By Rob Rang, The Sports Xchange
An exciting combination of speed and overall athleticism led to Eric Fisher (Kansas City), Luke Joeckel (Jacksonville) and Lane Johnson (Philadelphia) being three of the top four overall picks in last April’s NFL Draft. The skill position talent at the top of the board is shaping up to be far more impressive for 2014 than it was last spring, but the upcoming crop of offensive tackles again boasts prospects who should be able to contribute immediately – and it will do so based more on impressive size, physicality and toughness.
The Big Board isn’t a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the projected selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 32 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL draft.
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-6, 268, 4.65)* — Clowney has failed to live up to our astronomical expectations, but scouts aren’t as concerned with his mediocre production this season as the media is. When on the field, Clowney remains a dominating presence capable of making the game-changing play on each snap of the ball.
2. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-3, 220, 4.65)* — In an era in which college quarterbacks’ numbers are often inflated by short passing and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater’s sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. His success (71 percent completion rate with 18 touchdowns against just two interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offenses that forces him to make tough throws. Bridgewater’s slight frame and level of competition are concerns. He showed toughness and poise with multiple NFL general managers on hand to watch him beat Rutgers on Oct. 10.
3. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73) – As the No. 5 pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Ziggy Ansah showed just what a breakout season can do for a pass-rusher. Barr, a former running back, exploded onto the Pac-12 last year to the tune of 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He has been just as dominant through four games this season, posting eight tackles for loss, three sacks and three forced fumbles to earn my top grade among senior prospects.
4. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, 5.14) – Any question about Matthews’ ability to hold up at left tackle may have been answered with a dominating performance against Arkansas and SEC-leading sack-master Chris Smith September 28. He’ll have a test of a different nature against Ole Miss, which may elect to line up physically-imposing true freshman Robert Nkemdiche opposite him Saturday.
5. QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson (6-1, 225, 4.68) – Less-than-ideal size will always bring some detractors, but critics are finding it increasingly difficult to identify flaws in Boyd’s game, as he has significantly improved his accuracy and decision-making from the pocket in 2013. A true dual-threat quarterback, Boyd is earning comparisons to Pro Bowlers Russell Wilson and the late Steve McNair from scouts.
6. QB Brett Hundley, UCLA (6-3, 227, 4.68)* — Hundley, one of three potential blue-chip redshirt sophomore quarterbacks on this list (along with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel), remains a bit rough around the edges but his size, athleticism and easy throwing motion has scouts excited about his upside. Hundley faces a relative cupcake in Cal before heading off to Stanford and Oregon the following two weeks.
7. OLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (6-2, 232, 4.56) – While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass.
8. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon (6-3, 214, 4.52)* — Boasting a skill-set already drawing comparisons to 49ers star Colin Kaepernick, Mariota is quickly proving he I an emerging blue chip quarterback prospect and not simply a product of Oregon’s offense. Mariota’s traits are exciting but with opponents rarely challenging Oregon in the second half, scouts are left to largely project the redshirt sophomore’s ability to play well in the clutch. The Ducks face their three toughest opponents of the regular season over the next month, starting off on the road against Washington on Saturday and with UCLA (Oct. 26) and Stanford (Nov. 7) on the horizon.
9. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49)* — Clemson’s high-powered offense inflates Watkins’ production somewhat, but scouts are enamored with his playmaking ability. A perfect example came against Syracuse last week, when Watkins raced to catch up with a slightly overthrown deep ball from Boyd to score a 91-yard touchdown.
10. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 310, 5.04) – Possessing an incredible combination of size and athletic ability, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long. Lewan has been the obvious bright spot upfront for Michigan, which has struggled with injuries and penalties. The maize and blue will be tested on the road against Penn State on Saturday.
11. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51)* — Replacing coach Lane Kiffin with Ed Orgeron might improve USC’s focus, but it’s not likely to turnaround the struggling offense. Lee has been productive with 30 catches through five games, but the big plays that have characterized the reigning Biletnikof Award winner’s career to this point have been largely non-existent in 2013.
12. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina (6-4, 245, 4.67)* — Ebron doesn’t get nearly the national attention of Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins or other highly regarded tight ends, but scouts are fascinated with his rare combination of size and speed. The UNC staff was so enamored with Ebron’s athleticism and physicality that it lined him at defensive end at times last season. The junior needs polish but is precisely the type of physical mismatch the NFL is looking for in today’s tight ends.
13. OT Antonio Richardson, Tennessee (6-6, 332, 5.16)* — Nicknamed “Tiny,” Richardson and his game proved anything but last season at left tackle for the Vols. Richardson is certainly a bit raw after just one season of starting action but he’s shockingly smooth for a man of his size. With more consistency, Richardson’s stock could skyrocket.
14. OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (6-5, 312, 5.12)* — Some questioned the wisdom of moving Barrett Jones from left tackle (where he’d won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC’s best lineman) to center in 2012. The reason for the switch was Kouandjio, a physically-blessed athlete who some have compared to former Redskins’ Pro Bowler Chris Samuels, the No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama in 2000.
15. OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor (6-5, 335, 5.27) – A dominating drive blocker who projects best at guard but spent the entire 2011 season protecting Robert Griffin III at left tackle, Richardson is massive, powerful and shockingly athletic. Scouts love his talent but the extended splits in Art Briles’ scheme fooled us before with former first-round picks Jason Smith (No. 2 overall in 2009) and Danny Watkins (No. 23 in 2011).
16. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (5-10, 182, 4.49) – Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today’s NFL, but agility and ball-skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012. His stellar coverage (six tackles, two passes broken up) against Oklahoma on Oct. 5 earned him the Top Prospect of Week Six by NFLDraftScout.com.
17. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (6-2, 226, 4.58)* – Shazier may be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts would prefer, but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender offenses must account for on every snap. His athleticism made Shazier equally effective against Wisconsin’s power running on Sept. 28 (nine tackles, including 2.5 for loss) and Northwestern’s up-tempo passing attack (10 tackles, one tackle for loss) a week later.
18. DT Louis Nix III, Notre Dame (6-3, 326, 5.17)* — Possessing broad shoulders, a thick lower half and surprisingly quick feet, Nix III is a classic run-stuffer with enough burst and determination to threaten the pocket, as well. The junior hasn’t been as dominant in 2013, but remains a standout in a less-than-inspiring crop of defensive tackles.
19. OT Cameron Erving, Florida State (6-5, 310, 5.26)* – Erving played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle but looked like a natural when moved to left tackle a season ago. Long, balanced and athletic, he’s a hidden factor in the impressive early play from freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.
20. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 303, 4.89)* — Offseason sports hernia surgery may have played a role in Tuitt entering this season 20 pounds heavier, and the extra weight seemed to be slowing him. He has played much better in the Irish’s last three games, however, and is simply too gifted to fall far on draft day, should the junior elect to leave South Bend early.
21. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66) – With an eye-popping 56 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and 11 forced fumbles already on his resume entering the 2013 season, rest assured scouts knew Mack well. He has established himself as a legitimate star after strong performances against Ohio State and Connecticut this season.
22. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M (6-5, 300, 5.15)* – Overshadowed by all of the talent on the Aggies’ roster, Ogbuehi is an exciting prospect in his own right. A standout at right guard a year ago, Ogbuehi (pronounced ah-BOO-hee) stands to make a lot of money if he continues his early stellar play at right tackle. The redshirt junior faces a tough opponent this week with Ole Miss and consensus top freshman Robert Nkemdiche.
23. OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU (6-3, 235, 4.67) – While Ziggy Ansah received most of the hype at BYU last season, Van Noy was by far and away the more consistent defender, registering an eye-popping 22 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. Van Noy isn’t as physically dominating as his former teammate, but his instincts and agility make him a playmaker.
24. RB Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (5-09, 210, 4.45)* — Baylor has not been challenged yet but Seastrunk has been as dominant as scouts expected, averaging a stunning 11.1 yards per carry over his first four games, though things will get rougher with the Big 12 schedule starting up. Seastrunk is an “air back” with the agility, balance and stop-start ability to elude defenders.
25. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 225, 4.58)* — Like his famous quarterback, Johnny Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore but he could have quite the decision to make after the season if he continues to dominate the SEC. Evans is averaging an astounding 24.7 yards per catch through five games.
26. FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama (6-1, 208, 4.50)* — Death, taxes and a Nick Saban-coached defensive back earning first round grades from NFL scouts are among the sure things in life. Clinton-Dix possesses an exciting combination of athleticism and instincts but scouts may have to rely on his previous game tape, as the star was suspended indefinitely from the team on October 2, reportedly for accepting a loan from Alabama assistant strength and conditioning coach Corey Harris.
27. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (5-11, 210, 4.45)* — Not every team will be willing to overlook the distractions that come with Johnny Football but as dual-threat quarterbacks are becoming more and more popular in today’s NFL it is impossible to ignore Manziel’s unique playmaking ability.
28. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington (6-6, 267, 4.75)* — His unique combination of size, body control and soft hands made Seferian-Jenkins a standout each of his two seasons at Washington. However, an offseason arrest for DUI and broken pinkie served as an inauspicious start and the Huskies have featured other playmakers thus far in 2013.
29. CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State (5-11, 190, 4.42)* — The Buckeyes used to churn out first round defensive backs annually and Roby appears likely to rekindle the tradition. The junior may be guilty of falling in love with his own press-clippings, however, as he struggled in close victories against Wisconsin and Northwestern.
30. OLB Vic Beasley, Clemson (6-3, 235, 4.55)* — Beasley led Clemson with eight sacks in limited duty as a sophomore and has matched this total through five games in 2013. Drawing comparisons to surprise 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin (Seahawks) for his slim frame and explosive burst, Beasley could enjoy a similar leap up draft boards should his pass-rushing prowess continue.
31. DE/OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford (6-6, 261, 4.85) – A true outside linebacker in Stanford’s 3-4 scheme who is asked to not only rush the passer but also drop into coverage. He recorded two sacks in the Cardinal’s win over Washington on Oct. 5, but it was his tipped pass which led to a fourth-quarter interception that was his biggest play of the night.
32. DT Anthony Johnson, LSU (6-3, 305, 5.29)* — Flanked by Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery a season ago, Johnson looked like the next LSU first-round defensive lineman. He’ll face a tough matchup with a battle-tested Florida offensive line coming to town Saturday.
Just missed the cut:
QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU
DT Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OG David Yankey, Stanford
OLB Adrian Hubbard, Alabama
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
DT Will Sutton, Arizona State
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, Oregon
ILB Denzel Perryman, Miami*
FS Ed Reynolds, Stanford*
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. He can be found on Twitter @RobRang.