The 2014 NFL draft is still more than three months away. Yet, with only four teams left in the playoffs, plenty of fanbases around the league have already turned their attention to the prospects who can help their favorite squad take the next step.
As a whole, the draft class is shaping up to become very strong, especially in terms of players ready to step right in and make an impact. That's good news, not only for the teams at the top, but also for those front offices focused on filling one or two distinct needs in the early rounds.
With that in mind, let's examine some of the best storylines to keep tabs on between now and when the first name is read at Radio City Music Hall. Things could certainly look a lot different—in terms of draft order and prospect rankings—by that point.
Battle for Top Quarterback Spot
Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel are considered the top group of quarterback prospects, but it's still unclear which of the trio will emerge as the top player at the position (and likely, the first overall pick). Derek Carr is also in the mix, but would really need to impress to jump all three.
Bridgewater has the early edge after putting together a tremendous junior season in Louisville's pro-style offense. Bortles has made steady progress up the rankings in recent months. And Manziel has the hype after stealing the spotlight during his time at Texas A&M.
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner also has the support of former Dallas Cowboys player personnel guru Gil Brandt, as noted by SiriusXM NFL Radio:
It's a debate that will probably rage on until draft day. Manziel is the most interesting prospects due to his natural playmaking ability, but also comes with the most risk because it's unclear how his style will translate to the NFL. Bridgewater and Bortles are more prototypical options.
Potential for Major Trades
Right now, the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams are slated to make the first two picks. They could both trade out of those positions by draft day however, which should put teams interested in a certain quarterback or in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on high alert.
Tania Ganguli of ESPN passed along comments from Texans owner Bob McNair, who said the franchise was definitely considering the option of trading down:
"Maybe we'll trade down and still get a quarterback that can do the job and get an outstanding defensive player," McNair said Friday. "It's an exciting time. Everything's a moving target. Lot of different pieces."
Peter King of Sports Illustrated was asked about the chances of the Rams making a move and his response points toward a trade being more likely than not:
RT @darthmash: What chance the Rams trade the #2 pick? ... 63.92%— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) January 8, 2014
The Rams don't need one of the franchise quarterbacks with Sam Bradford deserving another opportunity and they ranked third in sacks. So a trade down to acquire more picks and/or players to fill other holes would be the ideal situation.
Intriguing Prospects on the Rise
Every year a couple of prospects make a charge up the rankings between the end of the college football season and the draft. Usually a combination of impressive workouts, solid interviews and a further review of game tape leads to a shift in their draft outlook.
What will be the best part about the draft process?
Whether it's a player with a late first-round grade moving up toward the top 10 or somebody currently being graded outside the opening round pushes into the top 32, there's still time to make a move. The margin for error in this strong class is thin, though.
One player to keep an eye on is Brandin Cooks. The Oregon State wideout is currently on the fringe for Round 1. His lack of ideal size leaves question marks about his ability to adapt to the next level, but his speed and playmaking ability should overshadow that by draft day.
Another name to watch is Kyle Fuller. The Virginia Tech cornerback isn't getting much first-round hype quite yet, but his physical tools and ball skills make him worth watching. A good stretch leading up to the draft could see him move inside the first 32 picks.