Most Likely Week 1 Starters in the 2014 NFL Draft Class
- You won't see any quarterbacks. None of them look like a sure thing right now.
- We list no running backs, no tight ends (sorry, North Carolina's Eric Ebron, you just are not a rundown blocker yet) and just one wide receiver.
- It is easier to start right away at reactionary jobs, like defense, over offensive skill positions.
- Edge-rushers and edge-protectors are at a premium in this modern-day NFL.
There are perhaps more than 100 prospects who could start right away for NFL teams in this draft class, but that doesn't mean all of them will. In fact, most of them won't, because a lot of talented veterans in this league are willing to fight for their jobs.
Talent, NFL readiness and team need all have to be taken into consideration when projecting which prospects might start right away. We see 10, perhaps only 10, who project to be likely starters for whomever drafts them this May. We outline them in this slideshow.
A few ground rules before we get started:
Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, South Carolina
Ignore the knocks on Jadeveon Clowney, particularly the silly recent comments by ESPN's Merril Hoge—which are chronicled here by Bleacher Report NFL analyst Gary Davenport. Sure, Clowney might not have the motor of some, but you don't get in the conversation to be the NFL's No. 1 overall pick without working hard.
He is a physical freak because he works hard. He sure isn't on the couch eating Cheetos.
He might be the only talent in this draft that would be every team's No. 1 overall pick. Every NFL franchise could use another pass-rushing defensive end. Clowney's physical presence at 6'6", 266 pounds, according to his NFL combine profile, makes him an every-down defensive end, too.
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora agrees the knocks on him are overblown:
He can take over games, and while we can debate his "motor" and motivation and all of that, the bottom line for him is the threat of injury and a significant loss of future earning potential was a very real factor all of 2013. That's especially true considering what South Carolina teammate Marcus Lattimore had to endure with his shredded knee and setbacks in 2012. And, if we are going to applaud owners and coaches for doing what's in their best interest and protecting their revenues and earnings and market share, then the same standard should apply to an "amateur" athlete who is generating millions for his university and putting his body and career on the line every Saturday to do it.
So, when you talk to scouts and watch the tape and talk about sheer ability, Clowney rises to the head of the class. I don't care about how much he is or isn't doing at his private workouts—again, this is a losing proposition for him. There just isn't much to gain beyond the numbers he has already posted in t-shirt and shorts and boxers under the poking and prodding of the NFL combine.
Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver, Clemson
Wide receiver might be the toughest position in the NFL for a rookie to start at right away. Heck, quarterbacks can start and struggle because of all there is to know about defenses, but they start out of necessity. An elite wide receiver prospect can get starter numbers by playing only on passing downs.
It is looking more and more likely that Sammy Watkins won't fall out of the top five. The St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders don't have a group of receivers good enough to keep him from starting right away.
There is some talk about the Detroit Lions trading up for him, as The Detroit News' Josh Katzenstein analyzes, but even in that situation, he would be a third starting wideout immediately behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Watkins wouldn't start for all 32 teams right away. Heck, he might not even project to start if he went No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans, because they have Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, who outperformed Watkins at Clemson in 2012. But Watkins' projected draft position—anywhere just after No. 1 overall—puts him in a position to start right away.
Khalil Mack, Outside Linebacker, Buffalo
You might not like the competition that Buffalo's Khalil Mack faced in the MAC, but his size, speed and strength make him an instant starter at outside linebacker in the 3-4, at defensive end or at the "Sam" linebacker in the 4-3. The physical traits and versatility make Mack a candidate to start for every one of the 32 teams in the NFL, like Jadeveon Clowney.
You can find teams that have better talent at one of those positions, but you would be hard-pressed to find a team that has three players who are physically more impressive right away than Mack. Any team that you might come up with won't be in position to select him in the top of Round 1 or wouldn't consider him a big enough need to pick him anyway.
CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler writes that Mack possesses "an excellent blend of quickness and power to be effective sacking the quarterback or stopping the run." That makes him a rare every-down front-seven defender for any team in football right away.
Greg Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Auburn
Besides the three previous talents in this slideshow, offensive tackle might be the easiest position to fit in and start right away for NFL teams. Every team needs two of them, and very few rosters have two better tackles than the top three in this draft class.
Those that do—if there are any, honestly—won a lot of games last year and are not picking in the top half of this draft.
Auburn's Greg Robinson is a mauler in the running game, and former general manager Charley Casserly said on the NFL Network's NFL AM show (h/t Daniel Kim of NFL.com) that Robinson draws a higher draft rating than Washington's Trent Williams, who is one of the most dominant tackles in football right now:
He reminds me of Williams because both of them are top-rated tackles in the draft. Williams was a more accomplished pass blocker—smoother, more athletic, farther along in his ability to protect the quarterback at the left tackle position. Robinson is bigger, more physical, stronger, a better run blocker. Clear edge for Robinson there.
Even though Robinson is behind Williams as a pass blocker, I think Robinson still has the ability to pass block right now and probably has a bigger upside because of his size and strength.
You can make a case that a left tackle should be more polished as a pass-blocker, but whoever picks Robinson is going to do it to establish a power running game. The run-blocking ability makes him a potential right tackle starter on Day 1, too. At right or left tackle, no one is going to be playing ahead of him at the next level.
Jake Matthews, Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M
If you are looking at a left tackle, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews has the textbook pass-protection ability, as Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller outlines in the video above.
Matthews also has the bloodline. His father, Bruce, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the very same position. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is also his cousin.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, he told reporters that his famous surname isn't the only reason he's gotten to where he is:
I'd like to think I wasn't grandfathered in. I hope I earned my way here. ... I've gone back and looked at (film of father Bruce). Just a guy who played hard, finished, really impressive to watch. I'm proud to call him my father. If I could do half the things he did, I'd have a great career.
Having a Hall of Fame father to school you can certainly make you an NFL-ready starting left tackle right away, even if he had to play right tackle at Texas A&M until Luke Joeckel vacated the position a year ago. The pass-protection skills and ability to play both sides will help Matthews be an instant starter.
He "probably could have came out last year and been a high draft pick," Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told Davis. "But the maturity that he shows, the technique that he shows, the bloodlines—he knows how to be a pro already. He's going to come in and contribute right away (because of) how polished he is."
Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State
Like wide receiver, cornerback is another position that is very difficult to start at right away. There are a lot of nuances in this modern-day, pass-happy NFL. It is also easy to slot a corner as a situational player right away.
Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert is the exception to that in this draft class.
At 6'0", 202 pounds and with a 4.37 40-yard dash, according to his NFL combine draft profile, Gilbert has the size and speed to be the first cornerback off the board and a top-10 pick. A team picking in that area—like the Detroit Lions—will likely have a need big enough to slot in Gilbert as a starter right away.
NFL.com draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki highlights his strengths:
A big, fast, athletic, man-cover corner capable of locking down receivers and creating big plays in the return game. Is the most physically gifted cover man in this year's draft and has the athletic talent to walk into a starting job and match up with big receivers from Day 1, if he continues to work at his craft after a big payday and prepares like a pro.
Zack Martin, Offensive Guard, Notre Dame
How good is Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin? Good enough to be listed as the top prospect at a position (guard) that he didn't even play. He started 50 of his 52 collegiate games at tackle, according to CBS Sports' Rob Rang, but he is expected to be an instant starter at either tackle or guard in the NFL.
That gives Martin four potential spots to start at right away for any team that picks him in the first round of May's draft. You might not be able to say that for any other player.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah sang Martin's praises on a conference call with reporters, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Chris Perkins:
I think he's one of the safer players in the draft. He can play tackle if you want him to, he can slide inside and play guard. I think he's definitely somebody that's on the move to the point where when you look at Giants are picking at No. 12, maybe that would (have been) surprising a month ago. That wouldn't shock me if Zack Martin went all the way up that high.
Projected guards rarely go that high in the NFL draft. Martin can be a tackle or guard. Regardless, he is likely going to start for the team that picks him.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Free Safety, Alabama
You cannot dispute that the NFL is a passing league nowadays. You also shouldn't argue with the fact it is a copycat league.
The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl with the Legion of Boom shutting down Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos, the most prolific passing offense in NFL history. Back-end defenders are at a premium now. Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the best one on the board.
He is another example of a player that wouldn't start for every team in the NFL right away—no one could crack the Legion of Boom, of course—but Clinton-Dix's draft position will slot him with a team that has a gaping hole at the position, making him a must-start defender right away.
CBS Sports' Rob Rang doesn't stop at "starting" as one of Clinton-Dix's immediate NFL goals, writing: "Should Clinton-Dix continue to improve, he could soon join (Seattle's Earl) Thomas as a Pro Bowler."
Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh
High-end defensive tackles are usually drafted to be run-stuffers. Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, though, is a rare interior pass-rushing defensive tackle who can be an every-down player right away.
It also helps there are so many early-down passing teams in this modern NFL.
"Aaron Donald is a disruptive player," said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, according to USA Today's Nate Davis. "Goes to the Senior Bowl, they couldn't block him the entire week."
Because Donald is the No. 1 defensive tackle on many draft boards, including CBS Sports' prospect rankings, you have to figure anyone paying that premium on this undersized tackle (6'1'', 285 lbs) is going to do so to slot him as a starter right away.
Taylor Lewan, Offensive Tackle, Michigan
To finish up, we have to go back to offensive tackle. Like the edge-rushers early in this slideshow, every team can use another pass-protecting lineman to shore up their trenches.
"Michigan's Taylor Lewan is a pro-ready Day 1 starter at left tackle in the NFL," B/R's Matt Miller says in the video above.
Not every team needs a left tackle, but like many previous players in this slideshow, Lewan's size, strength and game film will slot him high enough in Round 1 to go to a team that has an immediate need at the position.
When picking those early players off the board, talent trumps need. In some cases, like Lewan's, talent and need make them immediate starters.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.
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