Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- The best cornerback in this draft class might be someone you're completely unaware of.
But first, a look at the six draft prospects I'm most confident in ...
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Over the years, I've questioned certain personnel moves made by Dave Gettleman, but I completely agree with the New York Giants general manager's philosophy regarding the need to acquire "gold jacket" guys with picks near top of the draft.
Around this time last year, with New York holding the No. 2 overall pick, the hot debate was whether the G-Men should draft Eli Manning's successor at quarterback or the best overall prospect on their board. Six weeks before the 2018 NFL Draft, NFL Network's Kimberly Jones asked Gettleman about the franchise's approach to such a high-value pick. His response:
The comment garnered plenty of headlines in the New York papers leading up to the draft. Eventually, the veteran personnel czar made good on his promise, eschewing a hyped QB class to instead snag transcendent RB Saquon Barkley. The 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year led the NFL with 2,028 scrimmage yards -- the third-highest total from a rookie in league history, only trailing Eric Dickerson's 2,212 in 1983 and Edgerrin James' 2,139 in 1999. With Barkley also setting the NFL's rookie record for receptions by an RB (91) and ranking as the league's second-leading rusher (1,307), the Giants did indeed land a "gold jacket"-caliber player with the second overall pick.
Going back to my days as a scout with the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, I had an opportunity to watch a handful of "gold jacket" prospects become longtime difference-makers in this league. Guys like Walter Jones, Steve Hutchinson, Julius Peppers and Steve Smith blossomed into Hall of Fame-caliber players by combining blue-chip talent with a blue-collar mentality.
With those guys in mind, I believe there are a number of players in this year's prospect pool with the potential to emerge as transcendent stars at their respective positions. There might be flashier names with sexier games in the 2019 draft class, but here are the six players I would draft as my "gold jacket" guys:
Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State: The most polished player in the draft, offering an array of skills that could make him a dominant player in the league from Day 1. Bosa is a refined pass rusher with a unique combination of speed, quickness and power that overwhelms blockers at the point of attack. Moreover, he displays a variety of hand-to-hand combat maneuvers that look like they were pulled directly from a clinic tape. Considering how well he has taken the tips and drills from his predecessors in the family business, Bosa could take the league by storm as an energetic rusher off the edge.
Devin White, LB, LSU: It is hard to find a prospect with a better combination of intangibles and skills as an impact player on the second level. White is an exceptional traffic cop with outstanding speed, quickness and diagnostic ability. The LSU standout not only thumps runners at every turn, but he shows outstanding cover skills and blitz potential as a Mike 'backer.
T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa: The latest product from "Tight End U" is as complete as they come at the position. Hockenson is a throwback player with exceptional blocking skills and receiving ability. He can seal the edge on outside runs, as well as move defenders off the ball on downhill rushes between the tackles. Additionally, Hockenson is a post-up specialist between the hashes, and he boasts impressive catch-and-run skills with the ball in his hands. As a Jason Witten-like weapon at the "Y" position, it is easy to envision Hockenson being a longtime difference-maker as the centerpiece of a passing game.
Garrett Bradbury, C, N.C. State: The blue-collar worker in the pivot is a rare find -- an athletic center with exceptional movement skills and explosive power. Bradbury consistently owns nose tackles at the point of attack, while also displaying the ability to climb and latch onto linebackers on zone-based runs. With Bradbury showcasing outstanding communication skills and a high football IQ, the N.C. State standout could look like a 10-year veteran when he steps onto the NFL gridiron as a rookie in September.
Taylor Rapp, S, Washington: Don't let Rapp's pedestrian time in the 40-yard dash (measured in the 4.7s at Washington's pro day) mask a spectacular game built on instincts, awareness and toughness. The former Husky is a natural ballhawk with an enforcer's mentality between the hashes. Rapp is a unique playmaker with a game that combines the best traits of Harrison Smith (toughness, tackling and aggressive instincts) and Eric Weddle (ball skills, awareness and range).
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State: It's hard to find a one-year starter with a pro-ready game at the quarterback position, but Haskins is a special player with rare ability. The precise pocket passer with A+ arm talent can make every throw in the book while relying on touch, timing and anticipation. He's a classic dropback QB with a high IQ and the poise of a veteran. Considering how pocket passers have generally dominated the league for the past 30 years, Haskins could be a Tom Brady-like performer for a franchise for the next decade.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Projection vs. Production: The Josh Jacobs debate. Scouts are always forced to simultaneously consider production and projection when evaluating prospects, but it is uncommon for evaluators to opt for the project over a proven product in the first round. Players selected on the first night of the draft typically should be "pro-ready" prospects with refined games and gaudy resumes that confirm their readiness for the NFL game.
That's why I'm having such a hard time determining whether Alabama running back Josh Jacobs is really a top-20 talent, despite the fact that he never posted a 1,000-yard campaign or spent a season as the full-time starter during his time in Tuscaloosa. I'm not dismissing Jacobs' talent or potential as a playmaker, but he only logged one 100-yard game at Alabama (16 carries for 100 yards against Kentucky in 2016) and spent most of his collegiate career positioned as an RB2 or RB3 in the Crimson Tide backfield.
Think about that: The guy who's widely considered the No. 1 running back in the 2019 NFL Draft wasn't even the RB1 on his own team for the majority of his career. And he hasn't crossed the century mark in a single football game since 2016.
I'm not a hater. Jacobs' middling production is a legitimate concern, based on the long-term expectations of first-round picks. Players selected within the first 32 draft slots should be Day 1 difference-makers capable of elevating the play of the squad from the moment they step onto the field.
"I don't know if there really is a first-round running back in this class," one former NFC general manager told me. "I love Jacobs' character and toughness, but he doesn't have enough production to necessarily warrant a first-round grade. Sure, he has strength, power, wiggle and pass-catching skills, but he's never been the focal point of the offense. How do we know how he'll respond to a heavy workload when we've never seen him do it?
"I like him a lot, but I think he's a borderline Day 1 prospect. He's not in the Zeke (Ezekiel Elliott) and (Todd) Gurley category. Those guys dominated the competition. Jacobs showed flashes, but he never took over a game. That matters when evaluating blue-chip players."
To that point, I believe Jacobs' lack of production will drop his total score on some scouts' report cards. Evaluators will wonder why the 5-foot-10, 220-pound runner with an explosive combination of strength, power, balance and body control didn't get more touches and yards if he's truly an A-list playmaker. Remember, Jacobs' 'Bama teammate, Damien Harris, posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as the RB1 in 2016 and '17 while averaging 7.2 yards per carry. Not to mention, he posted nine 100-yard games as the Crimson Tide's RB1, including two this past season. No matter how you slice it, Harris trumps Jacobs on the stat sheet. That doesn't bother some evaluators.
"Harris and Jacobs are really good players, but No. 8's speed and explosiveness make him a more desirable prospect," another former NFL general manager told me. "Jacobs has greater upside as a starter in the league due to his combination of strength, power and burst. ... He catches the ball out of the backfield and looks like he could be a matchup problem on the perimeter."
With that in mind, Jacobs' surge up the charts could be fueled by Alvin Kamara's enormous success in the NFL, despite the fact that he wasn't taken until Round 3 of the 2017 draft. Kamara never posted a 1,000-yard season at Tennessee. In fact, his college production was quite similar to the Alabama back's. Take a look:
Alvin Kamara at Tennessee
2015: 107 rushes for 698 yards (6.5 ypa) and seven touchdowns; 34 receptions for 291 yards (8.6 ypc) and three scores.
2016: 103 rushes for 596 yards (5.8 ypa) and nine touchdowns; 40 receptions for 392 yards (9.8 ypc) and four scores.
Josh Jacobs at Alabama
2016: 85 rushes for 567 yards (6.7 ypa) and four touchdowns; 14 receptions for 166 receiving yards (11.1 ypc) and zero scores.
2017: 46 rushes for 284 yards (6.2 ypa) and one touchdown; 14 receptions for 168 yards (12.0 ypc) and two scores.
2018: 120 rushes for 640 yards (5.3 ypa) and 11 touchdowns; 20 receptions for 247 yards (12.4 ypc) and three scores.
Looking at those numbers, it is easy to see why some scouts are overvaluing Jacobs' potential this draft season. They've seen Kamara become the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year and a two-time Pro Bowler despite modest production as a collegian. Scouts missed on No. 41 and their regrets have certainly fueled Jacobs' rise up the charts.
With Jacobs poised to enter the league as the first back off the board -- quite possibly in Round 1 -- we will soon see if opting for projection over production is a worthwhile strategy.
2) The CB prospect you need to know.Who is the best cornerback in the draft? Asking that question to my normal circle of scouts and coaches for much of the past year, I've typically heard Greedy Williams, Deandre Baker or Byron Murphy cited as the CB1 in this group. Those three have long been considered the cream of the crop, but they could have company at the top of the charts ...
Kentucky's Lonnie Johnson Jr. is emerging as the hottest prospect at the position during the pre-draft season. According to an AFC defensive backs coach, Johnson will be the "best cover corner in the league" in a few years and everyone should jump on the bandwagon right now. Wow!
That opinion will undoubtedly take many draft observers by surprise, but a closer look at Johnson's game reveals an ultra-competitive playmaker with exceptional instincts, awareness and technical skills. The 6-2, 213-pounder is one of the few cornerbacks capable of thriving on the island in any scheme. Johnson is a polished technician capable of playing man or zone coverage using press, bail or off technique. He not only displays outstanding footwork, quickness and movement skills, but also shows superb instincts and diagnostic ability in coverage. Johnson has a nice feel for reading routes and consistently gets into position before the ball arrives.
Now, I know a quick glance at his stats -- one career interception and nine pass breakups during his two seasons at UK (Johnson was a junior college transfer) -- will lead to some concerns regarding his ball skills, but the tape shows a corner with a clear understanding of how to play within the Wildcats' scheme. Basically, Johnson stays true to the team's coverage principles and doesn't freelance to selfishly hunt the football. He plays exactly as his coaches ask him to play, and that discipline endures him to NFL coaches because they can trust him on the island.
To that point, Johnson's discipline, attention to detail and toughness stood out during my tape study. He didn't take unnecessary chances in coverage and his eagerness to tackle suggests that he can be counted on in run support. Considering how defensive coaches want to get 11 players to the ball on every play, Johnson's dependability will add a few points to his total score on the grading scale.
As an athlete, Johnson's explosiveness at 6-2 (4.52-second 40-yard dash, 38-inch vertical leap, 10-foot-9 broad jump, 4.10-second short shuttle) could make him a more dominant player as a pro. He should be able to run with swift receivers as a press-corner and his length and leaping ability will force more tight-window throws to his area when he's playing zone coverage. Those factors will appeal to scouts and coaches looking for upside and developmental potential in a prospective CB1.
From a critical standpoint, Johnson surrenders a number of underneath completions in coverage. Scheme design certainly contributes to some of the allowances, but you want to see him consistently make "bang-bang" hits when receivers touch the ball in his area. To be fair, Johnson does dish out his share of big licks on the perimeter and shows solid coverage on most downs, but elite corners tend to make more plays on the ball.
The 2019 draft class features a number of closely graded cornerbacks with the potential to blossom into CB1s, but the unheralded kid from Kentucky has a chance to be the best of the bunch.