It’s that time of year. So here’s the first of my “What I’m Hearing” columns for draft week …
• Tiebreakers are sometimes needed at the top of the draft. And when it comes to which offensive lineman goes first Thursday, the medical piece of the equation could be a big one. A handful of teams have raised knee and hip issues to me concerning Alabama OT Evan Neal, with a good number of clubs considering him a notable medical risk.
That doesn’t mean Neal won’t have a good, long career. But I could absolutely see where Jacksonville or Houston, or another team, may look at Neal versus NC State OT Ickey Ekwonu, who has a very clean medical, and take the guy who’s a better bet to last.
I believe Neal and Ekwonu and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross will, for what it’s worth, all wind up going inside the top six picks, so it’s not like I believe that Neal is going to fall too far because of how his medicals came back. That said, I do think his medicals could wind up pushing him down a couple of picks from where he would have gone otherwise. Which, at the level of the draft, can wind up costing a player a few million bucks.
• The medical also figures to affect the off-ball linebacker market. As we mentioned in the MMQB column, Georgia star Nakobe Dean has a laundry list of issues that aren’t disqualifying. However, in totality, they are troubling, given that he’ll enter the league as a smaller player at his position. Utah’s Devin Lloyd has questions in that regard, as well. And that’s left Dean’s teammate Quay Walker as a contender to go first at the position.
The questions with Walker are more about his football IQ and how quickly he’ll pick up an NFL defense. Yes, I have played in a pro-style scheme at Georgia. But he didn’t become a starter, despite being 6’4″ and 241 pounds and running a 40-yard dash in the 4.5s, until his fourth season in Athens.
• One guy who has really helped himself this spring is Penn State WR Jahan Dotson. I think there’s a good shot he’ll be the fifth receiver off the board Thursday night, and that’s even though, at a shade under 5’11”, he may strictly be a slot in the NFL.
“The knock is he’s short,” an NFC GM said. “But with the speed, the route-running, I think he might have the best hands in the whole draft. Add all that up, and you see a guy who makes sense at the end of the first round.”
Along those lines, Dotson’s 4.43 40-yard dash will likely stand as one of the most impactful of this year’s combine, mostly because it allowed teams to see the rest of the picture with him in a different light. Before that, many believed Dotson was ordinary, physically speaking.
• Corners keep coming up with Houston. On Monday, we mentioned how the Texans have been said to be high on LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. in NFL circles. You can throw Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner in that mix, too. Thing is, I’m not sure they’d take either at No. 3, and both will almost certainly be gone at 13. Or … maybe because of that, they would take one at three?
(For what it’s worth, Washington’s Trent McDuffie profiles as an excellent fit, too.)
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• Following up on our Jameson Williams timeline nugget (you can find it in this week’s MAQB), Michigan rusher David Ojabo’s in a similar spot—coming back from a torn Achilles suffered at his pro day in early March. So when will he be back? The good news is that information NFL teams have indicates his surgery went well and his comeback is off to a good start.
“Once it’s healed, it shouldn’t be an issue,” an AFC GM said.
But as is the case with Williams, the team that drafts Ojabo will have to be OK losing a chunk of his rookie year. And because it’s a torn Achilles, and the fact that it came later in the calendar, one team told me it was viewing him as a likely true redshirt for 2022. We’ll see whether he can get back faster than that.
• Someone brought up an interesting point to me Tuesday morning—that the Steelers rarely hide their intentions in sending their top people out to pro days. Over the years, they’ve had boots on the ground for those they’ve drafted in the first round.
That’s relevant now, since GM Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin were front and center at Liberty’s pro day in March, when they could’ve been at Iowa State, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Texas A&M or Virginia Tech checking out multiple prospects. They chose to go watch Malik Willis at a place where no other prospects mattered. It doesn’t mean they’ll take him, but I bet we’ll circle back to that if they do.
That is, again, if you trust that Pittsburgh doesn’t play the subterfuge game like others.
• Here’s a player the NFL might be a little higher on than you think—Florida CB Kaiir Elam. The former Gator star ran faster than anyone thought he would in Indy (4.39), and he has good size (he’s a shade under 6’2″, 191 pounds). He also crushed meetings with teams, coming off every bit the savvy NFL legacy (his dad is former Jets S Abe Elam, and his cousin is former Ravens first-round pick Matt Elam) that he is.
• And among the players that may be a little overhyped—Purdue’s George Karlaftis. Going back to the fall, I can’t remember hearing many, if any, NFL people talking about him like he’d be a first-round pick. And my guess right now is that he won’t be.
• As has been expected, with 12 picks and two first-rounders in the chamber, the Chiefs have started to call teams through the 20s about trading up. It might be for a receiver. But I wouldn’t rule out an aggressive move for a corner or pass rusher either. And it’s possible Kansas City will jump from Nos. 29 or 30 up, 10 spots or so, then leap again.
What seems certain is that GM Brett Veach won’t stay static. And part of that, for sure, is that the Chiefs probably don’t have room on their roster for 12 rookies to make the team.
More NFL draft coverage:
• Draft Preview: Rumors for 32 Teams; Jaguars’ Prep at No. 1
• Why Pass Rushers Will Rule the NFL Draft
• Aidan Hutchinson’s Rise to the Top of the Draft
• Kayvon Thibodeaux Hears His Critics and Has a Plan
• Meet Matt Araiza, Punt God