Free agency makes for an exciting few weeks in the NFL offseason followed by an extended period of purgatory. Luckily for football fans, that unexciting stretch ends May 8, which, of course, is the date of the 2014 NFL Draft. As the next crop of NFL talent finds its rightful home, now is an exciting time to speculate. The pressure is on NFL scouts and Fantasy writers alike to get all their talent evaluations in before the big day. We all want to be right. Like Morgan Freeman’s character states in “The Shawshank Redemption”, “That’s all it takes really, pressure and time,” to complete something extraordinary (in that movie’s case, digging a hole through a prison wall). While evaluating football talent isn’t quite as daunting a task, proving to be nearly spot on with projections would be just about as fulfilling.
So, like Andy Dufresne, I chug onwards in the rankings. For Fantasy purposes, only skill position players will be considered for the rankings. Since their actual Fantasy output will depend on landing spot, the focus will be solely on talent. Starting with my man crush, Sammy Watkins, these are the top 15 Fantasy prospects for 2014 if they land in the ideal situation (note: they are ranked in terms of projected Fantasy production if they all landed in the perfect situation):
Sammy Watkins – Even though he is an inch or two shorter than the average “beast” wide receiver in the NFL, he may be the exception to the rule. Nowadays, the belief has become, and I have bought in a little bit, that the tall wide receivers get the most consistent red zone looks. Therefore, they are the most consistent and safest Fantasy receivers from year-to-year. However, at 6’1 and 211 lbs, it’s not like Watkins is a shrimp. Reports are that the Detroit Lions are interested in trading up for him, so even though reports do not necessarily come with legitimacy, they seem to be the favorite. Projected landing spot: Detroit.
Mike Evans – 6’5, 231 lbs. is more like it in terms of the prototypical number one wide receiver. Evans has basketball in his background so he clearly has the ability to go up and get the ball. The ideal situation for Evans would be one lacking a red zone target so he can get the majority for himself. His lack of speed may cap his yardage upside from week-to-week but there is no denying his ability to score. Evans had four red zone TD catches in both of his last two seasons. Which team will be towards the front of the draft that could use a big wideout? Projected landing spot: St. Louis (at pick 13).
Bishop Sankey – Maybe the biggest riser for me since the last time I examined the prospects, Sankey’s lack of size no longer scares me. Obviously, the NFL has its share of undersized RBs running the show (Ray Rice, formerly Maurice Jones-Drew) but it takes a special one to succeed. After re-examining the tape, Sankey is that “one in ten thousand.” Even without young Chris Johnson-esque take-it-to-the-house type speed, Sankey has an uncanny ability to find the holes even if it means quickly changing directions. He best fits into a situation as the lead back with a goal line bruiser behind him (similar to the days of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs in New York). Projected landing spot: New Orleans Saints.
Johnny Manziel – Manziel projects as a better Fantasy quarterback than reality. Scouts question Manziel’s will more than they question his talent. He has one of the stronger arms in the class along with the fastest 40 time of any QB in the class. At 6’1, his height is a bit of a concern, but his legs will make up for a lot. Just look at how beneficial running can be in Fantasy for guys like Cam Newton and Terrelle Pryor. If Manziel finds a team that commits to him as a starter, he will have a high floor from week-to-week due to the consistent rushing yards. Will he throw a lot of interceptions? Sure, but he has the potential to be a Fantasy stud when the following team takes him: Projected landing spot: Jacksonville Jaguars.
Blake Bortles – More like a prototypical quarterback, Bortles is clearly the best pocket passer of the class. I’ve written before that his ceiling is higher than Manziel’s but his floor is much lower, and I stand by that statement. Originally, Bortles looked like a lock for the number one overall pick but the situation has since become static. The Texans are looking at trading down, in which case this team will probably be the one trading up to get Bortles. Projected landing spot: Oakland Raiders.
Eric Ebron – There isn’t a close second in terms of tight end talent in this year’s class. Even though Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski tower over Ebron, he possesses the ability to line up all over the field. Like Graham, he isn’t your throwback TE who just stays in to block. Give this guy space and match him up against corners and there will be no stopping him. Projected landing spot: New York Jets.
Tre Mason – Just an absolute bruising back, Mason will be a steal for anyone who picks him. He likely will fall to the early-to-mid second round and will become a feature back wherever he lands. Mason led the SEC in rushing yards last year with 1,816 and it was no accident. The only concern for Mason moving forward is the giant 2013 workload of 317 carries (and 329 touches overall). Projected landing spot: Atlanta Falcons.
Jordan Matthews – What more do you need to know other than Matthews is a cousin of the all-time great Jerry Rice? His 19.0 yards-per-catch led the SEC last season. Matthews also is the SEC’s all-time leader with 262 receptions and 3,759 receiving yards. He ran a 4.46- 40, which isn’t elite, but not too shabby for a 6’3, 212-pounder. I believe he is the most pro-ready receiver in this whole class and will immediately contribute wherever he lands. Projected landing spot: Kansas City.
Carlos Hyde – Like Mason, Hyde projects as an every down back in the NFL. The gaudy 15 TD he scored last season show just what kind of damage he can do around the goal-line. Hyde ran a 4.61, which proves he isn’t lightning quick but then neither is Marshawn Lynch. Even though a team like Jacksonville says they are committing to Toby Gerhart, a little competition never hurt anyone. If Hyde ended up there, he would have a fair chance to compete for a lead role. Projected landing spot: Jacksonville.
Marqise Lee – General consensus amongst NFL draft scouts is that Lee’s draft stock has fallen. Scouts originally felt Lee could be a team’s main option in the passing game. Lee’s average height and slim frame present worry towards his projected long-term health. Elite athletic skill will entice teams to reach for him just the same. Realistically, Lee can be most successful across from an elite wide receiver to draw less attention and take less of a beating. Projected landing spot: San Diego Chargers.
The Next Five
Ka’Deem Carey – Despite a slow 40-yard dash, Carey possesses a multitude of skills. Carey is a solid pass-blocker and pass-catcher which makes him a nice fit as a situational back. Projected landing spot: New York Jets
Charles Sims – Possesses impressive speed for a bigger runner. Add in his excellent passing ability and the potential to split out wide and you have a Shane Vereen disciple. Projected landing spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Cody Latimer – Can you say “stock rising?” Elite athletic skills with elite size have opened eyes throughout the pre-draft process. When all said and done, Latimer may end up as a first rounder due to pure upside. Projected landing spot: Miami Dolphins.
Jeremy Hill – Lower-the-shoulders type downhill runner. Still, needs to prove it to me after a rotational role in college behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. Hard to project him as any more than a part-time power back. Projected landing spot: Dallas Cowboys.
Odell Beckham Jr. – Although incredibly talented, he may be too small to succeed (at least initially). Take Tavon Austin’s rookie season for instance. Beckham is slightly bigger but will not score many touchdowns. Unless he lands in a situation where he is targeted heavily, he will not be a Fantasy force until year two at the earliest. Projected landing spot: Cleveland Browns.