8 2014 NFL Draft Prospects Sure to Shine in Their Rookie Season
There are two certainties in any NFL draft. First, there are going to be busts, players that have high expectations yet fail to meet them. Second, there are steals, those who are selected in the later rounds yet have great careers.
Perhaps more importantly, however, you have players who are drafted near the top of the class and play up to where they were drafted.
Which players are the closest to sure things this year? Much of a player's success his rookie season can depend on the play style of the team he is drafted on, but some may be able to thrive on any of the 32 NFL teams.
These eight players are ranked in order of when they are likely to be drafted, rather than how likely they are to have a good rookie season.
8. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
If there is one position that tends to show a lot of production from rookies regardless of draft spot, it is running back. One of the leading rookie rushers this season, Zac Stacy, was selected in the fifth round.
Bishop Sankey will come off the draft board before that, but the point remains that he should have little trouble producing. This past season, he had 1,775 yards and 18 touchdowns, and that included multiple 200-yard games.
Not only does he have the production, but he has the strength to make the tough runs needed to survive in the NFL. He has drawn comparisons to Ray Rice, and if he is able to make that kind of impact his rookie season, whichever team drafts him will certainly be happy.
7. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Unlike others on this list, Jordan Matthews is not a flashy player. He simply goes out there and produces.
This past season with Vanderbilt, Matthews had 1,334 receiving yards, nearly equal to his 1,323 yards a year ago. The majority of his games were over the 100-yard mark, and he never had a game where he was completely lost.
Even though he will likely go in the second round, Matthews would be a valuable target for any quarterback, as he is able to make plays both on the sidelines and up the middle.
His future is likely as a No. 2 receiver, but on a weaker team he could be a top target and put up big numbers, especially if he is able to bring over the toughness he showed at Vanderbilt.
6. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
This is a tough one for me to add to the list, only because my opinion of Ka'Deem Carey wavers depending on the film I have seen. Nonetheless, based on his track record, he seems likely to perform well in his rookie year.
Carey had 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns a year after having 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns. That kind of insane production shows that there is talent there, no question about that.
The concern is that he does not have the straight-line speed, and he has drawn comparisons to Steve Slaton, a fellow Rich Rodriguez running back who flamed out of the NFL.
If he is in fact a Steve Slaton carbon copy, then that makes him perfect for this list, since Slaton started his rookie season with over 1,200 yards. I'm sure whatever team drafts him on day two of the draft would like that production.
5. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Tight ends tend to be overvalued in mock drafts, and as a result they end up being disappointments their rookie year more often than not. Tyler Eifert was considered a clear first-round talent, yet has been splitting time with Jermaine Gresham on the Bengals.
While that is the usual route for a top tight end, Eric Ebron has the tools to break that mold. He's part of the new joker mold of tight ends, ones that have the size and strength of a tight end, yet have wide receiver speed and can make plays other than just up the middle of the field.
He has 895 yards and three touchdowns on the season, with his big performances actually coming in the tough games such as Miami (8 recs, 199 yards) and Duke (5 recs, 121 yards).
Having Mel Kiper call you a "QB's best friend" is no small compliment, and if he goes early enough in the draft, he could find himself being the saving grace for a struggling quarterback that needs a safe target to throw to. That would leave a big impression on other teams during his rookie season.
4. Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
Pass-rushers are usually the safest bet to have an immediate impact as a rookie, since as long as the team's defense is similar, the transition is not too difficult. As a result, the front seven make up most of the top part of this list, starting off with Khalil Mack.
Mack already knows how to lead a team, as he has been leading Buffalo's defense for much of his four-year career. He has 10.5 sacks and three interceptions on the year, showing an ability to both rush the passer and drop into coverage.
The only knock against him was a lack of playing tough teams, but after how great he looked against Ohio State this year, that's clearly a falsehood. Besides, it did not affect DeMarcus Ware of Troy's draft stock, and he has had a great career with the Cowboys.
Depending on whether he joins a 3-4 or 4-3 team, Mack may have to make some adjustments through his rookie season, but he should have little difficulty putting up good numbers.
3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Wide receivers taken early on in the draft more often than not shine early on in their careers. Yes, Tavon Austin has not done much yet, but the eighth overall pick in 2013 was favored to win Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, A.J. Green and Julio Jones, both top-six picks, have been studs since joining the league.
Sammy Watkins, a likely top-10 pick in his own right, looks to join that group, and from what I have seen, I see no reason to doubt a seamless transition into the NFL.
He has had 85 receptions and over 1,200 receiving yards this season, but it's how he has gotten them that matters. Not only can he stretch the field and get big gains, but he can put up yards after the catch in spades, and that is what separates the good and great receivers.
Wherever he lands, it's likely he will be the top receiving target, so even if he is not in the best spot for his talents, Watkins should have no trouble putting up nice numbers his rookie year.
2. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Ever since he moved from running back to linebacker, Anthony Barr has gotten better every week at the position and has elevated himself near the top of this year's draft class.
However, he does not have only upside; he has production as well. He has 10 sacks on the year and had 13.5 the previous season. That shows that Barr could be the best pass-rusher in this year's class.
While stats do not always translate well from college to the NFL, players with a lot of sacks tend to do well in the pros. Three of the top-five 2009 sacks leaders were Von Miller, Ndamukong Suh and Ryan Kerrigan, all of whom have performed very well at the next level.
Barr could start for any team with a 3-4 defense, and more importantly, he could thrive in it. A double-digit sack total his first season is realistic, and with only two years of linebacker experience under his belt, he should only continue to improve.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Generally, there might be one or two players in the NFL Draft that are near once-in-a-generation status. Jadeveon Clowney is the only player from this year's class I am comfortable putting in that category.
Clowney has established himself as one of college football's most dominant players, and while he did not put up must of a statline, his physicality and natural ability was something that opposing teams took into account and worked around every week.
Joining a team like the Raiders or Falcons, both of whom badly need help on the defensive line, would make Clowney already one of the best players on that team.
It would be shocking if he fell out of the top three picks, and he is considered the best defensive prospect in some time, but even with that hype, he should have little trouble producing at the NFL level.
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