Hindsight is a wonderful thing; particularly when looking back on past NFL drafts and examining the good, the bad, and the downright absurd former top ten picks.
At the time, there's always a justification for teams' selections; be it a pro-ready QB or a pass rusher with a sky-high ceiling who may need a year or two's work before popping. However, after a few seasons of tape on these once highly touted prospects, the drastic aperture that always exists between their respective levels of on field production is frankly startling.
Four years on, and coming to the end of their rookie deals, some guys are bonafide stars who've justified their lofty draft selections, others are solid starters, and then there are those haven't quite panned out as expected.
The ones who's abilities have possibly been misevaluated in the draft process, the ones who have struggled off the field, and the ones who just cannot mix it with the best of the best. The fact that there are always players at both ends of the spectrum is part of what makes the draft so entertaining.
General Managers' jobs are retained and lost on the back of both results, and it's that high stakes nature of the beast that makes looking back on previous draft classes such an intriguing activity. So, here's a look at the top ten picks from the 2014 draft and where they've ended up through four years of their NFL careers.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE: Houston Texans
After missing 15 games and notching just 4.5 sacks across his first two seasons, Clowney was starting to look like bust material. However, he's managed to stay healthy since and contributed 15.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2016 and 2017 combined, leading two a pair of Pro Bowl berths.
His natural athleticism, size and power have been on full display in a loaded Texans defensive front and he's beginning to look like the player everybody expected him to become. Playing alongside JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus will make it difficult for Clowney to put up monster sack numbers, but that alone doesn't define his impact off the edge against the pass as well as the run. The 25-year-old cracked the NFL's Top 100 players list for the first time in 2017, debuting at number 49, proving his peers rate him as one of the top edge rushers in all of football. As of now, the Texans' selection is beginning to look like the surefire home-run player everyone expected him to be coming out of South Carolina.
2. Greg Robinson, T: St Louis (LA) Rams
Robinson is one of those high profile busts that can be career defining, and not just for the player. Rams GM Les Snead, who drafted him, is still plying his trade with the franchise but Robinson's struggles from day one eventually led to his trading to the Lions in 2017. The former Auburn standout started just six games in Detroit last season and could well find himself as a backup again in 2018.
3. Blake Bortles, QB: Jacksonville Jaguars
If the Jags could go back and do it all over again, there's not a chance they take Bortles over Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo. There were eyebrows raised at the time, especially when the former UCF standout took over the starting duties so early into his rookie season, and there are still eyebrows raised on a weekly basis. Bortles is somewhat of an enigma, with a strong arm and an obvious likability factor within the franchise, but it is blatantly obvious that he restricts his team at times.
His turnovers are a liability, and he's clearly not on the same level as Carr and Garoppolo as a pure pocket passer. However, his grit and determination, as well as some sneaky athletic runs in the Jags impressive playoff journey in 2017 exemplify the conundrum that Bortles is. Would the Jags prefer a more reliable passer, who doesn't usually lean on their elite defense to carry them to wins, sure. Is it easy to go out and find that guy, probably not. That much was obvious when they signed him to three-year $54 million deal this offseason. So, we're set for another season of unpredictable (minus Leonard Fournette being worked off his feet) offense in Jacksonville and with a Super Bowl window certainly open for their swarming D, another lacklustre year won't put any shine back on this pick.
4. Sammy Watkins, WR: Buffalo Bills
Now on his third NFL team after being traded in two consecutive seasons, Watkins' obviously enormous talent is still yet to fully emerge in the NFL. He's missed 12 games in four years as a pro and only topped 1000 receiving yards once. However, his short stint in LA with the Rams last season in which he caught 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns, clearly impressed the Chiefs who signed him to a huge deal this offseason.
Watkins is set to make $48 million over three years in KC and together with young QB Patrick Mahomes, could finally reach his potential under Andy Reid. The Bills' pick still looks a justifiable one at this stage, but if he doesn't kick on in the next couple of seasons that justification will lose some of its credibility. Though for Buffalo it probably already has, given that he's no longer in their building.
5. Khalil Mack, LB: Oakland Raiders
A three-time Pro Bowler, two-time All Pro selection, and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, it's safe to say the Raiders hit it out the park with Mack at number five. The 27-year-old has been a dominant force off the edge since day one in the league, posting 40.5 sacks over four years as a pro and the only minor problem the Raiders have with their star is paying him what he wants. Mack was absent from voluntary team workout's this week, and is reportedly seeking a monster extension with guarantees in the region of $65 million. Lock him up Oakland, he's worth it.
6. Jake Matthews, T: Atlanta Falcons
Matthews hasn't quite lived up to his high billing since arriving out of Texas A&M, but he has started 63 out of a possible 64 regular season games and been largely solid in protecting Matt Ryan. The former Aggie was a key cog on an O-Line that paved the way for Atlanta's top rated offense and Ryan's MVP season in 2016. The 26-year-old ranked as the 14th best left tackle in the NFL in 2017 per Pro Football Focus and played on a Falcons line that gave up the second fewest pressures in football. All in all, Matthews has been reliable and Thomas Dimitroff's selection can't draw too much criticism.
7. Mike Evans, WR: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans is a bonafide star four years into his career. His exceptional catch radius, route running ability and reliable hands are just a few of many admirable qualities he possesses, and he's been the mainstay of the Bucs' largely docile offense ever since his rookie season. He set multiple rookie records and has gone on to break a number of franchise records including single season touchdown receptions (12).
The 24-year-old has exceeded 1000 receiving yards every year since entering the league and earned Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro honours in 2016. Evans signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract extension with the Buccaneers this offseason, with $55 million being guaranteed. He was also ranked 29th by his peers on the NFL Top 100 Players list for 2017. It's safe to say the Bucs' nailed this pick and Evans will likely end up being their all-time franchise leader in all major receiving categories.
8. Justin Gilbert, CB: Cleveland Browns
One of the Browns' two disastrous first round picks in 2014, alongside Johnny Manziel. Gilbert's natural size and speed, as well his outstanding combine showing, set him up as one of the top cornerback prospects in the draft. The Browns certainly pulled the trigger on him way too early at number eight though, and he's turned out to be one of the biggest busts in the entire draft class.
Gilbert played just 23 games for the Browns over two seasons, starting only 3, before being traded to the Steelers for a sixth round pick in 2016. He played 12 games in Pittsburgh, largely as a special-teamer, but was released in 2017. He is currently serving a one-year ban for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. The former Oklahoma State standout never seemed to have the work ethic, maturity or love for the game to succeed in the league, and his potential return next season is a long shot.
9. Anthony Barr, LB: Minnesota Vikings
Barr has been a key member of Mike Zimmer's defense in Minnesota over the past few seasons, bringing speed, oustanding coverage skills and solid tackling to the second level alongside Eric Kendricks. Barr has made three consecutive Pro Bowl's and is one of the most accomplished 4-3 'backers in the NFL.
He's a true three-down player with sideline to sideline ability in coverage and has lethal quickness as a blitzer. Another rock solid selection and one that Rick Spielman would surely make over and over again given the chance to go back.
10. Eric Ebron, TE: Detroit Lions
Ebron's career has been a tale of slight underachievement as a pass catcher, mixed with his obvious flaws in pass protection. His speed and yards-after-catch ability make him useful in any offense, but his unreliable hands and inability to be on the field on rushing downs does leave his skillset wanting a little.
The 25-year-old hauled in just 11 touchdown receptions and only topped 60 catches once in his time in Detroit with Matthew Stafford, and his release this offseason was hardly a shock move. Considering that Detroit still has a lack of a running game, there will certainly be some regret over taking Ebron ahead of the likes of Devonta Freeman here. The former North Carolina TE signed a two-year deal with the Colts last month.
With a few busts, but largely Pro Bowl level players in this bunch, the trend of unpredictability at the top of the draft is perfectly encapsulated with the 2014 draft class. As does the run of players that came just outside the top 10. You may just recognise a couple of those names that at least 10 teams passed on that have gone on to become transcendent players in the NFL.
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