They say player assessment in the NFL requires a three year window. In three years, the general rule of thumb is that NFL players will have every opportunity to show you who they are -- and that final judgements on players can be made. Were you right, wrong or somewhere in-between on that Day 2 receiver you chose to 'stan' for? And more importantly, why?
Scouting football players is all about the process -- inevitably the human element of players is going to yield irregular results. Injuries are a thing. So, too, is motivation and work ethic. So looking at the process you took to come to the conclusions that you do is really, really important along the way. The 2016 NFL Draft class has had three full seasons in the NFL now and I took the time a few weeks back to weigh in on where I stood among the top players at the class. I think I did okay.
(Note: just don't ask me to relive the Jason Spriggs evaluation or talk about Josh Doctson over Michael Thomas, yeah?)
But with this class now out of the evaluation window, I wanted to undergo an exercise that would provide us with a great look at those players who the jury is still out on. In some cases, we can confirm that the player is good already. But for those lagging behind, there's still time to change the narrative. And what better way to look at the players in the evaluation window than to combine them?
Draft guys are constantly asked -- "if so and so was in last year's class, where would he rank?"
Consider this to be your lucky day. This multi-part series is going to showcase the top 40 player grades I've handed out between the 2017, 2018 and 2019 NFL Draft classes -- so that you can see for yourselves how the cream of the crop sorts itself out. There are about 10 players that I really regret not finding their way into this collection of 40 prospects, but that's a discussion for another day...you know, I have to get you hooked on the suspense of who does and doesn't make the list first!
Today, I'll introduces players ranked 40th through 31st -- the first of a collection of five posts dedicated to covering the best grades I've handed out over the last three years (and how nervous I need to be about my final ranking).
Just Missed The Cut
Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor
I said: "OT Chukwuma Okorafor is a unique blend of size, nimble feet and athleticism at the OT position. He has found success in many play structures but working as a ZBS run scheme would optimize his athleticism. Can be an early starter in the NFL."
I am: Nervous, as you should be any time a player you score highly falls to the 3rd round or later (92nd overall in 2017). Okorafor is in an open competition this offseason to win the starting Right Tackle position -- he played on the right at Western Michigan in 2015 before kicking over to the blindside.
Chicago Bears Linebacker Roquan Smith
I said: "LB Roquan Smith projects favorable as a 4-3 MIKE LB at the NFL level. Provided his defensive line can keep him clean to flow laterally, Smith has the needed tackling prowess, range and football IQ to handle a featured role in the middle of a team's defense."
I am: Happy as a clam. Roquan had a terrific rookie season in 2018 as the man in the middle for the Bears, logging 122 total tackles and 5 sacks as the #8 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Los Angeles Chargers Safety Nasir Adderley
I said: "Nasir Adderley is the latest small school prospect to serve as a reminder that high quality football players come from every level. Adderley has high end coverage skills and tackling, making him a desirable candidate to start in a single high role on defense. His projection would pair best in a man scheme, where he is then able to focus on prowling for the football as compared to passing off coverages. Adderley has excellent anticipation and ball skills, can be an impact starter."
I am: Eager to see how he compliments Derwin James. Adderley's fitness can potentially threaten his rookie season -- he had a twinged hamstring at his Pro Day. Tread carefully, Nasir! Adderley did experience a slide to #60 overall this year, so I'm interested to see if the NFL identified holes in his game that I missed, or if his small school background put teams off.
Los Angeles Chargers Safety Derwin James
I said: "Safety Derwin James is a blue chip prospect, his field vision and anticipation make him a valuable weapon in any number of roles. His rare athletic profile makes him a threat to be accounted for on all three levels of the defense. Can be a game changing defender."
I am: Regretting not having him higher. At the end of the day, I had a 1st-Round grade on Derwin James but he should have been a Top-10 overall prospect if his level of play in 2018 is any indication. At least I can take solace in Derwin falling to #17 overall in 2018. Players like Derwin were a big catalyst for why I eliminated using peripheral metrics to weight a player's overall grade effective in 2019 -- James would have been much higher on the list had I used my 2019 scoring to log his final grade.
New Orleans Saints Cornerback Marshon Lattimore
I said: "Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore is a one year starter at the position; illustrating an impressible level of polish and comfort working on an island. Lattimore has wonderful potential in either a Cover 3 zone or press man heavy defensive system; he is at his best working up on the LOS at the snap and pinning receivers. Lattimore shows ideal levels of length for the position at the next level as well; he can challenge throws effectively from the trail position and has the processing and awareness to understand when holding leverage overtop of route stems to accelerate and transition into a receiver of the football. Lattimore is going to need to sure up his run support some; he has had a hard top disengaging late as the back turns runs up inside of his hip and will allow some additional yardage in these situations. A high ceiling CB who has the length and physicality to play at the LOS."
I am: Probably a little low here, but no regrets. As a one-year starter, the sample size was small and after a spectacular rookie campaign in 2017, Lattimore started a little slower in 2018. He'll be fine in the long run, just as I'll be fine with how my grade and report looks in the long-term. Drafted #11 overall by the Saints in 2017, Lattimore is living up to the hype.
#40. Arizona Cardinals Linebacker Haason Reddick
I said: "Temple's Haason Reddick is a fascinating story, having started his career with the Owls as a walk on defensive back before molding his body into a fully filled out 237 lbs. All the more impressive is Reddick's ability to sustain defensive back type movement skills and apply them on the field while being a chess piece for the Owls. Primarily playing as a pass rusher, Reddick illustrates explosive first step, good center of gravity and balance to play through lateral contact and high end hitting power. When working off the ball, Reddick is disciplined with his eyes and has NFL MIKE range. One of the standouts from the 2017 Reese's Senior Bowl, Reddick re-affirmed with his week at practice that he has the ability to play off ball Linebacker with consistency and at a high level. Reddick's skill set projects favorably as a three down MIKE LB in a 4 man front."
I am: Wishing the Cardinals would pick a damn spot and let him play it, already! The Cardinals drafted Reddick with the same impression as everyone else -- that he wasn't suited to play on the edge but his past positions gave him unique skills to be a coverage linebacker. But he'd need time to marinate and develop into that role. So naturally, the Cardinals yanked Reddick out of the middle and tasked him with rushing off the edge as a pass rusher when they were tested with injuries. What could possibly go wrong? Well, they completely stunted Reddick's development as an ILB -- and we're entering year three and Reddick is in his third defensive system as a player that was always going to have to change positions coming out of college anyway.
Reddick himself said knowing he'll play ILB in 2019 is a "relief". Big season coming for the three-year evaluation.
#39. Arizona Cardinals Cornerback Byron Murphy
I said: "Byron Murphy is an elite prospect who can plug into just about any system at play at a high level. Murphy has surreal mobility and polish for a younger prospect. His explosiveness, ball skills and route recognition skills make him a great fit to play in both shallow and short zones. Murphy would have little issue stepping up and filling on the boundary or contesting shallow throws in front of his face. Murphy has the upside to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL by the end of year 3."
I am: Not worried. Not worried at all. The run on cornerbacks never came in the 1st-Round of the 2019 NFL Draft -- Georgia's Deandre Baker came off the board first at #30 overall. Murphy went three picks later at #33 overall this year and will get a chance to prove he can play pretty early in his career.
#38. Cincinnati Bengals Offensive Tackle Jonah Williams
I said: "Jonah Williams is a technically refined offensive tackle who projects most favorably into a physical offensive front. Williams' pass protection skills would be best utilized in quicker passing schemes to protect his lack of length from being exposed on deeper pass sets, but that's no reason to dismiss his skills as an offensive tackle and move inside to guard. Should be a rookie starter at the NFL level and provide quality play on the outside by the end of his first year."
I am: Relieved that the Bengals are going to let Williams start out at Left Tackle. If he fails, then (and only then) move him inside to Guard. Williams was drafted #11 overall this year by Cincinnati and will probably be the best player on that offensive line in year one.
#37. Denver Broncos Offensive Lineman Dalton Risner
I said: "Dalton Risner is a prospect that will draw evaluations across the entire offensive front. Risner played Center in 2015 before starting his final three seasons at Tackle. Risner possesses requisite length to play Tackle in the NFL and would be a most attractive fit in a WCO style passing offense that implements gap/power concepts to make the most of his power at the point of attack. Risner could easily step inside and play on the interior but regardless: a Day 1 starter."
I am: Fine. Perfectly fine. I figured the NFL wasn't going to be as high -- as the general perception was that he needed to kick inside to guard. I've seen the NFL invest in heavier, stiffer athletes to play outside, but here we are. And with the Broncos signing Ju'Waun James this offseason to man the Right Tackle position, Right Guard it is for the #41 overall selection this year. Knowing he's inside only makes me feel even better about his pro prospects.
#36. San Francisco 49ers Offensive Tackle Mike McGlinchey
I said: "OT Mike McGlinchey projects favorably as a starting offensive tackle in the NFL. Despite his abnormal height, McGlinchey plays with leverage and could be an immediate starter in any kind of offense system in the NFL. Feasibly could play LT or RT."
I am: Hoping he can diminish the amount of pressure he concedes, but thrilled with seeing him as a run blocker in as a rookie. The #9 overall selection in 2018 conceded 40 pressures as a rookie and a sizable number of sacks -- but he really clamped down in the second half of 2018 and figures to be a more well rounded player (and a plus asset) in 2019.
#35. New England Patriots Offensive Tackle Isaiah Wynn
I said: "Isaiah Wynn is a versatile interior OL with the ability to play in either gap/power or zone oriented running systems. Wynn has terrific play strength and commitment to playing with strong posture, which should allow him to excel immediately in his NFL career."
I am: Praying for good health. Wynn was slated to start at Left Tackle for the Patriots (a bit of a surprise to see them keep him outside) as a rookie before an Achilles injury cost him his entire rookie season. The #23rd overall selection of the 2018 NFL Draft, Wynn can serve as a bonus 1st-Round pick in 2019, exactly what the *squints* Super Bowl defending Patriots *rolls eyes*...need.
#34. Chicago Bears Safety Eddie Jackson
I said: "Alabama's Eddie Jackson unfortunately missed the second half of his final season with Crimson Tide on account of a broken leg suffered vs. Texas A&M. Jackson's senior season lacked the splash plays present as a Junior, his first as the starting Free Safety. Yet Jackson continued to illustrate the strong mental grasp of the defense and was a field commander in the secondary; consistently getting calls relayed across the back end and being in the appropriate place to sustain leverage against offenses. Jackson has true Center field ability thanks to impressive burst and range, strong mental processing and ball skills that guide him to the catch point consistently when tracking the ball in the middle of the field. Jackson does not offer a great asset as a run defender but is willing to drop down and clean up trash or square up runners in the alley as needed. A potential Day 1 starter at Free Safety."
I am: A proud papa. I've become much less bullish with experience on players that I feel I see something differently in than the rest of my colleagues -- when you think you're the smartest person in the room, you are vulnerable to a lot of criticism if you stick to your guns. But Jackson was the #1 rated safety in football last year by Pro Football Focus, he logged 6 interceptions in 2018 (with 3 defensive touchdowns) and was a starring player on the best defense in football. Jackson slid to the #112th overall pick in 2017 and unlike 31 NFL teams, this is one eval I don't have to kick myself for.
#33. Minnesota Vikings Offensive Guard Pat Elflein
I said: "Ohio State Offensive Lineman Pat Elflein will be an attractive option early on in the 2017 NFL Draft. He offers positional versatility on the interior and has the functional athleticism to be a valuable part of a protection scheme. Elflein has some lapses with his footwork but overall his functional movement skills and ability to play with strength at the point of attack are assets that are difficult to ignore, particularly in a class that is so top heavy along the offensive interior. Elflein has good recovery balance and an impressive pass set, making him a good fit for the offenses of today's NFL. His punch and hand technique are both strong; he does very well to continue to work after first contact to sustain a favorable grasp on defenders and manipulate the point of attack to produce creases for his running backs. Elflein should be considered a viable plug and play starter on day 1."
I am: Confused. Elflein started bad...and then was good...and now he's back to bad? The #70 pick in 2017, Elflein has been anything but consistent. I'm hoping he's suffering from 'Ryan Kelly' syndrome -- where you are a good player sandwiched between not-good players and it makes you look worse than you are. The offensive line is a delicate balance of chemistry and communication, adding Garrett Bradbury to the mix should help clear the air on exactly who Elflein is in year 3.
#32. Carolina Panthers Running Back Christian McCaffrey
I said: "Stanford's Christian McCaffrey comes from a NFL pedigree, he is the son of longtime Broncos WR Ed McCaffrey. McCaffrey growing up around the game is evident as soon as you turn on the film, he's got wonderful spatial awareness and understanding of how offensive and defensive units flow on the field and how to beat it. McCaffrey's got big play speed, enough balance to sustain off angle hits working through the hole and the feet/ vision to combine cuts to bob and weave through pursuit to break big plays on a regular basis. McCaffrey is limited in pass protection; but his receiving skills sustain his value as a three down player. Showing skills that will translate into either a man gap or zone heavy running system, this is a plug and play type of prospect who can invigorate an offense with big plays out of the backfield on a weekly basis from Day 1."
I am: Vindicated! I know there's a consensus that running backs don't matter. And I get the sentiment -- a lot of that production is easily replaceable. But look at the Panthers offense with and without McCaffrey on the field and let me know how replaceable he is. If you're going to draft a running back high (#8 overall in 2017), he needs to be on the field for all three downs and he needs to contribute in all phases of the game. Through two seasons, McCaffrey has 1,533 rushing yards (1,098 in 2018) and 1,518 receiving yards (with 187 total receptions). In all, 3,051 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns on 523 touches -- a very fruitful beginning to a promising career.
#31. Detroit Lions Tight End T.J. Hockenson
I said: "T.J. Hockenson is one of the easiest/hardest evaluations of my season. Hockenson is terrifically balanced as a football player and it doesn't take more than a few reps to know he's an immediate starter at the NFL level with scheme diversity. The challenge for Hockenson's tape? Listing a weakness. Hockenson is comfortable in any number of roles, giving comfort that he'll be fine in WCO or vertical passing offenses alike. He's a scheme transcendent prospect."
I am: Hoping Hockenson is able to live up to the expectations. It's pretty hard for a Tight End taken in the Top-10 overall (#8 overall this year) to live up to those standards -- only five TEs have gone in the Top-10 before him. They are:
- Eric Ebron (Detroit, 2014)
- Vernon Davis (San Francisco, 2006)
- Kellen Winslow II (Cleveland, 2004)
- Rickey Dudley (Oakland, 1996)
- Kyle Brady (New York Jets, 1995)