2014 NFL Draft: Buying or Selling Bubble Prospects as 1st-Round Picks
The competition is steep to be a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Considered by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock to be “the best draft (he’s) seen in 10 years,” some talented players may have to wait until at least Day 2 to hear their names called.
About 20 prospects are safe bets to be first-round picks. While it's uncertain how high they will actually go, players such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack will almost certainly be selected on the draft's opening day.
Outside of the top prospects, however, there might be more legitimate first-round possibilities who won’t end up being Thursday picks than there are fringe first-round picks who will actually end up inside the bubble.
The following prospects are sitting on that bubble. While all of them have enough talent and potential to be worthy selections in the top 32, none of them are being universally projected as first-round picks.
Sell: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
A powerful 6'0", 230-pound tailback with great burst out of the backfield and good hands, Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is the most well-rounded running back prospect in this year’s draft class. Being the draft’s top running back, however, is no longer synonymous with being a first-round selection.
The 2013 NFL draft was the first in 50 years to have no running backs selected in the first round, but that should prove to be a trend rather than an anomaly. The perceived value of running backs has decreased sharply in recent years, making it likely that teams will pass on prioritizing that position with their top draft choices.
That’s not to say a spectacular running back talent can’t still be a high draft selection, but neither Hyde nor any other halfback in this year’s class comes even close to fitting that designation as a prospect.
With so much talent at positions across the board in this draft class, teams would be better off waiting until at least the second round to draft a ball-carrier. A borderline top-32 prospect, Hyde should be a solid Day 2 draft choice, but his position doesn't offer enough value for him to warrant a first-round pick this year.
Buy: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Even with heavy competition to be a top selection as a wide receiver in this year’s draft, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks likely pushed himself into the top 32 by putting up one of the top five performances at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
He has a remarkable combination of speed and quickness, as he proved in Indianapolis by running a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and a 3.81-second 20-yard shuttle—both best among all wide receivers at the combine. Those physical traits give him the ability to not only outrun defenders but also make them miss, and to turn any play into a big one.
While his combine workout might have been spectacular enough to propel him into the first round, it’s not as though he wasn’t already in the Day 1 conversation.
Cooks is a well-rounded receiver who runs very good routes and consistently catches the ball in his hands. After his pro day at Oregon State, Cooks told Molly Blue of The Oregonian, "I feel like I have the best routes in this draft." He led the FBS with 1,730 receiving yards and was second with 128 receptions and 16 receiving touchdowns in his junior season.
Even with Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and USC’s Marqise Lee all solidly projected as first-round wideouts, it will come as a surprise if Cooks doesn’t push the top-32 receiver selection total to at least five. While his lack of size (5’10”, 189 lbs) could push him down some draft boards, his combination of athleticism and production should tempt a team into selecting the playmaker early.
Sell: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
As a 6’5”, 240-pound vertical threat with big-play ability, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin is another wide receiver who is firmly within the first-round conversation. He has enough flaws in his game, however, that they should keep him out of Round 1 in such a deep and talented wide receiver draft crop.
It’s quite possible that he could end up being a top-20 draft choice, given his physical traits and potential, but only so many receivers can be first-round picks in a single draft class.
It would not come as a shock if he went ahead of Odell Beckham Jr., Marqise Lee and Brandin Cooks, but all of those players have more complete skill sets than Benjamin.
While Benjamin is a terrific jump-ball receiver who runs great routes and can extend plays in the open field, he has inconsistent hands and might lack the speed to consistently separate at the next level.
He shouldn’t last long in Round 2 if he’s still available, but the abundance of wide receiver talent and his need to improve several areas of his game should be enough for him to miss the first-round cut.
Buy: Xavier Su’a-Filo, G, UCLA
Xavier Su’a-Filo has been projected by some, including ESPN’s Todd McShay (subscription required), for the Seattle Seahawks as the last pick of this year’s first round. However, if a premium gets put on offensive linemen in the early picks of this year’s draft as it was in last year’s, Su’a-Filo won't last until the 32nd overall pick.
A strong, physical offensive lineman with terrific athleticism, Su’a-Filo stands out as the top guard prospect in this year’s draft class.
Several teams could benefit greatly from adding a top talent to their interior offensive line in the late first round. Possible destinations for Su’a-Filo within the final 10 picks of the first round could include the Kansas City Chiefs (No. 23), Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24), San Diego Chargers (No. 25), Cleveland Browns (No. 26) and Denver Broncos (No. 31).
Even if Notre Dame offensive tackle and potential guard Zack Martin was to fall outside of the top 20, it’s still likely that Su’a-Filo will be selected no later than the 32nd choice.
Top offensive linemen tend to be overdrafted more often than underdrafted, but in Su’a-Filo’s case, he belongs firmly within the top 32 and should improve an NFL team’s offensive line immediately.
Sell: Cyrus Kouandjio, OL, Alabama
Going into Cyrus Kouandjio's junior season at Alabama, many expected him to challenge Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan to be the top offensive tackle in this year’s draft, but while Auburn’s Greg Robinson emerged to play that role, Kouandjio might not even be a first-round pick anymore.
While he is a powerful blocker with an impressive frame (6’7”, 322 lbs), outside speed-rushers exposed him throughout this past season, drawing into question whether he can continue to play offensive tackle as he did for the Crimson Tide. That question has only been increasingly asked since the combine, where he ran a 5.59-second 40-yard dash and looked slow in every drill.
In fact, a Buffalo Bills scout reportedly told TFY Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline at the combine that Kouandjio could “say goodbye to round one” after his disappointing workout.
He could project well by kicking inside to guard, but that doesn’t mean he should be selected ahead of Xavier Su’a-Filo and the draft’s other top guard prospects.
Ultimately, his versatility and potential to improve should make him a second-round pick, but concerns about his athleticism, and consequently what position he should end up at, should be enough to keep him out of Round 1.
Buy: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Despite being one of the draft’s most complete and versatile defensive prospects, BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy is not widely considered a sure bet to be a first-round pick. Ranked as the draft’s 32nd-best prospect by CBS Sports’ Rob Rang, Van Noy looks as though he could be squarely on the fringe between being a Thursday or Friday draft choice.
That said, it seems likely that at least one team in the first round will see his well-rounded skill set and decide not to pass him up. He is a rangy athlete who is a great tackler in space, can make plays off the edge as a pass-rusher and is adept at dropping back into coverage.
With the potential to play any linebacker spot in any defensive scheme and the situational value as a pass-rushing defensive end in a 4-3 front, he should appeal to any team looking to add a playmaker to its defensive front seven.
As is the case with most of the prospects on this list, Van Noy’s draft stock is uncertain in part because of the other players whom teams could opt for ahead of him to fill similar roles.
Depending on where a team believes he would fit into its scheme, it might consider Van Noy versus linebackers such as Alabama’s C.J. Mosley and Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier or alongside edge defenders including Auburn’s Dee Ford and Oregon State’s Scott Crichton.
None of those players, however, brings the same versatility and all-around skill set to the table that Van Noy does. Teams that could look to add a playmaker like him to the defense in the latter half of Round 1 include the Green Bay Packers (No. 21), Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24), San Diego Chargers (No. 25) and New Orleans Saints (No. 27).
Sell: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
A number of teams that are selecting in the mid to late portions of this year’s first round could strongly consider a tight end. That said, the draft’s only surefire first-rounder at the position, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, is a likely top-15 selection who shouldn't get past the Baltimore Ravens’ pick at No. 17 overall.
Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, a 6’5”, 265-pound playmaker with proven receiving skills, is likely to be the next tight end in line. As teams continue to look for pass-catchers who can create mismatches, he fits the bill.
If Amaro goes in the first round, however, it would say more about the demand at the position, and the draft class' lack of depth at tight end, than it would about his game. While he had a tremendous 2013 season for the Red Raiders, catching 106 passes for 1,352 yards, he is somewhat limited athletically and is a weak blocker.
Teams looking to draft a tight end, such as the Arizona Cardinals (No. 20), Green Bay Packers (No. 21) and New England Patriots (No. 29), could find themselves in a tough spot. While those teams would be best suited to wait until Round 2 in hopes of landing Amaro, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas at a better value, they could also run the risk of missing out on the draft’s top four tight ends, after whom there is a steep drop-off at the position.
Even so, those teams would be better off addressing other needs—or trading out of the first round—than reaching on Amaro. While he should be a productive NFL pass-catcher, at least in the intermediate and red-zone ranges, his game does not represent a top-32 talent in this year’s draft class.
Buy: Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The defensive tackle class is another deep position group in this year’s draft, but unlike the wide receivers, it is not led by much bona fide first-round talent. Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald has established himself as a likely top-20 draft pick, while Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III is a likely top-32 choice as the draft’s top nose tackle, but the rest of the class has more mixed reviews.
One interior defensive lineman who should end up being a first-round selection, nonetheless, is Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman.
His game is far from a finished product, but he has the potential to emerge as one of the star players of this year’s draft class. With an exceptional combination of size (6’6”, 310 lbs), strength and explosiveness, Hageman has special physical tools and the versatility to play just about anywhere on a defensive line.
While his physical tools are those of a first-round talent, his production hasn’t always been. He was an inconsistent performer at Minnesota, and his game has a number of technical flaws, but the converted tight end made promising strides in his senior season for the Golden Gophers.
His inconsistencies place him on the first-round bubble and also leave him as a potential bust from this draft, but ultimately one team will likely find his attributes too good to pass up on Day 1.
Whether it be as a 4-3 defensive tackle who can play both spots inside and even kick out to defensive end situationally, or as a 3-4 defensive end with enough strength to play nose tackle in a pinch, Hageman has the potential to fit any scheme and should receive interest from many teams.
Sell: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Though both players might be best suited to be 3-technique, penetrating defensive tackles in four-man fronts, Timmy Jernigan is in many ways the opposite of Ra’Shede Hageman. While Jernigan is coming off a highly productive season and has a well-rounded, technically sound game, he has limited physical potential and might get knocked down to Round 2 as a result.
While Hageman has the potential to excel despite struggling with some skills, Jernigan can do just about everything but doesn't excel at anything.
He might be the more ready player of the two to step in right away on an NFL defensive line, but if it’s true that the league cares more about projection (what a player could be) than production (what he is), Hageman should grade out as a more impressive prospect.
While Jernigan is a strong interior presence against the run, he lacks the size of a nose tackle at just 6’2” and 299 pounds. While his size leads him to be touted as a smaller, penetrating tackle, he doesn’t have the quick burst ideal for that position.
He has been projected to go as high as the No. 14 overall pick (Chicago Bears) by CBS Sports’ Pat Kirwan and Will Brinson, but in a draft class with solid defensive tackle depth from top to bottom, he isn’t worth selecting that high. He could draw late first-round consideration if Aaron Donald, Louis Nix III and Hageman are all already off the board, but it would be a high selection for a player who perhaps has no natural position at the next level.
Buy: Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor are both expected to be first-round selections in this year’s draft, but two first-round safeties might not be enough with high demand at the position.
Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward is not as big of a name as Clinton-Dix and Pryor, who are potential top-20 choices, but the MAC product is arguably just as good as his more well-known counterparts.
He is a well-rounded safety who has great athleticism, range and cover skills. He is also a strong tackler and hard hitter in run support. Though he is undersized for the position (5’11”, 193 lbs), he has the skill set to play either safety spot while also projecting to play slot cornerback in nickel or dime packages.
If it wasn’t clear before free agency how many teams had issues at safety, it should have become evident when six safeties signed contracts worth at least $5 million per year on the first day of this year's NFL free-agency window. There are still numerous teams that should look to draft a safety in the early rounds of this year’s selection meeting, and they could have a tough decision to make once Clinton-Dix and Pryor have been drafted.
Is Jimmie Ward worth a first-round pick? The answer to that question will be debated from now through May. NFL teams on the fence, however, might also have to debate whether they can land quality safeties in later rounds if they miss out on him.
Ultimately, teams should not only realize the high demand versus supply at the safety position this year, but additionally that Ward stacks up well among the talent at his position.
At least three safeties are likely to go in this year’s first round, and teams that could bring Ward in to start at safety include the Kansas City Chiefs (No. 23), Cleveland Browns (No. 26) and New England Patriots (No. 29).
All measurables and NFL Scouting Combine workout numbers courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.