With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64, which recently covered prospects 39-35 and can be found in its entirety here, uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted as such. As we move from the second round to the first, elite talent starts to pop out. Every player on this list of five has the potential to start for multiple years at the NFL level.
No. 34: Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Bio: The Buckeyes' defense ranked 45th in the nation in Football Outsiders' metrics last season, but the play of Ryan Shazier wasn't a primary reason for any downturn. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound Shazier, who played closer to 230 pounds through a lot of his time at Ohio State, had a banner junior campaign with 102 solo tackles (144 total) and seven sacks. In 2012, he was used more as a pass defender, and the stats reflected it with an interception and 12 passes defensed. Shazier's nine forced fumbles indicate that though he's not a pure power player, he's got the kind of tackling style that can blow things up in a big hurry. And in an era when the linebacker position seems to be devalued in a general sense, it's player like Shazier who will always be important to the construction of championship defenses.
"That I’m a person of integrity and faith and I’m a disciplined player and person," Shazier said at the scouting combine, when asked what he would tell NFL teams about himself. "I want to show that to them -- off the field and on the field. My speed is what I’m known for. But I can also play inside ‘backer and do everything they want me to do."
The tape doesn't lie -- Shazier has a lot to offer.
Strengths: From the line back to linebacker depth and from any gap, Shazier has tremendous closing speed, and he's very aggressive when looking to stop run plays. He moves through trash very deftly and uses an understanding of angles and tackling technique to stay with backs. Generally patient at the line before he moves to tackle; seems to have a really good sense of play recognition and he tends to overrun plays more than he's fooled. More impressive is Shazier's range in coverage; he's a legitimate asset when dealing with backs, slot receivers and tight ends and can get this done from inside or outside positions. Shazier has the speed to chase from sideline to sideline, and he spies quarterbacks well while reading for possible throws. Tremendous vision and re-direction ability allows him to peel off from coverage to tackle at the second and third levels. High-quality blitzer as long as he has space to move -- the NFL team that puts him on the edge in passing situations might be rewarded with a 10-sack season. By all accounts, a high-quality player and person who will lead and help greatly with defensive calls.
Weaknesses: Shazier's size shows up as a negative when he gets blocked out pretty consistently in power situations, especially when offensive linemen are plastering him inside or outside on run plays. While he plays inside more than credibly, his NFL team may want to keep him outside to allow him to make more plays in space -- he's not a pure "thumper" in the traditional vein. Wraps up well at times, but relies on the potential kill shot too often and misses opportunities to stop plays as a result. Will lose play discipline at times and get misdirected.
Conclusion: One of the most obvious NFL trends over the last few years is the linebacker who can play at several positions, and is light and fast enough to have an impact in a 360-degree sense. More and more, teams are sacrificing the old model of the linebacker in favor of those athletes who can do everything from run support to flex tight end coverage. Shazier is a prime example of that paradigm, and this should put him at the precipice of the first round, if not higher. There are power and strength issues here, but unless you somehow happen to land the 2000 version of Ray Lewis, you're generally going to have to sacrifice something in the equation. Shazier said at the combine that his style compares to that of Tampa Bay's Lavonte David, but I'll go with Bobby Wagner, as I believe Shazier has a bit more pop to his game.
NFL player comparison: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks (2nd round, 2011, Utah State)
No. 33: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
Bio: It didn't take Timmy Jernigan long to make his way onto one of the best defenses in the nation. As a true freshman in 2011, he saw action in all 13 games, though he didn't start at all until 2012, and he really became a force last season, with 35 solo tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He was at his best in the Seminoles' BCS national championship win over Auburn, logging nine total tackles and making himself a real pain for Auburn's offensive line. Despite his relative lack of starting experience, Jernigan made the call to go pro after the 2013 campaign. Jernigan knows that he's an every-down player who can line up at multiple gaps, and he spoke about that value at the scouting combine.
"I feel like now in the NFL a lot of nose tackles, especially in the three-man front -- the big 340-, 350-pound guys -- and a lot of times when it’s pass situation, those guys have to come off the field and I feel like that’s where I can benefit a team," he said. "I’ve played in the shade, I’ve played over the center, I’ve played in the 3-technique so I can play a 3-technique. When it’s a pass situation, when you want to go to a three-man front, you can put me on the nose guard, right on the zero[-technique]. I can get pressure from the middle of the offense. I feel like that’s where my game changes from anyone else’s."
True, but is the 6-2, 299-pound Jernigan best suited to limit his gap options until he gets a bit more experience? Let's go to the tape.
Strengths: When Jernigan gets off the snap quickly (see his weaknesses for what happens when he doesn't), he exhibits impressive strength and quickness to move past blockers and into the backfield, especially from a 1-tech position (between the center and guard) or 0-tech (head over center). Keeps his hands up and will move people with his upper body. Jernigan is an aggressive player who keeps fighting to get free from blocks and can wreck a run play when he keeps his pads low and his balance centered. Keeps his eye on the play and will disengage quickly to run and help with stops. Frequently the primary target of opposing blocking schemes. Has an estimable bull rush when his technique allows him to use it.
Weaknesses: Jernigan's most obvious and potentially damning glitch is that he has a real issue getting off the snap quickly -- far too often, he's forced to play catch-up because his blockers are set to engage before he is. When he lines up at 3-tech (between the guard and tackle), Jernigan doesn't have the straight-line velocity or angular awareness to knife through double teams -- he simply gets eaten up in those situations. Top-heavy player who could stand to be more muscular and stronger in his legs; Jernigan needs to drive through blockers better and more consistently. Tends to slow down and read pass protection blocks at times -- this could be a function of coaching and scheme.
Conclusion: When it comes to base skillset and athletic ability, Jernigan is as intriguing as anyone at his position in this draft class. I believe that as an NFL prospect, he would be best-suited to a 1-tech role, where he could split through gaps and use different (and better) angles and hand technique to become a more effective and consistent player. Given time and coaching, he could develop into one of the best interior defenders in the league; it's a matter of putting it all together.
No. 32: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Bio: No collegiate receiver covered more ground last season than Brandin Cooks, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner, who led the NCAA with 1,730 receiving yards on 128 catches. He added 16 touchdowns to his totals, firmly establishing himself as one of the nation's most vexing offensive problems. Add in his 1,151-yard season in 2012, and it's clear that the 5-10, 189-pound Cooks is ready to attack any defense he faces with legitimate 4.3 speed and rare agility -- even if he doesn't look like your traditional No. 1 target.
"Just the production," he said at the combine, when asked why he believed himself to be the best receiver in this class. "Numbers don’t lie, and what I bring to the game and my confidence with the way I work, my work ethic. I feel like no one is out there working harder than me. I have a lot to prove. I have a chip on my shoulder. They say I’m not the tallest, but I feel like there’s so many guys in this game today that are potential Hall of Famers like Steve Smith, who’s killing the game right now. DeSean Jackson. I can go down the list, and there [are] under 5-10 [guys] that are definitely great receivers in this game."
In the right system, there's no question that Cooks has the potential to be a true gamebreaker.
Strengths: Prolific receiver who gets the whole route tree and has experience in a pro-style offense. Cooks can make plays from just about anywhere in the formation -- wide, in the slot, different points in trips and bunch concepts, and as a runner on jet sweeps and quick screens. Tremendous after-catch runner who can break a play wide open with a small opening off a short pass. Cooks has great straight-line speed, and he's very hard to cover on angular routes (slants, drags, posts) because he's able to maintain his speed from side to side. Has the downfield quickness to flat-out beat better cornerbacks on all kinds of vertical routes from the seam to the sideline.
Has a great natural ability with route cuts -- Cooks can put his foot in the ground, change direction, and get right back up to speed in a big hurry. Very tough to cover on comebacks and curls. He's practiced with stutters and foot fakes at the line, and at times, that's all he's going to need to get free for a long play. Excellent boundary receiver who keeps his eye on the sideline. Quick, gliding runner on sweeps; he could really befuddle defenses with this as Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin have. Doesn't have the size to win vertical battles, but he's always up for trying. Despite his size, Cooks hasn't been injury-prone. Wasn't asked to be much of a return man in college, but certainly has all the attributes to make that happen.
Weaknesses: Cooks' size is an obvious limitation in a few ways -- he will lose a lot of jump-ball battles against larger defensive backs, he's not going to out-muscle defenders in traffic, and he can be edged out of erratically-thrown passes -- it's harder for him to fight to avoid interceptions because he's not built to mix it up. And he's going to get most of his NFL touchdowns from the field as opposed to beating people in the end zone and red zone. Could suffer when pressed at the line at the next level; Cooks will have to get separation in those situations with short-area quickness as opposed to muscle.
Conclusion: Just as the slot cornerback has become a position of increasing importance in the NFL over the last few years, teams are always looking for the next great inside speed receiver who can take the top off a defense, remove the free safety from the equation, and alter coverage concepts. Cooks would be a natural in this role -- though he can also line up outside, he's a natural fit for any offense interested in shredding inside pass coverage. Few players in this draft class match Cooks' raw speed, and he's able to use it to great effect on the field.
NFL player comparison: DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins (2nd round, 2008, Cal)
No. 31: David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Bio: It's not easy to replace two prominent offensive linemen at two different positions in one collegiate career, but that's just what Stanford's David Yankey has done. In 2012, he took over for left tackle Jonathan Martin when Martin hit the NFL, allowing just one sack all season in that role. And when guard David DeCastro departed the program for the next level in 2013, Yankey moved back inside and became the benchmark for the style that DeCastro took to a new high -- the pulling, trapping agile guard with outstanding functional technique. Now, it's Yankey's turn to shine as a professional, and he's got as complete a résumé as one could hope for.
"I’m going to bring a physical demeanor," he said at the combine. "I’m going to play with that mentality that we have at Stanford and also bring a lot of athleticism and natural football intelligence, just understanding the game and being able to play fast."
Yankey has the mentality on lock -- do it all, do it all at a high level and prepare yourself for any challenge. Though he's not a rare athlete, he has the raw tools to be a plug-and-play NFL starter for the next decade.
Strengths: Yankey has optimal size (6-6, 315) for the athletic aspects of his position -- he gets great drive with his legs, and he's got the upper-body strength to keep defenders at bay in any direction. In addition, he's very agile on pulls, traps and zone concepts. Fans outside in pass protection as a tackle would; that's where his positional versatility becomes obvious. Yankey doesn't win in the run game with overwhelming power; rather, he uses leverage and angles to make linemen and linebackers go where he wants them to go. On the run as a pulling blocker, Yankey has clearly put the work in, and it shows -- he rumbles from point to point with outstanding efficiency, and he bears down on his target with power and precision. And with a running start, he's more prone to just flatten people.
Gets his hands out and on the defender right off the snap and can zap opponents with a hand-strike to keep them off balance. Shows tremendous determination to keep defenders off the quarterback on those rare occasions when he's beaten. Will have no problem in a zone system, because he travels from the line to the second level easily on combo blocks, and he has the ability to do slide protection very well. Also has no trouble moving from one lineman to another -- Yankey keeps his head on a swivel, and he's a very aware player.
Weaknesses: Yankey isn't a traditional drive blocker in the sense that he's just going to pop people right off their feet, and though his technique makes up for that, some NFL teams may prefer more of an ass-kicker. Not a speed guard -- Yankey ran a 5.48 40 at the combine. He comes off the line a hair slower than you'd like at times, and he's not a standout when asked to block from the second level on downfield. May struggle in certain wide-open NFL offenses, and did benefit from Stanford's tight line splits and extra blockers on just about every play. Could stand to lower his pad level at times.
Conclusion: Just as there's a divide between the two best tackles in this class (the finished product in Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and the enticing physical specimen in Auburn's Greg Robinson), there are two kinds of guards up top in the 2014 class. If you want a player who can win physical battles in more ways and flash mightily off the tape, UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo might be your man. But if you want an experienced technician who will come in and excel from Day 1 because he gets the fundamentals as a different level, Yankey will certainly impress. There's not one thing he does at a blow-away level, but he does everything -- from big to little -- to a very high standard. And at his position, that's more than good enough.
No. 30: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Bio: The recent history of Alabama tackles is not exactly pretty when it comes to NFL graduation. James Carpenter, selected by the Seahawks in the first round of the 2011 draft, has struggled with injuries and speed issues throughout a checkered career; and D.J. Fluker, taken in the first round of last year's draft by the Chargers, is a more natural right tackle who has some pretty prominent issues in pass protection. Nick Saban likes behemoths protecting his quarterbacks, and given the physical nature of Alabama's game, there's no surprise that injury concerns continue from player to player. Cyrus Kouandjio overcame a season-ending knee injury in 2011 to start 24 games at left tackle in the next two seasons, registering 14 knockdowns and allowing just 1.5 sacks in 286 passing attempts last season.
But when the combine came around, there was a lot of talk about Kouandjio's medical red flags, and what they might mean for his future.
"I was completely confused," Kouandjio said in late March, recalling a conversation he'd had with his agent, Bus Cook. "I said, 'No, there's nothing wrong with my knee/ I thought he was joking. But he kept asking. I was surprised. I was like, 'There's nothing wrong with my knee. Is there a rumor out there?' And he said, 'Yeah, a couple of media things came out that there was something wrong with your knee.' It was interesting, but I never worried about it because I know and the film will tell you there's nothing wrong with my knee."
Renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who has performed more knee procedures on NFL and NFL-ready players than anybody else, gave Kouandjio a clean bill of health last month.
"I wrote a letter to send to every team about his true medical history," Dr. Andrews told CBSSports.com. "I'm trying to put out fires that aren't even justified and to clear the record, I guess, is the best way to put it. It came out he had a failed ACL surgery -- that's not even close to the truth. His performance at the combine had nothing to do with his knee situation, and that was blown way out of proportion and that's not fair to the kid."
So, with that in mind, let's be fair to Kouandjio and deal with his performance on the field.
Strengths: As you'd expect of any Alabama tackle, Kouandjio is a huge (6-7, 322) man with a dynamite drive-blocking style. He's an absolute mauler who rises up from the snap quickly and uses his tremendous upper-body strength to redirect defenders in ways those defenders must find embarrassing at times. In pass protection, he backpedals quickly and implements a series of hand strikes with great power -- as long as the man he's blocking stays in front of him, Kouandjio is very tough to deal with. Surprisingly agile and light on his feet to get to the second level and hit his targets. Seals off the edge very well, and can pinch inside with equal power -- any NFL team with a heavy power running style will love his ability to blow open rushing lanes.
Weaknesses: Though he is pretty agile with his kick-slide, Kouandjio isn't quite agile enough to create an arc when pass-blocking, and he's occasionally susceptible to quicker edge rushers and inside counters. At any level, it's a bit too easy for defenders to slip off of him to either side, and with faster and more practiced defenders at the next level, Kouandjio seems to be a better phone-booth player with some upside in other areas. Has some issues with re-direction that may just be a function of his size. Ran a 5.59 40 with slow splits at the combine, and that's again a function of size -- there's a lot to get from one place to another when he's running. Could struggle in a pass-heavy offense in which he'd have to rely on attributes that aren't strengths.
Conclusion: Of the Crimson Tide tackles previously mentioned, Kouandjio seems to have the most compelling mixture of power and technique. He's not a scheme-transcendent player, and the combination of physical style and injury history may scare some teams off, but he'll give great effort and fine value in the right place (which might be right tackle) -- and with a little luck.