I don’t watch much college football, so when draft season begins in late February, I’m typically a blank slate. My favorite part about constantly studying prospects in a truncated amount of time is the whirlwind romances that result. A draft crush is the football writer’s version of a camp girlfriend.
If it were up to me, every player I’ve fallen for in recent months would wind up a Bear. Sadly, I know that’s not how it works. If I can’t have them, though, I at least want them to land where they can thrive. So as hard as it was, I tried to find the perfect homes for my five favorite prospects.
Josh Doctson, WR, TCU
Favorite Fit: Bengals at 24
When I started digging through college players, Doctson was the first one to steal my heart. After watching his Kansas State and Iowa State highlights from last year, I didn’t understand any ranking that slotted Doctson behind Laquon Treadwell or Corey Coleman.
Doctson is slight, but beyond that, the flaws are hard to find. He has crazy explosiveness (41-inch vertical and a 131-inch broad jump, both in the 95th percentile among receivers all time), and it translated to the field. No receiver in this class is better at tracking the ball in the air, and when Doctson finds it, he comes down with it. The best receivers make bad throws look good, and Doctson does that constantly.
With Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu gone, the Bengals have a gaping hole opposite A.J. Green, and I can’t think of a better solution than Doctson. Together, they’d create a combined catch radius the size of Greater Cincinnati. If Cincy drafts Doctson, I’ll give it eight weeks before he and Green have a Legion of Boom–type nickname and a pregame show that features an interview with them on adjacent stools spliced with clips of the pair stuffing cornerbacks into lockers.
Ryan Kelly, C, Alabama
Favorite Fit: Cardinals at 29
Arizona’s offense can be downright lethal when it’s humming. Bruce Arians’s “eh, fuck it” ethos has turned his team into a quick-strike machine, but that engine functions best when the Cardinals are running the ball well and can lean on play-action to open up shots down the field.
I’m already bullish on the Arizona running game — the best part about my life right now is owning David Johnson in a dynasty league — but drafting Kelly could take things to a different level. Kelly was the pivot guy on Alabama’s wrecking crew offensive line, and he could be the final piece of the Cardinals’ totally revamped unit. I’ve spent way too much time imagining him and Mike Iupati joining forces to launch nose tackles into the sun.
Su’a Cravens, LB/S, USC
Favorite Fit: Jets at 51
Finding value in distressed assets has always been integral to winning the draft, and in recent years, players who fall between positions have become the new inefficiency. Should Muhammad Wilkerson have been considered a defensive end or a defensive tackle? Who cares? Cravens deserves the same benefit of the doubt. Whether playing linebacker or safety, he constantly wrecked USC’s opposition, racking up 154 tackles and a ridiculous 32 tackles for loss the past two seasons.
With linebackers continuing to shrink, Cravens fits as an undersized Will or converted safety. And it just so happens that Jets coach Todd Bowles has some experience with those types of tweeners: As the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator in 2014, Bowles deployed former safety Deone Bucannon at linebacker, and the move stuck. Cravens could fill a similar role from the start in New York. Few coaches love blitzing as much as Bowles, and with 10.5 sacks in his last two years at USC, Cravens could give the Jets’ pass rush added punch at a discount.
Keanu Neal, S, Florida
Favorite Fit: Raiders at 44
Oakland added Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, and Bruce Irvin via free agency, making life harder for all opposing quarterbacks, but the Raiders are still missing a player with teeth in the middle of the defense. Neal is essentially a human Sarlacc pit. He’s a devastating hitter, exploding helpless receivers and acting as a force against the run. He would help a run defense whose DVOA finished in the middle of the pack last year.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
Favorite Fit: Buccaneers at 39
I discovered Shepard late, but boy, did I fall hard. His stature may concern some teams, but he makes up for his 5–10 frame with every other part of his game. The 41-inch vertical leap makes him a legitimate threat on contested deep throws, and in college, he displayed some of the most reliable hands in the country.
When I watch Shepard run routes, I see him as an early candidate for inclusion in the Always Open Club, populated by guys like Keenan Allen and Antonio Brown. Comparing Shepard to Brown may seem ambitious, but I don’t think it’s insane. Like Brown, Shepard’s height and role in college have led people to pencil him into the slot, but he’s capable of more than that. Imagining him as an inside option as a rookie who eventually takes over for 33-year-old Vincent Jackson after the last year of his deal is too perfect.
This piece originally appeared in the April 28, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.