The 2014 scouting combine begins on Thursday, and for the next week, the NFL news cycle will be all about the ups and downs of the best draft prospects in the country as they do everything they possibly can -- both on and off the field -- to get that one last rise in the eyes of every executive, coach and scout in the league. Every combine week sees players rise and fall for all kinds of reasons, and that informs the draft process all the way through.
This is where the draft process starts in earnest. As a last-minute barometer before it all begins, here's one Big Board to consider as the combine approaches.
1. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Bridgewater may or may not be the best overall player in this draft class, but I believe that he's clearly the best player at the most important position, which is why he's up top here. With his mobility, ability to make the palette of NFL throws and field awareness, Bridgewater has the comprehensive skill set needed to succeed at the next level. At times, he reminds me of an embryonic Aaron Rodgers.
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Production and motivational concerns will dog Clowney through the combine and into the rest of the draft process, because narratives are written as such. But there's still the tape to watch, and that tape shows a player that nearly every opponent is arrayed against to a ridiculous degree. Clowney can still disrupt and make things happen from multiple gaps, and that's why he's a special player.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The most technically sound and practiced offensive lineman in this draft class. Matthews gets pushed back once in a while, but there isn't a better overall blocker, or one more ready for the rigors of the NFL.
4. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
Robinson doesn't yet have Matthews' agility or technique, but he's already got more of both than you'd expect from a pure mauler. And make no mistake, Robinson can maul -- at times, he'll just level the defenders he's blocking over and over. It wouldn't be surprising at all if some line coaches saw Robinson as the more appealing prospect and he went before Matthews somewhere in the top five.
5. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
A truly special player built for any scheme, in multiple roles if need be. Possessing impressive speed for his size (6-foot-3, 248 pounds), Mack can rush from the edge or head inside on stunts just as adeptly as he can line up at linebacker depth and blow up run plays.
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6. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The most explosive receiver in this class, Watkins draws comparisons to everyone from Percy Harvin to Julio Jones. Hit him on a bubble screen or end-around, and he's a good threat to take it to the house. And in space, he explodes off the snap through seams and secondaries.
7. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Mosley is the best pure inside linebacker since Luke Kuechly. Not only is he a rare player in a field awareness sense, he also possesses impressive versatility. Mosley loves to come down against the run and mix it up, but he's just as adept in coverage.
8. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
If you need a pure burner with size for the go or deep post route, Evans could be your man. Some will ding him for a lack of total route awareness, but that's discounting the number of adaptations he had to make after the play broke down with Johnny Manziel as his quarterback. He's an ideal offensive cornerstone for any team with a mobile quarterback where improvisation and play extension is a factor.
9. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
An athletic marvel, this former running back absolutely explodes off the snap, and if he's not blocked correctly, will wreak havoc in any enemy backfield. Barr is still learning the finer points of the position he switched to before the 2012 season, and there are dings on the tape as a result, but there are few more intriguing investments in this year's class.
10. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Dennard isn't just a potential lockdown pass defender; he can also blitz and face up against blockers when dealing with running backs. Dennard led the Spartans with four picks and 10 pass breakups, and he's as impressive playing trail coverage as he is when jumping routes.
11. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Lee's stock has slipped in some quarters because people tend to think of him as an undisciplined player who freelances too much ... but given Lane Kiffin's fundamentally limited and constricting passing concepts (not to mention the school's relative talent deficit at the quarterback position over the last few years), I'm willing to give Lee the benefit of the doubt. At his best, he reminds me of Reggie Wayne in his ability to run patterns and get open with smooth speed and acceleration. A high-quality asset who will be even better with good coaching.
12. Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Another Colts comparison -- Ford reminds me of Robert Mathis at times in the ways he turns things over in the open field. He's got great explosiveness and outstanding awareness in the open field, and he closes on the ballcarrier in a big hurry. He still has some issues in pass coverage, and I'd like to see him dip-and-rip with more consistency, but those things can be ironed out with good coaching.
13. Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
It's quite rare to see an athlete of Nix's size (6-2, 345 pounds) get through blockers and gaps with speed, but the tape doesn't lie -- Nix is an unusual player from that perspective. He's got the strength and technique (including a devastating swim move) to make life very difficult for every NFL center he faces.
14. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
If other NFL teams are going to try and copy the Seattle defensive template (hint: they are), one step is to find atypically-built linemen who can attack from different gaps in different ways. Hageman is such a player. At 6-6 and 318 pounds (with room for slightly more weight if need be), Hageman has been dominant as a nose shade and three-tech tackle, and has the base agility to become a run-stopping five-tech end in certain defenses.
15. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Let's set the YOLO lifestyle claims aside for the time being, because you'll hear all sorts of things both positive and negative about that. As a pure football player, Manziel comes into the NFL at the perfect time. QBs from Ben Roethlisberger to Cam Newton have proven that mobility is a virtual must for today's signal callers, and Russell Wilson has shown that you can get things done with an exceptional football sense even if you're not 6-3. Manziel doesn't have Wilson's demeanor or acumen (yet), but he's a rare improviser in a positive sense. The problem? There are parts of his tape where he looks just about undraftable. The positive? A play or two after that clip, you'll see him make a play that leaves you (and the defense) gasping. A rare risk/reward player, but his first-round status is undeniable.
16. Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may get more decisive nods from some because he played in an NFL-ready defense, but Pryor is the flashier -- and splashier -- safety. Because of his pure field speed, Pryor is able to take an extra split second reading plays, and he closes on the ball with acceleration and authority. Pryor is also fearless when playing the run, though he needs to learn to corral all that athleticism in short spaces.
17. Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
There are those who believe that Martin is best suited to the guard position at the NFL level, and that could be true depending on the team that takes him. But I like him as an outside protector who doesn't have the best range, but does possess the intelligent aggressiveness to make up for any quick-twitch mistakes.
18. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Teams looking for hard-to-cover red zone targets will be all over Benjamin. At 6-5 and 235 pounds, he can high-point any throw over just about any defender. He needs to get a bit stronger in a yards after catch sense and become more consistent as a pure receiver, but Benjamin could have a double-digit touchdown impact in his rookie season in the right situation.
19. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Beckham has the rare ability to be completely explosive from anywhere on the field. He's not the biggest guy at 5-11 and 193 pounds, but few players in this class can open things up as well as he can -- especially in the return game and in zones as a receiver, where he can use his speed and agility to make defenders look downright silly.
20. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan is not a perfect technician -- he can get washed out inside and outside at times when he steps late or misplaces his feet -- but he's an aggressive finisher with a lot of potential. He plays like a defensive lineman (which he used to be), and that mean streak shows up on tape.
21. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Though neither player is quite on that level, Clinton-Dix could be seen as the Eric Berry to Calvin Pryor's Earl Thomas -- the Alabama star is the surer tackler and the better fundamental player, though he needs to place himself more precisely for plays because he doesn't quite have Pryor's closing speed. Like most defensive backs developed under the Nick Saban administration, Clinton-Dix is a fearless downhill mover, and that can be used in a lot of different ways.
22. Aaron Donald, DL, Pittsburgh
At 6-1 and 288 pounds, Donald might be seen as a tweener by some NFL teams. The tape doesn't lie, however, and what it shows is that Donald has ridiculous speed off the snap and a great deal of technique that allows him to knife through blockers (especially double teams) outweighing him by at least 20 pounds. Donald helped himself a lot with an outstanding Senior Bowl week, but his 2013 stats (59 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles and a blocked extra point) tell the larger story. Donald will need to be in the right NFL system, but he could eventually be a prime disruptor at the next level.
23. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
With more receivers heading deep downfield in multiple sets than ever before, the need for cornerbacks who can play trail technique with outstanding ball skills is certainly pronounced. Gilbert has those skills, though he needs to sharpen things up a bit -- he'll get beaten on the same routes he commands at times, but the talent is certainly there.
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24. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
I have Ebron as the best tight end in this class because he does what the position requires at the highest overall level. While others may be more purely explosive, Ebron blocks, gets open and catches like you'd want an NFL tight end to do.
25. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Ealy's talent is not in question, but there may be some doubt as to where he best fits in the NFL. As a 6-5, 275-pound rush end in a four-man front, he alternates between impressive splash plays and worrisome stretches of invisibility. I'd like to see him put on 10-20 pounds and develop into a 3-4 end who can slip inside to tackle on passing downs and make a real difference in a hybrid defense.
26. Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Amaro when you put on his tape is that he's a willing and effective blocker. You don't think of Texas Tech guys in that way -- at least not traditionally -- but Amaro is more well-rounded than one might assume, and he can light it up in the ways NFL teams want the new generation of tight ends to do.
27. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Kouandjio has everything it takes to be a great left-side outside protector in a run-based offense, and he's lighter on his feet than your standard-issue 'Bama mauler. He needs some work on getting his feet quicker, but he's well on his way.
28. Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Bortles might be the most polarizing player in this class, in terms of positioning and where people see him. I've seen mocks and Big Boards from people I respect that have him top five, or even first overall. Most of those advanced proclamations favor Bortles on physical potential, and there's a lot to like there. But there's a caveat -- like Jake Locker, I think Bortles could be overdrafted on his potential and take longer than expected to get the fine points of quarterbacking at the NFL level.
29. David Yankey, G, Stanford
Two years ago, Stanford's David DeCastro had me thinking that he was the best collegiate guard I'd seen since Steve Hutchinson. Yankey isn't quite at that point, but it's clear that the Cardinal are doing something right with this position. Yankey is a powerful player with fine fundamentals who should be able to step right in for the team that selects him.
30. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
While I like Jernigan's strength in the middle of a defensive line, I'm less sure than some others about his quickness off the snap, and his mastery of hand moves he'll need to deal with NFL blockers. A fine prospect in need of specific coaching.
31. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The template for the NFL linebacker has changed drastically over the last five years -- more and more, teams want smaller, rangy guys who can cover the maximum amount of ground. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, Shazier is right on the cusp of that curve in good and bad ways. He can break into coverage just as well as he can come down to play against the run, but there are enough plays where he gets washed out to have me thinking that a few protein drinks are in order.
32. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
I've watched several of Verrett's games, but I thought his performance against Baylor last season was the most interesting. He showed that he could cover on an island against a team that likes to stretch formations far outside the numbers, and he switched inside to the slot against certain route combinations (which, at 5-10, he'll probably be asked to do more with his NFL team). I'd like to see him close up a bit more in deep coverage, but if Verrett is this class' best cover man three years from now, I won't be surprised at all.
33. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas
Center is hardly a glamorous position, but it becomes readily apparent to all the skill position players when there's a talent drain in the middle of your offensive line. Swanson would be of great value to any NFL team, but especially to any pass-heavy offense, because pass pro is his primary strength. He's also an outstanding blocker in space when asked to pull to either side.
34. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Robinson doesn't have that prized extra gear downfield, so there is a ceiling to what he'll be able to do in the NFL. But I could see him becoming one of the league's better No. 2 receivers, with Eric Decker specifically coming to mind. He's great with yards after catch and finding spaces underneath.
35. Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
The thing that really stands out about Morgan to me is how flexible and mobile he is, especially to the second level. It's impressive to see for a player his size (6-6, 325). If he can learn to clamp onto blocks with more consistency and ovoid overpursuit, he could be a very special player.
36. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Carr will need scheme help at the NFL level, and I don't think there's any question about that. He'll be best-suited to a spread-style team that gives him enough free space to make throws all over the field -- which he can do. However, he still telegraphs his reads, gets balky under pressure and doesn't throw with consistent mechanics. A project quarterback worth the risk.
37. Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
If you're looking for a true masher with a nasty playing demeanor for the inside of your offensive line, it would be hard to do better than Su'a-Filo. While he will occasionally lose leverage and power when he forgets technique, he has a great combination of power and agility.
38. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Van Noy is a technique-sound player with limited upside, but he'll make plays in the right scheme. Coverage is perhaps his most underrated asset, but field speed is a problem in certain instances.
39. Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State
Jackson has the raw potential to be the best of this year's guard class -- he's powerful and agile, and he really delivers a blow in the run game. It's the second-level stuff that seems to befuddle him at this point, but with a little coaching, he's going to be a good one.
40. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State