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 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 recently covered prospects 54-50 and can be found in its entirety here, 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 have our eyes on the key cogs of some menacing front sevens and an under-the-radar SEC wideout.
No. 49: Telvin Smith, OLB, Florida State
Bio: Smith led Florida State with 90 tackles last season, while chipping in three interceptions and nine tackles for loss. So, why are some in the NFL pushing him as a potential safety? Mainly, because of his size -- at 6-3, 218, Smith would be extremely light for an every-down linebacker at the next level. He maintains that he can excel there, and his performance in his only season as a Seminoles starter might back his argument. Without Smith's presence on defense, Florida State may not have walked away as national champs in 2013.
Strengths: The pitch for a move to safety fits with Smith's instinctual approach to defense. He reads plays extremely well, finds the football in traffic and attacks. Had 7.0 sacks in college, a total that only begins to hint at his potential as a blitzer. The combination of Smith's athleticism and downhill style may turn him into a menace if a team turns him loose into a gap. Already has a chip on his shoulder over scouts questioning his ability to hold up at linebacker, and he's the type of player who can turn such motivation into increased production. Would upgrade the special-teams coverage units of any team.
Weaknesses: The size. Not surprisingly, Smith has issues fending off blockers, especially if a lineman finds him on the second level or he gets trapped amidst the muck inside. Staying healthy for a full 16-game NFL season will be a challenge, as much because of how he tackles -- with great speed and often by diving low -- as because of his slight 218-pound frame. Hard to see him consistently winning in coverage against bigger, stronger tight ends. Only an average tackler.
Conclusion: Teams that walk a safety down into the box are hoping those players can play like Smith does. He cranks it up to full speed on every play, yet stays in control enough to diagnose what's happening in front of him. Put him behind a line that can eat up some blocks and alongside a LB capable of playing some coverage, and Smith will make up for his lack of bulk by outracing offensive players to their spots. If Smith were more open to a hybrid linebacker/safety role, even more front offices would be banging the table to consider him early.
No. 48: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Bio: Vanderbilt's quarterback play was, at best, average during Matthews' four years there. He deserves extremely high marks then for finding a way to catch 112 passes for 1,477 yards last season. Those numbers topped the 94/1,323 spread he produced in 2012 catching passes from Jordan Rodgers, brother of Green Bay's Aaron and who recently signed with the Dolphins. For all the hype surrounding big receivers, Matthews -- an athletic 6-foot-3, 212 pounds -- has somehow slid a bit under the radar. He scored 24 touchdowns for the Commodores. That he is the cousin of Jerry Rice may not matter in reality, but it will not hurt his perceived value.
Strengths: Can be effective from any spot on the field. Able to find openings due to his exceptional route-running, even when faced with physical cornerbacks at the line. Adjusts well to the ball downfield and gets his body in position for the catch. Should be better after the catch than he really had the opportunity to be in Vanderbilt's offense; the 4.46 speed is no fluke. Had no issues handling the No. 1 receiver role against SEC competition, with the aforementioned shaky QB play. Good height, strength and leaping ability, all factors that should allow him to do some damage in the red zone. Solid hands.
Weaknesses: May not project as a No. 1 option in the pros unless he really adds some muscle or better translates that speed to stretch the field. Considering how many passes he plucks from defenders, Matthews does occasionally make some frustrating drops. NFL corners may have more success jamming him at the line. Is his ceiling any higher than where he's at right now? Matthews should be a productive pro, but teams may be hesitant to project him out as a superstar.
Conclusion: Matthews will draw a lot of Keenan Allen comparisons (including 50 percent of one below) because, similar to the Chargers' rookie sensation, he does not necessarily blow you away on film, but all the traits are there to be a reliable NFL receiver from the get-go. Where that scouting report falls in line with a flashy class of receivers will be interesting to follow as the draft approaches.
NFL player comparison: A mix of Brian Hartline, Miami Dolphins (4th round, 2009, Ohio State) and Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers (3rd round, 2013, California)
No. 47: Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford
Bio: Murphy's list of college honors runs about the length of a Tolstoy novel. Several first-team All-America teams (including Sports Illustrated's), first-team All-Pac 12, Bednarik Award semifinalist ... the list goes on and on. One more that may stand out for NFL scouts: Murphy's teammates voted him winner of the Jack Huston Award, which honors "aggressiveness, exceptional performance and unheralded efforts." True to his reputation as a strong pass-rusher, Murphy registered 32.5 sacks in his Stanford career, with an NCAA-leading 15 in 2013. He also led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (23.5). His draft status will have to overcome a shoddy combine. He was slow (4.86 40), weaker than teams would like for a potential DE (19 bench-press reps), and slightly undersized (6-foot-5 and just 250 pounds).
Strengths: Most of the pro-Murphy argument will start with his high motor. Almost rope-a-dopes opponents -- will lose a few plays in a row against strong blockers, but then will pounce when the opponent shows even the slightest bit of fatigue. Fairly nimble at the line, using his hands well at the point of attack. Almost impossible to cut block, which gives him an advantage on the edge. Bends the corner to use his speed as a pass-rusher. Smart defender, as you might expect given his college program. Not easily fooled by play-action or misdirection, manages to track the ballcarrier on a regular basis. Relentless getting after the quarterback.
Weaknesses: Combine further highlighted that he's caught in the middle between a DE or OLB future. Speed (4.86 40) does not bode well as a stand-up linebacker; limited strength (19 bench-press reps) puts his ability to anchor an end spot in question. The missing power showed up from time to time on tape, as blockers could move him if they got their hands into his body. Coverage abilities, particularly against tight ends, will be of huge concern.
Conclusion: Murphy's former teammate, Chase Thomas, hit the NFL last year with a similar scouting report to that of Murphy. And despite collecting 27.5 sacks in his career, Thomas went undrafted. Murphy is a more dangerous and productive pass-rusher, and he excelled more consistently against college tackles. Right now, his ideal usage may be as a rotational 4-3 end, able to hop on the field for passing downs to pressure the QB. Don't expect him to match Thomas' draft fate. Do bet on the coaching staff that eventually takes Murphy to fall in love with him.
No. 46: Stephon Tuitt, DT, Notre Dame
Bio: Tuitt turned in a remarkable 2012, as Notre Dame's spectacular defense led a charge to the national title game. He finished the year with 12 sacks, second-most all-time for an Irish player, plus earned an AP All-America second-team nod. (SI gave him first-team honors.) The 2013 campaign was not nearly as successful, for Tuitt or the Irish. Struggling with injuries throughout the year, Tuitt still racked up 7.5 sacks but was far less effective as a whole. In February, he had to skip workouts at the scouting combine because of a fractured bone in his foot. Assuming he can maintain his health and rediscover his 2012 form, Tuitt might play out as a draft steal.
Strengths: Possesses the versatility that NFL teams love right now, with hybrid fronts all the rage. Tuitt did some of his best work from the five-tech DE spot, particularly during that 12-sack 2012 season. Strong and uses his hands well, allowing him to rip past blockers. Hard for O-linemen to move out of position without a double team, even on misdirection or stretch plays. Flashes some power when attempting to drive blockers back into the pocket -- a nice complement to his quickness. Delivered some of his best games against Notre Dame's tougher opponents (title-game blowout loss to Alabama aside).
Weaknesses: Noticeably heavier for much of 2013 ... and noticeably slower off the ball. Has some plays where it looks like he's running through warm-up drills -- locks out with a lineman for a second or two, then casually disengages. Some of that may have to do with his technique, since his stand-up style can put him in poor position for one-on-one battles. Notre Dame's D was geared toward pushing plays to the linebackers, but it would have been nice to see Tuitt rack up a few more solo tackles (24 per year in 2012 and '13).
Conclusion: Prospects may find it tough when asking NFL teams for the benefit of the doubt, but Tuitt's 2012 performance was superior enough to his 2013 effort that casting blame on offseason sports-hernia surgery is a viable plan. Tuitt weighed in at 304 pounds at the combine, down 18 pounds from where he started last season. In that range, he can be much more effective as a dynamic threat. A 3-4 team in need of a five-tech probably is the ideal landing spot here, but 4-3 teams should not rule Tuitt out of the mix.
No. 45: Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State
Bio: A 52-game starter at left guard for the Bulldogs, Jackson is an advanced product at the guard position. Jackson, who will turn 23 this summer, redshirted in 2009, then took over the LG spot in 2010 and never relinquished it. He stands 6-foot-3 and, along with Tennessee OT Antonio Richardson, topped all offensive linemen at the combine by weighing in at 336 pounds. Jackson carries that size well, having shown no durability or conditioning issues during his college career.
Strengths: Sets and holds his block effectively on pass plays, stalemating just about every DT he came up against. Jackson's strength is obvious in many of those cases -- he uses short, choppy steps off the snap to lock into his position, extends his arms well and anchors. His best blocks actually may come when he's asked to slant inside and seal off a defender; he accomplishes that consistently. NFL-ready size. Despite the 5.5 40 time at the combine, Jackson moves his feet well, showing some potential as a pulling guard.
Weaknesses: At times, it almost appears like Jackson's running into a force field after a yard or two. Rather than push forward onto the second level, he frequently turns back in toward the line, usually at the expense of providing much help. Speed can be a factor, either from blitzers or quick DTs. Occasionally will allow a defender to gain an edge of his shoulder, and does not have the agility to recover. More than capable of delivering punishment and driving his blocks through the whistle, so why doesn't he take advantage of that more?
Conclusion: Between his experience (in the SEC, no less), his build and his technique, Jackson has the look of a plug-and-play interior lineman. He may have a brighter future on a team that tends toward the pass with run elements mixed in, as opposed to vice versa. That's not to say that Jackson will be an ineffective run blocker in the NFL, but rather that he's further along in pass-protection right now. If the team that drafts him can continue to round out his game, Jackson has Pro Bowl potential.