The Super Bowl is in the books. The combine is just around the corner. There’s no officially recognized opening day for it, but we might as well just call it now: We’ve hit NFL draft season.
I love this time of year; winter is winding down, spring is on the horizon, and my News Feed and Twitter timeline have suddenly become inundated with prospect measurables, player scouting reports, mock drafts, and a never-ending supply of anonymous quotes from NFL scouts. But the run-up to the draft can be pretty overwhelming: There are hundreds of players, myriad variables to evaluate, and scouting pitfalls everywhere you look — and if you haven’t spent the past six months studying up on this year’s class, it’s hard to know where to start. With that in mind, here’s a big-picture primer for the 2018 NFL draft.
Just about every draft class is defined by the strength of its quarterback group, and this year’s band of signal-callers has been hailed as one of the most talented ever. At least four passers — USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen — are expected to be selected in the first round, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which five or six (adding in Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, and Washington State’s Luke Falk) come off the board in the opening round. The fun part about this quarterback class, though, isn’t just the depth of talent it boasts, it’s that there’s nothing close to a consensus on the order in which these quarterbacks should be ranked.
Some scouts and analysts rate Darnold above the rest, pointing to his prototypical frame (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), his ability to go through progressions, and his strong arm. Others prefer Rosen, a smooth, confident passer with excellent footwork and a natural feel for playing from the pocket. There are those who rank Mayfield on top — where leadership traits and his unmatched statistical accomplishments stand out — and for others, Allen has the most upside, with ideal size, toughness, and what could be the strongest arm of any draft-eligible quarterback in the past decade.
Of course, each passer comes with concerns, too: For Darnold, it’s a propensity to turn the ball over (he’s thrown 22 interceptions in the past two seasons, and has lost another 13 fumbles). For Rosen, his slight frame and injury history present durability concerns, and his accuracy drops when throwing under pressure. Plus, some teams have questions about his coachability. For Mayfield, a lack of size stands out the most, as he measured in a shade over 6 feet at the Senior Bowl last month, and his history of off-field antics and an arrest for public intoxication could give teams pause. And for Allen, accuracy, or lack thereof, is the major question mark.
Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen ... I mean, maybe it’s a small target ♀️ pic.twitter.com/pbVldFeDkh— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) January 24, 2018
Allen’s arm strength is second to none, but after completing just 56.2 percent of his passes in his college career, there are doubts he can throw with the precision and touch necessary to be an NFL quarterback.
The Lamar Jackson Question
Does Jackson have the skill set to be a pro passer? That should be one of the most hotly debated draft topics over the next few months. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has been one of the best playmakers in the nation over the past two years, but a few factors, like inconsistent accuracy (he completed just 57.0 percent of his passes as a three-year starter) and his inexperience taking snaps from under center, have already caused some, like former NFL exec Bill Polian, to wonder whether a position change to receiver gives him the best chance for success at the next level. Jackson does have the size (6-foot-3, 211 pounds) and tools to be an intriguing downfield pass-catching threat, where he’d utilize his uncommon explosiveness and elusiveness with the ball in his hands. But he’s also capable of making throws like this:
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson dropping it in the laundry chute. pic.twitter.com/4ZM0fJsoyj— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) February 13, 2018
And this …
One of my favorite Lamar Jackson TD throws this year - initial look is short/underneath, works away from that to the deep shot and makes a perfect toss for six pic.twitter.com/6iuE8jM0Sq— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) February 13, 2018
Jackson, like many of his peers, faces a steep learning curve from the college game to the NFL. And, perhaps more than any other signal-caller in this class, his abilities as a pure thrower will be under the microscope over the next few months.
The Potential Generational Talents
“Sure things” don’t exist in the NFL draft, and it’s easy to pick apart any player’s game, but if you’re looking for anything close to a consensus, it’s that Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, NC State pass rusher Bradley Chubb, and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley all have the potential to quickly become superstars at the next level.
Nelson may be the most GIFable (is that a word?) player in the draft. He regularly buries opposing linemen, embarrassing them in devastating fashion. If you haven’t seen this play yet, please take a moment to stand in awe of a guy who saw a blitz coming from the other side of the line and, even though it wasn’t his job, decided to do something about it:
Quenton Nelson is the best player in the 2018 draft pic.twitter.com/xclGVPTOzH— #BridgewaterCook2018 (@JoshMenschNFL) February 8, 2018
Nelson is, according to just about every scouting report you can find, the nastiest offensive line prospect in recent memory, Hulk-smashing anyone unlucky enough to wander into his personal bubble.
Y’all keep acting like Quenton. Nelson didn’t do this too... pic.twitter.com/HAbxNIw8Xz— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) February 3, 2018
In an era of offensive line play when attributes like power and brute force have given way to speed and athleticism, Nelson offers the best of both worlds. He’s not only quick-footed and agile, but is also an old-school brawler who conjures images of bygone days. He should start — and excel — from day one.
If Nelson is a throwback player, Fitzpatrick is the future of football. At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, he projects at the NFL level as a hybrid safety-corner and ball-hawk playmaker (nine career picks and 24 passes defensed) who can run with tight ends and running backs, mirror slot receivers, or play in the deep middle as the last line of defense. He looks like a versatile, early-impact player for whoever picks him in April. So does Chubb, who, at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, combines prototypical size and athleticism with nonstop effort to get after the quarterback and disrupt the opponent’s passing game. That’s more important than ever in the modern NFL, and the NC State standout should make his presence known very early on as a rookie.
Then there’s Barkley, who might be the most heavily hyped running back coming into the draft since Reggie Bush. Barkley mixes great size (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) with agility, explosiveness, and home run speed.
And when Barkley finds a lane, nobody is catching him pic.twitter.com/mz5cmJUMZg— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) February 14, 2018
He can pick his way through a crowd, utilizing rare speed and ability to change direction and pull away from defenders.
Not quite sure how Saquon Barkley managed this, let alone make it look so smooth. Went to cut inside behind the puller, but puller completely misses his block. Almost mid-cut, Barkley adjusts and cuts back outside. pic.twitter.com/FXUtI8Obeb— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) February 13, 2018
And, perhaps most important, he looks like an every-down back who can catch the ball and line up anywhere in the formation to make plays in the passing game, too.
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley vs. Pitt. The matchup ability is there in the passing game. Seam route. pic.twitter.com/S6YuQ1v4zt— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) February 6, 2018
Of course, no prospect comes devoid of blemishes. With Barkley, his vision as a runner has been called into question. But for these four players, anything that goes onto the negative side of the ledger just feels like nitpicking — because Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb, and Barkley all look like day-one starters and big-time stars in the league.
The Deepest and Shallowest Position Groups
When it comes to the question of which position groups are strongest or deepest in this year’s draft, the answer depends on whom you ask. I took an informal poll on the subject with a handful of scouts and analysts, and it returned a wide range of opinions. However, pretty much everyone agreed upon a few things: First is that the quarterbacks group is very talented at the top (as discussed above), and second is that this is a rare running backs class.
Barkley sits at the top of most running back rankings, but the list of early-impact players is a long one. LSU’s Derrius Guice should be a day-one starter; USC’s Ronald Jones II runs like a Jamaal Charles clone; and both members of Georgia’s backfield tandem, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, could contribute from the get-go. Add in San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, and Miami’s Mark Walton, and there’s incredible depth at the position.
The cornerback position ranked highly for its depth, as did the interior offensive line group, but past those two spots it was a bit of a crapshoot. It really depends on how you define “deep” or “strong.” Take the receivers group, for instance, which appears light on first-round-type players (Alabama’s Calvin Ridley could be the only wideout to go on day one) but boasts a deep and diverse core of pass catchers that could come off the board in the second through fourth rounds: guys like SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, Maryland’s D.J. Moore, and Oklahoma State’s James Washington, among others.
The tight end and safety groups were both commonly cited as the weak or shallow, especially if Fitzpatrick is listed as a corner. The defensive tackle position, meanwhile, does feature a few early-round prospects, but could lack depth in the middle rounds, and there are plenty of question marks attached to just about every edge defender not named Chubb. Bottom line, there wasn’t much of a consensus for the hierarchy among position groups. But here’s what Inside the Pylon’s Jeff Feyerer found when he cross-referenced a handful of expert top-50 lists:
Dug into the #NFLDraft positional depth based on a few Big Boards from various writers/publications.— Jeff Feyerer (@jeff_feyerer) February 13, 2018
77 unique players
POS w/most players: WR, least: TE
POS w/best avg rank: QB, worst: WR
POS w/most volatility: QB, least: S
OVERALL DEEPEST POS: QB, EDGE, SHALLOWEST POS: TE pic.twitter.com/XVKjtSVYhH
The Most Interesting Player Story Lines
When poring over scouting reports, 40 times, and statistical charts, it’s pretty easy to forget that we’re talking about human beings, each of whom has taken a unique life path to the cusp of stardom on the football field. As round-the-clock coverage ramps up around the combine, we’re bound to learn more and more about what makes each of these draft prospects tick. But for starters, a few fun backstories already stand out.
Take UCLA’s Rosen, who rose to fame early in life not for his exploits on the gridiron, but for his earlier life touring the country and playing in tennis tournaments as a child prodigy. There’s South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, who spent two and a half years in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system before switching gears, walking on to the Gamecocks’ football team, and developing into an early-round tight end prospect. Miami defensive end Chad Thomas plays nine instruments and has a side gig as a well-known music producer, and even collaborated with Rick Ross on Ross’s latest album. Then there’s UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who’s hoping to make history as the NFL’s first one-handed player.
The Teams With Most or Least Firepower
The thing that makes the draft so captivating is that it can completely change a franchise — in some cases seemingly overnight. Houston’s decision to trade up and nab Deshaun Watson last year comes to mind, as do the selections the Saints made throughout the three-day event — netting first-year impact players in cornerback Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams, and running back Alvin Kamara. It’s anyone’s guess as to which team will make the biggest-impact picks, but right now, the Browns look poised for franchise-altering moves. Cleveland holds the first overall pick, the fourth overall pick (from Houston in that Watson trade), two out of the first three picks in the second round, plus the final pick of the second and the first pick in the third. That’s an absurd amount of draft capital and gives the team the chance to add a quarterback, an offensive playmaker, a big-time defensive star … or all three, plus more.
Meanwhile, the Bills boast a pair of first-round picks as well, nos. 21 and 22 overall (the second via Kansas City, who traded up last year to select Patrick Mahomes), plus two second-round picks. The Jets are well positioned to add talent, too, holding the sixth overall pick and two second-rounders (the second second-rounder via Seattle in the Sheldon Richardson trade).
On the other side of the coin, it’s going to be a long first day of the draft for the Chiefs (who don’t pick until midway through the second round, no. 54 overall) and the Texans, whose first selection comes in the early third round, no. 68 overall.