2014 NFL Draft: Surveying the Biggest Playmaker at Every Position
In the early rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, teams will be looking for players who can quickly make big plays in one way or another.
Game-changers come in many different forms. A game-changer could be a skill-position player who can create yardage in the open field. It could be a defensive end who specializes in sacking the quarterback. It could be a defensive back with a penchant for takeaways.
In all of those cases, the players who have the most ability to be the greatest difference-makers on the field tend to rise to, or close to, the top of draft boards at their positions.
That said, the following slides are not intended to simply point out the best prospect in each position group (though in some of these cases, the player identified is the top prospect at his position).
More specifically, the following slides highlight the player at each position who stands out because of their ability to make the biggest difference within a single snap.
Some of these prospects could be very early draft picks, while others have more flaws and less consistency than the more highly-rated players at their position.
All of them share a propensity for making plays that can quickly shift the momentum or even outcome of a football contest.
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
In two seasons at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel displayed an uncanny playmaking ability that made him a Heisman Trophy winner and one of college football’s biggest stars.
Whether that playmaking ability will translate to the NFL is one of this draft’s most difficult questions to answer, but it gives him a potential that shouldn’t be ignored.
If Manziel proved one thing with the Aggies, it’s that when he is at quarterback, a play is never over until the ball hits the ground.
Manziel is a good athlete with exceptional escapability under pressure. What would be a sure sack or throw-away for many quarterbacks, Manziel can turn into a big throw or run by making pass-rushers miss or taking off from them.
With that playmaking ability, however, comes erratic play in terms of Manziel’s passing accuracy, throwing mechanics and decision-making. At times when it would be smart to simply throw the ball away or take a sack, he often tries to do too much and ends up throwing the ball to the other team or losing even more yardage.
Manziel will have to overcome those flaws to be a successful NFL quarterback, but even so, the team that drafts him could end up with a spectacular weapon if it develops Manziel properly.
Opposing defenses will be forced to game-plan for Manziel’s ability to turn any play into a big play. That possibility could make an NFL team decide to draft him very early this year.
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde is known more for his size (6’, 235 lbs) and strength than he is for razzle-dazzle. But although his ability to grind out tough yardage between the tackles is at the core of his running style, he showed a significant spike in big-play ability in his senior season.
Hyde has a strong burst out of the backfield and enough speed to break big plays when he gets ahead of the defense. Combined with his fortitude running through contact and some subtle agility to make defenders miss in the open field, Hyde can be a very difficult runner to stop.
Having averaged 7.3 yards per carry in his senior season, Hyde showed he could handle a heavy workload and consistently gain yardage. His physical tools should empower him to translate that ability, especially as a between-the-tackles runner, to the NFL.
Also a solid receiver out of the backfield, Hyde has the potential to be a three-down starting tailback in the NFL. He has also shown he can lead block for an offense that utilizes quarterback runs, and he is a solid pass protector in the pocket.
Hyde is unlikely to be the next Adrian Peterson or even DeMarco Murray when it comes to creating big plays, but in a draft class that lacks any major big-play running backs, Hyde might have its consistent playmaking ability as a runner.
If NFL defenses prepare for Hyde believing he is only a short-yardage power back, he has the athleticism and elusiveness to make them realize otherwise.
WR: Sammy Watkins, Clemson
There is no non-quarterback offensive skill position player in the 2014 draft class with more playmaking ability than Clemson’s Sammy Watkins. While he might not be the most complete or consistent wide receiver in this year’s class, he has the most ability for game-changing plays.
Watkins is a downfield missile with outstanding speed and acceleration. When he breaks away from coverage to get ahead of a defense, he is as good as gone to the end zone.
Making Watkins even more dangerous, however, is his ability to extend plays in the open field. He can cut on a dime without losing his speed. He also uses his size (6’1”, 205 lbs) well to lower his shoulder through contact or bounce off an attempted tackle with a robust stiff-arm.
A very good route-runner, Watkins can beat defenders deep but also turn short and intermediate receptions into much bigger gains.
Furthermore, he can be a triple threat for an NFL team as he can also be productive on running plays and is a very good kickoff returner.
Watkins, who had eight plays of 40 yards or more in his junior season according to CFBStats.com, should continue to make big plays at the next level. His potential to be an immediate X-factor on an NFL offense could make him a top-10 NFL draft selection.
TE: Eric Ebron, North Carolina
In an NFL era that emphasizes big-play ability far more than it does blocking prowess from its tight ends, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is projected to be an early selection in this year’s draft.
Listed at 6’4” and 245 pounds, Ebron is smaller than the prototypical tight end. He is also not a very strong in-line blocker. His athleticism and downfield receiving skill, however, stands out even in a strong draft class at the position.
Having an explosive athlete at the tight end position creates mismatches for the defense, and Ebron certainly does that. He is essentially a big wide receiver, as he is frequently flexed away from the offensive line and has the athleticism to play on the outside.
Over the middle is where Ebron is most effective, however, because of the problems he can cause safeties and linebackers who try to cover him. He has explosive speed and acceleration for his size, is good at leaping to high-point catches and has the moves to make defenders miss in the open field.
Ebron will give the team who drafts him a dynamic weapon who should be an immediate playmaker in a passing offense. He can beat defenses deep but can also turn shorter passes into bigger gains.
He might be a liability as a blocker, at least in the early onset of his career, but a team could be tempted very early in the draft by the dimension Ebron could bring to its passing offense.
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Offensive linemen are typically regarded more for their stability than they are for making of big plays. That said, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews has the potential to make an immediate impact on the NFL team that drafts him.
Matthews is a very polished, NFL-ready offensive tackle.
Don’t let that description fool you into thinking he does not have big playmaking potential relative to his position.
He can dominate at the line of scrimmage, but also has terrific feet which he can use to shift and pick up multiple blockers in one play, or get downfield quickly to pick up impact run blocks.
Matthews’ experience at both left and right tackle should enable him to step in and start immediately on either side of an NFL offensive line.
He is a technically sound pass protector who utilizes his length and quickness well in that capacity to fend off edge-rushers. He also has solid strength and power, which he can use to drive defenders off the line of scrimmage and open up running lanes.
Matthews might not emanate from a highlight reel the way the other players do on this list. Watching him closely, however, shows he has not only made many big plays in his Texas A&M career, but also how his skills should be able to translate to the NFL.
DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Cross-reference this slide with a stat sheet and you might wonder why Jadeveon Clowney, a player with only three sacks in his final season at South Carolina, was selected as the biggest playmaker among defensive ends in the 2014 draft class.
Clowney’s true playmaking ability lies somewhere between what the statistics show and those highlights imply. That said, he has been a difference-maker throughout his South Carolina career, even if his impact has not always been reflected in the box score.
For a big defensive end listed at 6’6” and 274 pounds by South Carolina’s official athletics website, he has incredible athleticism. He comes off the snap with an explosive burst, has great speed upon acceleration and has the power to drive through blockers and ball-carriers.
He has made his fair share of big plays in the backfield himself (47 tackles for loss in three seasons at South Carolina). Yet he has also frequently freed up his defensive teammates to make plays by drawing double- and even triple-team blocks at the line of scrimmage.
Clowney has rare physical attributes, a strong skill set already and the potential still to be exponentially better than he already is. A likely top-five draft selection, Clowney should be an immediate NFL playmaker as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper.
DT: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
One position at which the 2014 draft class looks much weaker than 2013 is at defensive tackle, where there are no playmakers along the lines of Sheldon Richardson or Star Lotulelei who project to come in and be immediate standouts on NFL defensive lines.
A common thread between many of the top playmaking defensive tackles in this draft class is that they are considered undersized for the position. That is especially true for the player who might be the position’s most dynamic player in this draft, Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald.
Donald was a dominant interior force for the Panthers in his senior season. His 28.5 tackles for loss played a large part in his being bestowed with a bevy of awards, including the Outland Trophy, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy.
The skills Donald utilized to accumulate that production should translate to the NFL, at least to an extent. He has good snap anticipation and an explosive burst off the line of scrimmage. He is quick with his hands and plays with great pad level to consistently win battles of leverage.
Donald is fast in pursuit and has also done a good job of holding his position at the line of scrimmage. That said, teams could have significant concerns about his limited height and weight (6’, 285 lbs), and whether he can hold up against bigger, stronger and similarly athletic offensive linemen in the NFL.
Donald’s lack of size and power should push him out of the first round and possibly down into the third round.
That said, he proved his ability to be a difference-maker in his final season at Pittsburgh. He has the potential to be a very disruptive penetrating 3-technique defensive tackle at the next level.
OLB: Khalil Mack, Buffalo
For an NFL prospect to become a well-known, projected early first-round draft pick from the University at Buffalo, he must be an outstanding playmaker. Khalil Mack fits the bill.
Mack’s statistical production from his senior season alone—19 total tackles for loss (10.5 sacks), 100 total tackles, 10 passes defensed (three interceptions), five fumbles forced—jumps off the page.
He demonstrates the physical attributes and skill set to continue being a highly productive player at the next level.
Mack is a fantastic all-around athlete who can do it all: rush the passer, cover ground all over the field as a run defender and drop into coverage.
His size, listed at 6’3” and 248 pounds by Buffalo’s official athletics website, and skill set project him ideally to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme at the next level. That said, his ability to make plays all over the field gives him the versatility to play multiple spots in any defensive scheme.
His statistics might be inflated by the level of competition he played against, but Mack could have excelled in any collegiate conference. He can cause offensive players problems in multiple facets, and could be an immediate starter and impact player on an NFL defense.
ILB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
C.J. Mosley is a well-rounded inside linebacker with the instincts, athleticism, tackling ability and ball skills to be a real impact player on an NFL defense from his rookie season on for many years to come.
Mosley is an explosive athlete who makes plays all over the field.
He can attack and shut down ball-carriers as a blitzer or gap-filling tackler. When playing back from the line of scrimmage, he can cover ground from sideline to sideline both as a pursuing run defender and as a coverage asset.
Mosley is not much of a pass-rusher unless he gets an open lane as a blitzer, but he makes an impact in many other ways throughout a game. He is good at making plays on the ball, not only to create turnovers but to make crucial tackles or pass breakups in conversion situations.
While Mosley has his share of big plays, he does it within the realm of being a disciplined player who can handle his assignments on any down.
He should continue to be a leader and every-down linebacker for an NFL team. He has enough flash in his game to be a top-15 pick at a position where players are not usually early first-round picks.
CB: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Justin Gilbert improved significantly in coverage in his senior season at Oklahoma State and emerged as a first-round pick in the process, but he has always been a big playmaker. He can make big plays on the ball and is a dangerous threat any time the ball is in his hands.
Arguably the top cornerback in the 2014 draft class, Gilbert has great size (6’, 200 lbs) and speed that have allowed him to shut down even some of college football’s best wide receivers.
Gilbert is a special talent because of his instincts and ball skills. He does a terrific job of reading quarterbacks’ eyes and receivers’ routes to break on passes, and frequently catches throws he has a chance to intercept.
Even though he was not targeted often, Gilbert intercepted seven passes in his senior season. He returned two of those for touchdowns and recorded 14 total passes defensed.
Beyond his big-play ability, he is a physical cornerback, who makes it difficult for receivers to separate on the outside.
He also adds playmaking ability as a kickoff returner. Utilizing his terrific speed and acceleration and showing some ability to make tacklers miss, Gilbert averaged more than 26 yards per kickoff return and had six total kickoff return touchdowns in his four-year Oklahoma State career.
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
There are a good number of teams who could really benefit from adding a playmaking safety early in this year’s draft, but there are not many strong early-round options available in this class.
One safety whose playmaking ability is worthy of early attention, however, is Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He is a rangy athlete who can make big plays on the ball in the air, while he can also strike his opponents as a big hitter.
As a center-field safety, Clinton-Dix has shown the ability to track the ball and make plays on it, including six interceptions between the past two seasons. Clinton-Dix is not always disciplined and technically sound, but he has the potential to be a very good coverage safety.
He is also a playmaker in run support. He uses his instincts well from the back end to sniff out runs or short passes and attack toward the ball-carrier with his speed. He is typically a solid tackler.
Clinton-Dix has the potential to play either safety spot in an NFL defense. That said, he is best suited in a roving role as a free safety, in which he can take advantage of his speed and ability to cover ground to make plays all over the field.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.