NFL Draft 2014: Examining Top Boom-or-Bust Prospects

Josh Cohen@@arealjoshcohenCorrespondent IIDecember 30, 2013

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 29:  Blake Bortles #5 of the Central Florida Knights passes the ball against the South Florida Bulls during the first half of the game at Bright House Networks Stadium on November 29, 2013 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Teams can build dynasties by selecting prospects in the NFL draft who reach their potential, but GMs can just as easily lose their jobs if their picks bust.

It's the gamble every team faces in April—draft for now or the future, for need or the best available, a finished product or a tantalizing project? The only right answer is to do both in each case, which is also impossible.

So teams are forced to use very valuable draft picks on high-risk players in hopes of receiving the possible high reward. It's a risky proposition, but at least fans can get a sense in advance which guys have major upside and which guys are poised to fail.

Maybe not knowing who the boom-or-bust guys are would let you watch the draft with blissful ignorance, but then you'd just be blindsided by success or failure alike. Better to be informed and be able to brag or bemoan you saw it coming.


Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 23:  Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Texas A&M Aggies warms up before taking on the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium on November 23, 2013 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Because of his insane collegiate production, the caveats to his insane collegiate production, his controversial off-field image and the caveats to that image, no one has any clue what to make of Johnny Manziel.

We do know that he has thrown for 7,438 yards and 59 touchdowns at Texas A&M, rushing for 2,096 more yards and 29 more scores in just two seasons. What that means is less clear; he's not fast enough to be as effective a runner in a less open offensive system facing NFL defenders, which could in kind affect his ability to pass the ball.

And how well he plays will directly affect how he's perceived as a leader and a teammate.

Will he be a good enough player to get away with his bad boy behavior in the pros? Will the act be too grating, regardless of his ability? Will it even matter to anyone once he's out of college?

That all depends on the franchise he winds up with, really. If put in a position to maximize his talent in a spread offense, he can be great; or he could struggle and divide his locker room.

Or he'll wind up somewhere in the middle. The unique thing about Manziel is, there's so much gray area between boom and bust; it's impossible to predict what will happen.


Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 26:  Blake Bortles #5 of the UCF Knights calls signals during the game against the Connecticut Huskies at Bright House Networks Stadium on October 26, 2013 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Manziel isn't the only quarterback inspiring mixed feelings atop draft boards.

Only in terms of NFL draft prospects would Blake Bortles out of UCF be in the same conversation as the 2012 Heisman winner. But Bortles has made people notice his tools as a passer, which has propelled him into the first-round conversation.

Standing 6'4", 230 pounds, Bortles has the size and the arm of a prototypical NFL passer. He can stand in the pocket and make all the throws, but he can also use his feet to create space for himself to make plays, if not pick up a bit of yardage on the ground when given an opening.

Here's the concern: he's playing against a totally unimpressive schedule. He picked up a nice win over American Athletic Conference rival no. 8 Louisville earlier this season, but he threw 11 of his 22 touchdowns against UConn, Temple and Akron.

Will Bortles' skills translate to the pros? He won't be the first QB from a less prominent school to earn a first-round selection, but that doesn't mean he'll be worth it.


Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Buffalo

Sep 7, 2013; Waco, TX, USA; Buffalo Bulls linebacker Khalil Mack (46) warms up before the game against the Baylor Bears at Floyd Casey Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, you don't hear about the football factory churning out pros at Buffalo, but Khalil Mack is trying to defy that stigma.

At 6'3", 248 pounds, he's a terror coming off the edge for the Bulls, making plays all over the field and filling up the stat sheet. He led his team in tackles (94), tackles for loss (19.0), sacks (10.5), forced fumbles (5) and defensive touchdowns (2), and tied for the lead with three interceptions.

Credit Mack's athleticism for that, but let's also keep in mind he looks even more freakish against MAC opposition. He picked up 2.5 sacks and a pick-six against Ohio State which certainly helps his case, but he still has a very limited sample of performance against high-level competition.

He'll be an NFL Combine darling, but it remains to be seen if his physical gifts will translate to pro play.


Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

Oct 17, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels tight end Eric Ebron (85) runs for a touchdown as Miami Hurricanes defensive back Antonio Crawford (21) defends in the first quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA T
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone is looking for the next Jimmy Graham—a world-class athlete to stretch the middle of the field and dominate in the red zone from the tight end position.

Eric Ebron looks the part, but he's not the total package yet.

Fortunately, he has all the skills that can't be taught—namely, being 6'4", 245 pounds and running and jumping like a smaller wideout.

The New Orleans Saints treat Graham that way, often splitting him out as a gigantic slot receiver rather than lining him up on the line. That said, Graham is at least decent as a blocker; Ebron struggles in that regard, which will be an issue for teams that want to keep him on the field in running situations.

Ebron has also shown his talent in impressive flashes rather than consistent stretches. He makes highlight-reel plays, yet he wasn't a huge factor in the red zone, only catching three touchdowns for the Tar Heels this season. He's also prone to drops and imprecise route running.

NFL coaching can fix those flaws, but there's no guarantee.


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