2014 NFL Draft: Where Would Top 'Positionless' Athletes Fit in the Pros?
True playmakers are hard to come by in the NFL. When they arrive, teams must consider how their particular skill set can be utilized in their favor.
This list of NFL prospects highlights some of the more talented players entering the 2014 NFL draft who have no definite role at the next level just yet. The teams that bring these guys aboard must have vision and faith in their abilities to carve out a position that can turn question marks into assets.
Combine results courtesy of NFL.com.
De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
De’Anthony Thomas is diminutive in stature, and this will hinder his potential in the NFL and hurt his value come draft day. But any team that thinks the "Black Mamba" can’t be a deadly weapon at the next level is simply not thinking creatively.
Standing 5’9” and 174 pounds, he is not going to be an every-down running back in a league that is populated by the world’s biggest and strongest men. Because of this, teams are not likely to pick him in the first two days of the draft, as scouts and talent evaluators will see a fragile shrimp who lacks the thickness to take a pounding.
And to some degree, they're correct.
Despite the limitations, Thomas does have a role in the NFL for the team that is willing to use him for what he does best. In the open field, few prospects are better in this class. His change of direction and quickness are nearly unparalleled, regardless of his combine numbers. Those physical gifts are complemented by elite vision, which makes him look quicker than he is.
The Philadelphia Eagles or Kansas City Chiefs could be ideal for his unique set of skills. The Eagles would be operating under a similar system to what Oregon ran, and head coach Chip Kelly already knows what Thomas can bring to the table after coaching him in college.
The Chiefs also did a nice job of finding ways to utilize Dexter McCluster under head coach Andy Reid and may be able to find a similar role for Thomas.
His future in the NFL will likely be as a kick returner, slot receiver and change-of-pace running back on reverses, swing routes and spread-option plays. Ultimately, he’s a prospect who can hit the home run on any given play and provide an offense with a versatile weapon.
Dee Ford, Edge Rusher, Auburn
Teams are likely a little perplexed about the best way to utilize Dee Ford’s abilities. He obviously has talent; he certainly can rush the passer.
But the big concern I have with this outspoken 6'2", 252-pound tweener is whether he can be a reliable anchor against the run. If he can’t, does he have the fluidity in his hips to drop back into coverage?
Those are valid questions considering he exhibits stiffness that worries me in a player who will be asked to play in space. In Ford, I don’t see someone who can easily change directions. He appears to have more straight-line explosiveness with very little wiggle.
As a pass-rusher, he has good functional strength and an active motor with the speed and explosiveness to turn the corner in the NFL. When you pair that with his dip-and-rip move, you should be able to get a serviceable pass rush from him.
One issue with his rushing technique, aside from the general lack of creativity, is that he does not use his arm length well at all and doesn’t close ground in open space like you would expect him to. Case in point: Alabama QB AJ McCarron was able to run away from him.
From what Ford has shown on tape with his lack of change of direction and overall issues with awareness, he may struggle to be a steady contributor on special teams should his role demand it.
Auburn’s hot pass-rusher should come off the board in the late first or early second round. But who will take a chance on a guy who may turn out to be a situational pass-rusher without a definitive position?
One team that could use him is the Indianapolis Colts. They drafted a defensive end in the first round last year in the hope of adding some pass rush. Unfortunately, Bjoern Werner was the wrong player. Ford would be a better fit as their rush specialist and an upgrade at the position as long as they don’t ask him to do too much dropping into coverage.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
Logan Thomas is the most athletically gifted quarterback in this draft. At 6’6” and 248 pounds, he displayed rare speed and agility at the combine, running a 4.61 40-yard dash, 7.05 three-cone drill and 4.18 short shuttle. He also impressed with his remarkable 34.25-inch arms.
In short, he fits the ideal measurements of an elite NFL tight end.
The only problem is that he played quarterback at Virginia Tech, and based on his "QB" classification at the combine, he would like to continue playing the position at the next level.
For those who have watched this physical specimen play, he is impressive in many ways, but not in the way of accuracy. This area of his game is bad enough to hamper his potential to play quarterback as a pro.
Transitioning him to tight end is a risky endeavor that would require a great deal of effort, but catching the ball is not exactly a foreign concept to the prospect. According to CBS Sports, he was the No. 1 prep tight end recruit during his time at Brookville High School in Virginia. He has all the tools to be a great weapon in the NFL.
When you think about guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham, who have demonstrated a fast learning curve with little experience, it starts to make a lot more sense to think about Thomas as a guy who can successfully transition.
A team that is willing to give guys unique roles and explore their versatility—like the New England Patriots—could be an ideal landing spot for Thomas, especially considering they could use some more depth at a position they’ve demonstrated to have immense value in this league. Thomas would receive top-notch coaching and could learn a lot from a stable organization such as New England.
Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
When you put on the tape of Zack Martin at Notre Dame, you see an undersized prospect playing the most challenging position on the offensive line and doing it well. He may not be the fastest, biggest, tallest or strongest guy in the draft, but he shows an acute understanding of the game of football and knows how to stay in front of the defender.
The problem with Martin from an NFL perspective is that he is considered too short to play tackle at the next level. At the combine, he measured in at 6’4” and 308 pounds with 33-inch arms. Generally, guys with his stature move down to guard in the pros because teams fear a lack of reach will be a liability against the gifted pass-rushers of the NFL.
Martin shows all the potential to be an elite NFL guard if the team that drafts him decides to put him there. But he also adds value to a team with his versatility to play either inside or outside as what is traditionally called a swing lineman. Prospects who are capable of moving inside or out are coveted, considering most teams only suit up seven offensive linemen on game days.
A team like the Buffalo Bills, who could use the depth up front, might be an ideal match for Martin. The Arizona Cardinals would be another team that might have use for a versatile blocker without an established position.
Michael Sam, Edge Rusher, Missouri
By now, we all know who Michael Sam is, along with the obstacle he is trying to overcome on his way to making NFL history. But he has asked us to think of him as a football player first, and that’s how I’m going to approach this.
At the combine, he measured in on the short side (6’2”) and is considered egregiously undersized (261 pounds) to play defensive end at the next level. At best, teams are looking at him as a core special teamer who can come in on passing downs as a rush specialist. But to make matters worse, he put on a horrible show in nearly every drill at the combine.
He revealed his lack of explosiveness at the combine, and it may have some teams worried he won’t find success in the pass-rush department either. After all, Sam’s productivity at Missouri came in one season, and it came in clumps. NFL Network’s Charles Davis talked about this as a concern on NFL Total Access a week ago, saying that you have to be cautious about pass-rushers who get their sacks in bunches.
Whether this is a valid concern or not will reveal itself in time. The real question here is, where would be a good home for Sam in the NFL?
Before we go there, it should be pointed out that a few teams would be poor fits for Sam. The Arizona Cardinals reside in one of the least progressive states in terms of gay rights. The Minnesota Vikings are facing legal action after allegedly discriminating against former punter Chris Kluwe, and the Miami Dolphins lack the leadership and maturity to play host to the first openly gay pro football player.
Sam could wind up on a team like the New Orleans Saints, who can use all the help they can get in the pass-rush department. I know from personal experience that Rob Ryan is the type of coordinator who couldn’t care less about what Sam does in his personal life. Besides, he could fit in nicely with the defensive scheme, where he could rush off the edge in a two-point stance and not need to be very big to do so.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and writes for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter @ryan_riddle