2014 NFL Draft: Which Positions Are Strongest, Weakest?

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystDecember 9, 2013

2014 NFL Draft: Which Positions Are Strongest, Weakest?

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    As the 2013 NFL season enters the home stretch, many teams don't have their eyes fixed on the playoff chase.

    In cities like Houston, Cleveland, Washington and St. Louis that ship has long since sailed.

    For the Texans, Browns, Redskins and Rams (and many other teams), December means playing out the string and jockeying for position in next year's draft.

    Much of the early talk about next April's draft has centered on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the leading candidates to be the first overall pick.

    There's much more to the draft than those two players, however. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of which slots have the deepest pool of talent in the 2014 NFL draft and which are more like puddles.

Running Backs

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    The running back position, for better or worse, has been devalued in recent NFL drafts. No backs were taken in the first round of last year's draft.

    That's mostly due to the values teams are finding later on. In 2013 alone, Zac Stacy of the St. Louis Rams (fifth round) and Andre Ellington of the Arizona Cardinals (sixth round) went from late-round picks to prominent roles on offense as rookies.

    This year will probably hold more of the same. There's certainly some talent in the backfield available to NFL teams, but with no running backs listed among the top 40 prospects on Rob Rang's draft board at CBS Sports, we're likely headed for a second straight back-less first round in April.

     

    Three running backs to watch as draft season gets underway:

    1.) Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: Carey topped 1,700 rushing yards on the season, averaged well over five yards a carry and topped 100 rushing yards in every game this year. If a running back does sneak his way into the first round, the smart money is on the 5'10", 207-pounder.

    2.) Carlos Hyde, Ohio State: Despite a three-game suspension, the 235-pound bruiser still topped 1,400 rushing yards and averaged over seven yards a pop this year. Hyde's a load to bring down after contact, but questions about the suspension and his straight-line speed will need to be answered.

    3.) Tre Mason, Auburn: Mason's 300-yard rushing effort against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game opened a lot of eyes, and Mason will have one more shot to shine on the big stage in the BCS title game against Florida State.

    Some have questioned whether Mason is big enough to take the pounding that comes with being a featured back in the NFL, but it didn't seem to bother him against a stout Mizzou defense.

Defensive Backs

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    In today's pass-wacky NFL, where 4,000-yard passing seasons are met with yawns, having a "shutdown" cornerback can be a huge edge for a defense. It changes not only coverages, but the blitz packages a defensive coordinator can employ also.

    That makes cornerback a premium position, as evidenced by the fact two corners were among the top-12 players taken in last year's draft.

    That didn't work out so well, as both Dee Milliner (New York Jets) and D.J. Hayden (Oakland Raiders) struggled mightily.

    Actually, this year's class of defensive backs is much like last year's, in that while there are some talented young cornerbacks, there isn't a true "home-run" consensus top player at the position.

    The same holds true at safety, where unlike last year with Kenny Vaccaro of Texas, there isn't a sure-fire first-rounder.

     

    Some defensive backs to keep in mind as the bowl games begin:

    1.) Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: The 6'0", 200-pound Gilbert is Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller's pick as the top cornerback available this year. Said Miller of the senior, "A big cornerback with smooth feet, Gilbert can be a lockdown man-coverage cornerback and has the ball skills to create turnovers on an island."

    2.) Bradley Roby, Ohio State: Had Roby declared for the draft a year ago, he all but certainly would have been a first-round pick. The question now is whether the Roby we saw struggle badly at times in 2013 is the "real" Bradley Roby. Draft season's workouts will be big for the Buckeyes star.

    3.) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: If a safety is taken on the first day of the 2014 NFL draft, it will all but certainly be the 208-pound junior, who tallied 45 tackles and two interceptions for the Crimson Tide in 2013. A strong draft season could boost Clinton-Dix up into the first round.  

Quarterbacks

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    This will likely raise some eyebrows. After all, quarterbacks are easily the most coveted position in the NFL draft. The top of next year's draft will be littered with teams looking for a franchise signal-caller.

    The problem is that the number of teams who will get one isn't coming close to the number of clubs that need one.

    With Marcus Mariota returning to Oregon, UCLA's Brett Hundley expected to follow suit and LSU's Zach Mettenberger recovering from a torn ACL, the top-end talent under center has dwindled considerably in recent weeks.

    Bridgewater may well be the first overall pick, and as many as four quarterbacks could be top-10 picks in April.

    That says more about how desperate teams like the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars are for a quarterback than it does about the quality of this year's bunch.

    It's better than last year, but the 2012 draft it ain't.

     

    A few quarterbacks we'll be hearing a lot more about over the coming weeks and months:

    1.) Blake Bortles, Central Florida: Bortles hasn't declared for the draft yet, but after a junior year where he threw for nearly 3,300 yards and led UCF to a BCS bowl, he's expected to. Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller already has the strong-armed 6'4", 230-pounder pegged as a top-10 pick.

    2.) AJ McCarron, Alabama: McCarron is one of the most successful quarterbacks in college football history and a Heisman Trophy finalist, but for every expert who thinks McCarron is a lock in the first round, there's another who sees the 6'3", 214-pounder as a weak-armed game manager.

    3.) Kenny Guiton, Ohio State: You won't find the 6'3", 208-pound Guiton on most lists of the top quarterbacks available this year. However, if there's a late-round gem with the arm strength, athleticism and football acumen to be a successful NFL starter, it's "Kenny G."

Linebackers

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    At this point, the fact that the defensive backs, running backs and quarterbacks are ranked where they are should start making a bit more sense.

    There's talent to be had at those positions but not as much as can be found among the class of 2014 at linebacker.

    Whether you're a 3-4 team looking for pass-rush help or a 4-3 team in need of a hard-nosed run-stuffer, this year's crop of talent at linebacker has multiple options available to NFL squads.

    And that's the kicker. This is a fairly deep crop of linebackers, one that's significantly better than last year's bunch.

    In fact, CBS Sports assigned third-round grades or higher to over 15 linebackers this year.

    Apparently, it's a good year to be in the market for one.

     

    Here's a look at the top linebackers available to NFL teams in 2014:

    1.) Anthony Barr, UCLA: Barr has gone from a seldom-used fullback to a potential top-10 pick after making the switch to defense. The 6'4", 248-pounder racked up 10 sacks as a senior, and his speed off the edge should appeal to plenty of 3-4 teams.

    2.) Khalil Mack, Buffalo: If you didn't get a chance to see Mack play this year, you missed out on watching college football's best overall linebacker. Whether it's stuffing ball-carriers (94 tackles, 19 tackles for loss), sacking the quarterback (10.5 sacks) or making plays even in coverage (three interceptions), the 248-pound Mack has the size, speed and skill set to excel in any scheme.

    3.) Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: Shazier was the heart and soul of the Ohio State defense in 2013, tallying 135 tackles and adding seven sacks. At only 230 pounds, Shazier may be too small to man the inside in the NFL, but his athleticism and fantastic closing speed would make him an asset as an outside linebacker in either the 3-4 or 4-3.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

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    At this point, some readers will look at where the wide receivers are ranked relative to the other positions, glance at this year's crop of pass-catchers and then head to the comments section to light me up.

    On some level, that's understandable. Whether it's diminutive speedsters or lanky red-zone targets, there's something for everyone this year.

    Well, almost everyone.

    If there's one thing that this year's class lacks, it's a true top option at the position (at least among wideouts). In fact, the depth at the wide receiver position in 2014 might actually hurt the draft stock of the top players, at least in the first 10 picks.

    After all, why reach for the big name when you can wait, address other needs and then get a quality receiver in the next round?

     

    Here are three receivers who have caught the eyes of scouts this year:

    1.) Sammy Watkins, Clemson: Watkins is Matt Miller's top wideout in this year's class, and in Miller's opinion, Watkins is the equal of a wideout who has already established himself as one of the NFL's best. "Sammy Watkins is a top-level prospect," Miller wrote, "on par with A.J. Green in fact."

    2.) Marqise Lee, USC: Considered a potential top-five pick entering his junior year, Lee's draft stock has slipped after a disappointing 2013. However, much of that slide was due to injuries and poor play under center at USC, and Lee possesses a tantalizing blend of size and 4.4-second speed.

    3.) Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: There may be a question about the top wide receiver in next year's draft, but Amaro is all but locked in as tight end numero uno. A 6'5", 260-pound frame, great speed and soft hands will do that, especially with every team who doesn't have Jimmy Graham looking for the next one. 

Offensive Line

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    There's a solid crop of offensive linemen preparing to begin their professional careers in 2014, headlined (just like last year) by an offensive tackle from Texas A&M.

    Given the huge premium placed on offensive linemen in the draft, the first round will no doubt be chock full of them.

    Matt Miller's latest first-round mock draft here at Bleacher Report, for example, has no fewer than five offensive tackles listed among the first 32 players selected.

    However, the 2014 class in the trenches isn't quite as deep as last year's, at least where so-called "can't-miss" players are concerned. Jake Matthews of A&M, in fact, is the only consensus top-10 pick among the bunch.

    The gap is even wider along the interior of the line. There's no slam-dunk first-round guards such as Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina or Chance Warmack of Alabama. Miller has no guards being taken in the first round, while Stanford's David Yankey is the only interior lineman with a first-round grade at CBS.

    Of course, last year's top two picks (Kansas City's Eric Fisher and Jacksonville's Luke Joeckel) both struggled as rookies, so what do the experts know?

     

    Some big uglies to watch as we move toward the new year:

    1.) Taylor Lewan, Michigan: Much like the aforementioned Bradley Roby, Lewan probably hurt his draft stock more than he helped it by returning to Ann Arbor for one more year. Still, a strong showing in the Senior Bowl and some good workouts should be enough to lock the 6'7", 315-pounder in as a first-round pick.

    2.) Cyril Richardson, Baylor: Much of Lache Seastrunk's success running the ball this year can be attributed to a stout offensive line anchored by Richardson. And when we say anchored, we mean anchored...Richardson is a 340-pound road grader.

    3.) Travis Swanson, Arkansas: The 6'4", 305-pound senior may have spent the 2013 season languishing on a bad Arkansas team, but the four-year starter might be able to creep into the first round as the first center selected if things break right next spring. 

Defensive Linemen

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    The story of the 2013 NFL draft was in the trenches, as last year's draft featured loads of talent on both the offensive and defensive lines.

    Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Headlined by a certain defensive end from South Carolina whom you may have heard of, the class of 2014 on the defensive line may actually be better than last year's, where a whopping nine defensive linemen went in the first 32 picks.

    Eight defensive linemen have first-round grades at CBS Sports this year. Stretch that out to the third round or higher, and the number swells all the way to 25.

    That's deep.

     

    Some players to watch from that ludicrously deep group up-front:

    1.) Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Blah blah blah, his stats were down in 2013. Blah blah blah, his focus was lacking. Blah blah blah, he takes plays off. Clowney takes plays off because he needs a second to deal with the guilt from making opposing quarterbacks' lives hell.

    2.) Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame: At 6'6" and 312 pounds, Tuitt is the cream of this year's crop so far as 3-4 defensive ends are concerned after a junior season in which the big man racked up 45 tackles and chipped in six sacks.

    3.) Will Sutton, Arizona State: The two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year enjoyed a great senior season in Tempe, with 44 tackles, four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. At 305 pounds, Sutton is small for a 3-4 nose tackle, but Sutton can play the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense or defensive end in either front.