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 the Steelers will be making a mistake if they let Le’Veon Bell go. Let me present Exhibit A in the form of Bell’s statistics among running backs: First in rushing attempts, third in rushing yards, third in rushing touchdowns, second in targets, first in receptions and third in receiving yards. Keep in mind Bell sat out the final game and those stats are just this season. Bell has been producing at this level for the past few years now; no running back has consistently been this good since Adrian Peterson, who wasn’t even a solid receiver. The point is, there is no player like Bell and there hasn’t been for many years now. He is just as lethal in the ground game as he is in the receiving game. This seems like a simple solution, right? Well, Bell reportedly nixed a contract in August that would have made him the highest-paid running back by at least four million dollars. (He technically is right now under last year’s franchise tag, which gives him over 12 million dollars.) Apparently, Bell wants 15 million a year, which would make him the highest paid offensive player in the NFL that isn’t a quarterback nor wide receiver. While I think Bell is worth all the cash, it seems the Steelers don’t. Bell also reportedly will retire (I doubt it) if he is tagged again this year, so don’t go buying your Le’Veon Bell jerseys just yet.
I know we are witnessing a running back renaissance. I could sputter all the stats I want, and there a lot to prove my point. However, just by looking around the league anyone can see that the running backs are far better than ones in years prior. The years between the Shaun Alexander-LaDanian Tomlinson era and now have seen few consistently productive running backs. Peterson was really the only one who was great every year (that he played); there many good backs who lasted only a couple years, like Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson and Arian Foster. Not to mention that a running back took home all the offensive awards this season and a running back is projected to be picked in the top ten of the NFL Draft for the third straight year (more on that later). Obviously it could all be an illusion, but even David Johnson agrees with me. All I’m saying is that the running backs in the NFL and entering the draft are scary talented, so watch out as this “passing league” gets revolutionized by the do-it-all running backs.
I know the NFL Scouting Combine is this week. I mean, anyone could have known that, but in case you didn’t the Combine will be covered all week on the NFL Network and a little bit on ESPN. Some people think the Combine is overrated and that measurements and 40-times really don’t matter. For some players these measurements could be the differences between a first-round pick or a fifth-round pick. Take Byron Jones for example. Jones came in as a cornerback who was generally considered a day two pick. Fortunately for Jones, he jumped a record-shattering 147-inches in the broad jump. Now, a good team would have known about Jones’ unreal athleticism, but a number like that just confirms how athletic Jones really was. Under two months later, the Cowboys took Jones in the first-round and he has been their starting free safety ever since. Another aspect of the Combine that is just as important, or maybe more important, than the on-field drills is the interviews and meetings the players have with teams. It is a speed-dating style process where players are grilled with questions and information that teams use to determine the type of player and person each participant is. I highly suggest following the Combine this weekend and paying attention to the player’s performance off-the-field as well as on it.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know if Carlos Hyde is a viable starting option. I was high on Hyde when he came out of college, and honestly I still have confidence in him. This was his first year he didn’t miss a game and he nearly doubled his production as a receiver. Hyde was also 62 yards short of the 1k mark and was 12 yards short last season. Still, there is some uncertainty surrounding him. Was Hyde’s production increase just a result of a better scheme? Can Hyde stay healthy? Is Hyde an effective enough receiver? I say yes to all those questions, but I think the 49ers would prefer a running back who catches better than Hyde does. (Kyle Shanahan loves his pass-catching backs.) I can’t see Hyde getting tagged because of the ridiculous cap number he would take on so I’d say he retursn to the Bay Area or sign elsewhere. I think the latter is the likelier outcome.
I don’t know if I consider Kansas City to be in rebuild mode. Apparently numerous Kansas City fans disagree with me, but I still think the team is talented enough to compete next season. First, they traded their starting quarterback (Alex Smith) so the guy they traded a first round pick for last year could start (Pat Mahomes). Clearly, the team likes Mahomes enough that they wanted to make him the starter, and while the jury is still out, Mahomes has flashed great potential. Next, the team announced Derrick Johnson will not return, but his age and injuries contributed to his appropriate exit. Now, I understand why the Chiefs traded Marcus Peters, but this is the only move I disagree with. Cornerbacks are known to be outspoken characters; look at Deion Sanders and Richard Sherman. It seems the team viewed Peters’ “issues” as greater than his talent. Nonetheless, the Chiefs still have some great young players and an experienced coaching staff, so I wouldn’t count them out just yet.
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 Running Backs.
1. Saquon Barkley Pros: Quick. Prototypical size. Elite athleticism. Lethal in space. Great receiving ability. Wide array of lethal moves. Can be physical. Insane burst. Reliable. Hard worker. Unreal balance. Good hip flexibility.
Cons: Pass protection needs work. Sometimes makes wrong decisions when finding holes. Tends to bounce outside too often. Doesn’t always run through contact.
Outlook: Sensational all-around player who deserves consideration for the first pick.
Big Question: Can Barkley be more consistent with his on-field decision-making?
2. Derrius Guice Pros: Great vision behind a terrible offensive line. Good anticipation. Creative runner. Not afraid to be physical. Fights for extra yards. Powerful. Absorbs hits almost naturally. Very good balance. Great acceleration. Flashed as receiver. Extremely agile. Elusive. Good decision-making. Can be patient. Excellent vision. Surprisingly quick footwork.
Cons: Dealt with injuries, which affected him a little. Wasn’t used as receiver much. Fast but not overly fast. Seems to hold ball too loosely. Pass protection needs major improvements.
Outlook: A physical, angry runner who sometimes plays a little slow, but has a very well-rounded skill-set. He’s a true bellcow running back who could use improvements in his receiving skills.
Big Question: Can Guice stay healthy?
3. Sony Michel Pros: Very good vision. Confident runner. Excels at outside runs. Impressive vision. Excellent field vision. Shows high football IQ when making decisions with ball. Runs through contact very well. Surprisingly tough. Rare acceleration. Able to hit smaller holes. Dangerous in open space. Effective receiver. Extremely agile. Praised for character.
Cons: Fumbling issues. Lean. Lack of cons.
Outlook: Could be second-best running back in class and has superstar potential, if he fixes his ball-handling issues.
Big Question: Can Michel stop fumbling?
4. Ronald Jones II Pros: Fast. Explosive. Good receiving ability. Great open-field vision. Excellent burst. Long strides. Lethal lateral cut. Good center of balance. Shifty. Home-run threat. Accelerates excellently. Fights hard for extra yards. Not scared to get physical. Great anticipation.
Cons: Faced subpar defenses. Some say size concerns, but 5’11 and 210 pounds looks fine to me. Below average sized hands. Pass protection needs improvement. Not very patient.
Outlook: Good combination of power and speed, but his lateral cuts and balance are among the best in the class.
Big Question: Will his size actually be a factor?
5. Nick Chubb Pros: Powerful. Good balance. Not afraid to lower shoulder. Physical. Strong. Elusive. Flashed as a limited receiver. Good acceleration. Explosive. Praised for work ethic. Flexible hips. Powerful lower body. Great vision. Willing blocker. Can be patient.
Cons: Tore his ACL in 2015. Cuts can be slow sometimes. Not overly flashy, but who cares. Pass protection needs improvement.
Outlook: Has a bulldozer-stereotype, but Chubb is surprisingly athletic. Can be a dominant bellcow for many years, as long as his ACL doesn’t flare up again.
Big Question: Can Chubb improve his receiving ability? (And keep his knee healthy?)
Sleeper- Jaylen Samuels Pros: Extremely versatile. Played RB, WR, TE, slot, FB and HB. Very reliable. Great burst. Elusive. Powerful. Can lower the boom. Fights for extra yards. Patient runner. Was effective at goal-line. Enormous trust from coaching staff. High football IQ. Constantly demonstrated situational awareness. Soft hands when catching. Can adjust to ball easily. Very tough. Strong hands.
Cons: Hard to pinpoint into a position. Not great athlete. Not that fast, especially at the top end of runs. Not good blocker. Doesn’t have body to be a consistent wide receiver.
Outlook: A true Swiss Army Knife who’s situation will be key to his success. He won’t fit on every team, but could be a major factor for others.
Big Question: How creative will his new coaching staff be with him?
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, I’ll be highlighting Saquon Barkley.
I have never seen a prospect like Barkley. The Penn State running back has consistently produced at an elite collegiate level and I expect him to continue to excel in the NFL. His athleticism is off the charts and he is always a threat to make big plays. He is a talented receiver and he perfectly exemplifies the modern NFL running back. At 5’11” and 230 pounds, Barkley moves with a great combination of speed and power. He is lethal in open space and can hurdle, juke, spin or cut by a defender with ease. Not to mention he has a strong center of balance and long, powerful strides that only enhance his elusiveness.
The main argument against Barkley is his ability to process information and how he reacts to it. Some people knock Barkley’s vision, but I actually think his vision is outstanding; he has a knack for finding the wildest angles and breaking away. The thing is sometimes he makes bad decisions based on what he sees. Luckily for Barkley, his rare athleticism allows for him to make the best to out of his situations. This is still something to monitor for Barkley, especially if his offensive line next year is atrocious.
I have heard many elite comparisons to Barkley but two seem to recur more often than not: Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliot, both of whom were picked fourth-overall in their respective drafts (Fournette in 2017 and Elliot in 2016). I disagree with both of these comparisons. Fournette is an extremely powerful runner but is nowhere near the receiver that Barkley is. Elliot is well-rounded and while on the field he is similar to Barkley, Elliot is a complete wild card off the field. Barkley is an amazing person with a great character. There really isn’t any NFL player who accurately compares to Barkley, but I would say Le’Veon Bell is the closest. Both are outstanding runners and receivers who can be patient in finding holes. With that said, I would be comfortable with taking Barkley first overall as I can make the case that he is the best overall player in the class.
Best Fit: Anywhere Projection: Top-5 pick Risk Factor: Very 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 DaeSean Hamilton.
Why not look at another Penn State player? Last year I fell in love with Chris Godwin; this year it could very well be Godwin’s former collegiate teammate, DaeSean Hamilton. Hamilton is a fast, “slippery” playmaker who excels at running routes. He is not just considered one of the draft’s best route runners but a top separator as well. His performance against press coverage at the Senior Bowl left various scouts drooling. At 6’1” and 205 pounds, Hamilton can do a little bit of everything in the offense. His premier play-call, however, is the deep route. He led the FBS in receptions off of deep targets and was a top red-zone option for the Nittany Lions. He can make quick cuts and will hold onto the ball through contact. He is also surprisingly good at winning contested catches, considering his thin frame. As skilled as Hamilton is when the ball is in the air, he is even better when the ball is in his hands.
What makes Hamilton’s case so interesting is that he usually lined up as a slot receiver. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but teams could look at his skill-set and consider moving him outside. A big knock on Hamilton is his case of the drops, though he did improve in 2017. My main issue with his catching skills is that Hamilton almost always resorts to a basket catch instead of high-pointing the ball. This can be effective on smaller defensive backs, but NFL defenders will knock that ball away in a second. While basket catches (letting the ball fall into your arms and chest) give receivers better control over the possession of the ball, it allows the defenders to have an increased chance of breaking up or even catching the pass. If Hamilton wants to increase his catch rate in the NFL, he’ll have to practice proper catching techniques rather than just opening up his arms and “clapping” the ball into his body. Hamilton’s blocking also needs some work.
Off the field, Hamilton is praised for his work ethic and leadership. With that said, Hamilton kind of reminds me of Doug Baldwin in that both are excellent role models who run routes very well but have had catching struggles. The two have also had predominate success in the slot but have the tools (Baldwin did coming out) to succeed anywhere on the field. The silver lining in Hamilton’s game is that his issues are easily coachable. Combine that with his superior route running skills, playmaking ability and high character and I can see Hamilton excel in the NFL.
Pro Comparison: Doug Baldwin Projection: Late 2nd-round Man-Crush Meter: 8.9/10
ONE LAST THING
This running back class looks like it could become one of the greatest of all-time. I am stoked on the five guys I highlighted and can’t wait to get into the rest of the class, because it is a deep one. Guys like John Kelly and Kerryon Johnson all have massive intrigue. I will admit, however, that I have not looked extensively enough at the other running backs, so that’s why I am only naming perfect team fits for the six guys I highlighted earlier. Keep in mind that this is not a prediction of when the player will get drafted, but rather an analysis on the player’s best potential fit.
Barkley: Anywhere – A great player can play for any team. Luckily, each team in the top-seven picks could use a running back.
Guice: New York (Jets) – The Jets employ a more traditional running scheme and already have a couple good receiving backs in Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire. With Matt Forte retired, the Jets could use a reliable, powerful runner capable who’s capable of pushing the pile. Also: Washington, Baltimore
Michel: Philadelphia – The Eagles used so many running backs last season that it would be smart to just combine all their traits into Michel. Jay Ajayi’s power would be a good compliment for Michel, who would have a field day behind that offensive line. Also: Tampa Bay, Detroit
Jones: Seattle – A shifty, balanced back is just what Seattle needs, especially behind that porous offensive line. Jones’ elusiveness and lateral agility would be perfect in avoiding the crowded backfield that Seahawks’ fans see so often. Also: Washington, Philadelphia
Chubb: Carolina – Talk about a match made in heaven. Chubb’s powerful running style would be a terrific compliment to ‘Offensive Weapon’ Christian McCaffrey. Adding Chubb to the backfield would allow the Panthers to have one of the most versatile offenses in the NFL. Also: Detroit, Indianapolis
Samuels: New England – C’mon, you had to have seen this coming. Samuels can literally line up everywhere on the offense, and no team utilizes player versatility better than the Patriots. Also: San Fransisco, Philadelphia