Monday, April 3, 2017

Best NFL Draft Prospects: Group of Five Conferences

Every collegiate football season, the majority of college football fans seem to forget that there is college football outside of the Power 5 conferences. The "other" conferences have been deemed the "Group of Five" and have yet to be represented in the college football playoff. This clear Power 5 bias has led to some great ideas, most notably a separate playoff system for the Group of Five conferences.

The Group of Five in college football consists of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), Conference USA, Mid-American Conference (MAC), Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference. These conferences are traditionally overlooked during the college football season, but they provide the NFL with plenty of talent on a yearly basis. Of course, the power 5 conferences dominate the first round.

Prior to the 2016 draft, 92% of first round picks over the last 10 years were selected from power 5 conferences. As that article shows, however, players like Khalil Mack (Buffalo), Jason Pierre-Paul (USF) and Chris Johnson (ECU) were all first round picks that developed into stars.

Today, we'll be taking a look at the "Group of Five's" best 2017 NFL draft prospects.

Cream of the Crop

There are a handful of potential first round picks from the Group of Five this NFL draft season. Temple linebacker Haason Reddick and Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis are potential top 10 picks, while UConn safety Obi Melifonwu, Western Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp and Eastern Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones could all find themselves in the first round as well.

Haason Reddick is one of the most versatile defenders to come out of college in years, as he could potentially play any defensive line or linebacker position. His versatility is going to allow defensive coordinators to be very creative with how they use him, which should make him a hot commodity on draft night.

Corey Davis was arguably college football's best receiver this past season, although some teams are wary of his competition level because of the aforementioned bias toward Power Five conferences. His production and skill set seem like they'll translate just fine to the next level, but an ankle injury kept him from performing at the NFL scouting combine. Without an official 40-time, some scouts won't feel safe drafting Davis in the first round. Whichever team is smart enough to look at his tape rather than his lack of a Combine will land a very good player.

Obi Melifonwu is a physical freak, standing at 6'4" he ran a 4.40 40-yard dash and had a 44-inch vertical at the NFL Combine. As a four year starter with those combine numbers and size, at least one team is going to covet his combination of athleticism and experience.

Forrest Lamp was one of the best left tackles in college football this past season, but his size will force him inside in the NFL. He's extremely skilled and athletic for an offensive guard, but he's also a very good blocker who simply gets the job done. He should have a long NFL career.

Zay Jones finished his collegiate career as the all-time receptions leader in FBS history, and then had an impressive combine performance that likely propelled him into the first round. He measured in at 6'2" and 201 pounds and ran a 4.45 40-yard-dash. If he slides into round 2, the Minnesota Vikings need to try and land him to fill out their receiving core.

Day Two Gems

There will likely be several good Group of Five prospects remaining following Thursday Night's first round. Friday night consists of rounds 2 and 3, which is where teams will look to find future starters undervalued by other teams. Here's a potential look at some of those players.

Taylor Moton, OG, Western Michigan - Moton actually played left tackle for Western Michigan this past season, but he struggled at times because he's more suited to playing guard. At the NFL level he'll be able to focus exclusively on playing inside, and with his size (6'5", 320 lbs) he could develop into a dominating guard.

Dion Dawkins, G/T, Temple - Most scouts expect the 3-year starter at left tackle to move inside in the NFL, but others are convinced he could remain on the outside with development. He's been a very good starter since he entered the collegiate ranks, and should provide quality depth if he's not starting as a rookie.

Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama - Everett's combine performance was spectacular and likely solidified him as a day-two pick. He ran a 4.62 40-yard-dash, with a 37.5 inch vertical and a sub-7 3-cone drill, all very impressive marks. As a former basketball player he'll draw comparisons to Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, but he has quite a bit more football experience than those two did at this point.

DaMontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State - Kazee is one of the draft's best ball hawks, as he finished second in the country in interceptions in both 2015 and 2016. An average combine performance and below average size will likely push Kazee into the third round, but his coverage skills could make him a huge steal for whichever team can land him.

Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Charlotte - Ogunjobi was very productive throughout his collegiate career, and projects as a very capable 3-4 nose tackle at the next level. While his size is below average for that role in the NFL, his instincts and quick hands should allow him to make up for some of his strength disadvantages. He is a very talented player with lots of room to grow and a great work ethic.

Taywan Taylor, WR, Western Kentucky -Taylor had a very productive final season for the Hilltoppers, but what drew scouts attention was his 9 catch, 121-yard performance against the Alabama Crimson Tide. He's a bit undersized as he measured in just under 6 feet tall, and his combine performance was just average. He reminds me a lot of Nate Burleson coming out of Nevada years ago.

Carlos Henderson, WR, LA Tech - Henderson is a very good prospect as a wide receiver, but what might allow him to separate himself from other mid-round receivers is his kick return ability. He projects as a very good returner in the NFL, and after a very productive collegiate career he's the perfect player to develop behind other capable starters at this point while he shines on special teams.

Kareem Hunt, HB, Toledo - Hunt's college tape and ability to be used in the passing game make him a valuable player at the next level. His below average combine performance likely cost him any real shot at the second round, but he shouldn't last much further beyond that point. If he gets an opportunity to play early next season, he could shine.

Late-Round Steals

On the final day of the NFL draft, most teams are just filling in their depth charts, unless a player they liked a lot falls. These players are potential day two picks that could fall through the cracks because of the previously established bias against Group of Five conference teams,

Tyus Bowser, OLB, Houston - Bowser is a physical speciman who put up great combine numbers. If he can find a way to harness all of his athletic gifts into football production, he'll be a great player for a long time. At the very least, his elite speed and strength should make him a very good special teams player for years. That's exactly the kind of depth most NFL teams love to draft late. If he's taken on day-two, however, he might not quite live up to expectations.

Jeremy McNichols, HB, Boise State - McNichols is a bit undersized to be an every down back in the NFL, but his production and combine performance suggest he should be a useful player. He's a very capable return man and pass catcher, which makes him the perfect change of pace back for any team.

Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic - Likely a 3-4 defensive end, Hendrickson shined in 2016 on special teams, blocking 4 kicks. Big hitter capable of forcing fumbles; had 6 forced fumbles his senior season alone. Definitely a developmental project but capable of providing some production immediately.

Antonio Garcia, OT/OG, Troy - Very lanky for an offensive lineman, scouts aren't sure which position suits him best at the next level. Despite his lanky frame he plays with a lot of strength and is one of the few potential day three lineman that could develop into a starting NFL left tackle one day.

Marlon Mack, HB, USF - One of my favorite running backs in the entire draft, Mack is talented enough to potentially go in the second round. However, because teams have devalued the running back position so greatly, a player like Mack could very easily tumble into day 3. He's a great athlete with natural instincts at the position, and he could one day develop into a pro-bowl caliber running back in the right system.

Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio - Great size to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, with production to match. He had 16.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks this past season, and recently drew the attention of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. He's a potential day two draft pick as well, but some technique issues should cause him to fall to day-three. At that point, he might be the steal of the draft, especially if it's to New England.



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