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2015 NFL DRAFT

Big Board: Clinton-Dix fits new NFL prototype at free safety

by | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
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Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be the next Earl Thomas at safety. (USATSI)
Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be the next Earl Thomas at safety. (USATSI)

In the notoriously copycat style of the NFL, teams will closely analyze how the Seattle Seahawks built their Super Bowl roster and how they may adapt some of those principles in their offseason plans. A dual-threat quarterback, fluid and physical secondary and the combination of speed and length along the defensive line are key characteristics that helped Seattle earn its first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

Fortunately for the other 31 teams in the NFL, the 2014 draft boasts a number of prospects who fit into this new template.

The Big Board isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the projected selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 50 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.

* denotes underclassman

1. Jadeveon Clowney*, DE, South Carolina (6-feet-6, 268 pounds): There is no question Clowney failed to live up to expectations in 2013 from a statistical standpoint, but upon closer review it was clear that opponents made stopping him their top priority, often assigning multiple blockers to slow him down. Boasting a once-in-a-generation combination of size and explosiveness, Clowney offers immediate impact ability at a premium position. He's a virtual guarantee to be the first defender selected and remains the favorite to go No. 1 overall simply because he is unquestionably the most talented player in the draft.

2. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 305): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliche true -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He has played well at left tackle this season after starring at right tackle over his first three years. Matthews is a terrific football player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency. He is not, however, an elite athlete and some view his future back on the right side or even at center in the NFL.

3. Greg Robinson*, OT, Auburn (6-5, 320): Redshirt offensive linemen rarely earn more than a whisper in scouting circles, but the buzz generating around the Tigers' star left tackle is venturing into deafening. Physical and tenacious, Robinson is a grizzly bear in the running game, mauling opponents with an exciting blend of size (6-5, 320 pounds), strength and athleticism. Auburn's reliance on the running game, however, has given Robinson few opportunities in pass protection, meaning he could struggle initially in this role. Robinson isn't as polished as Matthews, which is why he ranks behind the Aggies' star for me, but the redshirt sophomore possesses an extraordinary upside which could lead to his earning a higher selection come draft day.

4. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo (6-3, 248): With an FBS-record 16 career forced fumbles and record-tying 75 career tackles for loss, Mack's statistics jump off the page. Against the most gifted opponents he faced this year (Ohio State, Baylor, Connecticut), it was his game that jumped off the screen. His size, instincts and agility as an edge rusher make him equally intriguing to teams operating out of a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. That versatility could land him a spot in the top five. Some, in fact, view him as a darkhorse candidate for the Texans at No. 1 overall.

5. Sammy Watkins*, WR, Clemson (6-1, 200): Watkins doesn't possess the elite size that helped A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson earn top six selections since 2007, but he does possess virtually everything else -- including instant acceleration, impressive body control and the natural hands to pluck the ball outside of his frame. Watkins could go as high as No. 2 to the St. Louis Rams.

6. Teddy Bridgewater*, QB, Louisville (6-3, 210): In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passes and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production was due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy in the critical short to intermediate levels. His success (71 percent completion rate with 31 touchdowns against just four interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that requires him to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and complete NFL throws. His slight frame is a legitimate concern and he's not an elite deep ball passer, but he has shown great toughness over his career and is a better athlete than many realize.

7. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA (6-4, 238): Barr's emergence as one of the nation's elite NFL prospects after languishing as a running back early in his career has been well documented. Barr exploded in 2012 in his first season on the defensive side of the ball and backed it up with another spectacular campaign in 2013, including 65 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, earning him the Lott IMPACT Trophy. His burst off the snap is exciting but he flashes rather than dominates and is not as polished as his hype may lead you to believe.

8. Blake Bortles*, QB, Central Florida (6-3, 230): A prototypically built pocket passer with good awareness, athleticism and arm talent, Bortles looks the part of an NFL starting quarterback. He is methodical in his set-up and delivery of the ball and is a bit inconsistent with his accuracy, but the mettle he showed in guiding UCF to several comeback victories in 2013 has scouts buzzing. Bortles isn't as polished as Bridgewater, but he may possess an even higher upside. A top 10 pick is likely and it isn't out of the question that he'll rank as the best quarterback for some, potentially including new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, who Bortles' UCF team beat in 2013.

9. C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama (6-2, 232): While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass. Mosley lacks the bulk scouts want in a pass rusher but his awareness in coverage is special. While the tape is phenomenal, Mosley has undergone multiple surgeries (knee, shoulder) over his career and could be the latest Alabama player to receive medical red-flags from some evaluators.

10. Marqise Lee*, WR, Southern Cal (6-0, 195): A nagging left knee injury hampered Lee for much of the 2013 season, robbing the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State, however, Lee showed off his playmaking ability, hauling in seven passes for 118 yards and two scores. Lee's relatively slight frame could lead to durability issues in the NFL, but his first round skill-set is undeniable.

11. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State (5-11, 197): Quick feet, loose hips and a fluid turning motion make Dennard a classic cover corner capable of shutting down half the field. Dennard allowed only three completions in 31 passes of 15-plus yards targeted against him this season. His ability in coverage played a huge role in the Spartans' run to a Rose Bowl victory, and was recognized with Dennard winning the Thorpe Award as the nation's elite defensive back. The only factor keeping Dennard from a selection in the top half of the first round is the question about his straight-line speed.

12. Eric Ebron*, TE, North Carolina (6-4, 245): Ebron has a jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism that has earned comparisons to 49ers star Vernon Davis. Like Davis, however, Ebron struggles with consistency, relying too much on his athleticism rather than dedicating himself to learning the finer techniques of the position. Ebron is expected to be one of the stars of the Scouting Combine workouts.

13. Johnny Manziel*, QB, Texas A&M (5-11, 210): Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy while on the move make him a mesmerizing prospect who will almost surely be drafted earlier than I rank him. While dynamic throughout his career -- including in the Aggies' thrilling comeback over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- red flags were raised with mediocre performances against LSU and Missouri to end the regular season. Bottled in the pocket by both, Manziel was unable to throw his receivers open and he struggled. The NFL rule books have never been more accommodating to dual-threat passers, but consistent accuracy from the pocket remains the most critical element to quarterback play at the next level.

14. Stephon Tuitt*, DL, Notre Dame (6-5, 303): Clowney isn't the only highly regarded defensive lineman who struggled under the burden of monstrous expectations in 2013. After dominating as a sophomore, Tuitt began his junior campaign out of shape (after missing spring due to hernia surgery) and struggled with consistency all season. Highly athletic and possessing the frame to star as either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, Tuitt's upside is just too tantalizing to ignore. Tuitt is earning comparisons to Richard Seymour from some scouts.

15. Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame (6-4, 308): The vast majority of Martin's school record 52 career starts came at left tackle but his square-ish frame and 32¼-inch arms will earn him a projection inside to guard for many. Regardless of where he lines up, Martin plays with the controlled aggression I love along the offensive line, latching on and controlling opponents with excellent strength. Martin was the best player on the field in Mobile.

16. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (6-7, 310): The perception among many in the media is that Lewan's stock has fluctuated over the past two seasons, but among scouts he remains one of the more polished linemen in the draft. There is some debate as to whether he possesses the light feet to remain at left tackle against NFL speed rushers, but his length, power and nastiness make him an easy projection to the NFL.

17. Mike Evans*, WR, Texas A&M (6-5, 225): In dominating SEC competition the past two seasons, Evans has earned comparisons to Tampa Bay Bucs star Vincent Jackson, exhibiting a shocking combination of size, strength and deceptive speed. He is a nightmare to defend in jump-ball situations, a trait teams are finding increasingly valuable with the size of cornerbacks growing throughout the NFL.

18. Cyrus Kouandjio*, OT, Alabama (6-5, 312): Nick Saban questioned draft analysts for pegging Kouandjio as a first-round talent before the season, but given the junior left tackle's exciting skill set the projection has been an easy one. Long-armed, athletic and aggressive, Kouandjio boasts many of the traits scouts are looking for in a potential Pro Bowl offensive tackle. However, a lack of elite foot quickness was exposed by the Oklahoma Sooners pass rush in their Sugar Bowl upset win over the Tide.

19. Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn (6-2, 243): Ford's dominating performance at the Senior Bowl caught my attention and the film study I've done since confirm the exciting improvement he showed in 2013 -- his second season as a starter for the Tigers. Improving his burst, power and fluidity when dropping into coverage, the question is rapidly not if Ford will earn a selection in the top 32 but how high his rapidly escalating stock can take him.

20. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State (6-2, 215): Carr's staggering production (68.2 completion percentage, 50 TDs, 8 INTs) was certainly inflated by head coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack and legitimately talented receiving corps, but any questions about his talent were put to rest with a stellar week in Mobile. While no one questions Carr's arm, some wonder if he has the grit to hold up as the leader of an NFL huddle.

21. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200): In terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill-set than the Cowboys' star. Gilbert, a Thorpe Award finalist, led the Big 12 with six interceptions this season and has returned just as many kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.

22. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 318): Just as he did at times during his career with the Golden Gophers, Hagemen flashed a dominating combination of size, strength and athleticism at the Senior Bowl. Scouts wish he was more consistent but given his position and scheme versatility, Hageman is a first round gamble worth taking.

23. Timmy Jernigan*, DT, Florida State (6-2, 298): Jernigan played a critical role in the Seminoles' rise to the BCS championship, showing a unique burst to penetrate gaps as well as the leverage and strength to hold up against the run. His upside is undeniable and could earn him a significantly higher grade for some. The fact that he's started just one year at the collegiate level and was clearly gassed against Auburn raises red-flags about his readiness for the NFL, however.

24. Ryan Shazier*, OLB, Ohio State (6-2, 226): Shazier may be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts would prefer but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender that offenses must account for on every snap. Statistics don't always tell the story, but they do with Shazier, whose 143 tackles, including an eye-popping 22½ tackles for loss, not only led the Big Ten this season, they combine to rank among the best seasons from any Buckeye defender over the past quarter century.

25. Kony Ealy*, DE, Missouri (6-5, 275): While teammate Michael Sam garnered more hype, scouts are increasingly intrigued by Ealy due to his impressive combination of size and athleticism. A highly versatile defender with experience inside and out for the Tigers, Ealy projects nicely to both the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments and the first-team All-SEC pick is just scratching the surface of his potential.

26. Calvin Pryor*, FS, Louisville (6-2, 208): With all of the focus on QB Teddy Bridgewater, Pryor was overshadowed a bit with the Cardinals but his stock will climb once scouts turn their attention to the instinctive and hard-hitting defender. Boasting the size, agility and physicality that every team is looking for to lead the deep patrol, Pryor is my top-rated safety of the 2014 draft class and projects as a first round pick if he can assure scouts of his straight-line speed.

27. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU (5-10, 182): Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today's NFL, but agility and ball-skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012. Through the end of the 2013 regular season he led again in pass deflections (16) while recording two pass thefts. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz.

28. Hasean Clinton-Dix*, FS, Alabama (6-1, 208): Seattle All-Pro Earl Thomas has emerged as the new prototype free safety due to his remarkable speed and ball-skills, virtually eliminating opponents' ability to throw deep against the Seahawks. Clinton-Dix possesses the fluidity in coverage, instincts (seven interceptions in 19 career starts) and physicality to take advantage of teams' eagerness to find a Thomas-like weapon in the deep patrol.

29. Jace Amaro*, TE, Texas Tech (6-5, 260): The NFL is looking for seam threats rather than extra blockers at tight end in today's game and there wasn't a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro, who finished the regular season with 106 catches for 1,352 yards -- the most ever from a tight end in FBS history. Comparisons to New Orleans star Jimmy Graham are common. They are warranted not only due to the problems he poses for defenses as a receiver but unfortunately also for his lack of overall physicality.

30. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh (6-1, 288): Donald was arguably the Senior Bowl's MVP throughout the first three days of practice, routinely penetrating to make big plays behind the line of scrimmage in the same fashion that led to his earning CBSSports.com's Defensive Player of the Year, along with a host of other awards. Scouts wonder if he can hold up to the size and power of the NFL as a full-time defender but given his burst, 8-10 sacks a year as a pass-rush specialist three-technique defensive tackle deserves late first round consideration for me.

31. Marcus Roberson*, CB, Florida (6-0, 195): Limited to just seven games (including only four starts) in 2013 due to a knee injury and one-game suspension for violation of team rules, Roberson surprised many with his decision to leave early for the NFL. While his knack for sustaining injuries (he also missed three games in 2011 with a neck strain) is certainly cause for concern, Roberson started 18 games over his career and his fluidity, awareness and competitiveness at the catch-point are obvious. If team doctors clear him at the Combine, expect Roberson's stock to steadily rise as the draft approaches.

32. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU (6-3, 244): Van Noy may not be the most physical linebacker in the draft but he's might just be the most efficient. As he demonstrated throughout a spectacular career in Provo and again in Mobile, he's just as slippery and savvy in attacking the line of scrimmage as he is in dropping back into coverage.

Just missed the cut

Ka'Deem Carey*, RB, Arizona
Scott Crichton*, DE, Oregon State
Bradley Roby*, CB, Ohio State
Troy Niklas*, TE, Notre Dame
Xavier Su'a-Filo*, OG, UCLA
Kelvin Benjamin*, WR, Florida State
Austin Seferian-Jenkins*, TE, Washington
Brandin Cooks*, WR, Oregon State
Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Kelcy Quarles*, DT, South Carolina
Jarvis Landry*, WR, LSU
Jeremy Hill*, RB, LSU
Marcus Smith, OLB, Louisville
Marcus Martin*, C, Southern California
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State
Davante Adams*, WR, Fresno State
Jimmie Ward, FS, Northern Illinois

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