With the draft just about a month away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players in order based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64, which debuted with a look at prospect Nos. 64-60 and continued with prospects 59-55, uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted as such. Approaching the middle of the hypothetical second round, we're stocking up on running backs and cornerbacks who could be great in the right settings.
No. 54: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
In 2013, Mason broke Bo Jackson's single-season school rushing record, which is as impressive as it sounds. He gained 1,816 yards and scored 23 rushing touchdowns on 317 carries, establishing himself as one of the SEC's premier offensive weapons and one of the best running backs in the country. The conference's 2013 Offensive Player of the Year ended his collegiate career with 195 rushing yards in the BCS Championship loss to Florida State, and felt that the time was right to declare for the draft after his junior season. In a class where there isn't one clearly dominant player at his position, it could be a very lucrative move over time.
Strengths: Mason is a confident runner who hits the hole with speed and keeps his pad level low to drive through contact. Good array of foot fakes to keep defenders on their toes. Bounces outside quickly and decisively when there's nothing for him up front, and he accelerates to another level in a big hurry. Shows obvious determination in red-zone situations -- will put everything into it to get the score. Exciting open-field runner who understands how to drive his foot into the ground and keep momentum going when he changes directions. Keeps looking for openings at all times -- Mason keeps his eyes up and forward in the open field, and this is where he gains extra yardage.
Not a devastating blocker by any means, but gives good effort in this area and can at least keep linemen and linebackers at bay in passing situations. Good one-cut inside runner in situations where there are openings, and when he gets past fronts into linebackers and defensive backs, he'll be a real problem for defenses, because that's where the size disadvantage becomes less of an issue. Adds value as a returner and receiver -- especially in the latter department, his NFL team may use Mason more than the Tigers did.
Weaknesses: While Mason is built for power, he doesn't have enough root strength to consistently break contact and gain extra yards that the truly above-average power back would. It's not that he avoids contact -- he doesn't -- but when he's tackled, he tends to stay tackled, and you'd want more escapability in a first-round talent. While he does have second-level speed, there isn't that hyper burst some backs (think of the 2,000-yard version of Chris Johnson) employ. Has occasional issues with ball security.
Conclusion: Mason is an interesting hybrid of the more traditional inside and outside backs -- while he's clearly fast and agile enough to be a primary back in an NFL system that features extra blockers, he might struggle in a single-back concept, because he simply isn't physically strong enough to break contact -- and if more weight was put on his frame, he might lose the speed and agility that make him special. That doesn't mean that he can't be a lead back in the pros; just that the NFL team selecting him will have to engineer his success formationally. This is what the Ravens have done for Ray Rice (heavy I-formation with a lead fullback for power and blast concepts), and I think Mason could be similarly successful.
NFL player comparison: Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens (2nd round, 2008, Rutgers)
No. 53: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
In an era of specialized backs, Hyde is definitely a throwback in the ways he bullied Ohio State's opponents. In 2013, he gained 1,521 yards on just 208 carries for an impressive 7.3 yards per carry average and 15 rushing touchdowns. He did so despite missing the first three games of the season due to suspension following an alleged assault. He finished off his collegiate career with at least 100 yards in his last nine games, including two 200-yard performances.
“I think my game is what separates me,” Hyde said at the scouting combine. “What I bring to the table? I bring that passion. I play with a lot of heart. I feel like I bring that spark to the offense. When the offense needs something going, I feel like I can make it happen.”
Hyde will be a bruiser in what has become a speed league. How well will that work?
Strengths: As is true of most power-based backs, Hyde doesn't give up if his first option turns into a brick wall -- he can turn and cut quickly (especially for his size) and will get back up to optimal momentum quickly. Can also slip in and out of gaps to find openings. Enjoys dishing out punishment to defenders on outside runs -- has an estimable stiff-arm and uses it liberally. Good blocker who will grade the way for teammates and get face-up with defenders. Maintains his blocks to and through the second level of the defense, and has the straight-line speed to do so -- this is one of his most prominent attributes. Has surprising speed to the outside and agility in short areas for his size, which makes him look more like a complete potential back at the next level. Hyde can build up a head of steam and outrun people in space as opposed to just beating the crap out of them. Can catch screens and swing passes -- he's clearly an every-down back.
Weaknesses: While Hyde is unquestionably the best power back in this class, one fault stands out -- he doesn't drive his legs when gang-tackled at or near the line, and he gives up yards by not doing so. Yes, he was the primary focus of opposing defenses a lot of the time, and he faced a lot of run blitzes, but that comes with the territory. And I'd like to see him hit the line with more speed at times; the best power backs have a fine balance between patience and velocity. The 4.66 speed he showed at the combine makes itself clear in these instances. At times, made big gains because opponents were focused on quarterback Braxton Miller; Hyde would benefit from a similarly mobile quarterback in the NFL.
Conclusion: At 230 pounds, Hyde is about maxed out for an NFL player of his type. In a league where defenses are unbelievably complex and move with lightning speed, the recent history of bigger, taller power backs isn't pretty. Hyde can transcend that in the right system, but he'll need to get a quicker head start out of the backfield -- and use his body to break tackles at the line -- more consistently before that becomes a reality. Shonn Greene, who played 5-11 and 227 pounds at Iowa, would be an excellent paradigm, because Greene was a bit more slippery and speedy at the line.
No. 52: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
Seferian-Jenkins was a top-30 national high school prospect who caught 41 passes for 538 yards as a true freshman, 69 for 852 yards in 2012. And in a way, that was his undoing. When the Huskies moved to more of a spread offense in 2013, Seferian-Jenkins was the odd man out -- he's not the kind of player who's going to benefit from wide splits as much as a more athletic tight end would. The failures of Washington's offense became Seferian-Jenkins' failures to a degree, as he dropped to 36 catches for 450 yards. However, he did set a career mark with eight touchdowns.
All in all, he's a tough evaluation. At 6-6, 262 pounds, he's a tweener in a league full of tweener tight ends.
"I think there are a lot of talented guys in this draft class at every position, and specifically at the tight end position you've got a lot of great players," he said at the scouting combine in February. "But what I think I do is if you watched me play, I split out and played receiver. I've done fullback. I've played inline. I think I have showed I'm very capable of being a playmaker down the seam and run regular routes as a receiver. I've shown the capability of being a blocker and I'm an every-down guy who can get out there immediately on the field."
That much is true -- it's just that NFL teams will have to cool their jets a bit when they look at what Seferian-Jenkins can do in their offenses.
Strengths: Optimal traditional inline tight end who can get open in short spaces and move up to the next level in option routes. Convincing blocker who puts a lot of effort into it -- will charge up to meet defenders and actually has a decent kick-slide when asked to guard the pocket. Can make plays lining up everywhere from inline to flex to wide. Seferian-Jenkins is very effective when running seam routes from the flex -- that's where he can use his height and size to great effect against second-level defenders.
Has an obvious and effective understanding of an NFL-level route tree. Gets physical against, and beats, press coverage with his hands and an understanding of angles, especially on slants and drags. Will most likely exceed his 2013 college stats in the right NFL system, because he ran a lot of open routes as quarterback Keith Price was bailing out due to Washington's sub-par pass protection.
Weaknesses: While he can be a mismatch in the passing game, Seferian-Jenkins doesn't have the kind of open-field burn you'd see from the new generation of big receivers at the position (i.e., Jimmy Graham) -- it takes him a while to get up to speed. At times, he looks positively awkward when he's running. Goes down on contact more easily than you'd like for a player his size. Can be wildly inconsistent from one game to the next.
Conclusion: Were he a little faster on the field, or played in a slightly more congruent offense, or had lived a bit more up to expectations, Seferian-Jenkins might be thought of as a first-round prospect. And that was the case after his 2012 season. The truth is, Seferian-Jenkins is a good player with the potential to be great in the right system. He's not a world-beater, but teams looking for a tight end who can run multiple routes in a power offense will be happy with their return on investment if he's a second-day pick.
No. 51: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The story of Bradley Roby as a college player is actually two stories -- the 2012 season, where he looked like one of the best pass defenders in the country... and the 2013 season, where he missed the first game of the season due to suspension and took a while to get back to his best. He was a Thorpe Award finalist in 2012 and led the nation in passes defensed with 19, which said a lot about his speedy, physical playing style. But he allowed more plays to happen in 2013, and didn't flash the consistency needed to vault him into first-round prospect status in the minds of many.
"My mindset in camp wasn’t where it should have been," Roby has said of 2013. "I knew I wasn’t playing the first game, so I might have maybe not gotten as many reps as I normally would have. At corner, reps are everything. Training your eyes, looking at the right places all the time, all those type of things. Kind of got away from that. Kind of undisciplined type of play I was playing at the beginning of the season."
Undisciplined? At times. Inconsistent? Yes. But the team taking a shot on Roby could very well wind up with one of the better cornerbacks in the league someday. He's certainly got the raw skill set to make that a reality.
Strengths: Extremely physical player for his size (5-11, 194) who makes life particularly nightmarish for slot receivers. Uses a long wingspan and terrific timing to move in and bat the ball away just as his receiver is about to make the catch. That physicality extends to his tackling ability, which starts in the backfield -- Roby heads to the running back like a missile and understands how to bring bigger players down. He would be an excellent option on cornerback blitzes from the slot because he times them perfectly, and his coverage abilities place him there very nicely. As a pure press cornerback, Roby excels because he can follow his receivers wherever they go, and he also reads the running game as he's covering. Has the straight-line speed to catch up with just about any runner and make a stop.
Weaknesses: Roby needs work on his off-coverage -- it could have been a product of scheme at Ohio State, but he allowed far too many easy completions underneath when in off-coverage by giving up too much of a cushion. Though he has legitimate sub-4.4 speed, Roby struggles with recovery quickness when he's been beaten; he needs to learn to hit corners and angles with more acceleration. Doesn't turn his hips as fluidly as he should when playing bail technique. Height disadvantage shows up when he's playing trail coverage and tries to get vertical against bigger receivers -- unless he times it perfectly, he's going to get out-jumped. Occasionally tries to bat the ball away when he should stick and stay with the target.
Conclusion: In today's NFL, more is expected of cornerbacks than ever before. The best among them can shut down the best opposing receiver every week, and while I'm not sure that Roby has the pure size to get that done, he's got enough on the ball in a potential sense to play at an All-Pro level. With some pro defenses playing nickel and dime coverage far more than half the time, I could see Roby as a great No. 2 outside cornerback who could work into the slot on a regular basis and just shut slot receivers down. He might struggle against bigger players, but he also plays bigger than he is. And if he can regain his 2012 form, Roby will be a steal for some lucky NFL defensive coordinator.
No. 50: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Like Roby, Fuller dropped on most mock boards because of some missed time. Unlike Roby, Fuller didn't miss games because of any infractions -- he had surgery to repair a sports hernia in 2013, playing in just seven games and missing the Senior Bowl as a result. But he still managed two interceptions, 10 pass deflections and a forced fumble. A tremendously versatile player -- he had 14.5 tackles for loss in 2011 -- Fuller could help his NFL team in all kinds of ways.
“I moved around in our defensive backfield," Fuller said at the combine, where he was able to show that he was fully recovered. "I played field, I played boundary. That just shows how versatile I am. I enjoyed playing at Virginia Tech. I definitely consider myself a physical player.”
We may be conservative in our ranking of Fuller, based on that injury, and the fact that he plays so physically at his size. Honestly, it's tough to find anything on his tape that is glaringly problematic -- and there's a whole lot to like.
Strengths: Fuller is really good with his feet -- he can stick with a receiver through any stutter or foot fake, and he transitions fluidly to coverage. Backpedals well and turns his hips in time to stay on his target. Fuller plays off-coverage like a pro and understands pattern reading, which makes him great outside or in the slot. He might be the best at his position in this draft class when it comes to closing on routes and following through to break up the play. Fuller is fast anyway (ran a 4.49-40 at the combine), but his awareness of technique and quick closes on angles make him look even quicker on the field. Not a dominant tackler per se, but will sell himself out to stop a play and excels at inline and slot blitzes.
Plays well in the slot and has the size (6-0, 198) to deal with bigger receivers and some tight ends. Extends to inside position and can trail receivers in the slot and outside. Gets vertical very well and knows how to time his jumps. Recovery speed isn't Olympian, but it's good enough. Played linebacker depth against Georgia Tech in 2013 and split through different gaps with pass and run blitzes.
Weaknesses: Due to the aggressive nature of his play, Fuller will occasionally bite on play-fakes, play-action and double moves, but this isn't a major problem. And he addressed the injury concerns with his combine performance.
Conclusion: Fuller still made the coaches' vote as ACC All-First Team despite his injury, and the coaches are on to something. If he can stay healthy and get the more aggressive aspects of his play in line, Fuller could be the best cornerback in this class.
NFL player comparison: D.J. Hayden, Oakland Raiders (1st round, Houston, 2013)