Every April at Football Outsiders, we look back on the drafts of yesteryear in preparation for the draft that's coming up. And what better way to prepare for the 2020 draft, which features one of the most tempting and tantalizing receiver classes we've ever seen, then to go back to 2014, which featured one of the most tempting and tantalizing receiver classes we've ever seen?
Actually, 2014 was an incredibly strong class at the top. Seventeen first-round picks have made the Pro Bowl, compared to 12 from 2013 and 10 from 2015. Seventeen of them have started at least 60 games; 23 of them have started at least 40. That's a hit rate most draft classes would kill to have, and most teams with multiple bites at the apple found something they could be happy with in this year's class.
It was a ridiculous amount of potential. A receiver class loaded with names like Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, and Brandin Cooks was said to have anywhere between four and seven first-round selections waiting to go as the NFL continued to get more and more pass-happy. Jadeveon Clowney was a once-in-a-generation talent, set to be the first defensive player drafted first overall since Mario Williams in 2006 -- unless Khalil Mack stole that spot from him. Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews were guaranteed studs on the offensive line. And then, overshadowing nearly everything else, you had Johnny Manziel, the mercurial scrambler who was the runaway choice to be the first quarterback chosen in the draft. An embarrassment of riches!
And yet, despite that plethora of talent available early and often, at least four of the teams in the top 10 would give their right arms to be able to go back and re-do their selections.
Look away now, Cleveland Browns fans.
For a reminder of who went where, Pro Football Reference is your source for all the picks in the draft and their basic statistics, while I find Wikipedia more useful for tracing draft pick transactions.
Conventional Wisdom: Entering the 2013 college football season, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater had been considered the top prospect, with little dissent. He was calculated and football-smart, with precision and rhythm to make up for a lack of arm strength and athleticism, as well as a slight frame at just 190 pounds through the end of his college career. But after being one of the best college quarterbacks in 2012, in 2013 Bridgewater was only good, not great. That probably wouldn't have been enough to really squelch the hype around him, but then he had a legendarily bad Pro Day, and was reportedly just as bad in private workouts. Mike Mayock dropped him from a top-five pick to out of the first round, and one anonymous scout said that he was a Day 3 pick. Sports Illustrated draft writer (and Football Outsiders alum) Doug Farrar disagreed, listing Bridgewater as his top talent overall in the class, and saying that "any NFL executive who will throw multiple scouted games out the window based on a shirt-and-shorts session, whether positive or negative, is probably on his way out the door."
Still, many did throw that out the window, looking for better options. For most, that was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. Johnny Football won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and nearly repeated the feat the next season. Even those who stuck by Bridgewater were mostly forced to admit that Manziel had the higher ceiling -- an ad-libbing, sandlot-style quarterback who was nigh-impossible to gameplan against; an astonishing scrambler; a ferocious competitor, with unparalleled confidence and a knack for being one step ahead of his competition. Manziel had boom written all over him. But with the potential for boom came a potential to bust and, well, some people really, really disliked Manziel's attitude, his character, and his work ethic. He was a well-known partier and not at all well-known as a leader in college, with a "sense of entitlement and prima-donna arrogance." The name "Ryan Leaf" was being circulated as well, and that was before you mentioned his lack of discipline in the pocket. Don't get us wrong, though -- at the time, Manziel was a very, very popular choice for a top-ten pick. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks had Manziel going third to Jacksonville; ESPN Nation writers had Cleveland scooping him up fourth overall, while Walter Football had him tumbling all the way to seventh. There were even some rumors the Rams were ready to cut bait on Sam Bradford and take Manziel second overall.
With Bridgewater tumbling and Manziel showboating, some scouts leaned towards Central Florida's Blake Bortles as their preferred option. Bortles wasn't considered to be as pro-ready as Manziel or Bridgewater, but as a project with upside, his stock increased rapidly as draft day approached. Bortles had the best Pro Day of the three top prospects, and he had the most prototypical size and arm measurables. He needed to be paired with a team that could afford to develop him, but Bortles was the relatively drama-free option atop the class.
After those three, most talk revolved around Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, and Fresno State's Derek Carr, all of whom were possible Day 2 selections.
Here on Football Outsiders, the last year for the Lewin Career Forecast was ... terrible! Georgia's Aaron Murray was listed with the highest projection, because he was the only top prospect who started all four seasons in college. Everyone else fell into a sort of general mishmash, with no real red flags and no real diamonds in the rough. And so, to quote from the article, "the official position of Football Outsiders regarding the 2014 LCF is that this year the LCF doesn't mean anything. Figuring out the difference between Bridgewater, Manziel, and Bortles is all up to the scouts."
Yes. Super helpful, that. The next year, we unveiled QBASE, which at the time retroactively rated the 2014 quarterbacks Bridgewater, Carr, Manziel, and Bortles, in that order.
Highest Pick: Blake Bortles, third overall to Jacksonville.
Best Player: It strangely feels like the jury is still out on this one. Bridgewater's terrible leg injury in 2015 means he is only now regaining a starting spot, while Garoppolo only has one full season as a starter thanks to Tom Brady never, ever retiring and an ACL tear. So your winner is Derek Carr, whom Oakland took with the fourth pick of the second round. While his third-place finish in the 2016 MVP race was a product of over-hype, Carr has accumulated 3,674 DYAR in his career. The only other quarterback from this class with over 1,000 is Garoppolo (1,487), with Bridgewater's 263 and McCarron's 16 being the only other passers on the positive side of the ledger.
Don't get me wrong -- this isn't a win by default for Carr, either. He has the two best seasons of any passer in the class, and five of the top eight. While it was rumored that Jon Gruden was thinking about moving away from Carr this offseason, plenty of teams would love to have someone with Carr's quality under center; he's a top-ten quarterback when everything is going right around him. It might have been a closer race if Bridgewater had stayed healthy or Garoppolo had taken over in New England, but Carr would likely have been the best player in this class regardless.
Biggest Bust: Yeah, those Ryan Leaf comparisons weren't miles away for Johnny Manziel. Bortles actually accumulated less DYAR (-209 to -191), but that was over six seasons, and he's still in the league. Manziel went 22nd overall to Cleveland, and that was the high point of his tenure with the Browns. Every fear of off-field incidents came to pass. Manziel was pulled over by police after drinking and arguing with his girlfriend. Manziel was filmed partying in a nightclub, lied about it to head coach Mike Pettine, encouraged his friends to lie about the video, and was ultimately benched. While injured with a concussion, Manziel was spotted at a Las Vegas casino the night before the 2015 season finale. After 2015, Manziel was investigated for domestic violence, and one of his lawyers accidentally texted the media, saying "heaven help us if one of the conditions [for a plea bargain] is to pee in a bottle." Manziel also spent time in rehab dealing with drug addiction.
Perhaps if he had been better on the field, some could have turned a blind eye to all of his off-field woes, but the one year he did qualify for the passing leaderboards, he had a -18.4% DVOA, so that's no good. Manziel was released after the 2016 season and has since spent time as a backup in both the CFL and AAF. He has stopped drinking and gotten help for his bipolar disorder, and is by all accounts turning his life around off the field, so at least his story seems to be heading in a positive direction. Just not for the Browns. Manziel remains one of the all-time biggest busts.
Best Value: Derek Carr. None of the quarterbacks drafted after the second round have amounted to anything in the NFL, and Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't done nearly enough yet to knock Carr off of this perch, despite being selected 26 picks later.
Conventional Wisdom: For the second year in a row, it looked like no running backs would go in the first round of the draft, and there was some talk that they might all last until the third round too. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde was considered the one possible bellcow back in the draft; the one guy who could be a workhorse and carry the majority of an offense. While he lacked the top-end breakaway speed you'd love to see in a prospect, there was no doubting his raw power, his short-area burst, and his explosive strength. He didn't run around people, he ran through them. And had the ability to take over games in the fourth quarter; he finished his college career with 100-plus rushing yards in nine consecutive games. Off-field incidents were a problem; he was suspended the first three games of the 2013 season due to being a person of interest in an assault investigation, but nothing much ended up coming of that. He was the most NFL-ready of the backs. If he wasn't going to go first, it would be Washington's Bishop Sankey, who was very much of a different type than Hyde. Sankey was significantly smaller and not the same kind of ground-and-pound player; instead, he led the Pac-12 in rushing yards thanks to his second gear, turning on blazing speed when he found daylight. With very solid vision to find the holes blocked open for him, Sankey was a home-run hitter.
Behind Hyde and Sankey were LSU's Jeremy Hill for your power back needs and Auburn's Tre Mason for your explosive play needs; you couldn't go wrong dipping into the SEC.
BackCAST didn't exist until 2016, but it's first version would have ranked West Virginia's Charles Sims as the top prospect in the class. Speed Score DID exist, but its top performers were mostly unheralded, late-round ,or UDFA prospects: Oklahoma's Damien Williams, Georgia Southern's Jerick McKinnon, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, and Notre Dame's George Atkinson. Sankey was fifth in speed score at 102.8, with Mason clocking in at 101.0, Hill at 98.8, and Hyde at 97.5 -- nothing particularly impressive or worrying there.
Highest Pick: Bishop Sankey, 54th overall to Tennessee.
Best Player: Take your pick from a pair of fourth-round backs. Wisconsin's James White went 130th overall to New England and leads all running backs in the class with 781 combined DYAR. That's mostly as a receiver, however; he has never qualified for the rushing leaderboards. If you want your running back to, y'know, run, you'd be better off with Florida State's Devonta Freeman, who went 103rd overall to Atlanta. Freeman's a receiving back first and foremost as well, but his 270 rushing DYAR holds up well with class leader Carlos Hyde's 351, and Freeman has 366 receiving DYAR of his own to boot. Freeman's also the only running back in the class to make the Pro Bowl, so he gets my nod. Don't draft running backs early, guys.
Biggest Bust: Bishop Sankey. Sankey's college measurables never amounted to anything in the pros; he was essentially a replacement-level player in his two years in Tennessee. With only 762 rushing yards and 37 DYAR in two years as a Titan, Sankey eventually became a healthy scratch and then a roster cut just before the 2016 season started. Since then, Sankey bounced around on some practice squads, tore his ACL in 2017, and later emerged with the AAF's San Diego Fleet (where he suffered yet another injury) and on the Toronto Argonauts' practice squad.
Best Value: I'm going Devonta Freeman again over James White. Hyde (57th overall to San Francisco) was better than the two backs who were drafted ahead of him, and Alfred Blue (181st overall to Houston) was a great late-round find, but the two fourth-rounders take the cake.
Conventional Wisdom: The best class since 1996. Four surefire, can't-miss prospects, with plenty of promising targets below them. A stunning array of talent.
Clemson's Sammy Watkins was the consensus top selection, with no chance of getting out of the top five picks. A game-breaker who would be a difference-maker right away. The most NFL-ready of the class; the best boundary receiver and the one with the lowest risk. The best combination of hands, playmaking ability, and just general upside potential. A few more inches, and he's in the same class as A.J. Green and Julio Jones. One of the most impactful receivers in Clemson history, he had the big-play ability to immediately challenge NFL defensive backs as a rookie. Yes, his routes needed a bit of polish, and he came from a gimmicky offense, but prospects like Watkins come around once in a blue moon.
But if you didn't win the Watkins lottery, there were plenty of big names to choose from. Texas A&M's Mike Evans may have had the most potential in the class; a big, physical, strong-handed possession receiver who was going to be a chains-mover and red-zone target as a secondary wideout. LSU's Odell Beckham would probably have to move inside in the pros, but his quick hands and fantastic ability after the catch made him a potential YAC machine and a threat as a return man. If you wanted speed, though, you were looking at Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who ran a blistering 4.33 40 after winning the Biletnikoff Award as college football's best receiver.
And the hits go on after that. Marqise Lee out of USC! Cody Latimer out of Indiana! Davante Adams out of Fresno State! Jarvis Landry out of LSU! Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt! You could literally not miss in this class. Take a receiver early, take a receiver often.
Here at Football Outsiders, our Playmaker Score agreed that the class was one of the best of all time, but more for its exceptional depth rather than true once-in-a-lifetime prospects near the top. It had Cooks, Beckham, and Evans, in that order, all ranked ahead of Watkins, with Lee just behind them. Fifteen different receivers had a projection of over 300 yards, though, so this was a nice, deep class.
Highest Pick: Sammy Watkins, fourth overall to Buffalo. The Bills traded the ninth overall pick (which became Anthony Barr), and first- and fifth-round picks in 2015 (Cameron Erving and Ibraheim Campbell) for the rights to jump up and take Watkins.
Best Player: You're going to make me choose between Mike Evans (seventh overall to Tampa Bay), Odell Beckham (12th overall to the Giants), and Brandin Cooks (20th overall to the Saints)? You monster. Of the three, Evans leads the way with 1,590 DYAR to Cooks' 1,353 and Beckham's 1,194, though Beckham of course missed time with injuries. Also, Evans is still with the team that drafted him, so the Bucs are probably happiest with their pick. I'll go Mike Evans in a close race, but you can't go wrong with any of the three. The fact that Davante Adams (53rd overall to Green Bay) doesn't even make the top three is insane, by the way.
Biggest Bust: Well, Watkins wasn't worth the passel of picks the Bills used to go get him; they could have had Beckham or Cooks and been better off anyway. But Watkins has been a solid receiver, so it's hard to call him really a bust -- indeed, he's fourth in the class with 822 DYAR. Instead, I'll go with Indiana's Cody Latimer, taken by Denver in the second round with the 56th overall pick. Latimer's stock exploded at his Pro Day with a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, and the Broncos took him to replace Eric Decker in Peyton Manning's stable of weapons. It didn't happen. John Fox had Latimer as a healthy scratch for the first half of his rookie season. Latimer reportedly had trouble digesting the playbook, and things only went downhill from there. Latimer is still hanging around as an end-of-roster guy, and he does have 185 career DYAR. That ranks 22nd among 2014's wide receiver class. 2019 did see Latimer set career highs with 24 receptions and 300 yards, so that's something, I suppose. The second round also saw Marqise Lee go to Jacksonville and Paul Richardson go to Seattle; both would be fine choices here.
Best Value: With so much talent in the class, there's value to be found all over the place. The big three (Evans, Beckham, and Cooks) would all be drafted earlier if teams were to re-do the 2014 draft. John Brown has been very productive as a third-round receiver, and Allen Robinson is fantastic when healthy. The sixth- and seventh-most DYAR in the class came out of the second round, however, so we'll point to Fresno State's Davante Adams (53rd overall to Green Bay) and LSU's Jarvis Landry (63rd overall to Miami) as our dual picks. Adams has been the better player, but he has also been fortunate enough to be catching passes from Aaron Rodgers. Landry has spent too much time catching screens, but isn't that far behind Adams in DYAR (629 to 740) and has been in obviously worse situations. Landry has also been to more Pro Bowls than any other receiver in the class, for all that's worth. Adams is the pick, but this was a deep, deep, deep class.
Conventional Wisdom: This was a one-man show at the top. North Carolina's Eric Ebron was obviously the top pick at the position. He wasn't an obvious physical monster like the very tippy-top prospects coming out of college, but he had fantastic athleticism and backed it up with tremendous stats as a prospect. In 2013, Ebron set the ACC record for tight ends with 973 receiving yards, with a huge catch radius and great body control -- a mismatch waiting to happen, in other words. He was almost assuredly going to be a top-10 pick, top-20 at the worst.
After him, things got a little more murky. Texas Tech's Jace Amaro was the best route-runner of the class; basically a slot receiver in tight end's clothing. A team looking for a more traditional tight end might prefer Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a tough blocker with very soft hands. And then there was Notre Dame's Troy Niklas, a converted edge rusher who was still a work in progress, but with tremendous power.
Highest Pick: Eric Ebron, tenth overall to Detroit.
Best Player: Eric Ebron is basically the only player from this class to have done anything of note whatsoever. His Detroit career was underwhelming, plagued by dropped passes and poor blocking, but he's still plugging away. He had 13 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl the one year he was paired with Andrew Luck! Indianapolis was fine letting him go this offseason, but Pittsburgh quickly picked him up. Most importantly, he still has a career, unlike every other tight end from the class apart from Richard Rodgers.
Biggest Bust: Austin Seferian-Jenkins was the second tight end off the board, 38th overall to Tampa Bay. His rookie season was cut short by injury, so 2015 was his first real time to shine, catching two touchdown passes in Tampa Bay's opening game. He only had three more touchdowns in the rest of his Buccaneers career; a DUI arrest in 2016 led to Tampa Bay immediately cutting him. He popped back up with the Jets and had a career-high 50 receptions in 2017, but that resulted in -83 DYAR. His time with the Jets and Jaguars made it look like maybe he could scrape together a career, but he ended up not playing in 2019 due to personal issues, and was arrested last month on another DUI. Facing another suspension if he ever returns to the league, Seferian-Jenkins' career is probably over.
Best Value: California's Richard Rodgers went 98th overall to Green Bay, and is the only player drafted besides Ebron to really put anything together as a pro. He had four solid seasons as a second tight end for Aaron Rodgers, most notably catching the crazy Hail Mary against the Lions in 2015. The real best value here, however, came from the undrafted pool; both Harvard's Cameron Brate and Florida's Trey Burton have arguably been better players than Rodgers. This was a weak, weak class.
Conventional Wisdom: If not for the wide receiver class, this would have been hyped up as the draft of the linemen. There were a ton of quality prospects, both literally and figuratively, to choose from.
Auburn's Greg Robinson was the guy you wanted if you were looking for a franchise left tackle. He was only a two-year starter and needed to refine his technique some, but he was already the best run-blocker in the class. His athletic talent was tremendous, too: he basically broke the combine with a 4.92-second 40 with a 1.69-second 10-yard split -- those are tight end numbers. There were four real elite prospects in the draft; Robinson was one of them alongside Watkins and the big two pass-rushers.
Texas A&M's Jake Matthews wasn't quite the athlete Robinson was, but he was more polished and ready as a Day 1 starter wherever you needed to stick a guy; some scouts even thought that center would be his ideal position. Robinson was raw; Matthews was the safer selection, even without the ideal physical traits. Michigan's Taylor Lewan was criticized for his lack of grit and physicalness, but he was a four-year starter with impeccable technique. Notre Dame's Zack Martin was the fourth big tackle prospect, but some figured he'd be better off kicking inside to guard due to his lack of ideal arm length. Still, athletic, hard-working team captains can find their way as a starter nearly anywhere. Virginia's Morgan Moses, Nevada's Joel Bitonio, and Alabama's Cyrus Kouandijo rounded out the top of the tackle big board.
Inside, the pickings were a little slimmer. Your top prospects came from southern California -- Marcus Martin from USC itself, and Xavier Su'a-Filo from UCLA. Su'a-Filo was a safe, NFL-ready guard; Martin was the boom-or-bust top center prospect in the draft. LSU's Trai Turner, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson, and Colorado State's Weston Richburg rounded out the interior line prospects.
Highest Pick: Greg Robinson, second overall to St. Louis as the last part of the RGIII trade.
Best Player: Zack Martin ended up going 16th to Dallas, and yes, he did end up kicking inside to guard. It was apparently down to him or Johnny Manziel for the Cowboys, and I think it's safe to say that Dallas made the right choice here. Martin became the starting right guard on Day 1 of OTAs and immediately became an All-Pro as a rookie, one of four such nods he has earned. He has made the Pro Bowl in all six seasons while only missing two games. Yeah, Martin was a pretty safe pick. The best tackle goes to Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by Atlanta, while Missouri's Justin Britt (drafted 64th by Seattle) ended up as the best center.
Biggest Bust: It's Greg Robinson again. You have to be a pretty big bust to out-bust Johnny Manziel, but darn it, Robinson pulled it off. Robinson struggled with every aspect of his game as he tried to adapt to the NFL; Auburn's space-based option system was nothing like what the Rams were running in 2014. Plagued by penalties, overpowered by essentially everyone, and repeatedly benched, Robinson began the slow migration from franchise left tackle to salvage project at guard to benchwarmer to journeyman, bouncing from Los Angeles to Detroit to Cleveland. And, living up to his title of biggest bust, he was arrested this February for possession of nearly 160 pounds of marijuana, which will likely make the search for his next job that much more difficult. Honorable mention to Cyrus Kouandijo, who went 44th overall to Buffalo and has bounced on and off rosters ever since.
Best Value: Really, it's Zack Martin -- anyone who becomes a perennial All-Pro is a value no matter when you draft them. But there were a lot of solid values on the line in this draft; too many to mention them all. Day 3 alone saw North Carolina's Russell Bodine go to Cincinnati at No. 111, Ohio State's Corey Linsley go to Green Bay at No. 161, Tennessee's Zach Fulton go to Kansas City at No. 193, McGill's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif go to Kansas City at No. 200, Boise State's Matt Paradis go to Denver at No. 207, and Boise State's Charles Leno go to Chicago at no 246. That's not to mention Day 2 starters like Trai Turner, Morgan Moses, Justin Britt, Gabe Jackson, Michael Schofield, Joel Bitonio, or Weston Richberg, or covering how good Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan have been as first-rounders. All that talent, and the Rams took Greg Robinson. Yikes.
Conventional Wisdom: It's a pity Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald wasn't a little bit bigger. At only 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, he was kind of stuck in no man's land; a tweener between defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker. He didn't really look the part at all. Donald was the most impressive performer at the Senior Bowl, and his shocking performance at the combine kept him atop the interior lineman rankings -- a potential scrappy rotational 3-tech lineman who would have to play bigger than his frame. Don't get us wrong, Donald was still considered the top interior prospect, but his lack of a clear position meant that some teams wrote him off entirely, as their system simply would not work with an Aaron Donald on the line.
Teams may be better off with more traditional-looking tackles. Notre Dame had two -- Louis Nix, the prototypical nose tackle run-stuffer in the draft, and Stephon Tuitt. The best 3-4 end prospect was Ra'Shede Hageman out of Minnesota, but he was raw, having just converted from tight end. Then there was Timmy Jernigan of Florida State, who was projected as playing any position along the defensive line. A pretty solid group, all in all.
Highest Pick: Aaron Donald, 13th overall to St. Louis.
Best Player: Well, let me see here. Aaron Donald was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014, and that was his worst season in the league. He has been the first-team All Pro tackle ever since. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018. And he managed to lead the league in sacks in 2018 from an interior line position. Yeah, I think he worked out.
Biggest Bust: Ooh, this one was close. I'm going to side with Ra'Shede Hageman, who went 37th overall to Atlanta. Hageman played three seasons for the Falcons; he did start in 2015 but his play was mostly subpar. In 2017, however, Hageman went on the Commissioner's Exempt List for a domestic violence charge and was released by Atlanta. He tried to make a comeback in 2019, was immediately suspended again for violating the substance abuse policy, and was placed on injured reserve and then cut. But LSU's Ego Ferguson did make this a tough decision. The Bears took Ferguson 51st overall, and he spent most of his career hurt, suspended, or both hurt and suspended.
Best Value: If the Rams had used their second overall pick on Aaron Donald, he still would have been the best value in the draft. Two Day 3 picks also jump out -- Penn State's DaQuan Jones, who went to Tennessee 112th overall, and Connecticut's Shamar Stephen, who went to Minnesota 220th overall. Full-time starters on Day 3 are a tremendous find, and both teams are more than satisfied with what they got out of their picks. They're just not Aaron Donald.
Conventional Wisdom: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney had been pegged as the No. 1 overall pick since he entered college. There were thinkpieces suggesting that Clowney should have taken the 2013 season off, as there was no way of improving his draft stock -- in fact, he had sore ribs and bone spurs that impacted his play in his final season as with the Gamecocks. The best prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. The best defensive prospect since Gerald McCoy in 2010. The best pass-rushing prospect since Chris Long in 2008. Insane speed -- a 4.53-second 40-yard dash is a solid number for a wide receiver, not a 266-pound lineman. Impossible explosion. Unparalleled burst. Houston was either going to draft him first, or get a huge bundle of draft picks to allow someone else to draft him first.
And yet … Buffalo's Khalil Mack dominated MAC competition. Disruptive, explosive, and with a more developed set of pass-rush moves than Clowney, Mack was gaining steam as the safer, less risky choice to Clowney's otherworldly talent. There were some worries, however, that Mack's pass coverage skills may not be up to par, because in 2014 people still thought 3-4 outside linebackers should cover the pass instead of racking up double-digit sacks. Eh.
Beyond the two world-changers, there was a solid second class. A medical issue kept Dee Ford from working out at the combine, but he was the best player at the Senior Bowl not named Aaron Donald; a move from end to linebacker was in the cards for him. Missouri's Kony Ealy was the best run-stopper of what we would today call the edge rusher class -- a bit of an odd fit by today's standards, but what was expected from a 4-3 end in 2014. Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu and Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence rounded out the top end of the class.
Here on Football Outsiders, SackSEER was on Team Mack -- he had, at that time, the highest projection we had ever seen. Mack was "not so much a man, but rather, a vortex where offensive plays go to die," per Nathan Forster. Clowney was just behind him, of course, but Stanford's Trent Murphy, Texas' Jackson Jeffcoat, and North Carolina's Kareem Martin also received very high scores, while Ford was listed as a potential bust alert.
Highest Pick: Jadeveon Clowney, No. 1 overall to Houston.
Best Player: Khalil Mack, who ended up falling to fifth overall in Oakland. Mack's rookie season was solid enough, but then Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton came along in 2015 and Mack hit the stratosphere, making the Pro Bowl every season since, becoming a three-time All-Pro and the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. Mack's 61.5 sacks are second-most in the class behind Aaron Donald's 72.0 and 22.5 more than anyone else drafted that year. It's rather shocking he fell to fifth, all things considered.
Biggest Bust: We've yet to mention Louisville's Marcus Smith, taken 26th overall by Philadelphia. To be honest, Smith wasn't really on anyone's radar before the draft. NFL.com rated him as a third- or fourth-round pick. A few places had him a bit higher, noting that he was rising late in a draft that didn't have a ton of blue-chip pass-rushing talent, but 26th overall? Credit to Chip Kelly for trading down and getting some minor draft picks, but Smith was a project, a high school quarterback who wasn't really fit for defense. Smith had 6.5 sacks over five years with Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington. Honorable mentions go to Florida's Dominique Easley, who went 29th overall to New England, and Jeremiah Attaochu, who went 50th overall to San Diego.
Best Value: It's Khalil Mack, as 60-sack players don't grow on trees. But both DeMarcus Lawrence (34th overall to Dallas) and BYU's Kyle Van Noy (40th overall to Detroit) were great Day 2 picks, and USC's Devon Kennard (174th overall to the Giants) was a great find on Day 3.
Conventional Wisdom: A trifecta of linebackers topped the class. Your most traditional inside man was Alabama's C.J. Mosley, a two-time All-American who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. There was no questioning his instincts, his tackling ability, or his play strength, and he was the best pass defender in the class, but he was sliding down draft boards as the big day approached. There were worries about a knee injury, and about how much of his production came from playing for a great Alabama team. Charging up fast to meet him on draft boards was Ohio State outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, an agile three-down player and aggressive (perhaps overaggressive) tackler. Running a 4.4-second 40 at 237 pounds didn't hurt either. The third final early-round prospect was UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, who was completing the transition from nondescript fullback to pass-rushing dynamo.
After that, you had to go a long way down your draft boards before you found a class of players that included both Telvin Smith and Christian Jones from Florida State, as well as Chris Borland from Wisconsin. It was really the top three or bust at the linebacker position.
Highest Pick: Anthony Barr, ninth overall to Minnesota.
Best Player: I'm inclined to go with C.J. Mosley, who only fell to the Ravens at No. 17. Mosley has become a perennial Pro Bowler for Baltimore, and was good enough to get a massive deal from the Jets last offseason … just before tearing his groin and going on injured reserve. He'll be worth it when he gets healthy. It's not that Barr hasn't been good; Mosley has just been a touch better.
Biggest Bust: With all three of the top linebackers paying off to one extent or another, I'm not sure we really have a bust, per se. I'll massively reach and pick Arizona State's Carl Bradford, who went 121st overall to Green Bay. Bradford fell from a projected second-round pick to the fourth, was inactive for his entire rookie year, spent 2015 and most of 2016 on the practice squad, and then appeared in six games late for the Packers and 49ers, with five career tackles. He was last been seen on the AAF's Arizona Hotshots and XFL's Houston Roughnecks. That's disappointing from a fourth-round pick, but when that's the worst bust of the class, you know it was a solid group.
Best Value: It's C.J. Mosley -- the best players in 2014 all went high, it seems. Anthony Barr was quite valuable at No. 9 too. Louisville's Preston Brown went to Buffalo in the third round, and he has had a very solid career. But if you want some nice late-round sleepers, you have to go to Day 3. That's when Dallas took Iowa's Anthony Hitchens 119th overall, Jacksonville took Telvin Smith 144th overall, and Tennessee took Kentucky's Avery Williamson 151st overall. Smith's the only Pro Bowler of the three, but his future is in question after he took 2019 off. Williamson and Hitchens have just been very solid starters, which is always a pleasant surprise on Day 3.
Conventional Wisdom: Defensive backs were as loaded as any position in the draft. Although it wasn't unanimous, most draft boards centered on Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert as the top corner available. He was the closest thing to a lock-down man-to-man specialist available, and his exceptional athletic gifts made people accept his tendency to coast on his natural ability. Gilbert still needed to hone his craft some, even if he had the highest potential. That left Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller as the most pro-ready cornerback; able to play press, off-man, or zone coverages with roughly equal ability. He was a riser as the process went on, going from the kind of guy you hoped your team would pick in the second round to someone you'd have to spend a first-round pick to grab. If you wanted a slot corner, you were after TCU's Jason Verrett -- tough, scrappy, and all those other words you use to call someone undersized without actually calling them undersized. There were concerns that his slim frame would not stand up to an NFL experience. Finally there was Ohio State's Bradley Roby, the top zone-cover man in the draft. All four were expected to go in the first round. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste rounded out the top of the cornerback field.
Elsewhere, you had Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as your top free safety and Louisville's Calvin Pryor as your top strong safety. Those distinctions describe play style more than position; Clinton-Dix was rangy and could cover plenty of ground, while Pryor was the superior run defender and harder hitter.
Behind them were a couple of safeties of questionable position -- Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward (was he actually a corner?) and Washington State's Deone Bucannon (was he actually a linebacker?).
Highest Pick: Justin Gilbert, eighth overall to Cleveland. Cleveland traded up a spot to get him, trading away picks that eventually became Anthony Barr and David Yankey.
Best Player: It's tough, but I'm going with Kyle Fuller, who went 14th to Chicago. Fuller's 18 interceptions lead the class. He's a multi-time Pro Bowler and the only defensive back taken to be named to an All-Pro team. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21st overall to Green Bay) deserves a mention as well.
Biggest Bust: How bad do you have to be to make Johnny Manziel not the biggest bust on his own team? Justin Gilbert was the worst pick in the 2014 draft. The very first choice in the Ray Farmer-Mike Pettine era, Gilbert was supposed to be the keystone to Cleveland's defensive rebirth. Instead, he was immature and put forth roughly zero effort. Gilbert coasted on his athletic ability, which got him through college but was not nearly enough in the pros; his teammates openly questioned his maturity and desire to be a professional athlete. He was suspended for a year in 2017 for violating the substance abuse policy, which effectively ended his career.
Gilbert's massive supernova burnout hides the fact that there were a lot of defensive back busts in the 2014 draft. Injuries have derailed Jason Verrett (25th overall to San Diego), and Jimmie Ward (30th to San Francisco) is only now staying healthy enough to contribute. Calvin Pryor (18th to the Jets) has been out of football since 2017, as has Stanley Jean-Baptiste (58th overall to New Orleans). Even Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard (24th overall to Michigan State) took three years to become a halfway decent starter. This is a bad, bad class considering how it was hyped so much before the draft.
Best Value: Clemson's Bashaud Breeland, who went to Washington at the start of Day 3, with the 102nd pick. Breeland's 12 interceptions are fourth-most in the class, and he's one of only three defensive backs drafted this year to be a starter for at least five seasons, alongside Fuller and Clinton-Dix. He's an upper-third starting cornerback -- he ranked 27th in success rate on his way to winning a Super Bowl ring with Kansas City this past season -- and a reliable force in the secondary. A gem in a rough draft.
Conventional Wisdom: Do not draft specialists.
If you must draft specialists, Miami's Pat O'Donnell, Auburn's Steven Clark, and Memphis' Tom Hornsey were the top punters available. O'Donnell was a first-team All-ACC player who could handle kickoffs, Clark excelled at avoiding returns with direction kicks, and Hornsey was the defending Ray Guy Award winner for the best punter in the nation.
Do not draft specialists.
Highest Pick: Pat O'Donnell, who went 191st overall to Chicago.
Best Player: Of the three specialists picked, Pat O'Donnell has played in 95 games; the others combined for 11. O'Donnell wins by default.
Biggest Bust: Seventh-rounders can't really be busts. Pat O'Donnell was a sixth-rounder, though, and was picked two spots before Tennessee's Zach Fulton, nine picks before McGill's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and 17 picks before Boise State's Matt Paradis. O'Donnell has been an average, replaceable punter. The Bears did draft Charles Leno in the seventh round, so they don't hurt as much from missing out on the quality linemen who went after O'Donnell, but come on. Don't draft specialists.
Best Value: Boston College kicker Nate Freese, who went 229th to Detroit and wasted the lowest draft pick. No, seriously, Auburn's Cody Parkey and Rice's Chris Boswell both went undrafted; both have made the Pro Bowl. Don't draft specialists.
Per our annual Report Card Report, the St. Louis Rams crushed the draft. No grader gave them below an A-, as they Rams got to use a pair of first-round picks from the Robert Griffin trade to restock a barren roster. The trifecta of Greg Robinson, Aaron Donald, and Lamarcus Joyner in the first 41 picks was going to revitalize the Rams' fortunes and, well, one out of three ain't bad. Donald is a better player then St. Louis' other ten players combined, so the Rams didn't do a great job of finding value -- E.J. Gaines in the sixth round is probably their only other pick to outperform expectations. But hey, any draft which ends up with Aaron Donald on your team can't be a terrible thing. Donald might be the only asset the Rams got out of the draft, but most draft classes don't produce one all-time great.
The Colts were given the worst grade, because their first-round pick had been traded away for Trent Richardson. This was obviously a very bad move, but it seems harsh to penalize the picks they did make because of a trade that happened the year before. Instead, we should judge the Colts by the talent they did acquire, like Jack Mewhort in the second round, or, uh, Donte Moncrief in the third. OK, the Colts didn't do a heck of a lot with their five picks. Last place is harsh. Near last place, not so much.
The worst the experts did was likely their love of San Francisco's draft, ranked just behind the Rams' class. Trent Baalke loved trading down, helping the 49ers acquire 12 picks. And he loved drafting injury risks, getting players at a discount and gambling that they would stay healthy. Well, that never worked out for him. Carlos Hyde in the second round was a solid pick, and the only solid pick out of the dozen. Jimmie Ward is only just now starting to stay healthy enough to play well, Chris Borland retired after one season, and the rest of the middle of the draft are filled with lumps like Marcus Martin, Brandon Thomas, and Bruce Ellington. Whether you judge it by overall talent acquired or value, this was one of the worst drafts of the year. What do experts know, anyway?
Sometimes, the experts got things right for the wrong reasons. Quite a few of them gave Jacksonville an A for their Blake Bortles-focused draft, plus other moves to bolster their offense. Bortles, obviously, was not the answer -- but the Jags did come out of this draft with Telvin Smith and Allen Robinson, and even Brandon Linder has been a solid starter. Was it an A-level draft? Eh, probably not, but it was solid enough despite the whiff atop the order.
Most of the graders were still willing to give Chip Kelly some of the benefit of the doubt as a talent evaluator. This was wrong. Jordan Matthews in the second round and maybe Beau Allen in the seventh are the only Eagle players from this draft to do anything of note, and neither are exactly world-shattering. When your draft includes Marcus Smith, Josh Huff, and Jaylen Watkins in the first 101 picks, you've not had a good time. Chip Kelly the coach was destroyed by Chip Kelly the talent evaluator.
Evan Silva of Rotoworld particularly hated the Titans draft, saying that half of their six-man draft will wash out of the league before their rookie deals expired. I love it when graders give us such firm, testable criteria to work with. As it turns out, he was right on the money, with Bishop Sankey, Marqueston Huff, and Zach Mettenberger all checking out before 2018. Don't feel too bad for the Titans, though; the other three picks turned into Taylor Lewan, DaQuan Jones, and Avery Williamson. Finding Jones and Williamson on Day 3 makes the Titans' draft one of the best by value, even if the Sankey flop really does sting.
But we have to close out by picking the best and worst drafts of the year. For the best one, honorable mentions go to Jacksonville for their non-Bortles selections and Dallas for the killer trio of Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Anthony Hitchens, but this one has to go to the Oakland Raiders. In the first round, they took the best edge rusher in the draft, Khalil Mack. In the second round, they took the best quarterback in the draft, Derek Carr. The third round brought Gabe Jackson. And T.J. Carrie in the seventh round is a decent pick, too! The only real ding you can give them is Keith McGill, a defensive back from Utah who started just three games in his career, but that's peanuts compared to the rest. The Raiders win the 2014 draft, even if their best player now plays for Chicago.
As for the worst draft, you want to say Cleveland, and I can't blame you for saying Cleveland. Opening with Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel, in a class this packed, is drafting malpractice; I agree. But! Their next two picks were both very solid. Joel Bitonio is a multiple-time Pro Bowl guard; Christian Kirksey was hurt the last couple seasons but started 54 games for Cleveland. Bad? Yes; few teams got less value than the Browns did, because two of their six picks were garbage. But two starters does keep them from the very bottom of my lists.
My honorable mention goes to the Eagles' Chip Kelly draft listed above, but then I'm very torn about whether to give the crown of bad drafting to Tom Telesco's San Diego Chargers or John Idzik's New York Jets. Both are terrible, no matter how you slice it.
In terms of least raw talent, I think I have to go with the Chargers. Only second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu has been healthy and decent enough to get any solid playing time, and by that I mean one season as a starter in 2015 and pinballing around the league ever since. He's a big miss, as were the oft-injured Jason Verrett in Round 1 and oft-injured Chris Watt in Round 3. Maybe that's more bad luck than bad planning, but the results end up the same.
But the Chargers only had six picks; the Jets had twelve. The best player from that dozen? Calvin Pryor, one of our biggest busts among the defensive backs. Pryor's likely better than Attaochu, if we're comparing best players, but that's damning with faint praise. After Pryor came Jace Amaro in Round 2, and Dexter McDougle in Round 3, and Jalen Saunders and Shaquille Evans in Round 4; busts all. Of their 12 picks, only one has beat out their expected AV per Chase Stewart's draft value chart -- Quincy Enunwa and his 1,600 receiving yards. Is that enough to outweigh 12 bites at a loaded apple, only to come up with just a moderately good receiver? You be the judge.
Previous articles in this series:
- 2013 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2012 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2011 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2010 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2009 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2008 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2007 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2006 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2005 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2004 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2003 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2002 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2001 Draft: Six Years Later
- 2000 Draft: Six Years Later
- 1999 Draft: Six Years Later
- 1998 Draft: Six Years Later