2015 NFL draft primer: Pac-12 boasts solid prospects beyond star QBs
When we cut right to the heart of the matter, the Pac-12 2015 draft discussion will focus on two names: Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.
Both quarterbacks were considered at one point or another early-entry candidates for the 2014 draft. They each opted to return, and now Mariota stands among the favorites to be the No. 1 overall pick next May. Hundley is the more raw prospect, a tempting dual-threat weapon with a clear need to improve as a passer.
The battle between Mariota and Hundley, in the conference and in draft lingo, will be waged throughout the season. Will both head to the NFL in 2015?
If they do, they will be joined by at least a few of these fellow Pac-12 standouts.
Cal: Avery Sebastian, S
Sebastian (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) suffered an Achilles tear during Cal's opener that ended his 2013 season before it began, so his recovery and health moving forward will be critical to any NFL hopes. Assuming all goes according to plan, Sebastian sets up as a late-round pick who can make a roster on his hustle alone. That size may hold him back from ever being a full-time starting safety at the next level, but he is aggressive enough getting after the football that he definitely could stick as a backup and special teams ace.
Oregon: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB
Probably the leading 2015 cornerback prospect heading into the season, Ekpre-Olomu (5-9, 195) could have entered the '14 draft and done just fine for himself. When wide receivers hit the draft, we often talk about their polish as route-runners; Ekpre-Olomu is among the prime examples of what teams want in a cornerback -- he will not run the fastest 40 and may lose some jump balls due to his height, but he is precise as a man-to-man defender. There is a little Darqueze Dennard here, too, in that Ekpre-Olomu will get up in receivers' faces at the line and has no issues chipping in against the run. His technique and feel for the game are advanced compared to the rest of this cornerback class.
The 6-foot-5, 227-pound quarterback received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and opted to stay in school for his senior season as a result. It will be tough for Mannion to improve on his junior year (especially without Brandin Cooks) -- he threw for nearly 4,700 yards with 37 touchdowns in Mike Riley's wide-open attack. The system is perfect for Mannion ... but does that make him a system quarterback?
His height, among other things, will help convince NFL teams otherwise, as he fits that traditional quarterback prototype. He also possesses a solid if unspectacular arm. Better footwork in the pocket and a continued reduction of mistakes (he threw 15 interceptions last year and has 46 for his career) would bolster Mannion's odds.
Stanford: Ty Montgomery, WR
Mentioned Brandin Cooks above -- the Saints nabbed him in Round 1, essentially to replace Darren Sproles in their offense. The defensive coordinator from Cooks' own Oregon State team called Montgomery "Cooks on steroids" ahead of last season's Stanford-Oregon State matchup. Hyperbole? Maybe. But Montgomery has the sort of unmatched talent to make that statement accurate.
Last season alone, he averaged 15.7 yards on 61 catches and turned in more than 1,000 yards as a kick returner. Where he has a real leg up in comparison to Cooks is his size: Montgomery is 6-2, 215; Cooks was 5-10, 189 at the combine. Montgomery uses that size well, showing no hesitation in bodying with defenders. And if he gets the ball in his hands, he can turn on the jets.
Shelton flirted with turning pro last year. He might be one of the most coveted defensive tackles in 2015, thanks to his bulk (6-2, 339) and ability to eat up space at the line. In that Vince Wilforkesque way, Shelton's efforts do not always show up on the stat sheet -- he had just two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. Rather, Shelton creates lanes for linebackers and his fellow linemen by occupying multiple blockers. There are not a ton of guys who can fill that role adequately, either in college or the pros.
Washington State: Vince Mayle, WR
In his second year with the Cougars after transferring from the JUCO ranks, Mayle should see a substantial uptick from the 42 catches he nabbed last season. But it's his 6-3, 219-pound frame that will help propel Mayle towards the draft. He knows how to take advantage of that height -- ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings in dubbing Mayle as Washington State's spring breakout player mentioned that "one coach compared his in-air abilities to Michael Crabtree." Jim Harbaugh said that Crabtree has the best hands of any receiver in NFL history, so even drawing a passing comparison is good news for Mayle.
Arizona: Tra'Mayne Bondurant, LB
Technically listed as a safety, Bondurant has averaged 73 tackles over the past two seasons as Arizona's "spur" -- a hybrid/safety linebacker position tasked with a plethora of responsibilities in Rich Rodriguez's 3-3-5 scheme. The 5-10, 216-pound Bondurant has filled that role well, chipping in four interceptions and five pass break-ups on top of those tackle numbers last season.
NFL teams might see him as more of a safety long-term. In the right scheme (say as a WILL in a 4-3), though, Bondurant might be able to develop into a solid linebacker.
Strong's first season as a Sun Devil was eye-popping: 75 catches for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound receiver is still very much a work in progress despite that performance, which is part of why NFL teams will pay such close attention to him this year. Strong has that Mike Evans-like ability to go up over top of defenders or simply to box them out because of his build. He is not as far along in all the important aspects of the position as Evans -- route-running, catching technique, etc. -- but there is ample reason to believe improvements will come in time.
Even if an NFL coaching staff has to work him through some rough patches early in his career, the raw ability will convince everyone to stick with it. Strong should only get better through 2014 and beyond.
Colorado: Josh Tupou, DT
We'll have to wait and see if Tupou enters the 2015 draft or waits for 2016. He might be wiser to do the latter, barring a really dominant upcoming season. As with Washington's Danny Shelton (still to come on this list), Tupou's best contributions come in plugging gaps and helping to drive interior O-linemen into the backfield. Tupou accomplishes that thanks to a strong 6-3, 325-pound frame (actually up a few pounds from 2013). An NFL future for Tupou might come as a two-down tackle who gives way to a better pass-rusher inside on passing downs.
Kendricks saw his first action for UCLA in 2011, the same year that his brother, Mychal, was wrapping up his career at Cal. Mychal Kendricks now holds a starting linebacker gig for the Eagles, but Eric might not be far behind. The younger Kendricks led the Pac-12 in tackles two years ago with 149, then finished third with 105 last season. As those statistics suggest, Kendrick absolutely gets after it from his linebacking spot, showing good recognition skills and even better speed to get to the football. He will face the same questions Mychal faced about his size -- Eric runs 6-0, 228; Mychal is 5-11, 237.
USC: Leonard Williams, DE
A lot can change for NFL draft prospects over the course of a year, but right now it's hard to fathom Williams landing anywhere outside the top 15. In his two seasons at USC, Williams has recorded 26.0 tackles for loss and 13.0 sacks, playing a DT role as a freshman and a DE role as a sophomore. The Trojans might utilize him in both spots in 2014. Williams has bulked up to 305 pounds, and he claims that he was at just 65 percent health last season due to a torn labrum. If that is an accurate assessment, Pac-12 quarterbacks should be terrified of what a fully healthy Williams can do.
Utah: Junior Salt, G
On the fringe of the NFL radar right now, mainly due to previous health issues, Salt has a shot to emerge as a solid mid-to-late round guard prospect. A JUCO defensive tackle, Salt sat out all of 2012 with a foot injury, then moved to the O-line before actually taking the field in 2013. He was a full-time starter at right guard but injured his hand this offseason. The Utes have the 6-2, 315-pound Salt penciled in as the left guard starter nonetheless. As one might expect from a defensive tackle-turned-guard, Salt can push defenders around up front.
Boomer Esiason predicts a playoff season for two NFL teams that missed the postseason last year.