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 49-45 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 nearer to the top of the hypothetical second round, there are a couple of Pac-12 standouts, one player with an unusual command of the subtleties of his position and two Florida defenders who have injury questions to overcome.
No. 44: Dominique Easley, DT/DE, Florida
Bio: Many great players have overcome serious collegiate injury concerns to become forces in the NFL. In the 2014 draft, Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley might be the man who lost the most because of the physical setbacks that plagued him through his career with the Gators. Easley tore his left ACL in 2011, recovered well enough to maintain and enhance his status as one of the best overall linemen in the nation, and then tore his right ACL in September 2013. Easley was unable to participate in any of the postseason derbies for draft-eligible players, though he did say at the scouting combine that he has absolute faith in his ability to come all the way back.
"I mean, I tore my ACL in 2011, and I got faster in 2013. So when I get back from this ACL, it's going to make me nothing but faster."
Easley plans to have a pro day sometime in April, and at that point, NFL teams will be able to take stock of a player who has as much potential as any in this draft class -- at any position.
Strengths: Easley's most prominent attribute is that he can play convincingly and at a starter level in so many gaps. There are multiple examples of him blowing up protections everywhere from 1-tech (between the center and guard) to 3-tech (between the guard and tackle) to end. He even has the speed and turn to disrupt from a wide-nine stance. For his size (6-foot-2, 288), Easley flashes tremendous upper-body strength -- he plays 20 or 30 pounds heavier than he is in that sense, but he has the field speed and agility of a linebacker when he's in space or covering in short areas. Gets his hands on blockers right off the snap and uses his hands very well -- will use hand-strikes, swim and rip moves, and pure bull-rushes to drive through or get past to the backfield. Didn't do a lot of stunting and looping for the Gators, but he clearly has the skillset to do so.
When lined up in a stunt formation (at a 45-degree angle against the line), Easley is just about unblockable because he gets through with such explosive speed. Understands leverage and will get under a blocker's pads, adding to his strength advantage -- it's uncanny how often he'll push a guy back who seriously outweighs him. Can split and move from gap to gap with great agility; he's always looking for an opening. And when he gets in the backfield, Easley is very balanced and disciplined -- he doesn't fall for foot fakes and agile moves. At his best, he's a play destroyer.
Weaknesses: Where Easley's size shows up in a negative sense is when he's asked to take on double teams, especially against bigger blockers -- he tends to get eaten up and can't always get through even with all his attributes. And if a blocker gets his hands on Easley first, it's tough for Easley to recover consistently -- his hand quickness is clearly an adaptive strategy, and it works well, but he's got that issue.
Injury issues will hold him back, to be certain. Though he recovered well from the 2010 ACL tear, the fact that he's now had serious injuries to each knee will certainly present a red flag that will drop him at least a full round from where he would go otherwise.
Conclusion: Put simply, a totally healthy Dominique Easley would be a lock for a top-five pick in the 2014 draft, and in my opinion, people would be talking about him as they talk about Jadeveon Clowney -- he's that good on tape. Outside of his size limitations, he's got everything you could possibly want in a defensive lineman, and the ways in which he's dealt with his setbacks say as much about him as a person than as a player. Someone's going to take Easley with a possible NFL redshirt designation, similar to what the San Francisco 49ers did with Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine in 2013 ... and if Easley can come back from his most recent injury, that team will have an absolute terror on their hands in the best possible way.
No. 43: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Bio: The leading rusher in the nation over the past two seasons, Carey ran for 1,885 yards on 349 carries last year and led the nation with 1,929 yards, and 2,232 yards from scrimmage the season before. Though he doesn't flash on tape as a potentially elite NFL back, Carey opined at the scouting combine that he could very well be that.
"I'd say a mix between Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy," Carey said, when asked which pro runners he was most like. "Adrian Peterson runs hard, and LeSean McCoy has the shakes in the open field to break a safety down. My favorite running back is Brian Westbrook because he catches, he blocks. He does it all."
On tape, Carey does it all to a fairly impressive degree. But does he have what it takes to be a first-round talent in the NFL?
Strengths: Carey runs quickly and decisively to and through gaps -- he's fast from the start. He's a good one-cut-and-go runner who turns and cuts well, and shows good vision on the run. He won't get past first contact with power too often, but he's elusive enough to break through with turns and jukes. Has a decent second gear and can really ramp it up when he's in space. Not just a straight-line runner, though he can turn on the jets that way. Carey is not a dominant blocker by any means, but he gives full effort and looks to put a lick on any defender in his way. Good receiver who grabs the pass consistently and gets upfield.
Weaknesses: At 5-9 and 207 pounds, Carey will run into the same problem in the NFL that he did in college -- he doesn't have the pure driving power to get past tacklers in the backfield, and he could post a lot of negative plays in a system where he doesn't have extra blockers to lead the way. He doesn't have the kind of burner speed that will allow him to run away from quicker cornerbacks and safeties, and there are times when he leaves himself open to fumbles by running with the idea that he's a power back. Ran a 4.7 40-yard dash at the combine, and was unable to improve upon that significantly at his pro day. As with all running backs in Rich Rodriguez offenses, there will be questions about Carey being a system back until he answers them in the NFL. Has had off-field incidents that could pose a concern.
Conclusion: A decade ago, the numbers Carey has put up would have virtually guaranteed him a first-round grade, but aside from the general dissolution of his positional value, Carey is also dealing with a lack of elite speed on the field and the perception that backs in his types of collegiate offenses aren’t prepped for success -- not to mention those off-field concerns. His productivity and overall skillset should see him go fairly early in the second day of the draft. Backs who alternate between power and speed, without showing dominant traits either way, tend to be tough sells any higher than that.
NFL player comparison: Maurice Morris, Seattle Seahawks (2nd round, 2002, Oregon)
No. 42: Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida
Bio: Florida's 2013 season was a disappointment in many ways, and Marcus Roberson's season was one of them. After a breakout 2012 campaign in which he intercepted two passes and had 14 pass deflections, Roberson was limited to seven games, no picks and just a few breakups due to injuries. Still, the highly-recruited junior decided to forego his final collegiate season and enter the NFL. At the combine, Roberson said that his game resembles Darrelle Revis' in his ability to lock receivers down, and Richard Sherman's in the way he re-directs receivers and runs with them wherever they go. The tape doesn't show that level of play, but in the right system, Roberson could have a great deal of NFL potential.
Strengths: Roberson plays a lot of bail technique, where he starts in off-coverage and is asked to read his receiver at the boundary. He does this well, and though he'll give up receptions on comebacks and curls, he seems to have the skill and instincts to play the kinds of off-coverage concepts most effective against multi-receiver formations and combos you see more and more at the NFL level. When playing press coverage, Roberson gets his hands on his target and sticks with him in short areas. He'll break off to help with coverage on receivers to which he's not assigned, indicating that he reads the field well and is always looking to make a play.
Trails his receivers well on slants, drags and other longer, angular routes and has the field speed to keep up with just about anyone on the run. Has good feet at the line, and can adjust to stutters and other jukes. His 14 passes defensed in 2012 was no fluke; he times his jumps very well and knows when to get a hand in to break up a play. Outstanding body control in close coverage. Great return man with breakaway potential.
Weaknesses: While Roberson's athleticism is impressive, he's got to get it under control -- the best corners understand how to use their bodies to recover quickly if they've been burned, and he's too aggressive at times, leading to more yardage allowed. Has good size at 6-0, 191, but he's not an aggressive tackler and can be blocked easily by receivers -- won't be much of a factor in run support. Will go for the kill shot at times when he should close and wrap up. Had an alcohol-related arrest in 2011 and was suspended for a game in '13 for a violation of team policy. Has had injury concerns throughout his career. Ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at the combine, though he plays faster than that.
Conclusion: The trend in today's NFL is to try and find that dominant cornerback who has the size, controlled aggression and athleticism to shut down every opponent's No. 1 receiver. But when reality intervenes, and teams realize that such players are few and far between, the defenders who are often prized over time are the ones who can do many things well. There are holes in Roberson's game, no doubt, but he's got enough on the ball in both man and zone coverage to make a significant impact as at least an upper-tier second outside cornerback at the professional level.
No. 41: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Bio: Certain players don't possess one single standout skill, but their ability to play at a high level in many different dimensions makes them valuable in ways that more single-skilled players may never be. Van Noy, who amassed 152 solo tackles, 61.5 tackles for loss, 26 sacks, seven interceptions and 11 forced fumbles over three seasons, is just such a player. He's an impact player with a variable toolbox, and as he said at the combine, Van Noy has one thing in mind at all times.
"I feel like I’ve done a lot of things that people around me haven’t done. I scored five career touchdowns playing defense, so I feel like I’m an offensive player on defense. I want to get the ball in the offense's hands, but also have the aggression to play linebacker. I feel like every time you get a sack, you try to get the ball out. Quarterbacks, some can’t see you from the backside or some are looking downfield when you’re coming from the front side. I feel like getting the ball is key. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the ball."
He may be underrated because he doesn't always flash on tape, but Van Noy has an estimable command of the little things that make good players great.
Strengths: Though he's primarily known as an edge pass rusher, Van Noy has outstanding potential in coverage. He moves smoothly, transitions well, is very athletic in the open field and seems to understand route concepts. A very aware player. Doesn't have top-end speed, but can cover to linebacker depth, to the flats and occasionally out to the slot. As a quarterback pressurer, Van Noy has all the raw tools -- he comes off the snap like he's been shot out of a gun, and he uses his hands violently and expertly. Brings surprising power for his size (6-3, 243 pounds) and has a bit of a bull rush; he can push tackles back who outweigh him by 50 pounds because he gets low and uses leverage. Could be a real asset in zone blitzes, because he reads the quarterback well and closes to receivers.
Weaknesses: At times, Van Noy is too fast for his own good -- he will overpursue and miss tackles, especially when he's focused on moving to the backfield. Though he's tough for his size, Van Noy can be negated by more expert linemen inside, and even tight ends outside. He'll be better-served by lining up with his hand off the ground, moving in from outside the tackles, where he can use his speed in free space. Needs to work on movement from either side as a pass rusher -- he will require a better inside counter at NFL speed, and he could use a better dip-and-rip when traveling around the tackles. Not a great chaser from one side of the field to the other, and he occasionally gets too hung up on physical battles to get free and make things happen.
Conclusion: Like Connor Barwin (see below), Van Noy brings a great deal of versatility to the table -- if tasked to be a pass rusher above all else, he'll get that done. But when Barwin became an Eagle in 2013, he moved around a bit more often and became a respected pass defender, as well as an asset against the run. While Van Noy may not ever be a 20-sack guy in the DeMarcus Ware mold, Ware wasn't asked to drop and cover -- and that's something Van Noy can definitely do. Perhaps the best thing about Van Noy's skillset is that it's transferable to just about any kind of NFL scheme.
NFL player comparison: Connor Barwin, Philadelphia Eagles (2nd round, 2009, Cincinnati)
No. 40: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Bio: As NFL defenses switch between schemes and fronts more often than ever before, those defensive linemen who can move from gap to gap and make a difference in multiple ways become even more valuable. The Super Bowl champion Seahawks proved this by putting several of their defenders in hybrid positions throughout the season, and you'll see players at the collegiate level mirroring the trend as well. Scott Crichton certainly did, playing end in base fronts for the Beavers and slipping inside to tackle on passing downs. A tackles-for-loss monster with the ability to pressure quarterbacks in multiple ways, Crichton decided to leave for the NFL after his junior season because of a need to provide for his family.
“I love my family," he said at the combine, sitting at a small table surrounded by just a handful of reporters. "I’ve taken this responsibility to take care of them. My mom works two jobs, and my dad is disabled and still works a job, too. They are getting old and I want them to retire and just stop working. I just did this for my family. I was going to come back to college but just to see my family struggle -- we didn’t have much growing up and to see my family struggle, I wasn’t OK with that. So I had to do something, and this is one of the greatest opportunities for me to take care of my family.”
Fortunately, Crichton's story isn't just a feel-good one -- he's going to make an impact in the NFL under the right circumstances.
Strengths: As a 1-tech tackle (left of center) or 0-tech (head over center), Crichton won't win a lot of physical battles at 6-3 and 273 pounds, but he can soak up double teams and has a nice knack for slipping off blocks and making plays close to the line. Understands how gap angles and slide protection concepts work, and he'll get inside those moving gaps. Creates power in pressure with technique as much as strength -- Crichton keeps his feet moving, his hands active and his array of movement techniques at the ready. Gets under pads and pushes back.
When he's outside as an end, you see the power come through -- Crichton will mess up your average tight end when seeking to bring pressure off the edge, and he can move inside with counters against tackles -- though he'll need a bit more development in that area. Does have the upper-body strength to occasionally get away with a single rip move in which he simply moves an opponent far more than that opponent would like.
Weaknesses: While he does have decent base strength, Crichton isn't going to wow people with his ability to bull people back -- he'll get overwhelmed in power situations and he can be blocked a bit too easily inside or out when opposing offenses are looking to create rushing lanes. You'd like to see him wrestle a bit less at times and work on hand moves and counters more often to get separation. Doesn't have top-end speed at end, which may have his NFL team moving him to the run side.
Conclusion: I talked with Crichton at the combine about how he's able to bring pressure from different places on the field. Using Seattle’s Michael Bennett as an optimal example, Crichton told me that it’s a matter of technique.
“What is the key to getting penetration inside a tackle? Like a 4-tech or a 3-tech? You’ve just got to get off the ball and attack, attack the opposing player and you’ve got to just play on their side of the ball. Coaches always told me, whatever you do, no matter if you are wrong, you’ve got to play on their side of the ball. That’s what I really took pride in this year, and it’s worked out for me.”
Crichton also takes pride in his non-stop acceleration.
“I think it’s just my get-off. It starts with my get-off. Just being explosive and coming off right off the line and then you’ve got to have technique. I’ve worked on my craft these last couple years and I feel like I have improved and progressed as a defensive end -- using my hands, using my power, my speed. I think all those attributes help me a lot.”
Crichton's tape speaks for itself, but he did a pretty admirable job of explaining it all right there.
NFL player comparison: Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks (Undrafted, 2009, Texas A&M)