NFL Draft 2014: Ranking Top Prospects Heading into January Bowl Games

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NFL Draft 2014: Ranking Top Prospects Heading into January Bowl Games
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

First, a disclaimer: We are a long, long way from the 2014 NFL Draft. With the NFL moving the draft back to May in 2014, in fact, scouts, general managers and those who do both of those things from their couches have longer than ever to overreact to every flaw and excellent performance.

Such will be the case starting on New Year's Day, the annual flipping of the calendar that might as well be called College Football Day. A total of six bowl games adorn the first day of January this (next?) year, and for those who have been following every last game, not all of these contests are terrible.

The BCS, mercifully in its final year, begins its last slate of games with the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls—each of which will feature potential first-round picks.

While it's always easy to say you shouldn't put too much stock in how a player performs in these contests, the reality is far different. We all discern too much information from bowls—no matter how good you are at keeping a level head. For one, these games represent a recency bias; you're bound to take the most out of something you've seen recently.

And, no matter the bowl game, the assumption is that these are evenly-matched opponents. Whether that's actually true or not is rarely relevant, it's all about the perception.  

Not that it's necessarily smart to overreact. At a minimum, these players are suiting up after three-week layoffs—an unnatural midseason break that sometimes hampers the quality of play. It's also been, in my general observations, a better indicator of coaching talent than individual preparation. Good coaches can solve the most complex riddles of their counterpart's scheme; bad coaches make their players look worse than they really are. 

So before we go all haywire with overreactions, let's take one last look at the top prospects heading into January—though this is bound to fluctuate over the next five or so months. 

Top 32 Prospects (Underclassmen Highlighted)
1 Jadeveon Clowney DE South Carolina Jr
2 Anthony Barr OLB UCLA Sr
3 Teddy Bridgewater QB Louisville Jr
4 Jake Matthews OT Texas A&M Sr
5 Sammy Watkins WR Clemson Jr
6 Cyrus Kouandjio OT Alabama Jr
7 Taylor Lewan OT Michigan rSr
8 C.J. Mosley ILB Alabama Sr
9 Stephon Tuitt DE Notre Dame Jr
10 Khalil Mack OLB Buffalo rSr
11 Johnny Manziel QB Texas A&M So
12 Eric Ebron TE North Carolina Jr
13 Marqise Lee WR Southern California Jr
14 Mike Evans WR Texas A&M rSo
15 Darqueze Dennard CB Michigan State Sr
16 Louis Nix DT Notre Dame rJr
17 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix FS Alabama Jr
18 Ifo Ekpre-Olomu CB Oregon Jr
19 Justin Gilbert CB Oklahoma State Sr
20 Greg Robinson OT Auburn Jr
21 Cyril Richardson OG Baylor rSr
22 Kelvin Benjamin WR Florida State rSo
23 Blake Bortles QB Central Florida Jr
24 Derek Carr QB Fresno State Sr
25 Austin Seferian-Jenkins TE Washington Jr
26 RaShede Hageman DT Minnesota rSr
27 Jason Verrett CB TCU Sr
28 David Yankey OG Stanford rJr
29 Ryan Shazier OLB Ohio State Jr
30 Trent Murphy DE Stanford rSr
31 Odell Beckham Jr. WR LSU Jr
32 Lache Seastrunk RB Baylor Jr

Top 32 Storylines to Watch

What to Make of the Quarterback Position?

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Barring a major surprise, Teddy Bridgewater will be the No. 1 overall pick. The Houston Texans have a glaring need at quarterback, and even if Bridgewater isn't the best individual prospect in the class, importance of position takes precedent here. Perhaps someone like a Jay Cutler could land in Houston in free agency and shift the entire trajectory of the draft, but for now, we have to assume Bridgewater is the pick.

Beyond that, good luck determining anything. ESPN's Todd McShay had four quarterbacks going in the first six picks of the draft—Bridgewater followed by UCF's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Fresno State's Derek Carr.

At the moment, I have first-round grades on both Bortles and Carr but am skeptical of both players at Top 10 picks. Carr's bowl game has already passed, a 45-20 loss to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl that left many concerned about his status. The senior signal-caller looked dreadful against a Trojans team that underwent perhaps the most flux in the nation in 2013, managing only 214 yards on 54 passing attempts.

Derek will be so often compared to his brother David, the first pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, that one wonders if some will be scared away because of his relation. The younger Carr's series of bad checkdowns versus the best defense he faced all season won't dispel those comparisons. Then again, it's not hard to find enough positives in Carr's 404-yard, three-touchdown against an elite Utah State defense to cancel those concerns out.

Manziel's pro prospects, meanwhile, may wildly fluctuate the most out of any individual—it all depends who is speaking. Some think the kid they call Johnny Football is bound to flame out at the next level. They see his diminutive size, questionable footwork and off-the-field antics and see a sucker's bet, someone bound to end up washing out on a desperate franchise.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Others see the spectacular plays, proliferation of running quarterbacks in the NFL and improvements from his freshman to sophomore years and see someone whose antics might have made him undervalued.

I'm somewhere in the middle. He's not anywhere near ready to be an NFL starting quarterback in 2014; he'd benefit a ton from going to a good organization with a veteran already in place. But "short" quarterbacks aren't taboo anymore. Russell Wilson and Drew Brees are outliers, but they are living proof that talent is talent, so long as the right coaching staff is in place.

Manziel would be a great fit for St. Louis if he lasted to No. 14, but I have a feeling we're going to see him boost his stock enough to make that impossible.

Is Jadeveon Clowney Still the No. 1 Overall Prospect?

In a word: yup. In what most assume to be Clowney's final game as a Gamecock, he will attempt to replicate the most iconic moment of his career—The Hit.

I say that not just because Clowney is playing in a bowl game on a national stage. But, instead, because his entire 2013 season has been one massive mountain filled with chasing unrealistic expectations. On that one single play, Clowney looked like the most physically gifted football player on the planet—college or professional. The way he burst through the line, leveled Michigan running back Vincent Smith and picked up the ball with one hand was as if the LeBron James of football had been bestowed upon Earth for our entertainment.

All but given No. 1 overall pick honors a year before his eligibility, Clowney had only three sacks in 2013, down 10 from a season prior. 

There have been times this season where Clowney has looked so aloof that nearly every armchair psychologist in the contiguous United States declared he was saving himself for the NFL. There could be no other possible reasons for Clowney's inconsistent play. I'm sure consistently dealing with nagging injuries, being called out by your coach and being double- and triple-teamed on every snap had nothing to do with it.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Nope. All his "passion for the game" was lost.

"What you're seeing right now with Jadeveon, you're starting to have questions about really what is he motivated by?" ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick said recently, per the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson

Granted, there were times this season where Clowney's effort was lacking. Injected with truth serum, not even he could deny there was a little part of him hoping to get through these games without serious injury and on to what comes in May's draft. 

None of that is enough to knock him off the top perch. Even if he isn't the Second Coming in shoulder pads, Clowney is still every bit the elite prospect that scouts came to adore in 2012. He's strong, agile and ruthless getting to the quarterback, and he should be a double-digit sack threat going forward.

Thank Goodness, Some Honest Skill-Position Talent

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The most common refrain from the first round of last year's draft was that it was "boring." Cracking that code, it becomes exposed that "boring" is synonymous with "a bunch of dudes who don't catch, run or throw the ball."

Only four players (Tavon Austin, E.J. Manuel, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson) were drafted at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions in the first round of 2013. For the first time in a half-century, there were no running backs drafted in the first round. With guys like Eddie Lacy excelling on Sundays, one could easily surmise that the lack of first-round running backs was due to the deemphasis on that position—a fair point.

But the reality is those position weren't drafted because the talent wasn't there. When folks are vaulting Austin up from borderline first-round pick all the way to No. 8, you know there is something amiss about the group of prospects.

Luckily, 2014 fields a much more balanced crew. We've already discussed the four quarterbacks who have a chance to hear their name called on Thursday, and there could even be five if UCLA's Brett Hundley declares. Among the three aforementioned high-profile positions, nine of the current top 32 come from one of those spots. That's also not to mention someone like North Carolina's Eric Ebron, a tight end so talented he may as well be a receiver.

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Folks will differ on where each individual player is placed, but the wide receiver crop is particularly inspiring. Sammy Watkins is one of the few players in recent memory from whom I expect nothing but the best at that position early on. He's an explosive playmaker who can get up and grab the ball at its top point, like a better version of Greg Jennings.

USC's Marqise Lee is another stellar prospect, though one has to wonder how much his injury issues in 2013 will hurt his stock. Mike Evans of Texas A&M spent his collegiate career making Manziel look like a superstar, and he could be the best wideout in this draft if his lateral quickness and 40 time check out at the combine.

If you think linemen are "boring," there are quite a few snoozers in this class, too. That said, the varied class of players should keep folks awake through those stretches. 

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