The NFL Draft is so much fun. Like, SO much fun. Your team gets to choose a bunch of new players who have never, ever disappointed you, and they all look like the exact thing your team needs to fill that glaring hole at nickel back, or newly-created nickel end and nickel tackle positions. They all have amazing versatility and just need a little more size before making an impact, and buying 37 of their jerseys is simply sound investment planning.
Every year, we dote over the NFL's new class of athletes, all the while forgetting that there are already plenty of young players with several tons of potential who could still answer your team's prayers. Maybe they got hurt, or couldn't quite grasp what was expected of them in Year 1. Maybe there's good reason to shave off some of the hype. But we're talking about 21/22-year-olds as opposed to 20/21-year-olds. Their futures are still blindingly bright.
Below are seven first-round draft picks from 2014 who you might have forgotten about, for whatever reason, and why you should still be giddy about their future.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
Why you might have forgotten about him: Clowney suffered a torn meniscus in Week 1, underwent surgery, then played three disappointing midseason games before shutting down his season.
Why you should be so excited: OK, you didn't actually forget about a player who has been All-Universe since conception. The guy who did this is now healthy:
Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns
Why you might have forgotten about him: Somewhat quietly amidst the Johnny Manziel foo-fer-raw, Gilbert had his own struggles adjusting to greater expectations and responsibility in Cleveland. He was criticized by teammates for his work ethic, and suspended for the season finale after showing up late to a meeting.
Ultimately, the No. 8 overall pick was beat out by undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams. Gilbert played 59 snaps in the Browns' season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- more than all but five Browns defenders -- but allowed Markus Wheaton to snag six receptions for 97 yards. The Browns decided to decrease his role in the aftermath, and in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers -- Gilbert's final game of the season -- he played just 17 snaps.
Safety Donte Whitner laid into him after the game. Via ESPN:
"It's time to grow up and not be a kid anymore. It's a wasted year for him," Whitner said. "There were so many ups, so many downs -- a lot of it has been brought on by himself. He has to look himself in the mirror like Karlos [Dansby] said, he has to understand what he did wrong, what he needs to get better at, and make sure that you're back here working out from day one when we return here to show everybody you have a good attitude and you want to go out there and be the player they drafted you to be."
Why you should be so excited: Rookie cornerbacks tend to suck. As ESPN's Jeremy Fowler pointed out, just three rookie corners were rated among Pro Football Focus' top 40 players at the position. Only one player in the top 10, second-year Desmond Trufant, had fewer than three years of experience.
The rookies that did make the top 40 also didn't see much of the field. To Gilbert's credit, Williams was the top-rated rookie corner, but he played just 348 of the Browns' 1,163 defensive snaps (Gilbert played 361). The Rams' E.J. Gaines was the only top-40 rookie to play more than 50 percent of his team's defensive snaps, and he was a significant outlier, playing 936 of the Browns' 1,048 (89.3 percent) snaps.
Gilbert and Williams didn't see much of the field in part because they weren't needed. Joe Haden and Buster Skrine formed one of the league's better cornerback tandems, so the fact that the two rookies were on the field for just 30 percent of the Browns' defensive snaps isn't damning. Opportunities were limited, meaning Gilbert was judged on just a handful of bad outings.
And it's not like Gilbert never shined. He read Andrew Luck for an interception return for a touchdown in Week 14, and showed off the things that made him a top pick -- burst, speed, fluidity, athletic ability. Gilbert's inability to stay on the field had nothing to do with his potential. He is still the player who had Browns fans dreaming about a cornerback tandem with the size and skill to play press man for 60 minutes and allow linebackers and defensive linemen to rush the quarterback from places unknown.
Gilbert's problems came off the field. Head coach Mike Pettine said that Gilbert had a "personal" issue that explained in part some of Gilbert's attitude problems. Gilbert admitted as much. What that issue was, neither he nor Pettine would say. The good news is that Gilbert is seemingly having a strong offseason, working out with Haden and vowing to come back better. That's exactly what you would expect him to say, of course, but given his flashes of potential there's no reason yet not to believe him.
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
Why you might have forgotten about him: Ebron was the only first-round pass catcher who didn't have a breakout first season. Seriously. Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin -- all of these guys flashed the potential to be long-time NFL starters, if not outright superstars. Ebron, meanwhile, finished with 25 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown, a rather sorry total next to the numbers posted by his peers.
And don't let the "TE" designation fool you, the Lions drafted Ebron to catch passes. He was hailed for his route-running, quickness and body control. NFL.com said he would make one-handed grabs "look routine." It also mentioned "the occasional concentration drop," and there were way too many of those last season.
Ebron struggled with drops in college, during the pre-draft process, during rookie-year training camp and into the regular season when he dropped four of 47 targets -- or 18 percent of his targets that weren't completed. And guess what? He's still struggling to hold onto passes in OTAs.
Ebron's dropsies and rookie numbers recall those of Brandon Pettigrew, another Lions first-round tight end whose spot on the depth chart was supposed to be replaced by Ebron.
Why you should be excited: Blaming Ebron for not living up to the standard set by the other pass catchers in his class may be unfair. No class of rookie receivers has ever performed as well in NFL history. Typically, receivers don't truly break out until their third season, and the learning curve may be steeper for tight ends, who must also act as offensive linemen from time to time.
In fact, evidence suggests that tight ends do abide by a Year 2/3 breakout rule, much like receivers. No rookie tight end has ever topped 900 yards receiving, with the typical high ranging from 500-600 yards. That still puts Ebron well behind the pace of expectations, but it also could put him in the company of other sophomore bloomers like Jermichael Finley (from 74 yards in Year 1 to 676 yards in Year 2), Jimmy Graham (356 yards to 1,310 yards) and *tugs collar* Aaron Hernandez (562 yards to 910 yards).
There is every reason to expect immediate improvement. Now, will Ebron put up the kind of numbers that justify a top 10 pick? That'd be a risky bet, but on the other hand he doesn't seem to have much trouble getting open. He can make difficult catches and then hurdle defenders as he did on Thanksgiving Day against the Chicago Bears.
Ebron is clearly battling with the mental aspect of his game -- something he has admitted. Once he figures that out, however, he has every tool to be a star.
Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Why you might have forgotten about him: After a strong preseason, Shazier was largely ineffective for the Steelers. Everything looked wonderful at first. Shazier accomplished the incredibly rare feat of being named a rookie starter for Pittsburgh, a franchise that has been historically loathe to rely on first-year players.
Knee and ankle injuries robbed Shazier of playing time, and greatly reduced his vaunted explosiveness when he was on the field. Slowed down, he was often exposed as undersized, recording just 40 tackles in nine games.
Why you should be excited: Shazier is expected to be named a starter once again, despite how well his backups played during his absences last season. The Steelers certainly haven't forgotten about him, despite their tendency to stockpile linebackers.
Let's go back to Aug. 14, 2014. Shazier made his Steelers debut in Week 2 of his rookie preseason with a stellar, borderline legendary performance against the Buffalo Bills. He had nine tackles at inside linebacker, and two more on special teams. The show-stopper was a high-point interception against E.J. Manuel that he made with blanket coverage on tight end Scott Chandler, then turned upfield for 27 yards.
The performance earned every bit of praise that it received. Unfortunately, Shazier would later be a different player once his athleticism was taken from him.
That shouldn't be the case in 2015. After starting his rookie year at 225 pounds, Shazier has reportedly built himself up to 237. And Shazier should keep growing. He went to Pittsburgh as a third-year junior out of Ohio State, just 20 years old. He also has the benefit of training with James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, two of the NFL's consummate veterans.
Extrapolate Shazier's preseason performance to a healthy 16-game season, and he might have won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (not that Aaron Donald wasn't an excellent choice). There are several major BUTS to that statement, but that's exactly what Steelers fans were expecting.
And that's the type of performance they should expect this year, too, assuming Shazier stays healthy.
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Why you might have forgotten about him: Ford played 122 snaps last season, or just 11.5 percent of the Chiefs' total defensive plays. He was a standout defensive end out of Auburn, but a transition to outside linebacker his rookie season wasn't so seamless. Ford struggled with any non-pass rushing duties. He became an unfortunate internet sensation when he was caught on camera running as fast as he could AWAY from Frank Gore in Week 5.
The play probably wasn't what it looked like -- Ford likely thought he was defending a play action pass rather than fleeing in terror at Gore's imposing figure bearing down -- but it nonetheless reflected the rookie's issues with diagnosing plays in real time. In Year 1, Ford was far from ready for the rigors of a full-time outside linebacker in the NFL.
Why you should be excited: When the Chiefs asked Ford to rush the passer, that skill he honed so well at Auburn, he was excellent. Though Pro Football Focus graded Ford negatively in pass coverage and run defense, it gave him one of the highest grades on the team when gunning after quarterbacks.
As Arrowhead Pride pointed out, Ford was arguably even better than Justin Houston was as a rookie as a pass rusher, albeit in fewer opportunities. Ford was able to create some form of pressure -- a sack, hit or hurry -- on 11.76 percent of his pass rush snaps, compared to 11.40 percent for Houston. Measuring up to a first-team All-Pro in any capacity bodes well.
And oh yeah, Ford is trying to crack playing time in a defensive front that already features Houston and Tamba Hali. As with Gilbert, it's somewhat unfair to blame Ford for not getting on the field more often when he's trying to take playing time away from two of the NFL's best.
All of the physical traits that made Ford a first-round pick do not appear to have been exaggerated. He still has the first step that earned comparisons to Derrick Thomas and Von Miller from teammates. Pass coverage? That could come with time, and even if it doesn't, Ford at least has one tried-and-true facet of his game that should make the Chiefs' defense even better this season.
Marcus Smith, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Why you may have forgotten about him: Of any first-round rookie, Smith has the most to prove. By box score standards he was a ghost, recording zero -- ZERO -- tackles on the season. He appeared for 74 defensive snaps last season, which was the fewest of any 2014 first-rounder other than Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who missed playing time due to a preseason hip injury before impressing late in a rotational role. Smith was perfectly healthy.
In fairness, Smith also suffered from a logjam at his position. Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham were all good-to-great outside linebackers. Barwin was a Pro Bowler, and Graham experienced a small-scale renaissance, recording a career-high 46 tackles and four forced fumbles and matching a career high with 5.5 sacks. Smith's snap count was about what Casey Matthews was given when he was the fourth outside linebacker in 2013, as Brandon Lee Gowton at Bleeding Green Nation pointed out, so Smith's limited role could have been somewhat by design.
Then again, when Smith didn't get on the field as pass rusher, the Eagles attempted to move him to inside linebacker during the middle of the season and the experiment was a dud. The Eagles finished 15th in the NFL giving up 110.7 yards per game (albeit at a solid 3.7 yards per carry) and 10th in adjust sack rate (per Football Outsiders). There was room for improvement, even if slight, and yet Smith couldn't even stay on the field as a special-teamer.
Why you should be excited: Admittedly, Smith's rookie season was rather bleak, but if the Eagles haven't given up on him then neither should you. When Philadelphia traded for Kiko Alonso and released Cole, it clarified Smith's role -- no more of that inside linebacker business, Smith will be sticking at outside linebacker where he racked up 14.5 sacks in 13 games during his final season at Louisville. Barwin and Graham are the projected starters at the two outside linebacker positions, but Smith could be in line for a rotational role like Graham had last season, and potentially more.
Lucky for Smith, players at his position have gone from first-round busts to superstars before.
Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes is perhaps the most relevant example. He too was a late first round pick, getting selected No. 31 overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 2010. And he too was virtually invisible as a rookie, recording just six tackles in 12 games despite remaining relatively healthy. Hughes left Indianapolis after three disappointing seasons, then went to Buffalo in 2013 and exploded for 10 sacks -- twice as many as he had throughout his entire stint with the Colts. Another 10-sack season in 2014 proved that Hughes isn't a fluke.
Timmons' career trajectory also bodes better for Smith's sophomore season. Timmons had just 11 tackles in 16 games during his rookie season in 2007 after being made the No. 15 overall pick in the NFL Draft. He has been on a steady upswing since, recording 65 tackles and five sacks in his second season, and eventually being named to his first Pro Bowl this past year.
Like Smith, both Hughes and Timmons were both considered skilled but somewhat undersized coming out of college. Neither added much girth, but both have certainly learned to compensate. That has seemingly been Smith's goal throughout the offseason. Though he was listed at 253 pounds last season, teammates and close observers remarked that Smith didn't quite look the part of an NFL player. He has reportedly put on 15 pounds of muscle since the 2014 season ended, boosting him up to a svelte 268.
Sometimes all a player needs is a little time to fulfill all that's expected of him. Both he and the Eagles seem convinced that he has taken steps forward this offseason.
Dominique Easley, DT, New England Patriots
Why you may have forgotten about him: In a sense, you were supposed to forget about Easley. The Patriots selected him No. 29 overall in the sleepy moments at the end of the first round, the perfect spot for a forgotten superstar.
Easley was a risky pick, coming off two torn ACLs at Florida -- the first at the end of his sophomore season in 2011, the second a few weeks after the start of his senior season in 2013. Before the second ACL tear, however, Easley was considered a potential top 10 pick. His 6'2, 288-pound frame made him a potential starter at every position along the defensive line.
Unfortunately for the Pats, Easley's rookie season only reinforced any fear about the pick. He never appeared 100 percent, battling knee injuries throughout the season and ultimately getting place on injured reserve after Week 15. He played a lot of snaps when he could but was never dominant, finishing with nine tackles and one sack (and one interception!) on the season.
Why you should be excited: The fact that Easley immediately struggled with knee problems as soon as he got to Foxborough was deeply concerning to fans, rightfully. That he saw a gradual increase in playing time throughout the meat of the schedule -- including 60 percent of defensive snaps against the Bears in Week 8 despite his injuries --should be incredibly encouraging, however.
No, Easley wasn't quite a dominant force, but the Patriots were still willing to stake the defense on his presence, at times lining him up at 5-, 3-, 1- and 0-technique. Coaches clearly wanted to get him up to speed, which is understandable given what they saw of him in college.
Here's a sampling compiled by Pats Pulpit:
The first four take place over roughly three drives and 10 minutes of game time:
Exhibit A: Why Easley is a great pick. Guess who he is. He does this almost every snap. Everyone else is still set. pic.twitter.com/7VhwOn3udQ
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) May 9, 2014
Exhibit B: Seriously, Easley, give the others guys a chance. This isn't fair. pic.twitter.com/DWWrjyZrxo
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) May 9, 2014
Exhibit C: Dominique, man, it's still the first quarter, take it easy, alright? pic.twitter.com/X2Hk9Hqtb9
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) May 9, 2014
Exhibit D: D, it's not funny anymore. Why are you playing 5 tech and still bull rushing the tackle back into the QB? pic.twitter.com/iGgno6aq2k
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) May 9, 2014
The Patriots clearly feel confident about what they are doing. They let Vince Wilfork go to Houston with nothing but stop-gap veterans and promising rookies to fill in for him. Easley, in Year 2, is potentially the X factor along the defensive line. His rehab is ongoing, but he says he'll be ready for training camp and in theory he should be healthier than he has been in two years.
Easley may occupy the sweet space on the Venn diagram of experience, promise and health that makes for a breakout star. His potential to impress is as high as any player in the league, rookie or not.
SB Nation presents: The way-too-early 2016 NFL mock draft