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 Mayfieldin 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.