SI 50, Nos. 50-48: Paxton Lynch, Kendall Fuller, Braxton Miller
With the 2016 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 teams to get their draft boards in order and rank players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, I have assembled my own Big Board, with the top 50 players in this year’s class.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define what separates the best prospects and explain why they’re slotted where they are. Leading off our countdown, which will continue over the coming weeks in the lead-up to the draft: a quarterback with a ton of potential, a cornerback with NFL family ties and a converted receiver who hopes he can buck a recent trend.
50. Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis
Height: 6' 7" Weight: 244
Bio: In quarterback classes with uncertainty at the top, there’s always a chance that someone in the middle of the pack rises up the rankings in the eyes of NFL evaluators. The 2016 class seems to be this way, with Carson Wentz and Jared Goff at the top, and a group of signal-callers below that looking to set themselves apart. Lynch, who started 39 straight games for the Tigers after redshirting as a freshman, may have the best chance to do so. He completed 758 of 1,205 passes for 8,865 yards, 59 touchdowns and 23 picks in his college career. His interception total (10, nine and four) dropped each season as his yards per attempt (5.1, 7.4, 9.4) shot up.
Some were concerned about the strength of Lynch’s competition, but he blew that worry out of the water in a 37–24 comeback win over Mississippi last October. After falling by 14 points in the first quarter to the 13th-ranked Rebels, Lynch put in the game of his life, completing 39 of 53 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns. This put him firmly on the national radar, and deservedly so, but also opened him up to a higher level of scrutiny. More than ever, people wanted to know if Lynch had the attributes to succeed at the NFL’s most important position.
Strengths: Lynch comes from a college system that allowed for diverse backfield action concepts and a fairly full route tree. Has surprising athleticism for his size; he can run for gains in the open field and roll out of pressure. Runs to throw; he’s not a disorganized scrambler. Outstanding boot-action quarterback when the routes are structured. Has the arm to make any throw, including the downfield far hash and seam, and the deep post. His NFL team won’t have to compensate for his arm in its route concepts. Has a good (if inconsistent) arc on intermediate timed anticipation throws. The quality of competition argument went away with the Ole Miss win, though the loss to Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl raised questions about how Lynch will handle defenses who take away his screens.
Weaknesses: Struggles at times with lower-body mechanics—will throw from a flat-footed base and loses accuracy and velocity as a result. Field vision needs improvement, as Lynch will take sacks with open receivers on his side of the field. Needs to be quicker and more decisive under pressure, and must learn to play out of chaos. Doesn’t always sense pressure outside of his peripheral vision. Benefited from a ton of screen bailouts; he isn’t as practiced at standing in the pocket and delivering the pressured throw. Had some multi-receiver reads in the Memphis offense, but will need to process things more quickly and look defenders off with more consistency in the NFL.
Conclusion: In a copycat league, does the combination of Joe Flacco’s success as a tall quarterback from outside the power conferences and Brock Osweiler’s recent mega-contract with the Texans give Lynch an advantage? It’s hard to say, but there is a lot to like about his potential. Flacco was ready to go from his first season out of Delaware, and I don’t think Lynch is at that level—more likely, he'd benefit greatly from time with a team that would let him sit and learn, as Osweiler was able to do for four years under Peyton Manning. Lynch has all the necessary physical tools; it’s just a matter of putting the little things together over time.
Pro Comparison: Brock Osweiler, Texans (Broncos, second round, 2012, Arizona State)
49. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Height: 5' 11" Weight: 187
Bio: If you believe in bloodlines, Fuller may be your man: He has three older brothers who all spent time in the NFL after starring at Virginia Tech. There was cornerback Kyle, currently with the Bears, receiver Corey, who’s been with the Lions since 2015, and safety Vincent, who played with the Titans and Lions from ’05 through ’11. Kendall led the ACC with six interceptions in 2013 and replaced Kyle as the Hokies’ top cornerback in 2014, grabbing two more picks and coming up with a conference-leading 13 passes defensed despite playing most of the season with a fractured wrist. Last year was more frustrating, as Fuller suffered a torn meniscus before the season started and elected to shut it down after three games to have surgery.
“My knee’s doing really well,” Fuller said at the scouting combine. “Feel like I’m about 90%. I’m doing pretty much everything. Doing a lot of drills, doing cutting, planting, things like that. Still just working on getting that power back, but other than that the motions and everything that I do feels really well.”
If Fuller can prove to teams that he is all the way back, he may just slip into the late first round as an intriguing slot/outside hybrid prospect. More than anyone in this draft class outside of Kansas State fullback Glenn Gronkowski, Fuller has a band of brothers who can tell him what the NFL will be like.
Strengths: Fuller is a fearless player in any situation. With single-safety help against elite receivers and only a boundary at his disposal, he never backs down. Trails very well on vertical routes—he has both good recovery speed and excellent straight-line quickness. Handsy, aggressive player who plays with a consistently physical style. This is both good and bad, as Fuller’s physicality is a key part of his playing style, but he’s going to have issues with penalties. Mirrors receivers very well when his body is under control. Handles zone handoffs seamlessly and sees the field well. By all accounts, a natural leader and tough player who will battle through pain. Unselfish and ballsy special teams player, and a willing, accurate tackler in run support.
Weaknesses: Looks flat-out small at times against bigger receivers. Fuller has to go all-out to create contested catch situations because of his size, especially on slants and other short passes. Struggles at times to maintain ideal position (inside/outside) on angular routes and can be blocked out of tight coverage. Can be wowed by double moves at the line and foot-fakes in space. Generally needs to get a tighter grasp on the finer details of route mirroring. Overall, Fuller struggles with small techniques that could be fixed with better mechanics—at times, he lets his body get away from him. Injury history is off-putting, and the torn meniscus he suffered last September could be an agility concern in the longer term. Looked slightly slower in short spaces on his 2015 tape as a result of that injury.
Conclusion: Two years ago, I did a write-up for SI on Kyle Fuller, Chicago's first-round pick in 2014. I believed that Kyle had the cleanest tape in his draft at the cornerback position. While I’m not as sure about Kendall’s technique,especially his body control and occasional recklessness, I do believe that he can be a quality NFL starter. Most likely, it would be with a team that plays a lot of nickel, with Fuller either in the slot or otherwise unburdened by the No. 1 role. There’s nothing at all wrong with being a top-level No. 2 cornerback at football’s highest level, and that’s where I believe this Fuller is headed—provided, of course, that his injuries don’t back up on him and he gets some next-level coaching on a few important things.
Pro Comparison: Bradley Roby, Broncos (first round, 2014, Ohio State)
48. Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State
Height: 6' 1" Weight: 201
Bio: Braxton Miller has taken a difficult and fascinating journey to where he is today as an NFL receiver prospect. He completed 395 of 666 passes for 5,292 yards, 52 touchdowns and 17 interceptions as the Buckeyes’ quarterback from 2011 through 2013, winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in ’12 and ’13. After a torn labrum forced him to miss the entire ’14 campaign, Miller found himself below J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones on the depth chart. Miller could have moved to another school as a graduate transfer and kept the dream of playing quarterback alive, but he chose instead to stay put and learn a new position. He’s been called an “H-back,” but that’s a misnomer in NFL terms. He’s a slot receiver who moves into the backfield at times. He caught just 25 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, but it’s Miller’s overall physical ability that has teams interested. He rushed 600 times for 3,315 yards and 33 touchdowns during his time at Ohio State, and he does things as a receiver that project well to an NFL future.
Strengths: Good size for the position (especially for the slot) with excellent musculature and explosive burst off the snap. Incredible quickness in short spaces -- he's almost more like a running back in this regard. Very elusive around the edge and when moving through routes. Has the ability to make defenders look absolutely silly with feints and spins. Route definition is raw, to be sure, but has a nascent ability to plant and go on a route corner. Legit rushing skills out of the backfield—he’s not just a Tavon Austin-style gadget player there. He gained over 1,000 yards on the ground in both 2012 and 2013 as a rushing quarterback. At this point, he’s a natural slot receiver who understands how to sink into zones and drive into openings. His ability to move into backfield action gives his offense a different and potentially effective look. Aggressive and willing blocker.
Weaknesses: As you’d expect for a guy who has only played the position for one season, Miller has a lot of work to do with the subtleties of being a receiver. Didn’t run the full route tree at Ohio State—used primarily on slants, drags, quick passes, and vertical stuff. Will need to grow into an intermediate role. There’s not a lot of tape of him dominating outside against an opponent’s best cornerback; he may be stuck in the slot role for a long time before he gets the hang of that. Was able to rely on pure athleticism against simple college coverages far more than he will be able to in the NFL. He is not yet experienced with contested catches and has had bouts with drops and alligator arms. Has the athleticism to return punts and kicks, but has no history there. The injuries in his past may give some teams pause.
Conclusion: From Percy Harvin to Tavon Austin to Cordarrelle Patterson, we’ve seen dynamic college athletes and struggle with the complexities of the receiver position at the professional level in recent years. Miller has an advantage in that he’s worked in a pro-style offense, and his time as a quarterback may indeed give him a leg up when it comes to mastering route concepts and deciphering defenses. There’s absolutely no question about Miller’s athleticism; the thing that will push him into the second or third round is his relatively limited palette. To be honest, that would be the best place for him to start:as a second- or third-day draft pick who has to work his way up the latter.
Harvin, Austin and Patterson were all first-round picks, and they’ve each struggled in their own ways with the jump to the NFL. Part of the problem may be that they were rushed to do too much based on the capital spent to draft them. Then again, some players are more athletes than football players, and that’s the designation Miller will have to fight to overcome. He’s not at the level Randall Cobb was at coming out of Kentucky, but Cobb also had the benefit of multiple seasons adjusting to the QB-WR switch before the NFL got a hold of him.
Pro Comparison: Randall Cobb, WR, Packers (second round, 2011, Kentucky)