The 2014 NFL draft begins in earnest Thursday, capturing the attention of the national sports landscape for an event that consists solely of larger-than-life dudes executing handshakes with commissioner Roger Goodell. That is your form of entertainment for the evening.
So, naturally, we're going to deviate our focus from that event entirely. Instead, let us talk about the most important thing on the day of the 2014 NFL draft—the 2015 NFL draft, of course.
First, a disclaimer: Any articles related to or consisting of 2015 draft-related material are prone to wild speculation. Look back on draft boards from this time about a year ago. Using Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke as a barometer—choosing him not to pick on him whatsoever; his mock looks very much like others I went through—we see there were some players scouts were right on the mark about. Jadeveon Clowney, Jake Matthews and Sammy Watkins should each be first-round selections.
But Tajh Boyd? He'll be a third-day selection. Morgan Breslin? Wasn't even invited to the combine. Brett Hundley? He'll be back at UCLA in the fall. It bears repeating here that Burke did a pretty damn good job all things considered. There is just too much understandable re-evaluation and performance variance that goes on in a 12-month span.
So leave some obvious room for error. What we're going to do is try to identify the Clowneys, Matthewses and Watkinses in the 2015 class. Guys who currently sit atop draft boards now and will once we hit life's fast-forward button to a year from now.
With that in mind, here are a couple guys who stand out.
Jameis Winston (QB, Florida State)
Odds on this don't exist to my knowledge, but if they did, Jameis Winston would be a strong favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick next May. We all have generally agreed upon that much, much in the same way we did (or thought we did) about Clowney 12 months ago.
Winston's superlatives are already numerous. He won the Heisman, national championship and a boatload of other national honors as a redshirt freshman. All impressive, as is Winston's 40-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and ridiculous 10.57 yards-per-attempt average. There is a reason some have called Winston the best freshman quarterback in college football history.
Where Winston stands out against, say, Manziel—equally brilliant during his college days—is he combines ungodly production with prototypical, well, everything. Winston is listed at 6'4" and 228 pounds, and he'll probably top out near the 240-pound range as his body matures. He has a rocket attached to his right arm (please note: not an actual rocket), the ball spins well out of his hand and he understands when to put a little more loft into underneath passes.
The NFL now has a fundamental built-in requirement that its quarterbacks must be athletes, and Winston fits that bill as well. He's not to be confused with Michael Vick, but he has strong field speed and has shown a willingness to bust his tail to improve. There is a famous story going back to high school when Winston shaved 0.2 seconds off his 40-yard dash time in three weeks to impress Nick Saban. Winston now allegedly runs a 4.6—barely higher than what Manziel ran at the combine.
"You can't help but notice he's a talented passer with the physical tools—arm, accuracy, mobility," an AFC scouting director told NFL.com's Albert Breer. "And he looks to be smart and aware as a decision-maker."
Florida State's relatively weak schedule strength and Winston's long-ish delivery are concerns. As is the fact he was bailed out at times by a bevy of uber-talented offensive weapons. Still, you can lob a majority of those criticisms at a ton of major-college quarterbacks. Winston is a 20-year-old stud, he's only going to get better and probably only injury will keep him from entering his name into next year's draft.
And I don't doubt for a second he'll be a franchise-altering coup at No. 1.
Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon)
Oh. Right. The other really, really good quarterback in the (assumed) 2015 class. If there is anyone who could challenge Winston for the No. 1 overall pick—at least looking at it in May 2014—it's Marcus Mariota.
The Oregon signal-caller was a likely top-10 pick in this year's draft before deciding to return for his junior season. Mariota threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns against four interceptions last season, emerging as a Heisman contender before losses to Arizona and Stanford halted his momentum. A late-season knee injury also didn't help matters, as Mariota was obviously hobbled and less effective as a passer and runner.
Like Winston, Mariota intrigues scouts because he checks both boxes. He's completed 65.8 percent of his passes for his career, displayed an increased willingness and comfort with stretching the field in 2013 and generally makes good decisions with the football. Mariota is also a plus-plus athlete at the quarterback position, rushing for 1,467 yards and 14 touchdowns.
It's possible that Mariota would have been the top quarterback off the board this year had he come out. Given the widespread uncertainty about the quarterback hierarchy, one has to wonder whether Mariota regrets his decision. Still, he should benefit from another season.
Playing in Oregon's wide-open offense is certainly a concern. He's not making coverage adjustments at the line, rarely audibles and a majority of his throws are quick strikes designed for after-the-catch breakaways. The good thing for Mariota is that offenses are becoming more like his, not less. You see it already with the proliferation of package plays, read-options, etc.
It will still be an adjustment for Mariota, no doubt. Just less of one than it would have been, say, 10 years ago. The lines between the college and pro game are blurrier now from a scheme standpoint than they've been in recent memory.
Amari Cooper (WR, Alabama)
Amari Cooper is very good at football. He's been very good at football. When Cooper committed to Alabama, he was a touted 4-star prospect with blazing top-end speed and a penchant for beating coverages down the field.
In Tuscaloosa, Cooper has proved himself worth every bit of the hype. As a freshman, he broke out for a 59-catch, 1,000-yard season and helped lead the Crimson Tide to a national title. Injuries marred what should have been another leap as a sophomore, but Cooper comes into 2014 with huge expectations and plans to get even better.
Cooper was at the Tide's pro day in March as an observer and decided to run through the drills after all the draft-eligible players worked out. With scouts still in attendance, Cooper ran unofficial 40 times of 4.31, 4.35 and 4.38 seconds. If you go with Cooper's middle time, he would have been the third-fastest receiver in Indianapolis behind Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and Pittsburg State's John Brown.
Going along with Cooper's athletic ability is an advanced understanding of route concepts and a crispness in their execution. Cooper is an athlete, but he's also a wide receiver. The position is typically among the most difficult to transition from due to the increased complexity of NFL offenses. Cooper has shown NFL-level skills already and should have a chance to develop even more now that he's back to 100 percent.
The only concern here is whether Alabama's offense will be good enough to showcase Cooper for talent evaluators. A.J. McCarron's graduation leaves a massive hole at quarterback, and Saban-led teams aren't exactly prone to aerial attacks with unproven signal-callers.
That predisposition could change with Lane Kiffin moving into the offensive coordinator role. Kiffin's USC teams varied between elite and wildly incompetent on the offensive side, usually dependent on his comfort with who is under center. Blake Sims went 24 of 39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns during Alabama's spring game, but you learn as much about a quarterback at a spring game as you do a prospective mate at a speed-dating session.
Cooper is great. Let's just hope Sims can get him the ball.
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