First round of evaluations: Top 42 Prospects

We’re still relatively early in our film-watching process, two months before the draft, but between our work and what we read by other terrific experts in the field (if you want a list, this is a pretty good start), I felt it was time to stoke the fires of reader interest a bit by publishing a rankings list.

Two things about our rankings:

1)If you don’t see a player you like, chances are we simply haven’t watched enough of him to be confident in assigning a grade. In fact, I’m not fully confident in all of these grades, but it’s a solid reflection of who we feel is at the top of the draft right now, based on our current research. (I even thought about assigning each ranking a confidence grade, but that turned out to be more work than I cared for.)

2)The “tiers” I rank players by tend to vary year to year, except at the very top. What I generally mean is that players within a tier are roughly equal overall or close to it; I change tiers when I perceive a drop in quality. So, for example, if I thought there were measurable drops at, say, 25 and 40, that tier would be “Late 1st / Early 2nd.” But if the drops were at 20 and 30, I would call it “Late 1st,” even though the prospects might have the same grade as the other tier. (In this way, the tiers are in part a reflection of the level of talent in a given draft.)

If you’re a quick study, you may have surmised from this paragraph that the reason the list stops at 42 is because that’s where a tier breaks off. You’d be right! Without further ado, the list…

Group 0: Elite Prospects

Last year we had a grouping of “Elite” prospects. Elite prospects are the kinds whose gifts are rare and don’t come around every year, sometimes even less frequently than that. Last year had Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater (and, arguably, Khalil Mack and Sammy Watkins, who were both graded top-5 picks in the end by us). This draft has no one that transcendent, but it does have a lot of talent.


Group I: Top-5 Prospects

1. Leonard Williams, DT/DE, USC
While he may not have the top-line explosiveness NFL teams prefer, Williams moves very well for his size and is capable of being very disruptive regardless. Watch USC’s game against Cal to see what kind of a destructive, unblockable force he can be.

2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
On-field evaluation only. I make no promises as to whether Winston can stay out of legal trouble (or avoid doing awful things off the field, even if he isn’t held legally accountable for them).

Winston is not a perfect prospect by any means, in particular plagued by spurts of incomprehensible decision-making. But he is still a very good QB prospect. Eli Manning is the most common comparison I’ve heard, and it makes sense: Like Manning, Winston combines the talent for the game and the cool head under pressure (Winston’s numbers suggest he actually improves as the game goes on) with the occasional baffling decision that results in an easily-avoided turnover. Eli Manning isn’t an elite talent, but he’s a guy who’s played QB at a roughly Pro Bowl level for 10 years; if you can get that #1 overall, you take it and you’re happy with it.

The mental game of quarterbacking is huge, and to me, Winston seems like a natural fit with strong instincts in that regard. Most of his mistakes are borne from him trying to do too much rather than not being able to do enough; you’re taking a bit of a chance on his decision-making process improving, but that’s true of every QB prospect, and it’s also true that the best QB prospects do improve with time in that regard. (Peyton Manning, after all, threw 28 interceptions as a rookie.)

3. Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
I love White’s game. I’m a sucker for big, strong receivers with sure hands who can win contested catches. (I really enjoyed watching Marc Trestman’s Chicago Bears for that reason– Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are two of the best at that.) I already had White over Amari Cooper before the Combine, but it was close; when White ran a sub-4.4 40 (and Cooper didn’t) that sealed it for me. If White has the speed to match his ball skills, strength, and size, he could develop into an All-Pro player.


Group II: Top-10 Prospects

4. La’el Collins, OT, LSU
I think he’s the most complete tackle in this draft and he can play left tackle at the next level. Great power in the run game, finishes his blocks well. Not a guy who looks like the smoothest or quickest in pass protection– but somehow, he just always manages to stonewall his man. (And I do believe he’s quick enough for the next level.)

5. Dante Fowler Jr., EDGE, Florida
Fowler is one of the most well-rounded edge prospects in this draft; he can win with speed around the edge, strength, and a wide range of moves. He’s versatile, capable of lining up all over the formation, and flashes a few “wow” moments on film where he looks like the best player by a good margin. Not great against the run, but that’s a minor point with all he does so well.

I’ve heard talk that Fowler has a low ceiling, but he’s a very young prospect– he won’t even turn 21 until the preseason– and that leads me to believe he still has room to grow. Perhaps he already has his complete array of moves, but it’s possible he gets a little bigger, stronger, or faster as well, and that could make a real difference.

6. Vic Beasley, EDGE, Clemson
Beasley’s 2013 film had us ranking him as a late 1st prospect at best. A wise decision to return to school: Beasley’s tape is not perfect, but the best parts show a dominant burst and natural bend around the corner, easily the best of anyone in this class. He has great awareness as well, often sticking with a play to finish it or chase it down from behind.

The biggest question with Beasley is whether or not the added weight and strength he displayed at the Combine will translate on the field. Has he added functional power? Can he add weight without losing his burst? His Combine numbers seem to say “Yes,” but until we see how it translates on the field, it’s still a question. He still ranks this high because even if the added weight hinders him, he can drop it and get back to being nasty.

7. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Mariota is a a project. He’s got a ton of talent and a great work ethic, but he also hasn’t been asked to do a number of things he’ll have to do to succeed in the NFL. His ceiling could potentially be higher than Winston’s if he learns to do those things, but it’s also possible he ends up being a more talented Alex Smith– which isn’t necessarily a bad player, one you can win with if you have a solid defense and a coach who will tailor the offense to his skills, but when you take a QB high you hope for him to transcend the system, rather than require a system.


Group III: Top half of 1st

8. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
My biggest concern with Cooper going into 2014 was his hands, and he seems to have significantly improved in that regard. He does everything well but doesn’t dominate in any one area, which is why I have concerns that he may have a lower ceiling than I’d want from a prospect I drafted this highly. Still, it’s hard to imagine him completely failing.

9. Randy Gregory, EDGE, Nebraska
Gregory’s been highly ranked by most draft outlets, but buyer beware, as this is in large part projection. Gregory has the kind of length and build that could make for a natural rusher around the edge– he tested well at the Combine in terms of speed numbers, too– but he’s still rather light, still needs to learn a fuller array of moves, and wasn’t nearly as productive a pass rusher in college as you’d like to see from a great prospect. He’s athletic and holds up well in the run game, which makes him unlikely to be a bust, but he has a lot to learn to match the ceiling that had others rating him as the top edge prospect.

10. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, EDGE, Kentucky
Dupree is a bit of a project as well, but I already see more from him, both in terms of the tape overall and in growth. (Dupree’s tape later in the season is significantly better than early in the season, an encouraging sign when projecting a prospect’s development.) He’s a shade below the athlete Fowler is, and may not quite have his natural bend or moves, but he’s still strong, he still has very good functional speed (both in burst and in closing), and a high motor. Kentucky used him in coverage more than I thought they should, but I think he can be a wrecking ball in the front seven.

11. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
There’s a lot to like about Parker: He’s got great size and hands, he’s fast, he goes up for the ball well. Occasionally he doesn’t use his size to the best of his ability, and that’s part of the concern with him, along with a series of injuries in college. Not quite as good as Kevin White, but still clearly a top-three receiver in this class.

12. Shane Ray, EDGE, Missouri
Ray didn’t work out at the Combine, so many sites have moved him even lower than this until his Pro Day. I didn’t want to overreact yet, but this data will be important to projecting his standing among the other edge rushers. Ray has good burst, good closing/chasing speed, but he’s not quite as fast or fluid as Beasley, and I’m not sure yet about how many different ways he can “win” on a pass rush.


Group IV: Bottom Half of 1st

13. Danny Shelton, NT, Washington
Shelton played a ton of snaps for Washington last year, and part of the reason teams are projecting him highly is because he can be dominant in a reduced workload. At the same time, that’s why I have him in this group and not the one above it, because I drop him down for not being at his best as an every-down player.

14. Marcus Peters, CB, Washington
Peters certainly has the best tape of any cornerback in this class. As the character concerns surrounding him increasingly seem to be overblown and not a serious issue, the tape comes to the forefront. He didn’t run as fast as Trae Waynes, but the tape still tells the difference. Peters is a true press-man corner with great ball skills and instincts, and is a sure tackler to boot (well, for a cornerback, at least).

15. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
Peat has the best “left tackle body” of anyone in the draft. He’s got length, he’s got the build for the position, and he’s got very quick feet capable of big strides– he can get into his pass set faster, and further back, than anyone else in this draft. The problem is what happens once he’s there: He’s still very inconsistent with his form, with his punch, with staying engaged with blocks. The raw material is too tempting, though, especially as he does show the ability to dominate at times– it’s not a complete projection.

16. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
I’ve seen other evaluators have concerns about Strong, and I need to take a more full look at his tape, but what I see from him is the stuff that I really like in a receiver and that I think will translate at the next level– great size and leaping ability, terrific hands, attacks the catch point well. His game needs refining, but he does the most important things well already.

17. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
It’s not entirely clear where Thompson will play on the field– part linebacker, part safety, he’s a player with tremendous speed and instincts but who doesn’t fit into a typical box. A creative defensive coach who knows how to get the most out of unconventional talent will love him.

18. Landon Collins, SS, Alabama
Collins is a versatile all-around safety and the clear best prospect in this draft at the position. Sorry I don’t have much to add beyond that.

19. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M
Ogbuehi tore his ACL at the Liberty Bowl, but even if he’s not ready in time for the season, he’s another natural left tackle who should be able to play at a high level. He’d be higher if he hadn’t injured his knee, but he’s expected to make a full and clean recovery, and long-term, he’s still worthy of a first-round pick.

20. Brandon Scherff, OT/G, Iowa
Scherff is lowest of this bunch because I have the most concerns about him being able to play outside at the next level. He could be a terrific guard, but I still prioritize the length and athleticism needed to play NFL tackle first.

21. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Blazing speed is a huge asset for this former track star.  Biggest concern is that his physical style of play might not translate well to the NFL; in other words, he might get flagged for DPI, a lot.

22. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri / Oklahoma
DGB is crazy talented, but his off-field concerns are going to scare a lot of teams. Marijuana arrests may not be a big deal, but a domestic altercation with a woman is going to have teams thinking hard, especially given the NFL’s increased focus on domestic violence. The fact that he hasn’t been on the field in a year will give teams pause, as well. One guy who could have top-five talent when it’s all said and done, but has so many risks surrounding him right now that it’s difficult to rate him that highly. This seems about right based on talent; not playing a year definitely affects his stock.

23. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Speaking of a player who should have gone top-5: Instead, the NCAA’s odious “amateurism” rules suspended him for four games, and he promptly tore an ACL upon return (one wonders if that would have happened had Gurley been allowed to play for the previous month). He’s expected to recover fully, though, and Gurley provides a devastating combination of obvious size and power with a quickness and balance you’d hope to find in a running back 30 pounds lighter, not to mention his vision and patience.


OK. I lied about going to 42 today. I’m already at 2500 words. I need a break, but I’ll come back later and post Group V.


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