Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
The conference championships are in the books, leaving us with a short break until bowl season starts. Over the past few days, and for the next couple of weeks, you will hear a slew of Senior Bowl acceptances, underclassmen declarations, and players deciding to sit out their bowl games. While there is still plenty of tape to sift through, the games I’ve been able to watch so far has given me a good starting point for my final evaluations.
As with any football fan, I have my personal preferences for what I like to look for at each position. Everyone will look for certain things, and that will influence their thoughts on various prospects. As a quick primer, I’ll put my personal favorite traits that I look for that influence my grades. As always, these rankings are subject to change as I go back and watch more film, but this is what I’ve been able to come up with thus far. Additionally, I will not be evaluating prospects based on personality or attitude, simply because I have no way of knowing firsthand what those traits are. Without further ado, here are my top fives at every offensive and defensive position.
While arm strength and athleticism aren’t overly high on my list, I do believe that there is a base level for both traits that eliminate certain prospects from consideration (sorry, Clayton Thorson). After that, I look for the ability to read a defense and situational arm accuracy, by which I mean putting the ball in a location that gives the receiver the highest chance of success both during and after the catch (e.g., throwing behind the receiver when there is a defender coming at their face, leading the receiver into open areas of the field, etc.). Not all completions (and incompletions) are created equally, so it’s more than just looking at completion percentage.
Justin Herbert, University of Oregon – Herbert is accurate at every level of the field, despite some awkward lower body mechanics. He may take some time to adjust to pro style systems on both sides of the ball, but if you were simply drafting an arm, Herbert would be tops in the class.
Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State University – Haskins takes a bit more projection than most quarterbacks, as Ohio State emphasizes quick passes to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers. However, Haskins has excelled in his lone season at Ohio State, and seems to have all of the tools to succeed in the NFL. He simply hasn’t shown he can consistently make pro-level throws, but only because of the system as opposed to a lack of ability.
Will Grier, West Virginia University – Grier has the necessary arm strength and the accuracy to be an above average starting quarterback. When it comes to reading defenses, West Virginia typically limits him to half-field reads. When coverages force him to read the entire field, he becomes flustered and makes mistakes. Herbert and Haskins are the clear top of the class due to them having question marks as opposed to negative marks. Grier must improve his reads if he wants to succeed.
Tyree Jackson, University of Buffalo – Jackson is very much a Josh Allen-esque prospect, sporting a huge arm and athleticism to go with some erratic accuracy. While I value accuracy the most, Jackson has some lower body mechanical issues that, if fixed, could drastically improve his accuracy all over the field. Specifically, sometimes he loads up and tries to step too wide in his throws in an attempt to really push the ball in there. While this improves the velocity on his throws, it also decreases the accuracy and increases his release time. The increased velocity is offset by the increased release time, and the accuracy suffers. If he maintains his normal throwing motion, the accuracy is spot on. Coming from a smaller school, there is potential that the drastically improved coaching he’ll receive at the NFL level could solve that issue.
Brett Rypien, Boise State University – Rypien can make short-to-intermediate throws all day with accuracy and great decision-making. However, he doesn’t have the arm strength of other prospects. He can put great touch on deep passes, but will not have the deep out as a weapon in his arsenal. If you can work around having this route completely removed from your offensive system, Rypien can succeed.
In a running back, I want short-area quickness and vision. This combination leads to being evasive, as a running back who can change directions and put themselves in the best position to get away from a tackle are the ones that end up breaking those tackles. Receiving ability is not necessary, but can separate those at the top from players with similar traits elsewhere.
David Montgomery, Iowa State University – He could be a little better as a receiver, but overall, Montgomery is the closest this class comes to giving me my ideal running back. His short-area quickness is tops in this class, and consistently shows the vision to make the most of the minimal lanes provided by his porous offensive line.
Darrell Henderson, University of Memphis – The most explosive member of the class. While his short-area quickness rivals Montgomery, and his ability as a receiver is better than Montgomery’s, Henderson suffers from inconsistent vision. Whether it be a desire to bust a big play or an inability to see interior lanes, Henderson will overlook lanes in the middle of the line that can get him five or six yards in favor of bouncing outside to try to get twenty.
Benny Snell, University of Kentucky – I’m higher on Benny Snell than any of other media scouts that I follow, and it’s because of two words: Frank Gore. Benny Snell is Frank Gore reincarnated, and I see him averaging a consistent 4.5 yards per carry over the next fourteen seasons. He’s an underrated receiver, but will never be a big play threat. He’s still someone I want on my team every game possible.
Rodney Anderson, University of Oklahoma – His biggest question will be durability after missing time with various injuries throughout his career, most recently a torn ACL. He’s a big, quick running back who was rarely challenged within five yards of the line of scrimmage because of Oklahoma’s spread offense. It’s unknown whether he has the vision to succeed, but may be the most physically gifted back of the bunch when healthy.
Miles Sanders, Penn State University – While the comparison seems obvious, Sanders is a homeless man’s Saquon Barkley. He has good quickness, good ability as a receiver and as a runner in the open field, and poor vision when running between the tackles.
When you are looking for top-end wide receivers who contend for top ten at the position, there can be a variety of traits that they display. However, one rule holds true. While not every great route runner is a great receiver, there are no great receivers who are also not great route runners. As such, I value all aspects of route running (e.g., smoothness and quickness in and out of breaks, hiding/faking routes, and ability to run the full route tree on any given play) higher than any other trait. The ability to catch the ball comes next, followed by athletic traits such as size and speed.
D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss – The one receiver in this class who can do it all. He has a huge catch radius, rarely drops passes, excels in every route in the tree, has great speed for his size, and is a monster at 6’4”. The neck injury may cause him to drop slightly if the medicals don’t clear out at the combine, but him declaring so early in the process gives me confidence that the sophomore’s neck will be just fine.
Riley Ridley, University of Georgia – If Georgia threw the ball more often, Ridley would have the production to show he’s an even better prospect than his older brother, Calvin. One of the smoothest route runners in this class, Ridley also catches everything thrown to him and has good top-end speed at 6’2”. Ridley may drop because of his lack of production, but whoever drafts him will be getting a gem.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford University – Arcega-Whiteside was my pre-season sleeper, but it’s safe to say that the country is now woke. While his top-end speed may not be great, Arcega-Whiteside checks off every other box in what I’m looking for.
Deebo Samuel, University of South Carolina – If Arcega-Whiteside was four inches shorter and a whole lot faster, you would have Deebo Samuel. Another great route runner with good hands, Samuel’s speed and ability in the open field makes him more of a big play threat than the underneath weapon that is Arcega-Whiteside. More of a 3A and 3B, scheme and the rest of my receiving corps would play a bigger part in who I prefer over anything to do with the receivers themselves.
Collin Johnson, University of Texas – Texas has had a rough few seasons while Johnson was playing. While losing and playing for lame-duck coaches may be a poor excuse for inconsistent play in college, I’m not entirely sure whether it was Johnson’s excuse. On the field, Johnson would disappear for some games, and then would come in and dominate the highest profile games. His inconsistency drops him down my rankings, but the 6’6” athletic freak with smooth route running ability has a ceiling even higher than Metcalf.
In the modern NFL, the tight end can be the biggest mismatch on the field if they have the requisite size, strength, speed, and hands. However, I also value the ability to block, allowing the tight end to be on the field on every play and not give away the intentions of the play. My optimal tight end will be the most well-rounded player on my offense, unless I have an exceptionally talented player (e.g., top-five in the league) elsewhere.
Noah Fant, University of Iowa – Fant is the most athletically gifted tight end to enter the NFL Draft since Vernon Davis, and may be even more athletic. Couple that with reliable hands and an underrated ability to block, Fant may warrant a top ten overall pick.
T.J. Hockenson, University of Iowa – Call this Hawkeye a homer all you want, but I feel that Iowa has the best two tight ends in the country. While Hockenson may return to school, the first ever sophomore John Mackie Award winner is my number two tight end in this class. He is slightly less athletic than Fant, but is a crushing blocker. If it wasn’t for Fant being generationally gifted athletically, Hockenson would be my preferred option at tight end. If you were to rank pure receivers, pure blockers, and pure athletes, Hockenson might rank top-three in every single category.
Irv Smith, University of Alabama – Smith is an athlete above all else. He will need plenty of refinement, but has shown the ability to be a top-end pass catcher and an adequate blocker.
Isaac Nauta, University of Georgia – Nauta is a good blocker and a reliable receiver when asked to run seam routes or leaking out into the holes in zones. His ceiling is probably the lowest of my top five, but he also has the highest floor for anyone not named Hockenson.
Dawson Knox, Ole Miss – This former quarterback has become a surprisingly good blocker in short time. Has shown good ability as a receiver, but greatly benefits from having three top-ten receivers on his team. It’s unknown whether he can still get the looks once he is more of a focus for defenses, as he doesn’t need to do much to get open.
The NFL has become a passing league. If your tackle can’t pass protect, then you’re in trouble. Run blocking is also important as a tie breaker between two tackles with equal pass protecting ability, but is still a notch below pass blocking in my eyes.
Jonah Williams, University of Alabama – Williams will never have the athleticism of a Tyron Smith or a Joe Thomas that pushes him to the upper echelon of tackles in the league. However, he’ll hover right around tenth-best in the league for his entire career. He simply gets the job done, albeit unimpressively.
Trey Adams, University of Washington – If Adams were completely healthy, he would be my number one option. A back injury kept him out for most of the season, and I thought he would sit out the full season and take a medical redshirt into next season. However, he returned for the last couple of games, and propelled Washington to wins over Washington State and Utah en route to the Pac-12 championship. Adams’s presence made a huge difference for the line that seemed lost all season. If you guaranteed that he stayed healthy, he would be my top choice.
Dalton Risner, Kansas State University – Risner doesn’t have the length that most scouts want in a tackle, but he’s had success against the top pass rushers in college football (including Montez Sweat). You can’t argue with his success. Don’t overthink it.
David Edwards, University of Wisconsin – Edwards may be the best run blocking tackle of the bunch, but is a notch below the top three in pass blocking.
Yodney Cajuste, West Virginia University – Another great run blocker, Cajuste is just a bit slow and stiff to be a top-end pass protector in the NFL. Is still adequate enough to have a successful career, but it certainly limits his ceiling.
Interior Offensive Line
For guards and centers, I want power, then mobility and technique. While defensive tackles are getting quicker and more disruptive, it is important that guards and centers are able to get their paws on them with enough force to knock them off their line.
Chris Lindstrom, Boston College – Lindstrom has excellent power and hand technique, making him my top interior offensive lineman. He is a physically imposing finisher, and shows a high motor throughout the game.
Tyler Biadasz, University of Wisconsin – Biadasz also has excellent power, but his smaller size makes it tougher to get his hands on quicker linemen. He is a little more mobile than Lindstrom, but his lack of elite length puts him on part with Lindstrom as opposed to ahead of him.
Ross Pierschbacher, University of Alabama – Pierschbacher’s strength is definitely a step below my top two, but is still enough to not get bowled over. The most mobile of the bunch, his ability to move laterally and get in front of defenders helps make up for his lack of strength.
Garrett Bradbury, North Carolina State University – Bradbury is very similar to Pierschbacher. As a former tight end, his mobility and technique are top notch, but his strength is not quite up to snuff with some others in this class.
Michael Deiter, University of Wisconsin – Deiter has been a jack of all trades at Wisconsin, but has the skill set to be a successful guard. While his mobility and power is good enough to square off against quicker guards, nose tackles and pure power linemen can get into him and push him back.
However they can do it, I want my defensive tackles to be disruptive. Disruptive tackles, whether they use speed or power, beat single blocks to get into the backfield. This will force the offense to double team them or there will be quick pressure.
Ed Oliver, University of Houston – He’s had a rocky season with the coaching staff, but Oliver is still the most disruptive force on the interior in college football. Built in the Aaron Donald mold, Oliver is undersized but exceptionally fast and with elite strength for his size.
Quinnen Williams, University of Alabama – If Oliver is Donald, Quinnen Williams is J.J. Watt. Longer and leaner than most defensive tackles, Williams is explosive off of the snap and typically halfway past the guard and center before they even start to react.
Jeffrey Simmons, Mississippi State University – Simmons may not be as quick as Oliver or Williams, but Simmons has enough mobility to get into a position where the blocker is off-balance before using his elite power to dispose of the blocker like a ragdoll.
Raekwon Davis, University of Alabama – Davis is a gargantuan at 6’6”, but still has the pad level of someone six inches shorter. He will need to develop some counter moves, but has enough pure talent to be a Calais Campbell type interior rusher.
Rashan Gary, University of Michigan – Gary has faced injury problems this season, and has been seen as a bit of a tweener. However, I think he’ll excel in a Justin Smith-type role, where he uses his combination of power, toughness, and speed to free up his fellow defensive linemen. Chase Winovich certainly wasn’t the same player after Gary was out of the lineup.
Unless your single technique is absolutely elite, a pass rusher needs to be able to have counters in addition to speed or power, but elite rushers will have all three.
Nick Bosa, Ohio State University – Nick Bosa is the unquestioned top talent in this draft. He has great speed paired with elite power and counters to be the only pass rusher in this class who we can consider strong in all three areas.
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson University – Ferrell is a step behind Bosa due to his lack of play strength. While he has elite speed and the counters to break free from a tackle that takes away his bend, Ferrell relies on his speed to produce power and drive rather than having power in and of itself. Still a great pass rusher who should go top ten, but he is a tier below Bosa.
Montez Sweat, Mississippi State University – Montez Sweat is basically Clelin Ferrell with a tad less athleticism. He is still a top-fifteen guy, but with a ceiling slightly lower than Ferrell.
Josh Allen, University of Kentucky – Josh Allen has above elite speed off the edge. Very few linemen in history have had his quickness, speed, and bend off the edge, which has led to a huge season. The issue is that, if the tackle gets back quick enough, Allen is taken out of the play. Allen does not have counters, and he doesn’t have the strength to be a legitimate bull rusher. He has the motor to try, at least. However, I often saw him attempt to cut back inside the tackle only to come to a complete stop and fail to come out of the move. This gives the tackle ample time to adjust and come forward with a punishing block. He has an absolutely elite technique, but needs to develop more to be consistent.
Jachai Polite, University of Florida – If you watch only highlights, Polite can seem like a top-two pass rusher. However, Polite disappears too often in between his sacks, and is simply not consistent. This is because, while he has elite speed, he doesn’t have the counters to escape a block, so he often gives up if his initial speed rush is managed. Whether it be a conditioning issue or an effort issue, both are red flags.
I value speed and tackling in my linebackers. I don’t need my linebackers to be exceptional pass rushers, and speed will create a high floor in pass coverage. I want my linebackers to be able to get to the necessary spot and to finish the tackle reliably. Violent hits and length are pluses.
Devin White, Louisiana State University – LSU’s defense has been magnificent this season, largely in part to Devin White’s exceptional play at linebacker. White does exactly what I want out of a linebacker, which is to be fast and finish the tackle. Watching him fly around the field is a joy to watch.
Mack Wilson, University of Alabama – Wilson might be even faster than White, but tends to opt for the big hit over the reliable tackle and can be over aggressive in his angles to the ball carrier. If he can play smarter, he has the potential to be a better linebacker than White, but it’s hard to tone down that type of aggression.
Vosean Joseph, University of Florida – Joseph is in the same vein as White and Wilson, being a small, rangy linebacker. However, Joseph goes even a step further than Wilson, being an absolutely violent tackler who can miss a few tackles in exchange for massive hits. It also opens him up to injury, and causes him to miss too many tackles to rank him higher than third. He’s still a legitimate prospect, but may be better served in the weak-side role where he can use that aggression without as much worry of being the last line of defense.
Kendall Joseph, North Carolina State University – The other Joseph is a more cerebral player and a reliable finisher, though his athleticism is a notch below the first three guys on this list. He’s excellent in coverage, but may have some issues if he has to take on blockers, which is more likely with his slightly slower speed.
Paddy Fisher, Northwestern University – Fisher offers something that no other linebacker in this top five has, which is size at 6’4”. He’s a reliable tackler who has good range, though certainly not the elite range of the top three at this position. He can be caught out of position and has experience issues, but could improve with better coaching and more experience.
There are tons of different ways to cover a receiver, mainly because there are many different types of receivers. While ball skills are a plus, I mainly want my CBs to stick to the receivers. A shutdown cornerback won’t have many interceptions, purely because they aren’t tested that often. I want my cornerbacks to take the receiver out of the play entirely.
Greedy Williams, Louisiana State University – Similar to Nick Bosa, Greedy Williams just has it all. He has the speed, the strength, and the length to match up with even the biggest receivers and shut them down. He doesn’t quite trust his press as much as I’d like, which can lead to him giving up on the press too early. This is an easy fix, and he should be LSU’s next great shutdown CB.
Amani Oruwariye, Penn State University – If you want a press-man cornerback, but can’t afford Greedy, then Oruwariye is your guy. In coverage, Oruwariye excels. In tackling, Oruwariye is surprisingly limited despite his 6’1”, 204-pound frame. Oruwariye has the opportunity to be a complete shutdown cornerback if he can learn to be more physical with ball carriers.
Byron Murphy, University of Washington – Murphy plays from snap to whistle on every play and will be a fan favorite on whatever team he goes to. This aggression is also his downfall. For every route he undercuts, he also misses a route behind him. He is likely a better fit in a zone scheme where his mistakes can be mitigated, but has enough skills as a man CB to play that position if he can tone down the aggression.
Bryce Hall, University of Virginia – A larger CB, Hall combines good technique, speed, and balance to be an excellent man cornerback. However, despite his size, he was not asked to press at Virginia, instead leaving tons of cushion underneath. This led to giving up easy completions on quick slants and vulnerable to sluggos as a counter. His speed and technique are good enough that he has the tools to play closer to the line of scrimmage, but he doesn't have that experience quite yet.
Michael Jackson, University of Miami – Jackson is another great press cornerback, but has one large deficiency: speed. Jackson’s lack of speed will likely limit his man coverage snaps, instead leaning more towards a press-zone scheme. Jackson can excel in this type of scheme, but a team will likely be disappointed if they expect a great man cornerback.
The safeties are the playmakers of my defense. They need to be able to read the play in front of them and get in position to make a play, whether it be cutting a route and making an interception or blowing up a run or an underneath pass.
Deionte Thompson, University of Alabama – Thompson is an elite safety. He has the processing skills, speed, and physicality to make any play on the field. He made some simple mistakes due to this being his first season as a starter, but they became few and far between as the season wore on. Thompson should be a top-ten pick this April.
Taylor Rapp, University of Washington – Rapp is this year’s version of Derwin James, though not quite that level of prospect. His lack of range on the back end will force him into the box, but he can successfully fill every role in the box. He can rush the passer, he can defend the slot or tight end, he can defend the run, he can do it all. His lack of straight-line speed limits what he can do further downfield, but he will make a lot of plays close to the line of scrimmage.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, University of Florida – Gardner-Johnson has all of the physical traits to be a free safety in any scheme. He can cover the slot, and has the speed and instincts to play single-high. His issues are solely in the run game. He can take poor angles in run defense, and even has trouble taking down the runner if he can get to him. As good as he is in coverage, he is that bad in run defense.
Lukas Denis, Boston College – Denis is a very similar player to Gardner-Johnson, but a little smaller.
J.R. Reed, University of Georgia – Reed is another strong safety prospect, like Rapp, but doesn’t show the instincts in coverage that Rapp does. He could be a great run defender as a professional, but may be a liability if relied on to shut down an opponent in coverage. He is better as a “help” defender in coverage as opposed to a primary defender on a slot receiver or a tight end.
Most teams are on a bye this week as the student athletes “take” their final exams and teams prepare for their bowl games. In fact, there is only one game this weekend, and it is one of the oldest rivalries in college football.
Saturday, December 8
Army vs. Navy at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, 3:00 PM, CBS
The classic Army-Navy game is the only game this week. Honestly, this game is nothing to watch if you only care about professional prospects, as neither team has any. However, it's one of the oldest and best rivalries in college football. Further, this game is always a great tribute to the men and women of the military academies, as well as the graduates who serve in those branches of the military, that sacrifice for their country.
You can follow Zach on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great draft analysis!