With the opening night of the NFL draft just over a week away, let’s run through the prospects who have the skill sets needed to transition to the pro game.
Here are five names that are on my radar as teams around the league begin to finalize their draft boards before the first pick comes off the board.
Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia
Sims (6’0”, 214 lbs) has above-average stopwatch speed for the running back position (4.48 40 time) and should project as a No. 2 at the pro level in a zone-based scheme.
This is where Sims can use his one-cut running style to press the hole with power or find cutback lanes versus defenses that over-pursue to the football.
However, look for Sims to earn his money in the NFL running routes out of the backfield or removed as a receiver.
The projected mid-round pick has the lateral quickness and acceleration to work away from a defender’s leverage at the top of the route stem. This allows Sims to run the option, angle, rail, etc. when he can draw the matchup of a linebacker or safety in space.
Going back to the Senior Bowl, Sims whipped defenders in one-on-one passing drills and displayed some speed after the catch to create separation in the open field.
He's an ideal fit for today’s NFL offenses that spread the field and use the running back as a prime target to work the ball underneath in the passing game.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
However, the former Hawkeye can win at the point of attack in the run game and displays the hip flexibility to produce in the short-to-intermediate route tree.
With his size (6’5”, 265 lbs) and power, Fiedorowicz should project as a solid in-line tight end (or “Y” tight end) with the ability to align as a receiver removed from the core of the formation when the offense brings its Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) into the game.
Fiedorowicz has enough speed (4.76 40 time) to run the inside vertical seam route with the short-area change-of-direction quickness (4.26 short shuttle, 7.10 three-cone) to sink and accelerate out of cuts on the dig (square-in) or stick-out.
Plus, he is physical after the catch and isn’t shy about dropping his pad level to initiate contact in the open field.
Going back to his tape from Iowa, the tight end produced inside the 20-yard line running the seam and 7-cut (corner) route. Two routes that allow Fiedorowicz to create leverage and use his large catch radius to secure the ball.
For teams looking for a tight end with the ability to run block and contribute to the passing game, Fiedorowicz is a solid Day 2 prospect.
Jimmie Ward, SS, Northern Illinois
Given the multiple personnel packages we see from NFL defensive coordinators, Ward is a fit in the pros because of the versatility he brings to the secondary.
With speed in the high 4.4 range, coverage ability and ball skills (11 career interceptions), Ward can roll down over the slot, drop to the deep middle of the field or play in the run front where he can chop down ball-carriers.
Plus, Ward can align underneath in the defensive sub-packages as a nickel or dime defender in both man and zone schemes to give coordinators more flexibility in the game plan.
He is quick with his hands in press, physical on the release and displays the lateral ability/closing speed to attack the football as a zone defender.
There are questions on Ward’s size (5’11”, 193 lbs) and the level of competition he saw in the MAC Conference. However, after watching the NIU product compete in the Senior Bowl, there is no question he stacks up versus top talent.
I graded out Ward behind Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, but don’t be surprised if he is drafted in the first round next Thursday night.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Evans has the size (6’5”, 231 lbs) and length (35.13" arms) to create matchup issues with an extremely large catch radius to go get the football.
While the Texas A&M product doesn’t have elite speed (4.53 40 time) to separate from defensive backs down the field, he can consistently box-out/shield defenders at the point of attack or climb the ladder to high-point the ball (37" vertical jump) on the 9 route.
Think of the three-step slant, deep dig, curl, skinny post, etc. Inside breaking routes that maximize Evans’ ability to pin a defensive back to the outside with the toughness to absorb contact going across the middle of the field.
There is no question Evans will be a prime target in the deep red zone, where quarterbacks can throw the slant or fade in one-on-one situations.
Plus, look for offenses to align the wide receiver in multiple spots on the field to put him in a position to attack the inside seam versus defenses that show two-high safeties inside of the 20-yard line.
Evans will need time to develop his route running (footwork, hips at the top of the stem) versus NFL defensive backs, but given his size and matchup ability, there is tremendous upside here.
As a top-15 talent, Evans should be the second wide receiver drafted after Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State
Smith has the frame of a safety at 6’3”, 218 pounds, but looking at his speed (4.52 40 time) and lateral quickness, he projects as a 4-3 Will ‘backer with top-tier special teams skills.
There is no question the Florida State product has to add some size to his frame, as he can be overwhelmed by blockers at the point of attack in the run game.
However, given his athleticism, downhill closing speed and instincts, he has the ability to get on the field early in his career as a nickel linebacker in zone-based schemes.
Think of Smith as a hook-curl defender in Cover 2 or Cover 3 where he can get to a landmark drop, read the quarterback and accelerate to the ball.
In the kicking game, Smith should be a star on all four core special teams units (kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return), and that will buy him some time to develop in the weight room.
For teams looking for speed and athleticism they can develop at the linebacker position, Smith is a late Day 2/early Day 3 option.
Former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.