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 you shouldn’t trust any draft rumors you hear these days. Welcome to the NFL Lying Season, where false reports and rumors are spread in an attempt to cover up the truth. A big example is the reports that the Browns will take Sam Darnold with the first overall pick. Everything has pointed towards the Browns’ making the former Trojan their next quarterback for weeks now, so it seems likely that Darnold will don a Browns’ jersey soon. On the other hand, there have been reports that the Browns’ affection for Darnold is just a smokescreen for their actual favorite quarterback: Josh Allen. I’m not buying it, especially since Darnold has been continuously connected to Cleveland since the beginning of the season.
Now, good front offices will never leak their plans, just look at when the Bears drafted Mitchell Trubisky last year. They had just signed Mike Glennon to a hefty contract and virtually no one was linking Trubisky to Chicago. In the end, the Bears got their man and so far Trubisky has looked like a viable NFL starter. Of course, some rumors are reliable, like the Panthers’ affection with Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey to Carolina was a popular connection made leading up to the draft despite Carolina’s basic offense. Nonetheless, McCaffrey was taken eighth overall by the Panthers and was a vital part of the team’s offense last season. The point is that if you believe everything you hear, you will get burned. However, it is anyone’s guess what will go down on April 26th-28th, but with lots of research and some common sense, maybe some picks won’t come as too much a surprise. (Except Allen to Cleveland, which would rightfully shock myself and the NFL fandom.)
I know the NFL Draft is the greatest non-sporting sports event. It’s not even close, especially when compared to other professional drafts. The NFL Draft has more action and drama than any of the major North American sports leagues and their respective drafts (NBA, MLB, NHL). The NBA Draft is too short to be a consistently action-packed event. Same can be said for the draft lottery. The MLB and NHL drafts are too long to hold the average viewer’s attention. The NFL’s recent uptick in the scale of the draft also adds to the overall spectacle of the event. This year it will be in Dallas, which is projected to have over 75,000 people in attendance. Hall of Fame inductions are cool but there is no action on the actual day of the event; we know who will and will not be inducted. Award presentations are also neat but the drama is limited to a handful of pre-determined players. The NCAA Selection Show packs some intensity but the suspense is limited to a few fringe teams who may or may not get selected. Basically, I may be biased as an avid NFL fan but there is no three-day event that best emulates various emotions like the NFL Draft does.
A draft in general is great because it literally paves the future for countless players, teams and fans. Despite increasing means of obtaining information (like checking Twitter for the pick), viewers have been tuning into the NFL Draft like never before. An average of 4.6 million combined TV viewers across ESPN and NFL Network tuned into the three-day event last year, which was the second-most ever recorded for any professional league draft. With each pick comes added uncertainty towards what will transpire. Will Team A take Player A or Player B? Will Team A keep the pick? Who will they trade it to? Even if you’re not a football fan, the thrill and drama packed into the NFL Draft are incomparable to any non-sporting event in the United States.
I know no one should rush so quickly to judge Thomas Davis. The 35-year old linebacker was slapped with a four-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance. Usually when an athlete is suspended for an illegal substance, they claim to have not intentionally consumed that substance. This is the case for Davis, who said he has taken the substance for seven to eight years and had no issues. Obviously, we can’t know for sure whether or not Davis knew about the situation, so it is unfair to judge him for it.
Unfortunately, I kept stumbling across foolish, unnecessary comments on Twitter labelling Davis as a “thug” or “cheater”. This is just uncalled for. Davis is one of the nicest, most respected players in the NFL; he was even named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2014. Also, don’t use Davis’ hit on Davante Adams as an example of why Davis is such a bad person. There was no evidence that the hit was intentional and anything can happen in such a fast pace game. While Davis was rightfully suspended one game, it is absurd that I still have to defend a man as honorable as Davis using a play that could easily have been avoided. I am not saying it was Adams’ fault. Davis was the perpetrator and was rightfully punished, but to outright assume that Davis’ intentions then and now were purposeful is just as ludicrous as demonizing such a fantastic player and person.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know why Shaquem Griffin was invited to the Draft. Let me be perfectly clear: Griffin is the feel-good story of the Draft. He is a remarkable player and a great person. Rob Paul will have a little more about him later on, and you can expect some praise. My issue is that I don’t see him going in the first round. At this point, I would be mildly surprised if he was picked in at least the third round. This isn’t due to a lack of talent (again, more on him later), it’s just I haven’t seen anything saying that he could be a Day 1 or Day 2 selection. There was no talk about Griffin being taken before the seventh round until his remarkable Combine performance (which he was a late addition to).
This is simply what I’ve been generally hearing, so do not think I hate Griffin, because I don’t. He might be my favorite non-receiver in this draft. In fact, I would be shocked if he doesn’t have a long NFL career. I just don’t see him getting picked as early as the other 21 Draft attendees. Maybe it’s a publicity stunt by the NFL? Or maybe NFL front offices are much higher on Griffin than anyone we think they are? All are possible explanations, it’s just that I will feel sorry for the guy if he’s the only player left when Day 2 ends. Who knows, maybe Griffin won’t mind the wait, because the chances of him being the last remaining player in the Green Room seem relatively high. As a person who loves feel-good stories like these (don’t we all?), I really hope Griffin hears his name called early.
I don’t know how I feel about this linebackers class. Other than Roquan Smith (who is the best linebacker, in my opinion), all the other guys seem like boom or bust. In other words, top guys like Tremaine Edmunds and Leighton Vander Esch have enormous potential, but that comes with some much-needed improvements. Other prospects like Rashaan Evans and Malik Jefferson have flashed but also have some big holes, most notably Jefferson. Jerome Baker, Josey Jewell and Griffin have all had their moments in the spotlight but again, there’s a reason why those three are projected Day 2-Day 3 picks. Other than the risk/reward factor, this class interests me due to its relative versatility.
Most of the top linebackers can play multiple positions. It might not be their best positions, but they generally can be played across the board. Smith will likely be an outside backer while Evans, Jefferson and Baker could be slotted inside or outside. That versatility is extra valuable to teams who need a linebacker or two. As for sure things, no prospect is ever a guarantee, but Smith seems like the closest bet to NFL stardom. Another thing of note: a good amount of teams need a linebacker. Out of the top ten teams alone, I’d say seven or eight of them could use starting talent or depth at the position. Could this raise the value of the position in the draft? Possibly, especially with two top-tier prospects who could easily be taken in the top ten picks. Overall, I wouldn’t be shocked if there was a late run on linebackers in the first round but at the same time Smith and Edmunds could be the only two taken on Day 1. Buckle up NFL fans, this isn’t even close to half of the madness that is the NFL Draft.
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 Linebackers.
1. Roquan Smith Pros: Great athleticism. Versatile. Productive. Fast. Hard hitter. Smooth. Explosive. Strong. Superior mental processing skills. Good tackler. Insane range. Outstanding play recognition. Disciplined. Leader. Can change direction easily. Knack for finding football. Very instinctive. Excels at reading screens. Great pursuit. Shown to be hard to block. Exhibited great awareness. Excelled in zone coverage. Holds gaps well. Relentless effort. Flashed in man coverage.
Cons: Issues disengaging from blocks. Hand usage needs some work. Relatively small (6’1, 236). Few times he seemed to get too eager and just lunged at a player.
Outlook: Smith is incredibly gifted with the right instincts and traits to succeed. His athleticism and great feel for the field will help cover up his size issues.
Big Question: How much will size limit Smith?
2. Tremaine Edmunds Pros: Elite size (6’5 250). Versatile. Rare athleticism. Tall and lean. Fast. Evasive rusher. Polished tackler. Drives thru ball carrier. Long tackle radius. Great range. Fights through contact. Instinctive. Reads plays well in front of him. Quick reaction time. Good in coverage. Consistent effort. Nice swim move. Decent flexibility.
Cons: Struggled with play behind him. Allows QBs to move him with his eyes. Fell for misdirections often. Play recognition can be improved. Inconsistent awareness and decision-making.
Outlook: Edmunds is a natural off ball linebacker with traits to get much better, especially at 19 years old. Has rare skill-set but needs to improve mentally to reach full potential.
Big Question: Can Edmunds improve enough mentally to reach his full potential?
3. Leighton Vander Esch Pros: Great size (6’4, 250). Athletic. Instinctive. Productive. Versatile. Smooth. Solid in run support. Effective in space. Strong. Great tackler. Finishes his tackles. Fantastic ball tracker. Very flexible. Good range. Changes direction seamlessly. Surprisingly good in coverage. Mirrors QB’s eyes well. Good recovery time. Incredible hustle. Tough. Leader. Work ethic has been praised.
Cons: Inconsistent physicality, especially when taking on blocks. Battled injuries in 2016. Could add more muscle. Sometimes overshoots plays. Fell for misdirections often. Viewed as still learning the position. Hand usage isn’t really there.
Outlook: LVE is a ball magnet with the athleticism and coverage skills to be a solid starter. Still considered raw with tremendous upside but could learn to dissect plays better.
Big Question: Can Vander Esch learn to be read and react to plays better?
4. Rashaan Evans Pros: Good length. Quick. Athletic. Versatile. Great range. Agile. Smooth. Explosive. Productive. Flexible. Physical tackler. High motor. Good at tracking ball. Excels against run. Very tough. Dirty spin move.
Cons: Durability concerns. Instincts playing inside are slower than when playing outside. Not good instincts when in zone coverage. Highly susceptible to double moves. Sometimes abandoned tackling technique in attempt to smash runner. Inconsistent awareness. Inconsistent when shedding blocks.
Outlook: Evans improved as an inside linebacker and has flashed in coverage. He isn’t the most instinctive when diagnosing plays but his athleticism and speed helps him make them all over the field.
Big Question: Can Evans improve his instincts?
5. Malik Jefferson Pros: Solid size (6’3 238). Fast. Versatile. Unique athleticism. Explosive. Strong. Shoots gaps well. Impressive closing speed. Hard hitter. Alright in zone coverage. Decent range. Moves well for size. Excels at defending the run.
Cons: Not overly instinctive. Lack of anticipation. Production concerns. Change of direction skills aren’t great. Struggled in man coverage. Doesn’t always finish tackles. Tends to play too upright. Inconsistent at shedding blocks.
Outlook: Not a big fan now of Jefferson, who’s athleticism and speed/strength combo make up for his lack of instincts and inconsistent decision-making. Marked as an inside linebacker but his success against the run might translate best when lined up outside.
Big Question: Can Jefferson improve his field vision and decision-making?
6. Jerome Baker Pros: Fast. Athletic. Good range. Smooth movement. Agile. Explosive. Quick footwork. Changes direction easily. Good tackler. Excels in zone coverage. Reliable hands when catching. Was able to mirror receivers downfield.
Cons: Relatively small (6’1, 225). Thin frame. Hand usage needs work, especially in man coverage. Not overly strong. Needs to be more physical, especially against run. Inconsistent instincts. Trouble shedding blocks. Doesn’t always finish tackles. Questionable motor.
Outlook: Baker has the athleticism and rare speed to make a roster, but his toughness, instincts, and motor concerns are all legit. Baker’s size doesn’t help, either.
Big Question: Can Baker make up for his struggles with his great athletic traits?
Sleeper: Darius Leonard Pros: Long. Quick. Athletic. Instinctive. Consistently productive. Can chase down ballcarriers from anywhere on the field. Play speed seems faster than timed speed. Disciplined. Appropriate pad level. Clean footwork. Knack for finding ball. Reacts quickly. Mirrored receivers well in zone coverage. Good work ethic. Leader.
Cons: Lack of competition concerns. Thin frame (6’2, 213). Needs to get stronger. Lack of physicality, mostly due to small size. Instincts in man coverage need work. Struggles shedding blocks.
Outlook: A small-school prospect, Leonard could be a first round pick if he was bigger. Natural leader who demonstrates understanding of the game but could be limited by size.
Big Question: Can Leonard get bigger?
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Every week I’ll dedicate this section to 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 Shaquem Griffin
At this point everyone has heard the inspirational story of Shaquem Griffin. Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome and at the age of four had his left hand amputated. Despite this he attended Central Florida with his brother Shaquill, now of the Seahawks. Over the last two seasons at UCF, Griffin has tallied 33.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks. He also was the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. The point is, having one hand hasn’t stopped Griffin on the football field and rarely has any affect on his play.
There has been a ton of speculation over where, or even if, Griffin will be drafted this year. After a solid Senior Bowl, Griffin went to the NFL Combine and ran an incredible 4.38 40-yard dash at 227 pounds. His combine performance essentially solidified him as a draft-able player. The speed shows up on tape, Griffin has impressive explosiveness to close the gap as a pass rusher. His athleticism and motor allow for him to beat much larger offensive linemen and apply pressure on quarterbacks. Honestly, Griffin’s biggest issue is how he will be used in the NFL. He’s not big enough to be a consistent edge rusher, not fluid enough to be a safety, and has very little experience as an off-ball linebacker. Coming forward Griffin is a lights out athlete, but backpedaling in coverage he looks lost and his hips are not smooth. It’ll be tough for him to find a role with his size and best traits being his pass rush ability.
The team that drafts Griffin needs to know exactly how to use him. He’ll be at his best as a pass rusher in sub-packages that brings a ton of special teams value along side culture changing ability in the locker room. If Griffin can get with a creative defensive coordinator that deploys him just a handful of times per game to bring pressure on passing downs he can be a very effective player early. With his athleticism, motor and attitude he can develop into a starting off-ball linebacker down the road. In the meantime, he’ll likely be a fourth to fifth-round pick that brings an instant upgrade to a special teams unit.
Best Fit: Seattle Seahawks Projection: Top-150 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 Anthony Miller
Ladies and gentleman, I may have found my Man-Crush. The 5-11, 190 pound receiver out of Memphis plays more physical than his measurements show. Miller was recorded with ten inch hands, which were among the biggest at the Combine, but sat out drills due to a foot injury. Where to start with Miller… He was the Tigers’ top option and has the productivity to back it up (tied for first in Division 1 with 18 receiving touchdowns). Miller lined up everywhere from outside to the backfield to the slot; he excelled in the latter location. He isn’t overly fast but he is phenomenal at adjusting his speed in his routes in order to create separation. He also won off the line of scrimmage often, usually due to his quickness or his surprising physicality.
Miller showcases his physicality everywhere on a play: when separating from defensive backs, when jumping for contested balls and when fighting for extra yards with the ball. The defenders’ best chance to stop Miller is in the air because Miller is almost unstoppable after the catch. His long strides, agility and strong center of balance are all strong suits. As a receiver, Miller showed great awareness for the ball and seemed to have knack for always finding, and snagging, the ball. Most people might write off Miller as a red-zone threat, likely due to size, but he was actually a very reliable option there. His best catches were always back shoulder fades or athletic leaping/diving catches. There is a lot to love about Miller, and while I never recommend just looking at a player’s highlights, you should and you’ll see a naturally athletic playmaker (who can make some nifty one-handers).
Of course, no prospect is perfect. I can tell you right away that any concerns about a lack of competition are irrelevant; if a receiver has skill, they have skill, no matter who they play against. Besides, Miller faced some tough cornerbacks this season and still produced well enough. The only major concern I have with Miller is his propensity to allow the ball into his chest a little too often. If you’re a regular reader of this article, then you know how much I stress high-pointing balls as much as you can because NFL defenders will usually not allow passes to get into a receiver’s chest. There were also a few instances where Miller seemed to double catch the ball; in other words, he let it hit his hands and he kind of tapped the ball back into his body. This made him temporarily lose control and sometimes it cost him. Another small area of concern is the handful of times when Miller would just drop easy passes. A lapse of concentration is the likely explanation for these plays, but those have to (and can easily) be fixed at the next level. Miller’s blocking ability is generally bad. He did have some good plays, but mostly he was an ineffective blocker. Fortunately for Miller, that is an easily coachable aspect and probably not very significant when compared to his positive traits. On the other hand, ball security is very important, and considering Miller had five fumbles in three seasons, that’s something he’ll have to work on.
Miller is a competitive, athletic, versatile and reliable playmaker. (For the sake of time, I limited it to just four adjectives.) His ability to create separation in multiple ways is top notch and his knack for getting open and finding the ball is rare. His RAC ability is exceptionally good, too. The last three sentences could easily apply to another versatile, talented, athletic receiver: Jarvis Landry. Landry has a slightly bigger build, but both play with a physicality in all aspects of their game that is uncharacteristic to their size. Both can line up anywhere, though will likely be wrongfully pinned as just slot receivers. Also, both have had lapses of concentration despite being their inaccurate quarterback’s go-to option. I think Miller has the skills to break the mold of Landry and eventually be one of the top receivers in the NFL. He can easily become a number one option in a similar fashion to how Landry and Doug Baldwin (another nice Miller comparison) have succeeded. Landing on a team like San Fransisco or Carolina will do wonders for Miller. Remember his name.
Pro Comparison: Jarvis Landry Projection: Early-Mid 2nd Rd Man-Crush Meter: 9.2/10
ONE LAST THING
I have been obsessing about football for most of my life, and the NFL Draft is no exception. The first year I dove extensively into it was 2014 and even did my first real mock draft (I still can’t find it, though). Since then, my official mocks have, let’s say, been improved, and I have big plans for this year’s mock, which is now titled my Official Terrible Mock Draft. Until then, take a look at my old ones and enjoy criticizing my 14-year old self’s draft knowledge. Below you’ll see my final mocks for 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively. As each year progressed, so did the length and detail of each mock. I am especially proud of the ‘Prediction’ column in 2015; I correctly predicted 12 of the first 17 picks and named 16 of the first 17 players to be selected. (Bud Depree was the lone guy to fall out of the top 17.) Some other stats: In 2015 and 2016 I correctly named 24 of the 32 first round players. Last year I got 25 of 32 correct. Sorry about all the colors; black and white just doesn’t cut it anymore. As always, leave any questions or comments in the comments section below!