USA TODAY2019-04-08 10:52:08
The NFL Draft is just weeks away. USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz looks at five teams with big questions to answer in the first round.
USA TODAY Sports
Call it the Alvin Kamara Rule: Don’t disqualify an NFL draft prospect solely for a shortage of college production.
Before he was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round two years ago, Kamara was given a curtailed workload in two years at Tennessee — where he started just eight of 24 games and never rushed for more than 700 yards in a season — after transferring from Alabama by way of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College.
It didn’t take long, though, for him to prove that his previous shortcomings stemmed more from a limitation in opportunity rather than ability. In establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best all-purpose backs, Kamara has already eclipsed his output with the Volunteers by racking up 3,146 yards from scrimmage in the last two seasons.
NFL teams will once again be on the lookout this year in the draft for underutilized talents like Kamara. Here are 10 prospects who could end up with more prolific pro careers than the ones they had in college.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Alabama: No one will mistake the hard-charging Jacobs for the more dynamic Kamara, but the former might mirror the latter by finding his footing in the NFL after playing a modest role in the Southeastern Conference. The 5-10, 220-pounder was just third on the team in rushing yards last year with 640 (behind Damien Harris, who is expected to be drafted later than Jacobs), and his 252 career carries are less than two-thirds of what former Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry managed in the 2015 season alone (395). And though his big-play potential is up for debate after just one of his 120 carries in 2018 went for more than 20 yards, his battering-ram running style and explosive cuts position him as the clear-cut No. 1 back in this class — and likely the only one with a chance of cracking the first round.
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Mecole Hardman, WR, Georgia: A high-school quarterback who played cornerback as a freshman at Georgia and later starred as a returner, Hardman is a speedy threat who very well could have his best days as a receiver ahead of him. Though he recorded just 60 catches for 961 yards in the last two years, he is in almost singular class when it comes to creating separation and piling up yards after the catch with ease. At 5-10 and 187 pounds with a 4.33-second 40-yard-dash, he might give some teams visions of Kansas City Chiefs standout Tyreek Hill, though he’ll have to develop his routes and be more aggressive on contested catches if he is to make that comparison apt.
Darius Slayton, WR, Auburn: His deep-threat credentials are clear after the 6-1, 190 target averaged 20.3 yards per catch in his career and punctuated his run by taking all three of his receptions for touchdowns in Auburn’s Music City Bowl rout of Purdue. A restriction in responsibilities, however, left several concerns about his viability as a multi-tool target, and he never caught more than 35 passes in a single season. The right NFL staff should be able to harness his skill set in a more complete fashion, so long as he becomes more comfortable with underneath routes and cuts down on his drops.
Dawson Knox, TE, Ole Miss: In an offense that put the spotlight on wide receivers D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge, the 6-4, 254-pound Knox was something of a forgotten man, netting just 15 catches on 28 targets in 2018. For NFL teams looking for a tight end to stretch the seam, however, his long speed and overall athleticism might be worth a mid-round gamble. The biggest challenge might rest in teaching him how to sell his routes after he operated in a stripped-down role in Ole Miss’ scheme.
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Kahale Warring, TE, San Diego State: There was only so much room for the 6-5, 252-pound Warring to grow as a receiver the Aztecs’ run-heavy scheme, and a more substantial role should be awaiting him in the NFL. A multi-sport high school standout who played only one year of football before walking on at San Diego State, Warring has tantalizing tools and could end up as a starting-caliber option for a team willing to be patient in bringing him alone.
Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan: Any team drafting Gary in the top 10 almost assuredly will be expecting more disruption from him than what he generated at Michigan. A former No. 1 overall recruit, the 6-4, 277-pound lineman tallied 9 1/2 sacks and 23 tackles for a loss across three seasons amid bouts of inconsistency, though he was a two-time all-Big Ten selection. But with a more advanced arsenal of pass-rush moves to allow him to capitalize on his initial burst, he could become the force many expected him to grow into.
Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M: Dogged by expectations that traditionally accompany five-star recruits, Mack managed just 2 1/2 sacks and 7 1/2 tackles for loss in his sophomore and junior seasons combined before Jimbo Fisher’s arrival as head coach helped him revive his career with the Aggies. At 6-1 and 336 pounds, Mack might not be counted on to chase down quarterbacks in the same fashion as fellow defensive tackles Quinnen Williams and Aaron Donald, but he can create a push in the pocket if he’s not double-teamed.
Renell Wren, DT, Arizona State: As a nose tackle, Wren was often relegated to eating up blockers, as he tallied just one sack and 4 1/2 tackles for a loss last season. But he has impressive burst and agility for a player of his size (6-5, 318 pounds), and the right scheme and coaching staff could set him up as a playmaker in the backfield.
Trysten Hill, DT, Central Florida: Bumped to a backup role by a new coaching staff last year after serving as a starter the previous two seasons, Hill still posted career bests in tackles for loss (10 1/2) and sacks (three). He is almost always in pursuit of the ball, occasionally to his detriment when he ends up overrunning plays or abandoning responsibilities. But there should be plenty of teams eager to take on a 6-3, 308-pound interior presence who can consistently shoot into the backfield.
Mark Fields, CB, Clemson: Having claimed just six starts in four years, Fields was overshadowed by teammate and fellow cornerback prospect Trayvon Mullen, as well as a talent-rich defensive line. Yet the son of former Pro Bowl linebacker Mark Fields showed plenty of promise in his limited time on the field, especially in an impressive College Football National Championship Game showing against Alabama’s talented receivers. Though the 5-10, 192-pounder might not generate many interceptions given his lapses in finding the ball when it’s in the air, his short-area quickness and aggressiveness as a tackler make him an attractive slot defender.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.