North Carolina's Eric Ebron is arguably the 2014 NFL Draft's top tight end prospect.
As the new year approaches and the NFL regular season comes to an end, the buildup to the 2014 NFL draft will begin to hasten considerably, even with the draft not starting until May this year. As this buildup continues, more and more prospect names will continue to emerge as potential early-round draft picks.
If you follow the NFL draft even casually, there are some names in the 2014 draft class you should already know. The top members of the senior class, like Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews and UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, are already generating plenty of buzz, as are the top underclassmen expected to declare, including Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The following slides are not intended to look at those players, or players like Texas A&M redshirt sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel or Alabama senior quarterback AJ McCarron whose college football careers have already made them big names. Instead, let’s take a look at 10 prospects whose names you probably already know if you’ve been following college football closely all year, but whose names NFL fans may quickly learn as the draft comes closer.
One Mountain West Conference quarterback, Fresno State’s Derek Carr, has already made his way into the mainstream as a top NFL draft prospect, in part because his brother, David Carr, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft. There are at least two other potential early-round draft picks among Mountain West quarterbacks, however, one of whom is Wyoming junior Brett Smith.
Though Smith might not be as athletic as Johnny Manziel or have become a household name by making plays against top college football teams like Manziel, the Wyoming junior has drawn some comparisons to Johnny Football because of his playmaking ability and style of play. And though Manziel may be the more prolific collegiate player and the bigger name, Smith’s game as a passer may actually translate more successfully to the next level than Manziel.
Like Manziel, Smith is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who can make plays with both his arm and legs. He moves well both inside and outside of the pocket, and does a great job of setting his feet to make throws but also at throwing on the run when he needs to. Though he has a longer-than-ideal delivery, the ball shoots out of his hand from a clean release.
While Smith does not have a rocket arm, he has shown the ability to make big throws deep down the field. He throws the ball with very good zip and has demonstrated that he can fit passes between tight coverage windows as he will need to be able to do in the NFL.
Smith might not be a college football superstar—he was shut out of the all-Mountain West teams this year thanks to Carr and San Jose State’s David Fales, who should both be early-round selections as senior quarterbacks in this year’s draft—but if Smith declares, he could easily be selected in the draft’s first two rounds.
He has the combination of size (6’3”, 206 lbs) and athleticism that scouts are coveting in modern quarterbacks, while he has demonstrated impressive developmental potential as a passer.
If you’re a fan of SEC football, then Isaiah Crowell’s name is one you probably already know, as he started his career at Georgia in 2011. The former 5-star recruit is no longer a household name, however, as he was forced to transfer to Alabama State in 2012 after being dismissed from Georgia for an arrest on multiple weapons charges.
While Crowell might be considered a character concern going into the 2014 NFL draft, which he has already declared for as an underclassman, those charges were ultimately dropped in April. As he has continued to be productive in his two seasons at Alabama State, including rushing for 1,121 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, he now stands as one of the most intriguing small-school prospects in the upcoming draft class.
Crowell has breakaway speed and dynamic moves in the open field, while he accelerates well out of the backfield. He also has the strength to run through tackles, making him a dangerous playmaker on any play as a runner, though he may not run through as many at the next level at listed measurables of only 5’11” and 190 pounds.
Crowell will need to prove he can hold up as a between-the-tackles runner against bigger, stronger competition in the NFL, and he needs to improve as a pass receiver and/or pass-blocker to be a consistent contributor at the next level. That said, he is a threat to turn any big play into a big play, and his skill set that once lured him to Georgia should also have NFL teams looking at him seriously.
His draft stock will be hurt by his level of competition and his off-field history, but in a draft class that lacks a superstar running back, Crowell has as much upside as anyone in the draft at his position. He should test very well at the NFL Scouting Combine and/or at a pro day, and if he checks out in teams’ character evaluations, he just might shoot up into the middle rounds of the draft as a player worth taking a chance on.
While Derek Carr might already be becoming one of the biggest names in the 2014 NFL draft class, he might not even end up as Fresno State’s top prospect. Carr’s top wide receiver at Fresno State, Davante Adams, is “leaning toward declaring” for this year’s draft according to CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler, and has the potential to be selected as early as the first round if he does.
With 131 receptions for 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore, Adams has been the most productive wide receiver in college football this season. With a great combination of size (6’2”, 216 lbs) and athleticism, his collegiate success should translate to the next level.
Adams does an excellent job of making his quarterback look better by making tough, contested catches. He consistently high-points the football in the air and adjusts well to the football, even when he has to battle through contact to do so.
He does not have outstanding speed and might have some issues with separating down field at the next level, but he extends plays in the open field with his quickness and vision. He is a skilled route-runner who can get open in a variety of ways, and he has strong hands that rarely drop the ball.
From getting open down field to making plays in the red zone and turning screen passes into big gains, Adams has shown he can do it all at Fresno State. He has the potential to be a starter and immediate impact player on an NFL offense, and would be worthy of a first-round draft selection.
North Carolina’s Eric Ebron may not be as well-known to casual college football fans as Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro. But all scouts should be aware of Ebron, who creates mismatches with his athleticism in every game he plays and is a serious threat to be the first tight end selected in the 2014 NFL draft.
A 6’4”, 245-pound tight end with very good speed and quickness for his size, Ebron fits the prototype for a modern flex receiving tight end. His size and athleticism make him a tough matchup for any defender on the field, and when he makes a play on the ball, he has the open-field running ability to turn it into a much bigger gain.
Ebron has very good leaping ability and body control, allowing him to high-point the football in the air and adjust to throws, even through contact. He has good hands and has shown he can make plays whether lined up as an in-line tight end, flexed out as a slot or outside receiver or even as an H-back out of the backfield.
Ebron’s route running is a work in progress, and he would ideally add bulk and become a stronger blocker at the next level, but he has the most playmaking potential as a receiver of any tight end in the 2014 draft class, which he has already declared for as a junior. He is expected to either be a first- or second-round pick, and might be the first tight end off the board.
Ebron will finish his collegiate career Saturday in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati.
In a draft class that could be loaded with top offensive tackle prospects from major programs if underclassmen like Florida State’s Cameron Erving, Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio and Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi declare, it would be easy to overlook North Dakota State senior left tackle Billy Turner.
Doing that, however, would be a mistake. Despite playing at the FCS level, Turner has all the tools to excel as an NFL offensive tackle and should end up well within the early-round conversation even at arguably the 2014 draft’s strongest position.
Listed at 6’6” and 314 pounds with long arms, Turner has ideal size for an NFL offensive tackle. He is a very good athlete for his size and more importantly, his footwork is very clean, especially on kick slides.
Turner consistently out-leverages his opponents and can drive them back or down to the ground with his strength. Both powerful and quick, Turner can stymie opponents with both his length, athleticism and strength, and is effective as both a pass and run blocker and blocking both inside and outside.
Turner will have to overcome concerns about his level of competition, but he dominated FCS competition and continued to stand out when he has had opportunities to play FBS schools, such as against Kansas State at the beginning of his senior season. He is unlikely to get considerable attention leading up to the draft because of his school and position, but he could easily sneak up into the first or second round.
Turner will finish his collegiate career against Towson on Jan. 4 as North Dakota State plays for a potential third consecutive FCS national championship.
Even though he has 52 total tackles for loss in the past three seasons, Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton has not become a household name in college football. That said, he is one of the nation’s top defensive ends and deserves to at least be in the first-round conversation if he declares for the 2014 draft as a redshirt junior.
Crichton might not quite have the explosion and upside as a pass-rusher as South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney or Clemson’s Vic Beasley, but he is one of the draft class’ most well-rounded defensive ends.
He is a good athlete who can beat blockers around the edge as a natural bender who also adds in some pass-rush moves. He can chase down both quarterbacks and runners with a great burst off the line of scrimmage and speed, but he also has the point-of-attack strength to set the edge effectively as a run defender.
Listed at 6’3” and 265 pounds, Crichton has very good size for a 4-3 defensive end, but he has the tackling skill and athleticism in space to be a three-down defender in any scheme, which could mean transition to the outside linebacker if drafted into a 3-4 defense.
For more analysis of Crichton’s game, read this prospect breakdown I put together on his game in July.
Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman came into his senior season with the physical potential of a first-round draft pick but needing to show he could play like one on the field. He has stepped up his game this season, and should factor into the first-round conversation at the defensive tackle position in the 2014 draft.
Hageman has very good size and length for a defensive tackle, listed at 6’6” and 311 pounds, and the former basketball player and tight end has exceptional athleticism for his size. According to a preseason article by CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman that ranked Hageman as the No. 2 “freak” among athletes in college football, he has a 36-inch vertical jump and can bench press 465 pounds.
Those physical attributes translate to the football field, on which Hageman can explode off the line of scrimmage with great burst as an interior penetrator. He can beat blockers off the snap with both explosive starts and with power, and when he gets by opposing blockers, he has terrific pursuit speed for a defensive tackle.
Hageman still needs to learn to use his hands more effectively in his development as an interior penetrator, but given his rare physical tools, someone is likely to take a chance on him early in the draft. Though Minnesota has not been known for producing much NFL talent in recent seasons, Hageman is a player with too much potential to overlook in a draft class that is somewhat thin on top defensive tackle talent.
Hageman will finish his collegiate career Friday in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse.
While UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack have emerged as two of the consensus top senior prospects in the 2014 draft class, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy is still arguably the draft class’ most complete outside linebacker prospect, and should start to receive more attention once again as the draft draws nearer.
Like Barr and Mack, Van Noy might be best suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. While he does not have the caliber of pass-rushing moves that Barr and Mack do, Van Noy has a similarly explosive burst off the snap, has great speed and is a natural bender around the edge. Against the run, Van Noy has sideline-to-sideline range, is a strong tackler and he can take on blocks at the line of scrimmage to set the edge.
That said, Van Noy’s best trait might be his versatility. Van Noy projects well at linebacker to a 4-3 defense as well because of his tackling ability in space and his ability to drop back into coverage effectively, but he could also play situationally as a pass-rushing defensive end in a four-man front. Those same traits could also project him inside rather than outside in some 3-4 defensive schemes.
Wherever Van Noy has lined up on the field at BYU, he has been an impact player while also staying disciplined to his assignments. As a great athlete with ideal size for the position (6’3”, 245 lbs) and a well-refined skill set, there is no reason to think that should be any different at the next level.
NFL teams might look for Van Noy to become more powerful and develop his pass-rush moves, but he should be well worth a first-round draft selection. He will have a big test in his final college football game, that said, going up against Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday.
Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of the Ducks, and his name itself might not be the easiest to remember, but it is a name NFL scouts should know well if he declares for the 2014 NFL draft as a junior.
Though cornerbacks like Michigan State senior Darqueze Dennard, Oklahoma State senior Justin Gilbert and Ohio State redshirt junior Bradley Roby have gotten more attention in the mainstream than Ekpre-Olomu, the latter may be the best draft prospect.
Though he does not have ideal size for an NFL outside cornerback, listed at 5’10” and 185 pounds, Ekpre-Olomu makes up for it for the most part with his instincts, athleticism and physicality.
Ekpre-Olomu does a great job getting his hands on opposing receivers when legal. He has the quickness to stay with receivers on route breaks and the speed to keep up with them down field. He is very good at reading passes and timing breaks to make plays on the ball, and he has the leaping ability and ball skills to knock passes down or intercept them.
He might have some issues bringing down bigger, more physical tailbacks and receivers at the next level due to his lack of size, but he is typically a sound tackler and strong hitter as a run defender.
It is not yet known whether Ekpre-Olomu will declare for the draft or return to Oregon for his senior season, but if he does choose to go pro, his final college football game would be the Alamo Bowl against Texas on Dec. 30.
UPDATE (Friday, midnight): A report from Will Rubin of Duck Territory posted late Friday night said Ekpre-Olomu is expected to return to Oregon for his senior season.
Alabama junior Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the only draft-eligible safety projected to be a first-round pick if he declares for the 2014 draft, but among the rest of the players in the class who are classified as safeties, USC’s Dion Bailey may have the most potential to rise and be an early-round selection.
Simply considering Bailey to be a safety might be a misnomer at this point, as he plays as much at linebacker and slot cornerback as he does at both safety positions, but while he may not be ready to step in and start immediately as an NFL free safety, his versatility improves his draft stock and should enable him to make an immediate impact at the next level.
A primary reason for Bailey’s versatility is his athleticism, as he has the speed to cover significant ground on the field and the short-area quickness to quickly break on the ball. He is a strong hitter who can be a difference maker in run support but also plays the ball well in the air.
Bailey, who moved to safety this season after starting his USC career at linebacker, is too small, listed at 6’0" and 200 pounds, to play linebacker on a regular basis in the NFL. That said, he could be used in a similar role as a rookie to what Kenny Vaccaro played with the New Orleans Saints this season, where his versatility can be advantaged into playing multiple spots on the field.
Bailey is still learning the nuances of being a cover safety and will need to continue to develop in playing both man and zone coverage, but he progressed well over the course of his junior season and has star potential if he is developed properly.
A junior, Bailey announced his intention to declare for the draft following USC’s win against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.