“I would bang the table for that guy anywhere in the draft.”
Draft season provides us with a plethora of clichés, and the above is a personal favorite. The beauty of this phrase is that it elicits comparisons not just to “Draft Day,” the Kevin Costner vehicle that mythologizes what we spend so much time doing in thinking about the draft, but also “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The idea that a lone scout will filibuster a front office on draft night, making a case for a player against everyone else in the room.
It makes those of us on the outside feel good, feel important, like if we were just given that chance, we would march into a conference room on draft night and when our team was on the clock with the second-overall case, we would convince everyone in the room to draft Brett Rypien.
I…I’ve said too much.
But in that spirit, here are “my guys” this draft cycle. Players that I have come to love watching and cannot wait to see embark on their NFL careers. Some might have to wait until Day Three of the draft to hear their name called — if it is called at all — while others could go as early as the second-overall selection. Still, these are the players I would bang that proverbial table for.
Payton Turner, EDGE, Houston
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There are often prospects that you come to late in the process, and wish you had spent time on earlier in the cycle. Payton Turner is one such player for me. But I am glad I took the time to study his tape. It is hard to find a more contrasting set of game than watching a pass rusher against BYU and then Navy, but watching those two contests gives you a flavor of what he can be against the run and when rushing the passer. Turner is powerful and violent off the snap, and shows power at the point of attack when working against the run. He does not quit until the whistle, and his game against Navy flashed a number of effort plays where he was chasing down runs from behind. He also displayed impressive change-of-direction skills on one counter option, when he spun back to mirror the QB and dragged him down for a tackle behind the line. Rushing the passer is what moves the needle for EDGE defenders, and Turner checks that box as well. He has a bevy of moves at his disposal, including rip/dip moves, an impressive cross-chop that he will pair with either a rip or a swim after if necessary, a push/pull move and he will even just rely on a bull rush if necessary. On one play against BYU’s right tackle he used that bull rush to just walk him back into Zach Wilson’s lap, influencing the QB’s arm angle. Turner also has quick hands, and when combined with his experience and array of moves he is a pass rusher with a clear plan. It is rare to see him use the same move on two consecutive snaps, and he is ready to counter the tackle should his initial move be stymied. He will use a spin or a late rip as a preferred method of countering, but really you can see him turn to a different Plan B from snap-to-snap. There are even some flashes of bend and cornering ability from him, which is also quite intriguing. Finally, given his experience if a tackle makes a mistake, he will make you pay. I love what he offers from a technical standpoint, and also what he demonstrates in terms of a plan of attack. My only regret is that I did not start watching him sooner, but I try and make up for that by using him to kick off this list of “my guys.”
Jabril Cox, LB, LSU
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Football is changing. The passing game is king. “Three yards and a cloud of dust” is a thing of the pass. That means that defenses are having to adjust, and the days of a two-down, thumper between the tackles at off-ball linebacker might be numbered. While one could argue that those player will be needed again soon, and maybe sooner than we think, right now if you are a linebacker hoping to get drafted early, you better be able to cover receivers in the passing game. That brings us to Jabril Cox from LSU. He is more a cornerback in the middle of the field than a stack linebacker, with smooth change-of-direction skills and the ability to cut or flip his hips on a dime. His pick-six against Mississippi State is a prime example, as he cut back to the middle of the field after opening his hips to the outside to stick on an underneath crosser, and then cut under the throw for the easy pick and score. He handles man coverage responsibilities extremely well, whether from a linebacker’s alignment against running backs or playing in space against slot receivers. Even if he allows the reception, Cox is a sure tackler in space who often minimizes — or outright eliminates — yardage after the catch. He shows a good understanding of zone coverage rules, knowing when to pass off options and when to match to routes in space. He can match with receivers or tight ends in coverage, and runs the seam with TEs quite well. When Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin invented the Tampa 2, I think Cox was the kind of player they had in mind for that middle linebacker role. An athletic player who can excel in coverage and has the speed to match with tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers. That looks and sounds a lot like Cox to me. As two-high safety coverage are coming back into favor, a player with Cox’s abilities and skill-set could be extremely valuable. And it makes him one of “my guys.”
Elijah Molden, CB, Washington
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Elijah Molden saved my draft cycle. I came to Molden late in the process, and he was probably in the final group of the hundreds of prospects I have watched for this draft cycle. Beaten down by the weight of draft season I turned on his film…and rediscovered why what I get to do for a living is an incredibly fun job. Watching Molden fly around the field rekindled the passion for this game and if it clouded my evaluation of him a bit, I do not care in the least. He is a fascinating player to watch and his usage in 2020 where he saw time at safety, particularly in the game against Stanford, has me thinking about the versatility he offers at the next level. He is explosive and plays with his hair on fire, and can be an impact player underneath, in the slot or down the field. He can mirror routes extremely well from the slot and changes direction with ease. If you watch him against Utah this season you will see him in more of the slot/box role and he flies downhill against the run, handles tight ends and slot receivers equally, and is a disruptive force. Then you watch him against Stanford playing as a rangy center fielder, or even a half-field safety, and you can see why defensive coordinators might feel like I did watching him. Every draft cycle you come across player that are “your guys,” athletes that you would bang the table for or want to have on your team. That is what this entire piece is about. Molden is one of those players for me this cycle. I think he could step right into most teams and be a starting slot corner, and I think his ability to play at the safety spot makes him an enticing option due to that versatility. He plays this game with passion, anger and rage and after all, that is kind of the foundation of this sport.
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
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Football is a matchup-based game. Offensive coordinators spend all their waking hours trying to devise ways to create mismatches and then exploit them. Defensive coordinators look for ways to counter those designs and methods via players and schemes of their own. One way to eliminate those mismatches is to find players on the defensive side of the football with diverse skill-sets. Which is a reason why I think Jaycee Horn could a player to watch early in this draft. A player who can cover Kyle Pitts one week and turn around to cover Elijah Moore in a later week is a special kind of player. Horn has the experience and the mental makeup to be a top-flight press coverage cornerback in the NFL. If that sounds like something your defense can use, you might want to grab him early because he will not be there next time you are on the clock. His versatility is a huge asset for his next team. Schematically, and only schematically, I have compared him to Jalen Ramsey. For more on that comparison and why I think Horn is a sneaky pick for the Los Angeles Chargers you can dive into this piece.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC
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One of the traits that scouts look for in players is “competitive toughness.” That willingness to be better than the player across from them, to do anything they can to help a team win. It matters at every position, and on both sides of the football. Amon-Ra St. Brown checks that box with ease, and it is why he is one of “my guys” in this draft class. As I wrote in my notes, “he wants to kill you” on the field. He will attack receivers downfield as a blocker and USC used him as a crack blocker working inside, and while he sometimes got roughed up cracking down, he showed no fear in those moments. St. Brown also showed the ability to beat press coverage, particularly on a slant route touchdown against UCLA. He also has a short memory. Against the Bruins he let a pass go through his hands for an interception, but he came back with a tough catch later in the game and then caught the game-winner on a fade route in the red zone. I am a huge fan of his game, and think he can be a difference maker at the next level. From his experience to his competitive toughness, his short memory and his football intelligence, and his ability to offer a complete route tree, St. Brown is a plug-and-play slot receiver at the next level. I’d be banging the table for him at the start of Day Two for any offense, as I think he is a scheme diverse receiver that can operate in any system. Teams might view him as a slot-only WR, but I think the limited examples of him beating press could see him offer time as a Z receiver as well. Maybe it is the Patriots fan in me, but watching him I kept seeing Julian Edelman in my mind. St. Brown is a bit bigger, but both players are tough, feisty receivers that can operate as slot receivers or as flankers on the outside. *Glares at Bill Belichick.*
Dyami Brown, WR, UNC
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When I played I was an awful quarterback. Brutally bad. I have joked before that during my college days I was the worst quarterback in all of college football and let’s face it, when you’re the backup at the Division III level — and non-scholarship at that — it is a claim that can be supported with facts. Or statistics. I calculated my Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt recently over my career. Did you know that stat can be negative? I learned that the hard way… But being a bad quarterback makes me appreciate wide receivers that try and help their passers, which might be why I love Dyami Brown. One of the things that I love about him is how much effort he puts into each route. There are other receivers in this class who run their route and stop, waiting for the ball to come to them. Brown is not finished until the whistle. If he is running a curl route at about 12 yards and the ball is not immediately throw to him, he’ll run all the way back to the line of scrimmage if he has to to get into the QB’s line of sight. This happens on every snap, and it really left an impression on me while studying his game. Brown in my mind has the ability to be an X at the next level rather quickly, due to his ability to beat press (and his experience facing it) and the routes that he offers out of the gate. There might be some aspects to his game that he needs to fill in before becoming a more complete player, but teams looking for this kind of receiver to add to their offense would be wise to strike early. *Glares again at Bill Belichick*
Tommy Tremble, TE, Notre Dame
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Studying players each draft cycle often brings you to an athlete who could have done more at the college level, yet might get the chance to unlock that potential in the NFL. Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble is one such player. This is not the most impressive tight end class, even with Kyle Pitts at the top of the board, so teams might have to think outside the box a little bit. That could lead them to Tremble. He was used primarily as a blocker during his days at South Bend, whether as a tight end or as the fullback in their jumbo/goal-line package, but he handles that part of the game extremely well, making him an easy option as TE3 for NFL teams as a rookie. But I do think there is potential as a receiver that Notre Dame did not tap into on Saturdays, but could be put to use on Sundays. He might not offer a complete route tree but I saw many examples of him getting open on crossing routes, out routes, shallow routes, sit routes versus zone coverages, routes to the flat against man, and him simply not seeing the football. There were more than a few occasions of Tremble being wide open for a big play — even down in the red zone — and Ian Book not looking to him as an option. I do think there is a more productive receiver waiting to be discovered. Tremble requires some projection as a receiving option given his usage at the NFL level, and might face a position switch to fullback in some systems. Those two factors could limit his landing spots and NFL potential. Still, I think there is reason to think he can do more in a pro offense, and a smart offensive coordinator might be able to tap into what he can be. Teams that focus on what the player “can do,” as opposed to what he “cannot do,” might love what they find.
Tony Poljan, TE, Virginia
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As we just said with Tommy Tremble, this is an…interesting tight end class. Kyle Pitts is the unicorn, the special player talented enough to rank as not just our top TE here at Touchdown Wire, but also one of our top wide receivers. The rest of the tight end class, however, comes with some questions. Like Tremble a player I think could do more at the next level is Tony Poljan, the quarterback-turned-TE who checks some of the big boxes for the position. Size, frame, blocking skills and the ability to be a red zone weapon early in his career. One of the true joys of draft season is the discovery process, when you find players that you were not exposed to during the regular season. Studying Poljan was a blast, and the more I watched the more I started to talk myself into him being a true diamond in the rough. Where other players at this position face a tough transition because they need to fill out the blocking part of the game, Poljan might have an easier path since that aspect of the position is filled out. The team that drafts Pitts early might double-dip at the position and add Poljan later, giving them a solid 12 personnel package with two players serving in distinct roles.
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
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This almost feels like cheating. After all, there is still a chance that Justin Fields goes second to the New York Jets. Sure, the Jets have seemingly decided on Zach Wilson as their pick in the second spot, but until it is done there is still a chance that Fields comes off the board in that spot. If not there, perhaps third to the San Francisco 49ers, or fourth to the Atlanta Falcons (or a team trading into that spot). So we are talking about a player likely off the board before most people have settled into their spot for draft night. Still. The discourse around Fields this cycle has gone through three distinct phases. First there was the idea that he could not go through reads and progressions, a notion that people have spent time to push back upon. Then there was the idea that Fields did not love the game, a notion that is easily dismissed when you see him racing downfield to throw blocks, or playing through visible pain against Clemson. Now the notion is that because of his baseball background, his mechanics are flawed. Something that seems to fly in the face of recent thinking about the quarterback position. Doubt Fields at your own peril. I’ve said before that NFL teams that pass on Fields will one day regret that decision. Because when you watch him, particularly this past season against Clemson when he was clearly hurt and still was able to help the Buckeyes stave off a comeback attempt from Lawrence and the Tigers, Fields has the traits that matter at the position. He’s someone that teammates want to play for and that coaches want to work with. He could be special. For more on Fields you can check out this video breakdown of the Rutgers game, this comparison of the two Clemson games, or this deep dive into the Indiana game and his struggles against the Hoosiers.