NFL Draft

The top 100 prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft:

All the evaluations are in the books and you can check out my detailed positional rankings for every unit in the draft right here on my page. So now it’s time to combine them all and bring to you my combined big board. Unlike the positional breakdowns, this is actually taking injuries into contact, which we’re aware off at the moment, since I obviously don’t have insight into the respective medical records. NFL teams of course also have the benefit of being able to interview these young men. I don’t have that luxury of making personal connections and weighing their characters, but I see myself as a pretty damn good talent evaluator.

Three players I disqualified from this list, because I simply don’t have the medical information to judge how much I should move them on my board – Michigan edge defender David Ojabo, Nevada quarterback Carson Strong and LSU linebacker Damone Clark. All three would be inside my top-50 otherwise, in that order. You can make out where they would come in based on my positional rankings. And Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross is another guy I struggled with trying to rank, since I simply don’t have knowledge about where he stands medically.

Either way, this is how I stack up basically the first three rounds of this draft:

 

Continue reading

All the evaluations are in the books and you can check out my detailed positional rankings for every unit in the draft right here on my page. So now it’s time to combine them all and bring to you my combined big board. Unlike the positional breakdowns, this is actually taking injuries into contact, which we’re aware off at the moment, since I obviously don’t have insight into the respective medical records. NFL teams of course also have the benefit of being able to interview these young men. I don’t have that luxury of making personal connections and weighing their characters, but I see myself as a pretty damn good talent evaluator.

Three players I disqualified from this list, because I simply don’t have the medical information to judge how much I should move them on my board – Michigan edge defender David Ojabo, Nevada quarterback Carson Strong and LSU linebacker Damone Clark. All three would be inside my top-50 otherwise, in that order. You can make out where they would come in based on my positional rankings. And Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross is another guy I struggled with trying to rank, since I simply don’t have knowledge about where he stands medically.

Either way, this is how I stack up basically the first three rounds of this draft:

 

Continue reading

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft:

We have reached the point of our final positional draft rankings and of course we’re going to end with the most divisive group – the QBs. The NFL has seen their picture of what those guys should look like change over the last decade, from statuesque pocket passers to more mobile play-makers. However, the kings of the sport right now are the ones capable of making big throws from within the pocket with their special arm talent and add that out-of-structure element when needed.

This group has largely been labelled lackluster and while it’s obviously nowhere close to the same level that we saw a year ago, with four legitimate prospects worthy of going in the top ten and another player with a very high floor, who actually outproduced the rest of the pack, I heavily disagree with the general consensus on these guys and how they are portrayed by the media. I have three names on here that I think are all worthy of going in the first round – although one of those comes in with the caveat of needing a clean medical report – with another guy in that top-50 range, while two names that are typically considered to be part of the top tier I’m significantly lower on. Plus, I have one sleeper on here, that I don’t ever hear discussed.

Let’s dive into these guys:

 

Continue reading

We have reached the point of our final positional draft rankings and of course we’re going to end with the most divisive group – the QBs. The NFL has seen their picture of what those guys should look like change over the last decade, from statuesque pocket passers to more mobile play-makers. However, the kings of the sport right now are the ones capable of making big throws from within the pocket with their special arm talent and add that out-of-structure element when needed.

This group has largely been labelled lackluster and while it’s obviously nowhere close to the same level that we saw a year ago, with four legitimate prospects worthy of going in the top ten and another player with a very high floor, who actually outproduced the rest of the pack, I heavily disagree with the general consensus on these guys and how they are portrayed by the media. I have three names on here that I think are all worthy of going in the first round – although one of those comes in with the caveat of needing a clean medical report – with another guy in that top-50 range, while two names that are typically considered to be part of the top tier I’m significantly lower on. Plus, I have one sleeper on here, that I don’t ever hear discussed.

Let’s dive into these guys:

 

Continue reading

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 safeties in the 2022 NFL Draft:

We have reached our final defensive unit of our positional draft rankings series, before we finish up with the quarterbacks next week. Evaluating the safety spot throughout the years, we have largely gone away from the classic distinction of the center-fielding free safety and more of your in-the-box strong safety, which the Seattle cover-three bail system made so popular, to more do-it-all type of players on the backend, as more teams transition to two-high structures.

In this class, there’s a bunch of guys who offer that kind of versatile skill-set, while there’s a bunch of guys further down who could be plugged into more defined roles and find their way onto the field. To me there’s a name at the top that I think has received too much of the hype, which kind of takes away from what I believe is a very close second tier, as I have five total names currently inside my top-50 overall prospects. And I’ll have a couple of sleepers towards the bottom of the group.

So without further ado, here’s my list:

 


 

Kyle Hamilton

 

1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame

6’4”, 220 pounds; JR

This was the number five safety of the 2018 recruiting class. Following a redshirt year, Hamilton intercepted four passes, of which he took one back to the house, and broke up another six, making him a Freshman All-American. In 2020, his pick-total went down to just one, but he still recorded six PBUs and actually improved quite a bit, while being more involved near the line of scrimmage, with 51 solo tackles, with 4.5 for loss. His final season was cut short after seven games due to a knee injury, but not before picking off three passes, breaking up another seven and getting a couple of TFLs, leading to back-to-back first-team All-American selections.

Hamilton was clearly the second-best player on that Irish defense behind only Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2020, flying around and constantly finding himself around the football. Last year he was the star of the show as long as he was available for. This dude presents a legitimate 6’4”, 220-pound frame, along with 33-inch arms and about an 80-inch wingspan, which is unique for any safety. Hamilton is a heat-seeking missile racing up the alley. Running jet sweeps or end-arounds his way when he can trigger down is almost impossible. And he has an impressive ability to almost make receivers miss, who are trying to shield him on screens and stuff like that. If they do manage to get in front of him, he can effectively swipe down their hands to keep his frame clean. However, as a single-high safety, he does an outstanding job of gaining ground, but staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and executing secure breakdown tackles. He makes good usage of the sideline and leverages the ball exceptionally well, in accordance to position on the field and the teammates around him. What’s impressive to me as well is how low he aims as a tackler despite his height and how effective he is at doing so, wrapping those tightly around the legs of ball-carriers and driving through contact and twisting them down. You see quite a few runs that look like potentially breakaways and he’s the last line of defense, but finds a way to limit them to yards or so. In 2021, Hamilton missed just two of 32 tackling attempts.

This guy has crazy size and length for the way he can roam on the back-end, with those absurdly long strides. He’s a super instinctive player, who lets his eyes take him to the ball. Hamilton has such freaky closing burst that he can stay balanced as patterns develop and then just turn on the jets and crowd the catch point, where his length and size are a major plus. He had a couple of interceptions in the 2021 season-opener against Florida State, including an incredible one at the sideline, coming all the way from the opposite hash. You like what he presents as a hang/flat/seam-type of defender, where he can play in-between routes and drift towards one target initially, before he sees the quarterback progress off it and get underneath the higher stretch of the pattern. As a robber, you see him sit on one hash and a hook route being thrown in-between those and Hamilton gets there just as the ball arrives there. His length is a serious make-up tool, where he’s kind of playing in-between routes and can disrupt the catch point for somebody on the sideline.

Last season, he spent just over half of his snaps in the slot last season (227), a quarter of those as a deep safety and a little less than that in the box. You saw him match tight-ends a lot, where his length to disrupt guys off the line, his ability to hang down the seams and the size to not be taken advantage on make him a brilliant projection for that type of role. The same is true for big-bodied, more possession-oriented receivers, particularly rolling his hips against inside breaks, where he doesn’t overreact to how vertical routes are stemmed and attaches to the man’s hip pocket quickly. For his career, Hamilton has been responsible for just 39 completions on 82 targets for 388 yards and one touchdown, while interception eight(!) passes himself. Altogether, that results in a passer rating allowed of 25.9 when targeted. That is the lowest among FBS safeties over that time-span. And of course, his reliable tackling skills, particularly working up from depth, is key in the pass game as well. Notre Dame blitzed him off the edge a couple of times per game, where he can not only chase down the ball from the backside, but has also run over backs in protection and knocked down quick throws by elevating as the QB releases the ball.

While there isn’t a whole lot to criticize about Hamilton in run support, he has to be a little careful as a runner due to his height. He has come in high on numerous occasions and been flagged for it at times. The pass game is much more the area I want to focus on. Playing man against slot receivers, having to turn and run from the slot when not being able to slow them down with his hands was challenging, along with not having great hand-eye coordination to locate the ball at the end. Hamilton’s range at this point is kind of overrated, based on that pick he had against Florida State. I didn’t feel like he had another one like that this past season. When he can play top-down and just trigger on stuff, his closing burst is certainly impressive, but if he has to bail into two-deep shells or rotates into the deep middle, he seems to sort of mindlessly drift into space, where you see the ball clearly being handed off or flicked out on quick passes already. Hamilton to me is kind of a straight-line athlete, without great flexibility to adjust his path, as he triggers on one route and the ball goes somewhere different. And I had to watch those kinds of plays multiple times, but I felt like Hamilton saw the general direction of where the QB wanted to go, but just didn’t see where the eyes went and guessed wrong to some degree. You can also affect him with eye-candy to some degree and create throwing windows for a slant behind him as he gets pulled him up with a screen fake off orbit motion and stuff like that.

This was a very interesting evaluation. I went into the process with the idea of Hamilton being an elite prospect in regard to guys at other position. While he is my SAF1, I came away a little underwhelmed from the tape, with that notion in mind. With a player like this that has pretty much linebacker size, but having played deep a lot, position fit is always a big question. That can be looked at a positive for sure, but I have some concerns about his profile. I was shocked to see him be tied for the worst 40 among safeties at 4.59 (although he was weaving sideways way too much). That 38-inch vert and 10’11” broad jump, plus him having clocked in at 21 MPH on the GPS before (according to Bruce Feldman), doesn’t leave me too worried about that part of his game and I think he’s the best all-around run-defending safety in the class, but in terms of his deployment in coverage, he may offer too much of a narrow skill-set.

 

 

Jaquan Brisker

 

2. Jaquan Brisker, Penn State

6’1”, 205 pounds; JR

The number one safety recruit in 2019, Brisker quickly turned himself into a key cog for the Nittany Lions, as over his first two years (22 games), he recorded 88 total tackles, four for loss, three picks and nine more passes broken up. As a junior he set or tied career-bests, with 63 tackles, six of those for loss, a couple of picks and five PBUs, earning second-team All-American honors.

This guy plays downhill constantly and brings the physicality of a linebacker. Brisker confidently steps down and fills gaps against the run as a member of the box, yet he’s quick to shoot up the alley and if a blocker gets in his way, he’s usually the first one to initiate contact and extends his arms, to be able to get off as the ball-carrier approaches. He’s great at setting the edge, stopping tight-ends working up to him at the spot, and keeping backside contain. Against screens, he displays a quick trigger, to where he’s often times not even touched by blockers. Brisker can lay the wood, when he gets a chance to, but he’s also reliable as bringing ball-carriers to the ground, missing just one of his 60 tackling attempts in 2020. This past season that number jumped up all the way to ten, but he was playing through a shoulder harness and you saw his form altered to some degree, not wrapping up properly. I still really like the way he leverages the ball and cuts down his strides, to not allow guys to juke him. You see Brisker come in late and push the pile backwards quite routinely and he shows great pursuit blitzing off the edge or coming from depth.

When he’s rushing off the edge, I’ve even seen him take offensive tackles off balance. He had an incredible chase-down tackle against Ohio State last season, where the Buckeyes’ sensational freshman RB Treyveon Henderson had blown by the play-side safety and all the way from the opposite hash, Brisker despite almost being off the screen even on the All-22 somehow was able to just twist him down at the two-yard line. And he was all over the field in Penn State’s 2021 season-opener against Wisconsin, coming up with several key plays, including pretty much a game-sealing pick, where he was in man-coverage on the back and with that guy staying in protection, had the freedom to float underneath a streaking tight-end. That’s just one of the plays that speaks to his impeccable football IQ.

First and foremost about Brisker in coverage, he shows outstanding awareness of where everybody is on the field. He was deployed a lot as a single-high free safety in 2020, despite being built to play closer to the line of scrimmage and even when lined up in split-looks, he quickly gets towards the middle of the field. I’ve seen him showcase the range to go from one hash to the opposite sideline and hit receivers in the back, as they try to catch corner routes. At the same time, he displays tremendous anticipation for route combinations and is a threat to undercut deep out routes in quarters, if the slot receiver doesn’t really sell vertically. In ’21 we saw a lot more man-coverage, where Brisker was matched up against several different body-types and got the job done, often times versus number three in trips. From off-alignment, he keeps his feet bouncing and is looking to engage contact, to determine route stems. He displays good awareness for targets around him to bracket when needed as a robber, and when playing top-down, he punishes quite a few pass-catchers for having to elevate for the ball or catch the ball in front of him, as he’s breathing down their neck. You see him just blow guys up on slant routes, screaming down from split-safety looks, and think twice about hitting backside digs. His ability to see things coming and fight through the catch-point led to the third-best forced incompletion rate among draft-eligible safeties at 27.3%. And overall, he limited opposing quarterbacks to just 12 completions, 105 yards and one touchdown on 21 targets this past season, while intercepting two of those himself.

With that being said, Brisker can get a little too aggressive with his angles working across the field, in split-safety looks or dropping down as the robber. As a center-fielder on the other hand, he tends to float very deep and give receivers plenty of room to operate behind the underneath coverage, while ball-carriers are given extra yardage because he’s so far off the ball. In general, I’d say he’s definitely better going forward than backwards. In deep coverage, he tends to be manipulated by quarterbacks too easily, instead of his eyes going to the biggest/most imminent vertical threat first, to put himself in position and choose his angle appropriately, before toggling back towards the QB if he’s rotating from a split-safety look. This past season, he was primarily deployed in the box or as a robber – according to PFF’s tracking, he spent over 150 snaps in the slot and deep respectively, while he was in the box for 433. So in an NFL, where you see a lot more two-hell shells and safeties being asked to be interchangeable with playing the deep post, some evaluators may prefer other options.

Personally, Brisker is one of my favorite overall players in this entire draft. His aggressiveness in run-support, the ability to play through in the box, his tackling skills (when healthy) and his overall feel for the game made me a fan. Now, I don’t want to see him be used as a true single-high safety necessarily and at times he needs to be a little more conservative with his angles when he is put to one side, but there’s a lot to like in terms of the talent and demeanor on the field. And I think he cemented himself as one of top safeties with his athletic testing, as he ran a 4.43 at his pro day and improved his vert to 38.5 inches, along with a 10’4” broad jump at the combine and agility numbers above the 80th percentile.

 

 

Lewis Cine

 

3. Lewis Cine, Georgia

6’1”, 200 pounds; JR

A top-50 overall recruit in 2019, Cine was a rotational player over his six games as a freshman. In year two, he put up 38 tackles and three pass breakups. He finally jumped onto the scene in ’21 for the eventual national champion Bulldogs, featuring one of the all-time defensive units, when he totaled 73 stops (two for loss), an interception and nine PBUs, earning himself third-team All-American accolades.

Cine was primarily deployed as a boundary safety in 2020, was playing closer to the line of scrimmage in ’21, as a robber or in man on slot receivers. This guy trusts what his eyes tell him and he can play fast because of it. Cine will stick his nose in there and bang in-between bigger bodies, as he sees pulling linemen in the run game and works upfield from depth. I don’t think there’s another guy in this group with more urgency to fly up against runs to his side as a safety in two-high looks pre-snap. Speed-options, sweeps and stuff like that towards his side was largely off the table after trying them once. You watch the Alabama game and see him multiple times meet 230-pound back Brian Robinson about five yards past the line of scrimmage and that’s where he’s stopped – dead in his tracks. Cine uses his hands well to knock down the reach of tight-ends and stays pretty unaffected by slot receivers. When he’s shifted into the deep middle, he displays the burst to take away angles to either side, as he outraces ball-carriers to those spots routinely. It’s so fun to watch him fill the C-gap or meet a receiver in-between two blockers on screen passes with no hesitation whatsoever, racing down from deep. Yet, despite his aggressiveness, Cine has always been a reliable tackler, only missing 11 of 159 career attempts. He doesn’t shy away from charging force full at the quarterback as a blitzer from a good ten yards of depth either. His pursuit overall is pretty crazy, to where at times he’s not even in the picture on the broadcast view and he arrives at the ball at full speed, screaming across from the opposite safety spot. And if he’s further away from the action and is caught with a blocker out in front, having to make a stop 20+ yards downfield, he sufficiently fights through contact and limits plays to just big runs, rather than touchdowns.

As a deep zone defender, Cine tracks the eyes of the quarterback and simultaneously can peak at the routes around him. In single-high duty, he consistently stays between streaking receivers and his end-zone, not allowing the ball to be thrown over his head. He’s exceptional at reading route stems and anticipating breaks, finding the right balance between mid-lining and committing to targets. And on tape, you see him kind of play games with the quarterback at times, denying lay-ups on deep crossers with a couple of steps up before backing up again for example. When he’s rotated into the flats or as a robber/rat, he’s quick to fall off his responsibilities as he sees receivers enter a soft spot and the QB setting his feet to deliver the ball. If Cine has to flow with the play-fake initially, he still has the ability to change directions and get to his marks, to not allow quarterbacks to open up throwing windows by manipulating him on the back-end. Once the ball is in the air, Cine can obviously cover plenty of ground and he persistently rips through the hands of receivers as he initiates contact, when the ball arrives there. If he can drive on routes in front of him, he can make the target pay for getting his hands on the ball, by timing things up so he arrives there simultaneously, illustrated by just one flag for pass interference this past season. Overall, he limited opponents to just 6.6 yards per target as the closest coverage defender, with one touchdown versus one pick. Cine’s versatility in that regard is backed up by spending 118 snaps in the slot and 153 in the box, although 534 came at deep safety, allowing the pressure to get home without having to worry much about deep shots killing them.

With that being said, Cine certainly won’t blow anybody aesthetically. He has an extremely narrow frame and skinny build overall. And with the way he throws his body around, you might have some durability concerns. You look the aggressiveness at working downhill from depth, but he can get his feet stuck in the middle a little bit at times, when having to wait for a tackle to some degree. When he has the wideout and slot go vertically in two-deep coverages, Cine has to do a better job of playing in-between those routes and gain depth accordingly. When matched up against a receiver vertically, he can get caught flat-footed a little bit at times, as they kick it into their final year and get a couple of steps on the safety. Two touchdowns by Alabama receivers come to mind – John Metchie running by him off a corner blitz in 2020 and then the famous stutter-fade by Jameson Williams in the most recent SEC Championship game, where he and the corner were supposed to bracket him in cover-two. He didn’t do a whole lot of it and Cine doesn’t seem super comfortable having to play man-coverage on slot receivers and not being able to read from depth.

Cine surprised a lot of with his 40 time of 4.37 at the combine (three hundredths of a second worse than the top safety), along with an 11’1” broad jump, which led the group and ranks in 96th percentile for the position overall. He was also very sudden with the way he could flip his hips and has been rising up draft boards ever since then. I think with his instincts and eyes, he plays up to those explosive measurements. Once again, with a rather slender frame and the things he excels at in coverage, I wouldn’t project him as somebody who will success with frequent man-coverage duties, but in a split-safety scheme, where he has the freedom to attack the line of scrimmage in the run game, can cover one half of the field and protect the post as he’s rolled into the middle, he has the potential to become a Pro Bowler early on. This past season, Cine finished top-ten among draft-eligible safeties in forced incompletions (seven) and coverage stops (12).

 

 

Daxton Hill

 

4. Daxton Hill, Michigan

6’0”, 195 pounds; JR

The number one safety recruit in 2019, Hill immediately carved out a significant role for himself with the Wolverines. Through his first two years (18 games), he recorded 80 total tackles, two interceptions and seven more passes broken up. In 2021, he put up career-highs with 69 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two INTs and eight more passes broken up, bringing him second-team All-Big Ten accolades.

Despite certainly being a bit undersized, Hill isn’t afraid of sticking his nose in the fan in the run game. You’ll see him two-hand punch into the chest of slot receivers and squeeze the ball inside routinely. He fills well when aligned towards the edge of the tight-end and he blocks away from him on zone-based schemes, to take away the cutback lane. Yet, if he has to stay behind the line, to decipher what’s going on, he remains patience and outside leverage well. He sufficiently utilizes sudden hand-swipes combined with the ability to side-step, in order to knock away the reach of receivers trying to put hands on him. With Hill defending the run as a deep safety, it’s all about positioning himself before the ball gets there. You rarely see him not have his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage. He does a great job of leveraging the ball and forcing it back towards the help. I’ve seen him end up as the last line of defense and flip ball-carriers in tough open-field situations. And Hill understand that he’s not the biggest guy, but he effectively cuts down larger ball-carriers low with chop-down tackles. Michigan heavily utilized him as a blitzer off the slot, where he doesn’t shy away from banging into the near-shoulder of a tight-end if the ball goes that way, but also the absurd ability to plant his foot and flatten his angle to chase from the backside.

This past season, Hill spent 73.2 percent of his snaps last season in the slot and he shows the ability to play sticky man-coverage against those inside receivers, even against some of the toughest routes to match, like corners and drags, as he sustains contact throughout. He does a nice job of cutting off the angle for receivers to create clean outside releases and stack on slot fade routes as well as deny easy access to the post, with the speed to carry them down the field seemingly effortlessly. Even though Hill barely clears the six-foot mark, he does have 32 ¼-inch arms and that 4.38 speed shows up on tape. Along with that, he showcases the oily hips and short-area burst to open one way according to the stem and not allow separation as his receiver breaks across. In zone coverage, he had a good feel for spacing depending on the pre-snap formation. He communicates and passes off crossers well as a hook/over-hang defender underneath and IDs routes working towards him. Plus, if he has no assignment in his area, he’s looking to sink underneath stuff breaking behind him. In two-high shells, the Wolverine safety rapidly attacks forward and can undercut short out routes. And he can really plant and drive when having to gain depth still. The best area of Hill’s game however might be what you see from him the few times he was rotated into the deep middle (based on certain motions), with how impressive he is at gaining depth in his back-pedal whilst his shoulders stay square to the line of scrimmage, along with finding the biggest vertical threat and bracketing down the field. Altogether, Hill has been responsible for 78 completions on 114 targets over the course of his career, but for a modest 7.6 yards per target and just one touchdown, compared to four interceptions. Last season, he finished top-five among draft-eligible safeties in forced incompletions (seven) and coverage stops (14), according to Pro Football Focus.

With that being said, Hill simply doesn’t have the size to consistently work through contact in the run game. You see tight-ends seal him away from the action fairly easily. If a receiver gets him to turn by selling the take-off in the run game well and then delivering a push, Hill can be sent flying. And while he understands how to minimize his size disadvantage by coming in low as a tackler, he does dive forward a lot and opponents know to keep their legs clean so to speak, there can be some bad whiffs. Last season, he missed ten tackles overall. That slender build also doesn’t allow him to separate receivers from the ball as he arrives at the catch-point, even when he’s in good position. Hill won’t be able to play as much stack-technique in man-coverage as much against NFL receivers and while he can carry routes down the field well, he tends to lose his focus late at times and allow guys to disengage on secondary routes. Coverage numbers – particularly in college – can be deceiving, but a completion percentage of 70.6% is not what you want to see and I could see offenses move the chains by targeting him with big slots on slant routes and stuff like that on third down, where the can shield the ball with their bodies.

While he was slightly below-average in both the jumps, Hill ran a 4.38 in the 40 and the second-best mark (behind only the freakish showing of Sam Houston State CB Zyon McCollum) in both the agility drills – a 6.57 in the three-cone and a 4.06 in the 20-yard shuttle. His hips and speed are elite for the safety position and he can probably be a quality starting nickel from day one. By PFF’s tracking numbers, Hill only spent 80 snaps as a deep safety last season. So his tape in that regard is fairly limited, which is where his biggest value would be. Combine that with some of the size concerns people might have and he’s “only” at number four for me. That’s still good for an early day two pick however, just because of how good this class is at the top.

 

 

Jalen Pitre

 

5. Jalen Pitre, Baylor

5’11”, 195 pounds; SR

Right around the top-1000 overall recruits in 2017, Pitre started his career at linebacker, before transitioning to nickel/safety in 2020. Over his 23 games there, he put up ridiculous production for a member of the secondary (by description), with 135 total tackles, 29.5(!) of those for loss, six sacks, seven PBUs, four INTs and forced fumbles each, which made him a first-team All-American in 2021 and he was named the Big-XII Defensive Player of the Year.

This guy was easily the best nickelback in the country this past season (lining up almost exactly two thirds of snaps in the slot at the STAR position as Dave Aranda calls it), with 50 total defensive stops (most among all DBs) and 25 pressures as a blitzer (second-most). He was also number one among DBs with an averaged depth of tackle (on run plays) of just 0.8 yards. Pitre has a bounce to his step and aggressively approaches the run game. He is so quick to diagnose and get to the ball. You saw line up to the outside edge of the wing-man or just come off the corner late and deliver a strike into that guy’s chest trying to drive him further towards the sideline and then is able to slip off those. Yet, if Pitre is lined up behind the line with more distance, he can sort of slip through creases and create TFLs in that area, while sliding underneath tight-ends on multiple occasions, as he realizes the run is going away from him. And then the Bears liked to blitz him off the corner quite a bit, to take advantage of his speed in backside pursuit, where he routinely timed the snap perfectly. He’s ferocious in that area and didn’t shy away to running into bodies in his way, at times even into offensive tackles. At times you see get pushed upfield significantly by the tight-end and look like he’s taken away from the action, but he doesn’t let up, circles back around and takes down the RB on cutbacks. Overall, this guy loves to fly around the field and puts his body on the line constantly

A lot of times, Pitre lined up with outside leverage on the number two as a hang-/seam defender on a lot of base down and he does an excellent job of positioning himself between high-low. He’s tremendous at deciphering cross-releases out of bunch sets for example and then jumping on whoever he ends matched up on. Pitre is almost like a machine with that back-pedal to stay behind receivers as he’s asked to bail out in like two-high shells. His peripheral vision to see the entire field in deeper zone coverage is tremendous, where he can kind of toggle between three routes and sort of mid-point those. And if receivers threaten down the seams in some kind of way and then snap off their routes, he can stop there himself instead of overrunning it. However, Pitre also has spent plenty of time in man-coverage as well, where you see him match the pace of slot receivers well, as they slowly gear up and try to create some vertical detach. He persistently bothers slot receivers on routes across the field by pinning an arm and holding them back with subtle tugs, to stay right in phase. And then he’s capable of stopping his momentum tremendously well after receivers suddenly stick their foot in the ground and change directions. When he can play with his eyes on the ball, he attacks it well at its highest point, but he also has some tremendous snaps of playing the hands of receivers when he has his back to it in man-coverage. This past season, he was targeted 58 times, but only surrendered 35 completions for 321 yards and no touchdowns, compared to his two interceptions. And he never allowed a touchdown last year, according to Pro Football Focus.

The issue with Pitre however is that he seemingly won’t blow anybody away physically. He ranks in the bottom-23rd percentile across the board for all the measurables for size dimensions, including just 30 ½-inch arms, which limits his ability to lock out effectively against blockers and doesn’t grant him much room for error when swiping at the ball. You see it on multiple occasions, where it looks like he’ll get to the ball at the sideline on longer-developing plays, but he can’t quite shed his blocker. And he can get a little out of control in his finished, which led to 15 missed tackles in 2021. You love the aggressiveness, but Pitre can be to flat with his angles as a blitzer and lose contain in the process. In coverage, he’s very eager to jump the initial break and he doesn’t feature great make-up speed if he gets out of phase early. He almost exclusively lined up in the slot for Baylor these last two years. So we don’t really have any tape on him as a deep middle safety for example, projecting him forward into a scheme, where he’s asked to rotate high at times.

While a lot of his great tape was him charging downhill and blasting guys, during Senior Bowl practices you saw him be able to truly cover man-to-man effectively. He engaged and maintained contact with receivers throughout the pattern, while doing a nice job of swiping through their reach at the end, His lack of height at 5’10” never looked like much of an issue when matched up against tight-ends, while in zone he did a nice job of mid-pointing route combinations. Pitre really stood out among that entire safety group down in Mobile and was voted National DS of the week, showing showed off his all-around skill-set, before coming up with the game-sealing pick in the actual game. Then he had a very good all-around showing at the combine, even though his bench (16) and broad were both below average (35 inches), but he finished in the top-three among safeties in the three-cone (6.74) and 20-yard shuttle (4.18), And he just looked so comfortable changing directions and making plays on the ball in the on-field section. I don’t believe he has the physical gifts of a Daxton Hill in terms of a slot defender or the range/size of some of these more typical safeties I’ve described, but Pitre is a damn good football player. This past season, he was the only player in the Big 12 with 10-plus tackles for loss and two-plus interceptions.

 

 

Bryan Cook

 

6. Bryan Cook, Cincinnati

6’1”, 205 pounds; SR

Coming out of a Division III high school, Cook’s only scholarship offer came from Howard University. After spending two years with the HBCU in Washington D.C., where he racked up 93 tackles, 17 passes defended, five interceptions and two forced fumbles combined, he took a massive step up in level of competition when he joined his hometown Bearcats. He would broke his ankle and not gain immediate eligibility outside of the team’s bowl game and even in 2020 he was more of a rotational player due to Cincinnati having two eventual draft picks at safety in Darrick Forest and James Wiggins. Only when the latter was ruled out of the Peach Bowl against Georgia did Cook get a chance to shine and he looked like he belonged, making seven solo tackles. This past season he was an impact starter all the way and helped the Bearcats become the first Non-Power Five team to make it to the CFP. Individually, he recorded 96 total tackles, five of those for loss, two pass intercepted and nine more broken up, making him a first-team All-AAC selection.

Cook has the looks and mentality of a box safety, but he’s gained experience with a multitude of coverage responsibilities as the Bearcats boundary safety in 2021. He was used as a true deep middle free safety against three-by-one sets, where he stays balanced while pedaling backwards as he’s deciphering route patterns, but then as he sees quarterbacks load up, he can cover ground towards the numbers pretty well. They also rotated him there a few times to disguise the coverage late and muddy up the picture for the quarterback. Cook picks up streaking receivers down the seams if there’s no secondary threat and you rarely see those guys get behind him. From two-high alignments, you really see him drive on routes in front of him and he wants to separate receivers from the ball. His pursuit towards the sideline as the ball is completed in front of him is outstanding and he chops down tight-ends before they can turn upfield on several occasions. In deep responsibilities, you don’t see Cook just float around in space, but rather position himself accordingly to “catch” routes his way and not just getting deeper in conservative fashion. When put down in the flats and playing over the top, he sees the ball completed underneath to the back and is ready to shut down the runner.

The Bearcat safety was also heavily dropped down as a robber or rat, reading the eyes of the quarterback and taking away easy completions over the middle of the field. I like his ability to put hands on the tight-end off the line and dictate route stems to some degree, where having those 32-inch limbs certainly help. When playing them in off-man, Cook shows the burst to work over the top of deep mesh/cross concepts and get back into phase. He positions himself well when the ball hangs up in the air and attacks it at the highest point. He made an outstanding interception on a deep over route on a ball slightly behind the receiver in the end-zone against Indiana, as well as a nice diving pick on an overthrown pass over the middle by Alabama’s Bryce Young in the CFP semifinal. However, my favorite play of his actually came against Tulsa in 2020, where the QB already gave away where he was going on a fade route into the boundary, when it looked like the Bearcats were in one-man, but they bailed into cover-two late and Cook absolutely BLEW UP the receiver just as he got his hands on the ball. Overall, he allowed 22 of 37 passes to be completed with him as the closest defender in coverage, with no touchdowns, two INTs and seven forced incompletions overall, resulting in a passer rating of just 51.9.

In run defense, Cook keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. but is ready to fill the hole once the back commits. Then he wraps up low and drives his legs through the tackle, to limit yards after contact. He does not shy away from mixing it up with some offensive linemen and banging into tight-ends in that regard. You see him really fight hard to get around guys in space, at times on some sweeps with the offensive tackle working up to him. Coming from two-high looks, Cook works upfield in controlled manner, but is looking to bring some thunder when he arrives there. Yet, he wraps up consistently and his only real fails in that regard come when he’s chasing stuff at full speed and leading low with the shoulder. He missed just seven of 85 tackling attempts this past season, His pursuit across the field is excellent and you see him run guys down at the opposite sideline as they bounce runs out wide. Cook was involved a little bit in Cincinnati’s blitz packages, rushing off the edge from box/slot alignments as well as charging full speed from depth (particularly in 2020). There’s room for an increased role.

With that being said, Cook doesn’t seem too comfortable against receivers stemming vertically, as they can get him turned the wrong way and beat them across the face, particularly on slot fades or seam routes. He doesn’t have the most loose lower body or quickest feet and likely won’t play much off-man on slots for his future NFL team. More advanced quarterbacks can get Cook leaning the wrong way with his body language in two-high looks, such as eliminating him from the picture when trying to take shots along the sideline, and receivers crossed him up on some double-moves on tape. He can get a little too aggressive with his angles towards the sideline, and playing in the box, Cook needs to be quicker with hitting his punch and working off blocks.

It’s been a long journey for Cook and I still don’t believe he receives the credit he deserves, due to the other great players on that Cincinnati defense, particularly those two corners. He may not be the most fluid athlete, to enable him to match slot receivers for extended stretches, and he’ll need to play with a little more eye-discipline in deep coverage, but I’m a big fan overall of his game. I would personally argue he’s the second-best Bearcat prospect behind only CB Sauce Gardner – even if there is quite a significant gap.

 

 

Nick Cross

 

7. Nick Cross, Maryland

6’1”, 210 pounds; JR

A top-five safety recruit in 2019, Cross immediately made an impact for the Terrapins and started every game he was available for (only four in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign). He set career-highs with 66 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021. And despite not being noticed by the conference coaches, he decided forgo his final year of eligibility and take his talents to the next level.

Cross has a nice bounce to his step as he works down against the run from split-safety and box alignments, whilst maintaining outside leverage. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from filling the C-gap and at times he can also slip inside of blocks from tight-ends when he sees an opportunity. From single-high alignment, he adjusts his approach in terms of how aggressive he is, depending on down and distance. Regardless of that, his range to chase down runs or screens is outstanding. He had one snap in the Michigan game in the red-zone this past season, where the Terrapins were in a split-safety look, where he was outside of one hash with a receiver motioning away from him and the offense sent their three receivers away from him across the field, to open up space for a swing screen basically, yet it was Cross, who ended up banging the recipient out of bounds just ahead of the goal-line. However, Cross does a nice job of pacing his steps as he gets closer to the ball and has to break down in space. I don’t look at his 14 missed tackles as a major issue, because he did have 87 attempts and was put in a lot of tough situations, where the ball-carrier had the width of the field to work with once he second level was cleared, while Cross at times started nearly 20 yards off the field. And even when engaged with a blocker, he often found a way to twist opponents down on an angle. Maryland also sent him blitzing through interior gaps every from depth every once in a while and off the edge fairly regularly, where his closing burst is breath-taking.

In terms of coverage duties, Cross was heavily relied upon as a single-high safety at 15+ yards of depth and doesn’t let anybody take the post off the defense. His range shows up when he has somebody pushing towards the post and then falls off to get towards to somebody wheeling up the sideline. Yet, he can also drive forward in quarters assignment and redirect from a pedal without any delay. Cross displays no fear to get onto his heels as slot receivers push vertically towards him in two-deep coverages and he’s had several impressive snaps matching corner routes despite all the space towards the sideline. You saw him line up in the box (especially in three-by-one sets with the TE as the single) and bail out to cover-two on several occasions, where he made up ground whilst having his hips pointed inside in case the tight-end works down the seams, then square his shoulder to the line of scrimmage and be ready to widen if someone breaks across his face. He has decent length and uses it well to get a hand on high passes to tight-ends or reach around when they try to shield him from the ball, particularly when covering them at the goal-line. And very once in a line he also gets matched up with those guys working down the sideline and he seems to easily stay with them. Cross’ ball production could certainly be even better, if he wasn’t asked as much to line up at free safety 15-20 yards deep and playing top-down on everything.

Lining up at 15+ yards of depth as a single-high safety, Cross tends to give even more ground post-snap and offers too much space to operate in front of him to receivers. Particularly in cover-two, his eye discipline can be hurtful at times, when he’s locked in on one key, such as an orbit motion away from him, whilst a receiver runs by him, as the corner expects help to bracket. And overall, his aggressiveness can bite him in the butt at times, relying more on attacking something he sees, rather than allowing his processing skills to take him to the ball – which are still in development. While he did have those three interceptions, Cross was responsible for a completion percentage of 75% and four touchdowns, for a passer rating of 103.0. He can get himself out of position a little bit as running backs set up wide bounces and pursuing towards the sideline, he doesn’t yet use it effectively as a tool, to take away one side to cut towards and gets beaten across his face at times.

After that group of five at the top, I went with Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook, but I would argue Cross is kind of in that same tier, where he isn’t quite as well-rounded player at this point, but has the potential to be even better, especially considering he won’t even quite have turned 21 once the upcoming NFL season starts, and he didn’t even start playing football until high school. His processing skills and angles need refinement, but the athletic profile is very intriguing. Cross led all safeties at the combine with a 4.34 in the 40 at a beefed-up 212 pounds and he had great numbers across the board, which got him an RAS of 9.9u (modified). You get with the right coach, who understands how to let the talent flourish in a more simplified role early on and then adds to his plate gradually, because he has the skill-set to be a versatile piece in the secondary, and you got yourself a Pro Bowl player potentially.

 

 

Verone McKinley

 

8. Verone McKinley III, Oregon

5’11”, 195 pounds; RS JR

A top-500 recruit in 2018 at cornerback, McKinley intercepted four passes already as a redshirt freshman, but even though he only grabbed one in year two (about half as many games), he did force and recover a fumble each, on top of 46 tackles and two pass-breakups exactly for a second consecutive season. In 2021, he put up career-highs across the board in total tackles (77), interceptions (six) and PBUs (six), making him a consensus first-team All-American team.

McKinley spent over 150 snaps in the slot and the box each this past season, while the rest (60.5%) were at deep safety. He tracks the ball very well as it goes out to the sideline from two-high looks, aiming at the near hip of the ball-carrier, and overall he effectively takes away angle towards the sideline for ball-carriers on jet sweeps, end-arounds and stuff like that, forcing them to step out of bounds, with the awareness to pull up to avoid flags. McKinley is aggressively looking to meet slot receivers trying to work up to him in the run game and has some unorthodox ways of getting around bodies in space. There’s no lack of willingness to meet lead-blockers near the line of scrimmage on longer-developing plays and shoot through one shoulder to funnel the ball back inside. And he’s not somebody who will just dive at the legs of bigger tight-ends and backs, but rather shows the willingness to get into head-on collisions.

McKinley is the rare combination of a ball-hawk, who rarely allows big plays in the pass game. As a deep middle safety, he showcases excellent tracking of the quarterback’s eyes and progress along with him. When he sees somebody slide inside of the underneath defense or runs a deep crosser and enters that soft-spot in front of him, McKinley shows an understanding for when he can slightly work down already and deny easy completions that way. And when he decides to drive on a route, he does so with great urgency and arrives there quickly. McKinley was capped over the number three in trips from depth quite a bit, keeping deep crossers and benders in front of him. And the Ducks put him in some tough positions when rotating down late and the tight-end having the clear advantage to the inside, yet he gets there against benders and hooks over the middle, playing from outside leverage and locking in on the hips of the target. When covering the flats, he shows good balance between staying in position for lead-outs/slide routes and coming upfield against quarterbacks on bootlegs or as scramblers in general. Overall, McKinley displays tremendous ball-location skills and an innate feel for how to play in the air. He’s put his crazy hand-eye coordination on tape a few times, when he was turned the wrong way based on the arrival of the pass, had to flip around and re-locate the ball, to knock the it down. He’s had top-tier ball production over the last two full seasons, with ten interceptions and nine PBUs. He made several big plays in the Ducks’ upset victory over Ohio State in 2021 and forced the game-sealing incompletion on their goal-line stand against Cal, by pressuring the QB on a blitz through the B-gap. As he closest defender in coverage, McKinley held opposing QBs to just 18 completions for 220 yards on 30 targets, with two touchdowns versus his six INTs last season – and one of the TDs wasn’t necessarily on him, with some confusion about alignment at the goal-line against UCLA.

The big issue with McKinley however is the athletic profile. He finished in the 45th percentile or worse across the board at the combine (jumps and bench-press) and then ran a 4.65 at the Ducks pro day, along with being slightly below-average in all the physical dimensions. That lack of speed shows up a couple of times when fast ball-carriers burn his pursuit angles across the field, as well as in coverage, where he tends to flip fairly early against slot receivers stemming outside him in two-high shells. The other main issue is his tackling efficiency, where too often he launches his pads forward into contact. He has to do a better job of actually wrapping up and making sure he gets guys to the turf, as he missed 18.5 percent of his tackling attempts this past season (17 total). There’s also some inconsistency when forced to take on blockers, where his 30-inch arms deny him vision on the ball if opponents are able to get into his frame and he has a tough time to disengage,

Evaluation reminds me a lot of Rams safety Jordan Fuller coming out of Ohio State a couple of years, where I loved the tape and the fact he always seemed to be in great position, but backed off a little bit and put him just outside my top ten for the position. And he went in the sixth round ultimately, but is now the best safety on a Super Bowl team. I envision McKinley going somewhere in the middle of day three as well and he’ll have to clean up his tackling to stay on an NFL field, but he has the smarts and instincts to become an excellent do-it-all safety at the next level, with tremendous ball skills to create turnovers for his team.

 

 

Kerby Joseph

 

9. Kerby Joseph, Illinois

6’1”, 205 pounds; JR

Not highly recruited (three-star) at the athlete spot in 2018, Joseph was not able to play any of his first three seasons in full capacity, before playing all 12 games in 2021 and earning first-team All-Big Ten accolades, thanks to 57 tackles, five INTs, two more PBUs and a sack.

This guy has such a freaky build, with an absurd 80-inch wing span and 10 ¼-inch hands, while we don’t have an official 40 time, but can assume something in the 4.5-range at least, I would say. Joseph has such easy ability to cover ground as he works upfield from 18-20 yards of depth at times and helps corral the ball-carrier without overrunning it, while changing up his gears as he gets into open-field tackling situations. He has some real pop in his hands as he engages with slot receiver in the run game, being able to hold his ground and lock out with those long arms. And you saw the same a few times when he was lined up in the box, particularly against 12 personnel, while being able to swipe those guys to the side as the back approaches. Yet, he bounces off contact when caught on angle through crack-backs and stuff like that too. When deployed closer to the ball, he shows the burst and willingness to absolutely blow into contact in one of the inside gaps. Joseph has plenty of juice when attacking forward against screens and tracking down scrambling QBs. Most of it came last year, but he has 104 career tackles with only ten misses on defense.

With the length Joseph brings to the table, you would think he’s used a lot in the box, but he actually spent 61.5 percent of his snaps as a deep safety in 2021. He has some of the loosest hips you will ever find for his type of build, effortlessly gliding around the field. And it’s kind of crazy what the Illinois coaches asked of Joseph at times, showing pressure in a gap and then flying all the way out to the deep middle safety spot and actually be the deepest man. Less challenging, but still pretty impressive, he lined up in the box and bailed out to two-high shells quite a bit too. Joseph was used quite a bit as a middle dropper, where he lined up over the furthest receiver to the inside and then sinks between the other safety and a corner in a Tampa-2 like coverage, being able to carry threats down the seams and keeping his head on a swivel if there’s no direct assignment. Then once the ball is in the air, Joseph seems to be able to hit another gear to make a play on it, where his 39-inch vertical and wide receiver-like ball-skills can really shine. This past season, he was top-five among draft-eligible safeties in forced incompletion rate at 26.3%, allowing only nine of 19 targets his way to be completed his way, with two touchdowns compared to his five picks.

I’m sure the Illini coaches asked to stay to just not let anybody behind him in single-high duty, but Joseph gives so much ground that it looks like he’s in a different ZIP code and can’t really make a play on anything in front of him. Even the All-22 camera loses him from the picture at times. Yet, he also allows quarterbacks to open up to the sideline and get him out of position as the ball is thrown towards deeper in-breaking routes. Even on scrambles, with no imminent threat he stays way behind all the potential targets. And I’d say overall, the feel for timing, to decipher through patterns and end up attaching to a target, finding the guy in the soft spot, is a little lacking, when he isn’t necessarily just playing top-down. There were some issues like that in the red-zone in the games I watched. Joseph barely was asked to play in any man-coverage and even his time in the box was very limited, which will probably be where you find him more in the NFL. And it’s head-scratching why Joseph only started his final one of four years in college, not being able to establish himself as a fixture in the lineup for a mostly struggling program.

The lack of man-coverage snaps and how often he wasn’t even part of the play basically, just playing 5-10 yards behind everybody else, makes Joseph a bit of a tougher projecting. During Senior Bowl week, he was super grabby versus tight-ends during one-on-ones, which we should see him be used at a lot in the pro’s and I think he has clear potential to be a matchup piece that way. What he can do early on for sure is get downhill in a hurry against the run, be a reliable tackler and a standout teamer right away. He was a gunner on punt coverage these past two seasons, recording 16 career tackles on special teams and never missing one in that facet of the game. There are some things that are missing from a mental standpoint, but Joseph simply needs more reps, to create that feel in space. There’s only so many guys that long, who can run and flip their hips like this guy and I’m guessing the NFL covets him as a mid-day two pick.

 

 

Percy Butler

 

10. Percy Butler, Louisiana

6’0”, 195 pounds; SR

A two-star recruit out of high school, Butler was the No. 357 wide receiver in the 2018 recruiting class. He purely played defense for the Ragin Cajuns, barely seeing the field as a freshman, before starting 31 of 38 games over his next three seasons. Over the latter two, he recorded 105 total tackles, eight out of those for loss, three passes intercepted and 13 more broken up, earning himself honorable mention and second-team All-Sun Belt accolades respectively.

In pads, this kid looks more like one of those hybrid nickels/dime backers and he’s probably capable of fulfilling that role. However, nearly half of his snaps last season were spent as a deep safety. Butler immediately gets into a hop-step as he deciphers through the run action and he’s light on his feet to track the ball across the field, without running himself out of position. I thought last season in particular, he displayed great awareness for how offenses wanted to attack in the run game, knowing when he can shoot upfield, working around crack-backs and stuff like that. When he does trigger and charges up the alley from split-safety looks, you almost hold your breath as you watch his speed to get there, particularly against fly sweeps and stuff like that. I thought this past season, he showed more urgency in that regard with deployment closer to the line of scrimmage in general. Butler has adequate size and play strength to fulfill box duties and I really like his pursuit from the backside in those alignments. Lining up in the slot or in split-safety looks, Butler does a nice job of playing with extension through blocks and not allowing the ball to get outside before slipping those, while from deep middle alignment, he swipes away the hands of receivers and works around them efficiently, when they try to get in front of him on plays out to the perimeter. Butler’s average depth of tackle in the run game of 5.4 is pretty damn good, considering how often he worked down from single-high alignments. And he doesn’t leave his buddies hanging, who are trying to wrestle down the ball-carrier, as he helps to make sure they’re going backwards.

This guy has true free safety range and great acceleration upfield. You see him disrupt the catch point on plays where he starts in-between the hashes and arrives slightly outside the numbers against slot fade routes. Yet, he will also race down towards the flat in the blink of an eye against slide routes on bootlegs, when there’s no imminent threat over the deep middle. Whether he’s the deep safety or robber, he can pick up streaking receivers on benders, seam or post routes without looking uncomfortable and not allowing guys to detach vertically. When he’s put in trail position, he doesn’t panic, but rather tracks the ball’s flight throughout and is ready to attack it at its climax. This past season, we saw Butler be used in man-coverage far more frequently and be able to trail deep crossers and other tough routes across the field. Even when he was turned the wrong way or took a false step, his make-up burst to get back into phase was highly impressive to me. Butler backed up that speed at the combine, when he was just two hundredths of a second off the top 40 time for a safety (4.36), plus he made some good plays on the ball during on-field drills. Overall, the ULL safety surrendered just ten completions on 21 targets as the next-closest coverage defender, with one touchdown and pick each, for a passer rating of 56.1

With that being said, Butler’s missed tackle rate nearly doubled last season compared to the prior two (from 11.3% to 20.3%). He came in too hot in that regard and needs to work on breaking down in space to become a reliable tackler even when charging upfield to create net positive plays for his defense. Along with that, Butler can get his eyes trapped in the backfield at times, where he gets drawn up by play-action and has a receiver run right by him down the middle. Once he sees patterns unfold, he has the quick reaction skills to make an impact, but his anticipation is still developing. And he tends to go for the ball instead of securing the tackle, even when he’s not in perfect coverage position. In man-situations, he’s not yet very efficient with his footwork and there are plenty of wasted steps to be seen. Butler didn’t face many legitimate passing offenses last season and against the most talented team on their schedule – Texas in the season-opener – he had his worst-graded game according to PFF (51.0). Plus, with his rather skinny build, some NFL teams may have durability concerns, particularly with the way he accelerates into contact a lot of times.

I feel like there was a bit of a trade-off with Butler’s aggressive in run support (particularly from depth), as he made a lot more stops near the line of scrimmage, but also missed twice as many tackles. I’ll take that any day, because he has shown the ability to be more conservative when needed and I’m not afraid that he won’t learn how to judge those situations accordingly. There’s some similar lessons he still needs to lean in coverage and only playing man-coverage for extended in one season is something that shows up on tape, but Butler had several impressive one-on-one coverage reps against tight-ends and backs at East-West Shrine practices. A play that stood out in the actual game was him perfectly matching North Carolina RB Ty Chandler on an angle route and breaking up the pass. According to Bowl game direction Eric Galko, he is also arguably “ST1” – if there is something like that – as more than six percent of his special teams snaps last season ended in tackles, which is crazy high when you consider how many of those plays don’t even end in tackles in general.

 


 

Just missed the cut:

 

Reed Blankenship

 

Reed Blankenship, Middle Tennessee

6’1”, 195 pounds; RS SR

A former three-star recruit in 2017, Blankenship became a starter right off the bat and went on to amass some incredible production over the course of 53 career games, combining for 419 total tackles (265 solo) – a school record, 26.5 of those for loss, nine interceptions, 19 more passes broken up, three fumbles forced, four recovered and a couple of defensive touchdowns. He made first- or second-team All-Conference USA three different times.

I feel like I’ve been tracking the career of this young man as a potential NFL Draft prospect for at least three years now and this time around he finally actually (has to) come out. Blankenship was primarily deployed as a field-side safety, but dropped down into the slot quite a bit as well further into his collegiate career. In the run game, he works downhill in very controlled fashion and attacks low as a tackler. He consistently stays true to his contain responsibilities and maintains outside leverage on the ball, before choosing appropriate angles in pursuit once the ball-carrier crosses the line of scrimmage. Blankenship has an innate feel for how to come off blocks and create angles towards the football, when bodies are in his way. The most impressive part about Blankenship’s game is probably his ability to pursue the ball across the field as a run-and-chase player and bring ball-carriers to the ground, as he logged an impressive 106 total tackles and 10 TFLs during his final season with the Blue Raiders. You see the awareness to change gears, adjust angles and react to cuts across the grain on the fly. He’s an outstanding open-field tackler, who utilizes alligator-rolls and chop-downs in masterful fashion. The amount of stops in the flats for no additional yardage Blankenship made is just absurd. He had several highly impressive one-on-one tackles against Liberty QB Malik Willis last season. MTSU also asked him to blitz off the slot quite a bit in ‘21, showing good pursuit and awareness for when he can slip/bubble around blockers.

Blankenship is one of the smartest, most balanced coverage safeties you will find in college football. He doesn’t just fly off his spot if he has a feel for the quarterback will go the ball, but as soon as the shoulders are pointed at the target, he triggers down. He routinely shut down the potential for yards after the catch on flat, hitch routes, etc. He understands where the weaknesses of the defensive coverage is and as he sees the quarterback’s eyes go there, he rapidly makes sure to negate them. In particular, his work in cover-two is highly impressive, being able to come off his area to hold lay-ups over the middle to minimal yardage, while also displaying the anticipation for how routes while break when ending up isolated down the field, routinely staying in perfect position against deep corners. Blankenship instantly realizes when he doesn’t have a direct assignment as a robber, as the tight-end to his side stays in protection for example, and quickly peaks if there’s a route coming over towards him before taking off to bracket a streaking receiver nearby. As an overhang defender or when rotating down into the flats, he does a good job of staying in position to mid-line routes underneath and see any potential threats. Running stick out of trips or double-slants against him is very dangerous, because he’s ready to jump those routes working towards him instead of allowing himself to void that area with the number two. Overall, Blankenship is a tremendous communicator in zone coverage and doesn’t try to save the day, with just running towards the biggest threat if there’s some confusion, but rather stays true to his job. There’s very little wasted steps and he utilizes speed-turns effectively when his hips are pointed to the wrong target initially. And he has some incredible diving picks to his name, showcases great body-control.

With that in mind, Blankenship has very little experienced in covering the deep middle of the field. I don’t quite see the sudden bursts and overall range to excel in that kind of role. Overall, his anticipatory skills certainly outweigh his pure athletic gifts. And more advanced passers can use Blankenship’s willingness to void his area with staring at a different route and using shoulder-/pump-fakes to their advantage. He’s not the most comfortable in off man-coverage, giving receivers way too much room to operate and shifting his weight onto the heels, which makes it tough to redirect forward. You like his play-style for a potential big nickel role, but probably not in a system, where he has to match up one-on-one against speedy slot receivers. I’d say Blankenship is certainly better at coming forward than having to flip vertically with routes, and he doesn’t find the ball in the air particularly well after having to turn his back to it. His run defense is tremendous, but the one thing he could improve upon is using his hands to play through blocks with extension more regularly when people do get in his way.

I came into Blankenship’s evaluation thinking he was a very good all-around player, who I’ll personally be higher on than the rest, but may not quite be comfortable putting up near the top of my rankings because he’s a somewhat limited athlete. And while I would still say he’s more so adequate in that regard, running a 4.51 in the 40 and putting pretty average numbers across the board at Middle Tennessee State’s pro day, he has some of the cleanest tape you will find from a safety. It’s not hyperbolic to say Blankenship might just be the greatest player in the history of MTSU’s football program and while he’ll be challenged by freakier athletes at the next level, his elite football IQ and tackling skills to me make him worth a very early day three selection, as a number three safety early on, with the potential to quickly become a starter in a defense that doesn’t force him to play a lot of man or single-high, after making the coaches fall in love with his special teams work.

 



The next names up:


Tycen Anderson (Toledo), J.T. Woods (Baylor), Quentin Lake (UCLA), Bubba Bolden (Miami), Sterling Weatherford (Miami-OH), Leon O’Neal (Texas A&M), Smoke Monday (Auburn), Yusuf Corker (Kentucky) & Juanyeh Thomas (Georgia Tech)

 

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 tight-ends in the 2022 NFL Draft:

Entering our final week of multiple positions being broken down for the draft, we start with the tight-end spot before transitioning to safety. I did not include fullbacks into this group (like some other pages do), because I simply didn’t have the time to make an adequate list and watch film on guys who played that spot in college, but we have some different body-types, who can fill that type of role, along with true Y’s or move options.

We certainly don’t have a generational prospect like Kyle Pitts in this year’s class or even a Pat Freiermuth, who I personally looked at as worthy of a first-round pick, but there’s several quality contributors that you can pick up – even on day three. That includes plenty of more traditional in-line players, although we have a couple of guys in the top three, who are capable of stressing defenses down the seams.

Here’s my list:

 

Continue reading

Entering our final week of multiple positions being broken down for the draft, we start with the tight-end spot before transitioning to safety. I did not include fullbacks into this group (like some other pages do), because I simply didn’t have the time to make an adequate list and watch film on guys who played that spot in college, but we have some different body-types, who can fill that type of role, along with true Y’s or move options.

We certainly don’t have a generational prospect like Kyle Pitts in this year’s class or even a Pat Freiermuth, who I personally looked at as worthy of a first-round pick, but there’s several quality contributors that you can pick up – even on day three. That includes plenty of more traditional in-line players, although we have a couple of guys in the top three, who are capable of stressing defenses down the seams.

Here’s my list:

 

Continue reading

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 interior defensive linemen in the 2022 NFL Draft:

Concluding our look at the players in the trenches, we are putting the interior D-line under microscope. This group anything from true zero-technique over the center all the way out to four-/five-technique playing head up on the offensive tackle, in terms of base positions. Obviously depending on scheme, alignment and role can vary a lot.

There’s a clear top two from the same school as chance may have it, then a trio of interesting body-types that some NFL teams may refer to as tweeners, a couple of specific fits with narrow skill-sets that they are outstanding at however and then it’s a lot of variety in terms of what people may value. This class is also loaded with two-down nose tackles on the back-end, but overall I think the depth of the group may be a little overstated.

Once again, evaluations are purely based on my film study and done in a vacuum, without taking schematic fits or skill-sets teams are looking for into account, and I have one name up here that I don’t really see anywhere else.

 

Continue reading

Concluding our look at the players in the trenches, we are putting the interior D-line under microscope. This group anything from true zero-technique over the center all the way out to four-/five-technique playing head up on the offensive tackle, in terms of base positions. Obviously depending on scheme, alignment and role can vary a lot.

There’s a clear top two from the same school as chance may have it, then a trio of interesting body-types that some NFL teams may refer to as tweeners, a couple of specific fits with narrow skill-sets that they are outstanding at however and then it’s a lot of variety in terms of what people may value. This class is also loaded with two-down nose tackles on the back-end, but overall I think the depth of the group may be a little overstated.

Once again, evaluations are purely based on my film study and done in a vacuum, without taking schematic fits or skill-sets teams are looking for into account, and I have one name up here that I don’t really see anywhere else.

 

Continue reading

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 interior offensive linemen in the 2022 NFL Draft:

Finishing up our breakdowns of the best offensive linemen in the draft, after going through the tackles last week, we’ll now shift our focus to the guys in-between those, as always grouping the guards and centers together.

I feel like this year we actually don’t have a lot of prospects with true flexibility between the two spots and many of them rather have experience at tackle and even played there for the majority of their collegiate careers. To me there’s a 1A and 1B at the top of the class, with a number two/three very closely behind them. To me they’re all worthy of being picked in the top 20-25 picks, even if positional value sticklers may disagree. After those there’s a significant drop-off. However, even more impressive to me is the group of second-to-fourth round evaluations I have, particularly at center. Altogether I believe there are 13-14 names among the IOL, who have a legitimate case to go in the top-100, even though I’m sure that depth will push them further down.

Since there are varying skill-sets and offenses these players have played in, I will try to specify where these guys fit most cleanly at, in regards to schemes and exact spots, after outlining the strengths and weaknesses of every prospects. There’s so many players who are of similar quality, that you will find a lot variety in the way people stack them up depending on what exactly they value and even the final player you can find in my “the next names” is somebody I could see be a long-term starter.

 

Continue reading

Finishing up our breakdowns of the best offensive linemen in the draft, after going through the tackles last week, we’ll now shift our focus to the guys in-between those, as always grouping the guards and centers together.

I feel like this year we actually don’t have a lot of prospects with true flexibility between the two spots and many of them rather have experience at tackle and even played there for the majority of their collegiate careers. To me there’s a 1A and 1B at the top of the class, with a number two/three very closely behind them. To me they’re all worthy of being picked in the top 20-25 picks, even if positional value sticklers may disagree. After those there’s a significant drop-off. However, even more impressive to me is the group of second-to-fourth round evaluations I have, particularly at center. Altogether I believe there are 13-14 names among the IOL, who have a legitimate case to go in the top-100, even though I’m sure that depth will push them further down.

Since there are varying skill-sets and offenses these players have played in, I will try to specify where these guys fit most cleanly at, in regards to schemes and exact spots, after outlining the strengths and weaknesses of every prospects. There’s so many players who are of similar quality, that you will find a lot variety in the way people stack them up depending on what exactly they value and even the final player you can find in my “the next names” is somebody I could see be a long-term starter.

 

Continue reading

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 edge defenders in the 2022 NFL Draft:

Completing our third week of positional draft rankings, we go from offensive tackles to the guys trying beat them around the edge. With how much more hybrid NFL defenses continue to become, the distinction between 3-4 outside linebackers and defensive ends in even fronts isn’t as important, but if there’s specific scheme fits that I believe make sense, I will mention them here.

This has been a heavily discussed group, because of how strong the top of the class is, with different rankings in the top-six in particular. Yet, while I have the same names as a lot of other analysts, my order looks slightly different I would say and past that point, I think I have very different opinions to a lot of the general media outlets/big boards.

Similar to the OTs earlier in the week, there are some players, who are often listed as defensive ends, but to me qualify as interior D-linemen. Those include DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M), Logan Hall (Houston), Zachary Carter (Florida) and Isaiah Thomas (Oklahoma), among others.

Once again, this evaluation does not account for injuries or off-the-field stuff, simply because I don’t have all the information and it’s hard to measure those things anyway. So on this list, that is prevalent, because we obviously saw David Ojabo tear his Achilles at Michigan’s pro day recently.

 


 

Kayvon Thibodeaux

 

1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

6’5”, 250 pounds; RS SO

The number two overall recruit in the country in 2019, Thibodeaux looked like a future number one overall pick right away as a freshman, recording 14 tackles for loss, nine sacks and three passes batted down. His second season was so-so, considering how late the Pac-12 joined the party and that it took him a while to get going, but Thibs was a nightmare in the eye of USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and beat up top-15 pick Alijah Vera-Tucker pretty good in the process in the conference championship game. This past year, he was limited a little bit by a sprained ankle, but he was still a problem to deal with when on the field, making him a first-team All-American, recording 12 TFLs, seven sacks and a couple of forced fumbles.

While he has continued to fill out his frame to some degree, I think Thibodeaux still looks and moves more like an oversized wide receiver. Still, he has the raw power to make offensive linemen look small as they collide on run plays. You see Thibodeaux truly explode through the chest of a lot of blockers, lift from the bottom in order to bend them backwards and extend his arms, to find the ball. Then he has no issues shedding those blocks and closing in on the ball, if it comes nearby. He has the change-or-direction skills and short-area burst to legitimately play both the quarterback and the option-man on zone reads and speed option. And he possesses the agility in condensed spaces to slip underneath kick-out blocks. You see Thibs absolutely blow up some run plays, where he’s lined up over the tight-end and crashes through the C-gap. And whether it’s having somebody crack back on him or banging into a pulling lineman, KT has this crazy balance to barely seem affected by it. Oregon had him slant inside at times as well, where he was able to stand up guards and not allow any flow to the front-side one zone runs. From the backside, he can shuffle along initially and then showcases the quick acceleration to chase down fast ball-carriers.

All the way back in his freshman season, Thibodeaux had a snap late against Utah in that Pac-12 title game, where the right tackle instantly flipped his hips and still barely touched the talented edge rusher because of his ridiculous speed off the edge. That was the day he announced himself to the rest of the country, with 2.5 sacks and blocked a punt, despite playing limited snaps. KT’s first step is pretty much in a class of his own. He can make tackles look like they’re leaning over a table, with the angles he can turn the corner on and how quickly he gets to their outside hip, while packing a strong rip, to create a shorter angle to the QB. Plus, then he brings some serious force when he buries those hands into the blocker and he can put them on their behind. He did so a couple of times in the 2020 conference championship against USC, when he put several licks on quarterback Kedon Slovis and was a big factor in forcing him to throw three interceptions. His stutter-bull could become jarring. Thibodeaux also has one of the deadliest up-and-under moves I’ve seen from a college prospect in his bag, thanks to the way he can stress the outside initially. This guy is a problem to deal with on any types of games up front, where he has that ability to kind of slither through the O-line and then the punch power to work through contact, as somebody does slide in front of him. While he may not win cleanly all the time as a pass-rusher, what I appreciate about him is that he consistently adjusts, to take the direct path to the quarterback, and how shockingly fast he gets there once he sees an angle for himself. And you see it on a few snaps, where he’s chasing the passer, who decides to redirect and it almost looks like a workout drill, where he sticks his foot in the ground and completely changes direction. I saw Thibodeaux get cut at the line and still bear-crawl his way to the quarterback without losing a ton of time. He lined up at three-technique on rush downs a lot more last season, where his quickness was too much to handle for guards and then he could push through the inside shoulder to open that lane for himself. Along with his seven lacks last year, he had 41 additional pressures on 290 pass-blocking snaps.

While Thibodeaux can create pretty direct angles towards the quarterback by tilting around the corner, he doesn’t necessarily have great bend to actively flatten at the top of his rush. At this point he is engaging offensive linemen too straight-up instead of stressing the edge and he should still be more cognizant of building up a pass-rush plan altogether. He doesn’t feature a very diverse set of rush maneuvers at this point, often being content with running into blockers and trying to drive them backwards. Thibodeaux’s arms barely measure in above the 33-inch mark and he’s on the smaller side for edge defenders altogether. In the run game, he gets overly focused on just physically overwhelming blockers, rather than defending the scheme and seeing the ball throughout. Plus, he is too undisciplined as a contain defender, wanting to peak and often shoot inside, which allows the back to work around him on some occasions. And while it may be overstated, he doesn’t chase the ball with relentless motor necessarily.

I get why a lot of people would prefer Hutchinson as an immediate impact-starter and Thibodeaux still has a long way to go technically to become a truly dominant player, but for me the high-end talent I saw in number five for Oregon was just on a different level. To me, all the talk about KT being focused on his brand and being overly confident, is absolutely ridiculous – even though I didn’t love how he handled skipping the on-field workout at the combine and his weird reasoning. For the people saying he took a step back last year, not only was the ankle bothering him, but just go back to the Cal game, where he created 11 pressures in the second half alone (as he was coming off a target penalty the week prior), or look at what he did to those UCLA tackles. In terms of the type of player you should expect, while the size would suggest a Von Miller type coming out of college, to me he presents more of a Jadeveon Clowney-type profile. Thibodeaux had stretches of dominance in college already and he’s still so far from actually reaching his potential, that his physical gifts provide him with.

 

 

Aidan Hutchinson

 

2. Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan

6’6”, 270 pounds; SR

Nicknamed “Mr. Michigan”, this former four-star recruit barely got to see the field as a rotational player his first year at Ann Arbor, due to having Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich in front of him. When he took over as a starter, Hutchinson put up a very high tackle total in 2019 with 69 of those, which 10 of them went for a loss and he recorded 3.5 sacks. After just two games of his junior season, he broke his leg and missed the rest of the year. He came back in year four and turned himself into a different beast, showing out big-time on a weekly basis, which made him a unanimous first-team All-American and a Heisman finalist, having racked up 62 total tackles, 16.5 of those for loss, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles and three passes batted down.

While his production as a pass-rusher is what earned Hutchinson most of the attention he received this past season, he may actually be a better run-defender. He consistently was able to attack the chest of blockers with his hands and set a physical edge, to where tackles were forced to take a couple of steps backwards at the point of attack. Hutchinson can overwhelm tight-ends when soloed up against them and can dislodge them in the run-game, especially when the back tries to cut a run back his way or tries to press front-side, while keeping vision on the backfield. He doesn’t shy away from taking on pulling guards head-on and creating chaos in the backfield either. His pursuit as the unblocked backside defensive end is so great, that he quickly takes stuff off the play-sheet, after the offense sees him blow those up. Even if Hutchinson isn’t directly at the point of attack, he can make an impact by crashing the inside gap, with well-timed hand-swipes, or squeeze his man inside to minimize the size of the B-gap. He displays outstanding effort, chasing after the ball until the echo of the whistle, and he shows uncommon overall awareness for a defensive lineman, like clueing a potential screen alert for the offense by pre-snap alignments or calling out pulling guards on multiple occasions before the play starts (especially in the Indiana game).

Hutchinson has tremendous snap anticipation and advanced hand-fighting skills. Two of his go-to maneuvers are the scissors or swim move, where working from wide alignment on most passing down, he can bait the hands of the tackle by taking a direct angle initially and then widening his path to get around the guy. While he may not have the longest arms, you saw him follow up outside rush moves more and more with a rip-through to actually clear the reach of blockers, when they were able to still stay engaged with him to some degree. Even from a pretty high two-point stance, Hutchinson can create a lot of power to drive tackles backwards once he’s set them up with his upfield burst earlier. He routinely put a potential first-round left tackle next year in Washington’s Jaxson Kirkland on his heels that way. There may be more dynamic athletes at the position, but one thing that you see routinely on tape with the former Wolverine is the balance issues he causes for blockers and that he catches them “on the wrong foot”. That was already apparent against Bucs’ first-round pick Tristan Wirfs all the way back in their 2019 matchup. At the same time, Hutchinson has the quick twitch to cross-face blockers and get through the inside lane cleanly, when it opens up for him, quickly recognizing when tackles overset him. In particular, he’s been highly effective with presenting a quick stutter and then crashing through the inside shoulder of tackles. He was able to beat the Ohio State tackles on several occasions in their matchup this past season. A large portion of Hutchinson’s production as a pass-rusher came in second halves, due to his ability to decipher but also set up blockers. He recorded 60(!) extra pressures along with his 14 sacks, which were more than any other player in the draft.

While Hutchinson anticipates the snap well, he has a bad tendency of adding a false step that with that back-foot, in order to push off with a slight kick-back. He doesn’t have the elite burst or flexibility to win cleanly around the edge I would say, And as wll as that scissors-swipe works for him, tackles who quick-set him or just get their hands inside his chest first give him trouble, because he doesn’t have the length (only 32.5-inch arms) to disengage from blocks at times. Plus, while the speed-to-power conversion is impressive, I’m not sure if he can actually straight-up bull-rush NFL tackles. Going back to 2020 Citrust Bowl, Hutchinson’ clearly met his with those two great Alabama OTs and then in his final college game – the Orange Bowl – Georgia’s tackles were able to make him far less effective, neutralizing inside moves on several occasions and being able to anchor down against the bull-rush. Hutch showed me a different side to him last year and he has great lateral agility, but I don’t at him as an athletic phenom, like most non-QB first overall picks.

Some people may say it’s a bit of a lazy comparison, but Aidan to me even looks like one of the Bosa brother in that number 97 jersey. In terms of the hand swipes and strong anchor in the run game, they are very much alike, but they also share a lack of arm length and the bend is more reminiscent of Joey. Hutchinson’s 4.74 in the 40 may actually be slightly below-average for edge defenders this year at the combine, but he did lead the group in both the three-cone and 20-yard shuttle. I may not have him at number one, like almost every ranking these days it seems like, but I still like the players a lot. Hutch plays with good motor and has already shown plenty of alignment flexibility, as the Wolverines move him inside quite a bit on passing downs, even letting him work one-on-one against centers at times. Looking back at the ’21 season, he seemingly got better every single week and will forever keep a spot in the heart of fans of the Maize and Blue, when he helped them finally defeat Ohio State in the “The Game”, racking up three sacks, to earn the school’s all-time record for a season.

 

 

Jermaine Johnson

 

3. Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State

6’4”, 260 pounds; RS SR

The number one overall JUCO recruit in 2019, Johnson ransferred over from Georgia during the 2021 offseason, transitioning from a rotational player, that showed some flashes (five sacks in seven games of 2020), into an every-down impact player. He turned himself into a second-team All-American selection, thanks to 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, a couple of forced fumbles and PBUs each, along with a scoop-and-score.

There’s some real jolt in those hands to rock the pads of blockers backwards and set a hard edge in the run game with Johnson. He keeps vision through the block, taking advantage of the “one arm being longer two” principle and doesn’t prematurely try to slip guys. Yet, then he’s sudden with his ability to disengage and meet ball-carriers as they try to cross the line of scrimmage. You see tight-ends really kick those feet into the turf with high frequency trying to move Johnson off the spot, but he keeps them locked out and then has the lateral movement skills to wrap up the back, as he tries to go slice up the gap to either side of them. When guys do overset him on down-blocks, Johnson has the short-agility and flexibility to step around and into the B-gap, while reducing the near-shoulder, to completely kill the frontside, unless the ball-carrier decides to bubble all the way around. He puts good discipline on display, to stay home on the backside of bootlegs and against reverses. Then he displays freaky closing burst to run down ball-carriers to the sideline and he’s someone you can’t leave unblocked on fly sweeps. Overall, he’s very natural with his hand usage and he gives you 100 percent every plays, despite averaging 61(!) snaps a contest last season, basically never coming off the field.

Johnson is at his best as a pass-rusher when he can stress with his burst and then transition to the long-arm, where he can put blockers on skates at times. Overall, speed-to-power is his go-to move and when he hits the outside pec of the tackle the right way, he can significantly shorten the arc. He had one play rushing off the left side against Miami last season, where he literally made the right tackle do a full 360-degree spin before getting a strip-sack himself. Off that, he packs a nice scissors move where he initially takes a direct angle up the middle of blockers and then almost euro-steps back to the outside, paired with the swipe-action to swat away the hands of the opponent. If he continues to work on those hesitation moves, combined with the pop in his hands, he could create major issues for tackles. And he has the mobility in his hips and ankles to flatten at the top of the rush that way. Johnson routinely crowds passing lanes by getting his arms up and when he’s closing in on the quarterback with those branches in the air, you see some real discomfort by the passer trying to get the ball over/around him. His effort as a pass-rusher is also highly impressive, as he overruns the QB at times or his rush stalls, but he tracks down that guy anyway as the scramble start. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Western Michigan’s Ali Fayad are the only players in this draft, who recorded more than Johnson’s 12 sacks this past season, plus he had 32 additional pressures in 2021. In early February, he went down to the Senior and proceeded to whoop ass for two straight days, basically winning every single rep in one-on-one’s in decisive fashion and in a variety of ways, where his combination of length, power, speed and technique were just too much for opponents.

The first question with Johnson is why it never worked out for him Georgia with those kinds of physical tools, as talented as that Bulldog may have been. In general, he is often a tad bit late off the ball. The timing and placement of his downward chops is off by quite a bit on occasion, which doesn’t allow him to actually clear the hips of blockers and flatten his rush. He utilizes the outside spin move on too many occasions, where it’s now almost impossible to create an angle towards the passer anymore. I don’t believe Johnson has the flexibility to truly bend underneath the reach of blockers consistently and he gets too predictable with setting up his inside moves. And overall, he needs to learn how to fluidly transition into a secondary move, where he gets into too many stalemates, even though he does continue to chase, but just not getting to the quarterback at the top of his drop. At times I would also like him to just not get hung up with tight-ends sealing his on the backside of boots for example.

Johnson has had an OUTSTANDING pre-draft process. What he did down in Mobile was so damn impressive, that his agent probably called him up and told him to shut it down after those first two practices. Then he followed that up by running a 4.58 in the 40 and had a 10’5” broad jump at the combine, weighing in at 258 pounds. His burst out of his stance and ability to take advantage of tackles having to respect his speed could end up with a lot of guys getting driven into their quarterback’s lap, while his condor-like 83-inch wingspan offers a lot of room for error, and he sets a very physical edge in the run game. He will have to continue working on his craft and develop a reliable second move as a pass-rusher, but there are no physical limitations to really speak of.

 

 

Travon Walker

 

4. Travon Walker, Georgia

6’5”, 275 pounds; JR

A five-star recruit in 2019 (number three defensive tackle), Walker was a rotational player for that loaded Bulldog defenses the first two years (5.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks combined). He finally did step into a more prominent role this past season, when he put up 33 total tackles, 7.5 of those for loss, six sacks and two passes batted down, ending the season with a national championship.

This guy has lined up anywhere from one- to seven-technique at UGA and transformed his body depending on where they needed him to play. He may be one of the very few players actually capable of playing anywhere across the front even if he doesn’t know what exactly to do yet. If you tag him as an edge defender, I’m not sure if there’s a stronger guy in this class. Walker comes out of his stance with his hands ready to strike and rock the pads of blockers backwards, while having those long arms to keep guys away from his chest. You see him at times get combo-ed on the front-side with the tight-end and he’s not moving off the spot whatsoever. When he’s sealed off on the backside, Walker can just drive the tackle behind the center at times, to create chaos in the backfield. Having him matched up with tight-ends will likely end with those guys getting rag-dolled or Walker flat-out crashing through the inside shoulder and chasing the play down. He can redirect without really any wasted steps and when he chases the ball, he always moves faster than it looks like he does. In particular as he shuffles laterally initially and then just takes off to chase things down as an unblocked man. And Walker is a strong tackler, who can stop momentum and pull ball-carriers backwards. A play that isn’t talked about enough from Natty was when Alabama threw one of their receivers a shallow crosser, who broke the first tackle and looked like he may out-angle the safety for six, but Walker came from being tangled up in the middle to chasing the ball down 20 yards downfield at the numbers.

Walker operated quite a bit out of a four-point stance on all three downs. He packs a mean long-arm maneuver, which you see some blockers brace themselves for at times. Plus, then he can pull very large men off himself, once they start leaning into him, like they’re 200 pounds. He has the flexibility to contort his body on wider angles and make it tough to cut off his path, as linemen have to switch onto him on twists and stuff like that. What I like about Walker as a pass-rusher is that if he gets close, but there’s still a blocker in his way or the guard has slid over, he doesn’t try to find a different path anymore, but just powers through and takes away the quarterback’s space to step up. And as he wins on an inside move, he can still compress the pocket, even when the guard slides over to help out. Walker’s production as a pass-rusher was limited by having zo slant inside and open a lane for one of his teammates and not being put in wide alignments, to create more favorable angles. Still, you see snaps on tape where he lines up at one-technique and loop all the way around the tackle and reach the passer at the climax of the drop. Even as the set-up man on twists, he can power through the reach of blockers, to get home. On a few obvious passing situations, he times up the snap perfectly, to explode like a fire-ball. Walker was put over guards quite a bit on longer downs last year, where the initial twitch can give those opponents issues. Altogether, he had nine more QB hits and 20 hurries, to go with his six sacks. And he has plenty of experience dropping into the hook area, especially on the field side, and taking away the number three at times when stemming down the seams – although I wouldn’t say he looks super-comfortable in space necessarily yet.

However, too often Walker is the last guy out of his stance for the Georgia D-line. He simply doesn’t have much of a plan as a pass-rusher at this point and just bangs into bodies on a lot of occasions – particularly on the interior – and it’s not like he has some secondary moves to win anyway. When it’s all coming together, it can be beautiful, but Walker’s upper and lower half aren’t always in sync, he doesn’t attack half the man consistently enough and puts stress on blockers with his initial approach, before going after the area, that they leave themselves vulnerable at. He lacks some feel for timing up games up front and understanding how to approach blockers in his way. While I love the natural power, there’s certainly a bull-in-the-china-shop “quality” to him and he will have to refine his technique, to actually win cleanly with hand-swipes. There’s not a whole lot to criticize as a run-defender, but at times he seems pre-occupied with his blocker and doesn’t decipher schemes.

Travon Walker has had a meteoric rise since the conclusion of this past season, as people fell in love with the freaky upside he presents. Dane Brugler was first to talk about him as a top-tier prospect, having him at number six overall on his big board back in February. Then Walker went to combine and put on an absolute show, when he ran a 4.51 in the 40 at 272(!) pounds, was good in the jumps and top-three in both agility events for the position. More importantly, people his size should not be able to move as easy in space and go through the bag drills the way he did. And his hips looked so loose running the figure-eight and bending that inside shoulder. With that being, he is so much of a projection as a pass-rusher, because he didn’t have a ton of success actually winning around the corner and showing that he can string together moves, by having his hands and lower body unified. At this point, he seems to be a lock for the top-five, which is too rich for me. He has the physical tools to end up as the best defensive player in this draft, but he still has a long way to go.

 

 

George Karlaftis

 

5. George Karlaftis, Purdue

6’4”, 275 pounds; JR

Once having been a member of the U-16 Greek national water polo team as a 13-year-old, Karlaftis came other to the US in 2014, after his father had died of a heart attack. He became a two-time Indiana state champion in the shot put and quickly acclimated himself to the life on the gridiron. Karlaftis joined the nearby Purdue Boilermakers in 2019 and immediately was a monster for them on the field, racking up 17 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two PBUs and fumble recoveries as a freshman. He appeared in only two games the following season, due to a combination of injury and COVID, before turning it back on in 2021, when he was named first-team All-Big Ten, recording ten TFLs, 4.5 sacks, four PBUs, a couple of fumbles forced and recovered, along with a scoop-and-score.

Even though the nickname of “The Greek Freak” will probably be limited to NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karlaftis presents a dense, muscular frame. He has the body type to play five-technique and has been part of some odd fronts, but also has plenty of experience rushing from a two-point stance. This guy is one of the most “smack-you-in-the-face” type of players in this draft. He plays with heavy hands against the run and mostly controls offensive tackles, being able to pull them off himself to either direction. Karlaftis does a good job of keeping full extension and contorting his body, so he can lean in against blocks and not get moved off the spot. He stops the flow on zone run plays routinely. If tackles overstride with their first step, he can instantly switch to the inside and pairs it up with an effective hand-swipe to slip those blocks. When unblocked on the backside, he flatten hard down the line and is ready to bang into sifts underneath the formation. Yet, when the quarterback rides the mesh point to potentially pull the ball, Karlaftis switches to a shuffle, before tracking the ball down with good burst. And when tight-ends try to seal him away from the play, he caves in the edge by driving those guy into the middle. Karlaftis is one of the better tacklers you will find on the edge, wrapping up and flattening ball-carriers from the side routinely.

Karlaftis’ first step and activity level as more a true 4-3 defensive end improved a lot in 2021 I think, where he’s now consistently the first to attack the hands of blockers. It also applies to the way he shoots upfield initially, to make tackles respect the speed rush, to go with converting that effectively into power and forklifting guys. Karlaftis is very efficient and non-stop with his hand usage, while keeping his pads low to reduce the surface area for blockers to target. You can tell that he’s worked a lot on his hand-combat maneuvers and there’s no pause from one to another, to clear the hands of his man. He often operated out of two-point stance with the “wrong” foot forward, so he could take a more direct path towards the quarterback and condense the edge, with an often devastating bull-rush. Karlaftis is a pretty complete pass-rusher coming out of college already, with the initial burst to get tackles out of their vertical sets, but then the power to make them pay for getting too tall, while displaying awareness for when they overset to the outside, at times slapping at the inside hand and swimming over the top. Karlaftis also shows good recognition and countering skills against backs coming over to chip or wing-men working across the formation towards him off play-action. And opposing teams started sliding protections and giving him extra attention more and more in ’21. He may only have had 4.5 sacks, but he added 14 more hits on the QB, along with 35 hurries on 335 pass-rush snaps.

With that in mind, Karlaftis simply isn’t the most twitched-up, sudden athlete. He’s such a linear pass-rusher. There’s some stiffness to his movement and he can’t pair hand-swipes and cross-face steps in a very fluid way, to beat tackles cleanly on inside counters. His spin moves in particular aren’t very effective, because he’s barely moving off the spot, At 32 ½ inches his arms are at the low spectrum for edge rushers and you see that show up at times, when can’t quite reach the elbow of tackles trying to land clubs. And if his first two steps are upfield, he doesn’t have the natural flexibility to curve his rush to the quarterback without having to initiate contact. Karlaftis has to do a better job of avoiding holds or at least making the officials aware of it, by forcing guys to stretch at his jersey – even though he has certainly started doing a better job of working through contact. And I would just like to see a more defined rush plan, rather than throwing a bunch of different stuff at tackles. While Karlaftis is a very physical run-defender, when blockers do catch from the side on angular blocks, you see him not be able to anchor that way. And overall the lateral agility to come off blocks and set the tackle needs improvement.

This is an ultra-physical player with a non-stop motor. Karlaftis looks and feels like somebody who spent almost too much time lifting heavy weight, to where he’s not loose enough in certain areas you would like from an alpha pass-rusher, and his length will make defeating the hands of blockers more challenging. However, if you’re looking for somebody to re-set the line of scrimmage in the run game and collapse the pocket with power off the edge, along with setting the tone for your defense with his all-out effort, this guy can be a quality starter for a long time. He does need to become more efficient with actually disengaging from blocks though and a push-pull off the bull-rush should become a key component of his game.

 

 

David Ojabo

 

6. David Ojabo, Michigan

6’5”, 250 pounds; JR

A four-star recruit in 2019, Ojabo grew up in Nigeria and moved to Scotland when he was seven years old. Ten years later, he came to the US and initially started playing basketball, yet received 35 football scholarships. He really didn’t have any role for Michigan’s defense until his junior year, having played just 26 total snaps, due to all the guys the Wolverines had in front of him – Kwity Paye, Joshua Uche, etc. However, when he got his chance, he immediately became one of the biggest threats rushing off the edge, recording 11 sacks, five forced fumbles and three passes knocked down, making him a second-team All-American this past season.

Ojabo may not be that close to being a great run-defender, but it’s certainly not due to a lack of willingness to contribute. He keeps his outside arm free against in that area and rarely gets beat around the corner, even by wide receivers on sweeps and stuff. And I saw him crash low into pulling guards and tight-ends sifting across to him on kick-outs on multiple occasions going through his film. When left unblocked on the backside of run plays, Ojabo has tremendous accelerate to chase the ball-carrier down from behind. As tight-ends/wings try to seal him away from the play, he has the agility to slip over the top and flow to the ball on lateral run scheme. And something I saw times on tape was how well he sold or rather indicated holds, as blockers grabbed at the outside of his shoulder-pads and slightly held him back. Ojabo was peeled off the edge a few times last year and while it was very basic, just standing up and being in the way of quick in-breakers, he can show off his speed to chase down receivers after catching the ball.

This kid was the speed-ball to Aidan Hutchinson’s more technique-based dominance on the opposite side. Ojabo has great explosion off the snap, the ability to reduce his inside shoulder and bend around the corner, which paired with good snap anticipation, forces tackles to flip their shoulders almost instantly at times. Whether it’s the ghost or the dip-and-rip, Ojabo can win around the loop consistently. You see him get so low at times that he can actually touch the ground with the inside hand. Plus, we’ve seen him be able to defeat the hands as he’s running the loop, by pulling the low-arm up forcefully and using that momentum to shorten the arc even further. Ojabo is so sudden in his movement and can almost lull tackles to sleep at times with hesitation maneuvers. He already does a good job of keeping blockers off balance with some uncommon step sequences, without being able to pair that up with diverse hand-combats yet. And this is a guy, where your quarterback has to be aware of where he’s coming from and that he can’t escape the other way, because once Ojabo can widen his path a little bit and run after that guy, he will get there in a hurry. Along with his 11 sacks, he had 33 more pressures on exactly 300 pass-rush snaps last year.

At this point, Ojabo isn’t rather poor at defending the run, at least certainly trying to hold his ground on the front-side. You see him get taken for a ride on several occasions and offenses made it a priority to go right at him. He almost exclusively lined up on the weak side of the formation and in a seven-alignment or further out, being allowed to chase from the back-side, if he was even out there on early downs. And overall, his game is very reactive at this point, not ID-ing run schemes and having to process run-pass altogether. He barely saw the field against Georgia, when they ran the ball. As a pass-rusher, it’s all about speed at this point, without any dependable hand-swipes to call upon, other than the rip. There’s no real power element to speak of. Ojabo gets caught with his back to the blocker at times, when attempting lethargic spins, if hung up initially. And he limited his speed a lot of times, by this little hop out of his stance, while typically not being first to come off the ball. Obviously, the big concern with Ojabo is that torn Achilles he suffered at the Michigan pro day, which will knock him out for his rookie campaign and he may never be fully back to that explosion he showed before – which for him particularly is a huge deal.

I feel really bad for this young man, because without the Achilles, he’s most likely a top-20 pick. Looking back at some other prospects, who suffered that same kind of injury in the pre-draft process, the few that come to mind simply never made it all the way back in terms of athletic traits. That being said, if he can get all the way back – which potentially could take all the way until 2024 – Ojabo has that speed off the edge that you simply can’t teach. With his ability to bend and the feel for setting up blockers with hesitation moves, to momentarily stop the opponent’s feet and now if he can develop reliable hand-swipes, he can clear the hips and close on the quarterback. To be a full-time player, he will have to add more muscle to his frame and work on his run-defense altogether, but if he returns all the way to form, his ability to stress the edge on passing downs is something the NFL covets highly.

 

 

Boye Mafe

 

7. Boye Mafe, Minnesota

6’4”, 255 pounds; SR

Just a three-star recruit in 2017, Mafe’s playing time increased every season with the Gophers (4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two batted passes in 2020). His career was highlighted by an excellent senior year, when he recorded ten TFLs, seven sacks and a fumble forced, making him a second-team All-Big Ten selection.

Mafe mostly lines up in a two-point stance with the outside foot forward and his body aimed directly at the tackle, while switching into a more parallel position if he tight-end is motioned in/over to him. Thanks to that alignment, he can be the one establishing contact in the run game and not allow blockers to move him off the spot when he’s at the point of attack. Mafe’s ability to flow laterally on the backside of zone runs with his shoulders nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage is super impressive, plus then he can slip underneath sift-blocks across the formation in fluid fashion and chase down the running back, usually wrap up effectively. When a tight-end tries to seal him off on the back-side, he has the upper body strength to press that guy off and create an angle on the ball for himself. He doesn’t shy away from crashing into a pulling guard and stopping the momentum right there, and overall he muddies up the picture in the backfield on several occasions. Mafe has the athleticism to shuffle with somebody slipping underneath the formation on leak routes and then make that transition to bearing down on the quarterback in a hurry. The coaches trusted him to even pump tight-ends off the line and then run with them down the seams or match running backs on wheel routes, where he has some highly impressive tape of running with guys 20+ yards down the field. Of course, he also did with more simplistic spot-drops, where he can quickly cover ground and is an asset at chasing down receivers to eliminate potential for YAC.

The Gopher standout displays great acceleration up the arc and a rapid inside-arm that he can swipe up or down with, to clear himself from the tackle’s reach, along with an effective swim move and ability to flick the hips around. He’s very sudden to get around blockers and if guys stop their feet momentarily, they’ll open up shortly after, trying to chase after him. He flashes a very promising cross-chop, which could do wonders in combination with that. And he packs more force than you’d think, to where he can get tackles off balance at times, when they get too far onto their heels or he catches them lunging, by lifting at the inside shoulder and pushing them further upfield, in order to open up a path to the quarterback. Then he has the closing burst to run quarterbacks down, trying to escape either way. As he continues to diversify his pass-rush portfolio, learning to incorporate subtle hesitation moves, along with his bursty style, will make him only more dangerous. On obvious passing downs, Mafe will at times put the inside hand down with a lot of weight out in front, looking almost like a sprinter, in order to get out of his tracks as explosively as possible. You see some Minnesota B-gap blitzers have a freeway to run through because of the way he attacks vertically. Overall, Mafe recorded 42 total pressures on 257 pass-rush snaps last season.

With that being said, Mafe has to do a better job of establishing half-man relationships in the run and pass game. He gets his eyes trapped inside a few times, particularly when he sees traffic coming his way, such as sift blocks by a tight-end or wing-man, and he loses his contain in the process. Ohio State’s Miyan Williams had a 71-yard touchdown largely thanks to Mafe shuffling inside to take on the tight-end working underneath the formation, whilst the running back was headed for the sideline already. Once linemen are able to get into his frame, he struggles to disengage, and he needs to do a better job of feeling down-blocks, when the offense pulls the tackle out to the corner on toss plays, as they’re able to pin him inside, rather than him being able to work over the top. As a pass-rusher his biggest limitation is the lack of length at 32 ½ inches and the fact he doesn’t yet know how to maximize it, as a lot of hand-combats don’t quite defeat the hands of blockers and they quickly re-attach after slipping off a little bit momentarily.

Mafe is another guy who general draft media only started to catch up with since this past season concluded. He had an excellent Senior Bowl week, where his ability to win around the corner and then work some different moves off that was on display throughout practices. PFF handed him the highest pass-rushing grade among edge defenders during practices for, and then he ended the week with a couple of sacks, including one strip in the actual game. He also had a monster combine, finishing above the 90th percentile in the 40 (4.53), the vert (38 inches) and the broad jump (10’5”) at 261 pounds, while skipping the agility drills. I wish he was a little bit longer and he has to take his contain responsibilities more seriously, but he has the physical tools to be a high-level speed rusher and chase-player in the run game.

 

 

Drake Jackson

 

8. Drake Jackson, USC

6’3”, 250 pounds; JR

The number six defensive end recruit in 2019, Jackson recorded 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and three PBUs as a true freshman. His numbers were basically cut in half during a six-game 2020 season, although he did pick off a pass and present his physical profile of a eventual top-ten pick, which encouraged him to announce that 2021 was his final college campaign. This past season, he was named second-team All-Pac-12 for recording eight TFLs, five sacks and one’s across the board for interceptions, PBUs, fumbles forced and recovered.

Simply visually, Jackson looks like an alien sent to earth, in order to play on the edge. He has those really long arms hanging to below his knees and good thickness in his lower half. This guy creates issues in the run game with his heavy hands to set the edge and short-area quickness to back-door blockers. He can make the heads of tight-ends snap backwards at first contact and will fight across the face of zone-blockers on the backside of run plays, routinely taking the tight-end wuth him a good five yards sideways as he works his way down the line. However, when he’s allowed to back-door blockers on the edge, he will make them miss before they can process what happened. And when he’s left unblocked altogether away from the action, he has the speed to flatten down the line and chase down fast running backs. At times he will also show his impressive ability to go from a full sprint when chasing the ball to redirecting and shutting down reverses.

Man, does Jackson has some shake to him as a pass-rusher. He’s truly one of those guys, who you have to respect, being able win inside and out. Jackson packs a sudden rip move, the ability to drop the hips and run nearly parallel to the ground as he’s working around the corner, whilst pushing hard off the ground when he tries to circle back around, if he’s slightly past the quarterback. The dude has next-level change of direction to counter back to the inside, when tackles overset him. Yet, then he has the incredible flexibility to dip underneath the reach of tackles and win on ghost moves, after he’s made them respect the willigness to win inside. His ability to stab at the chest of blockers and keep them off himself on one-arm maneuvers is something you see all over his tape. There’s certainly potential to incorporate that into more multi-faceted rush maneuvers, such as stutter-bull rushes and power-to-speed. Jackson is dangerous stunting through interior gaps, with his ability to reduce his frame and crash through. You saw him slant inside and flawlessly transition to the arm-over against guards sliding over and work around them. Last year, he quietly put up 26 total pressures on 182 pass-rush snaps. Jackson was asked to peel off with the running back releasing into the flats and he was used quite a bit to match pass-catchers underneath, dictating their release initially and crowding those windows as he passes those off. He’s a very loose mover in space altogether and you saw him bang receivers to the turf on several occasions.

This certainly has something to do with what coaches allowed Jackson to do, but at this point Jackson isn’t a very disciplined run-defender, whether it’s jumping inside of guys on the edge or letting the quarterback get around him when keeping the ball on zone-reads and bootlegs. He’s still learning how to read run schemes properly and not just go after the ball. He doesn’t play half the man and extend his arms to control the point of attack, while still learning how to properly deconstruct blocks. In the pass game, he delays his start with a significant step backwards, he doesn’t have a ton of jolt in his hands when engaging with offensive linemen and he’s not always in full-on attack mode as a rusher. Jackson has to do a better job of using that length and keeping his frame clean in the pass game. Once blockers land a punch inside his frame, his rush dies out significantly. And he overruns the arc on too many occasions, not showing the ability to shorten his path by transitioning to power. As much as I like Jackson’s ability to beat tackles inside on up-and-under moves, when opponents do have the post leg ready to mirror, he doesn’t show the quick secondary hand-swipe or power to win anyway.

With his movement skills and natural athleticism, I believe Jackson could develop into an excellent RUSH linebacker. In terms of rushing the passer, he’s at his best as a wide-nine technique, where his ability to bend around the corner and cross-face tackles who overset him. He’s not a reliable edge-setter in more defined run fits and he lacks much of a power element as a pass-rusher, but I just don’t get how he’s so overlooked in this class. This guy has some elite traits for an edge defenders and he still has plenty of room to grow. To me he’s a no-doubt top ten prospect at the position. Hopefully he reminded NFL evaluators of that, with how easily he moved around during positional drills at the combine and the fact he had top-tier numbers in vert (36.5 inches) and broad jump (10’7”), while looking to have bulked up a bit.

 

 

Josh Pascal

 

9. Josh Paschal, Kentucky

6’3”, 270 pounds; SR

A four-star recruit in 2017, Paschal contributed in every game as a freshman, before ending up with a redshirt in year two, due to having multiple surgeries for malignant melanoma. Over these last three years, he has been a full-time starter and played pretty well (16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick), until really breaking onto the scene this past season, with 15 tackles for loss and five sacks, including one strip, making him a second-team All-SEC selection.

Having split his time pretty equally between five-technique and outside the tackle, along with 110 snaps inside, Paschal has great length and girth throughout his frame, making him attractive for anything from a three- to a seven-technique. He plays with heavy hands and great extension in the run game. I thought he really improved his physicality in that area this past season. Paschal showcases the strong base to anchor against bumps from the side and not allow quick combo-actions to affect him a whole lot. Against combos with the tight-end, the former Wildcat really attacks the outside man and doesn’t allow actual double-teams that way, by creating a gap between the two and limiting the movement at the point of attack in significant fashion. And if he sees an opportunity, he has the suddenness to back-door zone blockers in impressive fashion with the high swim, to create negative plays. As tackles try to scoop-block him the backside of zone runs, he has the upper body strength to lock them out, in order to work down the line, or ride them into the lap of the running back. When slanted outside from a head-up alignment on the tackle, tight-ends don’t really stand a chance at sealing him there and he instantly flattens down the line, in order to run down the back. If he’s allowed to just chase as the unblocked man, his pursuit is relentless. Yet, on snaps where he’s given contain assignments in those situations, he shuffles along tightly to the last man at the line with parallel shoulders and even when it looks like the quarterback seemingly has the angle to get out wide on bootlegs, Paschal displays tremendous closing burst to force the ball to come out and often be thrown away. Pro Football Focus credited him with a Power-Five leading 12.4% run stop rate in 2021 and he had 12 solo tackles for loss.

For playing at about 270 pounds, Paschal shows some serious juice out of his stance on passing downs as well. He has some of the most violent hands in this draft, where that initial club routinely creates upper body rotation for blockers and opens up the lane to stop through, as Paschal follows up with the rip or swim. However, he’s also incredibly twitchy for that size, often times giving a little shake when he has room to operate and making blockers stop their feet momentarily. Paschal shows the flexibility to disconnect his upper and lower half to some degree and corner around blockers. As a three-technique in particular, that ability to beat guards across their face, as they set to the outside, leads to him running right at the QB on several occasions. Those qualities could make him a nightmare to pick up on twists, as the set-up man or wide looper. This guy has the natural force to break the anchor of large men routinely. He truly takes guys for a ride when he commits to power and then can pull cloth to discard them. Yet, once he feels blockers take their eyes down, as they dip their head into contact, he pulls out a rapid arm-over to get past them. When slanted inside and guards don’t have their eyes on him in slide-protection, I’ve seen straight-up put those guys on their behinds on several occasions. Watching the Georgia game, you see him make one of the strongest offensive lines in the country get physically overwhelmed on quite a few snaps. When you look at Paschal’s pass-rush win rate of 16.3 percent, it’s a slight step down from the top of the group, but it’s still pretty impressive considering how often he had to widen his rushes from head-up alignments of the tackle or would have a guard slide over towards him, because Kentucky didn’t have anybody else to really scare offenses on passing downs.

At this point, Paschal is not a very refined pass-rush, often times just banging into bodies and not getting those clean wins in that regard. His aiming points are slightly off on a large percentage of his rushes and he doesn’t yet attack the edges of blockers efficiently enough. While I would certainly argue he makes more of an impact on passing downs than the numbers would indicate, coming up half a sack short of double-digits over the course of these last three years (35 games), speaks to his inability to finish in that regard. The physicality and want to be a great run defender are certainly there, but Paschal is a little slow to ID chemes still, having to fight through seal-offs or down-blocks on the backside, at times whilst the guy in front of him was used as a puller, and getting pinned inside initially when offenses try to get the ball out to the perimeter. He also rarely saw reverses coming. He also limits his ability to control the point of attack, because head-up linemen are able to get their base around before he can step into his gap, forcing him to work over the top of those running blocks.

While I wouldn’t say that they’re quite the same time, watching Paschal’s tape gave me flashbacks of evaluating Dayo Odeyingbo at Vanderbilt a year ago. Both are just such violent players with positional versatility, who popped off the screen even though those plays wouldn’t reflect on the stat sheet. Similar to last year’s second-round pick of the Colts, the description “bull in a china shop” certainly fits, as Paschal just goes with the flow a little bit too much and doesn’t always rush with a plan. He will have to learn to play a little more within himself and speeding up his process of recognizing plays, but he’s a guy who can line up all over the formation and “F” plays up.

 

 

Myjai Sanders

 

10. Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati

6’5”, 245 pounds; JR

Right around the top-1000 overall recruits in 2018, Sanders saw very limited action his freshman season, but turned himself into a very valuable piece to that Bearcats defense in year two and then as a junior he led them in sacks with seven, to go with 10.5 tackles for loss and five passes knocked down, for a unit that finished the year in the top ten in terms of points allowed. His numbers took a dip this past season, with 7.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks, to go with another five PBUs, but he helped Cincy become the first Non-Power Five team to make the College Football Playoff.

This is a long and athletic kid on the edge, who by the words of his own coaches could have probably survived at any spot in the front-seven purely based on his athletic tools Despite presenting a somewhat lanky frame, Sanders can surprise blockers in the run game, with the way he shoots his hands into the chest of the opponent and rocks their pads backwards at times. Then he showcases some sudden hands and agility to jump inside of blocks as he sees the ball-carrier cut it up that way, often times tripping that guy up with arms that look longer than the 32 ½ inches would suggest. He continues to fight the hands and bring his hips around to not get pinned inside on the front-side of wide zone schemes. When unblocked on the backside, he usually directly attaches to the back-hip of zone blockers, at times even slightly twisting them so they can’t climb cleanly to the second level, yet then Sanders has the suddenness to wrestle down the RB trying to cut backside. While it’s obviously not how you teach it, I’ve seen Sanders be at the point of attack on a zone run, scrape over the top and set a tackle on the running back cutting all the way back behind the opposite. He has that flexibility and agile movement to get around pulling linemen and initiate contact with the ball-carrier, while if his man is pulled and somebody blocks down on him, he displays the awareness to cross that guy’s face and create havoc in the backfield. Cincinnati slanted him inside quite a bit, where he was able to actually make blockers miss with the high swim and flexibility to step around.

Sanders has the get-off and long strides up the arc to consistently threaten offensive tackles in their sets. That speed around the corner allows him to win cleanly on ghost or dip-and-rip moves on several occasions. When tackles do seemingly cut off the angle for him, he packs a nice two-handed swipe or cross-chop, where he jabs with the inside foot and then has the loose hips to step around, as well as that rip-move, where he can arc around or hook the arm of the tackle, to keep that guy on his hip. Off that, he shows a nasty up-and-under move, where he rapidly hits the arm-over and makes tackles look like they’re stuck in quicksand. He may be forced to overrun the arc initially, but then has the athletic ability to corner all the way back around and jump on the quarterback’s back. When you let Sanders rush from a wide-nine alignment and he has that runway, where tackles have to hurry to get back in front of him and now #21 has the shake to go inside or out, he becomes a real problem. His short-area burst and bendiness also make him tough to pick up on twists or when the A-gap is left open and he sees an opportunity to take it. And the Bearcats used him as a semi-off-ball blitzers head up over the center, slicing through gaps. While his standard numbers didn’t look great season, he did have 62 total pressures on 389 pass-rush snaps.

However, Sanders’ lack of bulk does show up at instances, where he’s engaged with blockers for a longer period of time or they can clamp down on him, to make his rush stall. When blockers catch him with the outside foot off the turf on drive blocks, they can toss him to the side and drive him for a while. And evn though you love his activity in that regard, you have to question with the way he would free-lance at times if he can be relied upon to fulfill simplified run fits. He gets too far off track at times with a wide-swim, particularly against the run, and loses his balance in the process, limiting his ability to turn the corner and/or chase the ball. Alabama’s Evan Neal was able to take him for a ride a few times and had the agility to counter his sudden burst-based moves to either side, negating a large portion of his rushes. Sanders simply doesn’t have the power to close in on the quarterback when he can’t cleanly create an angle for himself to get around the blocker. He does flash some speed-to-power conversion, but it’s more sporadic if guys get way back on their heels. And he’s really antsy to get off the ball, which cost his team a few times with jumping offside.

Considering what kind of superior athlete he was compared to a lot of the offensive linemen he faced, you would have like to see Sanders be more productive in the AAC. He does present a rather gangly frame and my question about him are mostly power-based, but I have no idea how he’s been falling as much on boards. He was sick at the combine and people got scared about him weighing in at just 228 pounds, but he’s put another 20 on and put up good numbers across the board at his pro day. Watching him a Senior Bowl prior to that, what really stood out about was that explosion off the snap and how patient he was with his hands before the ones of the tackle. And he made several big plays in the run game during team drills, rag-dolling tight-ends. I believe Sanders is a unique player and chess piece for a creative defensive coordinator. In no way would I let him fall to day three.

 


 

Just missed the cut:

 

Arnold Ebiketie

 

Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State

6’2”, 250 pounds; SR

Around the top-2000 overall recruits in 2017 for Temple, Ebiketie saw very limited action through his first two years (16 total tackles), before making a name for himself in 2020, when he recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles and a scoop-and-score, earning second-team All-ACC in the process. He decided to transfer to Penn State ahead of this past season and the move paid off immensely, as he more than doubled those previous numbers for TFLs and sacks, and was named first-team All-Big Ten.

+ Understands how to set his base with good knee-bend and pad-level while burying the inside hand into the sternum of blockers, to set the edge, L

+ Routinely wrong-shoulders pulling guards and forces the ball-carrier to bounce out wide, where the rest of teammates could clean things up, Yet if opposing teams try to kick him out on the backside with somebody working across to him on split zone runs, he can swipe that guy further that way and shut down cutbacks,

+ Shows tremendous pursuit as the chase defender unblocked from the backside, choosing a flat angle down the line

+His 18 tackles for loss speaak on his ability to come off late and make plays in the backfield

+ Adjusts his rush-plans to who he’s facing, understanding how to affect opponents accordingly and set them up throughout games

+ Comes off the ball with good forward lean and has the combination of speed and ability to tilt in order to win around the corner

+ Shows well-time club-rip or two-hand swipe, to stay on his path, yet if he doesn’t clear the hands with that first combat, there’s no pause between his follow-up

+ Does a great job of stabbing at the shoulder-pad of tackles at the side he wants to get past and is quick to counter the hands

+ Beat Ohio State’s Nicolas Petit-Frere on several quick inside moves, such as the up-and-under

+ Along with his eight sacks on the year, Ebiketie had 44 extra pressures and 32 of what PFF calls “other pass-rush wins” (fourth-most among draft-eligible EDGEs)

– Basically took him five years of college (including an initial redshirt), to turn himself into a real difference-maker on defense

– Rather undersized for an edge defender and doesn’t a ton of pop in his hands

– Didn’t nearly dominate matchups with tight-ends in both facets of the game as much he should have

– A lot of his production as a pass-rusher came on counters – will have to win with the initial move more consistently

– When blockers were able to land an early punch, he became far less effective in his approach

Ebiketie’s height and weight are on the very low-end of the spectrum for edge defenders, but his arms are just above 34 inches and his hands measure in at 10 ¼. He was above the 90th percentile in the vert (38 inches) and broad jump (10’9”). This is really sudden and bendy athlete, who can win in a multitude of ways. I don’t believe Ebiketie is a powerful player necessarily, but he flashes that ability to make tackles pay for setting him too softly or prematurely open their hips. He’s the type of guy NFL evaluators fall in love with and he was the most productive pass-rusher for Penn State since 2017, but he didn’t quite make it into my top ten.

 

 

Cameron Thomas, San Diego State

6’5”, 265 pounds; JR

A three-star recruit in 2018, Thomas was a quality player for San Diego State in his first two seasons, following a redshirt year, combining for 18.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, making first-team All-Mountain West in both of them. In 2021, he lined up all over the Azetcs’ defensive front and created negative plays for them, earning himself second-team All-American honors, thanks to 71 total tackles, 20.5 of those for loss and 10.5 sacks.

+ Dense, muscular frame that carries 265-270 pounds well and makes him attractive as a base end in a 3-4 as well

+ Very disruptive run-defender in a penetrating role or slanting across gaps, being able to get skinny

+ Combines that with well-timed hand-swipes and a highly impressive ability to contort his body,

+ Can rip or squeeze across the face of zone-blockers when working cross-face, with ridiculous ability to flow laterally and work over the top of blocks

+ His burst to chase down the ball as the unblocked defender from the back-side is eye-popping

+ Impressive first step and twitchiness for a plus-sized edge rusher

+ Has been very effective with the high-swim, fluidly following through on the initial club and placing the opposite hand on the back of the blocker’s shoulder-pad to make sure he can clear the hips

+ Relentless with continuing to work the hands, trying to pull guys to the side and he likes to finish up with a strong upwards rip, to kind of pin the arm of the blocker,

+ Shows the burst to be a real threat on inside stunts and loops across multiple gaps, making it tough for the protection to account for him properly

+ On 525 pass-rush snaps this past season, he amassed 77 total pressures and 34 “other pass-rush wins” according to PFF

– Due to an unrefined role at SDSU, he doesn’t necessarily have a distinguished approach as a pass-rushe

– Once blockers are able to get their hands inside Thomas’ chest, he has a tough time getting them off

– His 32 ½-inch doesn’t measure up to the rest of his frame and hurt him in an odd front role, where he’s asked to two-gap or “win half a gap back”

– A lot of run-down production came from slanting through gaps – wasn’t asked to do much gap control work

– So much of what he was successful with in college was based on beating opponents to the inside, which he will not be allowed to do nearly as frequently at the next level

This was one of the tougher evaluations of the entire class. Thomas has some really fun tape and he was one of the most disruptive – as well as productive – players in the country this past season. The explosiveness and sudden movement skills are very intriguing. However, his role or style of play at San Diego State is so far off anything you see or can project him to in the NFL. Some of his worst run-down plays came in more traditional assignments and he didn’t win a ton as a true edge rusher. I believe in a versatile front, where he can be a penetrator up the B-gap, is slanted a lot and has more freedom in his approach, he could be a real impact player, but that’s pretty rare in the league. So now you project a lot based on his physical tools.

 


 

The next names up:

Sam Williams (Ole Miss), Nik Bonitto (Oklahoma), Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina), Tyreke Smith (Ohio State), DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky), Michael Clemons (Texas A&M) & Alex Wright (UAB)

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 offensive tackles in the 2022 NFL Draft:

Two weeks into my positional draft rankings, we have arrived at the big boys! Today we’re looking at the best offensive tackles, before we get into the guys coming off the edge later this week. If you enjoyed reading my detailed analysis of this class, feel free to always read up my top running backs, linebackers, wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Back to this group – I believe there is clear top three, which at this point all seem like top-ten locks – and deservedly so. After that, there’s a significant drop-off, before we get to four other names, that I have graded in the late first to late second-round range. Rounding out my top ten, I believe the three remaining prospects are worthy of later day two picks, before we get into a bunch of guys, where either they can give you quality snaps early or have the talent to develop into starters down the road, but they all have certain limitations or questions.

And as a quick side note, there may be a few names that you feel like are missing here, because they qualified as interior offensive linemen for me, which I’ll break down next week. Some notable players that pertains to: Tyler Smith (Tulsa), Sean Rhyan (UCLA), Darian Kinnard (Kentucky), Andrew Stueber (Michigan) and Zach Tom (Wake Forest).

Let’s get into these tackles:

 

Continue reading

Two weeks into my positional draft rankings, we have arrived at the big boys! Today we’re looking at the best offensive tackles, before we get into the guys coming off the edge later this week. If you enjoyed reading my detailed analysis of this class, feel free to always read up my top running backs, linebackers, wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Back to this group – I believe there is clear top three, which at this point all seem like top-ten locks – and deservedly so. After that, there’s a significant drop-off, before we get to four other names, that I have graded in the late first to late second-round range. Rounding out my top ten, I believe the three remaining prospects are worthy of later day two picks, before we get into a bunch of guys, where either they can give you quality snaps early or have the talent to develop into starters down the road, but they all have certain limitations or questions.

And as a quick side note, there may be a few names that you feel like are missing here, because they qualified as interior offensive linemen for me, which I’ll break down next week. Some notable players that pertains to: Tyler Smith (Tulsa), Sean Rhyan (UCLA), Darian Kinnard (Kentucky), Andrew Stueber (Michigan) and Zach Tom (Wake Forest).

Let’s get into these tackles:

 

Continue reading

Standard
NFL Draft

Top 10 cornerbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft:

Switching back to the defensive side of the ball, after breaking down the draft’s best receivers earlier this week, we are now looking at the guys covering them. So this group includes outside and slot cornerbacks, where the boards among NFL teams can vary a lot depending on the defensive scheme they run and what they ask their CBs to do.

As always, I will break down my top ten overall prospects, regardless of scheme fit, and I have three more guys in the “just missed the cut” paragraphs”. Just like the receivers, there’s five names worthy of going in the first round in my opinion and there’s several potential diamonds in the rough, with a large amount of small school prospects with intriguing qualities.

Here’s what I ended up with:

 

Continue reading

Switching back to the defensive side of the ball, after breaking down the draft’s best receivers earlier this week, we are now looking at the guys covering them. So this group includes outside and slot cornerbacks, where the boards among NFL teams can vary a lot depending on the defensive scheme they run and what they ask their CBs to do.

As always, I will break down my top ten overall prospects, regardless of scheme fit, and I have three more guys in the “just missed the cut” paragraphs”. Just like the receivers, there’s five names worthy of going in the first round in my opinion and there’s several potential diamonds in the rough, with a large amount of small school prospects with intriguing qualities.

Here’s what I ended up with:

 

Continue reading

Standard