The Year of the Quarterback.
That label was affixed to this draft class a year ago, with a bevy of highly regarded signal-callers dotting the college football landscape. Did every QB live up to the sky-high expectations that accompanied this group at the outset of 2017? Not exactly. But the position is still poised to define the 2018 NFL Draft, with several quarterbacks expected to come off the board within the first 10 selections on Thursday night. That’s just the nature of the beast in a QB-infatuated league. We can debate the merits of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen as top-tier draft prospects, but there’s no denying that several teams are clamoring for their services. It appears this quartet will be selected quite early, simply due to the vast array of organizations desperate to find a QB1 to build around.
To me, this is crazy. Not to disparage this QB class — I think it offers an assortment of intriguing prospects with diverse skill sets and definite upside. But when I’m thinking about making a selection in the first half of the first round, I want more of a sure thing. And as I touched on in my notebook a month ago, there’s more enticing high-end talent at other positions.
While this draft class will almost certainly be judged by the success — or lack thereof — of the highly drafted quarterbacks, that neglects most of the talent in the group. Don’t let the “Year of the Quarterback” label fool you — there’s intrigue across the board, in the first round and beyond …
At running back, the 2018 class is absolutely loaded with talented playmakers boasting versatile skills. Saquon Barkley is the obvious headliner, as a dynamic combo back with exceptional all-around abilities. The Penn State star is the best overall prospect in this draft — his position’s somewhat-limited value is the only reason why he’s not considered the consensus choice at No. 1. With LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Sony Michel, USC’s Ronald Jones II and San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny also considered fine talents, teams looking for running backs can uncover a gem beyond Round 1.
This year’s collection of pass catchers lacks a marquee WR1, but it’s loaded with playmakers at tight end. South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki could create problems on the outside as hybrid playmakers. While I believe Alabama’s Calvin Ridley is a potential WR1 in the NFL, there are several evaluators with higher grades on pass catchers like Maryland’s D.J. Moore and SMU’s Courtland Sutton.
The 2018 O-line class is full of question marks at offensive tackle, but it provides plenty of rock-solid interior options. Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is viewed as a transcendent star at guard, with a nasty game that’s earned him universal praise as a dominant road grader. Iowa C James Daniels, Georgia OG Isaiah Wynn, UTEP OG Will Hernandez and Ohio State C Billy Price are Day 1 starters.
On the defensive side of the ball, this class lacks depth at pass rusher, but teams are excited about the prospects of N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb growing into a monster off the edge. UTSA’s Marcus Davenport and Boston College’s Harold Landry show promise off the edge, but they need a little more seasoning before they can evolve into dominant playmakers. On the inside, Washington’s Vita Vea is a 6-foot-4, 347-pound freak who projects as an ideal 3-4 nose tackle. Meanwhile, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, Florida’s Taven Bryan and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne offer disruptive capability as interior pass rushers.
The linebacker crew is packed with dynamic playmakers. Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds are top-10 talents with the combination of speed, quickness and instincts that defensive coordinators covet in second-level players. Not to mention, they are also capable of harassing quarterbacks as explosive blitzers. Alabama’s Rashaan Evans frequently gets lost in the shuffle, but teams looking for a mean-mugging traffic cop love his playmaking potential between the tackles.
The 2018 class of defensive backs features a number of explosive athletes with high football IQs and versatile skills. The safety group offers multi-positional playmakers like Florida State’s Derwin James and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick — both capable of thriving in various roles in the back end. At cornerback, the playmaking potential of Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, UCF’s Mike Hughes, Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Iowa’s Josh Jackson — all ballhawks with solid cover skills — has defensive coordinators around the league excited about the possibility of adding a young impact player on the perimeter.
Long story short: This draft provides intrigue all over the field. Yes, the quarterbacks receive the bulk of the headlines — that’s always the case — but don’t give the other spots short shrift.
In fact, today I’d like to spotlight 26 particular prospects — six elite talents, 15 difference makers and five wild cards with high upside — and of the 26, only three play quarterback. Let’s get into it:
These are the elite prospects in the class. They should rank among the top five players at their respective positions in two to three years. I’ve ordered them according to how they grade out in my book.
1) Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2) Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State
3) Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
4) Derwin James, S, Florida State
5) Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
6) Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
These prospects are regarded as difference makers based on their raw talent. They should make immediate contributions as rookies and rank among the top 10 at their position within two to three years. I’ve ordered them according to how they grade out in my book.
1) Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
2) Sam Darnold, QB, USC
3) Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
4) Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
5) Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
6) Harold Landry, Edge, Boston College
7) Vita Vea, DT, Washington
8) Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
9) Mike Hughes, CB, UCF
10) James Daniels, C, Iowa
11) Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
12) Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
13) Billy Price, C, Ohio State
14) Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP
15) Marcus Davenport, Edge, UTSA
RED STAR PLAYERS
On the “Move the Sticks” podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I routinely discuss how scouts will stand on the table for guys they believe will outperform their draft slot. In the scouting world, these players are called “red star” guys because they are destined to make their mark in the league despite not being the most ballyhooed prospects. After surveying the 2018 class for players with the right skills and intangibles to surpass most expectations, here are my five red-star prospects to watch.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner hasn’t been celebrated as one of the top quarterbacks in the class, but it’s hard to ignore a dynamic athlete with A+ arm talent and playmaking ability. Jackson eclipsed 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons, improving his completion rate and overall efficiency in the process. Despite being erroneously perceived by many as a typical spread-option quarterback, Jackson’s experience in a pro-style offense under the tutelage of a hard-nosed coach (Bobby Petrino) should help him assimilate to the pro game quicker than most expect. If he lands with the right team led by a creative coach, the Louisville standout could evolve into a more polished version of Michael Vick. Just ask Vick himself.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State: The former high school lacrosse player is an explosive hybrid with the athleticism and movement skills to make an impact off the edge. Whether acting as a disruptive pass rusher racing around the corner or a Swiss Army Knife stand-up player in a 3-4, Hubbard’s unique skills could make him a star on Sundays. With teams looking for solid options on the edges, Hubbard is a safe bet to at least carve out a nice career.
Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford: Dominant defenses always employ at least a few blue-collar guys. That’s why I’m willing to bet on Phillips being a productive starter for a team as an interior defender. The Cardinal standout is a rock-solid defender at the point of attack, exhibiting exceptional strength, power and leverage against single- and double-teams. As a former wrestler with a no-nonsense attitude, Phillips is the kind of “hard hat and lunch pail” player who logs 10-plus years in the league.
Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: Despite being generally pegged as a slot, Kirk might end up being the best receiver in the draft, with the potential to blossom into a WR1 on the outside. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound pass catcher is a polished route runner with sticky hands and electric running skills. Kirk can deliver splash plays on vertical routes or catch-and-run concepts that allow him to shine as a Steve Smith-like playmaker on the perimeter. Although he doesn’t fit the typical profile of a No. 1 receiver, I wouldn’t rule out Kirk becoming just that, based on his athleticism, skill set and blue-collar mentality.
Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State: The 6-1, 228-pound playmaker is rarely discussed as one of the top running backs in the class, but teams looking for a big back with skills as a runner and receiver might uncover a gem in this ASU product. Ballage has the potential to emerge as a Le’Veon Bell-like threat, with the size and speed to hurt defenses as a runner and the explosiveness to torch linebackers as a receiver. Although he needs to add some more grit to his game, Ballage’s talents as a multi-purpose back could make him an unexpected star in the league.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.