NFL Draft: Ranking and Grading Every Position in the 2014 Class

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

NFL Draft: Ranking and Grading Every Position in the 2014 Class

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    With the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine officially in the books, now seems like the perfect time to take a detailed look at the draft class which NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock recently told reporters was "the deepest and best draft class" he had seen in probably 10 years, via Curtis Crabtree of Pro Football Talk

    Impressive combine measurables do not always translate to NFL success, and many analysts (myself included) feel that actual game tape provides a much more accurate measurement of a player's ability. However, pairing some of the spectacular results of this past week with each prospect's collegiate production does give us an idea of just how impressive this draft class actually is.

    Every draft class seems to have its fair share of big-name prospects, but this class feels special because of the sheer amount of value and depth that exists at almost every individual position.

    Which position groups hold the best combination of talent and depth? That's a very relevant question for teams with specific needs (and for the fans of those teams), and it's a question we will try to determine over the next few pages.

    Since we are grading position groups and not individual players, our system will be based purely upon on-field potential (character, legal and medical concerns will not be considered). Also, some groups will be combined for simplicity's sake (pass-rushers, for example, will be grouped together, regardless of position).

    Groups will be given an overall grade based on top-end talent and depth and then will be ranked accordingly. 

     

     

    * All combine results and round projections courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.  

     

Specialists

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Notable Players

    Cairo Santos, K, Tulane

    Cody Mandell, P, Alabama

    Marcus Heit, LS, Kansas St.

     

     

    Analysis

    Believe it or not, punters, kickers and long-snappers actually have a couple of things in common with NFL quarterbacks: there are only 32 starting jobs available for each position and teams either have a franchise-caliber player holding down each respective spot, or they do not.

    However, the non-existence of backup jobs for specialists leads to a lot of long-term position-holders and few actual job openings (kicker Phil Dawson, for example, spent 14 seasons with the Cleveland Browns before signing a one-year, $2.35 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers last offseason). 

    Therefore, specialists do not often find themselves in high demand on draft day. Even the top specialists in this year's class are projected as sixth- or seventh-round picks, at best, which ultimately was bound to leave the group at the bottom of our rankings.

    While there appears to be a number of above-average specialists available in this draft, the margin from top to bottom is vast, and only a handful of players will be fortunate enough to compete for an NFL job come training camp. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: C-

    Depth: D

    Overall Grade: D+

     

     

Running Backs

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    Notable Players

    Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State

    Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona

    Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn

     

     

    Analysis

    The problem with this year's crop of running backs is that no single player really seems to jump out as a surefire stud at the pro level. 

    It would not be too much of a surprise if this were the second consecutive year in which a running back was not drafted in the first round. There are a couple of standout players in the 2014 class, but I do not expect any of them to be as instantly exciting as Giovani Bernard or as consistent as Eddie Lacy were as rookies last season.

    Ohio State's Carlos Hyde currently projects as the most-likely first-round pick of the bunch, and even he comes with questions about his overall game (he clocked a time of 4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine). While Hyde looks the part of an NFL starter (he actually reminds me more of Le'Veon Bell than Lacy), there doesn't appear to be a true game-changer at the position in the top end of the draft.

    However, there seems to be a good bunching of backs who should be available in Rounds 2-5 and who could emerge as serviceable pros. There are also a couple of intriguing undersized backs—like Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas and Kent State’s Dri Archer—who could find a Darren Sproles- or Percy Harvin-type role at the next level.

    Overall, this group of running backs appears to on par with what we saw last year, while most other positions appear to hold much more potential. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: C-

    Depth: C+

    Overall Grade: C

     

     

Linebackers (Non-Pass-Rushers)

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    Notable Players

    C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama

    Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin

    Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama

     

     

    Analysis

    This top rounds of this year's draft are likely to be filled with potentially elite edge-rushers. However, the crop of inside linebackers and more traditional outside linebackers is not quite as impressive, with Alabama's C.J. Mosley being the only surefire first-round pick of the bunch. 

    Mosley (6'2", 235 lbs), for his part, is a true top-flight prospect who projects as a franchise multi-position linebacker and defensive leader at the next level. 

    Guys like Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard and Stanford's Shayne Skov look to enter the NFL as role players with the potential to develop into eventual starter material. Of course, there are sure to be a few surprises in the group that manage to lock down a starting job before the regular season opener.

    Overall, though, this crop of non-pass-rushing linebackers isn't as spectacular as some of the other position groups in the draft. This class will likely produce one or two stars and a handful of dependable, consistent starters, which is certainly not an unfavorable outlook.

    Because traditional linebackers are not as highly coveted as pass-rushers in today's NFL, teams should find plenty of value in the middle rounds of this draft, particularly those teams that employ a 4-3 base defense and are looking for linebackers to play inside. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: C

    Depth: C+

    Overall Grade: C

     

     

Tight Ends

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    Notable Players

    Eric Ebron, North Carolina

    Troy Niklas, Notre Dame

    Jace Amaro, Texas Tech

     

     

    Analysis

    With the ever-changing tight end position taking a new prominence among NFL offenses, team are sure to be looking to add to the position in May's draft.

    While North Carolina's Eric Ebron is probably the only tight end who truly deserves first-round consideration, other players may creep into the conversation based on their potential to create mismatches at the pro level.

    North Carolina's Eric Ebron, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Notre Dame's Troy Niklas all project as possible early-round selections, with a couple of them even carrying first-round grades. 

    After the first few guys, however, there is a bit of a drop-off at the position, and tight ends selected in the middle-to-late rounds may have a difficult time making an impact early on in their careers. Of course, there are a few intriguing physical specimens (keep an eye on 6'6" Fresno State product Marcel Jensen) in the bunch who could develop into legitimate playmakers. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: B-

    Depth: C-

    Overall Grade: C+

     

     

Quarterbacks

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    Notable Players

    Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

    Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

    Blake Bortles, Central Florida

     

     

    Analysis

    With Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel headlining the quarterback class, this year's group has to be an impressive one, right?

    Well, not exactly.

    Manziel and Bridgewater have certainly become household names over the past couple of years, but they—along with the other top projected signal-callers—come with some serious questions. Manziel could be a risk because of his shorter stature (6'0"), while Bridgewater has been criticized for his slight 214-pound frame (which I find less concerning than his lack of arm strength).

    Central Florida's Blake Bortles (6'5", 232 lbs) has all the physical tools but is relatively unpolished and carries questions about his ability to thrive against top-level competition. Fresno State's Derek Carr, another borderline first-round prospect, comes with similar concerns, as the majority of his impressive 2013 production (5,082 passing yards and 50 touchdowns) came against inferior defenses.

    There are, however, a number of interesting prospects—Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger—who have the potential to develop into legitimate NFL starters and who could be available in the third round or later.

    As a whole, this appears to be a middle-of-the-pack quarterback class, and the gap between the first-rounders and the middle-round guys does not seem as large as we have seen in some years. There might not be a Tom Brady or a Russell Wilson hiding in the group, but there isn't an Andrew Luck standing out at the top either. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: C

    Depth: B

    Overall Grade: B-

      

     

Safeties

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    Notable Players

    Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville

    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama

    Craig Loston, SS, LSU

     

     

    Analysis

    This year's safety class features a number of possible future starters with a couple of potential superstars sitting high at the top.

    Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix both project as first-round selections and immediate starters at the next level. While Clinton-Dix holds a slight height advantage (6'1", whereas Pryor is 5'11"), Pryor closes the gap with an impressive 34.5" vertical. Both players clocked in with a solid 4.58-second 40-yard dash time at the combine as well.

    Teams looking to solidify the back end of their defense won't go wrong with either player, however, as game tape shows that both players are capable of making game-changing plays with regularity.

    The potential for stardom drops off a bit after Pryor and Clinton-Dix, though there are several intriguing prospects who should be able to make an immediate impact as complementary or depth players.

    The middle rounds of the draft may produce a couple of starters, but they will probably be of the strong safety variety. Guys like LSU's Craig Loston and Washington State's Deone Bucannon project as in-the-box safeties that could find a notable role early in their careers.

     

     

    Top-End Talent: B

    Depth: C+

    Overall Grade: B-

     

     

Cornerbacks

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    Notable Players:

    Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State

    Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State

    Bradley Roby, Ohio State

     

     

    Analysis

    This year's cornerback group doesn't quite have the depth of some other positions, though it certainly holds up fairly well when compared to other recent draft classes.

    Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert is an easy first-round pick and would probably be a top-10 pick in most other years. At 6'0" and 202 pounds, he has the size and athleticism that modern defensive coordinators covet as well as the ball skills to match. 

    Depending on how things fall, Gilbert could be joined by a number of corners in the first round. Great man-coverage defenders like Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State's Bradley Roby and Jason Verrett of TCU certainly have the goods. 

    The middle rounds of the draft should hold some potential starters as well, as guys like Rashaad Reynolds of Oregon State and Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech could sneak up draft boards over the coming weeks.

    Reliable pass-defenders are always in high demand, so plenty of corners should hear their names called in the latter rounds of the draft, even though other positions may hold better value. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: B

    Depth: C+

    Overall Grade: B-

     

     

Defensive Lineman (Excluding Pass-Rushers)

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    Notable Players

    Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame

    Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

    Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama

     

     

    Analysis

    The big guys who man the trenches don't always get the attention of their nimble pass-rushing companions, but that doesn't make them any less important to a defense. Fortunately, this year's class is deep with mammoth interior lineman and edge-setting 3-4 defensive ends.

    Notre Dame's Louis Nix III is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle and a probable first-round pick. At 6'2" and 333 pounds, Nix could certainly eat up space in an NFL defense, but he is also athletic enough to make plays on his own.

    He might be joined in the first round by Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, who is athletic and explosive enough (he ran a respectable 5.02-second 40-yard-dash at the combine) at 310 pounds to bring pressure as a 3-technique interior tackle. 

    Guys like Tennessee's Daniel McCullers, Penn State's DaQuan Jones, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Alabama's Ed Stinson headline a group of impressive run-stoppers that should be available in Rounds 2 and 3.

    The mid-to-late rounds of the draft should also yield a bevy of capable NFL-caliber lineman, though most of these players will probably go largely unheralded for their efforts. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: B

    Depth: B+

    Overall Grade: B

     

      

Guards and Centers

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    Notable Players:

    Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi St.

    John Urschel, G, Penn St.

    Travis Swanson, C, Arkensas

     

     

    Analysis

    This year's draft features an absolutely spectacular selection of offensive linemen, though the class of interior linemen isn't quite as impressive as the group of tackles that will be available.

    Still, there are a handful of guards and centers with first-round potential, such as Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson, UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo and Penn State's John Urschel. However, due to the sheer amount of talent at other positions and the increasing devaluation of interior lineman, Jackson may be the only one to actually go in Round 1.

    Actually, it would not be too surprising if none of the interior linemen have their names called on Day 1, though the 6'3", 336-pound Jackson could be hard to pass over.

    What the interior linemen class lacks in star power it more than makes up for in depth. There is a virtual cornucopia of guards and centers in this class with NFL potential, and the majority of them will probably be drafted after the first two rounds. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: C

    Depth: B+

    Overall Grade: B

     

     

Wide Receivers

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    Notable Players

    Sammy Watkins, Clemson 

    Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State

    Mike Evans, Texas A&M

     

     

    Analysis

    Clemson playmaker Sammy Watkins heads an impressive list of wide receivers. The 6'1", 211-pound prospect can virtually do it all from the receiver position, as his 14.5 yards-per-catch average and 12 touchdowns in 2013 can attest.

    Yet Watkins is far from the only potential superstar in this class, as a number of fast, big-bodied wideouts are likely to wind up being selected in the first round. Receivers like Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and Mike Evans of Texas A&M (6'5", 231 lbs) fit the mold of the modern No. 1 receiver to near perfection.

    Even smaller receivers like USC's Marquise Lee and LSU's Odell Beckham could easily find themselves drafted in Round 1 because of the playmaking potential they bring to the table.

    Of course, this does not mean that teams drafting after the first round won't have an opportunity to grab a difference-maker at the position. Collegiate standouts abound will be waiting in the middle rounds to be plucked and given an opportunity to make a name for themselves at the pro level.

    Consider that Vanderbilt wideout Jordan Mathews, who was fourth in the nation with 1,477 yards last season, is only projected as a second- or third-round pick, and you can get an idea of just how deep this receiver class is. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: A+

    Depth: A-

    Overall Grade: A

     

     

Offensive Tackles

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    Notable Players:

    Greg Robinson, Auburn

    Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

    Taylor Lewan, Michigan

     

     

    Analysis

    Teams in search of a franchise-caliber offensive tackle are in luck, as this year's class is chock-full of the valuable commodity.

    Teams will probably have to decide whether to make Auburn's Greg Robinson or Texas A&M's Jake Matthews the first tackle taken in a first-round that could see five of them selected. Robinson (6'5", 332 lbs) is a physical marvel, while Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com recently dubbed Matthews as the "safest" pick in the entire draft.

    Matthews and Robinson are sure to be off the board early, but teams drafting outside the top 10 should still have a shot at landing a long-time starter at the position.

    Guys like Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Notre Dame's Zack Martin, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James have immediate-starter potential. Any or all of them could wind up in the first round and few would find it to be a total shock.

    The depth after the top-tier prospects is also quite strong. The middle-to-late rounds should be filled with versatile, technically sound and talented tackles that could be peppering the edges of starting lineups for years to come.

     

     

    Top-End Talent: A

    Depth: A

    Overall Grade: A

     

      

Pass-Rushers

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    Notable Players

    Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

    Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Buffalo 

    Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

     

     

    Analysis

    There are several positions with ridiculous talent and depth in this year's draft class, but teams searching for an edge-rushing sack-artist should feel especially lucky to have an opportunity to select from this group.

    Just how much pass-rushing talent will sit at the top of the draft? Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller tabbed five defensive ends or outside linebackers as first-round picks in a recent mock draft, with six more going in Round 2. 

    The discussion begins with South Carolina phenom Jadeveon Clowney, and by now, most football fans should have an idea of the type of game-changing potential he possesses. However, the discussion definitely does not end there.

    Players like Buffalo's Khalil Mack, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Missouri's Kony Ealy and Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence, among many others, have the physical tools to be just as impactful early on in their pro careers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that half a dozen of this draft's pass-rushers would be likely top-10 selections in a year with less depth at multiple positions.

    Even the draft's less-heralded pass-rushers possess the explosiveness and athleticism (Shepherd defensive end Howard Jones, for instance, clocked a 4.60-second 40 at the combine) to make a difference on Sundays, making this one of the deepest positional classes in recent memory. 

     

     

    Top-End Talent: A+

    Depth: A

    Overall Grade: A