In late September, I visited Kalamazoo to meet the big man on campus at Western Michigan: Corey Davis. At the time, WMU was the trendiest team in college football—the Broncos had just knocked off two Big Ten opponents—and Davis was catching everything, including the NFL’s attention. As I wrote in September, “had Davis declared for the NFL in 2015, one scout says he could have gone late first round. The only other MAC receiver ever taken in Round 1? Marshall’s Randy Moss, in 1998.”
He has the size (6' 3") and physicality to be a possession receiver, as well as the long, powerful strides that evoked Dez Bryant’s run-after-catch ability. He tied for the lead among all Division-I players with 19 touchdown catches and finished his career with an FBS record 5,285 receiving yards. The undefeated Broncos earned a Cotton Bowl berth (they lost to Wisconsin, though Davis, naturally, hauled in a TD in that game).
Throughout the draft process we have discussed three receivers poised to come off the board in the first round: Davis, Washington’s John Ross and Clemson’s Mike Williams. But quietly, Davis has become one of the most frustrating prospects in the 2017 class. It’s not that he has done anything to alter his stock since Western Michigan’s season ended on Jan. 1—it’s that he hasn’t done anything at all.
A few days after the season, Davis had surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his ankle. He declined his Senior Bowl invite. He attended the combine, but did not participate in any drills. Western Michigan’s pro day was March 15, and Davis sat out again. He has not been timed in the 40-yard dash and there’s a legitimate chance he won’t before the draft on April 27. Last week, Davis returned to Indianapolis for his medical re-check. Throughout the process, his camp has reiterated that it was only a minor surgery and that he should be good to go by mini-camps; results from Indianapolis last week should verify that.
“Corey Davis is a litmus test for the trust the tape crowd,” says one NFL personnel man. “You look at his tape and I think everyone agrees he’s a first-round grade but you’ll see how important the 40 time is for some. I think it varies from team to team.”
Particularly relevant: There was much ado about Williams’ time. He opted to only run at Clemson’s pro day, and it was a highly anticipated affair. (His hand-timed 4.49 was deemed good enough by evaluators.) Ross’s record-breaking 4.22 may have kept him in the first-round conversation.
Davis, like Williams, isn’t known for his speed, but a scout told me that a 4.50 or better from Davis would cement his status in the Top 15. As for trusting the tape: although Davis’s smooth route-running makes him look pro ready, there are some concerns about the level of competition he played against in the MAC. Although, when I visited him in September, Davis was quick to point out he has tape against top corners. “I’ve gone against Darqueze Dennard, Eli Apple…” he rattled off. (And he had 52 catches for 701 yards and 5 TDs in nine career games against Big Ten opponents.)
So could Davis drop because he hasn’t participated in a few drills? Different teams value different things. For example, last year, the Saints didn’t feel comfortable drafting Vonn Bell because they were missing times on some shuttle drills. Sean Payton personally asked Bell, and the safety filmed himself doing the drills and texted the videos to Payton. New Orleans traded up to draft Bell at No. 61.
Davis’s case is slightly different, and the 40 is generally the most important test, especially for skill positions. Says another NFL evaluator: “I still think Corey Davis is a first-round pick. But I’d be a lot more sure about it there weren't holes to fill in.”
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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The NFL announced 22 players will be in Philadelphia for draft night, and it’s an impressive crop.
S Jamal Adams, LSU
DL Jonathan Allen, Alabama
DB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
OT Garett Bolles, Utah
CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
CB Adoree' Jackson, USC
CB Kevin King, Washington
QB DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
DL Malik McDowell, Michigan State
DE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
LB Haason Reddick, Temple
OT Cam Robinson, Alabama
WR John Ross, Washington
DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford
QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
CB Tre'Davious White, LSU
The most notable absences here are Myles Garrett, who, according to our Albert Breer, is hosting a draft party to be documented by the NFLPA’s entertainment arm (a coup for the player’s union) as well as Patrick Mahomes, who is also having a draft party in Texas. Other likely first rounders choosing to stay at home: Clemson WR Mike Williams, Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey, Florida State RB Dalvin Cook, Alabama TE O.J. Howard, Miami TE David Njoku, Wisconsin OLB T.J. Watt, Michigan utility man (but probably safety) Jabrill Peppers and Ohio State safety Malik Hooker.
2. Notice how many cornerbacks there will be in Philadelphia? It looks like the NFL is predicting what many evaluators have buzzed about: Even though it’s a deep year for the position, there should be a strong run of corners in the first round. As Peter King noted in his Monday column this week, Ohio State’s Gareon Conley has been a riser the past few weeks. Another corner you should not be surprised by if he is drafted in the Top 32? Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie.
3. Almost every team in the Top 10 is looking to trade down. The 49ers have said so publicly—GM John Lynch told multiple outlets he is “open for business”—and other teams, like the Titans at No. 5 are very interested as well. The only scenario in which I see this happening is if a team outside the top 10 feels they need to leap into the Top 10 to secure the quarterback of their choice. (UNC’s Mitchell Trubisky is likely the guy they’d need to trade up for.)
4. Meanwhile in college football, it’s spring game season and perhaps no player is generating more hype this offseason than USC quarterback Sam Darnold. In fact, as evaluators groan about the so-so 2017 class, there is a wave of excitement about what could be a mega group of quarterbacks in 2018, featuring Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. A few words of caution here. One: Darnold is only a redshirt sophomore and there’s no guarantee he’ll even declare next year. And while he’s poised for a stellar season building off his impressive Rose Bowl performance, anything can happen (see: Matt Barkley, highly regarded after his junior season but relegated to the middle rounds after injuring his shoulder as a senior). And now that I have laid out the wet blanket nice and secure, I’ll admit, I am excited to watch Darnold next season. USC has an extremely challenging slate in 2017—no bye weeks during the regular season, an early non-conference test against Texas, Washington State and Notre Dame on the road then a finale against Rosen’s UCLA Bruins.
5. A very interesting note courtesy Pro Football Talk: Christian McCaffrey has declined all private workout requests. As reports surface that McCaffrey could go as high as the Top 10, the Stanford running back has essentially shut down all physical activity since his Pro Day, where he wowed scouts by partaking mostly in wide receiver drills. McCaffrey has been risk-averse throughout the entire draft process—skipping-bowl-gate feels like forever ago, doesn’t it?—and according to Mike Florio at PFT: “The trend toward putting the hay in the barn with the Pro Day session has expanded quietly in recent years.”
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THE COLLEGE COLUMN ALUMNI REPORT
We’re just about to wrap up the first season of The MMQB’s College Column. I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for reading. It’s been a learning experience for me, and I have a ton of ideas for next season’s column—but as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. I am so grateful for Peter King, who trusted me to take on this column, and for Gary Gramling, the editor who puts in so much care each week and has helped generate ideas for some of my favorite features. Speaking of which, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the subjects we profiled and check in on where they stand now, nine (!!) days before the draft.
Leonard Fournette (Sept. 7)
For his Week 1 game against Wisconsin, I watched everything Fournette did when he wasn’t running ball. The crux: The NFL has long known Fournette is a generational talent as a runner. But how would he be scouted during the 2016 season, what attributes matter to NFL teams, and how does he grade out?
What I wrote then: “When guys are already being described as sure first-round picks, they are still going to be scrutinized,” says one NFL evaluator. “Maybe even more.”
Where he stands now: Fournette’s stock has barely fluctuated over the past seven months. In the piece, I wrote the biggest (and perhaps only) unknown about Fournette is his proficiency in pass-protection. That remains, as Fournette wasn’t asked to block often in 2016. He created ripples when he opted not to play in his bowl game, though that controversy subsided quickly.
Projection: Top 10 pick.
Brady Gustafson (Sept. 14)
In an early-season quest to identify “The Next Carson Wentz,” I profiled Gustafson, the 6' 7" passer from Montana. Perhaps the storyline was a bit too convenient; a fellow FCS product, Gustafson beat Wentz in his first career start.
What I wrote then: “At the moment, he’s an intriguing, if not special, NFL prospect… One NFL scout called him the best quarterback in the West. Another scout had major hesitations, citing Gustafson’s uneven footwork and inconsistency. If you’re wondering how NFL teams unearth a player like this, consider: One scout discovered Gustafson during the last draft cycle—while evaluating Wentz.”
Where he stands now: Ah, the The College Column’s big whiff. Gustafson may not be a bust, but he certainly won’t be drafted as high as Wentz—or, most likely, at all. Gustafson had a tumultuous senior season, including missing two games with injury, and concerns about his footwork persisted. His playing time in the NFLPA bowl was limited (six pass attempts, two completions) and he was not invited to the combine.
Projection: Priority free agent.
DeShone Kizer (Sept. 21)
I delved into the unique pressures of being a Notre Dame quarterback and asked former Fighting Irish signal callers if Kizer would be the guy to finally break through. (While many Notre Dame quarterbacks have been drafted high, Joe Montana was the last true NFL star).
What I wrote then: Rick Mirer, who had a 12-year NFL career but never lived up to his billing as the second overall pick of the 1993 draft: “If you can survive the scrutiny that comes with the position [at Notre Dame], everything else feels normal and routine. The drama around big bowl games, opening day or any Saturday really, it was great preparation for scrutiny going into pre draft, the draft, and the NFL. Any media obligations after, were really no bigger than what you did in college. “It seems like you know a lot about us [Notre Dame quarterbacks] by the time our college careers end because of the media exposure. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not.”
Where he stands now: Our Albert Breer made waves last week when he quoted one NFL head coach who believed Kizer had “diva” qualities, while other evaluators have expressed concern over Kizer’s relationship with Brian Kelly, plus his ability to persist when things don’t go right (both on and off the field). Mirer’s comments seem a bit prescient, eh?
Projection: Late first to mid-second round pick.
Corey Davis (Sept. 28)
I spent a morning shadowing the Western Michigan wide receiver to see what it was like being big man on campus.
What I wrote then: At the center of it all is Davis, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound polished route runner with outstanding hands and the athleticism for the next level. Had Davis declared for the NFL in 2015, one scout says he could have gone late first round. The only other MAC receiver ever taken in Round 1? Marshall’s Randy Moss, in 1998.
Where he stands now: See the top of the column.
Projection: First round pick.
T.J. Watt (Oct. 12)
Watt overcame a serious injury, switched from tight end to linebacker, and quickly announced himself as a disruptive playmaker at Wisconsin. When I visited him in Madison I quickly learned something: He’s exactly like his big brother.
What I wrote then: Watt claims he has few interests other than football. “I don’t go out on weekends,” he says. “After games, I’ll literally sit in my apartment and watch football. I have it instilled in me from my brothers, J.J. especially, minimal gains and marginal gains, you can be one percent better. I honestly believe that if I stay in, there’s probably a player from Michigan State or Ohio State going out drinking beer, and I have to be getting better than him.”
Two evaluators said that if the 6-foot-5, 243-pound junior enters this year’s draft, he will have, at minimum, a second-round grade.
Where he stands now: Watt continued to dominate through his junior season and declared early. He is one of the draft’s top linebackers and evaluators are just as struck by Watt’s singular focus and unrelenting ethic as I was. One scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he gave T.J. a higher grade than he once gave J.J.
Projection: Late first round to early second round pick.
Chad Kelly (Oct. 26)
Widely regarded as the country’s most talented senior quarterback (though a bit erratic) I detailed Kelly’s checkered past. With his uncle, Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, as an advocate, I wrote that Kelly had six months to convince NFL teams he could be trusted.
What I wrote then: Kelly is the country’s most talented senior quarterback…. Says an NFL evaluator: “No doubt he has an NFL arm, and some of his habits can be fixed.”
The bigger concerns rise when teams look off the field.
“I do think there are legitimate concerns off the field. If you’re going to take him, especially if you’re going to take him high, you’re really going to need to ask: Does this guy get it?”
Where he stands now: The past six months have not been kind to Kelly. While he stayed out of trouble off the field, injuries have derailed his comeback. ACL surgery sidelined him for most of the draft process and when he was finally healthy enough to throw at his pro day, a nagging wrist injury flared up. (He had surgery a few days later and has not thrown for NFL evaluators yet, and cannot throw for three months).
Projection: Day 3 flier or priority free agent.
The Tight Ends (Nov. 2)
Setting the table for what could be a historic class of tight ends.
What I wrote then: NFL offenses are using tight ends as often—and as creatively—as ever. Yet since 2011 only two tight ends have been drafted in the first round, and none since Eric Ebron went 10th overall to the Lions in 2014. The last time multiple tight ends came off the board in the first round was 2006, with Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis. The 2017 draft class might buck that trend.
Where they stand now: The tight ends have lived up to their billing. Alabama’s OJ Howard and Miami’s David Njoku are projected first-round picks while Mississippi’s Evan Engram could sneak into the Top 32 as well.
Draft projection: The first round might include up to three tight ends (likely two).
Zach Banner (Nov. 9)
In a weak class of offensive linemen, the All Pac-12 tackle with a rare frame could be a Top 50 pick, but evaluators have concerns that he can manage his weight, as well as his athleticism.
What I wrote then: “My weight, it’s always been about my weight,” Banner says. “That’s really the reason why I didn’t declare for the draft last year. I came back because I had to prove to NFL teams that I could lose weight, and also keep it off.”
Where he stands now: Banner slimmed down to weigh in at 353 at the combine (solid), but he didn’t have a great Senior Bowl and his lack of athleticism could force him to play guard, not tackle, at the next level.
Draft projection: Day 3 pick.
Mitchell Trubisky (Dec. 21)
Getting to know the then-relatively-unknown UNC quarterback as his stock soared.
What I wrote then: By mid-season, national scouts began making pilgrimages to Chapel Hill. One NFL evaluator called it “the biggest mid-year scramble I’ve seen in a while.” By December, the 22-year-old Trubisky was on the back page of a tabloid, The New York Daily News (naturally, linking him to the Jets.)Trubisky’s take: “What am I doing on the cover of a tabloid? Me, in a tabloid? I just don’t get it. You go from nobody talking to you, even people talking bad about you. [As recently as] last year you’d hear people say, ‘He’s a horrible quarterback’—now being projected as one of the top quarterbacks taken if I decide to come out? That’s a crazy thing.”
Where he stands now: Well, the Jets are still interested. And they have company. Trubisky is poised to be the first quarterback off the board.
Draft projection: Top 15 pick.
Deshaun Watson (Jan. 11)
For the national championship game against Alabama, I asked a panel of quarterback experts (long-time coach Mike Shanahan, then-Browns QB Josh McCown, and retired star Randall Cunningham) to share their thoughts on Watson.
What I wrote then: Shanahan: What does Deshaun Watson have to do to be an elite quarterback? What he’ll have to do, eventually, is when he drops back, he has to read the whole field and not just one side of the field. The way you can do that is you need to focus on your coverage and the concepts that are going on. When a guy has the ability to run, that’s O.K., but when he’s approaching the line of scrimmage he has to keep his eyes downfield before he crosses the line of scrimmage to see if there’s an open receiver. If you miss him, well now they’re looking at you to make a seven-yard gain. But, as you’re looking down field as you approach the line of scrimmage and everything is covered, use your athletic ability and slide before somebody hits you. When the pocket collapses a little bit, he steps up and looks for the hole, and he’s looking to escape to one of those holes. In time, what he’ll learn is to slide and step up in the pocket, slide into those holes where he can still keep his focus downfield. If you don’t do that, you don’t last in the NFL.
Where he stands now: Teams are fully aware of Watson’s curve from spread quarterback to NFL-style signal caller. Many evaluators say Watson could benefit from a year or two learning behind a veteran. His intangibles, however, keep him in the conversation as a likely first round pick.
Draft projection: First round pick.
John Ross (Feb. 21)
A profile of the Washington speedster (before his record-setting combine run).
What I wrote then: The combine could cement Ross’s status as the fastest player in the 2017 draft (he says he ran a laser-timed 4.30 last week).
“It’s funny,” says his Washington position coach, Bush Hamdan, who last week was hired as the Atlanta Falcons’ new quarterbacks coach, “John Ross lives in this world with flashy guys and big names. But really, he’s just this sweet, gentle kid. I’m going to miss him like hell as a player. But I’ll miss him three times as much as a person.”
Where he stands now: Ross broke Chris Johnson’s combine record with a 4.22 40 time, but what really cemented his draft stock was his humility afterward. Evaluators I spoke to were impressed with how Ross handled the attention.
Draft projection: Late first round, early second round pick.
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Matteo emails: Hi Emily, I'm a big fan of your weekly column. We always read about Myles Garrett, but one of his teammates is a pretty good pass rusher too. I'm talking about Daeshon Hall. Can you talk about him a bit more in detail? Where is he going to get picked?
Hi Matteo, great question. When I was in College Station a few weeks ago working on my podcast on Jermaine Eluemunor (shameless plug, give it a download!) I was surprised by how many times Hall’s name was brought up. Eluemunor, a junior college transfer, was an offensive lineman getting his first exposure to big time football, and he spoke extensively about how hard it was to go up against Garrett and Hall in practice. During the season Eluemunor went up against the likes of Takkarist McKinley and Derek Barnett, a couple of likely first-rounders, and he ranks Hall right up there. Coach Kevin Sumlin reiterated that point. “Particularly in our practices, the ability to block Myles and DaeDae,” Sumlin said. “We figured if he has a chance to block those guys he has a chance to block most people.” It’s clear the people in College Station think highly of Hall, but what about the NFL you ask? Hall has all the size (6' 5", 35-inch arms), athleticism and traits to be successful in setting the edge, but he has only one year of defensive line experience, so some evaluators are concerned he may be a project. (He had previously played outside linebacker.) Hall didn’t have a ton of production last year, even as Garrett was being double-teamed, as it was clear he was still adjusting to the position and learning how to do things like shed blocks. As for his draft position? I think he’s an early Day 2 prospect. A team will fall in love with his versatility, and his upside.
@BenMutz89 asks: Do you think Josh Dobbs would be able to develop into a top 10 QB in the NFL under Kyle Shanahan in SF? He has 6 years.
Well, I hope Shanahan doesn’t have to wait a full six years to find his quarterback! I see your point, and the 49ers—a handful of pieces away from being competitive—certainly don’t have to rush into anointing a quarterback of the future. They have veteran Brian Hoyer secured for 2017 and are fully aware Kirk Cousins could become available in 2018. So using a mid-round pick on a developmental prospect, like Dobbs, makes a lot of sense. At Tennessee, Dobbs proved he is a gifted runner and playmaker outside of the pocket. While Shanahan and his father created what I consider the greatest single-season game plan in recent memory in catering to Robert Griffin III in 2012, I expect Dobbs to have to adapt to becoming more typical drop back passer in the NFL. I believe Dobbs has shown enough accuracy (especially on deep balls) to make the switch. But most importantly, I think he possesses the off-field intangibles; he’ll be a student of the game. If Shanahan and Co. determine they are committed to Dobbs, I believe he could be a serviceable starter in the NFL in two or three years. Top 10 might be a stretch.
@SpaceBard asks: How many 1st round trades? Top 10 trades? Will a team trade up to get Fournette?
It’s funny, it feels like almost every team in the Top 10 is looking to trade down. Will any deals materialize? I think the key spot to look at is the Bills at No. 10. Many teams believe Buffalo is looking to draft a quarterback, and therefore if a team has fallen in love with either Mitchell Trubisky or Deshaun Watson, they could try to leapfrog ahead of the Bills to snag their guy. In fact, the most likely trade scenario in the first round is a team trading up to get a quarterback—I even get the sense that could happen later in the first round as well, with Patrick Mahomes. I don’t think anyone will trade up to get Leonard Fournette. I do think he is going in the Top 10 though. My prediction for Fournette is the Jaguars (No. 4) or Panthers (No. 8).
@toryellis51 asks: Is it possible that ZERO QBs are taken in the first 10 picks? Considering this is being viewed as the worst class in recent memory?
It’s quite possible. As I said in the previous question, the key spot here is Buffalo at No. 10. The Bills could just be sending smokescreens and don’t intend to draft any of the top passers. But if they do—or if they have scared other quarterback-needy teams into thinking they are—then the first quarterback off the board should occur around their spot.
@Mattfobrien asks: Why Browns, why?
Ha, I assume you’re referring to Adam Schefter’s report that the Browns brass is split between selecting Myles Garrett and Mitchell Trubisky at No. 1. Perhaps this will ease your fears: I don’t buy it. I think the Browns are setting the table/gauging interest in a potential trade down. I do believe there are some in Cleveland’s organization, specifically coach Hue Jackson, who like Trubisky, but I have a hard time imaging they’d bypass Garrett to select him at No. 1. Remember, the Browns have a ton of draft capital and could maneuver their way into selecting Trubisky somewhere not at No. 1 or No. 12. And while I feel pretty confident about this, I am reminded that it is the Browns we’re talking about…. so anything goes.
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