There is no lack of talent in the Big Ten each year—the conference put seven players in the first round of this year's NFL draft—but professional decision-makers are already eyeing a talent at Penn State that might shock fans.
When asking NFL scouts and general managers for an early look at next year's class, one high-level executive summed up what many are feeling about Penn State's Saquon Barkley: He has the potential to be the best running back of the last decade. Even better than Leonard Fournette or Ezekiel Elliott.
If you thought the running back position was en vogue again after watching NFL teams select Elliott and Fournette fourth overall in back-to-back years, just wait until the hype on Barkley gets out.
The 2017 running back class was loaded—one scout told me it was the best he's ever seen—but 2018 could be special with Barkley, Derrius Guice (LSU), Mike Weber (Ohio State), Ronald Jones (USC), Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (Georgia) and Royce Freeman (Oregon) all poised for big seasons. And those are just the top names we know right now.
The running back class of 2018 has a ways to go before competing with the 2017 group in terms of top-tier talent, perceived starters and depth, but the early look is great.
What else is going on this week:
- Updated 2018 big board
- A frustrated Derek Carr
- Betting on the 49ers
- The MMQB's Andy Benoit on franchise quarterbacks
The Scout's Report
—If Saquon Barkley has RB1 locked up, Derrius Guice at LSU should be considered the strong RB2 favorite. After taking over for an injured Leonard Fournette last season, Guice showed great speed and vision on his way to almost 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has the size (5'11", 212 lbs) and burst to be an early Round 1 prospect.
—Mike Weber at Ohio State is no slouch, either. The redshirt sophomore running back shares carries with his quarterback (and Curtis Samuel) but should have a bigger role in the offense this season. He might not put up Heisman numbers or lead the NCAA in touchdowns, but Weber's skill set has first-round potential.
—Two impressive players with injury histories to keep tabs on: Chubb (Georgia) and Freeman (Oregon). Both have enjoyed success as college runners and both tout NFL tools, but in my talks with NFL scouts this offseason, they've all indicated that both runners' past injuries will make their future appearance at the NFL scouting combine important. Chubb and Freeman both opted to return to college for their senior seasons, which could also raise concerns about wear-and-tear.
—Former Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs generated a ton of hype leading up to the draft, but he was ultimately selected in the fourth round. Pitt passer Nate Peterman also created a stir at the Senior Bowl and garnered some top-50 talk before falling to the fifth-round. What does this mean? As one general manager told B/R: "It means trust the tape. Neither of those guys was any good on Saturday. We're smarter than you guys give us credit for."
—Mike Silver of NFL Network reported Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is "frustrated" with the pace of talks on his new contract. Carr is set to become a free agent after the 2017 season (as a second-round pick, he was signed to a four-year deal). It benefits the Raiders to lock him up now so they can focus on a new deal for Khalil Mack before he enters a contract 2018 year.
—The San Francisco 49ers will unveil a new 4-3 defense under coordinator Robert Saleh this season. Many on Twitter have speculated about how this fits a roster that features three first-round picks on the defensive line. Based on my conversations with sources on the staff, here's one possible lineup. The team will value versatility, so players may move around based on situations.
|San Francisco 49ers Starting Defense|
5 Names to Know
5. Martinas Rankin, Offensive Tackle (Miss. State)
Texas tackle Connor Williams looks impressive and Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey will carry a Round 1 grade into the season, but don't let that fool you into overlooking Martinas Rankin. The Mississippi State tackle has the size (6'5", 302 lbs) and athleticism of a blindside protector. The former JUCO player (Mississippi Gulf Coast) is also still developing as a top-tier tackle.
4. Christian Kirk, Wide Receiver (Texas A&M)
John Ross and Corey Coleman are two players you think of when you watch Christian Kirk. The Aggie wide receiver doesn't have great size (5'11", 200 lbs), but he has the vertical speed to push defenses and stretch the field. And if the last two drafts are evidence of how teams think, a player like Kirk won't be on the board long if he can run as well as expected at the combine.
3. Ronald Jones, Running Back (USC)
There's a lengthy list of top running backs at the top of this article, but I couldn't publish without mentioning Ronald Jones. The USC back is one of my favorites in college football thanks to his speed in space and receiving ability. Jones, who also runs track for the Trojans, has excellent breakaway skills. He'll have to prove he can run between the tackles more, but he's a name to watch.
2. Harold Landry, Edge-Rusher (Boston College)
There is no clear-cut top edge-rusher for next year's class yet, but Boston College's Harold Landry may end up that guy by August due to questions about LSU's Arden Key briefly leaving the team. Landry has production (16.5 sacks last season) and size at 6'3" and 250 pounds. His tape looks similar to former UCLA product Takkarist McKinley, who the Atlanta Falcons just selected 26th overall last month. Like Takk, Landry could be a top draft pick in a year.
1. Adam Breneman, Tight End (UMass)
A former Penn State tight end, Adam Breneman looks to have all the tools of a top tight end prospect. He's physically dominant at 6'4" and 250 pounds, and he has the size and athleticism to attack jump balls and also do work in space. Breneman isn't a classic in-line blocker, but he's shown he can be effective in space as an H-back.
The Big Board
May is a great month to decompress after the draft, but it's also a quiet time to start working ahead on next year's group. While it's too early to cement anything, my structure for starting on a new season is to create a Top 32 big board and prioritize those players to work on.
How do you structure a top 32 without studying the players first? By talking to college coaches, agents and NFL scouts about which players they're impressed by. Taking that list of around 200 players, I aim for a consensus on the top 25 to 50 and start at the front of the list.
These rankings will change dramatically over the summer and once the season begins, but you can think of this as a summer watch list.
|Top 32 Big Board|
|1. QB Josh Allen||Wyoming|
|2. QB Sam Darnold||USC|
|3. RB Saquon Barkley||Penn State|
|4. DL Christian Wilkins||Clemson|
|5. QB Josh Rosen||UCLA|
|6. S Derwin James||FSU|
|7. OT Connor Williams||Texas|
|8. EDGE Arden Key||LSU|
|9. LB Malik Jefferson||Texas|
|10. S Minkah Fitzpatrick||Alabama|
|11. RB Derrius Guice||LSU|
|12. WR Deon Cain||Clemson|
|13. S Marcus Allen||Penn State|
|14. WR Courtland Sutton||SMU|
|15. CB Tarvarus McFadden||FSU|
|16. OT Mike McGlinchey||Notre Dame|
|17. DL Da'Shawn Hand||Alabama|
|18. EDGE Josh Sweat||FSU|
|19. LB Jerome Baker||Ohio State|
|20. LB Cameron Smith||USC|
|21. EDGE Harold Landry||Boston College|
|22. OT Mitch Hyatt||Clemson|
|23. OT Martinas Rankin||Mississippi State|
|24. WR Calvin Ridley||Alabama|
|25. DL Vita Vea||Washington|
|26. CB Denzel Ward||Ohio State|
|27. DL Dre'Mont Jones||Ohio State|
|28. S Armani Watts||Texas A&M|
|29. LB Azeem Victor||Washington|
|30. OG Quenton Nelson||Notre Dame|
|31. WR Christian Kirk||Texas A&M|
|32. EDGE Bradley Chubb||N.C. State|
I'll be answering six questions to kick off the parting shots this week, followed by a few other thoughts to close out the piece.
My stance is to always scout the player and not the helmet, but you'd be foolish to not consider the past success of USC quarterbacks when looking at Sam Darnold. That said, you first must evaluate him as a player and person. Does he have the necessary tools to succeed in the NFL (arm strength, accuracy, pocket presence, footwork, field vision, football IQ)? If he has those tools, the USC part of the equation is less an issue for me. When we talk about "system" quarterbacks in college, they generally have a similar tool or trait missing. By evaluating the player first, you can eliminate potential misses by downgrading a player based on where he plays.
This is far from a complete and finished opinion on Washington quarterback Jake Browning, but my first impression was that he's a mid-round prospect with good accuracy, a small frame and small arm. He reminds me of Aaron Murray from Georgia, who went in the fifth round of the 2014 draft. The selling point that may help Browning's stock is that his ball placement is extremely impressive at times.
The 2018 offensive tackle class looks to be far ahead of the 2017 group. Last year at this time, the only first-round-quality tackle prospect was Cam Robinson. This year, players like Connor Williams, Mike McGlinchey, Mitch Hyatt and Martinas Rankin all look like top-32 picks.
Courtland Sutton (SMU) is firmly in the running for the top wide receiver spot, competing with Deon Cain (Clemson) and Calvin Ridley (Alabama). NFL scouts also like Kirk as a potential top guy (as mentioned above), but for now, I'm going with Cain as WR1 and Sutton as WR2. Both are ranked in the top 15.
"Best player available" shouldn't be taken that literally. At least not for most teams.
NFL general managers and their staffs do a great job of stacking the board based on need. You can assume most clubs had Myles Garrett as the top player in the 2017 class, but when it boils down to a team drafting at No. 5 overall or No. 15 overall, they likely have set the board with needs over talent. A more accurate statement is probably "best available player at a need," because if the team has a need at safety but not right tackle and two players with a similar grade are available, it'll pick the safety every time.
Having watched three games so far on Darnold, his throwing motion is what stands out most as a weakness. Darnold has a long motion with a bit of a pause at the top of his release, similar to Philip Rivers. He's been able to beat safeties despite not having the fastest motion, and it hasn't consistently impacted his accuracy so far, but that's something to watch as defenses have tape on Darnold to process over the summer.
4. The San Francisco 49ers are sitting at 4.5 wins on the OddsShark over/under table. I'm taking that over.
Kyle Shanahan last coached Brian Hoyer in 2014. They won seven games together. Hoyer's targets on that Cleveland Browns team were Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Miles Austin, Jordan Cameron (injured half the season), a suspended Josh Gordon and a ragtag group of running backs led by Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Despite all of that, they still won seven games.
Looking at the 49ers roster and coaching staff, there is more talent and better coaching than what was on that 2014 Browns team. I'm not saying the 49ers will have a winning season, but taking the over on 4.5 wins seems like a smart bet.
3. It's a great idea—draft a quarterback early, sit him behind a veteran and let him learn the position without the pressure to play right away. Sounds great, right? Too bad it never happens, according to Andy Benoit of The MMQB.
"Since 2006, no team that drafted a quarterback in the first two rounds sat him for the entirety of his rookie season and then saw him become a long-term franchise quarterback. In fact, only two QBs in that time who sat out their entire rookie seasons have even gone on to start at least 48 games: Colin Kaepernick, with the 49ers, and Chad Henne, with the Dolphins."
That number surprises me.
Football writers in their late 20s or early 30s like me grew up on the idea of draft-and-sit, but there is no data to back it up over the past decade. Sure, there are elder statesmen like Carson Palmer and Drew Brees, but they're two of the older starting quarterbacks in the NFL now.
The next wave of top quarterbacks will largely be comprised of rookie starters (like Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) and a few middle- and late-round surprises (Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson). Expecting a sit-and-learn franchise quarterback is no longer a viable plan.
2. Every year, the NFL's competition committee gets together and tries to come up with ways to make football more exciting, safe, marketable and fun. In my experience, it rarely succeeds. The new proposal for a 10-minute overtime is another massive miss from the league's braintrust.
NFL fans do not care about those extra five minutes of overtime. They do care about ties. No one likes a tie. In fact, a number of my Twitter followers suggested a college football format—where each team gets the ball at the 20-yard line and a chance to score—over the idea of more ties.
As it often does, the NFL tries too hard on odd subjects like overtime, player celebration and what is/isn't a catch.
If you're in support of the proposed 10-minute overtime and potentially more ties, I'd love to hear from you on Twitter.
1. Stick to Football Episode 5 is out with guest Natalie Weiner from B/R Mag. Co-host Connor Rogers and I talk to Natalie about breaking through in media, going from Billboard to B/R and what she thinks about writing for free. And in typical Stick to Football fashion, we end up talking about male rompers, Arby's and if Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota will have a bigger junior season.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.