The Deep Route Draft Notebook features takes on the latest draft discussions and reports on players and teams ahead the 2018 NFL Draft. Unless stated otherwise, all stats are accumulated using Pro/College Football Reference, ESPN, or 4for4.com.
THINGS I KNOW
I know this safety class is deep, again. Many people, myself included, thought last year’s class had good depth. The same can be said for this year’s, too. At the top of most, if not all, of the big boards is Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James. Fitzpatrick’s stock has fallen in recent weeks while James’ was rising, but has since slowed down in the past few days. Both are touted for insane versatility, especially Fitzpatrick who could easily be labelled as cornerback by the team who drafts him. Both are also high character guys who have shown a willingness to improve and help others improve, too. It’s after these two premier prospects where things get murky. Guys like Ronnie Harrison, Justin Reid, Jessie Bates and DeShon Elliot have all been associated with a wide range of anywhere from the first-round to Day Three. Later round prospects like Kyzir White and Marcus Allen have generally been viewed as undervalued, too. The key word I keep seeing associated with most of these prospects: versatility. Like Fitzpatrick and James, a lot of the safety prospects have either experience and/or the necessary traits to line up in multiple positions. This seems like a good year to have a need for safety.
I know cutting Dez Bryant was the right move. The Cowboys saved $8.5 million by releasing the outspoken receiver who is nowhere near his 2014 season, which was the last time he scored double-digit touchdowns and over 1,000 yards. Last season was the first time since his Pro Bowl year that Bryant played all 16 games. While he was the Cowboys’ leading receiver, he had the lowest catch rate out of any Dallas player who received 20 or more targets. Cole Beasley only caught six less balls than Bryant despite seeing 45 less targets than Bryant did. In other words, Bryant was not living up to his massive contract and was a clear candidate to be cut. I get that some players are mad that Dallas would cut a guy with such “immense passion and loyalty,” but if teams kept players based on those traits alone I guarantee you the NFL would look very different, and not in a good way.
Bryant is 29, still has durability concerns, has recently proven to be more of a distraction than a revelation and has seen a steady decline in production. This isn’t to say that Bryant still can’t be a viable option on another team. The way I see it, there are three teams to keep an eye out for: Eagles, Texans and Ravens. All three teams could use a veteran receiving option, but let’s break it down a little more. The Eagles just won the Super Bowl and GM Howie Roseman has shown he is not afraid to take veterans, especially ones who are outspoken and polarizing. Oh hey, they’re in the NFC East, too. That lines up with what Bryant reportedly yelled as he was leaving the Cowboys’ facility. Texans’ players have been clamoring on Twitter for Bryant to make the short move to Houston, but there are valid reasons why this move would make sense. With no picks in the first nor second rounds and the fifth-most available cap space, the Texans would be smart to take a flyer on the former Pro Bowler. Of course, both the Eagles and Texans have promising young quarterback surrounded by talent, which the Ravens lack in both areas. Nonetheless, I keep seeing Baltimore’s name linked to Bryant and he could be yet another aging veteran with a grueling injury history to don the black and purple. In short, the Eagles seem like the smartest option for Bryant, the Texans make sense logistically, but it will likely be the Ravens.
I know you should check out the rest of the Armchair NFL Draft coverage. From mock drafts to the unicorns of the draft to more mock drafts, the content is endlessly creative and informative. If you like DRDN, then I guarantee you’ll enjoy the rest of the content which can be found here. You should also check out out the Seven Rounds in Heaven podcast, hosted by AJ Marchese and Rob Paul. Paul has been helping out with DRDN for a while now and if you like what he’s written (he gives his take on an undervalued safety later on), then you’ll love what he and AJ talk about on the show. They include positional rankings, divisional breakdowns and more. With the Draft next week (I’ve been waiting so long to say that), the content will only be getting better. As for me, be on the look out for some interesting pieces next week to get you ready for the NFL Draft, including my Official Terrible Mock Draft. Buckle your seat belts, because this is shaping up to be one unique draft.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know anything about what happened to Tyrann Mathieu this offseason. Well, I know the Cardinals cut him after he refused to take a pay cut. I also know Mathieu’s one-year deal with the Texans is worth $7 million, which is a bargain for a player of his skill-set. Few players compare to Mathieu, who’s versatility and instincts are superb. Mathieu has dealt with injuries in the past; ironically, last year was the only full season he played and he still got cut. While he’s nowhere near his 2015 All-Pro form, Honey Badger did improve over last season’s final few games. Ok I clearly know some stuff about Mathieu, but I still don’t understand why he was cut.
Mathieu is a rare player who is top at the position (when healthy), but the Cardinals couldn’t see that. That was strange to me, but not at strange as their move to release him instead of seek a trade. Obviously the Cardinals likely called teams about Mathieu, but if they did, it means no one was interested in him enough to trade for him. That is what’s weird to me. Mathieu is still a marquee player in this league and his former 5-year, $62.5 million contract was only the ninth-richest contract among defensive backs. The Texans got a steal signing Mathieu and if he can stay healthy, Mathieu might have found a home amongst one of the best up-and-coming defenses in the NFL.
I don’t know how much Richard Sherman has left in him. The former All-Pro cornerback is no longer in his ‘Legion of Boom’ days, mainly due to injuries. He played only nine games this season and was cut after seven seasons with the Seahawks. If you excluded Sherman’s 2017 season, his stats show that he really hasn’t declined all that much. Sure, he hasn’t recorded eight interceptions again like he did in both 2012 and 2013, but there still hasn’t been a significant drop-off in production. Sherman was basically released due to a roster overhaul in Seattle that saw numerous veterans relocating elsewhere. However, some still wonder if Sherman can be a viable cornerback again, myself included. Expecting him to return to his All-Pro form is ludicrous, especially since he’s a 30-year old coming off a ruptured Achilles. In the end, it is up to his new team (San Fransisco) to determine if Sherman can still be a solid starter in the league. Judging by his incentive-rich, 3-year, $27 million contract, the 49ers view him as their next starting cornerback. I’d bet this likely eliminates the chance they draft a cornerback at nine.
I don’t know why I like the new Dolphins and Jaguars uniforms. Both teams released new threads on Thursday and I can’t help but enjoy them. Both teams opted for simpler looks, especially the Jaguars. I was a big fan of the previous Jacksonville uniforms so this move disappointed me. However, comparing the them with the new version would be unfair because the new ones are not that bad. They’re sleek with no far-out designs that distract you and the all-teal uniform looks very clean. At the same time, they seem too plain. Many people drilled the Jags for how wild and crazy their last uniforms were (I completely disagree), so it looks like the ownership really took those complaints to heart. Keeping the number outline, or just having one in general, would definitely upgrade these threads. As for their neighbors down south, I also loved the Dolphins’ previous uniforms and was especially enamored with their number outlines, too. I still really like how the new uniforms look, though. It wasn’t much, but Miami’s move to a darker orange and the removal of the navy outlines give a more traditional feel. They look closer to those sick throwbacks they wear twice a year, and I love them. Overall, I like the Dolphins’ changes better than those of the Jaguars but I can still see myself feeling content with Jacksonville’s new threads. After all, the Titans’ new uniforms have grown on me, just like I said they would.
I’ll give a weekly rundown of the top players at a certain position, including a potential sleeper. The players will be ranked, but of course, these rankings are easily subject to change. Let’s take a quick look at this year’s Defensive Backs.
1. Denzel Ward (CB) Pros: Fast. Very athletic. Tough. Aggressive. Can excel on line or off coverage. Explosive. Great recovery speed. Instinctive. Fluid. Mirrors very well. Incredible footwork. Sticks to receivers. Competitive to get ball. Good route recognition. Excels at reading routes under him. Physical. Productive. Patient. Shifts gear seamlessly. Knack for finding and disrupting the ball.
Cons: Not biggest (5-10, 191 lbs). Lack of play strength. Easily blockable. Often loses contested balls to bigger receivers. Should turn head and find ball sooner. Concerns exist about superior surrounding cast making Ward look better than he is.
Outlook: If Ward was three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, he could be the best cornerback prospect in years. Most of his issues stem from his size, or lack thereof, but he has the rare skills to be an elite nickel cornerback.
Big Question: Can Ward survive as an outside cornerback?
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick (DB) Pros: Athletic. Versatile. Dynamic. Rangy. High football IQ. Praised for superb character. Hard worker. Leader. Plays with intensity. Very driven. Natural ability to find ball. Smooth footwork. Surprisingly good blitzer. Very competitive. Not afraid to get physical. High field awareness. Accelerates quickly. Owns the spotlight.
Cons: Not overly explosive. Sometimes overshoots tackle. Lack of true position means he isn’t perfectly refined at any. Caught with tight hips a few times.
Outlook: Fitzpatrick has the elite talent, traits and character to be very successful. Whatever position he plays, he’ll need to improve a little as his versatility meant he never fully learned enough at any one position.
Big Question: What position will Fitzpatrick primarily play?
3. Derwin James (S) Pros: Tall, sturdy frame (6-2, 215 lbs). Very athletic. Insanely versatile. Fast. Physical freak. Fluid movement. High football IQ. Explosive. Intelligent. Great physical tools. Finished year strong. Great character. Leader. Aggressive. Powerful runner. Hard hitter. Good tackler. Proven capable of affecting game in multiple ways. Work ethic is praised. Build to cover tight ends effectively. High field awareness.
Cons: Slow to recover from ACL tear from previous year. Run defense needs improvement. Must work on coverage skills. Can take eyes off quarterback too long. An ‘absorbent’ tackler, not an initiating tackler. Timing in coverage needs to be quicker.
Outlook: James has the skills and demeanor to take over a defense and affect the game in various ways. He isn’t great in coverage; he reminds me of a linebacker with the range and build of a safety.
Big Question: How will James be employed?
4. Joshua Jackson (CB) Pros: Good height (6-1). Long. Athletic. Physical. Very instinctive. Technically sound. Productive. Playmaker. Great outside skills. Ball-hawk. Good field vision. Flexible. Excellent disruptor. Excels at 50/50 balls. Tends to focus on ball when in air. Anticipates routes very well. Demonstrates superior play recognition. Praised for character. Very productive 2017 season. Can handle the spotlight.
Cons: Not overly fast. Only productive for one season. Press coverage needs major work. Faked out easily. Footwork is inconsistent. Seemed too eager to jump the pass. Thin, should bulk up.
Outlook: Jackson has the tools and instincts to be a stud, but his lack of speed, impatience and ineffectiveness in press could hold him back. His willingness to succeed and competitive mentality should push him to be successful, but he’s still raw.
Big Question: How will Jackson’s lack of speed affect his ability in coverage?
5. Jaire Alexander (CB) Pros: Fast. Instinctive. Athletic. Vocal. Feisty. Aggressive. Tough. Reacts quickly. Reads and times routes well. Quick footwork. Accelerates quickly. Surprisingly good at jump balls and snagging passes from receivers. Effectively mirrors receivers. Good awareness. His 2016 tape is sensational.
Cons: Not that big (5-10, 196 lbs). Durability concerns. Inconsistent tackler. Press coverage needs work. Must find football sooner. Hand usage could be refined. Needs to continue to improve in short-yardage situations. Not much of a risk taker.
Outlook: Alexander’s size and potential durability issues limit him but his speed and his mirroring ability are top-notch. He’ll likely succeed with a move inside.
Big Question: Can Alexander stay healthy?
6. Ronnie Harrison (S) Pros: Good size (6-2, 207 lbs). Fast. Athletic. Productive. Versatile. Physical. Big hitter. Rangy. Smooth movements. Solid run defender. Reads and times routes well. Good field vision. High football IQ. Strong hand usage. Big play ability.
Cons: Tends to drive with shoulder first. Can get impatient. Tackling technique needs work. Change of direction skills have been questioned. Man coverage is not a strength.
Outlook: Harrison has the physical tools and old-school safety demeanor to be a punishing weapon in the middle of the field. His overeagerness is displayed in his tackling technique and he is better in zone than man coverage, though I like his upside.
Big Question: Can Harrison learn to have more patience?
7. Mike Hughes (CB) Pros: Quick. Productive. Tough. Physical. Excels in press. Great acceleration. Tracks and times ball well. Good receiver. Can adjust body to make catch. Fierce block shedder. Doesn’t give up on plays. Return specialist.
Cons: Undersized (5-10, 189 lbs). Tackling needs work. Mirroring ability is inconsistent. Struggles against physical receivers. Must refine coverage techniques. Can play too upright. Initial positioning could use a look.
Outlook: Hughes’ receiving skills are superb while his coverage skills need work. (Dare I say Hughes could be a more impactful receiver than cornerback?) Big upside but a low floor, mainly due to his inconsistencies in coverage and open space.
Big Question: Can Hughes refine his coverage skills enough to make an impact?
Sleeper: Dane Cruikshank (DB) Pros: Good size (6-1, 206 lbs). Fast. Athletic. Rangy. Versatile. Productive. Explosive. Fluid. Superb run stopper. Hits like a heat-seeking missile. Good receiver. Quick hands and footwork. Reacts quickly. Seamless change of direction skills. Fearless tackler. Patient. Excelled in big moments.
Cons: Inconsistent coverage skills. Seemed to have lapses in focus. Can be easily faked out. Struggles with defending near sideline. Unreliable in open-field.
Outlook: Cruikshank is a jack-of-all-trades who has the physical traits to play anywhere. He was inconsistent in zone coverage so I can see him becoming a safety or nickel cornerback. Some compare him to a poor man’s Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Big Question: What position will Cruikshank be used as?
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Every week I’ll talk a little about an incoming player who has dominated recent draft talk, either for good reasons or for bad. This week, fellow draft nerd Rob Paul steps in to highlight Justin Reid.
There’s been non-stop talk about Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick for months now, and rightfully so, but Justin Reid shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. Reid might not be quite on James and Fitzpatrick’s level, but he’s the only other safety that is worth a first-round pick in this draft. Justin Reid is NFL safety Eric Reid’s younger brother, and he’s better than Eric, who’s a former Pro Bowler and first-round pick. At Stanford Reid became their leader in the secondary this past season racking up 95 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and 5 interceptions. For any team needing secondary help Justin Reid can be a plug and play difference maker.
What jumps off the tape about Reid is his versatility. For Stanford he played linebacker, single high safety, box safety, nickel, and even cornerback. His ability to play just about any role in the secondary makes him a fit for almost every team in the NFL. At 6-1, 207-pounds, Reid has the size to handle bigger receivers/tight ends in the NFL. He also has the athleticism to matchup with great athletes, he ran a 4.4 40-yard dash, 6.65 3-cone, vertical jumped 36.5”, and broad jumped 10’6”. In today’s game safeties with size, athleticism, and versatility are a must have and Reid checks all of the boxes. When used as an overhang defender, he’s at his best. He pretty much lined up as a big nickel more often than any other position. Stanford used him as their chess piece to combat spread offenses and be an X-factor against the run on the outside. NFL defensive coordinators are going to love his skill-set.
Reid’s role in the NFL will depend on which team drafts him. He is the jack of all trades in this draft and will be most productive playing a variety of roles. The way Malcolm Jenkins is used for the Philadelphia Eagles is the best way to use Reid. Let him cover slots, tight ends, and running backs using his size and athleticism. Against the run Reid rarely misses a tackle and always puts himself in great position to make a play. Without a doubt Reid is one of the best defensive players in the draft and will be a huge difference maker wherever he ends up.
Best Fit: Carolina Panthers Projection: First Round Risk Factor: Safe
THE ‘HANDS’ REPORT
As a former wide receiver, I not only have a special affection towards the position but have had a relatively good eye for receiving prospects. Hopefully I can find my next ‘Man-Crush’ as I talk about a new player each week. Today I’ll be discussing Michael Gallup.
The Colorado State standout was one of the most productive receivers in college football over the past two years, including a top-five finish in both receptions and receiving yards in 2017. There are a lot of things to like about Gallup. He has a decent frame (6-1, 205 lbs) with room to add bulk. His incredible athleticism is always on display as Gallup is a RAC-demon. Between his quickness, long strides and rare field vision, Gallup is always a threat to score. Gallup’s strong center of balance also makes him harder to tackle, though a lack of competition could have contributed to those blown tackles. Route running might be Gallup’s best trait. He excels at beating press (again, maybe just a lack of competition, mainly because he struggled against press in the Alabama game). His smoothness and quick feet help him blow by defenders, though his quarterback routinely missed wide open throws.
Gallup is generally a physical catcher who can adjust to balls nicely and keep his focus on the ball. He is not afraid to box out defenders in an attempt to snag a pass and has flashed immense jump-ball potential, especially on back shoulder fades. His strong hands are always on display as he has succeeded with reaching for the ball or corralling it into his chest when appropriate. When he knew where the ball was, he was likely to reel it in. Gallup just has an uncanny knack to time his jump/movements so he can catch the ball.
Gallup does have his flaws, though. He should work on getting his eyes back to the quarterback sooner as to give him more time to track the ball. There were times when Gallup should have high-pointed the ball but instead let it try and fall into his chest, and it cost him nine out of ten times. It looked like Gallup was too conscious of the defenders in the middle of the field and seemed to almost slow down around them. In the NFL, you can’t be afraid to get hit. It’s strange with Gallup because he demonstrated his willingness and effectiveness in being physical enough to catch the ball. Gallup’s focus lapsed at times, especially against Alabama, where all his rare traits just seemed to vanish. In that game, he struggled against press, wasn’t timing the ball well and just looked a bit sluggish. Gallup’s run blocking isn’t great either and will demand consistent effort at the next level.
Overall, Gallup can be a number one receiver but he just needs to fine-tune those small flaws. At his best, Gallup looked almost unstoppable. His athleticism, route-running and RAC ability are among the best in the class and those three traits alone should bolster him to an effective role in the NFL. His ability to create separation is also a strong point. His hands are good, but could be better. He reminds me of a rookie from last year’s class: Juju Smith-Schuster. Both are elusive athletes who are always a home-run threat. I can see Gallup having a similar season to Smith-Schuster’s first year in that he could be a reliable option while breaking off big plays now and then. Both are also versatile players who excel with the ball in their hands. If Gallup could be that good in college, just imagine what he can do with even a slightly good quarterback in the NFL. I really like Gallup and he has improved enough over his collegiate career that I think he can blossom into a true star.
Pro Comparison: Juju Smith-Schuster Projection: Early Day 2 Man-Crush Meter: 8/10
ONE LAST THING
Like I’ve constantly been saying, don’t buy into any rumors just yet as anything can change. However, the anticipation is killing me so I decided to do a quick top-five projection (what I think I could happen) and what it could mean for the rest of the board. Again, don’t be surprised if my OTMD looks completely different next week.
I’m still not buying the Josh Allen hype, although it keeps growing like a weed you can’t get rid of. A week ago, I would have told you that the draft really starts after Cleveland takes Darnold. Now, I have more confidence in the second pick than the first pick, though both really are toss ups. Mayfield to the Jets just seems like the appropriate connection. Whether it’s the best decision or not is a whole other debate. The real news here is that the pair of Josh’s (Allen and Rosen) might slide a little. Of course, the skid could be stopped with a trade up by a QB-desperate team like the Bills or Cardinals. If I had to put money on it, I would say Rosen experiences the biggest fall out of the top four quarterbacks. Ironically, I think it could easily be Rosen who emerges as the best quarterback out of this draft.
Stay glued to Armchair and my Twitter feed (@ZachCohen12) in the next few days to catch all new content, projections and more!