2017 NFL Draft

Big Board: Underclassmen bring talent, but maturity question marks

35 of Rob Rang's top 64 prospects are underclassmen. (USATSI)
35 of Rob Rang's top 64 prospects are underclassmen. (USATSI)

For its place in history the 2014 NFL Draft, lauded by media and NFL talent evaluators alike as the deepest in recent memory, will thank a record-breaking number of underclassmen who sweetened the pot. My Big Board is not a mock draft, and does not factor in team needs. It is simply a ranking of the best 64 prospects in the country.

It is a buyer-beware draft, however. A disproportionate number (35) of the top 64 top prospects available are underclassmen, evidence that the 2014 draft, might bring gifted talent yet lack the maturity to live up to expectations. This class is ripe with great expectations and reason for alarm -- all of which makes for the most provocative draft in years. (* denotes underclassmen)

1. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney* (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 at the combine and again April 2 at his pro day, 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. Auburn OT Greg Robinson* (6-5, 332, 4.92): Physical and tenacious, Robinson is a grizzly bear in the running game, mauling opponents with a 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 to be an Orlando Pace-like NFL presence.

3. Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack (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. He shaved more than a tenth of a second off of his 40-yard dash time during his pro day, demonstrating the athleticism to intrigue scouts from 3-4 and 4-3 teams. That versatility almost certainly will land him a spot in the top six. As I've been reporting since January, some even view him as a dark horse candidate for the Texans at No. 1 overall.

4. Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews (6-5, 308, 5.07): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliche -- 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.

5. Clemson WR Sammy Watkins* (6-1, 211, 4.43): Watkins lacks the elite size that helped WRs A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson earn top six selections since 2007, but possesses virtually everything else, including instant acceleration, impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball outside his frame. Watkins could go as high as No. 2 to the St. Louis Rams.

6. Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater* (6-2, 214, 4.67): Bridgewater was disappointing during his March 17 pro day, showing less zip and accuracy than in any game I've seen over his three seasons as a college starter. Rather than sling the ball with confidence, he threw tentatively, pushing the ball toward targets and forcing receivers to adjust too often. A case of nerves with an estimated 100 scouts in attendance isn't enough to drop him from my top spot among quarterbacks, especially since Bridgewater previously impressed with his poise and accuracy during big games. With his accuracy and success in a pro-style scheme -- coming to the line of scrimmage with multiple plays and picking the correct one based on the defense -- I believe Bridgewater is the most pro-ready quarterback of the class.

7. UCLA OLB Anthony Barr (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 is 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. He shaved nearly a quarter second off of his combine 40-yard dash time at UCLA's pro day, clocking in at 4.44 seconds and improved his numbers in the bench press from 14 to 19.

8. Central Florida QB Blake Bortles* (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 and his March 19 pro day, demonstrating plenty of velocity but inconsistent accuracy, especially on the deep ball. Bortles did show improved footwork at his pro day, evidence that he may only be scratching the surface of his potential.

9. Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard (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. Critics of his overall athleticism were rebuked with Dennard posting an 11-foot, 2-inch broad jump -- which would have tied Baylor running Lache Seastrunk for the longest recorded from any player tested at the 2014 combine.

10. Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert (6-0, 202, 4.37): With the NFL increasingly favoring offenses, the value of playmakers on either side of the ball never has been higher. Gilbert led the Big 12 with seven interceptions in 2013 and returned six kickoffs for touchdowns during 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.

11. Alabama OLB C.J. Mosley (6-2, 234, 4.65): While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the country's best pound-for-pound player. 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.

12. Texas A&M WR Mike Evans* (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 surprising combination of size, strength and 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. Evans sat on his numbers after a strong combine workout, but looked sharp in his cuts and displayed soft hands catching the ball from Manziel at their pro day.

13. Notre Dame OL Zack Martin (6-4, 308, 5.22): The vast majority of Martin's school record 52 career starts came at left tackle but his squareish 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 in Mobile.

14. Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald (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 more steady rise up draft boards 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.

15. Ohio State OLB Ryan Shazier* (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 combined to rank among the best seasons from any Buckeye defender over the past quarter century. Shazier's unique explosiveness also came through in tests. His 42-inch vertical jump led all participants at the 2014 combine and his 10-foot, 10-inch broad jump ranked fourth. Shazier also was unofficially clocked at a staggering 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his March 7 pro day.

16. Michigan OT Taylor Lewan (6-7, 309, 4.87): Massive, durable and ridiculously athletic for the position, Lewan's talent is obvious. The former defensive lineman plays with the tenacity and physicality you'd expect but remains overly reliant on his natural tools. Further, he sometimes allows his emotions to get the better of him, too often drawing silly penalties throughout his career. His reputation as an instigator wasn't helped with news that he's facing three misdemeanor assault charges based on an incident outside of a bar in Ann Arbor hours after his beloved Wolverines lost to Ohio State last season. Lewan has top 10 talent but in order to maximize his potential, he'll need to show improved maturity in the NFL.

17. Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel* (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 passing lanes with his feet, Manziel struggled with anticipation and accuracy. While there were no defenders at his March 27 pro day, Manziel did throw very well during a scripted 65-pass throwing regimen -- all while taking snaps from under center.

18. Missouri DE Kony Ealy* (6-4, 273, 4.92): While teammate Michael Sam generates more media attention, scouts are increasingly intrigued by Ealy because of his impressive combination of size and athleticism. He led all defensive linemen at the combine with a 6.83-second time in the 3-cone drill -- a test designed to show change-of-direction ability, and shaved more than a fifth of a second off of his combine 40-yard dash time (4.92) at his pro day (4.70). He remains a bit rough around the edges, but Ealy is a highly versatile defender who projects well to the 4-3 and 3-4 alike.

19. Louisville FS Calvin Pryor* (5-11, 207, 4.58): Pryor was overshadowed a bit by Bridgewater in college, 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 Louisville's official website) and slower than scouts would have liked at the combine but certainly plays big and fast.

20. Notre Dame DT Louis Nix III* (6-2, 331, 5.42): Though neither his combine nor pro day workout necessarily drew oohs and ahhs from scouts for aesthetic (or athletic) qualities, the portly nose guard proved during drills that he is fully recovered from the knee injury which prematurely ended his collegiate career. Stout, strong and surprisingly quick, Nix is the best nose guard of the 2014 draft -- a designation which could earn him a spot in the top 20.

21. North Carolina TE Eric Ebron* (6-4, 250, 4.60): Ebron possesses size a1nd 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. Some team may very well gamble earlier on Ebron's incredible upside than my ranking indicates, but he drops too many easy passes for a spot in the top 15 for me.

22. Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks (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 $100,000 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.

23. Alabama FS Hasean Clinton-Dix* (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 isn't without red-flags, however. He flashes rather than dominates and wasn't as athletic during combine drills as expected. It is also worth noting how few of Alabama's highly-regarded defensive backs have lived up to their draft status after leaving Nick Saban's tutelage.

24. Auburn DE/OLB Dee Ford (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 NFL team. Medical red flags were raised at the combine because of an old back injury, but he worked out quite well at his March 4 pro day. If teams are satisfied with his medical report, Ford is a cinch for the first round.

25. LSU WR Odell Beckham* (5-11, 198, 4.43): Given the competition he faced in the SEC, it is a testament to Beckham's athleticism that he stood out as a big-play threat throughout his career. It is the overall improved concentration and consistency he demonstrated in his first season in Cam Cameron's pro-style offense, however, that makes him such an easy projection to the NFL. Beckham's well-built frame and explosiveness make him potentially dynamic as a receiver and returner.

26. Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan* (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. Only one full season as a starter makes him a gamble in the first round.

27. Southern California WR Marqise Lee* (6-0, 192, 4.52): Lee looked like a future Pro Bowler during his first two seasons at Southern Cal but a nagging left knee injury hampered him for much of the 2013 season, robbing the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration, and his production plummeted. When healthy, he's proven himself to be a dynamic weapon but in a draft as blessed with receiver talent as this one, Lee's stock is very much on the bubble.

28. TCU CB Jason Verrett (5-9, 189, 4.38): Verrett lacks the size 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.

29. UCLA OG Xavier Su'a-Filo* (6-4, 307, 5.04): Despite playing out of position at left tackle because of injuries, 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.

30. Fresno State QB Derek Carr (6-2, 214, 4.69): Carr's staggering production (68.2 completion percentage, 50 TDs, 8 INTs) certainly was inflated by 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 and an eye-popping pro day workout. In short, there is no doubt that Carr is the most gifted thrower in this year's class. But there are questions about his poise, in part because he was 0-2 in bowl games with the Bulldogs.

31. Boise State DE/OLB Demarcus Lawrence* (6-3, 251, 4.80): A gifted pass rusher with enough athleticism to occasionally slip inside or drop back into coverage, Lawrence is eerily reminiscent of Bruce Irvin, the Seattle Seahawks "surprise" first-round pick in the 2012 draft. His length and varied pass-rush skills are enough to intrigue 4-3 and 3-4 teams.

32. Notre Dame DL Stephon Tuitt* (6-5, 304, 4.92): There is no questioning Tuitt's talent. He has shown a combination of size, strength and athleticism to earn comparisons to Richard Seymour from some scouts. However, there are plenty of red-flags with the talented defender, not the least of which was his decision to turn pro a year early despite a disappointing junior campaign that began with him clearly playing his way into shape. Tuitt was then sidelined for the Combine and Notre Dame's Pro Day due to a Jones fracture in his foot. I have some reservations about whether Tuitt will ever realize his potential, which is why he's slipped since the end of the season.

The next 32:

OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama*
FS Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
OT Morgan Moses, Virginia
CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State*
WR Donte Moncrief, Mississippi*
DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
WR Allen Robinson, Penn State*
DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State*
WR Davante Adams, Fresno State*
DT Will Sutton, Arizona State
WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State*
OC Weston Richburg, Colorado State
RB Bishop Sankey, Washington*
CB Marcus Roberson, Florida*
OG David Yankey, Stanford*
DE/OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford
DT DaQuan Jones, Penn State
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington*
RB Tre Mason, Auburn*
OC Marcus Martin, Southern Cal*
WR Bruce Ellington, South Carolina*
DE Marcus Smith, Louisville
ILB Carl Bradford, Arizona State*
SS Deone Bucannon, Washington State
OG Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
FS Terrence Brooks, Florida State
TE Troy Niklas, Notre Dame*
OT Ju'Wuan James, Tennessee
OL Joel Bitonio, Nevada


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