By David Svertsen
The strength of the 2013 NFL Draft class will be in the trenches, notably on the defensive edge. When all is said and done between now and April, I can see six of the top ten selections coming from the defensive line/outside linebacker positions. Filling out the rest of the elite could end up being offensive tackles and cornerbacks and a middle linebacker. What’s missing? Wide receivers with the blend of top tier size, speed, ball skills. Running backs with the power to break tackles and explosion to go the distance. Quarterbacks that are going to turn a franchise around. With the grading process far from complete, I am seeing a potential situation where the true value of round one will be found after teams in the top ten start reaching for need rather than grade. Lets take a look at some offensive playmakers that have yet to prove a top ten grade but may be taken early on.
WR Justin Hunter – Tennessee – 6’4/200
Hunter is going to attract a lot of attention once the season is over. Despite an average 2012 to this point, he is the only wide receiver that I can see breaking in to the top ten. The junior has the size and speed to upgrade a deep passing attack right away. He has shown, especially in 2010 and the start of 2011, the elite ball skills to pluck balls out of the air away from his body. He is a long, slender, flexible athlete with the ability to adjust with ease once he leaps after a ball. The upside is there and he has enough production against good defenses on tape for scouts to give him a high grade. Again, his 2012 has been on the disappointing side. He’s been hesitant in traffic to extend his body. There have been concentration issues when it comes to seeing the ball in to his hands that I’ve seen pop up a couple times already. And he has not been getting behind secondaries the way he did in 2010. He is a little over one year away from the torn ACL suffered last year, so there could be some rust he is still trying to fight off. Elite wide receivers are tough to find, but any decision maker can come up with high ceiling prospects. Spending a top ten selection on a boom or bust player such as Hunter is not the way to go.
QB Geno Smith – West Virginia – 6’3/220
After the hottest start among all senior prospects in the nation, opinions have cooled on Smith. The eye popping, record setting statistical performances the Mountaineers offense put out in September and the beginning of October led the knee jerk opinion makers to comparisons of Robert Griffin III. However once he was faced with a couple of halfway-decent defenses, Smith’s performance went in the wrong direction. His flaws were exploited and all of the sudden his strengths were hard to locate. I like Smith. I think he can be a starting NFL quarterback. But it is apparent to me that making multiple reads on a single drop back could spell his ultimate doom. Against both Texas Tech and Kansas State, Smith had a hard time adjusting to what the defense threw at him. His confidence was shaken. His release suffered. He almost seemed clueless. I was not thrilled with how he carried himself either. I saw a little Cam Newton-type reaction out of him. Not enough vocal leadership. Too much pouting. There will be a couple teams picking in the top ten looking for a new signal caller. I’m not sure Smith is someone you want to invest such a high pick on yet. Again, this process is young but this situation smells like a reach at this point.
WR Keenan Allen – California – 6’3/206
The latest injury to Allen’s knee will not hurt his overall draft grade too much. He’ll miss some time though. Allen is an interesting prospect. We usually don’t see guys like this and grading him to this point has been different than most receivers. He is savvy. Understands how to get himself open. Definitely a guy that will develop a go-to relationship with his quarterback. Allen however is not blessed with great athletic ability. He won’t run by many defensive backs at the next level. I see a lot of his contributions coming on 3rd and 7 type situations. Now with that in mind, some are saying he will be the top graded wide receiver prospect in April. However if I’m calling the shots in a draft room, I’m confident I can find a similar weapon in the middle rounds. A team looking to add immediate firepower, the Rams for example, might look at Allen and their depth chart, see a fit, and overdraft him.
What is the best way to rebuild a defense through the draft? Ask ten general managers and you may receive ten different answers. NY Giants General Manager Jerry Reese states over and over, there is no designed template. They have chosen, and successfully so, to pile up defensive ends from the early rounds. The Ravens have fed the middle of their defense on all three levels with some of their top graded prospects. The Texans have gone after size and versatility to fill as many holes as possible with the fewest amounts of picks. The common theme I’ve seen with teams that do a nice job of rebuilding, or re-tooling, is their ability to locate and forecast versatile athletes. NFL offenses have taken over the game, and the way to combat that has been hybrid schemes. Some defensive coordinators will take it to a more extreme level than others, but the simple concept remains; if you have players that can perform multiple roles, why not move them around to exploit matchup problems for opposing offenses? So when struggling franchises with a poor defense such as the Titans, Chiefs, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars (to name a few) are on the clock, they should opt to look for versatility rather than one trick ponies. I’ve yet to see all the prospects, but I’ve got a good idea of who those players may be come April.
Dion Jordan – Oregon – 6’7/243
At this point in the scouting process, before actual grades are put on to my sheet, Jordan is the most impressive prospect I’ve seen in the entire country, offense or defense. He has the ideal frame for playing on the edge in the NFL with plenty of room for added bulk, which he will undoubtedly gain once he spends a year or two in an NFL weight training program. He is among the best I’ve ever seen at his size when it comes to playing low enough with great flexibility and balance while maintaining power. He can rush the edge with his fingers in the dirt or standing up. Very effective use of his hands to disengage from blockers. In addition to the top tier pass rush capability; Jordan spends a lot of time away from the trenches. Oregon has him line up against wide receivers to abuse them in press coverage. It almost looks comical to see a player his size across from a 5’10 slot receiver. Jordan actually fills that role very well and seems comfortable in space when defending the pass.
I see Jordan play and ask myself, what does he not do? He is all over the place and excelling everywhere in multiple roles. Simply put, he is a quality football player and athlete with superstar potential. The upside alone could land him in the top 15. Combine that with the performances he has been putting on tape and we have a potential number one pick here. I’ve seen enough to label Jordan a top 5 prospect and whichever defense lands him will be well on their way to rebuilding their unit.
Jarvis Jones – Georgia – 6’2/242
When it comes to tape performance and production this season, Jones has had a better first half than any defender in the country. He’s been proving his worth in a variety of ways, and many believe he will be the most sought after defenders come April. Jones factors as a pass rusher not only from either edge, but also up the middle. Some guys are great athletes but struggle to blitz effectively. There is more to it than simply being low and explosive. Jones understands that. He is a hard guy for blockers to lock on to. He does a nice job of playing low and strong with the ability to slip away from hands in a phone booth. That is not where his impact ends, however. Jones is a savvy defender that has the knack for making big plays. He attacks the football when trying to take out a ball carrier, something that NFL players learn to do a years in to their career. Jones also defends the pass with not great, but good enough awareness in zone coverage.
There are a couple concerns that could end up hurting Jones. The most important will be the medical reports concerning his neck, an issue that forced him to leave USC after the doctors did not permit him to get back on the field. If teams are confident that will not be an issue down the road, Jones is a lock for the top ten. No matter what scheme is run, Jones will have a spot on the field. He can provide extra help as a pass rusher from either side, inside or out, and can also sit back and let the action come to him. Guys that are constantly around the biggest plays of every game are not there by chance. There is something about a player like Jones that every defensive coach wants on the field in late, decisive moments.
Johnathan Hankins – Ohio State – 6’3/335
On first down, Hankins absorbs a double team while maintaining his ground in the trenches, freeing up the linebackers behind him. On second down, Hankins shoots through the B gap and alters the route of a ball carrier if he doesn’t take him down for a loss. And finally on third down, Hankins is found collapsing the edge of the pocket, pushing an offensive tackle in to the backside of the quarterback. It seems as if every time I watch the standout junior play, he is making a difference inside and out on every series. Hankins does not wow anyone with a chiseled frame or a giant’s length. What stands out about the 335 pounder his how light he can play on his feet. He fires out of his stance better than guys 45 pounds lighter, but with visibly more power. He can be used as the penetrator that lives in the opposing backfield or the unsung hero eating blockers.
It will be interesting to see how the defensive tackles come off the board in April. Most of the attention is given to Utah’s Star Lotulelei. While he is a dominant inside force, Lotulelei does not bring the versatility that Hankins does. When a defensive tackle can fill multiple roles, both inside and out, the entire unit’s quest to becoming a revived defense is much easier. Hankins is the guy that makes players around him better against both the run and pass. That is a rare. Its guys like him that all of the sudden show up to training camp and coaches start to realize that what is currently on the depth chart doesn’t look so bad. He is a guy that a scheme can build around.
Jesse Williams – Alabama – 6’4/320
I am still in the process of really figuring out who Jesse Williams is as a football player, and how he projects to the NFL as a prospect. As I continuously say, it is VERY early in the process and a lot will be done between now and April. With that disclaimer out there, Williams impresses me more and more every time I watch the Tide play. I think he might be the most valuable component to an incredibly strong Alabama front seven. Williams has the NFL body you want inside. Very wide, but very strong and solid. He carries 320 pounds with ease and his naturally thick frame allows him to play with consistent presence against multiple blockers. He has outstanding, almost unbelievable, weight room strength and it translates to the field on game day. Williams is not just a powerful one trick pony, though. He is quick and agile, making him a handful, or four, to block. He has experience along the entire defensive front and the athleticism stands out every time.
The reason Williams is not yet considered an elite talent is the lack of productivity on the stat sheet. He is not a guy that reaches the quarterback a whole lot. He also doesn’t tally up the tackle numbers. However you need to be careful when scouting a defensive tackle and measuring his grade based on traditional statistics. Some of the best and most effective interior defenders in the NFL do not show up on the stat sheet. Understand that the game is still new to Williams in comparison to most guys in college. He comes from a rugby background, and it shows up on tape at times. The tools and attitude are there for the taking though. I am shooting for the stars here, but I can see him being a version of Haloti Ngata, the top defender in football in my opinion. The combination of size, power, agility, and quickness will give a defensive coordinator multiple options on each play no matter the formation or situation. I can see him being one of the most rapid risers in the public’s eye from here through April.