By the time a team hands in its card to select a player in the NFL draft, its staff has watched every single snap that prospect took in college—dozens of times—and spent hundreds of hours researching that player before ultimately settling on a grade. I’m guessing you probably don’t have that kind of time, so to give you a much quicker, big-picture look at a few of the top non-quarterbacks in this year’s class, I took to Draft Breakdown and tried to find one play that illustrates what each can do. These plays give you a picture of the skill sets these potential future first-rounders can bring to the NFL.
RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley made so many amazing plays over the past three seasons (en route to more than 5,000 yards—and 51 touchdowns—from scrimmage), it’s truly difficult to pick one that stands out above the rest. But this 79-yard touchdown run from the 2017 Rose Bowl highlights his incredible lateral explosiveness, tackle-breaking elusiveness, and home run speed.
Barkley saves what should’ve been a dead play from the get-go, escaping USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu’s tackle attempt behind the line of scrimmage. He then bounces outside, blowing past safety Marvell Tell III with a rocker step before breaking into the second level by eviscerating an arm-tackle try by corner Ajene Harris. From there, for just a moment, it looks like USC has Barkley bottled up, surrounding him on four sides.
Nope. Barkley doesn’t just emerge from this, he does so untouched, never gearing down as he jukes corner Jack Jones off his feet before high-stepping out of another tackle attempt by trailing linebacker Porter Gustin. At that point, it’s all over; Barkley sprints away from everyone over the final 45 yards or so for six points.
That run encapsulates what the former Penn State back can bring to an NFL offense. He’s an elite creator with rare lateral burst and speed—he eludes four tackle attempts on that play alone, and that’s not even counting the dude who falls down due to one of Barkley’s cuts—and can score any time he touches the ball, whether he’s taking a handoff in the backfield, catching passes out of the backfield, or returning kicks.
RB Derrius Guice, LSU
Guice has earned comparisons to Marshawn Lynch because his college tape is riddled with Beastmode-esque runs in which he plows through would-be tacklers, churning his feet for those hard-earned extra yards. But this 42-yard touchdown scamper against Missouri in the 2016 season stood out not because Guice bowled through defenders, but because of how he avoided tackle-attempts altogether, using a combination of vision, speed, and explosiveness—key traits that have been overshadowed by the LSU product’s berserker running style.
After taking the handoff, Guice finds the crease between a pair of defenders, and as he gets to the line of scrimmage, cuts back sharply against the flow of his blocks. Then he does this:
Five yards downfield, Guice plants his left foot and cuts to the outside, forcing Missouri corner DeMarkus Acy to overrun the play. Deftly switching the ball to his other hand, Guice continues outside, cuts upfield off his teammate’s block, then uses a stutter-step head fake to again bounce toward the sideline and past safety Thomas Wilson, beating the defender to the edge before winning the foot-race to the end zone. At the NFL level, it takes more than a physical running style to have success; running backs must be able to avoid contact when possible, too—that means obliterating pursuit angles and showing creativity in the open field. Guice did that plenty at LSU, and he has the potential to develop into a total package runner. He’s never afraid to bang it between the tackles and take on a linebacker at the second level, but he’s also got the stop-start acceleration and speed to burn past defensive backs.
RB Ronald Jones II, USC
Jones has earned a reputation as a slasher—but the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has plenty of physicality to his game, too. On this play from USC’s opener last season against Western Michigan, the former Trojans star shows off that initial explosive burst to slice through a crease in the defensive line, but it’s what he does later in the run that illustrates why he’s more than just a speedster.
Jones demonstrates great balance through contact at the second level, lowering his pads to take on and shed a pair of tackle attempts. Then, keeping his legs churning, he picks up an additional 15 yards or so while administering an extended stiff-arm to keep a third defender at bay.
His lack of size is a concern and he may never have the frame to carry an offense as an every-down feature-back, but he’s got the combination of explosiveness, elusiveness, and underrated physicality to produce as part of a rotation early in his career.
WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
At 6 feet, 189 pounds, Ridley lacks the frame, physicality, and athletic profile of a prototypical no. 1 receiver in the NFL. (And that’s an understatement: At the combine, he tested out in the sixth percentile among NFL receivers in Zach Whitman’s SPARQ rating.) But there’s a reason the former Alabama standout is likely still going to be the first receiver to come off the board in this year’s draft: The dude just gets open. Ridley’s a sharp route-runner with suddenness in the short area, and this play against Mississippi State is a perfect example of how he not only has a knack for getting separation but can use his quick feet and lateral agility to pick up chunk yardage after the catch.
Ridley runs a crossing route over the middle, and after reeling in the pass, he stops on a dime to change direction, avoid the tackle, and get upfield. He cuts again to head back toward the sideline, leaving a trio of Bulldog defenders turning in circles, and with the help of a few key blocks, picks up another 45 yards or so to put Alabama inside the 5-yard line.
In the NFL, timing and precision are the two keys to a successful passing attack. Ridley may lack the physical upside of Dez Bryant or DeAndre Hopkins, but his ability to run a relatively complete route tree and shake defenders with crisp cuts means he could be an early contributor for the team that picks him.
WR D.J. Moore, Maryland
Moore is, in some ways, the polar opposite to Ridley: He’s an elite athlete (he tested out in the 97th percentile among NFL receivers at the combine) with a thick, muscular build (6-foot, 210 pounds), and plenty of physicality. But he’s still very raw as a route runner, and he was most effective on in-breaking routes in the short- and intermediate areas.
Most of the time, pointing to a screen pass as any draft-eligible receiver’s defining play would (and should) be considered a negative, but Moore’s 92-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Nebraska showed just how special he can be in the open field (he bobbed and weaved through so many defenders that the play exceeded my 15-second GIF limit—just rest assured, he jogged into the end zone).
Moore reminds me of Golden Tate (a common comparison), and using his pure physical talent, he manages to make plenty of big catches down the field. But like Tate, he could be a work in progress at the NFL level as he develops the ability to run a more complete route-tree (and that’s probably why the College Advisory Committee gave him a stay-in-school grade). In the meantime, teams could benefit from deploying him on a few short and intermediate routes, utilizing him as a run-after-the-catch creator in the open field.
TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State
At 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, Gesicki offers scintillating upside as a Jimmy Graham–like move tight end and has seen his stock rise over the past few months after posting ridiculous combine numbers, including a 4.54-second 40, a 41.5-inch vert, and a blistering 6.76-second three-cone drill at the combine. Don’t picture the Penn State product as a true tight end—he’s not going to offer much in the run-blocking department and he lacks the sand in his pants to become a top-tier pass protector on the edge, but for a team that deploys him as a de facto receiver, he could develop into a star. This play against Michigan illustrates the best way to utilize the former basketball and volleyball standout: line him up in the slot, throw the ball up high and away from the defender, and let him go up and get it.
Gesicki gets knocked off a few too many routes and will need to develop more physicality going over the middle of the field against NFL linebackers. But there aren’t too many human beings that offer the size and leaping the former Nittany Lion brings, and if he gets teamed up with a creative play-caller, he could turn into a mismatch nightmare against smaller defensive backs and slower linebackers.
DB Derwin James, Florida State
James is a do-it-all defender over the middle of the field; he’s an enforcer against the run in the mold of Kam Chancellor, displays instincts and ball skills in coverage, and even offers some upside as a situational pass rusher. With a skill set that diverse, it was tough to find one play that fully captures what James can do, but this play against Alabama showed his awareness and range to lock down his area of the field.
At the snap, James keeps one eye on the routes developing to his left—hoping to jump a crossing route over the middle of the field—and keeps his other eye on quarterback Jalen Hurts, a dangerous scrambler out of the backfield. Hurts decides to tuck the ball and take off, and James flows back to his right, tracking Hurts down with ease. He chops his feet, breaks down, and makes a physical tackle while throwing the Alabama quarterback to the ground.
Modern defensive backs must be able to cover against the pass above all else, so while the fact that he’s a tenacious tackler is a nice bonus, the ability James showed in diagnosing route-concepts and quickly processing how a play is developing in front of him is what makes him a potential star at the NFL level.
LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
The biggest knock on Smith is that he’s undersized (6-foot-1, 236 pounds), but the Georgia star’s instincts in coverage and his sideline-to-sideline speed more than make up for his lack of bulk. He utilizes his athleticism to avoid offensive linemen looking to sealed him off on runs to the middle of the field, and when opposing team try to run to the outside, he’s got devastating range to string plays out and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. Take this play against Auburn: When Tigers slot receiver Eli Stove takes the toss on a sweep to his left, Smith tracks him down like a heat-seeking missile, displaying not only top-tier speed but play recognition to get the jump on the play before it started.
DL Vita Vea, Washington
Vea grew up in the Bay Area and models his game after Justin Smith, and while the former Husky has a long way to go to live up to that comparison, the way in which he was deployed at Washington—lining up all across the line and frequently eating up blocks to free up his teammates on stunts and twists—certainly has a Smith-like vibe to it. This play from last year against Washington State also showed that Vea might be able to give the Cowboy a run for his money in the “country strong” department:
Vea shoots forward at the snap and, with a forceful right-hand club, throws the Cougar center out of the way to invade the pocket. At 6-foot-4, 347 pounds, Vea’s one of the most powerful players in this class; He doesn’t always run as hot as you’d like, but when he’s on, he’s damn hard to block.
DE Harold Landry, Boston College
Burst, dip, and bend: Together, those traits are often ascribed to the elite pass rushers in the game—and Von Miller might have the most potent combination of all three. Landry’s not the prospect that Miller was coming out of Texas A&M in 2011, but the Boston College product displays some of the most important attributes that teams look for at the edge-rusher position. He’s a quick-twitch athlete with the hip- and ankle-flexibility to drop his shoulder, get low, and “bend” around the corner to get to the quarterback. You can see that on this sack of Deshaun Watson from the 2016 season:
Landry’s stock took a hit in 2017 as he played through an ankle injury, collecting just 5.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss in eight games. But his production—and tape—from 2016, when he racked up 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss, paints the picture of an elite pass-rushing prospect.
CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
I’m going to cheat a little bit here and use two plays for Ward, but these back-to-back snaps in the Buckeyes’ matchup with Michigan last year demonstrate exactly what the speedy cornerback can do.
On the first—a second-and-8 from the Wolverines’ 45-yard line—Ward sticks with receiver Drake Harris avoiding his teammate as Michigan runs a pair of mesh-routes over the middle of the field. He not only shows the awareness to avoid getting picked off, but then closes with lightning speed to tackle Harris and separate the ball from the receivers’ hands. On the very next play, he mirrors Wolverines pass-catcher Donovan Peoples-Jones and deflects the pass to force a fourth down. On that play, he showcased quick feet, excellent positioning, savvy route-recognition (he knew it was likely Michigan would run a route to the sticks), and physical hand use to disrupt the play.
Ward lacks prototypical size at 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, but makes up for it with a physical play style. It doesn’t hurt that he brings elite athleticism and an understanding of route-concepts and schematic tendencies to the table, either. He should be the first cornerback to come off the board.