Written By: Justin Holden
The NFL Combine doesn’t start until February 27th, and the first day of the NFL Draft isn’t happening until April 26th, so I put this out as a disclaimer that there is still plenty of time for sports analysts to change their minds (and their rankings) as new information comes out. However, I wanted to compare my pre-combine top prospects at each position to those of Mel Kiper Jr, the most recognizable (and perhaps most respected) NFL Draft analyst of all time. As a reference, I am providing a link below this paragraph that will direct you to another article where you can review Mel Kiper Jr’s top 10 prospects at each position as of January 2018.
Quarterback – Baker Mayfield (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #4)
There is quite a discrepancy when looking at my top ranked quarterback prospect compared to where Kiper has him ranked on his list. Kiper seems to view Baker Mayfield in the same light as he did Johnny Manziel a few years back, which is a prospect that is a bit of a wildcard. Someone that could end up being a good football player, but at the same time could be a bust. Baker Mayfield is obviously getting knocked by the mainstream sports media for his infamous “crotch grab” and his height (just over 6 feet tall). But in all honesty, it shouldn’t take a genius to realize that Baker Mayfield is a far superior NFL prospect than Johnny Manziel ever was, even before we knew about the partying and substance abuse that would ultimately derail Manziel’s career. Let’s start this exercise by doing a 3 way comparison between the college career statistics of Baker Mayfield, Johnny Manziel, and Kiper’s top prospect for this category, Josh Rosen:
You’ll notice that Baker Mayfield outperforms the other two in every statistical category. It is not close. In defense of Josh Rosen, Johnny Manziel and Baker Mayfield both played their college careers with superior offensive lines, and that can only help a quarterback in terms of his on-field efficiency and production. But even taking that into account, I don’t see how Mel Kiper Jr can list Josh Rosen higher on his rankings than Baker Mayfield for any reason other than size or character concerns. But unlike Johnny Manziel, Baker Mayfield has strong work ethic and strong character. Don’t let the crotch grab fool you. This young man is viewed as the ultimate leader and professional by his teammates and coaches. He puts in the time to improve his game, and it shows on the field. At the end of the day, even if you just want to look at film and not care about the on-field production/statistics at all, there isn’t much to knock Baker Mayfield for. He has the accuracy and can make all the throws. He’s one of the most efficient passers in college football history. To top it all off, he has the athleticism to make plays with his feet if necessary. To me, Baker Mayfield is the only can’t miss quarterback prospect in this year’s draft class. And his ceiling is a more mobile version of Drew Brees.
Running Back – Saquon Barkley (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #1)
I have no argument with Kiper on this position. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a single person that disagrees with Saquon Barkley being the top ranked running back prospect for this year. There are other quality running backs in this draft class that are effective in all phases of the game, and while I tend to see the use of early first round draft capital on a running back as a waste, there is no denying that whatever team picks Saquon Barkley will be getting a generational talent at the position.
Fullback – Nick Bawden (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #3)
Nick Bawden has great size for a fullback at 6’3 and 245 pounds. But not only that, he’s an excellent lead blocker that contributed heavily to star running back Rashaad Penny’s on-field rushing production. Bawden was First-Team All-American in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus. Another reason he’s my top prospect at this position is that he used to play quarterback, and thus I project him to have an additional level of awareness and athleticism that other fullbacks wouldn’t typically have. Kiper’s top prospect from this category is Jaylen Samuels. Don’t get me wrong, Samuels was a great college football player who put up some nice stats, but I question his ability to be an elite blocker at the NFL level. In a true fullback, the most important qualities you look for are strength and lead blocking ability, in my opinion. Bawden has those qualities and fits the mold of a true fullback better than Samuels.
Wide Receiver – D.J. Moore (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #6)
Huge disparity in comparison to Kiper’s rankings on this one. But hear me out as I make my case for D.J. Moore as the top wide receiver prospect in this year’s draft class. First of all, the dude set a school record at Maryland for most receptions in a season (80) with four different quarterbacks throwing to him throughout that season. Even more impressive than that, D.J. Moore accounted for 53.3% of his team’s receiving yards and touchdowns during his most productive college season. That is good for a 97th percentile college dominator rating. We rarely see that high of a dominator score for a wide receiver, especially at a division one program. While we don’t have the combine measurements to back it up yet, studying tape would lead you to believe that D.J. Moore possesses excellent burst and speed. If D.J. Moore has a weakness, it is his size. He’s 5’11 and 215 pounds. Ideally you want a receiver that is taller than this or can jump exceptionally high to challenge for 50/50 balls and be a redzone threat. While D.J. Moore may lack that element to his game, he checks all other boxes and has the on-field production numbers to back it up. I can understand why Kiper might prefer Calvin Ridley from Alabama as his top prospect, but having D.J. Moore ranked all the way down at #6 in his rankings, particularly in a year that has a weak wide receiver class overall, is straight up disrespectful to this Maryland product. D.J. Moore remains my #1 wide receiver prospect with confidence. And that won’t change no matter how far Kiper moves him down his draft board.
Tight End – C.J. Conrad (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #9)
To tell you the truth, I actually really like Kiper’s #1 prospect, Dallas Goedirt. He was highly productive and efficient in the passing game at small school South Dakota State. But just because Goedirt is a valid choice as a top tight end prospect in this year’s draft class, does not excuse a snubbing of the promising prospect that C.J. Conrad is. I really don’t understand why Conrad is this far down on Kiper’s rankings. Granted, Conrad is not the best blocking tight end in this class. But, he’s even better than Goedirt when it comes to being productive in the passing game (which is increasingly becoming the more important thing for tight ends in today’s NFL), and Conrad actually played for a division one school against division one caliber defenders. Conrad’s 2017 college receiving stats may not jump out at you (16 receptions for 286 yards and 4 touchdowns), but keep in mind that he accounted for 30.5% of his team’s receiving yards and touchdowns. This equates to an 88th percentile college dominator score at the tight end position, which is phenomenal. But here is a statistic that will really open up your eyes to the potential of C.J. Conrad. In his most productive college season, Conrad had 17.9 yards per reception, which is 95th percentile historically among all tight end prospects. It is Conrad’s big play ability that makes him my top prospect. There is nothing wrong with Conrad’s size at 6’5 and 245 pounds. I project Vernon Davis as his floor and Jimmy Graham as his ceiling, in terms of player quality.
Offensive Tackle – Orlando Brown (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #3)
Orlando Brown has the best size I have seen for an offensive linemen in a long time. He is massive at 6’8 and 360 pounds. Brown’s father played in the NFL for 11 seasons, so you know he has the pedigree. In terms of what he did in college, Brown was responsible for protecting Baker Mayfield’s blindside at Oklahoma and was the best member of an exceptionally strong offensive line unit. Brown won several awards throughout his college career including First-Team AP All-American. Brown has exceptionally long arms, which should benefit him greatly in pass blocking but perhaps hurt him a bit in run blocking. Fortunately, he’s a natural fit at left tackle, where pass blocking is much more important. I have no issues with Kiper’s top prospect, Mike McGlinchey, who also has excellent size and blocking ability. But Brown is my number one prospect at this point.
Offensive Guard – Quenton Nelson (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #1)
No debate here at all. Nelson is far and away the best offensive line prospect in this year’s draft class. I believe he’s a can’t miss prospect. By all accounts, he is a shoe-in to be an early first round selection, which is all the more impressive when you consider how much offensive guard tends to get overlooked and devalued in drafts. My best comparable player to Quenton Nelson is Zack Martin from the Dallas Cowboys. I believe Quenton Nelson will bring that type of quality to the league.
Center – Billy Price (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #1)
Kiper and I are both projecting Billy Price as the top center as of right now. The Ohio State product is talented and durable (tied school record for most consecutive starts at 55). I expect his combine numbers to be outstanding, particularly on bench press. This guy is strong as an ox. This is the kind of guy you want on your offensive line. He brings grit and toughness to the center position. His strength is off the charts. He doesn’t have the best footwork and may take some time to develop beyond his raw physical talent. But he’ll make a fine second round selection in this year’s draft. He reminds me of Lane Johnson, but plays center instead of tackle.
Defensive End – Bradley Chubb (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #1)
Bradley Chubb is a consensus top 5 draft pick, so it is no surprise that I have him ranked exactly where Kiper does as the #1 defensive end prospect in the draft. In his senior year, Chubb was named a First-Team All-American, but the accolades didn’t stop there. He also won the Hendricks award (for best defensive end) and Nagurski award (best defensive player). Chubb has great size at 6’4 and 275 pounds. Overall, he is a prospect that checks many boxes including NFL size, great athleticism, and on-field production. The few weaknesses that Chubb does have can be ironed out through experience and proper coaching at the next level. There is no reason to believe that Chubb won’t be a multi-year pro bowler in his career, thus he is worthy of an early first round pick.
Defensive Tackle – Da’Ron Payne (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #3)
It’s honestly a pretty close decision for the top defensive tackle in the draft. I’m not particularly high on Kiper’s #1 ranked player at the position, Christian Wilkins, but Kiper’s #2 ranked player, Vita Vea, makes his own case for deserving to be a top selection. Ultimately, the reason I chose to go with Payne over Vea for the #1 ranked spot had to do with consistency. Vea has excellent size and physical attributes, but he goes on stretches of just looking like an average defensive linemen. Payne’s performances are more consistent. And while Payne doesn’t get a lot of sacks, he’s a very effective run stopper. He’s going to be great at the next level, particularly if he gets to play as a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. For me, he’s comparable to Brandon Williams from the Baltimore Ravens. So in essence I’m projecting Payne to be below average as a pass rusher at the next level, but develop into an elite run stuffer at the position.
Inside Linebacker – Roquan Smith (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #1)
It gets tricky when you breakdown linebacker prospects between “inside” and “outside”. In the case of Roquan Smith, he has the versatility to play either position. I’m agreeing with Mel Kiper’s top ranking on this one. It will be interesting to see Smith’s combine measurables, because he used to play wide receiver in high school and when you watch him on tape you notice excellent speed for the linebacker position. This high-end speed helps Smith in pass rushing and also in coverage. Smith was productive in college, leading his team in tackles. In terms of weaknesses, he’s a bit undersized for the position at 6’1 and 225 pounds. Block shedding is an area where he needs to improve. Too often you see him get sucked into a block and not be able to get out of it to make a play. Overall though, Smith is a worthy first round selection and you can certainly make the case for him being the top linebacker prospect for this year’s draft class.
Outside Linebacker – Tremaine Edmunds (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #1)
This one is a no-brainer really. Edmunds is well deserving of being a top ranked prospect at the position. He combines elite athleticism with NFL-caliber size (6’5 and 250 pounds). In addition, he’s one of the youngest players in this year’s draft class, currently only 19 years of age. Paradoxically, this is both a strength and a weakness for Edmunds. On the plus side, it means he was an excellent age-adjusted producer at the college level, and in theory he should have a longer lifespan in the NFL. A great investment for any NFL team in that sense. But the downside is he relies too much on his athletic gifts and therefore lacks the insticts, awareness, and play recognition you’d like to see at the position. As a result, I expect Edmunds to struggle early on as a rookie, but he has far and away the highest ceiling of any linebacker prospect in this year’s draft class. Edmunds just needs the experience and to be coached up. Over the long-term, I expect he will prove to be a great player.
Cornerback – Josh Jackson (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #2)
We could be seeing a deep cornerback class this year that is loaded with talented players. On the top end of this spectrum, I’d go with Josh Jackson because I believe he has the highest ceiling. Denzel Ward is a safe selection, so I understand why Kiper would mark him down as the top prospect here. Josh Jackson is coming off of an incredible season where he recorded 27 PBU’s and 8 interceptions. He will be entering this draft at 21 years of age. It should be noted that Josh Jackson played wide receiver in high school before converting to cornerback in college. This is another guy who appears to have amazing athleticism on tape. I can’t wait to see his combine measurables.
Safety – Derwin James (Holden’s #1 and Kiper’s #2)
While Kiper makes the argument for Minkah Fitzpatrick being listed at the top prospect here, I will note that Minkah Fitzpatrick is a hybrid player who could play cornerback or safety at the next level. My preference is for a prospect that is a pure-play at the safety position to be top ranked here, so I’m going with Derwin James. James is 6’3 and 215 pounds. James was the top recruit at DB out of high school due to his amazing production (94 tackles and 4 interceptions in eight games). He went on to suffer a left lateral meniscus tear early on in his college career. But James bounced back, producing 84 tackles and two interceptions in his most recent season. By all accounts, James puts in extra time to study film on weekends and is a great leader in the locker room on game days. He has the ability to do it all on the field, from making big hits to playing tight coverage. For all these reasons, and because James was named a Freshman All-American in his first college season, he’s my top ranked prospect at safety.