With the NFL Draft behind us, I break down bust candidates and underrated picks.
I think Uche is relatively little known because a bevy of variables curtailed his playing time at Michigan: some injuries, a nasty virus, initial lack of size, early problems in run defense and in coverage, playing with a loaded group of teammates.
His lack of notoriety may encourage a misleading perception of him as a limited and undersized former three-star prospect who can only rush the quarterback and can only use his speed to do so. While he didn’t really play much until 2019, he has, indeed, always flourished as a pass-rushing specialist.
Based on his rate of quarterback pressures and sacks per snap, he was one of PFF’s most productive pass rushers. Uche’s improvement against the run and huge development — IQ-wise and otherwise — in coverage justified his full-time role.
His speed and movement in coverage makes him useful in covering tight ends and running backs. He’s also famous for tracking down speedster KJ Hamler (although the pass was a bit underthrown).
With a growing variety of moves beyond his signature bull rush, his conversion of speed into power, and his very high-percentile length, he earns a lot of tackles for loss. Quick and heavy hands and bend helped him earn college football’s highest win rate in the past two years. He even beat Chase Young in the category.
His versatility makes him a typical New England pick. New England knew what it was doing when it traded up for him in the 60th pick. He fills an immediate need at linebacker. In the Patriots’ defense, Uche will line up in a variety of places and perform a variety of roles.
Unsurprisingly given what I’ve said, some projected him as a mid first-rounder and he would surely have been taken earlier if he had fully worked out at the NFL combine.
In the fourth round, Carolina fulfilled a need at cornerback by selecting a gem in Troy Pride. I suspect that Pride was still available because he doesn’t produce the most attractive box score.
While he may not generate the most visible numbers, plenty of stats substantiate his quality of play. In 2018, he gave up only two catches for 12 yards in the Semifinals against Clemson receivers. This despite starting cornerback Julian Love leaving the game early.
Last season, he outperformed former teammate Love in terms of catches, yards, and touchdowns allowed. Love was an All-American. Particularly because he had to play second fiddle to Love for so long and because he was a four-year starter, he was targeted 175 times. He allowed all of five catches of 25+ yards.
As a senior, he was targeted less as he offered less separation. When quarterbacks did throw his way, he allowed a 50.9 percent completion rate. These numbers are a testament to his quickness on the field — he ran a 4.40 40-yard dash at the combine. The former track star will mirror opposing wide receivers, utilizing positive hip fluidity and footwork, good eyes, and good timing to the ball.
The Jets landed the first-round talent when they took Bryce Hall in the fifth round. Hall entered last season as PFF’s highest-graded cornerback in the nation. Indeed, he could have been selected in the first round had he chosen to enter the NFL Draft.
In returning to Virginia, he hurt his draft stock by suffering a season-ending injury. When he recovers his health and fitness, he can become a starting cornerback for a Jets secondary whose personnel really struggled for quality last year.
Hall proved himself against stronger competition, limiting the likes of current Raider Bryan Edwards and current Steeler Chase Claypool to under 40 yards. I also foresee Hall making an immediate impact because of his fit. Gregg Williams favors physicality, toughness, and proclivity to play in zone schemes. Both traits characterize Hall whose physical measurements support his style of play.
Hall owns nice length at 6-1 height and 32.25 arm length. His ball skills are apparent in the 21 passes that he defended in his last healthy season (2018). He will also help out on the run, thus distinguishing himself from higher-drafted cornerbacks. In watching him play, it’s evident that he was a vocal leader who makes his teammates better.
Miami selected Austin Jackson with the 18th pick of the NFL Draft. What worries me about Jackson is his marked absence of quality when he lined up against college football’s better defensive ends.
Utah’s Bradlee Anae, Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara, and AJ Epenesa all thrived on the edge when they lined up against Jackson. Here you see Anae be successful. One apparent feature is Jackson’s slowness in trying to contain him:
In the bowl game, Epenesa proved his supremacy in the box score, accumulating 2.5 sacks against Jackson and USC. He has a nice physical skill set, yes. But a ton of players drop into much later rounds. Even though they have nice measurables, they haven’t made good use of them on the field. While Jackson fills an immediate need for Miami, one can only doubt his chances against NFL-caliber defensive ends.
KJ Hamler, Not Henry Ruggs
Hamler and Ruggs are interesting to talk about because they are both very fast, both guys who can run a 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds.
Speed is clearly not decisive because wide receivers who are selected for their speed have a poor track record. Since 2003, before this year’s draft, six wide receivers who run a sub-4.3 40-yard dash have been selected and none have made the Pro Bowl.
Ruggs is a much more promising candidate than Hamler, For starters, Ruggs has much better hands. While Ruggs’ drop rate was extremely low, Hamler dropped a ridiculous 16.9 percent of his catch attempts last season.
Hamler’s hands, obviously, do not help him in contested catch situations where he suffers a subpar catch rate. He’s also inferior to Ruggs in this respect because he’s not as physical. Hamler relies purely on speed to create separation and, as I said, speed is not decisive in the NFL.
In contrast, Henry Ruggs has great body control and you see evidence of this on the next video footage. Ruggs uses his hips, shoulders, and both feet — in addition to his speed– to force opposing cornerbacks into recovery mode and to be a better route runner than Hamler.
His proclivity to lower the shoulder also makes him a more complete player after the catch. Denver addressed a big need in the second round by taking Hamler. But Hamler will not prove useful to Denver’s offense.