Over the last few months I have been watching, evaluating, and grading prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft class. I have about 60-70 players evaluated, and while I am a bit behind some of the internet's draft "experts," I feel like I have a good grasp on the positions of need for the Dallas Cowboys.
With the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine beginning this week, I thought it would be a good time to share my first top 25 "big board" of the draft season.
These are, regardless of position, the best 25 players in the draft class in my opinion. And of course, there are some familiar names I've discussed at length here at Inside The Star.
1. Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame OL
This one is easy. Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is the best player in this draft class. He is a special talent, and the most complete offensive line prospect in years. If Nelson fails in the league, there's really no hope for draft evaluators, because he looks as sure as it gets.
2. Roquan Smith, Georgia LB
Though I believe Roquan Smith is clearly a top 5 player in this class, his evaluation has actually become a bit controversial recently. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah dropped him out of his top 15 altogether, and others have wondered about his fit in the NFL due to size concerns. Smith is incredibly athletic and displays exceptional instincts as a linebacker. He should be a day one starter and a stud at WILL in the NFL.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama DB
Minkah Fitzpatrick is another high-profile defensive prospect which has caused much discussion. The Alabama defensive back possesses the versatility to play all over a defense, but was used primarily as a safety in college. A good rule of thumb: if Nick Saban plays you somewhere, that's probably your best position. Fitzpatrick is my top graded defensive back in this draft class.
4. Bradley Chubb, NC State EDGE
Bradley Chubb continues this run on defensive players, coming in as the top graded EDGE. While I don't think Chubb is the prospect that Joey Bosa or Myles Garrett were, he does warrant a top five pick this year and is far and away the best defensive end in his class.
5. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
The 2018 draft class has been heralded for its quarterbacks for over a year. And while most seem to believe that USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, or even Wyoming's Josh Allen is the top QB, I see Baker Mayfield as QB1. Mayfield has all of the intangibles you want to see in a QB - from his competitiveness to his leadership - and possess immense talent as well. Though knocked for his height, I believe Mayfield can be a top-tier quarterback down the road if drafted to the right situation.
6. Derwin James, FSU DB
Similar to Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James faces questions about what position he will play in the NFL. To me, James is an athletic box safety that both challenge tight ends in the passing game and makes an impact against the run. He is going to kill the combine this week, and I doubt he makes it out of the top 15 picks.
7. Josh Rosen, UCLA QB
Talked about as a future NFL starter since he was in high school, quarterback Josh Rosen is the 7th best player on my board. The dream scenario for Rosen would be for the Browns to pass on him, and the Giants to snag him 2nd overall. Here he could develop behind the aging Eli Manning for the time being, and become their starting quarterback relatively quickly.
8. Denzel Ward, Ohio State CB
Though two defensive backs are ranked ahead of him, Ohio State's Denzel Ward is "CB1" on my board. Ward is an undersized, yet sticky coverage corner who wins with toughness, ball skills, and overall quickness. Ohio State has become "DBU" as of late, and Ward continues that tradition this year.
9. Maurice Hurst, Michigan DT
There has been a lot of disagreement within Cowboys Nation about Maurice Hurst, but all I see is a very good player and the best 3-technique in the class. Hurst's get-off, hands, quickness, and awareness make him a terror on the inside. Hurst is quick enough to penetrate and decimate the run game while also being a very impressive interior pass rusher.
10. Lamar Jackson, Louisville QB
Sorry Bill Polian, Louisville's Lamar Jackson is QB3 on my draft board, and there's a chance he's higher when it's all said and done. Lamar Jackson does have some room for improvement as a passer, but his flashes are as good as anyone in this class. He can certainly "handle" being a pocket passer in the NFL, and he is one of the most dynamic quarterback prospects in a long time.
11. Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB
Compared to consensus I'm low on Saquon Barkley, but I still believe he will be a good pro. Barkely's vision and decision-making are questionable at times, but his athleticism and overall talent level warrant him consideration in the top 15.
12. Isaiah Wynn, Georgia OL
Isaiah Wynn was the best offensive lineman on one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL at Georgia. Moving inside to guard, Wynn becomes my clear OL2 in the draft class, as I believe he possesses the traits needed to be a dominant interior offensive lineman.
13. Vita Vea, Washington DT
Vita Vea's traits are off the charts. Powerful enough to embarrass offensive linemen while also unbelievably athletic for his weight, Vea can be a really good pro if he can get his technique down and remain consistently productive.
14. Harold Landry, Boston College EDGE
If we were just drafting off 2016 tape, Harold Landry might be a top 10 pick. But after being plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, Landry may drop in the 2018 NFL Draft. He's still a top 15 player on my board, however, as I believe his pass rushing traits will translate well to the NFL.
15. Calvin Ridley, Alabama WR
The best receiver on my board, Calvin Ridley is a ready-made Z receiver at the next level. His speed, route running skills, and ability to create separation make him a sure-fire first round pick in this draft class.
16. Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech LB
Edmunds is not the polished football player that Roquan Smith is, but his athletic traits and ceiling make him a real top 10-15 target for NFL teams. Edmunds looks like he was made in a lab, and once his football ability matches his freakish gifts, he can be a fantastic player.
17. Mike Hughes, UCF CB
Though there are certainly questions about his off-field history, Mike Hughes is still graded as the second best cornerback on my board. Like Denzel Ward, Hughes is undersized, but he had no issues in coverage against bigger wide-outs in college. Hughes is the best press-man corner in this draft class, while Ward excels much more in off-coverage.
18. Jaire Alexander, Louisville CB
He's not the best cornerback in this draft, but Jaire Alexander is certainly my favorite corner in it. Alexander will bring a different attitude to your defense from day one, and with his toughness and coverage abilities I think Alexander is a first round prospect.
19. Da'Ron Payne, Alabama DT
If Da'Ron Payne is the player we saw during the College Football Playoff, 19 might be too low for him. But when you take a look at the totality of his play at Alabama, 19 feels about right. He's not nearly as consistent as you'd hope, but his flashes are as good as any defensive tackle in this loaded interior class.
20. James Daniels, Iowa OL
James Daniels is a plug and play starter on the interior, and will especially excel in a zone blocking scheme. Excellent on reach blocks and when executing outside zone, Daniels is a balanced and fluid athlete on the inside. He is also a rather powerful blocker, and is OL3 in this draft class.
21. Josh Jackson, Iowa CB
Daniels' teammate, cornerback Josh Jackson is almost everything you want in a first round corner. As of right now, he is too much of a liability as a tackler and against the run for me to put him above these other defensive backs, however. Even with that being said, I still believe he has the makings of a potential star corner in the NFL.
22. Sam Darnold, USC QB
I'm lower on Darnold than most seem to be, but I still think he has the chance to be a very good NFL starting quarterback. I think his decision-making is very questionable, and he was a bit too turnover prone for my liking, but I won't be mad at a time for taking him early in the draft.
23. Will Hernandez, UTEP OL
Will Hernandez is an absolute mauler as a run blocker, and with his powerful hands, quick feet, and strong base, Hernandez will be a quality guard for a long time in the NFL.
24. Ronald Jones, USC RB
How much better is Saquon Barkley than Ronald Jones? Yes, I really mean that question. I think both can be excellent pro running backs, but Jones' late first-early second round value could turn out to be sky-high.
25. DJ Moore, Maryland WR
DJ Moore is a short receiver, something teams tend to avoid, but with his route running ability, instincts, and overall speed, Moore is a late first round prospect on my board. Plus he is someone I'd love to see fall to the Cowboys in the second round.
Could Cowboys Take Another 2nd Round Risk On DT Jeffery Simmons?
The Dallas Cowboys have taken a few risks when on the clock in the second round of the NFL Draft in recent years. Randy Gregory and Jaylon Smith, both important starters on defense, were drafted to the Cowboys after they went down on many teams' draft boards. In 2019, they'll have the opportunity to take yet another risk. Recently, one of the best defensive tackles in this year's class, Jeffery Simmons, suffered a torn ACL while going through a drill during his workout in Florida.
Simmons took to Twitter to share the unfortunate news that will drastically affect his draft stock only a couple of months before the Draft.
Before the injury, Jeffery Simmons was seen as a top draft prospect. Some even envisioned him being drafted in the top 10. As a 21-year old defensive tackle from Mississippi State, Simmons had an impressive career during his time in college football. In three seasons he managed to rack up 157 tackles and seven sacks.
If one thing is clear it's that the Mississippi State product will be an impact player when he gets on the field on Sundays. His quick reaction on the get-off will still interest a lot of teams despite his injury. A sound defender on the running and passing game, he'll pay big dividends for whichever team decides to pull the trigger on him come April.
Due to their recent second round draft history, I can't help but wonder if the Dallas Cowboys will consider him when they're on the clock in the second round. This year though, there will be a big difference. Pick #58 will be the first time the Cowboys will be on the clock in this year's draft after trading away their first rounder for Amari Cooper last year.
It will be tough for them to wait until the third round to pick a player they could actually put on the field for the 2019 season. Specially considering the fact that they're a football team with title aspirations this year. Despite their history and the fact that Simmons will be one hell of a pro, I believe the team will not want to make such a pick in the second without a first round selection.
The team has a big need at DT, although Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins were very serviceable in 2018. We'll see how tempted they are if Jeffery Simmons is still on the board when they're on the clock.
Cowboys Draft: Film Notes on Maryland Safety Darnell Savage Jr.
The Dallas Cowboys defense was one of the better units throughout the season, but it wasn't without its flaws. An area where they struggled was in creating turnovers and at times against the run. As good as they were in 2018, they have positions where they can use upgrades; defensive tackle and safety. Xavier Woods showed a lot of promise in his second season with the Dallas Cowboys and should continue to be a prominent player moving forward, but Jeff Heath's full-time role may have run its course. Today we're going to look at Darnell Savage Jr, safety from Maryland.
Per College Football Reference, Darnell Savage Jr. stands at 5-11 and weighs in right at 200 pounds. In his last three years at Maryland he played in 35 games. He averaged 56.67 tackles, 2.67 interceptions (3.5 per season over his last two seasons and four in his senior season), and three tackles for loss over his final three seasons. He had eight pass deflections as a junior and two more as a senior.
Savage could be a player that's in play for the Dallas Cowboys at number 58 of the second round.
I watched the Texas and Temple Games from 2018.
Darnell Savage Jr. Film Notes
- Maryland lined him up in two-deep cover two looks a lot and dropped him into different coverages. From his two-deep alignment, he would move into cover-3, cover-4, and man coverages.
- Temple or Texas looked to avoid him as part of their game plans. The one time the either Texas or Temple through his way, he came down from his 2-deep look into man coverage and jumped a five yard out route and intercepted the pass, taking it to the end zone for a touchdown.
- He's excellent in diagnosing bubbles screens and swing passes. On several occasions he met the ball carrier five yards behind the line of scrimmage and dropped him for a loss.
- Savage wraps up in the open field against. Once he diagnoses the play, he gets moving toward the ball in a flash.
- Willing to take on bigger blockers and receivers with the ball in their hands. Stymied the 6-4 225 pound Lil' Jordan Humphrey from Texas on a bubble screen after Humphrey had broken one tackle. Savage wrapped him up and brought him to the ground.
- Temple attempted to run a reverse after the hand off and Savage came all the way from across the field to meet the runner for a six yard loss.
- Plays with excellent speed and aggressiveness when he sees the play. Sometimes Savage gets caught watching the action on his side of the field and doesn't recognize what is happening in the middle or opposite side of the field.
- Several times on the read-option, it appeared that he didn't recognize that the QB had given the ball away. It could be that he was schemed to take the quarterback, but one time the runner went against the grain to Savage's side of the field and he was unable to get to him before he scored a short touchdown.
- Maryland had Savage cover tight ends and wide receivers and again, Temple and Texas didn't throw his way much at all.
- Again, in a two-deep safety look came up from 10 yards deep to make a play on a toss to the running back and tackled him for a four yard loss. It's dangerous to run things to the perimeter with this guy. If he gets to the line of scrimmage unblocked, he's bringing you down.
- When blocked on runs to the perimeter, he does a good job of stringing the play to the outside. Savage works his blocker and doesn't give up on the play. He fights to get unblocked in order to make a play.
- When a team runs play action or hands the ball off out of shotgun or pistol formations, Savage is slower to react and diagnose the play. He'll need to get quicker in processing what's happening there at the next level.
- One of the more impressive plays I saw him make was on a trick play. Temple attempted to run a wide receiver pass to the outside. Everyone bought the wide receiver reverse and even Savage did too, but was able to use his quickness and speed to make up five yards of separation that the Temple receiver had on him to be in good coverage. The Temple receiver wasn't able to come down with the catch and Savage's coverage affected that.
Darnell Savage Jr. doesn't have a ton of height, but he's an explosive player who can play down in the box and in two deep looks for the Cowboys. He's a guy that would pair well with Xavier Woods as you could use those two interchangeably depending on the matchup you face week-to-week. He's an aggressive player who uses his speed to get into the play and cause disruption. Savage could be around for the Dallas Cowboys at 58 and if they don't sign one of the big name free agent safeties, should be the selection. If he isn't a day one starter, he'd be starting by the end of the season.
Pre-Combine Position Rankings: Sorting Out The Tight Ends
It's pretty much universally agreed that the Dallas Cowboys have a need for a starting tight end, particularly one who can stretch the field as a receiving threat.
Despite not having a first round pick, this class should give the Cowboys an opportunity to add tight end talent to their roster through the NFL Draft.
Will that be TE1 talent, though? Or will it just be another replacement-level tight end on a roster which already seems full of them?
Let's get into my top 5 tight ends of this 2019 class, and see what they could potentially bring to the Cowboys this season and beyond.
1. TJ Hockenson, Iowa
The clear TE1 in this class is TJ Hockenson. The 2018 John Mackey Award winner earned his way to the top of this list with his versatility, lining up in-line and as a slot receiver for Iowa during his college career.
At 6'5" 243 pounds, Hockenson looks like he was made in a tight-end producing lab, and he has the athleticism and ability to maximize his build.
In the run game TJ Hockenson is a good blocker, showcasing excellent effort and competitiveness through his blocks. A technical route runner with good hands, a plus-catch radius, and legitimate yards-after-catch ability, Hockenson has a chance to be the very first offensive skill player off the board this Spring.
2. Noah Fant, Iowa
Hockenson's teammate at Iowa, Noah Fant, comes in at number two on my tight end rankings. While Hockenson is the more well-rounded of the two players, Fant certainly has more athletic upside. I expect him to test better than Hockenson will at the combine, and has the receiving skills to be a real threat at the next level.
Noah Fant fits the bill for a modern NFL tight end, flexing out wide and threatening defenses vertically with his receiving ability. A long player with good route running ability and speed, Fant is able to create separation against defensive backs in a variety of ways.
Fant is far from a one-trick pony, and would be an excellent addition to a Cowboys offense which is yearning for this type of flex-threat from the tight end position.
Unfortunately, he won't last anywhere near 58th overall.
3. Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Can I interest you in a tight end who averaged 16.3 yards per catch and scored 7 touchdowns last season? If so, meet Alabama's Irv Smith Jr.
Smith is the number three tight end on my board entering the combine, and I really don't expect him to drop whatsoever in the coming months. Smith is an athletic player who runs good routes and offers excellent run blocking ability. He's not as refined as Hockenson nor as athletic/explosive as Fant, but he combines the in-line and flex abilities of the two to a certain extent.
Smith is the first somewhat-plausible target for the Cowboys on this list, though I'd still be surprised if he lasted until 58th overall.
4. Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Jace Sternberger came out of nowhere last season at Texas A&M. Relatively unknown before the 2018 season, Sternberger finished the year with 800+ yards and 10 touchdowns on 48 catches, and earned All-American honors for his production.
Now he has a chance to be a second round pick in the 2019 draft, and is finding himself mocked to the Cowboys by many major draft media outlets. Sternberger fits the prototype of the modern receiving tight end, with better speed and hands than most others in his class. Though he is still raw in many areas, his upside is intriguing, and there's no doubt he's a pretty good player as is.
Like the first three, it's hard to imagine I will move Sternbeger any lower than fourth in this class, and he is a legitimate option for the Cowboys 58th overall.
5. Isaac Nauta, Georgia
While the first four tight ends on this list will make their money with their passing game production, Georgia's Isaac Nauta looks like more of an old-school run blocker. Nauta is right up there with any tight end in this class in terms of blocking, and would be an immediate contributor to the Cowboys' run game in that area.
He's still growing in multiple areas as a receiver, however, such as his route running and yards-after-catch ability. Still, I think Nauta is much better as a receiver than his college production would suggest. He, like others in that talented Georgia offense, got lost in the shuffle a bit, and didn't get the number of targets he could have seen elsewhere.
There's a real possibility Nauta is available at 58 when the Cowboys pick, and I wouldn't be surprised if he were the pick either.
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