With the draft just about a month away, it's time for every NFL team to start getting their draft boards in order, and ranking players in order based on their own preferences. At SI, it's time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64, which debuts here, uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they're slotted as such. At the bottom of the hypothetical second round, we have a few small-school stars, and a couple of hidden gems with specific limitations who could be great in the right settings.
No. 64: Jimmie Ward, SS, Northern Illinois
Bio: At 5-foot-11, 193 pounds, the 2014 Thorpe Award finalist has shown that people shouldn't discount him for his small school or his small stature. Last season, he led his team in total tackles (95), solo tackles (62), passes defensed (10) and interceptions (seven). He impressed at the Senior Bowl and ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at his pro day in March, despite the fact that he would get a screw inserted in his foot soon after. In a league in need of range defenders, Ward will get a very good look from a lot of NFL teams.
Strengths: Plays well everywhere in the defensive backfield -- from deep center field to slot cornerback. Ward has tremendous range and can cover a lot of ground in a big hurry, and he's on point when he gets there -- he doesn't overreach as much as you'd expect for a player who's going all-out at all times. Makes plays in the passing game from inside the seams to outside the numbers and can roll back into deep coverage from linebacker depth. Times his hits exceptionally well to deflect and break up passes. Ward plays a lot of slot coverage, and this may be his most appealing value to NFL teams. His footwork is outstanding, and his backpedal speed really shows up on tape. Doesn't allow a lot of yards after catch -- if a receiver grabs a catch in his area, Ward is quick to end the play.
Weaknesses: Gets a bit stiff in coverage situations where he needs to turn his hips and run quickly in a straight line; not a natural mover in those circumstances. Though he can get vertical, Ward will be challenged by tight ends and bigger receivers -- with his height, there's only so high he can go. Takes on blockers fearlessly at the line of scrimmage, but needs to put on functional weight to deal with them -- he's a thin guy who struggles in physical battles and needs to shoot through gaps to tackle or blitz. Will occasionally bite on play-action and play-fakes because he's so aggressive to the ball.
Conclusion: In Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle's Kam Chancellor re-established the value of the safety who could play in lurk (mid-field) coverage against slot receivers and tight ends, adding an important element to a team's overall defensive concepts. Ward has already done a lot of lurking, and he'd be a great asset to any team that plays a lot of nickel or dime coverage. The question is whether he'd be better off moving to cornerback, or sticking at the safety position, perhaps moving to free safety and helping his NFL team in more of a hybrid role. One thing's for sure -- despite his small-school history, Ward will be highly intriguing to many NFL teams, because teams now prize safeties who cover ground more than ever.
No. 63: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
Bio: A former walk-on, Abbrederis led the Badgers in receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. In 2013, he went over 1,000 yards for the first time with 1,081 on 78 catches and seven touchdowns. The 6-1, 195-pound Abbrederis became the first University of Wisconsin receiver to make first-team all-conference since Al Toon did it in 1983 and '84. He won the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation's top player who began his career as a walk-on, but when it comes to his NFL prospects, things are a bit more nebulous.
Strengths: Abbrederis has an excellent understanding of route concepts and the kinds of option routes that receivers use at the NFL level to get and stay open in space. He gets free from aggressive press cornerbacks with foot fakes at the line of scrimmage and establishes position smoothly to run his routes. Keeps his eye on the ball through the play and brings it in well. Turns and runs quickly and with a surprising second gear after the catch. Sinks his hips at the cut of a route and moves through angles effectively. Abbrederis is a willing and effective blocker for his size at the line and in space. Though he can be physically outmatched, Abbrederis is unafraid to go up for the ball in traffic. Will occasionally make defenders look silly with his ability to cut quickly and regain his top speed.
Weaknesses: Abbrederis struggles to gain separation at every level -- he simply doesn't have the straight-line or close-in speed to break away from defenders. Can be out-muscled by defenders on slants and drags, which often leads to him losing possession; he doesn't have the functional strength to fight for the ball on a consistent basis. Bigger NFL cornerbacks will eat him up over time if he's lined up as an outside receiver.
Conclusion: The temptation when analyzing any smaller, pigment-impaired possession receiver is to instantly compare him to Wes Welker and move on to the next guy. Abbrederis isn't as tough in short spaces as Welker, but the Broncos' receiver developed that trait over time. Like Welker, he's going to be better in the slot, where his route knowledge is a primary asset and his lack of top-end speed won't be such a liability. Abbrederis can be a productive player in the NFL, as long as the team drafting him understands what he is and is not.
No. 62: Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
Bio: The 6-3, 298-pound Bushland, Texas native obviously didn't get a lot of looks from bigger schools, but he did an outstanding job for the Rams, starting every game over his four seasons and ending his collegiate career with a well-deserved first-team All-Mountain West selection. Then, he impressed at the Senior Bowl, and picked up more interest at the scouting combine. Center is always an underrated position in the draft, but Richburg is getting attention at the right time for all the right reasons.
Strengths: Richburg is abnormally quick off the snap -- he can pull multiple gaps right after snapping the ball, and this may be his most dominant positive trait. Shows impressive lateral agility, especially in pass-protection -- Richburg re-directs easily off his first block and keeps everything in front of him. Fans out and blasts defenders with a quick and resounding hand-strike to keep them at bay. Gets to the second and third levels of a defense quickly and blocks targets accurately -- has no problem with combo blocks in a zone scheme. Does an excellent job of getting his hands on defenders and sliding to the end of the line, and he doesn't let opponents slip through his grasp -- if you're going to beat Richburg, you're going to have to do it with pure power.
Weaknesses: Richburg is not a dominant drive-blocker -- even when he uses proper technique and gets under his opponents' pads, he can get dragged around pretty easily in pure physical matchups. Some questions about strength of opponent, but his tape against Alabama should put that to rest, as should his performance during Senior Bowl week.
Conclusion: If you want a center who will dominate in the Nick Mangold style, Richburg isn't the man for you. But if you're an NFL team in need of a quick, smart inline blocker capable of making line calls and running the protection part of an offense, Richburg looks to have everything is takes to do so.
No. 61: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois
Bio: Garoppolo was on the map a bit after winning the Walter Payton Award in 2013 for throwing for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns, but he really hit the national radar when he enjoyed a solid week at the Senior Bowl, becoming the most famous Eastern Illinois import since Tony Romo. He's received attention from several NFL teams, and he may very well be taken in the second round of the 2014 draft -- Garoppolo is definitely in the mix along with a group of quarterbacks in the second tier of this class below Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles.
Strengths: Garoppolo has good touch to the short and intermediate areas of the field -- he understands how to arc the ball over defenders and can throw his receivers open to a degree. Smart player who can pick up a playbook quickly and implement it well. Has the arm to make deep throws, through there aren't a lot of stick throws from 15 yards and out on tape. Throws with an efficient overhead delivery that won't need much adjustment at the next level. Does run play-action out of the pistol and throws well out of it. One of Garoppolo's primary assets is his ability to throw his receivers open -- that is, to lead his receivers away from defenders with excellent ball placement. Slightly undersized at 6-2 and 226, but his delivery makes him throw slightly taller.
Weaknesses: Played out of shotgun and pistol formations in college, and though this isn't the problem it was 10 years ago (in 2013, seven NFL teams operated out of shotgun at least two-thirds of the time), teams that want their quarterbacks to play under center will want to know more about his dropback footwork and ability to run play-action. A more vexing issue is the fact that Garoppolo gets skittish under the slightest pressure -- he gets happy feet, bails from the pocket and throws too early. Did not run a multi-read offense -- most of Garoppolo's throws are first-read open concepts, and combined with his pressure issues, he could really struggle when asked to stick and stay in the pocket. Doesn't always throw from his feet up to gain optimal velocity -- Garoppolo has a tendency to dance and reset in the pocket even when he isn't pressured. Has issues with accuracy on the run, leading to errant throws he should be able to make with his athleticism. There are still questions -- legitimate ones -- about the competition he's faced.
Conclusion: Garoppolo will never have the tools that make some quarterbacks specifically elite; his path to NFL success will come through his touch, timing and rhythm. That doesn't make him a potential superstar, but he can be the kind of quarterback who can help his team win by minimizing mistakes. Like Alex Smith in his latter years with the 49ers and currently with the Chiefs, Garoppolo is a smart and solid potential NFL starter with a reasonably bright future. Given the importance of his position, that's no small thing.
NFL player comparison: Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (1st round, San Francisco 49ers, 2005, Utah)
No. 60: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Bio: One of the more productive backs in the country over the last two seasons, Sankey totaled 3,309 yards and 36 rushing touchdowns on 616 carries in 2012 and '13, adding 61 receptions for 553 yards and a touchdown for good measure. Often underrated in an offense that was uneven at best, Sankey broke out in his junior campaign with 1,870 yards, which ranked fourth in the nation, and 20 touchdowns, which also ranked fourth. The 5-10, 209-pound Sankey impressed and excelled despite an offensive line that did him no favors and general inconsistency from quarterback Keith Price. He appears ready to make a real impact in the NFL, though some believe that he'll have limitations at the next level.
Strengths: Sankey has a good ability to read gaps and quickly find open spaces. He's not a power back, but he keeps his legs moving through traffic and gains yards after contact with propulsion more than power. And when he moves quickly to and through the hole, he's hard to catch up with -- he gets up to speed quickly and has an estimable second gear. Good jump-cut runner who can move quickly to find openings, and he accelerates smoothly to linebacker depth and beyond. Cuts quickly to beat defenders -- Sankey can foot-fake defenders easily and consistently. Good weapon on slice runs across the line, because he's quick in short spaces. Not a dominant blocker, but gives good effort and can keep defenders at bay for the most part. More a cut-blocker than a face-up guy who's going to use physical strength. An opportunistic runner who will outperform his line over time if need be. A valuable and versatile receiver who can excel in any screen package, with wheel routes, and if the quarterback needs to be bailed out. An aware player who keeps his eyes open and is always looking for opportunities to help his team.
Weaknesses: Runs too upright at times, leaving himself open to easy takedowns and turnovers -- Sankey needs to keep his pad level down and blast through gaps. This issue definitely shows up on a consistent basis when he's tasked to create openings at the line; Sankey is more reliant on line openings.
Conclusion: Sankey has limitations as a bellwether back, because he doesn't have the physical dominance that such backs must have to succeed over time in the NFL -- at the professional level, the running game is a war of attrition more than anything else. But he's not a boom-or-bust player in the Chris Johnson mold, either -- Sankey can do more than one thing on the field, and in the right circumstances (an offense that switches its backs often and situationally), he'll be a major contributor. Specifically, I believe that he could have a bigger impact as a receiver in the NFL, though his impact as a rusher might not be the same as it was on the collegiate level. The Jahvid Best comparison is based on Best's work at Cal more than his Lions career, which was unfortunately cut short by injuries.
NFL player comparison: Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions (1st round, 2010, Cal)