This list comprises the 50 most valuable players for which I watched film leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft. The list factors in player performance between the lines — including such considerations as lack of effort or demonstrations of poor attitude — but excludes off the field concerns. It also considers a player’s position: one need look no further than the incredible depth of talent on the team drafting first this year, the Chiefs, to know that the quarterback is much more valuable to a team than any other position. There’s no consideration of team-specific need — although I tried to factor in how rare particular skill sets are throughout the League.
I also provide some limited context for my decisions. I encourage people to consult other sources, such as the draft profiles on nfl.com; I generally looked at such resources after I made my own evaluation, and found their assessments to be quite good, as a rule. I try to include only insights that I feel haven’t been adequately addressed elsewhere.
I didn’t review tape on every player that will be drafted this year; I doubt any talent evaluator could. But I like to think I saw almost all of the top ones, and that five years down the line, we will appreciate these 50 players more than almost any others.
1. Geno Smith — Geno Smith is Matt Hasselbeck with a bit more touch on the deep ball. He does not have a cannon and he struggles with accuracy over 15 yards. This makes for some bad plays in the NFL, as the defenses are quick enough to react to react to throws on third and long or outside the hashes. Two aspects of Geno Smith’s game that are often overlooked: his exceptional speed and his ability to stay alive in the pocket. Hasselbeck did this as well as anyone short of Ben Roethlisberger at one point, and Smith does, too.
That said, he is more valuable than anyone else in this draft class to a team in need. (Short soliloquy on the value of quarterbacks coming…) Look no further than the Miami Dolphins to recognize the value of a good, but flawed, quarterback: they had all the pass rushers, cornerbacks, offensive tackles, and skill players in the world cycling through that team, and it wasn’t until they nabbed Tannehill that they escaped from mediocrity. And that was in his first year. The Jaguars and Bills, to name two, may continue to languish this year without a legitimate quarterback on the roster.
2. Matt Scott — Best combination of NFL arm strength, touch, and accuracy in this draft. He throws more accurate passes on the run than most of his classmates do from a clean pocket. Worked from shotgun in a quick-read offense, so there will be a transition period. However, he clearly has comfort throwing to wide receivers before they flash open, as the offense is predicated on virtually one-step drops; that suggests good things down the road. He has steady footwork, despite throwing from the shotgun most of the time. He could be Tony Romo in time. My only reluctance in moving him to the top spot is the limited sample size of game tape available.
3. Luke Joeckel — I think he compares favorably to Jake Long. The only offensive tackle who performed at a high level for more than one season against elite pass rushers.
4. Tavon Austin — His game in space reminds me of Darren Sproles, with more deliberate footwork. Great vision, short area quickness and burst, with good hands. The concerns about his size are well-taken: for example, he sometimes adjusted routes to avoid contact on man coverage. But the team lucky enough to draft him can use motion or use him in the backfield to free him up, while he adjusts to the demands of NFL pass coverage.
5. Ezekiel Ansah — I’m not of a mind to take 1st rounders “on spec,” as it were, but Ansah will be the real deal. First, the disclaimer: dude attempted a slide tackle (that’s right, a soccer move) on a running back in his last game at BYU. So he’s not all the way up the learning curve, and the team that takes him will have to account for that. But he’s freakishly athletic, both playing in space and using leverage at the line of scrimmage. The Senior Bowl tape tells you all you need to know. I bet he eventually transforms the 3-4 outside linebacker position the way JJ Watt has transformed line play.
6. Eric Fischer — I am just ever so slightly more modest in my expectations for Fisher than many talent evaluators I have seen. He occasionally seemed to struggle to drop the anchor against bigger edge rushers, and he had issues with balance and footwork early in 2012 against Michigan State (not a renowned pass-rushing team this year). But he has quite solid fundamentals and is quite athletic.
7. Lane Johnson — Oklahoma fans probably heard his name called rarely, if ever, this year. Odd for a top-ten pick, right? The key to understanding his value is that using a backstep to jump out and pick up quick pass rushers is a rare skill, like a nasty slider in baseball. Very few men over 300 pounds can do it, and Lane Johnson can. So while he is still unsure of his footwork, and he may get abused at his current weight early in his career, he’s well worth a high pick. His upside is way higher than Tyron Smith, a similar convert a few years ago.
8. DJ Fluker — Love this guy — as an NFL guard. He locks onto guys and piledrives them in the run game. He will never have Lane Johnson’s athleticism or quick feet, so I think he’s destined for a move inside. But he excels at pass blocking when he can keep his man in front of him.
9. Eddie Lacy — Closest thing we’ve seen to Arian Foster in recent drafts. It’s easy to see his zone blocking reads and jump cuts translating to an NFL offense. Uses exceptional short area burst to pound the ball downhill quickly, but uses spin and jump cut very effectively to cut back in Alabama’s zone blocking scheme. Exceptional vision, almost always reading flow of defense correctly. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and pass block a bit, too. My one concern is that he runs a bit upright and refuses to take on tacklers with his shoulder, preferring to step out of low tackles; I worry this will cost him his knees in the NFL.
10. Sheldon Richardson — Everything you read is right: lightning quick first step, and despite his impressive agility, can generate good push against the run. I see him as a 3-4 end, but no surprise if teams like him inside in the 4-3.
11. Dee Milliner — The key value Milliner adds is consistency: his best is on display every Saturday, regardless of matchup, and in every phase of the game. His speed is deceiving: his running style is almost a glide, but he’s chased down very fast SEC receivers from across the field. He may not lock down receivers like Darrelle Revis or Patrick Peterson, but he will not give up a single uncontested catch all game, either. Contributes in the run game.
12. Cordarelle Patterson — His speed alone suggests a 6’2” version of Torrey Smith, who was well worth the second round pick Baltimore spent on him. Patterson obviously also possesses the natural ability to make defenders miss in the open field that surpasses most players on Sundays, too. I think he’s drawn too much criticism for his poor grasp of the position. He has good body control, adjusting to some of Tyler Bray’s — ahem — most creative throws, while keeping his feet in bounds. He had more drops and lost more battles to defensive backs than you would like to see.
13. Zach Ertz — His hands leave a lot to be desired, but his combination of athleticism, acceleration, disciplined route running, and great in-line blocking is really mesmerizing.
14. Alec Ogletree — In the SEC championship, he stoned Eddie Lacy at the goaline and later ran back a blocked kick for a touchdown. So there’s some talent there. His ability to read, get off blocks, and sprint to the football will result in a lot of tackles for loss. There was a marked drop-off in effort at times, however, so a team will have to be confident they can keep him motivated.
15. Chance Warmack — He is absolute rolling thunder coming downhill at linebackers in the run game. All the accolades are true, and he’s worth an early pick.
16. Matt Elam — They still tackle in football, right? One thing that Elam does much, much better than his classmates at the safety position is tackle. He draws criticism for going for the big hit, but I think he actually breaks down pretty effectively. Football IQ is obvious on tape, good ball skills, and he is an asset overall against the pass. He could use some coaching on footwork in man coverage. I don’t worry as much about his height as some.
17. Barkevious Mingo — Comes off the line like shot out of a cannon, although he does have trouble keeping his feet while turning the corner on a line towards the quarterback (bending the proverbial edge). I thought his modest stat line this year reflected well on him: he took pride in discussing his ability against opponents like Texas A&M to continuously collapse the pocket, keeping Johnny Manziel contained as best they could. He can establish position a bit in the run game, too, despite his slight build. He is probably better as a 4-3 weakside end, as he didn’t seem to play so well in space.
18. Jamar Taylor — I’m of two minds about Taylor: clearly the best run-support corner of the man-cover guys, he also has the straight line speed and quick hips to stay with receivers on most patterns, and has an extremely competitive attitude; that said, his fundamentals are terrible. So, he may be a bit of an uncut gem like Ziggy Ansah.
19. Keenan Allen — Love his hands and body control; he adjusted to errant passes better than anyone I saw this year. Also plays with tenacity, routinely blocking downfield on running plays until the whistle and making tons of contested catches. He will never run a fast 40 and seems to lack the leg strength to really stop on a dime and throw opponents off his breaks, but he can stop and then accelerate again effectively enough. Has a bit of diva to him: occasionally slowed up on routes or showed up his quarterback with gestures after the play, although nothing that would suggest he goes Titus Young on his future team. I think T. J. Houshmandzadeh is a valid comp.
20. Sylvester Williams — May not have Star Lotulelei’s talent, but he outclasses him by a mile in terms of hustle and commitment to the scheme. He is very quick off the snap. Developed hand use, using rip and slap with devastating timing. His spin move is equally challenging for linemen, as he is so compact that he loses very little momentum towards the quarterback. He is also the only 1-tech (I include Star in this group) that has shown the aptitude to take on two blocks, and sometimes still make the play; he was double-teamed throughout the Senior Bowl and made a huge impact. Plays too upright and often too high, and can stall momentum towards the quarterback.
21. Tank Carradine — Plays the run better than almost any defensive end in this class, and wears out tackles as a pass rusher. He doesn’t jump off the film until you watch an entire game: he is a bit inconsistent getting off the ball, but he can move offensive tackles, uses leverage effectively, and is nimble and flexible enough to get to the corner or execute a spin move. He seems to fit best as a strong side end in a 4-3.
22. Ryan Nassib — I really like his throws on the 12-15 yard routes; he sometimes has trouble taking heat off the fastball on underneath stuff, and often fails to set his feet and throw a legitimate deep ball. But his arm is better than Tyler Wilson: he can complete a corner or post with some mustard on it. He should have completed at least 70 % of his passes this year, if not for all the drops. He is also one of the few QBs you see working through progressions. Quick release. Also fairly athletic. However, there may be 25 quarterbacks in the Leauge better than Nassib at the moment, so his value is a bit limited.
23. Dion Jordan — I’m sure people were waiting for this one. This is a risky pick, and it so happens that around the twenties is where the reward outweighs the risk for me. The upside is unquestionable, as I’m sure you’ve read: he moves well in coverage; there is also huge pass rush potential, as he has flashed incredible burst, impressive hand movement, and bend-the-edge flexibility in getting to the quarterback. There are also stretches where he legitimately shies away from engaging linemen and struggles to translate speed to power. He may be a liability in the run game, as he has trouble both establishing the line of scrimmage and shedding blocks.
24. Corey Lemonier — His ceiling is Lamarr Woodley. At his best, gets off quickly after snap, although not always consistent. Translates speed to power exceptionally well, can rip and swim effectively, uses inside counter and spin to some effect, too. One issue: lacks some flexibility, and can take a deeper angle than the QB. He plays the run quite well, and he played well in space in a limited sample size. I think he projects as a good 3-4 linebacker.
25. DJ Hayden — Hayden plays off-man better than any cornerback in this draft. His fundamentals and foot quickness are exceptional. The downside? Well, I think he has a bit of trouble breaking on the ball quickly, but more importantly, there is almost no physical component to his game. I saw very little press-man, and he was a virtual non-factor in the run game. He got in a few strips, which is a plus.
26. Da’Rick Rogers — Could be a transcendent talent. 6’2” and plays like the slot, with quick-twitch, start-and-stop ability, plus — according to coaches and his game tape — incredible football IQ. Makes tough catches in traffic, including some where he seemed to know that his QB was leading him into coverage (and a nasty hit).
27. Star Lotulelei — Very inconsistent. At his best, excels at getting off the ball very quickly and re-establishing the line of scrimmage or collapsing the pocket. They dropped him into coverage one play against USC, and he looked like the second coming of Haloti Ngata. But there’s enough tape of him stalled at the line of scrimmage, making little effort to press to the play, that I hardly think he’s worth risking a high pick.
28. Xavier Rhodes — Has ideal height, weight, and agility for a big corner, but if you watch enough tape, there’s too many blown coverages and flags to justify him going higher than this.
29. Travis Frederick — Great leverage player: mauls interior linemen in the run game, and gets underneath them to stall any momentum in pass protection. Also flashes a vicious punch. One concern: he can be slow (as NFL prospects go) to reach quicker defenders after the snap; the sideline angle doesn’t provide the best view, but I think there’s some footwork issues that need a bit of polish.
30. Barrett Jones — The more you watch, the more you like. He will handle the beefiest nose guards on the planet one-on-one, and he still has the functional movement to get upfield in that zone blocking scheme when need be. He’s great in pass protection, too.
31. Sharrif Floyd — This may draw criticism, and I say bring it on! (As long as we can revisit the criticism in a few years…) He is billed as the next JJ Watt or Warren Sapp, but he’s not. He has one-gap size and strength, gets off the ball quickly with decent consistency, and presses to the play effectively with good agility for a man his size. I don’t see him as a pass-rushing force. Nfl.com aptly pointed out: that’s Corey Liuget’s skill set. Is that worth taking over a top offensive tackle, as some have him projected?
32. Tyler Eifert — Full disclosure: sometimes I look at the combine numbers. (I’m not just checking to see if you’re paying attention, but I’m sure that helped.) I usually look at them to confirm something I’m seeing on film. In Eifert’s case, he outclasses the rest of the tight end class at stopping and starting in short spaces. I saw that on film, and turns out he was a monster in the three-cone drill, too. He won’t wow fans of his future team with athleticism a la Aaron Hernandez, but he will get open, even on 12-15 yard routes. He’s a better blocker than rumored, too.
33. Jonathan Cyprien — I wasn’t sold until I watched his Senior Bowl tape. He played the deep zone so frequently in coverage at FIU, you couldn’t tell if he could play anywhere else on the field. But they put him in man-to-man at the Senior Bowl, and he showed a good back pedal, and still had the best break on throws of any safety in the draft. Takes exceptional angles, which tends to compensate for lack of straight line speed.
34. David Bakhtari — On 85% of the snaps I watched, he looks like a good, if undersized, left tackle prospect that would ordinarily go in the first round; the other 15% are problematic. In pass pro, he shows the lateral mobility, punch, and awareness to play left tackle for a number of years. Quite athletic, jumping out against DE, and moves feet consistently well. He sometimes got off balance or placed his feet poorly such that more agile edge rushers took advantage of him. He also missed a handful of assignments I saw, typically on delayed blitzes or stunts. He seems strong, but may lack the lower-body bulk to exert good leverage down after down. Most active hands of possibly any tackle short of Joeckel. His run-blocking ability is not bad, as he maintains good posture and moves guys. He’s also agile enough that it’s hard for defenders to shake him.
35. Alex Okafor — Love his game, I just wish he was blessed with more physical talent to take it to the next level. Controls the line of scrimmage and bull rushes blockers with consistently quick jump off the line of scrimmage and violent use of hands. Unstoppable motor and polished repertoire of pass rush moves may help him perform at a steady level early and consistently in NFL. Disciplined against the run. However, he is quite slow, making it easy for ball carriers and quarterbacks to elude him, even when he has them pinned in the backfield. Adrian Clayborn might be a decent comp.
36. Kenny Vaccaro — To those that have him higher, I would ask: how do you justify spending a first round pick on a safety whose missed tackles and poor decision-making single-handedly cost his team a game (Kansas State in 2012)? I can’t just ignore the bad tape. Very athletic, made some impressive plays in zone, but sometimes lacks a physical dimension to his game, and technique in man coverage was hard to watch. Obviously runs well and can react quickly when he makes a read. Anticipation on throws seems better than run/pass recognition. Sheds blocks extremely poorly. Some games, made a ton of textbook tackles; others, he missed those same tackles.
Incidentally, my favorite Kenny Vaccaro play came against Rice. Vance McDonald is loping down the seam, and Vacarro guns over from his single-high position, slams into McDonald — and the ball lands just behind Vaccaro’s heels. He had no idea he was in position to make a pick.
37. Jonathan Cooper — He is definitely very athletic, and has impressive strength; that said, he seems to have a serious coordination or quick-twitch lateral agility issue, where he has trouble resetting to account for, say, a spin move from a defender. So he sometimes has trouble locking on and drive blocking. If he can really hold his own at center, that moves him up considerably.
38. Desmond Trufant — He may have the talent to play at an elite level in the NFL, but his poor fundamentals mask it. That said, I can’t imagine teams waiting until the third round to draft a corner with quick hips, good speed in pads, and that extra spring to get from his mirror position to get a hand on the ball. May not be much of an asset in the run game, although he might develop into a really good blitzer.
39. David Quessenberry — Good left tackle prospect, if he can be coached on footwork and run blocking. On four out of five pass plays, he really impresses (even against Ansah playing BYU late in the year, and against Senior Bowl competition). He has the athleticism to jump out, keep feet moving, and reset against the quicker players. He can drop the anchor better than some of his fellow draft prospects. He gets in trouble when his footwork gets confused, setting up too far inside or out. Unimpressive in run game, as he plays relatively high, seems lost in assignments (sometimes failing to latch onto anyone), doesn’t drive his man off the ball, and even when he does engage on a block, struggles to sustain it. He’s not as athletic as Lane Johnson or as solid in pass pro as Fischer or Joeckel, but there’s a lot of upside.
40. Datone Jones — Good, but limited player. Could project as steady defensive end in 3-4 scheme, but game will not transform a defensive front. Consistently quick off the snap. Generates a lot of push into linemen, and anchors well against run. Uses hands well on some plays, ineffectively on others. Exhibits good football IQ. I don’t see him as a pass rushing force, but he’s quick enough to make some plays over the course of the year.
41. Markus Wheaton — Great in and out of breaks, runs crisp routes, fights hand-checks well, great hands, and posted 40 time in the mid-4.4’s. Not much to dislike, except the size.
42. Darius Slay — Great speed and good break on the ball. He abandons his backpedal in off-man, which makes you wonder. But he seems to have a decent feel for the position. Punches at the ball with good timing.
43. Bjoern Werner — At a certain point, it’s hard to ignore that quick burst off the line. There’s a lot of inconsistency to his game, and he seems too stiff and upright to be a force off the edge, but could could be a good cog along the line.
44. Justin Hunter — 6’4” and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash.
45. Kawann Short — He does a mean impression of Sylvester Williams when he wants to.
46. Manti Te’o — Turn on the television any Sunday, any game, and even the uninitiated viewer quickly discovers the importance of the play-action pass. Even in today’s NFL. Houston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the Giants, San Francisco, New Orleans, and San Diego (at least under Norv and Marty) are all teams that have experienced remarkable success in recent years featuring play-action in their passing game. Manti Te’o does two things better than any linebacker in this class: distinguish between runs and run-fakes, and play the underneath zone while reading the quarterback. Combine that with a motor that won’t quit and some very hard tackling, and you cannot deny the value of that player to a modern NFL defense. Is he Ray Lewis? No. He’s not even the best inside linebacker in this class. He struggles to shed tackles (well documented). He has poor agility, which means he not only has limitations in pass coverage, but he also misses some tackles because he fails to adjust to subtle moves by ballcarriers. He’s by no means fast. But there’s value there, and I think it fits about here, in the middle of the second round.
47. Vance McDonald — He has mediocre hands and blocks like a wideout, but he’s the most athletic 267 pound player in this draft, and that could prove quite dangerous in today’s NFL.
48. Larry Warford — Massive run blocker, although he has trouble sustaining blocks. He can be good in short areas in pass protection, with a deadly punch, but his lack of agility will be exploited a bit.
49. Brian Schwenke — He seems to be a bit all over the place when you watch him, but he moves well laterally in pass protection and is an athletic run blocker.
50. Landry Jones — If it wasn’t for his skittish feet, I’d have him higher. I just worry he’ll never be able to take a drop, adjust in the pocket, reset his feet, and throw the ball downfield with accuracy. Has an effortless downfield delivery when he is on. If he’s not, he’s throwing balls into the dirt on screens.
Honorable mentions include: Robert Woods, Zach Rogers, Aaron Dobson, Charles Johnson, Kevin Minter, Arthur Brown, DJ Swearinger, Shamarko Thomas, Earl Wolff, Duke Williams, Khaled Holmes, Christine Michael, Johnathan Franklin, Menelik Watson, Tanner Hawkinson, Jonathan Hankins, John Jenkins, Cornelius Washington, and Alex Smith. And God speed to Marcus Lattimore returning from that knee injury. May need to put out a follow-up column with some favorite Day 2 and Day 3 targets…