2017 NFL Draft

Big Board: Rise of linebacker Mack reaches No. 5 -- or maybe No. 1

by | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

January is a chaotic month for scouts. They spend the month traveling to senior All-Star games, all while attempting to catch up with the ever-growing number of underclassmen making themselves available for the upcoming draft.

February brings clarity and relative calm; scouts can finally assess the totality of the draft class.

What they're discovering is just how much improved the 2014 group is compared to last year, including at some of the game's most critical positions -- quarterback and pass rusher.

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. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-6, 268, 4.65)*: There is no denying that Clowney failed to live up to expectations statistically-speaking. He also inflamed concerns about his maturity with two speeding tickets before the Gamecocks' bowl game. Clowney's red flags are real, but so is his talent. Imposing, explosive and more technically sound than many realize, Clowney competes only with former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers (2002) as the most gifted defensive end prospect I have ever seen.

2. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, 5.14): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliché' 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 in the NFL.

3. OT Greg Robinson, Auburn, (6-5, 320, 5.38)*: Redshirt offensive linemen rarely earn more than a whisper in scouting circles, but the buzz generating around the Tigers' star left tackle is starting to become 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 that could lead to his earning a higher selection come draft day.

4. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-3, 220, 4.65)*: In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passes and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. 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. Those traits make Bridgewater an ideal fit in new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien's offense, making him the safest candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft.

5. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 248, 4.66): 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. Versatility could land him a spot in the top five. Some even view him as a dark horse candidate for the Texans at No. 1 overall.

6. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 200, 4.49)*: NFL scouts love players who rise to the occasion in big games, and no one played better under the bright lights of bowl mania than Watkins, whose 16 catches for 227 yards and two scores guided Clemson to a 40-35 victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Watkins is an explosive athlete whose instant acceleration, impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball should earn him Pro Bowl consideration early in his NFL career.

7. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-4, 238, 4.73): 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. QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida (6-3, 230, 4.78)*: 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, whose Penn State team was beaten by Bortles' UCF team in 2013.

9. OLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (6-2, 232, 4.56): 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. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 195, 4.51)*: 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. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-11, 197, 4.52): 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. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina (6-4, 245, 4.67)*: Ebron possesses 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.

13. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (5-11, 210, 4.45)*: 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. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 303, 4.89)*: 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. OL Zach Martin, Notre Dame (6-4, 308, 5.15): The vast majority of Martin's school record 52 career starts came at left tackle but his square-ish frame and 32 1/4" 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. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 310, 5.04): Possessing an impressive combination of size, strength and toughness, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career with the Wolverines. Lewan was one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2013 campaign in Ann Arbor. Before drafting him, however, NFL teams will want to investigate Lewan's role -- if any -- in an alleged assault on an Ohio State fan following this year's Big Game.

17. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 225, 4.58)*: Like his former teammate Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he has shown star ability in dominating the SEC. Evans reminds scouts of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Vincent Jackson in that he uses his size and physicality to win contested passes. It is worth noting, however, that Evans struggled against defenses that matched his physicality and made most of his big plays on relatively simple vertical routes.

18. OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (6-5, 312, 5.12)*: 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. TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (6-5, 260, 4.67)*: 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. Despite Amaro's size, he doesn't provide much as a blocker as he was split out wide as a glorified slot receiver throughout most of his collegiate career. In this role he has proven to be a Jimmy Graham-like matchup nightmare for defenders.

20. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-2, 215, 4.78): 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. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200, 4.52): 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. FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville (6-2, 208, 4.55)*: With all of the focus on quarterback 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.

23. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6-6, 318, 4.95): 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.

24. DE/OLB Dee Ford, Auburn (6-2, 243, 4.67): 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.

25. DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State (6-2, 298, 4.98)*: 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.

26. DE Kony Ealy, Missouri (6-5, 275, 4.77)*: 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.

27. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (6-2, 226, 4.58)*: 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 22.5 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.

28. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (5-10, 182, 4.49): 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.

29. DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh (6-1, 288, 4.90): 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.

30. OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU (6-3, 244, 4.70): 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.

31. CB Marcus Roberson, Florida (6-0, 195, 4.52)*: 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. FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama* (6-1, 208, 4.54)*: It has seemingly become an annual rite of passage for a Nick Saban-coached defensive back to earn a selection in the first round, and Clinton-Dix possesses the fluidity in coverage, ball skills (seven interceptions in 19 career starts) and flashes of physicality to continue this trend in 2014. A relatively weak class of safeties could push Clinton-Dix up the board. It is worth nothing, however, how few of Saban's former pupils have played up to their lofty pre-draft billing once in the NFL, which is among the reasons why Clinton-Dix ranks as a borderline first-round pick rather than a sure-fire star.

Just missed the cut:

RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona*
DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State*
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
TE Troy Niklas, Notre Dame*
OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA*
WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State*
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington*
QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State*
OT Morgan Moses, Virginia
RB Tre Mason, Auburn*
DT Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina*
WR Jarvis Landry, LSU*
OLB Marcus Smith, Louisville
OC Marcus Martin, Southern California*
OG David Yankey, Stanford*
DT William Sutton, Arizona State
WR Davante Adams, Fresno State*

Rob Rang (@RobRang) is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com


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