But first, we kick off this week's notebook with a look at one of the draft's biggest question marks -- what the 49ers will do with the No. 2 overall pick.
While I enjoy the exercise of creating a mock draft, it's impossible to accurately predict what all of these teams will do come draft day. One team that is especially difficult to figure out this draft season -- the San Francisco 49ers. They own the second overall pick in this draft and they could go in a number of different directions (including trading the pick). However, there has been some chatter in league circles about first-time general manager John Lynch potentially attempting to duplicate the championship defense he played for in Tampa Bay.
That defense was led by several all-pro players, but the three key ingredients were Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks and Lynch, a potential Hall of Fame safety. Obviously, it's not reasonable to expect Lynch to find players as special as him or his teammates, but there are some special players at each of those positions in this draft.
Stanford's Solomon Thomas is a little undersized to be a full-time three-technique defensive tackle, but he could do a lot of damage as a pass rusher from that alignment. Reuben Foster has the potential to develop into the next Brooks. He has similar size, play speed and toughness. Meanwhile, Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker are both premier safety prospects capable of setting the tone and making game-changing plays like Lynch did for the Bucs. I have the two safeties rated the highest among this group of players, but it might make more sense to take Thomas with the second pick because of the quality of depth at the other two positions in this draft. -- Daniel Jeremiah
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The rosters for those teams are much better than their 2016 win totals would suggest.
The Jaguars have quietly built one of the best young defenses in the NFL and they have plenty of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. With improved offensive line and quarterback play, they could finally claw their way out of the cellar in the AFC South. Drafting Leonard Fournette would help both the offensive line and Blake Bortles.
The Chargers are another team with a very talented young defense. Their front has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL this upcoming season. Joey Bosa has all of the tools to lead the league in sacks, and there are several other impressive players on that defensive front, including Melvin Engram. If healthy, their cornerback tandem is one of the best in the league and adding a freakish safety talent like Malik Hooker could take this group to a whole new level. The offense is in pretty good shape, but like Jacksonville, they could use more talent and depth along the offensive line.
I think both of these teams could make a playoff push next season if they make wise decisions in this year's draft. -- Daniel Jeremiah
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Potential star being undervalued: There's always a place in the NFL for pass rushers, which is why I'm surprised there hasn't been more buzz about Florida State's DeMarcus Walker during the run up to the draft.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pound defender amassed 25 sacks over the last two seasons with the Seminoles. Walker finished second in the FBS with 16 sacks while also adding 21.5 tackles for loss last season. With a proven track record for getting to the quarterback, I can't understand why the All-ACC defender hasn't garnered more attention to this point.
"He's not a great athlete," said an AFC scout. "I wonder if his production will translate to the pros."
While I certainly understand that assessment after watching Walker move around in pre-game drills, I'm more inclined to trust what I've seen from him on tape.
As a pass rusher, Walker is a blue-collar worker with exceptional hand skills and natural rush ability. He uses a wide variety of combat maneuvers (arm over, swipe and spin move) to win at the line of scrimmage, particularly against interior blockers from his three-technique spot in the Seminoles' sub-package. In addition, Walker shows outstanding anticipation and instincts in "jumping" the snap to quickly blow past blockers on passing downs. With his snap-count anticipation enhancing his first-step quickness, Walker is a tough matchup for blockers with late hands and limited lateral quickness, especially lumbering offensive guards isolated on the slippery pass rusher.
On the edges, Walker lacks the prototypical length and explosiveness that some coaches covet, yet he remains an effective rusher off the corner. He flashes a slick inside move to sneak past aggressive offensive tackles. Although Walker's game is ideally suited for the left defensive end spot due to his ability to wear out right tackles, teams could view him as a "swing" rusher on passing downs because he is so effective as an interior rusher. When looking at his overall game and effectiveness, he reminds me a little of Carolina Panthers DE Charles Johnson with a more diverse and complete game. Walker's ability to slide inside gives him an added dimension that sets him apart from the 11th-year pro.
Considering how many teams are looking for a consistent rusher along the line, I would expect Walker to rate a little higher than he seems to be during this process. -- Bucky Brooks
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Don't sleep on these WRs: We've spent a lot of time discussing the top 4-5 wide receivers in this draft class, but we haven't devoted much time to the middle-round prospects at the position. While there's more overall depth at running back and tight end, this is still a very solid group of pass-catchers. Here are a couple middle-round receivers that I believe will make an immediate impact for their drafting team:
Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor: I haven't heard much buzz about Taylor, but I gave him a second-round grade after studying his play. He's explosive in his release and is very efficient getting in and out of his routes. He shows toughness to work in the middle of the field. He's explosive and elusive after the catch, too. He will probably land in the late second or early third round. He should emerge as a quality No. 2 receiver very early in his NFL career.
Tennessee's Josh Malone: My colleague Bucky Brooks has been singing Malone's praises for the past few months. I'm also a big fan of his game. He has a tall, lean frame and makes a lot of plays down the field against quality competition. He tracks the ball easily and wins a lot of 50-50 battles. He's a very smooth, slithery athlete with the ball in his hands. I don't think he's ideally suited to play on special teams, but he won't have to if he emerges as a starter at the next level. He's probably going to be picked in the third or fourth round.
Marian's Krishawn Hogan: This is one of my favorite sleepers in the draft class. He played against a low level of completion, but he completely dominated on tape. He is very physical and he catches the ball effortlessly. I love watching him line up as the Wildcat quarterback in the red zone. He runs right through tacklers or makes them look silly by eluding their pursuit on the perimeter. He's probably ticketed for a fifth- or sixth-round selection, but I think he could end up being a steal in this draft. -- Daniel Jeremiah
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The right men for nickel duty: The pass-happy nature of the NFL has led defensive coaches and scouts to view nickel corners as the 12th defensive starter in the lineup. With teams fielding five-defensive-back lineups on nearly 70 percent of defensive snaps, evaluators are beginning to view nickel defenders a little differently on draft day.
In the past, teams would label any short or slow defensive back as a nickel corner prospect due to the limited role the fifth defensive back previously played in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but that devalued the traits needed to thrive at the position. In my opinion, the nickel cornerback needs to possess a superior football IQ and more explosive lateral quickness than his CB1/CB2 counterparts. In addition, nickel corners must be willing run defenders that are capable of making solid tackles against big-bodied running backs in the hole and on the edges.
While these traits are rarely discussed in open forums, scouts and coaches frequently discuss the rare traits needed to thrive in the slot in meetings.
"The nickel corner has the toughest job in the secondary," said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "He has to be smart enough to figure out run/pass keys and tough enough to be a factor against the run. He also needs to have great feet to shadow the quick receivers that typically play in the slot. With more teams also using nickel blitzes, he also needs to have some pass-rush ability off the edge."
With that diverse job description in mind, I believe there are a handful of cornerbacks/safeties in the draft that could rank high on draft boards as nickel defenders. Here are five candidates to keep in mind as the draft approaches:
Budda Baker, Washington: Athletic safety with outstanding instincts, awareness and rush skills from the slot.
Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado: High-IQ corner with a physical game and a keen understanding of route concepts.
Jourdan Lewis, Michigan: Cat-quick cover corner with outstanding feet, lateral quickness and ball skills. Natural playmaker in the slot.
Cam Sutton, Tennessee: Versatile defender with solid instincts and diagnostic skills. Thrived in the slot as a safety/nickel at the Senior Bowl.
Desmond King, Iowa: Thick-legged defender with exceptional ball skills and "thump". Lacks elite speed but makes up for his lack of quickness with a high IQ. -- Bucky Brooks