By Russ Lande
The draft is finally less than a month away, which means most of the pro days are over, personal workouts/visits are in full swing and rumors are everywhere. For those who have never attended a pro day, let me assure you that despite the players working out, there is a lot of standing around by NFL personnel, which leads to discussions and keeps the rumor mills running. It is next to impossible to ferret out the truth from intentional deception, but I try my best, and this is what I've gleaned this week.
With the success NFL offenses have had using moveable chess pieces like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates around to create mismatches over the last decade, it's no wonder finding the next impact tight end is near the top of every offensive coach's wish list. Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro have received the lion's share of attention leading up to the draft, but as I've been reminded numerous times in the last month, Austin Seferian-Jenkins was often a dominating player for Washington. When he burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2011, a number of scouts told me he possessed the rare combination of size and strength to be a great blocker, and the hands and receiving skills to make big plays catching the ball. Despite being overshadowed by others leading up to the draft, Seferian-Jenkins will definitely be selected before the second round is over and could sneak his way into the bottom of the first round. For teams that still ask their tight ends to block at a high level, he is the tight end they will likely look toward, as his ability to dominate defenders at the point of attack is rare for a player with his receiving skills.
Penn State's Allen Robinson is viewed by NFL teams as an impact player because of his ability to consistently run through tackle attempts and turn short passes into big plays, but his lack of perceived explosiveness had some thinking he might slide out of the top 40 on draft day. But after an outstanding pro day, the odds of him being the "sleeper" receiver who becomes a star after being selected in the late second or early third round is pretty much out the window. Although he lacks the rare size of Mike Evans, Robinson has consistently been mentioned in the same breath by NFL personnel -- as a big, thickly built receiver with great ball skills that could be a game changer at the next level. Few big receivers are as polished coming into the league as he is, and combined with his willingness to catch passes in heavy traffic right before taking big hits, he has all the tools to make an immediate impact. Scouts have told me that teams looking for a big-bodied receiver could get the same value waiting and taking him in the bottom of the first round rather than trading up to go after Evans. Aside from size, they feel there's no real comparison between him and Kelvin Benjamin when it comes to on-field consistency, effort and production -- which is why they expect Robinson will be drafted ahead of Benjamin.
Leading up to the LSU pro day, I was excited to see guard Trai Turner work out; he impressed me on film, and scouts had told me he was definitely a top-60 pick and could even force his way into the first round. Although not muscular, Turner has broad shoulders and a thick lower body, which enables him to easily control his man once engaged. On film, Turner displayed good athleticism and flexibility, and he reinforced those attributes during his workout. His ability to sink his hips and maintain base throughout the drills was impressive, and it accentuated his ability to move easily side-to-side to adjust and maintain versus quick pass rush moves. The majority of powerful guards struggle when asked to move their feet and block in space, but Turner has the agility to pull effectively, can turn up into the hole and can adjust to seal block the defender out of the play. Because I felt that Kevin Zeitler was over-drafted by a round when he came out, when I see Turner's skill set I would not be surprised at all if a team selected him with one of the final ten picks of the first round.
In a year with many solid-but-unspectacular running backs, there are two backs -- Missouri's Henry Josey and Clemson's Rod McDowell -- who will likely be late draft picks or priority free agent signings. Neither one is expected to become a feature back, but they both possess the skills to stick and carve out NFL careers. Josey was a highly recruited back coming out of high school, and he seemed on the verge of fulfilling that promise before a terrible knee injury ended his 2011 season. While he may never be the same back he was before the injury, he played his best football since the injury in 2013. An elusive runner with natural instincts and vision, Josey is a dangerous player when he gets the ball out in space. Although he lacks great size, he does a good job in pass protection and catches the ball well, which is why people tell me they feel Josey has the tools to make it as a third down back.
While Josey received a ton of national attention for his gaudy stats and the severe knee injury he suffered, McDowell is virtually unknown to the "draftniks" for a variety of reasons. Usually backs need to be explosive, with the ability to change games if they're going to stick as backups; McDowell is not. He is, however, a good pass blocker; a stronger-than-expected runner between the tackles; and he possesses outstanding hands. His lack of blazing speed does not keep him from being able to change directions in a flash to get to open holes or easily make tacklers miss. Due to Josey's knee injury and McDowell's lack of speed, I would be surprised if either is drafted before the sixth or seventh round -- if they are drafted at all -- but both are players I've been hearing scouts talk about as underrated backs who could surprise and carve out a role in the NFL.