Why the 2014 NFL Rookie Class Is the Most Exciting in Years

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Why the 2014 NFL Rookie Class Is the Most Exciting in Years
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It's difficult to imagine, but the 2014 NFL draft class might actually be underhyped

The draft has become a monolith of hype over the past decade, so it's easy to understand the argument that every class has far too many headlines, but 2014 goes against the grain because it can live up to whatever hype is thrown at it. 

My paradigm for living up to hype has always been the vast difference between what happened after the predraft hype of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James and the recruitment buzz around current Buffalo Bill Seantrel Henderson.

At the time, both were hyped incessantly (LeBron, admittedly on a whole different level). Yet, LeBron found a way to live up to his massive hype, while Henderson spent years at Miami acting like he'd already finished his career. 

It isn't just the top of the class, either, nor is it just the pretty-boy skill-position players who are so exciting. No, from top to bottom, this is the most exciting rookie crop we've seen in years. 

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert agreed with that sentiment at the combine, via Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated, calling this class the "deepest in 30 years."

 

Some Truly Buzzworthy Headliners

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Johnny Freakin' Football...

Anyone who clicked on this column knew that the discussion had to get to Johnny Manziel eventually, because he might be the most hyped rookie since Tim Tebow, Cam Newton or Reggie Bush. The combination of electrifying play on the field and TMZ-style headlines constantly made off it is almost too enticing to pass up. 

Love him, hate him or just sick of him—everyone has an opinion on the polarizing passer. 

Former NFL scout and NFL media analyst Daniel Jeremiah took some time out of his schedule and gave his opinion to Bleacher Report on why that might be:

"The difference with Manziel to me: Andrew Luck was hyped; [Robert Griffin III] was hyped. With Manziel, it’s almost like intrigue. It’s different. Everyone I talk to around the league is interested in what’s going to happen. What are we going to get here? Can we win with him?"

That's not just scouting. That's afternoon soap opera/US Weekly-level drama. It's the moment in time where we know we're either watching the early moments of greatness or simply an impending train wreck, and it has almost nothing to do with how he's going to do on the field. 

We're living in a new media-driven world, and Manziel is the snow globe everyone is waiting to shake.

Yet, Manziel's hype may end up paling in comparison to what history might look back and say about Michael Sam, as he attempts to become the first openly gay player in NFL history. Whereas Manziel's hype is of the pop-cultural variety, Sam's is of the cultural-watershed-moment variety for a lot of NFL fans. 

I had Jeremiah weigh in on Sam as well:

"Expectations are higher [with Sam] out of the football world than in it. I think the people that really studied him always knew that he’d have a real hard chance of making the team before we even talk about him reaching expectations."

Maybe it sounds convoluted, but that kind of non-football interest creates far more in terms of global excitement and hype than the consistent war drum of coverage on sports sites like this one.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

First, that kind of interest that sits on the periphery demands the inclusion of aforementioned sports coverage as outlets attempt to draw in casual fans. Moreover, it gives non-sports outlets reasons to cover an athlete, and it makes them household names far quicker than otherwise possible. 

Bleacher Report's very own draft expert Matt Miller weighed in on another reason this class will generate so much excitement: "Last year it was all offensive tackles and offensive guards. No one cares about those guys."

Yet, as much as we can take note of the increase in first-round quarterbacks, pass-rushers and skill-position players rather than the offensive linemen of 2013's "fatty draft," the one thing Jeremiah pointed out is that none of those passers are of a Luck- or RGIII-caliber prospect. 

While there's no Luck, though, there are three quarterbacks in Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Manziel who all have the ability (maybe even the fan mandate) to start this season. That, alone, builds excitement in those three cities in a way that an offensive tackle simply can't. 

You want buzz? This class has ridiculous buzz.

 

When the Hype Is Gone, There's Also Substance

Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

Jeremiah may have pointed to the Luck/RGIII class of 2012 as a group with excitement, but where it falls far short of the 2014 edition is in the actual substance that can be revealed if and when the hype of players such as Manziel, the other quarterbacks or Sam fades.

Remember that quote earlier from Kevin Colbert about this being the deepest class in 30 years? Miller quoted that line to me as proof of how exciting this one can be. 

Jarrett Bell of USA Today quoted Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Jason Licht as saying this is the "best draft class" he's seen. In the same column, Miami Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey said that "this draft class...best in a while."

Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff added this about the group: "In my mind, it's a fantastic top 10 draft, and throughout the first round there are some marquee players … they are going to be the impact-type players in this league for a number of years to come."

Yeah, this is not a bold opinion to have. 

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Earlier, I mentioned Seantrel Henderson and his failure to live up to his recruitment hype after he reached the University of Miami. Because of Henderson's spotty play, he fell to No. 237 in the class. Still, Henderson is fighting for a starting spot in Buffalo and performed extremely well in the team's first preseason game. 

That's 237, and Henderson's story isn't that rare. 

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jared Abbrederis was fighting for a role on the Green Bay Packers as a fifth-round pick until he suffered a torn ACL.

Miami Dolphins fifth-round linebacker Jordan Tripp has been a stud during camp for them and is working on earning a whole mess of snaps this season. Running back James White of the New England Patriots is carving out a place and is exactly the type of player who can play a big role for a Bill Belichick-coached team. 

Those are just the late-round picks. 

In the second and third round of this year's draft, numerous teams got players who will not only occupy roles, but they could also end up being starters or valuable players for the lucky teams that acquired them. 

In 2013, teams spent plenty of early picks on guards and right tackles. 

That's not a terrible thing. In fact, the dearth of quality linemen in the NFL (as chronicled here) meant that the lineman-heavy draft of 2013 was sorely needed. However, we're talking about excitement here, and the run blocking of the strong side of a line doesn't usually send tingles up many sides throughout the collective fanbase of the NFL.

Instead, the early rounds of this year's draft were filled with linebackers who are sure to rack up big tackle numbers, receivers who will ignite the offenses they're inserted into and plenty of running backs, defensive backs and pass-rushers who are going to develop cult followings sooner rather than later.  

 

Class Is Set Up to Provide Immediate Returns 

Larry French/Getty Images

Seriously, though...sooner is better. 

Former NFL scout Dan Shonka currently runs Ourlads.com, which is a premier scouting service used by many in NFL circles and also manages to curate some of the most meticulous depth charts in the league. With that in mind, I could think of no one better to point out which of these rookies could have an immediate impact in the league. 

First, he pointed out that this whole premise could be—potentially—deep-sixed by a few key injuries, so he prefaced his comments with the usual disclaimer that this is assuming the normal rate of injured players. He went on, though, to speak glowingly of plenty of members of the class who could step in immediately:

"[Linebacker] C.J. Mosley is one on the Ravens. This guy has all the instincts; good in coverage—the total package. In OTAs. They tried to put him behind Arthur Brown, but he didn’t want anything to do with that and is coming on gangbusters."

Brown is a player whom many (including this writer) were excited about last season. Frankly, I still am and hope the two can coexist in the Ravens' hybrid offense. At No. 17, though, Mosley was simply too tempting to pass up and is the type of guy who might have gone much sooner in another class. 

Shonka also mentioned New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks, saying: "Everyone down in New Orleans is talking about Cooks. He will be as dependable as Lance Moore but more explosive. They’ve got him on the third team right now, but that’s more for show than for go."

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Another receiver who could make a big splash in his first season is the Bills' Sammy Watkins. Shonka noted that going without a catch in the Hall of Fame game may have taken some wind out of his sails. Nonetheless, Shonka believes that game "was just an aberration" and that Watkins will "have a big year."

Jeremiah and Miller, too, both mentioned Watkins right away in their listing of exciting players of this class, with Miller saying, "It’s going to hurt [Watkins] that EJ Manuel is his quarterback, but he is good enough to transcend that."

If Manuel—at any point—takes the next step as a passer and is anything more than a liability, Watkins could have a tremendous season.

Jeremiah was quick to mention Houston Texans pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney as the gold standard of making an impact this season. You know, Clowney, one of the consensus best players in college football just a season ago—the guy who basically phoned in his final season at South Carolina and was still drafted first overall. 

This class is so deep, so buzzworthy, so exciting, that Clowney is almost an afterthought as one runs down the excitement in the class. 

Miller also took some time to highlight the potential play of Oakland Raiders pass-rusher Khalil Mack, comparing him to Von Miller: "With the skill set that he brings, he will be able to stand up against the hype."

Every year, the unbridled optimism of the draft season drives fans crazy because it's nearly impossible for reality to live up to the hype that is thrust upon the young players. This year, however, that may not only be possible, but this class may even surpass anything we could say about it. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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