Every year, there are surprises in the first round of the draft that catch viewers off guard and cause NFL decision makers to nearly fall out of their chairs or spit out their coffee.
One of the bigger surprises came last year when the Chargers selected OLB Larry English at No. 16 overall. In previous years, it was Duane Brown, Justin Harrell, Donte Whitner and Travis Johnson, among others. In some of those cases, the surprise was because the prospects had lower grades than a typical first-rounder, but in other cases it was because pressing needs forced teams to select them considerably earlier than many executives had anticipated.
PFW polled five decision makers around the league, posing this question: Who might be this year's surprise first-round pick?
Names that frequently surfaced include Alabama's Kareem Jackson, Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett, California's Tyson Alualu and East Carolina's Linval Joseph.
"You see Jackson play every coverage that he will be asked to play in the NFL," one astute evaluator said of the Alabama junior cornerback. "That is pretty rare to see in college. He is passing guys off, playing quarters and letting receivers go to the safety. He made one pick in the endzone where he just planted and drove on the ball. He really jumped it. He took off and could not be caught from behind. He is so smooth that he does not look like he is playing fast, but you don't see anyone getting behind him like you do the corner on the other side."
Another GM said, "To me, I think he is a second-rounder. He is not athletic enough. If you are a heavy cover-2 team, you could think about (drafting him) in the first. He has good ball skills and pretty good twitch, but he is always going to have some trouble playing off. If your plan is to press him and play man-on-man in your face, then he could have more value. He is a good tackler."
Burnett has steadily been climbing draft boards but still is not expected to fit into the first round. However, some evaluators would not be surprised if it happened. The biggest question about him is whether he tackles well enough to fit into the first.
"(Burnett) could get into the first," one scouting director said. "He clocked in the mid-4.4s and had a 39-inch vertical. He don't play that way because of all they asked him to do (at Georgia Tech), but he sure created a lot of buzz after his workout. I would like to have him in the third, but he won't get out of the second, and if these safeties come off fast, you might see teams pressing to fill needs. (Texas FS) Earl Thomas is going to get drafted a lot sooner than he should for the way he tackles, and it gets awfully thin after that. The pickings are slim."
Versatility and the potential to man the DE position in a 3-4 defense are driving the value of Alualu and Joseph, each of whom is not expected to escape the second round. And given how difficult it is to find quality five-techniques with the strength to stack the corner and the high number of teams running 3-4 fronts drafting at the end of the first round, it would not come as a surprise to evaluators if either was to fit into the first.
The following quotes are from NFL scouts, coaches and front-office personnel, speaking on the condition of anonymity:
"If you look at this year's tape of (Florida S Major) Wright, it's frustrating. It has nothing to do with this kid — he just played in rotation. I think I have seen eight or nine games — no one throws a lot over the middle at him. They don't allow him to make a lot of plays. They play him 16-17 yards off the ball."
"We like (TCU LB) Daryl Washington. He moves just how you want a Willy 'backer to move. It's hard to justify taking him in the first (round), though. You'd like to have him in the middle of the second, but I don't know if he gets there."
"I did not like (South Florida WR Carlton) Mitchell. I don't think he has natural hands. He cannot get in and out of his breaks. He is slow to get his head around. I guess I was expecting a lot more and winded up being disappointed. I thought I was going to see better."
"(Indiana [Pa.] CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah) has the skill set of an elite corner. He has a lot of talent. He's just raw. If he did not have that shoulder (torn right labrum), he would go a lot sooner. You just don't know if he will be ready until October or November. He may have to start the season on the PUP list. Otherwise, I would take him in the second."
"(Alabama's) Rolando McClain is a little bit surly. He is not a real trusting guy and he is a biscuit away from 275 (pounds), but when it is time to play, he comes ready. He's kind of thin-waisted for a guy that big and awkwardly built. Someone will jump him in the top 15. I would not do it."
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Nolan Nawrocki will answer selected questions from readers each Tuesday leading up to the draft, beginning April 13. Send your draft-related questions to Nawrocki at ASKquestions@pfwmedia.com.
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