Your Way-Too-Early Guide to Longhorns in the 2018 NFL Draft

It’s mid-February, and with no football on the horizon, you know what that means … endless, (mostly) meaningless speculation about the NFL draft!

For the first time since 2015, a Longhorn has been invited to the NFL Combine—six in 2018, to be exact (and one snub). And, for the first time since 2007, Texas could have two players selected in the first round. Are you ready to read something very long that will change immensely in three weeks? Without further ado, here’s your Way-Too-Early-Guide to Longhorns in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Connor Williams

Williams made waves in late November when he announced his intention to not only forego his senior season at Texas but also to skip the upcoming bowl game. Skipping bowl games has become somewhat of a trend after Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette, two surefire locks to be selected in the first round in 2017, saved themselves for last year’s draft. NFL Player’s Association President and Bengals tackle Eric Winston, said, of this new movement:

“A lot of people wanted to say that scouts were going to downgrade Fournette, they’re gonna downgrade Christian, and obviously that didn’t happen. But I do think this is something where they’ve gotta say: Is this last game worth it? How much can I improve, and where would I drop to with an injury? And they gotta make that decision and go with it.”

Williams, who missed seven games last season after injuring his knee against USC on Sept. 16, probably didn’t have much to prove playing in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27. Before the season began, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound junior (Texas’ measurables) was tabbed as a first-rounder. As recently as Jan. 4, Eric Galko of The Sporting News was declaring Williams as a possible No. 1 pick overall.

What they’re saying: Most mock drafts [disclaimer: most mock drafts are vehicles to drive clicks and end up being wildly incorrect, especially ones posted this early and before the NFL Combine, this very one included] have Williams as a top-20 pick. Pro Football Focus currently has Williams going No. 8 to the Chicago Bears, noting, “At his best, Williams is a smooth pass protector (allowed only 27 career pressures on 986 attempts), and he gets to the second level in the running game and dominates linebackers.” SB Nation and Rotoworld have Williams at No. 12 to the Bengals. CBS says Williams is the fourth-best offensive tackle prospect and 22nd overall. A recent Bleacher Report story, titled “Scout’s Report: The Most Overrated Prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft Class” names Williams, though also mentions that he’s the best overall offensive tackle in the class and will go in the top 15. So, yeah.

My prediction: The Browns, with picks at 1 and 4, need a quarterback, and an anchor on the line to keep whomever that is upright. I think Cleveland takes USC QB Sam Darnold first overall, and grabs Williams three spots later.

Malik Jefferson

Famously the home run get of former Texas coach Charlie Strong’s inaugural recruiting class, the linebacker had an uneven career in Austin. Promising as a true freshman, his sophomore year was marred by an unceremonious benching midway through the season. Heading into 2017, Jefferson remade himself for new coach Tom Herman, who shot down rumors of a rift between player and coach in February, saying:

“Malik is a fantastic leader, fantastic ambassador for our program. In February, we had a really good heart-to-heart about what he wanted to get out of this season. He said, ‘Coach, I want to be as good as a linebacker and as good a leader and teammate as I can be.’ I said, ‘Great.’ ”

Jefferson wound up with 110 tackles, good for second most in the Big 12, and four sacks, tied for most on the Longhorns. After the season, he was named Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Jefferson missed the bowl game against Missouri with a turf toe injury, but with a good combine showing—as a high school junior, he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash—he’s in the mix for a top-20 pick. With his speed and nose for the ball—please punch me for using that latter phrase—Jefferson will be snapped up by a team that prioritizes his versatility in stopping the run and being able to run with wide receivers and running backs on passing plays.

What they’re saying: Mocks are all over the place with Jefferson. NFL.com’s Chad Reuter has him going at 32 to the Eagles. SB Nation says No. 46 to the Bengals. A CBS mock from late January has Jefferson going to the Saints at 26, while another list on the same website says Jefferson is the No. 69 overall prospect in the draft. Dane Brugler, a draft scout for NFLDraftScout.com recently told the Dallas Morning News that Jefferson, “belongs more in the second or third round and will need simplified reads to allow his best traits (speed and aggressiveness) to shine.”

What I think: Jefferson will wow at the NFL Combine, which begins later this month. Aside from being a terrific athlete who is unfairly quick for someone his size, he’s smart and likable, which will endear him to scouts. The Giants, picking second in the second round (No. 34 overall), need help on the weak side at linebacker (and everywhere, really).

DeShon Elliott

Before this past season began, the thing Elliott was most famous for was attempting to box the entire Baylor team during his freshman season finale. Then the big ( 6-foot-2, 210 pounds) defensive back out of Rockwall, Texas, became a surefire draft pick during his junior year. The unanimous All-American is foregoing his final year of eligibility after recording six picks—two for touchdowns—including two against potential overall No. 1 USC QB Sam Darnold.

What they’re saying: USA Today’s draft site Draft Wire says:

With an ideal combination of size, athleticism and physicality, Elliott is a well-rounded prospect who can lay the lumber or cover plenty of space. If he lights up the combine with his athletic ability, he could shoot up the draft board. As it is, his film is strong enough to warrant a Day 2 pick.

Hmm. “Day 2” means either round two or three. NFL.com has him in the third round, at No. 86 overall to the Chiefs. Draft Wire has the same exact prediction, in a different blog post. SB Nation doesn’t include Elliott in its most recent two-round mock. His NFL.com profile lists him as a 5-6 rounder, noting, “his draft stock will be tied heavily to his Combine workout.”

What I think: Though Elliott played all over the defensive backfield at Texas, he’s likely to land as a strong safety in the NFL due to his size and skillset. The Seahawks are about to lose multiple members of their Legion of Boom defense in the next couple years for salary cap reasons, and could use a cheap replacement in the physical defender Elliott. Seattle doesn’t have a second or third round pick, but I think they trade back into the third round and grab him to learn under Kam Chancellor and fellow Longhorn Earl Thomas.

Holton Hill

On the first defensive series of the season, Hill picked off Maryland QB Tyrrell Pigrome and took it to the house. Later in the game, he scooped and scored on a blocked kick. A week later, against San Jose State, Hill returned another pick for a touchdown. Hill was arguably the best defensive back Texas had before he was suspended for the remainder of the season with three games to play. He chose to forego his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft.

What they’re saying: One NFC area draft scout said:

“He will fall further than he should because you can’t trust him. He needed a clean, productive season to rehab the perception around him and I felt like he should have gone back to school. He can play. He’s a Day 2 talent, but I doubt he goes there.”

CBS’s draft prospect rankings actually has Hill ahead of Elliott and Jefferson, slotted at No. 56. NFL.com projects Hill as a 3-4 rounder.

What I think: Despite the discipline issues, Hill was productive during his junior season. And at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he’s a monster if he can slot in at cornerback. Barring some disastrous Combine interviews, teams are going to fall in love with his size/speed combo. San Francisco needs help in the defensive backfield—which team doesn’t, really?—and have two picks in the third round. I think they use the second one, No. 74 overall, to take Hill.

Michael Dickson

Dickson left too early, you say. Punters don’t get drafted, you scream from the rooftops. Dear reader, you’re wrong. Well, unless you’re only thinking about 2017, when no punters were drafted. But beyond that, at least one punter has been taken in every NFL draft since 1999. In recent years, it seems like the fifth round is as early as teams feel comfortable drafting punters, though the Jaguars did take Bryan Anger in the third round in 2012. When the selection was announced, NFL Network broadcaster screamed, “Punters are people, too!” I extremely agree.

Dickson was insanely good this year for Texas, winning the Ray Guy Award after leading the nation with an average of 48.4 yards per punt in 2017. That would have been the fifth best average in the NFL. I mean, look what he did during the Texas Bowl. That’s a weapon for any pro team.

What they’re saying: Pro Football Focus tweeted on Jan. 20: “In the PFF era, no college punter has ever graded higher than Texas’ Michael Dickson did this season.” Oklahoma State Head Coach Mike Gundy “raved” about him in October. That’s about it. Punters don’t get a ton of ink.

What I think: This is tough, because I can name probably 10 NFL punters … [thinking] … OK, seven. I will say that the Chiefs are likely looking for a cheaper option now that Dustin Colquitt, a free agent, is entering his 14th NFL season. Also, as a Giants fan, I can tell you that Brad Wing shanks one punt every game and had two blocked this season. The Giants drafted Matt Dodge in 2010 and I don’t think New York can take another special teamer in the draft until the every fan who watched him punt to DeSean Jackson that season—I’m not linking it, because that means I have to watch it again—is dead. The Chiefs take Dickson in the sixth round, in my opinion.

Poona Ford

The Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year was snubbed by the NFL Combine despite being a key run-stopper for Texas this season. The senior captain started all 13 games for the Longhorns, finishing with 34 tackles (8 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 1 pass broken up, 1 QB hurry, a forced fumble, and a blocked field goal—the same one Holton Hill grabbed and scored on. The defensive line, with Ford as an anchor, held USC to 71 rushing yards, Baylor to 31, and Iowa State to 10, and he had four tackles in the Texas Bowl. It seems the snub stems from just a fraction of an inch.

What they’re saying: Poona Ford is short! He’s not, really, but he measures in at just below the 6-foot threshold deemed important by NFL scouts. CBS Sports NFL draft analyst Chris Trapasso was stunned by the NFL Combine exclusion, though, saying:

“Ford is the headliner combine snub on defense, and it’s mainly due to his lack of prototypical size and the responsibilities he handled at Texas in his final season in Austin. At the East-West Shrine game, Ford was a fraction of an inch shorter than 6-foot, which clearly raised a red flag for evaluators. In his senior campaign, he played heads up on the center often and two-gapped frequently, which kept second-level defenders like Malik Jefferson clean. At his stature, Ford needs to be a penetrator in the NFL, and he has the athleticism and refinement with his hands to be that type of player, as evidence by his solid week of practice at the Senior Bowl.”

NFL draft analyst Lance Zeirlein is more bearish on Ford, saying:

“I thought he was solid, but his lack of overall size and the fact that he’s not considered an NFL rusher on third downs is going to limit his draft stock. I think some fans believe he’s going to go much higher than he will. Grady Jarrett was a freight train coming out of Clemson, and he went in the fifth. He was a better prospect than Ford.”

CBS’s draft prospect rankings places Ford at 121, which would be in the fourth round.

What I think: Ford is extremely versatile, which is increasingly important now that NFL coaches devise defenses that routinely drop linemen into coverage and move tackles both inside and outside depending on the scheme. Still, despite his great tape, his size is unfortunately going to scare off some teams. Fortunately for Ford, that means the team that takes him will be innovative enough to use him correctly. I think that team is the Rams, who currently employ two defensive tackles listed at 6-foot-1, Aaron Donald and Tanzel Smart. Though comparing any prospect to Donald, 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, is foolish, the Rams are going to need warm bodies in camp if Donald holds out for a contract extension and have shown that they can win with smaller guys up front. Los Angeles has three picks in the sixth round, and I think they use the third of them, at No. 184, to take Ford.

Chris Warren III

If you’d have told the average Longhorn fan 18 months ago that Chris Warren would eventually, in order, be relegated to the back of the running back depth chart, switch positions to H-back/tight end, declare his intent to transfer, then shortly after declare for the NFL draft, they’d punch you right in the nose for being a dirty liar. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but it seemed unlikely. After a promising true freshman campaign, Warren looked like he would be sharing equal time with now-Houston Texan D’Onta Foreman in 2016, starting twice in the first four games and rushing for 366 yards and four TDs before going down with a season-ending knee injury. In 2017, the enormous tailback (6-foot-2, 252 pounds) was a lock to start for Herman’s first Longhorn team. He got only six carries against Maryland in the opener, bounced back with 16 for 166 yards and a pair of TDs, before mostly fading into obscurity in the backfield behind Kyle Porter and freshmen Toneil Carter and Daniel Young. Nevertheless, Warren received an invite to the Combine.

What they’re saying: ESPN’s scouting report page on Warren returns an error message. Ourlads’ page goes one step further—no 404 message here—but is devoid of any information. He doesn’t crack CBS’s list of prospects, which is 241-players deep. Who is this man of mystery? Well, 24/7 Sports declared that they “don’t expect him to be drafted barring a surprise explosion at the Combine.”

What I think: Warren checks a million boxes for me. I love huge running backs, like the Giants’ own Brandon Jacobs. My name is Chris. My first pet was named Warren. I am, to my knowledge however, not an NFL scout. I had high hopes for CWIII at Texas, and for me, he projected as a mid-round talent coming into his junior year. Perhaps he needs a change of scenery, but the inconsistency (and indecision) is likely going to be too much to bear for scouts. Barring an insane Combine, I think he goes undrafted, but because of his size and potential, makes an NFL team as an undrafted free agent.

 

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