There are some defensive players in the NFL's 2014 draft class with the potential to step right onto the professional gridiron and be stars.
This past year, we saw rookies like Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso and New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson not only come in and make huge contributions but also help reshape the entire defensive identity of their respective teams.
There are players in this class who will have a similar kind of impact on their future teams. These next three guys fit that bill and are my picks to battle it out next season for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
It is always smart to start with a linebacker when trying to identify the future winner of the award in question. Since 2000, a linebacker has won DROY in all but two seasons, and the above-mentioned Alonso has an outstanding shot to win it for the 2013 season.
As for identifying linebackers with the most potential to make a dent in the NFL, that job isn't all that hard. Anthony Barr is an athletic freak. He is 6'4" and 248 pounds. On top of that, CBS credits him with running a 4.48 time in the 40-yard dash.
Barr was credited with nine sacks last season, and he was the fiercest linebacker in a stout group under Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA.
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah is certainly sold on him:
Barr is not without his question marks, however. He is a converted running back and played just two years at this position in college. He will need good coaching to become a complete linebacker. He also needs to add bulk to his frame to be more than just a pass-rusher off the edge.
Still, his speed and size will make him a pass-rushing threat the moment he steps onto the field, and he will grab his share of attention-getting sacks in his rookie campaign.
Jadeveon Clowney, DL, South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney didn't live up to the lofty expectations placed on him last year, but that isn't surprising. Most of those expectations were unrealistic, and as far as his future earning power, he had little to play for.
His insane athleticism remains, however. The size/speed ratio on Clowney is off the charts.
Clowney's size, 6'5" and 275 pounds, is enough that he could line up on the inside of defensive lines on passing downs, and his explosion is enough to have him as an outstanding option as a defensive end on any down and in any defense.
There are questions about his effort, however. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports passed along this quote from an AFC East scout on Clowney:
He's a modern day Randy Moss. J.C. doesn't have the same type of criminal background as Randy did when he was his age, but the dependence on natural talent and problematic effort concerns are very similar. Difference is, Clowney won't fall out of the top-seven like Randy did.
Although Randy Moss's effort was continually called into question, it didn't limit him from producing amazing numbers, and it isn't likely to keep Clowney from making a huge impact next year.
Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
There are linebackers like Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosely who stand a strong chance of continuing the reign of dominance held by linebackers on this award. Calvin Pryor can't be overlooked, however. He has the potential to make enough big plays from the safety position to get the recognition needed to win.
What I really like about Pryor, in terms of winning this award, is his range at the safety position. He is fast and explosive with great instincts. He can lock down a deep half of the field with few problems.
These skills will lead to him grabbing interceptions and highlights.
Pryor isn't just about making picks, either. He is 6'2" and 208 pounds. He is a bit wiry but is an aggressive tackler. This gives him the ability to be effective in the run game.
Pryor didn't generate a lot of hype during the season, but his skills have definitely got the attention of people now:
Free safety is not an easy position for rookies to adjust to in the NFL. Still, Pryor's athleticism will help him through those growing pains.