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 29-25 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 -- those first-round picks who can make immediate impacts. Among those players at the edge of the top 20? Two unique receivers, one special safety, and two players dealing with possible position changes.
#24: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Bio: Boom-and-bust players have their place in football, and few players better fit the description than Kelvin Benjamin. When he's on, as he was with 12 seconds left in the most recent BCS championship game, he has the potential to grab the game-winning catch -- which is exactly what he did to propel the Seminoles to their national title. When he's not, Benjamin can be a frustrating player to watch. He was far more on than off in his junior campaign of 2013, catching 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns. That last statistic outlines his primary asset as a player -- Benjamin ranked ninth in the ACC in catches and seventh in receiving yards, but he ran away with the touchdown title, with three more than runner-up Sammy Watkins.
"Whenever there was a catch on the line or a touchdown on the line, [the play] was coming back to me, and it was a slant route," Benjamin said at the combine of that fateful play. "I knew he [the defender] was thinking fade and so I tried to sell him on that fade route. Three steps out, I got inside of him and just did what I do best, which is attack it at the highest point."
And that's what will probably make Benjamin a first-round pick -- there's no other receiver in this class with a better ability to dominate when it's time to score. Question is, can he be a do-it-all receiver when the NFL comes calling?
Strengths: Benjamin has prototypical dimensions (6-5, 240) for the position, and he understands how to use them -- he will simply overwhelm defenders at times with his size, leaping ability and strength. And for his size, Benjamin has impressive straight-line speed. He'll blast off the line quickly, he accelerates smoothly, and he has an extra gear downfield. Snatches the ball quickly and moves upfield just that way for extra yards after the catch, and he's a load to deal with when he gets a full head of steam. Dominant red zone and end zone target who makes it nearly impossible to cover him in those situations, because all he has to do is get vertical and fight for the catch -- and he does those things very well.
Outstanding blocker at all levels when he gives top effort. Can be a special player on simple slants and drags because he combines movement and strength when he does cut to an angle correctly. Played with quarterbacks who struggled to see the field and find him open at times; which could lead some NFL teams to (rightly) consider that he'll have far more opportunities at the next level.
Weaknesses: For all his physical attributes, Benjamin is far from a finished product. He should be stronger with his hands in traffic than he is; even when he wins physical battles, he can be beaten after the catch with aggression, and he drops too many passes in general. Needs a lot of work on the overall route tree -- ran a lot of straight go routes and simple angle concepts. Not always an aware player in space. He's a bit logy when asked to cut quickly in short areas; this is where his big body (big butt, specifically) works against him. Agility is a question. Doesn't always dig his foot in and make clean cuts, and as a result, he isn't always where he needs to be when the ball is thrown with anticipation. Struggles with jukes and foot fakes because he's still learning body control.
Will probably struggle with option routes for a while, because the ability to time his physical movements to the directions in his head is a process under development. Needs to learn to create separation. The little things -- catching the ball with his hands instead of his body; waiting to turn upfield until he's got the ball securely -- are not quite there yet.
Conclusion: It's possible that Benjamin will be limited to touchdown duty early on in his NFL career -- while he's obviously physically dominant, he will get it handed to him for a while by bigger, better cornerbacks and more complex coverages. He could also be used as a tight end-style target in the slot, or lined up in the seam. Benjamin has clear assets as a player; his liabilities will have to be managed as he learns the ins and outs of the receiving game at the professional level.
#23: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Bio: When the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks selected Eric Berry and Earl Thomas in the first 14 picks of the 2010 draft, the message sent was clear: The safety position is more important in today's NFL than ever before. The true center-field safety who can cover all kinds of ground and neutralize any offensive system is a key component to any modern defense. In the 2014 draft, two safeties -- Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix -- show the potential to bring this to their eventual NFL suitors. And in Clinton-Dix's case, he's done that in a system that makes him NFL-ready from the start. Whatever you may think of Nick Saban, he's got that much on lock. In 2013, Clinton-Dix amassed two picks, four passes defensed and 51 tackles, but there is an element of his game that goes beyond stats -- you really have to watch his range and ability to stop plays on tape to appreciate it.
"I'm one of the best safeties in the draft because I played in Saban's system," he's said. "I feel like I'm prepared for the next level. I'm a fast learner. I play fast. I study a lot of film. I study the opponent a lot. And that's about it. I fly around."
There are times when the NFL-readiness of Alabama players is overhyped. This is not one of those times. Clinton-Dix is an explosive, special player with immense potential.
Strengths: Clinton-Dix has the two things every NFL free safety needs -- great feet and impressive quickness. He backpedals and redirects smoothly and with little trouble, which allows him to stick and stay on all kinds of routes. And he's remarkably quick when it comes to driving down in run support, as well as moving to either sideline. Keeps the action in front of him, and does his best to avoid getting shaken on any kind of misdirection, despite his generally aggressive playing style. Has the size (6-1, 208) and speed to square up on running backs and receivers and bring them down. Understands how to deal with blockers -- will rarely take a hit straight on and bounces off to make a play. Tackles with excellent form; looks to wrap more than he goes for the kill shot, and he does a terrific job of extending his body to catch quicker opponents. Gives tremendous effort at all times; he's never really eliminated from a possible tackle as long as the play is still going. Can play well everywhere from true center field to the slot.
Weaknesses: Though he's a generally disciplined player, there are inevitable aftereffects of Clinton-Dix's style that show up on tape. He will flat-out miss tackles at times because he's trying so hard to get where he needs to be, and better play-fake quarterbacks might have a field day with him at the NFL level. Will occasionally lose track of his target on quick angle routes unless he's in position to redirect.
Conclusion: To me, the most compelling part of Clinton-Dix's game is not that he played in a pseudo-NFL system -- we see guys in those systems wash out every year. The thing that makes him a special prospect is that he does so much exceptionally well, and he does everything at a plus level. His range will make him a starter from Day One, and as he develops his ball skills and tackling abilities, he has the potential to be among the best safeties in the league -- and he can do so from the deep middle to the box to the slot. He's the prototype for a very valuable position, and he'll see the results of that with a very high pick in the first round.
#22: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Bio: The speed slot receiver has gained a lot of traction as a near-starting concept in the league over the last half-decade, with Victor Cruz leading the charge and a host of similar players following suit. Now, players like Randall Cobb exhibit new levels of versatility as key men in their offenses, and not just gimmicks for specific situations. It's the perfect time for Odell Beckham Jr. to hit the NFL, because he has all the traits inherent to this type of player, and the production bears that out. In 2013, with first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron running a more expansive passing game, Beckham caught 57 passes for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns. At the scouting combine drills, I was specifically impressed with his ability among all the receivers in his group to grasp and show that he's a complete receiver and not just a guy who runs fast in a straight line. There shouldn't be any problem when he is asked to do the same for his NFL team.
Strengths: Beckham can excel either outside or in the slot, and his primary attribute is his pure game-breaking speed. In the slot, he drives off the snap with quickness from the first step and can simply outrun safeties to his assigned area. Forces defenses to assign a deep defender and can take the top off a coverage. On the outside, Beckham moves smoothly downfield on routes to the sideline and the numbers, and he exhibits terrific change of direction skills. In addition, Beckham has an innate understanding of route concepts that will help him greatly at the NFL level -- he has outstanding body control, looks the ball into his hands, gets open in small spaces and is elusive enough to juke defenders who try to grab him after the catch. And if he gets past those defenders, it's off to the races again.
Kills defenses with comebacks and curls. Can take quick slants and bubble screens upfield in a hurry -- he'll be a great yards-after-catch asset at the next level. Dynamic return man who will change direction and doesn't need much of an opening to make a big play or take it to the house.
Weaknesses: Beckham's only real limitations are related to his size -- he won't win a lot of jump-ball battles, he's not a physical blocker, and though he's tough in traffic, it's possible that he'll be limited by bigger and more physical cornerbacks at the NFL level. Though he's improved a great deal in his command of the little things, he will occasionally regress and miss a ball he should have caught. However, this isn't the issue it used to be, and Beckham's clear tendency to work hard and improve will serve him well when coverages get more complex.
Conclusion: Beckham appears to be gaining traction in the media in recent weeks as a high first-round prospect. Perhaps that's because we're all catching up on his tape and are impressed with what he brings to the field. NFL front offices in charge of monitoring such things on a year-round basis are already clued in, no doubt. Benjamin might not wind up being the best receiver in his class (though I wouldn't totally rule that out), but among the pure speed guys, he's the man at the top.
#21: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Bio: Martin made 52 career starts for the Fighting Irish (a school record), becoming one of the better and most reliable offensive linemen in the nation over time. But at the Senior Bowl, coaches lined him up at guard, and he was able to excel there as well -- in fact, he was one of the few players able to deal with Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who spent his week in Mobile embarrassing just about everybody. At 6-4, 308, his NFL future is somewhat in question positionally, but the basic attributes are clear -- he'll be able to help any NFL team from Day 1.
Strengths: Outstanding drive blocker who rises up from a three-point stance quickly, gets his hands inside the defender and uses leverage to push people back. Excellent upper-body strength, which he uses to get his hands forward and in a striking position to keep opponents on their side of the line. Finished his blocks by lifting defenders off their own power. Understands combo blocks and can peel off his first defender to help with a second defender seamlessly and with no trouble. Keeps a low center of gravity and places his feet properly to give himself a wide base. Good speed to the second level when asked to block in space, and Martin has an excellent sense for his targets -- if he whiffs, it's generally more about lack of speed than any awareness issues.
Weaknesses: In pass pro, Martin's kick slide is a work in progress -- he's more choppy than smooth with his steps. Establishes protection against turning pass-rushers more with technique than fluidity, and can be susceptible to defenders who change directions quickly. Needs an extra split second to come out of his stance to the outside, and you'll occasionally see speed rushers blow right by him. In a general sense, better when blocking people in front of him than to either side -- plays best in the proverbial phone booth. Hasn't pulled a lot, which he'll have to do if he switches to guard in the NFL, but seems to have the skills to do so.
Conclusion: Some NFL teams may see Martin as a right tackle -- I doubt he projects on the left side professionally. But in my opinion, keeping him at tackle would be ... if not a mistake, certainly an underutilization of his skills. Over and over on tape, Martin shows that he's a true ass-kicker, with a fiery mentality and tremendous upper-body strength. He'll have to get comfortable with a few new things, but he wouldn't be the first college tackle to kick inside -- and he may wind up as one of the best.
#20: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Bio: Ford played five seasons for the Tigers, but it was in his senior season of 2013 when he broke past the occasional highlight play and became a true force. He finished his final collegiate season with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He added two sacks in the Senior Bowl and took away MVP honors. However, a medical precaution related to a prior back injury kept him from working out at the combine. Ford still made headlines in Indianapolis when he referred to Jadeveon Clowney as a "blind dog in a meat market."
“People are just looking at the fact that he’s a physical specimen,” Ford said. “It really don’t matter. Honestly, if you watch the film, it’s kind of like, he plays like a blind dog in a meat market, basically. I play with a lot of technique. I watch a lot of film. These are the things that make you a great player, and these are the things that I do, and it shows up, know what I’m saying?
“This is all my opinion. And you can see these things. You can see these things on film. Go watch the film. You know, it’s a lot of intangibles that you need to have to be a great player. You can’t just look at the fact that he’s a physical specimen. I think the NFL should have learned by that by now.”
So, having intended to separate himself from the most prized defensive lineman in this draft, how does Ford's tape line up?
Strengths: As a pure pass-rusher, Ford comes off the snap with great velocity, which he's able to turn into impressive power for his size (6-2, 252). Can bring a nascent bull-rush against tight ends and tackles from time to time, and will generally come up well in power battles as long as he gets his hands on blockers quickly. Ford has light feet and will jump gaps to stunt and use an inside counter to stay active and bring pressure. Forces offenses to align their blocking schemes to him pretty frequently; he faces a lot of tight end chips and double teams. Has the bend around the edge (dip-and-rip) to get under the pads of tackles and move quickly to create pocket disruption.
Ford shows estimable body control and discipline when he's asked to read run plays and cover in short areas -- he follows the action well and will adjust as a true linebacker (as opposed to a one-dimensional pass-rusher) might. Wasn't asked to drop into coverage a lot, but has the potential to do so. Unlike a lot of outside linebacker conversion projects, Ford didn't get washed out when he wasn't given free space -- he can excel in close quarters. Has long enough arms to pop blockers right off the snap.
Weaknesses: Ford could stand to use his hands better and more effectively -- as active as he is, he'd be more purely disruptive if he had the ability to consistently redirect blockers with rip, spin and swim moves. And though his inside moves are decent, he will need to get quicker with his feet on those quick inside cuts and counters. Ford will lose blocks if he doesn't gain quick leverage, such as plays when he's chasing opponents. And he'll need to develop his coverage technique at the next level -- he tends to follow, and doesn't turn his head.
Conclusion: The move to drop weight and play a true outside linebacker position indicates that Ford wants to be a more diverse and useful player. If he can keep his functional strength at a lighter weight and improve his coverage abilities over time, he's got a shot as legitimizing his self-appointed status as a player who stands apart from the pack.