The tackle at the top of most mock drafts is an unknown to the majority of football fans. Here’s a little background on the mammoth man from Mississippi. Plus notes on Jared Goff, Ezekiel Elliott, Myles Jack and more
In January 2013, three top-15 recruits in that year’s high school graduating class sat in the red-painted lobby of The Inn at Ole Miss and came up with a plan. The University of Mississippi hadn’t fielded a 10-win football team since 2003, Eli Manning’s final season in Oxford. So three boys from Georgia, Illinois and Florida resolved to turn around a program.
“When I made it to campus, I fell in love with it,” says Laremy Tunsil, then the 14th-ranked player in the 2013 class, out of Lake City, Fla. “And I sat down with Robert [Nkemdiche] and Quon [Laquon Treadwell] in that lobby and said, ‘Hey man. We can change this program instead of going to a place like Alabama that’s already at the top.’”
A pioneer spirit. It’s often required of the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, which is where many project the former Ole Miss left tackle will be chosen by Tennessee on April 28 as the Titans hope to tab a franchise tackle to protect Marcus Mariota. It’s a rare mid-February consensus on a player few NFL fans outside of SEC country have likely heard of.
A quick primer on Tunsil:
• The Name. His mother, a nurse, planned to name him Christopher. Then an aunt interjected and suggested Jeremy. Somehow, they settled on Laremy. Says Tunsil: “I honestly have no idea where the L comes from.”
• The Man. A soft-spoken big man who avoids interviews, Tunsil ironically majored in broadcast journalism at Ole Miss after initially studying chiropractics. “I tried to get in front of the camera, but I’m a shy guy,” Tunsil says. “Hopefully that’s in my future.”
• The Player. Tunsil, who declared for the draft as a junior, pass protects with machine-like efficiency and drive blocks with the explosion of a big man who could dunk in middle school. “This guy may be a once-in-a-lifetime type athlete,” says Mississippi co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke. Tunsil is resilient, too, bouncing back after breaking his leg in the bowl game at the conclusion of his sophomore season.
Luke was the lead recruiter for Tunsil in 2012, winning a fierce competition with Alabama, Florida State and Georgia, among others. He credits the collaboration of Tunsil’s fellow five stars for that season’s windfall—the seventh-ranked recruiting class according to Rivals. Tunsil, Nkemdiche and Treadwell made good on their commitment to revitalize Ole Miss in three seasons under coach Hugh Freeze. In Year 3, the trio helped elevate the program to a 10-3 season and a Sugar Bowl win on New Year’s Day.
Yet two of those three losses came while Tunsil was serving a seven-game suspension for receiving impermissible extra benefits, according to an NCAA investigation into his use of loaner vehicles. The NCAA looked into the matter after Tunsil’s then-stepfather, whom Tunsil had been in a physical altercation with last summer, reported apparent violations.
During the investigation, Tunsil labored on the scout-team defense, then issued an apology on the topic upon his return to a 5-2 Ole Miss team that began the season with championship aspirations.
Says Luke: “He could’ve been over there pouting, but instead he gave us a look and made his teammates better.”
Says Tunsil: “It was an unfortunate situation and I learned from it. It was tough to get motivated with all that going on but I wanted to make the team better any way I could.”
If his extended absence gave pause to NFL evaluators who considered him a top-tier offensive tackle after his freshman and sophomore seasons, Tunsil erased those doubts in his first game back. In a 23-3 win over Texas A&M on Oct. 24, he held sophomore pass-rushing phenom Myles Garrett to one of the quietest performances of an 11.5-sack season.
During the week of his return to the lineup, Tunsil reminded Luke and other coaches that he didn’t require any assistance in pass blocking from a running back, so don’t even put it in the game plan. It’s something Tunsil has done since his freshman year.
“They just put their confidence in me,” Tunsil says. “They saw what I could do for two years. I always go up to my O.C. and say ‘Man, I don’t want no chip. I don’t need any running back helping me out. I can handle it on my own.’
“Being on the outside playing tackle, you have to have a little bit of swagger, some confidence.”
One look at Tunsil, and it’s easy to understand where the confidence comes from. He could dunk in seventh grade at 6-2 and still can at 6-5 and 310 pounds. He was so impressive as a scout team defensive end, Luke is convinced he could get drafted as a pass rusher with zero college experience.
Says Tunsil: “I think I could. Even at wide receiver.”
A 310-pound wide receiver? That's pioneering.
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Five things you need to know
1. The eye test. Presumptively, Cal quarterback Jared Goff will be the first or second quarterback off the board, in competition with North Dakota State late-bloomer Carson Wentz. How much will the combine throwing drills affect that outcome? Perhaps not at all. It’s very possible the most important evaluation for Goff, who has fewer question marks on his résumé coming out of the Pac-12, will happen the day he shows up and weighs in. We’ve all seen the picture of Tom Brady looking waif-like at 6-4, 211 pounds in nothing but boxers at the combine. It’s a small part of the reason Brady fell as far as he did, and that’s what evaluators don’t want to see in Goff, who is listed at 6-4, 205, and weighed as little as 185 during the 2013 season. There’s also the question of hand size, which is actually a pretty big predictor of completion percentage. Scouts will want to see Goff’s mitts measure up to 9.5 inches or something comparable.
2. The rise of Ezekiel Elliott. Speaking of hands, one player who could significantly raise his stock in combine drills is Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, the consensus top running back, who could position himself as a Top-10 option during the pre-draft process. Elliott has the opportunity to supplement his impressive pass blocking performances in 2015 with receiving chops that would force teams to consider him an every-down back. In his Ohio State career, Elliott caught 28 and 27 passes as a sophomore and junior, respectively. NFL teams will want to see Elliott display elite speed and successfully run the full running back route tree before spending a high first-round pick on a running back.
3. The most important 40-yard dash at the combine. This distinction belongs to Laquon Treadwell, the junior wide receiver out of Mississippi who suffered a nasty leg injury a year ago. He came back in 2015 to catch 82 passes for 1,153 yards, earning consideration as the top wide receiver in a lackluster position class compared to 2015. Treadwell’s size and ability to go up and get contested passes are his hallmarks, but straight-line speed is a question mark. Then again, DeAndre Hopkins showed the scouting community in 2015 how great hands and catch mechanics can compensate for a lack of speed.
4. Explain yourself. The combine interview process, shrouded in secrecy and occasionally embroiled in controversy, will be especially important for two Big Ten quarterbacks who were once considered the cream of this class: Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg. Cook has the dubious distinction of being a fifth-year senior and the winningest quarterback in school history (34-4) while not being voted a captain in his final season. Hackenberg, a freshman sensation in 2013, tossed 28 touchdowns with 21 interceptions in his final two seasons with a very meh supporting cast. What went wrong?
5. Circle this date: March 15. That’s when UCLA do-it-all linebacker Myles Jack will perform all the drills he might have done at the combine if not for a season-ending knee injury suffered Sept. 22. Jack underwent surgery for a torn anterior meniscus which required stitching, necessitating between four and six months of rehab for the typical athlete. The six-month point hits on March 22 for the one-time Heisman hopeful who played both ways as a linebacker and running back during his time under coach Jim Mora Jr. Despite the injury, Jack is projected as a top-10 pick thanks to his rare ability in coverage.
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Stat of the Week
In a week, dozens of agents will descend upon Indianapolis in the interest of clients new and old. They’ll lobby for veteran free agents and shepherd wide-eyed rookies through the obstacles of the combine. They range in stature from perennial power brokers with multiple first-rounders to entry-level agents hoping to push their client into the seventh round, and their rookie clients are a reflection of recruiting prowess and personal preference.
All of which made me wonder: What do the recruiting tendencies of agents tell us about the NFL position hierarchy? Obviously, being a cornerback is a great gig, with what are essentially 96 starting jobs out there, whereas being a running back in an increasingly pass-heavy league shifting away from the mega-contract for ball-carriers is a tougher go. But what about the other positions?
For answers, I went to the NFLPA website, which lists the total of active contracts negotiated for each registered agent. Then I cataloged the number of contracts negotiated for each lead agent of a combine invitee, then averaged it out by position group. (For a more accurate sample, I excluded Drew Rosenhaus, whose league-high 83 contracts skewed the average for lesser-populated positions.)
The operative theory: Agents gravitate toward positions that foster successful, stable, lucrative careers. Thus, among position groups with more competition to sign players, the average number of an agent's current negotiated contracts (ANACNC) will be higher. The results:
A few observations:
• I assumed quarterbacks would have the most veteran agents gunning for them. Not so in this draft. Rush linebackers and defensive ends take the top spot by a wide margin.
• In a relatively weak class for tight ends, the big pass-catchers garnered marginally more competition than wide receivers, despite nary a tight end being projected in the first round. The potential earnings for the next wave of greats after Witten, Gates and Gonzalez are just that enticing.
• Linebackers who don’t regularly rush the passer had almost half the ANACNC as linebackers who do rush the passer, and about 20% less than cornerbacks and safeties as the league completes its transition to full-time nickel defensive backs.
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Quote of the Week
“Going into my first draft as a GM, there’s no way I thought a player like Tyrann Mathieu should get a second chance. Now that we gave Tyrann that chance and he’s become the player and the person that he is, he’s changed my thinking on that a little bit that some—some—players deserve second chances.”
—Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim, on his evolving draft philosophy.
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Scorching Hot Take of the Week
Oh yeah, Todd? What did we learn in the middle of February that bumped up someone in your Top 32, and why do I have to pay ESPN actual money to find out?!
It’s just another incarnation of the NFL Draft Hot Take Industrial Complex we are all a party to and prisoners of. Really looking forward to this Goff-Wentz debate for the next three months.
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