The annual NFL combine in Indianapolis is equal parts job fair and made-for-television track meet.
Elite athletes including South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks deserve the attention gained from burning up the 40-yard dash inside Lucas Oil Stadium. But the biggest gains -- and losses -- in terms of draft position stem from impressions made during interviews and extensive medical testing.
To earn a first-round grade, prospects need to possess a combination of elite athleticism on the field while showing poise and professionalism off it.
My Big Board is not a mock draft, and does not factor in team needs. It is simply a ranking of the best draft-eligible prospects in the country.
* Denotes underclassmen
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (6-5, 266, 4.53)*: There is no question Clowney failed to live up to expectations in 2013 from a statistical standpoint but as he demonstrated in Indianapolis, the South Carolina star possesses a once-in-a-generation combination of size and explosiveness. Whether at defensive end or outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, he'll make an immediate impact in the NFL, precisely why he has been my top-rated prospect since last spring.
2. OT Greg Robinson, Auburn (6-5, 332, 4.92)*: Physical and tenacious, Robinson is a grizzly bear in the running game, mauling opponents with an exciting blend of size, strength and athleticism. Auburn's reliance on the running game, however, provided Robinson few opportunities in pass protection. With some polish, he could prove an Orlando Pace-like presence in the NFL.
3. OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6-5, 308, 5.07): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliche true -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He played well at left tackle last season after starring at right tackle for three years and like his father, projects well to any position along the offensive line. While perhaps not an elite athlete, Matthews is a terrific football player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency.
4. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-1, 211, 4.43)*: Watkins lacks 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.
5. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3, 251, 4.65): 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 last 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 six. Some, in fact, view him as a dark horse candidate for the Texans at No. 1 overall.
6. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-2, 214, 4.67)*: 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) came out of a pro-style offense that required 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. Bridgewater did not throw at the combine, electing to wait until his pro day March 17.
7. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA (6-5, 255, 4.66): 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 and bend around the corner make him an immediate threat as 3-4 rush linebacker or potential conversion to defensive end in the 4-3. He does not yet possess ideal strength, however, as his 15 repetitions of 225 pounds at the combine indicates.
8. QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida* (6-5, 232, 4.93): A prototypically built pocket passer with good awareness, athleticism and arm talent, Bortles looks the part of an NFL star quarterback. He also played well against top talent (including South Carolina, Penn State and Baylor) and impressed me with his willingness to compete at the combine. He was good -- not great -- during his workout in Indianapolis, remaining a bit methodical in his set-up and delivery of the ball and a bit inconsistent with his accuracy. His upside will earn him the top ranking at quarterback for some, but it is not accurate to characterize him as a "can't miss" prospect.
9. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-11, 199, 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 last season, and was recognized with the Thorpe Award as the nation's elite defensive back. A solid workout in Indianapolis eased concerns about his straight-line speed.
10. DE Kony Ealy, Missouri (6-4, 273, 4.92)*: 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.
11. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0, 202, 4.37): With the NFL increasingly favoring offenses, the value of playmakers on either side of the ball has never been higher. Gilbert led the Big 12 with seven interceptions in 2013 and returned six kickoffs for touchdowns over his career. There are other defensive backs in this class who offer a more well-rounded game, but in terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill-set than the Cowboys star.
12. OLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (6-2, 234, 4.65): 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.
13. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (6-0, 207, 4.68)*: Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy while on the move make him a magician in the improvisational game. Red flags were raised with mediocre performances against LSU and Missouri to end the regular season, however, as each team was able to contain his backyard-style of play by penning him in the pocket. Unable to create throwing lanes with his legs, Manziel struggled, raising concerns about his anticipation and accuracy in a muddied pocket. Manziel could have alleviated some of their concerns by throwing well at the combine, but skipped the passing drills to focus on his March 27 pro day. However, I was impressed with his composure at the podium in Indianapolis.
14. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (6-5, 231, 4.53)*: 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. An impressive workout at the combine confirmed his unique athleticism has Evans' stock climbing.
15. OL Zack Martin, Notre Dame (6-4, 308, 5.22): The vast majority of Martin's school record 52 career starts came at left tackle but his square frame and 32 1/4-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 at the Senior Bowl.
16. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State (6-1, 237, 4.58)*: Shazier may lack elite size, 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 last season, they combine to rank among the best seasons from any Buckeye defender over the past quarter century.
17. DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State (6-2, 299, 5.06)*: Jernigan played a critical role in the Seminoles' run to the BCS title, showing a unique burst to penetrate gaps as well as the leverage and strength to hold up against the run. He possesses a powerful frame that makes him well-suited to handling interior duties in the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment and possesses exciting upside.
18. DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh (6-1, 285, 4.68): Given the way he dominated competition in the ACC and at the Senior Bowl and combine, no player has enjoyed a steadier rise up draft boards this year than Donald. His size likely limits him to a three-technique role in the 4-3 alignment but given the NFL's increasing reliance on the pass, he is entering the league at the perfect time to star in just this capacity.
19. WR Marqise Lee, Southern Cal (6-0, 192, 4.52)*: 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, Lee showed off his playmaking ability, hauling in seven passes for 118 yards and two scores. Lee didn't look as dynamic during the combine, however, raising even more concern about his long-term durability.
20. OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6-7, 309, 4.87): 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 balance to remain at left tackle against NFL speed rushers as he's faster than he is fluid in his kick-slide, but his length, power and nastiness make him an easy projection to the NFL.
21. FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville (5-11, 207, 4.58)*: Pryor was overshadowed a bit by Bridgewater while with the Cardinals, but his stock will climb once scouts turn their attention to the instinctive and hard-hitting defender. He measured in smaller (listed at 6-2, 208 by the Cardinals' official website) and slower than scouts would have liked at the combine but certainly plays big and fast.
22. DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame (6-2, 331, 5.42)*: To earn this high of a pick in the draft Nix will have to prove his health after knee surgery cut short his 2013 season. Nix prepared for the combine at EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance Institute) in Phoenix and his conditioning and confirmed recovery could make him one of the combine's "big" winners. When healthy, he has proven to be the best run-plugger of this class, controlling the middle with his girth, power and surprising athleticism.
23. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina (6-4, 250, 4.60)*: 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.
24. FS Hasean Clinton-Dix, Alabama* (6-1, 208, 4.58)*: While Pryor ranks as my top all-around player at the position, Clinton-Dix possesses the fluidity, instincts and ball-skills (seven interceptions in 19 career starts) to earn the title of the draft's best coverage safety. Clinton-Dix flashes rather than dominates, however, and it is worth noting how few of Alabama's highly-regarded defensive backs have lived up to their draft status since leaving Nick Saban's tutelage.
25. DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-5, 304, 4.92)*: Tuitt began his junior campaign out of shape (after missing spring due to hernia surgery) and struggled with consistency all season. He also was unable to work out at the combine after being diagnosed with a Jones fracture in his foot. He is highly athletic and possesses the frame to star as either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, however, earning comparisons to Richard Seymour from some scouts.
26. DE/OLB Dee Ford, Auburn (6-2, 252, 4.67): Ford dominated the Senior Bowl with his burst off the edge and surprising power. He has also shown intriguing agility when asked to drop into coverage, making him a candidate for virtually every team in the NFL. Medical red flags were raised at the combine due to an old back injury, which puts his stock in flux.
27. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (5-09, 189, 4.38): Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today's NFL, but agility and ball-skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz. He wowed at the combine with his speed but also raised concerns, announcing that he will undergo surgery after his pro day to repair a torn labrum.
28. OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA (6-4, 307, 5.04)*: Despite playing out of position at left tackle due to injuries to teammates, Su'a-Filo was voted the top offensive lineman in the Pac-12 by those who'd know -- the conference's defensive linemen. Quick, powerful and balanced, he's equally effective driving defenders off the ball in the running game or settling in pass protection.
29. OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU (6-3, 243, 4.71): Van Noy may not be the most physical linebacker in the draft, but he might just be the most efficient. As he demonstrated throughout a spectacular career in Provo and again at the Senior Bowl, he's just as slippery and savvy in attacking the line of scrimmage as he is in dropping back into coverage.
30. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6-6, 310, 5.02): Just as he did at times during his career with the Golden Gophers and at the Senior Bowl, Hageman flashed a dominating combination of size, strength and athleticism at the combine. Scouts wish he was more consistent but given his position and scheme versatility, Hageman is a first-round gamble worth taking.
31. WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State (5-10, 189, 4.33): Cooks has enjoyed quite the past six months, first winning the Biletnikoff as the nation's top receiver and then $100K at the combine from adidas for running the fastest 40-yard dash time for anyone wearing a pair of the company's cleats. The real winner, however, could be the NFL team that takes the dynamic athlete in the first round.
32. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-2, 214, 4.69): 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 Senior Bowl week. While no one questions Carr's arm, some wonder if he has the grit to hold up as the leader of an NFL huddle.
Just missed the cut:
OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama*
OC Marcus Martin, Southern California*
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
TE Troy Niklas, Notre Dame*
DE/OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford
DT DaQuan Jones, Penn State
WR Odell Beckham Jr., LSU*
FS Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State*
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington*
CB Marcus Roberson, Florida*
DT William Sutton, Arizona State
OT Morgan Moses, Virginia
WR Donte Moncrief, Mississippi*
CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
WR Davante Adams, Fresno State*
WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State*
Rob Rang (@RobRang) is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com