2014 NFL Draft: Identifying the Safest Picks in Round 1
Being considered a “safe” NFL draft selection seems to carry a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t.
A prospect described as safe is typically a player who had impressive production throughout his collegiate career but is not considered to have exceptional physical tools or untapped potential.
By definition, however, the safest prospects are the ones who are the most likely to succeed to some degree, regardless of whether or not they have the most potential to excel.
In an era where even one bad season can cost an NFL coach or general manager his job, safe prospects should be considered even more valuable, as early-round draft busts can quickly derail a team’s chances at contention.
The debate between safer picks versus higher potential could come into play as early as the first two picks in the 2014 NFL draft. Will teams at the top of the board opt for safer bets in Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, or will UCF signal-caller Blake Bortles and Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson be projected as better NFL players because of their physical tools?
The following eight players aren’t all projected as early first-round selections, but all of them are among the draft’s surest bets to find next-level success.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Matthews is the epitome of a safe selection in the 2014 NFL draft. While his physical tools are not as eye-popping as those of Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, he has a complete skill set that should translate to immediate NFL success.
While Matthews doesn’t have quite as much size or athleticism as Robinson or Lewan, he still has a very good physical skill set for an offensive tackle, including the 6’5”, 308-pound frame, 33 3/8” arms and 5.07-second 40-yard dash speed that he displayed at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com.
It’s tantalizing to project how good Robinson could become, but there simply isn’t much need for projection with Matthews.
Dominant as a pass-protector and impactful as a run-blocker at Texas A&M, Matthews has exceptional footwork, good syncopation between his upper and lower body, satisfactory strength and nearly flawless fundamentals.
He might not be quite as overpowering or explosive off the snap—which has many projecting Robinson to be selected ahead of him—but regardless of where is selected, the NFL team which takes Matthews should feel confident it is getting a stalwart offensive tackle for many years to come.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Given the complexity and pressure of playing the position, quarterbacks are often considered to be among the least safe selections in the NFL draft. That might be true of most of the 2014 draft’s top quarterback prospects, but Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater is the exception.
Buzz and speculation haven’t been on Bridgewater’s side lately, and that might be because his game lacks a “wow factor.” That said, there are no significant flaws in Bridgewater’s game that should keep him from being a capable NFL starting quarterback.
From his leadership and toughness, to his mechanics and accuracy, Bridgewater has a veteran-like presence on the field. He moves well both inside and outside of the pocket and can throw the ball on target and with velocity to all areas of the field.
Some believe UCF’s Blake Bortles and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel will be selected higher than Bridgewater because of their more promising physical skill sets, but Bridgewater is the surest bet to be the franchise quarterback an NFL team needs.
He should have the shortest learning curve and succeed most immediately as a starter among this year's rookie quarterbacks.
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
C.J. Mosley doesn’t have the flash or measurables of Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack, but the Alabama linebacker is arguably the most well-rounded defensive prospect.
Far more likely than Clowney or Mack to be available in the middle of the first round, he could also end up being a great value, as he looks to be one of the draft’s surest bets to succeed.
Mosley is slightly undersized for a linebacker at 6’2” and 234 pounds, and he doesn’t wow athletically like many projected first-round selections, but he brings all of his size and speed to the field. By playing fast and with top-level instincts, Mosley can make plays all over the field and in every capacity.
A four-year player in the nation’s toughest conference on college football’s best team, Mosley consistently made plays against a high level of competition. He is a terrific tackler in space who can be an impact player against the run, but he is also fluid in dropping back to cover and is good at timing blitzes into the backfield.
Mosley has the versatility to play any linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense or either inside spot in a 3-4 scheme. He is a polished playmaker who should be an immediate leader and three-down player for an NFL defense.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Another well-rounded but not as flashy linebacker, it might not be certain what Kyle Van Noy’s best role as an NFL player will be, but his versatility should allow him to be successful in one capacity or another.
Van Noy is not quite as big or athletic as the draft’s most highly regarded outside linebackers, Buffalo’s Khalil Mack and UCLA’s Anthony Barr, but there is nothing he cannot do from the linebacker position.
Van Noy is a good tackler with sideline-to-sideline range, a skilled pass-rusher and a very solid coverage linebacker. He should be able to play any linebacker spot in any scheme and possibly even some situational defensive end in four-man fronts on pass-rushing situations.
He might not project as one of the draft’s biggest impact players, but he is a polished prospect who shouldn’t have any trouble taking on an immediate role in an NFL defense.
He is a three-down player whose ability to move all over the defense, and switch seamlessly from covering to pass-rushing to making tackles in space, should make him a tough guy to game-plan against.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Aaron Donald’s lack of size for a defensive tackle at 6’1” and 285 pounds might make some teams think twice about drafting him, but he has looked like an NFL-caliber talent on every possible stage.
With a whopping 28.5 tackles for loss in his senior season, Donald was the most dominant defensive player of the 2013 college football season. He followed that up with an exceptional showing at the Senior Bowl.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Donald continued to stand out by running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and putting up 35 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, according to NFL.com. He even impressed onlookers at his pro day, according to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, who said he “looked very good, showing fluid movement and substantiating the performance he displayed at the combine.”
By consistently beating opponents on the football field and showing his outstanding athleticism in pre-draft workouts, Donald has been better in the past six months than arguably every other prospect in this year’s draft.
With his explosive quickness, the power to move blockers back, consistent pad level and sound interior pass-rushing moves, Donald should have little trouble developing into a productive 3-technique defensive tackle.
There is nothing—even his size—that should stop him from achieving NFL success.
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
While Jadeveon Clowney is considered to be all but a lock to be a top-five selection in this year’s NFL draft, a safer defensive end selection might come with better value later in the first round with Oregon State’s Scott Crichton.
Crichton’s physical tools aren’t nearly as remarkable as Clowney’s, but he has all of the skills necessary to be a successful NFL edge-defender. He has good size (6’3”, 273 lbs) and adequate athleticism for the position, but he doesn’t rely on his measurables.
A technically sound pass-rusher with a quick first step off the line of scrimmage, he can also beat blockers with both his hand moves and his power. As a run-defender, he excels at setting the edge, while he also has the pursuit speed to track down runners and make plays in space.
Like Bjoern Werner, who was considered one of the safest picks in the 2013 NFL draft, he might be miscast if he is drafted to play in a 3-4 defensive scheme. As a 4-3 defensive end, however, he should be a natural fit who can quickly transition into a three-down starting role.
Zack Martin, OT/G, Notre Dame
With relatively short arms (32 7/8”) for an offensive tackle, Notre Dame’s Zack Martin is another example of a player who lacks ideal physical tools for his position. That said, there might not be a more technically sound offensive lineman, outside of Jake Matthews, than Martin in this year’s draft.
While some might project the Notre Dame left tackle to stay on the outside of the line, he could also kick inside to guard. There is no reason to believe he shouldn’t find success in one position or another.
Martin isn’t as explosive athletically as the draft’s top offensive tackle prospects, but he is very good with both his feet and hands.
His footwork is refined enough that he should be able to handle most outside rushers even with his lack of length, but where he really wins is with his hand strength. Martin has a clear understanding of hand placement, so when he gets his hands on a defender, he rarely loses a battle (or even gives up leverage).
Martin might not be a safe pick if a team drafts him specifically to be a left tackle, but for a club looking for an upgrade on either side of its offensive line, Martin provides a solid option with his versatility.
Whether it be at tackle or guard, Martin should provide upgraded pass protection and move defenders to open running lanes.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Marqise Lee doesn’t have the explosive athleticism of Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, nor the size and catching range of Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, but he is arguably the draft's most well-rounded wide receiver.
For a team simply looking for reliability and not necessarily an X-factor in drafting a wideout this year, Lee could be great value in the mid to late first round.
Lee is a skilled route-runner who can take advantage of that to get open. After the catch, he seems to glide in the open field as he accelerates naturally and shows terrific field vision in finding running lanes to extend plays.
The USC product might never be a star No. 1 wide receiver, but with the versatility to excel both outside and in the slot, he would be a great complementary addition for a team needing another pass-catching target.
Lee had some injury issues in 2013, but with a thorough skill set and three years of consistent production at USC, there is little reason to believe he cannot succeed at the next level.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.