Now that the college football season has officially ended, it’s time to start talking about the National Football League draft, although it’s happening in May. As more players declare or decide to stay in college, the issue of who will go where should become clearer. For the time being, teams’ needs and the players available will change so much that predicting where specific players will be drafted is nigh impossible.
But the field of prospects is almost set. Whether it’s an underclassmen leaving early or a graduating senior, NFL teams will begin scouting potential draft picks as soon as this month. It’s difficult to rate different positional players on the same scale — for example, comparing an offensive lineman to a running back — because they’re talented in their own right.
A team may also draft a player who has a “lower” rating earlier because of that team’s needs and not necessarily the quality of the player. This list is not the order in which the players will be drafted according to the team’s slot in the draft. It’s the top seven prospects with the most talent who have either declared or are likely to declare for the NFL draft.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
No, this rating isn’t based on the crushing blow he delivered against Vincent Smith in last year’s Outback Bowl. Though Clowney is just a junior and will forgo his senior season, he’s been NFL-ready since the day he stepped on the collegiate gridiron. Clowney has everything an NFL team desires in a future defensive end: size, speed, and athleticism. His only downside, a recent development this season, is a potential lack of motivation. But if history’s any indication, Clowney will be just fine when he’s forced to compete for a starting spot in the trenches. Either way, he’s by far the most talented and athletic player for his position in this draft class — it will just depend on if he can live up to the hype.
2. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
While the claim for best quarterback in the 2014 class remains debatable, Bridgewater appears to be the leader. His 6-foot, 3-inch frame is the ideal body for a pro quarterback, and while he’s strong, he’s also mobile enough to escape pressure in the pocket. But the attribute that really sets Bridgewater apart from some of the other quarterbacks joining the professional ranks is his impressive arm strength. He isn’t the most athletic quarterback in the mix, but his ability to pass from the pocket combined with a little mobility makes him one of a kind.
The only knock on Bridgewater comes from Louisville’s strength of schedule, or lack thereof. The Cardinals weren’t playing the likes of Auburn or Alabama every weekend — the newly formed American Athletic Conference isn’t known for its football prowess. Despite lesser competition, Bridgewater managed to play well in non-conference games and bowl games against high-quality opponents, so his talent shouldn’t be judged just based on Louisville’s conference foes.
3. Jake Matthews, OL, Texas A&M
If there’s a certainty in the NFL draft, it’s that an offensive lineman — usually a tackle – will be taken high. Teams look for players like Matthews to shore up the offensive line because at 6 feet, 5 inches and 300 pounds, Matthews makes for a prototypical NFL left tackle.
Matthews will more than likely step in immediately to a starting role and impact his future team’s offensive line. And as a graduating senior, he has experience many players don’t, playing with former All-American tackle Luke Joeckel for three years as well as earning his own All-American honors this season.
4. Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Barr, who many consider to be the top outside linebacker in this draft class, is another player who seems ready to step in and make an immediate impact. After finishing his senior campaign with an impressive 10 sacks and 63 tackles, he looks primed for an immediate starting position.
He’s a flashy candidate for many teams because of his ability to play in either a 4-3 defense as an end or a 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker. In terms of size, physique, and style of play, he has a lot of similarities to a player like Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley, who’s made a name for himself in the NFL as an end and linebacker.
5. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
In a weaker class of wide receivers, Watkins is probably the best of the bunch. Though he’s a bit undersized (6 feet, 1 inch) for an elite NFL receiver, he makes up for that with his speed and ability to stretch the field.
It also helped this season that Watkins had Tajh Boyd — a Heisman Trophy candidate — throwing to him, as the two connected for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. Watkins doesn’t have the size of, say, Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant, but he has an impressive vertical leap. His versatility at the position also separates him from the pack.
Whether lining up outside or in the slot, he continually found a way to get open and hang on to the ball. And when the ball was near the goal line, Watkins was a favorite target of Boyd strictly because he rarely failed to bring down a jump ball, a trait the best NFL receivers all have.
6. CJ Mosley, LB, Alabama
The 2013 Dick Butkus Award winner — given to the nation’s best linebacker — is the only true inside linebacker on this list. Unlike Barr at No. 4, who plays more of a defensive end-linebacker hybrid, Mosley plays straight up and vertical all over the field.
His 88 tackles led the Crimson Tide by more than 30, and he was the vocal leader of one of the best defenses in the country. Mosley’s football instincts are just what you look for in your middle linebacker, and whether it’s rushing the passer, stopping the run, or dropping back into coverage, he proved that he has what it takes to make it at the next level.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Last but least — and definitely not the least well known — is Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. While his reputation in the collegiate football scene extends further than his ability on the field (and not in a good way), there’s no doubt he’s one of the best quarterbacks entering the draft.
After making a lot of noise a year ago during his freshman campaign and becoming the first freshman to ever win the Heisman, Manziel posted impressive stats again this year. His numbers over the past two seasons: 7,820 passing yards and 63 touchdowns in the air.
Despite Manziel’s gaudy numbers, he lacks one thing that a quarterback like Bridgewater doesn’t: size. Sure, 6-foot-1 isn’t terribly small, but he’s a little undersized to make elite status. But after a player like Drew Brees, who’s just 6 foot, has had a successful career, teams are more willing to invest in a smaller quarterback like Manziel.
The question that teams have isn’t whether he possesses the skill, it’s whether he can succeed in the NFL despite his solid pocket presence and ability to improvise when the play breaks down. He may well be a top-five pick come May, but he could also potentially fall outside of the top 10. But that’s the beauty of the NFL draft: the unknown.