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2014 NFL draft: An introduction to some of this year's most intriguing prospects

2014 NFL draft: This year's most intriguing prospects, including De'Anthony Thomas A blur on the field, De'Anthony Thomas is a man of many interests outside the gridiron. (Robert Beck/SI)

The 2014 NFL draft is just days away, which means it’s time to endlessly scrutinize each prospect and ask the tough questions, including (but not limited to): Does Jadeveon Clowney have the motor to make it in the National Football League? What does Teddy Bridgewater’s braces removal say about his work ethic? Will Johnny Manziel wear his helmet and pads to Radio City Music Hall?

However, there is more to this draft than generic talking points. There are 256 players set to fulfill lifelong dreams, and many are worth getting to know. For those interested in detailed analysis of this year’s most sought-after prospects, check out SI.com’s Top 100. But for some extra tidbits about this class, broken down by position, read below.

MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | 2014 NFL draft needs: AFC | NFL draft needs: NFC

Quarterback

The potential first-round quarterbacks in the 2014 class have been talked about ad nauseam. Manziel. Bridgewater. Blake Bortles. Derek Carr.

Yet one quarterback who has received less attention is Brett Smith, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound passer out of Wyoming. A likely fifth- to seventh-round selection, Smith plays to honor his former teammate, Landon Kuenzi.

Smith and Kuenzi both attended West Salem (Ore.) High. Kuenzi died in a car accident in July 2009. Smith wrote a blog post in Kuenzi’s memory that December, and now Smith flashes a No. 40 hand gesture -- Kuenzi’s old uniform number -- every time he scores a touchdown.

"I'm not proud of this, but when I first saw him do it, I rewound it and realized what he was doing, I cried like a little baby," West Salem coach Shawn Stanley says. "It means so much to everyone here.”

Other things to know about this year’s quarterback crop: Manziel starred in a country music video. Tajh Boyd is a shoe connoisseur. And Tom Savage once told SI.com he was super excited to see the premiere of Toy Story 3.

"I'm pumped," Savage said before the film's release. "I'm going to the IMAX one. I'm paying the 15 bucks."

Oh, and Aaron Murray is a leader of men -- and mopeds.

MORE: Peter King's top QBs | RBs | O-line | Pass catchers | Pass rushers | DBs

Running back

Tailbacks may be undervalued in the current NFL landscape, but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of quality options in 2014. One is Devonta Freeman, who rushed for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns last season to help lift Florida State to a BCS title.

Freeman was raised in Liberty City, Fla. He’s the oldest of seven brothers and sisters. He worked three jobs growing up, including a stint at a local funeral home, and has made it his mission to become a role model for his community.

The boys saw firsthand the pain and anguish gun violence has wreaked upon Miami's inner-city neighborhoods. "Most of the dead are young, just like me," Devonta said in a 2010 New Times story about him and his teammates.

Freeman's mentor is Luther Campbell, a former member of 2 Live Crew who is now an assistant high school football coach.

Another player to keep an eye on here is De'Anthony Thomas. Sure, he’s best known for his ties to Snoop Dogg and his ability to do Devin Hester-like things with the ball in his hands. But he really should be known for his fantastic social media presence. His Twitter handle is @CHECKDAT6, and common posting topics include animals, food and his beloved pet gecko, Gucci.

Wide receiver

The headliners of this year’s receiving group are Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans. But they’re far from the only standouts. Brandin Cooks won the Biletnikoff Award. Odell Beckham Jr., Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson could all hear their names called before the end of Thursday’s first round.

One player in the middle rounds to monitor is Paul Richardson. The former Colorado star once lined up opposite Lee and Robert Woods at Gardena (Calif.) Serra High. He tore his ACL in spring practice at Colorado two years ago and missed the entire 2012 season, but bounced back to make 83 catches for 1,343 yards with 10 touchdowns in ‘13. That’s thanks, in large part, to the support of his family.

“I had to fly one of my brothers out here to help come take care of me because I couldn’t even lift my own leg,” Richardson said. “He had to lift my leg and pull me out of bed. [The family] stayed in prayer with me and made sure that I didn’t doubt myself so that my nine-to-12-month recovery didn’t turn into a year-in-a-half to two-year recovery.”

Then there's Bruce Ellington. A South Carolina product, he played both football and basketball for the Gamecocks. He does a little bit of everything, and in January's Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin, he had receiving and passing scores. Much like Thomas, he is also an animal lover.

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Tight end

The first tight end likely to be selected in this year’s draft is Eric Ebron. The former Tar Heels standout is a mama’s boy -- and in the best possible way.

 From The Daily Tar Heel in November:

Eric Ebron turns to his mother Gina Jackson for all of the major decisions he makes in life. He said she has the final say for 95 percent of them -- and the other 5 percent are made while playing PlayStation.

He said she’s the reason he plays football, the reason he came to North Carolina. “The reason why I was born,” he said, smiling.

She’s also the reason why the tight end declared for the 2014 NFL draft and why he did it Monday [Nov. 25, 2013] -- with one game left in the regular season -- instead of waiting until season’s end.

Ebron is a beat writers’ dream, because rather than saying things like We’re taking things one day at a time, he does things like guarantee he’ll run the 40-yard dash faster than ex-teammate and current Cincinnati Bengals back Gio Bernard. He also doesn't shy away from casual smack talk.

Offensive line

There are plenty of coveted offensive line prospects in 2014, headlined by Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Zack Martin. But the most intriguing lineman, at least from an off-field standpoint, may be Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. A medical student at McGill University in Montreal, Duvernay-Tardif has spent this spring interning at a children's hospital.

"It's treating kids from, like, four months to 17 years old," Duvernay-Tardif said of his first stint [eight shifts in 10 days]. "Mostly orthopaedic stuff like fractures, and viral. Some cool stuff with concussions, bleeding and things like that.

"But it's a different approach than treating adults, because a little kid won't talk to you -- he'll only cry -- so you really have to rely on vital signs, fever, those things. But I like it. It's really cool."

Another middle- to late-round prospect to keep an eye on is David Yankey. The two-time All-America selection is the Australian-born son of a Ghanian father and a Slovakian mother. His Twitter presence is also pretty great.

Defensive line

Louis Nix III goes by the nickname Irish Chocolate. This was mentioned in Chris Burke’s list of 50 notable draft facts, but it’s worth reiterating here. Between the sidelines, Nix is a run-stopping space-eater who played a pivotal role in Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season and BCS title game berth in 2012. In his free time, however ... well, just kick back and grab a box of Kashi GOLEAN Crunch! Also noteworthy: Nix’s Halloween costume, which arguably rivals the greatness of Manziel’s notorious Scooby-Doo get-up.

Another beast on the defensive line? Former Florida tackle Dominique Easley. He has recovered from two ACL tears during a span of 22 months and is quickly climbing up many teams' draft boards. Of course, he has never watched a complete NFL game in his life.

Dominique Easley made a somewhat surprising admission at the NFL combine in February -- he has never watched an NFL game in his life.

Never?

“Not start to finish,” Easley said. “I might change it to a cartoon or something.”

Easley is nothing if not consistent.

Linebacker

Looking for an under-the-radar linebacker who put up huge numbers in college? Yawin Smallwood may be the guy. He registered 332 tackles, including 27.5 tackles for loss, during three seasons at UConn and is projected as a sixth- or seventh-round pick.

However, he has been criticized for his coverage capabilities. As when he previously made the switch from running back to linebacker, he is using it as fuel.

"My friends would send me links to things that said I had no coverage skills, that I'm stiff or whatever, that I can't keep up with good athletes and stuff like that," said Smallwood, who is entering the draft a year early.  "I just laugh at that stuff. I can't remember anyone -- when I was in man-to-man coverage -- I can't remember anyone catching the ball on me. I'll put it like that. I think I'm a great cover linebacker. I can cover man-to-man, get into my zones, all of that stuff. I feel like I'm great at doing that and have a good feel for it."

Jeremiah Attaochu is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, but he's also worth mentioning here. Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, he moved to the U.S. in 2001. He started playing football in ninth grade because he "just got tired of watching it."

Defensive back

The draft sheds light on plenty of improbable journeys. Few, however, are as inspirational as that of former Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Dennard was a two-star prospect coming out of high school in Dry Branch, Ga. He was lightly recruited until Spartans co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner stopped by one of his games to scout an opposing player. Recently, Dennard became the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

Dennard, who grew up 90 miles from Atlanta, also turned the Spartans onto rapper Rich Homie Quan’s track “Type of Way.” This turned out extremely well.

Finally, there’s Pierre Desir, the small-school cornerback out of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. Jeff Pearlman penned a terrific account of Desir's tale earlier this week, and it sheds light on how Desir found football success while focusing chiefly on his responsibilities as a father, a role he assumed when he was only 16.

"It was weird," he says. "I had a lot of emotions. Happy emotions, but also scared. I literally didn't know what to do next. I'm a father, but I'm a boy. All my friends are driving around, doing whatever kids that age do. And I'm standing there, holding this little baby."
Desir is currently projected as a second- or third-round pick.

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