The collection of prospects who will be available in the 2014 NFL Draft is widely considered one of the most talented in recent memory. Of course, for the sake of perspective, similar things were said about the 2011 and 2012 classes, which yielded Cam Newton, Von Miller, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Luke Kuechly, Dontari Poe, Russell Wilson, Alshon Jeffery and a whole bunch more difference-makers.
While the 2014 class is unlikely to surpass the aforementioned groups in terms of instant production, it certainly includes a number of impact players. This prospect pool is particularly deep at wide receiver, a position that could produce as many as seven first-round picks. The class also features a number of gifted offensive tackles capable of competing for Pro Bowl recognition early in their respective careers.
From a quarterback standpoint, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles are the headliners, but scouts are divided as to who represents the cream of the crop. In fact, there is plenty of talk within league circles about the second-tier QBs not being drastically different from the "Big Three." Thus, decision-makers must weigh the consequences of bypassing a potentially dynamic player at another position in favor of taking a high-risk/high-reward signal-caller.
This is where a franchise's overall prospect rankings -- as opposed to position-specific lists -- prove crucial. And when it comes to assembling these big-board hierarchies, a general manager must weigh game-tape evaluation far more heavily than pre-draft performances in the NFL Scouting Combine and pro-day workouts. This is especially important this year, with NFL teams given two weeks more than they usually get to overanalyze prospects before draft day. Decision-makers must keep in mind how their scouts viewed the top prospects in the fall, when they studied the tape and made school visits. This is the purest evaluation of a prospect, because it occurs before the influence of workouts, before water-cooler conversation begins to override a prospect's on-field performance.
Astute evaluators separate prospects into elite, blue-chip and red-chip categories shortly after the conclusion of the college football season -- and rarely make adjustments during the pre-draft process. With that in mind, here's my take on the three different tiers of the players in the 2014 draft class:
These players should earn Pro Bowl recognition early and rank among the top five at their respective positions in two to three years.
1) Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
2) Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
3) Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
4) Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
5) Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
6) Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
7) Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
These prospects are regarded as difference-makers based solely on their talent. They should start as rookies and make immediate contributions to their respective teams.
1) Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
2) Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
3) Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
4) Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
5) Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
6) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
7) Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
8) Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
9) C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
10) Marqise Lee, WR, USC
11) Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
12) Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
13) Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
14) Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
15) Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
16) Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
17) Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
18) Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
The blue-chip class is established primarily via film study, but also through workouts and one-on-one interviews. Scouts spend countless hours determining whether each prospect possesses the requisite critical factors (traits like athleticism, football intelligence, explosiveness and college production) to develop into a difference-maker at the NFL level. Of course, evaluators will identify the flaws of every blue-chip prospect on tape, but consistent dominance of top competition suggests that these players will enjoy long-term success in the NFL.
Red-chip players exhibit several blue-chip qualities and characteristics, but they lack the consistent profile of their superior counterparts. Whether it's because of sub-standard physical dimensions and athleticism or inconsistent on-field performance, players in the red-chip category are regarded as being a clear notch below the elite. In the right system, however, they could emerge as Pro Bowlers and impact players. Several of these prospects will hear their names called in the first round, though scouts across the league are divided as to their pro potential.
These guys should contribute as part-time players initially, increasingly pushing to finish the 2014 season as starters. They should provide timely playmaking in designated roles as well as key contributions on special teams.
1) Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
2) Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
3) Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
4) Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
5) Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
6) AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
7) Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
8) Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
9) Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
10) Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
11) Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
12) Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
13) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
14) Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
15) Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
16) Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
17) Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
Some red-chip prospects will be selected in the first round and some won't. As noted above, this is a deep group of incoming players; consequently, certain guys will be under-drafted, primed to outplay their slot in May's proceedings. Here are five red-chippers poised to thrive as NFL rookies:
1) Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech: The recent success of the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" has prompted teams to search for long, rangy athletes in the back end. Checking in at 6-feet, 190 pounds with 4.49 speed, Fuller fits the bill. The aggressive bump-and-run corner mauls receivers at the line of scrimmage -- and he also displays the athleticism and agility to run with speedsters down the field. Most importantly, Fuller exhibits the instincts and awareness to make plays on the ball at the moment of truth. The Virginia Tech standout also impressed coaches and scouts with his football intelligence in interviews. Fuller could make his mark as a hybrid defender (cornerback/safety) in a creative scheme.
2) Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU: The devaluation of his position could keep Hill from coming off the board on Day 1, but the LSU product has all of the tools to be a standout feature back in the NFL. As a bruising ball-carrier with exceptional vision, balance and body control, Hill routinely slithered through cracks on downhill runs from the Tigers' Power-I formation. Despite routinely facing eight- and nine-man boxes, Hill racked up 1,401 yards (at 6.9 yards a pop) and 16 touchdowns last fall. Clearly, Hill is adept picking up gains in a phone booth. The pro game is quietly shifting back to power football in many towns, and Hill is the kind of runner capable of posting a handful of 1,000-yard seasons before his career concludes.
3) Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU: NFL coaches covet disruptive defenders with versatile skills. That's why I'm convinced Van Noy will be a star in the NFL as a designated playmaker in an aggressive defensive scheme. He possesses the speed and quickness to harass quarterbacks on blitzes while also flashing the instincts and awareness to make plays on the ball in coverage. Factor in his position flexibility -- Van Noy is capable of playing any linebacker spot in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme -- and it's easy to envision him making a push for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.
4) AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: Due to the conservative nature of the Alabama's offensive scheme, there is a lack of appreciation for McCarron's game, but astute NFL coaches see a proven winner with superb management skills. McCarron has a keen understanding of situational football, and he has also displayed the ability to drive the offense on the strength of his right arm. A quick look at his performances in Alabama's biggest games (the 2012 and '13 BCS National Championship Games, plus last season's contests against Texas A&M and Auburn) suggests that he is more than capable of getting it done as a pro passer. If placed on a team with a solid supporting cast on the perimeter, McCarron will continue to do what he has always done as a starter: win.
5) Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State: It's not a coincidence that many elite defenses feature standout safeties in the middle of the field. Teams need ballhawks and enforcers to discourage quarterbacks from throwing between the hashes while also serving as designated hit men against the run. Bucannon shined in that role as a collegian, amassing 384 tackles and 15 interceptions as a four-year starter. Given an opportunity as a designated playmaker in the back end, Bucannon might not only be a major contributor to an NFL defense; he might quickly become a Pro Bowl-caliber force.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.