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The 2014 NFL Draft Class Is Ready for Its Second Act

Four years on, the players from this class are in line for major contracts or are about to hit free agency. That puts them at the center of the league’s future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The four-year anniversary of the 2014 NFL draft is just around the corner, and when the new league year starts on March 14, the players from that class will all hit important milestones. For some, it marks the expiration of their rookie contracts, giving them their first chance to hit free agency and earn that big-money second deal. For others—the former first-rounders set to play on their fifth-year team option—it’s the official start to their contract year, and with it, the chance to start negotiating, in earnest, for a lucrative long-term contract extension. And for those few who’ve already signed a second contract, it could be considered a symbolic coming-of-age, the graduation to vested-veteran status, and all the perks that title affords. In any case, members of the 2014 draft class will find themselves dominating the headlines over the next few months.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at those draftees: the quarterbacks, the breakout stars, the worst disappointments, and a little bit of everything in between.

The Quarterbacks

The 2014 class was light at the quarterback position, particularly at the top—just one passer was selected in the top-20, and only three were selected in the first round.

The Jaguars took Central Florida passer Blake Bortles with the third overall pick, and while he’s has had his moments—he tossed 35 touchdowns for a 2015 squad that won five games, and he played well in short spurts this past year—it’s clear Bortles is not the franchise-changing star and foundational building block the team envisioned. The Jaguars finds themselves at a crossroads: If Bortles can’t pass his physical before March 14 (he recently had surgery on his wrist), his fifth-year option worth $19 million becomes guaranteed, and they’ll be forced to go one more year with a player that limits what they can do on offense. If Bortles does get a clean bill of health, though, Jacksonville can rescind the option and look to the open market, wielding that extra cap space to land a player like Kirk Cousins or Case Keenum.

The Browns chose Johnny Manziel with the 22nd overall pick, but the former Texas A&M playmaker started just eight games in two seasons before struggles with alcohol addiction and an assault charge (later dismissed) brought his time in the NFL to an end. The Vikings chose Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater with the final pick of the first round, and while he showed promise during his first two seasons (and got a Pro Bowl nod in 2015), a devastating knee injury prior to the 2016 season put his career on hold. Now back to full health, Bridgewater is set to hit free agency, and he’ll be one of the most intriguing story lines to monitor over the next couple of months: Will he re-sign with Minnesota as the team’s starter? Will he take a backup role there as he tries to rehabilitate his career? Or will there be a team that sees him as a starter-caliber passer worth the big bucks? Time will tell.

While the first round certainly underwhelmed, the second round produced a pair of $100 million passers. The Raiders chose Derek Carr 36th overall, and the former Fresno State standout quickly broke out, throwing 60 touchdowns and just 19 picks in 2015 and 2016 combined. Carr’s play over those two years earned him a five-year, $125 million extension last summer. However, he regressed badly in 2017, playing through a fracture to his transverse process (which he suffered in early October), and he’ll have to prove he can bounce back in 2018. Another quarterback with much to prove next year is the 49ers’ new franchise player, Jimmy Garoppolo. The Eastern Illinois product was selected by the Patriots with the 62nd overall pick, and after playing a backup role to Tom Brady for most of his first three years, was traded to San Francisco for a second-round pick in late October. Garoppolo took over the starter’s job for the Niners and looked like a future superstar over the team’s final five games, an impressive showing that earned him a five-year, $137.5 million extension. We’ll see whether Jimmy G can build on his late-season performance next year.

The rest of the 2014 quarterback class is mostly unremarkable outside of former Alabama star A.J. McCarron, who was chosen by the Bengals with the 164th overall pick and recently won a contract dispute with Cincinnati that will allow him to explore his options in free agency. McCarron played well for an injured Andy Dalton in the second half of 2015, but he still must demonstrate that he’s a starting-caliber signal-caller.

The Superstars

The quarterbacks taken on day one of the 2014 draft may end up as a mostly underwhelming bunch, but the first round certainly produced some superstars at other positions—and they’re all in line for top-money contract extensions.

There are former South Carolina star and top pick Jadeveon Clowney, who never lived up to the enormous hype that he carried into the draft, but is a two-time Pro Bowler (and a 2016 first-team All-Pro) with 20 career sacks to his name. There are pass rusher Khalil Mack (Raiders, no. 5 overall), who has racked up 40.5 sacks in four years, and receiver Mike Evans (chosen by the Buccaneers with the seventh overall pick), who has four 1,000-yard seasons and 32 touchdowns on his résumé. The heart of the class, though, came from the middle of the round, and receiver Odell Beckham (12th overall to the Giants), reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald (13th to the Rams), and guard Zack Martin (16th to the Cowboys) may each be the best players in the NFL at their respective positions. We aren’t far from seeing these six players receive new contracts worth several hundred million dollars combined.

The Pro Bowl Talents

These former first-rounders may not have quite achieved superstar status, but each has proved their value in the league. Take Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, who came off the board ninth overall, quickly settled into his role in Minnesota’s defense, and has gone to three Pro Bowls. Titans tackle Taylor Lewan (11th overall) is a reliable mauler on the blindside and two-time Pro Bowler; Steelers LB Ryan Shazier (15th overall) is a two time Pro Bowler (who’s hoping to return to the field after suffering a serious back injury); Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley (17th overall) is a three-time second-team All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler; and Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21st overall) went to the Pro Bowl in 2016 while earning second-team All-Pro honors. We can add Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks (taken 20th overall) to this list, and despite the fact he’s yet to actually go to the Pro Bowl, he has posted three-straight 1,000-yard seasons and has scored 27 touchdowns in four seasons with the Saints and Patriots. Barr, Lewan, Mosley, Clinton-Dix, and Cooks are all set to play on fifth-year options in 2018, each eying long-term extensions with their respective teams.

As for Pro Bowl–caliber players from the second round and beyond, the 2014 draft produced a few gems. There’s Packers receiver Davante Adams (53rd overall), who got off to a slow start before breaking out in 2016, and he racked up 149 receptions and 22 touchdowns the past two seasons en route to a four-year, $58 million extension he signed in December. There’s Allen Robinson (61st overall by the Jaguars), who caught 153 balls and 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016 combined, but missed nearly all of 2017 with a torn ACL. Assuming he doesn’t get the franchise tag, Robinson should be the biggest-ticket pass catcher on the open market once free agency kicks off, a title Jarvis Landry might’ve claimed had the Dolphins not slapped him with that tag on Tuesday. The former LSU Tiger (who went 63rd overall) has caught 400 passes for 4,034 yards and 22 touchdowns in four years and is set to make more than $16 million in 2018.

Panthers guard Trai Turner (92nd overall) has turned in three Pro Bowl seasons for Carolina and parlayed his quality play into the four-year, $45 million extension, signed last summer. A two-time Pro Bowler, Falcons running Devonta Freeman (103rd overall) signed a five-year, $41 million extension last August. And Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith (144th overall) followed the four-year, $50 million extension he signed in October with his first Pro Bowl nod in 2017.

The Somewhere-in-Betweens

Every team’s got to have a few role players—quality starters like Falcons tackle Jake Matthews (sixth overall), Cardinals safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon (27th overall) and Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby (31st). These guys don’t necessarily fit into the superstar category, and each falls a little short of the perennial Pro Bowler status. But all three have value to their respective teams, and all three should play on fifth-year options in 2018.

The Big-Money Second-Contract guys

The middle rounds of the 2014 draft class produced a handful of players who fall below superstar/Pro Bowl status but played well enough to earn major second-contracts nonetheless. Steelers DE Stephon Tuitt (46th overall) signed a five-year, $60 million extension with the team last year after proving to be an anchor on the defensive line. The Eagles acquired nose tackle Timmy Jernigan last April and were apparently impressed enough with his play early in the season to give the Florida State product (who was drafted 48th overall by the Ravens) a four-year, $48 million extension in early November. Morgan Moses emerged as a solid starter for the Redskins at right tackle and earned a five-year, $38 million extension, and the Seahawks signed Justin Britt (64th overall) to a three-year, $27 million extension after he switched from right tackle to center and emerged as their most reliable offensive lineman. The Packers gave Corey Linsley (161st overall) a three-year, $25 million pact a day after inking Adams, and four guards—the Browns’ Joel Bitonio (35th), Raiders’ Gabe Jackson (81st overall), Jaguars’ Brandon Linder (93rd), and Chiefs’ Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (200th)—all earned big-money second contracts as well.

The Question Marks

Each of the players in this category has flashed upside at one point or another, but they all come with question marks going forward. Take receiver Sammy Watkins, who the Bills took with the fourth overall pick. Watkins had an up-and-down tenure in Buffalo, sat out most of the 2016 season with a broken foot, and after being traded to the Rams before the start of last season, failed to establish himself as the team’s go-to guy. Watkins still has the talent to turn into a dominant threat on the outside, and, assuming he’s not franchised by L.A., is due to hit free agency in March. Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin (28th overall) is a similar case: He showcased his talent as a red zone target for both the Panthers and Bills, scoring 19 touchdowns in 46 games. But Benjamin missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL and struggled with a knee injury again in 2017—casting doubt on the health of his knee and his future as Buffalo’s no. 1 on the outside. The Bills must decide whether or not to retain Benjamin’s fifth-year option assuming he can pass a physical prior to the start of the league year.

When healthy, Chargers defensive back Jason Verrett (25th overall) has displayed potential as a shutdown corner, but he’s missed 39 of a possible 64 games in four years in the NFL, and the team has to decide whether to keep Verrett on his fifth-year option in 2018. Then there’s Rams defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who has carried the first-step quickness he displayed at Florida into the pros but has struggled to establish himself as a reliable player in the league. He washed out with New England (who drafted him 29th overall) after two injury-shortened seasons and missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL—his third ACL tear overall (he tore both knees in college), giving him an injury red flag when he hits free agency come March.

Dolphins tackle Ja’Wuan James (19th overall) has looked like a solid starter at times, but he too has struggled to stay on the field, missing nine games in 2015 with a toe injury and another eight with a hamstring injury last year. Miami may choose to rescind the fifth-year option they picked up on James last spring and let him test the free agency waters instead. The Chiefs face a similar decision with pass rusher Dee Ford (23rd overall). The former Auburn Tiger broke out in 2016 with a 10-sack season, but missed the team’s final 10 games last season with a back injury, and the status of his fifth-year option (which the team picked up last year) comes into focus over the next few weeks. If Ford can pass his physical, Kansas City may decide to rescind that option and let him hit free agency.

A couple of other teams must make decisions on fifth-year options over the next couple of weeks as well, like the Lions, with tight end Eric Ebron (10th overall), the Bengals with cornerback Darqueze Dennard (24th), and the 49ers with safety Jimmie Ward (30th). And while Cowboys edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence doesn’t carry a fifth-year team option (he went 34th overall), Dallas must decide whether or not to sign him to a long-term deal or hold on to him in 2018 with the franchise tag and force him to prove last year wasn’t a fluke. Lawrence tied for second in the NFL last year with 14.5 sacks, but never showed much consistency in the three years prior and has already had to undergo back surgery twice.

The Busts

Every draft class has a few busts, and it’s not too surprising that the Browns got hit hardest in the 2014 draft. The team’s first first-round pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert (eighth overall), started just three games over two seasons before being released, and we already talked about their second first-rounder, Manziel. Rams tackle Greg Robinson (second overall) was a huge disappointment as well, never developing into the dominant left tackle many expected, and L.A. traded him to the Lions prior to last year. Robinson only made it six games before being waived by Detroit.

Jets safety Calvin Pryor (18th overall) was traded to Cleveland after three disappointing seasons with the team, was promptly waived by the Browns after he got into a fight with a teammate, and didn’t last long in Jacksonville after that. Pass rusher Marcus Smith (26th overall) grabbed just four sacks in three seasons in Philly before landing in Seattle last year.

Free Agents to Watch

A big chunk of the rest of this draft class is about to make waves in the NFL’s free-agency free for all. 2014’s draft produced a talented group of pass catchers, and it’s worth watching where players like Austin Seferian-Jenkins (38th overall), Marqise Lee (39th), Jordan Matthews (42nd), Paul Richardson (45th), Donte Moncrief (90th), John Brown (91st), and Bruce Ellington (106th) end up. A pair of the running backs from that class—Carlos Hyde (57th) and Jerick McKinnon (96th)—could end up starting for new teams in 2018, and that duo may be running behind free-agent offensive linemen like guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (33rd), center Weston Richburg (43rd), and tackle Jack Mewhort (59th).

On the defensive side of the ball, Preston Brown (73rd) and Avery Williamson (151st) headline the free-agent linebackers group, and there are some talented secondary players from this class about to hit the open market, too. Assuming the Bears don’t use the franchise tag, breakout cornerback Kyle Fuller (14th overall) could end up starting for a new team in 2018, and we’re bound to see bidding wars get started on defensive backs like Lamarcus Joyner (41st), Aaron Colvin (114th overall), Nevin Lawson (133rd), and E.J. Gaines (188th).