I’ve never attempted something like this before, but I wanted to do something different for tonight’s NFL Draft. I decided to make a starting 11 solely using prospects in this year’s draft.
This is my assessment on who will be the best player at every position when we look back at this draft in 15-20 years. Not necessarily who will be the best rookie at each position. Some of these picks are going to be easy to make. Some will be hard. Most will be wrong. I also want to touch on who I think good value/sleeper picks would be at most of the positions. (I underlined their names so they’re easier to find.)
Quarterback – Jameis Winston (Florida State)
Winston is the no-brainer #1 overall pick. The only way he shouldn’t be a Buccaneer is if they trade the pick. And they would have to get a pretty good haul to pull the trigger. Not RGIII big, but significant. Winston had a little bit of a down year last year, but his Freshman season was not a fluke; he’s been elite his whole life. With great size and anticipation skills, Jameis always had the feel of an NFL quarterback. He’s athletic, but doesn’t rely on running like some QBs might. Mariota is a good player, but in college, he was tasked with simple reads and fatigued defenders left a lot of open, fast receivers in the Oregon offense. He didn’t need to anticipate like he will at the next level.
I like UCLA’s Brett Hundley as a nice value pick—maybe for the Broncos to groom a Peyton Manning replacement?—if he gets drafted to the right team, because he needs some work still. But a good coach/system can turn him into at least an above average back-up, if not a solid starter.
Running Back – Todd Gurley (Georgia)
I know I’m going out on another limb here with this choice, but the consensus #1 RB is rated that way for a reason. Despite the injuries, I think Gurley will still turn into a better running back than Melvin Gordon. Though his durability is obviously his biggest concern, but if you look at it through another lens: he played through ankle and hip injuries and might not have been healthy for a decent portion of his college career. If that’s the case, watch out. He impressed just about everyone when on the field, and I doubt that will stop. The guy that’s bringing RBs back into the First Round has a great combination of size, speed, and moves in the open field. Gurley will most likely be an absolute stud. And with NFL teams getting smarter, and knowing how easy it is to turn an undrafted RB into a starter, the only team that should draft him is one with an offensive line in place to let him truly shine. Gone are the days where teams think a great running back can cure a poor offensive line (hopefully).
If you’re like me, and don’t want to draft a RB in the First Round, there’s great depth at the position this year. Guys like Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah will be available much later—though at only 5’8” and with 182 more career carries than Melvin Gordon, I don’t see him holding up well, long-term—but a couple I have my eyes on are Minnesota’s David Cobb and Miami’s Duke Johnson, depending on how long you want to wait to grab a playmaker in the backfield (Duke will likely go at least a round earlier than Cobb). Though they have very different playing styles (Duke is 2” shorter and is .3 seconds faster in the 40-yard dash), these two will both contribute pretty quickly to the teams they get drafted to. I think Duke is slightly better, but Cobb is a good value pick later in the draft. Whoever takes him (likely in the Fourth) will be very satisfied.
Wide Receivers – Amari Cooper (Alabama), Kevin White (West Virginia), DeVante Parker (Louisville)
An absolute monster, I think Cooper as an elite #1 wide receiver is one of the easiest projections anyone can make about this draft. Cooper went off for more than 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, without a great quarterback, pass-happy system, or another receiver to draw coverage away. This kid can flat-out ball, especially when his team needed him most. That won’t change at the next level. Amari will be a perennial Pro-Bowler. Book it.
But Cooper isn’t the only wide-out set to make a name for himself on Thursday. If you’re looking for a bigger and faster receiver than Cooper, Kevin White might be more up to your speed. The West Virginia product is built nothing like recent “bust” Tavon Austin (I think it’s too early to throw in the towel, though he likely won’t ever be great). With a 6’3”, 215-pound frame that can run a 4.35 40, some teams have White as the #1 wide receiver in this draft. I’m not quite there though. White isn’t as good of a route-runner as Cooper, but the hope is that comes with time. After all, he spent two years at a JUCO before becoming a Mountaineer. GMs are hoping that rapid improvement can continue after he’s drafted. There is a chance Kevin White turns out to be better than Amari Cooper, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The third receiver spot should finally allow for some variance between my choices and the consensus. Some have DeVante Parker (Louisville’s wide-out who’s above average across the board: 6’2” 209-pounds, 4.45 40, 855 yards, 5 TDs, but has been injured several times in his career). Others like Breshad Perriman (UCF’s speedster who ran a 4.24 40 while still measuring at 6’2” 212-pounds, only missed one game, son of an NFL receiver; not quite as polished of an actual football player as Parker, as evidenced by his 2-star status coming out of high school). It’s the classic case of production vs. potential. I like Parker more as a player, and while his foot/shoulder/ankle injuries do make me a little nervous, I am building a team here where he’s my third receiving option; I like Parker more for that role. Perriman may well turn into the better receiver (I would still bet on Parker, however), but in this setting, I do not need to take a high-risk/high-reward flyer to fill out my roster. In a real draft scenario, I typically like swinging for the fences. But, again, not in this case. Perriman might become a really productive player, but I would rather be on the outside looking in while judging his success. His high drop rate (14%) scares me, and I don’t think he will be worth the price paid on Draft Day (likely mid-teens).
Tyrell Williams out of Western Oregon is a deep sleeper to look out for. Measuring at 6’3” 204-pounds, Williams ran a 4.42 40 at Oregon State’s pro day, with a 39.5” vertical, and 6.55-second three-cone drill. That time for the three-cone drill–good for judging quickness and agility–would have been #1 at the combine among all players. After watching his tape, Williams doesn’t appear to be the greatest route runner, but it also wasn’t a liability; he still made a good amount of strong, hard cuts to open up space from the DII cornerbacks guarding him. Which is good because his quarterback routinely missed open throws; a reason to grade him on more than his overall statistics. And once he caught the ball, it was game over. He would barrel over any defensive back that he somehow didn’t outrun already. What surprised me most though was his motivation in the run game. Tyrell is a willing blocker, often trying to level a second defender after his first pancake. I have no idea when he will be drafted (he doesn’t even have a draft profile on ESPN.com or NFL.com), but I would give him a chance somewhere on the third day, maybe Fifth or Sixth Round?
Depending on how risky you’re feeling, Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham could be considered the best or worst pick of the draft, as he will almost certainly be a steal or an unnecessary risk. A First-Round talent, DGB’s troubles with drugs and domestic violence led to him getting kicked off of the Missouri football team. An optimist can view Dorial as a troubled youth who never got the proper chance. After all, he bounced around in foster care before being adopted by his football coach, only missed one game from his marijuana charge Freshman year, didn’t get arrested or charge with the other marijuana allegation or the incident with a female that led to getting the boot from the Tigers’ football team. Or a pessimist can see it as an extreme lack of discipline, and something that might not change when he gets his first professional football money. Personally, I have no idea where I would take him–if I even would at all!–I have never spoken to the kid, or done the necessary research. Is he Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon? If you think you have the infrastructure to help him mature and focus on football, he will be a steal. If not, there will be problems. But I hope he gets his chance.
Tight End – Maxx Williams (Minnesota)
I LOVE Maxx’s game. Though he recorded fewer than 600 yards on the year and never topped 100 yards in a single game, it was just his sophomore year… and he still set records (single-season receiving yards and touchdowns by a TE at Minnesota). At 6’4”, Maxx scored towards the top of all tight ends in several athletic tests at the combine (4.78 second 40-yard dash, 34.5” vertical, to name a couple), and projects to be an above-average receiving tight end for many years. Not quite of the Jimmy Graham/Rob Gronkowski build, I see Maxx as more of a Greg Olsen-type and a great late Second/early Third Round pick. Williams is not strictly a pass-catcher either. At 249-pounds, and the son of a New York Giants center, Maxx possesses the potential to turn into an excellent every-down guy once he comes into his own. I’m a fan. (Though that could be because he torched Iowa for 3 TDs this fall!) Early Second Round might be a little of a reach for him though, so I wouldn’t be too ecstatic if your teams ends up drafting him.
Unfortunately it’s not a great TE class, so the next couple names aren’t exactly “sleepers,” and probably still in most teams’ top-5. Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman is a perfect example: not a great player and has a lot of glaring weaknesses (a receiving tight end who can’t really run routes), but this year is a top-5 TE. If he’s treated how he should (Fifth Round flyer, maybe late Fourth) he’s not a bad pick, but someone will reach for him about a round too early, in my opinion. Miami’s Clive Walford might be the alternative that is worth reaching for, however. Walford has similar measurables and combine scores as Maxx Williams (6’4” and runs a 4.79 40 with a 35” vertical) and only recently picked up football (played basketball until senior year in high school). He’s still improving, but should turn into at least a #2 TE who can help teams with size mismatches in the secondary, with the potential to turn into a really special playmaker. I expect Walford to go in the late Second Round. It’s a little earlier than I would value him, but it’s a weak TE class and he has a lot of upside; either he’ll reach his potential and become a steal or never pan out and prove his doubters right. But his draft position will look odd in 8 years. MyCole Pruitt, in addition to having a sweet name, is a TE to look out for sometime on Day Three. Pruitt put up big numbers at Southern Illinois (led all Division I tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns) while being gameplanned for. He’s a solid receiver who needs to improve his route running, and isn’t a very good blocker. It will be up to him if he makes an NFL roster, because he will get his chance.
Left Tackle – Andrus Peat (Stanford)
Peat wasn’t the best tackle in college football, but with combination of size, footwork, arm length, and strength, I like him defending Winston’s blindside on this hypothetical Class of 2015 team. At almost 6’7” and 313 pounds, Peat’s strength is in run blocking, but can still protect his quarterback. He missed only one game in college (sophomore year with a hand injury) and that was against Colorado, so it could have been a “rest injury” (pure speculation). I’m not sure Peat projects as being anything special at the left tackle position, but the other linemen I chose for this squad all possess a minor weakness that would make them better suited for another position on the offensive line. The old cliché is that every team’s best lineman needs to be played at left tackle; that is most certainly not the case for this squad.
Right Tackle – Ereck Flowers (Miami)
At 6’6” and 330 pounds, Ereck has been tossing around defensive linemen in the run game and staying in front of them in Canes’ passing attack for over two years now. Has great leadership on the line, showcased by his work ethic, desire to get back onto the field after an injury, and anger shown after getting beat (in a game or on a single play). He’s not the best pass blocker, and can get beat more than Peat, so I decided to play him on the right side here. He should be a very good right tackle or guard at the professional level, and might even prove me wrong and become a stud left tackle.
Left Guard – Brandon Scherff (Iowa)
If you’re one of the weird people that think it’s possible for an offensive lineman’s highlight tapes to be fun, you know why I made this choice. If you think people in the last sentence don’t exist, watch Scherff’s tape. The best tackle in college football last year and a Second Team All-American the year before, Scherff projects as more of a guard than a tackle because of his short arms and less than elite pass protection. That being said, Scherff is still projected to go in the top-10—phenomenal for a guard—showcasing his wide berth of talent and ability to play up to 3 or 4 spots on the line.
Right Guard – La’el Collins (LSU)
Collins has been the most talked about lineman of the week. Unfortunately, it’s not because of his stellar on-field play. La’el’s ex-girlfriend was recently murdered and the Baton Rouge police have interviewed Collins about it (he is not a suspect). Probably because he’s been too busy tossing around SEC defensive linemen. Collins started as LSU’s left guard as a sophomore, and then moved to left tackle his last two seasons in Baton Rouge. With accolades too long to list (including AP second-team All-American and the award for SEC’s top offensive linemen), it’s safe to say Collins is a beast. Though his side-to-side quickness will force him to play away from his QB’s blindside at the next level, he can play either guard or right tackle at the next level. I like him slotted on the inside here breaking open big holes for Gurley in the run game.
Center – Cameron Erving (Florida State)
Apparently I’m a huge fan of positional versatility in my offensive line: Erving came to Florida State as a defensive tackle, moved to left tackle (guarding EJ Manuel’s blindside) before moving to center this season. He uses his strength and athleticism well, both at the line of scrimmage and at the second level. With so little experience under his belt, the sky is the limit for Erving as an offensive lineman. Though he would have to reach the 100th percentile of that potential to go back to guarding blindsides, Erving will likely have a long, successful career snapping the football.
**All statistics from ESPN.com; all measurables and combine numbers from NFL.com, unless otherwise noted**