The pro day circuit is well underway now, and that gives those of us who don’t live in major media hubs (I reside outside Grand Rapids, MI) a chance to meet with NFL personnel evaluators who attend local collegiate pro days.
In the last week, both Michigan and Michigan State have hosted all 32 teams at their prospect pro days. I was able to meet extensively with a couple of sources I respect greatly who were in attendance in Ann Arbor and East Lansing to ask questions, bounce ideas and get a better feel for how the NFL sees this draft class.
Since we were in the Lansing area last, I’ll start with the conversation I had on the top Michigan State prospect. That would be cornerback Justin Layne.
The tall corner opened a lot of eyes in the draft media with an impressive showing at the Scouting Combine, flashing great explosion and agility scores for a 6-2 CB and acceptable long speed at 4.5 in the 40. But the NFL has been there since about the middle of the last college season, according to the source I spoke with.
“(Layne) had a 3-week stretch last fall where he showed out. Penn State was the start. His press technique was great. (Great) feet in his transitions. Next week was Michigan and they didn’t want anything to do with him.”
After a tangential discussion about the Michigan offense, one which Jim Harbaugh fans would definitely not want to hear, we veered back to Layne.
“His best game was Purdue. Watch that game. It’s where he started really acting like he knew he was great. Got that he was the big dog. Could see it on the sidelines. He looked like he expected it. Played with that (confidence) the rest of the year too.”
So where does Layne project in the draft?
“He’s a top 3 corner and he can start right away. Bet on him going in the 20s.”
This led to a broader discussion on the CB rankings. And I was surprised by a couple of points.
I’m a big fan of Penn State CB Amani Oruwariye. He’s my ideal fit to the Detroit Lions in the 2nd round, No. 40 overall. Based on this interaction and one I had at the Combine with a prominent media members, I’m a lot higher on Oruwariye than most. Those two points of view would have me pulling the trigger at least a full round earlier than their projections.
The other surprise was a pleasant one: Central Michigan’s Sean Bunting. Both NFL personnel folk I spoke with mentioned Bunting in a Day 2 context. “Explosive burst at his size” and “the best contested-catch corner in the draft” were both praises Bunting earned. Not bad for a surprise early entrant from a truly awful 1-11 CMU team...
David Long, Michigan’s talented corner, also came up. Without divulging the full context here, a comparison to Denzel Ward came up. Ward played very well as the No. 4 overall pick by the Browns last year in between injuries. Long doesn’t have those issues on his plate, but his frame (despite being 196 pounds at a hair under 6-feet) is a concern enough that his fantastic Combine won’t elevate him into the top 50. When I mentioned to the personnel person that I was at the Michigan/Maryland game and did not recall seeing Long targeted even once, he was a bit dismissive. Either his team is really trying to hide interest or they’re just not that into Long. We’ll see. He’s a top 40 player for me.
There is also a lot of divergent opinion on Michigan's Rashan Gary. I got that from the two evaluators I spoke with. The first, who was at Michigan’s pro day, is a big fan of the defensive lineman. Even his praise came with a disclaimer, however.
“He would be so much better if he committed to playing inside.”
That’s been a sticking point with Gary at Michigan, where he largely stayed outside in 2017 and especially ‘18. And it came up in his Combine interview with the other’s team. He told me Gary “really resisted the idea” of adding a few more pounds and being a full-time interior player when their coach asked him about it in Indy. Between that relative indignance and his refusal to work out at Michigan’s pro day, let’s just say Gary isn’t sending the best message to potential employers. Both personnel men pegged Gary as expected to go in the 12-25 overall range, with one noting the depth of the DL class “gives teams a reason to say no” to drafting him.
I asked three questions worded exactly the same to both personnel men:
- Best player in the draft?
A1. Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama
A2. Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
- Where does Kyler Murray end up being drafted?
A1. Top 3
A2. Top 4, but not 1 (he was adamant about that too)
- A player your team is higher on than you think other teams will be?
A1. West Virginia WR David Sills
A2. Minnesota LB Blake Cashman
Three other random notes from the conversations…
--Neither believes there is any running back worthy of a first-round selection. One declared his team won’t even consider taking one before Saturday (4th-7th rounds), though that team -- like several others -- landed a very good starter in last year’s bountiful RB class.
--Both said their teams wish the entire offseason process (free agency, Combine, draft) would get condensed from the current four-month ordeal to much less time. Amen to that.
--Neither person works for the Cleveland Browns, but both were quite interested in talking about all the moves that team has made. I am the managing editor for Browns Wire at USA Today media, and both seem fascinated by the rapid rise and intrigued by Baker Mayfield, Freddie Kitchens, Odell Beckham (the trade came between the two conversations) and (oddly) Joe Schobert. One of them told me he predicts Myles Garrett being NFL MVP in 2019, so there’s that…
Some of my own personal draft notes/takes
Player/team links I believe are legit:
- Buccaneers and LSU LB Devin White
- Buccaneers and Mississippi State EDGE Montez Sweat
- Yes, I’m aware Tampa Bay only has one first-round pick (No. 5 overall). At this point, I will be surprised if it’s not one of those two players.
- Steelers and Michigan LB Devin Bush, but I doubt he falls to 20 overall
- Packers and Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson
- Broncos and QB Drew Lock, though I’m not confident he’s their pick at 10
I’m also someone who has consistently believed the New York Giants are not taking a QB in the top 10, something I even said on the Giants own broadcast live at the Combine as well as several times on various podcasts and radio spots. It’s hard to figure out what GM Dave Gettleman is doing, but it sure seems like he’s still an Eli Manning guy. It seems this is now becoming the accepted fact...which scares me a bit. Could Gettleman pull off the shocker?
One team I’m not ashamed to admit I have zero idea about where they might go in the draft is the Atlanta Falcons. And when I ask guys who cover the team or are fervent fans, they basically echo the wide-open possibilities. Best guess for today: Washington State OT Andre Dillard. Ask me tomorrow and I might answer with Iowa TE Noah Fant, or North Carolina State OL Garrett Bradbury, or LSU CB Greedy Williams, or Michigan DL Rashan Gary. The whole “your guess is as good as mine” applies here.
And my parting advice for the draft media and those who follow it religiously:
Beware anyone who says anything definitive in March about what any team is doing, even with the No. 1 pick. If you are in the draft media, be smarter than that. You (should) know better. Don’t be gullible and don’t be a tool.
It’s okay to say “I don’t know”...because in just about every instance, the teams themselves don’t really know what they’re going to do at the end of April in Nashville. Teams have a pretty good idea of what they’d like to do by this point, but nobody knows yet.