If the 2014 scouting combine was food for thought for coaches, general managers and scouts, the NFL just had a feast.
Clearly, this is a loaded draft. It may not be the draft class of 1983 because the quarterbacks aren't anywhere near the talents of John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. But this draft could challenge the 1996 class that featured Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison and others, or the 1981 Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long draft.
The workouts by most of the top players confirmed the raw skills of the prospects. The influx of 98 underclassmen makes this draft special. It can be argued that six or seven players of this draft could rate higher than the first pick from last year, tackle Eric Fisher. In fact, the top three tackles of this draft might have been taken ahead of Fisher, and that's not a knock on Fisher.
The great part of this draft is there is so much talent that it is going to create plenty of debates. Here are the five things we learned from the 2014 combine:
1. The DB class is as talented as billed: Eleven of the 31 cornerbacks who ran put up numbers in the 4.3 or 4.4 range. Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State was the fastest at 4.37. Phillip Gaines of Rice and Jason Verrett of TCU did 4.38s. Bradley Roby of Ohio State did a 4.39. Gilbert could challenge Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State to be the top corner. He's a little taller and slightly faster than Dennard, who ran a 4.51. The great news for teams is most of the best cornerbacks posted fast numbers.
The other bonus is the draft class offers corners with decent size and long arms. Many teams want to copy what the Seahawks have done with Richard Sherman and others. Going to a man-to-man scheme on the outside of a defense that uses a three-deep zone is going to be the trend if defenses can find the type of corners to run those strategies.
2. The debate at the top of the draft: The Houston Texans have plenty to think about from now until May 8. This draft class looked good enough that Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Sammy Watkins, Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews and maybe even Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr could be the No. 1 pick. Despite being the biggest tease of the draft, Clowney looks to be the best pick. Imagine Clowney rushing the quarterback along with J.J. Watt. If the Texans picked Clowney, he would draw single blocks because offensive coaches would double Watt, the league's best defensive lineman. A Watt-Clowney partnership would be bad news for division rivals, including Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. New Houston head coach Bill O'Brien must also consider Manziel and Bridgewater.
The option of a trade also enters into the debate. The Texans could try to entice the Atlanta Falcons to move up from No. 6. Clowney could be a beast rushing the quarterback in the Georgia Dome, gaining an extra half step with the crowd noise. Even if they trade back to No. 6, the Texans might still be able to get Manziel or Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles. If the three top quarterbacks go before the sixth pick, the Texans would have enough draft choices to trade up in the bottom of the second round to take somebody from the second tier of quarterbacks, such as AJ McCarron, Jimmy Garoppolo or Derek Carr.
3. The Clowney question: Clowney lived up to his reputation at the combine. He posted a 4.53 40 time along with exceptional numbers for explosion. Clowney also left questions in the minds of coaches and general managers by doing only the drills he wanted to do. For a player whose intensity and dedication are questioned because of his last year at South Carolina, Clowney may scare away some teams. But those teams might be overthinking. For pure talent, Clowney might be somewhere between Julius Peppers and Mario Williams, but pass-rushers as talented as him come along at the top of the draft maybe once in every five to 10 years.
Clowney also is the first of a group of underclassmen who might be saving themselves for the pros. Last year, he watched expected first-round running back and teammate Marcus Lattimore blow out his knee and drop out of the first round. The rules require a player to stay in college for at least three years (which could include a redshirt season). The new collective bargaining agreement doesn't reward great players until their fifth NFL season. Others might be as cautious as Clowney in the future. This is why I'm thinking he might end up being the first pick in the draft whether it's by Houston or another team.
4. The lack of depth will raise the stock of the top QBs: From watching the quarterbacks who threw Sunday, I came away with the thought that only six of them merited high consideration. This isn't a knock on Zach Mettenberger of LSU or Aaron Murray of Georgia, but both are coming off ACL injuries. Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech and Tajh Boyd of Clemson need a lot of work to be ready for playing time in the NFL based on the way they threw over the weekend. Thus, if you need a quarterback in the draft, you've got to get him in the first two rounds.
The top six -- not in any order -- are Bridgewater, Manziel, Bortles, McCarron, Garoppolo and Carr. Even though he didn't work out, Bridgewater appears to have the edge on Manziel and Bortles. Bortles needs coaching for his footwork, and that might keep him from being a Week 1 starter. The feel coming out of Indianapolis is that Manziel could go to Cleveland at No. 4, with Bridgewater going to Houston or at No. 3 to Jacksonville and Bortles being a great fallback for the next team that wants a first-round quarterback.
5. This receiver class will hurt free agents at the position: With Hakeem Nicks being a slight question mark coming off two years in which he struggled with injuries, there are no great receivers in free agency. Last year it was easy to see Mike Wallace was going to get the most money. He was a No. 1 receiver with speed. Most of the free-agent receivers this year fit more into the slot.
Many of the top receivers in this year's draft project to be No. 1 receivers in the future. Watkins is clearly the best receiver to hit this league since A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. The draft is loaded with great receiving prospects -- Watkins, Mike Evans of Texas A&M, Odell Beckham of LSU, Marqise Lee of USC, Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State and Brandin Cooks of Oregon State. Teams may prefer the potential of drafted receivers over the track records of the receivers available in free agency.