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 Bradley Chubb is the best defensive line prospect in this draft, but not in the last three drafts. The fandom of NFL draft nerds on Twitter (a.k.a ‘Draft Twitter’) has been hotly debating Chubb’s ranks among two top edge rushers to be selected highly in the past two years: Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett. Chubb is a very good, complete prospect, but he doesn’t really do anything at an elite level yet. The potential is certainly there, but with Bosa and Garrett, you could argue that they have some rare, elite traits that separate them from the rest of the class.
Bosa was taken third in 2016 and was the first non-quarterback selected. Before the Rams and Eagles traded for the first and second pick, respectively, Bosa was considered a real threat to be selected first. As for Garrett, there was a general acceptance that he would be taken first throughout the whole draft process, so it was no surprise when his name was the first one announced on draft night. The thing about Chubb, and I’m sure many people can agree, is that Chubb isn’t a true threat to be picked first this year even if the Browns already had a quarterback. Why? Chubb just doesn’t have a super special, rare quality that Bosa and Garrett possessed as prospects. Again, Chubb could easily join Bosa and Garrett among the top edge defenders in the NFL, but I wouldn’t put Chubb on their level just yet. (As always, feel free to leave a comment below, whether you agree or disagree with my opinions.)
I know the Ndamukong Suh signing looks great. Pairing Suh with one of the league’s best players in Aaron Donald sounds like a phenomenal idea. Offensive lines will either be vastly overwhelmed or just incapable of double-teaming the two Pro-Bowlers. As for Suh’s contract, one year for $14 million is a bargain considering that makes him just the seventh-highest paid interior defensive lineman in the NFL. This all makes the acquisition look pretty darn good, but Rams’ fans shouldn’t buy Super Bowl tickets just yet.
Suh is 31-years old and hasn’t been the same player since he moved to South Beach. While his production has dropped off in recent years, some of that can be attributed to a lackluster Miami defense that just put more pressure on Suh to dominate, which he didn’t. There were also rumors of Suh’s lack of work ethic towards the latter stages of his Dolphins tenure. If Suh can stay motivated and defy Father Time, the Rams’ defensive line could be virtually unstoppable. I’d put my money on Suh’s Hollywood revival en route to a very successful season. (On second thought, how much does a plane ticket from Los Angeles to Atlanta cost? Asking for a friend.)
I know the NFL will never satisfy everyone. After the recent league meetings, the NFL announced a slew of changes to the rules, most notably about the definition of a catch and new safety rules. The catch debate will always rage on, let’s be clear about that. While this new rule proposal was designed to eradicate past problems with it, it will likely lead to a new slew of issues. For example, what really does a ‘football move’ constitute as? The list of examples, while a little helpful, can still have room for interpretation. I bet that will certainly be a topic for debate in the upcoming NFL season, despite no opposition to the proposal. Now for the more controversial changes: safety.
Among them was a new targeting rule that could potentially lead to a player’s ejection. Some proponents for the proposal claim it is in the game’s best interest to ‘remove the head’ from gameplay. Some opponents of the proposal say that no matter what rules the NFL pass, there is no definitive way for a player to avoid head contact at all times. While I certainly agree with the direction the NFL is trying to head in with this proposal, I also can’t help but think how unrealistic “removing the head” from such a sudden, physical game will be. There are numerous avenues of which to approach these new changes, and while it remains to be seen how effective they will be, a good amount of people will always be unhappy. That applies to all new adjustments, not just the controversial targeting-but-not-targeting rule. Why is this so important to realize? No matter what the NFL does to try and solve their biggest issues, the chances of them ever finding a universally accepted one are exceedingly low.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know the direction the Patriots will take in the draft. Giving up their top receiver (Brandin Cooks was ninth in receiving yards and tied for nineteenth in receiving touchdowns among eligible receivers) is a risky gamble. On the contrary, it is also the ultimate Patriots’ move considering Cooks will be entering a contract year, which is when New England loves to trade their players. The exchange was formidable; they got back the 23rd overall pick and a sixth rounder while sending the Rams a fourth rounder to go with Cooks. What makes this deal so interesting is that the Patriots now hold two picks in the first and second round each. Some speculate that their new ammo is enough for the team to trade for superstar Odell Beckham Jr., but there is no way Bill Belichick would tolerate Beckham nor his potentially massive contract demands.
The more realistic option is that the Patriots, who dealt six of their seven picks in last year’s draft, will part with some of their high picks again this year. Standing at 23 and 31, the team could package those picks in an attempt to grab one of the top quarterbacks (should one fall) or they could just wait and take the best player available. I expect the Patriots to definitely address the quarterback position at some point in the draft and using one of their late first round picks on a guy like Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph might be a real possibility. For the first time in a while, the Patriots have a handful of nice options heading into the draft, but for now we can only guess at what Belichick has up his sleeves, if he wore them.
I don’t know if Jason Pierre-Paul was worth a third-round pick. Sure, the Buccaneers and Giants did swap fourth-round picks, ultimately resulting in the Bucs moving up seven slots and the Giants moving down seven. While it remains to be seen just how effective that small switch was, the trade of fourth round picks basically cancels out, for now. This leaves just the third round pick as the equivalent value to Pierre-Paul, at least in the eyes of the Bucs’ front office.
Pierre-Paul’s production has dipped significantly in the last few years, but that can be attributed to his incredibly high usage. (Pierre-Paul was on the field for over 91 percent of the defensive plays, which was 30 percent more than any other New York defensive lineman.) At the same time, the former Pro Bowler will be 29 next season and coming off his first full season since 2014. Like every trade involving draft picks, we won’t know the true worth of the deal until a couple years from now. However, sending basically just a third round pick for a veteran who is three years removed from his prime seems like a very risky move.
I don’t know how I feel yet about the Titans’ new uniforms. First of all, you can bet that anytime a team announces uniform changes I will certainly critique them. I am a uniform fanatic and obsess over the littlest details. Overall, I was disappointed with the Titans new threads. The Titans have a fantastic color scheme to work with, yet failed to capitalize on the differences. I like the metallic face-masks but the silver stripe down the helmet makes the logo look too small; there is too much space between the front of the stripe and the logo. They should have started the stripe at the front of the helmet and had it fade out in the back rather than vice versa. I am a fan of the navy helmet, though a light blue one would have been disgustingly good.
As for the jersey itself, the number font is too weak and makes the numbers look frail and wacky. It also annoys me how the numbers aren’t horizontally symmetrical. (Look at a number like ‘3’ or ‘8’ and you can see the bottom half is clearly larger than the top half.) I like the idea of the shoulder design, but going two-tone is too much. I get that it is supposed to represent a sword, but it just looks strange. That’s my biggest issue with the uniforms—there is too much going on. Traces of white, navy, light blue, red, gray and silver can all be seen. While they did a nice job limiting the red, the Titans should have just stuck to one shade of gray.
Also, the pants design is just weird and seems out of place with the rest of the uniform. Surprisingly enough, as I continue to look at the uniforms, I actually think I’m getting used to them. The face-mask is the highlight and the outlines of light blue are really nice. As always, the Titans’ color rush uniform is the best of the bunch. I would have definitely done things differently and while I’m a little disappointed the new changes didn’t live up to my expectations, I am sure the uniforms will continue to grow on me.
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 Line.
1. Bradley Chubb (DE) Pros: Versatile. Powerful. Agile. Excellent technique. Makes plays standing up. Productive. Special ability to set the edge. Well rounded. Shown he’s capable of doing anything. Brash, confident personality. Athletic. Very energetic. Insane burst. Can win in pass run. High motor. Intelligent football IQ. Excels against run. Was hard to move off line. Showed flashes in pass coverage. Consistent.
Cons: Lack of elite bend. Lack of elite speed to power conversion.
Outlook: There isn’t a true weakness to Chubb’s game and I expect him to excel early. He could easily be the first non-quarterback off the board.
Big Question: Will a likely run on quarterbacks shove Chubb down the board?
2. Vita Vea (NT) Pros: Big (6’4 332). Rare movement. Athletic. Productive. Very strong. Flexible. Explosive. Blew lineman off feet often. Quick hands. Good first step. Can pursue players easily. Effective with run. Plays with great leverage. Versatile. Constantly disruptive. Very effective bull rush, his go-to move. Not afraid (and capable) of running right through people. Bully. Wide array of moves.
Cons: Shorter than average arms. Limited tackle radius. Stance concerns. Inside hand placement needs work which hurt first step. Can be beat by double teams.
Outlook: It was easy to confuse Vea with a red-hot cannonball as his strength and quickness was predominantly evident. I worry that Vea’s strength could be neutralized by bigger lineman and wonder if his stance can be tweaked enough to still be effective.
Big Question: Can Vea adapt to an NFL with stronger, longer offensive lineman?
3. Harold Landry (DE/OLB) Pros: Quick. Agile. Very flexible. Versatile. Athletic. Explosive. Strong tackler. Long limbs. Wide array of moves. Converts speed to power with ease. Quick first step. Balanced rusher. Very effective dip move. High motor. Violent hands.
Cons: Size concerns as an edge rusher (6’3 250). Dealt with injuries this year. Not overly strong. Too reliant on his speed. Saw dip in production last year. Inconsistent against the run.
Outlook: Landry will likely excel as a pass rusher and should be best at outside linebacker, considering his lack of strength and size. If he can stay healthy, Landry has the traits to become a lethal outside rusher.
Big Question: Can Landry find success in a limited role early on?
4. Da’Ron Payne (DT) Pros: Anchor. Strong. Elite athlete. High upside. Excellent hustle. Very athletic. Good spin move. Surprisingly fast. Very powerful. Explosive. Was capable of holding his own against double teams. Great hand usage. Good length. Work ethic is praised. Excelled in stopping the run.
Cons: Pass rush too reliant on first move. Didn’t show much range when pursuing plays. Tendency to raise pad level off snap. Inconsistent bull rush. Lack of production.
Outlook: Payne is an excellent run stopper with potential to be a very good every down player. His natural athleticism is great but there is room for improvement with technique and in acquiring more moves.
Big Question: Can Payne become a consistent pass rusher?
5. Marcus Davenport (DE/OLB) Pros: Intriguing size (6’6 264). Good length. Insane athleticism. Explosive. Powerful burst. Quick. Flexible. Balanced. Athletic. Finisher. Flashed power. Converts speed to power nicely. Aggressive hitter. Effective hand usage. Strong lower body. Very productive.
Cons: Raw. Inconsistent play. Pad level too high. Struggled when asked to cover. Concerning lack of instincts. Caught with no arm extension too often. Bad hand-feet coordination. Lack of competition concerns. Lack of pass rushing moves.
Outlook: A small-school player who’s rare athleticism and size gives him a high-ceiling. Davenport is so raw and has the traits to be coached into a fantastic player, but his cons must be fixed if he wants to become a reliable defender.
Big Question: Is Davenport worth the risk/reward to draft in the top of the first round?
Sleeper – Nathan Shepherd (DT) Pros: Good size (6’5, 315). Athletic. Flexible. Quick. Powerful hands. Frame capable of getting bigger. Surprisingly nimble. Very productive. Mean, violent. Quick burst. Flashed speed. High motor. Finisher. Proven to be coachable. Constantly improving. Notably intelligent.
Cons: Not overly strong. Raw. Below average football IQ. Can be held on blocks. Inconsistent hand usage. Too reliant on force. Lack of competition concerns. Pad level tends to rise.
Outlook: Another small-school guy with incredible upside. Shepherd looks like a long-term project but his physical traits and willingness/ability to get better could lead to a long career.
Big Question: Can Shepherd be coached into a good, consistent player?
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 will be highlighting Arden Key
After the 2016 season Arden Key had future top 10 pick written all over him, and rightfully so. Key dominated on the field in 2016, but in the Spring of 2017 left LSU to reportedly enter rehab for marijuana. Upon returning to LSU he was suspended for a short period of time. To make matters worse Key has an injury history and was known for not listening to team doctors at LSU. His off-field baggage will likely push him to at least the second-round of the draft.
On the field in 2016, Key was explosive in a hybrid linebacker/edge rusher role. His first step was a thing of beauty and because of his size (6-5, 238 pounds) he drew some Jason Taylor comparisons. Key can certainly rush the passer, when he wants to. In 2017 there were times he took plays off and his motor has come into question. He also played a lot heavier in 2017 which hurt his explosiveness and sack production. When he is motivated and in shape Key can be a play wrecker. His first step combined with his bend and use of his length gives offensive tackles headaches. Even when asked to drop into coverage at LSU he was competent due to his athleticism. The question is will you be getting the 2016 Key or the 2017 version?
After the season Key needed to dominate leading up to the draft to quiet the questions. At the NFL Combine he struggled. The 3-cone drill is huge for pass rushers and getting seven seconds flat or less is the goal for athletic pass rushers, but Key timed in at 7.16. His vertical jump was abysmal at 31” and his broad jump wasn’t much better at 9’7”. Key left his 40-yard dash until his Pro Day, but clocked in at a 4.85. The testing didn’t help his stock and only hurt it. Key needs the right situation to flourish. Ideally, he needs to go to a team with a strong locker room where he doesn’t need to play right away and can be used as a situational pass rusher. If he can stay motived and be the guy from 2016 you might be getting the next Jason Taylor, but the fear is he might be the next Dion Jordan.
Best Fit: Tennessee Titans Projection: Top-100 pick Risk Factor: Extremely High
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 Equanimeous St. Brown.
St. Brown is definitely one of the more interesting receivers in this year’s draft (and not just because of his awesome name). At 6’5, St. Brown looms over defensive backs and was among the longest recorded prospects at the Combine. He is a lean, athletic and surprisingly fast player who screams raw talent. St. Brown’s long strides help him fly by cornerbacks and are a key asset to his excellent route running ability, which is among the best in the class. His size especially helps when trying to beat press coverage, but more on that later. St. Brown’s physical traits, freaky athleticism and superior route running all help make him a special prospect, but he could become a phenomenal player.
The key word is ‘could’ because of St. Brown’s massive potential. For a guy of his height, you would expect him to be a dominant red-zone threat or to consistently win jump balls. Unfortunately, that is not the case as St. Brown has struggled to play to his size. This could be due to a lack of muscle (he weighed in at 214 pounds). Additionally, St. Brown was inconsistent with his catching and his ability to track and react to the ball. Of course, the latter could be due to a horrendous quarterback situation, which also explains St. Brown’s disappointing stat line. However, I am still confident in St. Brown’s ability to overcome his struggles as they are easily fixable at the next level. St. Brown could be a fantastic receiver if he learned to play to his height and bulk up, but at the same time he could still be a solid option without playing so big.
St. Brown can easily become one of the league’s best with the proper coaching, but let’s not get too caught up in his potential and for now just bet on what we know. His current strengths could certainly warrant him a sizable role in an NFL offense, but so much of the love surrounding his stock is based on what St. Brown could become, which is an A.J. Green type player. I understand why some compare St. Brown to former first round receiver Laquon Treadwell; both are longer guys who have had issues separating off the line. By getting stronger, St. Brown could solve this issue as he wasn’t always the most physical receiver, which again goes back to his inability to play to his size.
Instead, I see St. Brown mocking favorably to one of my favorite receiver prospects ever (or at least at the time): Martavis Bryant. Both are insanely talented, insanely athletic freaks who have had struggles with production, separation and consistent catching. They also have never really lived up to the ‘Big Receiver’ moniker that experts expect them to become. Like Bryant, it is pretty easy to fall in love with St. Brown’s incredible physical traits, playmaking ability and sky-high ceiling. Unlike Bryant, however, I will be a little more reserved in my love for St. Brown as he still has some fine-tuning to do if he truly wants to maximize his impact in the NFL.
Pro Comparison: Martavis Bryant Projection: 3rd-4th round Man-Crush Meter: 6.8/10
ONE LAST THING
As many of you may know, I am a huge fantasy football addict and I’m always thinking ahead to next season. I especially love my rookies (who have helped me win three championships across four leagues in the last two years) and this year is no exception. If the following players are taken by the respective teams, fantasy owners should go all in for these rookies.
They may have Eli Manning, but Rosen could easily surpass the veteran under new head coach and quarterback guru Pat Shurmur, who helped revive the careers of Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. Combined with a supremely talented receiving cast, Rosen could become a solid late-round flier and eventually a top quarterback.
The Redskins love treating their running backs like bell-cows, but haven’t had a reliable runner in years. Guice would be a dream pick who could handle over 20 touches a game, if he stays healthy.
While it annoys me that the Eagles rotate their running backs, I think it’s because they’re just not satisfied with any of them. Enter Michel, who does everything remotely well and could be the next great do-it-all back in the NFL.
The Packers need a good, consistent receiver and drafting Ridley would pair the draft’s best receiver with the game’s best quarterback (yeah, I said it). This might be my favorite potential pairing.
The Saints really missed Brandin Cooks last year and Hamilton would be a superb second option behind Michael Thomas. Hamilton is a great route runner and would open up the field for the rest of the Saints’ young offensive playmakers.
Dallas Goedert – Steelers
Similar to Hamilton, Goedert would bolster an already stacked offense. Targets may be harder to find, but Goedert’s role and potential volume could lead to his rapid ascension in the fantasy ranks.