Every year, there are surprises in the first round, and that's true both ways. As much as most people didn't expect to see Pitt receiver Jon Baldwin go to the Chiefs, Alabama tackle James Carpenter wind up in Seattle or Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder go to Minnesota among the top-32 picks, here are 10 players who had legitimate first-round expectations, and are no doubt wondering why it didn't happen. We will try to explain, and make them feel a bit better, by explaining the situation.
DT Marvin Austin, North Carolina
Pros: Austin bounds off the snap quickly for a guy his size (6-foot-2, 309 pounds) and immediately looks to slip off single blocks or split double-teams. Uses a good rip move to help win the leverage battle and is practiced enough with his hand moves to wrestle a blocker to the ground without getting busted for holding. Has an effective spin move out of the one-tech spot; Austin seems to always be looking to disrupt. Very effective in college when looping outside and around — this could still be effective against NFL right tackles, though I wonder if he's quick enough to get up to speed to blast through quality left tackles at the next level. Austin's gap discipline could be better, though it's partially the result of a scheme that had him angling to find any open gap right off the snap.
Cons: Austin is not a precise form tackler; it seems at times that he's surprised by the speed with which he gets to the ballcarrier, and he has to pause to get his technique together. You see him bumping into opposing players (and his own teammates) trying to make tackles at times — he doesn't really have an eagle eye when it comes to that. Sometimes, that disruptive tendency (which is a positive) will have him lurching out of plays and easily blocked out, especially on run plays when the back switched direction. Slightly less effective as a three-tech shading or in a 40 front — while he loves to split gaps, he's not as quick in those short areas as your typical NFL three-tech would be. Lateral speed is average at best.
Why did he fall? Losing a year for falling on the wrong side of the NCAA didn't help -- Austin could have really used that extra season. His technique is a long way from fully-formed, but his efforts for the team willing to take the time to finish what UNC could not might be rewarded with an interior pass disruptor of the Tommie Harris type.
DE Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson
Pros: Bowers diagnoses the action at the line and sifts through blockers with upper-body strength and excellent hand moves. Peels off blockers and can just push them aside as well. Can shift inside to three-tech and five-tech roles because of his size (6-foot-4, 275 pounds), and moves double-teams very well when inside. He's a violent and precise tackler who absolutely smothers ballcarriers when he catches up to them. Stands up the blockers he faces almost every time; it's extremely difficult to bull him back. Very sudden in the backfield and to the quarterback; he can cover a lot of ground in a big hurry. Rides blockers out to the sideline and crashes in on running plays.
Cons: In pass-rush situations, he occasionally engages blockers too long instead of getting low and around the tackle -- this could be a byproduct of his ability to overwhelm blockers most of the time. Tends to get so involved in the scrum to such a degree at times, the play will go right by him. He also needs a wider array of moves to get around blockers -- brute strength isn't going to cut it in the NFL as it has for Bowers at the college level.
Why did he fall? Serious concerns about Bowers' torn meniscus dropped his stock; there's no other reason for a kid with his talent and clean off-field record to not be celebrating a top-10 pick. Bowers has actually passed every medical re-test he's been given, and at some point, some team is going to split the difference and take a shot on the player. Bowers' upside might be Justin Tuck; the downside is a very short career.
OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
Pros: Absolutely explodes off the snap, especially when he's setting up at the line as a pure edge rusher. Gets into the backfield in a hurry and uses his impressive recovery speed to zero in on tackles without overpursuing. As an edge-rusher, gets low in his turn around the tackle and can drive through the block quickly to recover and pursue. Surprisingly physical for his build when playing strong-side 4-3 'backer or inside in a 4-4 (eight in the box with a safety); he won't blow straight-line blockers away, but he has the upper-body strength to get past cut blocks and most blocking tight ends. Is able to slide off inline blocks and wrap up the ballcarrier with consistency. Can sift through trash at the line and fill the gap against the run very quickly.
Cons: Ayers is decent in coverage, but he relies more on pure speed and agility than a comprehensive ability to break down routes and be in the right place at the right time. His most notorious teaching point is a tendency to bite on play action; and he'll go from quarterbacks playing checkers to chess with various fakes at the NFL level. Exhibits good tackling technique at times, but his lack of weight (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) shows up when he gets bumped out of heavy traffic, especially against more physical players inside. May want to add a bit of muscle if it doesn't affect his overall burst and speed.
Why did he fall? As talented as Ayers is, I don't think teams know what to make of him. He's a decent fir as a strong- or weak-side linebacker, and I think he might be an outstanding pure pass rusher in a 5-2 front; 4-3 teams might shy away, but any defense in the Dallas, Houston and Pittsburgh style will find him more and more interesting through the second round.
CB Aaron Williams, Texas
Pros: Williams closes in well from off-coverage to outside running plays; he's a reasonably sure tackler and doesn't fear contact. Transitions with his hips pretty well, but where he gets the edge is in his sense and ability in boxing out the receiver and using the sideline on certain routes. Zeroes in on screens and keeps the play in front of him -- he doesn't get fooled a lot. Has the footwork to play press and keep up with routes at just about any level, though he doesn't have elite trail speed.
Williams has good field sense; you'll see less-experienced corners get lost on their own assignments and neglect to see what's around them, but he always seems to have one eye on the players around him, and he peels off well to help his teammates if the ball isn't going his way. Can crash the edge on blitzes and gets up to speed in a hurry.
Cons: Occasionally tries to arm-tackle; he'd need some coaching on this if he moved to safety. Doesn't have great ball skills; zero interceptions in 2010 despite a decent number of targets. Not physical enough to be a consistent box or force defender. Will occasionally get washed out by blocks from bigger receivers.
Why did he fall? Quite simply, Williams doesn't project well as an NFL cover corner; he looks much more like a free safety. And though he could be lite at that position, transitional players don't generally get first-round grades unless their base athleticism is simply off the charts. A mid-second-round pick would align with where I would grade him.
TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame
Pros: Tough in traffic on slants, crosses and curls, Rudolph has no fear over the middle. Good route-runner with an excellent feel for openings in zones. Has a command of timing routes, outs and fades. Better-than-average speed on intermediate routes, especially when lined up in the slot. Quick turn upfield on short throws. Has a nose for the first-down marker and will go out of his way to extend the play in these situations. Good short-area agility for his height. Because of his versatility from a "line-up" perspective, can provide formation diversity in the right kind of offense. Was off to a very hot start in 2010 before he was hurt; caught eight passes each against Michigan and Michigan State early in the season. Impressed even as a true freshman; Rudolph really hit the ground running.
Cons: Doesn't always present a "wide" target; Rudolph is flummoxed too easily by inaccurate throws -- it seems that if you don't hit him between the numbers, things can get iffy. He's inconsistent overall with his hands, and he'll occasionally drop a pass that leaves you wondering. Would like to see more of an ability to break tackles at his size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds). At times ... I don't want to say that he "folds" on a hit, but he doesn't always go after all the yardage. Maybe he's being coached to "live to fight another day"? Not always a defined blocker in H-back and inline roles, though I think he could be -- he's just a guy who played a lot in the slot.
Why did he fall? Well, he only "fell" if you had him with a first-round grade in the first place, and I didn't. Though some want to compare him to Rob Gronkowski, I don't see that at all — Williams is not as flexible to the ball, can't play as many roles in an offense, and isn't nearly as developed when it comes to blocking. The second round is where he belongs.
QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
Pros: Mallett has the best pure arm of the 2011 draft class; he has no problem firing away on deep posts and sideline routes, and he has an easy delivery with throws that most quarterbacks would have to heave with all their might. At his best, he can zip the ball into short spaces and beat any coverage. Incredibly productive at Arkansas; set several school and conference passing records. Tall player with no trouble establishing sightlines after the snap. Good accuracy in the pocket on all throws, and he really can make them all ... if he's not pressured.
Cons: Mechanical issues plague Mallett in nearly every aspect of his game. At 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds, he's not a runner at all, nor is he effectively mobile in or out of the pocket. His footwork has improved to a degree, but he's still clumsy when navigating his way through pressure. Loses accuracy when leaving the pocket and on the move, even when throwing little bailout routes. On the move, he has trouble coordinating short-to-intermediate timing routes (slants and crosses) to a really worrisome degree for a guy who's about to don an NFL uniform. Padded his stats to a fairly decent extent with quick throws to wide-open receivers in the flat in Bobby Petrino's wide-open offense. For a guy with an arm this big, Mallett lacks the ability to make repeatable stick throws downfield when he's under pressure.
Why did he fall? Those in love with big arms will say that Mallett is a first-round quarterback, but when looking at NFL skill sets, I would have trouble putting him on my board at all. Mallett is terrible under pressure, makes errant throws far too often for his supposed accuracy, and takes too long to "unfold" in his motion. I think a team will take him in the second round, and I think they'll regret it unless they fit their offense very specifically to Mallett's limited palette.
FS Rahim Moore, UCLA
Pros: Comes up to the front half of a defense quickly from center field or Cover-2 quickly and with good reading ability; Moore closes in on short passes and running plays well from any distance. In 2010, was often the last line of defense for a vulnerable front seven. Recognizes first responsibility as coverage, but will peel off and go after backs without hesitation. Has the speed and short-area quickness to blitz.
Plays the nickel/slot role very well; his sudden burst and toughness for his size (6-foot-0, 202 pounds) allows him to trail slot receivers and still bail out to help against the run. When playing the deep half, he takes transitioning receivers well in zone handoffs. In space, he gets up to speed in a hurry. Aggressive and physical in traffic; will fight off blocks and doesn't give up on tackles.
Cons: At times, Moore's persistence near the line or in the box will get in his way — he's so intent on making plays that he's easily taken out by misdirection. Not a dynamic tackler, but will set and form up to stop ballcarriers. Doesn't always fold in on assignments as the ball's coming in, leading to his giving up cushion in key areas. Prone to gambling on route-jumping at times. Will get overly aggressive and slip tackles. Doesn't have elite sideline-to-sideline speed.
Why did he fall? Moore has good second-round value, and he might have slipped in the first round had there been a run on defensive backs, but I don't think he shows an absolute positional fit as a safety — I actually think he could be a really great nickel corner. Teams thinking outside the box should be looking at him at the bottom of the second.
OLB Brooks Reed, Arizona
Pros: Extremely quick defender in short spaces who can sift through blockers in a hurry and get to the target. Persistent defender who can peel off tackles on the edge with spin moves. Good eye for the ball — looks to redirect even when occupied by blockers. Has a very effective inside loop move that he should use more often. Slips off very well when he's head-up over a tackle; uses his hands well in these situations. Can get off the snap quickly enough to beat his blocker outright. Used very effectively inside in some nickel situations
Cons: Reed is so intent on blasting through and making the splash play that he'll get off-kilter and blow right by the ballcarrier if he's faked out. Doesn't have the bull-rush power to slam past tackles on a consistent basis — he's more effective from a wider set. Does not possess an array of quick lateral moves to get around blockers; he pretty much comes straight on all the time. Hasn't shown specific ability to drop into overage effectively.
Why did he fall? Long hair, high motor, Pac-10 outside linebacker … yeah, but that's where the Clay Matthews comparisons need to stop. Reed is a more limited rush end with some potential, but his stock got a bit overcooked pre-draft.
DT Stephen Paea, Oregon State
Pros: Paea blasts off the snap with aggresive and natural run-pursuit ability, and though he isn't a particularly quick runner, he pursues from side-to-side with surprising agility. Great stack-and-shed player who can ride guards and tackles back, and shoot off blocks to get to the ballcarrier -- this is where his formidable strength plays a part. Hustles from snap to whistle and will do everything possible to make a stop. Dominant when slanting to get past single blockers.
His quickness at the start of his motion allows him to shoot through slide protection; it's tough to get him moving one way or another off a single-team zone slide since he's always pushing forward. Gets past double teams with pure strength once in a while, though he's more adept at using a swim move on one blocker and getting by quickly. Good change-of-direction sense -- Paea will occasionally get blocked out of a play, but he's heady enough to wait for the running back to come to him and he's very good at "re-engaging" after a block. Tackles with good form and avoids going for the kill shot (and subsequent whiff).
Cons: He's much more explosive inside than outside; Paea doesn't possess an outside pass rushing move, though he could be taught to be scary in various stunts and loops in the right defense. And as strong as he is, Paea's a bit of a bull in a China shop at times -- his non-stop motor occasionally leads to car crashes with his teammates and a tendency to get pushed out of the play. He reminds me of Gerald McCoy in that his strength doesn't prevent him from bring ridden out of a play at times -- he can get washed out sideways by a double-team. Paea suffered a torn MCL early in the Senior Bowl practice week, which ended what could have been a dominant showing.
Why did he fall? I thought that Paea might be one of two players that I gave a second-round grade that might slip into the first round. My belief is that people got to Paea late because he played in an unheralded defense, but anyone looking at him as more than the typical fireplug could be very happy with the results.
QB Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
Pros: In the Pistol (where he's usually lined up 4 yards behind center, with a running back 3 yards behind him), Kaepernick has exceptional field vision, sense and timing, understanding his limited reads after a playfake to a possible bootleg — he's completely conversant with that system. Good build that allows him to be a very physical runner — he'll probably make his NFL coach nervous with his predilection for running into and past hits as opposed to out of bounds. Nevada's offense was complex enough from a route perspective to give him a good overview of the throws he'll need to make in the NFL. Is used to throwing on the run to the point where he can do so accurately in just about any situation — even across his body and against his own momentum.
Cons: Has a serious lag in his throwing motion and a very wide wingspan that will make it tough for him to rein everything in and become more mechanically streamlined — Kaepernick brings the ball up and out in kind of a truncated "pizza delivery" pose before letting the ball go. Years in a read-and-run offense will probably have him thinking to bail out of pressure before he should, though this is more a schematic concern and less an issue of him fearing contact. Intermediate to deep spirals could be a bit tighter at times — passes will sail on him once in a while, which is what we saw at the combine.
Motion and release point varies (this is a problem shared with Washington's Jake Locker, making me wonder if it's a pitcher-centric issue). Will need to show consistent ability to operate under center, but this is less an issue than some might think.
Why did he fall? The only quarterback in NCAA history to throw for over 10,000 yards and run for over 4,000 in the same career, Kaepernick was the other player I thought might see a look in the first round. People tend to dismiss the Pistol as a gimmick offense, but when you look at Kaepernick's game tape, and isolate his skills from the scheme, I don't know how you can't see a guy who has a bright future in the pros. He just needs the right system and personnel to make it all work.
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