The Best Player at Each Position in Next Year's NFL Draft Class
The 2014 NFL draft is just days old, but that won’t stop evaluators from peeking ahead to the top prospects in the 2015 draft. As scouts watch the juniors that opted to stay in school for their final seasons or the sophomore that seemingly jumped off film, it’s hard not to have an idea of who the most coveted prospects are for next year’s class.
In this quick preview, we’ll go position by position, giving a quick report and an idea of what to watch as an evaluator for each of the 2015 class’s top eligible preseason prospects.
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The Oregon product was prominent in Heisman discussions early in 2013, but surprising losses pushed Marcus Mariota to the back-burner a bit. While Heisman voters may have brushed him aside by the tail-end of the season, NFL scouts were keeping a watchful eye in case the highly talented dual-threat passer opted to enter the 2014 draft.
The now redshirt junior decided to stay in school for another year, taking one of the top quarterbacks away from the 2014 draft class and building further intrigue in 2015. While he needs ample work on his mid-range route accuracy, touch on the perimeter and overall NFL-level footwork in the pocket, his running ability, ideal size and body type will certainly have NFL evaluators excited to develop him for the 2015 draft. Brett Hundley of UCLA and underclassman Jameis Winston of Florida State will also be battling for the top spot.
Running Back: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
We’ve had two consecutive drafts where a running back wasn’t taken in the first round, but the 2015 draft may buck that trend. While fellow underclassmen Duke Johnson of Miami (Florida) and Todd Gurley of Georgia also are first-round worthy backs, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon is the lead back in the 2015 class based on my evaluations so far.
An explosive, interior, controlled runner who gets to his top speed quickly and finishes through tacklers in traffic at a high level, Yeldon has the build and skill set to be a featured back that can be a workhorse for an offense as well as offer enough versatility to be deemed worthy of more than just a rotational runner.
Wide Receiver: Amari Cooper, Alabama
The second straight (and not the last on this list) Alabama prospect, Amari Cooper follows Sammy Watkins as a potential worthwhile top-five pick at the receiver position. The long, vertically explosive Cooper was AJ McCarron’s favorite downfield threat, and he made some terrific big plays in traffic despite consistent double-teams and, at times, poorly placed passes.
He’ll be working with a new quarterback, but the Alabama offense is loaded at both receiver and running back, and Cooper could see less double-teams than a talent like his probably deserves, so he has a chance to produce at a 1,000-yard level despite the usually conservative Alabama offense.
Tight End: Nick O'Leary, Florida State
Being used as a versatile chess piece in the Florida State offense since his freshman year, Nick O’Leary has played fullback, H-back and tight end thus far in his career. That versatility along with plus athleticism is what makes him such a unique threat as a pass-catcher and blocker.
It appears to be a somewhat weak 2015 tight end class, but O’Leary’s ability to play in multiple schemes and fill multiple roles could make him highly coveted for teams looking to mesh a diverse run game along with a short-area passing game. He’s not a lock to be a first-rounder, but his unique skill set works in an ever-changing NFL offensive mindset.
Offensive Tackle: Andrus Peat, Stanford
We’ve seen back-to-back offensive line classes that were heavily impactful in the first round, and the 2015 class looks to continue that trend. Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M, Cameron Erving of Florida State, Brandon Scherff of Iowa and La’el Collins of LSU are all first-round worthy senior blockers based on preseason evaluations, but Stanford’s Andrus Peat is the leader in the clubhouse to be a top-five pick for a left tackle-needy team.
Peat was viewed as one of the best offensive tackles out of high school and a five-star recruit by every major high school scouting service. His father, Todd, played in the NFL for seven years, so he has the bloodlines of a former NFLer. Peat has ideal size (6’7”) and lateral control to develop into one of the game’s premier pass-blockers once he reaches the NFL level.
Offensive Guard: Arie Kouandjio, Alabama
Does his last name look familiar? It should, as Arie is the older brother of 2014 second-rounder Cyrus Kouandjio, who was selected by the Buffalo Bills. Like his brother, Arie was one of the top offensive line prospects in the country coming out of high school and finally got his chance to be a full-time starter in 2013.
Like his brother, Kouandjio is a nasty run-blocker who finishes to the ground and relies on physicality and strong hands to win on the interior. He’s not a lock to be the first guard taken in the 2014 draft, but he’s as close to a sure thing as we’ll find to be a worthwhile top-100 pick come 2015 due to his brother’s success and play on the interior of the always successful Alabama offensive line.
Center: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
Starting as a freshman on the Oregon offensive line, Hroniss Grasu has quickly gained notoriety as one of the country’s best interior lineman. After being named to the All-Freshman team in 2011, Grasu went on to a first-team All-Pac-12 season in 2012 and 2013, along with being named first-team All-American in 2013.
Listed at 6’3”, Grasu utilizes his control laterally and uses initial body positioning to finish on the interior, playing away from his frame at a high level and driving well against nose tackles for a zone-blocking-built center. He won’t be a fit for every team, but teams covet centers who can be the leaders of an offensive line and have the type of experience Grasu does, so he has a chance to be a top-two rounder by the 2015 draft.
Defensive Tackle: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
Used as a versatile interior defensive lineman that is asked to hold in run support as well as generate ample pressure as an interior rusher, Michael Bennett will be the unquestioned leader of the Ohio State defense next season. With plus lower body strength and quick adjustments after initial contact, Bennett is able to take advantage of poor positioning or hand placement as he works upfield.
He isn’t asked to be a constant producer on the stat sheet, but his impact of disrupting initial blocking assignments frequently leads to others on the defensive line or at the linebacker level to scrape and finish in space as well as to finish as an upfield rusher. His value as a potential 5-technique in the NFL is what could make him challenge for a top-20 pick by the 2015 draft if he can continue to develop this season.
Defensive End: Randall Gregory, Nebraska
Last year, Clemson’s Victor Beasley was the most talked about defensive lineman who opted to stay in school for his senior season. However, when it comes to projecting for the 2015 class, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory is my leading edge-rusher.
Playing defensive end in college, Gregory might project best to a 3-4 outside linebacker role where teams can best capitalize his fluidity in space and explosiveness off the edge in pass-rushing situations. He held his own and generated pressure against Taylor Lewan and Michigan last year when he initially caught my eye, and his length and athletic projection is what could make him a developmental top-20 pick by the 2015 draft.
Outside Linebacker: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
With ideal size, length and athleticism for a linebacker, Jordan Jenkins has looked the part of an NFL linebacker since he began flashing as a freshman in 2012. After a 12 tackle-for-loss season in 2013, expectations are high for Jenkins to explode in 2014 and become one of the most feared front-seven players in the SEC now that Jadeveon Clowney is gone.
It’s unclear exactly where he fits in the NFL, as his fluidity makes it seem that he could fill a strong-side linebacker role in a 4-3 defense and certainly fill an edge-rusher role in a 3-4 scheme if the measurables match-up. Either way, the 2015 underclassman appears to be a future first-rounder if his freshman and sophomore seasons are any indication for what his football future will look like.
Inside Linebacker: Denzel Perryman, Miami (Florida)
Listed at just 6’0", Denzel Perryman is slated to be this year’s undersized linebacker darling in the media the way Arthur Brown and Lavonte David were in past drafts. Perryman played outside linebacker last year, but his experience in the middle in his sophomore season and his style that may be best suited for an interior role in a 3-4 defense is why he’s slated as an inside linebacker here.
Like most inside linebackers in the draft process nowadays, being limited in size likely pushes prospects like Perryman out of the first-round discussion. However, Perryman’s experience in multiple linebacker roles and his performance last year as an All-ACC performer could be part of building toward being one of the most coveted linebackers at the top of the second round in 2015.
Cornerback: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
Had Ifo Ekpre-Olomu declared for the 2014 draft, he would have been in the mix to be the first or second cornerback taken based on evaluations from last season. Instead, he opted to stay in school for his senior season, and now he has a chance to be selected higher than Justin Gilbert, who was the eighth pick in the 2014 draft.
Listed at 5’10”, Ekpre-Olomu will need to meet that listed threshold first. But if he does, the fluid, explosive cornerback's subtle physicality on the perimeter and athleticism to cover multiple types of receivers will make him highly coveted by teams looking to address their secondary. After numerous national recognitions as a junior, I wouldn’t expect many quarterbacks or offensive coordinators attacking him this season.
Safety: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
The Michigan State defense was arguably the best in college football last year, and that was in large part due to its pass defense. The pass rush was a key part of its success along with 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, but safety Kurtis Drummond proved to be a key part in the team’s success. He finished as a tackler in both run support and as a mid-field coverage safety, and his explosiveness as he transitions and timing as he works upfield are the two areas of his skill set that have allowed him the most success thus far.
He can likely fill a strong or free safety role in the NFL, as he’s shown the ability to play centerfield as well as finish as a tackler on the perimeter and as he attacks upfield. With his fellow starting safety Isaiah Lewis and Dennard graduating, Drummond will be counted on heavily this year, and if he can take his game to the next level, he could be a first-round safety in 2015.
Specialists: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma and Kyle Christy, Florida
Michael Hunnicutt, Kicker, Oklahoma
After being a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award last season, Oklahoma’s Michael Hunnicutt enters the 2014 season as one of the most highly viewed kickers in the country. He was 24-27 last year and has a career long of 53. If he gets the opportunity to try more 50-plus-yard field goals and can showcase a strong leg, he may be viewed as a worthwhile draft pick.
Kyle Christy, Punter, Florida
The second-ranked punter out of high school by Scout.com, Christy was benched in the 2013 season and has no guarantee to earn his job back. However, his school record 45.8 yards-per-punt performance as a sophomore and being named a Ray Guy finalist that season shouldn’t be forgotten about. If he can get his job and confidence back, he could be one of the best punters in the country and possess a big enough leg for NFL teams to view him as a worthwhile starter.