With free agency winding down, and the 2016 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of 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 has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted as such. The next trio of players includes an Ohio State receiver who appears ready to beat that schism, a linebacker who could be a dominant multi-position player and a defensive tackle who might be, pound-for-pound, the strongest overall player in his draft class.
41. Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
Height: 6' 3" Weight: 212 pounds
Bio: The nephew of former NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson turned his career around by spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy (where Cardale Jones was his roommate) instead of accepting offers from smaller colleges. After that year, he chose Ohio State from a number of major programs coming after him. He caught three passes as a true freshman in 2012, but was redshirted in ’13 to give him a better handle on the big time. When he came back in ’14, it was with a vengeance, as he led the national champs in catches with 54, adding 799 yards and nine touchdowns.
Thomas became the Buckeyes’ primary receiver in all ways last season, after Devin Smith went off to the NFL, catching 56 passes for 781 yards and nine touchdowns. Very little about Thomas’s game is flashy, but he’s got a lot of the little things covered, and could be more valuable to his NFL team than a lot of prospects who put up bigger numbers on the college side.
Strengths: Well-built player for the position; projects physically as an NFL outside receiver from that perspective. Has a great feel for getting open at the line of scrimmage against off-coverage, and has an estimable array of feints and fakes to establish his preferred position. Good understanding of route mechanics: Thomas easily sinks into cuts and does an excellent job of driving past defenders to make up for the lack of an extra downfield gear. Knows how to bank split-second openings against man and zone coverage. Physical receiver who isn’t afraid to battle all the way through a route. Hands-catcher who brings the ball into his body and knows how to make the contested catch with defenders around him. Aware player who has a great feel for the sideline and boundary. Has no issue catching the ball over the middle when he knows he's about to get whacked.
Weaknesses: Ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the combine, and that lack of top-end speed shows up on tape—Thomas simply isn’t a burner who's going to blow past defenders on deeper routes. Not explosive at any level; his speed is more gradual and based on technique. He’s fast on the field, but not in a straight line. Ran a limited route tree at Ohio State and will need time to advance through a more elevated playbook. Struggles at times to maintain separation against bigger, more physical cornerbacks, and needs experience beating press coverage. Will occasionally get too physical during a route, leading to placement issues and drops. Blocking is a work in progress, though he’s certainly fearless. A bit too mechanical in his route-running—you’d like to see him mirror his scrambling quarterback more often when things break down.
Conclusion: The term “slot receiver” used to be pejorative in the NFL, but in today’s era of three-receiver sets defining base offenses, you see No. 1 guys in the slot more than ever, especially if they’re not quick downfield. The slot receiver position required its own skill set; toughness, awareness, and route consistency are hallmarks of the best inside targets. And for multiple reasons, I think the slot is where Thomas could really shine. He’s going to get reps outside in the pros, most likely as a No. 2 receiver because of his size.
But Thomas is stuck between in the size-speed equation: Thomas isn’t a 6' 5", 240-pound behemoth in the Calvin Johnson mold, nor will he tear up the field as a Jordy Nelson would. And he’s not quite as physical as a Julio Jones... so where exactly does he fit? I believe that with the right kind of training, Thomas can be a high-rep, complementary receiver in multiple positions. That he may never be a team’s top guy shouldn't debit him in the NFL, because the definition has changed so drastically in the last few years.
Pro Comparison: Cody Latimer, Broncos (second round, 2014, Indiana)
40. Leonard Floyd OLB, Georgia
Height: 6' 6" Weight: 244 pounds
Bio: After spending a prep year at Hargrave Military Academy, Floyd became a presence in the Bulldogs’ defense in 2013, with 55 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks as a freshman. He’s maintained credible totals throughout his collegiate career as Georgia’s defensive staff has pushed him to do more than just rush the edge.
“They’ve improved a lot,” Floyd said at the combine of his coverage abilities. “It came from coach [Jeremy] Pruitt helping me learn the different coverages and learning how to set myself up in the right position to make plays on receivers. I definitely believe it’s a strength, me being able to cover guys. I feel like teams can use that.”
Floyd led Georgia in sacks all three seasons he was there, totaling 17 in his college career, but it’s the sum total of his abilities that should make NFL teams highly interested. Floyd is a freakishly athletic player with current football limitations, but the awareness and work ethic to transform himself into something truly unique at the next level. Or, he could be just another too-skinny pass-rusher. That will be up to his NFL coaching staff.
Strengths: Floyd plays credibly at several positions—from edge rusher to outside linebacker to slot defender. Has the raw speed and athleticism to cover huge spaces of turf in a very short time. He is an outstanding athlete who can cover in a 360-degree fashion, everywhere from the line of scrimmage to either sideline to intermediate coverage depth. Not a huge palette of hand moves, but has a nice inside counter that can be devastating in combination with his quickness. Potentially game-changing edge rusher from the tackle’s outside shoulder. Incredible first-step burst is best exploited in an endbacker role. Could be great on blitzes and stunts with his gap explosion. In coverage, can take tight end and slot receivers through basic routes and proves to be a dynamic open-field tackler.
Weaknesses: Floyd’s primary issue when it comes to converting to the NFL is obvious, and it screams off the tape—he’s really skinny. Barkevious Mingo skinny. He needs to build muscle to deal with NFL blockers and skill position players. Plays very upright from the edge, and between pad level and body type, has very little leverage to deal with blockers when they get on him. Tends to get wiped out in scrums and doesn’t sift through crowds well. Struggles to re-direct after first contact. Will need to develop more hand moves and edge bend, and may be limited to a situational overall role with his NFL team.
Conclusion: If you’re looking at Floyd as a base single-position defensive player, he’s probably going to max out as a 3–4 rush linebacker with some coverage ability on passing downs. And that would be a relatively good fit for him, as long as he’s able to pack on a bit of muscle without losing too much speed. But there are more creative defensive coordinators in the NFL who may take Floyd and make him something truly special by maximizing his strengths and keeping him away from things that could upend him. Daryl Washington was a bit shorter than Floyd is, but he was used as a Swiss Army knife in Arizona’s defense until his off-field issues upended him, and I could see Floyd making a similar impact as a player who does everything from spot inside coverage, to blitzing from multiple gaps, to multi-level linebacker work. The key with players like Leonard Floyd is to scheme them to their athletic potential, and turn their uniqueness into obvious attributes.
Pro Comparison: Daryl Washington, Cardinals (second round, 2010, TCU)
39. Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama
Height: 6' 3" Weight: 307 pounds
Bio: A’Shawn Robinson may be the more celebrated of Alabama’s two draft-eligible tackles, but that’s no reason to sleep on Jarran Reed as a player with a bright NFL future. Reed’s journey to this point has just been more circuitous. After a dominant stint at East Mississippi Community College, Reed chose the Crimson Tide over several other major programs, and halfway through the 2014 season, he started to show why Alabama wanted him. Reed didn't light up the stat sheets—54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2014, followed by 57 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2015—but he’s an example of a guy who makes you watch the tape to see his true effectiveness and potential. Reed was often used as a fulcrum tackle, around whom others could make plays.
“It was something like that,” he said at the scouting combine, when asked how often he was asked to plug it up for others on the defense. “But we’ve also got to be football players, as well, and get off blocks and make plays, and you’ve still got to apply pressure on the quarterback... wherever I’m needed at, that’ll be the best for me. If I have to do it again, then it won’t matter to me. I’m just here to do whatever a team needs me to do.”
What Reed can do at this point is somewhat limited, though he’s hitting the high point of that side of his game. Adding a comprehensive pass-rush ability might make him among the best in this loaded defensive tackle class.
Strengths: Prototype 4–3 undertackle—comes off the snap low and nasty, looking to get under his blocker's pads and push the line back. Plays the one- and three-tech positions with equal aplomb. Uses his powerful upper body to stack and shed impressively; Reed is practiced at moving off blocks to deal quickly with ball carriers. Takes double teams/extra attention on a high number of plays, which is saying something for any member of Alabama's interior line. Has the athleticism to read gaps and drop into short coverage. High-effort player who will sometimes push the pocket back on sheer effort. Sideline-to-sideline chaser when needed. Has a nice knack for getting his hands up and disrupting throwing lanes—had seven pass breakups in two seasons. Highly competitive player who never really gets wiped out on a play. Often compared to tackles 30–40 pounds heavier than he is—that’s how strong he plays.
Weaknesses: Like most collegiate defensive linemen, Reed tends to wrestle with blockers too often. Occasionally, he’ll get stopped up by better blockers and doesn’t have an exit strategy outside of his own power. Needs more hand-strikes and moves to be a better penetrator—gets to the ballcarrier more through power than technique. Quick off the snap, but could be taught to use that quickness more effectively. Battles admirably through double teams, but doesn’t slice through often enough. Will have to develop into some sort of pass-rusher to avoid a run-first specialization role as he had at Alabama.
Conclusion: At this point in time, Reed would be best served as a run-stopping tackle in a 4–3 front with some hybrid capabilities. He has the base technique, power and attitude required for that particular position. The thing that will decide his NFL future is his relative ability to add pass-rush moves and how he’ll be used in schemes—slanting him toward the center may help him slice through. Like Reed, Bennie Logan was a “power pig” for one of the best college programs in the nation, and has excelled in the NFL in that role. Logan is one of the league’s best run-stoppers, but he’s also moved his snap count up in four seasons as he becomes more versatile. That’s likely Reed’s ultimate upside, and it’s a good one.
Pro Comparison: Bennie Logan, Eagles (third round, 2013, LSU)