Some stories to watch as the NFL draft season heats up
This is the time of year when the NFL draft “season” really heats up.
The Combine starts in less than two weeks (Feb. 28 to March 6) and will be followed by school and team pro days and individual workouts.
And at least one prospect will dominate the sports news cycle for a little while for all the wrong reasons. And several under-the-radar prospects will suddenly become hot names and surge up draft boards.
Let’s try to predict some potential story lines to watch for in the coming weeks and months leading up to the NFL draft:
Offensive tackle Dawand Jones of Ohio State isn’t exactly falling under the radar, but he’s received a surprisingly low amount of attention thus far. Expect that to change during the weigh-ins at the Combine.
Here is Jones’ Senior Bowl measurements: 6-foot-8, 375-pounds with an arm length of 36 5/8-inches, a hand size that measured 11 3/8-inches and an astonishing wingspan of 89 1/2-inches. Not a surprise, but those were the high marks at the Senior Bowl.
The most shocking part? Jones isn’t some giant stiff on the field, either. He only got in one practice at the Senior Bowl before what was reported as a minor injury, so he sat out the rest of the practices and the game. Otherwise, the right tackle widely received high marks for that one day of practice and was said to have dominated during pass protection and inside run drills.
Two more players, both in the secondary, came away from the Senior Bowl with fantastic measurables, including Kansas State cornerback Julius Brents (6-foot-3, 202 pounds; wingspan of 82 7/8-inches) and safety J.L. Skinner of Boise State (6-foot-4, 211-pounds). If either play can run a decent 40 at the Combine, then either could rocket up draft boards.
Size but injury history
Jones is listed by Texas A&M at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, but even if he measures slightly shorter, Jones just looks big on the field. He started out the season ranked as a potential first-round player in the Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board but has since fallen down the rankings, due in part to a season in which Jones just wasn’t tested that often. Plus, Jones only played in six games due to minor injuries.
And the problem with the school-listed 6-foot-3, 219-pound Duncan was that he was considered an elite athlete who was not quite yet the sum of his parts. He had a solid senior season, but his stats were down from a year ago as he finished with 44 tackles and failed to record an interception for the first time in his career. Duncan has also missed at least four games in three of his five seasons at Louisville.
Both players will need a clean bill of health in the coming weeks. If that happens and they both perform well in drills and the 40, both players should move up draft boards.
Tight end Darnell Washington has already generated some buzz while playing for Georgia thanks in part to his size at an unofficial 6-foot-7, 275-pounds. He’s a fluid athlete for his size and a terrific blocker, making him the equivalent to having a sixth lineman on the field.
Darnell Wright of Tennessee, though, is actually the higher-ranked player of the two, and he helped himself during Senior Bowl practices as the 6-foot-5, 342-pound offensive tackle moved surprisingly well for his size. Wright could easily sneak into the bottom half of the first round.
Don’t Forget About Me!
Billingsly, though, first landed in Nick Saban’s doghouse at Alabama, then transferred to Texas before the 2022 season. However, he was forced to sit out the first six games due to suspension (for unknown reasons), then barely played when he returned. Instead of returning or transferring to another school, Billingsley entered the draft. However, many prominent NFL draft analysts though Billlingsley was a first-round talent entering the 2021 season.
Gaye, meanwhile, just hasn’t been as productive as hoped – but he certainly looks the part at 6-foot-6, 250-pounds. People thought he might be a Danielle Hunter starter kit entering this current season after racking up 2.5 sacks in four games before injuries cost him the rest of the year. Alas, Gaye was only able to duplicate those sack numbers this past season while playing almost three-times more games. Therefore, Gaye has first-round traits but Day 3 stats.
And finally, THT was always known as a terrific, feisty corner who could play slot or the boundary despite his listed size of 5-foot-9, 180-pounds. That’s already on the border of draftability, and if Hodges-Tomlinson measures any shorter, then he could wind up going undrafted. Either way, expect his size to be more of a discussion in the coming weeks than, say, the size of Kansas State RB Deuce Vaughan, mainly because there’s no such thing as a “change of pace” cornerback.
Mock draft central
A couple of mock drafts have come out recently.
Jake Rigdon (@jrigdon73) covers the NFL draft for Fanspeak.com. He also covers the NFL draft from a Dallas Cowboys perspective in this subReddit. And his big board is updated at least once per week during the season and leading up to the draft.