In a talented 2014 draft class, a host of players are getting ready to enter the NFL and have long, fruitful careers.
While judging which players will have the most successful career would appear to be a good way for teams to order their draft boards, this isn't always how it's done.
Certain positions are viewed with more value, and teams will often reach for a player to fill a need. Evidence of this can be found in any draft. Let's take a quick look back at the 1999 draft, which I pick simply because 15 years seemed like a logical distance to travel back in time.
As it turns out, it brings us back to a rather infamous draft.
That year, the first three players taken were quarterbacks. They were, in order, Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith. That is one great pick surrounded by two colossal busts.
Oh, that also happened to be the year that Saints coach Mike Ditka traded every pick the Saints had in the draft to move up to No. 4 to select running back Ricky Williams.
That year, teams reached for a quarterback and to fill a need at running back. My point is that the following list does not reflect the order in which I think players will be drafted or even that they should be drafted. Instead, this lists the players who will have the best NFL careers.
No. 5: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney is a special and rare talent. His combination of speed and strength will allow him to dominate blockers and destroy passing games. There is no player in this class with as much potential to dominate as Clowney.
How long will his freakish athleticism last, however?
He has the potential to turn in MVP-caliber seasons, but he will not have the longevity needed to sit atop this list.
With an elite draft status all but locked up entering his junior season last year, Clowney was not as dominant as the season before. He appeared to have some of his fire doused while looking ahead to the payday in the NFL.
I'm not trying to slam him for this. He was not allowed to enter the draft the year before, and it was his future earning power he was putting on the line. When projecting his future in the NFL, however, it makes me wonder how hard he will work when he has a few big contracts under his belt.
Clowney will have a good career, but after a strong start, he will have a pedestrian finish.
No. 4: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
The quarterbacks in this class are difficult to project. For instance, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has the potential to be a commanding force in the NFL. He also has the potential to be too small for the pros or be completely undone by the trappings of fame.
He has enough risk that he does not crack this list for me. Bortles does not have the same concerns.
That is not to say there aren't concerns. He lacks pinpoint accuracy. This keeps him from hitting receivers in the best position to make a catch and pick up yards afterward. He will make some improvements in this area, but he will never be Joe Montana.
Bortles also doesn't excel at anything. His arm strength is average to good for the NFL, and he is mobile for his size, but his feet aren't going to keep defensive coordinators up at night.
What leads me to putting him on this list, however, is his solid skill set and attitude. While other top quarterbacks decided not to throw at the NFL combine, Bortles did. He's been eager to prove himself, and there is nothing I want more in a quarterback. He is a confident competitor, and he has the body to take abuse in the NFL.
He will never be a dominant quarterback in the NFL, but he will be a winning one.
No. 3: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Most of the hype for wide receivers in this class has gone to Clemson's Sammy Watkins. He is a tremendous prospect, and I expect him to have a good career. In the end, Mike Evans will end his career with a better resume for the Hall of Fame.
Evans has great size at 6'5" and 231 pounds. He also has good explosiveness for his large frame. At the combine, he posted a time of 4.53 in the 40 and had a vertical leap of 37", per CBSSports.com.
Those qualities will instantly make him a threat all over the field.
What lands him on this list ahead of Watkins, however, is that even as he loses a step and then two and then three, he will still be making an impact—partly because of a pair of hands that drew this lofty praise from NFL.com's Gil Brandt:
Evans' size and hands will make him a threat in the red zone and on third downs for as long as he can take the punishment.
No. 2: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack has the size and strength to be a superior pass-rusher as a 3-4 linebacker or an end in a 4-3. It is his ability to be a complete linebacker, however, that will make him an excellent defender in the NFL for a long time.
He is not going to be a pass-rushing specialist. He is an every-down contributor.
At 6'3" and 250 pounds, he has wonderful lower-body strength. This allows him to overwhelm blockers while breaking down running plays. His athleticism also allows him to function well in coverage. He had three interceptions last year with Buffalo.
Mack will be able to flourish in either a 4-3 or 3-4, but I hope he finds a home with a 3-4 team. His versatility to rush the passer and drop back in coverage will allow defensive coordinators flexibility and options. This will lead to him getting the most out of his talent.
No matter where he ends up, he will have a great career.
No. 1: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
When I ask which player in this class is most likely to end up in the Hall of Fame, it is without question Greg Robinson.
Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei tweeted an article from former NFL scout and SportsonEarth's Russ Lande that has a lofty comparison for Robinson:
At 6'5" and 332 pounds, he has similar size to former Rams tackle Orlando Pace, but he is a bit shorter. I think a better comparison is to former Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones. Jones was also 6'5", and his strength and leverage made him dominant in the run game as well as the pass game.
Robinson has the same build and shocking fluidity of movement as Jones had. Obviously, Robinson has a long way to go and a lot to learn before he gets a bust in Canton, but he has all the tools.
He is going to be among the best at his position in the NFL for more than a decade.
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