilized very often in his career at Iowa. With the size to be an every down blocker, Fiedorowicz has good enough hands to also be a legitimate weapon on third-down as well. Once he tests at the combine and uncovers his talent a bit more he could rise up this list.
1. Jake Matthews/Senior/21-years old – 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, Texas A&M: Matthews is a three-year starter for the Aggies who was a stellar right tackle before making the move to the left tackle position this season. Johnny Manziel can credit a lot of his success to his offensive line, namely Matthews, who has been a stalwart for the last two seasons for the Heisman Trophy winner and was named a first-team AP All-American this season. Opening up holes in the run game was Matthews specialty his first two seasons before really showcasing his sophisticated skill-set in pass protection this season. The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has it in his blood to be a star on the NFL level.
2. Cyrus Kouandjio/Junior/20-years old – 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, Alabama: Alabama Head coach Nick Saban recruits only the most prototypical players and Kouandjio fits the bill. Destined for the same future as Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker (first-round offensive linemen), Kouandjio possesses all the tools that NFL teams look for in an offensive tackle and has been the protector of QB A.J. McCarron’s blind side for the last two and a half seasons and has done an admirable job. Kouandjio is a balanced tackle, capable of playing on either the right or the left side, with equal abilities in both pass-protection and run-blocking. Gifted with a massive frame capable of handling more weight (a big plus), light feet, and extremely long arms, the term “prototype” is widely used to describe the 20-year-old from Cameroon. In last year’s National Championship game vs. Notre Dame, Kouandjio graded out at 91 percent with three pancake blocks and led the way for Alabama to rush for 265 yards against the sixth ranked defense in the nation.
3. Taylor Lewan/RS Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-7, 315 pounds, Michigan: At 6-foot-7 315 pounds, Lewan possesses ideal size and strength for a left tackle, but lacks in the athletic department ever so slightly, giving most of his value on the right side at the pro level. This is not a knock on Lewan, as he has been rock-solid for Michigan the last three seasons. There are a wide range of opinions on Lewan, especially around his decision to return for another year after being viewed as a lock for the top 20 picks in 2013. While the decision certainly hasn’t helped his stock – as he has struggled at times this season – it shouldn’t hurt him as much as some are claiming it will. Lewan has faced off against some of the most talented defensive ends in the country, including a respectable performance against Jadeveon Clowney last season in which they each got the best of each other. Lewan projects best on the right side in the NFL which may wind up slotting him at the bottom half of round one.
4. Cameron Erving/RS Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Florida State: Erving was named a second-team AP All-American this season and has been an excellent blindside protector of an impressive list of quarterbacks over the last two seasons: First-round pick E.J. Manuel and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Erving has all of the tools to be the second or third tackle taken and could very well move ahead of Lewan after the combine.
5a. Antonio Richardson/Junior/21-years old – 6-foot-6, 327 pounds, Tennessee: Richardson is every bit as talented as the previously mentioned tackles and could be drafted as the second overall tackle in the draft. Richardson forced another highly-touted offensive lineman, teammate Dallas Thomas to guard because he was the better tackle. Richardson shined above fellow NFL-caliber lineman at Tennessee and with tremendous size, should be a lock for the end of the first-round.
5b. Greg Robinson/RS Sophomore/21-years old – 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, Auburn: Robinson has gotten a ton of recognition as this season has gone on due to Auburn’s running game absolutely dominating opponents. Robinson has led the way for the top rushing attack in the SEC and moves incredibly well for a man his size. Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn has said Robinson would be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 Draft so it may be wise for him to return for his junior season as this class is extremely deep this year.
1. Gabe Jackson/RS Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-4, 340 pounds, Mississippi State: Jackson is an enormous man who defines the term “road-grader”. Jackson will earn his 52nd career start when his team plays their bowl game (leading all players in the country) and was just named a second-team AP All-American this season. Jackson is a stellar run blocker and very skilled pass-blocker as well as evident by him not giving up a sack this season and grading out at 80 percent or better in every game.
2. Cyril Richardson/RS Senior/23-years old – 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, Baylor: The Big-12 Offensive Lineman of the Year has been dominant for the Baylor Bears and has valuable experience at left tackle on his resume as well. Richardson also was named a first-team AP All-American and projects as no worse than a second-round pick. Some scouts have said that Richardson is a bit overrated because the offense he plays in puts the offensive line in consistent, favorable matchups which can mask the lineman’s athleticism or lack thereof. However, Richardson has put up 225 on the bench press 32 times and squats 665 pounds, so at the very least he will be a force on the next level in the running game.
3. La’el Collins/Junior/20-years old – 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, LSU: Collins is the youngest player on this list with perhaps the most potential. Collins played left tackle this past season and was brilliant in protecting Zach Mettenberger’s blindside. However, Collins played guard his first two seasons at LSU and projects as a star on the inside. Elite 6-foot-5 left tackles are rare, but that isn’t to say Collins couldn’t excel there. I see him fitting ideally at left guard (much like I felt about Branden Albert coming out of Virginia as well).
4. Zack Martin/RS Senior/23-years old – 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, Notre Dame: Martin has been Notre Dame’s starting left tackle for two years in a row and has never missed a game. Martin is undersized so he will likely move inside and be a very good pro. Martin is a well-balanced lineman who gets by with superb technique. Expect Martin to sniff the first-round but more likely get drafted somewhere in the second-round and go on to have a very productive NFL career.
5. David Yankey/Senior/21-years old – 6-foot-5, 313 pounds, Stanford: The Australian native is viewed different by many scouts. Some say Yankey has maxed out his potential and would be an average-to-above-average player on the next level but I see a little bit more in him. Yankey has excelled in the pro-style, downhill running scheme that Stanford runs which puts an emphasis on their offensive lineman winning one-on-one battles, something Yankey has done magnificently. Yankey is a two-time All-American and is a better pass-blocker than a run-blocker but not by much. Yankey doesn’t do anything great but is in the mold of the “swing” lineman that are so valuable to NFL teams and projects best in the third-round.
1. Travis Swanson/Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Arkansas: Swanson’s resume is extremely long and even more impressive. Swanson was the centerpiece for the best offensive line in the SEC this season, giving up a conference low .67 sacks per game (ranking seventh in the nation). Swanson also was a team captain for the last two seasons (only the 11th Razorback in school history to be named a two-time team captain). Blessed with ideal size, Swanson is a true anchor and should be a second-round pick in the draft.
2. Bryan Stork/RS Senior/23-years old – 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Florida State: Stork won the 2013 Rimington Trophy (given to the nation’s most outstanding center) and has led the way for the most productive offense in school history (6,591 yards). Stork came to FSU as a tight end and still maintains excellent quickness and balance that he uses to play multiple positions. Stork looks like a legitimate second-third round selection in the 2014 Draft.
3. Gabe Ikard/RS Senior/22-years old – 6-foot-3, 298 pounds, Oklahoma: 4.0 student, very athletic, started every game in the last three seasons at multiple positions on the offensive line but mostly at center, named to the All-Big 12 First-Team the last two seasons and was a second-team All-American this past season as well. Ikard is a bit undersized but he has the athleticism and smarts to be a centerpiece for a NFL offensive line after a year or two of being groomed by a pro line coach.
4. Tyler Larsen/RS Senior/ – 6-foot-4, 312 pounds, Utah State: Named to the All-MWC First-Team three years in a row and a second-team USA Today All-American this past season, Larsen has been dominant at times in the Mountain West Conference and has done enough to be regarded as a sure-fire draft pick this season. Larsen’s performance in the East-West Shrine game will go a long way in determining his worth on the next level once he sees better competition.
5. Hroniss Grasu/RS Junior/22-years old/6-foot-3, 298 pounds, Oregon: Grasu has started 39 straight games at center for the Oregon Ducks and has helped pave the way for the Pac-12’s No. 1 rushing offense three years running and has underrated athleticism. Grasu was named to Sports Illustrated’s first-team All-American team this past season as well.
Traditional (4-3) Defensive End
1. Jadeveon Clowney/Junior/20-years old/6-foot-6, 270 pounds, South Carolina: Clowney is the best prospect in the draft class bar none. The work ethic issues have been way overblown and by all accounts Clowney has been a great teammate throughout his entire career at South Carolina. Clowney’s numbers this season (10.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 8 QB hurries) are certainly down from last season’s monstrous campaign but that is because every single opponent has keyed on him more than ever. Despite what many are calling a poor season, Clowney was still named to the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) All-American team this season. This team is the only All-American team picked by only coaches and none of us know better than them as to who is truly the best of the best. Clowney has simply dominated unlike any prospect in the last few years and his potential is too great for him to slip out of the top five. The interview process at the combine will be his golden ticket to cementing himself in the top three come draft time.
2. Stephon Tuitt/Junior/20-years old/6-foot-6, 310 pounds, Notre Dame: Tuitt has an incredible frame and muscularity that he uses to shed blockers consistently. Tuitt has been dominant at times at Notre Dame and will be ready to step onto the field at the pro level from day one and be an impact starter in virtually any scheme.
3. Trent Murphy/RS Senior/23-years old/6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Stanford: Every year prospects with tremendous production and a ruthless motor (such as Murphy) get knocked down a peg after the NFL Combine/Pro days due to not meeting prototypical measurables (40-yard dash times, broad jumps, etc.). Murphy is the kind of player who debunks these overvalued ideologies every year. Perhaps the best reason for this can be summed up by Stanford head football coach David Shaw, “Trent’s in his own category, because there’s really no off switch. It’s just always on.”
Murphy comes from a long line of alpha males – his dad stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 290 pounds, his two uncles are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10 – so Murphy has been exposed to weights and hard work since his youth. With a foundation in character and work ethic, Murphy’s appeal to NFL teams is obvious. Most importantly, Murphy’s hardcore mentality translates into production on the football field as evident by his 13 sacks through 11 games this year. Murphy is known for batting balls down (think J.J. Watt) and has equal effectiveness vs. the run and pass. Best suited with playing in a three point stance, Murphy projects as a mid-to-late first round pick.
4. Kony Ealy/RS Junior/6-foot-5, 273 pounds, Missouri: Ealy is another Missouri defensive standout who has really come on as of late. Against Auburn in the SEC Championship game, Ealy racked up 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 2 forced fumbles. Ealy possesses an incredible NFL-body (long-arms, room to grow) to go along with incredible quickness off the line of scrimmage. Once the NFL Combine rolls around, expect to see Ealy’s name on the tips of many scouts’ tongues.
5. Scott Crichton/RS Junior/22-years old/6-foot-3, 265 pounds, Oregon State: Crichton is the smallest guy on this list by a large margin but has enough size to play right end in the 4-3. Crichton has had a brilliant career that has largely gone under the radar due to the below-average team he’s on. Crichton demands double teams on a consistent basis and really excels as an edge rusher. Crichton could be used in one of two-ways: As he is right now with his weight as a 3-4 rush linebacker or with another 8-10 pounds of bulk with his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 end, the latter suits him better because of his lack of experience in coverage.
3-4 (5’ technique) Defensive End
1. Stephon Tuitt/Junior/20-years old/6-foot-6, 310 pounds, Notre Dame: Tuitt has an incredible frame and muscularity that he uses to shed blockers consistently. Tuitt has been dominant at times at Notre Dame and will be ready to step onto the field at the pro level from day one and be an impact starter in virtually any scheme. This is where Tuitt would be best suited on the pro level and with so many teams running a variation of the 3-4 scheme, Tuitt should be a top 12 pick.
2. Jadeveon Clowney/Junior/20-years old/6-foot-6, 270 pounds, South Carolina: Clowney is the best prospect in the draft class bar none. The work ethic issues have been way overblown and by all accounts Clowney has been a great teammate throughout his entire career at South Carolina. Clowney’s numbers this season (10.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 8 QB hurries) are certainly down from last season’s monstrous campaign but that is because every single opponent has keyed on him more than ever. There is no other defense needed than Clowney being named to the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) All-American team this season. This team is the only All-American team picked by only coaches and none of us know better than them as to who is truly the best of the best. *While this isn’t where Clowney is best suited, his talent level, physicality, and size will allow him to flourish in any scheme.
3. Ra’Shede Hageman/RS Senior/23-years old/6-foot-6, 311 pounds, Minnesota: Hageman is the most athletic defensive tackle in this draft so naturally he could fit seamlessly into a 3-4 scheme as a 5’ technique. Hageman explodes out of his stance at an incredible speed considering how big he is. There are plenty of legends built upon his incredible athleticism as well and his personal story has to be heard to be believed. Suffice to say, Hageman’s character has been tested throughout his life and he has endured through more than most men will in their entire life, which will surely be a compelling factor when scouts interview him as the draft process moves on.
4. Kony Ealy/RS Junior/6-foot-5, 273 pounds, Missouri: Ealy is another Missouri defensive standout who has really come on as of late. Against Auburn in the SEC Championship game, Ealy racked up 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 2 forced fumbles. Ealy possesses an incredible NFL-body (long-arms, room to grow) to go along with incredible quickness off the line of scrimmage. Once the NFL Combine rolls around, expect to see Ealy’s name on the tips of many scouts’ tongues. *Ealy’s size is an ideal fit for the 5’ technique and he has the power and long arms to consistently be effective against the double-teams he would face in this scheme.
5. Dominique Easley/Junior/6-foot-2, 282 pounds, Florida: Easley tore his ACL at the beginning of the football season (his second ACL tear) and will be an obvious risk heading into the draft. However, Easley has had enormous expectations since he was the No. 2 defensive tackle in the nation coming out of high school because of his size (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) and his movement skills. Easley moves like a player much lighter and flashed dominance against SEC-competition while at Florida. Easley’s height or lack thereof would also serve as a blessing in disguise as a 5’ technique because it would allow him to rarely get blown up due to the lower center of gravity that comes with it. With Easley’s great athleticism and power, I love Easley in the 3-4 scheme.
1. Ra’Shede Hageman/RS Senior/23-years old/6-foot-6, 311 pounds, Minnesota: Hageman is the most athletic defensive tackle in this draft and posted 11 tackles for loss with 2 sacks this season despite seeing a flurry of double teams. Hageman explodes out of his stance at an incredible speed considering how big he is. There are plenty of legends built upon his incredible athleticism as well and his personal story has to be heard to be believed. Suffice to say, Hageman’s character has been tested throughout his life and he has endured through more than most men will in their entire life, which will surely be a compelling factor when scouts interview him as the draft process moves on.
2. Louis Nix III/Senior/22-years old/6-foot-3, 340 pounds, Notre Dame: Nix is widely regarded as the premier run-stuffer of this year’s class and at 6-foot-3, 345 pounds you can understand why. Nix also is an extremely high-character player with shocking movement skills for a man his size. There are some durability concerns as Nix’s season was cut short after tearing his meniscus, but thankfully this wasn’t as major of a knee surgery as a torn ACL would have been.
3. Timmy Jernigan/Junior/21-years old/6-foot-2, 298 pounds, Florida State: Best suited as a 4-3 defensive tackle, Jernigan could also make the transition to the 3-4 as a 5’ technique due to him being so violent with his hands and having an excellent base. Jernigan plays with a mean streak and has been the rock of the Seminoles’ defense this season. The 2013 second-team AP All-American is a near lock for the first-round come draft time.
4. Anthony Johnson/Junior/20-years old/6-foot-3, 295 pounds, LSU: Johnson (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) is nicknamed “The Freak” because of his incredible combination of quickness and strength. Johnson overcame early weight issues (once weighing 330 pounds as a freshman) to develop into a phenomenal physical specimen. Johnson reportedly runs a sub 4.8 40-yard dash which if he could pull that off at the NFL Combine, expect him to shoot ahead of other players on this list.
5. Aaron Donald/Senior/22-years old/6’, 285 pounds, Pittsburgh: Donald is one of my absolute favorite players in the class because he is facing the uphill battle against his underwhelming size. Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly sums it up best, “Aaron Donald is a one-man wrecking crew.” Donald won the 2013 Nagurki, Lombardi, Bednarik, and Outland Trophies capping off frankly one of the best years a defensive lineman has ever had. Donald’s explosion off the line has to be seen to be believed and his technique is developed beyond his years. Donald will likely slip into the second or third round come draft day but a team will get a relentless worker who could eventually turn into a Geno Atkins type of player.
4-3 Outside Linebacker
1. C.J. Mosley/Senior/21-years old/6-foot-2, 238 pounds, Alabama: Mosley has been a contributor to Alabama’s vaunted defense since his freshman year in which he appeared in all 13 games, finishing with 67 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 INTs. Mosley had been destined to join former teammate Dont’a Hightower as a first-round selection in the draft and has lived up to the hype thus far in his four-year career in Tuscaloosa. Mosley has unique instincts and pass coverage ability that separate him from the aforementioned Hightower. Mosley is constantly praised for his maturity in coverage which is a credit to his unusually high football IQ. Mosley is still somewhat raw in his form tackling, but the appeal in pass coverage overtakes this minor flaw in his overall game. I feel like Mosley is the most pro-ready linebacker in the entire draft and the best ‘Bama linebacker to come out since DeMeco Ryans in 2006.
2. Anthony Barr/Senior/21-years old/6-foot-4, 245 pounds, UCLA: Barr represents what NFL defenses are seeking more than anything else: Explosive pass-rushers who are big, fast, and physically imposing. Barr possesses all of these traits. Barr moves extraordinarily well for a man his size and came to UCLA as a running back/wide receiver/tight end. Before his junior season, Barr switched to linebacker and immediately became a star, leading the nation in sacks (13.5). Barr’s freakish athleticism, long arms, high motor, and inexperience as a linebacker make for a compelling draft profile. Virtually every defensive coordinator and linebacker coach in pro football will be hankering for the chance to get their hands on Barr’s raw physical gifts. If developed properly and plugged into the right system (a 3-4 defense), Barr has a legitimate chance to develop into an elite pass rusher in the mold of 49ers LB Aldon Smith. When the 2014 NFL Draft rolls around Barr’s name will be in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick alongside South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
3. Khalil Mack/Senior/6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Buffalo: Mack recently set the NCAA all-time record in career forced fumbles with 16 (a record previously held by Ryan Kerrigan and Terrell Suggs) and has amassed 75 tackles for loss (tied for best all-time with Jason Babin). Mack’s talent level is that of any SEC star, but his competition level in the MAC has been a concern. Those concerns were dispelled when Buffalo took on Ohio State this season. Mack racked up 9 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a 45-yard interception returned for a touchdown which led Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer to rave, “Mack could play anywhere at any school in America.” Mack possesses excellent size to go along with a fantastic burst around the edge. Not only is Mack an ace pass-rusher, his coverage skills have been on display this season as evident by his three interceptions (two returned for scores).
4. Ryan Shazier/Junior/6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Ohio State: Shazier was heavily recruited out of high school and turned down offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, and Florida State. The Florida native represents the state well because of his spectacular movement skills, namely his speed. Shazier has been a standout on a defense full of NFL prospects and has put up huge numbers on a consistent basis for the Buckeyes. The only knock on Shazier is his lack of elite size but he is perfect for the 4-3 outside linebacker role and is reminiscent of Tampa Bay Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David.
5. Christian Jones/Senior/22-years old/6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Florida State: Jones played outside linebacker throughout his first few years in Tallahassee before making the switch the middle this season while also rushing the passer quite a bit as well. Jones has shined and was a candidate for the Bednarik Award due to his stellar play. Jones projects extremely well as an outside ‘backer in the 4-3 because of his excellent athleticism, instincts, and versatility. After the combine Jones is the type of player who could shoot up draft boards because he is truly a special athlete.
3-4 Outside Linebacker
1. Anthony Barr/Senior/21-years old/6-foot-4, 245 pounds, UCLA: Barr represents what NFL defenses are seeking more than anything else: Explosive pass-rushers who are big, fast, and physically imposing. Barr possesses all of these traits. Barr moves extraordinarily well for a man his size and came to UCLA as a running back/wide receiver/tight end. Before his junior season, Barr switched to linebacker and immediately became a star, leading the nation in sacks (13.5). Barr’s freakish athleticism, long arms, high motor, and inexperience as a linebacker make for a compelling draft profile. Virtually every defensive coordinator and linebacker coach in pro football will be hankering for the chance to get their hands on Barr’s raw physical gifts. If developed properly and plugged into the right system (a 3-4 defense), Barr has a legitimate chance to develop into an elite pass rusher in the mold of 49ers LB Aldon Smith. When the 2014 NFL Draft rolls around Barr’s name will be in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick alongside South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
2. Khalil Mack/Senior/6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Buffalo: Mack recently set the NCAA all-time record in career forced fumbles with 16 (a record previously held by Ryan Kerrigan and Terrell Suggs) and has amassed 75 tackles for loss (tied for best all-time with Jason Babin). Mack’s talent level is that of any SEC star, but his competition level in the MAC has been a concern. Those concerns were dispelled when Buffalo took on Ohio State this season. Mack racked up 9 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a 45-yard interception returned for a touchdown which led Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer to rave, “Mack could play anywhere at any school in America.” Mack possesses excellent size to go along with a fantastic burst around the edge. Not only is Mack an ace pass-rusher, his coverage skills have been on display this season as evident by his three interceptions (two returned for scores).
3. Kyle Van Noy/Senior/6-foot-3, 245 pounds, BYU: As long as Van Noy can pack on another 10-15 pounds and keep his burst, there is little doubt about him going in the first-round. While former first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah received more attention last season for BYU, Van Noy was clearly the better player. Ansah recorded 4.5 sacks last year to Van Noy’s 13. Van Noy has a well-developed, all-around game for a linebacker; able to play the run surprisingly well despite his size and has shown the ability to drop into coverage this season as well. Van Noy has had some epic performances so far in his career at BYU including an eight tackle, one sack, five QB hurry game against Texas this season. In last year’s bowl game against San Diego State, Van Noy had an astounding 8 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovered fumble for a td, 1 INT for a td, and a blocked punt.
With the immense level of production at BYU and being named the defensive captain the last two years, it is easy to see why Van Noy’s prospects are extremely favorable in league circles and will likely cement him somewhere in the top 25 picks come draft day, especially if Van Noy can bulk up this off-season and show in pre-draft workouts that he has sustained his quickness.
4. Victor “Vic” Beasley/RS Junior/21-years old/6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Clemson: Beasley has been the Tigers’ starting defensive end the last three seasons but he has virtually no chance of staying there in the pros. Beasley is lighting quick and is in the mold of Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin. Beasley could also shoot up draft boards like the aforementioned Irvin assuming he tears up the combine (which is likely). Beasley is a little small for me to rank him any higher than this but he has all the talent in the world and could be dynamite as a rookie.
5. Michael Sam/RS Senior/23-years old/6-foot-2, 255 pounds, Missouri: Sam was just named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a member of the AFCA All-American team as recognized by coaches. Sam will see his stock gradually rise as we get further into the evaluation process and teams uncover how much of a playmaker he truly is. In the last two seasons Sam has had 14.5 sacks, 25 tackles for loss and is one sack shy of Aldon Smith’s school record for sacks in a single season (11.5).
1. C.J. Mosley/Senior/21-years old/6-foot-2, 238 pounds, Alabama: Mosley has been a contributor to Alabama’s vaunted defense since his freshman year in which he appeared in all 13 games, finishing with 67 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 INTs. Mosley had been destined to join former teammate Dont’a Hightower as a first-round selection in the draft and has lived up to the hype thus far in his four-year career in Tuscaloosa. Mosley has unique instincts and pass coverage ability that separate him from the aforementioned Hightower. Mosley is constantly praised for his maturity in coverage which is a credit to his unusually high football IQ. Mosley is still somewhat raw in his form tackling, but the appeal in pass coverage overtakes this minor flaw in his overall game. Mosley is the most pro-ready linebacker in the entire draft.
2. A.J. Johnson/Junior/22-years old/6-foot-2, 248 pounds, Tennessee: Johnson is a big, physical, and athletic downhill thumper with a huge ceiling. His skills are a bit raw, so there will likely be a learning curve out of the gate, but at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, with the previously mentioned talent, Johnson could be special for a long time in the NFL.
3. Shayne Skov/RS Senior/23-years old/6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Stanford: Skov is the most instinctive, classic-style middle ‘backer in the class and has been the leader of an excellent Cardinal defense for three seasons. Skov had a major knee injury that caused him to be redshirted in his junior season but has since been rock solid. There are concerns about his quick-twitch athleticism but as a run-defender, the rest of the class pales in comparison to Skov. The lack of premier versatility will likely cause Skov to be a later-round pick, but in my mind he will be a steal.
4. Christian Jones/Senior/22-years old/6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Florida State: Jones played outside linebacker throughout his first few years in Tallahassee before making the switch the middle this season while also rushing the passer quite a bit as well. Jones has shined and was a candidate for the Bednarik Award due to his stellar play. Jones projects extremely well as an outside ‘backer in the 4-3 because of his excellent athleticism, instincts, and versatility. After the combine Jones is the type of player who could shoot up draft boards because he is truly a special athlete.
5. Chris Borland/RS Senior/23-years old/5-foot-11, 248 pounds, Wisconsin: Borland is reminiscent of former Dolphins’ legend Zach Thomas due to his tenacious playing style and height. What Borland lacks in height he makes up for with sheer determination on the football field that translates into him being around the ball constantly. Borland has had over 100 tackles in three straight seasons and has accumulated 17 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, and 18 passes defended in his illustrious career. If you want to root for an underdog in this draft, root for Borland.
1. Justin Gilbert/Senior/22-years old/6’, 200 pounds, Oklahoma State: Elite, physical cover corners are a hot commodity in today’s pass-happy NFL and Gilbert is among the best in college football this season. Gilbert not only possesses all the tools to develop into a legitimate No. 1 corner (6’ 200 pounds, likely 4.4 speed), he has some of the quickest feet in the nation and has quelled all of the rumors of him not being a ball-hawk as evident by his 6 interceptions this season. Gilbert’s special team’s impact is also a major draw for the 22-year-old. Gilbert has six kickoff returns for a touchdown in his career, ranking second all-time in NCAA history. His ability to make plays with the ball in his hands is special and a testament to his incredible foot speed and physical tools. Gilbert’s potential is slightly higher overall than the other senior corners in the nation (namely Darqueze Dennard and Jason Verrett), and at this point he gets the nod for the No.1 spot.
2. Darqueze Dennard/Senior/22-years old/5-foot-11, 197 pounds, Michigan State: Dennard is a back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection and won the coveted Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back this season. Dennard is a tactician who plays excellent bump-and-run coverage due to being extremely aggressive. Dennard was the best defensive player on the best defense in the nation this year and will translate very well to a defense that favors man-to-man coverage from their corners.
3. Jason Verrett/Senior/22-years old/5-foot-10, 180 pounds, TCU: Despite not having the weight that pro teams like, Verrett’s aggressiveness, ball-hawking skills, and superb technique make up for a lot. Verrett aka the “Predator” was a first-team AP All-American in 2012 and has had another excellent season in 2013 despite teams avoiding throwing to his side of the field. Verrett also is a beast in run-support (think Antoine Winfield).
4. Bradley Roby/RS Junior/21-years old/5-foot-11, 192 pounds, Ohio State: Roby is arguably the most physically talented cornerback in the draft along with Justin Gilbert but has had some off-the-field issues at Ohio State. Questionable decisions aside, Roby has elite speed – with a rumored sub 4.4 40-yard dash – to go along with excellent technique in man coverage, and plays with a non-stop motor. Roby can get lackadaisical at times likely due to being more athletic than nearly everyone. Roby will have to be coached hard on the next level but has the tools to develop into a legit No. 1 corner.
5. Lamarcus Joyner/Senior/23-years old/5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Florida State: Joyner is undersized, but is a phenomenal football player who is in the mold of Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu and could be an excellent slot corner/safety on the next level. Joyner’s on-field awareness combined with his explosiveness make him a superb all-around defensive back who can be a jack-of-all-trades type of player on the next level and if he were even a couple of inches taller may be the first corner taken.
1. Ha’Sean “Haha” Clinton-Dix/Junior/21-years old/6-foot-1, 209 pounds, Alabama: In a passing-dominant league, Clinton-Dix’s scheme versatility and athleticism provide excellent value in today’s NFL. At 6’1″, 209 pounds, Clinton-Dix has displayed every attribute scouts seek in today’s highly sought after hybrid safety. With big-time hitting ability, excellent speed to cover massive amounts of ground, and a keen awareness to always be around the ball, Clinton-Dix is widely considered the top safety in the 2014 class. Much like the elite safety prospects from recent years, Clinton-Dix has the physicality and range to play both strong and free safety, giving defensive coordinators a Swiss-army knife in the secondary.
2a. Calvin Pryor/Junior/21-years old/6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Louisville: Pryor is jumping up draft boards and for good reason. Pryor forced 9 career fumbles to go along with 200+ tackles in three seasons. Pryor has prototypical size to play strong safety and if he can excel at the combine, could solidify himself as the second ranked safety in the class.
2b. Dion Bailey/RS Junior/21-years old/6’, 210 pounds, USC: Bailey is especially intriguing because he was a linebacker in Monte Kiffin’s defensive scheme last season and excelled. Bailey’s experience at linebacker elevates him to my No. 2 spot because he is equally well-versed in tackling and in coverage, excelling at both.
3. Ed Reynolds/Senior/22-years old/6-foot-2, 206 pounds, Stanford: Reynolds has been named to the first-team All-Pac 12 team in consecutive years and has been a hulking presence in Stanford’s stingy defense. Reynolds has great size with room to add more weight and is an excellent tackler.
4. Antone Exum/RS Senior/22-years old/6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Virginia Tech: Exum is a sleeper in this year’s draft due to an off-season ACL tear that caused him to miss a chunk of the season. Before the injury Exum split time between safety and corner but projects best in my mind at safety due to his excellent size. Exum posted 5 INTs last season and has flashed every tool needed to be a hybrid NFL defensive back.
5. Jimmie Ward/Senior/22-years old/5-foot-11, 192 pounds, Northern Illinois: Ward is another sleeper in the draft who has been making noise at Northern Illinois since his freshman season when he blocked three punts. Ward flat-out makes plays and was rewarded this season by being named to the Sports Illustrated’s first-team All-American team. Ward led the MAC with 6 INTs and had 89 tackles which also led the team. Last season as a junior Ward posted 104 tackles, 65 solo, and 3 INTs. Ward’s lack of competition around him has caused him to fly under the radar but if he does well at the combine his relative anonymity will soon be forgotten.