The 2014 NFL draft should be a treat for football fans. The lack of overall certainty and the seemingly wide range of opinions on even the top available prospects is going to make for some surprising picks and some players staying on the board much longer than expected.
While the offensive skill-position players usually dominate the spotlight around draft time, this year's defensive crop features some high-end prospects ready to make an instant impact. They could very well end up outshining the likes of Johnny Manziel and Sammy Watkins.
Let's check out all of the important viewing information for the draft, which is spread out across three days starting on May 8. The details are followed by a breakdown of the top available defensive players in this year's class.
Where: Radio City Music Hall in New York City
When: Thursday, May 8 (starting at 8 p.m. ET), Friday, May 9 (starting at 6:30 p.m. ET) and Saturday, May 10 (starting at 12 p.m. ET)
Watch: NFL Network and ESPN
Live Stream: NFL.com
Top Defensive Prospects
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Clowney has all the tools to become a dominant edge-rusher in the NFL. He possesses an extremely rare combination of size, power and athleticism that make him the most talented player in the entire class. Yet, he only registered three sacks in his final college season, raising concerns about his work ethic.
The coaching staff lucky enough to land Clowney will probably need to push him a bit, but it's not a concern that should seriously alter his draft stock. Andrew Brandt of ESPN thinks most of the negative talk is simply a smokescreen by front offices hoping he slides:
Ultimately, even if there is a minor risk of the South Carolina product becoming a total bust, it's far outweighed by the potential reward. In an era where an elite pass-rusher is an extremely valuable asset, he should become one of the best in the league.
2. Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
No player in the draft class is more NFL ready than Mack. The Buffalo star is as well-rounded of a prospect as you'll see at the linebacker position. He can rush the passer (18.5 sacks over his final two college seasons), defend the run (100 total tackles in 2013) and drop into coverage (seven passes defended and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, as a senior).
The rise of Mack from afterthought coming out of high school to top prospect is one of the draft's best stories. Don Banks of Sports Illustrated passed along an interesting story from the outside linebacker about why he decided to keep wearing No. 46:
The NCAA video game, the first one that I was on, I was only rated a 46 overall, with a 37 rating for speed. It was a slap in the face, man. Because I knew deep down in my heart I was better than a 46. And it just so happened, I was already No. 46, so I kept the number.
Mack doesn't have the freakish physical gifts of Clowney—he's built like a prototypical edge linebacker—but he's a more polished player at this point. He should be able to step in and make a major impact right away, perhaps even making him the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
3. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert headlines a cornerback class that makes up for its lack of star power with plenty of depth. The Oklahoma State standout is a fringe top-10 selection who has excelled both as a shutdown corner and on special teams as a kick returner.
The talented corner had seven interceptions as a senior. He combines smooth acceleration and a high football IQ with good ball skills that should only become more prominent as he gains experience at the next level. He also showed off his playmaking ability by returning six kicks for touchdowns during his college career, with at least one in every season.
While he does tend to take some chances while seeking the big play, teams are always willing to give up some small plays in search of a game-changing one. All things considered, he's capable of starting right away and should make a smooth transition to the NFL after plenty of collegiate success.