2014 NFL Draft: Previewing This Year's Franchise Cornerstones
Finding a franchise player should be a common goal for every team who makes a selection in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft on May 8.
Regardless of each team’s draft position or positional needs, each team should make its first-round pick with the expectation that the player it selects will be a key piece on its roster for many years to come.
The emphasis on potential franchise players going into each NFL draft typically focuses on quarterbacks and the teams who need them.
There are multiple quarterbacks in this year’s draft with the potential to be the stars certain NFL franchises need, but other teams might be looking to land the next Calvin Johnson, J.J. Watt or Joe Thomas.
The following eight draft-eligible prospects have been standouts at the collegiate level and have skill sets that should translate to NFL success. If their games continue along their current developmental tracks, each of these eight players could be among the league's best players at their respective positions.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
For NFL teams looking to land a franchise quarterback in this year’s draft, possibly including the Houston Texans at the No. 1 overall pick, there is no better option available than Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater, a junior who declared for the draft earlier this month, has all the attributes necessary to be a great NFL quarterback.
Bridgewater is a terrific pocket passer who throws the ball with precise accuracy and good velocity. While he is somewhat inconsistent driving the ball deep, his arm strength is still very solid for an NFL passer.
Bridgewater is a good athlete who can make plays both inside and outside the pocket, but most importantly, he is a mechanically-sound passer who makes smart decisions with the football.
He has clean footwork and consistently throws the ball with a fluid delivery and quick release, even when he is under the pressure or on the run.
A gifted passer with demonstrated toughness and leadership, Bridgewater might be the only quarterback in the 2014 class who is ready to succeed immediately in a starting role. The team who drafts Bridgewater is likely to be set under center for many years to come.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Despite a disappointing junior season in which he had only three sacks, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains one of the elite prospects in the 2014 NFL draft class.
Clowney might not be the “once-in-a-generation” prospect he was labeled as going into the 2013 college football season, but he has a rare combination of physical attributes and on-field skills.
While his play became somewhat overhyped as the result of a memorable hit against Michigan at the end of his sophomore season, his dip in production had as much to do with drawing more double- and triple-team blocks as it did with not playing as well.
Clowney has ideal size for an NFL defensive end, listed at 6’6” and 274 pounds by South Carolina’s official athletics website, and incredible athleticism for his size.
Clowney explodes off the line of scrimmage with great acceleration and power, enabling him to beat opponents with both speed and strength. He uses his hands well to break down opponents, and rarely gets driven off the line of scrimmage.
The consistency of Clowney’s on-field effort has come into question. He sometimes loses containment on running plays by selling out as a pass-rusher, while his instincts and tackling can also improve.
That said, Clowney’s rare physical skill set trumps his flaws, which are correctable. He has the physical attributes to excel in any defensive scheme and should be an impact player wherever he lines up.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
When three of the top four picks in the 2013 draft were offensive tackles, it demonstrated that the position is at a premium as high as any position other than quarterback.
This year, there should be at least one offensive tackle selected very high in the draft thanks to Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews.
Matthews has all the tools to be an elite NFL offensive tackle. He has great length and size, listed at 6’5” and 305 pounds by Texas A&M’s official athletics website. He has terrific quickness and great footwork, while he also exhibits the power to drive opponents off the line of scrimmage.
Matthews has very fluid movement skills for an offensive tackle and does a great job switching blocks between defenders when needed. He naturally kick-slides and shields the pocket as a pass protector, while he uses his quickness well to get to the second level and pick up lead blocks as a run blocker.
All in all, there are no significant flaws with Matthews’ game. Having played left tackle as a senior after three years at right tackle, he has experience on both sides of the offensive line.
Matthews should be capable of starting immediately at either tackle position on an NFL offensive line in his rookie year. If he continues to develop as well as he has in his collegiate career, he has the potential to be an NFL All-Pro.
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Jake Matthews might be the surest bet of any player at any position in this year’s NFL draft, but Auburn’s Greg Robinson is another offensive tackle whose star potential might be just as high.
The most talented player on an Auburn team that made it to Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game, Robinson emerged this season as one of college football’s best offensive lineman.
Though he is only a redshirt sophomore, Robinson is already a dominant run blocker and a solid pass protector with two years of experience as a starting left tackle. He has tremendous size, listed at 6’5” and 320 pounds by Auburn’s official website, and great athleticism for an offensive tackle.
Auburn led the nation in rushing yards per game, and Robinson was a big reason why.
He regularly opens up running lanes by driving opponents off the line of scrimmage with his power. He can also get to the second level quickly and pick up strong downfield blocks to spring running plays to even bigger gains.
While his pass blocking is still a work in progress, he syncs his upper and lower bodies together efficiently and has both the length and foot skills to excel in that capacity.
Robinson has yet to declare for the 2014 draft, but if he does, he could end up as a top-10 draft pick.
He is already good enough to make an immediate impact on an NFL offensive line, especially as a run blocker, while he has the potential to become an elite left tackle as his game continues to develop.
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Though inside linebackers are rarely top-10 draft selections, Alabama’s C.J. Mosley might be good enough to be selected that high in this year’s draft.
One of the stars of the Crimson Tide defense throughout his four-year collegiate career, Mosley has the potential to be an immediate impact player in the NFL.
A great athlete with sideline-to-sideline playmaking range, Mosley makes plays all over the field as both a run and pass defender.
While Mosley (6’2”, 238 lbs) does not have great size, he is a physical defender who gets off blocks effectively and fills gaps well. Whether the ball is run straight at him or he is chasing down a play in space, he is a consistently sound tackler.
Mosley is an explosive blitzer who can attack the backfield as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher, and from both inside and outside. In space, he can pursue ballcarriers from anywhere on the field while he is also good at dropping back into pass coverage.
A leader on Alabama’s defense, Mosley should find an immediate role on the NFL team that drafts him. He has the skill set to be an every-down linebacker, and should be a difference-maker who rarely blows assignments.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Kyle Van Noy has not received as much mainstream attention this season as fellow senior outside linebackers Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack, but the BYU defender is the most complete prospect at his position in the 2014 draft class.
If not as explosive as his highly-touted counterparts, Van Noy is still a very good athlete. His acceleration and speed enable him to burst off the line of scrimmage as a pass-rusher and blitzer or chase down ballcarriers in pursuit.
He is a very good run defender who makes plays all over the field. He is a sound tackler both in space and at the line of scrimmage.
Van Noy’s most impressive trait is his versatility.
He is a good edge defender who can both set the edge well against the run and bring pressure off the corner as a pass-rusher, but he also has rare coverage skill for a linebacker of his size (6’3”, 245 lbs).
He is best suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme, but could also project inside. In a 4-3 defense, Van Noy would be best cast as a strongside linebacker who could also kick down to defensive end as a situational pass-rusher.
Van Noy has a knack for making plays on the ball.
He can be an every-down player with the ability to fill multiple roles in an NFL team’s defensive front seven. He might not have as much upside as some of the draft class’ top prospects, but he should be one of its most productive players.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who declared Monday for the 2014 draft as a junior, is the most dynamic non-quarterback offensive skill position prospect available this year.
Watkins is a similar but even better prospect to Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who was one of the NFL’s most productive rookies this season.
With fantastic speed and acceleration, Watkins is a true deep threat as an outside receiver.
He has good size, listed at 6’1” and 205 pounds by Clemson’s official athletics website, and is very good at extending plays in the open field. Watkins has the agility to make defenders miss in space and the strength to run through contact.
Watkins is a very good route runner and he shows the ability to make tough adjustments to the ball in the air. He has some issues with concentration drops and is a poor blocker, but the flaws in his game are correctable.
Watkins is a triple threat: in addition to his receiving ability, he can make plays as a kickoff returner and on designed runs. A big-play threat any time the ball is in his hands, Watkins has the potential to bring a new dimension to any offense he is drafted into.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Though Sammy Watkins brings added value in other capacities, the best all-around wide receiver in the 2014 draft class might actually be Texas A&M’s Mike Evans.
Evans, a redshirt sophomore who has already declared for the draft, has tremendous size (6’5”, 225 lbs) and receiving ability. He is physical through contact, has tremendous body control to adjust to throws and he leaps well to high-point passes in the air.
Evans is unlikely to run a spectacular 40-yard dash time in pre-draft testing.
There are some concerns about his ability to separate from downfield coverage as a result. That said, he makes up for the deficiency he has in speed with his ability to make contested catches over defenders even when he is covered.
For a receiver of his size, he actually has very good open-field running ability. He has good field vision and demonstrates the strength to run through contact to extend plays.
Evans is still developing as a route-runner, and though he has occasional issues with concentration drops, he typically catches the ball in his hands. He is also a strong perimeter run blocker.
All in all, Evans has the playmaking ability typical to be a go-to wide receiver in an NFL offense. He could be set for stardom regardless of where he is selected, likely in the first round of this year’s draft.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.