It might be tough to remember, but Dak Prescott was once a good NFL quarterback.
I know, I know -- stick with me here.
He stepped in for an injured Tony Romo in the beginning of the 2016 season after a sharp preseason, and he threw with poise, accuracy, and good creativity. Even when Romo returned to health, Dak stayed at the helm en route to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
And the ensuing Draft cycle was flush with one question: Who is the next Dak Prescott? Names like Davis Webb (who?) and Nathan Peterman (THAT GUY?!) were thrown around in the Draft community's fruitless search for another 4th-round quarterbacking stud.
Of course, as we know, Prescott turned back into a bit of a pumpkin across the ensuing seasons. But this instinct to find "The Next," to capitalize on a prospect whose mold/usage that proved more valuable than the draft slot used to acquire him...well, that makes a ton of success. That's getting extra bang for your buck -- an especially trickier proposition in the later rounds.
As such, here are my candidates to be "The Next."
The Next Joey Bosa: Ohio State EDGE Nick Bosa
I'm just playin', guys.
The Next Cooper Kupp: Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow
Though they may not be actually related, this one is almost as much of a gimme. Kupp was drafted with the 69th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, behind names like Curtis Samuel, Zay Jones, and ninth overall selection John Ross. While many would argue Kupp fell into the best possible NFL spot -- a Sean McVay offense -- Brad Kelly recently argued that Kupp's skill-set stands alone from McVay's system.
Kupp's a good player.
Coming out, Kupp was undervalued because he was an older receiver (almost 24) who didn't blow the doors of the Combine. He also lacked a strong downfield profile and his production came against worst competition.
That last one doesn't apply to Renfrow -- Clemson plays some good teams -- but everything else does.
It feels as if Renfrow has been playing for the Tigers for forever. He, like Kupp, will turn 24 in his rookie season -- but because he's a bit older, he's more physically developed. And like Kupp, he's a super-savvy player who simply gets open.
It's a marriage of quickness and explosiveness to take sharp breaks that challenge cornerbcks' leverage; body control and flexibility to run complex, multi-break routes; spatial awareness and intuition to fill in the gaps between zone coverage. It's a knacky thing, difficult to teach but undeniable when on tape. Kupp has it, and so does Renfrow. They just get open.
I also like this translation because Renfrow and Kupp both are sneaky good catch radius players despite their lack of size. They can win catches through contact with great concentration and grip strength; they have a surprising success rate going to the ground to scoop low balls off the turf. Those plays aren't sexy highlight reel plays, but they keep the sticks moving.
Kupp is a safety blanket for Rams QB Jared Goff when things go bad; when things are great, he's free money in the short to intermediate areas. Renfrow will be the same thing for the clever NFL team that drafts him late Day 2.
The Next Leonard Williams: Notre Dame iDL Jerry Tillery
Yeah, this one's hot.
It's not to say I think Tillery is a Round 1 player the way Williams was -- I need more games like the Stanford game last weekend to make that claim. And, not for nothing, Williams hasn't exactly produced as a top-half of Round 1 player: he's got 13 sacks over 52 career games, which is exactly four sacks a season.
Now, a lot of that has to do with shifting defensive schemes -- not to mention, the onus on Williams to play pretty much everywhere across the New York front. Williams is still undoubtedly a disruptive interior force who still has room to grow in terms of hand usage. His lower-body power particularly impresses, however, just has it did at USC: he can bowl almost anybody over to destroy the integrity of the pocket, and has the quickness to create ideal rush angles to maximize his power.
It's that bull in a china shop style of play that is most reminiscent of Williams in Tillery, on my viewings. Tillery and Williams are both taller players, but they're able to get their pads down off of the snap to work into the chest plate of their opponents, and they can uncoil their hips to explode into/through contact.
But it's more than that. What made Williams so valuable in that 2015 class was his ability, at 300 pounds, to turn the corner once he penetrated. He was more than a disruptor; he was a finisher. That's why Williams gets shuffled along every line he's played on -- both for the Trojans and the Jets, he lines up anywhere from 6-tech to 0-tech.
And again, the same thing is true of Tillery, who regularly works as a crasher on stunts, a slanter on twists and blitzes, and even an EDGE rusher in certain situations. He's all over the place for the Irish, and yet still productive no matter the alignment.
Williams is a better rusher overall, with more experience and a better plan, whereas Tillery is more content with fighting to stalemates. Now, Tillery, has a couple of inches and likely reach on Williams, so he can affect throwing windows a little more. Williams gave us a dominant profile for a college defensive lineman; Tillery finally seems to be reaching that potential as well.
If he continues on this path, his stock is going to soar. Round 1? It's not out of the question.
The Next Shaq Thompson: Washington LB Ben Burr-Kirven
Ben Burr-Kirven (BBK) is the sorta dude you're worried about liking. A lot of things are lined up against him: his size; his position switch in the NFL; his athleticism even might prove a bit of a hindrance.
But then he racks up 20 tackles against Arizona State and you're suckered right back in.
Burr-Kirven's film is a ton of fun. He plays with his hair on fire, but I wouldn't call him over-aggressive -- he doesn't run himself out of position frequently, if at all. He played middle linebacker in 2017 for the Huskies -- wrenching the job away from an established starter in Azeem Victor, I might add -- at all of 220 pounds. I've been told he's up to 230 this year, and it's showing up in his play against bigger interior linemen. The characteristic explosiveness and urgency doesn't seem to have dropped off either.
That said, it's tough for me to liken Burr-Kirven's NFL role to that of a Kwon Alexander or Deion Jones just yet. Those players represent the mold of smaller MIKE linebackers in the NFL, and while that's Burr-Kirven's ceiling, I'm just not sure he's got the functional strength to hold up there. I also think a move to outside linebacker -- or even box safety -- makes more sense.
The fact that Burr-Kirven plays MIKE for the Huskies is really wild because not four years ago, Washington had a very similar player playing safety and outside linebacker -- that's just the changing nature of offenses right there. His name was Shaq Thompson, and NFL teams lauded his versatility and his athleticism in space. He went 25th overall to the Carolina Panthers, who now deploy him in a hybrid SAF/WILL role and let him roam.
Now, Thompson played running back as well for those Huskies -- he was a great mover in space, and I don't think Burr-Kirven matches him there. But teams like Carolina, Los Angeles (Chargers), and Philadelphia have all found success with filling their weakside 'backer responsibilities with a big safety style player. BBK should angle for that role at the NFL level -- and I think he could very well thrive there.
The Next Kareem Hunt: Memphis RB Darrell Henderson
Kyle Crabbs has been banging the Henderson drum for a while now, beggin' y'all to watch. I'm here to add my voice to the chorus.
Henderson --> Hunt is a really fun comparison to me because I think we're in deep danger of dogging both for the same issue that isn't really an issue: they're too well-rounded.
Both have burst to get through the whole, but aren't necessarily Porsches in terms of explosiveness; both have great toughness and contact balance, but aren't necessarily true bruisers; and both make guys miss, but aren't jitterbugs in space. Without that one elite trait to hang your hat on, evaluating these players feels risky, because multiple factors need to come together for them to succeed.
However, if that's what makes a player fall, so be it: at worst then he's still a reliable 1B runner who can do a lot of things for you. But with Henderson as with Hunt, I think the return on investment (86th overall selection for Hunt) speaks for itself.
Because Henderson's profile is so balanced, he can kinda shift between molds of running back depending on the circumstances. In the first two levels, he's a physical runner unafraid of initiating contact and savvy enough to adjust body angles to withstand would-be tacklers.
As he clears into space or the third level, however, he has another gear he can hit to become a speed back able to win the corner and rip off chunk yardage. His situational awareness shines through his incredible big-play profile -- he always seems to know what to do to find daylight.
Like Hunt, Henderson also has a good receiving profile to accompany his rushing work out of college, which will bolster his stock among NFL decision makers. Kareem Hunt's name was a little louder by October than Henderson's is now, but don't worry -- The Draft Network will change that mighty quick.
The Next Trent Taylor: Virginia WR Olamide Zaccheaus
I really wanted to include Olamide Zaccheaus in this post, because I think 50% of the NFL is going to love him, and the other 50% is going to have no idea what to do with him. We can even play that game right now, if you want.
Gut instinct: would your head coach/offensive coordinator know what to do with a 5'8 wide receiver?
I'm an Eagles fan; I get to say yes. Same goes for Los Angeles, New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, Minnesota, and San Francisco. If you've got Carolina, Seattle, New York (both), Dallas, Arizona, Green Bay, or Oakland...this section isn't for you.
Zaccheaus could be used a ton of different ways -- he's definitely a return man at the NFL level, though he was only used extensively in such a role his freshman year. He deserves backfield touches for sure -- maybe even traditional hand-offs, for some teams -- and has almost 70 carries across his college career. And he warrants a significant number of targets, given his stellar route-running and YAC ability.
He's more of a receiver than Ty Montgomery; not the same quickness of Percy Harvin; similar in build, but not in usage to Tarik Cohen. It's a tough riddle to solve.
I'll land on Trent Taylor, a productive receiver for the Niners despite being drafted in the seventh round in 2017. 43 catches for 430 yards and 2 touchdowns across his rookie year isn't amazing -- I think Zaccheaus can out-produce those 10 yards/catch and 2 TD numbers -- but the usage is what draws me to the comparison.
So many of Taylor's touches were just quick, layered routes in the short area. There was little emphasis on air yards on Taylor's targets, but there was emphasis on immediate space and YAC opportunities. You could also liken Zaccheaus' NFL future to Cole Beasley's usage in Dallas back when that offense was humming in 2016: crosser after crosser with the occasional speed out.
Get ready to hear Zaccheaus' name gain traction in February, especially as we approach the NFL Combine. He'll profile really well to the spread style offense, which will make him a hot name to discuss. And rightfully so -- I think he's gonna be a good player.