The NFL draft is one of the great paradoxes in American sports, generating endless hype in a multi-month buildup yet offering no definitive conclusions for years.
As such, every prospect comes with some degree of risk, even the supposedly surefire superstars. Each year produces multiple first-round busts, players whose natural talent never manifests itself on the heat of the NFL gridiron.
But boom-or-bust prospects are still often too tantalizing for teams to resist, so they will continue to shoot up draft boards and hear their names called early. Below are three players most likely to make or break the front offices that put their faith in them.
Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Blake Bortles and Central Florida burst onto the scene this past season, with a pair of signature wins over Louisville and Teddy Bridgewater and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Big 12 champion Baylor. Bortles cashed in upon the success in the limelight, declaring for the draft and emerging as a likely top-10 pick.
If your team needed a quarterback, would you want it to take Blake Bortles in the top 10?
Nevertheless, there are questions as to whether Bortles is truly ready to make the leap from the American Athletic Conference to the NFL. In a limited sample size against stiffer competition, Bortles has looked flustered at times, and his typically solid mechanics have gotten shakier. It does help that UCF generally resembles a pro-style offense (even if it operates frequently from the shotgun), but Bortles will have a stark adjustment facing the speed of NFL defenders.
Still, the Knights quarterback remains one of the most divisive prospects because of his natural tools. Unlike Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel, there are no questions about Bortles' size, and his mobility is a plus in a league that has gradually accepted dual-threat quarterbacks. As Greg Gabriel of the National Football Post elucidates, Bortles may simply not be ready to put those tools together yet:
I am not going to deny that this player has talent, but I do feel that he would have been better served staying in college and developing his game. He is far from being ready to come into the NFL and play. There is too much inconsistency in his overall game. I question if he can become an eventual starter and win in the NFL. That doesn’t mean he won’t start for whoever drafts him, but as we all have seen the last five to six years, there have been MANY quarterbacks drafted with high hopes who haven’t lived up to expectations.
Few really expected the junior Bortles to declare at the beginning of the season. Now that a breakout season has allowed him to cash in, he must make a huge leap in competition while also simultaneously refining his own skills.
Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
The supremely talented Purifoy was part of an underachieving Gators squad that imploded and finished 4-8. That does not mean Purifoy himself is a rotten egg, but there are some red flags.
For one, despite his impeccable speed and renowned ball skills, Purifoy recorded just two interceptions in his collegiate career. Interceptions are obviously as much a product of opportunity as pure skill, but it's an alarming stat for a top cornerback prospect.
Picks aside, there is a sentiment from those around Florida that the corner underperformed last season. According to Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, Purifoy may have actually regressed after a breakout sophomore campaign:
But Purifoy, who turns 21 this month, raised plenty of questions during a 2013 season that began with a one-game suspension and ended with a wildly inconsistent performance againstFlorida State.
Purfioy was named a preseason All-SEC first-team cornerback in August, but his shortcomings in coverage and as a tackler were exposed repeatedly in 2013.
Purifoy led Gators DBs with 51 tackles in 2012, but he finished with 24 this season and consistently whiffed in the open field. Purifoy did have his first two career interceptions and seven pass breakups, and returned one for 42 yards in a 30-10 win Oct. 5 vs. Arkansas - the Gators' final win of the season.
But Purifoy was far from the shutdown corner or two-way player many expected him to be last spring, when he reached No. 10 on draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s "Big Board."
Would you want your team to take Loucheiz Purifoy in the first round?
That's a lot of hedging in just a few sentences. It's not as if Purifoy is totally NFL-ready either, for he could stand to add some size onto his lanky 6'0", 185-pound frame. Top corners will play outside, and Purifoy currently does not have the bulk to challenge the league's bigger receivers.
Of course, he could easily add bulk, and his on-field competitiveness is largely unquestioned. Still, there are a lot of "yeah, but" statements surrounding the Florida corner.
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
We're witnessing the golden age of NFL tight ends. It is folly to try to characterize the position as a whole, because teams are turning tight ends into movable "Joker" pieces that create imposing mismatches for opposing linebackers and safeties.
Many see Eric Ebron as the next in line of uber-athletic tight ends, and he has even drawn comparisons to Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. The tools are undeniable, and Ebron's statistical production has gradually ballooned as North Carolina made him the focal point of its offense.
But like the two prospects above, there are questions as to whether Ebron is too raw to invest a high first-round pick in him. Matt Waldman of Football Outsiders noted a lot of concentration drops for the Tar Heel, which can make for a mixed bag in evaluation:
Concentration drops are difficult topic for some NFL teams. I talked with a personnel man this week about a prospect that the scouts on his team were divided on. He said that concentration drops were an illustration of how scouts can take an observation that could be objectified and turn it into a highly subjective element of their analysis. He said it was common to see scouts ignore concentration drops if they liked the prospect, but use these occurrences to criticize the player if they didn’t.
Would you want your team to take Eric Ebron in the top 15?
For all the hubbub Graham and Rob Gronkowski generated for the position, the recent history of highly touted first-round tight ends has been middling at best. The list of first-rounders since 2009: Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham, Kyle Rudolph, Coby Fleener and Tyler Eifert. All nice players, but none are game-changing mismatches.
That's not to say that Ebron could not develop into a star simply because of the past track record of others, but expecting immediate production might be difficult, especially for a prospect in need of more polish. Ebron is more of a project than many realize, and while the talent of a future Pro Bowler exists, betting a top-10 or top-15 pick on that is risky business.