We finally stand on the cusp of the 2014 NFL draft. Months of scouting preceded by years of preparation have led NFL franchises and NFL prospects to this point.
It has been almost half a year since the players in this draft were on the field. Instead, they have spent their time going through workouts and different parts of the draft process. While the draft process is important, the tape itself remains the most crucial of all ingredients when trying to project success on the next level.
Selecting players in the draft isn't solely about taking the best player available.
That strategy, generally referred to as BPA, is one that many promote but few, if any, really build success on. Instead of simply focusing on the best player available, the more advisable strategy is to focus on the best grade available.
A player's grade takes into account what he did on the field during his time in college, how that player fits into the scheme of the franchise considering him, any medical or character red flags, the depth of the position in the draft and the quality of the players currently on the franchise's depth chart.
If a team already has a future Hall of Fame running back, it is unlikely to select the top running back prospect in the first round. That's not a reflection of the quality of the prospect, but rather the grade he receives for that specific franchise.
A trade out or selection of a top player at another position is more likely in this scenario.
With that in mind, it must be understood that the top performers in college aren't always the first players taken. Top performers aren't judged by production, because college production is not a strong representation of NFL talent.
Instead, it's the traits that individuals show independent of their teammates that is judged.
The players who stand out most from this class are Jadeveon Clowney, a defensive end from South Carolina; Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback from Louisville; Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker from Buffalo; Sammy Watkins, a wide receiver from Clemson; and Aaron Donald, a defensive tackle from Pittsburgh.
This shouldn't be considered a slight against other potential top-10 picks such as Greg Robinson and Johnny Manziel, but the players listed above showed more consistent flashes without the obvious flaws. At this stage of each player's development, you are not drafting a finished product, so some players will stand out despite needing to develop.
One of the most overly criticised players coming out of college in recent years. Clowney entered his final college season with unrealistic Heisman expectations that soon suffocated any chance he had for fair treatment from major media outlets.
It was easy to tear Clowney down because he didn't have great statistical production.
That production was pointed to because it allowed for the birth of a negative narrative that painted Clowney as a lazy player who didn't play like he cared. Finding plays to support the narrative was simple because there was no context supplied with those plays.
Clowney was the complete focus of the opposing team's offense when he stepped onto the field in college. Opposing offensive coordinators built their game plans around slowing him down with varied play-calling, while he faced more than one blocker on a massive 25 percent of his snaps.
When you see a highlight that shows Clowney slowly coming out of his stance and looking in the backfield instead of exploding around the edge, it's because he is reacting to how the offense tried to manipulate him.
Too often, pass-rushing defensive ends show no awareness of what is happening around them, and they simply chase down the quarterback once the ball is snapped. That makes those players more susceptible to screens, misdirection, traps and draw plays.
Effort wasn't anymore of a question mark for Clowney than it has been for any other top pass-rushing prospect in recent years.
Even though the feeling around Clowney has turned from positive to negative since his dominant second season in college football, that doesn't take away from what he achieved on the field. Opposing offenses weren't completely adjusting their approach simply because he carried a heavy reputation.
The first thing that stands out with Clowney is his size.
He is officially listed at 6'5", 266 pounds with 34.5-inch arms. During his time in college, there were positives and negatives with Clowney's size. He doesn't have any issues moving around the field, and he didn't lose speed, but too often he played tall and allowed blockers to get good leverage against him.
However, that didn't prevent him from routinely showing off the power that comes with that size.
Tight ends and running backs regularly bounced off of Clowney, while some tackles simply forced him to shuffle his feet while staying en route toward the quarterback. His sheer bulk and power allowed him to be effective through contact, even when he didn't play great technique.
The toughest aspect about dealing with Clowney's strength isn't his bull rush, it's that his strength and size is only a part of his arsenal.
Most notably, Clowney's long arms act as an extension of his strength and size. Those long arms allow him to run a very effective swim move. Swim moves can lead to extra punishment in the NFL because smart offensive linemen will punch him in the ribs when they get an opportunity, however, that is much easier to do in theory rather than on the field.
Swim moves can be very effective on the next level, and PreSnapReads.com collected data on the subject. In 2012, J.J. Watt used 13 swim moves on plays when he sacked the quarterback. During the same season, Aldon Smith used five, and Clay Matthews used three.
Clowney's diversity as a pass-rusher is terrifying. He won't be reliant on his bull rush or speed rush at the next level. Instead, he will be able to use both to consistently create hesitation in the offensive tackles who are trying to block him.
Not only does Clowney have a very impressive burst off the line of scrimmage, he also has exceptional quickness and body control. As Albert Breer of NFL Network recently revealed, Clowney's overall speed is comparable to Devin Hester's.
Yes, that Devin Hester.
Arguably the greatest kick returner the NFL has ever seen and one of the fastest players in the NFL. And that doesn't even consider that Football Outsiders' Speed Score test, something that is designed for running backs, saw him set a 133.3 (subscription required). In other words, a record that completely blew away the previous best.
Clowney's ability to penetrate gaps between offensive linemen is exceptional because of his nimble feet. Those nimble feet get blockers off balance, so they have no chance to stop his power because they aren't working from an established base.
As an edge-rusher, Clowney isn't like Robert Quinn or Cameron Wake. He doesn't bend the edge and dip underneath offensive tackles on a regular basis.
He does have the speed to turn around the corner, though.
Unrealistic expectations and a draft process that is drowned in cynicism toward the top prospects has completely altered the perception of Jadeveon Clowney. When you ignore the noise and focus on what he did on the field, it becomes clear that he is a special prospect who shouldn't fall out of the top three picks in the draft.
He is the prospect who stood out more than any other in this draft class. That is especially noteworthy because this class not only offers a wide variety of special players, but also a great depth of talent at different positions.
NFL scout Nolan Nawrocki, via NFL.com: "Has a very lean, narrow frame with limited bulk and small hands."
Mike Mayock, via NFL.com: "I would not take him in the first round of the draft."
Kurt Warner, via the Houston Chronicles' Brian T. Smith: "I think he missed a few more throws than you expect at a pro day."
Mark Dominik, via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith: "Is he really the premier quarterback?"
The draft process is a powerful machine. It can turn turn ferocious defensive ends into lazy, ineffective players who skipped by on their talent. And it can also turn an outstanding quarterback and the most pro-ready player in the whole class into a major risk for an NFL franchise to take, even late in the first round.
Bridgewater's tape is simply phenomenal.
No other quarterback brings the consistency and awareness to the position in this class. While Manziel played in a better conference and made more plays outside the structure of the offense, his play was marred by inconsistency.
Blake Bortles is an exciting player to watch because of how he moves in the pocket and because his mannerisms remind us of Andrew Luck, but his level of play is far below Bridegwater's. Derek Carr has a bigger arm, but not much else. Zach Mettenberger, Logan Thomas and Tom Savage are all big-bodied passers, but their flashes of talent were limited.
If you just sit down and watch Bridgewater's offense on the field each week, it's easy to look past the nuances that make him jump off the tape. When you retroactively review the film, however, Bridgewater's subtleties are astounding.
For a detailed look at each of Bridgewater's key traits during his final season in college, go here. However, for the purposes of this article, we're going to go all the way back to the game that initially surged Bridgewater to the top of most media analysts' draft boards entering the 2013 season.
Bridgewater's biggest game of the 2012 season was his last.
Against an exceptional Florida defense in the Sugar Bowl, Bridgewater completed 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Those numbers aren't spectacular, but the Florida offense scored 24 points in a 33-23 victory.
That Florida defense featured many professional prospects such as Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Jelani Jenkins, Jon Bostic, Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins, Loucheiz Purifoy, Josh Evans and Matt Elam. Elam and Floyd were first-round picks in the 2013 draft.
With his very first throw of the game, Bridgewater set the tone.
Despite having to throw the ball on the move with a defender, Bostic, arriving to punish him as he releases the football, Bridgewater throws a perfect pass down the right sideline. Not only is the technique and willingness to take a hit impressive, but the accuracy against tight coverage is phenomenal.
That play shows off Bridgewater's ability to throw on the move, his quick release and his arm strength.
After showing off excellent ability to make a big throw down the sideline outside the pocket, Bridgewater quickly followed up with a standout play from inside the pocket.
The comfort in the pocket, the ability to move his eyes from one side of the field to the other before instantly diagnosing the coverage and the physical talent to make a perfect throw immediately stands out here. Furthermore, Bridgewater has to anticipate where the receiver comes free, hit him in stride and throw before the pressure arrives again.
In recent years, some of the most impressive plays in the NFL have come from Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts.
Luck is an exceptionally gifted player who can make plays in different ways. However, if there's one thing that Luck has highlighted more than anything else, it's his ability to adjust in unclean pockets. Luck is so often under pressure in the pocket that it's more like watching someone try to escape a room where the walls are closing down on him.
Bridgewater's manipulation of the pocket can be very reminiscent of Luck at times.
It's not simply about the athletic ability to move. It's also the discipline and balance to be able to always be in position to throw the ball while keeping your eyes downfield to read the defense. Bridgewater makes these kinds of plays look easy on a regular basis, whereas others panic and lose their discipline.
To top it all off, Bridgewater understands touch and how to throw receivers open when they are well covered.
Because he played college in Buffalo and because there is very little debate over his status entering the draft, Mack is the least discussed player who is projected to go in the top five. He concedes the spotlight to Clowney, but he may prove to be just as effective on the next level.
At the very least, Mack is more refined than the South Carolina defensive end.
That was proven in college, as he showed an outstanding array of abilities, albeit against less-than-stellar opposition more often than not. Mack is an outside linebacker who could fill a variety of roles on the next level.
He primarily played outside linebacker for Buffalo, but he has the potential to be a full-time defensive end in a 4-3 front also. Mack's skill set is so well-rounded that it's unclear if he fits best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 or in a 4-3.
It's possible that Mack eventually plays a similar role to the one Von Miller plays in Denver. Miller is a 4-3 outside linebacker who spends a large amount of time coming off the edge in nickel packages.
At the combine, Mack measured in at 6'3" and 251 pounds. In college, he was able to use that size to consistently fend blockers off in the running game and push them into the backfield as a pass-rusher. That's not to say he was reliant on his size and strength.
Mack is a very versatile pass-rusher who showed off excellent burst, hand usage, strength and quickness during his time in college.
During the 2013 season, Mack had 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Both of those numbers ranked him in the top 11 across the country, but it should be noted that most players above him weren't being used the way Mack was.
Mack is very comfortable dropping into zone coverage over the middle of the field. He also plays the flat exceptionally well and is comfortable adjusting in space.
Despite being so big, he has very nimble feet and the body control to react to receivers in space. He understands how to be aggressive early in plays before releasing them to a teammate at the exact moment to avoid being dragged out of position.
Mack had three interceptions last season, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
His awareness and ability to catch the ball is impressive, while his athleticism allows him to be a threat with it in his hands.
When you consider all these traits that Mack consistently showed off during his final season in college, it's very difficult to argue against him as a top pick in this draft. While those plays caught the eye, it should also be noted that he is a very disciplined player who plays hard (and effective) against running plays.
This year's wide receiver class is very deep and has a number of prospects who could be selected in the top half of the first round. It's unclear how far Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. will fall, but it appears likely that both will need to wait for Watkins to be selected before they find new homes.
Much like Clowney, Watkins has been touted as a top-10 pick since the start of his college days.
Playing for Clemson somewhat limited the variety in Watkins play. Tajh Boyd's accuracy regularly put him under unnecessary pressure, while the offensive system limited the number of routes he was allowed to run down the field.
Fortunately for the 20-year-old, Watkins' talent transcended the situation.
Most of Watkins' success in college came when he had the ball in his hands. His vision, acceleration and understanding of how to set up runs even before he gets the ball in his hands allowed him to excel in Clemson's quick passing approach.
On this play, Watkins runs a screen that should be a routine catch before turning upfield. However, Boyd's accuracy is so poor that the ball arrives behind his head and is thrown too hard. Without losing his composure, Watkins plucks the ball out of the air and accelerates downfield.
After showing off his technical prowess early in the play, Watkins' acceleration, vision and pure power allows him to create a big gain.
During his final season in college, Watkins' quickness appeared to advance to another level. He was able to seamlessly slip past defenders regardless of the situation. When combined with his acceleration, this made Watkins exceptionally dangerous in space.
With Watkins, big plays will come in a variety of ways.
Whether he just runs right by cornerbacks outside...
...or he makes plays over the middle of the field.
There are many explosive prospects in this draft class, especially at the wide receiver position. However, none were as impressive athletically as Watkins while also showing off the refined technical aspects of playing the position.
Even though his opportunities were limited by his situation, Watkins showed off the ability to run excellent routes and make strong contested catches.
Although some will knock him for his height, Watkins proved that he was a special player in college, and he has all the potential to be a superstar on the next level.
What teams value in today's NFL is changing. That means that different attributes are valued and evaluated in different ways. It also means that previously ignored body types are more widely accepted. In past years, Donald would have been one of those players who fell in the draft because of his size.
Donald is a 6'1", 285-pound defensive tackle from Pittsburgh.
He was one of the most productive players in all of college football last season with 28 tackles for loss, most of any player, and 11 sacks, good enough to rank 10th overall. Donald's production was very impressive, but it's not rare for undersized defensive linemen to excel at that level before faltering in the NFL.
The difference for Donald is the all-around level of talent he showed off.
If the soon-to-be 23-year-old does go in the top 10 of the draft, then it will primarily be because of his ability to get to the quarterback. The variety in his play as a pass-rusher jumps off the tape consistently. In the above play, he is exceptionally quick off the line before he uses his hands to penetrate the pocket.
Not only does Donald show off a burst, strong hands and good technique, he never loses any of his balance. His comfort level on this play highlights how supremely talented he is.
Donald is the kind of pass-rushing talent who can't be left in one-on-one situations. However, much like Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals, he is also the kind of player who will still be able to disrupt the pocket even when given extra attention.
While he does need to refine some aspects of his run defense, Donald was still a very impressive run defender in college because of his physical traits.
Whether asked to shuffle his feet to move with a sliding offensive line, penetrate a gap while moving sideways, hold up against a double-team or just overwhelm a blocker with his power, Donald showed off all the traits needed to be an excellent run-stuffing defensive tackle.
It's rare that you can find a player who affects the offense in as many ways as Donald did during his time in college.