Draft Class Heroes: The Search For WR1

Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday morning means one thing, and one thing only...it's time for the second edition of Draft Class Heroes!

If you missed last week's column, Draft Class Heroes drops every Tuesday morning on TDN, giving you plenty of great content on draft prospects, current young NFL talent and whatever other trouble we feel like getting into with Monday in the rearview mirror.

Up first today, a wide receiver that I think has a great chance to be the first one off the board next April.

Draft Class Superhero of the Week: Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina

One of my strongest draft crushes at this point in the year is Deebo Samuel. The South Carolina wideout played in just three games last season, after a broken ankle cut short what looked like the beginning of a breakout year for the current redshirt senior.

The first thing to note about Samuel is his build. He's listed 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, but the rate at which he gobbles up contested catches has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin. People forget Boldin was almost 6-foot-1, and while he played like he was 6-foot-4, he was far from a small receiver.

Both pass catchers sport powerful builds and ridiculously strong hands, but Samuel is also a nightmare after the catch, showing outstanding elusiveness and a great field for efficient work in the open field. His impressive career as a kickoff returner has prepared him for those opportunities, as Samuel has scored three times on just 19 returns.

Samuel has excellent acceleration in short bursts, but it is fair to wonder if he is more than a 4.5 guy and could be limited as a vertical threat. He's constantly coming back for underthrown deep balls on tape, so it is difficult to get a feel for his deep speed in the four games I've seen.

There are routes that will need more development as well, but Samuel's releases have looked pro-ready so far. He's a monster at creating space on slant routes, setting himself up for post-catch production.

If you want to see a superhero at work, watch Samuel against Missouri in 2016. It is rare to see one player just completely take over a game and dominate the opposition with the variety and consistency that Samuel did. Their defensive backs did not want to play by the time that one was over.

Samuel will be 23 in January, but I don't think that will be old enough to really concern teams. The most important thing for Samuel will be staying healthy and testing well at the Combine. NFL offenses covet players who can create with the ball in their hands and win in contested catch situations, because both abilities are so helpful for quarterbacks.

Right now, Samuel is better than A.J. Brown, and I'm not sure their upside is as far apart as some would have you believe. I love D.K. Metcalf, but Samuel is currently the better player, with Metcalf obviously offering a higher ceiling. I need to see more of Ahmmon Richards and Kelvin Harmon, two guys I really like, but right now I think Samuel could be WR1. At the very least, he deserves to headline the conversation for the title.


1. David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns

It wasn't just Njoku's two catches for 46 yards and two scores against the Giants that vaulted him onto this list, or the fact that he's stood out more in practice every day. I've always believed the big, athletic tight end had a special skill set that would eventually make him a top ten tight end in the league, if not top five.

Now that skill set appears to be melding wonderfully with Baker Mayfield, who has always gravitated toward his tight end. Oklahoma's Mark Andrews and Dimitri Flowers were lesser versions of Njoku, but their work in the middle of the field - Andrews from the slot, Flowers from the wing - presented Mayfield with tons of ideal targets. Now Njoku will do the same, but with much more talent attached to every reception.

2. J.R. Reed, S, Georgia

It is hard to find safeties to get excited about in the prospective 2019 draft class, as ball skills and athleticism are at a premium. Maybe we've just been spoiled the past few classes, because names like Taylor Rapp, Jaquan Johnson and Tyree Kinnel aren't doing much for me.

Having said that, the more I watched of Georgia safety J.R. Reed, the more I enjoyed his game. He isn't a first round prospect based on his 2017 tape, but he's the type of versatile safety that can be a real asset to a team as a mid-round pick.

Reed is a good tackler, taking strong angles to the football and running the alley like a seasoned veteran. His form is excellent, and he has enough athleticism to arrive to the fight with some bounce in his step. A lot of aggressive safeties will overshoot their marks, but Reed throttles down, entering contact under control.

I would not call him rangy in deep coverage, but Georgia ran a lot of two-deep looks, and Reed was impactful within his zone. This was one of the better plays I've seen from a safety in this class, as Reed quickly processed the route combination and didn't hesitate to break on the ball. His fine play led to a turnover.

3. Ricky Walker, IDL, Virginia Tech

I finally figured out why people liked Tim Settle last year. They thought he was no. 8 on tape, not the bumbling, undisciplined no. 4 next to him. Now it all makes sense.

For whatever reason, Settle got first round hype before the Combine last year, while I've never heard Ricky Walker's name mentioned before the past few weeks. Frankly, there is no comparison between the two, and Walker has a real shot to fly up boards with a strong season.

I don't want to present this play like it is Walker on all passing downs, as he does get stuck to blocks too easily and needs to have a more consistent plan of attack. But the flashes are there, and for a 6-2, 305-pound man to move with that type of quickness is really impressive. I've often said the ability to vary pace, coupled with a specific rush plan, is a huge asset for pass rushers. Walker shows why here.

His pad level needs some work, but he's crazy powerful, showing the ability to displace opponents at the point of attack. Walker isn't a finished product, so hopefully his senior year is instrumental in completing his collegiate development and solidifying himself as at least a top 100 pick, if not higher.

Villain of the Week: Jon Ledyard, Senior NFL Draft Analyst, The Draft Network

One might say that I brought this on myself. One might say that because I did, both years ago when I originally made the statement that Paxton Lynch was closer to starting in the NFL than Carson Wentz, and the other day when I drew attention to my miss by tweeting out this gem:

Affirming the 'L" that I took on Lynch prompted some to go find out what my exact takes were at the time. The results: not pretty for someone who currently does this for a living.

Ouch. Of course, since Wentz's rookie season I've been open about the fact that I had missed on the young signal caller, as he quickly mastered the NFL learning curve and showed flashes of greatness, even after what many called a mediocre rookie season. I still don't think he's currently a top five quarterback like many do, but I would agree he's on his way to that ranking.

Context is always needed in these situations, and I did have a second round grade on Wentz, which still projects out to a good starting quarterback in my grading scale (I do not bump quarterbacks up for positional importance). I liked the North Dakota State quarterback, and landing in one of the most ideal spots in the NFL certainly helped him. But his ability to create and his football intelligence were key aspects of his game that I undervalued.

The worst part about my Wentz evaluation wasn't where I had him graded, it's who I had graded ahead of him. I gave out no first round grades to the 2016 class, but had Jared Goff atop the rankings with an early second round grade. After that, things got a little hairy. No. 2 was Lynch, no. 3 was Cardale Jones nooooooo and no. 4 was Wentz.

But hey, at least I didn't have a first round grade on Vernon Adams!

In the lair this week...

  • Today my top 5 draft-eligible safeties in the SEC dropped...check it out!
  • Thursday I'll have a piece on why Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson's arrow is pointing up, as well as my top five quarterbacks in the SEC.
  • Friday I'll be tackling several of the preseason performances that stood out to me the most from Thursday night's games.
  • Saturday my top five running backs in the SEC will be available for you to hate on

Written By:

Jon Ledyard

Former Senior NFL Draft Analyst