The NFL draft season is upon us, and fans across the league want to know which prospects will make their respective teams better in 2014.
The honest answer: no one knows yet.
Think about it; you're going to hear a ton of opinions between now and May. Those opinions will be varied and will often change over time. That's OK! This is how this process works. It even works like that within the confines of an NFL scouting department, where player rankings will be hashed out and dissected right up until the morning of the draft.
The one thing I can tell you with certainty is that this is not an iron-clad list of the best players in the 2014 NFL draft class. No, what it is is a list, made in early February, of the players I believe could be the best players in the 2014 draft. Like other draft prognosticators, I can only do my best as I continually absorb footage, make notes, talk to league sources and formulate my opinions.
We're past the college football season and the all-star games (Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game), so most of the important stuff is behind us. The NFL scouting combine can change some opinions and shake up some rankings, as can pro-day workouts and team visits.
During that second half of the process, feel free to refer to this list, these rankings and these player capsules—not as definitive immutable proof, but rather as a guide to focus your attention. Come draft day, some of these rankings will almost certainly be changed, and we can laugh at them together. That's part of the fun of the process—learning from your mistakes and getting better because of it.
Dislike my rankings or feel I left out your favorite player? Leave your rankings in the comments below.
1. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Bridgewater has reached the stage of the game where he's been the top quarterback for so long that the criticisms of him have reached absurd levels. Bridgewater is slightly skinnier than most teams would like, yes, but he's a playmaker with every single tool to succeed at the NFL level.
If the Houston Texans pass on him at No. 1, they will regret it.
2. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (Pictured Above)
If one is going to knock Bridgewater for being slight, they better bash Manziel as well. Better yet, just don't bash either one, because both will likely add weight within six months of being in the NFL, and we'll forget about the nonsense.
Manziel isn't a polished passer—yet—but he is an innovator on the field and can make plays (with both his arm and legs) when nothing else is working.
3. Blake Bortles, Central Florida
The best comparison I've heard for Bortles has been: a young Tony Romo with a bigger stage. The worst has been "Blaine Gabbert 2.0." However, although Bortles will throw into some coverage, it has everything to do with him taking risks and nothing to do with being scared of the pass rush, as Gabbert has been since college.
Bortles has work to do, but he's the kind of prospect coaches salivate over working with.
4. Derek Carr, Fresno State
Carr's arm strength has become the stuff of legend—that is, it's getting stronger and stronger the more we talk about it, and we probably left reality behind a while ago. That said, it is strong, and he can make all the throws at the next level. He also has better pocket presence than his brother, David, ever had. He's a better athlete than people think as well.
5. Zach Mettenberger, LSU
An injury has submarined Metterberger's stock, but he passes the "look" and "tools" tests as much anyone in this class—and maybe more. With his size, arm strength and pro-readiness, he'll get a chance to compete at the next level, regardless of where he gets drafted.
Next On the List: Jimmy Garoppolo (E. Illinois), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Brett Smith (Wyoming), Keith Wenning (Ball State), Aaron Murray (Georgia)
1. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
Carey comes out of a spread scheme, and that worries some, because the lanes are usually different in the pro game.
That said, Carey is a beast who has gotten bigger, faster and stronger over the course of the last couple of seasons and looks like he still has room for growth. A patient runner, Carey is the best back in the draft.
2. Tre Mason, Auburn (Pictured Above)
If Carey is the best overall back, Mason might be the best home-run hitter. He has scheme concerns, too, as Auburn's multiple offense and a running quarterback certainly attributed to Mason's yardage totals.
Still, game-breaking speed doesn't come along every day, and Mason's ability to extend runs from attempted contact near the line of scrimmage into big plays is special.
3. Charles Sims, West Virginia
Maybe the best all-around back in the class (in terms of running, receiving and blocking), a fantastic Senior Bowl week propelled Sims from a third-down back prospect into a potential featured player. The way he accelerates out of cuts is extremely fun to watch.
4. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
If a mad scientist were building a running back in a lab, it would end up looking a lot like Hyde, who is average height for the position, thickly built and runs with a head of steam.
That said, I don't like his lateral agility and think he takes too long to get and return to full speed. He could be an all-star in a zone scheme or a merely good back in a traditional blocking set.
5. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor
I don't think he's the best back in the draft, but as a former running back coach, Seastrunk is my favorite to watch. He's got elite balance and agility with "natural" running ability that comes from marrying all of that physical ability with vision and a dose of running back "it" factor.
Next on the List: Jeremy Hill (LSU), Bishop Sankey (Washington), James White (Wisconsin), Devonta Freeman (Florida State), Terrance West (Towson)
1a. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (Pictured Above)
Watkins is the most dynamic receiver in the draft. Get the ball in his hands, and he can do magical things with it. He's sure-handed, explosive and can dominate for long stretches of games. Physically, he can win most matchups at the next level with both speed and physicality.
He could easily go within the top five picks.
1b. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Evans isn't as elite a prospect as Watkins, but he's just as much of a matchup threat—in a different way.
Evans has enough speed to win a healthy amount of matchups, but he also shows ability to win in the air, high-point the ball and come down with the rock with a defender on his hip. Am I hedging my bet? Maybe, but Evans will be every bit the weapon at the next level as Watkins.
2. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Beckham, like most LSU receivers before him, seems to have issues catching the ball consistently, but he's leaps and bounds ahead of many of his predecessors in terms of route running, acceleration and snatching the ball out of the air. You'd like him to be a few inches taller, but he's great at playing "above the rim."
3. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
The best size/speed prospect at wide receiver in the draft (perhaps at any position), the sky is the limit for Benjamin. Still, long mental lapses, raw route running and questionable hands stand between him and contributing on Sundays. The tools are there, though, and teams love tools they can teach.
4. Marqise Lee, USC
Once a heralded 4-star prospect out of high school, Lee splashed onto the scene as a freshman. But since this time, he has dealt with injury and then over-inflated expectations due to subpar talent around him.
He's naturally gifted, moves well (with and without the ball) and catches the ball well, but there's a lot of question marks to deal with.
5. Allen Robinson, Penn State
Robinson is a big-bodied receiver with impressive in-the-air body control and an amazing catch radius—you could ask for more, but not in a fifth-best receiver in the class. Robinson is going to contribute at a high level in the NFL, even without elite straight-line speed.
Next on the List: Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Jarvis Landry (LSU), Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), Davante Adams (Fresno State), Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin)
1. Eric Ebron, North Carolina (Pictured Above)
Once, when asked for a comparison on Ebron, my initial reaction was Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Now, the two play different positions and Ebron is obviously bigger (though only slightly) and a better blocker (again, slightly), but the way the two play the ball down the field is nearly identical.
Ebron is more than just a tight end; he's a dangerous weapon.
2. Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Calling Amaro a tight end isn't quite right, either. He's a massive slot receiver who broke the NCAA tight end receiving record this past season.
An H-back prospect (or Off-the-Y/Joker/etc.), Amaro isn't going to fit a "traditional" offense. Thankfully for him, very few of those traditional offenses that eschew talent like his still exist.
3. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
He has massive size and a great catch radius, but he doesn't always play up to that potential. Seferian-Jenkins also has red flags on and off the field. He's got a ton of potential, though, and flashes brilliance both receiving and blocking. He is also a threat to move the chains once he's got the ball in his hands.
4. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
The best tight end at the Senior Bowl, Fiedorowicz has an incredible frame and an old-school component to his game that still appeals to every team—either as a No. 1 or No. 2 tight end.
Where Fiedorowicz provides the most value, however, is past the sticks and in the redzone, where his size, long arms and catching ability make him almost impossible to stop.
5. Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Niklas is a good all-around athlete, and he is tough (he played linebacker at Notre Dame as well). He's also the nephew of Bruce Matthews, so NFL teams will want to talk to him.
Not a great straight-line athlete or a devastating blocker, he is still more than reliable in both of those facets. "Reliable" seems to be the buzz word here, as Niklas showcases a ton of effort and has a very well-rounded game.
Next on the List: Colt Lyerla (Oregon), Arthur Lynch (Georgia), Marcel Jensen (Fresno State), Jordan Najvar (Baylor), Crockett Gilmore (Colorado State)
1. Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Matthews had a chance to be one of the top tackles taken in 2013. This year, he could potentially be one of the top-two players drafted overall.
Balanced and athletic in the passing game, strong and violent in the running game, Matthews is the best tackle prospect that we've seen since Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil (2012). He should have an immediately positive impact for the team that drafts him.
2. Greg Robinson, Auburn
Pound-for-pound, Robinson is one of the most athletic players in the draft. Auburn's offense has prepared him to be a fantastic run-blocker, yes, but his athleticism, balance and former quarterback's athleticism has taught him to move well in space, too.
He's one of the most raw offensive line prospects in the draft, but all of the tools are there—in spades. He has a legitimate shot to be the best player, at any position, in this class.
3. Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
Like most Alabama players, Kouandjio was a heralded prospect out of high school and never matured into the can't miss/uber-prospect many projected him to be. However, not living out to that amount of hype belies the fact that Kouandjio looks to be an impact starter on Sundays.
A better run-blocker than pass-blocker, Kouandjio get's discussed as a "right tackle-only" prospect for all the wrong reasons. He's athletic enough to play the blindside and should mature into a Pro Bowl player sooner rather than later.
4. Taylor Lewan, Michigan (Pictured Above)
Lewan was a bit of a disappointment in 2013, but it's tough not to feel for a polished left tackle prospect who continually had to block for the likes of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, two guys who were constantly on the move.
So, when someone says Lewan fell in the draft from 2013 to 2014, it's unlikely he fell very far. Physically, he's all there, and he just needs a good offensive line coach and a pro-style system that fits his strengths.
5. Morgan Moses, Virginia
Much like Detroit Lions offensive guard Larry Warford, Moses showed up to the Senior Bowl with the publicity of a mauler in the run game. Then, he showed off surprising athleticism and agility, which made people think twice before labeling him "right tackle only" (which, let's face it, really means guard).
Moses may not be every single team's cup of tea, but he can play both tackle positions at the next level and should be a fringe first-day prospect.
Next on the List: Antonio Richardson (Tennessee), Jack Mewhort (Ohio State), Joel Bitonio (Nevada), Billy Turner (North Dakota State)
Interior Offensive Line
1. Zack Martin, OG/OT, Notre Dame (Pictured Above)
Most people have Martin highly ranked at tackle, and more power to them. My initial reaction to his frame was that he might struggle to add enough weight to truly be a mauler in the NFL as he was in college.
That said, his pass protection in space leaves a lot to be desired. He's adopted a lot of poor "tricks" to make up for a lack of elite athleticism, and I'm not sure he can handle speed-rushers at the next level.
The positive: he's got great leverage and technique as a run-blocker and should be able to negate any interior size concerns with effort and angles. He can be a decent tackle, but he'll be a Pro Bowl player at guard.
2. David Yankey, OG, Stanford
In college, Yankey was big, strong, mauled people and showcased toughness. However, the concern is that the NFL game will allow opponents to catch up to Yankey in much the same way it has caught up to former Stanford linemen like Jonathan Martin and Will Svitek. Yankey was a phenomenal college player, but he's a step (or two) below former Stanford guard David DeCastro as a pro prospect.
He is super smart, instinctive, has good footwork and is (mostly) polished against interior pass-rushers, so Yankey has a spot at the next level. However, he will need to continue to add weight and learn to consistently fire off lower if he wants to dominate in the NFL run game as often as he did in the Pac-12.
3. Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
All-around, Su'a-Filo is perhaps the most polished guard in the draft. At times, he fails to control after the initial punch, but he's a pro in pass protection and athletic enough to get to the second level to cut off traffic.
He left school early, but he's got a full college career of starts behind him and spent two years abroad, so he's mature and ready to make an impact.
4. Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
One of the bigger surprises at the Senior Bowl, Richburg stood out as the top center in the class, showcasing a great anchor, hand placement and drive. He's started every game since stepping onto campus and has the polish and intelligence to do the same in the NFL.
5. Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor
A disappointment in Mobile, Richardson is the best straight-line blocker in the draft, but he doesn't have the quickness to deal with speedy interior rushers. When his hands are on you, you're done, but he'll get beat often as well. In a pro system, he'll need a lot of work, but the mammoth size and overall tools are there.
Next on the List: Travis Swanson (C, Arkansas), Anthony Steen (OG, Alabama), Dakota Dozier (OG, Furman), Gabe Jackson (OG, Mississippi State), Jon Halapio (OG, Florida)
Defensive Tackles/3-4 Defensive Ends
Common positional designations fail a bit in draft projection, as different defenses value players in different ways. This group of bigger defensive linemen will be fit into 0/1-technique (nose tackle), 3-technique (under tackle) or 5-technique (3-4 defensive end). Most will be considered at multiple positions within that list.
1. Louis Nix, Notre Dame
An injured knee is always disconcerting for a man of Nix' size, so no prospect will be poked, prodded or tested quite like Nix at the combine.
When healthy, though, Nix is a force of nature. He moves extremely well for his size, uses his hands violently and tracks down ball-carriers like a linebacker. He would fit well in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 at nose.
2. Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Donald's biggest concern is size, but the week at the Senior Bowl proved he could win one-on-one matchups with the highest level of college competition.
His first step is devastating and he breaks through the line like a man on fire, making himself even smaller to press gaps and get penetration. He would best fit in a 4-3 at undertackle, although I feel he could play 3-4 in a rotational basis as well.
3. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State (Pictured Above)
Jernigan is a little bowling ball of potential who seemingly wills himself into the backfield at times, although his technique and first step can be a little sloppy. He's extremely athletic and should add 10 pounds to his frame in the NFL. Polish him up, and he can be a superstar.
4. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
Physically, Hageman is almost all there, but he is just a little off. He's tenacious, strong, athletic and powerful at the point of contact, but he tends to trail off at the end of games and get lost in the shuffle.
I'm also concerned with whether or not he can be so dominant against all matchups at the next level. He's a second-round prospect with good versatility.
5. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
Tuitt is a ridiculously good athlete with minor injury and major consistency concerns.
If an NFL defensive line coach is able to light a fire under him, Tuitt could potentially be the star of this class. He is a great athlete for his size, carries his weight well and can play just about anywhere in either scheme.
Next on the List: Will Sutton (Arizona State), Anthony Johnson (LSU), Dominique Easley (Florida), Carraun Reid (Princeton), Kelcy Quarles (South Carolina)
Pass-Rushing Specialists (4-3 Defensive Ends/3-4 Outside Linebackers)
These players aren't necessarily one-dimensional pass-rushers, but their ability to get to the passer and disrupt the passing game from a standup or hand-down position will be what teams prize about them the most. These players will mostly be considered at 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, though a few could potentially play 4-3 outside linebacker or even a pass-rushing TED inside linebacker in a 3-4, based on scheme.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The best defensive line prospect since Julius Peppers, scouts are going to ignore his mediocre stats from this year and watch a sophomore year that could not have been more impressive on tape.
He's an athletic freak who can disrupt the passing game. Look for him to go in the top five and have an immediate impact at the next level.
2. Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo (Pictured Above)
Mack is a phenomenal athlete who would be wasted as a one-dimensional pass-rusher, but his talents are so strong there that he might get typecast. Fantastic in space, Mack lives behind the line of scrimmage and pursues to the ball well, finishing with hard-hitting power.
3. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The knock on Barr is that it doesn't look like he's trying. That's the knock a lot of athletic defenders from UCLA have gotten over the years, and the flip-side is that being an instinctive, impactful linebacker might just come naturally to the guy.
A fit in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme at outside linebacker, he's got a little Von Miller to his game. He should go within the top 10.
4. Kony Ealy, DE/OLB, Missouri
Passing the look test with ease, Ealy accelerates through the hole like a running back and seems magnetically attracted to quarterbacks and ball-carriers. He's raw, but his physical ability is through the roof.
5. Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn
Ford is a freak athlete with an even better first step. He doesn't seem to anchor well enough or have the size to put his hand in the dirt, but he'll make a great linebacker at the next level.
Do not be surprised to see him drafted early and play only pass-rushing downs early on in his career.
Next on the List: Kyle Van Noy (OLB, Brigham Young), Trent Murphy (LB, Stanford), Chris Smith (DE, Arkansas), Jackson Jeffcoat (DE, Texas), Trevor Reilly (OLB, Utah)
As with the last slide, it isn't as if these players cannot rush the passer. However, the players in this group are more valued for their pass coverage, chase-and-tackle ability and run defense. Their fit will mostly be inside/middle linebacker or outside linebacker in a traditional 4-3.
1. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Mosley is one of the best all-around linebackers to come out of college in some time. He's huge, athletic, fights off blocks well and wins at the line of scrimmage. He's at his best moving forward but has some polish and ability in coverage as well.
2. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Having the talent and tools to play any linebacker position, Shazier is at his best when moving sideline-to-sideline chasing ball-carriers. He has a chance to wrack-up 10 tackles every single game and does a lot of good work behind the line of scrimmage as well. Shazier has some trouble picking his way through traffic, but he also has the athleticism to make up for mistakes.
3. Telvin Smith, OLB, Florida State (Pictured Above)
Some want to move Smith to safety over (very legitimate) size concerns, but taking Smith further away from action is not the key to his success.
Extremely instinctive and fantastic in pursuit, Smith is a playmaker, period. He'll get swallowed up at times at the next level and may need some time to grow past that as a player, but he'll make an impact.
4. Shayne Skov, ILB, Stanford
Skov and Borland are very close on my board and are actually flip-flopped on some others. Of the two, Skov is the (slightly) more athletic and (somewhat) more aggressive linebacker. He has some injury history, but he takes on blocks well and explodes into contact.
5. Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin
As much as I like Skov, I might take Borland to play 4-3 MLB if I were building a team today. Instinctive as any linebacker, Borland makes up for slight athleticism and size concerns with almost zero false steps and fantastic knowledge of the game. He is the kind of guy you put in the middle of the defense with a green dot on his helmet and leave him there for a decade.
Next on the List: Yawin Smallwood (ILB, Connecticut), Christian Jones (ILB, Florida State), Christian Kirksey (OLB, Iowa), Carl Bradford (LB, Arizona State), Jordan Tripp (OLB, Montana)
1. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Right now, Gilbert is probably a few steps behind Dennard in terms of technique, but he is the more athletic prospect.
He reminds me, at times, of a poor man's Patrick Peterson, in that his best assets starting out in the NFL may be as a returner, but a good coach could easily mature him into an All-Pro cornerback.
2. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
The best lockdown corner in the draft, Dennard could excel in man or zone and is comfortable pressing bigger wide receivers. He might be a bit too physical in coverage and will have to make up for closer officiating in the NFL.
3. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The consensus top safety in this class for a long time, "Ha Ha" (real name: Ha'Sean) is a classic over-the-top free safety in a 3-4 defense.
He's got some worrisome tackling habits and isn't a big hitter, so that could keep him from going as high as some fanbases want, but he makes great plays in the passing game and moves extremely well in deep centerfield.
4. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Elected not to play in the Senior Bowl due to injury concerns, Verrett has a chance to be the best cornerback in this class, with size concerns (5'10", 176 lbs.) being his only issue. He has the ability to defend on the outside and the agility to defend in the slot. He's also a playmaker against the run.
5. Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville (Pictured Above)
Pryor has been making a run at Clinton-Dix's top safety status, mostly because he pops on tape (especially making big hits) more than his Alabama counterpart. Also, he looks like a more intimidating athlete and can make plays on passes even when he's late in recognition.
He might start a step behind Clinton-Dix in terms of production, but Pryor has a chance to make up that ground in a hurry.
Next on the List: Marcus Roberson (CB, Florida), Pierre Desir (CB, Lindenwood), Ed Reynolds (S, Stanford), Bradley Roby (CB, Ohio State), Kyle Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech)