2016 NFL draft primer: AAC
The AAC saw just two of its players selected in the opening two days of this year's draft, but they came off the board back-to-back in Round 1—WR Breshad Perriman at No. 26 (Baltimore) and CB Byron Jones at No. 27 (Dallas). Perriman's selection marked the second consecutive time that Central Florida landed an opening-round salvo, with QB Blake Bortles doing the honors in 2013.
Will anyone from the American Athletic Conference sneak into the top 31 picks next April (New England's first-rounder was stripped as punishment for the deflated-balls incident)? A look at the most likely candidates:
1. William Jackson, CB, Houston: Now a rookie in Philadelphia, WR Devante Davis's final season at UNLV was interrupted by an injury that caused him to miss five games. In 2013, though, Davis nearly hit 1,300 yards receiving, and in his third game of 2014 he posted for 150 yards and two touchdowns. But the following week, he came head-to-head with Jackson, when Houston asked its 6'1", 185-pound cornerback to take on the UNLV receiver. Davis caught one pass for zero yards in a 47–14 Houston romp.
It was the kind of performance that has piqued the NFL's interest to the point that an errant report even stated that Jackson was ready to turn pro after his junior season. He'll give it one more go with the Cougars, but the next level will be waiting for him. Jackson is a smooth athlete and has added weight to his frame, allowing him to play more physical in coverage. His build definitely falls within the range NFL teams want from their cornerbacks these days.
Jackson has shown on numerous occasions that he can handle those trying man-to-man assignments. Can he upgrade his defense on run downs, too? That's probably the key to second-team All-AAC honoree leaping from a Day 2 spot into Round 1 contention.
2. Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati: There were several twists and turns in Kiel's story before he made it onto the field last year, but it was worth the wait.
Kiel's college career began in rocky and highly publicized fashion when he backed out of an LSU commitment to play at Notre Dame. Plan B did not work out, either—Kiel redshirted as a freshman in 2012, despite completing high school early so he could enroll in January of that year—and he then bolted for Cincinnati.
"I don’t know what happened at Notre Dame," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville told SI last year, "but when [Kiel] came in he was pretty deflated."
Now that Kiel finally has settled in, he's showing off the skills that made him such a hot recruit in the first place. Last season, he threw for 3,254 yards and 31 touchdowns, highlighted by a six-touchdown showing in his debut vs. Toledo, and a brilliant 352-yard, four-touchdown outburst at Ohio State.
The 6'4", 208-pound Kiel has the size and the arm to warrant NFL attention, with enough mobility to move the pocket. Accuracy and decision-making, often the attributes that take longest to develop, must come next. Kiel threw 13 picks last season, indicative of how he ran hot and cold as a passer. But the skill set is there.
3. Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple: There is something of an indefinable quality to players like Matakevich. The Temple linebacker is not all that big by linebacker standards (6'1", 235 pounds), and he probably will not test off the charts athletically. However, he can be a pure joy to watch, thanks to instincts and effort.
Headed into his fourth season as a starter, Matakevich has 354 tackles (118 per year) under his belt, as well as 25.0 tackles for loss. His game might remind you of former Wisconsin standout and now-retired former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who proved any doubts about his NFL qualifications wrong by racking up 108 tackles in his lone season.
Matakevich has that same aptitude for diagnosing plays in front of him, then closing in a heartbeat. He's not yet as comfortable dropping, though that may come. Some team will nab Matakevich in the mid-rounds and love the impact he has.
4. Parker Ehinger, G/T, Cincinnati: As of spring ball the Bearcats still had not hammered down where Ehinger would play this season—Tuberville told Cincinnati.com "we've moved him to right tackle and moved [Justin] Murray over to left tackle, but they can play both sides."
Ehinger (6'7", 315 pounds) also has experience at guard, which may ultimately be his NFL position. The versatility will help boost him come draft time. So, too, will that frame, one his pro team may envision staying at a tackle spot.
5. Zeek Bigger, LB, East Carolina: Another extremely productive inside linebacker, Bigger (6'2", 216 pounds) led the conference with 140 tackles last season. The fifth-year senior has paid his dues, redshirting in 2011 and mainly playing on special teams in his first active season.
Now, East Carolina's counting on him to spearhead its defense, a role that should suit the well-respected Bigger. He could be a combine standout down the line—per his ECU bio, Bigger has posted a broad jump of 9'11" and a short-shuttle time of 4.08 seconds, both numbers that would have landed among the best among the linebacker group at this year's combine.
Here's 12 additional players to watch, one from each team in the AAC:
Cincinnati—Silverberry Mouhon, DE: How will Mouhon (6'4", 248 pounds) respond to a disappointing 2014 season? He was viewed as a possible early-entrant to the '15 draft, only to see his production plummet, from 12.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore to 5.0 and 4.0, respectively. Mouhon's probably not big enough to be a full-time NFL DE. He could make it as a pass-rushing OLB, but first he has to show that last year was a fluke.
East Carolina—Montese Overton, LB: NFL.com recently ranked him No. 2 on its "College Football's most freakish athletes" list, noting Overton's 36.5-inch vertical and 490-pound squat, among other things. Overton will be back in his role as the Pirates' starting Sam linebacker, after posting 68 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014.
Houston—Adrian McDonald, S: Between Jackson, McDonald and Travon Stewart, the Cougars boast an experienced, talented secondary. McDonald (5'10", 190 pounds) has 13 career interceptions and constantly finds himself around the ball.
Memphis—Paxton Lynch, QB: We're probably two years from seeing the redshirt junior hit the draft ranks, although a huge 2015 performance could change all that. Lynch stands 6'7" and is coming off a season in which he threw for 3,031 yards and rushed for 13 touchdowns.
Navy—Chris Swain, RB/FB: Navy has not had a running back drafted since Napoleon McCallum by the Raiders in 1986, so the odds are stacked against Swain. He is an interesting prospect nonetheless, thanks to his size (6'1", 245 pounds) and rushing ability (693 yards on 6.4 yards per carry last season).
SMU—Shakiel Randolph, DB/LB: Definitely remember this name. If Randolph stays healthy in 2014 (he struggled with that last season, missing five games), he could have NFL scouts buzzing. At 6'4", 219 pounds, he's already seen time at both cornerback and safety; for 2015, the Mustangs plan to use him as a STAR—a safety/linebacker hybrid.
South Florida—Sean Price, TE: The 6'3", 245-pound Price caught 21 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown as a freshman but has not been able to build on those numbers the past two seasons. The potential is there to do so, if the Bulls can ramp up their passing attack. He could be a productive H-back if given the chance.
Temple—Matt Ioannidis, DT: Ioannidis and center Kyle Friend both could sneak into the later rounds come April, likely joining Matakevich. The 285-pound Ioannidis can be troublesome up front, paving the way for Matakevich and some of Temple's other linebackers to make plays.
Tulane—Arturo Uzdavinis, OT: The Green Wave's most experienced returning offensive lineman, with 25 career starts. Uzdavinis (6'7", 305 pounds) might intrigue an NFL team or two with his mix of size and experience.
Tulsa—Michael Mudoh, S: Hard to beat Mudoh's tackle numbers from the safety spot—113 last season and 133 in 2014, the latter number ranking fourth-best in the nation. He's an aggressive playmaker out of the secondary, showing enough speed to have a chance as a special-teams player at the next level, if nothing else.
UCF—Thomas Niles, DE: Niles (6'2", 266 pounds) has made a combined 26 starts over the past two seasons, last year registering 13.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. There may not be any over-the-top explosiveness in his game, but Niles does display rather solid technique and makes himself tough to move.
UConn—Graham Stewart, LB: A transfer from Florida after the 2011 season, Stewart (6'1", 228 pounds) made his mark with 94 tackles in 2014. His career highlight to date may be a blocked-punt touchdown return vs. Ohio State during the Gator Bowl.