NFL: Observers scratching heads over this draft

How odd is this draft?

At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, athletic freak Jadeveon Clowney towered above the podium. He’s 6-foot-6 and 266 pounds with dreadlocks resting on his shoulders.

As part of an answer to the third question he’s asked, Clowney said, “I believe I did work hard.”

The likely top pick in next week’s three-day extravaganza, also known as the NFL draft, had to explain he cares at the biggest showcase for prospects.

Clowney isn’t the only one making teams think and rethink draft preferences for the seven rounds that will take place from May 8 to 11. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is too short, too crazed, too imperfect to be the top quarterback. Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack has emerged as a challenger to Clowney’s top pick status, but he played in Buffalo. It’s certainly not the SEC.

What about those other quarterbacks? Blake Bortles from Central Florida? Teddy Bridgewater from Louisville? Even Derek Carr from Fresno State? Wart-splotched all, none coming through with the pedigree of Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning before them. That’s why predictions for their draft spots fluctuate so much. Bridgewater’s stock has gone through its own Black Monday. At one time, he was anticipated as the top pick. Now, the prognosticators say he may not even be called in the first round.

The Seattle Seahawks have six picks. As Super Bowl champions, they are forced to sit on their hands for much of the draft, awaiting the final slot in each round before being able to pick. General manager John Schneider said last week he felt behind in his draft preparation because the season went all the way into February. A twist of the NFL calendar pushed this year’s draft back two weeks, allowing Schneider to catch up.

“I’d rather do it this way,” Schneider joked of being behind because of the Super Bowl.

The other 31 general managers in the league would prefer to be in Schneider’s situation, too. Not just Super Bowl winners, but a front office adept enough to hit late-round picks. Since Schneider has taken over in 2010, the Seahawks have hit the jackpot with two first-round selections: free safety Earl Thomas and left tackle Russell Okung. Seattle’s other stars — Richard Sherman (fifth round), Russell Wilson (third round), Kam Chancellor (fifth round) — have been second- or third-day grabs.

The 2014 draft is filled with two things: wide receivers and underclassmen. A record 98 players were granted early entry to this year’s draft after meeting the league’s three-year eligibility rule. That’s up from 25 last season and likely a trend that will continue to expand.

Of those 98, 18 are wide receivers, including much of the top pass-catching talent in the draft: Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, all expected to be selected in the first round. The trick with underclassmen is they are typically under-scouted.

“There’s a lot of work to be done on the junior receivers,” Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said.

Then, there’s Michael Sam. Remember him? The discussion around the fact Sam could become the first openly gay player in the NFL has the feeling of a meteor. He was a national topic for a few weeks before not being heard from following the NFL Combine in late February. Even then, Sam was rejoicing in football-related questions as opposed to ones about the impact his sexuality could have on the league.

“I wish you guys would just say, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’” Sam said at the combine. “I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”

If Sam is drafted, it would likely be on the third day of the draft, which contains rounds 4 through 7. In the future, that pick could come on the fourth day day. League commissioner Roger Goodell is considering expanding the draft to four days, which would provide an extra 24 hours to keep the questions coming.