The Biggest Reaches of the 2014 NFL Draft
Despite the many months that both teams around the league and members of the media spend each year trying to project how the NFL draft will play out, there are always players who get drafted much higher than expected.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the teams that drafted those players “reached” in the process, though. Depending on how the draft falls at each position, some players get pushed up the board based on team needs and demand for players who can play specific roles.
Despite that, there were a few picks in the 2014 draft that left reasonable doubt as to why the team drafted the player it did—or at least why it selected that player with that pick.
From the top five picks to later in the draft, each of the following players was a questionable selection relative to the other value on the board and the point at which the player was selected.
Jacksonville Jaguars, Pick No. 3: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
If a team in need of a quarterback identifies a player at the position that it believes can become the star of its franchise, it shouldn’t pass that player up. Clearly, that’s how the Jacksonville Jaguars feel about UCF’s Blake Bortles or they wouldn’t have drafted him with the No. 3 overall selection.
That said, the Jaguars might have been better off either drafting one of the other top players on the board, such as Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, or trading down. Instead, they ended up drafting a quarterback, despite significant flaws in his game, nearly 20 spots before any other signal-caller was drafted.
Bortles has the potential to be a great NFL quarterback, but he won't be ready to immediately succeed as a rookie without significant development to his game. He has sloppy footwork, lacks touch on his deep balls and needs to continue improve in his ability to read defenses.
It’s no shock that Bortles was the first quarterback drafted, as his combination of size, arm strength and athleticism is the best among the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. It is surprising, though, that he went 19 picks before Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, 29 picks before Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and 33 selections before Fresno State’s Derek Carr.
Had the Jaguars gone with talent at another position first, they likely could have traded back up into the late first round and still landed a top quarterback prospect.
Instead, they must expect that Bortles will become the best quarterback from this year’s draft class to ultimately justify spending a top-five selection on him. It’s quite possible he could do that, but he might instead end up being this year’s biggest bust.
New York Jets, Pick No. 18: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
In a year where the demand for safeties was high but the depth of the talent pool at the position was low, it came as little surprise that one ended up being a top-20 draft selection. The mistake the New York Jets might have made at the No. 18 overall pick, though, was choosing Louisville’s Calvin Pryor to be that first safety off the board.
There are certainly some intriguing traits in Pryor’s game that elevated his stock into the middle of Round 1.
A known playmaker at a position where players do not always make a frequent impact, Pryor is a ball hawk on the back end and a big hitter all over the field.
The problem with drafting him over the draft’s other top safeties is that his overall game is not nearly as polished. While Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward are both capable of stepping into immediate center field roles in NFL secondaries, Pryor must become significantly more fluid in coverage to handle that responsibility at the next level.
Pryor has the upside to make the necessary improvements. He doesn’t have great height (5’11”) or speed (4.58-second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine), though, and more problematic is that he has tight hips when dropping back, inconsistent footwork and can give up big plays by playing too recklessly.
The Jets needed to add a playmaker at safety and got one, but with every safety in the draft still on the board, they could have landed a better all-around player at the position.
Chicago Bears, Pick No. 51: Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU
The Chicago Bears went into Day 2 of this year’s NFL draft with a massive need at defensive tackle, and they addressed that roster hole by selecting back-to-back players at the position in the second and third rounds. Their second-round pick, however, seemingly went a round or two too early.
LSU’s Ego Ferguson has the physical skill set to make Chicago’s No. 51 overall pick pay off. A 6’3”, 315-pound interior lineman with impressive burst and all-around athleticism for his size, Ferguson has the measurables and raw traits that give him the ability to play either defensive tackle spot in the Bears’ 4-3 defensive front.
That said, his production at LSU simply was not what it should be for a second-round pick. He finished his three-year career with the Tigers with just five total tackles for loss.
While a prospect’s value cannot be measured by his statistics alone, especially at the defensive tackle position, Ferguson has not demonstrated that he can create consistent disruption. While his quick get-off and power inside give him the ability to blow up some plays, he needs to become more skilled with his hands in order to work through more blocks.
In this case, the Bears seemingly made a need-based selection and drafted the highest-rated player on the board at a position where there were no adequate values—assuming the team had a lower-than-projected grade on Notre Dame’s Louis Nix—on the board.
While it’s hard to blame the Bears for making a pick at a position where their projected starters are the underwhelming duo of Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea, they could have found better value in a player such as Missouri defensive lineman Kony Ealy or Florida State safety Terrence Brooks.
Seattle Seahawks, Pick No. 64: Justin Britt, OT, Missouri
The Seattle Seahawks have been known for making picks that have left outside observers shaking their heads in recent years. More often than not, the NFL’s defending league champions have had the last laugh, as purported reaches like 2012 third-round pick Russell Wilson have gone on to become key players in a Super Bowl run.
Nonetheless, the team’s decision to select Missouri’s Justin Britt, who was widely projected by media draft analysts to be a fifth- to seventh-round draft choice, was a puzzling one at the end of Round 2.
Britt is a big (6’6”, 325 lbs) blocker who was a three-year starting left tackle at Missouri, but he was projected to be a backup at the next level. He has limited power despite his size, and he isn’t particularly explosive or light on his feet.
Technical skills, experience and toughness should enable Britt to carve out a role on the Seattle offensive line—most likely at either right tackle or right guard alongside Michael Bowie—but there were seemingly better selections on the board.
Virginia’s Morgan Moses and North Dakota State’s Billy Turner, who both went within the draft’s next three picks, bring more ability to win with power, finish blocks with authority and move their feet to the table than Britt does.
While Seahawks general manager John Schneider has quickly built a resume that makes his decisions tough to question, this seems likely to be Seattle’s most regrettable selection from its 2014 draft class.
Atlanta Falcons, Pick No. 68: Dezmen Southward, FS, Wisconsin
In a draft class that had a clear drop-off in safety talent after the top five prospects at the position, it wasn’t a big surprise to see Wisconsin’s Dezmen Southward come off the board earlier than expected. Him coming off the board over one of those safeties projected to be a top-five player at the position, however, was a questionable decision by the Atlanta Falcons.
Southward wasn’t a major playmaker in Wisconsin’s secondary. It would seem that Atlanta fell in love with his measurables after he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and 6.50-second three-cone drill, along with posting a 42” vertical jump, at Wisconsin’s pro day, according to NFL.com.
The 6’0”, 211-pound defensive back has the athletic upside to develop into a quality playmaker on the back end of Atlanta’s defense, but unless he can improve on his coverage instincts and positioning, he might only be well-suited for a role as a special teams contributor.
Southward didn’t demonstrate the level of football skill on tape that would make him a top-100 selection, and what made this pick especially questionable was that he went ahead of another safety, Florida State’s Terrence Brooks, who did.
Brooks is a more fluid coverage safety and impactful playmaker in both coverage and versus the run, and he posted impressive measurables of his own leading up to the draft when he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and had a 38” vertical jump at the combine, according to NFL.com.
One wouldn’t have guessed that Southward would be drafted before Brooks, but the Falcons apparently believe that although Brooks is a better play now, Southward has more impressive projection as it pertains to filling a need in their secondary at free safety.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pick No. 69: Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia
It could certainly be argued that Charles Sims, the fourth running back selected in this year’s draft, was selected where he belonged in regards to where he ranked among the talent at the position within the draft class. But at a quickly devaluing position where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lacked a pressing need, selecting Sims in Round 3 was a questionable decision.
He has a fairly well-rounded skill set and was a productive collegiate runner, but he lacks the explosiveness and power typically possessed by an early round running back in 2014. While he shows good shiftiness as a runner, he might not have enough lateral agility to make many defenders miss at the next level.
Sims is a skilled receiver out of the backfield—perhaps the best in this year’s running back class—but he is a poor pass-blocker who projects to a situational role in the NFL.
If the Buccaneers had an obvious opening for a running back to be a key player in their offense, the selection of Sims would be more justifiable at the 69th overall pick. As Tampa Bay already has one of the NFL’s best running backs in Doug Martin, however, Sims projects to only be a role player.
On a team that could have benefited greatly from selecting a pass-rusher such as Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, who would have been great value and still available at Tampa Bay’s third-round slot, Sims feels like a reach when the Buccaneers could have still found a capable situational running back in a later round.
Jacksonville Jaguars, Pick No. 93: Brandon Linder, G, Miami
The Jaguars made some good picks but also made some head-scratching decisions in this year’s draft, and perhaps their most questionable was their trade back up into the third round with the New England Patriots to then select Miami guard Brandon Linder.
While Jacksonville clearly deemed Linder to be the best interior offensive lineman on the board and a player worth moving up for, there isn’t much about his game that projects well to the NFL. While he has very good size for a guard at 6’6” and 311 pounds with 34.5” arms, he is a subpar athlete who can also be overwhelmed by power.
Linder had a solid career at Miami, with starts in each of his four years as a Hurricane, but he was exposed as one of the worst players at this year’s Senior Bowl. He consistently looked overmatched in one-on-one situations, as defensive linemen were able to work through him with power, quickness and their hands.
Furthermore, unless Linder can shift inside to center, the Jaguars made a move 12 spots up into Day 2—and gave up a sixth-round pick in the process—for a player who is likely to be a backup behind starting guards Zane Beadles and Will Rackley.
Linder could have been considered a reach even if the team had stayed at the 105th overall pick—where the Patriots ended up a selecting a better, more versatile interior offensive lineman in Florida State’s Bryan Stork—and his talent didn’t warrant trading up.
St. Louis Rams, Pick No. 110: Mo Alexander, SS, Utah State
A projected NFL role player with off-field concerns, Utah State’s Mo Alexander seemed far more likely to be an undrafted free agent than an early fourth-round pick.
The 110th overall pick in this year’s draft, Alexander has great size for a safety (6’1”, 220 pounds) and is an active, aggressive tackler in run support who thrives on physicality. He's an impressive athlete for his size who posted a 4.54-second 40-yard dash and 38” vertical jump at this year’s combine, according to NFL.com, and the St. Louis Rams apparently decided his physical potential was worth taking a middle-round chance on.
In coverage, though, Alexander isn’t very fluid and can be exposed when expected to drop back deep against offenses with athletic receiving threats. He will have to become a significantly more technically sound player against the pass to be anything more than an in-the-box run support specialist and special teams contributor for St. Louis.
Alexander might have been a reach on talent alone, but his concerning off-field history was also probably enough to take him off some teams’ boards. According to NFL.com, Alexander was kicked off the Utah State football team for the entire 2012 season after he pleaded guilty to an aggravated assault against one of his own teammates.
The Rams certainly must have done their homework on him and felt comfortable that he has turned the corner from a character standpoint, but that red flag makes it all the more surprising that St. Louis drafted the defensive back much earlier than expected.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.