2014 Pre-Draft Rookie Report
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Get ready for the fantasy world to be shaken up a little more than usual come draft weekend because 2014’s class looks excellent. While the draft is void of a “can’t-miss” prospect at the QB position, we could be looking back at this group as one that netted 5-6 future starters, which would be more than usual. The RB position may not be loaded with stars, but it’s very deep and offers several bigger power guys, smaller scat-back types, and many players who are talented enough to be active complementary players. WR is absolutely loaded, so whether a team wants size or speed on the outside or production in the slot, there will be ample options available to them. The TE position features one stud and 3-4 really nice prospects, so the talent is there as well.
In years past, we would rank the players for the upcoming season pre-draft to help readers get familiar with how the players stack up in terms of skill sets, durability, intangibles, etc. We’re still going to rank the players pre-draft, but last year we decided it would be more beneficial to broaden the scope and stack the players up by their long-term potential. After all, it’s nearly impossible to get a firm handle on a rookie’s fantasy value for his initial campaign until we know his NFL locale. Once the draft takes place, then it will be a lot easier to rank the players for the 2014 season – and we will. Of course, we’ll also reset our long-term outlooks and re-rank the players for keeper and dynasty leagues.
Note: With two extra weeks until the draft this year, we’ve gone in an updated a few rankings and added a couple of players from our initial 4/1 release of this feature on 4/23.
Note: These players are ranked more so for their long-term value and potential, so these rankings aren’t for just 2014. Once the draft takes place, we’ll rank all rookies for both this year and the long-term.
1. Teddy Bridgewater
School: Louisville | Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 214 | 40: NA | Year: 3Jr
Bridgewater was touted as the #1 QB prospect entering the 2013 college season, and even though he’s been picked apart quite a bit since then, he still looks like the most refined QB prospect entering May’s draft. Bridgewater’s biggest red flag has been about his size and stature, as he played last season at a listed 198 pounds, exceptionally light for a college QB, let alone a professional one. He bulked up for the combine (214 pounds), but we’ll see if he can keep the weight on. Bridgewater didn’t throw at the combine, and he didn’t exactly have a dazzling pro day, which was a little bit of a surprise since most quarterbacks excel at their pro days in a controlled environment. Bridgewater’s played with a glove on his throwing hand since high school, but he ditched the glove at his pro day in March, which could explain some of his troubles. However, we still believe that Bridgewater is the most complete QB prospect in this class as draft day draws closer. Bridgewater, who plays with good footwork and balance, comes from a pro-style system that feature pro passing game concepts, and it would be hard to find an NCAA quarterback who had more responsibility than him at the line of scrimmage. He also manipulates defenses with his eyes to free up passing lanes, which is next-level stuff. He’s got a quick release and can fit the ball into tight spots, and while he doesn’t have the biggest arm and is not a “wow” thrower, he does have good touch on vertical throws. He does have a low release point, which is a concern given his lack of ideal height, so that will have to be worked on. Bridgewater, who plays with a good rhythm and tempo, looks comfortable and composed in the pocket and is willing to stare down the gun barrel as he goes through his progressions. He shows the good instincts of a pocket QB, yet has some escapability and can run when he wants to (similar to Russell Wilson). But he’s more than happy to stay in the pocket to make a play, which is what you want to see from a young QB. Overall, based on college tape, Bridgewater has exhibited the skills necessary to succeed in the NFL. There are others who might have more upside, but he’s the most complete package at the position this year, and he could fit into just about any type of offense (West Coast ideally) because of his wide variety of skills. Despite his lack of ideal size, he hasn’t had lingering durability issues. He did play through a broken left wrist and a sprained right ankle to win the Sugar Bowl MVP as a sophomore, so he’s a tough kid. Bridgewater is a smart player who will quickly pick up an NFL offense, and he’s got the arm, instincts, and decision-making skills to become a quality NFL starter.
2. Johnny Manziel
School: Texas A&M | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 207 | 40: 4.68 | Year: 3So
Manziel will go down as one of the more electrifying athletes to ever take a college football field, but the biggest question in the 2014 NFL Draft is how Manziel’s talents will translate to the next level. He won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in 2012 and was a finalist last season as a sophomore, but Heisman-winning QBs have a checkered past with NFL success. Manziel is one of the most polarizing prospects in NFL Draft history, as he’s been evaluated and projected from as high as a top-five pick all the way down to a late Day Two selection (but he’ll be drafted in the 1st round for sure). Manziel relies so heavily on making ad-lib plays outside of offensive structure that many evaluators believe he’ll struggle at the next level. In other words, he didn’t “win from the pocket” nearly enough, despite the physical ability to do so. LSU and Missouri focused on keeping Manziel in the pocket last season, and he had two of his worst performances in those games. To our Greg Cosell, one of his biggest red flags might simply be his inability/unwillingness to consistently throw the ball to open receivers when plays are there to be made. In the NFL, you won’t succeed unless you regularly pull the trigger on throws that are there, and Manziel didn’t even do it in college, as he relied too heavily on spontaneous and random plays. A nimble and light-footed player, Manziel tested in the top-five in about every category at the combine, so he’s one of the top athlete prospects at the position. He also has gigantic hands (nearly 10 inches long) despite his smaller frame, which is like Seahawk QB Russell Wilson. Manziel has a pretty strong arm and has great touch, but he needs more zip on his sideline patterns. Manziel is very cavalier in his game, as he doesn’t always play within scheme and will bail from the pocket before making his progressions to make ad-lib plays. He also has a tendency to drop his eyes under pressure, which is something that has ruined former #1 pick Blaine Gabbert. Manziel also played in a shotgun- and pistol-based offense at Texas A&M, so he has very little experience in pro-style offenses. He’ll never be a pure pocket passer, but he needs to learn how to operate and make throws from the pocket on a more consistent basis. Manziel can pick up big chunks of yardage on the ground, but he takes some big, unnecessary hits, which is a major concern considering his size. Manziel showed a willingness to address some of the concerns about him by wearing pads and a helmet at his pro day, a really rare occurrence for a QB, and he stepped up and performed extremely well during quite possibly the most-scrutinized pro day ever. There are more and more NFL quarterbacks who are making plays outside of the pocket, which is where Manziel thrives, so he’s making the jump to the next level at the right time. NFL people can debate Manziel’s transition to the pros for hours and hours, but we’re talking about fantasy here, and Manziel will take off and run a lot, and he isn’t afraid to go for big plays down the field. And there is definitely something to be said about his excellent instincts, awareness, and the whole “Johnny Football” thing. But he’s still going to have to be coached very hard, and he needs to be coached by a staff that strives to make him play QB from the pocket knowing he has the great escapability in his back pocket, as opposed to simply letting him run around all the time. For now, to assume he’ll play differently than he did in college is a major leap of faith, so he’s more of a boom-or-bust guy in NFL terms than most think. We’re fairly convinced that he will produce for fantasy no matter what because he’ll always run and make plays, so the biggest question for our purposes (fantasy) is his availability, which is tied to his NFL concerns. If he can play more from the pocket and within structure, he has very good upside because we know he’ll always augment his fantasy production with his legs. If not, he’ll take too many hits and will be in danger of missing a lot of games.
3. Blake Bortles
School: Central Florida | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 232 | 40: 4.93 | Year: 4Jr
Size is a major attribute for NFL QBs, and compared to his quarterback draft mates, Bortles most looks the part at the next level. He’s big at 6’5” and 232 pounds, he has the arm to make any throw on the field, and he can get to the perimeter and make plays with his feet as a deceptive runner. He’s mobile enough to effectively run some read-option in the NFL. Bortles beat out fellow top rookie QB prospect Teddy Bridgewater for the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year Award this past season, and the two players could be vying for the #1 overall pick with the Texans. Bortles tested well at the combine, and he worked under center in a pro-style system at Central Florida against (only) a decent level of competition. He has a good – but not great – arm and can get the ball downfield, but his vertical accuracy isn’t great, likely due to shaky lower body mechanics and footwork. He’s worked on his footwork leading up to the draft, and he looked improved in the area at his pro day and it helped his deep ball. Bortles has been compared to Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, and he’s probably more athletic than Big Ben but not nearly as creative outside of the pocket (and not nearly the all-around specimen Luck is). That said, Bortles is comfortable in the pocket and senses pressure pretty well and avoids taking unnecessary sacks. He is willing to take chances with some tight throws, which also means he will force some passes into coverage. Bortles doesn’t always throw with great anticipation, and he doesn’t throw his receivers open nearly enough. He also fumbled nine times last season, so we’d like to see improved ball security. Bortles needs work, but he gives an NFL a lot of tools in terms of his size and movement ability, and there’s a lot to work with and to mold, which makes him the #1 rookie QB available in the eyes of many evaluators. He has a fair amount of upside potential if he gets around the right coaches and in a good offensive system. Ideally, he’ll be placed in a situation where his team can play good defense and can run the ball, which can take advantage of his potential off boot/play-action. The concern is that he’s not in an ideal situation and is asked to do things he’s not ready to do because he’s still a developing player who doesn’t have a ton of experience. The good news is he hasn’t hit his ceiling yet, so he’s got the chance to develop into a future franchise quarterback if everything falls right for him. But he shouldn’t be the top pick of the draft, and it’s unlikely he will be.
4. Zach Mettenberger
School: Louisiana State | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 224 | 40: NA | Year: 5Sr
The best prototypical pocket passer in this draft class, Mettenberger would be getting more buzz as one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft class if not for a serious injury. He tore his ACL and MCL at the end of November last year, but he had to wait until early January to have knee reconstruction surgery while his MCL healed. But surprisingly, Mettenberger believes he’ll be ready for the start of the season, and he told us in a radio interview on 3/28 that he plans on throwing and fully participating at his pro day on April 9. So his recovery has gone exceptionally well. He benefitted from playing in a pro-style offense under LSU OC Cam Cameron, which will help him transition to the next level, and Mettenberger really improved the mental side of his game in 2013. But Mettenberger’s most-coveted attribute is his big arm, which will have teams willing to take a risk (in likely the 2nd round) on an injured player. Only Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas has a bigger arm in this year’s draft class, and Mettenberger projects as a good fit in a vertical passing game. He’s willing to stare down the gun barrel while stepping into this throws and taking hits in order to go through his progressions, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on any throw and can throw guys open with timing and anticipation. These are all very good attributes for a pocket QB. His willingness to stand in the pocket will lead to some forced throws at times, and he’ll never be confused for a great athlete with the mobility to make a ton of plays outside of the pocket, although he’s not a completely lead-footed player and made throws in designed boot action in college. Mettenberger has had footwork and mechanical issues in the past, but he improved in those areas this past season and his ball placement was better. His accuracy could be better, though, and he got to play with future NFL receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who made some big-time plays for him. Off the field, Mettenberger was arrested and kicked off the Georgia Bulldogs football team in 2010 for lying about a sexual battery incident at a bar, obviously a serious red flag (he had been projected to possibly beat out Aaron Murray for Georgia’s starting QB job). But he paid a fine and served 12 months’ probation, and he’s come off as a much more mature player leading up to the draft after landing at LSU. He’ll likely get drafted by a team that appreciates his redeeming qualities, and he told us that he would be a great fit for Norv Turner’s offense, one that he knows well from working with Cameron, who basically runs that system. It’s also interesting to note that he’s a serious student of the game and he knows the history of the game, as he dropped named like Don Coryell and Dan Fouts during our interview with him when talking about Turner’s system. Mettenberger is a marginal athlete with some flaws, but if healthy and in the right situation, he has a chance to become a quality starting NFL QB. Note: Here’s a clip of us talking with Mettenberger in late-March.
5. Derek Carr
School: Fresno State | Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 214 | 40: 4.69 | Year: 5Sr
Carr might be best known for the being the younger brother of former Texans #1 overall pick David Carr, but the younger Carr has plenty of ability and pro potential himself. He’s coming off a prolific career as a three-year starter at Fresno State, turning down offers from bigger schools to play close to home, like his brother. Carr has a very good arm and a quick-snap delivery, and there were plenty of NFL throws in his offense at Fresno. He throws with great accuracy and ball placement, and he can throw his receivers open, so his anticipation is good. Carr throws with great touch, which helps with fades, but he doesn’t consistently drive the ball downfield. He’s got one of the better arms in the class, but his timing on deep balls makes him inconsistent as a vertical passer. Carr did run an up-tempo, screen-heavy offense that didn’t feature much of a downfield passing game, so he could improve down the field with more opportunities, but his inexperience in that department may scare some teams. What’s of greater concern, though, is the fact that he played in a quick-read, spread offense, one that he won’t run in the NFL, so he’ll have a larger learning curve and must be taught the pro game from under center. He’s got a bit of a gunslinger mentality, altering his throwing angles to deliver the ball when under pressure, and trusting his receivers on 50-50 balls (think Matthew Stafford in that regard). Like his brother, Carr’s biggest negative is his lack of poise in the pocket when a pass rush is bearing down on him. He doesn’t thrive under pressure, dropping his eyes to the rush and falling away from his throws. Carr’s play at the end of last season didn’t ease those worries, as he crumbled against the USC pass rush in the Las Vegas Bowl. He can move pretty well, but he’s essentially a pocket QB, so this is a concern. He did play the entire 2012 season with a sports hernia and won the conference player of the year award, so it’s not like the kid isn’t tough. Off the field, he did have a shaky start to his college career as he hung out with the wrong crowd, but he turned to religion and got married, and he’s considered a strong leader and competitor now. For what it’s worth we interviewed him at the Combine in person and he came across very well. Carr is a bit of a project entering the NFL, so he might be better off honing his skills as a backup to start his career. However, he’ll likely be thrust into the starting lineup at some point early on, so we’ll see how quickly he can adjust to the NFL game. Carr is as competitive as any quarterback in this year’s draft, but he’ll absolutely have work hard improving at his craft and adjusting to the pro game. If he does, he can definitely be an impact starter in a couple of years. If not, or if he lands in a poor situation like his brother did on the expansion Texans, Derek could have a tough time at the next level.
6. Logan Thomas
School: Virginia Tech | Ht: 6-6 | Wt: 248 | 40: 4.61 | Year: 5Sr
Thomas became a whipping boy during his four years at Virginia Tech, getting the blame for any struggles that the program had. It’s a shame that he never really developed in college because Thomas is dripping with pro potential, and a move to the NFL and its coaches is probably best for him. Some evaluators have suggested that a move to tight end is necessary, but that sentiment is far-fetched at best, as he hasn’t played the position since high school. That said, the fact that some are suggesting it tells us just how far he has to go to make it as a passer. Thomas is a big kid who owns the strongest arm in this year’s rookie class, and he can make throws that most quarterbacks can’t make. The ball also comes out of his hand pretty clean, with great zip and a quick release. He’s a big, sturdy pocket passer, and he tested incredibly well at the combine and is athletic enough to make plays outside of the pocket. He can move pretty well and he can break tackles and evade defenders as a runner, but he doesn’t always show his athleticism, and he can struggle to make throws on the move. Working out of a shotgun system at Virginia Tech, Thomas worked through his progressions, but he can improve his overall anticipation as a passer. Thomas’s accuracy actually improved during his three years as a starter, despite his ugly 55.6% career completion percentage. His receivers actually really hurt his numbers, as they dropped way too many passes and ran bad routes, but Thomas is not a naturally-accurate passer, likely because he’s an “upper body thrower” who does not get his lower body involved in throws. Thomas needs mental and physical work, but he has high-end tools that most players simply don’t have. Thomas will be a developmental pick and needs time to hone his craft as a backup, but he certainly has the skills to be an NFL starter, and he might get drafted higher than most think because of his intriguing tools. We just hope that his time at Virginia Tech didn’t demoralize him as he makes the leap to the next level. Thomas won’t start in the NFL during his rookie season, but we wouldn’t be totally shocked if he improves enough to start down the road in a year or two if he lands in the right spot and takes to coaching.
7. AJ McCarron
School: Alabama | Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 220 | 40: 4.94 | Year: 5Sr
McCarron looks ready to make the transition to the NFL, as he played at a high level in a pro-style offense against some of the best competition in college football. The question, of course, is about the extent of his upside. He’s comfortable working under center and out of the shotgun, and he showed good command of an Alabama offense that had tons of NFL talent. McCarron started the past three seasons and helped lead the Crimson Tide to two BCS National Championships. McCarron throws with anticipation and throws receivers open, and his accuracy is excellent at the intermediate level. He moves well within the pocket with a good internal clock, and he doesn’t drop his eyes to the pass rush or fall away from his throws. McCarron certainly doesn’t have the strongest arm in this year’s draft class, but his lack of arm strength has been overplayed. He doesn’t have a ton of zip and power on his throws, but his arm strength isn’t below average, like some have made it out be (we think his arm is actually stronger than Andy Dalton’s was coming out of TCU). However, he does have some shaky mechanics, which hurts his deep ball, accuracy, and velocity, so he does have some limitations as a passer. McCarron’s biggest mechanical issue is a long release, which he can clean up. He’ll never beat defenses with his feet as he’s just an average athlete, but he’s not a complete stiff in the pocket. For the most part, he plays within his capabilities, but he did make a few poor decisions the last couple years when he pressed to make plays. He also played with some of the best talent in the country, which may have helped hide some of his blemishes. His massive offensive line also gave him plenty of time to throw the ball. McCarron will never make a lot of mistakes, but he also doesn’t have the ability to make a ton of flashy plays either. It wouldn’t be a shock if he’s drafted on the second day and competes right away for playing time in his rookie season. McCarron looks like the type of quarterback who could be a fringe starter or a high-end backup for much of his career, someone who could thrive in a good system with great talent around him. If he’s on a team with a good running game and defense, he can probably win in the NFL. If he’s in a poor situation, he may not be good enough to carry a team.
8. Jimmy Garoppolo
School: Eastern Illinois | Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 226 | 40: 4.97 | Year: 4Sr
Garoppolo tore up the small-school level while at Eastern Illinois, winning the Walter Payton Award for outstanding FCS player, but now he’ll have quite the step up in competition this year. He’ll also have major adjustments to NFL offenses after playing in a one-step, quick-release spread system. Garoppolo showed good command of his college offense as a four-year starter, but the system and competition inflated his numbers across the board. He’s a great decision-maker under pressure, which is one of his best attributes. He’s got a quick release and smooth throwing motion, but while his accuracy could be better in the underneath passing game, he did show generally consistent accuracy. He is balanced and compact in his setup and delivery, and has light feed and good lower body mechanics. Garoppolo might be the best rookie at selling ball fakes, and he looks off safeties well, but he was often limited to half-field reads at Eastern Illinois. He can get the ball downfield and has good touch on “bucket throws,” but while he has a stronger arm than he showed in his college system and had good velocity on intermediate throws, he doesn’t have a gun and struggled with power throws. Garoppolo always seems to be in control of the offense and he’s very efficient, but even though he was a four-year starter in college, we didn’t see him throw much with bodies around him, so that is a question. He’s a hard worker, which is good because it could take him some time to get used to 3, 5, and 7-step drops in pro style offenses. He’ll naturally get compared to Tony Romo coming into the NFL because they both went to Eastern Illinois, but in all actuality, those comparisons aren’t outlandish because they both have lightning-quick releases and great command of their offenses. Garoppolo doesn’t jump of the page with his size or arm strength, and he could take a little longer to develop coming from a small school and the offense he ran, but he does a lot of small stuff right and could eventually earn a starting job and excel as a rhythm passer.
9. Tom Savage
School: Pittsburgh | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 228 | 40: 4.97 | Year: 5Sr
We haven’t been that high on the former Rutgers starter who transferred to Arizona before finally settling on Pittsburgh last season, but the hype machine has been intense on him in April, and many people we respect think he could be a 2nd round pick, so we’ve added him to our top-10 (rankings that are more for the long-term than short term). He played last year in a pro-style system, and he has a strong arm downfield and on the perimeter, so he can make all the throws. However, he’s a bit of an “arm thrower,” which can result in chronic accuracy issues, and at times he doesn't always step into his throws, which affects his velocity. His ball comes out quickly with good zip, and he has at times shown the ability to be accurate with good ball placement on short-to-intermediate throws. However, there are plenty of other negatives with his game. At the NFL level throwing with timing and anticipation is critical, and Savage has issues here. He doesn’t throw receivers open, and the ball is often late. He tends to stare down his primary target, as he doesn’t see the whole field, and he’ll force throws into coverage. Savage is not a good athlete, and his pocket awareness is subpar. He has a lot of natural talent, but there’s a lot of physical and mental work to be done before we’d consider him a viable NFL starter.
10. Aaron Murray
School: Georgia | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 207 | 40: NA | Year: 5Sr
Murray is one of the smaller quarterback prospects in this year’s class, but he makes up for his diminutive stature with his accuracy. He also started the first 52 games of his career before a torn left ACL at the end of last November ended his college career. Murray certainly won’t be fazed if he’s thrown into the fire after starting four years in the SEC, but his knee injury could scare away a few teams during the draft, and he isn’t as physically gifted as fellow ACL-surgery prospect Zach Mettenberger. Murray obviously didn’t work out at the combine because of his knee injury, but he’s hoping to be ready for training camp. He’s also hoping to be at full health for his April 16 pro day, which might be a stretch, but he has said he’s about a month ahead of schedule with his rehab. His small frame could also leave him susceptible to more injuries in the future. Murray owns just about every major passing record at Georgia, playing in the Bulldogs’ pro-style system and competing against top-notch college competition. Murray will do all the little things, and he’ll put in the necessary work to perfect his craft. He has a quick release and makes good decisions in the short-to-intermediate areas. Murray’s size could limit him at the next level, and he could use moving pockets to open up passing lanes. However, he doesn’t exactly have the best feet to operate as a rollout passer (Murray has a low release point that leads to batted balls, which is why teams would want to roll him out). The success of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson has opened more doors for shorter quarterbacks, but both of those players can throw the deep ball pretty well, an area where Murray has been inconsistent. He has the chance to be a serviceable quarterback in a West Coast scheme, and his upside could be Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton. However, because of his knee injury, Murray is unlikely to get a chance to play right away like Dalton did as a rookie, so he will have to prove himself in practices once he’s healthy to eventually earn himself a chance at playing time. But ultimately, he’s a 6’0” QB with arm limitations, and he’s not a “quick-twitch mover” like Brees, and guys like that are usually not NFL starters.
Note: These players are ranked more so for their long-term value and potential, so these rankings aren’t for just 2014. Once the draft takes place, we’ll rank all rookies for both this year and the long-term.
1. Carlos Hyde
School: Ohio State | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 230 | 40: 4.66 | Year: 5Sr
Of all the 2014 rookie RB prospects, Hyde appears to have the most potential to be an impact feature back early in his NFL career. He was an underachiever early in his career, but he started to work harder and turned a corner late in his career. He’s well-constructed physically, and he runs with explosive power, a burst and a wiggle, and enough speed to gain chunks of yardage. Hyde also improves as the game goes on, getting more and more physical as defenses wear down. He ran a lot out of shotgun and pistol formations, but he should easily adapt to power or zone-running schemes at the next level. You think of Eddie Lacy in terms of his yards after contact and vision between the tackles, but while Hyde doesn’t quite have the power and decisive running style of Lacy, Hyde does run behind his pads and hits the hole hard, and with quick and light feet for a bigger back – think Le’Veon Bell – Hyde beats Lacy in terms of quickness and overall elusiveness. He could be better than Lacy on third downs because he’s an excellent blocker and has good hands, so he can be an every-down back in the NFL. He didn’t get a lot of reps in pass protection because of the Ohio State offensive system, but he uses his hands and anchors well. Speed is not his game, but he also has some similarities to Frank Gore in that he can pick up chunks of yardage when he gets the chance, and it’s important to remember that Hyde’s poor 4.66 40-time at the combine came when he pulled his left hamstring. Off the field, Hyde was charged with assault and suspended for three games to start his senior season, but he did show remorse for the situation and it seems like it’s all behind him. Hyde reminded us a lot of Lacy seeing both at the combine and he has the skill set to be a foundation back in the NFL, and he could be an every-down, workhorse back as soon as he steps onto the field in his rookie season.
2. Tre Mason
School: Auburn | Ht: 5-8 | Wt: 207 | 40: 4.50 | Year: 3Jr
Mason tore it up in Auburn’s high-speed, power-spread offense, and he’s fortunate in that more and more teams are spreading the field now at the NFL level. Mason can get skinny on dive action and can make defenders miss in the hole, and he has big-time potential as a game breaker because of his explosive feet and lateral agility. He has a gliding running style with deceptive speed, and he’s very shifty. He played mostly out of the shotgun and pistol behind a good offensive line, but he has good peripheral vision and instincts in the open field. Mason’s very good speed, evidenced by his 4.50 40-time at the combine, makes him a candidate to return kicks. He also had a very good broad jump (10-5), which is a good sign of lower-body explosiveness. He will dance at times instead of getting North-South and it did take him some time to get going early in the year. And while Mason is a capable receiver who didn’t drop many passes, he has a long way to go in pass protection because he doesn’t use his hands well or attack defenders. Mason isn’t a power runner but he’s competitive and runs low to the ground and has strong thighs, and he can lower his shoulder in a pile. He almost never goes down on first contact, shaking defenders or breaking tackles. He just needs to run with more purpose at the line of scrimmage. Mason’s biggest red flag is his fumbling history, with 8 fumbles in the last two years. He also played against some light boxes and tired defenses, which helped him break some runs. Mason isn’t a prospect without some flaws, but he’s shown plenty of positive traits and he can be effective in any offense. The real question with him is if a team views him as a lead back (even though he lacks ideal size) or if he’s viewed as a very active member of a dual backfield. Regardless, he certainly has a chance to make an immediate impact in the NFL, presuming his injured wrist checks out and he can handle a full workload during training camp.
3. Jeremy Hill
School: Louisiana State | Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 233 | 40: 4.66 | Year: 3So
Hill will be one of the more polarizing rookie RB prospects this May because he has undeniable talent, but it comes with a very checkered past. Hill had two off-the-field issues before turning pro, which will scare away some teams from the big back. He was arrested on sexual assault charges before even taking the field for LSU, and he pleaded guilty to battery charges last April. He’ll be on probation until the summer of 2015. He’s trying to clean up his act and came off very well in an interview with us on SiriusXM in March, but his past indiscretions will likely keep some teams away. On the field, he’s bigger than Ohio State prospect Carlos Hyde, and Hill runs with good instincts and some wiggle to make defenders miss in the open field. He runs with very good vision and gets skinny in the hole, and he picks up extra yardage because he runs behind his pads with a forward lean. Our Greg Cosell calls him a “no-frills runner with natural power and left drive who is at his best when he’s a decisive downhill runner.” He’s also been reliable runner, with just 1 fumble on 371 touches, and he doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear from college. Some of his detractors have compared him to Titan RB Shonn Greene because of his average athleticism and his lack of agility. Hill is a better North-South runner, but he also had the chance to be a better receiver. Hill has much more reliable hands than originally thought, but he won’t pick up a lot yards after the catch. He also ran behind a fullback his entire career at LSU, so we’ll see if that will be factor in his transition to the NFL, where there are more one-back sets. He’s certainly not a creator, nor will he get to the edge consistently in the NFL – and he actually tried to bounce too many runs outside in college – but he can create extra yardage because of his physical style and his ability to fall forward. Hill should be able to handle a lot of volume at the next level if he’s given the chance as a foundation back in a run-based offense. Note: Here’s a clip of us interviewing Hill from early-March.
4. Charles Sims
School: West Virginia | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 214 | 40: 4.48 | Year: 5Sr
Sims might be the most versatile running back in this year’s draft class, which is why he ranks this high on our list. Sims can run, catch, and pass protect, and he does it all in a decent-sized package. Sims ideally could bulk up a little bit, especially in his lower body, but the comparisons to Matt Forte coming out of college seem pretty fair, although he’s not as smooth and fluid a runner as Forte is. Sims racked up some major mileage with 795 touches over four years between Houston and West Virginia, but not nearly as much as Forte’s 936 touches at Tulane. Sims is a quality receiver out of the backfield and one of the best in this year’s draft, with great hands and route-running skills. He’s also considered to be one of the best pass protectors in this class, and he’s an extremely intelligent player on the field. He ran in the 4.4s at the combine and he’s a smooth downhill accelerator, but while he has some wiggle in the open field and runs with a slashing style, he’s more of a straight-line guy. Sims has great vision and sets up his blocks, but it can lead to indecisiveness at times behind the line of scrimmage. He is a competitive runner and breaks through arm tackles, but he can go down on first contact too often and doesn’t play with enough power despite his size, and he runs high and looks stiff, evidenced by his performance in the three-cone drill. He doesn’t have very big hands and lets the ball get away from his body on occasion, but he’ll be appealing to a team looking for a runner-receiver with a multi-dimensional skill set. Sims might not be a workhorse RB, but he has the ability to be a three-down playmaker, so his floor is as a third-down guy, and his ceiling is a lower-case Forte at the next level.
5. Storm Johnson
School: Central Florida | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 209 | 40: 4.60 | Year: 4Jr
Central Florida QB Blake Bortles is getting the most draft buzz of any Black Knight player, and rightfully so, but Storm was at times the more dominant player for George O’Leary’s pro-style offense, which should mean he can fit in multiple systems at the next level. Johnson has excellent size and is a powerful, downhill runner between the tackles. He runs behind his pads with good leg drive, and he’s a little tight-hopped, he has more open-field elusiveness than one might expect, with a little wiggle in a phone booth to boot. He also has great vision and sees the hole and hits it. Storm played in a pro-style system at UCF, and he could be pretty versatile in any offensive scheme at the next level. He’s not a twitchy player and doesn’t play to his timed speed (4.6 40-time), and he’s more of a North-South guy, but his playing speed is solid. He showed pretty good hands out of the backfield, and he can make plays in the screen game with a little space. He was a willing pass protector but needs to improve significantly in this area. Johnson’s great weakness comes with his ball security, as he fumbled 8 times in just 366 carries the last two years. Storm carries the ball in his right hand only, which is a red flag, and he’ll have to learn how to carry in both arms at the next level. Storm saw action as a feature back in only one season, so he should be pretty fresh heading into the NFL. Johnson looks to be scheme versatile, so he could fit into a zone- or power-running scheme, so he just needs to clean up his ball-security issues and pass protection to become a quality NFL starter. He probably won’t enter the league as a starter, but he could be a nice starter down the road who gives team a productive runner/receiver in the backfield.
6. Devonta Freeman
School: Florida State | Ht: 5-8 | Wt: 206 | 40: 4.58 | Year: 3Jr
Freeman became the first Florida State player to run for more than 1000 yards since Warrick Dunn did it all the way back in 1996, believe it or not. And Freeman did it while splitting carries with fellow rookie RB prospect James Wilder, Jr. Freeman comes from a pro-style system that would split him out at times, but he didn’t rack up a ton of touches (451) in his career, so he’s got plenty left in the tank. Freeman has good vision and instincts to set his blocks up, and he has a short-area burst to get downhill in a hurry. He doesn’t have breakaway speed for his size, but he makes up for it with his ability to pick chunks of yardage. Freeman actually has some Frank Gore in him because of his vision inside, and he makes defenders miss in the hole and refuses to go down on first contact despite his size. Freeman is one of the best pass protectors in this year’s draft class, so he could step into the lineup early in his career. He always stays square to the line of scrimmage and anchors as a blocker. Freeman also shows a willingness to block, and the Seminoles actually used him as a lead blocker at times. He’s shown reliable hands and can catch balls outside the frame of his body. Freeman didn’t miss any time in three productive seasons for the Seminoles, so he’s shown durability heading into the league. However, he does have a history of lingering back injuries despite not missing a game, which is a bit of a concern. Freeman also benefitted from running behind one of the most talented and imposing offensive lines in football. Freeman, who ran well at the combine, looks natural with the ball in his hands with good vision and instincts. Freeman has the ability to make defenders miss, a short-area burst, and he’s physically competitive. He can be a reliable receiver and is a willing blocker, but he needs work in those two areas. The biggest knock on him is that he doesn’t have breakaway speed, but Freeman has the potential to be a downhill, feature back at the next level, with a similar style to Gore.
7. Bishop Sankey
School: Washington | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 209 | 40: 4.49 | Year: 3Jr
Sankey saw a lot of work as the lead back for the Huskies the last two seasons, but he doesn’t project to be a volume player in the NFL. However, he could make an immediate impact in the right system and could be a PPR type running back option, drawing some comparisons to Bengal RB Gio Bernard. Sankey has the speed and quickness to get to the edge, and he’s a natural receiver who makes catches with ease. Sankey also tested extremely well at the combine, finishing second in bench reps (26) and fourth in broad jump (10-6) among RBs, but he doesn’t totally play to his tests, and he’s not as elusive and explosive as Bernard. He also played in the shotgun and pistol last season, so he’d be best in a system that spreads the defense out or else he’ll have to adjust to a more traditional offense at the next level. Sankey excels out in space, making defenders miss with jump cuts, but he’s more subtly-elusive, so he’s not great at creating yardage for himself, especially in the hole. In other words, he needs space to make his dynamic moves. He’ll pick up what is blocked for him, but he runs with little power and goes down almost always on first contact, despite several highlight-reel runs in college during which he broke some tackles. He demonstrated good blocking fundamentals, but he must get stronger to become a better pass protector and see a consistent role. Sankey has to be used correctly and in the right system, and he could possibly be a lead back in a pass-happy or spread offense, but while he doesn’t have the all-around upside a player like Bernard has, he can be also be a game-breaker. Note: Here’s a clip of us talking with Sankey last week.
8. Terrance West
School: Towson | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 225 | 40: 4.54 | Year: 3Jr
West dominated college football last year … at the FCS level. Still, he led the Championship Subdivision with a remarkable 2519 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2013, and he finished as a finalist for the FCS’ player of the year award. West is a physical, competitive runner with good leg drive, and he posted an impressive 40-time (4.54) at the combine for his size (5’9”, 225 pounds). He projects as a physical, one-cut runner at the next level. He runs high and stiff (he could barely bend over at the combine) and will struggle to make defenders miss at the next level, but he also in college showed off some very good qualities. He showed patience and vision, pressed the hole and ran with low pad level while running through contact and finishing with power. Towson did work him into the ground in just three seasons, as he racked up 838 touches, so he’s got questionable long-term potential because of the hits he’s already taken in his career. West doesn’t have a lot of pass drops on tape, but he mostly uses his body to catch passes. He also fumbled 5 times as a junior because he tends carry the ball away from his body at times. West also needs to improve as a pass protector if he wants to succeed at the next level. West was incredibly productive, albeit against lesser competition in the FCS, but he does show a lot of NFL traits and has experience running in both zone and power schemes. If a team is starting its offense off with the run game, he can be a viable option. Note: Here’s a clip of us talking with West on 5/1/14.
9. Andre Williams
School: Boston College | Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 230 | 40: 4.56 | Year: 4Sr
Williams came pretty much out of nowhere to mount a surprising run at the Heisman Trophy last season, as he became the 16th FBS player to run for more than 2000 yards in a season. He ran in a pro-style system, with physical runs between the tackles and the ability to bounce off tackles. Williams has a deceptive burst of speed for a back his size, but he has very little lateral agility and can’t make defenders miss. He’s an urgent, downhill power runner with good contact balance, so he’s a between-the-tackles guy all the way. He’s got a strong lower body, but he doesn’t run with as much leg drive as expected because he runs too high. Additionally, Williams simply can’t catch the football, and he rarely factored at all in the Boston College passing game, totaling just 10 catches in his college career. And it wasn’t just a system thing either. When he tried to catch passes at the combine, it looked like he was getting into a fistfight with the footballs. He is a willing pass blocker with good vision, but he needs to get more consistent in that area. He also comes to the league with 714 career touches, so he’s got a little bit of wear and tear already. Williams projects to be a volume runner who needs a lot of carries, but that also causes him to take a lot of hits, and his overall leg drive isn’t great. But he’s very good at what he is, and his ceiling is Stevan Ridley, who has mainly been a two-down back. Williams will need volume and goal-line touches to produce, because he won’t catch many passes, and he also has to stop trying to bounce runs to the outside if he’s to make it in the pros.
10. De’Anthony Thomas
School: Oregon | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 174 | 40: 4.50 | Year: 3Jr
With sprinter’s speed, lateral agility, and extreme quickness to the corner, Thomas has been considered one of the most electrifying players in this year’s draft. Thomas is a speed guy, so his 40-time at the combine (4.50) was a little disappointing. Still, he flashed more than enough speed on tape – he’s a smooth, gliding runner – so it shouldn’t hurt his stock too much. As such, the comparisons to fellow Oregon RBs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner are lazy because Thomas is significantly more explosive than both of them on film. He has great vision and will get downhill once he hits the perimeter. He’ll fight for extra yards and get skinny between the tackles, but he likely won’t be asked to do it much because of his size. Thomas lined up in the backfield, the slot, and at the X, and some teams will view him as a receiver at the next level. He can beat press coverage, and he runs one of the best pivot routes in this year’s draft class, an often-used NFL route. Thomas has great balance and soft hands, so now he just needs to diversify his route tree. He’s also a dynamic weapon on special teams, with 4 TDs as a kick returner and a 17-yard average as a punt returner. Thomas will have durability questions at the next level because of his size. He also goes down pretty easily and struggles at times catching the ball over the middle. His work ethic has been questioned at times as well. Thomas will line up in the backfield and the slot next season, so he may earn dual eligibility as a RB/WR like Dexter McCluster once had in Kansas City. If he lands in a scheme that takes advantage of his receiving ability and gets him in space, he should make an impact. The fear is that he lands on a team that doesn’t utilize him well and he slips through the cracks.
11. Dri Archer
School: Kent State | Ht: 5-8 | Wt: 173 | 40: 4.26 | Year: 5Sr
Oregon RB De’Anthony Thomas has gotten most of the pub for being a dynamic offensive weapon in this year’s draft, but Archer has the potential be even more electrifying. Archer recorded a 4.26 40-time, finishing just two hundredths off Chris Johnson’s combine record of 4.24. Archer is tiny (5’7”, 173 pounds), but he has amazing lower-body explosiveness. He’s an electric playmaker on offense, with a floor as a screen and gadget player, and he could carve out a role similar to Darren Sproles. Archer could be a dynamic slot weapon because it’s hard to see him lining up at RB too often with his size. He played out of the slot in Kent State’s pro-style system, and he averaged 28 yards per return on kickoffs, as he can weave through crowds because of his size and speed. He’s a hands catcher who can pluck the ball away from his frame, but he had some drops down the field when he didn’t use his hands correctly. He’s still a pretty natural receiver and has the potential to be a great route-runner, with fluidity in and out of breaks, although he does have work to do in that department. Archer has a nice stiff arm, but he won’t break many tackles with his small size, which also hurts him as a pass blocker. Archer battled through an ankle issues last season, and you have to worry about his durability going forward with such a small frame. He was also ruled academically ineligible in 2011. Archer clearly has the potential to be an offensive weapon and playmaker, but he needs to stay healthy with his small frame.
12. Lache Seastrunk
School: Baylor | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 201 | 40: 4.51 | Year: 4Jr
Seastrunk was easy to like watching from afar in Baylor’s high-speed, spread scheme, but some red flags came up once we studied Seastrunk a little harder. The Baylor offensive scheme also worries us a bit because he faced boxes with just four defenders at times. He runs pretty stiff and doesn’t move extremely well laterally, so he’s more of a one-cut type because he struggles to change direction. He also has major issues as receiver, with only 9 career catches and none in 2013. However, running backs aren’t asked to catch the ball at Baylor, and Seastrunk did catch the ball pretty well at the combine. Still, he might struggle to get on the field in the NFL until his third-down issues are fixed because he lacks effort and technique as a pass protector to go along with his lack of experience as a receiver. In fact, he might be the worst pass protector in this year’s draft class. All that said, Seastrunk did have an impressive combine, including unbelievable marks in the broad jump (11-2) and vertical jump (41.5), which indicates incredible lower-body strength. He does find cutback lanes easily, but in the Baylor scheme there were a ton of cutback lanes. Seastrunk explodes in the open field with impressive straight-line speed and has good vision between the tackles. He doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his wheels, but while he’s a tough player and stays on the field, he has already dealt with hamstring and groin issues. Which leads us to the biggest question with him: can he line up and hit it up inside consistently, or is he just a sub-package guy who needs to play in a spread offense? Ultimately, Seastrunk looks like a complementary guy only because of his third-down issues and his lack of power, but some teams will like him a lot after he tested well at the combine.
13. Ka’Deem Carey
School: Arizona | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 207 | 40: 4.70 | Year: 3Jr
Carey put up major production the last two seasons in Arizona’s shotgun, zone-read scheme, earning first-team all-America status the past two years. However, he really benefitted from going against some light boxes in college, as he’s failed to impress in pre-draft workouts, showing a lack of speed (4.7 40-time) despite his smaller stature. Steve Slaton became a superstar in Rich Rodriguez’s offense at West Virginia, and Carey and Slaton have some similarities coming out of college. Carey does have a good short-area burst with suddenness, but he has no breakaway speed and won’t get to the edge consistently in the NFL. He can shake defenders in the open field but not in the hole, so he’ll struggle to create his own yardage. Carey will lower his shoulder, but he lacks natural power and goes down on first contact too often. He needs to show more effort in pass protection, but he does get up the field when he catches passes out of the backfield. Carey has endured a lot of punishment the last three years, bringing 850 touches to the NFL, and some teams will avoid him altogether because of some off-the-field transgressions. Carey seems to be overvalued by most based on his big production the last two seasons. Carey is ultimately an inside between-the-tackles power runner who isn’t quite big enough to be that in the NFL. He fails to stick out in any one area and projects best as a change-of-pace back and not a future starter.
14. Damien Williams
School: Oklahoma | Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 222 | 40: 4.45 | Year: 4Sr
Williams isn’t getting a ton of pre-draft buzz because of some discipline issues that led to his dismissal from Oklahoma, but he is one of the more talented prospects at the position in this class. Williams was mired in a three-man rotation after starting most of his junior season, and HC Bob Stoops removed him from the team for violating team rules on multiple occasions. Williams is a big guy (5’11”, 222 pounds) who can run (4.45 40-time), and he can play in space despite his size. He owns a great burst and explodes out of cuts, making defenders miss him in space. Williams also isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and finish runs. He’s best as a tailback, but he’s a versatile player who can be lined up all over the field. However, his lack of vision in a crowded box limits his upside as a runner, so he needs to contribute as a receiver. Williams also struggles to grind out tough yardage when nothing is there. He has the hands to flex out wide, and will make defenders miss in the open field after the catch. Williams needs to improve in pass protection out of the backfield, but he does finish blocks out on the perimeter. Williams is a space player who won’t likely handle playing as a full-time back in the NFL, but he has a chance to be impactful if used with another back in the mix who complements him. He has great speed to the edge, a good burst, and he sees the hole and hits it. Williams shows wiggle, runs through contact, finishes runs, and is a natural receiver. He might be a guy who tries to bounce too many runs in the NFL, but he has natural talent. Williams certainly has the tools to excel at the next level, so now he just needs to put it all together. Williams has discipline issues, but if he can get his head on straight he could stick as a complementary back.
15. Marion Grice
School: Arizona State | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 208 | 40: NA | Year: 4Sr
Grice transferred from a junior college (Blinn College) to Arizona State and posted an impressive 39 total touchdowns the last two seasons as a running and receiving threat. However, he lost a little bit of momentum this off-season because of a broken left fibula. But amazingly, he played through the injury last November and December, not realizing the severity of the injury. Grice’s off-season injury hurt him, since he was unable to work out at the combine or at the Senior Bowl. Grice will hold a personal workout at the beginning of April, so he’s getting close to full health. He’s probably a 4.5 40-time guy, but he’s not overly explosive and lacks wiggle, despite his natural speed. Grice runs with good balance and vision, and he’s a natural receiver who can flex out wide at times. He has the potential to be a lower-case Charles Sims in this draft – he actually has a little more wiggle than Sims – but Grice does need to bulk up to have any chance of running between the tackles. He fumbled only one time in the last two seasons, so he doesn’t come to the NFL with any ball-security issues. Grice most likely projects as a third-down back because of his receiving skills, but he must improve his awareness as a pass protector. He projects as a perimeter player who can be used as a change-of-pace runner or as a receiver out of the backfield.
16. Alfred Blue
School: Louisiana State | Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 223 | 40: 4.63 | Year: 4Sr
Blue flashed early in his career at LSU, but he suffered an ACL injury during his junior season and kind of got lost in the shuffle in a talented Tiger backfield. Blue could turn out to be an Arian Foster type out of college, a player who doesn’t see a ton of touches in college but breaks out once he gets some opportunities at the NFL level. Blue had just 209 carries during his four-year career, so he has plenty of tread left on the tires (like a lot of LSU RBs do). He’s physically imposing at 6’2” and 223 pounds, but he has good speed for his size and can run through tackles. Blue also has third-down abilities, as he can catch the ball, but he needs to improve as a pass protector. He’s a big kid with some suddenness to his game, and he’s flashed the ability to break some runs. He hasn’t shown a ton of lateral agility or elusiveness in his limited playing time, and his lack of playing time in college (just seven career starts) does make us wonder if he can handle a regular role, plus he’s had some injury concerns. Blue’s maturity has also been questioned, especially after he made homophobic remarks last year. But he has the talent to be a much more productive at the next level than he was at LSU, and he may even have NFL starting upside in the future.
17. Jerick McKinnon
School: Georgia Southern | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 209 | 40: 4.41 | Year: 4Sr
McKinnon played just about every offensive position for Georgia Southern’s triple-option attack, including slot back, A-back, and quarterback. Fortunately, Georgia Southern ran more traditional schemes this year with McKinnon at tailback, even though the triple-option was still its base, so he’s got some experience as a traditional RB. McKinnon tested incredibly well at the combine, as he’s got some great speed and a ton of strength. He’s a fluid runner and changes direction really well at a high speed. McKinnon does run a little too upright and doesn’t show a great burst to the perimeter, despite his timed speed. He also needs work in pass pro, because he never really had to pass block in college in the triple-option base. He has shown that he can anchor as a pass blocker and is a good cut blocker on the outside, so he definitely has the potential to improve in protection. McKinnon also showed the ability to win in pass protection at the Senior Bowl, improving throughout the week. He’s a natural receiver and is a pure hands catcher, even though he wasn’t asked to do it in college. He shows some vision, but his game is speed, fluidity, and change of direction. He’s an athlete who will need work, but he could turn into a productive player as a runner and receiver. McKinnon’s athleticism projects to the next level, but he’s coming from a gimmicky offense and played against inferior competition, so he could take some time to develop.
18. James Wilder, Jr.
School: Florida State | Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 232 | 40: 4.86 | Year: 3Jr
Wilder comes from a gifted pedigree, as the son of former Buccaneer legend James Wilder, but the younger Wilder really hasn’t yet hit his ceiling. Wilder will get his shot at proving himself as a professional because of his size (6’3”, 232 pounds), vision, and his lack of mileage at Florida State. He had only 250 touches in three seasons at Florida State, which is good for a player who projects to be physical, two-down back at the next level. Wilder breaks a ton of tackles and has good leg drive, thanks to his imposing size. He isn’t just a physical player, though, as he runs with great vision and instincts and knows where the play needs to go. Like teammate Devonta Freeman, Wilder benefitted from running behind one of the most talented and imposing offensive lines in football. Additionally, Wilder ran only a 4.86 40-time at the combine, which is why some scouts have evaluated him as a fullback. He obviously doesn’t have great long speed and can’t get to the edge, but he has some upside potential as a power runner. Wilder does run too high and has been susceptible to injuries in the past, as he injured his shoulder and suffered a concussion last season. He also isn’t a natural receiver out of the backfield. But with minimal carries on his resume, he has potential at the next level because of his size and vision. If Wilder can learn to run even more physically than already he does, he’s got the chance to be a punishing two-down back.
19. James White
School: Wisconsin | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 204 | 40: 4.57 | Year: Wisconsin
White played in a committee most of his career at Wisconsin, with Montee Ball at the beginning of his tenure and a talented youngster Melvin Gordon III at the end of it, so he’s been a bit overlooked in college. However, it’s not like White’s game really jumps off the page among a pretty talented group of rookie RB prospects. He can make defenders miss in the open field, but he lacks speed and explosiveness for his relatively small size (5’9”, 204 pounds), so he isn’t the big-play runner one might expect. White isn’t going to be a 20-carry runner at the next level, and he’ll have to be a change-of-pace guy to stick on a roster. He can make defenders miss in the open field, but he goes down on first contact too much and lacks power to run through defenders. White is also soft as a blocker because of his short arms and small hands despite strong effort, so he’ll need to improve in that area if he wants to get on the field. He does have patience and vision as a runner, and he fumbled only two times on 754 career touches. But White looks to be a change-of-pace or complementary back only in the NFL.
20. Antonio Andrews
School: Western Kentucky | Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 225 | 40: 4.82 | Year: 4Sr
Andrews did just about everything for the Hilltoppers the last two seasons as a workhorse RB and return man. He led the nation in all-purpose yards the last two years, and in fact he holds the NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a two-year span with 5780 yards. Andrews dominated his competition in the Sun Belt Conference, but he didn’t exactly test well at the combine, running a terrible 4.82 40-time. He can’t run away from defenders and has average elusiveness and quickness. Andrews runs with good vision and sets up his blocks, and he has enough size to run through arm tackles, but he rarely gets more than is blocked for him. He obviously has been heavily used the last two years, but he’s shown that he can handle that kind of workload. He can catch passes out of the backfield, but he needs a ton of work as pass blocker, so he might not get on the field much on third downs. Andrews’ biggest red flag is his ball-security issues, as he put the ball on the ground far too much in college. His fumbles also came against the best competition too, hurting his team when the Hilltoppers played up in competition. Ultimately, Andrews has good vision, sets up blocks well, and breaks tackles, but he’s slow with ball security issues and had one of the worst combine performances of anyone at his position. He can be a viable receiver, but he needs work in pass protection. He isn’t anything more than a backup at the next level, and he’ll have to clean up his fumbles and pass protection issues if he wants to stay in the league.
Note: These players are ranked more so for their long-term value and potential, so these rankings aren’t for just 2014. Once the draft takes place, we’ll rank all rookies for both this year and the long-term.
1. Sammy Watkins
School: Clemson | Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 211 | 40: 4.43 | Year: 3Jr
Watkins looks as close to a sure thing in this year’s draft as any other prospect, and it appears like he could step onto the field and make an immediate impact next season. Our guy Greg Cosell believes that Watkins is the best WR prospect since A.J. Green and Julio Jones came out in the 2011 draft, which is certainly high praise for the Clemson product. Watkins tested slightly above average at the combine, but he showed plenty on the field over the last three years to solidify his spot in the top 10 of the draft. Watkins can line up all over the field, and he’s a rare dynamic receiver who can fill any hole, including the Z. He excels on underneath routes, and he’s a beast picking up yardage after the catch because of his short-area burst. He can separate down the field, but his one glaring weakness is tracking the deep ball. Watkins registered a 34-inch vertical jump and will go up and make contested catches. He can beat press coverage, is fluid out of his breaks, and has strong hands to finish the play. Watkins is also an excellent kick returner and could fill that role if he’s asked to at the next level. He is a tough player who will lower his shoulder to pick up yardage, and he’s a willing blocker who mixes it up with CBs. But overall, Watkins is an NFL-ready wideout who lines up at all positions, and he excels on underneath routes. He’s also great after the catch and separates from corners at the top of his route. With good short-area burst, Watkins beats press coverage with his quickness alone, but that will obviously be tougher to do in the NFL. Off the field, he can be immature at times and was arrested in 2012 on drug possession charges, but few are talking about him being a potential problem going forward. Watkins has it all in terms of size, speed, hands, shiftiness, and explosion, and if he ends up in the right offense (preferably a quick-strike offense), he could be special at the next level with the ability to make an immediate impact as a rookie and to be legit #1 NFL WR for years to come.
2. Mike Evans
School: Texas A&M | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 231 | 40: 4.53 | Year: 3So
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel stole all the headlines for the Aggies the last two years, but a huge part of his success has to be credited to his security blanket, Evans. Johnny Football would many times improvise and just chuck it deep to Evans, and he had an incredible ability to attack the ball in the air and win jump balls. He has surprising vertical speed for such a big man, and he can beat cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage by attacking their technique and getting on top of defenders deep. He has the ability to not only get vertical, but to also run away from defenders, and he ran a 4.53 at the combine to showcase that. Evans is a unique player because he moves like a much smaller player but is a massive athlete (his arms measured at more the 35 inches a piece). Fellow rookie Sammy Watkins is generally regarded as the better prospect, but we wouldn’t be shocked to see a team pick Evans over Watkins because of Evans’ size and freakish qualities. Evans can also be a weapon in the screen game because he has great vision and can pick up yardage after the catch. Evans should be a dangerous weapon in the red zone because of his size, incredibly strong hands, and his body control along the sideline. Evans is already physical enough to play at the next level, and he owns a great jab step and sells double moves. Evans also shows a willingness to block in the run game and is QB friendly because he works back to the line of scrimmage. He will need to get better at catching balls in the middle of the field at the next level, and he only lined up to the right of his quarterbacks in the Aggies’ no-huddle offense, which is a slight concern going forward. A big and physical player, Evans is competitive and plays to his size by winning jump balls and making contested catches, thanks to his incredibly strong hands and great body control. Evans even surprised with his athleticism at the combine for such a big player. Evans is a freak talent who’s also a savvy player, and could be a big-time producer in the red zone and as a potential playmaker down the field.
3. Odell Beckham, Jr.
School: Louisiana State | Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 198 | 40: 4.43 | Year: 3Jr
Beckham has the athletic bloodlines working in his favor, as his father played running back at LSU and his mother was an All-American track athlete for the Tigers. Beckham is fast (he’s best-known for his speed) but is fluid at the same time, as he’s a strong route-runner, knows how to attack cornerbacks to get open, and separates at the top of his route stem. He played all over the field at LSU, and he also has the ability to return kicks and punts at the next level. He creates after the catch and on returns, so he has some playmaking ability. Beckham is a savvy and polished player, finding holes against zone coverage and consistently beating man coverage. Beckham has incredibly strong hands and attacks the ball, although he does have some focus drops at time. He also uses his strong hands to work out of press coverage at the line of scrimmage, and he has a pretty large catching radius. Beckham isn’t the biggest receiver available, but he plays with toughness and is willing to run block. In fact, our Greg Cosell was really impressed with his willingness to lay out block on tape. He will get a little cautious going over the middle at times, and he scored just 12 receiving TDs as a three-year starter. At 5’11” and 198 pounds, Beckham can play all three receiver spots, but he projects best as a Z receiver on the right side of the field. He’s a physical player who plays bigger than his size, but his game is more about quickness, versatility, and explosion as a route-runner and after the catch. He should make an immediate impact next season and could step in right away as a #2 WR for a team like the Panthers, who desperately need to get more dynamic at the position.
4. Brandin Cooks
School: Oregon State | Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 189 | 40: 4.33 | Year: 3Jr
Cooks did just fine this past season at Oregon State with WR Markus Wheaton heading to the NFL, as he led the NCAA with 133 receiving yards per game and captured the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. And his stock continued to climb in February when he ran a sizzling 4.33 40-time at the combine, which led this year’s receiver class. Cooks lined up at all over the field at Oregon State, but he’s likely not an X in the pros because of his lack of bulk and length (think DeSean Jackson). He also had a delayed release and some false steps off the line of scrimmage, which he’ll need to clean up. Tough press coverage guys could give him fits next season, so he’s likely destined to play out of the slot next year, or at Z. Cooks beat press coverage with quickness in college – he can go from 0-to-60 in a flash – and he knows how to stack defensive backs and get deep. He’s very explosive and sudden, fluid in-and-out of his breaks, and he easily separates at the top of his route stem. Cooks could be devastating in the screen game, as he’s tremendous after the catch, but he’ll need to focus on getting up field on those types of plays. He doesn’t make many contested catches and needs more work competing against DBs for balls. Cooks also has a tendency to “double catch” passes, and he doesn’t have the largest catching radius. He will mix it up with cornerbacks but is still a poor blocker, and he wasn’t a strong return guy in college. Cooks’ fantasy value will depend on where he lands and how he’s used, but he should find a home out of the slot at the next level, and he’s drawn some comparisons to Tavon Austin. Cooks is a little bigger and is less explosive, but he has the chance to be a playmaker with the ball in his hands and a dynamic weapon for the right team. The biggest question is whether or not he can be completely taken out by good press cornerbacks in the NFL, but some of that can be offset by playing in the slot. Note: Here’s a clip of us interviewing Cooks on the radio in early-April.
5. Kelvin Benjamin
School: Florida State | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 240 | 40: 4.61 | Year: 3So
Benjamin and Texas A&M WR prospect Mike Evans have frequently been compared to each other throughout the pre-draft process, and it’s easy to see why. Both Benjamin and Evans have a rare size/athleticism combination that makes talent evaluators salivate. Benjamin is slightly bigger than Evans, but Evans performed better at the combine. Still, Benjamin moves surprisingly well for his size, and he might have more athleticism than Evans with the ball in the air. Benjamin is also more fluid and sudden, with an excellent short-area burst that makes him dangerous after the catch. Evans far outperformed Benjamin statistically the last two years, but Benjamin did score on an amazing 27.8% of his catches last season (15 TDs on 54 catches). He dominated in the red zone because of his good body control and sideline awareness, and he’s willing to catch with his hands and pluck the ball out of the air. Benjamin uses his body well and makes contested catches, and he has good sideline awareness, which makes him dangerous in the end zone. He’s physical throughout his route and is a high-effort, physical blocker who will mix it up with defenders. The Seminoles even used him as a wing TE in some sets, and he was able to win against LBs and DEs as a blocker at times. Benjamin did have too many drops at the college level, but they appeared to be focus drops, when he’s looking to get up the field too early. He also needs to refine his route running at the next level, but at least he doesn’t have effort or motivation concerns. He seems to be more of a boom-or-bust prospect than Evans, but Benjamin is bigger and smoother than Evans, so he might have more upside. Benjamin improved throughout his Florida State career, and his size and athletic ability give him a ton of upside at the next level.
6. Marqise Lee
School: Southern California | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 192 | 40: 4.52 | Year: 3Jr
Lee was once considered a can’t-miss prospect like Sammy Watkins, but his stock has fallen off a bit since his Biletnikoff Award winning 2012 season. Lee had a junior season to forget because of a slew of injuries (shoulder, leg, and knee), uneven quarterback play, and mid-season coaching changes. But at his best, Lee lined up at every receiver spot (mostly at Z), and has shown that he can be a dynamic playmaker. He just needs to play with more consistent effort. He does have good long speed and can accelerate out of breaks, and he can be a savvy route-runner when he’s giving effort. Lee isn’t afraid to mix it up with cornerbacks and is good against press coverage. He’s not exactly a physical receiver, but he will fight for balls. Lee has great vision, which makes him valuable as a kick returner and helps him pick up a lot of yardage after the catch. Lee has a ton of ability but his lack of effort at times is by far the biggest concern heading into the NFL. He’s also dropped a number of passes during his career, so he’s also inconsistent with his hands. Lee also isn’t a very big guy, so we have to wonder if he’ll have durability issues his entire career after an injury-plagued 2013 campaign. Compared to Jeremy Maclin, Lee is a little smoother and more explosive than Maclin, but similarly he’s a movement guy who can be put in motion, so he’s multi-dimensional. Lee has previously shown the skills necessary to be a top-flight receiver, so now he just needs to get healthy and prove it again. He can fit into any offense, but he ran a lot of slants and crossers in college as well as vertical routes, so he should be comfortable in a west coast offense.
7. Donte Moncrief
School: Mississippi | Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 221 | 40: 4.40 | Year: 3Jr
Moncrief is one prospect who is flying a bit under the radar, but he’s one of our favorites as he’d likely be a 1st-round talent in any other draft year. Moncrief is a physical freak with the explosiveness to run away from defenders and the strength to separate from them as well. He also gets off the line of scrimmage quickly to create initial space to operate. Our guy Greg Cosell compared Moncrief’s playing style to Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon because of his size and running ability, and Moncrief is explosive after the catch like those WRs. He lined up primarily at the X at Ole Miss, but did play out of the slot at times. He doesn’t always catch the ball with his hands, but he has very good hands and didn’t drop many passes and he generally attacks the ball in the air. He did look tentative at times when he ran over the middle, and he let some passes get into his chest. Moncrief doesn’t always play with good balance and body control, and he must sharpen his route running, as he’s not be great in-and-out of his breaks and he comes from a very basic offense. He has good technique as a blocker, so he’ll help out in the run game. Moncrief dominated at times as a three-year starter, but he could also disappear, including seven games with fewer than 60 yards last season. Ole Miss did have a stud freshman WR Laquon Treadwell and an up-and-down QB Bo Wallace, which led to some inconsistent production for Moncrief. However, starting three seasons in the SEC means he’s played against some of the best college defenders. Moncrief tested very well at the combine, which was no surprise because he’s an explosive kid. He has the physical tools to excel at the X, and he’s got the deceptive speed to become a downfield weapon. He may need a little time to develop coming from an incredibly simple offense in college, but we wouldn’t be shocked if he develops into a legit NFL #1 WR once he marinates for a bit.
8. Davante Adams
School: Fresno State | Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 212 | 40: 4.56 | Year: 3So
This year’s draft class features some incredibly talented redshirt sophomore WRs (Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin), which is a bit rare, but neither was the most productive of the sophomores. That honor belongs to Adams, who finished first in catches (131) and second in yards (1719) in the NCAA last season, playing in Fresno State’s pass-oriented attack. Adams may not be an explosive athlete, but he’s a well-rounded receiver with no glaring holes in his game. He didn’t run a full route tree in Fresno State’s offense, which is a bit of a concern, but with deceptive movement ability he has the ability to separate from defenders. Adams is a savvy route-runner with good vision and YAC potential, sells routes and beats press coverage, and he can separate at the top of his route stem. Adams has incredibly strong hands, with no uncontested drops on tape. He’s a weapon in the red zone because he goes up and attacks the ball, and he runs the best fade pattern in the draft. Adams can make plays in the air because of his leaping ability, and he’s good at picking up yardage as a ball carrier after the catch because he can accelerate in space. He could use some improvement as a run blocker, as he’s willing in that department but needs to improve his technique. Adams’ production was inflated playing in a pass-happy system in college, but he’s a really nice talent and made the most out of his opportunities with the ball. He’s explosive enough to play Z in the NFL and big enough to play X (he also played in the slot in college). Although he’s not a physical freak, there are no real deficiencies in his game outside of his run blocking and he’s above average in just about every area of his game and has a lot of positive traits for the next level, so he has some upside to develop into a great #2 NFL receiver for a team looking for a big and physical option.
9. Martavis Bryant
School: Clemson | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 211 | 40: 4.42 | Year: 3Jr
Bryant might just have the most boom-or-bust potential out of this year’s wide receiver draft class. He’s been compared to Stephen Hill leading up to this May’s draft because of his high test marks, and his lack of actual production in college. Like Hill, Bryant has incredible speed (4.42) for a guy his size (6’4”), and he can take the top off a defense, but he didn’t get to do it much at Clemson because of the offense, the presence of Sammy Watkins, and the inconsistency of QB Tahj Boyd. Bryant is a long vertical threat with high upside, but he needs to get more physical and take advantage of his size. He tracks the ball well in the air and uses his body to shield defenders on 50/50 balls, but he can be more finesse than physical at times. Bryant has good body control for his size and could be a red-zone threat, but he can be outmuscled at times and isn’t physical after the catch. He drops too many passes because he catches with his body too often, and he must improve as a route-runner if he wants to be anything more than a deep threat. Bryant also had academic issues as a sophomore and started losing playing time late in his junior year to lesser talents because of his lack of production. Fluid in and out of breaks, he separates with size, burst, fluidity, and deceptive speed. He has clear downside due to the negatives we’ve outlined, but he’s also a very rare specimen we just don’t see come around too often, and we were encouraged with the improvement he showed as the season wore on in 2013. He’ll need a little time to develop, and he needs to land in an offense where he can be a vertical threat, but with more experience and refinement, he has tremendous upside.
10. Jarvis Landry
School: Louisiana State | Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 205 | 40: 4.77 | Year: 3Jr
Landry was among the most-decorated recruits in the country when he landed at LSU, and while he isn’t the most physically gifted WR in this year’s draft class, Landry could end being the best possession receiver out of the group. He didn’t test terribly well at the combine, but he’s a polished, savvy route-runner who will be a QB’s best friend. Landry is the best blocker at his position in this year’s class, and his toughness and physicality is reminiscent of 49er WR Anquan Boldin, although our Greg Cosell thinks he’s a quicker player than Boldin. Landry is willing to stick his nose in anywhere, but he does need to bulk up a little bit to support his style of play. He will work the middle of the field and find holes against zone coverage, and he plays like a running back after the catch. He also knows how to attack cornerbacks and beat man coverage. He’s destined to play mostly out of the Z or out of the slot, since he doesn’t run very well downfield, but he brings multi-dimensional ability because he can play inside or outside. Landry doesn’t drop passes thanks to his strong hands and attacks the ball in the air, which is a key because he needs to be exceptional at contested catches due to the fact that he doesn’t create a whole lot of separation with his lack of elite athleticism. Landry will never be the big-play type at the next level, but he has the chance to be a very good possession receiver and a reliable option in the intermediate areas.
11. Allen Robinson
School: Penn State | Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 220 | 40: 4.60 | Year: 3Jr
Robinson had an impressive college career at Penn State, breaking all kinds of school records in his three seasons as a Nittany Lion. He comes to the NFL with a solid resume, but he doesn’t have evaluators tripping all over themselves like some of the more athletically talented wide receivers in this year’s class. But he has more polish than a lot of other receivers entering the draft. Robinson has excellent size at 6’3” and 220 pounds, but he ran poorly at the combine, and speed is his big negative coming into the draft. He did show decent speed downfield in college, and since he’s fluid he can play faster than his timed speed. Robinson is also a savvy route-runner, knowing how to create separation from defenders. He also excels with the ball in his hands because of his great vision, finding creases in the defense and running tough in the open field like a RB. He can play all three wide receiver spots after running a full route tree in Bill O’Brien’s pro-style offense the last two seasons. Robinson isn’t afraid to climb the ladder and has excellent body control to make plays in the air. The biggest question will be if he can continue to beat cornerbacks at the NFL level the way he did in college. He has the tendency to let some balls get into his chest, but he didn’t drop many passes in college. Robinson can also loaf as a blocker and can be hesitant making catches over the middle. But with great vision as a ball carrier, he’s an ideal candidate for WR screens. He’s a good player who isn’t great at any one aspect, except for his vision after the catch. Robinson is a pretty polished player who gets open, but his average size-speed combo likely means his ceiling is probably that of merely a very good player, but not a great one, as he’s just a step below elite in every category for a receiver. He doesn’t come into the NFL with a ton of upside, but he has the physical attributes and experience to contribute immediately in the right situation.
12. Brandon Coleman
School: Rutgers | Ht: 6-6| Wt: 225 | 40: 4.56 | Year: 4Jr
Coleman looked like a high-end talent entering last season, but his production fell off because of terrible quarterback play at Rutgers and a nagging knee injury. He’s a big vertical threat (in college he was at least) who could also factor into the red zone because of his 6’6” frame. However, while he does cover a lot of ground with his long strides, he doesn’t have explosive speed to simply blow by opponents and he won’t likely do that in the NFL. Coleman did have a flair for the big play, averaging more than 19 yards per catch and scoring 20 TDs on just 94 catches over the last three years, but there are questions as he moves on to the NFL if he can make big plays. He can beat press coverage and can use his size to shield defenders away as a blocker. Coleman has almost no lateral agility, so he projects only to the X because he’s a stiff, straight-line player. He’s shown the ability to catch with his hands when he concentrates, but he has too many drops because he allows balls to get into his chest. Coleman is a sloppy route runner because he struggles throttling down and breaking out of his cuts. Our Greg Cosell isn’t particularly high on him based on his college tape, but he did notice that Coleman finally started to flash a little as an intermediate receiver late in 2013. There is definitely a place on an NFL roster for a guy with his unique size and downfield ability, and he’s a high-character kid. It all conspired against Coleman last season (terrible QB play, knee issue), so he could bounce back with a change of scenery, and he certainly has the size to make an impact outside the numbers.
13. Jared Abbrederis
School: Wisconsin | Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 195 | 40: 4.50 | Year: 5Sr
Abbrederis has overachieved his entire life, going from a walk-on as a freshman to the #1 WR at Wisconsin, so he’ll work for everything that he gets at the next level. Abbrederis has the potential to be a solid possession receiver, and he projects best as a slot guy, but he did line up everywhere at Wisconsin. He has average athleticism and is pretty slender given his 6’1” frame, but he’s quicker and more physical than he’s given credit for. Abbrederis beat press coverage in college, and he had his way with top CB prospect Bradley Roby last season, posting 10/207/1 against the Buckeyes. Abbrederis has very strong hands and great ball skills to make contested grabs (although he will body catch at times), and he gets open because he’s a savvy route-runner with great technique. He’s a reliable receiver but needs to improve after the catch, showing little vision as a runner in the open field. Abbrederis also has a history of concussions already, which is a major concern given his size. His biggest issue is a lack of top-end speed and average athleticism, as well as his vision after the catch, which could ultimately limit his fantasy potential, but that fact could be offset if he’s fed the ball in the slot. Abbrederis won’t come to the NFL with much upside, but he’ll work to carve out a role as a #3 WR at the next level, and is a potential PPR contributor as soon as he adjusts.
14. Paul Richardson
School: Colorado | Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 175 | 40: 4.40 | Year: 4Sr
Richardson appeared to be back at 100% last season after missing the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL, which was welcome since he relies heavily on his speed and agility. Richardson has good long speed with deceptive strides, and he can stretch the field vertically. He also tracks deeps balls pretty well and is capable of making some circus catches because of a pretty wide catch radius. He can be a weapon after the catch, but he doesn’t always play to his speed. Richardson has drawn some comparisons to DeSean Jackson, but he’s probably more like Emmanuel Sanders because of his tall, thin frame. Richardson knows how to attack cornerbacks, but he’s built like a rail and will need to bulk up a bit to succeed at the next level. He struggled off the line of scrimmage in college, and it won’t get any easier going against more physical NFL CBs. He can also get outmuscled for 50-50 balls and struggles as a run blocker because of his thin frame. He looked lazy as a route runner at times, so there might be some effort questions with him, and he had some bad drops in college. He also has serious durability questions going forward because of his stature and previous knee issues. Like Sanders, Richardson can line up anywhere, and he’s both quick and fast with definite vertical ability at the next level, which is his best attribute. Richardson will have to catch on initially as a backup receiver and prove his durability and his ability to make plays downfield.
15. T.J. Jones
School: Notre Dame | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 188 | 40: 4.48 | Year: 4Sr
Jones won’t be confused with the biggest or fastest wide receiver in this year’s draft, but he has a chance to carve out a productive NFL career and to make an immediate impact next season. Jones just might be the best route-runner in this year’s draft class because of his explosive cuts out of breaks and his stop-start ability to sell routes. Combine his route running with his reliable hands, and Jones has a chance to become a quarterback’s best friend from the slot. He’s a savvy player beyond his playing experience, and he can also line up outside, but he needs to get bigger and stronger to compete at the next level. He does win at the catch point and is a willing blocker, despite his lack of physicality. He relies on his athletic ability to beat press coverage, but he lacks deep speed to make big plays down the field, but he is capable of picking up extra yards after the catch. Jones comes to the league with plenty of experience as a four-year starter, and he’s durable, having missed just one game to hamstring injury as a freshman. He’ll be a later pick likely on the draft’s third day, so he’s flying under radar, but if drafted by a team looking for a natural slot guy, he has the chance to be a productive NFL receiver immediately.
16. Jalen Saunders
School: Oklahoma | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 163 | 40: 4.44 | Year: 4Sr
Saunders is an explosive playmaker who’s falling under the radar because of his slight stature (5’9”, 163 pounds). He’s destined to play out of the slot at the next level, but he did line up all over the field at Oklahoma. Saunders will also make contributions as a return guy because he’s quick enough to make defenders miss and fast enough to run from defenders. He scored 3 punt-return TDs on just 25 attempts at Oklahoma, so he has the potential to be a playmaker on special teams. Saunders tested well at the combine and is slippery enough after the catch to pick up big chunks of yardage. He has strong, reliable hands that he uses to catch the ball with, and he has the quickness to separate against man coverage, two things he’ll need to play out of the slot. He isn’t afraid to mix it up with cornerbacks, much like Tavon Austin last year, and Saunders can be a high-effort run blocker. Saunders is more physical than he gets credit for, but his size will likely create limitations at the next level. It’s possible that he’s similar to T.Y. Hilton, but it’s hard to say what he is in the NFL other than to say he’s best in the slot. Off the field, he did have a misdemeanor marijuana arrest thrown out when a teammate took full responsibility for the incident, but teams will be curious about the event. Saunders did excel at the Senior Bowl, and since he’s explosive in space with the ball in his hands, he has enough dynamic ability to stick in the NFL.
17. Jordan Matthews
School: Vanderbilt | Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 212 | 40: 4.46 | Year: 4Sr
Matthews is actually the most productive receiver in the long, storied history of the SEC, as he set career-best marks in receptions (262) and receiving yards (3759). He did most of his work over the last two seasons, using his length to his advantage and winning on contested passes. Matthews is a long kid and a glider, but he doesn’t separate vertically, so most of his work came in the middle of the field. He’s not explosive with the ball in his hands, but he’s tough to bring down. Matthews attacks the ball in the air, and has shown soft hands at times. Still, he has way too many drops because he uses his body to catch passes, so he’s wildly inconsistent as a target. He does struggle to get clean releases off the line of scrimmage because he isn’t the strongest or quickest athlete, and he struggled against man coverage in college, which is a concern. Matthews is also a sloppy route-runner, and he gives questionable effort in all phases of the game, which has certainly raised some red flags. He was able to put up big numbers in college because so many of his passes were WR screens. He does compete as a blocker, but he could use some work on his technique. He’s a relative of the great Jerry Rice, but Matthews has a little prima donna in him. On a good note, he was the only player to request film on all of the opposing CBs before the Senior Bowl, which earned him some points with evaluators. Matthews needs to clean up his game and his effort if he wants to become a possession receiver at the next level, but he’s not a top athlete for the position and will have to be a function of scheme and QB at the next level, so he needs to land in the right place.
18. Cody Latimer
School: Indiana | Ht: 6-.5 | Wt: 215 | 40: 4.46 | Year: 3Jr
Latimer isn’t a player we had in our initial pre-draft top-20, but there’s been quite a bit of buzz about him in April, so we’ve added him. In a normal year, he would have made our top-20, so his exclusion was mainly a function of the excellent quality WR depth in the 2013 draft. An underrated receiver who plays with athleticism, the sizable Latimer has improved the past two seasons and offers some upside potential as he moves to the next level. He lined up at all three WR spots in college, but his route-running isn’t considered particularly great, since he’s a bit stiff coming in and out of his breaks, and since he doesn’t sell his routes very well. He’s a hands catcher who can make tough catches away from his frame, and he has very few drops on tape, so his hands are a strength of his. He’s not very explosive, but he does have good straight-line build-up speed, and he was productive after the catch. He can work the middle of the field, and he’s tough to bring down. There are always going to be teams looking for size and a player who can also run, so Latimer should get serious 3rd or 4th round consideration.
19. Josh Huff
School: Oregon | Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 206 | 40: 4.51 | Year: 4Sr
Huff didn’t get much love from his home state of Texas out of high school, but he came to Oregon and improved each season, eventually leading the Ducks in receiving as a senior. Huff won’t blow anyone away with his size or speed, but he’s a fluid runner with good body control and balance. Huff has only average height and stature, and he isn’t explosive vertically, so he should be forced to play out of the slot at the next level. But that’s okay because that’s what his role should be. He also needs to clean up his dropped passes, as he loses focus to quickly with defenders around him. That said, Huff does make difficult catches away from his body at times, so he has capable hands. Huff ran a limited route tree at Oregon, and his route running needs to improve overall. But he did line up in the backfield at times as well, so he has some versatility. He averaged close to 18.4 yards per catch last season, so he’s capable of making plays with the ball in his hands and doesn’t go down easily. Huff also tied a school record with 12 TDs in 2013, but Oregon’s offense will inflate offensive numbers at times. He does have some maturity issues, but it appears that he’s willing to work at his craft. He needs to continue to develop his route running but has solid potential because he accelerates well. Huff needs to eliminate his drops and play with more discipline, but he could develop into a versatile option as a #3 WR.
20. Robert Herron
School: Wyoming | Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 193 | 40: 4.48 | Year: 4Sr
Herron became a well-rounded wide receiver in his final year at Wyoming, after splitting his time between running back and wide receiver early in his career. Herron was used as a big-play threat during his junior season before being a featured option of the Cowboy offense last season. Herron runs very well and can get vertical and on top of cornerbacks fairly easily, although he doesn’t always play to his speed. He showed some toughness this past season, as he started to work the middle of the field more. He must continue to get better in traffic because Herron will likely have to make his living working out of the slot, since he probably lacks the size to play on the outside. He needs to become a more complete route-runner at the next level, as he primarily ran verticals, drags, and quick screens in college. He does have some lateral agility to go along with his speed, so he has the potential in that department. Additionally, he does have soft hands and can make adjustments to poor throws. On the downside, it’s possible Herron will have some durability issues at the next level after dealing with a number of small injuries in college. A big-play guy with very good speed, Herron compares to former Raider Jacoby Ford in terms of his speed, toughness, and willingness to make catches over the middle. Herron should go on Day Three of the draft to a team that needs some explosiveness out of the slot.
Note: These players are ranked more so for their long-term value and potential, so these rankings aren’t for just 2014. Once the draft takes place, we’ll rank all rookies for both this year and the long-term.
1. Eric Ebron
School: North Carolina | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 250 | 40: 4.60 | Year: 3Jr
Ebron has been getting comparisons to Vernon Davis coming into this May’s draft, primarily because Ebron has the chance to be the highest drafted tight end since Davis went #6 to the 49ers in the 2006 draft. Ebron isn’t nearly the physical freak that Davis was coming out of Maryland, but Ebron did break Davis’ single-season ACC record for receiving yards by a tight end, so he was highly productive in college. Ebron isn’t as fast as Davis, but with outstanding fluidity and movement, he might be a better overall athlete than the current 49er TE. In fact, Ebron ran a faster 40-yard dash than his former teammate Giovani Bernard, and the former Tar Heels actually had a bet riding on it. Ebron isn’t yet a finished product and he struggled at his pro day, dropping a number of passes and looking sloppy in drills. It’s a little disconcerting, since most players excel at pro days in a controlled environment, and he does have a tendency at times to leave you wanting more on the field, but a poor pro day is probably nothing to get bent out of shape over. He’s basically a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, as he’s athletic with great ball skills. Ebron has good speed, quickness, and he wins at the jump point, catching the ball away from his body. Ebron can play in-line and in the slot, so he can be used to create mismatches and will fight to win contested passes. He can also create after the catch, picking up chunks of yardage with a great burst. Ebron needs to improve his route running – he did run a lot of pro-style routes in college – and his hands can be inconsistent at times, but there is a ton to work with in this naturally-athletic physical talent. If he reaches his full potential in the NFL, he will be a guy who makes “wow” plays consistently.
2. Jace Amaro
School: Texas Tech | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 265 | 40: 4.74 | Year: 3Jr
Amaro is the top “move TE” in this year’s draft, as he spent the majority of last season working out of the slot in Texas Tech’s pass-happy scheme. He technically set a tight end single-season NCAA record with 1352 receiving yards last year, but the NCAA couldn’t decide what position he played, as he finished as a semifinalist for both the Mackey Award (top TE) and the Biletnikoff Award (top WR), winning neither. Amaro is a natural athlete and tested well at the combine, as he’s fluid off the line and can get up the seam to stretch opposing defenses. He didn’t run a full route tree at Texas Tech, but he has the tools to turn into a strong route runner and has strong awareness to find soft spots against zone coverage. Amaro has reliable and soft hands and with a big body and a wide catch radius and he makes plays after the catch. He lacks top-end speed and can struggle to create separation at times because he’s not quick out of his breaks. He’s also not overly strong at the catch point on contested balls, despite his size. Amaro gives great effort as a blocker on the perimeter and at the second level, but he had very few reps as an in-line blocker during his junior season. Amaro was a foundation player in his college offense and was flexed out, so he put up big numbers. That helped him draw some Aaron Hernandez comparisons, and sure enough, the Patriots have already worked Amaro out. But our Greg Cosell doesn’t think he’s quite as flexible as Hernandez, and he sees Amaro as a smoother Jason Witten, which is just fine for our purposes. For a team like the Patriots looking for a move TE, he looks like a plug-and-play guy, so he could be a major fantasy factor right away. Note: Here's a clip of us interviewing Amaro from 4/24.
3. Troy Niklas
School: Notre Dame | Ht: 6-6 | Wt: 270 | 40: NA | Year: 3Jr
Notre Dame (Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, and Niklas) and Stanford (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo) are having quite the battle churning out tight ends in recent years. The Fighting Irish apparently have a good eye for finding them, converting Niklas from outside linebacker to an imposing, athletic tight end. He looks like the complete package, with the size and athleticism to get it done as both a receiver and as a blocker. Niklas is a Rob Gronkowski-type of player, in that he’s a more “traditional TE” with good athleticism, even though he doesn’t have much playing time at TE under his belt. He’s not a quick-twitch, athletic beast who can go get balls like Gronk, but Niklas is fluid and moves exceptionally well for his size – and he has great size for a TE – and he has plenty of receiving ability. Niklas is more of an old-school type TE because he’s essentially like having an extra offensive lineman as blocker. He could, ideally, get a little stronger in his base, but he has a lot of potential as a blocker, especially since he’s still learning the offensive side of the game. Niklas could use some refinement as a route-runner, but he runs a full tree and shows some sharp cuts out of breaks. He uses his size and physicality to his advantage throughout his routes, but he doesn’t use those same traits after the catch, so he can get better. He’s an absolutely huge target in the middle of the field, and he could turn into a dangerous weapon in the red zone. He could be a Gronk type who plays with a great base while blocking for the run, and he still moves well (although he didn’t test that well at the combine). An ascending player, Niklas passes the eyeball test very well. Given his rare combination of size, movement, and athletic ability, there’s a ton to work with and he has a chance to be a top NFL TE for years to come once he gets some more experience and refinement.
4. Austin Seferian-Jenkins
School: Washington | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 262 | 40: NA | Year: 3Jr
Seferian-Jenkins won the Mackey Award (nation’s top TE) last year, but he captured the award based more on name recognition than his actual play. His production on the field has actually regressed a bit since his freshman season, and some of it is based on scheme changes in the Washington offense. Seferian-Jenkins saw his receptions and yards get cut nearly in half from his sophomore season (69/852) to his junior campaign (36/450). He lined up all over the field (in-line, wing, slot, and backfield) at Washington, so he has some versatility despite his size. Seferian-Jenkins catches everything that’s thrown his way because of his huge frame and long catch radius. He’s got great body control and good sideline awareness, which helped him to be one of the top red-zone threats in college football, with 21 TDs in three seasons. Seferian-Jenkins runs and moves well for his size, showing some agility and the ability to get up the seam. He’s physical during and after the catch, and he was relied on heavily as an in-line blocker and has a nasty streak, although he still has room for growth in that department. But his natural athleticism is obvious – he is the first Washington athlete to play both football and basketball since Nate Robinson, who plays in the NBA. That said, he needs to play with more urgency, especially as a route-runner. Off the field, he missed the team’s season opener last year because of a suspension stemming from a DUI conviction from a single-car wreck last spring, so he’s got some character questions (although we’ve heard rumblings that he’s not a bad kid). He also needed surgery to fix a broken pinkie, and his toughness has been questioned, so he’s got some red flags. On top of that, doctors discovered a stress fracture in his right foot at the combine, which prevented him from working out and required surgery at the end of February. He has some concerns, but with excellent size, good movement, and strong in-line blocking in the running game, he’s a complete player who has a lot to work with. Note: Here’s a clip of us interviewing Seferian-Jenkins in late-April.
5. C.J. Fiedorowicz
School: Iowa | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 265 | 40: 4.76 | Year: 4Sr
Fiedorowicz is a solid, well-rounded tight end prospect who has the huge frame required to play many years as an in-line player. He is a real throwback at the position because of his ability as both a receiver and as a blocker. Fiedorowicz can play all over the field as well, as he runs pretty well for his size (6’5”, 265 pounds) and has deceptive movement and athletic skills. He actually has room to get even bigger, and he needs to get stronger to become an even better blocker. Fiedorowicz also needs to get a little nastier in the trenches to finish off his blocks, but he has the size to seal of lanes in the running game and a strong reputation as a blocker. Fiedorowicz catches just about everything that’s thrown his way because of his strong hands and large catch radius, so he could develop into a quarterback’s security blanket. He also has good body control for a big man, but he’ll never blow anyone away with flashy plays. He can go over the middle and catch passes in traffic, and he’s a tough runner after the catch, plowing through defenders to pick up extra yardage. Fiedorowicz also has a burst in the open field with some straight-line speed down the seam, but he isn’t elusive after the catch. He’s got a ton of natural talent and ability, but he was underutilized at Iowa, so he’ll need to work on his craft a little more. His reputation as a blocker should help his draft stock and could help get him on the field quickly, but he has intriguing potential as a receiver.
6. Richard Rodgers
School: California | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 257 | 40: 4.87 | Year: 3Jr
Rodgers has been tinkered with since he got to California as a freshman, as former HC and current Buccaneer OC Jeff Tedford bulked him up to 275 pounds to play tight end. When Tedford was fired and new HC Sonny Dykes came in, Rodgers was asked to lose 30 pounds to play as an inside wide receiver. Rodgers had enough of the tinkering, leaving college a year early when he probably could’ve used some more seasoning at California. He probably lands somewhere in between a TE and a WR at the next level, as Rodgers will be used like an Aaron Hernandez, as a move tight end who plays out of the slot most of the time. He reminds our Greg Cosell of Jordan Reed, and while he’s a little bigger than Reed, he’s not as athletic, per Cosell. Rodgers is still a good athlete and has good speed for the position, although he ran terribly at the combine (4.87). He has good hands and can make contested catches, and he picks up yardage after the catch. Rodgers needs to get better as a route-runner, as he plays a little too stiff and struggles out of his breaks. It’s not shocking that he’s been inconsistent as a blocker, but he has flashed at times. He’s unlikely to block as in-line TE very much, but he has potential blocking on the perimeter as a move TE. He’s had some durability issues in the past with a torn labrum and a torn foot ligament as a sophomore, which helped him get up to 275 pounds. He is the son of Carolina special team coordinator Richards Rodgers Sr., so he has a good pedigree. Rodgers has to improve as a route-runner and is an inconsistent blocker, but he has a chance to be an impactful #2/#1B TE in the NFL.
7. Xavier Grimble
School: Southern California | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 257 | 40: NA | Year: 4Jr
Grimble somewhat surprisingly left USC early to enter the draft, but if he’s given the time, he has the potential to develop into a solid NFL tight end. He’s a long, leggy player with a good frame. He has good straight-line speed, but he isn’t explosive and needs to build up steam to reach top speed. Grimble runs fluidly and glides in the open field and is good at picking up yards after the catch, but he can play a bit stiff and can’t move well laterally. He runs well down the seam and is willing to make contested catches. Grimble lines up all over the field, but he does struggle against press coverage. He gives some effort as a blocker, but he’s not physical enough and needs to get stronger. Grimble needs to play with more balance and power, or defenders could manhandle him at the next level. The good thing is that Grimble has a nice frame to add some muscle, so he has some room to grow. He’s managed to stay on the field for most of his career, but he’s dealt with a bunch of nagging injuries, including shoulder and chest issues. A cousin of Cleveland defensive stud Barkevious Mingo, Grimble has a strong pedigree. He does need to get stronger because he’s not a physical player and struggles against the press, but he has the speed, frame, and hands to be a factor in the NFL. He probably could’ve used another year of seasoning at USC, but he’s an interesting developmental prospect.
8. Trey Burton
School: Florida | Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 224 | 40: 4.62 | Year: 4Sr
Burton has been compared to Jordan Reed leading up to the draft because of their similar paths to the NFL. Both players played multiple positions while at Florida, and each player came to the next level with plenty of athleticism and potential upside as future playmakers. Burton saw time at quarterback, fullback, tight end, and wide receiver during his four seasons with the Gators, so he’s a very good athlete with limited experience at the position. He played wide receiver last season and showed strong hands and surprisingly sharp route-running skills. Even though he lacks a ton of experience as a receiver, Burton is a smart player and a leader, so you can see the former quarterback in him. He’s also durable and willing to play through some small injuries, and he’s a competitive player that will work to get better at the position. Burton is certainly undersized for a traditional tight end, so he’ll likely have to play as a move TE rather than in-line, at least early in his career. He is elusive enough to make defenders miss after the catch, but he lacks strength and goes down too easily on first contact. Burton could come into the league and make an early impact, even though some evaluators have labeled him as a player without a position. If he lands with an innovative offensive coordinator, Burton has the chance to do a little bit of everything and develop into a weapon as a rookie. He’s a Swiss Army knife who does a lot of little things well, and his athleticism gives him some high upside.
9. Arthur Lynch
School: Georgia | Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 258 | 40: 4.82 | Year: 5Sr
Lynch was named a first-team All-SEC selection last year, which is no small feat, considering the quality of the conference. Still, he had just 56 career catches, 907 yards, and 8 TDs in three seasons, so he’s never been a prolific receiver. He’s a good prospect for any team that is looking for an in-line TE, and it can be argued that he had limited production at Georgia because the Bulldogs had prolific WRs and a very strong running game. Lynch has good size (6’5”, 258 pounds) and is a strong in-line blocker because of his strength. He has a nice frame and reliable hands, but he’s never really worked anything more than the short-to-intermediate area of the field. Our Greg Cosell feels he’s a lower-case Heath Miller in that he’s a blocker/receiver type. Lynch is durable and works hard at his craft, earning Georgia’s most improved player award as a junior. Still, he isn’t a stud receiver, as he’s slow and an average route-runner. Lynch also struggles to get off the line of scrimmage and can’t create separation from defenders. Lynch is considered an excellent in-line player and his blocking is highly regarded. He has a big frame and reliable hands, but he’s not elusive and won’t run away from defenders at the next level, so he could max out as a #2 TE in the NFL.
10. Rob Blanchflower
School: Massachusetts | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 256 | 40: NA | Year: 5Sr
Blanchflower did most of his work as an in-line tight end at UMass, and he has some ability to contribute as a receiver and as a blocker at the next level. Sure enough, he’s drawn some comparisons to Brent Celek because of his work in both departments. Blanchflower is a good route-runner and a hands catcher, and he can make tough catches and is willing to climb the ladder. He’s an above-average athlete for his size (6’4”, 256 pounds), with decent speed, and he’s physical in every aspect. Blanchflower is a tough player, finishing every play and picking up yards after the catch. He needs to improve his release off the line of scrimmage, as he gets jammed too easily. He has good technique as a run blocker and gives good effort, and it looks like he should hold up in pass protection. Blanchflower missed action at the end of last season because of a sports hernia, and he’s still rehabilitating from a December surgery, which didn’t allow him to work out at UMass’ pro day. His level of competition at UMass also has to be a bit of a concern, but at least he was highly productive against that competition. Blanchflower was mostly an in-line player, but similar to Celek, he can make an impact in the passing game. He’s a good route-runner who gains separation, and he’s tough to bring down after the catch and finishes every play. Blanchflower’s hard work in the trenches could help him get onto the field, and he has enough skill to see a little bit of action as an underneath-passing option.
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