Well done, folks! We finally made it. Seriously. Pat yourselves on the back. You waded through all the big boards, mock drafts, the risers, the fallers, the off-the-field concerns, and, of course, the anonymous scouts (not to be outdone by those pesky anonymous executives).
Mercifully, draft day is finally upon us, as the 2018 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday.
With only hours before the commissioners puts the Browns on-the-clock, it’s time to run through our annual “All Tape” team.
These aren’t necessarily the best players at each position; some may be little more than special teams guys; some may not be drafted at all. But they’re the guys I’ve had the most fun evaluating throughout the process this year. They are the guys that jump off the screen.
Let’s get it started with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Quarterback, Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
All of the top quarterbacks are a fun study. Each has a different style, with little idiosyncratic tricks that makes studying them feel like watching some kind of performance art.
No one gave me more of those “I-love-this-game-so-much” moments than Mayfield. He was stylistically mesmerizing, only his style also had substance. No one has ever played with such creative instincts and milometric precision. The only quarterback to ever, statistically, outplay 2017 Baker Mayfield… was 2016 Baker Mayfield.
In my deep-dive report from earlier in the year, I noted that comparisons to Johnny Manziel were lazy. They are. It’s borderline offensive to compare Mayfield with a pure freelancer freelancer. True, Mayfield is an off-script player. That’s fun to watch. But he’s just as effective playing within Lincoln Riley’s carefully crafted ecosystem (with some super fun creative, unique, wrinkles chucked in).
I like Josh Rosen more as a pure passer. I handed Lamar Jackson the “most electrifying” award in my QB superlatives list. I appreciate the tremendous upsides of Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. But Mayfield’s the guy. He will come into a team and instantly change the culture — on and off the field.
(A quick note: if the only knock you have on Mayfield is his height, stand on your tip toes and tell me what you can see now that you couldn’t before.)
Running back, Mark Walton, Miami
Were it not for such a deep running back group and a rough injury that prematurely cut short his 2017 season, you’d be hearing much more about Mark Walton.
Walton has everything you could want in a multi-down back: speed, agility, vision, power, and a willingness to drop anchor and hang in pass protection (his technique can be sloppy, but you never question the will — sometimes that’s just as important). It’s a style similar to Jordan Howard’s, the breakout star drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round a couple of seasons ago. Walton has a chance to make a similar impact as a rookie. Had he played out the full season he likely would have moved himself to the foot of the second round. Now, he’s shaping up to be a fourth-rounder.
It’s why some teams will shy away from high-profile names at the top of the draft; there’s too much value in the third, fourth and fifth rounds at the position. Where Walton ultimately ends up will come down to his individual medical checks. If he’s healthy long-term, he could wind up being the bargain of the draft.
Wide receiver, Anthony Miller, Memphis
Anthony Miller’s 1-on-1 battle with UCF cornerback Mike Hughes was one of the joys of the season (and we got it twice!). Hughes is one of the top boundary corners in this class: A Day 1 NFL starter with All-Pro potential. Miller more than held his own.
While no physical specimen, he’s a canny operator. He excels at some of the nuances of the position: getting open late and winning while in the air. Getting open late sounds silly, right? Don’t you want the receiver open as early as possible? Not always. As the great Michael Irvin once explained, getting open quick gives the covering corner a chance to recover. Get open late, and there’s no time for the defender to do anything about it. It doesn’t stand out as much in the see-it-throw-it world of college football. But in the NFL, where all patterns are based on timing, it’s a crucial skill.
Miller can also contort his body while hanging in the air, opening up paths to the ball. And he has just enough spring to punish defenders who misjudge the flight of the ball. He’s at his drool-inducing best fighting off press-coverage, though. He’s a technician; shrinking his body so that corners can’t get a clean strike on his chest, then swatting away any flailing with a subtle disdain that lets defenders know they’re not in his class.
Miller’s skill-set sees him fall in that all too familiar position: not quite dominant enough to be the lead star of an offense, but overqualified as a number two guy. He’s tailor-made to be a subculture #NFLTwitter hero, barking at the mainstream for missing out on the subtle beauty of a number two receiver who churns out production week in and week out.
Tight end, Hayden Hurst, South Carolina
It may not be the best tight end class, but there are a number of players with clearly defined skill-sets who can be impact players. Few, if any, have a chance to be all-around stars. But there are some flex weapons, in-line blockers and guys who’re simply too big and too slow to list as receivers. All of them offer value in a singular skill.
Hayden Hurst is a little different. He’s a quirky player and an excellent athlete — a former minor league baseball player. South Carolina asked him to do a little bit of everything. He’s the one early round tight end who coaches will feel comfortable isolating on his own, lining up inside, in the backfield or in a jumbo package.
His effort and technique as a blocker can be up and down. But when he’s engaged, he shows all the skills to be a plus in the run game – about as much as you can ask for from a man whose primary job is to catch the ball. Hurst was the top playmaker on a South Carolina team that lost its star receiver Deebo Samuel early in the 2017 campaign. They found creative ways to get Hurst the ball (The tight end jetsweep lives!), showing a level of versatility few others in this class have put on film.
Still: at 25 years of age, some teams will see a maxed out guy who’ll be nearing 30 before his rookie contract is done. That’s a mistake. Hurst excels at finding soft spots in zones, has enough wiggle to beat man-coverage, can create after the catch, and has a good feel for the position. Sign me up.
Offensive line, Will Hernandez, Texas-El Paso
Who doesn’t love watching a small school offensive lineman re-enacting the bear scene from The Revenant week in and week out.
A gigantic human being who moves in ways giants should not. That is the best way to summarize Will Hernandez’s game.
The nimble giant (swing tackle) weighed in at 340 pounds at the Senior Bowl. It is tough to comprehend how someone his size can even get out of his stance, let alone dance up to the second level to chuck linebackers out of the club.
That is what Hernandez does. He makes pancake blocks an art form.
But he is not just a schoolyard bully, picking on people half his size. He packs grace and guile into that humongous frame. His skip step, pull blocks are as elegant as his drive blocks are violent.
In pass protection, Hernandez, obviously, has a sturdy anchor. And he works hard to stick on blocks – often through will more than skill. He has more dip than one would suspect given his frame; just enough to hold off quick-twitch interior rushers.
Hernandez has experience at tackle. He will move inside in the NFL. He is the second best interior lineman in the draft — behind Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson.
Defensive line, Deadrin Senat, USF
Every year there are prospects who you grow to appreciate more and more with every viewing. Enter: Deadrin Senat.
The moving fire hydrant offers the positional flexibility to line up over the center or slide out as a three-technique in pass-rushing situations.
Here is the thing, though: He doesn’t always jump off the tape. Instead, Senat does the little things that help a teammate make a play but often go unnoticed. He does something hard to spot that just works.
Senat is a lane clogger against the run. He clamps his giant mitts on a lineman, controls them effortlessly and routinely takes blockers for a stroll in the backfield. Linebackers and the rest of his buddies collect the numbers, but it is Senat who makes the thing tick. Runners are routinely forced to divert their course after Senat plops himself in their way.
He is at his best working in reduced fronts, when a center is forced to confront him without any help from slip blocks or with double-team help:
Every team in the league is looking for plug-and-play, base down, run thumpers in later rounds. Senat will be the favorite of many. He can two-gap, with a game based almost exclusively around leverage and power:
Those are the boring things, but they help a team get to third down – where all the fun and games and exotic looks and blitzes come.
And there is enough pass-rush upside to warrant teams to take a look at the end of Day 2. He is no game wrecker but has enough burst and in-line power to create a nuisance in the middle of the field.
Edge-defender, Kemoko Turay, Rutgers
I credit edge-rushing guru John Owning for introducing me to Turay.
The term “freak” is thrown around liberally this time of year. It still doesn’t come close to doing Turay justice. He looks like some kind of Frankenstein creation, like a bunch of scientists went into a lab to craft the perfect pass-rusher. His proportions don’t even make sense.
It’s not just the sheer mass, though — 6-foot-4, 253 pounds, with an 80-inch wingspan. Turay pairs that with elite hops; he’s a former long jump and triple jump champion. The explosiveness out of his stance is natural. He moves with grace. This isn’t the classic body-builder type who plays with stiff hips. Turay can really move.
Those athletic traits alone will see a team take a chance on him during Day 2 of the draft.
It will be a gamble, though. Turay is a classic boom-or-bust prospect. His collegiate career was ravaged by injuries; he played just 11 games in 2015 and 2016 combined. And it’s not just that. When he did play, his production was, umm, underwhelming.
With his size and speed he should have been utterly overwhelming against opposing tackles, with the chance to slide inside and beat-up on some smaller guards in sub-packages. Teams should have been double and triple-teaming him on every snap (it’s not like he was surrounded by a bunch of stars). They didn’t. Turay just never put all his tools together.
Cornering was his biggest issue. He has the innate dip and flexibility to sink his hips and get around blockers; he fails to take advantage of it. He’s developed a strange habit of gaining an advantage — while in phase with the tackle — then giving it back. His closing angles are often far too wide, freeing up quarterbacks to climb and escape the pressure. He has to play flatter, and close with a similar intensity as when he rockets off the snap.
His lack of experience — one year of high school football and a pair of seasons wrecked by injuries — can be viewed in two lights: He hasn’t had the chance to grow, learn, and figure the game out; or it’s too late in his development cycle to learn everything on the fly while playing with and against elite competition. Teams would do well to remember growth is not linear. Most players don’t develop a bunch of skills all at once. They build piece by piece, one new skill enacting a second, and so on. if Turay can tighten up twisting around the edge, it will be the first step to unlocking his sky-high potential.
It’s not a great edge rushing class. Rare athleticism could see the Rutgers man taken much higher than the prevailing wisdom — teams known to take risks (Dallas, Seattle etc.) may be willing to take the plunge, provided his medical checks hold up. Turay has an enticing set of physical skills, it’s going to be fascinating to watch him try to package them together. If he does, look out.
Linebacker, Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus made a point last week that stuck with me: Rashaan Evans is who folks are projecting Tremaine Edmunds to be. Meaning: a linebacker who plays off-the-ball in the middle of the field, but can slide down and be an edge-rusher in certain packages.
Monson is right. Edmunds is extremely talented. His athletic traits are off-the-charts good, and he has a similar skill set to Browns linebacker Jamie Collins. I think he can come in and be one of the league’s top “rat” defenders, where he can roam and be instinctive (where Collins is also at his best).
But it all remains a projection. It’s a different role to the one he played at Virginia Tech.
Evans was the top “rat” defender in the country at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide play a carbon copy of the New England Patriots base defense. The former rotational rusher moved off-the-ball where he used his speed and tenacity to devastating effect. Evans is smart, too. You have to be to play the ‘free’ role in Nick Saban’s defense. His attitude, flexibility and new-age skill-set (a little lighter, but flies all over the filed and is a demon in zone-coverage and pattern-matching schemes) will see a coaching staff fall in love with the linebacker. Expect plenty of cajoling from head coaches and DC’s as they look to convince their general manager to land the ex-SEC star.
Cornerback, Mike Hughes, UCF
In a deep cornerback class, Mike Hughes might be the best.
I know this for sure: He is the most aesthetically pleasing. An excellent press corner, with a nose for the ball, schematic versatility, a big mouth and bigger skills. Sign me up.
Hughes is a standout athlete. He is a little shorter than the long-limbed players who fill up NFL secondaries these days. But he makes up for it with rare football intellect – his understanding of route combinations, leverage and foresight. Opposing offenses actively went away from him as 2017 went along. He was too good.
He is at his best in press coverage (top of the image):
There, he can jostle and fight with receivers all over the field. He likes the hand fight, rerouting receivers and disrupting their release.
And he can be equally as effective in off-coverage. He has the hip fluidity to move and break in space. He can, however, get caught peeking in the backfield – a problem that shrinks when he is playing bump-and-run.
There is a Marcus Peters feel to his game, with one distinct difference: Hughes isn’t allergic to tackling.
In fact, he seems to relish it:
That is a stupendous play. It might not seem important, but we now live in a bubble screen world. The game is played on the perimeter. Corners who can tackle are viewed as a premium (even if it falls way down the list of wants).
Hughes is quick out of his backpedal, with the read-and-react skills that would make a linebacker proud. The play above is perfect. He hit the outside shoulder, with anger, forcing the runner to turn back inside where he could be corralled by Hughes’ fellow defenders.
One extra tidbit: Hughes hasn’t played a lot of high-level football – he was forced to transfer from North Carolina after being charged with misdemeanor assault in 2015 (all record of the charges eventually were dropped). He spent a year at a JUCO before winding up at UCF. His upside is as exciting as any defensive back in this class.
Safety, Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
I know, I know. You don’t want to see another Alabama player on this list. But I can’t help but fall in love with late rotation, three-match safeties. The technical and mental nous needed to master the most crucial of roles in the now standardized system is immense.
Harrison, like many of the Alabama safeties before him, is a late rotation wizard. In many ways he reminds me of the run of Florida safeties who’ve had recent success in the league — Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye. Harrison isn’t quite as fast as those guys. That hurts his prospects. But he can make up for some athletic deficiencies with his mental awareness and size.
Once you get to the second and third tier of the safety class this year, it becomes a straight pick in my eyes: Southern Missouri’s Tarvarous Moore, a standout athlete with infinite upside; or Harrison, a student of the three-match system, who may never be as good an individual player as Moore, but knows the ins and outs of the league’s most prominent team construct.
For NFL’s sides, that choice will likely come down to where they feel their roster is in its life cycle or whether they’re adopting a quarters-match approach.
Defensive weapon, Oren Burks, Vanderbilt
That’s right! We’ve got ourselves another where-the-heck-does-he-line-up-and-what-do-we-call-him defender. At the top of the draft there’s Minkah Fitzpatrick (likely to wind up being a nickel guy, perhaps a boundary corner for some teams) and Derwin James (probably a nickel, maybe a safety). In the last few years we’ve seen all kinds of hybrid players dubbed defense weapons. Chuck them out there and let them go play, that’s the prevailing thought — Jabrill Peppers, Tyrann Matthieu, Budda Baker have all been multi-dimension talents with special traits that seem perfectly designed for a league that’s seeing more motion, shifting, and pass oriented personnel groupings.
It’s an effort to create position-less football. Oren Burks pushes the thought exercise to its extreme.
I first profiled Burks a couple of years ago at SEC Country. He did something that when first viewed seemed impossible: He lined up at all three levels of the defense! Regardless of the personnel grouping!! The difficulty of such a feat is hard to explain, even harder to exaggerate. And yet it will likely be looked back on in a few years as a trailblazing move – at least at the college level.
On any given down, Burks would align: as a single-high safety, as a deep safety in a two-man tandem, as a dime linebacker with 6 DBs on the field, as a traditional off-ball ‘backer, as a weakside linebacker, and even as an edge-rusher. The possibilities were, genuinely, endless! (Well, except, like, nose tackle, but don’t burst the bubble).
Of course, lining up in a bunch of positions is no great skill in and off itself. You have to excel at at least one of them to have a legitimate shot in the NFL. Excel at a lot and you’re heading to the Pro Bowl.
I have no idea how he will pan out in the league. I have no idea if the league will take him before Day 3, if he comes off the board at all. He may be hit with the “tweener” label, rather than the “versatile” or “hybrid” ones that have, for the most part, replaced the former in this age of pace-and-space football.
His undersized frame means he will likely fit best as a specialized dime linebacker, with the chance to run more funky assignments in creative blitz packages. Regardless, watching Burks feels like a peak into the future of football: Not just defenders who lineup at a bunch of different spots — but lineup at any level of the defense.