After months of speculation, the finish line is in sight -- the NFL draft is just nine days away and teams are putting the finishing touches on their draft boards. The path to the draft has been perilous for some top prospects, though. Here's a look at five players who have faced intense scrutiny during the evaluation process. Some appear to have survived it, while others have been knocked off course, failing to emerge unscathed.
Clowney has been raked over the coals all offseason. He's been criticized for a drop-off in production last season. Some have questioned his work ethic and conditioning -- there have been plenty of questions asked about whether he will play hard after getting a big payday. Yet, he's still the consensus No. 1 prospect and is likely to be the top pick in the draft. There's even talk that the Falcons might pay the price to trade from No. 6 to No. 1 to land him.
Early in this process, we kept hearing Bridgewater was the most pro-ready quarterback in this year's class and most seemed to have him as the No. 1 QB on the board. But concerns started to creep up about the Louisville signal-caller's slight build, even though he displayed great toughness playing through injuries during his career. Then came his pro day, when he struggled mightily during his workout, and that started the free fall. He's still the No. 2 QB on my board, but my colleague Mike Mayock has him tied for fifth with LSU's Zach Mettenberger in his latest rankings, and some are suggesting Bridgewater might not even go in the first round.
At the start of the 2013 season, Kouandjio was widely considered one of college football's top tackles, if not the top tackle. He had a rough opening game for Alabama against Virginia Tech, though, and some hiccups along the way during the season before struggling against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. He didn't have a good showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, where reports of medical concerns about his knees started to flare up. He went into a free fall, going from one of the top tackles to maybe outside of the top five at the position. However, the aftermath of the combine might have been his bottoming-out point. He had a nice pro day, and I think he has rebounded. We're hearing his name back in the first-round discussion after he went through a shaky stretch when the perception was that he would fall into the second.
Coming off a game-winning catch for Florida State in the national championship game, Benjamin was on the rise this winter and was being connected to the Steelers as an ideal fit for them with the No. 15 pick. But he ran slower than expected at the combine (4.61 40-yard dash) and his stock started to slip. I've had some sources tell me they think he might go in the second round. He seemed like a lock for the first round at one point, and might still go in the opening round, but his star has faded.
Coming off his impressive combine performance, Oklahoma State's Gilbert was the draft's hottest cornerback prospect, but much appears to have changed since then. I still have him as the No. 1 CB on my board, but I've had NFL people tell me I'm too high on him. The consensus might be shifting to Darqueze Dennard as the No. 1 player at corner, and CBs Bradley Roby of Ohio State and Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech have been climbing draft boards -- there's chatter that Gilbert's wait on draft day could be much longer than some expect. On the surface, there seem to be more questions about him than one would have expected leaving the combine in February.