This year's NFL draft features an outstanding class of wide receivers, some intriguing quarterbacks, a handful of potential superstars at tackle and across the defense, so-so safety and running back classes, and more hype and analysis than is healthy for human consumption.
We are finally galloping into the home stretch, and Russ Lande and I have spent weeks analyzing dozens of prospects and writing thousands of words about their assets and flaws. It is time to collate everything and break down this weekend's draft, position by position and day by day, in one convenient article. Read this on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, and you can forget that the last three months of draft chatter ever happened. (Now there's an incentive!)
As we have done in other recent articles, I prance around like Robert Plant setting the stage, then Russ comes in like Jimmy Page and shreds a solo. In keeping with the music metaphor, we apply the iTunes approach to each position, breaking prospects into Essentials (Johnny Manziel, "Stairway to Heaven"), Next Steps (Jarvis Landry, "Custard Pie") and Deep Cuts (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp")
Well, that's the last time I listen to the classic rock station while editing a draft roundup. Without further ado, let's get the lead out.
Essentials: Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) is the designated boom-or-bust guy. Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville) is the safe pick some have started to think is too safe. Blake Bortles (Central Florida) plays the role of the mid-major guy you had never heard of in October who is suddenly the possible savior of your franchise.
Next Steps: It's the second tier of quarterbacks that makes the first tier so difficult to sort out this year. There are not one, not two, but three big, experienced SEC pocket passers whose last names begin with "M" (Zach Mettenberger, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray) to choose from, two of them coming off injuries. Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Savage provide three subtle varieties of B-plus caliber size-arm-accomplishment prospects. A team terrified of Manziel-Bortles but unimpressed with Bridgewater has a wide mid-round safety net of pretty good prospects.
Deep Cuts: The bottom tier of quarterback prospects includes well-known, quick-footed scatter-shooters like Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech) and Connor Shaw (South Carolina), as well as a host of hard working just-good-enough types from smaller programs like Keith Wenning (Ball State), Jeff Matthews (Cornell), David Fales (San Jose State) and Brett Smith (Wyoming). All of these guys have a calling card or two -- Thomas is massive and likeable, Boyd is highly accomplished and dependable, Smith has a fine arm and quick release, and so on -- but most max out as career backups or spot starters.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Packaged as a group, this year's quarterback class is extremely strong in terms of prospects who should be selected in the second, third and fourth rounds. But there is no one who really warrants a top-10 selection. I cannot remember evaluating so many prospects who have two or three skills to make me believe they can be quality NFL starters, while also possessing at least one major flaw that points toward their failure.
Usually, when there is no franchise quarterback, the interest in all the passers remains the same. But the following and interest surrounding Johnny Manziel is similar to that of Tim Tebow, except that Manziel was an excellent passer in college and actually has a chance of being a productive passer in the NFL.
Speaking of Johnny Football, I offer two final thoughts. After extensive work checking around, I stick with my original take: He will not do anything off the field to jeopardize his commitment to becoming the player he has the talent to be. If he is selected by a team that plans on sticking him in its current offense without tailoring it around his skills, then he will fail. However, if he goes to a team with a smart, open-minded and creative offensive coordinator who will tailor the offense around his skill set, then he will be a star. You would think that is common sense, but many offensive coordinators have a system they run and are not going to adapt it to meet anyone's needs.
Some notes on a few quarterbacks who I think have shown better skills on film than their likely draft position: Georgia's Aaron Murray is a technically sound passer with an outstanding grasp of passing concepts who has produced at a very high level his entire college career. Obviously, the knee injury will hurt his draft selection, but many have concerns about his arm strength. However, after evaluating many games I feel confident that he has at least a good enough arm. Two or three seasons from now he will take the reins and be a quality starting quarterback.
Two years ago, Logan Thomas was coming off a huge sophomore season, and many believed that if he continued to improve he would end up as the first pick in the 2013 or 2014 NFL draft. Unfortunately, his play regressed: He seemed less confident, made worse decisions and struggled with accuracy. I would love to see him to go a team with a quarterbacks coach who excels at teaching the fundamentals and is not so focused on X's and O's scheming, because Thomas has elite raw talent, and when combined with outstanding character and intangibles, there is a chance he can become a star quarterback in the NFL.
Wyoming's Brett Smith plays the game similarly to Manziel and has the funky release of Philip Rivers, but he is not viewed as an elite prospect for reasons I do not completely understand. He has consistently shown the ability to make every NFL throw, to be accurate when his feet are set and to make big plays in key situations. I believe that if he were selected by the Bears, with quarterback guru Marc Trestman as his coach, in two years he would be a better quarterback than Jay Cutler.
Essentials: There is nothing close to a top-10 talent in this class. It's not that the talent is weak. It's that the demand that has grown weak, and a wide pool of solid-but-unspectacular candidates makes it easy for teams to look past this position in the first round.
Next Steps: Mid-round talent is incredibly abundant. Carlos Hyde (Ohio State), Andre Williams (Boston College) and Jeremy Hill (LSU) lead the big-back charge, with Tre Mason (Auburn), Lache Seastrunk (Baylor), Bishop Sankey (Washington) and James White (Wisconsin) atop of deep crop of smaller slashers. Most of these backs are multi-dimensional, providing some receiving and pass protection chops in addition to pure running ability, and there are so many of them that listing them all turns this article into a phone book.
Deep Cuts: De'Anthony Thomas is among the few tiny Darren Sproles-types in this draft, and he may benefit from being among the true specialists in a field of moderately impressive generalists. With talented all-purpose players like Toledo's David Fluellen expected to be on the board in the final rounds, this class really comes down to the specific details each individual coaching staff might love about any particular runner.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: In a class of backs that do not generally excite, I am shocked that Baylor's Lache Seastrunk has not received more publicity. He is far and away the back with the best chance of becoming a game-breaker at the next level. While Seastruck is not a perfect back -- he contributed almost nothing to his college passing attack and is a little bit straight-linish -- the reality is that the biggest thing that changes in the NFL is the speed: The defenders are faster, and the holes close more quickly. Seastruck's explosive burst through the hole and the speed to get the corner and out-run angles is rare, which is why he could be an impact player in the NFL if used appropriately by an offensive coordinator.
I do not anticipate finding another Terrell Davis late in this year's draft, but two players I believe can become productive starters are Andre Williams and Bishop Sankey. Williams does not fit every type of rushing scheme used in the NFL, but if he goes to Baltimore and is used in Gary Kubiak's offense, I think his decisive, aggressive running style, combined with his strength and rare balance, will make him a productive back. Sankey is the most complete and well-rounded back in the draft and should immediately contribute as a third down back. I believe he will become a productive all-around starter before most of the other backs in the draft class, and then have a longer career.
Essentials: The best class since 1996. There is something for everyone, and Russ Lande and I broke these guys down in detail last week.
Next Steps: Receiver-desperate teams (the Panthers) can double dip in the early rounds and walk away with a pair of starters. Want to mix skyscraper Mike Evans (Texas A&M) in the first round with tiny tough guy Bruce Ellington (South Carolina) in a middle rounds? Technician Marqise Lee (USC) with size-speed marvel Martavis Bryant (Clemson)? All-around top prospect Sammy Watkins (Clemson) with blisteringly fast square peg Dri Archer (Kent State)? Unprepared athletic marvel Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) with over-prepared smooth operator Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt)? Deep threat Odell Beckham (LSU) with a short-pass gobbler like Jarvis Landry (Beckham's teammate) or Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin)? You are only limited by your imagination.
Deep Cuts: There will be fine prospects trying to make rosters as rookie free agents.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: In every draft there are numerous quality receiver prospects, but rarely are there two of the caliber of Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, two very different players. It seems that nearly every article written about Watkins describes him as an excellent runner after the catch and credits that to his explosiveness, speed and elusiveness, but none get at what is likely just as big a reason. Unlike nearly every receiver I have ever evaluated, Watkins does a great job of lowering his shoulders to make himself a smaller target and runs aggressively, which allows him to easily run through low and grab tackles and to break good wrap-up tackle attempts more than most receivers.
The breakdowns of Watkins, Evans, Beckham, Brandin Cooks and Lee have been done many times, but since running in the 4.7 range at the combine, Jarvis Landry seems to be the forgotten receiver. Although Landry lacks Beckham's explosiveness and speed, many in the NFL feel he is a better route runner, has significantly better hands and is more NFL ready in terms of polish, field awareness and consistency. That is not to say that Landry will be selected ahead of Beckham, but a handful of NFL teams have expressed to me that they are targeting him in the late second or early third round because they feel he can have the type of immediate impact that Keenan Allen did for the Chargers last season.
After blazing in his 40 at the combine, little Dri Archer has been receiving the hype as the best of the lesser known receivers, but I would strongly disagree. Not only does Archer lack the height teams prefer, but more of an issue is that he is not big enough to keep his feet after contact and does not seem to have natural hands. He often fights the ball and drops some passes he should easily catch.
Two lesser-hyped small school receivers that most NFL teams have ranked significantly higher than Archer are Jeff Janis from Saginaw Valley State and Robert Herron from Wyoming. Janis is a big receiver at over 6-fot with a solid, muscular frame and deceptive playing speed. While he is not a blazer, his speed is definitely better than average. Combined with his size, strength and balance, he will be able to consistently gain yards after contact at the NFL level. Herron is not a tall receiver, but he is thickly built, changes directions in a heartbeat, runs sharp routes and has outstanding hands. Neither Janis nor Herron is likely to be a high pick, but I believe both have the tools to become quality, productive receivers in the NFL.
Essentials: Eric Ebron (North Carolina) is the seam-stretching matchup headache offensive coordinators crave. Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) is an old-school blocker with plenty of receiving chops for a team with a power offense and a willingness to wait out a foot injury.
Next Steps: Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) is a pumped-up slot receiver; in today's NFL, that is not really an insult anymore. Troy Niklas is a cousin of the Matthews dynasty and a taller, bulkier version of the standard-issue tight end Notre Dame has produced in recent years.
Deep Cuts: C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa) is a rugged in-line blocker with useful short passing chops. Crockett Gillmore (Colorado State) rocketed through the college all-star process and looks like Sleeper Gronkowski in his best moments. Arthur Lynch (Georgia) is an H-back type. There are plenty of late-round tight ends who can help as special-teamers and role players, but there are fewer Antonio Gates wannabes than in years past.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: While the focus has primarily been on Eric Ebron and the big three tight ends in this year's draft, I have to admit that I was stunned by Georgia's Arthur Lynch when I evaluated him over six games. No one is going to mistake Lynch for Ebron athletically, but Lynch is a smooth and fluid athlete with good speed and excellent body control and balance. He is able to make great catches seem routine, keep his feet and consistently gain yards when running after contact. Lynch is not going to be an early pick, but he reminds me a lot of current Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, and I am confident he can be just as productive once he gets settled in the NFL.
Essentials: Greg Robinson (Auburn) is the brawn; Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) is the technician. Either would have fit squarely into 2013's tackle-heavy first round. Quick-footed Taylor Lewan (Michigan) fits best on Shanahan-Kubiak style teams like the Ravens. Some experts feel Zack Martin (Notre Dame) will move to guard, but he is a solid prospect at right tackle.
Next Steps: A medical mystery and inconsistency hurt Cyrus Kouandjio's stock, but he is a first-round value if the rumors about an arthritic condition are false or exaggerated. Morgan Moses (Virginia) still looks like he is just shoving guys in a bar fight at times, but he is huge and athletic and seems to know that he needs to keep learning. Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) has limited upside but can be a capable starter if not asked to protect the blind side alone for 45 passes per game.
Deep Cuts: This tackle class tails off sharply after the top players. Super-talented headcase Seantrel Henderson will be hanging around on Day Three for teams seeking that 2013 Dolphins vibe on the offensive line.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Once upon a time, finding a quality left tackle seemed a daunting task, but over the past decade there seem to be more big, athletic tackles entering the NFL then I can remember. It is a virtual lock that three offensive tackles -- Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan -- will be selected within the first half of the first round. That leaves the over/under for offensive tackles selected in the first round at five, and I think it will be over. Teams late in the first round will select players like Zack Martin, Morgan Moses, Joel Bitonio and Cyrus Kouandjio.
One tackle I am sure will not be a first round draft pick and could slide until the late rounds of the draft is McGill's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. To me, it would be crazy for him to fall that far. Although the level of competition at McGill is far lower than even FCS, finding 6-foot-5 offensive tackles who are over 300 pounds and have elite foot quickness and athleticism is hard. He needs work on his hand use and overall technique, but with his character, intelligence, intangibles, size and athleticism, he has starting left tackle talent and should be selected in the third or fourth round of the draft.
Guard and Center
Essentials: Guards David Yankey (Stanford) and Xavier Su'a-Filo (UCLA) are big, bright, athletic and industrious.
Next Steps: The center class is weak, which explains why the Jaguars and Browns played contract tug-of-war with Alex Mack. Marcus Martin (USC) and Weston Richburg (Colorado State) may be the only centers drafted before Saturday. Guard is much deeper, with Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson and Baylor's Cyril Richardson representing the 330-pound road graders and Joel Bitonio (Nevada) emigrating from left tackle to provide athleticism.
Deep Cuts: As usual, late-round guard prospects look like guys who will lose roster spots to mid-round tackle prospects. Andy Reid types seeking smart, determined semi-athletes at center in the final rounds can choose from gritty-and-jacked-but-slow Bryan Stork (Florida State), small-school wonder Matt Armstrong (Grand Valley State) or a guy Russ is about to talk about.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Two prospects that I hear could go drastically higher than many expect are LSU guard Trai Turner and Ohio State center Corey Linsley. I knew little of Turner when I began evaluating LSU film, but it was clear immediately that he has starting talent and should be able to step into a starting role quickly in the NFL. After he impressed me on film, I was further impressed with his athleticism, flexibility and strength during his individual workout at LSU's pro day. I have no doubt he can start at guard or center in the NFL and will be off the board within the first two rounds.
Linsley is a whole other story. I was not impressed with him on film due to a lack of athleticism and flexibility. However, I have heard that NFL teams are impressed with his strength, technique and competitiveness and that he could be a surprise late first-round pick. While I agree with Turner being drafted high, I cannot figure out why people have fallen in love with Linsley.
Defensive End/Pass Rusher
Essentials: Doubt Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) at your risk. If you consider Khalil Mack (Buffalo) more of an all-purpose linebacker than an edge rusher, like we do, then Clowney sits atop a relatively thin class. Dee Ford (Auburn) is wonderfully fast and aggressive as a 3-4 outside linebacker, while Kony Ealy (Mizzou) is an old-school 4-3 end. After that, there are several interesting, flawed and divisive prospects like Anthony Barr (UCLA).
Next Steps: There may not be many mortal locks among pass rushers, but there is plenty of mid-tier developmental talent. Teams willing to be patient as small-college ends convert into NFL 3-4 outside linebackers may be happy in a few years that they selected ornery Arkansas defensive end Chris Smtih or huge-and-explosive (but raw) North Carolina defender Kareem Martin.
Deep Cuts: Michael Sam (Mizzou) leads an intriguing Day Three group. Trent Murphy (Stanford) looks like a Mike Vrabel in search of a Bill Belichick, but put him in the wrong scheme and he is a wasted pick. Brent Urban (Virgina) looks like the star of the basketball team -- Pete Carroll or Wade Phillips could mix and match him properly, but a team with less creativity and too many J.J. Watt fantasies could be selecting a square peg.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: For me, Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy has been one of the hardest players in this year's draft class to get a good feel for. The reason is that when I evaluated him on film, I saw a quick, active, highly competitive and polished player who was able to stay free from pass blocks to consistently pressure the quarterback. In addition, he played with great effort and intensity taking on run blocks and was often able to hold ground against much bigger blockers, flashing the ability to shed and make plays on runs right at him and to chase down plays in pursuit.
This initial evaluation left me in a quandary after he looked so stiff, slow and un-athletic during Senior Bowl practice week (although he did play well in the actual game). I came away questioning his ability to translate his college production to the NFL. Prior to the Senior Bowl, I though Murphy would be an excellent third-round pick who would likely out-produce his draft status because of his complete skill set. However, after seeing him struggle athletically in Mobile, I have real concerns. I would still take him in the third round because he was so productive on film, but I am not nearly as confident in his ability to be successful in the NFL.
Essentials: Aaron Donald (Pitt) is nasty and strong, if a little small for his role. Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota) is a Pro Bowl two-gap player when rested and focused, which needs to be more often. Louis Nix (Notre Dame) and Timmy Jernigan (Florida State) round out the top of a class that has a little something for every scheme and need.
Next Steps: The middle rounds are stacked. Dominique Easley (Florida) could be a John Randle type if his ACLs do not betray him. Stephon Truitt (Notre Dame) also has high upside. Will Sutton (Arizona State) is a poor team's Donald: short but quick and tenacious. Mountainous creatures like Justin Ellis (Louisiana Tech) and Daniel McCullers (Tennessee) can thicken the interior soup for teams like the Bears, who need 25 snaps of extra beef up the middle.
Deep Cuts: Day Three will belong to a parade of mostly undistinguished wide bodies. Keep your eyes on Zach Kerr (Delaware), who is shaped like a Mini Cooper and looks like a Hollis Thomas clone at times.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Many of the players listed above have excellent upside and therefore will be drafted higher than Wisconsin's Beau Allen. But every time I watch the film of Allen I keep thinking he will outperform many of the players drafted higher than him. While not a premier athlete, Allen has consistently displayed the quickness off the ball to get his hands on offensive linemen first, which helps him to slip free from blocks to disrupt plays behind the line. More impressive is his ability to take on run blockers at the point of attack. He sets his anchor, gets a good fit on blockers, holds his ground and can clog the middle. Unlike many defensive tackles who can hold ground versus one-on-one run blocks, Allen impressed with his ability to take on double-team blocks with good technique and leverage, shutting down the inside run. I doubt Allen will be selected until the later rounds, but for a team that plays a 3-4 defense, he has many of the traits to become a solid, workmanlike starting nose tackle.
The Essentials: Khalil Mack (Buffalo) is a do-it-all linebacker too good against the run and in pursuit to be pigeonholed as just another pass rusher. C.J. Mosley (Alabama) is Saban-trained and aggressive, a smart gap shooter up the middle. There are always plenty of rank-and-file linebackers who hustle and hit hard, but Mack and Mosely are two players in this class with rare skills at the position.
Next Steps: There is ample off-the-rack talent. Chris Borland (Wisconsin) will start immediately and play for eight years, though he does not get the pulse racing. Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) can fly around the field but is a drag-down or bounce-off tackler. Shayne Skov (Stanford) is smart and feisty but slow -- Harbaugh or Belichick can use him brilliantly, but other coaching staffs could whiff. And so on.
Deep Cuts: There are plenty of decent players to go around.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Constantly overlooked in the draft process, BYU's Kyle Van Noy is the most well-rounded outside linebacker in the draft, which is why I believe he will be a first-round pick and can be effective playing in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme. If you play him in a 4-3 scheme, you better let him rush the passer on passing downs, or else you will be wasting his rare pass rushing ability and instincts. Smart and instinctive, he reads and reacts to the play fast, has the speed to track down ball-carriers in pursuit and has the body control and athleticism to adjust and tackle well in space.
What separates Van Noy from nearly all the other linebackers is that he excels both rushing the passer and in coverage. Quick and smooth dropping off the ball into coverage, he can flip his hips to adjust, closes quickly on receiver and has the ball skills to break-up or intercept passes. Do not be surprised if Van Noy is selected ahead of players like C.J. Mosley and Dee Ford, as he is more versatile than both.
The Essentials: It's a three-man race at the top of an ordinary class. Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State) is the top athlete but mistake prone. Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) is more polished but smaller. Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) is a Lovie Smith type: smart, polished and physical, but lacking top speed.
Next Steps: TCU's Justin Verrett and Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner are mighty mites who can be very useful if matched up carefully. With his legal problems and boom-or-bust potential, Bradley Roby (Ohio State) might as well get that Patriots tattoo now.
Deep Cuts: There are tons of tall Richard Sherman wannabes, and many of them have potential to be useful players, if not future All-Pros. It will be interesting to see when Keith McGill (Utah), Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska), and Pierre Desir (Lindenwood) leave the board, and how the television experts react to their selections. The "teams are trying to be like the Seahawks" drinking game could pickle your liver. If all these types leave the board before Saturday mid-afternoon, it will set the stage for medium-sized sleepers like Duke's Ross Cockrell or Auburn Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis to slip onto rosters and provide marketable skills that don't begin with height.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Looking back and remembering players like Aaron Glenn, Ray Mickens, Antoine Winfield and Brandon Flowers makes me careful not to push TCU cornerback Jason Verrett too far down due to his lack of height. Too many scouts this year have told me that, excluding height, he is far and away the best cornerback in the draft and has the talent to not only start as a slot cornerback, but also can become a good starting outside corner. While he lacks height, he is strong, enjoys playing physically and consistently plays bigger than his measured size. Coaches at TCU marvel at how technically sound he was when he arrived and how he has improved in nearly every area each season. I have no doubt that Verrett will fall below many of the bigger names because they have the height advantage, but in today's pass-happy NFL, every team basically starts three cornerbacks. I believe Verrett will turn out to be a more consistent and productive cornerback than nearly all the corners selected ahead of him.
The Essentials: Calvin Pryor (Louisville) possesses the complete package. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) is big, strong and Saban-saturated. Neither is Earl Thomas, and this is not a great class.
Next Steps: Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois) is a joy to watch, a playmaker who is just a notch below the size-speed ideals. Terrence Brooks (Florida State) is an oversized slot corner. Deone Bucannon (Washington State) is an enforcer type entering a league understandably wary of enforcer types.
Deep Cuts: The safety talent gets ordinary in a hurry.
RUSS LANDE'S TAKE: Two players that I feel do not get the credit they deserve are Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward and Minnesota's Brock Vereen. Ward has often been labeled as clearly the third best safety in a not so great safety class, but to me the only area he rates below Clinton-Dix and Pryor is height. Quick attacking plays in front of him, Ward gets up field fast and does something few NFL safeties do, which is stay under control to make sure he wraps up while delivering a hard hit. Having started his college career as a cornerback, it is obvious when watching film that his coverage skills are more advanced than most safeties. That will enable him to be effective playing all types of coverage in the NFL. While no one ideally wants a 5-foot-10 safety, I would rather have a very good short safety than a taller safety who lacks instincts, is over-aggressive and misses too many tackles.
Vereen is not the aggressive, violent player that Ward often is, but he is a smooth, fluid and extremely efficient player who excels in man, off and zone coverage. While not a hitter, he is a good tackler. Vereen likely won't be selected until the late third round at the earliest, but I believe that with his physical talent, intangibles, intelligence and competitiveness, he will develop into a versatile safety who can be equally effective lined up in deep coverage or up covering a slot receiver.
Going Deep: Chris Boswell (Rice) is a kickoff specialist who can help a contender trying to get by with an aging sharpshooter at kicker. Given a year of good coaching, he could become a David Akers or Justin Tucker. Anthony Fera (Texas) is more of a cold-blooded sniper whose range barely reaches 50 yards and whose kickoffs aren't great. Kirby Van Der Kamp (Iowa State) is the second coming of Tom Tupa, a directional punter with sneaky rushing and passing ability on fakes. Tom Hornsey (Memphis) is more like Sav Rocca, a burly Aussie with a big leg.