"Playmaker" is a word that gets tossed around a lot during this time of year.
Literally, it's someone who has the ability to make plays. Someone who always seems to turn a busted play into a big gainer, make defenders miss in the open field or go up and bring a sailing pass down inbounds.
A playmaker is someone whom defenses always have to account for, draws coverage and forces a safety to come up into (or back out of) the box. An offense can turn to a playmaker when it needs a yard, 10 yards or a touchdown. Teammates can rely on a playmaker to jump-start the offense when nobody else can. A playmaker can turn a game around in an instant.
A playmaker wins games.
Who are the playmakers of this rookie class? Who are the explosive, dynamic skill-position studs who can flip a game on its head in one play? Who are the 25 best playmakers in this 2013 NFL draft?
Rice is not known as a big-time football school, but tight end Vance McDonald has big-time potential. The 6'4", 267-pound senior has excellent speed, running the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds. At his size, he poses a serious threat to safeties down the season.
Over his last two seasons at Rice, McDonald caught 80 passes for 999 yards and was consensus All-Conference USA. McDonald showed well at the Senior Bowl; teams will be looking for him early,
Andre Ellington won't be on any draftnik's list of fastest 40-yard dash runners. He didn't run at the NFL Scouting Combine due to a hamstring injury and couldn't go full speed at Clemson's pro day.
On the field, though, Ellington's explosiveness was apparent. Rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of his final two years at Clemson, he made plays with great start/stop ability and an effective jump cut.
This draft class is thin on do-everything, all-around tight ends. Zach Ertz isn't a dominating two-way player, and he also doesn't have the ridiculous size/speed combination of a Vance McDonald.
What Ertz does have is excellent agility and stop/start skills that let him run clean routes and get separation underneath. He's not a "playmaker" who scores touchdowns like crazy, but he's always open on third down when you need to move the chains.
In the NFL, that's the kind of playmaker who's always welcome on the roster.
Le'Veon Bell is a three-down workhorse back, a 6'1", 230-pound beast who runs between the tackles with good power, patience and instincts.
That's not the standard definition of a playmaker, though, and that's not why Bell makes this list.
He's got excellent hands and open-field vision, allowing him to be a weapon on all three downs. When he hauls in a screen pass with a convoy in front of him, he's going to make a big play.
At a shade under 6'5" with a lean 255 pounds on his frame, Travis Kelce would be a classic "Joker tight end"—if Joker tight ends were old enough to be "classic." Cutting a 4.62 and 4.65 40-yard dash at Cincinnati's pro day, Kelce also has the speed you want in a tight end.
Kelce is hard to bring down on the first try, and as he grows into his frame, he'll only be more so. His good hands and after-the-catch skills make him hard to defend.
Unfortunately, he has a lot to prove in the NFL. He missed all of 2010 due to a team rules violation and came to school as a quarterback, so he hasn't played tight end much. With polish, he could be a great playmaker in the pros.
Gavin Escobar was a human mismatch at San Diego State. Standing just shy of 6'6" and a very lean 254 pounds, Escobar beat Mountain West defenses for 42 passes for 543 yards and six touchdowns his junior year.
Escobar was a featured playmaker on the Aztec offense, so he wasn't asked to block much and doesn't do so all that well. Still, he is going to add bulk in the NFL—meaning he'll not only grow stronger, he'll be even more terrifying to secondaries.
If this list had been made 18 months or so earlier, there's no question South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore would be higher on this list. His outstanding combination of size, speed, power and vision made him look like a surefire top-10 overall draft pick.
That was in the middle of his junior season, though, and two major knee surgeries later, no one's quite sure how much of that speed and power Lattimore has left. He was an excellent all-around back his senior year, but didn't have the same home run ability.
On this list, that's what matters most.
Call it "East Coast bias," or perhaps big-school bias, but running back/returner Kerwynn Williams wasn't a famous prospect until his Utah State squad rode him to a blowout victory in the famous Idaho Potato Bowl. His 235-yard, three-touchdown, coming-out party earned him MVP honors for the game, as well as an NFL combine invite.
His 4.48 40-yard dash time confirmed his big-league speed, and his crazy acceleration means he's a viable returner in the NFL as well.
NFL teams love the playmaking ability of a tight end with speed and athleticism, and 6'6", 250-pounder Tyler Eifert is exactly that.
Eifert, with a 4.68 40-yard dash time and huge 35.5" vertical leap, is the kind of big target who makes quarterbacks' lives easier. He'll have no trouble getting open against outside linebackers, and if he's got a head of steam going, he can be a nightmare for safeties to bring down.
Eifert caught 50 passes for a whopping 685 yards, even with an unsettled quarterback situation. He'll be a first-round pick and a playmaker NFL defenses must account for.
Football fans tuning in to watch Texas A&M to see this "Johnny Football" character also saw one of his targets running around and making plays: receiver Ryan Swope.
Standing 6'0" and weighing just over 200 pounds, Swope has a nice slot receiver's build and excellent quickness.
Swope's 4.34 40-yard dash time, 37" vertical leap and 6.76-second, three-cone drill reveal his athleticism, and so does his production. Swope hauled in 72 catches for 913 yards and eight touchdowns last season—all against SEC competition.
Kenjon Barner isn't an every-down back. He doesn't project as a 250-carry stud in the NFL. He does, however, have incredible athleticism and eye-popping college production that can't be denied.
Barner's blazing speed and light-switch stop/start ability let him shred defenses at will in Oregon's zone-read offense. Barner ripped off a best-in-the-nation 23 touchdown runs as a senior, with 1,767 yards on 279 carries (that's 6.3 yards per carry).
A do-everything back? No, that's not Kenjon Barner.
A playmaker? Absolutely.
Marquis Goodwin is not the kind of playmaker who's going to win a lot of jump-ball fades in the corner of the end zone or beat a jam off the line to run curls to the sticks. The 5'9", 183-pound Goodwin is going to catch the ball and run.
Goodwin can run before he catches the ball, too; he can fly underneath deep passes and track the ball well. Once he's got the ball in his hands, he's dangerous. As a gifted kick and punt returner, Goodwin can run in the open field, but his low center of gravity makes him surprisingly hard to tackle.
Goodwin isn't a perfect prospect, but coming out of the slot, he could be lethal on Sundays.
Quinton Patton's numbers look good: 6'0", 204, 4.53 40. Patton's height, weight and speed, though, aren't nearly as impressive as his other set of numbers: 104, 1,392 and 13.
The receptions, yards and touchdowns Patton piled up in his senior season can't be denied. Patton doesn't possess any single dominant skill, leaving some scouts cold. He also played in a pass-heavy offensive system, inflating his numbers somewhat.
Still, Patton's production proved his awareness, positioning, route-running and soft hands can make an amazing number of plays, even if his height and speed aren't amazing.
Johnathan Franklin is one of those prospects who'll be a fantastic fit for some teams and a poor fit for others. His 5'10", 205-pound size isn't huge, and he doesn't run between the tackles with vigor.
However, Franklin was a machine within UCLA's zone-read offense, racking up 1,734 rushing yards and 323 receiving yards his senior season alone. Over his career, Franklin set UCLA records for rushing (4,403) and all-purpose yardage (4,920).
A team looking for a versatile outside runner with excellent versatility need look no further. A squad looking to install some of that newfangled "zone read" everyone's talking about would do well to get a proven playmaker like Franklin in their backfield.
At 5'11", 231 pounds, Eddie Lacy doesn't have what most would consider a "playmaker's" build. Lacy is thick and powerful, and his style is more between-the-tackles than turn-the-corner.
Lacy, though, is fast and fluid with surprisingly quick feet and a great spin move. He also gives second and third efforts that turn four-yard runs into eight-yard runs.
He probably won't hit lots of home runs in the NFL. Difference-making running backs are so few in this draft class, though, that he goes relatively high on this list.
Teams looking to add a big vertical threat need look no further than Terrance Williams. At 6'2", 208 pounds, Williams has the deep speed to take the top off a defense and score.
With a big, smooth stride, Williams is best suited as an "X" receiver in the NFL, where he can repeatedly beat No. 2 corners deep and draw free safeties over to help.
He is not going to be a true No. 1 target who can beat teams underneath, or regularly take short routes to the house, but he has the tools to terrify defenses downfield.
Robert Woods isn't the most tantalizing prospect in the 2013 draft; in fact, at 6'0", 201 pounds, he's part of a surprisingly thick group of decent-sized receivers.
Woods, though, has rare suddenness and cutting ability. He can quickly get in and out of cuts at speed. He can get open easily and has very good hands once the ball comes his way. After the catch, he's great in the open field; he got some time at punt returner at USC.
He had ridiculous production as a sophomore, with 111 catches for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns, earning him a Biletnikoff Award finalist nod. As a junior, Woods played second fiddle to teammate Marqise Lee, seeing his numbers drop to "only" 76 catches for 846 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Woods, though, proved he can make plays; given the right system, he'll make a lot of them in the NFL.
Oregon State's Markus Wheaton didn't draw a lot of national attention in the Pac-12, but a 5'11", 189-pound receiver with a 4.45 40-yard dash time, a 4.02 shuttle time and a 6.80 cone drill time has the measurables to turn heads in the NFL.
Wheaton caught 91 passes for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior and has open-field running skills to contribute as a returner in the big leagues.
Wheaton is the kind of prospect whom NFL teams will see differently, but expect a team that emphasizes playmaking ability to claim Wheaton early.
Knile Davis fumbles a lot, struggles to stay healthy and won't be drafted anywhere near as early as some of the running backs he's ahead of on this list.
But he can play.
More importantly, he can make plays. At just over 5'10", 227 pounds, Davis has the perfect NFL back's build, and when healthy, he is crazy fast. With a 40-yard dash time near 4.4, it's easy to see how Davis was second the SEC with 1,322 yards in 2010.
However, Davis hasn't been that player since, with a severe ankle injury ending his 2011 season early. He rushed for just 377 yards his junior season, looking hesitant and out of place.
Davis will be a late-round pick, but his playmaking ability at running back makes him nearly the only choice for an NFL team in need of a home run hitter bigger than a breadbox.
At 6'1", 214 pounds, DeAndre Hopkins has a prototypical playmaker's size, but not a prototypical playmaker's speed. At least that's what the stopwatches indicate.
With a 4.57 40-yard dash and 4.50 short shuttle, Hopkins' measurables don't measure up with the most explosive receivers in the country.
Yet that's just what Hopkins is, using his size, suddenness, positioning and clever route-running to haul in 82 catches for 1,405 yards and an incredible 18 touchdowns.
When fans picture a 6'4" wide receiver, they likely picture a miniature tight end, a muscled-up beast good mostly for slant and post routes. Or, perhaps they imagine a long-striding, one-dimensional deep threat who can't do it all.
Justin Hunter, though, is a quick-footed receiver speedy enough to cut a 4.44 40-yard dash and explosive enough to boast an 11'4" broad jump. He has surprising stop/start ability and open-field elusiveness for such a tall player, and with a 39.5" vertical leap, he's still deadly on fade routes.
Hunter is a classic "late riser," with media outlets starting to hear just how much potential NFL teams know this junior playmaker has.
Giovani Bernard wasn't a household name coming into the draft cycle, as he was a redshirt sophomore who missed all of the 2010 season with an ACL injury, and missed the first two games of the 2012 season with another knock.
Still, Bernard compiled 1,228 yards in just 10 games for the Tar Heels this season and caught a stunning 47 passes for 490 yards. He also led the ACC in average punt-return yardage, with 16.4.
His explosive fireplug frame measures 5'8" and 202 pounds. Bernard broad jumped 10'2" and cut a 6.91-second, three-cone drill at the combine. He also posted a 4.50 40-yard dash time, meaning his top-end speed stops just shy of elite, and his track record and durability are obviously in question.
Still, Bernard has rare power and explosion in a small frame. Combined with his all-around versatility, he'll be one of the most sought after playmakers in the NFL draft.
Keenan Allen is a playmaker. This is evident in his film and production. Allen's combination of prototypical size (6'2", 206 lbs), big, soft hands and excellent quickness let him haul in 98 balls for 1,343 balls and six touchdowns his sophomore season.
Allen suffered a PCL injury late in his junior year, which curtailed his production. It also robbed him, Cal trainers told NFL Network's Mike Mayock, of his explosion during Cal's pro day. NFL.com's Marc Sessler writes that Mayock timed Allen at 4.71 and 4.75, but Mayock didn't care.
"If you like him, he's Anquan Boldin," said Mayock, and very few teams wouldn't like Anquan Boldin on their squad.
Boldin himself went late in the second round and was only named AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Teams should learn their lesson and not let a playmaker like Allen drop anywhere near as far.
When you look at the playmaking talent they had in receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, it's hard to understand how the Tennessee Volunteers didn't score a zillion points a game.
Patterson is practically the definition of the word "playmaker." His incredible open-field running, after-the-catch ability and 4.33 deep speed would make him a serious weapon even if he were only 5'8". He routinely makes defenders look foolish with the ball in his hands.
Instead, Patterson is 6'2", 216 pounds. It seems like about 4'6" of that is legs, and his nearly 32" arms extend his catching range way up beyond where most cornerbacks can defend.
Patterson is the definition of the word "playmaker" in a slightly negative way, too. Patterson is still a raw route-runner and a better improvisationalist than executer. NFL teams that rely on precision timing routes will have to expect a steep learning curve.
However, NFL teams should expect Patterson to catch the ball and make plays.
Standing just under 5'8" and weighing only 174 pounds, West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin is anything but a prototypical NFL wide receiver.
If, as some have begun to mock, Austin is the first receiver off the board, it'll be because he made so many plays, NFL teams just couldn't help themselves.
With a 40-yard dash time of 4.34, plus a 10'0" broad jump and 4.01 shuttle time, it's easy to measure his crazy natural explosion. It's also easy to tell how his instant acceleration, sharp cuts and outstanding start/stop ability translates into production: Austin hauled in 111 of Geno Smith's passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Austin has extremely smooth cuts, carrying all his considerable speed through them and giving defensive backs fits.
All of this fails to mention his outstanding kickoff and punt returning on his career 109 carries for 1,031 yards and six touchdowns. Austin is simply an elite playmaker, no matter where you put him on the field...
...or your draft board.