Each season a new crop of college athletes take part in the NFL Draft Process, and every year what the overall strengths and depths of the class are will change as often as the needs of the teams doing the drafting.
This year is no exception.
In 2008, we saw a class with good overall running back talent, quicker than anticipated impact at the quarterback position and great depth at the defensive spots.
The 2009 class has its own set of advantages and strong spots, but also more than a few positions of questionable depth and talent.
When the layman looks at the Draft, they think in terms of the ‘sexy positions’. The quarterback, the running back, the high profile names on the offense. It’s where many new draftnicks and casual observers get caught up.
But once you’ve spent any time listening to any analyst or scout worth his salt, it turns out that’s not always where the value is in any given year.
This year is no different and while there is some value and depth in those skill positions, once again the most value appears to be in the trenches and on the defensive side of the ball.
Let’s take a look at the overall talent in the NFL Draft class of 2009.
Position – Quarterback
High Side – Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez
Low Side – Curtis Painter, Graham Harrell
Overall Grade – C+
Explanation – While I am a big fan of Stafford and Sanchez, I don’t know either would have cracked the top of last year’s class. Still, both athletes have the tools to be worthy of a top pick in 2009. Stafford solidified a high pick slot with an outstanding Pro Day showcasing his accuracy and arm strength while Sanchez will have an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong by showing off his own accuracy and allaying injury concerns on April 1st at USC’s workout. In his own tier behind them is Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. I’ll be honest – any other year and Freeman isn’t going in round one. His accuracy issues, streaky nature and occasional lapses in decision making worry me. Still, after Sanchez and Stafford, Freeman is the guy you want, though he’ll take more time to develop than the first two. After that – it’s personal choice. Every quarterback behind them is a big question mark and a project, so it becomes about who teams fall in love with. One team might love Pat White’s versatility, while another may love Sam Houston State QB Rhett Bomar’s huge arm and intangibles. Or a team may wait a bit and snag any number of high upside, long term projects like Fresno State’s Tom Brandstater (good short touch vs shaky deep throws), Alabama’s John Parker Wilson (great intangibles vs lack of size and arm strength) or recently hot prospect Mike Reilly from Central Washington (good short accuracy and touch vs spread offense worries). My choice for dark horse? Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State. Tough, determined and with good accuracy on the West Coast-Style slants and short passes, Carpenter played behind an atrocious offensive line, with no run game and still managed to put up very good numbers. Sure thing? Not at all. But in the right scheme? Could be very successful. But he’s indicative of the class – all upside, all projects. Few sure things. Here is where I think a smart team can make a big future impact with a pick that’s low risk, but potentially high reward. One of these guys in the right system and with patience could turn out to be another Matt Cassel – assuming people remember the patience it took over almost four years to develop him.
Position – Runningback
High Side – Knowshon Moreno, Chris Wells, LeSean McCoy
Low Side – Ian Johnson, Marlon Lucky
Overall Grade – B
Explanation – These backs don’t have the marquee value of a Peterson or a McFadden but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any solid backs here. Knowshon Moreno has great instincts and is a big, tough runner with good hands. Chris Wells is a strong runner with good burst, but injury and durability worries. UCONN running back Donald Brown is quick to the hole and had very good vision and can catch the ball well out of the backfield. Behind the big three are a ton of solid, though perhaps unspectacular running backs. It’s not to say that a guy like Pitt’s LeSean McCoy, Liberty’s Rashad Jennings or Andre Brown from North Carolina can’t have a very good and very productive careers. But none of these backs hold the excitement that the top of the line studs usually do. The class has some depth, players with defined roles versus the projects that litter the quarterback class. A guy like Jeremiah Johnson out of Oregon would make an outstanding change of pace back. While he doesn’t have elite speed and has never been a workhorse, he’s shown ability, can play in special teams and has shown good vision and patience. He may never become the bell cow, but he also shouldn’t take three years to develop into a solid player. Or a team can grab a guy like Marlon Lucky from Nebraska, a runner who has a good combination of size and speed, who can run for tough yards but doesn’t have the ability to be an every down back. He can certainly fill in – and quickly – on special teams as well as be the type of back to grind yardage out and get the hard yards. Though he will never be a home run hitter, Lucky could be another guy who can be picked late and yet still contributes early in his career. The running back class is filled with these solid, though perhaps unspectacular, backs. Because of this, a team can lay in the weeds and fill other positions of need, yet still have a shot at a quality back who can contribute in a specific role pretty quickly. While the ceiling isn’t extraordinarily high, the floor for many of these guys is pretty good.
Position – Fullback
High Side – Tony Fiametta
Low Side – Brannon Southerland
Overall Grade – C-
Explanation – Like with centers and kickers, top shelf fullbacks are few and far between and that’s why guys like Tony Richardson get the dollars he does blocking for backs like LT and Adrian Peterson. You aren’t likely to see any fullbacks go on day one, and maybe just a handful will be drafted over all. In the last nine drafts, the top fullback has been selected in the fourth round four times and the fifth round three times. The top fullback has only been pulled in the third round twice including last year when Jacob Hester went to the Chargers. And while he was the top fullback in the 2008 draft he was also the type of guy San Diego looked at as a potential full time running back. Again, it’s rare for a full blown fullback to go early. While a blocking fullback is worth his weight in gold, it’s easier to convert a running back or sign a fullback off the street. So even the top guys like Syracuse’s Tony Fiametta will be unlikely to go earlier than the middle rounds. This is not to say Fiametta isn’t a capable player. The former Orangeman is a fantastic blocker who works hard and has the versatility coaches love which allows him to block for other backs, catch the ball out of the backfield or even work special teams. It’s that flexibility which will attract teams and players like Fiametta. But many other guys have too many question marks. Georgia’s Brannan Southerland has some real conerns about his ability to stay healthy, Eric Kettani needs to fulfill his Naval service before he can play and lack experience in receiving and special teams so is limited while Jason Cook from Ole Miss is basically a blocker – and that’s all. Once you get past the top one or two players, a team might as well wait and sign these guys after the draft or look for a late round running back, see if they can develop him as a regular RB and if not, move him to fullback. Less fullbacks are being used in College football, and Pro teams are using tight ends and other players to block when necessary. As a result, this class which is thin on depth will likely see few players taken on draft weekend and perhaps even during the rookie free agency signing period.
Position – Wide Receiver
High Side – Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin
Low Side – Sammie Stroughter, Tiquan Underwood
Overall Grade – B+
Explanation – A huge step up from last year and we should see a bunch of receivers pulled in the first round and over the course of the first day. There are some projects, but there are also plenty of very solid top prospects here. You can start with the names we’ve all become familiar with over the last few months. Michael Crabtree with his phenomenal size, body control, reach and outstanding ball skills. Fluid and elusive Jeremy Maclin with his ability to stretch the field and vertical ability. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kenny Britt, Percy Harvin. All are names you’ve heard about endlessly. But this class differs from the 2008 bunch in more than just the top end players. This class has a full compliment of depth, guys who will be effective early in their career and could have long-term impact. Some, like OSU wideout Brian Robiskie seemingly emerged out of nowhere, lighting up the NFL Scouting Combine with an outstanding 40 and showing more athleticism than expected. He continued to impress at his Pro Day and is poised to get picked somewhere in the second or third rounds. Robiskie’s route running and instincts make him a player who could be ready to contribute immediately and while he may not be the next Calvin Johnson or Randy Moss, he’s a solid player and could be so for a long time to come. Slipping down a few spots to Ramses Barden, from Cal Poly. Barden has the size and strength to dominate defenders, he just needs to use it a little more confidently. And he can get yards after the catch. A little more of a project, but he can still develop into a good wide receiver and an excellent guy to move the chains or red zone target. Other guys who provide the depth on this squad are Washington State’s Brandon Gibson (experience, great hands, good routes, so-so speed, not enough separation), USC’s Patrick Turner off a great Pro Day (great routes, hands and tough attitude but not a great blocker or much of a deep threat), Quon Cosby out of Texas (athletic, quick, great ball skills, but a little older and limited separation) and Dominique Edison from Stephen F. Austin (decent speed, great hands and a good vertical threat, but not too physical nor sudden off the line) all will go second day and could carve out roles as at least #3 receivers. Even guys like the players at the bottom of my list, like Oregon State’s Sammie Stroughter and Rutgers’ Tiquan Underwood could contribute, though it might take a little longer.
Position – Tight End
High Side – Brandon Pettigrew, Jared Cook
Low Side – Ryan Purvis, Bear Pascoe
Overall Grade – B-
Explanation – There are at least 5 TEs in this class that could be impact players at the next level, but not much depth and overall it won’t dominate the draft. You may never be able to have too many wide receivers or running backs, but you don’t need that many tight ends. Also, the position plays a little different now. You want a tight end who can block AND catch, not one but able to learn the other. Pettigrew is the class of the positional group, he can run, he can block, he can catch – and he’s a tough SOB. The guys behind him are all very athletic – Jared Cook (great speed and quicks, great hands, but little blocking ability), Cornelius Ingram (great ball skills, soft hands, can go vertical, but not tough, inexperienced) and Travis Beckum (great speed, good routes, elusiveness after the catch but not bulky enough, not physical enough and there are durability issues) – but have some question marks. Still, they have the offensive skills to play for some time. The low end like Bear Pascoe (great blocker but very stiff and not fast) and Ryan Purvis (good hands, willing blocker but not fast or explosive) seem to be the flipside – blockers who might develop into full tight ends. The fact you could get production from the late rounds with guys this deep into the class is what makes this class just a bit better than average.
Position – Offensive Tackle
High Side – Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith
Low Side – Garrett Reynolds, Joel Bell
Overall Grade – B+
Explanation – Once again a great crop of OTs and we could see another run on the position in the first round. The game is won in the trenches and there are a lot of fine tackles in the 2009 class, even if it isn’t quite as deep as the 2008 group. Jason Smith, Monroe, Andre Smith and Oher will be gone in the top 15 in all likelihood and you could see guys like Eben Britton out of Arizona and recently hot Phil Loadholt from Oklahoma who could sneak into the first as well. There are other good tackles behind these guys but they could go anywhere from late second to beginning of the third, guys like William Beatty (UCONN), Troy Kropog (Tulane) or Jamon Meredith (South Carolina). All have something they need to work on be it a lack of prototypical size, mobility or a lack pf perfection either in the run or pass portion of the game. But all of them will be productive. As you go further away, the projects grow more shaky but there are so many who could slip in or will get picked up immediately as a street free agent, if a team misses out on one guy, they have the possibility of grabbing a project late and spending less money, yet still seeing production.
Position – Guard
High Side – Duke Robinson, Andy Levitre
Low Side – Ryan Durand, Travis Bright
Overall Grade – B-
Explanation – A decent group, but not a ton of depth. You’ll see them go starting in the second, but there aren’t more than a dozen guys who are good bets to go. A bunch of guards will go as rookie free agents, but not much excitement. Most interesting thing I have seen is the contradicting evaluations of Greg Isdaner of West Virginia. Some rankings have him as the second or third guard. But some don’t even have him going on Draft weekend. The top of the class are definitely Oklahoma’s Duke Robinson and Oregon State’s Andy Levitre. But while maybe one slips into the first, guards don’t go early. Overall it’s a decent class but there are not a ton of guards who will go on draft day, especially when some tackles can move over to guard if they don’t work out.
Position – Center
High Side – Alex Mack, Max Unger, Eric Wood
Low Side – Cecil Newton, Dallas Reynolds
Overall Grade – C
Explanation – Top flight Centers are tough to come by, which is why Jeff Saturday just got re-signed by the Colts. You don’t let one go. This class is ok at the top, but there is a significant drop-off after that and if we hit double digits drafted, I’d be surprised. But the top of the class is pretty good. Cal’s Mack is whip-smart and incredibly flexible in what he can play – center, guard, what have you – he not only can do many things, he’s willing to. I have seen him slip a bit in some mocks, with Wood jumping in as the center taken in the first round. The Louisville center isn’t the most powerful guy and finds himself pushed around a little too much for me. But again, a smart guy who is a hard worker.