2015 NFL Draft Breakdown Series

Drew Rosenhaus On Dolphins C Connor Williams’ Free Agency Timeline

As perhaps the best center eligible for unrestricted free agency — aside from the Eagles’ Jason Kelce, who will either retire or return to Philadelphia — the Dolphins’ Connor Williams would ordinarily be one of the first players to put pen to paper on a lucrative contract when the 2024 league year opens on March 13. As agent Drew Rosenhaus notes, however, the ACL tear that Williams suffered in December may have altered that timeline.

“I do think that we’re going to be very methodical and take our time relative to the contract,” Rosenhaus said in a recent appearance on AM 560 Sports WQAM (as relayed by Daniel Oyefusi of the Miami Herald). “A lot of it may be predicated on how Connor is feeling physically. He may not be a player that signs at the very start of free agency. He may take more time based on how he’s feeling physically.”

Williams, who is entering his age-27 season, just finished the two-year, $14MM contract he signed with the Dolphins in March 2022 after spending the first four years of his career as a guard for the Cowboys. Miami shifted him to the pivot, and he immediately took to the change, performing like one of the league’s best centers in his first year in South Beach. He stayed away from minicamp last summer in an effort to leverage his 2022 success into a reworked deal, but the ‘Fins did not oblige.

In the eyes of Pro Football Focus, Williams played even better in 2023 than he did in 2022, earning a stellar 86.5 overall grade that positioned him behind only the Lions’ Frank Ragnow among qualified centers. It sounds as if he is prepared to slow play his second trip to the open market in order to prove to interested clubs that he is on the mend and will be able to return to the level of performance he has established with Miami.

Spotrac estimates that Williams is worth a five-year contract featuring an average annual value of $13.5MM, which would place him alongside Ragnow at the top of the NFL’s center hierarchy. Assuming that his recovery progresses as hoped, it would not be surprising to see teams in need of a high-end starter in the middle of their O-line make that type of offer. While neither Rosenhaus nor Oyefusi explicitly say that the Dolphins will pursue a reunion, they surely would be interested in continuing their relationship with Williams given how he has thrived in head coach Mike McDaniels‘ offense.

But again, it will apparently be some time before more clarity emerges on Williams’ status and market.

“Connor’s situation has a degree of uncertainty that’s going to be tied to how he’s feeling,” Rosenhaus said. “And really, we’ll just take it one day at a time once we get into the offseason. But I’m not sure that that is one that’ll be resolved as quickly as some of the other players that we represent.”

For what it’s worth, PFF is more bearish than Spotrac on Williams’ potential market and predicts that he will ultimately land a three-year, $22.5MM contract (subscription required).

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Safeties

With the NFL draft now right around the corner, we have one last position group to parse through before our 2015 NFL Draft Breakdown Series comes to a close. We finished up the offensive side of the ball last week, and have gotten through most of the defense so far.

If you missed the previous installments of the series, you can go and check out the other positional breakdowns here:

Finally we’ve arrived at our last breakdown, examining a group of safeties that are coming into the NFL at a very strange time for the position.

Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor still give teams hope that they know what they’re doing when evaluating safeties. Thomas is the prototypical center fielder, while Chancellor fills the in-the-box tackler role. However, Thomas is one of the hardest hitters in the league, and Chancellor runs well in both zone and man coverage.

Another traditional safety who general managers can wrap their heads around is Devin McCourty, a converted corner. Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were valued as first-round picks, but Deone Bucannon and Jimmie Ward unexpectedly sneaked into the end of day one. Four safeties were taken in the first 33 picks in 2013 as well. Teams need versatile defenders in the middle of the field, to play outside linebacker and nickel corner and cover deep middle, and over the past few years they’ve been willing to pay a premium to acquire them.

Day One:

  • Landon Collins, Alabama
  • Damarious Randall, Arizona State

Safety is considered to be one of the weakest position groups in this draft, and the player who has been at the forefront of the class is Collins, whose stock epitomizes the league’s feelings about the class as a whole.Landon Collins

Collins is not going to come in like Ward and cover slot receivers as a nickel corner. He isn’t going to go back to deep center field and track down the long throws like Clinton-Dix does. He isn’t even going to be a hybrid safety like Pryor who can play in the box and down the field. Collins essentially has one strength, and one strength only: coming up and stopping the run from the strong safety position.

Teams might not mind adding that skill to the team, but it has diminished value in today’s NFL. First of all, defensive backs who tackle well don’t always translate that skill to the pro game. Pryor struggled with it early last year, and even a cornerback like Dee Milliner went from being the nation’s best tackler at his position to one of the NFL’s worst his rookie year.

The hope is that Collins can be a bigger, stronger version of Bucannon, which is fine. Of course, that considerably narrows down his list of potential suitors. The Eagles and Patriots have need at the position, but will likely look for a more versatile player. And while the Cowboys, Ravens, and Panthers could add a safety, those three teams figure to value a player with coverage skills over a run stopper. The Steelers and Colts are both looking to replace safeties. The Colts could be wary of taking another player in the mold of LaRon Landry, and Troy Polamalu is above simply being replaced, but no matter where Collins goes, I imagine his struggles in coverage will be a subject of conversation in the draft room.

For anyone who believes those problems are overstated, the last two defensive drives of the Ole Miss game should be submitted into evidence. With Alabama up a touchdown, Collins is lost in no-man’s land during a 34-yard post down the center of the field that went for a touchdown to tie the game. Two minutes of game time later, he gets beat badly in man coverage on a wheel out of the backfield on third-and-goal from the 10-yard line. He stays flat-footed and allows the running back to run right past him for the game-winning score, turning around just in time to see the ball float gently into the hands of his man.

There will be a point in the draft where Collins’ value is too great to pass on him. Still, like some of the pass rushers in this class, his dependence on scheme fit could cause him to drop significantly if one or two of his logical suitors decide to pass on him.

Collins’ versatility issues have opened up the door for a riser at the safety position, with Randall now generating some buzz as a first-round pick and possibly the first safety off the board. In Randall, we have without a doubt a superior safety in coverage, even if he isn’t the premier center fielder teams would target a little earlier in the first round.

Randall doesn’t have ideal height, but he’s one of the best athletes at the position. Pundits have suggested he might have the ability to transition to cornerback if he’s coached well, though he’d be a much less polished prospect if he made that move. Despite his small frame, he does try to play with some physicality, even though he rarely goes for the big hit and can often be found grabbing at ankles.

There isn’t a lot of tape of Randall tightly contesting throws or taking on bigger runners, and both of those aspects could be a concern. I’m not so sure the transition from corner to safety will be that easy, but he does have the talent to come off the board in the first round. Unless a team falls in love with Collins’ size and needs a safety to play in the box, I’d guess Randall would make more teams happy and has a better shot to come off the board first.

Considering how weak the safety class is at the top, I don’t believe there’s a huge drop-off when we move to the next tier, and a few later-round players may even provide more upside in the right situation.

Day Two:

  • Eric Rowe, Utah
  • Derron Smith, Fresno State
  • Quinten Rollins, Miami (Ohio)
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State

In terms of coverage skills, this group could have some real potential. Not necessarily highly regarded, Drummond played well for a very good Michigan State defense. He was able to come up strong against the run, and also did a good job of stepping up on short throws. Drummond isn’t overly physical, and wouldn’t be the sort of in-the-box safety Collins would be, but he helps protect the outside part of the field, quickly flying there when the ball makes its way towards the sidelines.

Drummond is a little late attaching himself to receivers running down the field, and doesn’t display exceptional timed speed. If his instincts in coverage were better, he could get away with a slow time, but he probably has a ceiling in terms of his effectiveness going stride for stride with speedy receivers on vertical routes.

Smith has his own flaw, as he’s another player who’s a little small for someone with average athleticism. He doesn’t have the speed to run with faster receivers or the height to battle taller tight ends, but he displayed plenty of ball skills at Fresno State, intercepting 15 passes across 56 games. Smith plays well in the underneath zone, and if he can hold his own against the run near the line of scrimmage, he might be given the chance to make some plays on intermediate routes and turn defense into offense.

The day-two upside really shines through with the other two players in this grouping — Rowe and Rollins both primarily played corner in 2014, and could be given the chance to make the transition to safety in the NFL.

Rowe was a combine top performer in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle, per NFL.com. He played free safety for his first three seasons at Utah, and displays great ball skills at both positions, along with adequate tackling ability. His over-the-top athleticism isn’t on full display at cornerback, where there are questions about whether he can play all the routes in a man-to-man scheme, but his zone skills show off the traits he learned as a safety.

At 6’1″ and 205 pounds, Rowe should transition quickly back to free safety, where he provides the combination of size, speed, and strength that could make him an impact player. Given his ability to find the ball and great instincts, he might have hurt his stock by moving to corner as a senior. Some teams are still considering him on the outside, and while clubs would salivate to have a tall corner with his physical skills, he has more upside in the middle of the field.

Rollins is an even more interesting case. He played point guard on the basketball team for four years before deciding to use his last year of eligibility to walk onto the football team. A raw corner without top-end speed and agility, it’s remarkable how high his stock has risen. His footwork isn’t polished, but he isn’t clumsy, and it should get better with work.

What stands out for Rollins is how he explodes in small spaces. He’s not the greatest tackler ever; after one year of college experience that shouldn’t be expected. Still, there were a few instances on tape where he puts huge hits on receivers, and – most impressively – he does it without having running starts. He has natural power with his movements, and a move to safety could merge his natural instincts with a comfortability with space. Throw in his soft hands, and Rollins is the sort of potential gem who could be a high-risk, high-reward pick.

Late Round Sleepers:

  • Anthony Harris, Virginia
  • Adrian Amos, Penn State
  • Jaquiski Tartt, Samford
  • James Sample, Louisville
  • Dean Marlowe, James Madison
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Clayton Geathers, UCF

Defensive backs are solid picks no matter how late in the draft they come. Corners can find a footing despite being fourth or fifth on the depth chart, giving them a chance to slowly work their way into favor, and safeties with at least one above average skill can find the field situationally. On top of that, they’ll get first crack at seeing the field on special teams, given their combination of speed and tackling ability.

Many of these late-round picks will start off slowly, with small snap counts and special teams contributions. That sliver of hope could eventually result in an opportunity for them to really break out.

Campbell and Geathers both project as strong safeties that play well against the run. Geathers is a 6’2″, 218-pound monster who does a great job gaining speed and smashing into the line. He often goes for the big hit, which might not work at the next level, but he has the size to play in the box or even become a pseudo-outside linebacker in the right system.

Campbell has a similar reputation, without the athleticism or cover skills to hold up in man-to-man coverage. However, while he might not be perfect, he did a very good job on multiple occasions of finding his way to the play when asked to cover the middle of the field. He tracked the ball well in the air, and was able to make some plays as a center fielder, as well as in underneath coverage.

Sample presents a big frame similar to Geathers’, with a little better athleticism. He held up well at Louisville, consistently making his presence known in the secondary even if his overall performance was unspectacular. Although he’s exclusively a football player, he doesn’t have a ton of experience due to injuries and a transfer from Washington.

In my opinion – one that’s unbiased as possible considering he’s a former high school teammate of mine – Marlowe has the size and athleticism often seen in more highly-touted prospects. He was very versatile at JMU, contributing as a free safety, strong safety, and corner on different snaps. He was able to do that in part because of the weaker competition, but he always stepped up in the few chances he got against big conference schools.

Marlowe is projected by most draft experts to be a run supporter at strong safety, knocking his athleticism and instincts in coverage. His timed speed might not make anyone think he can line up at corner and lock down receivers. But from the safety spot, it and his game speed are good enough that I’m not concerned with his ability to play the middle of the field. He has excellent ball skills, and the ability to break on passes to make a play in a hurry.

Add that to his reputation as a big hitter and consistent tackler, and I don’t see why Marlowe isn’t more highly sought after. For a player who could be available in the seventh round or as an undrafted free agent, he has the ability to contribute in a number of ways.

Harris has the height desired for a free safety, but packs it into a slight frame of only 183 pounds. He’s another player whose 40-yard dash time is in the mid-4.5 range, but he’s something of a tweener in terms of tackling and coverage ability. Harris is constantly diving to make plays on runners, often taking players down by grabbing ankles. To his credit, he saved a lot of big plays with those shoestring tackles, and didn’t let those players get away on the collegiate level. In coverage, he did well with the plays happening in front of him, but seemed out of control and even a little panicked when forced to turn his hips, often making the decision to get deep on a play a hair too late.

Amos has been given the nickname “Hulk” by some of the Penn State faithful, and given his large frame at safety, it’s easy to see why. Amos is able to put some big hits on receivers unfortunate enough to be led into his zone, and he does a good job playing the ball when in the area.

He timed out dramatically differently at the combine and his pro day, with his 40-yard dash improving from 4.56 to 4.37. That pro day number is dubious, but he was one of the better performers in the two shuttle drills at the combine, which made his dash underwhelming to begin with. If he is truly a 4.37 player, he could buy himself some leeway to be coached up in the NFL.

Tartt can’t compete with Amos’ pro day speed, but before that he looked like one of the physical specimens in the class. He feasted on lower competition, but his size and combine performance have propelled him up draft boards as a possible high-upside selection.

There wouldn’t be many outcomes that would surprise me from among this overall group of safeties. There should be talent available in every round of the draft, but there will be plenty of players who never make it beyond one or two NFL seasons. It may ultimately be a weak class, but even if it fails to produce a bona fide star, teams should be able to develop impact starters if their scouting departments can identify the right guys.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Cornerbacks

With the NFL draft now just two days away, we’re continuing to take a closer look at the notable prospects for each position. We finished up on the offensive side of the ball last week, and have also examined front-seven players on the defensive side.

If you missed the previous installments of the series, you can go and check out the other positional breakdowns here:

Next up is one of the most important positions in today’s NFL, as cornerbacks get their in-depth treatment in this breakdown. Corner is one of the game’s most exceptional positions, as it takes such elite athleticism and skill to succeed on the outside. Unfortunately, this is a position that ultimately comes down to who will fail the least.

Tall corners measure in at 6’0″ or 6’1″. The giants are 6’2″. Those players are expected to cover A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, and Mike Evans, all of whom would hover over them with leaping ability that is tough to match. It makes it unfair, but the corners who can keep up with the elite playmakers on the outside are worth the high draft picks, and eventually the big contracts.

Top 15 Lock:

  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State

When it comes to cornerbacks in the 2015 NFL draft, Waynes has separated himself from the rest of the pack. Looking through big boards and mock drafts across the web, there’s very little consensus about which players are first-round talents and who fits where, but Waynes shows up time and time again at the top of those lists.Trae Waynes

Waynes is a speedster, with great ability to run down the field with receivers on deep routes. The closing speed and the way he turns from his backpedal to a sprint sticks out on tape. The next big plus on his résumé during the college season was his size. He was listed at 6’1″ at Michigan State, and he matched up well with big receivers. Often on broadcasts he was lauded as a future top-15 – possibly top-10 – pick.

Despite those praises, the film shows he didn’t have unbridled success. He ran well with receivers down the field, but it wasn’t like he was a lock on deep routes all season. He was beaten down the field a few times in the Baylor game, and that’s a problem, because he struggles on shorter routes as well. In press coverage he tends to race back too fast and leave himself vulnerable to hitches, curls, and outside breaking routes.

When Waynes plays with cushion, he gives up inside leverage and leaves the middle of the field wide open. He has the speed to close on crossing routes, but got burned with quick slants, as he is slow to come towards the line of scrimmage out of his backpedal.

I think his stock was down a little at the end of the college season, but he turned things around by running a 4.31 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. He only measured in at 6’0″, but he still has the size to compete at the next level. Waynes has a lot of work to do with technique and recognition, but he has above-average to good ball skills, and – most importantly – he’s squeaky clean off the field. I don’t know if the team that drafts him can plug him in and not worry about that side of the field, but he does have the physical skills to survive on the outside.

First-Round Talents:

  • Marcus Peters, Washington
  • Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest
  • Jalen Collins, LSU
  • P.J. Williams, Florida State
  • Byron Jones, Connecticut

Every player in this group has a chance to join Waynes in the first round this year, but I would be surprised if all five heard their names called on day one.

The main reason this group is labeled “First-Round Talents” is because of the inclusion of Peters and Williams. Both players have struggled with non-football issues, despite having killer seasons in 2014.

It’s remarkable how similar these two players are — they’re the two best tacklers of the top corners. Neither is 100% in terms of making every tackle, but they pursue the play and maintain outside integrity. Both players have some highlight hits on film, and they try to get in on every play. Washington and Florida State both blitzed them off the corner, often in running situations, and each did impressive jobs getting to the running back in the backfield.

Peters specifically does a great job sniffing out screens and reverses and killing them in the backfield. He doesn’t jump up to leave his responsibilities, but he’s able to hedge his bet and wait for the quarterback to make a decision before shutting it down. Neither player got beat down the field on a regular basis, even though neither of them possesses the pure speed of Waynes.

Both Peters and Williams are pretty awesome in man coverage, and play the ball well in the air. They show good technique to keep receivers close and play the ball with their off hand. Peters has the better ball skills, including the ability to make athletic interceptions, and exhibits good hands when a quarterback puts the ball up for grabs. Each measured in with good size, and Peters has the talent to be the best corner in the draft. Williams has the ceiling to be in that conversation. There are also some scouts who project Williams to safety if he struggles on the outside.

However, Peters had multiple incidents with the coaching staff, and was ultimately dismissed from the team. He’s definitely scaring teams off with a reputation as uncoachable, and it really hurts his draft stock, especially when he didn’t exhibit elite physical skills at the combine. As for Williams, the dismissal of his DUI case is a plus, but his arrest may make teams a little more inclined to consider another corner in the first round. Given their on-field skills, Peters is likely to stick in round one, while Williams makes more sense as a candidate to slide down into day two of the draft.

Collins doesn’t have notable issue off the field, but he has plenty when he puts his pads on. Collins is legitimately big, at 6’1″ and 203 pounds, and runs really well, especially for a player his size. He made some plays in college, coming away with a game-winning interception against Texas A&M and often showing ability as a tackler that matches his size.

Unfortunately, the overall package doesn’t match his draft stock. Collins struggles with footwork, and is inconsistent dropping back into coverage. He can get physical on the sidelines, but doesn’t move well to the middle of the field — he also only had 10 starts in college, including just seven last year, which leads me to wonder why his coaches didn’t have more faith in him. I don’t want to kill him for getting torched by Amari Cooper, but he got torched by Amari Cooper. It was very obvious in that matchup which player was polished and which one needed some work.

Collins wasn’t a sure tackler, and wasn’t always too interested in tackling in general. He gave up on a lot of plays chasing runners down the field. His physical skills could push him into the first round, and the Eagles could make sense as a team that could work with him to eventually provide a tall, long option on the outside. Out of the players in this group though, he’s the most likely to frustrate a fan base, at least early in his NFL career.

The most versatile player in the group is Jones, who has been projected equally at corner and safety across boards. He has great size and length, and has all the traits necessary to be a leader on defense in college. He excels at finding the ball, and does a good job defending the run and tackling receivers. He didn’t go up against the greatest competition at UConn, but he made sure to be heard in every game. Jones has been a frequently-mentioned target for the Patriots at No. 32, given his high character and versatility, but he’s a rising prospect who might not be around at that spot.

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about Johnson, who has spent the process as the second- or third-best cornerback on most boards. However, Johnson is somewhat forgettable. He shows he has the ability to run with players down the field, but he also has plays where he does a shaky job keeping up. He’ll put a few big hits on tape, then have a slew of film where he’s happy to watch his teammates make the tackle.

Johnson doesn’t jump out on a consistent basis, and there are stretches of tape where he doesn’t show up. Some would argue that’s a good thing for a corner — for instance, Collins showed up more frequently on the tape because quarterbacks looked to pick on him at times. But the thing about Peters and Williams, and even Jones, is that they find a way to impact the game even when quarterbacks start ignoring their side of the field.

Johnson could quietly be a solid first-round pick with a high floor — maybe the highest floor at the position. However, even though he may be the closest teams will get to a sure thing at corner in this class, he has a number of things to work on, since he’s going to come into the league against bigger, faster, and smarter receivers, and quarterbacks who will look to exploit him.

Day Two Picks:

  • Ronald Darby, Florida State
  • D’Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic
  • Senquez Golson, Mississippi
  • Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
  • Charles Gaines, Louisville

The biggest difference between these five corners and the six who have a legitimate shot to go in the first round is height. None of the top-tier cornerbacks have the numbers 5’9″ or 5’10” associated with their names, and all five in this group are in that range.

The highlights of this group in terms of name recognition are Darby and Ekpre-Olomu. Darby, of course, is known from his run to the National Championship as a sophomore and Florida State’s inclusion in the BCS College Football Playoff this past year. Along with teammate Williams, Darby brought a lot to the table in terms of ability. With a blazing fast 40-yard dash and top-flight agility, he’s really able to run with receivers and should be able to translate that to the next level.

Darby isn’t a very good tackler, and he got picked on often by quarterbacks avoiding Williams. While taller receivers were able to get an advantage over him, it is concerning how easily shorter players like Phillip Dorsett and his Hurricane teammates were able to separate from Darby when the teams met in the second half of the season.

Ekpre-Olomu provides a different case. Had he declared for the draft last year he may have had a chance of becoming a first-round selection. I imagine his stock would have been picked apart during the process and he would have dropped, but not as much as he did this year, between inconsistent performances and a leg injury that cost him the latter part of the season.

The Oregon corner does pack elite athleticism and excellent ball skills into that small frame, but his size caught up to him when asked to play more physical at the line of scrimmage and when playing the run. He isn’t a slouch in those areas, but his technique is not up to par with some of the other players in this class.

Smith might be the first player taken amongst this group, even though he didn’t see many elite pass-catching threats on the outside during his time in college. He plays the ball well, but his measurables aren’t over the top to put him into the first round discussion. Gaines did run those top-flight times, and he’s an explosive athlete, but that didn’t always show on the field. Gaines’ small hands also provide concern in terms of his ball skills improving at the next level, despite being recruited to Louisville as a wide receiver.

Golson is a hot name rising up draft boards. Scouts love how much effort he puts into the game, and his production not only matches but exceeds that. Last year at Mississippi he intercepted nine passes and deflected 16 more. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox but is committed to football, despite being undersized. He did struggle covering taller receivers, and doesn’t have a lot of experience in press-man schemes, but he provides an interesting option for NFL teams that miss out on the top couple of guys.

Tall corners are all the rage in the days of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, but height isn’t everything, and plenty of players excel despite not hitting the 6’0″ benchmark. There are many late-round options who come in tall and raw, but this middle class highlighted here could be undervalued because of their height, among other things.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Linebackers

With the NFL draft just days away, we’re continuing to take a closer look at the notable prospects for each position. We already finished up the offensive side of the ball, and last week we started on the defense, breaking down the players who will make their living at the line of scrimmage.

If you missed the previous installments of the series, you can go and check out the other positional breakdowns here:

Today we’ll file through some of the men playing under-appreciated positions in the modern NFL, looking at this year’s crop of linebackers. Many of the pass rushers will be lining up at outside linebacker in the 3-4, but for the sake of consistency, here we are going to focus on 4-3 outside linebackers and all inside linebackers, regardless of scheme.

These guys might get after the quarterback occasionally, but they’re primarily known as run stuffers or for covering tight ends and running backs in the middle of the field.

Lateral Space Eaters:

  • Shaq Thompson, Washington
  • Eric Kendricks, UCLA
  • Stephone Anthony, Clemson

Kendricks is the most highly regarded linebacker in this draft. This is a player who won awards named after Dick Butkus and Ronnie Lott in 2014, leading the team with 149 tackles. He can really move, which is why he’s a part of a group I call the lateral space eaters. Kendricks patrols the field, sideline to sideline, and – even more impressively in today’s NFL – he can run with tight ends and running backs down the field.Eric Kendricks (Featured)

Of all the players at this position, Kendricks is by far the most polished in coverage. His brother Mychal Kendricks has been a successful if underrated player for the Eagles, and while Eric doesn’t have the same physical skills, he does impress in similar ways.

Anthony is the big, fast, physical specimen that looks great settling into his defensive stance before the snap. He has some of the most impressive speed side-to-side, and does a better job than Kendricks of using his acceleration to fill holes at the line of scrimmage. He has the skills to perform in coverage, even if he often gets lost in man-to-man and fails to be disciplined in his zones.

Thompson is the most interesting linebacker in this class. Many have him pegged as a safety, at 6’0″ and 228 pounds. He flies around the field, covering space in a split second, and can adjust from playing in coverage to coming up to stop the run in an instant — he has supreme aggression, and is a heavy hitter. He also has the ability to not only run with tight ends and running backs, but to effectively cover slot receivers. Every evaluator lists Thompson’s weaknesses, but then notes a team could use him as a hybrid safety/linebacker in the way the Cardinals used Deone Bucannon.

However, Thompson and Kendricks are both short enough that, despite their cover skills, taller players could really take advantage of them when NFL quarterbacks put balls high up in the air. None of the three players has proven they can take on a running back in the hole, and all three have the propensity to get washed out on power running plays.

There are late first-round teams that could use these players, and unlike the next group, they provide some upside and versatility due to the athleticism. However, they’re far from the Week 1 stars that even C.J. Mosley was last year.

Between-The-Tackles Thumpers:

  • Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi St.
  • Denzel Perryman, Miami
  • Paul Dawson, TCU

If teams don’t like the athletes above, they could get a bargain with one of the run-stuffing inside linebackers in this group.

Perryman is the guy who stands out here, playing like a big (read: slow) bully who stays in the middle of the field and acts like a backup to a big-bodied nose tackle, plugging up holes and forcing plays outside. Still, Perryman is only 5’11”, with short arms and below average athleticism. Not to mention, his ability as a tackler between the tackles has been overstated. He seems slow to recognize the play and read the offensive line, and while he succeeds when he meets the running back in the hole – where the previous group did not – he was often late getting there, allowing runners to get to the second level, where they could make a move or lower their shoulder for extra yards.

McKinney is a similar player on film, even if he’s much bigger by the tape measure. He has the speed and size to play outside and be vertical, but doesn’t seem interested in using those skills to his advantage. He doesn’t change direction well, and when he guesses, he often takes himself out of the play. While he has the speed and size to run with tight ends, he doesn’t have the agility necessary to make him a real threat in coverage in a big spot. He has some upside, but looks like a player who wants to stay in the space between the guards and take on backs and blockers near the line of scrimmage.

Dawson provides a different type of player. He probably fancies himself as a lateral player who can cover receivers and run down plays sideline-to-sideline. The 4.93 seconds it took him to run 40 yards at the combine disagrees with him. He ran better at his Pro Day, but it’s still alarming for a player who relies on his athleticism despite being a small 6’0″, 235 pounds.

In addition to his on-field red flags, he had a reputation of being a problem within the TCU locker room, and observers question both his motivation and his dedication to the film room. Once players get a bad reputation, it can snowball into a number of deficiencies, but he doesn’t have the natural talent to overcome a bad attitude, which could negatively affect his stock.

I have a personal love for Brandon Spikes, who never covered anybody but did a phenomenal job chasing down running backs off the snap. Spikes spent a lot of time proving his ability as a tackler and run stopper in college, and only fell in the draft due to his off the field concerns. He was always a negative in coverage, which was fine because of how strong he was against the run — that cemented his role in the NFL. I don’t think any of these players have that upside, even though stopping the run is their strength.

Day Two/Three Plug Ins:

  • Jake Ryan, Michigan
  • Zack Hodges, Harvard
  • Ben Heeney, Kansas
  • Hayes Pullard, USC
  • Ramik Wilson, Georgia
  • Bryce Hager, Baylor
  • Taiwan Jones, Michigan State
  • Jeff Luc, Cincinnati

For a team seeking a linebacker with some upside, most pundits would likely recommend picking off one of those top six players, in what is a fairly weak class at the position. There’s a little something for everyone in that group, without a lot of overlapping skill sets.

At the same time, the players up there might not exactly fit a team’s needs. Some will end up as two-down players, and others will struggle mightily in one aspect of the game or another. Grabbing Thompson in the first round might mean acquiring a player who provides little to nothing as a linebacker against the run. Conversely, drafting Perryman might leave a team with a player who will never see the field on third and long, when offensive players make their money.

The alternative to taking a limited player high is grabbing one of these day two and day three players later on in the draft.

A player like Ryan doesn’t run to the sidelines like anyone in the first group, and doesn’t take on blockers like anyone in the second group. However, the upside of Ryan comes threefold. First, he can do a little of both those things. Second, he could eventually develop into a solid three-down player. Third, and most important: you can get Ryan in the middle rounds, after you already added a couple of impact players elsewhere on the roster.

Ryan has played both inside and outside linebacker, and is comfortable in either position. He is solid in every aspect of the game, but not much better. He gets beat to the sidelines, at the line of scrimmage, and in coverage. That being said, NFL.com has him as a fourth or fifth-round pick. A draft class that features Ryan and three other players ahead of him is an easier one to swallow if I’m an NFL fan, especially for those borderline first-round picks.

A guy like Wilson could provide the size and athleticism needed for teams to survive in the modern NFL. He needs some coaching, but he should have a chance to come in with low expectations and earn a starting spot. Hodges and Heeney have some upside as contributors, and I could see both players developing into starters down the line if they can build on their strengths and their weaknesses don’t sink them. Jones is in the same boat, although he has a better floor, based on the competition he faced on a regular basis.

I think there are plenty of impact players to be had in this overall group of linebackers, and the drop-off from Kendricks to Hodges is gigantic — I don’t want to downplay that gap. At the same time though, I think Kendricks has a chance to go in round one, and that would inflate the value for all these players. If a team doesn’t have a desperate need at the position and isn’t in cruise control with its roster (ie. the Packers), it would be easier to fill those big holes elsewhere earlier in the draft and hope a combination of one of these other prospects can be paired with a veteran to fill one spot on the field in a platoon situation.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Pass Rushers

With the NFL draft just a week away, we’ll continue taking a closer look at the notable prospects for each position. We already finished up the offensive side of the ball, and started on the defense by analyzing some of the guys in the trenches.

If you missed the first half of the series, you can go and check out the other positional breakdowns here:

Today, we’ll move on to the money makers on defense, in what is likely the strongest position group at the top in the entire draft. Here is a breakdown of some of this year’s premier pass rushers, starting with the four players who hope to be taken in the first 10 picks of the 2015 NFL draft.

Top 10:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska
  • Shane Ray, Missouri
  • Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
  • Vic Beasley, Clemson

In today’s pass-happy NFL, there’s a general consensus that the most important player on offense is the quarterback, and the most important player on defense is the one who can torment the quarterback. Teams value these players far above anyone else, which is evident based on how much money they make and where they’re drafted. Most observers expect two quarterbacks to be selected in the first 10 picks, and there’s a very good chance they come off the board first and second. But pass rusher is going to be the position that dominates the beginning of the first round.Dante Fowler Jr. (Featured)

If you include Leonard Williams, an interior defensive lineman will be expected to get after the quarterback, half of the first 10 picks should be pass rushers. In my first Mock Draft, I projected these five players to go second, third, fifth, sixth, and eighth, with Williams going No. 2 to the Titans and the four players above making up the rest of those picks.

Fowler is presumed to have found a fit in Gus Bradley’s defense in Jacksonville, as a player who can rush the quarterback from all over the field. At Florida, Fowler was the clear leader on the defense, lining up as a stand-up edge rusher, with his hand in the dirt, and – most intriguingly – in the middle of the formation, before barreling through a crack of daylight in the interior of the offensive line. Fowler displayed explosiveness through defenders, and once he was in the offensive backfield, he made sure the quarterback would know he was there by quickly jutting his body into the pocket and getting his hands up.

The sack numbers for Fowler weren’t quite there in college, as he only totaled 8.5 in 2014, and that figure was inflated by a three-sack performance in the Birmingham Bowl against East Carolina. He was able to make plays against the run, but did a lot of that damage between the tackles. Setting the edge and forcing runners inside was not his strong suit, and he hasn’t exhibited any ability to hold up in coverage, though he was not asked to do so often. His athleticism gives hope that he could turn into a Pro Bowl-caliber player, and he should be especially useful to a coach with the creativity to exploit his various strengths.

Up next is Beasley, a player who has proven that he could produce sacks coming off the edge. With 33 career sacks, including 12 as a senior and 13 as a junior, Beasley has consistently generated pressure over his last three collegiate seasons. The most incredible thing about watching him is how committed he is to beating tackles with his one elite skill: speed.

Beasley explodes off the edge. He’s quick off the snap, and he’s too fast for offensive tackles to handle. When profiling offensive linemen, I noted that Cameron Erving had a very impressive day against Beasley, aside from two plays where he had trouble dealing with his speed rush. Well, those two plays were spectacular jumps by Beasley, and he was barely touched on his way to the quarterback either time. He flashed right past Erving and was draped on the quarterback before anyone had a chance to react. That’s how he got the job done, for better or worse, and he did get it done time after time. He is the all-time leader in sacks at Clemson, and he plans to continue racking up the big numbers in the NFL.

What should worry general managers about Beasley is how little he seems concerned with doing anything else. At times he doesn’t even pretend to be concerned about setting the edge. In that Florida State game specifically, he got caught trying to blast through an inside hole and completely abandoning his outside integrity on a few plays, most embarrassingly on the 12-yard touchdown run that ended the game in overtime. He was asked to drop into coverage more than these other top pass rushers, but not often enough that it would be considered a developed skill at this point.

As a pass rusher, Beasley hasn’t proven he can develop secondary options, relying heavily on his speed off the edge and ability to hand fight before bending in. It looks impressive, but when a tackle is able to get hands on him, the fight more or less ends there. His spin move is lacking, and he doesn’t have much of a counter to the inside for those who set up wide against him. Converting speed to power is a phrase that’s becoming very trendy in NFL draft circles, and it’s not one that’s brought up in association with Beasley’s name. The physical skills are great, and one elite pass rush move is better than relying solely on athleticism, but he will have a long way to go to exploit offensive tackles on the next level.

Ray is a different type of pass rusher than Fowler and Beasley. At Missouri, he played almost exclusively with his hand in the dirt, and originally projected as a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, where he would have been undersized. Ray’s speed is comparable to Fowler’s and Beasley’s, but it would be a stretch to say he’s the athlete that either of them are. If we describe Beasley as dropping into coverage sparingly and Fowler as barely, then Ray was even less than that (although NFL.com writes that he was able to do so without issue when asked).

What Ray does do is rush the passer. He had 14.5 sacks in 2014, a school record. For most schools, having a player break the sack record is notable. For Missouri, who put highly regarded pass rushers Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, and Kony Ealy into the NFL, Ray’s mark is downright superb. If either of the Smiths or Richardson was in this draft knowing what we know about them now, they would be very high picks (granted, disregarding Aldon’s penchant for off-the-field trouble).

Ray was third in the nation in sacks, and also ranked third in tackles for a loss, which would create the impression that he’s equally capable of playing the run. That’s probably not true though, at least not now. He doesn’t have the size to be strong against the run from defensive end, and even moving back to linebacker, it would take time for him to learn how to keep his outside integrity. The tackles in the backfield in college came more because he’s a heat-seeking missile and ran through running backs that happened to be between him and the quarterback, not because he was particularly disciplined.

Going back to his draft profile on NFL.com, Ray is called “an alpha male packaged in an explosive frame,” which is a variation of what I call an “Alley Guy,” a term used by my high school football coach and subsequently by many of the people I talk to about football. An Alley Guy is the person you’d pick to walk with you through a dark alley at night, who wouldn’t only make it out the other side but would ensure you’d make it out too. Ray is a violent hitter, with a relentless motor and a stop-at-nothing attitude. He might be my favorite player in this draft – and the ultimate Alley Guy of the top picks – but he isn’t the best prospect of this group. That title is reserved for the player who is most likely to be the one that drops out of the top 10.

Gregory is the most complete prospect of these four pass rushers, and his collegiate film would make him a strong candidate for the (probably meaningless, but still fun) title of “Best Player in the Draft.”

Gregory has been thrown in with these pass rushers as if they were all asked to do the same things in college, and in that measurement his 7.0 sacks fall short. Most of his negative evaluations as a pass rusher are about him being timid, slow off the snap, and unable to beat tackles with speed to the edge. What I saw on tape was not a player who was asked to rush the passer on every down, but instead a true edge setter on the defensive line, tasked with working from the outside in. In my eyes, being slow off the snap was less about Gregory’s abilities and more about his responsibilities in the Nebraska defense.

As a run stopper, Gregory always maintained outside integrity, and always used his long arms first to keep tackles off him while he read the play, and then to eject off the block to make a tackle. He has the speed to stop the outside runs by stringing them out and cutting off the sideline, and he has the counter move to react to cutbacks while never giving up the edge. The long arms come in handy again when it’s time to corral runners who think they’re out of reach.

Playing at around 235 pounds as a defensive end meant that there were times Gregory was overpowered at the line of scrimmage, especially with double teams. However, I expect him to add on to his frame and drop back to a 3-4 outside linebacker, where his discipline will remain a strength and his weight won’t be as significant a weakness. Even playing that light in college, he was strong enough to win most battles at the line of scrimmage anyway, and played with good enough leverage that being out-muscled occasionally wasn’t a huge factor.

When Gregory was asked to rush the passer, I saw the explosion he was criticized for not having. Given his limited opportunities to forego all responsibilities to get after the quarterback, a luxury the other three players here seemingly had on 95% of their snaps, Gregory’s sack number begins to look more impressive. Additionally, his 10.5 sacks as a sophomore, when he was let loose a bit more, shows he does have the ability to get after it when he needs to. That being said, if I’m a team that needs someone who can get after the quarterback right away, I can see why the other three would be ranked ahead of Gregory. But he really shines as a complete football player that is strong at every aspect of the game (pass coverage excluded — who knows if he can, but we may be asking too much).

The giant red flag for Gregory, of course, is his positive test for marijuana at the NFL combine, a time when players know they’re going to be tested. Many pundits would say that NFL general managers aren’t scared off by marijuana use in general — however, the inability to stay away from it when a player knows he’ll be tested is a concern. Especially in an era where Josh Gordon misses more games than he actually plays, if teams are concerned that drug violations could keep Gregory off the field on Sundays, he may very well fall out of the top 10 despite his tremendous talent.

Late First/Early Second Round:

  • Bud Dupree, Kentucky
  • Eli Harold, Virginia
  • Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA

This group is not all that far behind the top four, but the flaws are much more obvious. Dupree particularly is interesting based on the physical tools he brings. At 6’4″ and nearly 270 pounds, Dupree should not be so fast that tackles can’t keep up with him and so strong that they can’t bully him, but he is truly both. He is approaching the “freak athlete” category, and based on his potential he has worked himself near the top 10 picks in the minds of some draft experts.

However, it will take a lot of coaching for Dupree to live up to any first-round selection. While he’s gifted physically, raw doesn’t even begin to describe how he plays. I knocked Beasley for a reliance on his athleticism, but even he knows how to use his hands and shoulders to bend around blockers. Dupree just goes and hopes for the best. If he gets the edge he can be dangerous, but tackles are prepared and able to cut him off. He has no counter move back to the inside, and no ability to win a battle with his hands at the point of attack. Over and over on film he runs straight into the arms of his blocker, and gets locked up at the line of scrimmage or – if he’s lucky – a few yards beyond.

Just to stay on the field in passing downs, Dupree will have to learn how to play with leverage, how to ward off blockers with his inside hand while keeping his outside arm free, and how to remain in the play while being blocked. After that, he needs to add a variety of pass rush moves and he needs to be able to use his speed and strength advantages together, as opposed to treating them as mutually exclusive skills. If a coach can do all that, he might have himself a player capable of huge numbers – even 15+ sacks in a season – but it’s a lot to ask based on what Dupree has shown on film. He does come with the added bonus of some proven ability to drop into coverage and run down field, which may take some of the pressure off how much he needs to learn going towards the line of scrimmage.

Harold’s biggest flaw is one that sticks out more on tape, and probably has him red-flagged as a risk, but it’s also a reason he may be an undervalued commodity in this draft. Based on a brief overview of some of Harold’s game film, his tackling is an obvious concern. The amount of times he had a running back squared up in the backfield and just whiffed on him is excruciating to watch. The angles he took stringing runners to the sidelines that ended in him diving at ankles and coming up with grass are embarrassing. The number of sacks he left on the table because he couldn’t quite get his arms around a quarterback will probably keep him out of the first round.

Then again, a smart team could watch his tape and not see a player who only had 7.0 sacks last year, but instead find a player who got to the quarterback on a consistent basis. They might not see a guy who struggled against the run, but a player who was in the right position and wasn’t able to finish the play. Watching Dupree play, I tried to guess his arm length and I shorted him by an inch, which doesn’t say much for his tape, but it does say that he might not be getting the most out of his talent. Considering all the work Dupree needs just to be an adequate pass rusher, one can imagine what a comparably easy fix it could be to focus in on disciplined tackling with Harold — I think a coach would view this as a far simpler task. Now, struggling with tackling shows a lack of physicality that will only get worse at the next level, and it’s not like this is a dominant player who is consistently maintaining his leverage against the run and the pass. But Harold could be a player who isn’t far off from realizing his talent if he can translate his strengths to the next level.

Odighizuwa is a player that many fans were expecting to break through in college, but he was never able to stand out early on due to inexperience and injury. Therefore, despite having a large sample of game film, it’s difficult to project him based on his last year at UCLA. He had six sacks, and his explosiveness could be seen on the field, but there was always the question of whether he would hit his stride.

At the combine, Odighizuwa came to impress, posting great numbers in drills across the board, per NFL.com. He was a top performer for his position in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle. He also has proven to be relentless with his motor, trying to get the most out of every snap, and he has versatility — the size to play 4-3 end, and the athleticism to rush as a 3-4 linebacker. He may be able to sneak into the end of round one, but he’d definitely be a high upside pick early on day two.

Day Two:

  • Danielle Hunter, LSU
  • Preston Smith, Mississippi State
  • Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington
  • Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville
  • Trey Flowers, Arkansas
  • Henry Anderson, Stanford

Kikaha is the most notable player from this group, leading the nation with an outstanding 19 sacks in 2014. Despite those numbers, he has been knocked around through the draft process. True, he doesn’t have ideal size for a pass rusher, but I question the perception that he’s a specialist who doesn’t provide much run support and doesn’t set the edge, because it’s the same criticism I have for everyone above him on this list except for Gregory.

What Kikaha does do is get after the quarterback with every step. He never gives ground, meaning every movement of his arms or drive from his legs is specifically taken to get him a little closer to the passer. There are no questions of motor here with those sack numbers. The only game in which he was held without a sack was against Arizona. His box score from the Oregon game is telling, with 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks against that up-tempo, run-oriented offense, showing he can match up well with misdirection and against numbers disadvantages, even against a mobile quarterback. Knee injuries probably contribute to his perceived ceiling as a prospect.

Where Kikaha fails to excite, Mauldin should make some team very happy in round two. He has limited scheme versatility, fitting best when he’s blitzed from a linebacker spot, but that specific skill could prove very valuable for a team drafting high that misses out on a pass rusher in round one. Washington and the Jets especially could target him if they decide to fill other holes with their first-round picks.

Mauldin plays with reckless abandonment, throwing his body into the heart of the play. He does a great job shedding blocks on the move, and goes after the quarterback with aggression. One of his most impressive traits is switching from playing the pass to playing the run on the fly. He gets the edge, and turns inside well to pursue the run up the middle. He looks like he could be a menace, and if the draft breaks correctly, he has a chance to sneak into the end of the first round, or close to it.

Smith looks on tape to be the rare 4-3 defensive end who plays as a specialist against the run. Although he failed to impress with pass rushing moves off the edge, he was a very good edge setter against the run. He was able to keep containment even while rushing the quarterback, and forced runners to stay inside the hashmarks for the most part. Based on these skills, he looks like a very promising player in line for a long NFL career. He did have nine sacks in 2014, and has surprising athleticism and size, but he’ll have to work to make those aspects of his game show better in order to stay on the field on third downs in passing situations.

Flowers is another player who is limited athletically, but finds a way to disrupt passing games. He has good strength and sheds blockers well, especially coming back inside with a counter move. He only had 6.0 sacks in 2014, and probably isn’t an option for 3-4 teams, but he’s a solid player who should be able to find a way to impact games. Anderson is a much bigger body, but plays similarly. His three-sack double-OT game against Utah buoyed his numbers, but aside from that, he was a 5.5-sack player in 2014. He works toward the quarterback, and has the size to handle the run. Anderson should be able to play end in a 3-4, and has experience working from the interior defensive line, but both he and Flowers will likely need to exhibit the ability to bump down to defensive tackle to stay on the field for high snap counts in the NFL.

Hunter is the 6’5″, long-armed pass rusher coaches put together in laboratories. Unfortunately, too often he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing on the field. He seems like he’s more interested in wrestling with blockers than getting past them, and doesn’t even necessarily win those fights (even when the blocker is a running back in pass protection). He often finds himself on the floor after putting his head down and diving into the line, or if he sees grass and takes a stab at tackling no one. Whatever the opposite of having a nose for the football is, Hunter has that instead, which is reflected by his 1.5 sacks in 2014. Still, his size and physicality is interesting, and the more he falls, the more a coach will talk himself into being able to work with him to at least add a big body to the defensive line, even if the production as a pass rusher never comes.

Like quarterbacks, pass rushers will always draw interest from teams high in the first round of the draft, and 2015’s draft will be no different. However, there’s value to be had outside of those top 10 picks, and there will be players with perceived flaws that need to be coached up and developed. Every year some less-heralded prospect turns into an impact player on defense for an NFL team, and I expect someone will emerge from day two or day three and become a good starter who finds his way into a few seasons with double-digit sacks.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Defensive Line

With the NFL draft just nine days from getting underway, we’ll continue taking a closer look at the notable prospects for each position. We already examined the offensive side of the ball, so today we will move on to the defensive side of the ball.

If you missed the first half of the series, you can go and check out the other positional breakdowns now:

As we begin to break down the defense, we’ll start with the anchors along the trenches, taking a look at the top defensive linemen. Pure pass rushers are excluded; they’ll get their own post later this week. While a few of these guys will provide some pass rushing value from the line, no one here is likely to play 3-4 linebacker and pin his ears back. These guys are more traditional hand-in-the-dirt linemen, and that starts with the one player who is head and shoulders above the rest.Leonard Williams

Top Five:

  • Leonard Williams, USC

The prize of this class is Williams, who for many draft experts is the number one player on the board. Across most mock drafts, Williams is the top choice for the Titans if the team elects not to take Marcus Mariota or trade the second overall pick.

Having been compared to such players as Richard Seymour, Williams provides one of the most versatile skill sets for a top-five pick in years. He played 4-3 defensive end at USC, but showed the ability to bump inside to defensive tackle and cause havoc from different spots.

Team that need a defensive end or tackle should be salivating at the 6’5″, 302-pound monster, who fits well in a 4-3, but may be even more dangerous as a 3-4 end. While Williams did a great job rushing the passer, he was equally as effective in the running game. He uses his long arms to harass offensive tackles unfortunate enough to have to block him, and does a great job shedding blockers at the point of attack. Those arms and strong hands allow him to finish plays by grabbing hold of any ball carrier trying to get away from his grasp. Williams is able to set the edge, and continue working his way inside until he either squeezes the play into dust or pushes it out to the other side of the field. He was the tone setter for the Trojans’ defense, drawing all of the offense’s attention and yet still making the plays necessary to stop drives in their tracks.

It isn’t all roses with the USC lineman, of course. As a sophomore, he got his butt kicked at the line of scrimmage in more than a few games. He added weight and strength before his junior season, and was able to win off the snap on almost every play in 2014, despite facing constant double teams from opponents. He struggled pursuing the ball across the formation and down the field early in his career, and that didn’t completely correct itself at USC. This leads to questions – which may or may not be fair – about his motor.

Williams isn’t the most polished player, but the production was there and the physical skills are so outrageous that it’s really no question that he should be alone atop the defensive line rankings. His ceiling probably doesn’t include a bunch of 20-sack seasons, but teams drafting him will expect consistent pass rush that puts him in the double-digit range, along with a run-stuffing workhorse to build the defense around.

First Round:

  • Danny Shelton, Washington
  • Arik Armstead, Oregon
  • Malcolm Brown, Texas
  • Eddie Goldman, Florida State

Armstead is a 6’7″, 292-pound marvel who didn’t have production to match his physical skills. Oregon was probably hoping he’d develop into a feared pass rusher by the time Mariota was a senior — that never came to fruition, but Armstead held up against the run and has a huge tackle radius, which is different than length, even if length is the most important contributor to tackle radius. Former Duck Dion Jordan, who was picked third overall in 2013, had great length, but didn’t have a great tackle radius.

Armstead could line up in multiple spots along the defensive line, and is scheme versatile. He has plenty of upside, and is probably the only other first-round pick along the defensive line who isn’t strictly a big-bodied inside run stuffer. He’s also likely the only player in this post who even has a chance at playing 3-4 outside linebacker for a creative defense that learns how to turn his length into consistent production.

Shelton, Brown, and Goldman are all similar players on film. They line up in the middle of the formation, and they lean up against interior offensive linemen at the snap of the ball. Most mock drafts I see have the three going in exactly that order, but for my money, the value runs in the opposite direction.

Shelton had the most notable workout, pushing big weight on the bench press. He needs to push weight, standing at 339 pounds. With the weight, he unsurprisingly lacks explosiveness. He isn’t particularly fast off the snap, and doesn’t drive his legs well into the line. Understanding that he’s often double-teamed, he tends to get pushed back off the line of scrimmage with alarming ease. He contributed to a lot of tackles, but a scary number of them were between two and five yards down field, enough that a running back could put the same play on his own highlight tape if he wanted to. Shelton closes quick when he does see a hole in the offensive line, but was disappointing as a space eater despite his size.

Brown does a better job getting up the field, although he’s also not going to penetrate enough to provide interior pass rush. There’s no Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy in this draft, and the respective grades show it. Brown does give more than most in that area, and could be particularly helpful for a team that could use some secondary pass rush along with a strong tackler against the running game.

Goldman does the best job of the three in remaining stout at the line of scrimmage and making tackles for short gains. He was really able to leave his mark on the game, and while he was rarely spectacular, he was consistently solid. He comes into the NFL as a player who should immediately be able to join a defensive line rotation as a run defender. I believe he should fit in well at defensive tackle, but he could play defensive end or nose in a 3-4 defense. Goldman won’t provide much pressure on the quarterback, if any at all, but he’ll pursue upfield enough that he should prevent passers from stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush off the edges. He may not have the highest ceiling due to his average athleticism, but he could end up having a steady NFL career.

Day Two:

  • Michael Bennett, Ohio State
  • Carl Davis, Iowa
  • Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma
  • Xavier Cooper, Washington State
  • Grady Jarrett, Clemson
  • Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State

The two players here who have legitimate claims to being included in the first-round group are Davis and Phillips. Davis tormented interior linemen at Iowa, proving to be too strong for the smaller guards and too fast for the bigger ones. He gets up the field off the snap, but his most impressive trait is his ability to move quickly laterally down the line of scrimmage, stringing outside runs out and filling cutback lanes.

Phillips is a behemoth in the middle of the defense, an immovable object that simultaneously eats blockers while remaining disruptive if given the opportunity. There is some concern about his consistency, but when he’s playing well, he provides flashes of Casey Hampton, who made a career opening up holes for pass rushers by drawing attention to himself in the middle of a 3-4 defense.

Both of those players will definitely be in play in round one, and I would imagine there are teams that have them much higher on their boards than some of the players mentioned above. Still, both Davis and Phillips rely on scheme fit and that could drop them into round two.

Edwards lined up on the edge a lot at Florida State, but he needs to be able to make the full transition to defensive tackle in order to stick on an NFL team. Mostly a non-threat as a pass rusher, playing him outside of Goldman did discourage offenses from running the ball on Florida State. However, athletic runners were able to get outside of him and force the Seminoles to change their game plan. What Edwards does have is plenty of strength and versatility. He can play all along the defensive line in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, as long as he’s not asked to get after the quarterback.

Normally a deep group, interior defensive linemen will be hard to find in this draft. After Phillips and Davis, the best options are Bennett, Cooper, and Jarrett. Those three players have upside – Bennett especially has been rising up draft boards and Cooper has been pointed to as a sleeper-type player – but overall they’re part of a weak class. That could be the reason raw talents like Shelton and Armstead are going to be in consideration in or near the top 10, and it’s one reason Williams stands out so much despite being a step or two behind top-five defensive linemen we’ve seen in past drafts. Ultimately, teams that have needs at the position will need to get their guy with an early pick, or else they’ll have to hope they can develop a prospect into a surprise performer as a rookie.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Offensive Line

With the NFL draft fast approaching, we’ll be taking a closer look this month at the notable prospects for each position. We’ve already examined quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, so today we’ll look at the top offensive linemen.

First-Round Tackles:

  • Andrus Peat, Stanford
  • Ereck Flowers, Miami
  • D.J. Humphries, Florida
  • T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh

When teams look for offensive linemen in round one, they’re typically chasing cornerstone left tackles to protect their quarterback’s blind side. While the 2015 NFL draft class doesn’t feature the sort of highly-touted prospects that come off the board in the first 12 picks and slide right into the starting lineup, there are a number of high-upside players who could impact a team this coming season.Ereck Flowers (Featured)

That list starts with Peat and Flowers. Both were highly sought after recruits coming out of high school. Peat was regarded as the top high school player in his class, and grew to become the 6’7″, 313-pound stalwart expected to be a first-round pick. Flowers wasn’t quite as highly regarded, but still committed to Miami as a four-star recruit. Standing at 6’6″ and weighing in at 329 pounds, his stock is very similar to Peat’s.

Both players are very solid in both the running game and the passing game. I saw the ability to force defensive lineman inside and drive them down the field, and both players showed they’re capable of coming off the first block to target a second player down the field on longer runs. That ability to recognize when a block is made and to continue the play is an important skill — it’s one that Vikings’ 2012 fourth overall pick Matt Kalil didn’t show on film, which should have been a red flag at the time, despite his consensus status as a top pick. As Kalil has struggled to recognize blocking schemes and finish plays in the NFL, that inability and/or unwillingness to get to the second level is something teams should carefully study in their evaluations.

Both Peat and Flowers also hold up in pass protection, with Peat particularly kicking out of his stance quickly off the snap. Each player is able to get wide and force pass rushers to take long routes to the quarterback, where it is easy for an offensive tackle to remain in punching distance to push them around the back of the passer who should have room to step up and avoid any pressure in the pocket.

Humphries and Clemmings represent slightly different packages. No sane human would refer to them as small, and Flowers and Peat aren’t considerably bigger, but these two have a reputation for being athletic marvels who are less polished and less solid at their positions. Humphries got the job done at Florida, but he could be found reaching at times in the run game rather than using the force of his body to move defensive linemen. This issue is exacerbated by the shortness of his arms, and puts his body in position where he is unable to draw strength from his legs.

Clemmings played right tackle at Pittsburgh, which is unusual for a player with an eye on moving over to the left side as a pro. Left to right is the usual progression for players transitioning from college to the NFL, though all of these tackles will likely have the opportunity to start their NFL careers on the right side if their new teams think they’ll need that time to adjust. Clemmings is a favorite of some scouts for his extreme athleticism, and the former basketball player can certainly move. He’s raw, but he has the footwork, frame, and arm length to develop into a top left tackle in the right situation.

First-Round Interior Linemen:

  • Brandon Scherff, Iowa
  • La’el Collins, LSU
  • Cameron Erving, Florida State

This group is made up of nominally interior linemen for draft purposes, but actually all three players spent most or all of their college careers at left tackle. There is a chance all three stick at tackle in the NFL, but most have them valued more realistically at guard or center.

Guards don’t get the same respect as tackles when it comes notoriety or contracts, and they’re especially discounted on draft day. However, there is some consensus that Scherff will be the first lineman off the board, and he’s worthy of that honor. While the group of left tackles is best described as solid, Scherff is spectacular. In the running game, he’s as dangerous as they come, finishing every block to the ground and then diving on the poor defensive end or linebacker he just victimized. His Youtube highlight tape is the most entertaining and fun to watch of any player in the draft, an honor usually reserved for receivers, running backs, quarterbacks, or maybe a hard hitting defensive player. His arms are short for tackle, and he got fooled with a finesse pass rush occasionally, so I understand the feeling that he will have to be moved to guard. That being said, like Zack Martin, if Scherff is the best offensive lineman in the draft, then it makes sense to pick him and figure out later where he’ll play.

Collins has similar issues with arm length, though he held up very well at left tackle in the SEC. He’s a strong player and a good run blocker, even if he isn’t as fun to watch as Scherff. Pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., the presumed favorite of the Jaguars selecting at three, was haunted by Collins in college. “My sophomore year, we went to Baton Rouge and played against LSU, and I’m not going to lie, I got my butt whooped,” Fowler told Jenny Vrentas of MMQB.SI.com. “That was one of my worst games just because of how I got tossed around.

Fowler continued to say he was motivated by the “butt whooping” and came back harder in 2014. I rewatched that game; you wouldn’t even notice he was on the field for the most part. Collins isn’t the brute that Scherff is, nor does he have the sheer athleticism and technique of Peat, but he is a really solid player who can do a lot of different things for a football team.

Erving is a little different. He started his career at left tackle, and would have drawn some second-round interest if he had declared for the draft a year ago. Instead, he returned to Florida State, where he struggled at times. Players were able to blow by him, and his play made you question whether his stock would drop by the time the draft came around. One of his best games at left tackle came against Clemson and pass rusher Vic Beasley. Beasley torments with athleticism, but Erving held him at bay for most of the game, allowing him to pressure the quarterback only a few times. Specifically, Erving was beat with speed off the edge for Beasley’s two sacks. However, Beasley was pushed around in the running game, which Florida State leaned on during some big moments late in the fourth quarter and especially in overtime.

Erving moved to center for the Miami game, and didn’t look great at first — he was very inconsistent with his snaps, moving slowly out of his stance while focused on looking through his legs at his target in the shotgun behind him. However, the Hurricanes were shockingly unable to take advantage of his lack of confidence. Only a few short weeks later against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game, Erving looked as if he had been playing center his whole life, and I think that would be a great spot for him to stay in the NFL.

Day Two:

  • Jake Fisher, Oregon
  • Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
  • A.J. Cann, South Carolina
  • Ty Sambrailo, Colorado State
  • Laken Tomlinson, Duke
  • Tre’ Jackson, Florida State
  • Reese Dismukes, Auburn
  • Ali Marpet, Hobart
  • Arie Kouandijo, Alabama
  • Daryl Williams, Oklahoma
  • John Miller, Louisville
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
  • Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin

Fisher is in the discussion at the end of the first round, and Cann may be too, depending on how desperately teams need help at the position and how many offensive linemen are off the board ahead of them. Fisher isn’t a far cry from the likes of Humphries or Clemmings, but there’s likely a sense that he’s less of a known commodity coming out of Oregon’s up-tempo spread. He was rarely asked to sit in pass protection to allow Marcus Mariota time to progress through reads on deeper drops. Oregon did move him around, playing him at both tackle spots and even bumping him inside, which should add to his value. His teammate Grasu will be easier to project — while playing tackle in that offense might relieve some of the physical pressures of the position, Grasu had to be both strong and smart to keep the offensive line together.

Grasu is part of a pretty strong group of interior linemen with a good chance at being taken on day two of the draft. Cann and Jackson were standouts at guard and have both the size and strength to handle interior defenders. Cann’s strength and mobility were on display, as he can often be found running up to the second level to deliver punishing blows on would-be tacklers. Jackson lined up next to Erving often in Florida State’s scheme, and the pair combined to be a force in the running game, springing Seminole runners for huge gains through the teeth of opposing defenses.

Tomlinson, Marpet, and Miller are a trio of players who have risen up draft boards to present secondary options at guard. If Cann, Jackson, and Grasu live up to their status as early second-round picks and come off the board fairly early, teams like the Bills and Seahawks could still hope to fill a tremendous need when they come to the podium for the first time in round two. Both teams are looking to plug holes in the interior of their offensive lines, and I expect they’d like to see as many players in this group as possible still available for them in round two. The Seahawks have a number of draft picks, and I wouldn’t think it’s out of the question for them to go up and get one of these guys if their man is still on the board in the middle of the second round.

Also in this group are three very different but very interesting offensive tackles, in Sambrailo, Ogbuehi, and Havenstein. Ogbuehi has drawn some first and second-round grades, and is a big, strong prototypical left tackle who had success at Texas A&M, following the mold of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Ogbuehi presents good quickness and has some strength that should translate to the NFL, but was often caught out of position blocking both against the run and the pass. He was frequently able to get away with this poor technique in college based off his athleticism, working his way into good position or overpowering defensive linemen, but it’d be difficult to imagine that trend continuing in the NFL.

Sambrailo is regarded much differently. There aren’t as many concerns about technique, athleticism, or strength — the main question is essentially whether or not he is a good football player at this stage. He misses on blocks and fails to recognize blitzers often enough that it’s a problem, and while he’s a brute in the running game, he does get beat across his face and sometimes over-pursues his block. Some evaluators have him as a possible late first/early second-round pick , while others seem him slipping into the third day of the draft.

Havenstein is a player who is thought of as solid to a fault. He tested poorly at the combine, and went from a strong stalwart to an underwhelming physical talent. NFL.com describes him as a “Three-year starter who doesn’t look the part in his uniform,” but the 6’7″ tackle was the anchor on an offensive line that sprung Melvin Gordon for 2,500 yards, 29 touchdowns, and a first-round grade. Fans of Wisconsin and Big Ten defensive ends are probably surprised he has been pegged as a third-round pick by many draft expert. For a team in need of a right tackle who fires off the ball, Havenstein could be just the mauler they are looking for.

It’s a strange time for offensive linemen in the draft, as in recent years top picks such as Joeckel, Kalil, Eric Fisher, Chance Warmack, and Jonathan Cooper have all failed to provide stability to their teams’ offensive lines. If Scherff drops past the Giants and Rams, we could see an NFL draft without an offensive lineman as a top-10 pick for the first time since 2005. Maybe this is a referendum only on the quality of prospects in this draft, or possibly the needs of the teams picking in the top 10. But it does seem like teams may be less likely to regard highly-rated offensive linemen as safe picks, as clubs are being more cautious about selecting them over more dynamic players at other positions.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Wide Receivers

With the NFL draft fast approaching, we’ll be taking a closer look this month at the notable prospects for each position. We’ve already examined quarterbacks and running backs, so today we’ll shift our focus to wide receivers (with a few top tight ends thrown in as well).

Because of the tremendous depth at receiver, and the number of prospects with first-round grades, the names in this post will be split up a little differently than the quarterbacks and running backs were. Let’s start with a pair of players who are fighting to be the first receiver selected.

Top-10 Picks:

  • Amari Cooper, Alabama
  • Kevin White, West Virginia

It’s no secret that the Raiders have a tremendous need at receiver. They hit on their first- and second-round picks in 2014, scoring what looks like a superstar defensive playmaker and a potential franchise quarterback. The next step in the rebuild is to surround David Carr with weapons, so he can give Khalil Mack some leads to protect.Amari Cooper

The leader for the top player at the wideout position for the entire collegiate season was Cooper. Coming into the year, he was a potential breakout candidate; by the end of it, he was a Heisman finalist. Cooper caught 124 passes for over 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns, and for those that watched him religiously, even those numbers don’t adequately convey how dominate he was.

Cooper set Alabama single-game record for receiving yards in a game with 224, doing it twice, against Tennessee and Auburn. He set school single-season records for catches, yards, and touchdowns. He is also Alabama’s all-time career leader in all three categories, and his 124 receptions as a junior was also an SEC record.

Cooper’s reported 40-yard dash times varied, and following the combine, scouts were underwhelmed with his number. However his 4.42 time has been disputed, with some scouts clocking him as fast as 4.31. Watching him play on Saturdays, he certainly looked to have that type of speed.

Far from a one-trick pony, Cooper was used as a deep threat often, running past cornerbacks on the outside and beating safeties with double moves in the middle of the field. The Alabama offense also got him involved with screen passes on the line, let him work the intermediate routes, and threw the ball up to him in the red zone.

While Cooper tore apart the nation in 2014, it would be interesting to see how he stacked up against last year’s class of receivers. A case could be made that he would have compared favorably to Sammy Watkins, but Mike Evans‘ giant frame and Odell Beckham‘s athleticism might have given them the advantage as prospects. Cooper doesn’t overwhelm with size, and while he made some impressive catches, he dropped enough throws that you wouldn’t compare his hands to Larry Fitzgerald‘s or Antonio Brown‘s.

Cooper is never going to be A.J. Green, Julio Jones, or Dez Bryant. They are the rare cases of a player that can do absolutely everything on a football field. No matter how well Cooper develops, becoming a 6’4″ leaper with superior strength and speed all in one isn’t in the cards. However, this draft class doesn’t necessarily feature the sort of can’t-miss superstars we sometimes see at the top of teams’ boards, and that leaves Cooper as a pretty good bet as a top-five pick.

White wasn’t necessarily in Cooper’s class until late in the process, but it appears he has surpassed Cooper on many boards. A number of mock drafts have the Raiders taking White at No. 4 and leaving Cooper waiting.

White’s 4.35 speed compares favorably to Cooper’s, and he also has the 6’3″, 215-pound frame that reminds teams of those elite receivers who consistently jump over defenders to make unstoppable catches.

Few would argue that White is as polished as Cooper. White spent two years at junior college, and then didn’t play football for a season before winding up at West Virginia. He struggled to adjust in his first season, then broke out with a huge 2014 campaign.

Cooper broke all the records, but White wasn’t far behind in terms of production. When a player catches 109 balls for nearly 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns, he isn’t considered “raw.” He might be moving ahead of Cooper based on potential that may never be reached, but he is a good player right now. He catches the ball well, as the drops he struggled with in 2013 didn’t persist last year. White’s routes are also more polished than you would expect for a player who was so raw for so long. He has the body control to take advantage of his size, making plays down the field and on the sidelines, and he has real speed.

Both Cooper and White are poised to be dangerous pros, and they lead a class that could see 10 receivers selected in the first two rounds, with a bunch more that will be off the board by the end of round three. Cooper and White should both be off the board in the top 10 picks. If they aren’t, the Vikings and Browns would almost certainly pounce at No. 11 and No. 12.

I watched both receivers play a lot, and going back to the stats and the film, the two players are closer than I remember them being at the time. All that being said, I would be surprised if a team takes White first. I’m not saying it would be a mistake to do so — just that I would be surprised to see it.

First Round:

  • DeVante Parker, Louisville
  • Breshad Perriman, UCF
  • Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri/Oklahoma
  • Jaelen Strong, Arizona State

With Cooper and White both possibly coming off the board in the top 10 picks, Parker becomes the best available player at the position. The dropoff from those top two wideouts to Parker has been overstated. He presents a similar speed and size comparison, and is strong tracking the ball in the air and catching the ball at its highest point. What Cooper and White provide that puts them over the top is a slight strength advantage, and the ability to pick up yards after the catch. Parker doesn’t consistently make people miss while running with the football, and doesn’t have the balance to shed tacklers.

Talent wise, Green-Beckham could actually make a case for himself as the best receiver in the draft. At 6’5″ and 237 pounds, he is the sort of imposing figure that makes quarterbacks drool. He looks like Calvin Johnson, towering over even some of the bigger college cornerbacks. Evaluators will go on and on about his vertical speed and his catch radius, but the most impressive part of his tape is how often Missouri decided to get him the ball on bubble and jailbreak screens. Green-Beckham showed excellent mobility, agility, and ingenuity running with the football, shocking for a player of his size.

Of course, DGB isn’t even necessarily thought of as a first-round pick, since drug and domestic violence issues have overshadowed his talent. His great film is all from 2013, because he was dismissed from the University of Missouri at the end of that season. He transferred to Oklahoma, but declared for the draft before ever playing a down for the Sooners. Green-Beckham has on-field issues too — his route-running is a little stiff, and while it’s normal for a tall receiver to struggle in and out of breaks, his overall athleticism dictates that it shouldn’t be such an obvious weakness. I was also concerned by how he seemed to struggle with physical corners despite his size, and how he seemed to drop his competition level late in games when the team was down by more than a touchdown on the scoreboard.

Green-Beckham could slip down to the second round due to character concerns, but there are two other wide receivers still left for the first round. Perriman is among the fastest receivers in the draft, and standing at 6’2″, he’s a monster athlete. He should be able to thrive as a deep threat from his first year in the NFL, and he got better as his final collegiate season went on. However, for all his athleticism, he struggled running routes, and failed to look smooth when asked to change directions. He is raw, and it’s difficult to project him making an immediate Pro-Bowl-caliber impact.

Strong is a little more polished and – aptly – a little stronger, but he lacks the speed to create separation and get open down the field. While his 40-yard dash was adequate, he’s forced to become a possession receiver on offense. Teams today need that deep threat more than ever, and although he might make a very good pick for a team in the top 25, Strong’s star power isn’t there to compete with Cooper and White.

Day Two:

  • Sammie Coates, Auburn
  • Devin Smith, Ohio State
  • Phillip Dorsett, Miami
  • Nelson Agholor, USC
  • Rashad Greene, Florida State
  • Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

A number of the guys in this group have gotten some first-round buzz, but I expect them all to be available on day two of the draft. Smith and Dorsett boast the blazing speed to get deep, but size concerns prevent them from locking in first-round grades from most evaluators. A number of other factors come into play there, with neither player exhibiting such strong hands or route-running skills that they will easily be able to exploit other areas of the field without serious development at the next level. Dorsett looks to have a little more burst after the catch, and was able to turn the corner on some crossing routes and split would-be tacklers with speed at times for Miami.

Agholor was thought to have that type of speed as well, which made him a borderline first-round talent early in this process. While Smith and Dorsett were able to back up their film at the Combine, Agholor’s 40-yard dash time was less impressive. However on film, he is able to use his speed (and slightly bigger frame) in many more ways then the other two burners. He exploits the middle of the field and does a great job getting out of breaks, and even caught some passes on traditional running back routes out of the backfield, which provides a lot of value for offensive game plans when versatility creates mismatches. Agholor was also very good at traditional west coast routes such as slants, curls, and quick outs, catching passes in tight coverage that Miami and Ohio State wouldn’t dare throw to their speedsters. He still plays fast on film despite his timed speed, and he shows flashes of potential that could compare him to Randall Cobb, another second-round pick who blossomed by being able to obliterate defenses with his skills before the catch.

Greene is a little closer to Smith and Dorsett than Lockett is, but both figure to make it to the third round or even the fourth if their skills as returners don’t get them selected earlier. The speed isn’t quite on full display here, and the other important skills just are not developed. Lockett especially tries to catch every pass like it’s a punt, trying to trap it against his body. Rarely on film does he attempt make a true hands catch, whether wide open or in traffic, and he looks like he might end up like a Devin Hester clone on offense. As talented a returner as he might be, I doubt he matches Hester’s historic value on special teams.

Coates is an interesting prospect here. He flashed some top-end speed at Auburn but it’s his ability to go up and play the ball in the air that makes him intriguing. Watching him on film you would assume he’s a 6’3″ leaper, but at merely 6’1″, that ability might not translate to the pros. He struggles with his routes, but his raw talent could be a big plus for a team late in the draft — if he had measured in at 6’2″ or taller, Coates may have been a borderline first-round pick.

Tight Ends:

  • Maxx Williams, Minnesota
  • Devin Funchess, Michigan
  • Clive Walford, Miami
  • Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State

These four tight ends are in the same boat as the day two receivers. It isn’t a deep position group this year, so they may get bumped up a half a round by teams with need at the position. None truly warrants a first-round grade, though Williams becomes a possibility as early as perhaps the 16th overall pick. The consensus best tight end of the draft, Williams is a sturdy option. He isn’t a mauler as a blocker, but he gets his hands dirty. He brings value as a receiver, mostly on intermediate routes but with some vertical threat as well, and he boasts the best functional hands of the position — there are some with better hands, but they lack route-running and blocking skills to such an extent that it becomes a chore to even put them on the field.

Funchess is thought to be a big-play option that was expected to draw interest, but he’s only listed as a tight end in order to bump up the value of his pass catching abilities (and to bump down the value of his second contract). He would likely rank in the same area as a receiver, lacking the true athleticism to succeed on the outside. He does provide a big body, and the right team could use him as a tight end to have him take advantage of slower linebackers or smaller nickel corners.

However, thinking that a team is going to get away with having Funchess as an in-line blocker would be a big mistake. That job should be reserved for Heuerman, who has only reasonable experience catching passes but could turn his skill set into a nice career as a blocking tight end with the versatility to play fullback. That would provide flexibility for a team that doesn’t want to carry a fullback on the roster, but could use one now and again.

Walford might be the standout of this group. He’s a good – but not great – pass catcher, letting a few slip through his hands during his time at Miami. He does have the ability to make tough catches in traffic, and while he might not necessarily threaten vertically, he allows the quarterback to push the ball downfield with some deep crosses and corner routes. Most intriguingly, he picks up speed after the catch, enabling him to eat up yards while bouncing off smaller tacklers. Combined with his above-average ability as a blocker, where he may not necessarily bury people but does play with leverage and positioning to wall off and reach both defensive ends and linebackers, Walford could emerge as a very good all-around tight end.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Running Backs

With the NFL draft fast approaching, we’ll be taking a closer look this month at the notable prospects for each position. Quarterbacks are already in the books, so today we will look at running backs, starting with a pair of players who could break the streak of two straight years without a player at the position taken in the first round.

Potential First-Rounders:

  • Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
  • Todd Gurley, Georgia

2012 was the last year any NFL team selected a running back in the first round, and a look at the three backs who came off the board early that year clearly indicates why clubs may have been scared off for the last couple years. David Wilson has already announced his retirement, while Doug Martin and especially Trent Richardson followed up strong rookie years with consecutive subpar seasons.

Now, Gordon and Gurley are on a mission to bring the star power back to the position.Melvin Gordon

Before getting into the merits of these two backs, let’s briefly look at why no running backs were drafted in round one the past two seasons. In 2013, Giovani Bernard was the first back taken, with the fifth pick in round two. Last year, Bishop Sankey was the top running back chosen, a measly 54th overall. The Bengals and Titans were pretty desperate for backs, but with Bernard and Sankey representing the best options, both were able to wait until round two. In 2013, the Packers and Broncos were also in need of a runner, but were able to wait until the very end of round two to get their men.

The good news for fans of running backs is that Gordon and Gurley are leaps ahead of the crop from the past two years in terms of physical talent. On top of that, the Chargers, Cardinals, and Cowboys are all in dire need of a runner. The Dolphins, Jets, Patriots, Colts, Panthers, Ravens, and Lions also have need at the position.

That being said, I’m skeptical that either player is a lock for a first-round pick. I was only able to squeeze one into the PFR Mock Draft 1.0, with Gordon going to Arizona. Even in the case of that 24th overall pick, there were many talented defensive players on the board, and Cards GM Steve Keim is smart enough not to draft based on need alone. There’s still a chance this is the third straight year we don’t see a running back taken.

Gordon has the slightest edge over Gurley in my eyes strictly based on injury concerns. Clubs like the Chargers, Cardinals, and Cowboys, who are desperate at the position, also happen to be in win-now mode for 2015, and Gurley has been unable to work out for teams after tearing his ACL in one of the most idiotic and unfortunate “amateur” sports stories of 2014. Gordon has no health questions, and should have an immediate on-field impact.

Gordon has an impressive combination of speed, power, and most importantly great balance. He protects the ball, and uses his arms well to ward off would-be tacklers. Gordon’s vision and relentlessness propelled him to over 2,500 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2014. He was among the best in the nation at creating space between the tackles while also maintaining his status as one of the scariest players turning the edge and scampering up the sidelines.

Gordon was able to take pole position as the best running back in the nation after Gurley’s suspension. Prior to the ban, Gurley was a Heisman favorite and was on the way to comfortably being the top back available in the draft. He was suspended for selling his autograph, which only enhanced his stock, saving him from the unnecessary pounding of the SEC. However, the suspension was overturned, and he returned to the field after missing four games only to subsequently tear his ACL.

When Gurley was on the field, however, he was an unstoppable force, blending mind-blowing athleticism and violence as he pounded through some of the best defenses in college football. At times he was untackleable. That may not be a word, but if Gurley had played the whole season uninterrupted by the NCAA or injury, it might have been added to Merriam-Webster. Gurley’s vision and speed is unquestioned even if it isn’t on par with Gordon’s, but the physicality of his on-field performance sets him apart from the pack.

It is tough to see any running back going in the first round if these two playmakers can’t get themselves into the top 32 picks. To really lock himself in as a top pick, a prospect would likely have to be a smooth receiving option in the passing game as well as an accomplished and willing pass protector. Like most college standouts, both these players lack skills as a blocker picking up rushers out of the backfield. Neither player has tremendous experience catching the ball out of the backfield, never mind lining up in the slot and taking advantage of mismatches in the defense.

Going back to 2012, Richardson was supposedly going to be able to have immediate impacts as a rusher, receiver, and blocker. Martin was taken 31st and was also expected to provide value across every aspect of the position. Sankey and Bernard were limited players, and that is the main reason they didn’t garner first-round consideration. Bernard had some value as a playmaker, but even Sankey was probably overdrafted as a mid-second rounder. Gordon and Gurley blow every one of those players away as prospects with the exception of Richardson, who continues to be one of the all-time misevaluations in recent draft history.

If I published a big board, I would probably have both Gordon and Gurley among my top 20 prospects. That being said, there is plenty of value to be found later in the draft, and the potential to take a player at a premium position in round one and worry about running back later still seems to make more sense than targeting Gordon and Gurley, which hurts their stock, fair or not.

Day Two:

  • Jay Ajayi, Boise State
  • Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
  • Duke Johnson, Miami
  • Tevin Coleman, Indiana

The names in this group – and even those in the next group – provide a handful of reasons not to draft Gordon or Gurley with a first-round pick. Johnson and Abdullah both bring the top-end speed teams are looking for in a home run threat. They also come with the added value of having ability in the passing game. Abdullah particularly has drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles, who was transformative as a receiver and returner for the Eagles in 2014. Johnson is a bit more raw, and is often discounted as a complementary back, but he is bursting with potential. DeMarco Murray was never expected to carry the load like he did either, but he translated to the NFL as a star when healthy and with the help of a strong offensive line.

Ajayi is the preferred back in the draft for some evaluators, because he does have the ability to do it all. Watching him play doesn’t evoke the emotional reaction of the first-round hopefuls, but his ability to protect the quarterback and catch the football makes him a complete package who could potentially step in as an every-down back as a rookie. Of course, the jack-of-all-trades players have been scary, especially if they don’t have a single skill they can lean on if one or more of the other aspects of their game are taken away by the defense. Fellow Boise State alum Martin looked great in his first year transferring from blue turf to green, but quickly fell out of favor with the coaches and faded into obscurity on the Buccaneers’ depth chart. Additionally, even the best blockers at running back need to relearn this skill when they first arrive in the NFL.

Coleman provides a different type of value as a possible second or third-round pick. Coleman is what I like to call a churner. The guy never stops moving his legs, never stops trying to power himself for a first down or for a touchdown. Watching film on him immediately makes me think of the of the two little mice dropped into a bucket of cream. As the story goes, the first mouse gives up and drowns, while the second mouse struggles so hard it churns the cream into butter and walks out. Coleman is that second mouse. In his draft profile on NFL.com, under weaknesses, he is described as treating every play like a sprint. I understand why this is a weakness, as it means he lacks patience and likely struggles with vision, but it’s the sort of flaw you wouldn’t mind mentioning in a job interview.

Late or Undrafted:

  • David Johnson, Northern Iowa
  • Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
  • T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
  • David Cobb, Minnesota
  • Mike Davis, South Carolina
  • Javorius “Buck” Allen, USC
  • Karlos Williams, Florida State

In my discussion of quarterback prospects, I identified a few players who might be given the opportunity to fight for a roster spot and would be lucky to get a backup job in the NFL. For running backs, there is legitimate hope that one or two of these late-round players will become reliable ball carriers or even Pro Bowlers, while all of them should have the opportunity to make some sort of impact. Allen, Cobb, and Johnson all have supporters– none of those three possess the athleticism to really push the envelope of stardom at the next level, but they were able to move the chains during their college careers, and they do enough things well to warrant a draft pick. Williams is sneaky and shifty, even if he was overshadowed at times on the Florida State offense.

The real prize here could be Yeldon, even if Alabama runners can scare off fans and pundits. Despite the success of Eddie Lacy and the career turnaround of Mark Ingram, it’s hard to get the Richardson stink off. Yeldon, however, provides a similar blend of violence and speed in his running style to Gurley. The Alabama back gets up the field and is devastating in penetrating the heart of the defense. He also shows potential as a blocker and is terrifying in the passing game, even if he did most of his damage catching the football with screens.

Yeldon’s biggest drawback was his ball security. While his fumbling problems might be overstated, as a fan of his I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see him lose the ball in big spots too often. That’s a correctable issue, and if he can stay healthy and be effective, teams are willing to deal with that kind of red flag. Murray was fumbling once a game for the Cowboys during a stretch early in the season, and he was being handed the ball at a record pace anyway. Yeldon does have to stay healthy though, and like many Alabama players he struggled with numerous injuries during his college career.

I pulled Yeldon out for the Bills in the second round in PFR’s first mock draft. I think a team could fall in love with the things he does well and push him up a few rounds, where his strengths probably dictates he should belong. If I had the choice between Gurley or Yeldon, I have to admit Gurley is the better bet, despite my affections. Gordon is too. On the other hand, a team like the Chargers might rather have a top offensive lineman and a second-round talent like Coleman or Yeldon at running back, rather than taking Gordon in the first and missing out a chance to improve the offensive line or a very thin defense.

2015 NFL Draft Breakdown: Quarterbacks

With the NFL draft fast approaching, we’ll be taking a closer look over the next couple weeks at the notable prospects at each position, starting today with quarterbacks. Most of this piece will be dedicated to the top two passers in the draft, given how unusual it is for a starting-caliber player to come out of the later rounds at the position. However, we’ll also touch on a number of intriguing day two and day three options with some potential, buzz, and name recognition.

Top Prospects:

  • Jameis Winston, Florida State
  • Marcus Mariota, Oregon

Winston and Mariota are the only two quarterbacks that should be getting first-round consideration, and neither is anything close to being a slam-dunk prospect. These two signal-callers couldn’t be any different, even if we throw out the perception of character, where Mariota has been nothing but praiseworthy and Winston has a few red flags.

On the field, the two quarterbacks barely seem like they’re playing the same sport, much less the same position. Winston is the presumed No. 1 guy at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of teams have Mariota ranked way ahead of Winston on their big boards.Jameis Winston

For most teams and talent evaluators, Winston’s strengths and weaknesses are much more palatable. He played in an offense that relatively resembles an NFL-style offense. Many of the route combinations he used are the kind that may be seen at the next level. Particularly, Florida State dialed up reads such as smash concepts (often a corner route with a hitch or arrow to threaten the flat) and high-low reads (two crossing routes ran at different depths) that are common principles in many NFL passing attacks. Winston consistently read the defense before the snap and diagnosed where he should go with the ball.

Winston’s accuracy is very impressive, and even though he does occasionally just miss a throw, that’s not as worrisome as a player who struggles with ball placement play after play. He developed good timing with his receivers, and his most impressive trait is the ability to trust the play concept by throwing the ball ahead of the receivers, often before their break, and completing passes in rhythm that other quarterbacks wouldn’t dare throw.

However, all this praise doesn’t completely absolve his flaws. Winston threw 18 interceptions last season, an unforgivable number against ACC defenses that failed to impress. While he does a great job reading the defense, he’s significantly less impressive at seeing the field during the play. Winston doesn’t necessarily have tunnel vision, and he’s able to manipulate defenders with his eyes, but he fails to recognize ancillary pieces of the defense. He might make a great read on a crossing route, but won’t notice a linebacker dropping to a zone underneath his intended receiver to make a play on the ball.

Many times, a corner would escape Winston’s vision by coming off his receiver to gamble on another route on the field. These gambles paid off, as Winston failed to recognize these small defensive quirks. He also pushed the ball into tight coverages, and relied too heavily on his tremendous arm strength to take advantage of the talent advantage Florida State employed on the outside.

On top of that, Winston has an extremely long delivery, which helps defenders break on throws and could explain why so many linebackers and corners were able to leave their zones to step in front of passes. His throwing mechanics are sloppy and although he has the arm strength to make up for it, it’s a red flag that helped undermine previous first-round picks unable to correct similar problems in the pros.

Mariota presents a very different option. Obviously much can be said about the Oregon offense and the inability for quarterbacks running the read-option spread to successfully adjust to playing quarterback at the NFL level. Robert Griffin III was able to do it for a year, but hasn’t been able to repeat that performance. Colin Kaepernick is a good comparison for Mariota’s skill set, and he has had some success, but he was running a pistol-heavy option offense at Nevada rather than a true spread. Kaepernick also has the arm strength that allows him to get away with other shortcomings as a passer. The only QBs who have consistently performed coming from the spread are Cam Newton and Alex Smith. While both those signal-callers have played well at times, neither gives confidence that Mariota will overcome his difficulties to become a good NFL passer.

Mariota struggles with ball placement, and has not proven he can lead a receiver on a route or throw one open in tight coverage. The inflated completion percentage coming from screens and check downs is not as concerning as having open receivers and putting the ball so square to the receiver’s body that he stops momentum of a player running at full speed. He has adequate arm strength, but was not asked to show it off very much in college. With a strong running game, he was rarely put in obvious passing situations, and struggled to move the chains from the pocket when the defense was able to sit in coverage. He has not been tested on tight throws, electing to move to a check down rather than squeeze a football into small windows, even when down and distance would have called for the harder throw.

What Mariota does do well is get rid of the ball. He is precise with his reads, even if they aren’t necessarily the same reads he would make in a standard NFL passing attack. He makes quick decisions and – more impressively – he delivers the football efficiently. He has an excellent release and good mechanics from the pocket. He also doesn’t look to run as a first option despite overwhelming physical skills, and when he does scramble he’s able to keep his eyes downfield and keep his throwing mechanics as textbook as he can without losing the fluidity one would expect from an athlete of his caliber.

Maximizing Mariota’s skill set early in his NFL require doesn’t require Chip Kelly‘s involvement, but the Oregon QB is a classic square peg. Putting him in a round hole would destroy his development. Still, he does enough stuff from the pocket that I don’t see him needing to run a college offense in the NFL. Good coaching will solve other problems he has, and he possesses the ability to step up in the pocket and accelerate up running lanes for first downs if needed. That being said, it is difficult for me to say with confidence that he is ever going to consistently beat defenses on third-and-long, and he won’t have Oregon’s offense keeping him in third-and-short situations, where the threat of the run opens up passing lanes and makes his job easier.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Buccaneers favored either of these two passers, but I would be surprised if there’s any team without a preference, given the stark differences between Winston and Mariota. If this draft class included a can’t-miss offensive tackle or defensive lineman, I’d be very hesitant to leave him on the board in favor of a quarterback, but in a draft that doesn’t look strong at the top, passing on a signal-caller will be difficult.

Even in a world where Mariota goes first to the Buccaneers (which seems unlikely unless Lovie Smith and Jason Licht are playing a very long con with the media), Winston would be an easy choice for the Titans assuming his off-the-field issues haven’t taken him off their board completely. Mariota isn’t as perfect a fit for Ken Whisenhunt, who would likely prefer an arm like Winston’s and undervalue Mariota’s athleticism, but Bud Adams once forced Vince Young on Jeff Fisher, and ownership figures to be involved in this decision as well. If the most recent Heisman-winning quarterback slips (and it isn’t impossible to imagine, with a number of teams after the Buccaneers and Titans having varying degrees of need at the position), at some point his potential will win out, and a team will believe it has a stolen a player it didn’t expect to have a shot at drafting.

Day Two:

  • Brett Hundley, UCLA
  • Bryce Petty, Baylor
  • Garrett Grayson, Colorado State
  • Sean Mannion, Oregon State

Second- and third-round quarterbacks aren’t players expected to be stars. If a team believes in them enough to place those standards on them, they would have been first-round picks. For the most part, teams are content to get high-quality backup quarterbacks after round one, as the Broncos and Patriots have done recently with Brock Osweiler and Jimmy Garoppolo. Maybe these players will provide value one day when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady retire, but clubs aren’t leaning on them to propel the franchise into contention. Yes, Drew Brees was a second-round pick, dropping out of the first round due to his size concerns. But for every Brees there is a Geno Smith, and for every Smith there are a dozen players who never get a chance to start despite being drafted relatively early.

Brees is the major outlier, but since he came into the league, the best-case scenario for a second- or third-round pick being developed as a starter falls somewhere in the range of Matt Schaub, Andy Dalton, and Kaepernick. All three are capable players (or in Schaub’s case, was a capable player), but at this point they aren’t among the league’s best QBs.

Hundley provides the most pure upside of this group. He actually represents a near perfect compromise between the two top picks — he’s much more athletic than Winston, with a comparable arm and better mechanics, and while he’s not quite the athlete Mariota is, he offers fewer questions when it comes to familiarity with pro-style offense and is a more confident pocket passer with the ability to make the tough throws, albeit inconsistently. There were reports the Browns were trying to convince him to declare for the draft last year, and may have preferred him over Johnny Manziel in that case.

When his strengths are presented like that, Hundley seems like a very enticing option, but watching him play shows a tremendous gap between him and the top two quarterbacks. He struggles in all the aspects of the game Winston and Mariota consider strengths. Hundley’s pre-snap reads leave much to be desired, and while he has the necessary size and arm talent, he struggles to find clear passing lanes and is unable to lead receivers with their momentum. He runs wildly instead of maintaining pocket integrity and doesn’t keep his eyes scanning the field while scrambling. His best plays are far and few between and his bad plays are ugly.

Coaches may see in Hundley a very malleable developmental project, one that presents in theory a higher upside than either Winston or Mariota based on the overall tools he possesses. The likeliness of a coach actually getting Hundley to that point is a different story. Part of Hundley’s allure came from how outrageous his talent was as a freshman at UCLA. While he had an excellent statistical career, his best passing yardage and passing touchdown totals came as a freshman. That isn’t a red flag in itself, but it only strengthens the argument that Hundley really failed to improve during his career. The same questions and concerns that plagued him as a freshman are questions evaluators have been asking when trying to project him to the NFL. If he was unable to correct virtually any aspect of his game during three years as a starter in college, it’s hard to overlook those flaws he will carry with him to an NFL team.

Petty is an entirely different case. Like Mariota, he is difficult to project coming out of a Baylor offense that involves a number of complicated principles, none of which are commonly used in the NFL. RGIII preceded him and had success running an offense adjusted to incorporate Baylor’s concepts, but Griffin’s success was limited to only one season. At the same time, Petty was impressive with his arm strength and accuracy in that offense. He wasn’t asked to complete the toughest throws in tight coverage, but his ability to make quick decisions and deliver the ball accurately compares favorably to any quarterback in the draft. He was athletic enough for college, an advantage that will likely not translate to the next level, although he should be able to escape pressure and pick up yards when the play breaks down.

Petty doesn’t present the ceiling that Mariota does, but he might be more versatile than he’s given credit for. He has enough talent and skill that he could have the potential to break out in an interesting offense like Nick Foles did. Foles is a drastically different player, but he made the most of a forward-thinking coach and was able to mold his game to an offense that didn’t necessarily suit his strengths, resulting in an MVP-caliber run in 2013. Of all the quarterbacks in this draft projected outside the first round, Petty might provide the most realistic upside, while still holding a floor where he makes a career as a capable backup with potential to keep teams competitive in a pinch. Chase Daniel and Colt McCoy are similar players, both pigeonholed as system quarterbacks who have been versatile enough to be high-end backups that don’t destroy a team’s chances of winning by entering the game.

Grayson and Mannion aren’t guaranteed day-two picks, but each represents an intriguing option. Unlike Hundley and Petty, both provide very conventional skill sets for NFL teams. While Hundley and Petty are more likely to have a team fall in love with them, Grayson and Mannion should be able to slot in for at any team, should the front office decide it can afford to use a pick on a backup quarterback. These players wouldn’t be obvious fits in Seattle or Kansas City where height and arm strength take a back seat to athleticism and decision making, but practically any team with room on its depth chart could be a possibility. Neither player jumps off the page as a star, but they are sound and have enough talent that they could be worth developing. On the right team, they could see the field early on in their careers. Pairing either of them with Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Jets could be a worthwhile gamble if the team is unable to acquire a quarterback in the first round, or uninterested in doing so.

Of course, the risk of using a draft pick on a quarterback in round two or three is the knowledge that more likely than not, that pick will end up being a player who doesn’t turn into a reliable long-term starter. A number of wide receivers, cornerbacks, and offensive lineman with real expectations to make an impact will be available in those rounds, and taking a flyer on a passer takes away a chance to get a player that could actually contribute on the field early in his NFL career.

Late or Undrafted:

  • Brandon Bridge, South Alabama
  • Connor Halliday, Washington State
  • Cody Fajardo, Nevada
  • Shane Carden, East Carolina
  • Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion
  • Bryan Bennett, Southeastern Louisiana
  • Hutson Mason, Georgia
  • Ryan Williams, Miami
  • Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
  • Jake Waters, Kansas State
  • Blake Sims, Alabama
  • Bo Wallace, Ole Miss

Expecting a high-quality starter out of this group meaning looking for the Brady and Matt Hasselbeck among a haystack full of players who never make an NFL roster or are out of the league in a year or two. Teams hit on these picks occasionally, and longtime standouts like Kurt Warner and Tony Romo went undrafted, but the vast majority of these quarterbacks, some from big-time programs and with name recognition, will be forgotten about by 2016. Arguably the biggest names on this list are Wallace and Sims, who played for SEC powers that won a lot of games in 2014. Wallace garnered early Heisman buzz, and Sims led Alabama to the college football playoff. Neither is likely to get drafted, and both would be surprises to stick on an NFL roster.

Halliday set a number or records under Mike Leach, throwing the ball time and time again in an offense that isn’t quite as unique to college as those employed by Baylor and Oregon, but it isn’t as if Leach has a history of producing quality pros either. Halliday does have some upside, and given his college career, has a decent chance to stick with a team with the opportunity to become a backup.

Fajardo, Carden, and Heinicke also have gotten some buzz with the draft closing in. These smaller school prospects can sometimes surprise with their talent. Unlike Wallace and Sims – or a player with name recognition like Waters – evaluating those smaller school players is difficult due to the competition they faced. While those big-conference quarterbacks may end up being better, they are largely known quantities at this point. Fajardon, Carden, and Heinicke represent an unknown, as there’s a better chance scouts have just missed on them or failed to take them seriously as prospects. This makes them potentially more valuable investments than a guy like Williams who failed to make an impact against better competition in the ACC, or Mason, who did not impress at all in the SEC.

For these players, the goal is to make a team and get a backup job. It may sound reductive to assume the ceiling for this group is NFL backup, but that is the reality for a day-three draft pick at quarterback. Brady, Hasselbeck, Warner, and Romo were all backups to high-profile quarterbacks with no clear path to start (Drew Bledsoe, Brett Favre, Trent Green, and Bledsoe again, respectively). However, all four broke through eventually. These players are used to being top talents in their respective conferences, but all they have to do is make a roster, and then in the right situation, follow the Zach Mettenberger model to rise to starter early in their career. Mettenberger was a third-string quarterback behind Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst, but with a new coach in Tennessee who believed in him and a few injuries, he became the presumed starter heading into 2015 — as long as the Titans aren’t shopping for a quarterback with their first-round pick.