2014 NFL Draft: Who Are This Year's Most Intriguing Prospects?
NFL draft hopefuls must intrigue at least one team in order to be among the 256 draft selections, but there are some prospects who are likely to intrigue every team in 2014.
There’s more to being drafted than being intriguing. A player who runs like a gazelle, has jaw-dropping big-play ability and/or the body of a Greek god can still plummet down boards if their spectacular traits are offset by fundamental flaws.
Still, there are some players in this draft who are sure bets to catch the eyes of any teams who study them, even if some of those teams ultimately do not deem the player as worthy of a top draft choice.
Some of the following players could be top-five overall picks, while others might end up being selected significantly later, but all of them have enticing attributes that make them worth a second look.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney has been intriguing just about everyone who has crossed his path since he became a high school football superstar at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C. The physically imposing defensive lineman has been projected as a top selection in the 2014 draft ever since.
After recording only three sacks in his junior season, Clowney’s allure as a prospect isn’t as sky-high as it was last summer. Still, there is no player in this year’s draft class with higher potential.
A remarkable athlete listed at 6’6” and 274 pounds by South Carolina’s official athletics website, Clowney has both the speed and quickness to beat blockers off the line of scrimmage and go around them, but also the power to drive through them.
While his game comes with some technical flaws and motor questions, his physical skill set alone makes blocking him a nightmare. Opponents will immediately have to start game planning against him in his rookie season, and he can use his hands to break through blocks and wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
Unlikely to fall any further than the No. 6 overall selection, any team that has a chance to select Clowney will be hard-pressed to pass upon the opportunity.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
While there is no consensus among draft prognosticators as to who should be this year’s No. 1 overall selection, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater has been a favored possibility all along with good reason.
We aren’t likely to know until May 8 whether Bridgewater has intrigued the Houston Texans enough to be this year’s top draft pick. Nonetheless, the most well-rounded signal-caller in the draft class shouldn’t last long on a draft board where five of the top eight teams could all be targeting a quarterback selection.
Any of those teams who have a shot at drafting Bridgewater should strongly consider doing so.
Bridgewater has the ability to zip throws with great velocity and accuracy between tight windows. He is athletic and has more than adequate arm strength.
Perhaps most importantly, Bridgewater has outstanding mechanics and footwork combined with demonstrated toughness and leadership. He offers NFL teams the best option to start immediately at quarterback, the most important position on the field, and achieve immediate success.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Now that he is projected by many to be a top-five overall draft selection, Johnny Manziel as a draft prospect seems as dangerously intriguing as running through a minefield for a pot of gold.
There are a number of risk factors with Manziel’s game that could turn out to be crippling flaws in his transition to the NFL, but his unconventionality is also what makes his game so spectacular.
He doesn’t fit the traditional, pro-style mold of an NFL passer, but Manziel’s uncanny playmaking ability could make him special. He is a very good athlete with a strong arm, and though he hasn’t done it consistently, he has shown that he can throw an accurate deep ball.
Manziel has a rare ability to keep plays alive, but that trait is also what often leads him to trouble. His style of play was overly reliant on an outstanding offensive line at Texas A&M, but as he will likely have less time against better athletes at the next level, he will have to adjust his game to avoid an increase in sacks and interceptions.
Whether his gunslinger style of play will translate to the next level, and whether he can make necessary adjustments to his game to become a more efficient passer and decision-maker, will determine whether Manziel booms or busts.
Nonetheless, he could intrigue some teams, including the Houston Texans with the No. 1 overall pick, as much as any prospect in this year’s draft. As a result, one of the quarterback-needy teams is likely take a chance on Manziel with an early selection.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson were both first-round picks in last year’s NFL draft, and the Seattle Seahawks used a first-round pick in that same draft to acquire Percy Harvin. Those three moves made it clear that a growing number of NFL teams are intrigued by the potential of “triple threat” offensive weapons who can make plays not only as wide receivers, but also on running plays and as return specialists.
Enter 2014 draft prospect Sammy Watkins, who might fit that mold better than any of those three. An explosive athlete who fits the criteria of a No. 1 outside receiver, yet can move all around the field as a playmaker, Watkins is the most intriguing non-quarterback offensive player in this year’s draft.
Watkins has the speed to burn defenders deep but also the quickness and strength to make defenders miss or bounce off them in the open field. That combination makes him a big-play threat any time the ball is in his hands, while he is also a strong route-runner who can make contested catches.
Watkins has some issues with drops and is not much of a perimeter blocker, but he was productive at Clemson and has massive upside. At the least, he should add playmaking ability and creative flexibility to the offense of any team that drafts him, while he can keep opponents on their toes any time he is on the field.
The Clemson wideout is projected to be a top-10 selection in this year’s draft.
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, arguably the most polished and complete prospect in the entire draft class, seemed to have a stronghold on the top offensive tackle spot in the 2014 draft class. That changed down the stretch of the 2013 college football season, however, as Auburn redshirt sophomore Greg Robinson emerged as a top-tier talent in his own right.
While it’s harder to stand out as an offensive lineman than at most other positions, it was still easy to notice Robinson any time one watched an Auburn football game this season. A powerful mammoth listed at 6’5” and 320 pounds by Auburn’s official athletics website, Robinson possesses an elite combination of size, strength and athleticism.
Robinson has a distinct ability to drive defenders off the line and bury them into the ground, but he also has exceptional quickness for a man of his size.
His physical attributes play a big part in his demonstrated ability to dominate as a run blocker. His pass-blocking skill set is still in its developmental stages, but he rarely loses a battle when engaged with a pass-rusher, while his length and agility give him high upside in that capacity as well.
While Matthews is a more fundamentally sound pass protector with exceptional foot skills, the physically outstanding Robinson could end up intriguing NFL teams more. If that turns out to be the case, it is quite possible that the first team to draft an offensive tackle just might be lured into selecting the Tiger over the Aggie.
De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
De’Anthony Thomas’ overall skill set and collegiate production might be that of a late-round pick or undrafted free-agent signing, but his electrifying speed could entice a team to select him much earlier in this year’s draft.
Much like Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who went from an unspectacular football career at Texas to a third-round pick in last year’s draft thanks to his Olympic-caliber speed, Thomas has the potential to rise if he can run an exceptionally fast 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
A Los Angeles city track and field champion in the 100-meter dash in high school, Thomas can leave defenders in the dust in the open field. Whether he is running the ball out of the backfield, catching a pass or returning a kickoff, Thomas is a threat to go all the way to the end zone any time he gets an open lane.
Thomas has huge playmaking upside as an offensive weapon; the problem is figuring out where to line him up.
Listed at 5’9” and 169 pounds by Oregon’s official athletics website, Thomas lacks the size and strength to run the ball between the tackles, and his vision for a ball-carrier is also subpar. He might be best fit to play receiver, and he can fit the triple threat mentality, but he needs to learn how to run diversified downfield routes.
Many players like Thomas whose draft stocks are dictated by their track speed fail to pan out as NFL football players, but it is likely there will be at least one undeterred team prepared to take a chance on him in the middle rounds. At the very least, he has potential as a situational playmaker as a kickoff returner and an offensive X-factor; even as a decoy, his speed could cause problems for opposing defenses.
Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
There are a wide variety of body types and physical skill sets among the top defensive tackles in this year’s draft class, but there might not be one with more intriguing potential than Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman.
Hageman, who displayed a chiseled 6’6”, 318-pound frame at Senior Bowl weigh-ins, combines the size of a nose tackle with the athleticism of a defensive end. He has explosive quickness off the snap, the power to drive offensive linemen back and the speed to chase down quarterbacks in the backfield or running backs in pursuit.
His physical skill set makes him an intriguing possibility for any NFL team, as he could play either defensive tackle in a four-man front but could also project as a 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
Hageman’s combination of length, athleticism and strength give him the potential to be a two-gap player, but he can also shoot gaps between blockers with his burst off the line of scrimmage.
To be the disruptive NFL player he has the potential to be, Hageman needs to become a more developed player with his hands, as he tends to be reliant on his initial move and gets blocked too easily when countered. His flaws are coachable, however, making it likely a team will take a chance on his raw upside within the top 25 selections of this year’s draft.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
All teams looking for a defensive playmaker early in the draft should be intrigued by the possibility of Khalil Mack, who brings a diverse skill set and the versatility to play multiple roles to any defensive scheme.
“MACtion” became Mack-tion in the Mid-American Conference in 2013, as the Buffalo linebacker was one of the nation’s most dominant defensive players.
Mack is a dynamic defender from both the line of scrimmage and the second level. He is a very good outside pass-rusher and can set the edge with strength against the run. He can also chase down runners with his pursuit speed and is adept at dropping back into coverage.
A very good all-around athlete, Mack’s game should have little trouble translating with a jump in competition.
Likely to fall somewhere between the No. 5 and 11 overall selections in this year’s draft, Mack could end up in a variety of schemes, but he fits them all.
While he is ideally suited to play 3-4 outside linebacker, he has the skill set in space to play any linebacker spot while he is also strong enough to kick down to the line and play defensive end. Regardless of scheme, Mack is an impact player who is likely to do his best work off the edge, but projects as a three-down player in any defense.
The University of Buffalo might not typically be a big draw for NFL scouts, but Mack changed that this year. He is unlikely to last long on the draft board May 8.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The most intriguing NFL cornerback prospects are ones who have great size, speed and ball skills. Justin Gilbert meets all three of those criteria, all the while coming off a senior season in which he proved he could lock down his competition and play with physicality.
Gilbert has always been an athletic playmaker, but he established himself in 2013 as No. 1 cornerback material. An explosive athlete who is listed at 6’ and 200 pounds by Oklahoma State’s official athletics website, Gilbert should be able to continue matching up against opponents’ top wide receivers at the next level.
With effective long speed, fluid hips and a smooth backpedal, Gilbert is able to consistently keep up with his competition downfield. When the ball is in the air, he has the leaping ability, instincts and strength to make plays on the ball against receivers.
Gilbert’s ability to immediately contribute to a secondary as a playmaker is enticing enough, but with six career kickoff return touchdowns, his special teams value makes him an all the more attractive option for a team in need of a cornerback.
There is no other cornerback in this year’s draft with the playmaking ability and all-around skill set that Gilbert possesses. He is a possible top-15 overall selection.
Lamarcus Joyner, CB/FS, Florida State
Despite off-field concerns that made his predraft stock unpredictable, Tyrann Mathieu would have been worthy of a spot on a list like this before last year’s draft. For the same (positive) reasons that Mathieu could have made last year’s list, Lamarcus Joyner should be considered among the most intriguing prospects in this year’s draft.
Like Mathieu, Joyner is small for an NFL defensive back, listed at 5’8” and 190 pounds by Florida State’s official athletics website. Also like the Honey Badger, however, he makes up for his lack of size with quickness, physicality and ball skills that could enable him to excel in a hybrid slot cornerback/free safety role at the next level.
Joyner will never stand out for his size, but he plays much bigger than his stature. He has outstanding instincts and the closing speed to act on them to break up a pass or deliver a big hit.
A fluid athlete with terrific change-of-direction skills, Joyner could excel as a slot cornerback, but also has safety experience and can handle center-field coverage responsibilities. Despite being smaller than most of his opponents even at the collegiate level, he does not let his opponents push him around, and he is also a terrific blitzer.
Joyner might be projected to fall to the second or third round because of his lack of size, but it stands to reason that at least one team will fall in love with his game and make him a top-50 selection. A playmaker throughout his four-year Florida State career, he should be able to take on an immediate role on defense and special teams for any team who selects him.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.