After kicking things off with the running backs earlier this week, we’re switching over to the defensive side for the first time for these positional draft breakdowns and look at this linebacker class. Especially as we get to these positions on defense, where what you covet depends so much on what your scheme asks of players and how play-callers utilize these guys, boards will look a lot different for each team. So this is just me looking at this from a more general standpoint and ranking these prospects based on how valuable their skill-sets can be for the NFL.
It’s kind of an ambiguous group of linebackers this year I believe, because as we get to the edge defenders a couple of weeks from now, you’ll see that there’s some overlap, where a player may be defined differently depending on who you ask. Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig for example will be part of my edge rundown, rather be listed here.
I don’t think there’s a single clear-cut first-rounder, taking positional value into account, but the first four names should all go in the second round and then there’s about seven names I think have a case to go in the third. After that, there are quite a few names, who can fill a certain role and contribute on special teams, but overall there are just too many guys I think are undersized or lack a certain quality, for me to call this a strong class.
It’s positional draft rankings time! As I outlined on social media and my most recent video on the biggest risers and fallers from the NFL combine, over the next five-and-a-half weeks, I will be releasing top ten lists for each position in the draft. That means two groups every week, starting with running backs and linebackers, and I will follow that theme of talking about an offensive position first and then their defensive counterpart (wide receiver – cornerback, offensive tackle – edge defender, etc.).
As far as this running back class is concerned, we have a legit superstar prospect at the top, who draft evaluators have long held in high regard and were just waiting for to declare. I also think there’s a pretty clear number two – who might actually be underdiscussed – and number three has remained steady throughout this process for me as well. After that, you can argue there’s about ten names in one big bucket, where it largely depends on what flavor your team is looking for. Not all of them will, but I would have no problem with any one of them coming off the board before day. Even after that, there are a lot useful players, who you can find in the later rounds and be contributors for you to a certain degree.
The 2022/23 NFL season is officially in the books, with the Chiefs beating out the Eagles in the tremendous back-and-forth of Super Bowl LVII. So now it’s time to progress to offseason content, with free agency and a length pre-draft process.
Some people may have already missed some of that, as we had a full week between the East-West Shrine and Senior Bowl events. We have three/four days of practice and a game each to break down, to see which young prospects have already stood out and helped themselves in terms of showcasing their talents to NFL scouts.
I watched every practice period and the games, to recap everything we saw in Las Vegas and Mobile respectively, and settled on ten players on each side of the ball, which I wanted to point out as early “risers” in this process. Plus, I added a few other names, who I thought helped themselves, at the end.
All draft prospects have been analysed in-depth and ranked against each other. Now it’s time to predict what will happen when Thursday night rolls around, as I present my one and only mock draft of the year.
There’s going to be a bit of a surprise quarterback at number three – even though the name has gotten some steam lately – the big three receivers go early, but then people wait a little bit because they know how deep the class is, there will be kind of a late run on edge rushers and I have only one running back going in the first round. The big thing here is two of my top ten overall prospects don’t hear their names called in this first round due to injuries, largely because without any medical information, it was hard for me to actually put things into context and project where these guys will go.
As far as trades go, I tried to stay close to what the NFL Trade Value Chart says and didn’t include any picks from future years, to keep things fairly simple. To me this clear – this is not what I would do necessarily, but more so what I think will ultimately happen.
Now that all the positional rankings have been released, it’s time to put it all together and present my personal big board. Since we’re looking at this from an outside perspective, team-specific boards of course will look different. However, I wanted to give a more general overview and just rank the top 100 overall prospects, regardless of position.
As far as injuries and other factors go, I tried to consider injuries, that I can actually project forward, like torn ACLs and Achilles tendons. For prospects like Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips and Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph, I just can’t put clean-up back procedures, concussion histories or bad environments around them into relation, so I’m not going to try. Teams that have the medical and background information may want to drop them down the board, because of those factors.
Make sure to check out my in-depth positional breakdowns here and/or on Youtube, for my analysis on all of these players, and feel free to let me know your thoughts!
We have now reached the end of our positional draft breakdowns, as we discuss the most debated position – the quarterbacks. For this list, I value starter traits over a more complete game coming out of college, if I don’t see the physical capability of becoming a long-term option for a team.
As far as this group of signal-caller goes, I believe there’s a big four, that all deserve to go in the top-ten, because the havey superb athleticism and arm talent, then there’s two guys that are kind of in a tier of their own, in the late first and mid-day two window respectively and after that, there’s a big drop-off to more projects, which aren’t close to being ready to start, but have the tools to develop in the right situation.
Make sure to check out all my other draft write-ups and videos on every single position and feel free to comment here or contact me on my social media channels, which you can find in the toolbar at the top.
We are back with our final defensive positional breakdowns, as we move on from tight-ends earlier in the week to the safety class. That means we are only one group away – and it’s a big one, talking about quarterbacks – from revealing my combined big board of the top 100 overall prospects in the draft.
As far as this group of safeties goes, the more guys you watch, the more you like it seems. My top ten could all easily go within the first two days, even though there may be only one selected on opening night. Especially with a position like this, there a lot of different skill-sets they may offer and roles they could play at the next level, so I will always try to explain at the end, what I envision them to be.
I also put out a video version of this breakdown. And make sure to check out all the other positional breakdowns I have already put out and come back next Tuesday, for my analysis of the top quarterbacks.
1. Richie Grant, UCF
5’11” ½, 200 pounds; RS SR
Only a two-star recruit back in 2016, Grant was a large part of the rotation as a freshman and then put up crazy numbers in his first year as a starter (2018), with 109 total tackles and six interceptions, to go with a couple of forced fumbles. Over 21 combined games these last two years, he has recorded 150 more tackles, picked off four more passes and broken up another 13, to go three forced fumbles. That made him a first-team All-AAC selection all three years as a starter, while being a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik awards this past season.
According to UCF coaches, the work and athleticism for Grant are off the charts – and you see it pay off on the field, as he seems to always be around the football. He split time between the wide side of the field in split-safety looks and as the extra defender in the box, where he is often brought off the edge. I love how he runs the alley and shows great pursuit from the backside. He may not have the mass to deliver big hits too often, but he is far from an ankle-biter, looking to attack. He doesn’t mind sticking his face in the fan as a tackler and displays crazy hustle chasing after the ball from behind. His 33 run stops over the last two seasons are the most among all draft-eligible DBs, while he also only missed six of 78 tackling attempts in 2020 – that’s one of the best rates among all college safeties. Grant was one of the most impressive blitzers off the edge at any positional, with excellent timing of the snap. That way he chases down a lot of run plays and has some wiggle to get around blockers in the pass game, while he also doesn’t mind running through the back in passing situations, to take the direct path. And you saw that all-around skill-set during Senior Bowl week as well, moving out to corner a few times, making plays in run support and forcing incompletions downfield, by coming over late and raking the ball out of the hands of receivers.
Grant sees plays develop at a highly advanced level and understands where his help is in underneath coverage, not allowing routes to draw him away from his responsibilities and tracking the eyes of the quarterback. He had an outstanding one-handed PBU against Cincinnati last season, when he redirected, as Desmond Ridder tried to throw across his body off a scramble. Grant does well to pick up receivers downfield that were funneled towards him as a deep-half defender. And he has the instincts be put in single-high duties, where he trusts in what he sees, so he can sprint all out to where he expects the ball to go. He had one play in the Tulsa game last season, where he was on the left hash and made an interception all the way at the right numbers. The versatile safety does a great job of driving on routes in quarters coverage and as a robber, while showing the quick burst to wrap up the pass-catcher just as the ball arrives there. Grant also has plenty of experience covering inside receivers in man, where his footwork is springy and active, enabling him to click and close quickly. He has some beautiful coverage reps on tape in man against the number three on trips, especially breaking out to the sideline, where he flips and works through the mitts of the receiver. He’s not afraid of sitting on big slot receivers and breaks up a bunch of quick in-breaking routes from off-alignment. While he dropped a couple of interceptions in 2019, he is certainly a plus defender at the catch point, getting his hands in late and ripping the ball out routinely. Overall, he held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 32.3 when targeted last season, with less than half of the targets his way to be completed, for one TD compared to three INTs.
With that being said, Grant can get shook at times by dynamic athletes and he overestimates his speed a little bit at times, with the aggressive angles he chooses in run support. In terms of top-end speed and fluidity, Grant is behind a few guys in this class and he lacks elite physical traits in general. Because of those things, he might not be the most dependable last line of defense and some teams that ask their free safeties to cover a ton of ground in single-high alignments, may not be fully sold on him in that role. He could be a little more active with his hands as a pursuit defender, to not allow defenders to take him off track. And he is faulty of getting drawn in by play-action and vacating his area.
I get that there are more physically gifted athletes in this class and safety is usually one of the positions I differentiate myself the most at, but Richie Grant is an absolute baller. I just love the instincts, the smarts, the aggressiveness and the consistency he provides. I think he can legitimately play strong, free and big nickel, as a versatile piece in the secondary, who will produce in all three areas (defend the run, cover and blitz). He is also one of eight players in this draft with at least 500 career snaps on special teams (533) and his energy will be a boost to those units right away, to go with the multi-faceted the defender he is already.
2. Trevon Moehrig, TCU
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
A former top-500 overall recruit, Moehrig saw very limited playing time as a freshman, but recorded his first interception. In his initial season as a full-time starter in 2019, Moehrig recorded 43 solo tackles, four interceptions, 11 PBUs and a couple of fumbles forced. Last season his numbers went down ever so slightly in two less games, with 30 solo stops, two picks and nine more passes broken down, repeated first-team All-Big-12 accolades and received the Jim Thorpe award, which goes to the top defensive back in the country.
Moehrig was primarily deployed as their field-side safety with a lot of two-high looks for the Horned Frogs. He stays balanced throughout plays and won’t get sucked up by play-fakes or backside bubbles, but once he sees the ball actually come out, he’ll get there in a hurry. And in 2020 I feel like his trigger got quicker altogether. He can cover a lot ground and then work around the action with shuffle-steps to put himself in position for a tackle. And he has that sudden burst and slipperiness to work around picks/rubs and blockers on screen passes. Every once in a while, TCU’s coaches ask him to come down late and rush off the edge, where his speed really stands out. And when they roll his into the deep middle, Moehrig has turned himself into a much more reliable last man, who can deal with the tough job of having to bring down dynamic players with a lot of space to work with. He has only 15 misses over 100 tackling attempts these last two years combined. He had a tremendous game against Oklahoma State in their regular-season finale, when he made a couple of key stops and had a huge interception in the end-zone, when the Cowboys were about to take the lead.
In quarters coverage, Moehrig is great at anticipating and jumping on curl and dig routes, never just leaning back on his heels and waiting to commit, plus he has the oily hips to flip and run with them, as they try to go over the top. When the ball gets thrown up the seams or on slot fades, he plays through the receiver, but with his eyes on the ball, to dislodge it. Moehrig was asked to cap over slot receivers and take them in man quite a bit when the Horned Frogs blitzed their nickel, or match number three’s in trips alignment. In one-on-one coverage, he is not afraid to squat on routes and has great short-area burst to contests slants, but also the speed to trail receivers across the field. Either way, he sticks with his man even when the play is extended and won’t just freelance. Moehrig also plenty of experience rotating into the deep middle in free-man situations, where his range allows him to make plays anywhere between the numbers. His football IQ and awareness as a zone defender are really illustrated by the way he can match patterns and anticipate routes, but also just grasping what head coach Gary Patterson asks from their safeties, in terms of all the different pre- and post-snap adjustments. Therefore, he allowed just under half of the targets his way to be completed last season (20 of 41), with one touchdown compared to two INTs and eight forced incompletions, for a passer rating of 51.7.
When he is in man-coverage, Moehrig takes a couple of steps down and totally sits on the receiver, which allows some guys to blow by him with a running start. Texas’ Devin Duvernay did so in 2019 for a touchdown of almost 50 yards. It makes him susceptible to double-moves, plus him needing to put hands on the receiver at the top to stay in position will be flagged at the next level. Last season, I thought he found himself around the catch-point a lot, but couldn’t make a play on the ball, which is due to him not very imposing in that regard. Moehrig is still certainly a bit an ankle-tackler, who dives at the legs of the ball-carrier instead of wrapping up. Some inconsistencies in that area could be a question-mark for single-high duty, which he is projected to play by most evaluators, in part because a certain physicality is missing to his, in order to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He also has to do a better job of protecting the inside when he is approaching the ball-carrier at the sideline.
Still, to me Moehrig is the best true single-high safety prospect in this class, which is a type of player that is highly sought after in the NFL. He may not have sideline-to-sideline range like those elite free safeties we have seen in the past, like Ed Reed or a prime Earl Thomas, but he can control everything in-between the numbers, he brings high intelligence and awareness to the table, has already shown major improvement as a space-tackler and was voted a team captain for every single game these last two years at TCU. I expect him to be the first safety off the board and possibly the only one came Thursday night of the draft.
3. Andre Cisco, Syracuse
6’0”, 205 pounds; JR
Barely a top-1000 overall recruit in 2018, Cisco started all but two games his freshman year and has been one of the most productive safeties in college football since then. He was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection, thanks to being tied for the nation-lead with seven interceptions (first true freshman to do so in almost 70 years), to go along with line for passes broken up and 60 tackles. While the numbers did go down slightly, he still deflected and picked off five passes each (one returned to the house), to go along with a fumble forced and recovered each, earning second-team All-ACC honors. Last season he unfortunately tore his ACL two games in, when he had one pick.
Especially as a freshman, Cisco played a ton of single-high free safety and consistently stayed deeper than the deepest. However, the Orange started out in two-high looks a large amount of time and rolled one of them into the deep middle, which brought Cisco down into the flats or as a robber, plus of course staying in quarters to some degree. The speed and fluidity in the hips are excellent for this young man. He shows good sink in his lower half and a very easy pedal to gain depth, but once he reacts, he can cover a lot of ground in little time. You see him drift one way and then flip and run over to the opposite numbers, before high-pointing the ball on multiple picks in his career. When he has to turn his back to quarterback up the post initially as a receiver is pushing that way, he does a great job re-locating the ball and getting a hand on it. Plus, he has the anticipation and situational awareness to come up from depth and shut down mesh concepts and stuff like that, to avoid easy third-down conversions. That feel for when to shoot downhill is something really jumped off the screen on a few occasions. Cisco is just a play-maker, who knows what to do once the ball is in his hands, as he recorded 143 interception return yards in his career.
While I – and probably the NFL as well – like him best at free safety, he has the size and skill-set to take on box duties, plus he was brought down as a robber quite a bit as well, where he cut in front of several receivers, as he saw the quarterback release the ball. When he drives on routes underneath, he hits with the shoulder through the side of where the ball is placed, in order to knock it loose, if he can’t get his own hands on it. And covering underneath, he is a threat to undercut any routes out to the flats, especially if quarterbacks don’t drive the ball as hard as they can. Cisco wasn’t always put in the best situations, playing 15 yards deep and getting matched up against slot receivers with a two-way go. He also has quality reps in man-coverage against tight-ends and number three’s in trips, where his speed and loose hips allow him to stick with his guy throughout the pattern and leading into scramble drills, as he is threat to step in front of those late passes, when QBs try to still force something. While he won’t always just shoot up the alley in run support, the Cuse’ young standout was surprisingly effective with his ankle tackling and thanks to his range could limit some potentially explosive plays. He has the size to bring down big running backs in solo-fashion and deal with tight-ends working up to him in the run game.
Yet, Cisco’s angles and breakdowns in run support need plenty of help, being made look foolish on several occasions. As a tackler, he constantly allows extra yardage due to leaving his feet. Cisco doesn’t come downhill against the run very aggressively, but at the same time gets drawn in by play-action way too much I feel like. He doesn’t play up to his size as a box-defender and also in the open field, he is not looking to attack blockers. As crazy as it may sound for a guy who led the nation in picks, I think Cisco is a little too passive when the route pattern has developed and there’s a chance to drive on routes in front of him. And for as many plays as he made on the ball for the Cuse, he also was responsible for quite a few as well. PFF charged him for six TDs in 2019, including getting beat across his face on a post route by Tutu Atwell for a 90-yard touchdown in the Louisville game. When you watch his career interception reel, five or six of those 13 basically were thrown right into his hands, either off a deflection or just bad ball-placement – not saying the other ones weren’t impressive.
Even though I have already proclaimed my love for UCF’s Richie Grant, I think Cisco is one of the better combo safeties we have seen come out recently, with plenty of ball-production to his name. Rarely do I think players actually live up to the kind of numbers Cisco has made on the ball, but while there are some less-impressive ones, he also creates some big ones. You can do a lot with him in terms of coverage rotations and being interchangeable with multiple positions. Of course health will be a factor in the evaluation, but ACL surgeries are nothing major nowadays and his size makes injuries less of a concern.
4. Elijah Molden, Washington
5’11”, 190 pounds; SR
The son of former NFL defensive back Alex Molden and former top-200 overall recruit, Molden played in all 27 games his first two years in the Pacific Northwest as a backup, before he really broke onto the scene as a junior, when he led the Huskies with 79 tackles, 5.5 of them for loss, four INTs and 12 passes broken up, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Last season UW only played four games, but Molden added another 26 tackles and a pick, while repeating first-team all-conference honors.
Molden basically played pure nickel for the Huskies in 2019, primarily on the wide side of the field, before he was actually used in some more deep safety assignments this past season. He displays tremendous acceleration and can carry slot fade routes down the field. Therefore, he is not scared of getting beat down the seams, putting his body in front receivers, and then he has the light feet to stop right there against curl or hook routes, while using those subtle jersey-tugs that don’t get flagged, to help himself. When receivers snap their head around, as they break inside after pushing vertically, Molden gets his eyes on the quarterback as well to see if the ball is coming out, while staying in phase with his man. He is super physical against underneath routes and even with outside leverage in man-coverage, he will not get picked on with shallow crossers, sticking with slot guys and bringing them down right as they catch the ball for minimal yardage. And he has the great mobility in his lower body, to be caught a little bit off balance, but quickly get back into position, flipping around by nearly 180 degrees when receivers stem one way and then break the other. Molden was even asked to man up against H-backs and wings, trailing them on motions and sift blocks. Over these last two years combined, he has allowed 72 of 111 targets his way to be completed, but only for 675 yards and two touchdowns, compared to five picks (over 600 coverage snaps). And his passer rating surrendered has gone down all three years with the Huskies.
Being used more in two-high shells for quarters coverage and be more deceptive with their defensive rotations last season. Molden has experience with a variety of responsibilities in zone coverage. He excels at driving on routes from those deep alignments or rotating down as a robber and he was even blitzed all the way 10-12 yards off, as the Huskies switched to a single-high coverage. When covering shallow zones (hooks and flats), he displays active feet and high football intelligence, to decipher through route patterns. His hips may stay square to the line of scrimmage, but he drifts sideways ever so slightly, to not give open throwing windows to somebody right behind him. He does a good job of slightly re-routing receivers and putting his hands on them, before passing them on to the next area. This guy plays with his hair on fire, when he sees an opportunity to get to the ball. He quickly transitions forward, as the ball is thrown underneath, and hits receivers at the hip level. Molden fights hard to get around blocks in the screen and perimeter run game. I love the way he shoots downhill and throws his body around, often times dipping underneath bigger bodies to get to the ball – even with offensive linemen getting out there. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t blindly jump on bubbles on the backside of run plays, but rather keeps his shoulders square and shuffles along. And you can rely on him to bring down the guy with the ball, illustrated by only 22 missed tackles on 172 career attempts.
When Molden can get his hands on receivers and stay over the top, he can make it tough for them to get into their routes, but if he gets his back towards the quarterback and the receiver can break either way, he can lose them at times. He can get a little impatient against stutter releases and prematurely open his hips. And then he tends to get caught trying to reach for receivers when he just gives up one step of separation instead of continuing to pump his arms, in order to maximize his speed and actually get back into phase. While I believe Molden could play more safety at the next level, he doesn’t have a lot of experience at the collegiate level and his lack of length at 5’10”, with only 29 ½-inch arms could present some issues.
With that being said, I’m not one to get scared off too much by measurements, if they aren’t required for a certain role. I wouldn’t expect Molden to be matched up tight-ends on passing downs a whole lot, but he has the recovery skills and competitiveness to be a pest for slot receivers. With 18 plays on the ball in the 17 games over these last two years, he has proven to be an impact player in that regard. And while his role was pretty limited at UW, the athletic ability and smarts aren’t missing. Molden could be one of the better nickels in the league as a rookie and take on more responsibilities, as he develops.
5. Jamar Johnson, Indiana
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
Just outside the top-1000 overall recruits in 2018, Johnson saw just 15 snaps on defense as a freshman, doing most of his work on special teams. In year two, he split snaps at slot corner, recording three sacks and two interception, with one of them taken back to the house. This past season as a junior, he started all eight games at free safety officially, even though he played all over the field, recording 42 total tackles, four interceptions and four more passes broken up, which earned him first-team All-Big Ten notice.
Johnson was basically a nickel in 2019, who played just over 300 total snaps, but then last season became a versatile piece for that Hoosier defense. He did everything from single-high, two-deep, box duties and even blitzed from deep alignment a few times. He is a self-proclaimed see-ball, get-ball type of player, who brings a lot of energy to the table. Johnson plays with great verocity and never seems to shy away from contact. You see him rip underneath blockers a lot, in order to create an angle to the ball, and when he is walled off, he will blow through tight-ends and doesn’t mind mixing it up with offensive linemen even. Johnson does a great job of setting the edge in the run game, squeezing down to not allow any crease, while keeping his weight shifted to the outside. His shoulders stay square versus backside bubbles or when shuffling with RPO. So I would stay, he takes care of his assignment, until it’s time to commit, and then he chases at full speed. Plus, on top of that, he is sneaky with his alignments and body language, to not be accounted for properly in the run game. He has sudden shiftiness as a blitzer, dipping underneath blockers, but he also won’t hesitate to run through somebody in his way. You see him chase down running backs from behind and make quarterbacks uncomfortable that way. He was all over the field in the Ohio State game last year, baiting the offense to run the ball by acting like he was bailing out, disguising coverages, picking off Justin Fields twice and he ran over running back Master Teague on a blitz, who outweighs him by a good 20 pounds.
When Johnson is playing deep safety, you routinely see quarterbacks pull the ball down and get off post routes and stuff like that. He has the oily hips to play some single-high and flip around when he sees the quarterback try to go down the opposite hash of where he is leaning towards. Indiana blitzed their corners quite a bit and Johnson was asked to cap over the top. However, I like him better when using his ability to drive on routes in quarters or coming down as a robber and taking away passing lanes. In shallow zone coverage, he is following the eyes of the quarterback and drops underneath routes on the sideline, if there’s nobody in his area. And he is crafty with giving quarterbacks different looks, to check in and out of plays. His experience as a slot corner certainly helps his value, where he is physical with carrying receivers down the seams. And he has the burst to get back into the action after having to bubble over the top against mesh concepts and wrap up the receiver on the shallow crosser, as the ball arrives there. He had an incredible play just like the in the 2019 Ohio State game, where he stood up his man and allowed a secondary defender to put a hit on the ball, which created a fumble. Plus, he excels at playing through the hands of receivers with his back to the ball. Over the course of his career, Johnson was targeted in coverage 44 times – he didn’t allow a single touchdown and intercepted seven of those passes. Last season, quarterbacks who targeted him in coverage, had a passer rating of 27.5
However, Johnson’s experience is fairly limited, with just under 800 total snaps in his career. He has 18 missed tackles on 80 career attempts, where he just dives at the legs of ball-carriers too much, especially approaching from deep alignments. And when he’s coming from over the top, he sells out for making plays on the ball, without securing the tackle first. While I appreciate how physical Johnson is for a 200-pound guy, because he lacks length (barely 30-inch arms), he has a problem with blockers getting right in his face, especially lining up right over the slot. He misses the jam and lunges in press-coverage against inside receivers on a few occasions, plus then tries to grab desperately, which automatically draws a flag. Running the 40 in 4.58 at the Hoosier pro day does not match up with the tape, but is of course not a glowing endorsement and he had pretty averge numbers across the board. So I don’t think he will deployed as a single-high safety a whole lot at the next level.
This was one of my favorite safeties to watch in this class, because of how much bigger he plays than his size indicates, how deceptive he is, his understanding for the game and the play-maker he has already been at the collegiate level. Johnson’s long speed and overall athleticism are average, but he more than makes up for it with those smarts, to be a step ahead of the competition. I believe he should be utilized more around the line of scrimmage by his future NFL team and if his coaches can teach him not go for those feast-or-famine press reps as much, he can be a highly valuable nickel as well, who would be a threat to blitz off the edge on any given play.
6. Ar’Darius Washington, TCU
5’8”, 180 pounds; RS SO
A three-star recruit in 2018, Washington barely saw action in four games as a freshman and therefore was able to preserve his redshirt. Then, he really broke out in year two, recording 35 solo tackles and five interceptions and was eligible to win Big-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. In nine games this past season, he couldn’t haul in any picks, but did break up four passes and come up with 25 more solo stops, making him an honorable mention all-conference selection.
First and foremost, his size does not define Washington as a player, much like it didn’t with quite a few of the these smaller safety prospects in recent years. He was primarily used as the boundary side safety in TCU’s defense, but also has experience as the plus one in the box, with Trevon Moehrig taking on single-high duties. Washington shows no hesitation of running through a lane, when it opens up in front of him and meeting the ball-carrier in the hole created off toss or sweep plays. When he’s operating closer to the line of scrimmage, I love the way he positions his body to take care of his own assignment and then is able to chase once his job is done. He is an outstanding open-field tackler, who throttles down to a balanced position and clamps the legs of the ball-carrier, to where there’s no getting away from him, plus he uses the sideline as a friend with the way he leverages himself and takes away space. His success at bringing down running backs – which usually outweigh him by quite a bit – is remarkable. Against Texas last year on a third-and-short, Washington banged so hard into the slot receiver trying to block him, that guy actually looked back at his own quarterback with the ball, who was trying to get out to the edge (even though the Longhorns still converted, simply because Sam Ehlinger is such a load to bring down).
In terms of coverage duties, TCU played a lot of quarters, where you see Washington race up quickly, in order to contest any in-breaking routes, but also seems to have no issue turning and running with slot fades. He trusts his athleticism to squat at that ten-yard depth and defend the sticks, if he ends up being matched up one-on-one. That also shows because the Horned Frogs like to blitz their corners on that short side and the safety caps over the top. And then Washington was asked to drop down into the slot and cover in man quite a bit as well, where he has the change-of-direction and speed to be highly effective, plus he is very competitive at the catch point and in general and attacks the ball at its highest point. Washington has that quick twitch to undercut a bunch of in-breakers and the speed to work over the top of mesh concepts and be right there again as the receiver catches the ball. No matter his task in coverage, his ability to close down space in a hurry is a big factor in not allowing plays to actually break open. And his ball-production went down so much last season, because I feel like teams didn’t really throw a whole lot in his direction. Since the start of the 2018 season, this guy has been responsible for just seven first downs in coverage. And similar to what I said about his now-former partner in crime Trevon Moehrig, the defensive coaching staff put a lot on his plate and Washington’s intelligence, in combination with his feel for the position, allowed him to succeed.
With that being said, his aggressiveness in run support bites him in the butt at times, as he gets drawn up and the back bounces outside, where there’s nobody left on that side of the field he is responsible for, and it comes down to him and the corner trying to chase down the ball-carrier from behind. It also makes him vulnerable to play-action, where he then has to recover from putting himself out of position. Washington’s lack of size shows up, when he actually has to deal with blocks and his limited length makes it hard to disengage. In terms of how it affects him in coverage – when bigger bodies have position him, they don’t allow him to get his hands on the ball, by shielding him with their frame. And he could be a target for jump-balls despite the way he approaches the ball, just because the average NFL receiver has five inches of height on him. Some teams may project him as a free safety or nickel prospect only, but he only played 113 snaps in single-high alignment last season.
This young man arguably has the best instincts in this draft class. The size definitely a limiting factor, but Washington plays much bigger. He offers plenty of versatility, if you can just protect him from matching up against big slot receivers a whole lot. His size didn’t really hurt him at the collegiate level, so there is some projecting to be done. At his size to be running a 4.61 and then for the missed-tackle numbers to go from six to almost 18 percent is concerning, but considering the entirety of his career, he is still far above-average in that regard. I believe if he had prototype size for the position, Washington would be a first-round pick.
7. Jevon Holland, Oregon
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
A former four-star recruit, in his two years as a starter with the Ducks, Holland has combined for 71 solo tackles, nine interceptions (including one pick-six) and ten more passes deflected. He became the first player for Oregon to lead his team in interceptions in back-to-back seasons since Jairus Byrd (2006 & 2007), yet somehow was also an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection in 2019 and then opted out of this past season, when the conference only decided to “join the party” late.
While Holland shows up here in the safeties, he basically played pure nickel for Oregon, where he was put in a lot of off man and some shallow zone-coverage. When he is responsible for the flats or hook areas, he does not flinch when the receiver across from him pushes vertically, but rather just opens up a little bit to pass him on to the deep safety, and when he sees quarterbacks initiate their throwing motion, he quickly opens that way and chases down the receiver. In off-man, he stays very patient, sitting on receivers and re-routes them when they get to him, where he displays physicality, when those guys try to get into their breaks. However, he also has pretty fluid hips, to flip multiple times on a play. And he leverages receivers well, where he may open with an outside release, but keeps that inside position, to force them to work across his face and then uses the sideline as that extra defender. Then, when the ball hangs up in the air, he feels comfortable finding and attacking it, or plays through the mitts of the receiver at full extension. He had a beautiful one-handed pass- breakup in the 2019 Pac-12 title game against Utah down the middle of the field.
Holland is usually a very dependable edge-setter in the run game, especially when he comes into the box, as his man is put in-line, actively working upfield rather than sitting and waiting back there. He plays with good extension through blocks and keeps vision on the ball-carrier. What really stands out is the closing burst he displays, racing up on scrambling on quarterbacks to force throw-aways or slipping underneath the blocker and shutting down screen passes. He is a highly reliable tackler in space, but you also see him do a nice job of hitting through the ball as it arrives at the target, to separate the two from each other. While he didn’t do a ton of it, Holland also offers some extra as a punt-returner, where he had a near punt-return touchdown against Auburn in the 2019 season-opener and averaged 15.3 yards on his 16 returns. While Holland did allow 44 of 69 targets his way to be completed in 2019, only two of them went for touchdowns and he picked off four passes himself, for a passer rating of 69.2.
With that in mind, Holland won’t be able to play off and just shove or catch receivers at the next level, simply because there’s a penalty for illegal contact in the NFL. He is rarely in press-alignment and actually dictates the stem of routes. And for a true nickel, he doesn’t necessarily have that lightning quick change of direction or loose lower body, to attach to the hip-pocket of his man right out of the break. Holland made some pretty darn impressive plays on the ball as a freshman, but when you look at his 2019 interception reel, it is very underwhelming and more about him being in the right place at the right time. He got one on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against Cal, where the ball died on the QB, a late throw over the middle on third-and-forever versus Washington State, an underthrown ball down the seams against Stanford and another one on a slot fade versus Auburn, which was probably the best one. And I think he has to do a better job of not allowing receivers to stack him on slot fade routes.
This is the one name of this safety class, that everybody seems to have universally accepted as a top three or at least top five prospect. Holland just had an impressive pro day showing, highlighted by a 4.46 in the 40, and I don’t want to take anything away from him, but let’s just acknowledge that he had a full year to just prepare for that one day. To me what it boils down to is a player, who basically was a pure nickel corner in college, who has a little bit of stiffness in the lower body for that specific spot and whose athletic testing does not translate to the field in the same way. I think the physicality and tackling skills in the run game, as well as the ability to attack the ball down the field are there to play more safety at the next level, while offering value as a chess piece against big slot receivers, but the tape didn’t blow me away.
8. Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State
6’3”, 215 pounds; SR
Just outside the top-100 overall recruits back in 2017, Nasirildeen played for extended stretches as a freshman already and then started in 11 games each of 2018 and ‘19. As a junior, he recorded 61 solo tackles (just over 100 total), three interceptions (including a pick-six) and PBUs each, to go with three forced fumbles, before tearing his ACL late in the year, which also sidelined him for all but two games last year. In 2019, he was named a second-team All-ACC selection.
A more unique athlete like this brings tremendous versatility to a defense, to play pretty much anywhere in the secondary or drop down into the box. Nasirildeen was largely deployed as a single-high safety in 2019, before FSU played more quarters coverage last year and lined him up over the slot. In man-coverage on inside receivers, Nasirildeen has the explosiveness to squeeze underneath them on in-breaking routes and make plays on the ball. Having a 34 ½-inch arms (83-inch wingspan) – which is just stupid for a safety – allows him to just get his fingertips on the ball or knock the ball out of the receiver’s mitts. And what excites me most, where that length is a major plus, is playing press-coverage, where he can dictate route-stems, against tight-ends especially. Last season, he allowed 15 of 24 targets his way to be completed, with one touchdown and pick each, for a passer rating slightly below 70. While the Seminole coaches put him closer to the line of scrimmage last season and that’s where I envision him to make more of an impact at the next level, putting a safety of Hamsah’s dimensions in the deep middle is due to the incredible range he presents, to go with nice fluidity and ball-skills, to get involved at the catch point. And his pure speed allows him to beat blockers to the spot, when the sees a delayed screen throw underneath.
Nasirildeen shows a lot of urgency to get to the guy with the ball and takes him down effectively. He usually stays under great control and keeps his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, when he comes downhill, especially effective out of those split-safety looks. His speed to close the distance to the ball-carrier from deep alignments is crazy and he brings some thump, when he can square those guys up- Just watch the first two series from FSU’s 2019 season-opener against Boise State, when he ends the first one by putting his helmet right on the ball to force a fumble and then literally blows through his cleats when he made another tackle on the latter one. You see Nasirildeen at times make contact with running backs as he tries to get through the playside B-gap, coming all the way from the opposite hash. At the same time I love how patient he is with breaking down and wrestling down ball-carrier as an open field tackler, plus he uses very consistent angles, which manifests itself in only 22 missed tackles on 233 attempts in his career. However, don’t you mistake him for some kind of drag-tackler – he will lower the boom when he can get a clean shot on somebody over the middle. First defensive play of the Duke game last season, the Seminoles have the running back stood up and the play is basically over, but you just see the force of Hamsah has, when he arrives there late and basically bowls the whole pile over. His length also is an asset in clean his frame clean against blockers. And I love what I saw, when the Seminoles sent him on blitzes from depth and the way he charges down like a rocket.
On the flipside, Nasirildeen is too conservative in deep coverage and doesn’t really trust his eyes yet. When he plays quarters or buzzes down, he plays a little flat-footed at times, which limits how quickly he can get from zero to 100. When he can put hands on people at the line and control their routes from the start, Hamsah can be very effective in man-coverage, but when he has to play off, there is some stiffness and uncomfort that you can identify. His size will always give him some issues in that regard. You saw that against some of the dynamic receivers during Senior Bowl week. There is a lack of ball-production, with only 13 combined passes defensed in his career and his one interception last season came off a deflection, right into his hands. And of course, we have seen a bunch of these sort of body types, who are described as hybrids, have a tough time sticking at one spot at the next level. Mostly, they need a coaching staff that has a clear vision for him, rather than letting his play dictate it.
The best thing Nasirildeen did down in Mobile was playing press-man against tight-ends. You saw a glimpse into what could be his specialty in the league. To me he projects best as a versatile piece, who can be deployed in multiple ways depending on down and distance, but you have to find a defined role on base downs for him. Whether it’s as a box safety or maybe even SAM backer/big nickel, depending on his future team’s scheme. Hamsah has also has logged over 500 snaps on special teams, which is big for a guy whose coaches might want to limit his responsibilities early on, and with a guy, who has been called “war daddy” and very coachable by his college coaches, you know you have something to work with.
9. Tyree Gillespie, Missouri
6’0”, 205 pounds; SR
A former three-star recruit, after barely seeing the field his freshman year, Gillespie has been one of the best safeties in the SEC these last three seasons, even though he never received any all-conference recognition, because he simply didn’t put up the stats to back up his play. Over that stretch, he recorded 100 solo tackles, two sacks and 12 pass break-ups. The only start he missed since mid-October of 2018 was due to a targeting penalty and he has excelled in the SEC since then.
Gillespie played a ton of single-high free safety for the Tigers (76.8 percent of snaps last season as a deep safety), where he was very dependable at coming upfield and bringing the ball-carrier to the ground, even running backs, who outweigh him by a significant margin. He takes great angles towards the sideline on any outside runs and uses it as that 12th defender. Because of that, he ends up taking away a lot of big-play opportunities. When he has to rotate down due to motion, he won’t get caught out of position, because he gets to the right spot before the ball is snapped and can stay balanced. Gillespie is an outstanding open-field tackler overall, who wraps up and takes down ball-carriers to great effect. He only missed 25 of his 171 career tackling attempts, despite having to bring down some of these great SEC backs, often in solo fashion, and you see him come into the screen late constantly, when you watch the tight camera angle on the All-22. He has also been blitzed all the way from a deep middle alignment and got to the quarterback in a hurry a few times.
As a deep middle free safety, Gillespie wasn’t only expected to make those high-difficulty tackles in space, but also limit what teams can do with going over the top in the passing game. He has no issues drifting from one hash to the other, nor do you see him stumble when executing speed-turns, if his hips are opened the other way, and he finds the target or attacks the ball himself. And when he is matched up with somebody downfield, Gillespie usually doesn’t panic, turning his head around and sticking a hand out, to knock the ball down. The versatile Mizzou safety can also man up against big-bodied tight-ends to great effect, the few times he was deployed that way. He held Florida’s Kyle Pitts in check pretty well for example. However, he really showed out against Alabama last season, lighting up and separating Devonta Smith from the ball on a slant route, tracking down Jaylen Waddle on a jet sweep from deep middle alignment for minimal yardage and making some keep stops on Najee Harris, including one at the goal-line.
The elephant in the room here for any defensive back – Gillespie did not have a single interception in his collegiate career. I don’t remember the last time a safety with no picks was selected before day three and even then, I can’t come up with any notable name in recent years either. Gillespie needs to anticipate throws and actually attack routes more aggressively. He is also susceptible to letting quarterbacks move him to some degree or force him to open up the other way, that guy wants to go with the ball. There are some limitations in terms of range for a true deep-middle safety and he doesn’t have the rapid change-of-direction to be a major asset in man-coverage against slot receivers. You saw that to some degree during Senior Bowl week, where he had a tough time staying phase with a few guys there.
Still, you are talking about a high post safety, who is impeccable with choosing the appropriate angles and limiting big plays on the ground, doesn’t allow receivers to get behind him and is an all-world tackler. Gillespie surprised me with a 4.38 in the 40 at the Mizzou pro day, even though the other numbers across the board were all slightly below-average. He may not have been a play-maker in college, but there is something to be said about a safety playing the position safe-ly. If you are looking for that type of piece at the back-end of your defense, I think Gillespie deserves consideration to be picked late on day two.
10. James Wiggins, Cincinnati
6’0”, 205 pounds; RS SR
A former top-1000 overall recruit, Wiggins redshirted his first year on campus and then barely saw the field as a freshman. In year two, he entered the starting lineup and became a second-team All-AAC selection right away, with 54 total tackles, four interceptions, with one them taken back to the house, and five more passes broken up. Unfortunately, he missed the 2019 season with a torn ACL, but then came back last year and turned himself into a first-team all-conference player, coming up with a pick and six more PBUs.
Wiggins made Bruce Feldman’s freak list three years in a row and was also called “The Freak” within Cincinnati’s program, while coaches spoke glowingly about the young man. After primarily being deployed in the slot in 2018, Wiggins pretty much evenly split time between deep safety, in the box and slot respectively last season. He accelerates up the alley with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and while it won’t look impressive on the stat sheet, he makes a lot of stops for four/five yards, as the running back gets past the second level. From two-high alignments or the edge of the box, he shows some suddenness to work around blockers and wrap up the ball-carrier from the side, as that guy tries to go through the hole. As a nickel in the Bearcats defense, Wiggins is super-effective at using his hands t o not let blockers to touch him at all. He does a great job of squaring up ball-carriers as a tackler, initiating with low pads and shooting his hips through contact to limit any additional yardage, while effectively wrapping up their legs on an angle. Plus, when quarterbacks go over the middle late, when he can race up from depth, they can give their receivers some headaches, because Wiggins will blow them up. Overall, he only 11 missed tackles on just under 100 attempts his last two years combined.
As a coverage defender, Wiggins is really light on his feet and has some heat under his ass when he drives on the ball. You see him in split-safety looks with a 15-yard cushion on the slot receiver and not even be in a pedal, but push that guy out of bounds right after he catches a short out route at times. Yet, at the same time, he legitimately has the range to widen in cover-two and cover multiple vertical routes on the trips side. That also makes him a valuable deep middle safety, where he looks so comfortable moving backwards and shutting down anything down the post, to go with punishing any late throws, when he can target receivers in front of him with a runway. You saw that in last year’s UCF game, when the ball was slightly behind Marlon Williams and he heard Wiggins’ footsteps, which ended with the receiver getting blown up anyway and fellow safety Darrick Forrest coming up with a huge pick, down three, early in the fourth quarter. As a nickel, he shows no fear of squatting on routes, because he knows he has the explosion to get back into the receiver’s hip pocket on underneath stuff or back into phase on vertical patterns, while often forcing them to go through his body. You saw that in the 2018 SMU game, where he lined up five yards off James Proche on a quick-in route and undercut the pass for a game-winning pick-six in overtime. He is certainly not the type of guy you target on slot fades and stuff like that, because you think you can get chunk plays against him. Last season, Wiggins allowed pretty much half of the targets his way to completed last season (20 of 39), with two TDs and one INTs, for a passer rating of 70.7.
However, at times, Wiggins comes in too hot when he’s lined up over slot receivers on quick hitches or smoke routes, because he is so eager to bring them down for no gain. His superior athleticism allowed him to see routes develop and just beat receivers to those spots, but against NFL guys, he will be tested much more and put on his heels. And when he does have to move backwards, there’s a hitch before he gets moving forward again. I saw multiple miscommunications or missed assignments on pick-plays and switching receivers between Wiggins and the outside corner. When defending the run, if blockers can cut off angles to the ball and he has to actually engage, Wiggins is much less effective and won’t impact the play on many occasions.
Like I already kind of mentioned, Wiggins is a freakish athlete, which he illustrated once again at Cincinnati’s pro day, where he had a 4.40 flat 40-yard dash, 38-inch vert, 10-foot-7-inch broad jump and 22 reps on the bench. In his case in particular, he will be tested more in the NFL, but the capability to cover players in space is certainly there. I believe Wiggins can truly play any spot in the secondary other than outside corner. He can cover in man, drive on routes as a zone defender, effective in run support as well as bringing ball-carriers to the ground and he hits harder than his size would indicate. We just have to see how it will transfer to the next level.
Just missed the cut:
Richard LeCounte, Georgia
5’11”, 190 pounds; SR
Once the number two safety recruit in the country, LeCounte was a backup as a freshman, but then took over as a starter and has been one of the best safeties in the country these last three years. Over that stretch (33 games), he recorded 161 total tackles, 6.5 of them for loss, eight interceptions, 11 PBUs, four fumbles forced and six recovered. It took him a while to get recognized for his play, but he was finally a first-team All-SEC selection this past season, after he could have easily entered the 2020 NFL draft.
The measurements don’t blow you away at 5’11”, 190 pounds, but if anybody told him so, he didn’t listen. LeCounte has long arms and plays like a 220-pound box safety. This guy is just a flying missile on the field, He does not hesitate to race up the alley and force jet sweep or end-arounds back inside by taking on the outside shoulder of a blocker at full. You routinely see him throw his body around and funnel the ball back to his help, I just love the physicality and energy he plays with, his angles depth really limit the free yardage surrendered and he uses the sideline as that extra defender, LeCounte rarely takes the worst of collisions and brings down bigger bodies at a high rate, delivering some big shots if he has a runway to the ball-carrier. LeCounte was utilized on several occasions as a blitzer from distance and has a little wiggle to make the back miss, while pursuing the ball with an attitude. After missing 15 tackles in 2018, he has cut down that number pretty well these last two years, with 14 combined on 87 attempts. LeCounte has experience with pretty much any responsibility in coverage – single high, quarters, matching number three’s in man in trips sets. He is smooth in his pedal and natural with his ability to anticipate route patterns, Lets the quarterback’s eyes lead him to the ball and blows up several receivers coming across the field from a deep alignment. Plus, he hits across the body of receivers and tight-ends coming down the seams and dislodges the ball that way. And when the target is slightly overthrown on those, he is a threat to catch it himself. LeCounte allowed only half of the ten targets his way to be completed last season, with one touchdown compared to three interceptions. He came up with the game-sealing pick against Baylor in the 2020 Sugar Bowl and he made a great diving INT to start the Alabama game early in 2020. In man-coverage, he plays with good patience and feels comfortable turning his head against slot fade routes, while Georgia asks their safeties to rotate late a whole bunch, looking to be deceptive to the offense, which put a lot of pressure on those two guys, who were still racing to certain spots, as they read the play develop
However, at times he gets overzealous and doesn’t throttle down to make tackles, which leads to a few misses. He can get a little too aggressive with his angles and gets sucked inside, plus then he doesn’t have that top-end speed to make up for it necessarily. Lecounte doesn’t have true free safety range and I wouldn’t trust him against really dynamic receivers in man-coverage, because despite being a little undersized, he doesn’t have that twitchy ability to change directions. His feet get stuck in the mud at times, when slot receivers jab to the post and then break on a corner route. I think he had one rep against Jaylen Waddle in the 2020 Alabama and almost tackled him immediately. Running in the high 4.7s at the Georgia pro day might cost him a couple of rounds.
This whole situation reminds me a lot of Rams safety Jordan Fuller coming out of Ohio State last year, who ran in the high 4.6s and made me shy away from quite making him a top ten safety in that class, even though his smarts in coverage rarely put him in bad positions – and he ended up being one of the top rookie safeties in the league. LeCounte is very similar to me and I’m kind of annoyed at myself already for having him just on the outside looking in. Those testing numbers are usually borderline undraftable, but man, do I enjoy watching his brand of football.
Divine Deablo, Virginia Tech
6’3” ½, 225 pounds; RS SR
A former top-500 overall recruit as a receiver, Deablo saw action in every game as a freshman, but only caught one pass, to go with his work on special teams. He transitioned to defense in year two, but suffered a season-ending injury four games in. He missed two games each in 2018 and ’20 due to injury and COVID protocols respectively, but started every other one. As a senior, he collected four of his six career interceptions and four additional passes broken up. Over the course of his career, he was also a negative-play specialist from the safety, recording 12.5 tackles for loss.
This is a massive safety prospect, whose height and weight are both in the 98th percentile for the position. Deablo spent 82.5 percent of snaps between box safety and the slot these last three years (slightly more box and slot), as the Hokies’ field-side safety or on the strong side, depending on where the tight-end lines up. He lays with a good bounce to his step as a box defender and shoots through gaps without hesitation. He’s an outstanding edge-setter when lined up there, shuffling along with wide zone plays, while keeping his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and being able to work against the flow, once the running backs puts his foot in the ground. When he’s matched up with H-backs, they shift sides and create a new gap in the run game, Deablo has the speed to flow there and still get back under control to make a stop in the hole. He was also blitzed quite a bit on run downs and produced negative plays that way, by being kind of slippery and finding a way to wrap up the ball-carriers. He is a very effective tackler, breaking down on ball-carriers to his side in split-safety looks, or coming across the field, to limit big plays. Deablo quickly gains ground when widening in cover-two and won’t let anybody get behind him. Overall, he stays under great balance in zone-coverage, while having the burst to quickly close distances when the quarterback locks his eyes on the throw. He was routinely put over tight-ends and showed the ability to carry them across or down the field with tight coverage in man. He was asked to cover slot receivers with the nickel blitzing quite a bit, where he was playing way off, but displayed a pretty sudden burst to undercut out-routes. When you watch Deablo’s plays on the ball, he attacks it at full extensions and displays natural hands, where those 33-inch arms are definitely a plus. He only allowed 14 of 25 targets his way to be completed last season, with one TD compared to four picks, for a passer rating of 50.7. Among those, he made an incredible interception against Trevor Lawrence in the red-zone last season, where the Hokies were in a two-high shell and he came all the way over to the opposite hash, to high-point it. And he shows nice situational awareness, not blindly driving on quick-breaking routes on third-and-long.
At the same time, Deablo is not nearly the kind of wrecking ball as a deep safety, playing the run overly conservative from those alignments. He appears a little heavy-footed as a tackler, to where you see him struggle with the practical version of the run-shuffle-run drill on the field. He gets his eyes lost in the backfield at times and he only had one year of real ball production. While the athleticism at his size is impressive, I don’t think you Deablo will cover too many really quick slot receiver or be asked to carry them down the seams. And his testing numbers are better than his on-field speed. He doesn’t look very comfortable pedaling straight back and he doesn’t have that eyes-in-the-back quality, to where he feels routes behind him in shallow zone coverage and drift underneath them. Some teams may look at him as a safety/linebacker tweener and he won’t fit too many two-high heavy defenses.
This pre-draft process has been great for Deablo. First, he showcased quick feet and fluid hips at nearly 220 pounds during Senior Bowl week, and then he ran a 4.42 and had an 10’6” broad jump at Virginia Tech’s pro day. To me, he is that prototype strong safety in a Seattle-style cover-three defense, who also brings value covering tight-ends in man-coverage on passing downs. Deablo was a team captain for the Hokies and already was a key member of special team coverage units, with 739 career snaps and 17 tackles in that area.
Caden Sterns, Texas
6’1”, 205 pounds; JR
The number one safety recruit in the nation back in 2018, Sterns had a stellar debut season for the Longhorns, recording 62 tackles, three of them for loss, four interceptions and four more passes broken up. That made him the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and a first team All-Big 12 honoree. In year two, he was limited to nine games due to a sprained knee and his ball-production dropped off dramatically (one pass defensed), even though he recorded four TFLs. Last season, he played the first seven games, before opting for the rest of the year. At that point he had picked off one pass and broken up another three.
The Longhorns coaches moved this guy more and more away from the ball, to use his play in space, spending 65.5 percent of snaps last season as a deep safety. Sterns has the range and instincts as deep-middle safety to make plays way outside the numbers routinely, while also bringing the ball-skills and leaping ability to high-point passes over the heads of receivers. You see him at times dead-center in the middle of the field and the offense throws a one-step fade, where the ball comes out immediately, and he puts a hit on the receiver going up for it right at the sideline. Because of that, you see quarterbacks place go routes and slot fades way outside consistently or just pass up opportunities to go down the sideline, when he widens in cover-two. And when the ball is thrown in front of him and the receiver has to elevate for it, that guy better really want it, to be able to hold onto it, as Sterns flips him. The former Texas safety also shows pretty good awareness for underneath routes as a robber and has the explosive burst, to cut underneath throws. That also allows him to make plays when playing man against inside receivers. While Sterns was used a lot in deep coverage, on passing downs especially, the Longhorns brought him down low from two-high looks at a pretty high rate, to create that plus one in the box, as you see him fill the B-gap without hesitation. From those split-safety looks, you can also watch him charge up the alley against outside runs and not them cross the line of scrimmage, when he’s unaccounted for. And when he arrives to the party late, he makes sure the ball-carrier goes backwards. From a free safety perspective, he has the burst to take away angles to the sideline despite working up rather aggressively against the run. At the same time, he has become reliable at breaking down on ball-carriers in space, and he doesn’t shy away from running into blockers in space. Plus, he also has the quickness to get around them and force ball-carriers to cut back towards the pursuit.
Unfortunately, like it is with a lot of big hitters, Sterns still tends to leave his feet too much and somebody has to tell him that he’s allowed to actually use his arms as a tackler, when racing up from distance. Overall, he has missed 31 of just over 200 career attempts, and he attacks the wrong shoulder of blockers routinely. He is also too aggressive with angles working down when trailing receivers across the field, allowing them to run by him at times, or when he should actually bubble over the top on pick-plays. In two-high shells, Sterns gets caught flat-footed and allows post routes to get behind him, even though they may be the responsibility of the opposite safety, but he should help deep. And while he has improved in that regard, he still allows quarterbacks to move him with their eyes in single-high duty, to open up throws down the opposite hash. His career PFF grade of 54.6 in man-coverage is very underwhelming. Sterns underwent a procedure on his patellar tendon early in 2019 and shoulder injuries could be common with the way he approaches ball-carriers.
I had this guy as a top-five safety in college football coming off his freshman year. However, while he has improved in some areas, I don’t know that he has objectively gotten better overall since then. I love the range and physicality he presents, he was put in a lot of tough situations and his athletic ability allowed him to still make plays. His pro day numbers once again reminded us of the athlete he really is, when he ran a 4.4 flat in the 40, had a 42-inch vert and an 11’1” broad jump. So while I wouldn’t count on him as a quality starter year one, he is an investment worth taking at the top of day three, if you can work on his anticipation in coverage.
The next names up:
Darrick Forrest (Cincinnati), Paris Ford & Damar Hamlin (Pittsburgh), Joshuah Bledsoe (Missouri), Talanoa Hufanga (USC), Jamien Sherwood (Auburn) & Shawn Davis (Florida)
We are pretty much exactly two weeks away from this year’s NFL Draft kicking off and the end of my positional breakdowns is in sight, with tight-ends and safety this week, before we finish up with the quarterbacks and then I present my overall big board.
I think it’s kind of funny that in a year, where we have one of the most special talents at the tight-end position in a long time, the class as a whole is as weak as we have seen for a pretty much equal stretch. Obviously, there is number one and then everybody else in this class, but I think there is clear-cut second choice and then there’s three more names that I think deserve day two consideration. After that, it’s very slim pickings, and almost everybody else comes in with serious question marks.
Make sure to check back tomorrow on my Youtube channel or Friday here on this page for my breakdown of this safety class, which offers a lot more depth.
Here is the list:
1. Kyle Pitts, Florida
6’5”, 240 pounds; JR
A top-200 overall recruit in 2018, Pitts caught only three passes his freshman season, before taking over as the starter for the Gators, catching 54 passes for 649 yards and five touchdowns, earning himself first-team All-SEC accolades. He of course repeated those last season, when in just eight games, he exploded for 43 catches worth 770 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging a crazy 17.9 yards per grab, despite the higher target share, with the top three Gator receivers having gone to the NFL. He also received the John Mackey award for the best tight-end in the country and now heads to the pros at only 20 years old.
This guy is a unicorn athletically, running an unofficial 4.44 at his pro day (despite not staying in a straight line) and having the longest wingspan of any receiver or tight-end in the NFL over the last 20 years at 83 3/8 inches. Pitts was moved around a lot by the Gator coaches and proved to be a mismatch on pretty much anybody with his combination of size and speed. He went off in the 2020 season-opener versus Ole Miss, with eight grabs for 170 yards and four(!) touchdowns. And that red-hot short expanded over the full season, catching 43 of 65 total targets, with ten of them 20+ yards deep and not a single drop, for passer rating of about 130. What stands out about Pitts as a route-runner, outside of the speed he is moving at for that size, is how naturally he drops his hips to get in and out of breaks. You saw that at the Florida pro day as well, where he made it look much easier than the receivers there. Pitts presents a well-rounded release package and uses his hands very well to not allow defenders to get into his frame and slow him down, routinely defeating man-coverage against some of the top corners in the SEC. He slow-plays some of his stems and is really good at using the arm-over to get underneath the defender on in-breaking routes. He’s made a lot of corners look bad when lined up out wide and shaking them with V-releases on slants. But also on deeper-developing routes, Pitts can kind of throw by defenders as he works against their leverage, displayed on several occasions to the corner in the red-zone. He displays tremendous flexibility to bend down for the ball or has no issues reaching behind on badly placed throws on in-breaking routes, without really losing any speed. And he can pull away from safeties after the catch.
Pitts is a man at the point of the catch and skies over people routinely, with great body control and concentration, to go along with getting in front of defenders that originally were in-between him and the ball. Not even Georgia could keep him out of the end-zone, as he scored of a fade route against one of their corners, even though the Bulldogs hadn’t allowed a single TD to a tight-end through their first five games. He leads all draft-eligible players with 24 contested catches over these last two years. To create a mismatch with Pitts, all you really have to do is put him on the field, because the players, who can cover him one-on-one for any extended stretches plays, you can probably count on one hand. And with him, the overall picture changes, because you may want to put your top corner on him when detached from the line and move everybody else down one spot, plus Pitts can really single position along the formation. Some people want to label Pitts a big slot receiver, but while he can be a nightmare there, he did spend over 60 percent of snaps in-line in each of the last two seasons, from where he consistently gets clean releases. Even though his future team would be foolish to deploy his that way to a large extent, Pitts has quality reps of pass-pro on tape, keeping a solid base and actively shuffling his feet to mirror rushers or guide them around the arc. In the run game, he won’t blow defenders off the ball necessarily, but he does a good job establishing position with pro-active footwork and displays great effort. In particular, he excels at pinning edge defenders inside, to get the ball-carrier out to the edge.
As far as negatives go, Pitts lacks some play strength to be an asset as a full-time in-line blocker and tries to compensate by extending too far over his toes at times, which makes him slip off defenders on multiple occasions per game. He wasn’t asked to do a whole lot in terms of different schemes and his future team may want to limit him to being just playing detached year one. And when he’s further away from the action, he doesn’t bring the same competitiveness in terms of walling off defensive backs. For as fast as Pitts ran the 40, you don’t see him just blow by guys with pure speed as much as you would think. And if you draft this guy, you have to be committed to formulating a plan for how to use him to the best of his abilities
Looking at Pitts as a traditional tight-end is simply wrong. You have to consider how he can influence the versatility of your offense and how he forces opposing defenses into certain personnel packages, In terms of a pass-catching weapons, you can argue that he is the top guy available and will be right there with LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase on my big board, which will come out next week. I just don’t see any way he makes it out of the top ten and he could go as high as four to Atlanta, if they don’t find a partner to trade out with. Guys like this just don’t come around too often.
2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
6’5”, 250 pounds; JR
When Mike Gesicki entered the NFL draft in April of 2018, the Nittany Lions lost a ton of production – over 1200 yards and 14 TDs over his final two years – but once they saw this kid hit the field, they knew the tight-end position was in good hands. A former top-ten recruit at the position nationally, Freiermuth caught 26 passes for 368 yards and eight touchdowns as freshman. While the volume wasn’t quite there yet, you saw the incredible potential manifesting itself in 43 catches for 507 yards and seven scores in year two, making him a second-team All-Big Ten selection. He had to have season-ending shoulder surgery four games into last year, but not before catching 23 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown, which in the Big Ten’s shortened season was good enough for first-team all-conference.
This guy’s body was ready for the NFL the first time I saw him play. Freiermuth has all the size and athleticism you want to see for a traditional tight-end. After spending 60 percent of snaps in-line in 2019, he was used detached from the line for 54.6 percent last season, as the Nittany Lions moved him around a little more and targeted him heavily (27.8 percent of team’s targets when he was available). Freiermuth uses some hesitation releases or almost hop steps to set up routes. He doesn’t allow off-coverage defenders to read his hips that way and has good burst out of his breaks. You see that a lot on short out-routes, where he comes off the ball at about 70 percent and then creates separation as he plants that inside foot into the ground. Yet, at the same time, he has the acceleration, to get defenders in trail positions on vertical patterns, while keeping that guy at his hip-pocket and not allowing him to get a hand on the ball. Freiermuth flashes head-fakes and jab steps that can absolutely leave safeties behind in the dust and he is graceful when going up in the air for the ball, with an immense catch radius and consistently attacks the ball at its highest point, leading to eight contested catches on 12 opportunities last season. However, he also shows toughness going over the middle and taking hits, as well as strong hands, when he has a defender climbing over his back and trying to swipe the ball out. You see him pick up chunk plays on seam routes routinely, but also breaking to the corner or post. And he also quickly sits down when he becomes the hot receiver, when his man blitzes.
Freiermuth is violent when he has the ball in his hands and a defender is in his way. He has the lower body strength to break tackles and gain those extra couple of yards falling forward, runs with power and some aggression, as you see defenders bounce off him almost in a Rob Gronkowski-type of way. A couple of the things he has done to guys at the sideline, in the Maryland and Memphis games in particular, were straight up disrespectful. However, the Penn State TE got the “Baby Gronk” label not only for what he does with the ball in his hands, but also in terms of somebody, who can move people in the run game as an in-line blocker. Freiermuth was used a lot as an H-back, motioning across the formation for different blocking duties, especially securing the backside edge with sift blocks, but also leading up in the hole, where he can move second-level defenders backwards and keeps working up to the safeties without slowing down, if there’s nobody in his way. He does a good job of walling of opponents away from the point of attack and shows relentless leg-drive when the ball is coming his way, plus he can legitimately combo on down-linemen with the tackle and then peel off to the backer effectively on counter-type runs. Freiermuth also does a good job of squaring up defenders on screen passes. He averaged nearly five yards per route run against man-coverage in 2020 – about two yards more than any other tight-end. And that’s despite running a bunch of quick flat routes from a wing alignment, to defeat leverage against the closest linebacker. And he had to deal with some really bad quarterback play, to where you see some frustration at times, when he is wide open curling up over the middle and the pass is way off.
With that being said, Freiermuth doesn’t have the type of wide receiver-like hands as you see with Florida State’s Kyle Pitts for example, as he had eight drops on 100 career catchable passes. He’s not a super-dynamic separator out of his breaks, often times rounding off his cuts, and I don’t quite see the speed to stack defenders in the slot on vertical routes at the next level. Plus, he has to be a little more aware for when to sit down his routes against zone coverage. Freiermuth is still learning how to stay under better balance and find the right aiming points as a blocker, getting his weight out in front too much at this point. He also has to come down the line on flatter angles on sift blocks and aim at the near-shoulder, to not allow edge defenders to take the inside lane.
As strongly as I feel about Kyle Pitts as this unique matchup piece, that is worthy of a top-ten selection, I might be even more convinced that Freiermuth is the number two tight-end in this class. He can operate out of the slot or split out wide in goal-line situations, to make use of his jump-ball capabilities, but he is easily the top true Y in this class. He probably won’t nearly be as productive year one as a pass-catcher, because guys at that position usually aren’t, but he should be a week one starter, who turns into a locomotive with the ball in his hands and displays great effort as blocker, to give the offense a boost.
3. Brevin Jordan, Miami
6’2” ½, 245 pounds; JR
A top-50 overall recruit back in 2018, Jordan immediately became an impact player for the Hurricanes, starting all but one game as a freshman and producing at a solid rate. Then, he earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2019, catching 35 passes for just under 500 yards, but only two touchdowns. Last season, he went to second-team all-conference, despite improving to 43 grabs for 576 yards and seven scores.
Jordan was the most versatile weapon in the passing game for the Hurricanes these, lining up all over the field. I’d say H-back or wing was his most common alignment for the entirety of his career, even though last season he spent 57 percent of snaps in the slot. He does a great job of crossing the face of second-level defenders and pinning them inside, in order to get out to the edge on jet sweeps and stuff like that. He is at his best a blocker however, when he can put hands on people in space in the screen game and other areas from the slot, breaking down in space and keeping his hands and base ready to re-position, in order to stay in front of those guy. However, Jordan also doesn’t mind mixing it up with big defensive end and outside backers as a blocker, when he is lined up at Y or kicking them out on split zone runs. He does a very good job of establishing position and getting his feet moving to either seal defenders on the backside or caving them in on an angle. Yet, what will get Jordan drafted somewhere on day two most likely is the versatility he presents as a pass-catcher, where he brought in 105 of 149 career targets and had the ball in his hands on bubble screens and jet sweeps even.
This guy has some serious burst off the snap and he is a threat to attack down the hashes. Jordan does a nice job of bending his seam routes and quickly giving the quarterback a sign when he’s running free over the middle, while truly splitting the safeties in two-high shells. He was open on shallow post and dig routes a lot and often times didn’t get the ball. Against man-coverage, I like how Jordan can nod one way and force defenders to open up their hips, before breaking the other direction. He shows urgency to push vertically from the slot position and then creates separation by snapping off for curl or hook routes. Last season, he averaged 2.93 yards per route run versus man-coverage and a passer rating of just under 140 when targeted overall. Jordan plucks the ball away from his frame consistently and then is a threat to quickly pick up yards after the catch, especially catching the ball in the flats, as he instantly gets vertical and shows good awareness for defenders around him. He’s pretty shifty with making guys miss, even when corralled by multiple defenders, and doesn’t mind lowering the shoulder on an awaiting defender, constantly falling forward for a couple of extra yards. In 2019, 13 of his 35 receptions (37 percent) included at least 10 yards of additional yardage after the catch, Overall, he broke 21 tackles on 105 catches in career. On a day where Miami got embarrassed at home by North Carolina late last season, he was the only one producing for the Canes, catching six balls for 140 yards and a score.
With that being said, Jordan slips off too many blocks, due to some issues with weight-transition and hand-placement that gets too wide. He doesn’t mind running into bigger defenders, but often is the one bouncing off them or they can pull him to the side because he leans so much into those guys.. You see his pads get rocked by physical edge-setters on several occasions. Therefore, I don’t see him as a true number one in-line tight-end necessarily, but then running a 4.7 at the Miami pro day doesn’t scream big slot / flex option either. Jordan hasn’t consistently won in contested catch situations yet, hauling in only a third of his 33 chances he has received, where a 31-inch vertical won’t help him overcome being below-average in height for the position. And while he’s added good mass throughout his career with the Hurricanes, I would think his frame is close to maxed out. So some teams may have a tough time finding a spot for him.
When I watched Jordan throughout his time in Miami, I always thought he reminded me a lot of now-Patriots versatile weapon Jonnu Smith. And just like Smith, I imagine this guy’s talent could be maximized in a similar role. That is being an H-back first and foremost, moving him around to present matchup problems and pairing him with more of a prototype Y, to where he does more sift-blocking and then slipping into the flats off bootlegs and you find other ways to put the ball in his hands, because he will make something happen with it, I think there is certainly a drop-off from those first two names, but Jordan is worth a mid day-two pick for a team that knows how to use him.
4. Hunter Long, Boston College
6’5”, 255 pounds; RS JR
Only a three-star recruit, Long redshirted his first year on campus and then only caught four passes in his debut season. As a sophomore, he caught 28 passes for just over 500 yards and two TDs in 11 games, averaging a crazy 18.2 yards per grab, even though BC used three different TEs at a high rate. Last season, he became more a featured piece for the Eagles, catching 57 passes for 685 yards and five scores, earning first-team All-ACC accolades in the process.
Long presents a massive frame with a 83-inch wingspan. He spent 77.7 percent of career snaps in-line and he was one of the key cogs for that BC offense, playing just over 70 snaps per game on average last season. In 2019, I thought he already showed some intriguing traits for a Y tight-end and produced well, but I think he took a big step in 2020. Long is certainly in the discussion for the best in-line blocker at the position in this draft class. He won’t shy away from locking horns with defensive linemen close to the 300-pound mark and consistently moves linebackers off the spot. He does a great job of squeezing defenders inside and opening up cutback lanes on the backside, where he rolls his hips through contact and keeps his legs churning. At the same time, he effectively keeps moving his feet on reach-blocks or gets out in space on outside touches. He plays under great balance and with his feet underneath him at all times in that regard. And what I really appreciate is the intelligence to understand, when he has to let go or not put his hands on the backs of defenders to avoid flags, actually throwing his hands up to signal to the refs that he’s not at fault on a few occasions. Long was also kept in protection quite a bit off those split zone run fakes, where he was asked to come underneath the formation and pick up edge defenders at full charge from the backside, but showed the ability to slow those guys down or ride them past the quarterback. And he was asked to help his tackles with a lot of chips and then released into flat routes.
Long looked so slow and lumber off the snap in 2019, but showed more dynamic ability as a receiver this past year. He can now actually threaten down the seams and clear the second of the defense. He shows an understanding and some light-footedness to get to the appropriate landmarks effectively on vertical routes. At his best however, Long is running away from defenders on crossing routes, especially off play-action, where he would have had separation much more often than the amount of chances he got would indicate. When he faces press-coverage or has somebody engage with him downfield, Long displays strong hands to knock down the reach of his opponents and open throwing windows. He displays strong hands and always seems to catch the ball at full extension, while showing no issues bringing in high or low passes. Yet, then he quickly pulls it in and gets North. He made a tremendous diving grab down the seams versus Clemson last year. Long uses his frame very well to shield defenders from the ball and hauls in passes through contact to great effect, at times with a safety coming over the top of him, which you could classify as hospital passes. Overall, he came up with 11 contested catches last season. And when one of his teammates catches the ball underneath, Long is looking for work and at times drives guys out of the screen.
On the flipside, there’s just not a single athletic trait that really stands out when you watch Long in the pass game. His burst off the ball is still nothing to get overly excited about and there is some slowing down and chopping his feet when he has to make sharper cuts. He also hasn’t had to deal with a ton of press and needs to became more effective with not allowing defenders to stay over the top of him and influence his route stems, but actually get to their edges. And while he puts in good work in the run game, when he is on the backside of run plays, Long needs to be more active with taking that vertical step to seal guys off and not allow them to crash through the C-gap at times.
Long surprised me with a 4.63 in the 40 and a 10’2” broad jump at BC’s pro day. So by that, you are getting an above-average athlete for the position, who averaged right around ten yards per target for his career, has shown improvement every year in college and can win in tight quarters, as a run-blocker as well as with the ball in the air. That type of old-school player to me is worth a late day two pick and you don’t have to worry about where you put him, because while he might not be a really impressive weapon in the pass game, he will play with his hand in the dirt for the most part and then can detach as the number three in trips sets on passing downs.
5. Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame
6’4”, 250 pounds; RS SO
Right around the top-500 recruits in the nation, Tremble didn’t play in any games of his first season. Over the following two years, he combined for 35 catches worth 401 yards and four touchdowns, being named an honorable mention All-ACC selection. Despite his limited production, his athleticism – which was recently illustrated by an outstanding pro day performance – and work as a blocker, now intrigues NFL scouts.
This young man enjoys the physical part of the game and gets after it in the run game. You see him constantly try to re-fit his hands and keep his legs driving, to create big holes to blast through. Tremble Routinely caves in defensive ends to create a lane off-tackle or to cut backside, as well as allowing pullers to wrap around and lead the way on outside stuffs. The Fighting Irish actually put him in as a true fullback and had him execute ISO blocks or lead up into the hole as a wing on counter plays, where he becomes a battering ram at the second level. When linebackers try to crash into Tremble, at best they can create stalemates, but usually they will move backwards, and if those guys wait for him, they will get popped straight up. Plus, when he catches somebody trying to shoot downhill from the side, he can use their momentum against them and take those guys for a ride. Tremble can create some torque, to get defenders to the outside on running blocks and create lanes to cut upfield for the ball-carrier, which makes speed sweeps his way highly effective. Defensive backs don’t want to see him get to the edge, because they know they might end up in the stands. No matter the assignment in the run game, Tremble never seems uncomfortable executing it and gives you 100 percent.
While the production as a receiver wasn’t really there, Tremble was only targeted 52 times in his career (35 catches) and made most of them, averaging 7.7 yards ever time quarterback Ian Book went his way. He did most of his work in the passing game off play-action, where he finds ways to get clean releases and has some elusive ability to get around second-level defenders as a route-runner overall. When he operates from the slot, Tremble shows explosiveness off the line and the ankle flexibility to plant and make hard cuts off one foot, to where defenders can’t undercut the throw. The former Irish all-rounder was highly underutilized in the pass game overall, because they wanted to use him as the add-on to the line or behind it, but you routinely see him free in space on hook routes over the middle or with great yards-after-catch opportunities on slide routes into the flats, where the quarterback looked elsewhere. And when he does get the ball in space, he can eat up ground with those strides, runs into awaiting defenders without hesitation. and had a couple of impressive in-game hurdles. Tremble also keeps working his way free when plays are extended and he shows good awareness for the sideline, including an outstanding toe-tape grab in the ACC Championship game against Clemson at the end of last season.
With that in mind, the production is still highly underwhelming for a potential top-100 overall pick, barely cracking the 400-yard mark and labelled as the TE2 or TE3 in his two years of play. Tremble received 31 fewer targets than Notre Dame’s freshman tight-end Michael Meyer, who was more of the designated receiver, detached from the line, and doubled his output. As more of the blocking option, with a lot of underneath routes, Tremble had only one grab of 20+ air yards. There’s a couple of double-catches on tape and he dropped five of 40 catchable passes in his career with the Irish. As a blocker he is very aggressive, but also takes his eyes down quite a bit and could be side-stepped by more savvy NFL linebackers, who know how to use their hands to “make him miss”.
The joy Tremble has burying defenders into the ground and the versatility he brings as a blocker, in tight areas as well as on the move, is highly appealing to me. Just watch the Boston College tape from last season, where he didn’t catch a single pass, but was putting defenders on skates all the game long and lead the way for a 274-yard rushing day. Now, the lack of receiving production makes me hesitate from putting him even higher, but he just ran an unofficial 4.59 at the Irish pro day, there is no stiffness to speak of as a route-runner and I think he will be a specialist off play-action, sneaking out into the flats or running crossers and being able to turn them into chunk plays potentially.
6. John Bates, Boise State
6’5” ½, 260 pounds; RS SR
A former three-star recruit in 2016, Bates redshirted his first year on campus and was a backup for all but two of the 14 games his freshman season. He took over as a starter midway through the following year and has been since then, but never was much involved in the pass game. Over the 30 games these last three seasons, he has caught only 44 passes for 545 yards and two touchdowns. But once more, he has risen up draft board with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, where he was actually a late add.
Bates presents pretty much ideal measurements for a true Y tight-end and spent 85 percent of snaps these last three years in-line, with a lot of those as an offset wing. Overall as a blocker, he initiates with low hands and rolls his hips through contact, with a non-stop leg drive to actually finish guys. Bates routinely creates vertical movement on edge defenders, but he also does a great job of bringing his hips around, to execute reach-blocks at the point of attack of wide zone runs. You see him create some lateral push against interior defensive linemen and more so defensive ends lined up just inside him, when coming in on an angle, getting underneath the near arm-pit and digging guys out of the gap. At the same time, he is comfortable working up to the second level when his gap is unoccupied and puts his wide frame in front of them, while being able to move them backwards when he catches them in unfavorable situations. When he’s asked to lead up into the hole, Bates brings some thump at first contact and he gets chippy with those guys, pushing defenders around until the whistle. Bates also to a high success rate performing cut-blocks with proper technique, working across the legs of defenders, to actually sweep them off their feet. When he is detached from the line and has DBs lined up over him, he can overwhelm those guys and take them for a ride in the run game, but he also excels at neutralizing people when getting out to the edges, as he leads the way on end-arounds and sweeps.
Bates was a late add for the Senior Bowl, who I didn’t have on my original list, but he made me look him up, because of the way he was moving and the target he presented as a big body. He had several nice catches outside his frame, showing strong hands to hold onto the ball through contact a few times. Bates effectively gets to his landmarks on vertical routes and doesn’t look back to the quarterback until he’s entered the appropriate throwing window, often times knocking away the hands of underneath defenders trying to slow him down, and then presents an attractive target down the seams. He doesn’t give away his breaks prematurely with his eyes or hips and then can bend off either foot pretty well for those 90-degree cuts. He successfully uses hand-swipes and lowers his pads to get off press-coverage as a slot receiver and coming from an offense that utilizes plenty of bootlegs, he has a good feel for peeling off and making himself available in the flats. He displays an understanding for pacing and setting up routes, as he releases at lower speed and then bursts into open space. In totality, Bates had five drops on 52 catchable targets in his career, but none came in last year’s short season. He has gotten much better with not allowing the ball to get into his body and putting it away as defenders come up on him, or using his body as a shield on hook routes. He turns upfield instantly after securing the catch and consistently falls forward after getting hit from the side
Be that as it may, Bates is certainly more effective at getting off the line than he is explosive and he doesn’t make the sharpest cuts as a route-runner. A 4.8 in the 40 at his size (about 260 at the Broncos’ pro day) isn’t too bad, but it’s nothing special either. Last season, he wasn’t really a threat down the field, with only two receptions on passes of 10+ yards across the line of scrimmage and he has never scared defenses a whole lot with the ball in his hands, breaking just four tackles on 47 career catches. As a blocker, he can get overly aggressive at times, charging at off-ball defenders and not being able to redirect anymore, as well as in tight quarters, when defenders are more technically versed at using their hands to pull him off themselves.
John Bates to me is basically a slightly lesser version of Boston College’s Hunter Long. The effort and work he puts in as a run-blocker are excellent, he presents a big target down the seams and is a no-nonsense player after the catch. The big difference is that Long ran the 40 in 0.17 seconds faster and has done it against a higher level of competition already. Still, Bates to me is my favorite day three target in terms of a traditional Y tight-end, who can be a quality starter in the right situation, likely with more of a dynamic receiving option to pair up with. And you see him move defenders on kick return teams as well, which adds value.
7. Tre McKitty, Georgia
6’5”, 245 pounds; SR
A top-500 overall recruit, McKitty spent the first three years of his collegiate career at Florida State, where – like so many other plays – he never got to live up to his potential, catching 50 passes for 520 yards and two touchdowns in 35 total games. He decided to transfer to Georgia for his senior season, but unfortunately picked a school that never actually seems to throw to their tight-ends to great effect, which left him with only six catches for 108 yards and one score in seven games. However, with the work he put in during Senior Bowl week, he has reminded people of the talent within him.
McKitty was more of a big slot receiver for Florida State and then spent 71 percent of snaps in-line last season for the Bulldogs, but only put those six catches on film. So you have to go back to the 2018 and ’19 tapes with the Seminoles to analyze him as a receiver, but even more so it was about what he did down in Mobile against top-tier competition. He looked so natural moving in space and catching the ball, creating separation late on several occasions, securing passes through contact and making a couple one-handed grabs downfield. McKitty really drops his hips and snaps his head around on stick and short out routes. He can reduce the near shoulder to avoid getting hung up with contact and then uses his frame well himself at the top of the route, to not allow defenders to create an angle to the pass. He showed some wiggle at the Senior Bowl and half (so three) of those passes he caught last season for UGA were big ones down the seams. McKitty catches the ball away from body and he has those massive 11 ½-inch hands, to really swallow it with those big paws and with a strong catch-radius, he has a couple of inches on where defenders can get, when they are in his hip-pocket. He displays quick, fluid turns upfield after catching the ball in the flats and rumbling ahead, to go with some suddenness to get around defenders, who get too aggressive in their pursuit angles. And while the production was obviously very underwhelming last season, you see McKitty create leverage on defenders in man-coverage breaking in or out, as well as well have space sitting down versus zone.
While McKitty didn’t get many chances to show his skills as a pass-catcher, he damn sure was able to get accustomed to some of the physicality he will face at the next level when going up against SEC defenders as a blocker. Florida State used him as an H-back or offset wing and had him take on different assignments from that spot, but I thought he really improved his attitude in that area and the way he initiates contact, especially from in-line sets, during his one year at Georgia. McKitty does a great job of riding blocks on wide zone runs, continuing to bring that back-foot across and making defenders work to get to the edge. He creates big cutback lanes on sift blocks and he can effectively cut off or seal edge defenders on the backside of run plays. He has no issues working up to the second level or leading acting as a lead-blocker and he does a great job of walling defenders off, in order to get the ball to the edge or get out in front himself on toss plays. McKitty only ran 82 total routes last season, in part because they wanted to keep him in protection, not because he wouldn’t be an asset as a receiver, but because they needed time to set up more downfield concepts. In that regard, he is very good at countering the hands of defenders rushing off the edge, displays active footwork and forces guys to go through him.
While it has improved significantly, McKitty’s hands still tend to get too high and wide as a blocker and he dips his head into contact a lot of times. You see him allow defenders to slant into the C-gap on the backside, because he will step laterally and just try to just mash the guy into the pile, rather than establishing inside position first. However, what is much more prevalent, I can’t remember a time, where I evaluated a player largely on what I saw at an all-star game and there is something to be said about never establishing himself as a main contributor through the air or even the clear-cut TE1 at times. McKitty isn’t super explosive off the line or a dynamic separator out of his breaks. Even during Senior Bowl week, it took a while for him to actually break free. But above all, it’s just a tough task to clearly say what he can and can not do in the passing game, because there is so little tape on it with the frame he presents now.
This was one of the most fascinating evaluations of this entire draft, simply because the sample size is so limited as this two-faceted player. In the end however, I believe having played these two very different roles and putting his name on the map fairly late in the process will help him. We have seen him be able to be a big-bodied receiving option in the slot at Florida State, but then be a high-quality blocker in the box at Georgia. What we haven’t seen yet is him putting it all together, but from what he showed during Senior Bowl week and how weak this tight-end class is overall. I feel comfortable with adding him as a TE2 in the fifth round or so.
8. Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss
6’4”, 245 pounds; RS SR
Just a two-star recruit back in 2016, Yeboah spent the first four years of his career at Temple, where he only caught one pass as a freshman, before transitioning from wide receiver to tight-end. While his numbers slightly increased all three seasons, he barely cracked 500 combined yards and six touchdowns (with five coming in his last year there). Yeboah transferred ahead of the 2020 season, originally committing to Baylor, to reunite with the coach, who once recruited him in Matt Rhule, but then changing his choice to Ole Miss, when Rhule decided to coach the Carolina Panthers instead. His one year with the Rebels however, he set career-highs with 27 catches for 524 yards and six scores, averaging 19.4 yards per grab, in only eight games.
Yeboah actually spent the majority of snaps with Temple in-line, before he was in the slot almost half the time last season with the Rebels. However, he was heavily utilized from an H-back alignment from a blocking perspective, executing sift blocks on split zone runs, doing these wrap-around pulls and even on counter, where he took his steps as if he were the tailback. He initiates first contact with a wide base and keeps working his feet, while bringing some umph when coming in with charge. Yeboah shows a competitive nature and solid hand-placement to take care of defenders in open space and get screen plays going, as well as open up yards-after-catch opportunities for his teammates. He also displays good effort and active feet in pass-pro, guiding edge rushers further upfield, to allow his quarterback to step up. The Rebels’ coaches showed their trust in him, when they asked him to take care of some of the top edge rushers in the SEC for a few snaps every game, despite being on the slighter side. And off that, he is elusive with slipping underneath edge blockers, to get into the flats off different run-fakes.
As a receiver, Yeboah turns his head right away when he clears the linebackers on seam routes and slows down, to not run into the deep safety coverage, while forcing trailing defenders to grab cloth as he works down the middle. When he has inside leverage against man-coverage on shallow crossers, the guy responsible for him will have a tough time sticking with him and will have to hope he is able to chase him down at the opposite sideline. Yeboah shows a natural ability to adjust to passes behind him, without having to stop his feet too much, and he has his mind set on getting upfield immediately after. There is some make-you-miss ability and he can pull away from second-level defenders after the catch. Yeboah set Ole Miss single-game record against Alabama with seven catches for 181 yards and two scores, where the Crimson Tide’s linebackers and safeties had a tough time sticking with him, but he also had a couple of long plays down the middle off play-action, with the latter one finishing in the end-zone. What he did last season is even more impressive considering Yeboah was only targeted 33 times (and caught 27 of those). He recorded five catches of 20+ air yards and averaged 9.0 yards after the grab, giving QB Matt Corral a passer rating North of 140 when going his way. Yeboah does a nice job creating those natural rubs on mesh concepts, to get one of his fellow receivers open, even if it means he will have somebody run into him at full speed.
However, Yeboah certainly won’t impose his will on front-seven members as an in-line blocker at the next level. He has more of an oversized wide receiver build and doesn’t have a ton of functional strength. He is too passive as an open-field blocker and allows defender to beat him to the spot at times. As a receiver, he had 13 drops on 87 catchable passes in his career (three last season), as a bit of a body-catcher. Just over a third of his production last season came in that Alabama game and he averaged under 30 yards over the final three contests he was available for. And a large part of his production was thanks to the wide-open space in Lane Kiffin’s spread offense, without many deeper-breaking routes, which he chopped his feet on when he ran those during Senior Bowl week. Unfortunately, Yeboah only did the jumps at Ole Miss’ pro day, so we don’t know how fast he really is as a full-time option in the slot potentially.
Yeboah isn’t the type of guy you want to put his hand in the dirt and move edge defenders off the ball in the run game, but he shows the willingness to put hands on people and create lanes for his teammates. The drops and the one-year wonder thing in a wide-open offense is somewhat concerning, but I like Yeboah as that H-back and big slot option some time early on day three. To me he’s a lesser, not as physical version of Miami’s Brevin Jordan.
9. Briley Moore, Kansas State
6’4”, 250 pounds; RS SR
A former no-star recruit, Moore spent the first four years of his collegiate career at Northern Iowa, where he saw limited action as a freshman and then over the next two seasons caught 77 passes for 1030 yards and four touchdowns. He suffered a season-ending injury in the 2019 opener, but used his redshirt to add one more year at Kansas State as a grad transfer, where he caught 22 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns in nine games, earning second-time All-Big-12 accolades.
Moore presents good thickness throughout his frame and built almost like a taller fullback. This guy gets after it in the run game and you see him pancake guys 20-30 pounds above his weight-class. The never-stopping leg-drive and the finishing mindset are absolutely beautiful to watch. Whether it’s widening the edge on the front-side of zone un plays as a Y or wrapping around from backside as an H-back, he is going to move somebody backwards – if not into the team area. He displays great torque in his upper body, to create leverage advantages and actively re-fits those hands. Moore also shows no strength issues dealing with defensive ends in pass-pro and the Wildcats coaches asked him to take on a bunch of those tough assignments without much help. When he’s lined up as the number three in trips, Moore can plow through some safeties and he seems comfortable putting hands on people in space overall, by pacing his steps and engaging with a wide base and good flexion in his knees. Transitioning over to what he does as a pass-catcher, Moore does a nice job of selling second-level blocks on play-action and then getting behind those guys, or sneaking into the flats.
After watching a bunch of slow tight-ends, that kind of all melted into one, it was refreshing to see Moore’s burst off the line, to actually threaten secondaries as a slot receiver, while having a good feel for reducing the surface area for defenders as he releases from in-line alignments. He can drop his hips and create separation at the top of routes on breaks back to the quarterback or across the field, but also smoothly bend out to the sideline, without losing time. You saw him really work the middle of the field, where he understands when to make those body catches and swallow the ball, with defenders around him. Moore shows a good understanding for how to set up routes with different speeds and even showed it on some flat-to-wheel patterns, while his eyes go back to the quarterback as soon as he enters the throwing window. He also quickly snaps his head around when he becomes the hot receiver and keeps his feet bouncing as he settles down. Moore never seems to fight the ball, with only one drop last season, and once he tucks it away, he gets vertical and really rumbles ahead, shoving off tackles, keeping his legs churning and gaining yards through contact. Early on against West Virginia, you saw him drag three defenders for a couple of extra yards.
The biggest shortcoming – quite literally – for Moore is his very limited catch radius, due to arms just short of 31 inches, which is in the two-percentile for the position. He won’t provide much in contested-catch situations, where you put the ball up in the air and ask him to come down with it. And we haven’t seen him run a lot of deeper-developing routes, with only one catch of 20+ air yards last season for the Wildcats. Moore’s speed after the catch doesn’t quite match what you see off the snap, as you see him get from behind quite a bit in games (versus Texas Tech and Baylor in particular) and his receiving production in a wide-open Big-12 is pretty underwhelming in general.
Moore put up some really good testing numbers at the K-State pro day, with a 4.64 in the 40, a 38-inch vert, 10’1” broad jump and 26 reps on the bench press. I really don’t think there are many targets that deserve consideration for a selection over the first half of day three, but Moore is a guy, who got me excited when I got around to his tape. He has that maniacal attitude as a blocker, he has the burst to threaten vertically and can create separation out of his breaks, he doesn’t drop the ball and he turns into a bowling ball after the catch. I like him best as an H-back and fullback option, in combination with more of a traditional in-line guy maybe.
10. Matt Bushman, BYU
6’5”, 245 pounds; SR
One of the top 1000 overall recruit in 2017, Bushman went for a little over 500 yards in each of first two seasons, but in 2018, he did it in two less games and on 20(!) fewer catches, which gave him an average of 17.6 yards per grab, after he was a Freshman All-American the year prior. As a junior, he put up career-highs with 47 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, he ruptured his Achilles in practice before this past season in September and his name has been lost in the draft process.
Everybody thinks of BYU as this high-flying offensive attack, because of the season quarterback Zach Wilson just had for them, but they seem to forget that this has been a downhill run team traditionally and Bushman was asked to do a lot of different things as a blocker. You see him line up at Y, as an H-back and detached from the line, while having worked in several pro-style run schemes for the Cougars. In terms of the angles he uses, how he engages with hands inside the frame of defenders and how he keeps working to sustain blocks, he is a quality asset in that regard. Bushman is very light on his feet, to get himself into position for second- and third-level blocks. You see him get out in front and clear the way on speed sweeps and end-arounds a lot. And I really like the way he transitions into being a blocker, when a teammate catches the ball underneath or his quarterback takes off, getting in the face of guys in space routinely. He delivers a strong blow on chips, before releasing into his routes and he’s pretty sneaky leaking out in a delayed fashion off play-action or on trick-play type of stuff, with good burst once he’s sold the initial look.
Bushman displays really soft hands, extends for and adjusts to the ball extremely well. He only dropped one pass and caught eight passes of 20+ air yards (on twice as many targets) in 2019, with a passer rating of around 100 when targeted at all three levels. The Cougars even put him at X receiver and let him run slant routes a few times. While his speed won’t blow you away, Bushman shows some acceleration out of his stance and is a threat down the seams, as well as creating some chunk plays on post and deep over routes. Quarterback Zach Wilson targeted his big tight-end quite a bit on slot fade routes, where he showed fluid turns to the back-shoulder and routinely defeated defenders right in his hip-pocket that way. He has no issues with defenders crowing the catch point and shows tremendous focusing of hauling in passes through contact. Furthermore, Bushman has a talent for finding open space on secondary routes and scramble drills, helping out his quarterback by presenting a target routinely. When he catches the ball stick or out routes, he instantly turns upfield and gets what is there, to where his hips are already facing North at times, while the ball is just arriving there. Bushman shows good shiftiness and balance after the catch, while getting physical when he has to engage contact, which led to 15 broken tackles on 125 career catches
While he has plenty of experience working in-line, Bushman has some issues as a blocker, in terms of sinking his hips naturally and creating momentum as a drive-blocker. You see him slip off defenders late, because he leans into them, or fail to get his body in position to cut off guys on the backside of run plays. Against defensive ends or outside backers, stalemates are usually the best you get. As a route-runner, he is pretty upright and lacks explosiveness coming out of his breaks, as more of a JAG, when you watch him move. However, the biggest concern here for Bushman is that ruptured Achilles, which he will barely be a year away from when the 2021 NFL season kicks off, So he will likely not be able to take part in all offseason activities (depending on how much there will be actually be this year) and he is already 25 years old
Obviously, my ranking of a player like this coming off a major injury has to depend on what his medical says. Without any additional information on how his recovery will continue to go and me solely evaluating what I see on film, Bushman deserved to be mentioned here in this very weak tight-end class, once you approach the double-digits. He has a natural feel for the position, puts in great effort as a blocker and catches pretty much everything thrown his way. If healthy, he at least should be a high-quality number two. And was he coming off that 2019 season, he would have probably been a day-two pick, just because of how effective he was at BYU.
The next names up:
Nick Eubanks (Michigan), Pro Wells (TCU), Cary Angeline (N.C. State), Quintin Morris (Bowling Green), Zach Davidson (Central Missouri) & Jacob Harris (UCF)
After talking about the top wide receivers available earlier this week, we are looking at the guys, who will be covering them at the next level. We are including slot and outside corners, which I will differentiate or tell you what I see them as at the end of my individual write-ups.
The top 15 or so all deserve top 100 overall prospect consideration and there will be double-digits in my personal big board most likely. My top three is very much in line with what the consensus rankings seem to be, but from that point on, I differentiate myself to most people out there.
Please remember that these rankings are purely based on the tape and not considering any injury or personal concerns. Washington’s Elijah Molden and Oregon’s Jevon Holland almost exclusively played nickel in college, but will find their names on the safety list next week, since I project them to be classified that way, when they don’t line up in the slot.