NFL analysts' fingers are getting calloused and their eyes are getting bleary. "#DraftTwitter" is at a rolling boil, and mock drafts are being pushed to the Internet as fast as NFL fans can hate them.
Finally, blessedly, the 2014 NFL draft is almost here.
NFL.com's giant countdown clock banner has set its first digit to zero, leaving fewer than 10 days left before the pick cards start coming to the podium. The player who'll go No. 1 overall, and even the team that will use that pick, are objects of rampant rumor and speculation.
As usual, intriguing prospects are rocketing up draft boards, prospects previously considered untouchable are falling victim to the relentless hivemind of Internet nitpickers.
All the while, offensive tackle Jake Matthews has held steady, appearing to slowly sink down draft boards as late risers crest above him.
Just how far will Matthews fall, and what will the team that finally plucks him from the green room be getting?
Pete Carroll's polished panache, Jim Harbaugh's searing intensity, Bill Belichick's dour excellence: We love to romanticize NFL decision-makers.
They have dozens of assistants. They work with richly compensated executives and brutally overworked scouts to produce a draft board. Hundreds of hours of film are pored over, thousands of miles traveled and massive stores of data are compiled.
In windowless, whiteboard-armored war rooms, they ward off the pressure millions of fans—and billionaire owners—put on their jobs to make good decisions. Arguments are had, tables are pounded and rank is pulled.
No wonder Hollywood just made a feature-length film, Draft Day, about it.
We'd love to believe decisions made here are as informed and rational as possible. At the end of the day, though, NFL people are human—and they're as prone to emotional, knee-jerk decisions as any of us.
Whether it's hands 1/8" too small or vague questions about work ethic, the smallest of (real or perceived) flaws can be the crack through which pressurized fear and doubt flood and sink a prospect.
Whether it's a once-in-a-generation combination of size and speed, 36" arms or just the voucher of a trusted colleague, decision-makers can fall in love with a prospect for qualities no less whimsical.
Six Foot Five and Bulletproof
Matthews perfectly fits the prototype of the modern NFL left tackle. He goes 6'5", 308 pounds, per NFL.com, and has no holes in his game.
He put on a show at the NFL combine. He cut a 5.07-second 40-yard dash, per NFL.com, tied for third among offensive linemen with a 30.5" vertical leap and finished second-best in the three-cone drill at 7.34 seconds.
He's an Associated Press First Team All-American, after being named First Team All-SEC by both the Associated Press and SEC coaches as a junior. That means national writers and SEC coaches, per Texas A&M's official site, both gave Matthews the nod over then-senior left tackle Luke Joeckel, 2013's No. 2 overall pick.
Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller called Matthews a "blue-chip technician" and an "ideal prospect" for today's pass-heavy offenses. After he gave Matthews a perfect pass-blocking grade, Miller gave him a 36/40 in run blocking, complimenting his ability to "fire off the ball and drive defenders."
Matthews is big, strong, athletic, polished, experienced on both the left and right side and played against the highest level of college competition. Oh, and Matthews is the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, nephew of Pro Bowler Clay Matthews, Jr. and cousin to Pro Bowl Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews III.
As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Dan Hope pointed out at BuffaloBillsDraft.com in the aftermath of the 2013 draft, Matthews was a better, more complete prospect than any of the three left tackles taken in the first four picks that year. Had Matthews come out, it's possible he'd have been the No. 1 overall pick.
NFL teams just can't go wrong with Matthews, and they know it. Back in December 2013, a "high-level team executive" told Miller that Matthews is the safest pick in the draft class.
Nevertheless, Mike Huguenin of NFL.com wrote that despite Matthews' visit to the Houston Texans, it's "extremely unlikely" he goes No. 1 overall.
The problem for Matthews? Safe isn't always sexy.
An Affair to Remember?
Jadeveon Clowney is a stunning combination of size and speed. Khalil Mack is a gifted edge-rusher in a league clamoring for them. Teddy Bridgewater is the most polished passer. Blake Bortles has prototypical tools. Johnny Manziel is "Johnny Football." Sammy Watkins is the scariest offensive weapon in the class. Greg Robinson has 30 pounds on Matthews and is even more athletic.
It's hard to blame NFL decision-makers for falling in love with any of these prospects.
But Taylor Lewan?
Lewan, a stalwart left tackle at the University of Michigan—a school that's been churning out All-American linemen since cars were called "horseless carriages"—had an outstanding combine and has put out miles of good film.
However, Lewan's track record also contains a lot of after-the-whistle rough stuff. ESPN's Mel Kiper called him a "nasty street fighter," per Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News:
A few yanked face masks or sucker punches, though, can't compare to the the off-field issues he's had. He faces three misdemeanor assault charges in connection with an alleged fight with Ohio State fans; per ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein, the arraignment has been postponed until after the draft.
Even more disturbing, WashtenawWatchdogs.com uncovered a police report that said Lewan threatened an alleged rape victim of one of his teammates. The alleged victim's friend claims Lewan told her if charges were pressed, "I'm going to rape her because he didn't."
If this seems familiar, Alex Dunlap of RosterWatch.com connected the dots for you: This Big Ten-schooled, tattooed offensive lineman who's allegedly as lawless off the field as on bears a striking resemblance to the NFL's biggest PR disaster of 2013: Richie Incognito.
Are NFL decision-makers really so impressed with the size of the fight in a dog like Lewan, they'll take him over a blue-blood, blue-chip prospect like Matthews?
As Miller implied on Twitter, it'd be a risible example of gym-teacher mentality outweighing actual evaluation:
In Kiper's fifth mock draft (subscription required), he has Lewan going No. 6 overall, with Matthews falling to the Buffalo Bills at No. 9.
Winning the Lottery
Many old-school NFL types decry "paralysis by analysis," being so obsessed with metrics and measurables you forget to take actual football into account.
Whatever thought process results in Jake Matthews being the third offensive tackle taken in this draft is the opposite of paralysis by analysis; we could call it "catastrophe by kinesiology."
The gym-teacher ethic instilled in many football coaches lets evaluation mistakes like this happen. The job of every other NFL franchise is to capitalize on those mistakes. If Matthews really does get past Atlanta at No. 6, every team with a need at left tackle (and some without) should be calling Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht about the No. 7 pick—and Licht might be wise to send them to voicemail and take Matthews himself.
Clowney's effort question marks, however ambiguous, are there—not to mention the reality of fitting a 6'6", 266-pound pass-rusher into a traditional 4-3 or 3-4. Bridgewater's small hands and skinny knees might not have caused him trouble in the NCAA, but a first-round quarterback carries the weight of a franchise on his frame. Robinson's still more potential than reality. Mack played in the MAC.
Matthews could step in and be one of the better players at his position in the NFL—and unlike any of the others, there's no reason to believe he won't do at least that well.
In most other draft classes, an NFL team would need at least the No. 3 pick or better to add a left tackle prospect like Matthews to their roster—and in some classes, like 2013, such a complete blind-side anchor simply wouldn't be available.
If Matthews really does fall, whoever gets him will be getting the steal of the 2014 draft.