The Biggest 'Project' Players in the 2013 NFL Draft

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterApril 4, 2013

The Biggest 'Project' Players in the 2013 NFL Draft

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    As good as some talent evaluators are, scouting in the NFL is still an inexact science. That's not a knock on general managers or front office personnel—that's just the truth.

    No one team is going to correctly predict the success of every NFL prospect. Whether it's a "can't-miss" prospect or a player who is labeled as a "project," there's only one way to find out who the best players in the NFL truly are: through live-game action. 

    Let's take a look at eight 2013 NFL draft prospects who are considered to be "projects" that will have plenty to prove once they step onto the field for the team that drafts them. 

Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee Volunteers

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    Former Tennessee Volunteer Tyler Bray is one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects in this year's draft class. The 6'6", 215-pound signal-caller has proven that he has all the physical tools required to be an NFL-caliber quarterback. 

    However, many questions arise when you examine his intangibles, footwork and decision-making skills inside the pocket. Currently, Bray projects as a Day 2 pick, but he could ultimately see his draft stock free fall during the draft because of the issues I mentioned above. 

    Organizations who already have established starters will be the ones taking a chance on the 21-year-old quarterback. A team like the Cowboys or Patriots would seemingly be the best fit. Surely, the Patriots would have to trade Ryan Mallet before they would show interest, but weirder things have happened. 

    The Jets may also consider Bray, but I don't like the fit based on the fact that he would probably be given the opportunity to play in his second year. One year on the bench wouldn't be long enough, though, as he needs to learn behind an experienced starter for a couple of seasons in order to fix all of his inefficiencies. 

Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State

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    Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson has quite the interesting back story. He hadn't ever seen football until he saw a game on TV at the age of 23 while playing basketball at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. 

    So the gifted, well-rounded athlete decide to feverishly study the game and invest all of his time into learning America's most beloved sport. After a failed collegiate basketball career, Watson enrolled at Saddleback Junior College in California. According to Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, the 310-pounder initially believed that he would play defensive tackle at the collegiate level. 

    Yet players and coaches quickly figured out that he would be better suited along the offensive line—and they couldn't have been more correct. By the end of his third game at Saddleback, Watson had Division I scouts drooling. His quick adaptation to the game led him to Florida State in 2012. 

    On that nation's biggest stage, Watson did not disappoint. He only allowed one sack in 14 games and continuously made strides as the season went on.

    But by no means is he a perfect prospect. He really needs to improve on his technique and getting to the second-level as a blocker. Even though his draft stock is at an all-time high, he will be considered a "project" until he gets more playing time under his belt. 

Ezekiel Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU

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    Another late bloomer is defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Like Watson, Ansah grew up overseas and didn't even know what football was prior to 2010. In 2008, the Ghana native decided to come to the United States and run track for the BYU Cougars. 

    After two years of running track, football started to peak Ansah's personal interest. So he decided to try and walk onto the football team. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall made no guarantees to the 20-year-old kid, but his size and athletic build definitely caught the coach's attention. 

    Subsequently enough, Ansah made the team and played sparingly during his first season. Mendenhall used him on third downs as a pass-rushing specialist at defensive end and outside linebacker. The Cougars coach gave the first-year player one simple instruction: "get the quarterback."

    Ansah got the quarterback alright, which, in turn, positioned him to break out in 2012. He became a full-time starter in Week 5, and it has been full steam ahead ever since. By season's end, the senior defensive end finished with 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries.

    Despite breaking out in 2012, Ansah is still very raw and needs to improve his overall awareness as a player. Dominating in the Mountain West Conference as an Independent is one thing, but dominating in the NFL is a completely different story. 

Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU

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    If cornerback Tyrann Mathieu hadn't sat out the entire 2012 season, we probably wouldn't be talking about him as one the drafts biggest "projects." However, his rampant drug use and inability to pass a drug test has now tarnished his record as a prospect. 

    It hasn't tarnished it to a point where he won't get drafted, but instead of possibly being a Day 1 pick, Mathieu will now be a late Day 2 pick or early Day 3 pick. "The Honey Badger" is incredible when it comes to taking the ball away because he plays fast and has amazing instincts. 

    All of those traits don't magically disappear over the course of one missed season, but two questions remain: Is he worth all of the off-the-field headaches, and are his past problems behind him? Unfortunately, an organization won't know until they spend a mid-round selection on him. 

    Mathieu will be coached to come clean and say all the right things up until draft day, so it won't be hard for him to look like a knight in shining armor for the time being. But what happens he collects more money than he has ever had before and his previously deviant lifestyle finds a way to creep back into his life?

    These will be the questions NFL front offices will be weighing. Still, I have a feeling that teams with a strong locker room will be making a play for the 20-year-old ball-hawking corner. 

Denard Robinson, ATH, Michigan

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    One of my favorite and most explosive players in the 2013 NFL draft is Michigan's Denard Robinson. Unfortunately, he has yet to establish himself at any one position as a draft prospect. He went from a quarterback to a wide receiver in just a few short months, and he is now facing yet another position switch. 

    After a poor Senior Bowl showing in Mobile, Alabama, some scouts believe that the well-versed athlete's most natural position is running back. And to be honest, I tend to agree with those scouts. When Robinson has the ball in space, he has breakaway speed and can make defenders miss with ease.

    As a wideout, he isn't a natural pass-catcher and he doesn't run good routes, not to mention the fact that he can't run the complete wide receiver route tree. What good can he be at wide receiver?

    He may end up being the biggest "project" in this year's draft just because he doesn't have a natural position, yet there will be one team during the pre-draft process that falls in love with his elite playmaking ability. And once it does, it will do whatever it takes to acquire his 4.43 40-yard dash speed. 

    Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit all seem to be good fits at this point. 

Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina

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    Without question, Marcus Lattimore has the power, speed and vision to be a top-flight NFL running back. Yet injuries to both of his knees in back-to-back seasons have seemingly left him with big question marks surrounding his name. 

    Two years ago as a freshman, Lattimore had scouts drooling after a 1,197-yard, 17-touchdown freshman season. Now scouts are wondering if he will ever be able to regain his once prestigious form and overcome the mental hurdles associated with two separate knee operations. 

    Like some of the players with off-the-field problems, the 221-pound bruising back will be viewed as a "project" player. Frank Gore had this same label attached to his name when he came out after his junior season. 

    That is exactly why his collegiate career path has drawn comparisons to Gore's. It would be nothing short of a miracle if he fully recovered from two of the most gruesome knee injuries that college football has ever seen, but he certainly possess the skill and willpower to do so. 

    An NFL team will need to be patient with the 2010 first-team All-SEC selection. They would be wise to stash Lattimore on injured reserve for another year because the last thing his new club would want to do is trot him out onto the field and see him get hurt again.

Margus Hunt , DE, SMU

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    After Margus Hunt left Estonia for the United States in 2007, he had his eyes set on the ultimate prize. He wanted to train with Southern Methodist University track and field coach Dave Wollman and earn a track scholarship. 

    However, SMU had dropped its men's track and field program by the time Hunt became a full-time student.

    So what did the foreign-born athlete do? He tried out for head coach June Jones and earned a scholarship as a defensive end.

    Prior to becoming a student-athlete, Hunt had never played American football. He was more well-known as a World Junior gold medalist. Yet his strength, speed and athleticism made him a natural force at the collegiate level.

    From 2009-2012, Hunt tallied 16.5 sacks, 28 tackles for loss and 60 solo tackles. Those are impressive numbers for a kid who hadn't ever touched a football before his freshman season of college football. Over the course of his four-year career, he has drawn comparisons to Justin Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. 

    Teams like Houston, New Orleans and San Francisco could all use the scheme versatile player. He may not make an immediate impact because of the natural maturation process, but with the right coaching staff, Hunt could evolve into a dominant defensive end. 

E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State

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    Ever since E.J. Manuel was named the MVP of the Senior Bowl, he has been the talk of the NFL draft community. A player who was once believed to be a third-round pick, at best, has now found his name shooting up draft boards. 

    Todd McShay of ESPN believes Manuel's stock won't stop rising until he is selected in the middle of Round 1. If he's not viewed as a Day 1 starter, why would any team waste a first-round pick on him? It's simple, he is talented and, ultimately, has the highest ceiling of any quarterback in this year's draft. 

    This would make him an organization's most valuable "project." We all know about his big arm and excellent mobility, but what about his decision-making skills and spotty accuracy issues? Can those downfalls be coached out of him, or is it something that a team will have to live with?

    Those are the tough questions that can't be answered during the pre-draft process. Drafting him in the first round would require a huge leap of faith. Right now, though, there are very few teams who can afford to take that kind of a leap amongst a weak quarterback class. 

    Based on what we do know, though, the Eagles, Browns and Bills have all shown interest in the 23-year-old quarterback.