The week after the 2018 NFL draft, I was on the phone listening to a director of college scouting for an AFC team gloat about the picks his team had just made. "We filled this hole, and watch out for this kid", he said in our almost hour-long talk about how the draft shook out for them.
As we started to say goodbye, he said one thing that's stuck with me ever since. "Enjoy your summer watching tape because next year's class is 10 times better than this one."
The 2018 class was never a group that NFL evaluators praised as high-level. Throughout the last year I often heard from scouts, coaches and executives that the overall talent pool was weakened by too many juniors entering the draft, too many injured players and watered-down talent at key positions like offensive tackle and wide receiver. The early feeling from scouts who've been on the road for a year or two getting familiar with the 2019 class is completely different. There is already a tangible buzz in the air when you ask about next year that was lacking last year at this time.
What makes the 2019 class so promising? I've spent much of my post-draft time talking about how good the upcoming defensive line class is, but that's not the only reason for excitement. Here are a few key names and positions scouts are already raving about.
There isn't a Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota or Sam Darnold prospect who most evaluators agree one year out will be a top-tier pick. But there is a very good group of quarterbacks who teams are excited about, with four or five names repeated often as first-rounders.
Oregon's Justin Herbert is my top-ranked quarterback as of now, but he's coming off a 2017 season that saw him miss time with a broken collarbone. Scouts have also privately questioned the toughness of a kid who cried in the huddle as a freshman after struggling in practice. But he's 6'6", 230 pounds, accurate and a good athlete. The Goff comps are out there and make some sense.
The others vying for top quarterback attention are Drew Lock (Missouri), Clayton Thorson (Northwestern), Ryan Finley (NC State), Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) and Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State). Each has potential, but it's Lock who has scouts seeing a potential Josh Allen clone with his size and arm strength but scattershot accuracy.
The 2018 draft saw five quarterbacks taken in the first round after three in 2017, another three in 2016 and two more in 2015. Why do those numbers matter? Because 13 teams have used a first-round draft pick on a quarterback in the last four years. The number of teams in need of a quarterback might be at a recent low given the capital being spent on the position.
The 2019 quarterback class might be better than 2018's but still may not see as many passers drafted in Round 1.
Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey was drafted No. 9 overall in a move that most around the league feel the San Francisco 49ers reached for in order to better fit their scheme and protect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. In talking to evaluators about next year, there are already three offensive tackles with potential top-10 grades.
Alabama's Jonah Williams enters the year as OT1, and scouts don't see much room for him to slip down boards. He has experience at right and left tackle and has the combination of power and athleticism to be a true top-five pick.
Two others to watch are Greg Little (Ole Miss) and Trey Adams (Washington). Both are the kind of massive maulers that fit well with what the NFL wants right now. It also helps that each is playing in a scheme that requires him to be pass- and run-balanced. It wouldn't be out of the question to see three tackles drafted early in Round 1 next year.
Get ready for a group of fast, tough, smart, impactful linebackers in the 2019 draft class. If all the top underclassmen come up, this will be the best linebacker group I've ever graded.
LSU's Devin White is a special athlete and produces the type of plays that remind you of a thicker Reuben Foster. Michigan's Devin Bush, Alabama's Mack Wilson, Miami's Shaquille Quarterman and Kentucky's Josh Allen are all carrying Round 1 grades on my preseason watch list, too.
As the NFL moves to a prototype at linebacker that asks for 4.6 speed, coverage skills and lightning-fast instincts, these five linebackers all stand out as fun targets.
Skill Players Still Questionable
Looking for that top-five pick at running back? This year might not have one. Alabama's Damien Harris is good and might be a first-rounder, but he isn't expected to be an Ezekiel Elliott/Leonard Fournette/Saquon Barkley prospect. Outside of Harris, there is no established runner with the hype calling for a first-round selection.
The wide receiver class does have a star in Ole Miss' A.J. Brown, who could very well be a top-10 pick, but the depth at receiver isn't eye-opening. There are many players with potential (Deebo Samuel, N'Keal Harry, David Sills) but so far it's a group of "could be" talents that the NFL is trying to figure out.
The Scout's Report
—Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory will file for reinstatement after being suspended for multiple failed drug tests. Talking to a source with the Cowboys front office this week, they were "optimistic" Gregory will be reinstated for the upcoming season.
—If you've ever wanted to watch a joint preseason practice, here's one to get tickets for: The Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings will meet up this summer for a few head-to-head practices. Given the talent on these two defenses and the excellent running backs on both rosters, this is one I'm going to try to fit into my schedule.
—It was announced this week that Phil Savage and the Senior Bowl have mutually agreed to a parting. This news might not affect the average fan, but it will no doubt be felt by us in the media and those working in the NFL. Savage modernized the Senior Bowl, opened its doors to the media and gave many up-and-coming draft analysts a chance to learn and network at the yearly event in Mobile, Alabama. With Savage gone, it will be interesting to see if the Senior Bowl continues to be the preferred destination for top prospects or if the NFLPA game (in Los Angeles) can carve out a bigger role in the all-star game space.
—The Baker Mayfield show is going to HBO. It was announced Thursday the Cleveland Browns will be featured in this year's Hard Knocks. It's a compelling team and there are several characters worth following (Mayfield, Josh Gordon, Myles Garrett) who will make a club with one win in two years more exciting to watch than you might otherwise think.
—This week's great read comes from Albert Breer of MMQB. Breer went behind the scenes with the New York Jets and got a three-year play-by-play of the process to acquire USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the No. 3 overall pick. It's a great look inside how a front office works, but also shows the human side of scouting in the excitement oozing out of Florham Park once the pick was made.
—Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson looks to return from a wrist injury that sidelined him for the 2017 season, and he has a big goal.
Johnson told Good Morning Football that he has a goal of a 1,000-1,000 season. We've definitely seen that type of potential from him in the past. If rookie quarterback Josh Rosen wins the starting job, expect a huge load for Johnson to relieve pressure from Rosen and Co.
The Mock Draft
As the summer months roll on, we'll have more time to evaluate NFL rosters, and for now we can look at an early mock. Using the latest OddsShark Super Bowl odds as the foundation for the draft order, here's my updated Round 1 mock.
1. New York Jets—EDGE Nick Bosa, Ohio State
2. Miami Dolphins—DL Ed Oliver, Houston
3. Chicago Bears—OT Jonah Williams, Alabama
4. Cincinnati Bengals—QB Justin Herbert, Oregon
5. Cleveland Browns—OT Greg Little, Ole Miss
6. Buffalo Bills—WR A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
7. Arizona Cardinals—LB Devin White, LSU
8. Washington Redskins—CB Greedy Williams, LSU
9. New York Giants—QB Ryan Finley, North Carolina State
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers—OT Trey Adams, Washington
11. Detroit Lions—EDGE Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
12. Tennessee Titans—DL Rashan Gary, Michigan
13. Indianapolis Colts—DL Raekwon Davis, Alabama
14. Baltimore Ravens—CB Deandre Baker, Georgia
15. Kansas City Chiefs—CB Michael Jackson, Miami
16. Los Angeles Chargers—QB Drew Lock, Missouri
17. Jacksonville Jaguars—QB Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
18. Carolina Panthers—OT David Edwards, Wisconsin
19. Seattle Seahawks—WR N'Keal Harry, Arizona State
20. Denver Broncos—CB Kendall Sheffield, Ohio State
21. Dallas Cowboys—S Lukas Denis, Boston College
22. Oakland Raiders—DL Dre'Mont Jones, Ohio State
23. Atlanta Falcons—DL Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
24. Houston Texans—TE Noah Fant, Iowa
25. Green Bay Packers (from New Orleans)—WR David Sills V, West Virginia
26. San Francisco 49ers—LB Josh Allen, Kentucky
27. Green Bay Packers—OT Mitch Hyatt, Clemson
28. Minnesota Vikings—S Jaquan Johnson, Miami
29. Pittsburgh Steelers—LB Devin Bush, Michigan
30. Los Angeles Rams—LB Mack Wilson, Alabama
31. Philadelphia Eagles—DL Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State
32. New England Patriots—LB Shaquille Quarterman, Miami
5. Bobby Belt, who covers the Dallas Cowboys for SB Nation, tweeted an excerpt of offensive line coach Paul Alexander's new book, Perform, and Twitter subsequently lost its mind over Alexander's analysis of players based on how they get ketchup out of the bottle.
Alexander wrote: "When I see a large football player turn a bottle of ketchup upside down and pound at its heel with tremendous force yet with limited success, I immediately make the mental note: He must either play defensive line, or if he plays offensive line, he can't play for me."
Predictably, people missed the forest for the trees.
Alexander is talking about the need for critical, outside-the-box thinkers to play in his complex offensive line schemes. If you're the type of person who doesn't understand there's a "57" on the bottle to tap and get the ketchup out, you're not the kind of thinker Alexander wants.
He goes on in his book to say, "Offensive linemen need to be the smartest, most cohesive group on the football field because they are responsible for the combinations of problems that eleven coordinated defenders can cause."
And he's right. Too often we evaluate offensive linemen on arm length, bench reps or agility while forgetting that the game is won or lost on reaction time and quick thinking.
4. Feel underpaid today? Check out this tweet from the NFL's research department.
A few thoughts:
1. The rookie wage scale is a huge benefit to teams and doesn't get enough mention when talking about how to best construct a roster.
2. This team would win a Super Bowl.
3. Matt Ryan is a rich, rich man.
4. Aaron Rodgers should ask for $35 million per year, fully guaranteed.
3. For the fantasy football fans, I put out a list of my top rookies to check out for the upcoming season. The top one is predictable, but hopefully this helps with your early drafts. Expect more rookie-related fantasy content in the future here and on the Stick to Football podcast.
2. And one more "in case you missed it"; here is my look at the 10 players with the best chance to take home Rookie of the Year hardware.
1. A new Stick to Football is out with guest Ryan Hurd joining us to talk about the dos and don'ts should the NFL draft land in Nashville in 2019. We also break out our Top Fives for 2019 with a whole lot of Nick Bosa and Ed Oliver love.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.