By Russ Lande
We're less than two weeks away from the 2014 NFL draft. Soon, all the misinformation meant to deceive other teams will be behind us, and we can focus on each team's actual selections. Until then, the rumors will continue to fly -- and while I'm not immune to being fed misleading information, I try to find out what NFL personnel are discussing in draft meetings rather than attempting to find out which players will be selected by which teams. Below are just a few things I've heard over the past few weeks.
When the subject of quarterbacks comes up, it seems that the only names mentioned are Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and now Tom Savage. But another player that a number of NFL personnel have mentioned to me recently is San Jose State's David Fales. After an up-and-down performance at the Senior Bowl, many in the media wrote off Fales -- but many teams believe he has the traits to be a quality starter in the NFL. There is little doubt that Fales's arm strength is a major concern, but on film, I saw a good enough arm to make all the NFL throws -- and NFL personnel confirmed that. During my time working in the NFL, I was repeatedly told that intangibles often separate quarterbacks who succeed from those who fail -- and Fales is a star in that area. He has natural leadership skills; he possesses the intelligence to make excellent decisions at the line of scrimmage and while in the pocket; and he'll stand strong in the pocket and take the hard hit to complete a pass. I am not mentioning all these things to convince you that Fales will be a high draft pick, but the people I spoke with told me they expect him to be a third- or fourth-round pick who has many of the traits to become a starter in the NFL.
There have been a ton of articles about potential "sleepers" in the draft -- I wrote one recently -- but I haven't seen anyone write about Auburn cornerback Chris Davis. NFL people have been talking him up over the past few weeks. Often written off as just a returner, Davis impressed with a great week in Mobile -- both in practice and the game -- and has continued climbing draft boards since. Although he lacks the plus size to make NFL teams drool, at 5'10" he is more than tall enough. Combined with his muscular build, athleticism, explosiveness and physical playing style, he plays like a future starting cornerback. In today's NFL, where big receivers are the norm, Davis's ability to play strong and re-route much bigger receivers will help him greatly, as will his consistently ability to go over or through receivers to break up passes. His combination of skills gives him the versatility to be productive as both an outside and slot cornerback at the next level. When you factor in his return ability, don't be shocked if Davis is drafted much higher -- in the second or third round -- than more well-known cornerbacks.
Every year in draft meetings, there are players that cause big debates. Often, those debates are between the scouting department and coaches as they have different priorities when they evaluate players. Scouting departments usually place a higher priority on competitiveness, consistent production, technique and fundamentals; many coaches look at athletic ability and are willing to overlook many deficiencies because they believe they can "coach them up." From what I'm hearing, two likely first-round picks -- UCLA's Anthony Barr and Ohio State's Bradley Roby -- have been highly debated in many draft meetings. No one is arguing that Barr should not be a first-round pick; rather, the debate centers around whether he warrants being a top 10 or 15 selection. He is a rare athlete with the explosiveness off the ball and speed to get the corner and pressure the quarterback. Combined with his outstanding character and intangibles, coaches seem comfortable with him being an unpolished player who doesn't show great competitiveness against the run.
While Roby is most certainly going to be a first-round pick, numerous scouts have told me that they would not select him that high. After a spectacular 2012 season, Roby was one of the best cornerbacks in the country entering the 2013 season. But when he was suspended for the season opener, he readily admitted during his media session at the Combine that he didn't prepare well leading up to the season because of the suspension. As a result, he didn't play well early in the season. His performance against Wisconsin is especially concerning, because while Jared Abberderis is regarded as a good prospect, he is slight-framed and was able to physically dominate Roby, catching one pass after another. Then Roby didn't play in Ohio State's Bowl game due to a reported injury, which cast further doubt on his competitiveness since it was a chance to go head-to-head with Clemson's Sammy Watkins. NFL personnel have also told me that his intangibles are a major concern -- as evidenced by his arrest on April 20 -- and they would not want to use a first-round pick on him. But despite these concerns, I've been told that many coaches feel comfortable that they can get Roby to return to his 2012 form because he's a smart young man and one of the best athletes in the draft. I have little doubt that Roby will be selected in the first round because of his physical talent.