2014 NFL Draft: Top Collegiate Stars Who Will Be Polarizing in Selection Process

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2014 NFL Draft: Top Collegiate Stars Who Will Be Polarizing in Selection Process
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With the NFL pushing back the 2014 collegiate dog and pony show until May, you would think the inundation of draft-related intrigue would die down considering we're barely removed from Christmas.

Nope.

There is nearly half of a calendar year between now and the draft, yet the groundswell of intrigue is already beginning. We're currently at the "who's entering" phase, where every conversation with a draft-eligible elite player begins with a reporter prodding them about their decision. Those who haven't quite declared yet will give a long-winded half-answers, when nearly everyone whose decision actually deserves attention has made up their mind internally a while ago. 

But every year there are surprises, so we feign interest when it's really all just so very tiring. We're so far away from having a concrete outlook on the 2014 draft that even the most highly respected experts are doing little but guessing at this point. Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater are our only guarantees for the top-five right now, with any number of other combinations seeming feasible. 

The great thing about the draft moving back until May is that we get an extra few weeks to be wrong about stuff. A good NFL mock draft hits on about a third of its selections—and that's even after talking to teams, gauging player interest and so on. 

It's all so very dumb and, at the same time, inescapable. Also inescapable: the conversations about this year's most polarizing prospects. Unlike nearly everything else about the draft, we have a pretty good idea about who a few of those players will be.

Here's a quick look. 

 

Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

If you weren't already sick of hearing Manziel picked apart by #hottakes artists following his autograph-signing scandal last summer, get ready for a just-freaking-swell five months leading up to the draft. Manziel has not officially decided to forgo his junior and senior seasons, but Lane Kiffin is more likely to win the presidency in 2016 than Manziel is to return to College Station.

Over the next few months, you'll hear about plenty of Manziel's supposed "character concerns." For those in need of a quick refresher of what those entail, here's a quick recap: He held money at a casino, which made everyone all upset until Manziel pointed out that it was an 18-and-over establishment. He attended professional basketball games. He hung out with Drake. He got upset over a parking ticket. He overslept a day at the Manning Passing Academy and was sent home, as everyone speculated whether he was hungover.

Those are the "controversies." Oh, and then there was the autograph scandal, which, of course, is laughable, because the NCAA is among the most corrupt governing bodies on the planet—not just sport. Their profit on underpaid labor has been a racket the NFL has helped subsidize for years, and boo on anyone who tries to subvert the process. I have no idea whether Manziel was paid for those autographs or not (though I would bet he was), but I do know that his payment or lack thereof says nothing about his character.

There are some real, actual concerns about Manziel as an NFL prospect. He's listed at 6'1", but let's just say there may have been a couple notebooks stuffed under his feet when that height was taken. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have proven that quarterbacks with diminutive size can have success, yet they're still anomalies. Brees and Wilson also fell out of the first round; they weren't expected top-10 selections. 

Manziel's mechanics and footwork are also big-time works in progress. He showed vast improvement from his freshman to sophomore seasons as a passer, but Manziel can't get away with the same things in the pros as he did in college. The wild scrambles behind the line of scrimmage followed by chucks into double-coverage are going to end in interceptions on Sunday—not Mike Evans bail-outs.

Those are the reasons to be concerned about with Manziel. Any character assassinations by people who don't know Manziel personally should be dismissed. 

 

AJ McCarron (QB, Alabama)

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

Exactly like Manziel. Only the complete opposite. You'll have a difficult time finding a player whose intangibles will be more touted throughout the draft process. You'll hear about his brilliant record at Alabama, the national championships and his maturity amid the nation's swooning over his girlfriend.

The people who proliferate those traits may even use them to juxtapose McCarron's winning leadership versus Manziel's supposed selfishness. Did you know that McCarron has only three losses as a starter with the Tide, and Manziel had four alone this season? Did you know that shut the hell up?

All of this is nonsense. The best quarterback Nick Saban has developed at Alabama is Greg McElroy. Furthermore, quarterbacks recruited during his tenure at LSU include Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell. Or perhaps you've been inspired by Rohan Davey's string of Pro Bowl appearances. Nick Saban produces hoss offensive linemen, running backs and elite defensive players, but he's historically more capable of getting a table in a Miami restaurant than developing elite signal-callers.

You know what that tells us about McCarron? A big, capital nothing. Both his supposed leadership and Saban's lack of quarterback acumen could be used to push a narrative in either direction. Neither is an especially good indicator of who McCarron is as a player.

When watching film, plenty of good things pop out with McCarron. He's great on shorter and intermediate throws, getting the ball there without problem and usually on target. He's completed at least two-thirds of his passes in all three years as a starter. It's also rare to see him miss a pre-snap read, and he's advanced at understanding where the ball should go and when.

Getting it there once you get past a certain point downfield is where it becomes a problem. McCarron just doesn't have the arm strength you'd typically want from a first-round quarterback. It takes a lot for him to get the ball downfield, and he can wildly underthrow deep passes when under pressure.

Those mistakes rarely came back to bite him in college. On Sundays, though, it will be a whole different story. 

 

De'Anthony Thomas (RB, Oregon)

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Mariota's decision to return for his junior season sparked skepticism in Eugene. Typically, these things work in waves; one player either decides he's staying or going, followed by his brothers in arms following suit. Sometimes, all the bros "bro out" and announce their decision together, in order to show their brotitiude.

It's interesting, then, that Mariota's decision hasn't sparked much commitment from Thomas. He was one of the many players to receive an evaluation from the NFL about his potential draft stock, and as the Ducks prepare for their bowl game, it seems Thomas is still weighing his options. 

"I made some real great decisions in my life, so pretty much it is what I want to do and how I am going to prepare myself for that situation," Thomas said to The Oregonian's Molly Bloom.

Should Thomas enter his name early, he'll find the same question he faced going into college: can someone of his size be a viable, long-term fit in an NFL offense? The explosion of players like Darren Sproles and the splintering of the running back position in the pros would work in Thomas' favor. He thrived under current Eagles coach Chip Kelly as a hybrid offensive weapon, carrying the ball out of the backfield, running routes out of the slot and returning kicks.

The Rams' selection of Tavon Austin at No. 8 overall last season is a clear indicator that some teams are willing to take the risk. But St. Louis' inability to find a consistent role for Austin in the offense as a rookie makes it clear that not every coach is as imaginative as Sean Paytonand not every small, quick guy is Darren Sproles.

Evaluations vary wildly among experts regarding Thomas. ESPN's Scouts Inc. ranks him as the 38th overall prospect in the entire draft—good enough to probably latch on in the back-half of the first round should workouts go well. CBS Sports, on the other hand, grades him out as a sixth-round pick and places Thomas at No. 204. 

Publications have different scouts, obviously, but Thomas is atypical. Usually, evaluators vary by maybe a round—not by more than 150 slots on the overall draft board.

Like Austin, Thomas' best chance will come through wowing scouts with his measurables. His 2013 season was largely rendered a disappointment because of injury, so it'll be up to Thomas to show them why he came into the season with Heisman hype. 

 

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