We’re less than a month out from the biggest event of the year, and while I could easily be referencing Avengers: Endgame, I am of course talking about the NFL Draft. There might be no NFL games right now, but the football world keeps on buzzing. Don’t worry, I’ll talk about all of it, including the retirement of Canton-bound Rob Gronkowski, the retirement of couch-bound (but still great) Jordy Nelson, an impactful new rule change and more. This week is also defensive-line week for DRFN and let me say it’s a perfect time to get familiar with the future faces of the NFL because there are quite a few potential stars in this year’s defensive line class. Sit back, relax and pause that March Madness game for another edition of my ‘Deep Route Football Notebook’.
THINGS I KNOW
I know Rob Gronkowski is a Hall of Famer. As I predicted in December, Gronk hung up his cleats on Sunday with a compelling case for the Hall. To demonstrate why he’s Canton-bound, I could just rattle off his career stats. Five Pro Bowls, four All-Pro teams and three Super Bowl rings over nine seasons is surely enough, right? What about his place as all-time leader among TEs in yards per game, TDs per game and yards per target? You can’t forget his playoff history either, where he has the most ever receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs by a TE. All those numbers and football lingo sure sound good enough to me. Some might point out a nine-year career isn’t enough to warrant a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and to that I point out Hall of Famers Barry Sanders (played for ten seasons), Jim Brown (nine seasons) and Earl Campbell (eight seasons), to name a few. I actually think Gronk made the right decision by retiring now because his body is clearly not at its best. The 6-6, 265-pound freak only played a full season during each of his first two years in the league. No other player at the position was a greater challenge to defend over this long of a time. For that, you can expect Gronk to be donning a gold jacket in the future.
I know Quinnen Williams is worthy of the first-overall pick. He’s just that good, and that says something because this draft class is loaded with defensive linemen. Honestly, writing about Williams might be pointless because is he so good at everything; he has no apparent Achilles’ Heel. I guess the one thing that could keep him from being the first pick, aside from positional value, is his lack of experience. He only played two seasons and wasn’t a full-time starter until last season. It’s Alabama, though. To say he has a ‘lack of experience’ is selling short just how much Williams had to do. Between earning a starting spot on a stacked Alabama defense to facing some tough competition, Williams has essentially nullified the ‘lack of experience’ argument against him. I’ll look at Nick Bosa next week when I cover edge rushers but right now, only him and Williams have a fair shot at going number one (barring the Cardinals scrapping Josh Rosen in favor of Kyler Murray like many say will happen).
I know Ed Oliver is right behind him. This can change between now and the draft on April 25th, but I think the draft’s best players are Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver, in that order. It annoys me how low Ed Oliver has been dropping in recent mock drafts because the dude is a human cannonball. He’s so quick off the line-of-scrimmage that you’d think he was legitimately shot out of a cannon. He’s got the power and strength to absolutely bully offensive lines, yet moves gracefully and fluidly enough to slip through tackles with ease. Akin to Williams, I could go on and on about what Oliver does right but in his case, I need to talk about why his stock isn’t as a potential first-pick like it used to be. For starters, there are concerns about his size as he stands just under 6’2 and weighs 287 pounds. Might I counter with some Aaron Donald highlights? Donald also fell due to size concerns and well, we all know how that ended. (It’s going very, very well, non-football fans.) A knee injury cost Oliver four games and is a legitimate concern, I’ll give NFL teams that. Nothing has suggested yet that the injury will follow Oliver into the NFL, though. The biggest reason for the fall of Oliver’s stock from a top-three pick to a middle first-rounder is JacketGate. Oliver’s head coach at Houston, Major Applewhite (who was recently fired), yelled at Oliver for wearing a team jacket in a game Oliver sat out for. Oliver let Applewhite how mad he was, the incident was blown out of proportion and now some wonder if Oliver has ‘attitude issues’. Give me a break. It’s ‘Over-exaggeration Season’ in football and Oliver seems to be a victim, despite his elite play and bright future. If Oliver falls out of the top-five, he’d be a steal.
I know I’ve been waiting to scout Christian Wilkins since 2017. A projected first-round pick last season, Wilkins shocked many by electing to stay at Clemson another season. A year later, Wilkins has improved a bit but also showcased his ceiling. A four-year starter, Wilkins has had ample time to develop on a stacked Clemson defensive line. I’ll lay out the positives first, and how’s this to start: Wilkins will be a fan-favorite. He’s praised for his charisma, character and leadership. He plays with solid pad level and good enough leverage. (Leverage is essentially the rule that the lower a play gets when rushing/blocking, the better shot he has at winning the matchup.) Wilkins has quick feet and the explosiveness to make an impact as soon as the ball is snapped. Oh yeah, he’s also flexible. How flexible? This flexible. Not bad for a 6’3, 315-pound defensive lineman. Clearly, he doesn’t have prototypical NFL size nor does he have the length either. I’d say he could use a little more work using his hands against the run and he needs to be more consistent as a rusher. It’s mostly just a loaded DL class and physical limitations that could see Wilkins fall to the second round, though the recent rumor mill projects Wilkins to be picked closer to the top of the first-round than the bottom.
I know Dexter Lawrence will woo teams with his physical gifts. Right off the bat, Lawrence will cause mouths to water with his 6’4.5, 342-pound frame. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Lawrence will be a nose-tackle at the next level. He’s strong enough to move the line and has the football intelligence to make smart, quick decisions. On top of this play recognition is his experience. He’s a three-year starter for one of the most dominant defensive lines of this decade. Interestingly enough, his production actually trailed off since his Freshman year. Of course, Lawrence is more of a run stopper than a pass rusher, and his stats might not reflect that. I feel like Lawrence never really lived up to the massive hype surrounding him. He isn’t overly explosive, isn’t as flexible as a top nose tackle should be and isn’t refined enough in his hand usage. For what it’s worth, he was suspended for the College Football Playoff for PEDs, but that doesn’t seem to be affecting his stock much. Lawrence has the capability of being an early-down starter but I don’t know if he’ll ever be more than that.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know who won the Khalil Mack trade. The only reason I bring this up is because an analytics group from MIT recently awarded the Raiders with the best transaction of the year. That’s right, remember when everyone was laughing at Oakland for trading Mack, one of the best defenders of this generation? Now MIT is laughing at you. A quick refresher: The Raiders sent Mack, a 2020 second-rounder and a conditional fifth-rounder (meaning it could be scrapped from the deal depending on a few factors) to Chicago for a first-rounder this year, a sixth-rounder this year, a 2020 first-rounder and 2020 third-rounder. MIT essentially argues that more picks is better because that’s a higher chance to draft a game-changing player or two. While I don’t think there will be many opportunities to draft another Khalil Mack (though I think Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams have that potential), I can see what MIT is saying. In this deal, Oakland gained two extra picks and significantly more draft value. They now have a better chance to draft better players because they a) received high selections and b) received more selections. That’s all MIT is saying with this ‘award’. Personally, and I know I say this a lot, I don’t know who won because how can we know now? Maybe the Raiders draft a superstar with every pick they got from the trade or maybe they draft four busts. It’s foolish to proclaim a winner in a trade before the draft picks involved in that trade were even used.
I don’t know where Jeffery Simmons will be drafted. A player of his talent could be a top-ten pick, but a player with his issues could be undrafted. Let me preface my deep-dive into him that those issues are a torn ACL from mid-February and a video showing him punch a woman back in 2016. The video is old public knowledge and Simmons has reportedly moved on from it. Anyways, Simmons the football player is a beast, falling in-line with the ‘Freak of Nature’ theme among this year’s DL class. For a 6’3, 301-pound DT, Simmons moves surprisingly well and has great explosiveness off the line-of-scrimmage. Some might worry over his lack of sacks, but sacks are not the ultimate indicator for defensive-line success. Simmons was constantly disrupting the offensive line and applying pressure to the QB. His body length and shear strength attribute to his disruptiveness. A couple concerns about his play is his inability to consistently finish plays and his inconsistent pad level. With Simmons, there really is no precedent as players with his talent have fallen far but have also been drafted right where they were expected to be. A team would be smart to at least secure a safer player with their first pick before taking a chance on Simmons later.
I don’t know if Jerry Tillery’s season was a fluke or a breakout. Tillery helped himself so much with a superb 2018 campaign after disappointing early in his career. His effort was constantly questioned and he got in trouble through various incidents in 2016 at Notre Dame. Now, he seems like a different player both on and off the field. There’s legit first-round buzz for Tillery and rightfully so. Towering over the football field at 6’6, 295 pounds, Tillery plays with a low pad level and adequate strength. He’s got a good combination of power, mobility and athleticism that could skyrocket him to the top half of the first round. He’s more of a pass rusher than a run stopper, though he does have the makings of a very good pass rusher. Tillery isn’t the most flexible player out there but his stellar movement skills are extremely noticeable. He could stand to improve his leverage in one-on-one matchups and improve his awareness and play recognition. Tillery flashed top-ten potential this past season and with solid coaching, he could become great.
I don’t know what position Charles Omenihu will play. It’s a real possibility that he’ll play multiple. The 6’5, 280-pound DL from Texas could play anywhere along the line, which is a fantastic asset. Honestly, I could have put him in next week’s article where I focus on edge rushers, but that class might have more depth than this defensive linemen class does. If you’re just now hearing about Omenihu, he wasn’t talked up a whole bunch during the season but the offseason has been kind to him. Again, this class is packed with talent, so I can see why a well-rounded player like Omenihu has slipped through the cracks until recently. He’s got a long, strong body that helps him explode off the line of scrimmage. Omenihu’s athleticism and effort are always on display. He has some flexibility issues, namely within his hips, so he might have a limited ceiling in the NFL. He also struggled at times to correctly recognize plays, but that didn’t stop him from stuffing the stat sheet and the QB constantly. He isn’t perfect, but Omenihu could be a surprise late first-rounder, though a second-round range is more plausible at this point. I hear the Colts are the team to watch with Omenihu.
I don’t know if Dre’Mont Jones will ever be more than a pass-rush specialist. This means that Jones will likely only be used on passing downs, such as third downs or long-yardage downs. Dare I say he’s a dominant pass rusher with crazy athleticism. For a 6’2, 281-pound man, he sometimes moves like he’s 100 pounds lighter. As I said with offensive linemen last week, linemen are some of the best athletes in sports. Jones is no exception as his mobility and flexibility are shockingly good. He uses his hands well and created lots of pressure on passing situations. What Jones has as a pass rusher he lacks as a run stopper. He doesn’t always play with adequate leverage and occasionally struggled to diagnose plays as they occurred. Too often, he’d be battered and shoved at the line of scrimmage, thus failing at his attempts to reach the runner. If I gave Jones an A for pass rushing, I’d give him a D for run defense. If Jones wants to see the field more than just on passing plays, he’ll have to be selected by a team capable of drastically improving his run-stopping abilities.
TRIVIA OF THE WEEK
Despite playing his entire nine-year career with the Patriots, the 2010 draft pick that would become Gronk (42nd overall) was traded by two teams before it landed with New England. What two teams were they?
Check out the ‘Awards’ section for the answer.
Note that I only included the players talked about in this week’s article and that feelings/projections on a prospect will fluctuate, especially after the draft. Here are my preliminary rankings on this year’s Defensive Line class and a sentence for each.
- Quinnen Williams – Elite player with All-Pro potential.
- Ed Oliver – Top-ten player in the class who has insignificant issues.
- Jeffery Simmons – Will fall due to recent ACL tear but talent is undisputed.
- Christian Wilkins – Has physical limitations but everything you want in a franchise player.
- Jerry Tillery – Breakout season showed how great a pass rusher he is.
- Charles Omenihu – Well-rounded, versatile player who should thrive with NFL-level development.
- Dexter Lawrence – A big, powerful mauler in the middle of the field with limited athleticism.
- Dre’Mont Jones – A great pass rusher but a poor run stopper.
Other Guys Who I Didn’t Have Room For: Renell Wren, Daylon Mack, Isaiah Buggs, Khalen Saunders, Gerald Willis
Sleeper: Mbi Tanyi
Following last year’s tradition, each week I’ll focus on one wide receiver in hopes of finding the next superstar. This week, that player is KeeSean Johnson.
Stats: In four years at Fresno State, the senior WR had 275 receptions, 3,463 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. In 2018, he recorded 95 receptions, 1,340 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
- Strong hands
- Flashy catches
- Ball skills
- Body control
- Field awareness
- Route running
- Experienced route runner
- Above-average open-field skills
- Long legs but doesn’t take long strides
- Counter moves
- Dealing with overly physical corners
- Played vs lesser competition
The Unknown: Will Johnson’s average athleticism limit his ceiling?
Bottom-Line: I really like Johnson because he has some of the best hands in the league and should easily find a role in an NFL offense. He isn’t athletic or quick enough to be a top option but could thrive as a WR who gets big yardage but doesn’t do much after the catch, a.k.a a possession receiver.
Team Fit: Green Bay Packers
Projection: Fourth Round
Each week I’ll talk a little bit about the Alliance of American Football in hopes of catching you up on the rising young league. This week, I look at the recent news of the league’s potential discontinuation.
Well, that was fast. Majority owner Tom Dundon said that the AAF could shut down if the NFLPA doesn’t provide the league with young players. Why is this important? From the start, the AAF wanted to be a developmental league for the NFL; they knew they’d never be able to compete with the much bigger, more popular league. It’s a smart path to go down but obviously it won’t work if there are no players to develop. The AAF’s best players are primarily veterans rather than first- and second-year players. This isn’t to say veterans can’t be developed, but an NFL team isn’t gonna get much out of a 27-year-old has-been. When I outlined reasons why the AAF might fold earlier in the season, this was not one of the immediate issues I foresaw. On the other side, this could just be the league’s attempt at leveraging the NFL into giving in to their demands. Time will tell…
Globo Gym Award: Jameis Winston
Unlike all the other fictitious awards I hand out, this one actually comes with a prize: A year’s subscription to Globo Gym, because that’s what Winston will need if he weighs 250 pounds like the rumors say. All kidding aside, a 250-pound QB is not practical, which is why these reports are shocking, to say the least. I guess we’ll have to wait until August to see if this holds true.
Baseball Award: NFL
I know it’s an ironic comparison, but some people just think baseball is too long and too boring (sorry not sorry, baseball fans). That’s how I fear some people will sometimes feel about football with this new pass interference rule. The new rule says that coaches can not only challenge pass interferences, but also plays they think should be pass interference. For the record, I’m all for this rule; it had to happen. Its biggest issue will be making games longer, especially in the grueling final minutes. I can already see people complaining about the extra three or four minutes of wasted time spent on these challenges when in reality, the NFL is trying to make games go by faster than ever.
Bronze jacket: Jordy Nelson
The ten-year Packers’ WR (and Raiders, I guess) called it quits and while he certainly had a solid career, there’s no shot he’ll join Gronk in Canton. All pessimism aside, Nelson’s career should still be applauded. A former-collegiate QB, Nelson did a complete 180 and became one of Green Bay’s most consistent WRs ever. A Pro Bowl nod in 2014 is also a good thing to have, too. While missed by many, he will be mainly missed by Packers’ fans and NFL fantasy pundits, no doubt.
Question: Despite playing his entire nine-year career with the Patriots, the 2010 draft pick that would become Gronk (42nd overall) was traded by two teams before it landed with New England. What two teams were they?
Trading draft picks is no rarity in the NFL but it’s still interesting to see how trades like this one panned out. The Buccaneers originally held the pick and sent it and the 153rd pick to Oakland so Tampa Bay could move up three spots. That pick eventually became Eben Britton while Oakland took Austen Lane with the 153rd pick. However, the Raiders didn’t draft at 42 and shipped it to Bill Belichick where he finally drafted Gronk out of Arizona. As for Oakland, they received the 44th pick and the 190th pick and took Lamarr Houston and Matt Goethel, respectively. Only Houston became a regular-starter, though his career took a decline in 2015 and ended two years later. In the end, four other players were involved in the deals leading up to Gronk’s selection and none of them were even 25 percent as impactful as Gronk was.
ONE LAST THING
I had no clue what to add here when literally as I was thinking about what in the heck to write about, the news breaks that Jordan Howard and a sixth-rounder were shipped to Philadelphia for a fifth-rounder. The writing was on the wall for this one and I’m a little sad. Howard was someone I pegged as a sleeper back when he was finishing at Indiana in 2015. A victim of the football program closing at UAB, Howard played one solid year at Indiana before becoming a fifth-round pick by Chicago. He was a huge man-crush of mine and I picked him and Michael Thomas late in every fantasy draft that year. Three seasons later, Howard’s lack of receiving skills (though not as bad as they’re made out to be) gave in and he now joins a muddled Eagles’ backfield. What does this mean for everyone? Tarik Cohen (no relation, unfortunately) is the man in Chicago with Mike Davis filling in Howard’s shoes. In Philadelphia, they continue stock-piling one-dimensional RBs, though Howard is easily the most talented out of the bunch. I don’t expect either team to invest early in a RB, but you never know.
The Deep Route Football Notebook features recaps and thoughts about the recent action in the NFL, along with weekly awards, draft spotlights, fantasy updates, and more. Unless stated otherwise, all stats are accumulated using Pro Football Reference, ESPN or 4for4.com.
Gambling this season? Want to try it just to see what it feels like? Go to MyBookie.ag and use promo code ARMCHAIR25 at checkout. They will match your deposit dollar for dollar. Putting in $100? You’ll now have $200.