Georgia Tech rebounded from a 2013 draft shutout when OLB/DE Jeremiah Attaochu (second round, San Diego), LB Brandon Watts (seventh round, Minnesota) and DB Jemea Thomas (sixth round, New England) all drew draft selections earlier this year. The Yellow Jackets look to build on a seven-win '13 campaign and will do so with the help of some intriguing DB and LB talent in heady senior safety Isaiah Johnson and versatile linebacker and 32-game starter Quayshawn Nealy.
Paul Johnson's Flexbone offense may once again hamper the team's ability to showcase offensive talent, but senior All-ACC guard Shaquille Mason and gifted WR Darren Waller have a chance to draw NFL interest with their unique skills.
Georgia Tech's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
SS Isaiah Johnson (6'1 | 213 | 4.67 | #1)
Prior to sitting out all of 2013 following knee surgery, Johnson wrapped up a junior year (2012) that saw him lead the team in tackles (87), including 4.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a sack and an interception return for a touchdown - the second return TD of his career. He was cleared to play mid-way through 2013, but opted instead to utilize a fifth year and prepare for a full senior season in 2014.
Johnson may not be a flashy safety, but he's an underrated athlete with desirable size and good speed who plays physical in the box and demonstrates good instincts both in coverage and against the run. He redirects well, has a strong first-step downhill and plays physical while maintaining good technique as a tackler. And although he's not a vacuum, Johnson has been a better-than-fair playmaker as a pass defender with five career interceptions including two that were returned for touchdowns. He's also been a dean's list student and has been active in his community, so he comes with desirable character qualities.
Johnson's NFL prospects will depend almost wholly on his ability to rebound from the knee injury, as he has certainly shown the traits, both tangible and intangible, that NFL teams look for in a starting-caliber safety, and a strong senior campaign could make him a draft target next spring.
OG Shaquille Mason (6'1 | 311 | 5.27 | #70)
A 26-game starter at guard,and multi-award winner in the ACC in 2013, including All-ACC First-Team accolades and two ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week awards, Mason has overcome size limitations to become an intriguing prospect to watch leading up to the draft.
At 6'1, and just over 300 pounds, Mason has utilized leverage, quickness and impressive instincts to take on bigger ACC defenders and more than hold his own, since initially cracking the lineup as a true freshman in 2011. His reliance on technique to stay grounded is certainly something to watch in 2014 though, as he does get overpowered at times when coming off the snap too high, and he struggles to disengage occasionally when asked to change stations or pickup a blitz.
When it comes to interior linemen, NFL teams love quick, athletic guards like Mason. However, with more and more 330-pound-plus road grader types who possess similar athleticism coming available, a guy like Mason could easily go overlooked until the latter rounds of the draft, or even find himself a UDFA looking for an NFL roster spot with "diamond-in-the-rough" upside come camp.
Other Georgia Tech prospects to watch in 2014:
LB Quayshawn Nealy (6'0 | 236 | 4.82 | #54)
Versatile, smart, active and tough competitor who gives you a little bit of everything. He can play the run, drop into coverage (6 career INTs) or rush the passer, and is one of the more experienced linebackers in the ACC with 32 career starts. Isn't the eye-popping athlete that teams look for in the upper rounds of the draft, but could potentially be a David Hawthorne type of prospect who makes a roster on toughness, instincts and versatility.
WR Darren Waller (6'5 | 232 | 4.54 | #88)
Huge, athletic receiver who led all Georgia Tech wide receivers with 17 receptions for 367 yards and 3 TDs in 2013. Demonstrates soft hands, tracks the ball well vertically and is naturally a contender for any jump ball. Faces a two game suspension to start 2014 after violating team rules, so he'll need to maximize every opportunity in 2014 to showcase his ability to NFL scouts considering the Yellow Jackets' limited pass, run-heavy Flexbone offense.