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What College Football’s Regular Season Taught Us About the 2018 NFL Draft

Where the celebrated quarterbacks sit now, another stacked RB class, a bounce back for offensive lineman and a senior pass rusher who some now consider the best prospect in the draft

The first edition of this column ran one day shy of three months ago, and it centered on two guys who showed Heisman promise over the first two weeks of the season.

We were right on that one. Both Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson were in New York for the Heisman ceremony on Saturday night. But compare the impact each has made in the time since, and there’s no contest.

This fall, Mayfield helped himself as much as any draft-eligible player. His 13-game run included 4,340 passing yards, 310 rushing yards, a 71.05 completion rate, 41 touchdown passes, five touchdown runs, just five picks, a third straight Big 12 title and a birth in the playoffs. Along the way, he proved to be an improved passer from the pocket, as well as the competitor we always knew he was.

Jackson was plenty good, too. But despite another year of gaudy numbers (3,489 yards, 25 touchdowns passing; 1,443 yards, 17 TDs rushing), his team was just 8-4, knocking him from the spotlight nationally. More important to NFL types, Jackson still left them wanting for instincts and anticipation as a passer.

The bottom line? Back in September, the NFL saw both these guys as second-day types. Mayfield has taken the next steps. Jackson, spectacular as he can be, hasn’t.

We’re transitioning this week, from the regular-season Draft Column into the bowl season Draft Column, and so we can call this our bridge edition. And to do it (in keeping with the boss’s customs), we’ll kick it off with 10 Things I Think I Think from another wild fall of college football. And we’ll start with those two quarterbacks.

1. At this point, it would be a surprise if Baker Mayfield doesn’t go somewhere in the first round. Mayfield isn’t for everyone. But he’s accurate, he’s mobile, and he wins. The off-field incident of last summer and his on-field antics are there, yes, but offset by how his teammates and coaches feel about him, and his football character (i.e. how seriously he takes his craft). Like I said last week, I think a lot of teams will have second-round grades on him, and someone jumps on him in the first.

Baker Mayfield Is a First-Round NFL Draft Pick

2. Conversely, it would be a surprise if Lamar Jacksondoes go in the first round. The evaluators I’ve spoken with have questions about his instincts and anticipation in the passing game, and his ability to process within the context of a pro offense, and still believe he’s more thrower than passer. That doesn’t mean he can’t develop. It does means that he was seen as raw as a quarterback going into 2016, and the feeling on that remains the same.

3. For as closely as we all scrutinized USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen, not much has changed on those three as far as scouts are concerned. Darnold still has the funky mechanics, the flair for the dramatic, the rep as a winner and the pristine character. Rosen is still the pageant winner—he looks like he was born to throw a football—with the questions about his personality and character. And Allen is the raw mountain of ability without much polish.

Why Josh Allen Is the NFL Draft’s Most Polarizing Prospect

4. I think Josh Rosen and Josh Allen are definitely declaring, and I think very few people know what Sam Darnold will do. My understanding is Darnold shut down all talk of that before the season started, and his reluctance to jump through some hoops players do (like vetting agents) in deciding on whether to declare or not is what led people to believe that he’ll be back in 2018. What you hear is he’s a smart kid, from a good family, who will take everything into account before making a final call. Could he use the extra year? Yes. But if he’s projected to go first or second, that’ll be tough to pass on.

5. Last year’s running backs class has a chance to be remembered for a long, long time: Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, Jamaal Williams, Kareem Hunt . . . on and on. This year’s group might be close to as good. Not quite to the level of 2017, but good enough to start to look at this being a new golden era at the position, particular when you figure Todd Gurley (2015) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016) in. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is fantastic, but it’s not just him. LSU’s Derrius Guice, Alabama’s Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Stanford’s Bryce Love, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, USC’s Ronald Jones, Miami’s Mark Walton and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams are among those who make this a deep, quality class.

6.Saquon Barkley’s star faded late in the year, to the point where he finished with just four 100-yard rushing games on the season and wasn’t even invited to New York. But don’t get it twisted—this is still the do-everything, 21st-century prototype that we said he was back in September. I ran it by one AFC exec on Monday night who said, “to the people that matter, nothing’s changed.” Barkley, like Ezekiel Elliott and Joe Mixon before him, fits what NFL teams are looking for in 2017, the 230-pound hammer who can play on all three downs.

2018 NFL Mock Draft: Darnold One of Four First-Round QBs

7. Some guys help themselves by staying in school, and Mayfield wasn’t the only one in 2017. The best example? N.C. State senior pass rusher Bradley Chubb, who I believe some teams will regard as the best prospect at any position in this year’s class. I got a one-word answer when I asked one veteran evaluator what he liked about the 6' 5", 272-pound Chubb coming out of this year: “Everything.” And another defensive linemen who helped him stock by staying for senior year was Michigan’s Maurice Hurst. His height (he’s expected to measure out at 6' 1" or so) may keep him out of the first round, but he can play.

8. NFL teams looking for offensive line help in 2018 are going to be much happier with what they find than those who needed them last year. While those guys are still harder to evaluate and develop than they used to be, it wouldn’t be shocking if three offensive linemen—Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey and Texas tackle Connor Williams (health permitting)—all went in the first 10-15 picks, and there are others who can play beyond those three.

9. SMU’s Courtland Sutton is going to be one of this year’s most interesting prospects, with a good shot to go ahead of more well-known names at wide receiver, like Calvin Ridley (Alabama) and James Washington (Oklahoma State). Sutton is expected to come in at 6' 4" and 230 pounds, and those who live-scouted him came back sounding like they just spotted Big Foot. If he tests well—and it’s expected he will—there’s a chance he lands inside the Top 10 picks as the first receiver taken.

10. I can’t wait to dig a little more into the small school prospects. Perhaps the most interesting one is Texas-San Antonio pass rusher Marcus Davenport, a converted receiver who we covered a little earlier in the year. Another intriguing one to watch is South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert, who can play in-line and flex out, and does a little bit of everything. And if you want to go really deep, we’ll probably be talking more about West Georgia tackle Desmond Harrison come March and April. Harrison, a Senior Bowl invitee, is 6' 6", 290 pounds and could run sub-5.0 in the 40.

11. And here’s a bonus, before we get out of here for this week (we’ll reinstitute some of the old elements next week): This year’s class, outside of the quarterbacks, lacks sizzle at the top. There’s no super-elite prospect at another position, like a Jadeveon Clowney or Myles Garrett (or like a number of the 2019 defensive line prospects could be), but there is balance and depth.

That’s all for now. It’s still early yet. Five months to go.

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