The conclusion of the Super Bowl officially kicks off the 2014 NFL Draft season. Teams are currently huddled up in pre-NFL Scouting Combine meetings attempting to set their initial draft boards. Coaches and scouts are discussing their fall reports and all-star game analysis, while introducing the background information and potential character concerns. Given the amount of information flying around in these meetings, the final draft board will feature a host of tweaks and adjustments based on the new discoveries at workouts, interviews and pre-draft visits in the coming months.
With that in mind, I thought I would reveal my top prospects in the 2014 class. This list is not a mock draft, but my opinion on how the top prospects rank based on film study and conversations with various scouts around the league. If you disagree with the order or a player left off the list, feel free to voice your opinion to me via Twitter (@BuckyBrooks). Here's my first Big Board:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The freakishly talented pass rusher is an athletic marvel with the potential to wreak havoc on the NFL. Of course, concerns about Clowney's inconsistent motor and questionable judgment (Clowney was cited for speeding on multiple occasions) will prompt coaches and scouts to dig into his character, but the talent and potential far outweighs his immaturity at this point.
2. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
The Tigers' punishing running game was fueled by the dominance of Robinson on the edge. The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder is an impressive athlete with a nasty disposition. Most importantly, he is a technician with the body control and agility to neutralize elite rushers in pass protection.
3. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The buzz has seemingly cooled on Bridgewater's prospects, but astute evaluators recognize his exceptional intangibles and pocket-passing skills. Bridgewater capably makes every throw in the book with zip, velocity and touch. Additionally, he is a superb leader with a high football IQ and a knack for playing well in big games.
4. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Pass rushers with speed, athleticism and high motors are coveted at a premium at the top of the draft. Although he has spent only two seasons on the defensive side of the ball, Barr is one of the most disruptive defenders in the 2014 class.
5. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
After experiencing a slight sophomore slump, Watkins bounced back in a major way as a junior. The Tigers' standout was indefensible on the perimeter, displaying exceptional speed, quickness and burst with the ball in his hands. In addition, Watkins displayed improved route-running skills and awareness, making him a legitimate playmaking threat from anywhere on the field.
6. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
It's hard to find a better technician than Matthews in the college game. He plays with exceptional balance, body control and patience, while displaying a strong punch and active hands. Although Matthews will not impress scouts as an athlete in workouts, coaches will fall in love with the game tape when they study him extensively over the next few weeks.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
The most exciting player in college football will serve as a fascinating case study for evaluators in the spring. While Manziel is an improvisational wizard with an alpha dog mentality, he is an undersized quarterback who prefers to do his damage outside of the pocket. That trait will make him a coveted commodity by coaches willing to live on the edge, but some coaches will question whether Manziel can play within the confines of a rigid system.
8. C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama
Mosley is a fluid athlete with outstanding instincts, awareness and playmaking skills. He capably plays in base and sub packages, displaying the kind of versatility defensive coordinators covet at linebacker. In addition, Mosley is strong locker-room leader with a winning pedigree and experience playing in a pro-like system. Those intangibles are huge in some draft rooms, which is why he is a lock to be a top pick in the spring.
9. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Gilbert is a talented cover corner/kick returner with size, speed, athleticism and ball skills. Gilbert bounced back from a mediocre junior campaign to re-emerge as the top lock-down defender in college football. With teams poised to look for long, rangy athletes on the perimeter following the Seattle Seahawks' blueprint, Gilbert will be a hot commodity in draft rooms around the league.
10. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Offensive coordinators have made the tight end position the queen on the chessboard in the passing game, with big, athletic pass catchers terrorizing the middle of the field. Ebron is a dynamic athlete with explosive speed and soft hands. Although he remains a work in progress as a route runner, Ebron's natural talents could make him an immediate impact player as a pro.
11. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Considered a potential top-10 prospect a season ago, Lewan returned for his senior season to refine his technique as a standout pass protector. Lewan has certainly made tremendous strides throughout his career, suggesting his game will continue to improve at the next level.
12. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Once a prized recruit for the Seminoles, Jernigan has blossomed into a versatile interior defender capable of stopping the run or getting after the passer. The 6-2, 298-pounder plays with a relentless motor and shows exceptional body control battling blockers at the point of attack. Although Jernigan has only been a full-time starter for a season, he has shown enough potential to warrant serious consideration at the top of the draft.
13. Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
It's rare to find a big man with the kind of strength, power and athleticism that Tuitt displays on the edge. The 6-7, 320-pounder moves around like a dancing bear, yet flashes the strength and power to attack and win with brute force on the interior. With 20 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in three seasons, there are few doubts about his disruptive potential, but scouts would like to see Tuitt play with more effort and grit.
14. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
It's hard to find another defender in the 2014 class capable of matching Shazier's disruptive impact. The 6-2, 222-pound junior notched 15 sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss in three seasons, while serving as a "Jack of all Trades" defender for the Buckeyes. He is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker with the speed, quickness and burst defensive coaches covet at the second level. Size could be an issue based on his slender frame, but production and playmaking ability could outweigh those concerns on draft day.
15. Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
There is little doubt that Mack is a big-time playmaker with a knack for knocking the ball loose (FBS record 26 forced fumbles in his career) and making disruptive plays in the backfield. However, the fact that he played against lesser competition leads to some concerns about his ability to shine on a bigger stage. While his supporters will point to his spectacular performance against Ohio State, naysayers will cite the disappointing career of former MAC superstar Larry English as a cautionary tale of a small-school prospect failing to adjust to the NFL game. Now, I'm not saying that Mack is a "boom-or-bust" prospect, but I do believe the competition question will gain more steam as the draft process moves forward.
16. Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Martin might have been the most impressive offensive tackle at the Senior Bowl. He showed scouts that he was athletic enough to play left tackle, but some evaluators view him as a potential Pro Bowler at offensive guard. Regardless, the versatility makes Martin a hot commodity in draft rooms around the league.
17. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
The safety position is growing in importance around the NFL, with teams looking for athletic defenders capable of locking down tight ends and punishing running backs in the hole. Clinton-Dix fits the bill as a headhunting rover with solid ball skills. If he performs well at the combine, he should be the first safety off the board on draft day.
18. Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Classic nose tackles aren't valued like their 3-technique brethren, but Nix is a stout two-gap player capable of snuffing out inside runs between the tackles. Additionally, he is a space eater who allows agile linebackers to run freely to the ball without obstruction. With more teams employing traditional or hybrid 3-4 fronts, Nix's talents as an interior plugger are certainly valued by defensive-minded coaches.
19. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Dennard is arguably the most polished and pro-ready cornerback in this class, exhibiting sound technique, ball skills and toughness. He excels at cutting off a receiver's release angles, making it tough for the quarterbacks to squeeze the ball into tight windows. While there are concerns about Dennard's overall athleticism and top-end speed, the fact that he is so solid in his play will prompt defensive coaches to admire his game.
20. Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Pryor flew under the radar at Louisville due to overwhelming attention thrown in Teddy Bridgewater's direction, but scouts have been lauding his play and potential over the past year. Pryor is a punishing tackler with superb anticipation, awareness and timing. He attacks runners in the hole, yet displays the patience to read and recognize play-action pass. With the potential for a spectacular performance at the NFL Scouting Combine on the horizon, Pryor could shoot up the charts in the coming weeks.
21. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Scouts across the NFL will have to wage the production vs. potential debate when discussing Hageman. The 6-6, 311-pound defender is an athletic freak with the natural talent to blossom into a Pro Bowler. However, he is maddeningly inconsistent on tape and rarely produces the splash plays expected from a defender with his athletic gifts. Although he seemingly put it together at the Senior Bowl, the fact that he didn't consistently dominate makes it tough to rank him higher at this point.
22. Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The momentum is building behind Bortles as a franchise quarterback due to prototypical physical dimensions, arm talent and athleticism. He has checks in all of the boxes in those areas, but remains a work in progress as a playmaker in the pocket. Now, some coaches believe those traits can be developed on the practice field, making Bortles a candidate to go much higher than his film suggests at this time.
23. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Quarterback issues and nagging injuries marred Lee's play this season, but don't expect scouts to hold those issues against him leading up to the draft. The 6-0, 195-pound junior is an electrifying playmaker capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. He excels on "catch-and-run" plays where he can take advantage of his explosive quickness and running skills in the open field. While there are some concerns about his route running and concentration (drops), Lee is such an explosive weapon that teams in need of a playmaker will find it hard to bypass him if he is on the board.
24. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Carey has toiled in relative anonymity on the college football landscape despite posting 22 100-yard games over the past two seasons. The hard-nosed scat back excels at running between the tackles in a zone scheme, but flashes the burst to turn the corner on perimeter runs. In addition, Carey is a solid receiver out of the backfield with strong hands and superb ball skills. Scouts question whether Carey possesses elite top end speed, but his toughness, vision and short-area quickness should make him an impressive playmaker as a pro.
25. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Donald has been rising up the charts since posting a dominant senior campaign that prompted scouts to compare his game to Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins. The 6-1, 288-pounder dominated the Senior Bowl drills with his exceptional first-step quickness and burst, yet also displayed impressive strength, power and leverage against the run. The spectacular showing erased some doubts about his size being a factor at the next level, boosting his stock in draft rooms across the NFL.
On the bubble:
» Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
» Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
» Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
» Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
» Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
» Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
» Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
» Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
» Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
» Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
» Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
» Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
» Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
» Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.