The long delay between the end of the NFL season and the start of the 2014 NFL draft provides ample time for nit-picking and speculation. As such, draft stocks tend to fluctuate wildly, even while the players' portfolios are largely complete.
The biggest step remaining in the pre-draft process is the combine, which will occur this week in Indianapolis. Even before the poking and prodding occurs at Lucas Oil Stadium, however, draft stocks are already changing as All-Star game evaluations are studied and opinions are formed.
With that in mind, here's a look at a few early risers and fallers in the NFL draft process.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Ford took home Senior Bowl MVP honors after a dominating week of practice and is now earning buzz as one of the best pass-rushing prospects in the draft. As if 10.5 sacks last season were not enough, his high character and solid measurables are expected to have him test well at the combine, according to Louis Riddick of ESPN:
Hearing more and more about how exceptional the football/personal character of #Auburn DE Dee Ford is. Going to go over well at combine..— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) February 8, 2014
Consequently, it appears Ford is a serious Day 1 consideration. The 6'2" and 243-pounder fits in well with the NFL's increasing emphasis on speed and athleticism over pure size, and he flashed a consistently explosive first step and good hand usage that should bode well going forward.
A capable edge-rusher is one of the most valuable commodities in today's passing-oriented game. Ford shows elite game speed, and if he puts up impressive combine numbers, that might be enough to vault him from a borderline first-rounder into a lock.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois
Eastern Illinois has produced quarterback steals before, and Jimmy Garappolo will try to follow in Tony Romo's footsteps beginning next fall. Unlike Romo, Garappolo figures to hear his name called at some point, and after impressive Shrine Game and Senior Bowl performances, that could come earlier rather than later.
He earned buzz for a quick release and high football IQ, flashing plenty of NFL-caliber tools that began to win over skeptics who doubted his level of competition. After the Senior Bowl, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo had high praise for Garappolo, per Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune:
As of Tuesday afternoon, Scelfo was ready to attest that the promising quarterback from Eastern Illinois was indeed the real deal.
"In his experience, he has thrown so many balls. He has seen so many different things," Scelfo said. "So when you talk to him, right off the bat, he's asking questions about plays and coverages and this and that and that. It was easy to see how his mind was connecting and translating from the board and from the screen."
Garoppolo still sits firmly in the second tier of quarterbacks for now, behind the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles. However, a good combine showing could push the Eastern Illinois product up into the late first round, perhaps with a quarterback-needy team trading back into the round to select him.
Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
Size has always been the major qualm with Jimmie Ward. At 5'11" and 192 pounds, he would be smaller than the average NFL safety, far from the enforcer and run supporter some teams seek over the middle. And yet his range and ball skills are ideal for a free safety, something scouts are starting to realize as they dig deeper.
Combined with Ward's good game film against high-level competition, like the 2013 Orange Bowl versus Florida State, the flaws are becoming less noticeable, per Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com:
Doing #NIU Safety Jimmie Ward scouting report now. I gotta admit finding it real hard to spot many weaknesses. Has tools to be complete SAF— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) February 7, 2014
Ward was named the top defensive back of the week at the Senior Bowl and looks like a second-rounder at this point. So long as he shows that his below-average strength is not a huge detriment at the combine, his coverage skills should carry him into the early rounds.
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Boyd should test well at the combine, and with 914 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground over the past two years, he fits the mold of the increasingly popular dual-threat quarterback. However, at the Senior Bowl, he did not demonstrate the necessary improvements with his arm.
Despite completing over 67 percent of his passes each of the past two seasons, Boyd has received criticism for his accuracy and ball placement from scouting sites like WalterFootball.com. That criticism has led to some fairly extreme statements from scouts, according to DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline:
Packers scout "based on what I'm seeing Tahj Boyd is not draftable"— Tony Pauline (@TonyPauline) January 20, 2014
Boyd may still sneak into the draft as a sixth- or seventh-round selection, but that is a far cry from the early-round buzz he had previously generated. For now, the ex-Clemson quarterback looks like a developmental prospect some team will need to stash away for a few years.
Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama
Hubbard could have stayed in Tuscaloosa as a fifth-year senior, but he decided to declare a year early anyways. After an underwhelming Senior Bowl performance, it looks like the Crimson Tide linebacker made a poor decision that could prove highly deleterious to his draft stock.
Hubbard has earned the dreaded "tweener" label, as he possesses neither the skill set to fit as a 4-3 defensive end nor the fluidity and coverage ability to play linebacker. The excellent measurables and superior athleticism are nice at the college level, but as NFL.com's Bucky Brooks notes, that simply has not translate to impressive production or skills:
Although Hubbard has played outside linebacker in Alabama's 3-4 system, he isn't a dynamic pass rusher nor an explosive athlete in coverage. I've been surprised at his marginal first-step quickness and his lack of nuance with his pass-rush technique. Hubbard doesn't overwhelm blockers with outstanding speed and quickness. In addition, he also lacks the power to forklift opponents despite his exceptional length (6-6, 252 pounds).
An AFC South scout called Hubbard a "jack of all trades, but a master of none." For a player expected to be one of the headliners of the 2014 draft class, Hubbard's performance at the Senior Bowl has produced more questions than answers at this point.
Hubbard looks like a mid-round prospect at this point, even though he possesses Day 1 athleticism. Unless he demonstrates significant improvement in pass-rushing or pass-coverage skills, he will need plenty of seasoning before he emerges as a viable contributor.
Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor
Richardson was once tagged as one of the draft's top interior offensive lineman, but a poor Senior Bowl showing has taken some of the shine off.
His 6'5", 335-pound frame had many labeling Richardson as one of the draft's best run-blockers, a label he still retains. However, during Senior Bowl practices, he was beaten consistently by quicker defensive linemen in the passing game. The poor showing left many, like Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, disappointed:
Was pretty disappointed with Cyril Richardson this week. My expectations for his balance/lateral agility were too high.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 26, 2014
Being outmatched in the passing game is a non-starter for an NFL starting lineman, and the plodding Richardson looked overmatched in Mobile, Ala. The up-tempo Baylor passing game built upon quick reads is beneficial not only to the quarterback, but to the linemen who protect for less time. As such, Richardson is probably a Day 2 or 3 pick at this point, a stunning fall for the ex-Bear.