The NFL season is nearing its conclusion, which means the slow march to the NFL draft will begin in earnest.
The wait is surely bad for fans, but they would do well to sympathize with the prospects themselves, who have to overcome countless hurdles of the mental and physical variety on the way to the draft.
This journey is especially difficult for some of the top playmakers available. While the rigorous process of teams doing their due diligence makes sense for the financial capital they are about to invest in a young player, it makes for a stressful time for the young prospects.
The following three guys are perfect examples. All three are widely accepted as top playmakers, but their exact position, fit and overall position rank are still in question.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Projected Slot: New York Jets, No. 14 Overall
Considered the top skill player in the draft by most, Clemson's Sammy Watkins has some work to do on his path to the draft in order to fend off names like Mike Evans out of Texas A&M and Marqise Lee of USC.
Should Watkins declare for the draft, he remains a top option for teams in need, which is why a marriage with the New York Jets makes so much sense.
With all due respect to Jeremy Kerley, the slot receiver should not be the top receiver in New York through 16 weeks.
Going into his sophomore campaign, quarterback Geno Smith is going to need more weapons to succeed. Watkins is quite the weapon, and NFL Network's Bucky Brooks compares him to Torrey Smith:
Although his game and production took a dip a season ago, it is apparent that Watkins has regained his spectacular form as a junior. He has been sensational as an all-around playmaker on the perimeter and has displayed noticeable improvement as a route runner. Factoring in his renewed concentration and focus, Watkins will captivate the imagination of coaches and scouts looking for a Torrey Smith-like playmaker to add to the line-up.
As an explosive, game-breaking perimeter player, Watkins can immediately thrive and take some attention away from Kerley and running back Chris Ivory. He can also contribute in the return game, which displays a versatility teams seek at the top of the draft.
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Projected Slot: Atlanta Falcons, No. 6 Overall
As far as defensive playmakers go, UCLA's Anthony Barr and South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney are about it at the top (but don't sleep on Buffalo's Khalil Mack). The battle to be the first defender off the board will rage until draft day, so get quite accustomed to seeing both names a ton.
As Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch points out, experts see both in the same light:
ESPN's Todd McShay is very high on UCLA LB Anthony Barr: "He's probably a notch below" Jadeveon Clowney in terms of athleticism.— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) December 19, 2013
Meanwhile, Fox Sports' Coy Wire argues Barr should come off the board first:
The Atlanta Falcons will agree with Wire's argument, which includes the fact that Barr is more versatile—meaning he is better equipped to handle the no-huddle attacks around the league, whereas Clowney may be unable to sub out and instead be exploited while playing out of position or in a bad situation.
Barr's ascension to the top has not been sudden. CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman wrote back in early November that the UCLA 'backer was the best defender in the class.
The only reason Barr falls out of the top five is because of the typical quarterback rush. Atlanta has no such need but does need a defensive end-linebacker hybrid pass-rusher who can stay effective while on the field constantly and act as an upgrade over Kroy Biermann.
Which is the plan in Atlanta with a pass-heavy attack that scores quickly. That requires playmakers on defense to thrive under the uptempo pressure, which Barr will upon arrival.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Projected Slot: Houston Texans, No. 1 Overall
Perhaps the most recognizable name at this point in the 2014 draft class, Teddy Bridgewater has also yet to make a decision on his future, per SportsCenter:
While mostly heralded as the top quarterback in the class, detractors point to his weak schedule while at Louisville as a reason to knock him down draft boards. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and Joe Bussell disagree:
Bottom line: If Teddy Bridgewater is in the 2014 NFL draft class, he will be my No. 1 overall player.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 21, 2013
People who talk about Teddy Bridgewater's flaws as "strength of schedule" can kick rocks. This kid is so good. So much to love.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) October 30, 2013
Houston did not lose 13 in a row through 16 weeks of action to pass on Bridgewater. The franchise needs a quarterback of the future, and the Louisville signal-caller is the answer.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler and Rob Rang still cite Bridgewater as the first player off the board to Houston and compare him to a taller Russell Wilson.
Bridgewater's measureables and intangibles will not change, and any team that picks No. 1 overall and passes on his pro-ready game and impressive potential deserve to suffer more years of futility.