The key to draft-day success is correctly identifying and selecting prospects at the appropriate value. Although keen observers routinely acknowledge the inexact science of this process, bombing on early selections can set a franchise back for years.
On the other hand, an astute evaluator with a knack for finding hidden gems in the later stages of the draft can build a solid foundation for Super Bowl contention. If you don't believe me, just look at the composition of the defending champion Seattle Seahawks' roster.
With the 2014 NFL Draft nearly upon us, I thought I'd point out eight particular draft stocks that have caught my scouting eye, for better or for worse. Here are my thoughts:
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: It's amazing that a runner who thoroughly dominated college football over the past two seasons is rarely discussed as a top prospect. Sure, Carey clocked an awfully slow 4.70-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, but let's not forget that in his last two college seasons, the Arizona standout amassed 3,814 rushing yards (with 22 100-yard games). That kind of production should jump off the page when factoring in his role as the workhorse of an offense that lacked consistent quarterback play and dynamic weapons on the perimeter. Most importantly, the game tape reveals a physical running style that is conducive to success in the NFL. If I'm a team in need of an instant-impact running back, I'm taking a long, hard look at Carey.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State: It's unusual for scouts to tout a Penn State receiver as a potential game changer at the next level, but Robinson flashes the talent to be a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker early in his career. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound receiver posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in Happy Valley, displaying a game that calls to mind Anquan Boldin. Robinson is a tough, physical pass catcher with strong hands and superb ball skills. In addition, he's a sneaky runner with a knack for turning short passes into big gains. While he lacks the speed to act as a consistent deep threat on the outside, Robinson has all of the traits needed to be a No. 1 receiver as a pro.
Carl Bradford, OLB, Arizona State: NFL defensive coordinators love prospects with versatile games -- making it strange that Bradford's name hasn't come up more in pre-draft discussions. The 6-1, 250-pound hybrid linebacker was quite disruptive in his 40-game college career, racking up 21.5 sacks, 43 tackles for loss, 10 pass deflections and two interceptions. A creative defensive coach will find a way to take advantage of this unique skill set, with Bradford showing impressive rush skills and a gift for finding the ball as a run defender.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fails to garner respect in some circles despite having posted a 36-4 record and capturing two BCS titles in three seasons as Alabama's starting quarterback. Critics question his ability to put an offense on his back, despite the fact that his résumé includes several standout performances in big spots (see: contests against Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn last season, plus the 2012 and 2013 BCS National Championship Games). McCarron boasts superb game-management skills -- something nobody should belittle. While some think playing point guard on a team loaded with blue-chip talent is an easy task, McCarron's ability to distribute the ball efficiently should earn him high marks from NFL offensive coordinators. In addition, McCarron's keen understanding of situational football should make him the right guy for a team that simply needs a "winner" at the position to push it over the top.
Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina: It's easy to make the mistake of judging defensive ends by focusing extensively on sack production, but wise evaluators understand the importance of finding an edge defender with the ability to rush the passer and stop the run. Martin is one of the most complete defensive ends in the 2014 class, with a game built on strength and power as opposed to speed and finesse. In his senior season, Martin tallied 11.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and 82 total tackles, using a host of power moves to defeat blockers at the point of attack. While he lacks the tools to develop into a consistent double-digit sack artist in the NFL, Martin is a blue-collar defender capable of carving out a 10-year career as a left defensive end.
Tom Savage, QB, Pittsburgh: Savage has emerged as the unicorn of the 2014 draft, with analysts raving about his talent and potential as a franchise quarterback. While I certainly appreciate his prototypical physical dimensions and A-plus arm talent, Savage has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career -- and his willingness to flee competition (Savage transferred from Rutgers after losing his starting job to an unheralded player) leads to concerns about his mental fortitude. Savage's success as a senior at Pittsburgh was a byproduct of creative scheming by coach Paul Chryst, not spectacular individual play. Although an NFL offensive coordinator can craft an offense to help Savage succeed as a pro, I'm not convinced that he's a transcendent player ready to step in and direct an offense as a franchise quarterback.
Andre Williams, RB, Boston College: It's hard to knock a running back who tops the 2,000-yard mark in a single season, but that production doesn't necessarily equal NFL success, especially if the player has a straight-line running style that fails to translate to the pro game. When I watch Williams closely on tape, I don't see the vision, balance and body control needed to make nifty runs in congested areas. In addition, I don't see a runner with the special wiggle or power to avoid or blow through tacklers at the second level. Factor in his inconsistent hands and limited overall receiving skills, and it's hard for me to endorse the Heisman finalist as a potential difference maker at the position.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota: Yes, he possesses all of the physical tools that scouts covet in a defensive lineman, but the jury is still out as to whether Hageman has the "it" factor to be a dominant player at the next level. The Minnesota product displays inconsistent effort on tape and, despite being the most athletic player on the field on most downs, fails to log disruptive plays. Now, it's quite possible that the right coach could flip the switch in Hageman, leading the 6-6, 310-pound behemoth to realize his immense potential. But taking a chance on him early in the draft could be a costly gamble for a general manager/coach hoping for long-term job security.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.