Confetti is still falling at MetLife Stadium following Super Bowl XLVIII—so it's only natural that we completely shift gears and begin discussing what comes next for the NFL's 32 franchises.
This, of course, means it's time for some hardcore #drafttalk. We're all cognizant at this point that, despite having the shortest season, the NFL has become a year-round sport that rarely exits the national conversation. If we're not talking about the on-field product, concussions or how much we hate the Pro Bowl, we're discussing the latest measurements and 40 times from the combine or Senior Bowl, among other offseason events.
The NFL has even took steps to elongate an already overlong process this year, moving the draft back to May. It's no coincidence that a May draft coincides with the so-called "sweeps" period in television, where ratings are emphasized by networks in order to receive the highest advertising dollars. Roger Goodell is a controversial figure, for sure, but he's no dummy.
What this leaves for fans, however, is a period of wildly uninformed speculation. No matter what mock drafter you follow or trust, hitting a third of the picks is usually about as close as you're going to get. And, with more than three months to go in the process, there is nothing set in stone about this year's draft—not even the order just yet.
Dallas and Baltimore will have a coin flip at the scouting combine to determine which side gets the No. 16 and which winds up at No. 17. So putting any concretes on anything draft-related seems silly. Rather, let's take a look at the full draft order and some major storylines that will play themselves out over the process.
2014 NFL Draft 1st-Round Order
|2.||St. Louis (via Washington)|
|16.||Baltimore (coin flip)|
|17.||Dallas (coin flip)|
|26.||Cleveland (via Indianapolis)|
Wherefore Art Thou Goeth, Jonathan Football?
This might be the biggest offseason storyline period—not just the biggest draft-related question. Johnny Manziel is among the most polarizing players in this draft, if not the most polarizing player, for reasons both fair and unfair.
There are some concerned with his off-the-field problems. Which, by the way, amount to taking advantage of his national celebrity to have some fun here and there. We've come to expect college football players to be these demure, humble players who are perfectly happy to work for free while everyone else makes millions.
Manziel, equipped with plenty of family money, merely did what many of his predecessors would have liked: He balled out. He hung with Drake. He threw hunnits at a casino—an 18-and-over casino, by the way. On his 21st birthday, Manziel threw his party hat on at the club and had a good time. There's this groundswell of criticism for Manziel, saying he's some kind of Football Bieber, which is both amusing and patently unfair.
If you want to question his football ability, though, there's some merit in those concerns. Manziel remains a work in progress as a passer, far less developed than Teddy Bridgewater and not quite as physically gifted as Blake Bortles. Scouts have to be encouraged about the sensational progress he's made from his freshman to sophomore years, but you're still taking a risk with Manziel—no matter where he lands in Round 1.
Where will Johnny Manziel be drafted?
His ultimate landing spot, in fact, may determine his career arc. Rob Rang and Dane Brugler at CBS Sports have Manziel going fourth overall to the Cleveland Browns, which seems like the worst possible scenario at this point. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported Cleveland's front office was so enamored with the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner that it would not only take him at No. 4 but would also consider moving up in the draft to land him.
If others are to be believed, though, the Browns might not have a chance. Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required), the O.G. of the draft game at ESPN, has Manziel going first to the Houston Texans. While there were many within the community who were critical of Kiper following his mock draft's release, it's impossible for anyone to say what is possible or impossible at this juncture.
All that I know is it'll be interesting to see the process play out.
What to Make of Jadeveon Clowney's "Down" Draft Stock
If Manziel is going No. 1, that means the player who everyone expected to be the top pick a year ago won't be. Clowney unquestionably would have been the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. The Chiefs became enamored with Eric Fisher after no real standout candidate broke out, and odds are they would choose differently if given the choice today.
Clowney's stock was as high as I've ever seen a player's following the 2012-13 season. "The Hit" was so fresh in everyone's mind that scouts, fans and front offices were convinced we were looking at the perfect draft prospect. Sculpted out of quartz sandstone at 6'6" and 274 pounds, Clowney was as quick as he was strong and as tenacious against the run as the pass.
There was a real school of thought that he'd be the first defense-only Heisman Trophy winner in history.
Then 2013 happened.
While the raw numbers obscure Clowney's impact, the stark drops from his sophomore to his junior season have created ripples of concern. After putting up 21 sacks in his first two seasons at South Carolina, including 13 as a sophomore, Clowney had three in 2013. His tackles for loss also dropped by more than half, going from 23.5 to 11.5. There were nicks and bruises and injuries all season long, and from the beginning of the season onward, it looked like he didn't want to be in college.
Folks picked Clowney apart starting with the Gamecocks' season-opening win over North Carolina, noting he looked out of shape and easily winded. They continued through the team's Capital One Bowl win, after which Clowney wasted no time declaring for the draft.
Now, Clowney is falling out of the top five in some mocks. He's a natural fit for the Falcons, who sit at No. 6, but the fact that so many are concerned about his status says a lot about how much damage Clowney did in 2013. There are real concerns about his motor, even as the film shows he worked hard despite getting double- and triple-teams on nearly every snap.
Despite all the negativity, it'd be a shock to see Clowney actually fall out of the top two or three picks on draft day. He's still the best player in the draft. Bar none. He plays a position that sees increased emphasis every year, as passing continues to obscure the running game. Per ESPN, Texans owner Bob McNair even spoke highly enough of Clowney to make some think Houston could shock the world and take him at the top.
And history says it's not out of the realm of possibilities. McNair signed off on taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush in 2006. Could he do the same eight years later, creating a Clowney-J.J. Watt defensive line that could cause some offensive coordinators to retire rather than deal with the consequences?
Probably not. But it's fun to think about.
So. Many. Receivers.
Historically, wide receiver is among the most difficult transitions from college to the pro game. The complexities of NFL defenses dwarf that of collegiate defenses, and it's obviously a major transition learning new route packages and reads. Nearly every route in today's NFL has a break or a secondary option, ones that the quarterback and receiver have to see. Having an inexperienced receiver on the field leaves a greater possibility of a quarterback being hung out to dry, so even the best players are typically only somewhat effective.
Case in point: Chargers wideout Keenan Allen became just the 12th rookie receiver since the merger to go over 1,000 yards. It takes a special, special player to have an impact as a rookie.
Which makes this receiver class so much fun. On draft grades alone, up to seven wide receivers could go in the first round in May. Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marqise Lee are stone-cold locks barring injury. Kelvin Benjamin and Odell Beckham Jr. seem likely, based on their physical skills and ability to make downfield plays. Brandin Cooks and Allen Robinson could both make their way in with top-tier workout performances.
No matter the order of the players taken, the depth at receiver rivals anything we've seen in NFL history. Even going down to Friday prospects like Paul Richardson and Martavis Bryant, there are hidden gems who could develop into Pro Bowlers down the line.
Who is the best receiver in the 2014 NFL draft?
The class if obviously led by Watkins, whose status as the draft's top wideout feels unshakeable. He's been on the NFL radar since his breakout freshman campaign, and a stellar junior season assuaged all concerns that came after his injury-filled sophomore year. Watkins will probably wind up somewhere in the top seven, which is just fine considering I can't stop the Marvin Harrison comparisons from dancing in my head.
Evans and Lee are in the same tier, and it'll be workouts that determine which one goes higher. The question with Evans is his top-end speed and quickness. He's a behemoth at 6'5" and 225 pounds, but his stock could crater if he winds up in the 4.6 range. Lee is little undersized, so teams will want to see whether he's an elite athlete or merely a very good one.
Of the two, Evans is in more danger of dropping.
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