- The quarterbacks have grabbed the headlines—Saquon Barkley has too—in what is considered to be a draft class short on elite talent. Are any of the second-tier prospects poised to ascend?
Saquon Barkley stuck his right foot in the ground about three yards shy of the line of scrimmage and broke left, effectively turning the second offensive play of Penn State’s win over Michigan into a track meet. That’s a race that Barkley won’t often lose—this time he went 69 yards untouched. As he left Michigan’s sixth-ranked run defense in his wake, he might as well have been metaphorically pulling away from the pack of 2018 NFL draft prospects.
We mentioned two weeks ago that this year’s class is different than last year’s, in that there’s a lack of true franchise players among the non-quarterbacks. It doesn’t look like there will be much separation from the top to the middle of the first round, or from the middle of the first round to the top of the second. It’s a scouts’ draft in that most of the top guys have holes in their game and incomplete résumés. Barkley is the one exception. Quarterbacks are scouted, drafted and paid differently than everyone else; it’s impossible to compare their value to those at other positions. So once you remove Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen from the equation, it becomes Barkley, then everyone else.
That’s who we’re going to address this week: everyone else. Specifically, we’ll examine whether or not there are guys in this year’s class with a chance to make a leap into the elite tier that Barkley has already reached. Here are six names to pay attention to . . .
Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State: One team I spoke with considered the 275-pound edge rusher the premier senior prospect in the South back in the summer, and Chubb has only gotten better. He has posted 6.5 sacks in seven games as the Wolfpack have risen to 14th in the country. “Size. Motor. Competes. Sack production,” said one AFC college scouting director, when asked what he liked about Chubb. “He’s not as good as Myles Garrett, but would’ve been in the conversation to be the second best defensive end last year.”
Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: I’ve found a variety opinions on the battle-tested, versatile junior. Assessments range from solid all-around player to the idea that he’s uniquely equipped at multiple positions. No matter how you slice it, Fitzpatrick figures to test well at the combine, and can absolutely play both corner and safety, and the idea that he could be a bigger, though less explosive version of Tyrann Mathieu lands him on this list. “Every time you turn on Alabama, he’s making something happen,” said an AFC personnel exec. “Every time there’s a big play, he’s around it. He’s just a really, really good player.”
Derwin James, DB, Florida State: As a true sophomore, James suffered torn cartilage in his knee that cost him just about all of the 2016 season. He hasn’t exactly come back roaring this year. To be fair, coaches are moving him around. But the fact is, he simply hasn’t shown the playmaking ability he had pre-surgery. “If he plays like he did as a freshman, yes, he belongs on that list,” said an AFC college scouting director. “Right now? No way in hell . . . He’s not doing anything. And yes, they’re playing him differently. They’re trying to create for him, playing him at outside ’backer. But he’s not the same.”
Arden Key, EDGE, LSU: He’s a high-ceiling-with-baggage prospect. Key left the team earlier this year and came back heavy—scouts say he’d gotten up close to 280 pounds. And that was after he was considered too slight earlier in his career. And that’s without getting to the off-field concerns that have some wondering if he’ll drop like Randy Gregory and Tim Williams did in their draft years. There’s a lot going on here. but Key has freakish ability.
Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Is a guard worth taking in the top five? What if that guard is a pretty good bet to be an All-Pro, and tons of teams need offensive line help? Irish left tackle Mike McGlinchey gets more attention, but Nelson might be the best lineman in college football and won’t last long in April. One veteran evaluator said “he’s better than half the NFL at his position right now.”
Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: Sutton has been productive—he has over 1,800 yards and 19 touchdowns since the start of the 2016 season. But the 6' 4", 216 pounder remains very raw, which explains why there are divergent opinions on him. If he can develop as a route runner, the potential here is vast. “He doesn’t run any routes and he’s not polished,” said an AFC exec. “He makes plays but he looks lost in zone coverage . . . There just aren’t many big guys that move the way he moves. He’s a great kid, a little naïve, a real small-town type. If he can drop a little weight and learn to get through his mistakes, there’s something there.”
With all these prospects, there is something there. And there’s also a lot of time left for each of them to change the narrative on what the 2018 class promises to be.
FIVE FROM SATURDAY
1. I wrote about Baker Mayfield in September, and I’ll say that there are a lot of evaluators who think more of him than you might think; if he was 6' 4", he’d be grouped in with Darnold and Rosen. He’s not of course, but he just keeps producing. Last week, it was in throwing for 410 yards and two touchdowns while leading Oklahoma back from a 21-10 halftime deficit for a 42-35 win at Kansas State. His TD/INT ratio is 19-to-2, he’s completing 73.8% of his throws, his yards per attempt sits at 11.62, and he’s going to be fascinating to discuss in March and April.
2. I don’t know what Arizona’s dual-threat QB, Khalil Tate, is going to be in the NFL. But I do know he’s ridiculously fun to watch now. He’s been Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week in each of the last three weeks—over that time he’s rushed for 694 yards and seven touchdowns while completing 31 of 41 passes for 468 yards and four touchdowns. The Wildcats have won all three of those games, and host Washington State on Saturday night.
3. It won’t match last year’s class, but this year’s group of running backs is shaping up to be strong at the top (Saquon Barkley), and deep. Among those scouts have their eyes on: Alabama’s Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, LSU’s Derrius Guice, USC’s Ronald Jones, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, and Tennessee’s John Kelly. Plus, Notre Dame’s Josh Adams has officially burst on the scene, rushing for 191 yards and three scores on 19 carries against rival USC.
4. Speaking of the Irish, just because Notre Dame sunk to 4-8 last year doesn’t mean this year’s surge to 6-1 is any kind of Cinderella story. There’s still talent in South Bend, evident in the fact that two of their offensive linemen (Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) could go in the Top 10 in April. And a wide receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, could join them in the Top 10.
5. There’s no question who Penn State’s best player is, but a couple of Saquon Barkley’s teammates will be worth keeping an eye on when they visit Columbus. One is tight end Mike Gesicki, who the Nittany Lions move all over the place as a matchup player. Two is safety Marcus Allen, another hybrid who’s all over the place on defense. You can bet the first tape the scouts will pop in on those two will be this game, so it’s a big Saturday for both guys.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
9. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Because only four guys on the list actually played this weekend, we have very little movement. Roquan Smith moves up a spot after a terrific SEC title game . . . And I’ll give Sam Darnold a little love, because of the way he’s handled a tough year and come away with a Pac-12 title . . . Connor Williams, by the way, has announced he’ll skip the Texas Bowl against Missouri to prepare for the draft.
Top of the Class:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (17-24, 325 yds, 2 TDs, 0 INTs v. Stanford): The Trojans were hit hard by graduation before the year and injuries during it, and so Darnold deserves a lot of credit for guiding USC to its first conference title since the Pete Carroll era. He, in many ways, became the program’s margin for error as so many young players worked through growing pains. We’ll see whether or not he comes out. This much is for sure: Everything people have said about him as a player and a person showed up this year.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (DNP): The true junior still has questions about his personality and durability to answer, but few believed he was ever staying in 2018. The arrival of Chip Kelly probably seals his departure, since Kelly’s offense is a less-than-ideal fit for him. Interim coach Jedd Fisch has said he expects Rosen to play in the Cactus Bowl.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (DNP): It’s a foregone conclusion that Allen will declare after this, his redshirt junior season. The only question left there is whether he’ll play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (yes, that’s the name of it) against Central Michigan. Allen gets points, as Darnold does, for getting the Cowboys through a rebuilding season. And if you add his off-the-charts tools to his uneven play, you get one of the 2018 draft’s most polarizing prospects.
Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (12-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Wisconsin): Barrett didn’t look great throwing the ball against Wisconsin—he missed on a pair throws that would’ve been long touchdowns that could’ve blown the game open, and his unsightly pick-six in the first half kept the Badgers in it. But he played just six days after having arthroscopic surgery to address a meniscus injury that he’s played through all season, and he carried the ball 19 times. Barrett’s toughness and leadership precede him as the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history. And a night like Saturday night should, at least, pique the curiosity of NFL teams and give him a shot to win a roster spot in training camp.
Hurt Himself: Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (16-32, 145 yards, TD vs. Georgia): The redshirt sophomore picked the wrong week to turn in his worst statistical effort of the season, as the Tigers were held to a single touchdown in their SEC title game loss to Georgia. The good news is that, for most of Auburn’s stretch run, he flashed tools that have caught the eye of evaluators, and now we know that Gus Malzahn is staying, which should help push Stidham’s development forward.
The Heisman Ceremony (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): So Baker Mayfield is the winner over Stanford’s Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. And as a reference point, Ohio State’s Troy Smith had the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, having taken 91.63% of the vote in 2006, a mark that Mayfield could best. Got it? We’re good? O.K., so here’s the other thing I’m watching in the coming days: Prospects deciding to skip their bowl games to prepare for the draft, like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did last year. We’ve seen three(!) Texas players do it already. Two of the three are expected to go on Thursday (OT Connor Williams) or Friday (LB Malik Jefferson) of draft weekend, whereas S DeShon Elliott may have a tougher road.
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