PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki held a conference call with national media on Wednesday and answered questions about the upcoming NFL draft. Here are excerpts of some of his responses.
Q: With the fifth pick, the Buccaneers may have a choice between RB Trent Richardson and CB Morris Claiborne. What is your thought on selecting a running back vs. a cornerback that high in the draft?
Nawrocki: Strictly from a contract perspective, it makes more sense to go with a cornerback. (Corners) are paid much better than running backs in today’s game, and they are much more difficult to find, in general. I think the running back class this year is much deeper than the cornerback class, and you can find a good running back in the later rounds. That said, I do think Trent Richardson is a rare talent. I think he’s going to come in from Day One and make an immediate impact, whereas with Morris Claiborne, as talented as he is, it could take him a little bit longer to transition to the NFL game. He is a converted receiver — it did take him a little bit of time at LSU to grow into the position — and I think his learning curve could be a little greater. So, if you’re looking for immediate impact, I think there’s a good chance Richardson is going to be this season’s Rookie of the Year for whichever team drafts him; he’s that kind of a player. But in the long haul, I think you’d rather have a premium cornerback with the No. 5 pick.
Q: Why has Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill moved up so much on your projection, from a second-round pick last year to maybe a top-five pick now? And what is the downside of a player like him?
Nawrocki: I talked to a GM this morning who thought there would be more busts across the board in this year's first round than in any draft in recent years. And a big part of the reason he made that statement is because teams are going to overdraft for need, in part, and they’re going to overdraft on hype. Tannehill has received a lot of hype in the process. He worked out exceptionally well. There’s never been any question, even going back to last summer — everyone recognized his potential of what he could be. From a physical standpoint, he’s got everything you want in a starting quarterback. He’s got the size — he stands 6-4, nearly 225, and ran in the low 4.6s at his pro day. I think the pro day helped cement his status in the eyes of a lot of evaluators. He’s definitely going to go in the top 10 in this year’s draft. He will get drafted very early because of the premium placed on the position. Can he walk in from Day One and make an impact? No. Can he get there in Year Three? I think a lot of that is going to depend on the situation he enters, who’s going to be coaching him and how quickly he can grasp the position.
Q: Do you see the Bills taking an offensive tackle in the first round, or will they more likely take a receiver?
Nawrocki: I think they could go a number of ways. I think the one area that they will stay away from is the defensive line, now that they signed Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency. Coming into free agency, that was clearly the biggest area of need, and I think they addressed it in a big way. If you look at the offensive line now after they lost Demetress Bell, they clearly have a pressing need at left tackle. Chris Hairston, to me, is better on the right side. And they need to find more depth on both sides. So, in terms of the most pressing need on the team right now, I’d clearly say it’s the offensive line, especially on the edges. The other spot I wouldn’t be surprised to see them address is linebacker. They could use more receiving help, but I think they’d really like to find a cleanup man right in the middle of their defense. They’re transitioning this year with Dave Wannstedt, and I think they’d like more speed on the inside. That could be Dont’a Hightower or Luke Kuechly, but it could be another area they address, based on the value of the pick and the value of the player to that spot.
Q: What’s your evaluation of Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden, and do you think the Browns could target him?
Nawrocki: I do think Weeden is a guy they are targeting, whether they select him with the 22nd or 37th pick. I think he would definitely bring more size to the position. He ran a similar-style offense at Oklahoma State, and I think he’s flown under the radar a little bit. Coming into the season, I thought he was the top senior quarterback. There are some concerns about his arm strength — the wear and tear on his arm coming from the minor leagues. There are some teams I’ve talked to that have mentioned he’s been limited in practice in terms of throwing the ball vertically, how much they’ve allowed him to throw in practice. Every pitcher has a pitch count on how often he can throw, and there are some concerns on how his arm is going to be able to hold up. Whether he goes in the back of the first round or the early second, there’s a good chance he’ll be a top-40 pick, and he can definitely bring more of a downfield threat to the passing game than Colt McCoy.
Q: Which of the cornerbacks that could be around at pick No. 23 is the best fit for the Lions between Stephon Gilmore and Dre Kirkpatrick?
Nawrocki: The Lions like to press. They like big, strong, physical corners, and to me that’s Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick. That’s where he’s best. You worry about his ability to stay healthy — he had a hard time in college — and there are character concerns. He is one of the guys who could potentially fall into the bust category in a couple of years, not necessarily because of the talent, because he is very talented. More so because you don’t know what you’re getting — if you are going to be able to control him, if he’s going to stay in line and be disciplined enough to follow what the coaches want him to do. To me, he’s a good fit. South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore also fits that approach. I have some concerns about his instincts, his ball skills and his hands. You saw it at the Combine; he didn’t catch the ball when it came down to a competition at the end of the DB drills. He had a chance to win it for his group, and instead he was the guy who made everyone do push-ups. I think you see some of that on tape. … I think there’s a good chance he goes in the top 20, definitely the top 25, and maybe lands in Detroit. But in terms of his long-term future, he’s got a ways to go.
Q: Who would you most compare Justin Blackmon to, coming out of college, either someone in the NFL or a former pro?
Nawrocki: Just getting a pulse from people around the NFL, the common comparison is Ravens WR Anquan Boldin. But Blackmon is not as strong and he’s not as physical with the ball in his hands, and really what defines Boldin’s game is he’s able to barrel through contact and make plays after the catch. Blackmon’s not as strong in those areas.
Q: A lot of the draft analysts have suggested the Chargers will select an outside pass rusher at No. 18. I was wondering if you could break down the options there between Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry and Chandler Jones, and what would be the best potential fit?
Nawrocki: To me, (Alabama’s) Courtney Upshaw fits what they do well. If you look at the acquisition they made in free agency with Jarret Johnson, coming from Baltimore where he was very successful leveraging the edge and playing with power, I think his tenacity and his competitiveness are really what made him stand out. The Chargers added him to the equation, and if you’re looking for a bulldog with leverage and power, Upshaw fits that mold. I don’t know if he’s as safe a pick as A.J. Smith would prefer.
I think (USC’s) Nick Perry can be projected to linebacker, but I don’t know if he has the toughness and makeup that Smith seeks, either. Whitney Mercilus (of Illinois) fits from a measurables perspective — he has all the numbers and all the production. You just don’t see the pure instincts you’d like and, doubly, projecting him to outside linebacker, it could take him a year or two. They already missed a couple of years ago trying to convert Larry English out of Northern Illinois. I'm not saying they are the same guy, because they are very different, but there is some risk involved with converting Mercilus. (Syracuse’s) Chandler Jones has very intriguing measurables. I think he may be best in the long haul as a five-technique stacking the run. He still has to prove he can be a consistent outside sack producer, but he has very intriguing traits, too, so he could be another guy they consider.
But honestly, if I had my choice of anyone in the draft, it would be Dont’a Hightower from Alabama. He’s done it before, I think he’s very safe, he’s got the leadership presence you want, he can kick inside if you need him there. He’s very versatile, very tough, very underrated, and he's not being widely considered as a true rush linebacker because he didn’t play it all the time at Alabama, but I think he’s better than Upshaw and far safer than any of the other prospects mentioned. If I were San Diego and I had a chance to land him — which I’m not so sure they will — he’d be the one that I would be most interested in.