Next up on the SI 64: Two elite cornerbacks, a productive running back, the best center in the draft and a tempting receiver with a tarnished past.
With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, 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. 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.
As we get to the top of the twenties on our Big Board, the talent hits a higher altitude, and there are first-round prospects throughout this list. Here you'll find the best center in this draft class (and a pretty good lineman at other positions), two cornerbacks who could start at an elite level right away, a running back who was ridiculously productive against high levels of competition, and a receiver who may be the most tempting prospect for some—and an absolute no-go for others.
Prospects Nos. 24–20 on our SI 64:
24. Cameron Erving, G/C, Florida State
Bio: How much versatility does Erving bring to the table? Well, he was voted All-ACC first-team at left tackle and All-ACC second-team at center this past season. All that came after Erving began his Florida State career as a defensive tackle—he did not move to the offensive line until 2012. Erving took over the LT spot to open that season and proceeded to start 42 consecutive games. ACC head coaches and defensive coordinators twice awarded him the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top lineman.
Strengths: Moves from tackle to guard or from guard to center are relatively commonplace. Rare is the lineman who has the quickness to hold his own at left tackle and the power to play center. While Erving’s future now appears set at the latter spot, multi-positional background looks good on the resume. Quick out of his stance, even with added responsibility of handling snaps. Can get to the second level, helps block down for his guards and is fast enough to pull. Strength is evident as a run-blocker driving forward, as well as a pass-protector anchoring against power rushes. Handled mental aspect of midseason position change without any issues, which NFL teams surely noticed.
Weaknesses: Has played all of five games at center so the transition will take some time and it might be a bit rocky out of the gate. How well he adjusts to NFL-level center responsibilities in camp will determine his early playing time. At tackle, would rise out of his stance early to try to stick with quicker rushers outside. Mostly limited that instinct at center, but it’s one he needs to keep buried. Technique at center, not surprisingly, is a work in progress. Until it does he will have a hard time launching forward against defensive tackles.
Conclusion: The praise Erving received after successfully taking on Florida State's center spot makes it seem like he was a substandard tackle. That's not true. He was a draft prospect out there, too. The position switch just worked out so well that NFL teams now look at him and see a potential All-Pro center. Again, he is just three years removed from playing defensive tackle for the Seminoles, so Erving is still relatively early in the process of learning how to block. He's done enough to earn himself Round 1 consideration. By the time 2016 or '17 rolls around, Erving might be established as one of the NFL's top young linemen.
23. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri/Oklahoma
Bio: The incidents that led to Green-Beckham's dismissal from Missouri and subsequent year-long suspension after Oklahoma took him are well-known, but they include multiple drug issues and an alleged domestic incident, and they cast a pretty severe pall over perhaps the most physically gifted player in this draft class. At 6'5", 237 pounds with impressive physicality and top-end speed, Green-Beckham has the potential to redefine the passing game of the NFL team that takes him. He has an equal potential to drive himself out of the league in a big hurry.
Strengths: Has every base trait you'd want in a top-level receiver. Comes off the snap with smooth acceleration and sets into an extra gear quickly. Physical enough to make catches despite cornerbacks hanging all over him. Aggressive and willing blocker who will track the field to take a defender out. Uses his hands very well to get out and away from tight coverages—can box his own way out of trouble. Sticks his foot in the ground with authority to start routes cleanly and quickly. Consistent yards-after-catch receiver who uses agility as much as speed and power to extend plays. Rare height-weight-speed athlete.
Weaknesses: Off-field issues require serious cross-checking, and robbed him of a lot of football—legitimate questions about how long it will take him to adjust to the NFL in a lot of ways. Not a repeatable physical player outside of the splash plays; he must develop a play-after-play mentality. Route understanding is remedial at best, and he doesn't run the routes he knows with consistency. Won't be able to win against NFL-level coverage without a lot of spatial work.
Conclusion: At the scouting combine, Green-Beckham tried to explain, over and over, that he has moved past the mistakes that cut his college career short and made him far less appealing to a lot of NFL teams than his raw talent should make him.
"I know what’s at stake. I know what type of person I am. I understand what the NFL is looking for [from] me as a person. I just want them to know I’m going to go out there and give it my all and showing everybody what I’m capable of doing and focusing on being the best player I can be."
Fair enough, but even if he never transgresses again, Green-Beckham has a lot of work to do—and with the specter of Josh Gordon still hanging over the league, teams are going to be very careful about the off-field stuff. They should be more careful about the on-field stuff, because as talented as Green-Beckham is in the abstract, he's got a lot of work to do before he's a complete receiver, and he's got a strike against him in that he hasn't been on the field in a competitive sense in a long time. Green-Beckham could be the kind of player that could change an entire offense for the better... and he's also the kind of player who tends to get people fired—the inevitable high draft pick with traps all around.
Pro Comparison: Plaxico Burress, Giants (Round 1, 2000)
22. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Bio: Gordon established himself as a first-round draft prospect when he ran for an incredible 408 yards and four touchdowns against Nebraska last November, but he certainly wasn't a one-game wonder. The Badger gained an NCAA-best 2,587 yards and scored 29 touchdowns on the ground last season, and that was after a 1,609-yard, 12-touchdown season in 2013. In the right NFL system, Gordon has the potential to transcend the iffy history of transition seen by Wisconsin backs in recent years, but his ideal NFL team will have to understand that he's more a speed back than a true franchise-defining headbanger.
Strengths: Impressive speed to and through the hole. Accelerates to top speed quickly, which allows him to be very effective on draws and delays. Second gear has him moving smoothly pact linebackers and into the secondary in a big hurry. Has the speed and cutting ability to jump multiple gaps. Tremendous balance—doesn't lose his base when moving laterally; keeps his shoulders straight and the speed on. Home-run potential on nearly every play as long as he gets through an open gap at the line. Best as an outside rusher where he can utilize his acceleration to eat up huge chunks of yardage.
Weaknesses: Reportedly held to zero or negative yards on nearly 20 percent of his carries, and that shows up on tape. Gordon is a fairly big back (6'1", 215 pounds), but he's not a power player who will consistently break through the first line if gaps aren't open. Not creative enough to get out of trash after first contact—needs to use his vision better to get out of trouble. Breaks tackles with acceleration more than raw power. Runs too upright at times and loses leverage. Could get lost in the NFL unless he learns to take advantage of smaller and quicker-closing gaps. Benefited from a physical, imposing line in college, and may need that at the next level. Average receiver who will need to improve this aspect of his game as a professional. Fumbled multiple times down the stretch in the 2014 season.
Conclusion: While his lack of power and iffy pass-blocking will likely prevent him from getting every snap in a traditional sense, Gordon could be a tremendous asset in an offense where he's required to flare out of the backfield and get open in space, both as a runner and as a receiver. Like Charles in Kansas City, Gordon will be best-served by an NFL team that thinks outside the box—and prevents him from languishing in one.
21. Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest
Bio: Johnson made 41 starts for Wake Forest, including every game during his final three seasons. Despite jumping into the rotation as a true freshman, Johnson did wind up on a five-year college arc after being declared academically ineligible and redshirting in 2011. The next season, he was credited with 18 passes defensed, second-most in program history. Johnson also led the Demon Deacons with 15 pass break-ups and three interceptions that year. In his final season at Wake Forest, Johnson earned a second-team All-ACC spot. For his career he posted seven interceptions and 189 tackles. Johnson was a high-school teammate of current Raven Michael Campanaro.
Strengths: Wake Forest won seven games combined in 2013 and ‘14, yet Johnson still shows up repeatedly on film making plays. No question, he stood out on a dismal roster. Adapts to any type of coverage he is asked to play, flashing the footwork and strength to be a very steady press corner moving forward. Comfortable in off-coverage or in zone, too—his lone interception of the 2014 season, vs. Clemson, came with Johnson dropping deep in a Cover-3 look and then jumping a TE route. Backpedal is silky smooth. Stays square, while keeping his eyes on target. Above-average transitions out of that backpedal, no matter which direction he has to move. Athleticism on display at the combine (41.5-inch vertical, 130-inch broad jump, 3.89-second short shuttle). An NFL-ready player.
Weaknesses: Makes up for a lot of his shortcomings with technique, but Johnson’s overall size leaves something to be desired. More specifically, the 188 pounds on his 6'0" frame do not provide him with enough bulk to really dominate in press as an NFL cornerback. While he’ll still win some of those matchups because of his footwork and how well he uses the sideline to his advantage, there will be times when WRs overpower him. Took a lot of penalties, usually while trying to recover. Same problem exists against the run. Can be walled off by blocking receivers, even when he’s in position. Not a great tackler for a cornerback, either. Quarterbacks started to throw away from him as his Wake Forest career progressed. Still, he did not produce many game-changing plays last season—interception number dropped from 2013 to ‘14 (three, down to one) and his total passes defensed fell each year from 2012–14 (18-12-six).
Conclusion: Wake Forest won three games last season, against Gardner-Webb, Army and finally Virginia Tech in a 6–3, double-OT slopfest. So, it took Johnson a little longer to be noticed by those outside—and maybe a few inside—NFL circles, but there's no hiding him anymore. Johnson will be selected with the expectation that he can be a 16-game rookie starter. In fact, there are probably some teams with Johnson sitting atop their cornerback draft board, ahead of the likes of Trae Waynes and Marcus Peters. Johnson may not be a Round 1 lock, but he's awfully close.
20. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State
Bio: Along with Ronald Darby, Williams is one of two Florida State cornerbacks likely to be drafted early, but Williams comes with more accolades. He was an All-ACC first-team performer last season and was named Defensive MVP in Florida State's BCS championship win back in 2013. Williams picked off just one pass as a junior, but he also pitched in 74 tackles (6.5 tackles for loss). He was a highly-regarded safety in high school before converting to the CB position for the Seminoles. However, Williams' draft stock will almost certainly take a tumble after his arrest for a DUI charge on April 3. It's not his first run-in with the police, but the timing of this charge (against which he's pleaded not guilty) couldn't be worse.
Strengths: Saw action in both man and zone defenses at Florida State, but is more ready-made for the former. Has the height/weight combo to hold his own, even against physical receivers, and he uses that size to make himself an obstacle at the line of scrimmage. Stays square to use his hands in press. Able to turn and go from there, opening his hips so he can run. Better than average at getting his head turned back toward the football, setting himself up to make a play. Drives through pass-catchers in an attempt to break up passes. Does not surrender much ground on run plays, even offering some shed-and-tackle capabilities. Has a chance to be a real good blitzer if his new defensive coordinator turns him loose on occasion.
Weaknesses: Vanishes in coverage on occasion—usual explanation being that he tried to jump a route and lost his responsibility. Far less effective, given his ideal style of play, when told to sit back in zone. Odd combination here, but Williams will have to answer if he's physical enough at the line and if he is too physical once the ball is in the air. He figures to have less success, at least initially, knocking receivers off their routes at the line. But downfield, he can put himself in danger of being flagged for his handsy approach. Tends to tackle with his body on runs plays, rather than getting his arms around the ballcarrier.
Conclusion: The SI 64 rankings were finalized prior to Williams' DUI arrest, so take his position here, then, as more indicative of his overall talent level and as less of a prediction for where he'll be selected. Williams' boneheaded, off-field mistake earlier this month will impact his draft stock, perhaps even erasing him from a few teams' wish lists. At some point, likely in Round 2 or 3, the reward will outweigh the risk in drafting Williams. He has lock-down cornerback potential, with the length and speed for a possible move to safety down the line. Because of the arrest, Williams will likely be a first-round talent available on Day 2 of the draft.