NFL Draft 2014: First-Year Projections for Top Players in This Year's Class

Kenny DeJohn@@kennydejohnAnalyst IIIApril 18, 2014

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins makes a catch during a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy

There are some serious playmakers in the NFL draft, and many members of the next generation of All-Pro talent will be given the opportunity to play right out of training camp.

High expectations will surround many of next year's rookies. This class is very deep and boasts talent at nearly every position. It will be difficult for teams to not fill several holes during the draft given the depth and multitude of quality players.

Not every team will get immediate results from its selections, however. Only a few players will break out early on, and it's these players that will leave other teams upset for passing over their talents to choose somebody else.

Here are how some of the 2014 NFL draft's top players will perform in their first year.


Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

Sammy Watkins' rookie campaign will be largely successful, though it might take him a few games to really turn it on. I think his stat line will be similar to Tavon Austin's rookie season (40 catches, 418 yards, four touchdowns), though there's potential for much more.

This is what I'm predicting:

Sammy Watkins Rookie Projections
Games (Started)ReceptionsYardsTouchdowns
16 (16)485106

A lot depends on where Watkins ends up. The Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Austin's St. Louis Rams are all fits for the speedster. He'd likely be the No. 1 receiver in Oakland, but splitting targets with Josh Gordon in Cleveland or Austin in St. Louis might be better for him early on.

Watkins does have the ability to turn fringe quarterbacks into decent ones. He did that at Clemson with Tajh Boyd, as Peter King of points out:

Last but not least, Watkins’s production was outstanding in college. He finished with 240 receptions, 3,391 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns against good competition—and with a quarterback throwing to him who won’t be playing on Sundays anytime soon. That Tajh Boyd is even being talked about as an NFL prospect is a testament to Watkins and the rest of Clemson’s impressive group of receivers.

Watkins' pass-catching ability is second to none in this class. He creates great separation between himself and his defender with a quick first step off the line, and he gives his quarterback a great window to throw to with that space. For him, the only adjustment will be the speed of the game and learning NFL patterns.

His rookie campaign will be only slightly above average, but Watkins' career as a whole has the potential for much greater things.


Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

Jadeveon Clowney will be a force in the NFL coming off the defensive line, but that won't happen from the start. Oh, he'll be very good in his rookie campaign, but don't expect All-Pro marks early on.

I peg him to post numbers like those of Mario Williams in his rookie campaign (35 tackles, 12 assisted, 4.5 sacks). This is what his line should look like:

Jadeveon Clowney Rookie Projections
Games (Started)TacklesSacksForced Fumbles
16 (16)425.51

The problem for Clowney early on will be adjusting to far more creative (and effective) blocking schemes. Clowney will likely fare better if drafted by the Houston Texans because J.J. Watt can mentor him and draw double-teams away from him, but even that won't really have an impact on his overall numbers at first.

An anonymous scout recently described Clowney as "spoiled" and "lazy," per Jarrett Bell of USA Today. Those reports may or may not be true—though Clowney's agent, as reported by Bell, strenuously challenged the scout's assessment—but the fact remains that laziness isn't a good trait for any NFL prospect to have, even one as good as Clowney.

Clowney has a bright NFL future—perhaps the brightest of them all—but there will be a learning curve.


Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

Rob Gronkowski was extremely successful during his rookie season with Tom Brady throwing him the football (42 catches, 546 yards, 10 touchdowns). While Eric Ebron may not have that type of quarterback throwing him passes during his own rookie year, I think he'll end up with similar numbers:

Eric Ebron Rookie Projections
Games (Started)ReceptionsYardsTouchdowns
16 (16)515509

Ebron can really go anywhere from No. 10 to No. 18. The Tennessee Titans, New York Giants and New York Jets could all use his services, but there are other pressing needs for each of those teams as well. The Baltimore Ravens could emerge as a candidate at No. 17, but that all hinges on whether or not he's still there for the taking.

The UNC product is a playmaker. He can run routes well, catch the ball in traffic and make very athletic plays. He did have issues with drops at the collegiate level but will still present a matchup nightmare for NFL defensive coordinators. A young quarterback would be thrilled to throw to Ebron, but veteran guys notorious for utilizing tight ends (Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, for instance) would thrive with him in their offenses.

It's a bold move to say this so early, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ebron took home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Yeah, he's that good.