I've always wondered how different the NFL draft would be if it were conducted immediately after the regular season. Evaluators would make draft decisions based solely on grades compiled from film study, avoiding the influence of spectacular workouts conducted in shorts and T-shirts. Now, I'm not suggesting that workouts aren't important, but I do believe scouts' evaluations are frequently clouded by impressive displays of athleticism in the months leading up to the draft.
I've had some time to reflect on the 2013 NFL Draft's fastest risers since the end of the college season. Here are five guys I believe are overrated at this point in the process:
The hottest prospect in this draft class has been on a meteoric climb up the charts since putting on a spectacular show at the NFL Scouting Combine. Austin's 4.34-second speed (in the 40-yard dash) and remarkable change-of-direction quickness (4.01-second short shuttle) complemented an impressive résumé tape that showcased his versatility as a receiver/running back/returner at West Virginia. This combination of skills, playmaking ability and explosiveness has sparked comparisons to Percy Harvin and DeSean Jackson from coaches and scouts around the league.
Now, I definitely see the similarities in playing styles, but neither Harvin nor Jackson has made a significant impact as a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. (Harvin has never posted a 1,000-yard season, while Jackson has surpassed that mark just twice in five years.) And there haven't been many 5-foot-8, 174-pound receivers who have taken the league by storm. That's why I can't fully endorse Austin's rise as a potential top-10 pick, even with his ability to score from anywhere on the field. The NFL remains a big man's game, and it's hard for a diminutive pass catcher to function as a legitimate No. 1 receiver. I believe Austin can be an explosive complementary player, but you don't take role players early in the draft.
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I know Lotulelei's inclusion on this list will raise eyebrows, based on dominant flashes throughout his tenure at Utah. The 6-foot-3, 311-pound defensive lineman shows the capacity to own the point of attack when focused and engaged. He finished 2012 with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss, putting together some impressive stretches on tape. Lotulelei pummeled USC in a nationally televised contest while facing one of the better offensive centers in college football (Khaled Holmes). He primarily won with strength and power, though he also displayed enough agility to win with finesse on the interior.
Unfortunately, I didn't see Lotulelei play with the same intensity and passion in other tapes I watched. He seemingly cruised through most of the Utes' games, showing just occasional flashes of supremacy. This is more disconcerting than his brief heart issue, which has since been cleared. I understand the difficulty of playing with tremendous effort as a big man, but I believe a prospect pegged for No. 1 consideration should give me more on tape. I'm also a little concerned that Lotulelei didn't play football in 2009 because he reportedly lost his passion for the game. Given the challenges and expectations associated with entering the NFL as a top pick, I would worry about his capacity to handle the pressure in key moments. More importantly, I would wonder about his willingness to grind it out in tough times. That's not enough to drop Lotulelei's overall grade, but it makes it tough for me to fully jump on board when it comes to his candidacy as the potential top pick of the draft.
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No quarterback has enjoyed a bigger rise up the charts than Nassib since the end of the college season. The Syracuse standout was considered a mid-to-late-round selection for most of the fall before shooting toward the front of the class based on a potential tie-in with the Buffalo Bills' new head coach: Doug Marrone, Nassib's coach in college. When I look at Nassib's game on tape, I see that he's a quick-rhythm passer with a great feel for the short and intermediate passing game. He's comfortable working from the shotgun, where he can catch, rock and throw following a quick reset or one-step drop. Nassib had a thorough understanding of the Orange's no-huddle offense; this mastery made it easy for him to pick apart defenses with pinpoint throws following proper pre- and post-snap reads.
Those traits are, of course, respected by evaluators, but they are not enough to support his consideration as a top pick. Nassib simply lacks the arm strength to make pro throws consistently; defensive backs will squat on receivers once they've determined he can't make deep throws. Not only will this condense the field for the offense, it'll restrict the catalog of plays an offensive coordinator can feature in the game plan. Furthermore, it is hard for a team to make a deep postseason run with a game manager rather than a playmaker at quarterback. In my mind, Nassib falls into the former category, which makes it tough for me to view him as a legitimate first-round prospect.
The star of Senior Bowl practices has emerged as one of the top prospects in the draft after displaying a menacing game built on toughness and physicality. In Mobile, Ala., Cyprien repeatedly punished receivers between the hashes and laid big hits on runners in the hole. That aggressiveness earned Cyprien high marks from coaches and scouts looking for an enforcer in the middle of the field. When I popped in tape of Cyprien at FIU, I saw the same tenacity and reckless abandon on display. He flashed the athleticism and range to get over the top on vertical routes, nabbing four interceptions in 2012.
I certainly appreciate Cyprien's hard-hitting ways and competitiveness, as he plays with passion and is a tone-setter in the back end. But a closer look at the tape reveals an overaggressive defender susceptible to giving up big gains in the passing game. Cyprien reacts strongly to play-action in the backfield, and opponents have been able to throw balls over his head in zone coverage. Moreover, he displayed late reactions and instincts in the deep middle, sparking questions about his ability to thrive as a defender in a pass-first league.
Additionally, Cyprien's toughness and physicality might work against him as a pro. The league has implemented strict rules against launching yourself at and hitting defenseless receivers; Cyprien will have to change key parts of his game to avoid penalties and fines. It's possible that he'll make that adjustment without incident, but the transition must be factored into his evaluation as a potential first-round selection. Given the list of concerns accompanying his game, I believe he should come off the board at some point on Day 2.
The former Bruin has been ascending since his strong performance at the Senior Bowl. Evaluators are intrigued by his first-step quickness and relentless motor, and he's been projected as a Justin Tuck-like pass rusher on a four-man front. Factoring in Jones' versatility (he spent 2012 playing multiple positions along the front line) and production (6.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season), it's easy to understand why defensive coordinators have fallen in love with him during the pre-draft process.
However, I'm not as excited about Jones' game as some of my colleagues are. I believe his production was slightly inflated, thanks to a talented supporting cast (namely, Anthony Barr); also, his size (6-foot-4, 283 pounds) will make it hard for him to fill a role as a utility player along the line. On tape, Jones doesn't strike me as a big player; he gets rag-dolled a bit by physical blockers on the interior. Additionally, I don't believe he has the potential to develop into a double-digit sack artist as a pro. He has always benefitted from playing alongside talented defenders (before Barr, there was Brian Price and Akeem Ayers), but he's never accounted for significant sack production on his own accord. With Jones' size and tweener status making it tough to project a full-time role for him in the NFL, it's difficult for me to give him a Round 1 grade at this point.
FIVE UNDERRATED PROSPECTS
In contrast to the five overhyped guys above, the following five prospects merit more attention:
3) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson: If not for a slower-than-anticipated 40-yard dash (4.57 seconds), Hopkins would be considered the most complete receiver in the draft. He has all of the tools to be special at the next level as an explosive No. 1 option.
4) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Though Bell has rarely been mentioned as one of the top backs in the 2013 class, RB coaches around the league repeatedly have told me that he could be a star in a zone-based system.
5) Duke Williams, S, Nevada: Williams has flown under the radar despite an impressive overall game that should make him an immediate-impact player at the next level. Few safeties can rival his ability to thrive as both a run defender and cover man in the back end.