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 24-20 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. Starting Thursday, our top 16 players in the 2014 class each will be highlighted in an individual post. Here, we cover prospects 19-17, a trio of players bordering on the upper-echelon of this draft.
No. 19: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT/DE, Minnesota
Bio: Crediting an entire program's improvement to one player would be a foolish endeavor, and yet it is hard to imagine Minnesota would have gone bowling each of the past two seasons had Hageman not been holding down the D-line.
And it is hard to figure exactly how Hageman's career trajectory might have played out if he had stayed a tight end or pursued a basketball career -- he was rated one of the nation's top prep TE when he was recruited by the Gophers, eschewing opportunities to play college hoops for the gridiron.
"I definitely use my basketball skills when it comes to playing football. I feel like me being athletic definitely helped me get to where I am," Hageman said. "But I feel like in the NFL, I feel like everyone in the NFL is athletic. So, I definitely have to kind of stay to my fundamentals to get better."
Several NFL scouts are salivating at the thought of Hageman stepping up his game. He recorded six sacks in 2012, then earned team MVP honors in '13 with 13 tackles for loss, despite seeing extra attention from offensive lines. However, there was always a sense that Hageman never quite dipped into his reserves, instead trying to get by on talent alone. Should any team fully tap into his potential, the former Golden Gopher has what it takes to be a perennial Pro Bowler.
Strengths: Scheme-versatile, having played mostly three-technique and some nose tackle at Minnesota -- Hageman projects as a DT in a 4-3 or a DE in a 3-4, with enough athleticism and size (6-foot-6, 310 pounds) to help elsewhere in a pinch. Powerful burst off the snap. Adds more than enough strength to put those quick reactions to good use, frequently shooting the gaps up front. Plays faster than the 5.02-second 40 he ran at the combine, pursuing QBs and ballcarriers down the line. Length (34 1/4-inch arms) provides him the tools to bat down passes at the line. Still learning the ins and outs of playing defense, which pushes his ceiling higher.
Weaknesses: Struggles to maintain any dominance for very long, be it due to fatigue or the inability to adjust when blockers corral him early. Can be blown away by double teams, occasionally winding up several yards downfield on run plays headed right at him. Pass-rush numbers were disappointing last season. Lacks much in the way of counter-moves there if he does not fly off the snap. Must play a more physical game, especially if asked to plug a running lane at the next level.
Conclusion: In a way, Hageman is the Blake Bortles of the defensive line. He fits -- even exceeds -- the prototype teams are hoping to find at the DT/DE positions, and it does not take a coaching genius to see that the future could be exceedingly bright. The trick for Hageman will be keeping the switch flipped on at all times. Hageman has an excellent shot to be a Round 1 selection, on the combo of college production and upside.
No. 18: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Bio: The 6-7 Lewan likely would have been a top-10 pick in the 2012 draft. Instead, he opted to return to Michigan for his senior season.
"That was a gamble, absolutely," Lewan said. "I wanted to be with my teammates for one more year. I wanted the opportunity to win the Big Ten championship one more time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but I’m not hurt and I am thrilled to be here now."
Allowing that last season "didn't work out" the way Lewan envisioned is a colossal understatement. Collectively, Michigan's offensive line was one of the worst in the program's storied history. The Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 season, while Lewan's behavior on and off the field came into question. At the moment, Lewan is facing a May arraignment on one count of aggravated assault and two counts of assault and battery, stemming from an incident following the Wolverines' loss to Ohio State.
How much will all of that hurt him come draft day? Perhaps not too badly, considering Lewan still brings to the table a coveted blend of talent at a critical position. A four-year starter at left tackle, spanning two very different offenses (Rich Rodriguez's spread and Brady Hoke's traditional, pro-style), Lewan earned two first-team All-Big Ten and one first-team All-America nod.
Strengths: Moves extremely well for a man of his size. Lewan drops very well to protect the passer, while his quick feet could make him a fit in either a man- or zone-blocking scheme. Clears to the second level in a hurry, picking out and hunting down linebackers to block. Plays through the whistle with venom -- nearly faced discipline for a series of scraps, including Lewan twisting an opponent's helmet, during a game versus Michigan State. Recovers well when he's jolted by a push to his chest. Vocal and outspoken leader of the Wolverines offense for multiple seasons.
Weaknesses: Penalized too much ... and, honestly, easily could have been flagged for about two or three more holding penalties per game. Can be caught leaning and off-balance, most noticeable when Lewan is trying to push forward late in plays; occasionally shows up when a speed rusher gets a step on him. Carrying some red flags he no doubt has had to answer for during meetings with teams. Lets emotion get the best of him, sacrificing his technique to look for a big hit. Blitzes can cause him problems.
Conclusion: Lewan would have been right in the mix with Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson last year. He's not all that far behind Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews now, to the point that all three being selected in the top 10 appears viable. Even if Lewan falls a few slots behind that duo, provided he can assure teams that the pending legal issues will not prevent him from being a rookie contributor, he ought to be a top-20 selection. Experienced, athletic left tackles are a highly sought-after commodity come draft time.
No. 17: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Bio: Lee, just as the player preceding him here, saw his stock drop some during the 2013 season. Only, unlike Lewan, Lee was not eligible for the NFL draft due to the league's rule requiring players to be three years removed from high school before making the leap. So, off an FBS-best 118-catch 2012 season, Lee headed back to Pasadena.
His stats plummeted, with injuries hindering him throughout the Trojans' campaign. Lee finished with just 57 catches for 791 yards and four touchdowns, numbers that were all down markedly from his previous two years. He did finish with a bang: seven catches for a season-high 118 yards and two touchdowns in a bowl win over Fresno State.
Where does all that leave him in the receiver pecking order? Hard to say. Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans are believed to sit clearly ahead of him, with prospects like Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and others primed to leapfrog Lee in Round 1.
Of course, a healthy Lee might turn out to be the best of the bunch. He was close to unmatched back in '12, when he finished fourth in the Heisman voting.
Strengths: Does not need much space to turn short gains into big plays. Uses his speed (4.52 40) to burst by defenders, plus challenges defenses vertically. Uses all of his 6-0 frame to go up and make catches, with the strong hands needed to do so in traffic. Smart, before and after the catch, knowing where his openings are. Produces big-play touchdowns. Dangerous, too, in the red zone because of how he positions himself versus defensive backs. Dangerous return man -- averaged 26.1 yards per attempt on kickoffs during his career, scoring twice. Willing blocker, despite his size limitations.
Weaknesses: Injuries last season may make teams wary, given Lee's lanky frame. Should be better when pressured on catches; will let defenders beat him to the ball at times. Dropped 12 percent of the passes thrown his way last season. Will get jammed at the line, though his top-end speed deep may force CBs to play off him. Lacks true No. 1 size, which could limit his value in the draft.
Conclusion: While no longer a clear top-10 selection, Lee has every right to argue for a Round 1 spot. Should he fall too deep, a contender is going to add the type of piece that could put its offense over the top. Lee may not make all the catches and he definitely will lose some one-on-one battles with aggressive corners. He'll also make up for any tough moments by serving as a steady producer, capable of turning any completion into a touchdown.
NFL player comparison: Pierre Garcon, Redskins (6th round, 2008, Mount Union)