With the number of spectacular prospects and depth headlining the 2014 NFL draft, there are several big names likely to fall further in the order than they otherwise might in a different year.
That will inevitably create several situations during May 8's first round that lead to certain fanbases smiling at their good fortune by getting excellent players as steals late on Day 1.
The uncertainty at the quarterback position should lead to at least one potential franchise signal-caller taking a plunge, while a loaded receiver class should make dynamic playmakers in the passing game less of a prioritized commodity. Beyond Buffalo's Khalil Mack, there aren't any linebackers worth taking particularly early, but one specific prospect has the potential to be a multiple-time Pro Bowler in the proper situation.
Let's take a closer look at some of the strongest prospective pros who should still be on the board late in the first round and will be heralded as excellent selections.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Notice the first photo from this article, then examine the one above. What's different in the former image is that Bridgewater is in pads and quarterbacking Louisville—probably about to make one of the countless big plays he had in his collegiate career.
What Bridgewater has done this offseason—not in games, mind you—in shorts and a T-shirt has seen his stock to apparently plummet. A rather pitiful pro day, where he showed mediocre arm strength and was without his pinpoint accuracy, has caused Bridgewater to go from the consensus No. 1 QB prospect not long ago to possibly falling out of the first round.
Smokescreens are being set all over the league, and this smear campaign besetting Bridgewater could be a misinformation movement for teams angling to get him.
However, Albert Breer of NFL Network reports that while a few teams like Bridgewater, he can't find anyone who loves the ex-Louisville star:
Been asked why I see Bridgewater falling. This is it -- Hard to place him. I know a few teams that like him. Tough to find 1 that loves him.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) April 16, 2014
At least the Minnesota Vikings, holders of the No. 8 overall pick, are doing their homework, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Minnesota could trade back into the latter part of the first round if the Vikings don't take Bridgewater with their top choice at this point. That's what it's coming to for Bridgewater at this juncture, at least on the surface.
Bridgewater played in a pro-style offense for the Cardinals and has the highest football IQ amongst his peers. Brent Sobleski of USA Today also alluded to a stat that should alleviate some concerns about Bridgewater's arm strength:
Take pro day out, Bridgewater is superior in almost every way for stats crowd. Deep ball %? Only 0.5% lower than avg among top prospects— Brent Sobleski (@brentsobleski) April 21, 2014
In the right situation, there's no question that Bridgewater can thrive in the NFL. Now that he's being doubted more than he ever has been, he should be eager to prove himself and play with a chip on his shoulder. That happened to a similar quarterback—Green Bay Packers Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.
A very similar scenario could happen to Bridgewater as it did for Rodgers when he saw himself slide down the draft, eventually landing in Green Bay to learn behind Brett Favre. The modern NFL is pressured to play first-round picks right away now, but Bridgewater is capable of doing that.
There were red flags about Rodgers' arm strength coming out of California, yet now he has a cannon and bolstered his slight frame once he got to the pros. It stands to reason that Bridgewater could emulate Rodgers in that regard.
Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Having played both inside and outside linebacker in college, the reason Shazier is often listed as a prospect on the outside is because of his raw speed. But with his sideline-to-sideline range and innate strength, he projects well as an inside backer in the right system.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, he checked in at 6'1" and was bulkier than expected at 237 pounds, per NFL.com. There is room for Shazier to add a little more weight without sacrificing his crazy athleticism and quickness.
As Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller suggests in the video above, Shazier is comparable to Tampa Bay Buccaneers All-Pro Lavonte David. After being a second-round pick in 2012, David was a first-team All-Pro selection in his second season, so that's good company for Shazier to be in by any measure.
Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar feels as though Shazier is going to be excellent in the pros, but Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler, though not a personal fan, says NFL people are raving about the former Buckeye:
To me, Ryan Shazier is the prototype of the every-down true linebacker. Lighter, faster, more explosive. Moves inside to outside and back.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) April 22, 2014
I just don't get the love for Ryan Shazier. He's a fine player. But NFL people are going nuts over him. I don't see it.— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) April 21, 2014
Size may prove to be an issue as Shazier adjusts, and that could be a chief enough concern to see him fall into the last 10 picks or so in the first round.
Shazier racked up 144 total tackles (23.5 for loss), seven sacks and four forced fumbles in his final year at Ohio State. That type of production doesn't come by accident, proving that Shazier has the natural instincts, technique and pure freakish ability to stuff the run or throw off the rhythm of a passing play.
That should garner plenty of attention from teams seeking to add speed, excitement and flexibility to their front seven.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Between Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr., there are at least three and perhaps more receivers who are universally rated higher than Cooks is.
If those projections are impacting Cooks' confidence, though, he isn't showing it publicly based on this testimony, per SiriusXM NFL Radio's Twitter account:
"Who ever gets me is getting a #1 receiver, Watkins & Evans did some great things in college but I'm right up there with them" Brandin Cooks— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) April 5, 2014
The only element that should see Cooks slide in the first round is his size, because the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner had no shortage of production in Stillwater, with 128 receptions, 1,730 yards and 16 touchdown catches in 2013. Cooks then backed that up with an eye-popping combine, highlighted by a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and a 3.81-second time in the 20-yard shuttle.
One of the more important numbers from those tests was how well Cooks fared on the bench press, putting up 16 repetitions of 225 pounds. Although part of that can be attributed to shorter arms, he has passable functional strength and should be able to beat the press versus slot cornerbacks.
ESPN insider Adam Caplan confirms that Cooks should indeed fall to at least No. 20 overall in the draft, cementing his status as a potential steal:
Target area for Brandin Cooks: 20-32 in first. Everything checks out well with him--character, tape, speed.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) April 3, 2014
Who will make the biggest impact as an NFL rookie?
Both Shazier and Cooks have been viewed as borderline first-round picks throughout the pre-draft process, but that doesn't come as a surprise. They should become steals by default and fill in as immediate starters in the NFL as rookies. The big shocker is Bridgewater, who could be in play toward the top of the order, yet all indications are that he'll take a slide.
It's rare that a quarterback with Bridgewater's polish, a linebacker boasting Shazier's athleticism and a receiver as explosive as Cooks would still be sitting on the board toward the end of the first round. That is just one of many elements that will make the 2014 NFL draft one of the most unique and compelling in league history.