The drive to find tight ends like Eric Ebron may push him into the top 10. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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 34-30 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. Our list has now reached some of its top prospects. The quintet covered below includes two high-upside defenders, a plug-and-play interior linemen and a pair of talented tight ends. From here on out, we'll be discussing probable Round 1 selections with the potential to start immediately.
MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | Top WRs | Top TEs | Top QBs | Top RBs | Top tackles
No. 29: Kony Ealy, DE/OLB, Missouri
Bio: Though Ealy played second fiddle on Missouri to SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, he turned in a strong 2013 of his own and is considered by just about everyone to be a superior NFL prospect to his former Tiger teammate. Ealy was a first-team All-SEC player last season with 14 tackles for loss and eight sacks, second on the team in both categories behind Sam. Opinions on the 6-foot-4, 273-pound Ealy vary rather wildly -- some see him as a viable top-15 selection; others see a late-Day 2 selection. Either way, Ealy does not figure to linger for all that long once the clock starts.
Strengths: Jake Matthews, a possible top-five selection, lauded Ealy as the toughest DE he had to block during his college career. Matthews cited Ealy's size, aggressiveness and ability to vary his pass-rush maneuvers. Fast off the edge with impressive recognition of snap counts, which allows him to fire off the ball. When Ealy works his way free, he wastes no time getting to the QB or ballcarrier. Flashes a little of that J.J. Watt-esque ability to cede the rush in favor of swatting passes at the line if he can't get home. Versatile, particularly in shifting all over the D-line.
Weaknesses: Despite Matthews' claims, Ealy's pass-rush repertoire is still very much a work in progress. Needs to be far better at how he uses his hands when engaged, as he has definite issues working free of blockers right now -- that may be even more of an issue if an NFL team asks him to anchor versus the run from DE or step up from an OLB spot. Does not have a full linebacker skillset yet, so there will be growing pains in a 3-4 scheme. Should be able to generate more push given his build. Slow at the combine (4.92), though shaved about three-tenths off at Missouri's pro day.
Conclusion: To each his own. Ealy is not going to be a player that appeals to every front office. He will be an upside pick as much as anything, needing ample time to round out as an NFL-caliber player. There is obvious appeal for teams running the 4-3, with Ealy capable of providing pressure from an end spot or collapsing the pocket from the interior on passing downs. How Ealy is viewed may vary wildly from franchise to franchise. It says here that he is a borderline first-round pick with a bright future.
NFL player comparison: John Abraham, Cardinals (1st round, 2000, South Carolina)
No. 28: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Bio: Verrett may get knocked a bit for his size (5-9, 189), but it hardly held him back at TCU. The Horned Frogs consistently asked Verrett to take on No. 1 receivers -- including fellow draft prospects such as LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. -- and he often succeeded with flying colors. Led FBS in pass breakups during the 2012 season with 22, and added another 14 during an injury-plagued 2013. Picked off nine passes over his three years with TCU after transferring in from the juco ranks. If he were two inches taller, we'd be talking about Verrett as possibly the first CB off the board come May.
Strengths: Excels at finding and playing the football, using those instincts to make up for any height or strength deficiencies. Drives on shorter routes, also gets his head around when running deep with receivers. Almost impossible for receivers to blow past him -- Verrett ran a 4.38 40 at the combine, and might be the best CB in this draft when it comes to flipping his hips and breaking downfield. No issues moving around on defense, as TCU used him both in the slot and outside. Plenty capable of helping against the run, too, a nod to his physical nature. Welcomes matchups with star receivers.
Weaknesses: As if his size did not already pose a question mark for NFL teams, Verrett was banged up through much of last season. His willingness to enter the fray as a run defender worked to his detriment in that regard. Likely will have a very difficult time if asked to jam NFL receivers at the line, because of limited strength. Can be blocked out of plays with ease if a receiver/tight end manages to square him up. High-points the football, but will lose jump balls to taller receivers simply because of his limitations.
Conclusion: Fair warning that any team opting to pass on Verrett because he does not hit the prototypical size measurements may regret it down the road. His floor as an NFL defender: a solid slot corner and decisive special-teams player. The ceiling, for a defensive coordinator willing to give him a shot outside, might be a legit lock-down cornerback. If Verrett can stay healthy (and he's working back from shoulder surgery right now), he will be a handful for opposing receivers.
NFL player comparison: Brent Grimes, Dolphins (Undrafted, 2006, Shippensburg)
No. 27: Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
Bio: A first-team All-Pac 12 honoree in back-to-back seasons, Su'a-Filo also earned a second-team All-America nod this past season. Will enter the NFL as a 23-year-old rookie after taking the 2010 and '11 seasons off to complete a Mormon mission. Measured in at 6-4, 307 pounds at the combine, though he really stole the show in on-field drills with a 5.04 40 (second-best among O-linemen) and 4.44-second 20-yard shuttle (best among guards). Started all 40 games that he played for UCLA, starting with 13 in 2009 and another 27 after rejoining the squad for '12-13.
Strengths: Began his UCLA career as a left tackle, so the footwork is there. Really excels with that element of his game, using his quick feet to stand his ground on passing downs and to get out in front when asked to pull. Often beats opposing defenders off the snap, getting his weight into them before they can drive into the backfield. Would be a fit for either a man-blocking or zone-blocking scheme, meaning he should be on just about every draft board. At the bare minimum, holds his own against powerful tackles.
Weaknesses: Might be able to help at tackle in a pinch, but really carries the attributes of a guard-only NFL prospect. Will not repeatedly blow defensive linemen off the ball -- power is not his game. Shorter arms at 33 3/8 inches. Although he moves extremely well, he can throw himself off-kilter, a trait that was apparent from time to time against stunting and blitzing defenses. Could stand to add a little more muscle.
Conclusion: Su'a-Filo has jumped to the top of the guard rankings, thanks to a stellar senior season and impressive work at the combine. He should only get stronger once he lands in an NFL weight program, so there is very little on paper holding him back from becoming an upper-echelon guard in the NFL. The UCLA product protects the quarterback well, with the athleticism to be an absolute force in the run game. An offense that asks its guards to operate in space would have a hard time finding a better fit than Su'a-Filo.
NFL player comparison: Josh Sitton (4th round, 2008, Central Florida)
No. 26: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Bio: Thriving in Texas Tech's pass-happy attack, Amaro caught a whopping 106 passes last season for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns. Those stats landed him on the All-America and All-Big 12 first teams. College defenses had next to no success attempting to cover him, as he essentially was used as a 6-5, 265-pound slot receiver. Amaro bounced back from a shaky combine (4.74 40) to perform well at his pro day (4.59), possibly solidifying himself as a top-40 pick.
Strengths: More or less an oversized wide receiver. Creates space for the catch, proving equally adept at doing so up the seam or on shorter routes. Fights through tackles after the catch, posing the most problems (as one might expect) when matched up against a defensive back. Will be a more productive blocker at the NFL level than he was at college -- Texas Tech simply did not ask him to do all that much there, but he was far from a lost cause when the time came. Length will make him a tough cover in the red zone. Positions his body well when the ball is in the air.
Weaknesses: Needs to improve his route-running, especially since his next offense likely will not be as pass-catcher-friendly as the Red Raiders' scheme. Appears to be an adequate blocker, but teams will worry about how much he really can be asked to do there. Had more trouble catching the football at the combine than a slot-TE should. Not overly shifty, either before or after the catch, which means he will have to get better at fighting through physical coverage. A couple character red flags, most notably a 2011 arrest for credit card fraud (the charges were dropped).
Conclusion: Odds are Amaro never will be a game-breaking tight end like a Jimmy Graham or Vernon Davis. He simply does not have the speed to threaten defenses vertically like those players do. That said, he should be a very reliable option in the passing game -- even more so if he lands in an offense that stretches the field sideline to sideline, thus creating some space for its tight ends between the hashes. Some refinement, as a blocker and as a route-runner, could propel Amaro from an exciting prospect into a long-term starter at the NFL level.
NFL player comparison: Jermaine Gresham (1st round, 2010, Oklahoma)
No. 25: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Bio: Fell just shy of the 1,000-yard receiving mark this past season, finishing with 973 on 62 catches. Scored just three touchdowns in 2013, more because of the Tar Heels offense than any negative in his game. The 6-4, 260-pound Ebron ran a 4.60-second 40 at the combine, then backed it with strong showings in other drills (i.e. 120-inch broad jump). Ebron's bravado may not play well with every front office -- he believes he is a top prospect in this draft, and he will not hesitate to tell anyone who asks.
Strengths: Speed really sets him apart as compared to other tight ends in the 2014 class. Can turn upfield after short-to-intermediate routes but is most dangerous darting into the seam. Even talented slot corners and adept safeties will find it tough to turn and run with him; linebackers can be left in his wake. Improving blocker with a decent amount of experience playing in-line. Better suited to get out into the slot and create mismatches. Can be far more of a red-zone threat than he was in college. Confidence bordering on cockiness, a positive when he can reel it in.
Weaknesses: Dropped nearly 12 percent of the passes thrown his way, an unexpectedly high number that means he'll leave folks frustrated from time to time. By his own admission, must improve as a run blocker, especially if the team that drafts him wants to use him as a No. 1 tight end. Should be better than he is making grabs in traffic, which could help explain to some extent his very low TD total. Will he be OK with playing a complementary role?
Conclusion: The new wave of TE production around the league has left teams searching high and low for players who can produce like Ebron. We're talking about the top talent at this position, with plenty of room to grow. With average speed, Ebron would be a viable NFL prospect because of his size; with 4.6 speed and the post-catch abilities he put on display at North Carolina, he gives off the appearance of a future Pro Bowler. The drive to find tight ends fitting Ebron's description may push him into the top 10.
NFL player comparison: Julius Thomas, Broncos (4th round, 2011, Portland State)