You know the drill, my people! Tuesday means it's time for another edition of Draft Class Heroes!
Draft Class Superheroes of the Week: Florida Prospects
The year was 2018 - remember it? Good times. The month was August, and my prospect evaluations were wrapping up from my summer scouting of draft-eligible players' 2017 tape. To put it lightly, it was another year of being unimpressed by Florida Gators' prospects, something that was quickly becoming a trend in my evaluations. Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye, Jarrad Davis and others all graded out lower for me than where most evaluators seemed to have them, and the two that didn't - Vernon Hargreaves and Jonathan Bullard - probably should have.
The amount of Gators' players who have found success in the NFL early in their careers over the past couple draft classes are few, and scouting their draft-eligible crop for the upcoming class over the summer, I felt underwhelmed again. There was little polish, little improvement, plenty of potential but not enough high-end play for me to give any Gators' prospects a top 100 grade coming into the season.
Let me tell you, it did not take Dan Mullen long to change that.
The power of coaching has never been more evident than in Florida's team this year, especially in three prospects that went from an afterthought in my mind to potential Round 1 picks.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was a dumpster fire as a tackler in 2017, taking bad angles to the ball, getting runner over consistently and even bailing out of tackles completely. Watching him against Georgia and Tennessee that year was a new low for me in terms of scoring for defenders as tacklers. Vanderbilt wasn't much better. This thread is just a snippet of how bad it was.
Non-physical prospects rarely turn the corner, but I was willing to give Gardner-Johnson a chance, and man am I glad I did. His turnaround this season was truly remarkable, showing far more aggression, acceleration through contact and consistent form as a tackler.
He's explosive, energetic, rangy and versatile, traits that will make him a coveted prospect in April. It remains to be seen if CGJ can test and interview well enough to put himself in the Round 1 conversation in a few months, but for now he's firmly in the top 50 mix as a safety who has the potential to play deep or in the slot. You can read my full scouting report on him here.
Jawaan Taylor may have been even worse in 2017, consistently out-matched at left tackle and struggling mightily to find his set points and protect the edge. Speed and bend gave him fits, and he looked like a prospect who might have to move inside to guard at the next level.
But Florida's staff swooped in, moved him to the right side, improved his footwork mightily and all of a sudden Taylor was playing like a top tackle prospect. I still have my concerns with his game, but his progress in one year gives me a lot of hope for the future.
The same can be said of Jachai Polite, who was not even on my radar this summer. Sure, I knew who he was, but he was a small, rotational edge with two sacks in each of his first two seasons at Florida. How was I to know an 11-sack breakout season, in which he learned how to use his athletic traits as a pass rusher, would finally come to fruition?
Polite's size and weak run defense might keep him out of Round 1, which is why I would have considered going back to school, getting stronger and continuing to develop his all-around game under a staff that is clearly helping him. Still, his kind of burst and flexibility doesn't come around often, and the NFL should see the value in it by at least early in Round 2.
Now, not all Florida prospects improved (sorry, Martez Ivey), but outside of these three, guys like Jabari Zuniga, Vosean Joseph and Lamical Perine put themselves on the NFL map, largely thanks to the new coaching staff instilled by Mullen. I've long been a fan of the new Florida head coach, and I fully believe he's going to lead a turnaround there that establishes the Gators as a top program once again. I'm just mostly thrilled to see the 180 trickle down to the individual talent on the roster. It makes my job as a draft evaluator much more fun.
3 All-Star Week Predictions
With the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl right around the corner, I figured this could be a fun section to add to the column over the next couple of weeks.
1. Keesean Johnson gets the call up
The Shrine game is loaded with quality wide receivers, but if I'm putting my money on one of them getting called up to the Senior Bowl after a great week in St. Petersburg, it's Johnson. His hands, body control and knack for tough catches will be something the NFL wants to see up close as they try to get a feel for his athleticism. Also, hard to overlook his production of back-to-back 1,000-yard, 8-touchdown seasons at Fresno State.
2. Charles Omenihu becomes a hot prospect
There is very little buzz surrounding Omenihu right now, but expect that to change quickly in Mobile. His 9.5-sack, 16.5-TFL season was a standout in a Big 12 conference that featured very few pass rushers who knew what they were doing. He'll get the chance to play on the edge and inside in Mobile, something his 6-foot-6, 275-pound frame projects to do in the NFL as well. I think he locks himself into the top 50.
3. Jarrett Stidham hype will pick back up - undeservingly
In a bad quarterback class, you can be sure of one thing: the mainstream media hyping up middling quarterback options to add intrigue to a draft that currently doesn't have much at the game's top position. Little do they know it's ok that the quarterback class sucks, y'all love the draft for the other positions too. Plus, most teams in the NFL don't currently need a quarterback. So we'll be fine.
But they won't realize that in 2019, which means that quarterbacks like Stidham can throw simple passes from under zero pressure at Senior Bowl practices and the mainstream media will lose their minds. It's an annual tradition that he'll proudly uphold in a few weeks.
Wild Card Predictions
Colts vs. Texans
The Colts are peaking and the Texans are completely reliant upon Deshaun Watson and Deandre Hopkins' week-to-week heroics. I think Matt Eberflus will have a strong plan drawn up to slow those two, and the Texans just don't have enough other playmakers right now due to all the injuries they've suffered. Give me the Colts.
Chargers vs. Ravens
I can't explain how Baltimore is dominating defenses with a reticent passing attack right now, but here we are. The crazy thing is that Lamar Jackson is only a part of that dynamic rushing offense; Gus Edwards and Ken Dixon are both averaging well over five yards a carry...who? Unbelievable.
The Chargers are the more talented, dynamic team, but I still struggle to trust them in the playoffs, especially given their lackluster final two performances of the regular season. Baltimore wins an ugly one.
Seahawks vs. Cowboys
The Seahawks lost to the 49ers, beat the Chiefs and then needed a last second field goal to beat the worst team in the NFL in Arizona. I am befuddled by them, but the Cowboys are far from consistently dominant as well. I think this game will be tough, close and probably come down to a couple lucky bounces. My guess is the ball keeps rolling Dallas' way.
Eagles vs. Bears
The Bears are clearly the better team in my opinion, they've played consistently well all season and I've continued to doubt them and been proven wrong. What's one more time? The Eagles have already beaten a couple opponents they aren't better than, and Doug Pederson and co. seem to be peaking at the right time. I don't think they'll make the Super Bowl, but I bet they capitalize on a few Mitch Trubisky mistakes to earn a spot in the divisional round.