Redshirt Rookies: 2018 NFL Draft Prospects Who Need Time to Develop
You can't rush the future. That's true in the deep philosophical sense and especially true in the NFL draft.
In 2018, there will be plenty of high-end prospects selected early who are capable of contributing immediately, just like every year. Scattered throughout the draft will be others with promising talent who need time to mature.
That process requires patience, knowing the time and effort logged in the early going will bear fruit later. And a prospect like quarterback Lamar Jackson also requires a team to have an imagination.
The wise general manager treats the developmental prospect like a rough first draft. The project isn't complete, and it will take time to get there. But you can see the beauty of the art and know there's the potential for a masterpiece with the right coaching.
Here's a look at a few such prospects in the 2018 draft who may not shine right away, but their time could come with the proper development.
Lamar Jackson, Quarterback
Lamar Jackson plays quarterback. That shouldn't change at the NFL level, at least not until some unlikely fork comes up far down the road and, in true Terrelle Pryor fashion, he's forced to make a tough decision.
But Pryor comparisons shouldn't last long because of the difficult throws Jackson completed for the Louisville Cardinals and the arm strength they required. His 75-yard heave against North Carolina is a prime example. He unleashed that throw after sidestepping a pass-rusher too.
What separates Jackson from Pryor and others before him is an ability to execute and connect on those low-percentage throws. However, there's still no dodging the reality his accuracy needs to improve.
Jackson completed just 57 percent of his pass attempts over three seasons at Louisville. His natural athleticism may allow him to weave around pass-rushers, but as an NFL quarterback, he will still likely need time to learn how to be a better pocket passer.
Even with that concern and the need for development, it's still likely Jackson hears his name called in the first round. He has the arm strength to compensate for any lack of pocket comfort and the athleticism that led to 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground throughout his collegiate career.
Luke Falk, Quarterback
There's a top-heavy feel to the quarterback class heading into the 2018 draft. Which is why finding a passer with enough promising attributes to hope and dream on in the later rounds might be a more difficult challenge than usual.
Luke Falk could be a solution to that problem if he lands in the right situation.
Decision-making is one area that needs improvement after the 24 interceptions Falk threw over his final two seasons at Washington State. He was benched twice during his senior year, including once during a loss to Arizona, when the then-22-year-old threw for just 93 yards. Earlier in the year, he also chucked five interceptions against California.
His needs to hone his vision and also improve as a deep passer. Falk averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt in 2017, and as NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted, nearly 74 percent of his career pass attempts in college traveled a maximum of 10 yards.
But in fairness, Falk was left exposed too often behind a weak offensive line. And even then, his accuracy shone through, providing a solid foundation to work with. He completed 68.3 percent of his throws over four years with the Cougars.
Auden Tate, Wide Receiver
If it were possible for a cell tower to run, catch and score touchdowns, it would be Auden Tate.
The 6'5", 228-pound prospect out of Florida State is a bounding, large target who knows how to use every inch of that body to his advantage. That shows when he's in heavy traffic—and especially in the red zone. Tate scored 16 touchdowns over his final two years with the Seminoles, including 10 in 2017.
The problem is it takes time to get all his bulk moving downfield. Therefore, although Tate has the potential to play a meaningful NFL role as a possession- and red-zone target, he will need to learn how to separate against defenders who are often larger and faster than his college opponents. Tate posted a 4.68-second 40-yard dash time at the combine, which is glacial even for a receiver his size.
He's only 21, though, and he averaged a touchdown nearly once every four catches in college. Tate has the physical tools to be a contributor and red-zone master, but it might take time to get there.
Marcell Ateman, Wide Receiver
Marcell Ateman is another example of a large-bodied receiver whose NFL coaches might need some patience because of his speed limitations.
Like Tate, Ateman has natural length at 6'4" and 216 pounds, along with a wide catch radius and the body control in the air to snatch throws high over opposing defensive backs. That package makes him an ideal third-down and red-zone target, which is how the Oklahoma State standout scored eight times during his senior season.
He benefited from being involved in a vertical offense in college, helping to boost his per-catch average to 19.6 yards in 2017. So the deep-ball ability is there on some level, but getting that out of Ateman early in his NFL career might be tough after his sluggish 40 time of 4.62 seconds.
Zierlein compared Ateman to Brandon Coleman, the towering 6'6", 225-pound New Orleans Saints receiver. If that comparison or something close to it holds up, Ateman could be destined for a career as a less-than-spectacular though steady contributor in a specific role. Coleman averaged 15.8 yards per reception and scored three times on just 23 catches in 2017 as part of a crowded Saints offense.
Da'Shawn Hand, Defensive End
Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand should have been a play-wrecking machine at Alabama. Instead, he left as a player who flashed and teased, someone whose physical potential didn't translate on to the field consistently.
The same could happen in the early going during his time in the NFL.
Hand is likely still going to be drafted high—toward the end of Day 2 at worst. Looking the part as a 6'4" and 297-pound lineman who can play different roles has a way of automatically elevating value. But his production didn't match those physical qualities while Hand played at the highest level of college football.
His single-season sack high was three, which Hand reached in 2015 and 2017. He also recorded only 14.5 tackles for a loss over four seasons.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. was among those who thought Hand would have a breakout year during his first season as a full-time starter in 2017. He was wrong.
"He's a tweener," Kiper wrote. "Not big enough to be a tackle but not explosive enough to play end at the next level."
Despite those words, there's still plenty of hope for Hand based on his physical build and strength. Those desirable traits just need to show up on the field more often.
Harrison Phillips, Defensive Tackle
Harrison Phillips recorded an absurd amount of tackles for a defensive tackle during his final season at Stanford. He finished with 98 tackles, 17 of which went for loss.
His wrestling background allows him to control the point of attack and gain leverage. That resulted in 48 run stops in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus, which led all interior defensive linemen.
But the difficulty with his NFL projection lies in Phillips' size. At 6'4" and 307 pounds, he's built more like the guards in the NFL who will be on the other side of the trenches. That's why he may have to develop further before finding the right fit.
"Where do you play him?" an NFC scout wondered aloud to Zierlein. "He loses balance, which makes nose tough, and he doesn't have athleticism to play 3-technique."
There's also a bit to be desired from Phillips as a pass-rusher despite his 7.5 sacks in 2017, a year in which he tallied only 33 QB pressures, as PFF highlighted.
Mark Andrews, Tight End
Mark Andrews has the physical tools to be a solid NFL tight end and could possibly be a steal at the position late in Day 2 or early during Day 3 of the draft. But like many promising tight ends before him, he could struggle initially for a common reason: blocking.
The Oklahoma Sooners simply didn't ask Andrews to do that often, which sets the stage for a tough learning curve in the NFL and likely not much significant production until the second year of his career.
The modern NFL tight end who plays at a high level typically needs to move and function like a large wide receiver. Andrews has that covered with his fluid movement and quality route adjustments. He rode that skill set to 958 receiving yards in 2017 and a per-catch average of 15.8 yards over three collegiate seasons. Andrews was also effective in the red zone while scoring 22 times for the Sooners.
At 6'5" and 256 pounds, he has the build and skill to be productive in the NFL. He just needs the experience as a blocker to become a solid all-around tight end.
Siran Neal, Safety
The third day of the draft is the time to go gem mining. And Siran Neal's name should pop up when teams do that while looking for a versatile defensive back.
Neal featured as both a safety and a cornerback for the Jacksonville State Gamecocks. In the latter role, he remained physical while coming up to the line of scrimmage and recording 39 tackles. And Neal also showed he could still be trusted in coverage by finishing the season with 11 passes defensed.
He did all that after playing safety in 2015 and linebacker in 2016. As a linebacker, Neal piled up 80 tackles, with 11.5 going for a loss. That shows his physical nature at 6'0" and 206 pounds.
The challenge lying ahead for him is a standard one for a small-school prospect. Neal is facing a steep jump in the level of competition after playing for an FCS school. Combine that with a search to find his role and best use in the NFL after playing multiple positions at Jacksonville State, and Neal may not make a notable impact until at least 2019.
Josey Jewell, Linebacker
Josey Jewell has great instincts and vision as a linebacker, and his thumping ways led to three straight seasons with 120-plus tackles for Iowa. He punctuated his time there with 13.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
The 23-year-old can also be relied on in coverage, posting 26 passes defensed with six interceptions over his final three collegiate seasons. He also didn't allow a touchdown in coverage during the 2017 season despite being targeted the most out of all draft-eligible linebackers, per PFF. All of his production for the Hawkeyes points to a linebacker who can be a versatile every-down defender in the NFL.
And he can be that, but maybe not right away.
Jewell needed a snail-like 4.82 seconds to run the 40-yard dash at the combine. He lacks top-end speed and initial burst and may need time to learn how to compensate for both in the NFL.
Anthony Averett, Cornerback
Anthony Averett is a polarizing prospect as a track star who shines athletically but didn't make enough plays for Alabama.
His track background led to a 40-yard dash time of 4.36 seconds. That shows he has the speed to defend the deep ball and keep up with the NFL's fastest vertical threats.
But in college, those physical gifts didn't add up to much production, as Averett intercepted just one pass and recorded a modest 16 passes defensed over three seasons. That is why opinions are split, and Averett might need time to work his way up an NFL depth chart.
Zierlein compared him to Tre'Davious White, the Buffalo Bills cornerback who allowed a reception only once every 15.8 cover snaps, the third-best mark from a rookie corneback, per PFF. But as Walter Football's Charlie Campbell noted, other sources don't share in that high praise.
"A lot of team sources see problems with Averett," Campbell wrote. "They think that he is not a play-maker on the ball and is not a finisher. He is intelligent and was more consistent within the scheme, which earned him playing time over the more physically gifted Tony Brown, but sources from each team said they didn't like how Averett played the ball."
The lack of plays Averett made could partly be blamed on his size. At 5'11" and 183 pounds, he's a little undersized for an NFL cornerback and might get pushed around. Over time, though, Averett could learn how to lean on his athleticism to make up for any size shortcomings.