2014 NFL Draft: How Do This Year's Top Prospects Compare to 2013 Counterparts?
Each year, NFL teams, analysts and fans like to compare the current draft class to the class that came before it and that is no different in 2014.
Tavon Austin and Dee Milliner were at the top of the class at their positions in 2013. But could Sammy Watkins and Justin Gilbert end up being better players in their rookie seasons in 2014 than their 2013 counterparts at receiver and cornerback, respectively?
There is no way to answer that question just yet, but by comparing some of this year's top prospects to last year's top prospects it helps to understand what type of expectations can be placed on a player in their rookie season.
Some prospects in 2014 seem almost identical to their 2013 counterparts, while others appear to stand head and shoulders above theirs.
Here are five of this year's top draft prospects and how they compare to their 2013 counterparts at the same position.
Eric Ebron vs. Tyler Eifert
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert was viewed as the top play-making tight end in the 2013 draft.
He showed the flexibility to be effective out of the backfield, in the slot and on the outside and used his size to create mismatches with smaller defenders. He clocked in with a 4.68 40-yard dash, fourth-best among tight ends at the combine, according to NFL.com.
The Cincinnati Bengals took him with the 21st overall pick that April and he finished the season with 39 catches for 445 yards and two touchdowns. While not exactly a disappointment for the Bengals in 2013, more will be expected of Eifert in 2014.
Just as Eifert was touted as versatile tight end who could create mismatches with his size, North Carolina's Eric Ebron also possesses that flexibility and is viewed as the best tight end in the 2014 draft.
Writing up #UNC TE Eric Ebron...Matchups + formation flexibility at NFL level. Still developing as a route runner. 4.6 speed at 6-4, 250.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) April 22, 2014
"A rare mover at the position, Ebron will draw comparisons to Vernon Davis as a player and athlete. He's straight-line fast, but also shows the quickness and agility to be a threat before and after the catch."
The main difference in Eifert and Ebron's game is that Ebron is viewed as a more polished tight end right now than when Eifert entered the league in 2013.
While Eifert was selected at pick No. 21, there are some who believe Ebron will not make it out of the first 15 picks.
No. 12. Giants would be crazy to let him by. RT @Jtfawver: what's the farthest you can see Eric Ebron falling?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 25, 2014
From a pure athletic standpoint, Ebron is a slightly better choice at tight end than Eifert was last season and should make an immediate impact on whichever team selects him.
Sammy Watkins vs. Tavon Austin
Drafted eighth overall by the St. Louis Rams in the 2013 draft, Tavon Austin was viewed as the best wide receiver in draft and that he was a game-changing wide receiver that could alter a game with his speed.
Austin's stock rose steadily during the 2013 offseason after running a blazing 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com.
At the time, CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler wrote that Austin had "video game-like athleticism with rare change of direction skills" but also was concerned with his size, writing that he had a "smallish frame and limited length with obvious durability concerns due to size."
Despite his small stature (5'8", 174 lbs), Austin was the first wide receiver taken off the board after the Rams traded up from the 18th overall pick with the Buffalo Bills to grab him.
He finished with just 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns and at times was not utilized properly in the team's game plan.
@TomPelissero Tavon Austin is a good example of drafting a player you don't know how to use.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 27, 2014
Throughout the 2014 offseason, Clemson's Sammy Watkins has been the consensus top wide receiver in this year's draft.
Sammy Watkins does not have a weakness. He may lack some elite skills, but no weaknesses.— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) April 25, 2014
Watkins ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine, according to NFL.com, but looks to have much quicker game speed than his 40-time would indicate. He has terrific body control and consistently burns opposing cornerbacks with a combination of his speed and excellent route running.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller lists him as the best wide receiver in this draft, writing:
Watkins is an electric player with upside as a receiver, runner and return man. He comes into the NFL ready to make a major impact with the ball in his hands, and yet he can still get better as he's exposed to more routes and learns to use his tools. For all his talents, he'll only be 21 years old in his first NFL game.
While Tavon Austin was at the top of the 2013 class, Watkins' combination of size and speed makes him the better long-term prospect in the NFL.
Justin Gilbert vs. Dee Milliner
A unanimous All-American in 2012 at Alabama, Dee Milliner was the first cornerback drafted in the 2013 draft when he was selected 9th overall by the New York Jets.
Milliner was viewed as an athletic, aggressive cornerback that had great awareness and excelled against the run.
He was expected to take over the starting cornerback role that was vacated by Darrelle Revis after his trade to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just days before the draft.
CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler compared Milliner to Charles Tillman in his scouting report, writing that he has "similar size and ballhawking ability when the ball is in the air."
His rookie season started off rocky as he struggled with his technique early in the season and was benched on multiple occasions.
Dee Milliner is struggling. Technique is a major issue for the rookie in coverage.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) October 27, 2013
Near the end of the season he finally came into his own, utilizing his aggressiveness and becoming a better read-and-react player on the field. He finished as the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month in December and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 17 after intercepting two passes against the Miami Dolphins.
Just as Milliner was viewed as the best cornerback in the 2013 draft, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert is viewed by many as the best in this year's draft.
For the new followers, my love of Justin Gilbert may become annoying to you. But he's a freak. Top 10 talent on my board.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 25, 2014
Gilbert combines great athleticism and footwork and is one of the most fluid defensive backs in this draft. He plays the football too aggressively at times and can be susceptible to biting on pump fakes, but he is the type of player who could step in from Day 1 and contribute.
He showed off his speed at the combine, running a 4.37 40-yard dash, best among cornerbacks, and showed off the rare ability to run that fast considering his size, evident by this tweet from NFL on ESPN:
STAT OF THE DAY: Justin Gilbert became the 8th DB since 2006 taller than 6 feed to run the 40 in 4.37 seconds or less.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 25, 2014
Milliner was proof in 2013 that the adjustment from the collegiate level to the NFL level is particularly hard on cornerbacks. It took time for him to adjust to the game and it will not be a surprise if Gilbert struggles to acclimate himself to the NFL.
Aaron Donald vs. Star Lotulelei
Viewed as one of the best defensive tackles heading into the 2013 draft, Utah's Star Lotulelei's draft stock dipped after an echocardiogram taken at the NFL Scouting Combine detected an abnormally low Ejection Fraction, according to ESPN.com.
It was later reported by Joe Schad of ESPN.com that the abnormal test result for Lotulelei was likely caused by a viral infection. He was later cleared to participate in football activities without restrictions.
Despite being cleared, the 6'2", 311-pound Lotulelei dropped to the Carolina Panthers at No. 14 in the draft.
He was viewed as a guy with exceptional speed, quickness and agility at the position prior to the draft. He had the ability to not only make an impact in the run game but also in the passing game by applying pressure to the quarterback.
He dominated at times during the season for the Panthers and caused some to question why he ever dropped down team's draft boards to begin with.
#Panthers DT Star Lotulelei continues to show why he was once the No. 1 overall prospect. Should have stayed there, too.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 15, 2013
He finished the 2013 season with 42 tackles and three sacks and will continue to be a key piece for the Panthers defensive at nose tackle.
Just as Lotulelei had concerns about his health heading into the draft, some have become concerned about Aaron Donald's size heading into this year's draft.
One of the biggest knocks on the 6'1", 285-pound Donald is that is a bit undersized for an NFL defensive lineman. He addressed those concerns about his size at the combine, saying in a press conference (via SI.com), "[My height] is what it is. Thinking about it isn’t going to get me no taller. All I can [do] is go play the game of football the way I play it: hard-nosed, out there trying to make plays."
Comparisons have been made between Donald and the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins, who is widely regarded as the league's best 3-technique defensive tackle. Atkins was asked if those comparisons were true and told Peter King of TheMMQB.com, “Yes, definitely. He has the tool set and skills to be a dominant three technique: motor, speed, leverage and strength. I’m definitely looking forward to see what he does in the league.”
Lotulelei and Donald are different types of players at defensive tackle, but both were labeled with questions marks heading into the draft and there is no reason to believe that Donald cannot have the type of impact in his first year that Lotulelei had.
Carlos Hyde vs. Eddie Lacy
The fourth running back taken in a weak draft class in 2013, Eddie Lacy burst onto the scene for the Green Bay Packers last season.
He was touted as a powerful running back that had the ability to break tackles but had good enough footwork and vision to make tacklers miss.
At the time, NFL Network's Mike Mayock said of the pick (via NFL.com):
At 230 pounds, he's got much better feet than people think. This guy's a three-down tailback. He'll protect the quarterback. He can carry 20 to 25 times a game. For the Packers, who have been running the ball by committee, this is a perfect pick.
He finished the 2013 season with 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns and set Green Bay's rookie records for most rushing yards and touchdowns in a season. He was named AP-Second Team All-Pro and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
Much like it was in 2013, there is no true consensus No. 1 running back in this year's draft. Names like Bishop Sankey, Jeremy Hill and Tre Mason have all been in the discussion, but Ohio State's Carlos Hyde is likely high on many draft boards.
Didn't think this would happen, but I did rank one RB with a 1st round grade this year—Carlos Hyde.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 24, 2014
Hyde finished the 2013 season with 1,527 yards despite missing the first three games because of suspension and was eventually named Big Ten Running Back of the Year and a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
He is a prototypical north-south runner like Lacy, relying on his size (6'0", 230 lbs) and strength to break through tackles. He is able to get his legs churning and can fight off tackles, but also has enough speed to break away on occasion.
The comparisons are pretty similar between Lacy and Hyde with the biggest difference being Lacy's terrific footwork. If Hyde can learn to read the field as quickly as Lacy was able to in his rookie season, he could make just as a big of an impact in his rookie season in 2014.
All stats and measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Matt Eurich is an NFL/Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.