2014 NFL Draft: Which Late-Risers Could Climb to the 1st Round?
Every year some unexpected prospect that nobody saw coming leaps into the first round and throws everyone for a loop. Though it's nearly impossible to predict who those players might be this year, I figured why not try and attempt it anyway.
This slideshow takes a look at some of 2014’s late-risers. Any one of these guys could unexpectedly find themselves answering their phones on Day 1 of the NFL draft this May.
Most of the names mentioned here won’t show up too often on popular mock drafts, yet each prospect has a shockingly good chance at sneaking into the first round.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Weight: 210 pounds
If you’re looking for production from the outside, receiver Allen Robinson is a guy slowly climbing up the respect ladder as we edge closer to the NFL Scouting Combine. Over the last two seasons, this dynamic playmaker had more than 2,400 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns in a pro-style offense.
He is outstanding after the catch and deceptively quick.
In fact, the more tape I watched of him, the more I was reminded of Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. Like Bryant, Robinson will drop the ball every now and then, but he is generally a reliable target.
Bottom line: Robinson is big and strong and has some nifty moves when he's caught in tight spaces. He shows rare anticipation for avoiding defenders as well, even when completely surrounded on all sides—making him one of the most dangerous receivers after the catch I’ve scouted in years.
Put it all together, and I can see a WR-needy team jumping on him late in the first round—knowing he won’t be available again in Round 2.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Weight: 240 pounds
There's a little bit of stiffness in Dee Ford’s change of direction that worries me. This concern may be put to rest after we get his short shuttle and L drill number at the combine.
He is immensely fond of swim moves and rips when rushing the passer and knows when best to use them. For teams looking for an explosive pass-rusher coming off the edge, he would provide all the explosion they’re ever going to need. Despite being rather undersized for a defensive end at the next level, this dynamic athlete packs a powerful punch.
Ford needs to learn how to use his arm length more effectively and does not close ground in open space very well. A great example was when Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was able to run away from him while scrambling toward the sideline.
With all that said, Ford’s stock is hotter than fire right now. NFL.com media analyst Charles Davis believes Ford's week at the Senior Bowl might have given him the final nudge that he needed to sneak his way into the first round: "The Senior Bowl is a big-time testing ground and Ford certainly helped himself quite a bit over the course of the week, perhaps enough to put him in the discussion for some teams as a potential late first-rounder."
I can agree with Davis’ take on his rising stock—which is why it would be crazy project to Ford as anything less than an early second-rounder at this stage. After all, teams love freakish athletes who produce—with 10.5 sacks in 2013, production and athleticism are exactly what you get with him.
David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Weight: 313 pounds
David Yankey is a big, physical mauler who can move a pile. He’s solid at the point of attack and moves well for his size and power, but he is not an ideal prospect for zone-blocking schemes. He may not be the quickest guard prospect, but he’s quick enough to succeed at the next level. His biggest asset as a football player, however, is his strength.
Watching Stanford film, you can see a strong pattern emerge where the Cardinal almost exclusively run behind Yankey on must-have short-yardage plays. In fact, they did this without worrying about whether or not the defense knew it was coming because Yankey is so reliable in getting the movement that they nearly always succeeded.
Just as Matt Miller mentions in the video, this prospect does have good hand placement and can anchor down when needed or clear a hole for the running back. But I compare him more to Mike Iupati than Evan Mathis.
Although Yankey is not showing up in anybody’s mock draft in the first round, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sidle his way in and potentially trump UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo as the first guard drafted this year.
When you consider the demand of former Stanford guard David DeCastro when he was coming out of college a couple of years ago, you have to wonder whether Yankey measures up. Comparatively, DeCastro had quicker feet, but Yankey is bigger, stronger and the more physical of the two.
To put this into context, he’s essentially the type of blocker the San Francisco 49ers covet for their power-running scheme—and that smells a lot like a first-round pick to me.
Aaron Donald, DL, Pittsburgh
Weight: 288 pounds
When you watch film of Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald, he immediately pops off the screen with a combination of quickness, cunning and hand technique. He is fantastic with his hands. Up to this point in the 2014 scouting process, he is by far the most technically advanced defensive lineman I’ve seen.
Aside from his impressive hands, he also has great feet and balance.
If I could only use one word to describe him, it would be “deceptive.” He achieves this by being a loose athlete when most men who are his size are rigid and lumbering. He shows nice awareness for screens and has a vast array of rush moves to choose from.
When it comes to his downsides, he needs to hustle to the ball downfield more, and he’s also undersized for an interior defensive lineman at the next level. But when you have tape like Donald, you might be able to coast your undersized frame right into the first round of the NFL draft.
Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas
Weight: 315 pounds
Travis Swanson is surprisingly fast for a big man. He displays fluid movements and anchors well up front. Contrary to what Matt Miller describes in the video above as Swanson’s weakness, I think his ability to get to the second level is one of his stronger assets.
This divergence in perception is what makes the scouting process so much fun. People can watch the same film yet come to opposite conclusions about what they saw. If you have some extra time, I encourage you to watch some tape and formulate your own conclusions about his ability to climb up to linebackers and get in their way.
In any case, Swanson uses his hands well and controls the inside of the defender’s chest while maintaining a firm base.
My knock on him is that he does not finish blocks with enough intensity or effort, and I’d like to see him be more aggressive overall. Interestingly enough, this is the only thing that last year’s first-round center Travis Frederick did better than Swanson.
Given that Swanson might be the better NFL center named Travis, he has every chance to slip into the first round in a similar fashion to what Frederick did last year.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Weight: 245 pounds
Kyle Van Noy has playmaking instincts in nearly in the same vein as Tyrann Mathieu. He gives great effort on every snap while displaying elite quickness and amazing rush moves. Van Noy also closes ground in a hurry with churning legs and fluidity in his motions. He’s a highly intelligent and clever player.
One lingering concern is that he doesn't seem overly strong by NFL standards. This is evident when he frequently gets swallowed up at the point of attack by blockers.
Strong or not, he does have looseness to his game, which makes him one of the best available defensive playmakers in this draft.
Some people understand how to play the game, and Van Noy is one of those guys. In his last 36 games at BYU, he racked up an impressive 24 quarterback sacks and 54.5 tackles for loss. This is why teams that are looking to add him to their roster may have to reach earlier than most analysts are projecting.
A first-round prediction here is predicated upon whether or not he shines at the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
Weight: 235 pounds
In the race to be considered one of the best quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL draft, a few names are tossed around. Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and even Jimmy Garoppolo have all been mentioned as potential first-round draft picks.
But there is one forgotten QB in the 2014 class: LSU’s Zach Mettenberger.
The talented senior underwent surgery on Jan. 2 after tearing ligaments in his knee during the Arkansas win on Nov. 29. Now, less than a month removed from surgery, he is already impressing with his progress.
According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan, Mettenberger is going through dropback and agility drills so far without any issues.
In an exclusive interview with NOLA.com, Mettenberger had this to say: “I’m able to do a lot of agility drills, nothing full speed, doing lateral step ups at a pretty quick rate. Strength wise, my quad is getting back to where it was and overall my knee is feeling really good right now.”
At 6’5” and 235 pounds, the imposing QB possesses intriguing upside at the next level. According to NFL media analyst Bucky Brooks, Mettenberger "could be the wild card of the 2014 QB class. Prototypical size, arm talent and experience running pro system.”
While under the guidance of former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Mettenberger saw significant improvement. He passed for 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions during his junior year before the coach's arrival. Once he was paired with Cameron, his production spiked, as he racked up 22 passing touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
Many experts figure him to be drafted somewhere in the second- to mid-round range, but they also seem to agree that his considerable potential as an NFL starter gives him more value than a typical second-day selection. One has to wonder whether this physically gifted quarterback would have been considered a first-round pick had he not been injured during his final season at LSU.
Nevertheless, I can’t see how a quarterback who grades out with starting potential and prototype tools could be drafted outside the top 40. We see this type of value inflation with quarterbacks quite often.
I think there’s a good chance Derek Carr drops much further than most anticipate in a similar fashion to what happened to Geno Smith last year. Mettenberger is the better NFL QB of the two.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL linebacker and currently writes for Bleacher Report. To talk more about the NFL draft, follow him on Twitter