It’s been a few weeks since I’ve put any NFL Draft thoughts on paper, so rather than recap last week as I’ve done in past columns, I decided that it would be a good time for a more sweeping examination of this year’s class; specifically, a look at those players on the offensive side of the ball who are setting the tone in their respective position groups. These prospects have not only piqued my interest, but I believe they will land in the top 50 based on their game tape, production and eventual athletic testing results. Let’s go position by position:
Lamar Jackson Louisville
Baker Mayfield Oklahoma
Jackson, the 2016 Heisman winner is almost single-handedly responsible for his team’s offensive production. He’s a dynamic runner with easy arm strength, and has improved his accuracy each season. Jackson leads all draft-eligible quarterbacks in third-and-long conversions, and is second to Mason Rudolph on all third downs. Jackson has thrown 48 touchdowns vs 15 interceptions in his last 22 games, and has added 35 rushing touchdowns. Despite some continuing insistence that Jackson will need to move to receiver, I have little doubt he’ll be drafted in the first round as a quarterback.
Mayfield has been outstanding this season, enhancing his draft stock with deadly accuracy, and by using his athleticism to extend plays. The knocks on Mayfield are height and arm strength, and while he’s done growing, he is able to generate velocity when he leans into his throws. Mayfield is an experienced passer and a darling of the analytics community, and I expect him to wind up as a late first-to-early second round pick.
Saquon Barkley Penn State
Ronald Jones II USC
Bryce Love Stanford
Barkley is a physical specimen with game-breaking speed, and has been terrorizing Big Ten teams with his all-purpose ability for the last three years. As soon as defenses stifles his ground game, Barkley will burn them as a receiver or on kickoff returns. My issue right now is that he tends to try to dance his way out of trouble at or behind the line of scrimmage, turning losses into bigger losses. Barkley will be facing even faster defensive fronts next season and needs to learn to take what they give him, use his power, and understand that not every play is a home run.
Jones looks bigger than his listed weight, and I believe he will check in over 200 pounds by the time he is measured for the draft. He’s a trusted, three-down back in USC’s offense, running plenty of routes and pass protecting in addition to his running workload. Jones has great burst and can turn the corner with his 4.4 speed, but he’s also not shy about running between the tackles. Through nine games he has already set career highs in rushing yards, receiving yards and touchdowns, and somehow still seems overlooked.
Love was the early Heisman frontrunner before getting dinged up a few weeks ago, but he’s still rushed for 1456 yards this season, while averaging 9.6 yards per carry. The Stanford junior is another 4.4 guy, but unlike Barkley and Jones, I expect Love to see more of a timeshare role in the NFL, much like his predecessor Christian McCaffrey.
Courtland Sutton SMU
James Washington Oklahoma State
Sutton has reminded me of Josh Gordon in terms of running after the catch on slants and crossing routes. I don’t think Sutton is quite that level of natural athlete, but workout videos suggest the former basketball player has improved his speed and leaping ability since posting middling numbers in high school. Sutton also does a great job using his tall frame to screen off defensive backs, and controlling his body on tough sideline catches and back shoulder throws. He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a “number one” receiver in a draft class that doesn’t seem to have one.
Washington has always been a deep threat in college, averaging 21.8 yards per catch this season, and an eye-popping 19.9 yards on 204 career receptions. He’s his quarterback’s best friend, winning 50/50 balls and fighting his way back to catch underthrown passes deep down the field. I wonder about his speed, but Washington is always open deep in the Big 12. The guy has a junkyard dog mentality, and has a high floor to the point where he at least can carve out a Jarvis Landry-type role in the NFL.
Mark Andrews Oklahoma
Andrews is a big receiver who needs work sharpening his routes. He’s so massive that he gets in the way as a blocker at the college level, but I want to see him play with a nastier streak. Criticisms aside, Andrews has been a dangerous receiver throughout his college career, and this season he’s peaking with 39 catches for 701 yards and four TDs through just nine games. His pass catching ability and athleticism at 6’5” 260 will get him drafted and on the field early.
Quenton Nelson Notre Dame
Orlando Brown Jr. Oklahoma
Billy Price Ohio State
When it comes to draft prospects, I lean heavily toward three and four-year starters on offensive line. In his third year starting for Notre Dame, Nelson qualifies. He’s a massive road grader and a legit top 50 prospect, but he’s actually getting top three hype, and I don’t think he holds the positional value or athleticism to warrant such a pick. I think Nelson is going to measure out like Oakland Raiders guard Gabe Jackson, who was a steal as a third round pick back in 2014. Nelson won’t last that long.
Brown is another three-year starter, and he’s playing a premium position. At 6’8” and 345 pounds he’s enormous, and I had my doubts that he was going to be athletic enough to stay at left tackle, but Brown has looked lighter on his feet than I ever thought he would, and he’s part of a line that’s giving Mayfield all eternity to throw. I still think Brown tests like a right tackle and ends up there, but he looks like an NFL starter as long as he keeps his weight in check. He looks good right now.
Price has started 50 games at Ohio State, with experience at guard and center. He’s a former high school defensive lineman, and bigger and more athletic than his predecessor, Pat Elflein. Price is a seasoned vet on a very successful team, he has positional versatility, and he’s going to test out well athletically. I’ll be surprised if he falls out of the top 50 picks.