With 15 days to go until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell officially puts the Houston Texans on the clock at Radio City Music Hall, it's high time I joined colleagues Bucky Brooks and Daniel Jeremiah with my own rankings of the top prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft. So, tough as it is to do (big respect to all who do this on a continual basis), here are my top 32 players available this year:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, DE
All the detractors have a point -- Clowney's production was down last year, and it's up to teams to decide what to make of it. For me, his mix of skills and potential make him the player in this draft who will have the greatest impact in the NFL.
2. Sammy Watkins, Clemson, WR
We've seen this youngster dominate as a freshman, struggle as a sophomore with off-the-field issues and injuries, and then ascend again in his last season at Clemson. A true No. 1 WR, his talent can be breathtaking at times.
3. Khalil Mack, Buffalo, OLB
Mack plays the game with a mix of fury and intelligence -- he's still seeking to prove that all the schools that didn't recruit him out of high school made a mistake. Now, he will have to play to validate his high draft status. He can rush the passer, play the run, drop into coverage and makes game-changing plays in all areas.
4. Greg Robinson, Auburn, OT
His athleticism is off the charts for a prospect measuring 6-foot-5, 322 pounds, but it certainly doesn't make him a finesse player. Robinson dominates in the run game, and his pass-protection skills will grow quickly.
5. Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, OT
Not as flashy as the other top OTs, his technical skills are superb, and he's a much better athlete than people think. Patient in pass protection, he runs well, too, and hits moving targets downfield.
6. Taylor Lewan, Michigan, OT
It's so hard for me to separate the "Big Three" OTs, and they are ranked 1-3 in varying orders throughout draft rooms in the NFL. What I like about Lewan is his fludity of movement, paired with a triple shot of "nasty," making him a player that might not get out of the top 10.
8. Anthony Barr, UCLA, OLB
One of my favorite players in the draft, his ceiling is high, and potential just starting to be realized after beginning his career as a RB for the Bruins. At nearly 6-6, he has plenty of frame to add weight, and muscle. Some might see him as a pure DE instead of an OLB. In any case, he's a player that is coveted.
10. Mike Evans, Texas A&M, WR
When he flashed 4.53 speed in the 40-yard dash at the combine, he essentially checked the last box in his evaluation. Tall and rangy with an off-the-charts catch radius, he's a player that makes huge plays downfield, and not just on "jump balls." He runs all the routes, and can turn a short pass into a home run.
11. Eric Ebron, North Carolina, TE
Has the frame and ability to do it all as a tight end. He can flex out, move, and release from any spot in the formation. He can also block as a traditional in-line tight end, although his real value is that of a "move" TE that can make big plays downfield, and he can make huge ones.
12. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M, QB
Along with Jadeveon Clowney, one of the most talked about and polarizing players in the draft. Do you believe that Johnny Football will show the same big-play ability at the NFL level? Or, do you see him as an exciting, successful college QB that might struggle transitioning? I'm betting on the former as he grows as a player.
13. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State, CB
Really came into his own as a senior after a so-so junior campaign. Tall, lengthy defender that can run, while operating best in press coverage. Possesses excellent kickoff-return skills (Big 12 record six returned for TDs in his career) and showed his ball skills in 2013 with two pick sixes as well.
14. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville, QB
It's tough to separate Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, but with all the pre-draft evaluations seemingly downgrading Bridgewater, I'm guessing that he will take the lukewarm reviews that he's receiving and use them as fuel. Let's not forget that his three-season body of work is almost as impressive as his intelligence, and toughness (off the charts).
15. Odell Beckham, LSU, WR
At this point, he appears to be the consensus No. 3 WR in the draft. He can play outside the numbers, in the slot, and run all the routes. He can run and really stretch defenses, and also has return ability.
16. Zack Martin, Notre Dame, OL
Not flashy, but technically sound, durable, and eager to finish an opponent. He made 52 consecutive starts (a Notre Dame record) and could easily survive at LT, but is versatile enough that many view him as a future Pro Bowl Guard, and others are convinced he would make a good center.
17. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama, S
Often the top praise for this talent involves his range, and ability to play center field. That's deserved, but it doesn't cover the scope of his abilities. He's also a good tackler from the middle of the field, can play off the hash in two-deep coverage and has the makeup to cover in man.
18. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State, LB
Looks and moves like a strong safety, but hits like the LB that he is. Versatile, slated to be an OLB, but in today's NFL he might be plugged inside for some teams, and can be an every-down player. He showed his rare speed explosiveness at his pro day when he ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, and vertical jumped over 40 inches. Demonstrated his toughness at Cal last season as he left with a shoulder injury, went to the locker room, and returned with an explosive tackle right away.
19. Calvin Pryor, Louisville, S
Remember the line from "Caddyshack" where Bill Murray's character was describing the golf game of the Dalai Lama? "Big hitter, the Lama," he said. Calvin Pryor is the big hitter of this year's top two safeties (along with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix). However, don't underestimate his ability to patrol the deep ends of zone coverage or his ball skills. The skill that elevates him to first-round status, though, is his ability to run through players carrying the football.
20. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State, DT
Big body whose best work occurred over the center. He's also able to work as a three-technique, and sometimes a five-technique in 3-4 sets. Motor operates full throttle, holds his ground in the run game, and can get after the passer as an inside rusher. Good, strong hands at the point of attack.
21. Marqise Lee, USC, WR
In 2012, Lee was seen as the best WR in the country. He was a threat from anywhere on the field, and in the return game, too. But injuries and a new QB hurt his production in 2013, so there is heavy discussion about which player is the one that teams will buy into. At his best, Lee is silky smooth, and I thought he improved in 2013 despite the setbacks. He's explosive even though he lacks blazing speed.
22. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State, WR
Won the Biletnikoff Award as the best WR in the country in 2013 as he made 128 catches in a pro-style offense. Can run any route well, and worked from the slot and outside the numbers, though his future appears to be as a slot who's not just quick, but very fast, too (4.33 speed). Hands, speed, and intelligence mixed with steely determination.
23. Bradley Roby, Ohio State, CB
At the end of 2012, Roby was squarely in the argument for best CB in the nation. He's tough, and will tackle, with really good feet. Bounced back from a slow start to '13 after a one-game suspension to play his best down the stretch. Was tremendous vs. Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game before getting hurt. Also, a good special-teamer (kick blocker).
24. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State, CB
Operated out of Michigan State's press-man quarters defense well enough to win the Thorpe Award for best defensive back in college football. He has a tenacious, physical style that wore on WRs and had QBs looking to throw the ball elsewhere. People questioned his speed, but showed at the combine that he has more than enough to thrive in the NFL (4.51 40). A very good tackler, too.
25. Blake Bortles, Central Florida, QB
This feels too low for what I think Bortles will ultimately develop into. Has classic size and skill set to play QB in the NFL at 6-5 and 230 pounds with the ability to not just buy extra time in the pocket, but hurt a defense with his running ability (see Fiesta Bowl vs. Baylor). It's not a howitzer, but his arm is plenty strong, and he works very well under pressure (fourth-quarter performances at Penn State, Louisville, and Temple testify to that). Could easily become the best QB of this class.
26. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State, RB
Watched him closely during the season, and thought he was the top RB in the nation from about midseason to the end. With a compact, strong frame, he does not shy away from carries and catches the ball way better than his bruising running style might suggest. Missed first three games of the 2013 season due to a suspension for an off-field incident, otherwise his totals would really stand out. Reminds many of Packers RB Eddie Lacy, and I think Hyde can be the better player.
27. Louis Nix, Notre Dame, DT
Plays his best when his weight is south of 330 pounds. Can hold the point of attack, and work his way upfield vs. the passing game. Big personality, bills himself as "Irish Chocolate," and enjoys himself on the field. It will be interesting to see how teams value him, as either a zero-technique nose tackle or as a one- or three-technique DT.
28. Morgan Moses, Virginia, OT
Huge talent who looks the part of massive road-grading OT, but exhibited more nimble feet than expected at the Senior Bowl, so it would not be a surprise to see him drafted to play on the left side. Has experience playing both sides (even during the same game) in college, and he could easily be picked late in the first round by a team with a screaming need for a starting LT.
29. Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, DT
Built like a classic inside DT, and has the athleticism to play DE in the 3-4. When you watch his tape, you will see him make plays that elicit a "Wow," but then you might not see much activity for a while. Potential is evident, just needs to play with more consistency. If he adds that, look out.
30. Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama, OT
Was in consideration for best LT in college football as the 2013 season began, but had some struggles during the year. Still a big, strong player whose offseason workouts got progressively better. If he plays to 2012 form, he can start immediately at left or right tackle.
31. Jason Verrett, TCU, CB
Yes, I can't help it. Due to his size (5-10, 176 pounds) I call him "Mighty Mouse," and I hope he's not offended. It's meant as a pure compliment for the CB that I believe has the best footwork in the draft. He has 4.38 speed in the 40 to go along with a 39-inch vertical jump, which translates into helping offset his lack of height and length. He can play outside as well as in the slot, and he's a fearless tackler. One of my favorites.
32. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech, CB
Good-sized, well-coached, aggressive player. Will make for an excellent starting CB in the league. Plays his position with good vision, and intelligence. Can run and tackle, and with the league throwing it around more than ever, he's what teams needs -- a good cover man who can also play the run. Can work inside to cover the slot, too.
On the bubble (in alphabetical order):Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State; Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State; Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State; Kony Ealy, Missouri DE; Dee Ford, DE, Auburn; Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU; Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State; AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama; Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington; Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA; Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame.