2014 NFL Draft: Prospects with the Most Boom-or-Bust Potential
We all know it really takes years to determine if a player is a successful draft pick, or if he's a disaster.
Sometimes he's a little of both to start out, or has a great rookie season and we all rush to pronounce judgement early.
So before we even get into this piece, let's all admit that it will be a long time before we know for sure which player is which.
Most of them will land somewhere in between greatness and tragedy when we look back at their career years from now.
All eight of the following players have a lot of upside—and all of them have at least one major question which, if a team doesn't consider it, could prove a fatal one for his NFL career.
These eight players all have it in them to be tremendous. We see it on tape, we see it in their measurables and we see it in how they handle adversity.
All of them have concerns though.
Which factor wins out will determine whether they are ultimately a "boom" or a "bust."
Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M
There’s so much to like about “Johnny Football” when he’s on the field.
There’s also so much concern about what he does off the field.
While he’s one of the most athletic and incredible quarterbacks we’ve seen, his choices when he isn’t in football gear could be cause for concern. Even his size (as discussed by The Dallas Morning News reporter Rich Gosselin) isn’t as big of a concern as where he parties and how often.
This is nothing new, as we had reports about how his off-field antics could impact Texas A&M, such as this Yahoo.com piece by Kristie Rieken from back in August.
Teams at the top of the draft will have to weigh how much they think his issues are the youthful indiscretions of a kid with too much money, and how much is a sign we’re seeing another Ryan Leaf or Matt Leinart.
However, there are positive signs in this area. Another Yahoo article, this time by Eric Edholm, reported that instead of hanging out in New York City for the Super Bowl, Manziel was working on his game in San Diego.
If priorities are the biggest issue for determining whether Manziel will bust or not, then maybe he’s already answering that question.
Blake Bortles, Quarterback, UCF
Since the college football season ended, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles has rocketed up draft boards and, in some cases, been mocked by analysts like CBSSports.com’s Dane Brugler as going No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans.
Which is to say he can throw the ball inconsistently.
I watched a lot of Bortles last week and see some flaws which make me hesitant to take him early in the coming draft.
Bortles has an NFL arm, but it’s not what one would call “elite,” which is to say it’s good, not great. If you want to take a quarterback in the top five, arm strength should be more than average—or if it’s average, everything else needs to be polished.
It’s not. Bortles stares down his receivers at times and doesn’t look off the safety. This, combined with a complete lack of fear when throwing the ball, results in some bad throws. In the game against Louisville on October 18, that tendency resulted in one horrible throw which was picked off in the first quarter and another which should have been in the second.
Watching those throws and comparing it to Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, you can see how much more polished and reliable a guy like Bridgewater is.
Bortles needs to improve his awareness of where the defenders are on the field and make better choices when he has to decide whether (and where) to throw the ball.
If he can’t, he can easily become another cautionary tale about quarterbacks whose flaws teams overlooked.
Derek Carr, Quarterback, Fresno State
Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr (yup, David’s little brother) was the best quarterback at the recent Senior Bowl, which is a lot like saying an overcooked steak was the best you could get because at least it wasn’t completely burned.
Carr has snuck into the first round of a lot of mock drafts, which could be very dangerous for the soon-to-be rookie.
That’s because Carr is in serious need of polish. While he has a great arm and velocity, he struggled (both in Mobile and in college) when under a lot of pressure.
That’s a real problem, especially considering he played mostly out of the shotgun. He struggled a little the few times he was asked to be under center in Mobile, and we saw him overthrow a ton of players, even when he wasn’t under pressure.
Carr’s accuracy overall is inconsistent, and along with the issues with pressure, he definitely struggled against better competition.
There are too many questions for Carr to go in the first round, much less high in it. Given time, he could develop into a solid quarterback; but if rushed, he could very well end up a huge bust.
Ra’shede Hageman, Defensive Tackle, Minnesota
Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’shede Hageman is another player (like Derek Carr) who excelled at the Senior Bowl but might not play up to that potential when he makes the pro level.
Hageman is a huge monster at the point of attack and clogs the running lanes really well but did look good rushing the passer in Mobile as well.
However, he sometimes looks a bit overmatched in pass rush on film and doesn’t seem to change direction very quickly or effectively.
Depending on how he tests at the combine and his pro day, teams might be tempted to try him out as a 5 technique (outside) where there’s a good chance he is overmatched at that spot at the pro level.
It seems as though his best fit is a 0 or 1 technique, inside and eating up running lanes. If forced into the outside spot, Hageman could struggle and leave teams disappointed.
However, if in the right technique, there might not be a run-stopping bigger beast in the draft.
Taylor Lewan, Tackle, Michigan
With a premium on offensive tackles in every draft over the past few years, Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan will definitely go in the first round.
With the height and weight teams like in a tackle, along with a mean streak when blocking, Lewan definitely has the overall look of an NFL tackle.
The danger with Lewan is that he struggled against better defensive linemen, such as South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
Before you point out that Clowney is, without a doubt, the best defensive end in the draft, remember that Clowney’s ability is indicative of what Lewan will see every down of every game at the pro level. Clowney didn’t simply overpower Lewan either; he used various pass-rushing moves to beat him.
Again, nothing he won’t see constantly at the NFL level.
Lewan also struggled against teams like Alabama—another school chock full of NFL-level defensive talent.
It’s not a matter of athleticism or natural ability—he has plenty of that. It’s technique. Lewan has sometimes seemed like he has leaned too much on his natural athleticism and talent and not worked enough to develop his technique.
That could make his career a short one in the NFL.
If he can polish that technique—perhaps at right tackle for a year or two—he has the overall talent to become a cornerstone for someone’s offensive line.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Vanderbilt
There’s a ton to like about Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews—his vertical leaping ability, his hands, the constant exceptional catches he made regularly in Mobile at the Senior Bowl.
All things that make onlookers “ooh” and “ah” as he performs.
However, as I wrote for CSSSports.com after a week of Senior Bowl practices, Matthews still has some rough edges to sort out and some he probably never will.
Where he was most lacking is on vertical routes. Matthews is absolutely fast. Perhaps not 4.40 40-time fast, but he has plenty of speed in his routes and he is a terror with the ball in his hands.
What he doesn’t have is acceleration on his long routes. Matthews tends to overpower defenders at the line—that’s the way he gets separation most of the time. On a shorter route, that’s fine, and if he doesn’t knock a defender back, he can usually still overcome them by leaping over them for a catch.
The problem is, if he doesn’t overpower a defender immediately on a long route—or if the defender plays off him enough—he doesn’t have the acceleration to burst past the defender, allowing the defensive back to hang with him on the route.
This doesn’t mean Matthews will be a bad receiver at all, just that if a team drafts him thinking he is going to be a vertical threat—and not a receiver in the mold of someone like Anquan Boldin—he will probably struggle a great deal.
Logan Thomas, Quarterback, Virginia Tech
In terms of quarterbacks, there might not be a bigger boom or bust guy than Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.
Thomas looks the part—he’s got the size, the frame, the length, the big arm—but he doesn’t play it.
Scouts and analysts love to talk about the cannon he has when he throws the ball—which he showed off in Mobile at the Senior Bowl—but are put off by his wild throws and poor decision-making. Thomas hasn’t developed any touch on his throws either, which makes his lack of accuracy even more troubling.
Thomas isn’t going to go high in the draft—you can find him with anywhere from a very generous mid-round grade to a seventh-round mark—but any pick has a value to it.
Depending on where he is taken (and by whom) Thomas could conceivably be a huge value. The later he is taken, the less of a bust he is if he fails.
He has tremendous upside—but his downside might be subterranean.
Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, South Carolina
Without a doubt, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the best-looking defender in the 2014 NFL draft. Athletically, he has the ability to take over a game when he shows up.
But that’s the concern—when does he show up?
The concern all goes back to him asking out of playing in a game against Kentucky. His coach, Steve Spurrier had an issue with it, and then folks like ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and radio personality Paul Finebaum jumped in as well.
And before we knew it, the narrative was set. Does Clowney work only when he wants to? Is he committed to football or himself?
This is the issue facing teams and no analyst can fully grasp the answer because no matter who we talk to, we aren’t in the film room, weight room or defensive meeting room with Clowney.
Interviews will have to be the critical phase for teams looking at Clowney, particularly at the combine and the South Carolina pro day. How he comes off to teams will go a long way towards determining if he is focused enough.
Clowney does have some on-field concerns as well. Despite a mostly dominating year, Clowney didn’t play as well as we expected on a consistent basis and his motor sometimes seems to come and go when you focus just on him during games.
Even his signature hit—the one that trashed Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl last season—took place later in the game. Sometimes he just disappears.
It could be that he doesn’t have a huge array of pass-rush moves, or it could be that (at least this season) his bone-spur issue sapped him a bit. It was certainly enough of a factor for offseason surgery, as reported by Yahoo.com’s Nick Bromberg.
Of course, the big question is whether the hype built around him prior to the season has warped everybody’s judgment.
That, more than anything else, might feed into whether people see him as a boom or bust in the NFL. It’s clear to me that—like virtually every prospect, ever—he has a bit of both in him.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.