Matt Miller's Scouting Notebook: In a Year of QBs, Saquon Barkley Is a Unicorn

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterDecember 22, 2017

Saquon Barkley could be a top-three pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Saquon Barkley could be a top-three pick in the 2018 NFL draft.Associated Press

Saquon Barkley is rare. And the NFL should be ready to make him something almost unheard of in this day and age—the No. 1 overall pick. 

Why Barkley?

I could quote you the physical resume—5'11", 233 pounds, runs a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash, power cleans 405 pounds, squatted 525 pounds five times, has no injury history and is only 20 years old.

I could also quote you his on-field resume—almost 5,000 yards rushing and receiving in three seasons despite being the focus of every defensive coordinator in the Big Ten this year. To go along with that he added 51 total touchdowns—two on kickoffs.

But NFL teams care about the person as much as the athlete, so you want to know about his intangibles. Barkley was described by his former offensive coordinator, and current Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead, as "Smart, humble. He's the rare guy whose humble attitude supersedes his talent."

So how do you stop Saquon Barkley? "Draft him," is what Moorhead said NFL teams should do.

In a draft class dominated by talk of franchise quarterbacks and outlier prospects carrying Heisman trophies, we've forgotten to talk about the best player in the class. And that's Barkley.

There's this urban legend on Twitter amongst draft fans and analysts that "the NFL"—as if there is a conference room with 32 general managers and 32 head coaches sitting around making one decision—doesn't draft running backs early. Or at least they shouldn't.

Those folks ignore that Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate, Ezekiel Elliott's absence single-handedly ended the Cowboys' season and Leonard Fournette has made Blake Bortles look like a top-10 quarterback. All three were drafted in the top 10 picks within the last three years. Don't look now, but the running back is back; and Barkley will benefit from it.

The NFL is a copycat league. Robert Griffin III wins Rookie of the Year, and everyone rushes to get a "zone-read" quarterback. That fad dies out, and teams start looking for the "next Russell Wilson" as a franchise quarterback outside of Round 1 in order to build a roster with financial flexibility.

Drafting running backs early might not be a passing fad, but teams will feel a lot better using an early pick on a running back if they can get a Gurley, Elliott or Fournette.

How does Barkley stack up with those three? He's better.

Gurley was coming off an ACL injury when the Rams made him the No. 10 pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Elliott, a stud at Ohio State, came into the NFL with rumors of off-field issues hanging over his head.

Fournette spent his last year at LSU missing significant game time due to injury.


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Barkley? Never been in trouble off the field. Never been hurt. In fact, one scout brought up the old Marcus Mariota red flag when talking to me about him. "It's like Mariota—his biggest red flag might be that he doesn't have one," he said, jokingly. I think.

Barkley is rare. As Moorhead told me, "He's a five-tool guy. He can do it all. He has speed, power, can run through you or hurdle over you. You can put him in the slot. He can return kicks. And he's worked hard to become a great pass protector."

If that all sounds too good to be true, you might think it's just an old coach wanting to help out his former player. But when talking to an NFL general manager for this story, he asked me for the highest grade on my scouting grading scale. "A 9.0," I replied. "Put that by his name."

Yes, the quarterbacks will dominate the next five months because we're all fascinated by the position, and it is still the most important one in sports. But don't forget about the best player in this class: Mr. Perfect, Saquon Barkley.

Here's what else is going on this week:

  • The best linebacker you've never heard of declares
  • Updated Senior Bowl attendees
  • Bill O'Brien on the move?
  • Stick to Football Episode 37: Guest Marshon Lattimore, how the 49ers and Jaguars turned it around and #DraftonDraft questions.


The Scout's Report

 Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch  announced he will declare for the 2018 NFL draft. If you're not familiar with Vander Esch, that's a little bit my fault. He's been one of my favorite players to watch all season, but I didn't think he would declare for the draft. Now that he has, let me fill you in—6'4", 240 pounds, excellent instincts and the range to be an impact on all three downs at middle linebacker. He's a stud. Watch him against Washington State or Oregon and you'll see why I have him ranked top-50. He also wears a cowboy collar, which is just cool.

• Indiana wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr.—you'll remember him from Week 1 when he tore up Ohio State—announced he won't seek his medical redshirt and will enter the 2018 draft.

WINSTON-SALEM, NC - SEPTEMBER 26: Simmie Cobbs Jr. #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers catches a pass for a touchdown against Brad Watson #25 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at BB&T Field on September 26, 2015 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Indiana defeated Wa
Lance King/Getty Images

Cobbs (6'3", 224 lbs) is a well-built receiver and has shown the ability to climb the ladder to go after jump balls. He can be physical in the red zone and has the high-waisted, long stride that makes me think he's faster than he looks. He's a baby Alshon Jeffery and could be drafted in the same range (early second round).

• Each year the league office tries to help out NFL teams by sending around a list of qualified head coaching candidates. This year's list, courtesy of ProFootballTalk.com: Matt Nagy (Chiefs, offensive coordinator), Josh McDaniels (Patriots, offensive coordinator), Matt Patricia (Patriots, offensive coordinator), Mike Vrabel (Texans, defensive coordinator), George Edwards (Vikings, defensive coordinator), Dan Campbell (Saints, asst. head coach/tight ends), Dave Toub (Chiefs, special teams), John DeFilippo (Eagles, quarterbacks), Jim Schwartz (Eagles, defensive coordinator), Steve Wilks (Panthers, defensive coordinator), Jim Bob Cooter (Lions, offensive coordinator) and Pat Shurmur (Vikings, offensive coordinator).

 In this business you hear rumors sometimes and dismiss them because they're kind of unbelievable. Then you hear them again and you're like, "Wait, this might be real." That happened in the last 10 days when three different sources mentioned Green Bay Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf. For years it's been assumed Wolf, the son of Packers architect Ron, would replace general manager Ted Thompson when he retires. But Thompson hasn't retired, and the word passed to me by the sources is that Wolf is impatient and ready to branch out. Wolf is just 35 years old and would immediately be a top general manager candidate if he were ready to leave Green Bay.

• Good news for West Virginia fans—quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills both announced they're returning to Morgantown for another season. Grier should be on Heisman short lists for next season, and Sills will be my No. 1 receiver returning to school.

• Looking ahead to the 2018 Senior Bowl, one position group has started to stand out as one to watch. Phil Savage and his team have built a dominant tight end roster for scouts to evaluate in Mobile, Alabama. Adam Breneman (UMass), Tyler Conklin (Western Michigan), Troy Fumagalli (Wisconsin), Mike Gesicki (Penn State), Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State), Durham Smythe (Notre Dame) and Ian Thomas (Indiana) make up a group I'll be spending a lot of my time watching.


5 Players to Know

— Miami (Fla.) RB Mark Walton. A junior entry into the draft, Walton hurt his ankle in early October and missed the Hurricanes' electric run through the second half of the season. NFL scouts I've spoken to love Walton's game and the punch he packs in his 5'9", 195-pound frame. He might be labeled as a change-of-pace guy, but his quickness and balance will give him a chance to start in the pros early on. He's a top-50 player for me.

— Ohio State C Billy Price. One of my favorite players in the entire 2018 draft class, Billy Price is a mean son of a gun in the run game and has the patience and athleticism to handle pass-rushers. With experience at both guard and center, Price also offers versatility to NFL teams. He might not sneak into Round 1 in April, but that's where he'll rank on my next big board update.

— UTSA DE Marcus Davenport.

Sam Craft/Associated Press

If you're looking for a mid-round athletic sleeper who could dominate at the Senior Bowl, this is your guy. Davenport (6'7", 255 lbs) was a monster on the edge this year for UTSA and has the length, agility and quickness to give offensive linemen fits in Mobile. His stock could be on the rise.

— Georgia LB Davin Bellamy. The rise of Roquan Smith had everyone forgetting about Davin Bellamy, but the Georgia native has shown versatility and range the last two years as a starter. He has 8.5 sacks in that time but has also been a solid stack defender against the run. At 6'5", 245 pounds it wouldn't be a surprise to see teams eye him as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

— Oklahoma State WR Marcell Ateman. The "other" wide receiver at Oklahoma State, Ateman doesn't get as much attention as his teammate James Washington, but he's a dang good prospect in his own right. At 6'4", 216 pounds he has the size to outjump defenders for the ball and was a major red-zone threat for Mason Rudolph this season. As a boundary receiver, Ateman has serious potential.


Parting Shots

10. The Seattle Seahawks account for 25 percent of the NFL's ejections so far this season. Insane, right? But that's the stat, according to QuirkyResearch.com. 

Jeremy Lane (punch), Sheldon Richardson (punch), Quinton Jefferson (flagrant roughness) and Delano Hill (punch) have all been ejected this season. The last three of those all came in a two-week span during Seahawk fights with the Jaguars and Rams.

Does Pete Carroll have a discipline problem? It kind of looks like it. Between the ejections, fights, penalties and Twitter fights between star players, it's starting to look like the beginning of the end for the Legion of Boom.

9. Tom Reed of The Athletic has an amazing read for us this week. And I mean amazing. Reed's article tells the story of the Cleveland Browns' 2014 draft—the one that netted Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel and the beginning of the end for then-general manager Ray Farmer. 

Draft fans, Browns fans, hell, even fans of Shakespearean tragedy need to read this one.

8. Is Bill O'Brien out in Houston? Not yet, but MMQB's Albert Breer wrote this week that he wouldn't be surprised if O'Brien is gone before his lame-duck 2018 season. If O'Brien is fired in Houston, make no mistake about it: He would be my top head coach candidate on the market.

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

O'Brien hasn't always been great in Houston, but he's learned on the job and has developed into a very good head coach. Yes, he started Tom Savage Week 1, but he quickly admitted his mistake (something most NFL coaches will never do), went to Deshaun Watson and crafted an offense he could thrive in. 

Finding a coach who has intelligence, leadership skills and vision to handle a roster of 53 different personalities, belief systems and work ethics isn't easy. O'Brien has proven he can do it. And before Watson got hurt, he was doing it at a level that was likely to result in a playoff berth.


7. NFL Draft Riser: Georgia LB Roquan Smith. How can one of the nation's best players rise? Smith jumped from my top 15 to my top 10 this week. He's an instinctive, fast, aggressive and tough linebacker with the eyes and agility to play inside or outside linebacker in the NFL. Smith is now LB1 on my rankings.


6. NFL Draft Faller: Virginia S Quin Blanding. My biggest concern on film with Blanding can be answered at the Senior Bowl—is he fast enough to play over the top in coverage against NFL speed? His tape looks a step or two slow. Sometimes you can make up for that with size, but Blanding is listed at 6'1", 205 pounds and isn't what I'd call a great instinct guy either.


5. NFL Draft Sleeper: Iowa G/C Sean Welsh.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

We joke on the podcast that if you want a lineman, go to Iowa. Sean Welsh is a great example of that. A stud interior lineman for the Hawkeyes, Welsh can play either guard spot and center. NFL teams are going to love that versatility. I'm hopeful when he gets to the Senior Bowl we'll see teams ask him to snap and play plenty of guard.


4. Which underclassmen are declaring for the 2018 NFL draft? The list is small right now, but it will be updated each week before the Jan. 15 deadline. Note: Only those players confirmed, not rumored, are listed here.

 DT Taven Bryan, Florida

 WR Simmie Cobbs Jr., Indiana

 P Michael Dickson, Texas

 S DeShon Elliott, Texas

 WR Quadree Henderson, Pitt

 CB Holton Hill, Texas

 TE Hayden Hurst, South Carolina

 CB J.C. Jackson, Maryland

 S Derwin James, FSU

 WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee State

 WR DJ Moore, Maryland

 CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado

 OT Brian O'Neill, Pitt

 K Eddy Pineiro, Florida

 LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

 RB Mark Walton, Miami (Fla.)

 S Jordan Whitehead, Pitt

 OT Connor Williams, Texas


3. We're down to the final three weeks of the NFL season. Here's a look at the draft order with December half over.

1. Cleveland Browns (0-14)

2. New York Giants (2-12) 

3. Indianapolis Colts (3-11)  

4. Cleveland (from Houston Texans 4-10)   

5. San Francisco 49ers (4-10)

6. Chicago Bears (4-10)   

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10)

8. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9)     

9. Denver Broncos (5-9) 

10. New York Jets (5-9)   

11. Arizona Cardinals (6-8)    

12. Oakland Raiders (6-8)

13. Washington (6-8)   

14. Miami Dolphins (6-8)  

15. Los Angeles Chargers (7-7)     

16. Green Bay Packers (7-7)

17. Tennessee Titans (8-6)   

18. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)     

19. Seattle Seahawks (8-6)   

20. Detroit Lions (8-6)   

21. Buffalo Bills (from Kansas City Chiefs 8-6)      

22. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)       

23. Buffalo Bills (8-6)   

24. Atlanta Falcons (9-5)   

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) 

26. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)  

27. Carolina Panthers (10-4)

28. New Orleans Saints (10-4)

29. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3)  

30. Minnesota Vikings (11-3)   

31. New England Patriots (11-3)  

32. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2)


2. More Senior Bowl attendees have been announced as we get closer to the January 22 kickoff of the week in Mobile, and so far, this group looks good. 

  • S Marcus Allen, Penn State
  • WR Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State
  • PK Michael Badgley, Miami (Fla.)
  • RB Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
  • FB Nick Bawden, San Diego State
  • LB Davin Bellamy, Georgia
  • QB Kurt Benkert, Virginia
  • WR Braxton Berrios, Miami (Fla.)
  • S Quin Blanding, Virginia
  • TE Adam Breneman, UMass
  • DE Andrew Brown, Virginia
  • DE Christian Campbell, Penn State
  • OT Alex Cappa, Humboldt State
  • LS Tanner Carew, Oregon
  • K Daniel Carlson, Auburn
  • WR D.J. Chark, LSU
  • OC Mason Cole, Michigan
  • TE Tyler Conklin, Central Michigan
  • C Austin Corbett, Nevada
  • OT Tyrell Crosby, Oregon
  • DE Marcus Davenport, UT-San Antonio
  • CB Duke Dawson, Florida
  • LB Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State
  • LB Garret Dooley, Wisconsin
  • DE Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
  • QB Luke Falk, Washington State
  • DE Kylie Fitts, Utah
  • FB Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma
  • RB Royce Freeman, Oregon
  • TE Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin
  • WR Michael Gallup, Colorado State
  • TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State
  • TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
  • OT Desmond Harrison, West Georgia
  • DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
  • S Trayvon Henderson, Hawaii
  • G Will Hernandez, UTEP
  • TE Chris Herndon, Miami (Fla.)
  • DT B.J. Hill, North Carolina State
  • DE Jalyn Holmes, Ohio State
  • DL Maurice Hurst, Michigan
  • CB Danny Johnson, Southern
  • CB Taron Johnson, Weber State
  • DT Justin Jones, North Carolina State
  • CB Michael Joseph, Dubuque
  • CB Kameron Kelly, San Diego State
  • LB Micah Kiser, Virginia
  • DE Harold Landry, Boston College
  • QB Kyle Lauletta, Richmond
  • WR Allen Lazard, Iowa State
  • LB Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
  • DE Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
  • OT Cole Madison, Washington State
  • S Tray Matthews, Auburn
  • LB Mike McCray, Michigan
  • WR Anthony Miller, Memphis
  • CB Kamrin Moore, Boston College
  • WR J'Mon Moore, Missouri
  • LB Skai Moore, South Carolina
  • CB Siran Neal, Jacksonville State
  • DT Derrick Nnadi, FSU
  • LB Uchenna Nwosu, USC
  • OT Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan
  • OT Brandon Parker, North Carolina A&T
  • OT Timon Parris, Stony Brook
  • RB Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
  • OG Skyler Phillips, Idaho State
  • CB Darius Phillips, Western Michigan
  • LS Ike Powell, Auburn
  • C Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
  • OT Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State
  • QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
  • FB Jaylen Samuels, North Carolina State
  • WR Jaleel Scott, New Mexico State
  • DT Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State
  • RB Ito Smith, Southern Miss
  • TE Durham Smythe, Notre Dame
  • CB M.J. Stewart, North Carolina
  • CB Chandon Sullivan, Georgia State
  • OG Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech
  • TE Ian Thomas, Indiana
  • P Johnny Townsend, Florida
  • DE Kemoko Turay, Rutgers
  • CB D'Montre Wade, Murray State
  • RB Akrum Wadley, Iowa
  • LB Fred Warner, BYU
  • WR James Washington, Oklahoma State
  • S Armani Watts, Texas A&M
  • OG Sean Welsh, Iowa
  • QB Mike White, Western Kentucky
  • LB Tre' Williams, Auburn
  • OG Isaiah Wynn, Georgia
  • CB Isaac Yiadom, Boston College


1. Stick to Football Episode 37 is ready for download—and if you haven't already, go ahead and subscribe and leave a five-star review!

This week, Connor Rogers and I were joined by New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore to talk Defensive Rookie of the Year and best matchups. We also break down the turnarounds in San Francisco and Jacksonville and look at maybe who could be next. And as always, our intern Kennedy joins us to close it out with #DraftonDraft. 


Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.