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Ranking the top edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft: Bob McGinn’s grades are in

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This is the 37th year Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-2001), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-2017) and BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-19). Until 2014, personnel evaluators often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. This will be a nine-part series.

PreviouslyQBs | RBs | WR/TE | OL | DL

A retirement, a return and an opt-out have created dizzying detours in the paths of Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau to the NFL Draft.

Ten months ago, Rousseau was coming off a 15½-sack season as the left end for the Miami Hurricanes. Phillips, meanwhile, had not played a game in almost two years.

In Phil Steele’s 2020 football preview that reached newsstands in June, Steele featured rankings of the top seniors, juniors and redshirt sophomores for the 2021 draft courtesy of Draftscout.com. At defensive end, Rousseau was No. 1. And Phillips? He was No. 64.

The rankings were perfectly understandable. Rousseau was the hottest pass rusher not named Chase Young in 2019 and Phillips was off somewhere in football’s no man’s land.

Following recommendations from the UCLA medical and coaching staffs, Phillips had announced his retirement from football in December 2018 after his second down year in Westwood. Multiple concussions, multiple surgeries on his left wrist stemming from an off-campus moped accident and multiple ankle injuries led him to walk away and enroll at Los Angeles City College to study music and concentrate on his keen interest in becoming a rapper and music producer.

Two months later, Phillips had a change of heart and decided to resume his football career as a transfer at Miami.

“Thank you God for giving me a second chance,” he tweeted. “The COMEBACK is going to be something serious.”

 

 

As Rousseau was running wild in 2019, Phillips, the No. 1 player in the country in the class of 2017, was sitting out as a redshirt. The prospect of having both players rushing the passer off the edge was a major reason why Steele predicted the Hurricanes would be the nation’s most improved team in 2020.

Everything changed on Aug. 6 when Rousseau elected to opt out of the season. It changed again when Phillips stepped in for Rousseau at left end and fulfilled his immense promise with an outstanding year.

The Hurricanes finished 8-3 and played in the Cheez-It Bowl, a game Phillips opted out of in order to prepare for the draft. The pair finally was on the same field together March 29 for their pro day in Coral Gables, Fla., and scouts were far more impressed with Phillips’ athletic testing than Rousseau’s.

A strong indicator of how the tide has turned toward Phillips came from my polling earlier this month of 18 executives in personnel. Not only did Phillips finish ahead of Rousseau on 14 ballots, he also fared better on two separate questions.

Asked who among the edge rushers had the best chance to bust, Rousseau led with seven votes while Phillips didn’t have any. Jayson Oweh collected four votes, Carlos Basham Jr. and Joe Tryon each had two and Joseph Ossai and Kwity Paye each had one. (One of the 18 scouts declined to vote.)

All 18 personnel evaluators then were asked who was the best pass rusher in the draft. Phillips dominated here with 13 votes, followed by Rousseau with three then Paye and Tryon, each with one.

“That’s a no-brainer,” an AFC decision-maker said. “Phillips has the most natural talent and biggest upside of all of them. I wouldn’t touch Rousseau.”

Another executive: “Phillips is top 10 or 12 if you watch the tape right. I don’t get what the hype is with Rousseau. There are major concerns.”

 

 

To draft Phillips high, a team would be counting on its medical staff to rule positively on his injury history and people inside and outside the organization to reach a positive judgment on his at-times immature behavior at UCLA.

“If he can build off what he did in one year at Miami, he’ll be a legitimate NFL (defensive) end,” an AFC executive said. “He seems to have responded there after the issues he had at UCLA.”

An NFC personnel director added: “That’s LA. He was going through stuff. I got green lights on him. I’m not even blinking. He’s smart, and he’s got drive and want and grit.”

Added an AFC scout: “We’re not sure we can count on (him). … Talent-wise, he’s way better than Rousseau.”

Rousseau weighed in at 266 pounds at the pro day, which, according to some scouts, was about 30 pounds heavier than his playing weight in 2019. His workout was merely average, and now scouts have varied opinions on what his position should be.

“He’s so stiff in the lower body that I don’t see how he plays on the edge,” an AFC executive said. “You can’t help but be impressed when he walks in the room. He had like 15 sacks, but 10 of them were from the inside. I think somebody will try to fatten him up, get him in the 280s and make him play as a 3-4 (defensive) end, then stay inside as a defensive tackle on third down.”

Rousseau and Phillips were among three edge rushers, a defensive tackle and a tight end who participated in testing at The U’s pro day. Rousseau’s vertical jump of 30 inches was the worst of the five, and his broad jump of 9 feet, 7 inches was fourth. Phillips led the five with jumps of 36 inches and 10 feet, 5 inches.

“He had eight months to get ready for a pro day, and at the workout, it looks like he never jumped in his life,” said one personnel man. “He fell down on the vert and fell down on the broad. I’ve never seen a player fall down on both of those drills.”

Rousseau’s prime measurables (6-foot-6½, 266 pounds, 4.66 40 time) have few matches in recent draft history. Among the closest would be defensive end Anthony Nelson (6-foot-7, 271, 4.83), a fourth-round draft choice by the Buccaneers in 2020. Devin Taylor (6-foot-7, 273, 4.74) was the Lions’ fourth-round choice in 2013. Michael Johnson (6-foot-7, 266, 4.69) started at defensive end in Cincinnati for nine seasons after being a third-round pick in 2009 and finished with 44½ sacks.

Maybe Rousseau will be Jadeveon Clowney (6-foot-5½, 266, 4.52) from the 2014 draft, or Dion Jordan (6-foot-6, 248, 4.58) from 2013. Jevon Kearse (6-foot-5, 262, 4.45) would be the sweet ceiling, but “The Freak” was one of a kind with jumps of 40½ (vertical) and 10 feet, 10 inches (broad jump) back in 1999.

Of Kearse, who went No. 16 to the Titans and made the Pro Bowl three times, former Bears GM Jerry Angelo said before that draft, “He’s the most special athlete I think I’ve ever seen.”

“He’s so intriguing,” an AFC personnel director said of Rousseau. “He didn’t work out as great, but I’m going off what he did as a 19-year-old kid in 2019 with a number of sacks and the upside the kid has. I think Rousseau is one we’ll look back on.”

 

 

The panel of 18 scouts agreed to rank their top five edge rushers in order, with a first-place vote worth five points, a second-place vote worth four and so on. Phillips drew 11 firsts compared to four for Paye, two for Rousseau and one for Tryon.

Phillips, with 74 points, led the voting, followed by Paye (53), Rousseau (42), Tryon (23), Azeez Ojulari (22), Oweh (15), Ossai (13), Basham (11), Payton Turner (eight), Ronnie Perkins (six) and Rashad Weaver (three).

“The top eight are all very similar guys,” said one NFL decision-maker. “Bottom of the first through bottom of the second-round talent. When you get to the fourth through seventh, there are still a lot of guys leftover that have traits.”

Ranking the edge rushers

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Jaelan Phillips is coming off a breakout season with the Hurricanes. (Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via Associated Press)

1. Jaelan Phillips, Miami (6-foot-5½, 260, 4.58, Round 1): Turned his career around with the Hurricanes in 2020.

“Everything that you want in a modern NFL pass-rushing end, he has,” said one scout. “He has rush from the edge, from inside, from nose tackle. He’s got the length, the mass, the strength and power to do it. If he had played all the way through and didn’t have the issues, absolutely he’s a top-10 player.”

His freshman season at UCLA was limited to seven games because of a high-ankle sprain. His sophomore season was limited to the first four games due to multiple concussions. Redshirted at Miami in 2019, played well last season and declared a year early.

“I was at his pro day and it was a phenomenal workout,” a second scout said. “He moved like an outside linebacker. He had some concussion issues at UCLA. Didn’t know if he was going to play football or not, or how important it was to him. Got out of there and went to Miami. Reset himself. He’s the most gifted (of the edge rushers).”

His 4.18 time in the short shuttle led the position.

“He really blew up this year,” said a third scout. “I wonder if he can sustain that. A lot of his lack of production before this year wasn’t his fault. He worked out freakishly.”

From Redlands, Calif., Phillips started six of his 11 games for the Bruins in 2017 and ’18 on teams that went 6-7 and 3-9 under Jim Mora and Chip Kelly, respectively. Finished with 86 tackles (23½ for loss) and 12½ sacks.

“He plays like he loves football,” a fourth scout said. “He’s really good in the run game and can get to the quarterback in a variety of different ways.”

2. Kwity Paye, Michigan (6-foot-2½, 261, 4.57, Round 1): Lightly recruited player from Providence, R.I. Compared by one scout to Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark, another former Michigan right defensive end.

“(I) like the way he plays,” said another scout. “It’s not anything special. He’s got good get-off and burst. There are moldable things to make him an efficient defensive end or outside linebacker. He worked out pretty well.”

Barely played as a freshman before starting four of 13 games as a sophomore. Moved into the lineup in 2019 but failed to put up impressive numbers.

“I don’t think he’ll be a bust,” another scout said. “High-effort guy. Played with violence. I’d have liked more stats, but he still was disruptive. He showed quickness off the snap. He could do it (rush with) both power and speed. Can hold the point. Has the strength (36 reps on the bench).”

Started 20 of 38 games, finishing with 100 tackles (23½ for loss) and 11½ sacks.

“He’s got a lot of things you want,” a third scout said. “Now, he is short. That’s his biggest deficiency. But his arm length (33 inches) is solid. I think his best attribute is he can really accelerate through contact.”

Was born in a refugee camp in Guinea. Came to the U.S. with his Liberian parents at 6 months.

“You see some violence, you see the jolt and snatch, you see some burst off the edge,” said a fourth scout. “I like him, but he should be better than what he is.”

3. Gregory Rousseau, Miami (6-foot-6½, 266, 4.66, Round 1): His freshman season ended after two games because of a broken ankle that required surgery. Was second in the nation with 15½ sacks in 2019 before opting out in ’20.

“He’s not explosive, but he’s a really good technician,” one scout said. “He knows how to use his hands and get off blocks. He knows angles. He’s a really smart player. He has the pass-rush knack. He just has feel for what he needs to do. He’s what you want in a full-time defensive end.”

Reminded another scout of Justin Tuck (6-foot-5, 265, 4.75), the 11-year defensive end who registered 66½ sacks.

“(Rousseau’s) production comes from interior pass rushing, a la Tuck,” the evaluator said. “He could possibly (bulk up) and be a 3-4 defensive end.”

Another scout expects him to do just that.

“He looks like an NBA power forward because of the height, the length and the range,” he said. “I think he’s going to be that 275-, 280-pound guy and be a 5-technique. He’ll be able to leverage players (stopping the run).”

His arms were 34⅜ inches and his hands were a position-high 11⅛ inches.

“Got a lot of athletic ability, but a complete finesse player. There’s no nasty to him,” said a fourth scout.

The Coconut Creek, Fla., native entered the draft with only seven career starts. Played in 15 games, finishing with 59 tackles (22½ for loss) and 15½ sacks.

“He’s a gangly athlete,” said a fifth scout. “Struggles to change direction. He’s raw.”

4. Joe Tryon, Washington (6-foot-5, 259, 4.67, Round 1 or 2): A fourth-year junior who played only two seasons after redshirting in 2017 and opting out in 2020.

“Extremely well put together,” one scout said. “He’s going to be overdrafted for what he’s actually done in his career. Somebody will take a chance on the physical traits. He’s gifted. He had (12½) sacks the last time he was on a football field. Looks the part, but (Joseph) Ossai and (Ronnie) Perkins outplayed him.”

From Renton, Wash., Tryon played from multiple alignments in his 25-game, 14-start career.

“I don’t know if he’ll ever be a dominant sack guy, but I could see him having steady six, seven (sack) years with a 10 every blue moon if his technique improves,” said a second scout. “He’s big, long and can run. He’ll probably be a DPR (designated pass rusher) early. I don’t see dominant ability, so he probably has the best chance to bust.”

Finished with 61 tackles (14½ for loss) and nine sacks.

“Love this kid,” said a third scout. “He can bend. He can drop into coverage. He doesn’t have any speed-to-power move. He’ll get stalled. But his effort is undeniable. He’s a very determined football player.”

5. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia (6-foot-2, 249, 4.62, Round 1 or 2): Suffered a torn ACL in his final game as a prep (in Marietta, Ga.) and redshirted in 2018 while rehabilitating the knee. Started 23 of 24 games for the Bulldogs the past two years before declaring as a third-year sophomore.

“He’s athletic and quick with a good get-off,” said one scout. “He can get on an edge. He runs well. Playing (every) down, the size factor could be an issue. He can be a 3-4 or a 4-3 guy.”

Played from two- and three-point stances.

“I’d probably play him as a ‘Sam’ (linebacker) on early downs and then on third down try to find ways to get him involved in the rush,” said a second scout. “Georgia always has athletes, but their rush instincts aren’t there. In the NFL, the tackles are too good just to be a good athlete.”

Finished with 67 tackles (18½ for loss) and 14 sacks.

“I think there’s some risk with him, but if you’re saying that, what’s Kwity Paye?” a third scout said. “(Ojulari) had 8½ sacks (in 2020) in the SEC, and the biggest season Kwity had was 6½ in the Big Ten.”

He’s the shortest of the top 15 edge rushers, but his arm length (34½ inches) is excellent.

“They played him at end and off the ball, and he gets beat up wherever he is,” said a fourth scout. “You love the way he plays, but he’s a little guy. His pass rush is just effort. That’s really what he’s got. I don’t have a role for him.”

6. Jayson Oweh, Penn State (6-foot-5, 257, 4.37, Round 1 or 2): “He should be a better player, but his upside is insane.”

That evaluator summed up what many of his scouting brethren have been saying about Oweh, a pro-day wunderkind but too often a nonfactor for the Nittany Lions.

“You see the workout and the flashes,” said a second scout. “He didn’t have a sack (in 2020), but Danielle Hunter had only (1½) his last year at LSU. You just don’t pass up rare (skills).”

Led edge rushers in the 40, broad jump (11 feet, 2 inches) and 3-cone (6.90). Long arms (34½ inches), small hands (9¼ inches). Played only two years of prep football in Howell, N.J.

“It’s still new to him,” a third scout said. “He doesn’t play like his test numbers, but somebody will take a shot on him. He shows back-side chase and all that. He’s just got to be more consistent at the point of attack.”

Redshirted in 2018 after playing minimally in four games. Backed up in 2019 before starting last year. In 24 games (eight starts), he finished with 63 tackles (13½ for loss) and seven sacks (five in 2019).

“You can see he’s got some talent, but he didn’t have a sack,” a fourth scout said. “Some team will take him and get burned. He’s my 11th edge rusher.”

7. Joseph Ossai, Texas (6-foot-3½, 256, 4.63, Round 2): Third-year junior, two-year starter.

“When I watch him, I see Danielle Hunter,” said one scout. “This guy plays harder than anybody in the draft. He just wears guys out by how hard he plays. He’s got explosive, wow plays. He’s got some stab and jolt at the point of attack. The backside stuff, how he chases, is incredible. On the pass rush, he shows you a lot of moves, the burst, bend. They drop him some, but that’s not really his deal.”

Born in Nigeria, he moved with his family to Houston at age 9. Played high school ball in Conroe, Texas. In 2018 and ’19, he played extensively as an off-ball linebacker before moving outside in ’20.

“He might be a 3-4 outside linebacker,” another scout said. “He is kind of tight for that. I really liked his passion for the game. He’s got legit, straight-line acceleration.”

Led the top 15 edge rushers in the vertical jump (41½).

“He’s just a guy to me,” a third scout said. “He didn’t blow it up there, and he had plenty of times to rush. I think he’s more of a DPR.”

Started 24 of 36 games, finishing with 165 tackles (30½ for loss) and 11 sacks.

“I think he’s stiff and doesn’t have a plan when he’s rushing,” said a fourth scout. “He loses his feet too much when he rushes. He is determined to get there, though.”

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Carlos Basham was productive at Wake Forest, finishing with 173 tackles and 20½ sacks. (Jeremy Brevard / USA Today)

8. Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest (6-foot-3½, 274, 4.62, Round 2): Redshirted in 2016, played a lot in a rotation in ’17 and started 32 games over his last three years.

“He’s the most natural pass rusher in the draft,” said one scout. “He has underproduced for his skill level, which certainly is a concern. The competitive nature of the player needs to improve to maximize his potential. His level of talent is up there with the better guys in the draft.

“He’s a much better athlete than Za’Darius Smith was. They’re completely different, though. Za’Darius was an overachiever and Basham is an underachiever. Za’Darius has less physical ability but a much greater competitive spirit.”

Basham played defensive end in a 4-3 scheme but impressed while rushing inside at the Senior Bowl.

“He’s interesting because he can play both spots and can probably be an inside sub rusher,” said a second scout. “He’s kind of been a coast-on-talent guy. He’s been a big fish in a small pond at Wake Forest. Probably not held to the same standards a guy from Alabama would be held to.”

Arm length (32⅞) was the shortest of the top nine edge rushers. From Roanoke, Va., Basham finished with 173 tackles (35½ for loss) and 20½ sacks for Wake Forest.

“He’s an inconsistent player,” said a third scout. “More productive as a junior. His motor needs to crank up.”

9. Payton Turner, Houston (6-foot-5½, 268, no 40, Round 2 or 3): Playing college ball in his hometown, Turner backed up in 2017 before starting 27 of 28 games from 2018 through ’20.

“A little upright, a little stiff, but he may have the best motor in the draft,” one scout said. “He plays really hard and he’s really big. I just think guys like that end up being good players. He has pass-rush tools, but he doesn’t have pass-rush productivity yet.

“He can be anywhere from 275 to 300 (pounds). He’s best if you play him at about 275 coming off the edge and chasing the ball. Kind of just being big and a tone-setter.”

The 3-4 teams either see him as an outside linebacker or as a 5-technique with 25 additional pounds. The 4-3 teams view him as a left or right end.

“He didn’t stand out at the Senior Bowl,” another scout said. “He didn’t have huge fall grades, so this is a little bit of a rising sun. He’s got some rush potential, both power and speed.”

Has the long longest arms at the position (35⅜ inches).

“He’s weighed almost 290,” said a third scout. “He dropped down for some reason for the Senior Bowl (270). Has the tools to be a good NFL pass rusher. Let’s put it this way: He’s got all the material, but he wasn’t as productive as I thought he should be.”

Finished with 115 tackles (25 for loss) and 10 sacks.

10. Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma (6-foot-2½, 253, 4.71, Round 3): An undersized third-year junior with short arms (32⅞ inches) and small hands (9 inches). Failed to impress at pro day with a pedestrian 40, a slow shuttle run and a 32-inch vertical jump.

“I think he goes mid-to-late third,” said one scout. “But he’ll be a better player than some of the guys that go before him.”

The St. Louis native started 25 of 33 games at defensive end for the Sooners.

“He is (small), but he plays extremely hard,” a second scout said. “He may be an exception to the rule. He’s pretty explosive.”

Failed an NCAA drug test in late 2019 but successfully appealed and returned after missing six games.

“Character all checks out,” a third scout said. “He’s a 100-mph, try-hard, play-with-your-hair-on-fire guy. He’s got the strength to do the cobra strike (bull rush). He’s a pain in the ass to block.”

Finished with 99 tackles (32 for loss) and 16½ sacks.

“Love the way he plays,” said a fourth scout. “There is a little bit of tightness to him. I could see people saying he’d bust because a lot of his (production) comes from his effort.”

11. Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh (6-foot-4½, 259, 4.85, Round 3): Described by one scout as a “subtle” rusher. Missed all of 2019 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament but returned better than ever in ’20.

“He gets a lot of cleanup sacks,” said a second scout. “He has technique, but no explosion. He’s a try-hard, overachiever type. He was (productive), and I don’t know how he does it. He’s a lot like the guy last year from Boise, Curtis Weaver. He also had a knack.”

From Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Rashad Weaver started 28 of 35 games over four seasons, finishing with 110 tackles (34½ for loss) and 17 sacks.

“He’ll end up being a CEO of a business someday,” said a third scout. “He’s a great kid. Plays hard. He just doesn’t have quick feet. I think he can go to a team where he doesn’t have to be that fast and maybe be a backup as a Day 3 guy.”

12. Patrick Jones II, Pittsburgh (6-foot-4, 261, no 40, Round 3 or 4): Pulled up slightly before crossing the finish line of his 40 at pro day. Although there is no satisfactory clocking, teams estimated his speed to be in the high 4.8s. His broad jump (8 feet, 11 inches), meanwhile, was the lowest at the position.

“He’s the one who reminds me of a Za’Darius Smith,” said one scout. “Za’Darius ran 4.81. It’s a big man’s game.”

Started at left end in a four-man front, but some teams see him agile enough to stand up outside in a 3-4.

“He doesn’t play the game fast,” a second scout said. “He’s a power guy. He wants to be the best guy there. But I don’t think he’s very strong and I don’t see counter moves. He’s got to get stronger.”

From Chesapeake, Va., Jones started 24 of 48 games over four seasons after redshirting in 2016. Finished with 117 tackles (33½ for loss) and 22 sacks.

“Tries his ass off,” said a third scout. “Great kid. Got better as far as being a technician as a rusher this year. But he’s stiff. He was disappointing at the Senior Bowl. He’s a classic overachiever.”

13. Cameron Sample, Tulane (6-foot-2½, 267, 4.86, Round 3 or 4): From Snellville, Ga., he played defensive end as a three-year starter for the Green Wave. His size and athleticism make him one of the most versatile defenders in the draft.

“Kind of a ‘tweener,” said one scout. “But when it comes down to just playing football, he just makes plays. He’s too small to play inside consistently, but he’s got some quickness. I think his best position based on his body type is that Pittsburgh 3-4 outside linebacker. If I was running that defense, I could see him as a third- or fourth-round pick. If you play him on the edge, that’s his best bet.”

Posted a 37-inch vertical jump.

“He has the capacity to play in the 280s and he is strong,” a second scout said. “Good football player.”

Started 38 of 46 games, finishing with 151 tackles (21 for loss) and 10½ sacks.

14. Chris Rumph II, Duke (6-foot-3, 239, no 40, Round 4): Moved regularly with his family because his father, Chris, has been a college or NFL assistant coach since 2003. Presently, the elder Rumph is the defensive line coach for the Bears.

“The guy just never stops,” said one scout. “He gets bounced around like a pinball, but the guy has some edge rush ability. He’s a rotational defensive end (in a 4-3), or he could play in a 3-4. Pretty decent athlete, but (size) is an issue. Looks like a basketball player.”

Managed just 18 reps on the bench, the fewest by a top-15 edge rusher. After playing high school ball in Gainesville, Fla., Rumph started only as a senior for the Blue Devils, finishing with 125 tackles (34 for loss) and 17½ sacks.

“Poor man’s Leonard Floyd,” said a second scout. “Love the way the guy plays. Has amazing flexibility. He just gets in so many awkward positions and gets knocked around, but he always comes out of it. How much bigger and stronger is this guy going to get?”

15. Quincy Roche, Miami (6-foot-2½, 245, 4.68, Round 4 or 5): From Randallstown, Md., Roche stepped into a starting role at defensive end in his first season with the Hurricanes after Rousseau opted out.

“Plays hard, really instinctive, smart,” one scout said. “Knows how to play. Not a lot in his tank. He could be a really good backup for somebody for a long time.”

At Temple, he redshirted in 2016 and started 17 of 39 games from 2017 through ’19. Moved to Miami as a grad transfer and started 10 games at right end in a 4-3 defense.

“He has a lower ceiling because of physical limitations,” a second scout said.

His production was extraordinary. In 49 games (27 starts) for the Owls and Hurricanes, he had 182 tackles (54 for loss) and 30½ sacks.

“(Christian) Darrisaw just ate this guy up,” a third scout said of the Virginia Tech left tackle. “Excellent dip and bend at the corner. He has a great first step. Needs to play more physical against the run.”

Other top edge rushers: Jordan Smith, Alabama-Birmingham; Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa; Ade Ogundeji, Notre Dame; Janarius Robinson, Florida State; Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame; Charles Snowden, Virginia; Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State; Shaka Toney, Penn State; Malcolm Koonce, Buffalo; Joshua Kaindoh, Florida State; Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Oregon State; William Bradley-King, Baylor; Tarron Jackson, Coastal Carolina; Wyatt Hubert, Kansas State.

The Skinny

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Elerson Smith recorded 14 sacks for the UNI Panthers in 2019. (Don Juan Moore / Getty Images)

Unsung hero

Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa: One evaluator said Smith (6-foot-6, 252, 4.75), who has a 41½-inch vertical jump, has the ability to bend around the corner much like Bryce Paup (6-foot-4, 245, 5.01) did for the Packers, Bills, Jaguars and Vikings. Paup came out of UNI as a sixth-round pick in 1990 and went on to make four straight Pro Bowls and notch 75 sacks. Smith had 28 sacks in three years, including 14 in 2019, but lost the ’20 season when the Missouri Valley Conference canceled its season. Smith is much better rushing the passer than playing the run.

Scouts’ nightmare

Janarius Robinson, Florida State: His height/weight/speed numbers (6-foot-5, 262, 4.69) are top-notch. So is his arm length (35¼) and hand size (10⅞). But it just didn’t happen for him in Tallahassee: 42 games, 28 starts, eight sacks. Scouts appreciate his effort and sincerity. Some team will seek to unlock his potential.

Scout to remember

Jim Parmer: A star halfback at Oklahoma State in the mid-1940s, Parmer backed up Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren on the Eagles’ championship teams of 1948 and ’49. After a nine-year playing career in Philadelphia, he coached at Texas Tech before joining the BLESTO combine as a scout in 1967. That eight-year stint was followed by about two decades as a regional scout for the Bears. Working under George Halas, Jim Finks and Bill Tobin, Parmer was a no-nonsense evaluator of college talent. His legacy lives on in grandson Jeff Ireland, the Saints’ assistant general manager. Parmer, a native of Mangum, Okla., died in 2005 in Lubbock, Texas. He was 79.

Quote to note

AFC personnel executive: “In college, if you’re a really good athlete, you can get away clean. People can’t block you. But in the NFL, even Aaron Donald, people get in front of him. He just has the strength and athletic ability to run through guys. You don’t get many sacks in the NFL just by going clean to the quarterback. You’ve got to fight through contact, play through bodies.”

Ranking the top wide receivers and tight ends in the 2021 NFL Draft: Bob McGinn’s grades are in

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Editor’s note: This is the 37th year Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-2017) and BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-19). Through 2014, scouts often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. This will be a nine-part series, starting with receivers and tight ends.

The NFL Draft is one thing, a football career quite another.

Suffice it to say that it has been a long time since two can’t-miss prospects such as Ja’Marr Chase and Kyle Pitts have surfaced at wide receiver and tight end, respectively, in the same draft.

Scouts are a notoriously independent lot. They spend their existence differentiating one player from another, stating if not arguing their opinions and participating in what ultimately becomes a team’s draft ratings. But when it comes to Chase and Pitts, you can’t find a dissenting voice.

“So glaringly amazing” was how one veteran of 20 scouting years described Pitts, the junior from Florida. Chase, who played at LSU for two seasons before opting out in 2020, is a “modern-day Sterling Sharpe,” according to another.

They both played in the Southeastern Conference, as did all five of the top-rated wide receivers.

“If you perform in big games in the SEC, you’re going to play well in the NFL,” said one personnel evaluator. “The fan level. The interest that you draw. How to handle the public. All those things carry over to the NFL as far as you handle yourself. Some of them are going to fail, but it gives them a better chance, for sure.”

Chase and Pitts both were unanimous choices at their positions in my poll of 16 evaluators over the past three weeks. That hasn’t happened at wide receiver since 2007, when Calvin Johnson came out of Georgia Tech to claim the unanimous vote of 18 scouts. From 2008 to 2020, the only wideout that came within one of vote of unanimity was Michael Crabtree in 2009.

“Chase is one of the best wide receivers in the last 10 years,” said a longtime scout. “He’s as strong as one of those big tight ends. He just goes and takes the ball away. He can take an underneath ball and go 80 yards. He can just run right by you and catch it 60 yards downfield. He’s built like a fullback almost, but can run like a wide receiver. He’s as good as it gets.”

 

 

A.J. Smith, the former general manager of the San Diego Chargers, in 2007 labeled Johnson, aka “Megatron,” as “one of the easiest picks of all time. Who’s the one guy you’re betting the house on will be a performer, won’t embarrass you, won’t get the money and run south? This is the one guy.”

Saddled with the forlorn franchise in Detroit, Johnson walked away after nine seasons with a career that led (in February) to his first-ballot enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Chase seemed to be a no-brainer of a response when scouts were asked to name their top five wide receivers. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second was worth four and so on.

Following Chase, who earned the maximum 80 points from the 16 voters, were: Jaylen Waddle (53), DeVonta Smith (52), Elijah Moore (18), Kadarius Toney (11), Rashod Bateman (11), Rondale Moore (eight), Terrace Marshall (five), Dyami Brown (one) and Amari Rodgers (one).

“Man, it was one of the more impressive pro days I’ve ever seen,” one scout said after attending Chase’s workout on March 31 in Baton Rouge. “Everything looked easy. He was strong. He was fast. I don’t think he sweated the whole workout.

“He jumped 41 (inches) on the vertical, and I think he could have done 43. He ran 3.99 on the short shuttle. Did one rep. I don’t know if he tried real hard. I had 4.38 (in the 40). And he caught the ball really well.”

“I see a smart football player,” said an AFC scout. “That offense they had under (offensive coordinator Joe) Brady the last time he played was an NFL offense. They used him outside, they used him inside. You saw no limitations on what he could do.”

Besides the talent of Chase and the presence of two first-round choices from Alabama, Waddle and Smith, this class of wide receivers is distinguished by its lack of size. If a team looking for a slot receiver can’t come up with one this season, chalk it up to lousy scouting.

Five of the top 10 wideouts measured under 5-foot-10: Waddle, Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore, Rodgers and D’Wayne Eskridge. That equals the number from the last 10 drafts: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (5-foot-9½, 168) in 2019, Phillip Dorsett (5-foot-9½, 184 pounds) in 2015, Brandin Cooks (5-foot-9½, 187) in 2014, Tavon Austin (5-foot-8 ½, 173) in 2013 and Jerrel Jernigan (5-foot-9, 185) in 2011.

Dorsett, Austin and Jernigan were deep disappointments, but some others on the short end of 5-foot-10 have made big splashes. That list includes Tyreek Hill (5-foot-8, 184) and T.Y. Hilton (5-foot-9½, 181). Standing an even 5-foot-10 were Antonio Brown and Tyler Lockett.

“It’s a slot draft,” said another AFC scout. “Historically, yeah, you take them in the third or fourth rounds, but they’re going more in the second now. Waddle’s going in the first. Coordinators are so creative with those guys now.”

At the same time, it’s a rare off year for those preferring Calvin Johnson-like dimensions. There isn’t a top-10 wideout at 6-foot-3 or taller after 23 at that height or taller were slotted in the top 10 over the last 10 drafts.

“The evolution of this game has happened so much right before our guys,” another executive in personnel said. “These slot receivers, from 155 pounds up to 215, are productive, skilled, talented. Every school in the country has three- and four-receiver packages. The truth is, for every good lineman, there’s six wideouts. It is so crazy.”


Meanwhile, an AFC scout turned up his nose when assessing the crop of tight ends.

“There’s the guy at Florida (Pitts) and then a huge gap,” he said. “Then there’s the guy at Penn State (Pat Freiermuth) and another gap. Then it’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.”

Pitts collected every first-place vote in the poll that asked the personnel men to identify their four best tight ends. Pitts and his 64 points were followed by Freiermuth (40), Tommy Tremble (19), Hunter Long (18), Brevin Jordan (16), John Bates (one), Noah Gray (one) and Tre McKitty (one).

The last unanimous pick at tight end was Eric Ebron. The Lions drafted Ebron in 2014 just as they did Brandon Pettigrew in 2009, another unanimous choice.

We’d have to travel back 15 years to pinpoint a tight end (Vernon Davis) that has created a stir like Pitts. My poll had 21 scouts participating in 2006, and Davis got the call from all 21 in a class that included Marcedes Lewis. Davis’ combine workout — 4.38 40, vertical of 42 inches, broad jump of 10-8, 33 reps on the bench — was the best witnessed from a tight end.

“There’s absolutely nothing not to like about this guy,” former Bears GM Jerry Angelo said then. “(Kellen) Winslow II, (Tony) Gonzalez, (Jeremy) Shockey had pretty good speed when they came out, but nobody put up these kinds of numbers. Nobody.”

After playing 14 seasons, Davis finished tied for 10th in receptions by a tight end with 583. His average yards per catch of 13.0 is better than the other nine, indicating how dangerous he was.

Pitts might not be as explosively sudden as Davis, but he was far more versatile and fluent in his assignments, a smoother athlete and a better blocker. Three scouts with 20-plus years in the league all said they had never evaluated a tight end better than Pitts.

“People say, ‘He’s a tight end. They can’t change a game,’” said one longtime executive. “This guy can. I graded Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow II. Especially with the way football is played nowadays, he is just rare. He is a game-changer.”

Perhaps the active player most comparable to Pitts would be the Raiders’ Darren Waller. He had almost identical size (6-foot-6, 240), speed (4.45) and other workout numbers before the Ravens drafted him in the sixth round as a wide receiver in 2015. Since converting to tight end, Waller has posted two gigantic seasons.

“Waller is what you envision when you draft (Pitts),” said an AFC executive. “That’s kind of the floor that you envision.”

If Pitts’ new team frequently detaches him from the formation rather than confining him to a traditional “Y” tight end role, he and Chase certainly should be in the hunt for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Ranking the receivers

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Ja’Marr Chase has breakaway speed. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU (6-foot-0½, 201 pounds, 4.34 40, Round 1 draft grade): Played alongside Justin Jefferson, who went No. 22 to the Vikings in the 2020 draft and had a tremendous rookie season (88 catches, 1,400 yards, seven touchdowns).

“Justin Jefferson ripped up the league this year, but you didn’t even recognize him when you watched LSU,” one scout said alluding to Chase’s phenomenal season in 2019. “Chase was an NFL football player as an 18-year-old. Plays mature. Looks like a guy ready to come in and anchor a passing game, even with the occasional wart. Even if you knock him off his route, he has the strength to get back on schedule.”

The third-year junior from Harvey, La., led all receivers in the 20-yard shuttle (3.99). Will the Bengals select Chase at No. 5, reuniting him with quarterback Joe Burrow?

“If he got tied up with Burrow again, I think he’d have a hell of a career,” a second scout said. “If he goes someplace where they don’t have a quarterback, he’ll struggle. With wide receivers, it’s all about the mindset and the quarterback. He runs with power. He has great quickness. He makes things look easy, and because of it, he’s deceptively quick and fast.”

Part-time starter as a true freshman in 2018, started all 14 games for the national champions in ’19 and opted out of ’20.

“People were a little worried what he would run and what he was going to test,” a third scout said. “Then all his tests and numbers were very good. He just sort of pushes through people. He’s 20 or 30 pounds bigger than DeVonta Smith.”

Finished with 107 receptions for 2,093 yards (19.6) and 23 touchdowns.

“How can you bypass him?” a fourth scout said. “He’s a great player? Sterling Sharpe (5-foot-11½, 207) was a strong guy. There were very few people out there as powerful as Sharpe. This guy’s smoother and more explosive. He ran right by (Alabama’s) Patrick Surtain.”

2. DeVonta Smith, Alabama (6-foot-0, 170, no 40, Round 1): It’s difficult to find a current receiver or one from the past with Smith’s unusual dimensions.

“When (Henry) Ruggs and (Jerry) Jeudy came out last year, I said the best football player was Smith,” said one scout. “Those guys went top 15, but now I don’t know if DeVonta will go top 15 when push comes to shove because he’s 170 pounds. He is rail-thin. Bama was 21 points better than everybody they played. It was a perfect world, and I think life will be a little tougher than what it was this past year.”

Elected not to run the 40 at pro day. Best estimates would be in the 4.4s.

“I don’t worry about his size,” another scout said. “We got (small) guys up here that kick everybody’s butt. Guys are 190, 200 on pro day and they’ll play at 185, 179. They get up here, their diet changes. The way the rules have changed, especially at receiver, those guys aren’t getting heavy collisions anymore. It’s 7-on-7 ball half the time.”

Smith won the most recent Heisman Trophy in lopsided fashion after his 117-reception, 23-touchdown senior season.

“If you were just picking people to play football in the backyard, he’d be the first pick every year,” a third scout said. “He is skinny, but he’s so good. He is strong. Every year he just improved.”

The Amite, La., native finished with 235 receptions for 3,965 yards (16.9 average) and 46 touchdowns.

“He is really a smooth, fluid athlete,” said a fourth scout. “It’s almost effortless. He’s tiny at 170, but he doesn’t get knocked around. He doesn’t get rerouted against press coverage.”

3. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama (5-foot-9½, 180, no 40, Round 1): He’s the premier kick returner in the draft and a dangerous threat from the slot.

“He’s got like eight eyeballs,” said one scout. “He’s got eyes all the way around his head. He’s video game-like, he’s so decisive. You push the little button on your video game and the guy breaks left, right or vertically. Devin Hester was really good, but with him, you didn’t know what you were going to do with him on offense. This guy, you can definitely utilize him on offense.”

Several teams remain concerned about the ankle he had operated on midseason. Third-year junior from Houston posted a total of 106 receptions for 1,999 yards (18.9 average) and 17 touchdowns.

“I think he could play outside,” said a third scout. “To his advantage, you can move him all over the place. He’s a little guy who plays big down the field. His speed is game-changing.”

4. Elijah Moore, Ole Miss (5-foot-9½, 178, 4.35, Round 1 or 2): Third-year junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., posted the fastest 3-cone (6.67) of the leading WRs.

“He’s my favorite player not named Ja’Marr Chase,” one scout said. “My way-too-crazy comparison for him was Antonio Brown. That’s honestly who I think he can be like. I would consider taking him at the end of the first (round). With the size, some people think he can only be a slot receiver. I think he can play inside and outside. He plays really fast. He’s strong.”

His 17 reps on the bench press almost doubled Kadarius Toney’s total (nine). The top three wideouts didn’t lift.

“The (Alabama) guys got all the attention, but this guy isn’t far behind,” said another scout. “He’s a good little player. Fun to watch.”

Started 24 of 32 games over three seasons, catching 189 passes for 2,441 yards (12.9 average) and 16 touchdowns.

“You can find homes for these guys,” said a third scout. “No, I don’t think he’s too small. I just don’t know if he’s special. When I see a small guy, I’ve got to go back to Roscoe Parrish, who athletically was just so dynamic.”

Said a fourth scout: “He’s not explosive (speed-wise), but he has such pace on his routes and stop-start quickness that he gets everybody off balance. Ball skills are natural, fluid. He’s slick with his run after catch. Love him as a player.”

5. Kadarius Toney, Florida (5-foot-11½, 193, 4.37, Round 1 or 2): Played some running back, some wide receiver, some Wildcat quarterback and returned kicks during his first three largely unproductive seasons in Gainesville.

“He wasn’t even rated, but I liked him from the beginning of the (2020) season,” one scout said. “He had some issues as a junior, but he is a tremendous player.”

Was involved in a pair of off-field incidents involving guns in 2018. Some teams are concerned that his interest in the music industry — he has produced some of his own rap music — might be greater than it is for football.

“He is a passionate rap artist,” said another scout. “On green-yellow-red, he’s a yellow … that dude’s explosive. He’s got 10-yard acceleration like (Tyreek) Hill.”

The Mobile, Ala., native broke out as a receiver in 2020. Finished with 120 receptions for 1,490 yards (12.4 average) and 12 touchdowns.

“We would never draft him, but he’s a matchup nightmare for a defense as a slot,” said a third scout. “He’s got excellent ball skills and feel for the position. He’s strong and competitive with the ball in his hands. In the right system, that takes huge advantage of the slot wide receiver, he offers a lot.”

Said a fourth scout: “If I’m looking at him through the eyes of a quarterback, I think he’s kind of hard to read. He does so much shake and bake that you don’t know if he’s going left, right or sitting down. Not to take away from his creativity, but to play within a scheme, you’ve got to stay within your own area with your route. This guy is a little all over the map. His thing is just the change of direction. He is so skilled.”

6. Rashod Bateman, Minnesota (6-foot-0½, 190, 4.45, Round 2): Named MVP of the Gophers’ 11-2 team in 2019 before playing five games without distinction in 2020 and then opting out of the final three games.

“Tale of two seasons,” said one scout. “He was really good last year, but his film this year was awful. The kid kind of totally tanked it. Came into this season overweight and played out of shape.”

Third-year junior with 33-inch arms.

“This year they played him a lot more in the slot, and coming across the middle he didn’t look that confident,” said a second scout. “Last year he attacked it better. He’s a little leggy. He’s not that twitchy, but he can still get some separation. The speed was the biggest issue with him, but he showed enough. His pro day was pretty damn good. If he can go into a place where he isn’t the guy, that would be perfect for him. He could grow into one.”

An exceptional basketball player, Bateman turned down chances to play for major-college programs out of high school in Tifton, Ga.

“He’s got a high drop rate,” said a third scout. “He’s not going to catch across the middle. He’s a man-beater underneath. You don’t see the top receiver traits in this guy.”

Finished with 147 receptions for 2,395 yards(16.3 average) and 19 touchdowns.

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The diminutive Rondale Moore ran a brisk 4.31 40 on his pro day. (Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

7. Rondale Moore, Purdue (5-foot-7, 181, 4.31, Round 2): Led FBS in receptions with 114 as a freshman before hamstring injuries cost him eight games in 2019 and three more in ’20.

“Very quick, very fast, very smart,” said one scout. “Graduated in 2½ years in business sales management. Very confident in his ability. Great on the board explaining their system. Has a history of hamstring (injuries). Whether that shows up at the next level, we’ll see.”

Terrific on pro day with a blistering 40, a 42½-inch vertical jump that led all receivers and a 3-cone of 6.67.

“He’s built so thick lower (body),” said another scout. “You think most small, fast guys are like sports cars that get dinged up all the time. Those guys are tightly wound and so narrow. This guy is built. (Durability) won’t be an issue.”

The New Albany, Ind., native finished with 178 receptions for 1,915 yards (10.8 average) and 14 touchdowns.

“He’s an explosive, fast, competitive guy that catches the ball really well,” said a third scout. “Would have liked to see him play more football. There will be a little hesitation to go there (first round). I see him more 30 to 40.”

8. Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU (6-foot-2½, 205, 4.40, Round 2): Third-year junior operated in the shadows of Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson before becoming the lead dog in 2020.

“He’s got a chance to be like a Brandon Marshall-type player,” one scout said. “He can get vertical. Big target. Needs to work on contested catches. He had a few drops this year but hasn’t had them in the past.”

Has undergone surgery on his leg and foot. Medical reports might play a major role in where he falls in the draft.

“The biggest issue I have with him is he’s not as competitive or fiery as Jefferson and Chase,” a second scout said. “He’s tall, and he can actually run routes and bend for a big guy. Really athletic, but he just drops the ball. He dropped the ball at his pro day.”

Third-year junior from Bossier City, La., posted an impressive vertical jump of 39 and 19 reps on the bench.

“He’s got size and he can run,” said a third scout. “He’s got a lot of potential to be a lot better. It’s hard to say he’s under the radar, but in terms of what he could be, you’d get a really good bargain in Day 2 or 3. He could be a good No. 3 (receiver) and could develop into a No. 1.”

Caught 106 passes for 1,594 yards (15.0 average) and 23 touchdowns.

9. Amari Rodgers, Clemson (5-foot-9½, 212, 4.51, Round 2 or 3): Compared by one scout to former Packer Randall Cobb.

“He’s that type of slot receiver,” he said. “Not great speed, but exceptional quickness. He’s tough and confident. He’s the son of a coach.”

That would be Tee Martin, the Steelers’ fifth-round pick in 1998 as a quarterback and now Ravens assistant coach who threw 16 passes in his brief NFL career. Rodgers made a startling recovery from ACL surgery in spring 2019, returning in time to play 14 of 15 games.

“This guy’s just as good as those Alabama guys,” said a second scout. “He’s built like a running back. Just a good football player. He separates easy at any level. He makes some big-time plays, then he’s got a lot of concentration drops. Plays faster than that (4.51).”

The Knoxville, Tenn., native started three of four seasons, finishing with 181 receptions for 2,144 yards (11.8 average) and 15 touchdowns.

“He reminded me of Christian Kirk,” a third scout said. “Really mature, really smart. He’s not going to be Tyreek Hill. He doesn’t have that type of athletic ability. He’s not freaky fast. Whatever he’s going to be, he’ll be that pretty early in his rookie year. I think it’s a good investment, especially at that position, because so many of them fail for reasons outside of (their) ability.”

10. D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan (5-foot-9, 190, 4.39, Round 2 or 3): One of the leading prospects from the Mid-American Conference.

“There’s always a really good MAC player, and I think he’s one,” one scout said. “A couple years ago (2019), Pittsburgh got Diontae Johnson (Toledo) in the third round. Scotty Miller was one that got some buzz late (2019, sixth round). I think people respect the really good MAC players even though it’s not Power 5. Eskridge impressed me at the Senior Bowl. He has a skill set that says he will make it.”

Bounced between wide receiver and cornerback until 2020.

“He’s like a classic track guy playing receiver as far as the routes and the straight-line (speed) and doesn’t quite know what he’s doing,” said a second scout. “Not the track mentality of toughness. He shows that side of it. He’s a gunner, too, and he does that really well. He is sudden and fast in open space, but I just don’t think he really knows how to play football that well. He’s like a backup gadget-type player.”

The Bluffton, Ind., native finished with 122 receptions for 2,260 yards (18.5 average) and 15 touchdowns.

11. Dyami Brown, North Carolina (6-foot-0½, 189, 4.44, Round 2 or 3): Third-year junior.

“I thought he was just a speed guy who went deep, but he’s a hell of a lot better than that,” said one scout. “There’s a guy somebody could really hit on. He’s got really good hands. He’ll catch in the middle. He can go deep. He just kind of eases by you. He’s smooth as silk. He can make the hard-angle cuts.”

Started 30 of 34 games, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

“He’s a vertical X deep receiver,” another scout said. “His route-running needs a lot of work.”

The Charlotte native finished his career with 123 receptions for 2,306 yards (18.7 average) and 21 touchdowns.

“Build-up speed in a straight line,” said a third scout. “He’s not quick off the ball. His hands are not good at all. Just not a natural football player. It’s not just running by people in the NFL.”

12. Nico Collins, Michigan (6-foot-4, 215, 4.45, Round 3): Biggest of the top 15 wideouts.

“He’s gone through a tremendous maturation process,” said one scout. “The product he is right now, he’s a pro. His commitment level is really strong. He’ll do all the things necessary to maximize who he is. He’s more like a third-round pick, but he can end up being a good No. 2 receiver.”

Failed to catch even 40 passes as a starter in 2018 and ’19 before opting out in 2020.

“He comes out and runs a 4.4, yet when he played, they passed the ball to No. 8 (Ronnie Bell) all the time,” said a second scout. “Bell looked like the best one by far, and they ran Collins on just some up-the-field routes. If he’s that good, why didn’t the coaches try to get the ball to him?”

The Birmingham, Ala., native finished with merely 78 receptions for 1,388 yards (17.8 average) and 13 touchdowns. Has the longest arms (34⅛ inches) among the wideouts.

“His Senior Bowl was average, but he looked pretty damn good at pro day,” said a third scout. “He has natural hands.”

13. Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State (5-foot-11, 194, 4.49, Round 3): Appeared to be a sure-fire first-round draft choice after an 86-catch, 1,491-yard, 12-TD season in 2018. Then he blew out his ACL in November 2019, and it has been a struggle since.

“Watching him work out (at pro day), I’m concerned because he isn’t a dynamic athlete,” one scout said. “Nothing he did wrong. There just wasn’t a lot of juice. Fourth round.”

Bounced back in time to play 10 games in 2020 but missed a game late after spraining the same right knee.

“He knows how to play,” said a second scout. “He has good feel. He just doesn’t have a lot of quickness or burst. He’s one of those guys, he can really make plays in a crowd, but he’s always in a crowd. That’s his problem. He just cannot separate from people. His physical gifts are not there.”

The Fort Worth, Texas, native finished with 205 receptions for 3,434 yards (16.8 average) and 26 touchdowns.

14. Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC (5-foot-11½, 197, 4.60, Round 3 or 4): Declared a year early after starting 23 of 31 games in three seasons.

“Pro’s pro, A-plus intangibles,” said one scout. “He can play the slot. Helps you as a punt returner. Third round.”

Intelligent kid who led the position on the bench press with 20 reps.

“I like how physical he is, how smart he is,” said a second scout. “He’s going to get open. He’s just going to be a very steady, dependable guy.”

Anaheim Hills, Calif., native finished his career with 178 receptions for 2,270 yards (12.8 average) and 16 touchdowns. His 40 time was disappointing.

“His speed didn’t surprise me at all,” a third scout said. “That’s the way he plays. Like there’s nothing there. Average at everything. He’s just a guy.”

Other top receivers: Tutu Atwell, Louisville; Anthony Schwartz, Auburn; Marquez Stevenson, Houston; Simi Fehoko, Stanford; Seth Williams, Auburn; Frank Darby, Arizona State; Trevon Grimes, Florida; Josh Palmer, Tennessee; Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville; Jacob Harris, Central Florida; Tamorrion Terry, Florida State; Jaelon Darden, North Texas; Dazz Newsome, North Carolina; Cornell Powell, Clemson; Cedric Johnson, South Dakota State; Demetric Felton, UCLA.

Ranking the tight ends

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Florida’s Kyle Pitts is the unanimous top tight end among the 16 evaluators. (Randy Sartin / USA Today)

1. Kyle Pitts, Florida (6-foot-5½, 245, 4.43, Round 1): Backed up in 2018, catching three passes in 11 games. Had a strong sophomore season and a 12-touchdown junior year in eight games.

“I don’t need to see the workout — this is the best player in the draft,” said one 20-year scouting veteran. “He’s the most gifted tight end I’ve scouted. (Travis) Kelce and others have developed into really good players, but just as far as coming out, you have to back to Vernon Davis (in 2006). He was more of a big, fast, straight-line guy. Stiff. Or Kellen Winslow II. This guy is much more talented than those guys.

“Playmaker, catches the ball over people and he’ll give effort as a blocker. You don’t want him doing that, but he tries to get on people. He’ll fight you.”

Another scout said Pitts was the best blocking tight end in the draft.

“In ’19, he blocked like crap,” a third scout said. “This year, he defied all the odds, gained some weight and blocked his ass off. Low-maintenance, loves football. I think he had zero drops this year. More fluid than Vernon Davis.”

The Philadelphia native finished with 100 receptions for 1,492 yards (14.9 average) and 19 touchdowns.

“He’s a very talented guy, but it’s not like we’ve never seen this guy before,” said a fourth scout. “Greg Olsen ran 4.44 at 6-foot-5, 250-plus and he’ll be a Hall of Famer. Jimmy Graham. We’ve seen that blend of freakish athlete at tight end. A lot of them have been outside the first round. Look at George Kittle. ‘Gronk’ (Rob Gronkowski). Kelce. (Darren) Waller. (Zach) Ertz. Even Jared Cook, Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas had nice Pro Bowl-level stretches and mismatch speed/athleticism as Day 3 picks.”

2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State (6-foot-5, 251, no 40, Round 2): Declared a year early after his third season was ended after four games by a shoulder injury.

“He’s a willing blocker, but he doesn’t really get it done,” said one scout. “He’s a get-in-the-way, tie-you-up blocker. Really good route runner with natural hands. He’s got no twitch, though. He just uses that size to win the matchups.”

Caught 92 passes for 1,185 yards (12.9 average) and 16 touchdowns.

“He is a conventional tight end,” a second scout said. “Not many people want a conventional tight end. He can catch the ball and has good enough speed. He’ll get open.”

His speed remains a mystery after he chose to do position drills at his pro day but none of the physical tests.

“Probably didn’t run because he’s not fast,” a third scout said.

Hails from an athletic family in Merrimac, Mass.

“He’d fall between Heath Miller and the kid who got drafted by the Bengals (in 2019), Drew Sample,” said a fourth scout. “He’ll be a starter. He’ll be a good, solid player. I don’t know if he’ll ever go to a Pro Bowl. There’s no wow to Freiermuth.”

3. Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame (6-foot-3½, 241, 4.65, Round 3): Redshirted in 2018, mostly started in 2019 and ’20 then bypassed his final two seasons of eligibility.

“They threw the ball to the freshman (Michael Mayer) they think will be the next (Rob) Gronkowski,” said one scout. “I think that’s why he came out. I don’t think they used Tremble as much as they should have.”

The John Creek, Ga., native caught 35 passes for 401 yards (11.5 average) and four TDs.

“He’s a feisty blocker,” said another scout. “High effort. He has that sneaky power to him. He’s had limited production, but that’s not on his end. His hands were all right. You’re betting on the come with his route running and that the athlete will take over. He looked real good running routes at (his) pro day.”

His father, Greg, played 11 games as a safety for the Eagles and Cowboys in 1995. Tommy Tremble also has played fullback, a la Josiah Deguara, the Packers’ third-round draft choice last year.

“Tremble has much more strength and physicality (than Deguara) as a blocker,” said a third scout. “He’s faster. Deguara is a little bit more fluid as an athlete and was a more reliable receiver.”

4. Brevin Jordan, Miami (6-foot-2½, 247, 4.66, Round 3 or 4): Third-year junior, three-year starter.

“If Pitts wasn’t in the draft, Jordan would be the most talented, athletic-type guy,” said one scout. “He can be that move-around guy. He’d never have to leave the field. He tries, too, as a blocker. He works at it. He’s very intriguing.”

The Las Vegas native caught 105 passes for 1,358 yards (12.9 average) and 13 touchdowns. Missed games each season with assorted injuries.

“There’s an incredible upside on his long-term playing career,” said a second scout. “He’s just starting to grow into the position.”

Disappointing 40 reduced his chances for a Day 2 selection.

“He ran OK,” said a third scout. “He’s not running away from the Fred Warners, the Darius Leonards. Good little college player. I just think you’ve got to manufacture that guy getting open.”

5. Hunter Long, Boston College (6-foot-5, 254, 4.71, Round 4): Paced FBS tight ends in 2020 with 57 receptions.

“More of a ‘Y’ who can do the ‘F’ role,” said one scout. “In-line, he’d be a good receiver. The guy can win in the seam. He’ll have a hard time beating the better ’backers in man coverage. He can push to be a starter in ‘12’ personnel in his first year. You’re getting a good, well-rounded, No. 2 tight end.”

Said a second scout: “He’s a lot like Freiermuth. Just a slight step down. He’s a ‘Y’ tight end that’s good at everything. Those guys are hard to find.”

Long hails from Exeter, N.H.

“Just a paint-by-numbers route runner,” a third scout said. “Run out, turnaround-type guy.”

6. Tre’ McKitty, Georgia (6-foot-4, 243, 4.71, Round 4 or 5): Had the biggest hands (10¾) and the most reps on the bench press (23) among the tight ends.

“He’s a little bit of a project who has a lot of upside,” said one scout. “He’s not a freakish athlete, but you see enough traits in there. Nice (catching) radius, big hands. He competed as a blocker.”

The Wesley Chapel, Fla., native spent three seasons at Florida State, starting 19 of 24 games in 2018 and ’19 before transferring. Had just six catches for the Bulldogs, giving him 56 in all for 628 yards (11.2 average) and three touchdowns.

“He wasn’t used well enough at Georgia,” a second scout said. “Athletically, it looks like he belongs. He’s going to need some work. He’s more of a receiving tight end than an in-line blocker.”

Other top tight ends: Kenny Yeboah, Mississippi; Noah Gray, Duke; Quintin Morris, Bowling Green; Luke Farrell, Ohio State; John Bates, Boise State; Nick Eubanks, Michigan; Zach Davidson, Central Missouri State; Kylen Granson, Southern Methodist; Shaun Beyer, Iowa; Pro Wells, Texas Christian; Tony Poljan, Virginia; Matt Bushman, Brigham Young; Jack Stoll, Nebraska; Briley Moore, Kansas State.

The Skinny

Unsung hero

Luke Farrell, TE, Ohio State: Three-year starter on excellent teams in which the tight end wasn’t much of the passing game. Had just 12 receptions in his final two seasons despite starting 22 games. Enhanced his chances for a late-round selection with a functional 40 (4.81) and solid jumps.

“He’s a pro in every way,” said one scout. “He’s not a throwaway athlete as a ‘Y.’”

USATSI_15386368.jpg
 
Ohio State tight end Luke Farrell (right) could be a sneaky-good mid- to late-round pick. (Russell Costanza / USA Today)

Scouts’ nightmare

Tamorrion Terry, WR, Florida State: As Day 3 of the draft moves along, decision-makers will gaze at Terry’s card and his height, weight and speed (6-foot-2½, 207, 4.44) and wonder if he’s worth a shot. Terry had a 1,000-yard season in 2019 after hauling in a host of long bombs. Still, there are distinct questions regarding his ability to handle an NFL system and run an advanced route tree.

Scout to remember

Tom Modrak: A Pittsburgh native, Modrak spent almost 40 years as an NFL personnel man. After 20 seasons with the Steelers, he moved on to become general manager of the Eagles. Within three years, he lost his job in a power grab by coach Andy Reid, then moved on to serve as the Bills’ vice president of college scouting from 2001-11. Modrak was executive director of the BLESTO scouting combine in 2017 when he died of a rare neurological disorder. He was 74. His friendliness was renowned in scouting circles.

Quote to note

AFC scout: “None of these guys really block. The blocking tight end, that day has died. Today, it’s get in the way. They’re not blocking any defensive linemen. They’re just getting in the way.”

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Despite all the love for Phillips, I do not see him having a long nfl career, either due to injury or his other interests.  I can see him being a take the money and run type of player.

I do not think the top 3 guys or so being talked up re edge are in the end going to be the best edge players from this draft.

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2 minutes ago, Beerfish said:

Despite all the love for Phillips, I do not see him having a long nfl career, either due to injury or his other interests.  I can see him being a take the money and run type of player.

I do not think the top 3 guys or so being talked up re edge are in the end going to be the best edge players from this draft.

Agree - He's already had that scare and will be well aware of the risks. He definitely didn't play with any fear since coming back but I do wonder if he was just going all in to get that first NFL contract to get himself some security. 

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I think in the NFL concussed players are brought back way too  soon.

Phillips concessions   happened   a while back at UCLA, which

could have sufficiently healed

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