NFL: Buying or Selling the Buzz on Every 1st-Round Rookie
Hype is the machine that drives the NFL draft, and the first-round picks are the first-class passengers.
Just like every other year, expectations are high for all of this season's top selections, and it's easy for every organization to praise its new prized possessions after a few weeks of less-than-full-bore workouts.
But who will live up to the hype? Will Sammy Watkins prove worth the two first-rounders the Bills gave up to get him? Will Johnny Manziel wrestle the starting gig away from Brian Hoyer before Week 1? How will injuries and having to finish college classes impact rookies who haven't been able to fully participate in workouts?
Should you buy or sell the hype at this point? Here's my take on every first-rounder from the 2014 draft class.
32. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings
Once considered a lock to be the top quarterback taken in the 2014 draft, Teddy Bridgewater nearly fell out of the first round entirely. And though it's tough for any team to sit a first-round quarterback, he says he's prepared to back up veteran Matt Cassel, according to ESPN.com's Ben Goessling:
If I'm not the guy, then I know the coaches have the best interest for the team also. My teammates also have the best interest for the team. So in order for me to be a better player, I have to have the best interest for the team and want nothing but the best interest for the team.
It looks like Bridgewater is already setting records in Minnesota, starting with most uses of the phrase "best interest of the team" in a single quote.
In all seriousness, even though he is arguably the most pro-ready quarterback from this draft class, the Vikings should be able to ride with Cassel long enough to give the rookie some valuable clipboard time.
Per Brian Hall of Fox Sports North, head coach Mike Zimmer is already impressed with Bridgewater's attitude and work ethic:
He's a worker. He wants to be really, really good. He's kind of feeling his way a little bit around the guys, which that will come in time. He understands he's a young guy, so he'll keep going, progressing in that way the more comfortable he feels around everybody, but I like him a lot. He's going to be a good football player for us.
It doesn't look like Zimmer is in a rush to name his starter, so Bridgewater could still wrestle away the gig from Cassel with a strong showing in training camp. I'm buying Cassel as the Week 1 starter, but Bridgewater should get the reins before the end of the season.
31. Bradley Roby, CB, Broncos
Despite handing a lucrative free-agent contract to Aqib Talib, the Broncos spent their first-rounder on another cornerback in Ohio State's Bradley Roby.
Heading into the draft, many scouts lauded his physical tools but had concerns about his consistency in coverage. So far, it looks like Roby is as advertised, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold:
...Roby has shown plenty of athleticism in workouts, but he has plenty of learning curve to travel. In the weeks and months leading up to the draft, some scouts were concerned about Roby’s concentration and focus in coverage at times.
And granted there’s getting your feet wet and then there’s diving in against a Manning-led offense that constantly pushes the envelope and the pace, even in practice. But Roby was caught trailing the play at times, especially down the field.
For his part, however, he continued to battle and showed himself to be more aggressive in red zone work when the offense didn’t have quite as many angles or as much room to disperse the receivers. He's got the goods to be sure, but he's got to hit the books -- and video -- in the coming weeks. The Broncos want, and need, him to be ready play in the nickel at minimum.
Roby has also shown flashes of his playmaking potential, intercepting Manning on one occasion in what would have been a pick-six in a game situation.
With Talib and Kayvon Webster, the Broncos have the ability to bring Roby along slowly. But given Talib's history of injuries and off-field issues, Roby might need to be counted on to start sooner rather than later.
I'm buying Roby's ability to develop into a playmaker at the position once he's had an opportunity to fully digest the playbook, especially as he's being challenged daily by the best quarterback in the league.
30. Jimmie Ward, S, 49ers
The first of many draft picks the 49ers made last month, Jimmie Ward is still waiting to hit the field and show his versatility as a defensive back.
Thanks to foot surgery undergone in March, he has yet to participate physically in any offseason workouts. Though performing between the lines is definitely key to any rookie's progression, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio says Ward is putting in plenty of effort off the field, according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News:
When you're skipping the practice part, you're skipping the most important part. (Ward) has done everything he can under the circumstances to learn our defense and improve. But he's got to go play.
While it would be easy for fans to assume that Ward will get the nod as the starting nickel corner, Fangio warned that the rookie's missed time during offseason workouts makes that anything but a certainty:
I don't think you can assume that. He's going to certainly get every opportunity to, but he's missed all this time, he's learning, he's a rookie, etc. We'll all have to be a little patient with him.
Ward's versatility allowed him to play safety at Northern Illinois while also sliding down into man coverage in the slot on a regular basis. I'm buying the fact that once healthy, he'll be the perfect fit at slot corner and should get the nod.
29. Dominique Easley, DL, Patriots
If not for multiple ACL surgeries, Dominique Easley could have gone much higher in the 2014 draft. Nevertheless, his elite skill set was impressive enough for the Patriots to spend their first-round pick on the Florida defensive lineman.
His recovery from his most recent knee injury has gone well enough that he was able to join the team for positional drills during last week's mandatory minicamp. Wearing a sleeve over his surgically repaired knee rather than a brace, he was a full participant in the 40 minutes of practice time that was open to the media.
Easley is as physically gifted as any defensive lineman in this draft class, and his ability to play inside or out will make him very valuable to the Patriots with their multiple fronts. That being said, having multiple ACL tears on his medical rap sheet raises huge durability questions that can only be answered once the grind of the NFL season gets into gear.
Still, the fact that he is already participating fully in workouts is encouraging, and if he can remain healthy, there's no limit to how much success he can have, especially with an organization like New England. I'm cautiously buying Easley's ability to make an impact in training camp and contend for a significant snap count once the season rolls around.
28. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
No need was greater on paper for the Carolina Panthers heading into the 2014 NFL draft than wide receiver, and the team is confident it has given Cam Newton a dynamic playmaker in Kelvin Benjamin.
A raw but talented pass-catcher, he has a rare blend of size and athleticism that he put on display often during Florida State's national title run last year. He has wasted no time showing off that athletic ability during offseason workouts, prompting rave reviews from head coach Ron Rivera, according to The Associated Press (h/t The Washington Post):
That’s part of why you bring the young man in. You draft him for a specific skill set. He can become a threat in the red zone and a threat for you on third down and have an immediate impact doing those things for us. It was good to see him do those things and good to see him work with Cam (Newton) as well. I’m excited as to where he’s heading and what he can become for us.
It's not surprising to me that Benjamin is impressing so far, but I'm skeptical of his chances to be counted on as a No. 1 receiver anytime soon. Though he has rare physical tools, he had just one year of starting experience at FSU and plenty of rough edges in his game to smooth out, particularly in route running and concentration when bringing in the ball.
Offseason workouts are somewhat of an extension of the "Underwear Olympics" that take place at the combine, so I'm selling the hype on Benjamin until he becomes a more refined receiver and/or proves his playmaking ability in real game action.
27. Deone Bucannon, S, Cardinals
Feeling the void left behind by the departure of longtime stalwart Adrian Wilson, the Cardinals drafted Deone Bucannon in the first round after trading back eight spots with the Saints.
But thanks to a turf toe injury, the Washington State product had been forced to watch from the sidelines during offseason workouts. He was finally able to return to action earlier this month during the team's minicamp and didn't appear to show any ill effects of the injury.
Per Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona, the Cards expect their top picks to play early and often, and Bucannon should be no exception:
It remains to be seen how quickly he can pick up the defense, but the Cardinals expect their first-round picks to play right away, so Bucannon will be in the rotation, if not a starter at the beginning of the season.
Bucannon was one of my favorite safety prospects in this draft, and I had him mocked to the Cardinals in the first round. He should fit in perfectly, and barring a setback with his toe, I'm buying that he'll make a big impact from Day 1.
26. Marcus Smith, OLB, Eagles
The Eagles raised more than a few eyebrows by taking Louisville pass-rusher Marcus Smith with their first-round pick last month. Though his athleticism was definitely impressive, few expected the undersized linebacker to crack the top 32 picks.
But that's just what the Eagles did, moving back from the 22nd overall pick to grab Smith at No. 26 overall. Though most first-rounders are counted on to assume starting roles early on, it looks as though the Eagles recognize that taking it slow is the best approach with a raw talent like Smith, having the rookie focus on learning the ropes one just one side of the defense for now.
According to Matt Lombardo of NJ.com, Eagles outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern knows there's plenty to like about his new weapon on the edge:
I think his athleticism, his knowledge. He looked like he had the characteristics that we look for at an outside linebacker. He's 250, 255 pounds right now he has a good size, he's long and we've seen him play with his hand off the ground whereas last year, some of the guys we only saw them with their hand in the dirt in college.
Many top picks can be forced into a starting role before they're completely ready, but it looks like the Eagles are taking the correct approach with Smith, allowing him to acclimate slowly. I'm buying him being able to develop to the point where he reaches his athletic potential and proves worthy of this pick.
25. Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers
Arguably the most glaring need on the team, it was no surprise when the Chargers used their first-rounder on a cornerback, grabbing TCU's Jason Verrett at No. 25 overall.
Though undersized at 5'9", his elite speed, toughness and technique made him one of the top cover men in this year's draft class. However, thanks to undergoing surgery in March to repair a shoulder injury, he has yet to participate in offseason workouts.
Per Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, Verrett's shoulder limited him to very few reps in positional drills this spring, but he should be ready for training camp: "(Verrett) participated in the occasional position drill this spring but otherwise was limited to mental reps. The shoulder, while not ready for football contract, is "right on track," a source said Friday."
One of quite a few first-rounders who have yet to show their skills at full speed thanks to injury, Verrett should be chomping at the bit to make up for lost time once he's fully healthy. Combined with the team's recent signing of Brandon Flowers, Verrett should help turn one of the Bolts' biggest weaknesses into a position of strength.
His skill set likely would have had him drafted in the top 15 picks if not for his lack of size, so once he's healthy, I'm buying his ability to make an immediate impact.
24. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Bengals
Arguably the most physical corner in this year's draft class, Darqueze Dennard was taken by the Bengals with the 24th overall pick to help the team get younger in the secondary.
Per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph has been impressed by their top pick so far and thinks Dennard is a great fit as a slot corner for the time being:
He’s smart, he’s mature. I wouldn’t hesitate putting him in there. He understands the run fits and the pressure packages and obviously he can match up in the slot coverage wise. So if he can learn it mentally and becomes a good blitzer, he’ll be fine for the nickel.
Joseph also says that Dennard doesn't look like most rookies when it comes to his mental toughness:
I’m not surprised. He’s not a normal rookie, a wide-eyed guy. His mistakes have been minimal and the ones he’s made he’s making corrections. Blitzing will be key because he can cover.
The Bengals have plenty of veterans at the position in Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman, as well as young talent in 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. But though the depth chart goes deep at corner, it sounds like the Bengals will give Dennard every opportunity to get on the field early and often in his first season.
I must have plenty of cash to burn, because I'm buying the hype here, too. He boasts a fantastic blend of speed and physicality, which—when combined with his mental toughness and ability to pick up the scheme quickly—should make him an impact defender early on in his NFL career.
23. Dee Ford, OLB, Chiefs
Who did you think was the second-best pass-rusher in this draft class?
Evidently for Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, the answer was "none of the above." Instead, he believes that distinction belongs to the man he drafted with the 23rd overall pick, Dee Ford.
The undersized but effective edge-rusher from Auburn tallied 10.5 sacks for the SEC champs in 2013 and followed with a strong performance at the Senior Bowl.
Per Mark Inabinett of AL.com, the rookie has already drawn comparisons to elite rushers such as Von Miller and former Kansas City great Derrick Thomas, with teammate Joe Mays having this to say about Ford's skill set:
That guy's explosive. He's quick off the ball. He kind of reminds me of Von Miller with the way that he gets off the ball and gets around the offensive linemen. He's a freak. He knows how to work angles and uses his hands real well. He can bend and do all types of stuff you don't see in the everyday pass rushers. Definitely as-advertised.
Even with such praise, Ford hasn't been taking first-team reps, despite the absence of Justin Houston due to injury. It looks like the Chiefs will use Ford as a situational rusher early on, spelling Houston and Tamba Hali.
I'm on board with bringing Ford along slowly, but I'm not buying the lofty comparisons just yet. Once the pads start popping in training camp and he sees some real competition, I'm skeptical that we'll be calling him the next "DT."
22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns
When was the last time the 22nd overall pick had arguably more hype than the rest of the first-rounders combined?
The off-field hype surrounding Johnny Manziel seems to get more attention than his on-field exploits, but even between the lines, the buzz he brings to Berea, Ohio, is unmistakable. But does he have a shot at the Week 1 starting gig, or will Browns fans see their hopeful savior waiting behind Brian Hoyer?
Per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, Browns head coach Mike Pettine would prefer not to start Manziel right away:
We felt this entire draft class, every single one of (the quarterbacks) needed a redshirt year, with Johnny really being the only one that had a chance given the right circumstances to be an opening-day starter. It could happen, but in my ideal world, it's not opening day.
Though Pettine has said that the job is Hoyer's to lose, the new head coach has also admitted that Hoyer's lead "isn't insurmountable." Hoyer has been impressive so far during offseason workouts, both on the field and as a leader, so he should keep the starting job, barring any catastrophe. However, if he struggles early on, there will likely be increased pressure on Pettine to hand the reins to Manziel.
I'm selling Manziel as the Week 1 starter, and Browns fans should want him to spend some time riding the pine and adjusting to the NFL game before being thrown into the fire.
21. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Packers
The Packers were expected to take a safety early in the 2014 NFL draft, and they ended up with arguably the best in the class at the 21st overall pick, grabbing Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
With the position looking relatively thin in Green Bay, the path to a Week 1 starting role for him looked smooth. But despite his expectations, the former member of the Crimson Tide has not been running with the first team during offseason workouts, instead backing up Micah Hyde, who played corner for the Packers last season.
Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says there might not be much to it for the moment but that Clinton-Dix has had a relatively quiet offseason so far:
Micah Hyde, not Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, worked most with the No. 1 defense next to Morgan Burnett. And after the final practice, McCarthy said the second-year defensive back looks "very comfortable" with everything he's been asked to do. But let's also remember Alex Green started at running back this time last year. This is likely Green Bay wanting to get Hyde acclimated to the position more than a sign that Hyde will start Week 1. Dom Capers said coaches actually wanted to get him safety reps last year but couldn't due to injuries.
Clinton-Dix was the first-round pick brought in to reinvigorate a sagging position. He'll need to pick the defense up fast when players reconvene. It was a fairly quiet spring for the Alabama safety, one that included a rookie moment last week when Brandon Bostick plucked a touchdown over his head in the corner of the end zone.
I'm buying what Dunne is saying here. Getting Hyde up to speed on the position will be helpful, but eventually, the athleticism and playmaking ability of Green Bay's top pick should win out, making Clinton-Dix the Week 1 starter at one of the safety spots.
20. Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
After the loss of Lance Moore via free agency, it was no surprise that the Saints used their top draft pick to give Drew Brees a speedy receiver who can create mismatches in the slot.
It hasn't taken long for Brandin Cooks to prove that he could be one of the biggest steals of the entire draft, bringing elite explosiveness and playmaking ability that should make him a dynamic weapon. Per Jennifer Hale of Fox Sports New Orleans, head coach Sean Payton is excited about Cooks' handling of the mental side of things, as well as his versatility:
I think like any young player, you are quickly giving them as much information as you can, and he is handling it well. There was a portion of today's practice where we did some specific things in regards to three receiver sets that involved him. Overall he has really picked things up really quickly.
He would be a candidate if we were running a reverse or behind or a special play. He is someone certainly, with his speed that would be one of the guys we would look to do that with. I think you hope that whenever you add speed to the field, it stretches the defense both in the passing game and the running game. It will just be finding that balance and fitting it into what we are doing.
Cooks has already been nicknamed "Lightning" by teammate Keenan Lewis, and his ability to quickly digest Payton's playbook will be vital considering he had to join the offseason activities later than many rookies thanks to Oregon State's class schedule.
He is one of my favorite prospects in this draft class, and I'm buying the fact that Cooks is in a perfect situation to make a huge impact, creating big plays early and often in his NFL career.
19. Ja'Wuan James, OT, Dolphins
One of the more surprising picks in the first round, the Dolphins addressed their need at offensive tackle with Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James, despite the fact that few expected him to go in the first round at all, let alone the top 20 picks.
New general manager Dennis Hickey clearly thought otherwise, and it appears that James will be thrown right into the action as a rookie starter. According to Andy Cohen of TheFinsiders.com, James "is already penciled in as the starting right tackle and, barring something unforeseen, I don’t believe he will relinquish it in training camp." Cohen also stated that he "will be a very good player for a long time."
Brian Miller of PhinPhanatic.com isn't as optimistic about James so far, claiming that he "hasn’t looked that impressive" at right tackle.
I'm inclined to agree with Miller on this one and sell the hype on James being a success as a plug-and-play starter from Day 1. I wasn't a huge fan of this pick when it happened, and while I do believe that he could eventually become a solid right tackle, I think it will take some time for him to develop. I would be surprised if he plays up to the expectations that come along with being a top-20 pick.
18. Calvin Pryor, S, Jets
The strength of the New York Jets last season was clearly on defense, but that didn't keep them from using their top pick on that side of the ball, drafting safety Calvin Pryor 18th overall.
Despite missing the Jets' first four OTAs thanks to having his wisdom teeth removed, he was running with the first-team defense in his first full action with the team. Though that doesn't necessarily mean he will start Week 1, expectations are high for the former Louisville standout.
ESPN.com's Ashley Fox goes so far as to predict that Pryor should walk away with this year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award:
Pryor is, as Jets head coach Rex Ryan noted after selecting him, in the mold of Seattle safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas: big, brash, a vicious hitter with range, who is able to blitz from various spots on the field, and an enforcer for the back of the defense.
It is inevitable that Pryor will make big hits. He should be able to create turnovers. He will make plays. And if Pryor does so from the jump, he should add another line to his résumé: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Pryor has already made his presence known around the locker room with his penchant for trash talk, prompting Jets quarterback Geno Smith to publicly remind Pryor that he's still a rookie. But that type of swagger should be a plus for Pryor, as long as he backs it up with his play on the field.
He definitely has the potential to be a playmaker in the secondary, particularly because of the talent surrounding him on that unit. But I'm not ready to hand him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, so I'll sell the hype on him for now.
17. C.J. Mosley, LB, Ravens
One of the least surprising picks in the bottom half of the first round, Ravens general manager went back to his alma mater for yet another linebacker, bringing C.J. Mosley to Baltimore. He will join his former Alabama teammate Courtney Upshaw, whom the Ravens drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft.
One of the driving forces behind the Crimson Tide's dominant defenses in recent years, Mosley was a versatile playmaker on the field and a valuable leader in the locker room.
According to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com, his athleticism has already been on display during team workouts:
The athletic ability of first-round pick C.J. Mosley stands out even in individual drills. All of the Ravens inside linebackers were asked to backpedal and then jump up to knock down the pass. Mosley was fluid moving backward and easily leapt higher than anyone in the group. It wasn't even close.
The Butkus Award winner in 2013 as the nation's best linebacker, Mosley has drawn praise from fellow Ravens LB Daryl Smith, and the All-American isn't lacking for confidence, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:
The coaches feel comfortable with the way I’m playing and comfortable enough that I know the defense. It’s all about how I feel right now, and I feel like I’m doing a great job.
The competition is real tight in our linebacker room, and that’s a good thing because it’s going to make us all work. At the end of the day, the best player is going to be on the field. Hopefully come Week 1, if I do the right things, that will be me.
Mosley was a top-10 talent, in my opinion, so getting him at No. 17 overall was an absolute steal. I'm buying him as a Week 1 starter and the future backbone and leader of the Ravens defense.
16. Zack Martin, OL, Cowboys
Known for making some off-the-wall picks in the past, Jerry Jones took a page out of a more sensible playbook by drafting versatile offensive lineman Zack Martin at No. 16 overall.
Though he made 52 career starts at Notre Dame as a left tackle, the Cowboys plan to make him their starting right guard. Challenging his versatility even further, the team has even worked him at center during offseason workouts.
According to Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News, head coach Jason Garrett admits how challenging the process will be for Martin but believes he's up for it:
I think one of the things we thought about when he was coming out was his versatility. He played left tackle at Notre Dame, started 52 games. But I think we all felt like he could play tackle, he could play guard, and even play center.
He’s a really, really smart football player. You can tell that with how he played on college tape, you can tell that from Minute One since he’s been here, both in the class room and on the field. The game comes very easily to him from a mental standpoint. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the different looks, playing different spots. There’s a lot of poise and confidence.
Now, he’s got a long way to go, don’t get me wrong. He’s young to this whole thing. He’s had about 10 or so practices with us. But we viewed him as a guy who could potentially play five offensive line spots when we drafted him. He’s certainly done a very good job at guard, try to get him some snaps at center as well.
Martin won't be the first member of the Cowboys' young offensive line to be counted on from Day 1. Teammates Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick should be invaluable in helping him adjust quickly to the NFL game.
No draft pick is ever a "sure thing," but Martin is as close as any in this class can get. This was a fantastic pick by Jerry Jones, and I'm buying Martin being able to digest the laundry list of responsibilities he'll need to master to be successful at any spot on the offensive line. He should start immediately and be a mainstay for years to come.
15. Ryan Shazier, LB, Steelers
Another pick that raised a few eyebrows, the Steelers opted to get younger and faster on the edge by drafting Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall selection.
Despite many opinions that the pick was a bit of a reach, he has reportedly done nothing but impress during offseason workouts. Per Scott Brown of ESPN.com, linebackers coach Keith Butler says Shazier's ability to pick up the scheme quickly has been as vital as his speed and athleticism:
He understands concepts and picks things up a little bit easier than most rookies. I don’t like to play rookies, because in defensive football there’s two things that can get you beat. One of them is missed tackles, the other is mental mistakes. Normally when you try to learn this defense, it’s going to take you a little while to do it.
We don’t have a choice whether we can play him or not. We’ve got to play him and be faster, and we’ve got to win.
The Steelers are also taking advantage of his versatility, having him line up all over the place. And according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the rookie's learning curve is being helped by the fact that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still consults with the defensive staff at Ohio State, where Shazier played:
A lot of stuff we learned at Ohio State is from this defense. The coaches came over here every now and then and learned some stuff. Some of it has different terminology, and (is) more complex, but it has a little bit of what we knew.
All signs seem to point toward Shazier having a big impact from the get-go, but I'm not sold yet. His lack of size concerns me for when he starts facing NFL lineman in live game action. He should do well in coverage, but I'm selling his ability to be a high-impact edge player as a rookie.
14. Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears
The Bears needed to address the secondary early in the 2014 draft, and they did just that by selecting Kyle Fuller 14th overall.
According to Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Tribune, Fuller's performance during workouts has been up-and-down, but going up against the likes of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery every day should benefit the rookie in the long run:
Rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller had his good moments during the offseason workouts but also some less-mentioned bad ones, including getting beaten badly in man coverage by (Marquess) Wilson and Jeffery during minicamp. He’s going to play plenty in 2014, and a training camp spent combating the Bears’ receivers will help.
Per the Sun-Tribune's Mark Potash, Fuller faces a steep climb for playing time as a rookie behind veteran mainstays Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, but new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is optimistic of Fuller's chances to make an impact once he's up to speed mentally:
Kyle doesn’t back down from a challenge. He’s always going to look to make plays. He’s around the ball quite a bit, and he looks like he belongs out there. We’ve just got to keep getting him better, and he’s got to learn the system and learn where his help is and what technique we want him to play and then continue to progress.
I'm selling the fact that Fuller won't be able to make an immediate impact as a rookie. Both Jennings and Tillman are north of 30 years old, which makes it even more important to have young talent to spell or replace them in case of injury. Fuller should get the chance to make plays in the nickel as well.
13. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
This pick just wasn't even fair.
Adding to an already formidable front four, the Rams snagged one of the fastest risers in this year's draft class in the disruptive Aaron Donald.
Per Nate Latsch of Fox Sports Midwest, head coach Jeff Fisher told NFL Network how thrilled he is to have Donald and how surprised he was that he was even available:
Aaron Donald, our second first-round pick, is going to be a difference-maker inside. It's what we need. We've got such tremendous talent at the defensive end position, now with Aaron in there (at defensive tackle), with Mike Brockers and Kendall (Langford), we've got a solid front. We're going to be hard to deal with, I think, from a front standpoint.
We sat there, going into the draft at 2 and 13, thinking, 'OK, who's going to maybe be there at 13?' There's really no way we thought Aaron would fall. He fell...we can use his special traits. He's an outstanding young man, very, very talented. Way ahead as far as pass rush is concerned with his hand use and things. He's going to be an explosive, dynamic player for us.
Donald has already made a strong impression on offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who said following OTAs that Donald "has my vote for Rookie of the Year already," per the team's official website.
A dominant force at the point of attack, he had an incredible offseason, turning heads in private workouts and the combine, as well as during Senior Bowl week. Especially with the elite talent surrounding him, I'm buying Donald's chances to wreak havoc on opposing offenses from Day 1.
12. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants
Whether it was a lineman to keep him clean or a weapon to throw to, many agreed that the Giants' first-round pick had to be all about taking care of Eli Manning.
The Giants chose the latter, selecting an undersized but explosive playmaker in Odell Beckham Jr., who should help alleviate the loss of Hakeem Nicks in free agency.
The LSU product is already showcasing his special abilities, according to NJ.com's Jordan Raanan:
There is something about first-round pick Odell Beckham that really sticks out. It's a skill that even differentiates him from Victor Cruz, who is more solid than spectacular. When Beckham grabs the football, it's spectacular. Even though he was still somewhat limited -- claiming to be at 85 percent -- you can just see the way he goes and attacks the football is special. Beckham kind of plucks it out of mid-air with a unique force. The ball never gets the best of the young receiver. Beckham consistently goes and gets the football with rare tenacity, just like he did on his touchdown reception from Ryan Nassib and on several other balls near the sideline.
Beckham is also an experienced return man, giving him another aspect of the game where he could make an immediate impact.
Despite his lack of size, he has a strong, thick frame, and his ball skills are as good as any receiver in this draft class. With his skills as a receiver, combined with his ability to make plays in the return game, I'm buying his chances to give the Giants a much-needed spark in his rookie season.
11. Taylor Lewan, OT, Titans
The 11th overall pick isn't usually where you draft for depth.
That being the case, the Titans were most likely looking to the future at left tackle by drafting Taylor Lewan. They signed free agent Michael Oher to a four-year deal this offseason to start at right tackle, and veteran Michael Roos is under contract for one more season after an impressive 2013 campaign.
It's possible that Lewan will be groomed to take over for Roos after the 2014 season, but for the time being, the Michigan product is preparing to play on either side, despite his lack of experience as a right tackle. Per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, he knows he has plenty to learn about working on the right side:
It's just different, something I haven't done before. My vertical set is a little off, and keeping my shoulder square (is harder), those type of things. My punch timing is a lot better on the left side than it is on the right side. But it's just learning and developing those things, and that's what you have to do to be successful.
But according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, Lewan has been working hard to learn everything he can from veterans like Roos and Oher, and he's starting to see the payoff:
I am really starting to get it. Everything has slowed down for me, but some of the things these guys know and get, and all the intricate little details. … I know I still have some things to learn, but I am starting to figure things out. The mental aspect has been the toughest part, but I am getting there.
I wasn't sold on this pick and still think the Titans should have addressed more pressing needs. But if their plan is to let Lewan learn from the vets while providing depth as a swing tackle and then take over for Roos in 2015 as the starting left tackle, I'm buying his ability to develop into a blindside protector worthy of this pick.
10. Eric Ebron, TE, Lions
Despite already having Calvin Johnson and signing free-agent receiver Golden Tate this offseason, the Lions used the 10th overall pick on another weapon for Matthew Stafford to throw to in tight end Eric Ebron.
But though his athletic ability is off the charts, he has had plenty of struggles with the mental side of adjusting to the NFL game. According to Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press, Ebron admits how much he has to learn and how difficult the process has been:
From the ground to your mind. From your toes to the last hair on your head, they are teaching through and through.
You might think you are right, but you could have done something better. After the play, you’ll be like, ‘hmm, this and this and this.’ By the time (you’re) done with that play, digesting it and thinking about what you did, the next play is already getting talked about. You just have to be 100% and know it.
Per Justin Rogers of MLive.com, Ebron has reportedly had some "terrible days" so far this offseason, and the expectations of being a top-10 pick make the pressure even greater to get things right and have an immediate impact in his rookie season.
I'm buying that it will take some time for him to settle in and feel completely confident in his new surroundings. But as the season wears on and he becomes more comfortable with his responsibilities, his natural ability will show through and provide Lions fans with plenty of highlights.
9. Anthony Barr, DE, Vikings
After moving down one slot to the ninth overall pick, the Vikings grabbed an athletic pass-rusher for new head coach Mike Zimmer to plug into his defense.
But due to NFL rules, Anthony Barr was forced to miss the team's OTAs earlier this month while he wrapped up his classes at UCLA. This left him with plenty to catch up on when he arrived in the Twin Cities, but according to Master Tesfatsion of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vikings coaches have wasted no time in taking advantage of Barr's versatile skill set:
Barr was thrown into the shuffle at linebacker and used Wednesday at outside linebacker in both the base 4-3 and nickel defensive packages. The Vikings also incorporated Barr, listed at 6-5 and 255 pounds, with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end during pass rushing situations.
Per Brian Hall of Fox Sports North, Barr admits he's had his struggles learning his responsibilities in the Vikings' new scheme:
There's still a lot that I confuse, and I kind of mix up coverages and responsibilities sometimes. It's the names, I think, more than my actual responsibility. So, once I get that down, I'll be alright.
He was projected as a raw prospect with plenty of talent who needed time to refine his skills and reach his full potential. His delayed immersion into the NFL world won't help his attempts to make an immediate impact, but his ceiling is high.
It might take some time, but I'm buying that Zimmer will put Barr in the best position to make an impact as soon as possible.
8. Justin Gilbert, CB, Browns
Even though he was taken 14 picks earlier, Justin Gilbert has gotten far less hype than fellow Cleveland first-rounder Johnny Manziel.
But the former Oklahoma State cornerback is just fine with that, content to let his actions on the field do the talking. And though it's been a tough competition with Buster Skrine for the starting job opposite Joe Haden, Gilbert likes his chances once they put the pads on, according to Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com:
That’s going to allow me to be more aggressive at the line. And get my hands on them early. That’s something that’s been emphasized early. Getting the hands on the receiver and destroying the route before it even starts.
Despite Gilbert's moments of rookie struggle and Skrine's improvement, new head coach Mike Pettine and his defensive staff were excited about their top pick's potential enough to trade up a spot to make sure they grabbed him as the top corner off the board.
Gilbert has the combination of size and speed that is necessary to compete with the bigger, faster receivers who continue to fill the league. I'm buying that he'll beat out Skrine and start opposite Haden to give the Browns one of the best sets of young cover men in the NFL.
7. Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers
Throughout the predraft process, Mike Evans' most popular NFL comparison was Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson.
Little did he know that he would end up lining up across from Jackson after being selected by the Bucs with the seventh overall pick.
Though he has been slowed by a hamstring injury during full team workouts, it didn't take long for him to show off his athleticism at the Bucs' rookie minicamp. Though it's been a small sample size so far, new head coach Lovie Smith likes what Evans brings to the table, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times:
You talk to the players about doing something to make the coaches notice them. And seeing how guys can perform on the center stage. We have a first-round draft pick. Great catch by Mike Evans out there today but he's been doing that all week. He's a good football player.
But though Smith acknowledged Evans' prowess, he also makes it clear that top-shelf performances should be the norm for such a high draft pick:
Great size, it's good to see him up close going against a 5-10 defensive back. We have some big, tall men out there making plays. He has excellent hands. You saw that in college, so we haven't been surprised by an awful lot. You take a player that high in the draft, you expect decent, spectacular plays from him. Again, when you draft a player that high, you expect him to do a little bit more than just the ordinary. We've seen Mike do that. Mike had a great college career. Made a lot of plays like that. A lot of times what you see in college, you get to see at the next level, too. We're expecting it.
Evans will start opposite Jackson immediately and will be counted on to provide big plays early and often. But with Jackson present to keep teams from rolling coverages to Evan's side, along with a strong running attack, I'm buying the rookie giving Tampa Bay plenty of highlight-reel moments in 2014.
6. Jake Matthews, OT, Falcons
It's not often that the sixth overall pick can be considered a steal.
But when the Falcons landed the most polished NFL-ready left tackle in the draft at this pick, it was quite the theft indeed.
Jake Matthews' Hall of Fame bloodlines are well-known at this point, but he's an elite prospect in his own right. An All-American performer in the SEC at both left and right tackle, he has played at an elite level in the nation's toughest conference.
To any who questioned whether or not he has a mean streak, Matthews reportedly came close to ripping a teammate's jersey off during pass-rush drills. According to Daniel Cox of AtlantaFalcons.com, Matthews and the rest of the team's offensive line have left quarterback Matt Ryan impressed:
I think our offensive line has done a really nice job during the OTA period as well as during minicamp. From a communication standpoint, we’ve got a few changes from what we’ve done around here in the past and those guys are working through those changes. I think one of the big things that Mike preaches is communication at the line of scrimmage. You can hear those guys talking a bunch and making sure they’re on the same page.
Matthews isn't flashy, but he's as safe a pick as there was in this draft. I'm buying him as a starter from Day 1 and a perennial All-Pro for his entire NFL career.
5. Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders
Well-known as an organization for valuing elite athleticism in their draft picks, the Raiders stayed true to that tradition when they selected a dynamic edge-rusher in Khalil Mack.
But though he brings top-shelf athletic ability to the table, it will take time for the Buffalo product to adjust to how things are done at the NFL level, both on and off the field. As Kevin Patra of NFL.com reports, head coach Dennis Allen says he's throwing everything he can at the rookie linebacker to see how much he can handle:
We've got his head spinning right now. That's a good thing. We're going to try to throw as much at him as we can throughout the rest of this offseason and really even into the early part of training camp, and then at some point we'll settle down to the things that we can execute as a team and execute at a high level.
Despite the information overload, Mack has done plenty to impress his new teammates and coaches, drawing praise from veterans like Charles Woodson and new addition Donald Penn, who says Mack's athleticism is a sight to behold, according to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News:
Sometimes he moves like a defensive back. It's crazy for a guy like that to be doing that. He has a motor that's relentless. As a tackle, you stay on him until you hear the whistle or hear the crowd cheer.
Mack's potential is off the charts, but how quickly he's able to make an impact will come down to his ability to digest the playbook and translate it into on-field success. Like many in this class, it might take half of the season for him to hit his groove, but I'm buying big things from Mack in 2014 and beyond.
4. Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills
Unwilling to let the opportunity pass them by, the Bills made a sizable investment to trade up for the most explosive playmaker in this year's draft in Sammy Watkins.
But despite the hefty price that was paid to move up and secure him, he says he doesn't feel any added pressure to perform, per Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports:
No pressure. We already have many guys experienced here. I just have to be prepared and ready to play early. We’re not just going to come in and turn it on. We know we’ve got a long season ahead. If I perform the way I expect to perform, I think we’ll be OK. That’s all I care about, that and winning.
And though it's obvious that the team is impressed with what he brings to the field athletically, head coach Doug Marrone has also been impressed with Watkins' work ethic, according to Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News:
For me I would say that I thought after having watched him now for a couple days, my assessment of him is that he probably has better hand-eye coordination that I thought coming in.
Someone told me today he was in here, like 6:45, running routes on air. Those are things that are encouraging. Those are the things you want to hear.
Watkins has admitted that he still has plenty of work to do when it comes to developing chemistry with his new quarterback E.J. Manuel. But though the price tag was rather high, I'm buying Watkins being an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Buffalo this year.
3. Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
The Jags threw the first curveball of the 2014 NFL draft, taking their quarterback of the future in Blake Bortles with the third overall pick.
Though they were definitely rumored to be interested in a quarterback in this year's class, few thought he would be their pick at No. 3 overall. But despite the recent trend of highly drafted QBs being forced into early action, the Jags plan on taking it slow with Bortles.
He faces a steep learning curve, but the in-state product from UCF believes he's making solid progress, according to ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco:
It's coming [along] really good, meeting every morning with [offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch] and having Chad [Henne], Ricky [Stanzi] and Stephen [Morris] to bounce stuff off of. Just getting the reps is obviously the best way for me to progress -- be on the field, watch Chad do it, and then get the opportunity for me to do it.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers thinks the Jags are doing the right thing by giving Bortles some time on the bench, allowing him to acclimate slowly to the increased speed of the NFL game. Still, in a win-now league like the NFL, it's tough to keep the third overall pick riding the pine for long.
Bortles has all the physical tools to be a successful starting quarterback in the NFL, but he needs time to develop and refine those skills. If he gets that time, I'm buying his long-term success. If, however, he's forced into action too early, he could become just another Blaine Gabbert.
2. Greg Robinson, OT, Rams
Drafting a college left tackle at No. 2 overall, only to move him to guard?
It might sound crazy, but that's just how high Greg Robinson's potential is as a punishing run-blocker on the interior of the Rams offensive line. Taking over as Sam Bradford's blindside protector is still a possibility down the road, but for the time being, the rookie is making the transition inside.
But according to Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com, the transition hasn't been the smoothest, and Robinson says he's been frustrated by the process:
It's frustrating that I'm not up to pace right now because the playbook is more intense and things are changing but once I get back to where I'm comfortable, things will calm down and I can be myself out there.
It's just everything happens faster inside. Outside you have a little more time to kick. The guys are faster but these guys are just quick and trained to rush the passer. It's just about keeping my feet working and knowing when to pull. Right now it's a lot of thinking going on, it causes me to move a little slower. Once I get up to speed, I can move with the snap count and stuff like that.
Robinson has elite athleticism and limitless potential, but he faces a steep learning curve at the moment. Ultimately, I'm more inclined to buy him as a future Pro Bowler at guard rather than tackle, due to his prowess as a run-blocker. But I'd be surprised if he doesn't make the switch back to left tackle at some point, considering his high draft slot.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Texans
The classic case of need versus value, the Texans decided to take the draft's best player with the top pick instead of addressing their need for a long-term solution at quarterback.
But nobody should be crying in Houston, as they bagged arguably the most talented pass-rusher to come along in the last 15-20 years, Jadeveon Clowney.
Chided during his junior season for allegedly taking plays off and not going 100 percent to avoid injury, Clowney has been lauded for his work ethic during Houston's workouts. According to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, head coach Bill O'Brien has been impressed with how hard the rookie is working to adjust to playing outside linebacker:
He's really worked hard. That position has worked extremely hard, just like all the positions. He's a guy that's come in here and really put in extra time so far, and he needs to keep doing it.
Clowney has also been vocal about how much he is enjoying being able to learn from former NFL linebacker and current Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel.
Clowney's freakish combination of size and athletic ability won't be on full display until full-pad practices begin at training camp, but he has done plenty so far to silence his critics regarding his willingness to work hard after receiving an NFL paycheck.
He's a once-in-a-generation talent who will get to play alongside one of the best defensive players in the league in J.J. Watt, so I'm buying big things from Clowney throughout his career.