Against The Grain: Draft thoughts
Talk of Blaine Gabbert in top 5 has college experts scratching their heads
Nick Fairley's build could keep him from being the No. 1 overall pick
Draft not deep at offensive line, but someone will jump into top 10 by April
It becomes easy to follow the consensus leading up to the draft, but things never turn out the way everyone thinks in April. Here are some observations on the avalanche of draft analysis starting to pour in on this year's class:
1. College football fans are surprised Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is such a highly rated NFL prospect. His numbers -- 63.4 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season -- don't scream top-five prospect, especially considering current New Orleans Saints backup Chase Daniel completed 72.9 percent of his passes and threw 38 touchdowns his senior year in the same system.
Obviously college statistics don't go that far in draft evaluation. Otherwise Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore would have left early and gone in the first round. But Moore is 6-foot and probably will never get drafted. Gabbert is 6-5, athletic, and has a strong arm. And if you look closer at Gabbert's numbers, he was headed toward a prolific season when he ran into a great Nebraska defense midway through the season and got pretty beat up. It seemed to take him all season to recover physically and mentally, but he looked great in the Insight Bowl, throwing for a season-high 434 yards.
College football experts always wonder why players who succeeded at the college level aren't considered more valuable. The answer is simple: The NFL is looking at different skill sets. Teams have no interest in running quarterbacks because of the injury risk, and they're more comfortable with taller QBs. Gabbert has NFL written all over him.
2. It's no surprise Jake Locker disappointed some people at Senior Bowl practice after completing just 55 percent of his passes his senior season. Why was everyone so eager to anoint Locker as the next big thing? Even in his breakout junior season he completed 58 percent of his passes -- a solid number, but not dazzling. He was exceptional because he could run. Again, a skill that doesn't move the needle for a franchise at the next level. Locker probably didn't make as big a mistake as everyone thinks by not going pro last season, because I'm not convinced he would have been the No. 1 overall pick after being evaluated for three months.
3. Cam Newton will probably go too high, even though he is spectacular. Newton didn't have to thread in too many tight passes at Auburn because half the defense was watching him to make sure he didn't run. NFL teams may be convinced Newton will be able to freeze defenders with his running ability and once again have his choice of open receivers. That formula just doesn't work in the long run. Perhaps Newton can be a Ben Roethlisberger-type and keep plays alive in the pocket long enough to get guys open deep. But Roethlisberger had already shown the ability to consistently throw down field in college. It's uncertain if Newton can be that kind of passer.
4. To be the first defensive tackle taken No. 1 overall since 1994, Nick Fairley would have to be perfect. While the on-field evidence was impressive this season, he is working out in Houston and word is he's not built like the ideal NFL defensive lineman. That could push him a bit lower in the top 10 than everyone expects.
5. LSU star Patrick Peterson is a monster, but there are questions. He was listed at 6-1, 222 pounds at LSU. Isn't that too big to play cornerback in the NFL? Peterson has talked about setting records with his 40 time this Spring. But even if he does, at that size he'll likely end up being an Antonio Cromartie-type cornerback -- great running a straight line, not as great turning with quick, smaller receivers.
Peterson is a potential top three pick, and he'll really only be that valuable if he can shut down half the field like Darrelle Revis, who is 5-11, 185 pounds. Maybe he can show that in workouts, but he'll probably look a lot like a safety instead of a cornerback at that size. As for his vaunted return skills, is that really a factor for someone being considered at No. 1 overall? Do you even want your supposed shutdown returner getting hit as a returner? It worked with Deion Sanders, but he was too fast to hit.
6. Quarterback Ryan Mallett seems to be falling down everyone's chart because of the flaws in his game at Arkansas and possible character issues. He obviously can't handle a rush up the middle of the field. But don't NFL coaches think they can work with him on that? As for the character issues, this season has made it pretty clear quarterbacks don't have to be saints to win games. They don't even have to be likeable. Mallett may very well fall out of the first round. But he has the best arm in the draft -- better than Gabbert's .. probably better than even Andrew Luck's, who would have been the No. 1 overall pick if he went pro. The right coaching staff might see an opportunity to help Mallett improve.
7. Every year offensive linemen seem to slowly creep up the charts throughout the draft season. Experts seemed down on the top linemen prospects coming into the offseason, but you can bet a tackle prospect will make a run into at least the top 10. Consider that an offensive tackle has gone in the top 5 nine out of the last 11 drafts. Is this year's crop that much worse?
Gabe Carimi fell during the season, but the 6-7 Wisconsin tackle is already making up ground with a strong Senior Bowl practice. Same with Boston College's Antony Castonzo. Experts seem comfortable with them in the 10-20 range, and the same goes for USC's Tyron Smith and Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod, but teams have to be considering offensive line help before that.