It's that time of year again when football fanatics twiddle their thumbs anxiously as hardly anything happens, and game day feels like a distant illusion, a trick of the mind. The NFL Combine may have come and gone, but that's something of an overpriced appetizer for the NFL appetite. The NFL draft is the first real meal for the football fan to sink his or her teeth into, because the reality is, every team in the league lives and dies by their draft success. It's the most important series of decisions made by a franchise in the entire year. And we get to watch.
For football fans who haven't been following college football stars' ascension and plummet from grace, now is the time to get to know them. Right now, before the draft has come, they are the weapons potentially stocking your arsenal and practically all of them look dangerous.
But that's the fun of it, isn't it?
Experts, scouts and draft gurus can all make their lists, check them twice, decide who's been naughty or nice, but in the end they all are about as clueless as everyone else. If college prospects were easy to classify in terms of NFL success, the draft and the NFL in general would be far, far less entertaining. But instead we are given the gift of uncertainty, and heroes come from out of nowhere (Nick Foles, Alfred Morris) to electrify the NFL season, and others freefall from expectations (Ryan Leaf, Vernon Gholston) to leave us in shock.
So when May rolls around, bust out your favorite jersey and explain to your significant other that yes, this is important and no, it's not boring, and get ready to watch these top college prospects find a home with an NFL team. Maybe yours.
10 Eric Ebron - TE - North Carolina
Anyone even slightly paying attention to the football world knows just how much a premiere pass-catching tight end can totally open up the field for an offense. All the proof you need lies in the 2013 Patriots. With Rob Gronkowski nursing a bevy of injuries, and Aaron Hernandez inspecting the dimensions of a Massachusetts state prison cell, the Patriots offense the first half of the season was so anemic that only their run game saved them from total disaster status.
Eric Ebron figures to be one of those game-changing tight ends if he can live up to the billing. In college he routinely made corners look to small, safeties and linebackers look too slow, and nabbed passes out of the air like a frog catching flies. It's always impressive when college players already have well developed route-running skills. He set an ACC record high 973 yards by a TE in 2013, averaging 16.1 yards per catch in his college career. He's basically a lock to go somewhere in the first round of the 2014 draft, because no team wants to pass up on potential monster production at tight end.
9 Teddy Bridgewater - QB - Louisville
Ah, Quarterbacks. The most gambled-on position in the draft. The right QB selection can change a team, a franchise, a fan base for decades. Truthfully, I have no clue which QB prospect will or will not end up a superstar. If I did, someone would be paying me bazillions of dollars. All I can do is what everyone else does; research, watch tape, and make educated guesses.
As for Teddy Bridgewater, there's certainly a lot to like. Over three seasons at Louisville he threw for 9817 yds, 72 TDs and only 24 INTs. Granted, stats can be deceiving, but Bridgewater showed many traits you look for at the next level; he operated a pro-style offense for the Cardinals, has great footwork and passing rhythm, he can read defenses and anticipate throws, and he has plenty of toughness as evidenced by his win over Rutgers in which they secured a BCS berth in 2012--he played with a broken wrist and a twisted ankle. Arguably he's not very mobile, but many of the QB greats never were. I would be shocked if he lasted past the Vikings with the 8th pick.
8 Johnny Manziel - QB - Texas A&M
I'm sure legions of fans will be unhappy with Manziel being anywhere other than #1 on any of these kinds of lists, but the reality is he looks extremely boom-or-bust as far as the NFL goes. The overwhelming likelihood is he either ends up a Brett Favre-esque legendary gunslinger, or his play style is going to backfire badly. My impression is that this is very dependent on where he lands, because personally I believe he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL. His elusiveness can be deadly if he's smart about it, and he needs coaches that will help him be more disciplined in his decision making (his biggest weakness was taking very high-risk, high-reward decisions--he basically had to do it to win some epic games for TA&M).
It can't be ignored that he seems to thrive in high-pressure games, and has the infectious leadership of believing he can win any game no matter what he faces. He won the Heisman as a freshman, and in two years put up 7820 passing yds, 63 pass TDs, 22 INTs, 2169 rush yds and 30 rushing TDs. Johnny football could go anywhere from 1st overall to the 2nd round. I can't wait to see this kid enter the NFL and see what happens. It'll certainly be entertaining either way.
7 Marqise Lee - WR - University of Southern California (USC)
The good news for a team with skill position needs is this draft is deep in that category, wide receiver especially, and near the top of the list sits Marqise Lee. Not many receivers get to win the Biletnikoff Award, and many of them go on to be great NFL players. Marqise looked to be far and away the best receiver in college football for so long it seemed to be a sure-fire thing. We'll find out on draft day if a team believes he is, but there's another WR on this list that will probably usurp that honor. Regardless, Lee is lightning fast, incredible in space, and has excellent route-running capabilities already. He averaged 14.7 yards per catch for the Trojans in three years, and had 3655 yards and 29 TDs despite a number of injuries. Speaking of, probably the only thing keeping Lee down on draft boards is durability concerns due to the knee and leg injuries he's endured over his time at USC. He's young though, and has shown he's not rattled by adversity. He'll be taken in the first round.
6 Blake Bortles - QB - University of Central Florida (UCF)
Blake Bortles' game will translate well to the NFL because of one phrase: stand tall and deliver. Okay, that's a little dramatic, but in all seriousness, Bortles' strengths are those you want to see in the NFL. He keeps his eyes downfield, can deliver passes under duress and in the face of big hits, and he passes very well out of rollouts and play action. It helps that he's big, tall and has a great sense for evading pressure. The main detractions from his game is his sloppy footwork and having run much of his offense out of the shotgun. My feeling is he will have serious growing pains his rookie season but will take off after that. He might not have the strongest arm in the draft but he already plays a very smart brand of football that you look for in an NFL QB. In two and change years he racked up 7,598 yds, 56 TDs and 19 INTs and took a virtual unknown college team to new heights its first BCS bowl win ever. I have a feeling he will be the first QB taken in this year's draft.
5 Khalil Mack - OLB - Buffalo
Khalil Mack looks like the real deal. He's a pass rusher, a run stopper, and can drop into passing lanes. Want proof? the best competition he faced in his college career was against Ohio State. He racked up two and half sacks, nine tackles and a pick-six. Not a bad stat line. He played out of his mind for four years for Buffalo, racking up 75 tackles for a loss, 28.5 sacks, 4 INTs and 16 forced fumbles. His pass-rush already displays a diverse repertoire of moves, and his motor might just be a turbine engine. You can bet he'll go in the first round and probably come off the board real fast.
4 Greg Robinson - OT - Auburn
Everyone knows how incredible Auburn's run game was in 2013. Everyone they played knew that all you had to do was stop the run game and you could beat then. No one could. Auburn averaged a ridiculous 328 rushing yards per game. That doesn't happen without an incredible offensive line. The lynch pin of that line was Greg Robinson. He routinely bulldozed defenders, created gaping holes and released to the second level to generate downfield blocks. The only thing stopping him from being a sure-fire top pick is a lack of polish in his pass protection. But he appears to have the talent to become a great pass protector with some coaching on his technique with his hands. He's going to be a force to be reckoned with wherever he goes, and can spearhead a strong run game almost entirely on his own. Guaranteed first round choice.
3 Jadeveon Clowney - DE - University of South Carolina (SCAR)
Yes, he's a beast of a person. Yes, he's freakishly fast. Yes, he blew up that Michigan running back in the backfield for a highlight reel play. News flash for that play: nobody blocked him. If it weren't for his ridiculous measurables, no one would know or care about Jadaveon Clowney. He's extremely unrefined technique-wise, he takes plays off like it's his job, and his production does not come close to matching his physical dominance given that he's playing against college O-lines. People say, oh, he was double-teamed a lot. Do you know who was double-teamed a lot in his college career? Terrell Suggs. He still put up 65.5 TFL and 44 sacks in two years for the Sun Devils.
So why is Jadeveon Clowney #3 on my list? Well, truthfully, you can't ignore the physical specimen that he is. I have extreme doubts about the mental aspects of his game, but if he can prove me wrong in that regard he could become an absolutely dominant player. A 40 time of 4.53 for a 266 lb, 6'5" monster of a man? That's more than just ridiculous, that's unheard of. They should test his blood to see if he's actually a werewolf. In three years at SCAR he had 85 tackles, 47 of those for a loss, 24 sacks and 9 forced fumbles. You can guarantee everyone's going to ignore his meager 3 sacks in 2013 and he'll be a top five draft pick. All I can say is prove me wrong, Jadeveon.
2 Jake Matthews - OT - Texas A&M
What a family tree. As Deion Sanders would say: Bloodline! His father is Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, his two brothers are also O-linemen, and his cousin is a Thor-looking superhuman named Clay Matthews who plays for the Packers. Jake had the dubious job of pass protecting the scurrying unpredictability cannon that is Johnny Manziel, and did a damn good job of it. His technique is refined, he has great body control for a big man, and is very mentally quick when it comes to adjusting on the fly to defenses. The guy loves to study the game, started in 46 games for the Aggies, and never had an injury. On top of it all, he was an incredibly effective run blocker and could make great second-level blocks. It's never sexy for the fans for a team to pick an offensive lineman with a high pick, but it's probably the most underrated position in football, and great line play can transform a team. Jake is an incredible talent and he won't be waiting long to hear his name called in New York.
1 Sammy Watkins - WR - Clemson
In my opinion, Sammy Watkins is one of very few sure-fire blue chip players in this year's draft. He won a bucketful of awards and accolades including Biletnikoff award, and blew away a number of Clemson school records. Watkins is a game changer. He's a blur with legs. He catches everything even remotely catchable, and can turn pedestrian plays into huge gainers. He was the only receiver in all of college football this year to have two 90+ yard touchdown catches. His ability to create separation was unparalleled in college ball, and his quickness will easily cause fits for NFL defensive backs as well. In 2013 he had 101 receptions for 1,464 yards; Clemson school records. In three years he had 3,391 yds and 27 TDs despite missing some games in 2012. I would be shocked if he wasn't taken in the top three. Can't wait to see you on Sunday, Sammy.