College football is here and you’ll want to keep tabs on these guys
Some people are soothed by a nice warm bath, maybe a good book in bed, but for me, there’s nothing more comforting than seeing Lee Corso in a mascot head on my television.
We got a taste of college football last week with some Week Zero action, but this week we get the full meal with the official kickoff weekend. That means the NFL Draft season is underway so I figured I’d give Las Vegas Raiders fans a few names to keep an eye on over the next several months.
One note about how I assess draft needs, if a player is on a one-year contract or the last year of his deal, I don’t assume they will be back until an extension is reached. Casey Hayward would be the perfect example of this. Hayward could easily be brought back if he has a good year but until ink meets paper, I’m going to consider cornerback as a need for the Raiders.
Also, I’m well aware that a lot can change between now and late April, but let’s just have some fun and talk some college football, huh?
Interior Offensive Linemen
Richie Incognito is on a one-year deal and will be 39-years-old next season, Denzelle Good is getting up there too and will be a free agent in 2022. Plus, Andre James is an unproven commodity at this point, so the Raiders could easily look for some help up front this offseason.
Kenyon Green, Texas A&M
Kenyon Green is widely considered as one of the top interior offensive linemen and will likely be one of the few players at the position drafted in the first round. He’s got great size at 6’4” and 325 pounds, and he plays with great pad level and understands leverage to be a force as a run blocker. As a pass protector, Green’s combination of strength and athleticism gives him a great anchor and allows him to thwart counter moves.
Per NFL Mock Draft Database (NMDD), the Aggie currently is ranked 11th overall on the consensus big board.
Ikem Ekwonu, NC State
With a mean streak and the mentality to finish blocks, Ikem Ekwonu is a mauler in the run game. He also has experience playing tackle and Pro Football Network’s Oliver Hodgkinson called Ekwonu this year’s version of Alijah Vera-Tucker.
The NC State product has a strong punch in pass protection but needs to work on his hand placement. That’s part of the reason why he struggled in this area last year statistically, allowing seven sacks and 25 pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
NMDD has Ekwonu ranked 35th on the consensus big board.
Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa
PFF’s Mike Renner has some strong praise for Tyler Linderbaum:
Linderbaum may overtake Frank Ragnow to end up the best true center prospect we’ve scouted in the PFF college era so far. He’s earned overall grades of 81.7 and now 91.5 in his two years as a starter. Linderbaum is one heck of an athlete for the position and has been able to maintain that while putting on 20-plus pounds from his first season as the starter.
Probably the biggest knock on the Hawkeye is his size. He’s only listed at 290 pounds so he has some room for growth, however, it hasn’t appeared to affect his play strength very much and may not be that big of a deal. In other words, Linderbaum doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses.
NMDD has him ranked 28th on the consensus big board.
Literally every defensive tackle on Las Vegas’ roster is on a one-year deal, so this one should be pretty self-explanatory.
DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M
DeMarvin Leal was one of the most fun players I watched during my summer scouting session. He has impressive strength to defeat one-on-one blocks against the run and win with a dirty push/pull move as a pass rusher. Also, he has experience playing multiple spots on the defensive line, giving him some position versatility.
My biggest concern with Leal is his get-off. He’s not exactly swift off the ball and has a habit of standing up out of his stance, which causes issues against double teams. However, that’s very fixable and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rectify that this season.
NMDD has Leal ranked seventh on the consensus big board.
Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma
At 6’4” and 297 pounds, Perrion Winfrey has the rare combination of size and athletic ability. He stands out on tape because he’s able to move in a way that seems physically impossible and consistently collapses the pocket as a pass rusher. However, Winfrey’s athleticism is also tied to his weakness.
Per The Draft Network’s Drae Harris, the Sooner relies a little too much on his physical gifts and has some technical issues. Also, his instincts could use some fine-tuning as he has a tendency to end up in the wrong gap.
NMDD has Winfrey ranked 33rd on the consensus big board.
Jordan Davis, Georgia
Jordan Davis is a prospect that could have declared last year and likely would have been a decently high draft pick, but he opted to go back to school. Playing as a three- or one-tech at Georgia, he’s a stout run defender and will force offenses to check and see where he’s lined up pre-snap and audible to the other direction.
However, Davis struggles to generate pressure as a pass rusher outside of using a push/pull move and might be more of a two-down player. That’s likely why he decided to go back to Athens as the Bulldog will look to add another move or two to his pass rush arsenal.
NMDD has Davis ranked 45th on the consensus big board.
I mentioned Hawyard’s contract situation above and Trayvon Mullen is set to be a free agent after the 2022 season. Damon Arnette is still a question mark and lost his starting job, so it would behoove Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock to at least explore the cornerback market this offseason.
Kaiir Elam, Florida
When I was watching Kaiir Elam this summer, the first thing that crossed my mind is he’d be perfect for the Raiders. He’s long – 6’2” – can run and excels in both zone and man coverage.
Elam’s eye discipline and peripheral vision allow him to eye the quarterback and still be able to recognize and drive on routes. Plus, he has excellent timing at the catch point to force incompletions.
My two biggest knocks on the Florida product are his press coverage skills and tackling. He lacks the strength to reroute receivers at the line of scrimmage and has a habit of diving at the ball carrier’s feet when tackling.
NMDD has Elam ranked ninth on the consensus big board.
Andrew Booth, Clemson
A marquee player from Clemson, need I say more?
At 6’0” and 200 pounds, Andrew Booth has good but not elite size for the NFL. That combined with some impressive physicality allows him to thrive in contested catch situations. He also has the long speed to help take away deep routes.
Booth does have some discipline issues, though. He has a tendency to bite on double moves and route fakes, and his football IQ is not up to snuff. More reps should help with that, but discipline remains a weakness for him until proven otherwise.
NMDD has the Clemson product ranked 16th on the consensus big board.
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Cincinnati
Aside from having an elite nickname, Sauce Gardner has an impressive profile that should translate well to the next level. In a lot of ways, he’s pretty similar to Elam. Gardner is listed 6’3” and 200 pounds and has good instincts and timing to get pass breakups.
Per PFN’s Ian Cummings, the Bearcat doesn’t have a ton of “weaknesses” per se, but he does have a few areas that he can improve on to solidify his status as an elite corner prospect. Gardner’s long speed is more solid than good and he has the typical tall corner issue when changing direction, where he needs to drop his hips more to get lower and be more efficient.
NMDD has Sauce ranked 20th on the consensus big board.
Yannick Ngakoue, Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell are all scheduled to be free agents after the 2022 season. So, it would be wise of the Raiders to at least explore the position during the draft process to make sure there’s an insurance plan if only one or none of those three can be retained.
Granted, EDGE is far from a pressing need so I went a little deeper on the draft board to list a few names that might be closer to Day Two or Three picks.
George Karlaftis, Purdue
When I watched George Karlaftis as a true freshman, he popped off the screen with his ability to win with power as a pass rusher. He finished that year with 55 total pressures, per PFF, and seven and a half sacks. However, a leg injury and a bout with COVID-19 held him to just three games as a sophomore and stunted his growth.
Karlaftis only managed to generate eight pressures and two sacks last year, creating some ambiguity about his pedigree as a draft prospect. Also, his block recognition can sometimes be hard to watch which causes him to struggle against the run.
NMDD does have Karlaftis ranked 14th on the consensus big board but personally, I think he’s more of an early second-round prospect at the moment.
Brenton Cox Jr., Florida
Brenton Cox Jr. is a versatile defender who has the athletic ability to drop into coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker and the strength to hold up at the point of attack as a 4-3 defensive end. He also has a handful of pass rush moves that he can win with like a spin move or bull rush. Against the run, Cox is a strong tackler that can bring just about any ball carrier down.
However, the Gator’s instincts are probably his biggest weakness. He can play with reckless abandon that can open up rushing lanes against the run. As a pass rusher, his bend could use some work to be able to win on the outside more frequently.
NMDD has Cox ranked 53rd on the consensus big board.
Xavier Thomas, Clemson
To say that Xavier Thomas is an interesting draft prospect is kind of an understatement. He came to Clemson as a five-star recruit and the No. 3 player in the country and had a solid freshman year with 26 pressures and eight and a half tackles for loss.
Then, his sophomore year was alright but a little disappointing as he recorded only one more pressure and had eight TFLs while taking about 120 more snaps. Complications with COVID-19 and strep throat held Thomas to only seven games and about 120 snaps last year, so his production was understandably way down from his first two seasons.
In summary, the Clemson product has plenty of potential that NFL general managers and scouts could fall in love with, but his overall production leaves something to be desired.
NMDD has Thomas ranked 96th on the consensus big board.