NFL draft winners and losers: Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Notre Dame's Cole Kmet rising

I spent Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, hoping to see a good matchup between Wisconsin and Michigan. I came away disappointed that we were not treated to a good game, but emerged excited about some of the Badgers’ NFL draft prospects.

Not that the school is loaded with high-end draft talent, per se, but Wisconsin is doing what Wisconsin does in terms of generating pro talent. In the past 10 drafts, 37 Badgers have been selected. The allotment by position is as follows:

  • 11 offensive linemen

  • 7 linebackers

  • 4 running backs

  • 3 defensive backs

  • 3 tight ends

  • 2 receivers

  • 2 interior defensive linemen

  • 2 pass rushers

  • 1 quarterback

  • 1 fullback

  • 1 punter

This year’s crop of Wisconsin talent fits along those lines.

Running back Jonathan Taylor is as advertised — a game-changer. He dominated the game through the first 20 minutes, rushing 12 times for 143 yards and two TDs. Taylor pulled away from the Michigan secondary on his 72-yard TD run and absolutely looked the part of a lead back in the NFL.

Taylor had to leave the game with cramps, missing a big chunk before returning. He finished with 203 yards and two touchdowns over 23 carries and was the best playmaker on the field. It’s unclear now if he’s a first-round pick, but Taylor has proven to be a more well-rounded back this season while maintaining his game-changing ability. I love his vision and subtle cutbacks when his initial lane is closed.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor pulled away from the Michigan defense on Saturday. (Getty Images)
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor pulled away from the Michigan defense on Saturday. (Getty Images)

Wisconsin also features two difference makers up front blocking for Taylor. Center Tyler Biadasz and left tackle Cole Van Lanen look like top-50 picks. Both had their way with the Michigan front seven and opened some good lanes. Each were able in pass protection.

Here’s one more name to add to the mix for the Badgers: Linebacker Zack Baun. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound, run-and-chase defender made seven tackles (two for losses) and added a sack and two hurries. He also allowed only one 4-yard reception in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, and was the Badgers’ highest-graded player in the game.

Baun looked like a future NFL starting linebacker after showing he can run down players in space and impact the game in so many ways. The staff implored him to work on his pass-rush technique this offseason, and it looks like it has paid off. He harassed Michigan QBs Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey on Baun’s 33 pass-rush snaps. For a fifth-year senior who flashed ability only in spots last season, Baun might be starting to make a real name for himself.

One fascinating aspect of Wisconsin is its ability to turn high school QBs into front-seven defenders. The most well-known of that group in recent years was T.J. Watt, a first-rounder in 2017. But the Badgers’ entire starting LB group from a year ago — Ryan Connelly (fifth-rounder of the Giants who has started two of three games), Andrew Van Ginkel (a Dolphins fifth-rounder this year), T.J. Edwards (undrafted rookie who made the Eagles’ roster) and Baun — were all prep QBs who transitioned to defense.

Baun started all 13 games last season and was third on the team in tackles (63), but he already has more sacks (three, one in each game thus far) in 2019 than he did in all of 2018 (2.5). He has also forced two fumbles and been a clear standout for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who quickly is becoming a head-coaching candidate. Badgers middle linebacker Chris Orr is another draft prospect who had a strong game, but I walked away from this one fascinated by Baun.

And about those Wolverines ...

For Michigan, it was a slew of disappointing performances.

Patterson struggled to get much going again after a nice 68-yard connection on the first play from scrimmage. The Wolverines’ next 21 plays totaled 28 yards. He left the game briefly to be evaluated at halftime for injury and then had to come in late to replace McCaffrey, who took a shot to the head. Patterson got a few things going late, but it was not nearly in time.

Leonhard seemed to toy with new Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel hit it right on the head when it comes to giving Jim Harbaugh serious blame for the hiring of Gattis and the overseeing of a feckless offense. But let’s also point out that the vaunted Michigan offensive line didn’t do its part. I saw nothing in that game from that group and its touted 2020 draft prospects up front — guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu, tackle Jon Runyan Jr. and center Cesar Ruiz — to think they helped themselves. Ruiz allowed a few pressures inside. Bredeson didn’t make any eye-opening plays. Runyan looked rusty in his first game back from injury.

It was another tough game for Shea Patterson and the Michigan offense. (Getty Images)
It was another tough game for Shea Patterson and the Michigan offense. (Getty Images)

There’s talent in that group for sure, and all four will get shots in the NFL. But it was a disappointing game up front. Maybe let them run block a little more?

Wideout Ronnie Bell, who is not draft-eligible until 2021, was a standout for Michigan early on offense and special teams. WR Nico Collins made a few plays late once the Wolverines were down big. LB Khaleke Hudson had a good game, save for getting swallowed up on two big runs.

Michigan has time to show something as a team, of course, but from a draft-evaluation standpoint this was not a great game for too many of its players.

Now, on with the rest of the winners and losers from around college football:

Tough night for Utah corner vs. USC

I spent Friday night watching USC’s upset of Utah, and I was a bit disappointed in Utes CB Jaylon Johnson — at least early in the game. Last week, we spotlighted this as a key matchup for Johnson, and he didn’t have a great game overall, even if not all of it was bad. It’s now fair to question whether Johnson is a first-round pick.

The junior allowed Trojans QB Matt Fink (their No. 3 QB, mind you) and WR Tyler Vaughns to pick on him on USC’s first drive. Johnson allowed Vaughns to catch a touchdown, and there might have been an uncalled offensive pass interference on the play. Still, Johnson didn’t flip his hips quickly enough and locate the ball in man coverage.

Johnson also had a weak tackle attempt on tight end Josh Falo midway through the first quarter, allowing for a first-down conversion. The Trojans scored on the next play, putting the Utes in a hole they couldn’t dig out of. It just wasn’t a statement game for Johnson, even though he seemed to tighten up as the game went on.

Utah’s best player in this one — without a doubt — was defensive tackle Leki Fotu. What a monster inside.

Where do the Utes find guys like this? They’ve been well-stocked on the front lines on both sides of the ball the past decade or so, but the 6-5, 335-pound nose tackle feels like the best they’ve had in recent years up front.

Men this size don’t grow on trees, and the fact that Fotu was as active as he was against a pass-heavy Trojans team, playing 47 of a possible 56 snaps on defense, tells me that we might be looking at a possible top-50 prospect here.

For the Trojans, WRs Michael Pittman Jr. and Vaughns were both great. So was Amon-Ra St. Brown, the brother of Packers WR Equanimious St. Brown, who will be draft-eligible next year. Despite the injury to USC’s top two quarterbacks this season and some shaky OL play in this one, all three wideouts stepped up and made plays when needed.

Pittman was especially impressive. The 6-4, 225-pounder isn’t the quickest player on the field, but he battles, wins matchups with physicality and competes to make plays. Pittman caught 10 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown in this one and absolutely helped his cause.

Say this about the Trojans, even in a transition season: They still seem to crank out the WR talent.

Why so much hate on Justin Herbert?

The Justin Herbert criticism has gotten a wee bit out of hand, methinks. Since Oregon’s blown-lead loss in the opener to Auburn, the vultures have swarmed around the senior quarterback strangely when it shouldn’t be falling on his head the way some want to make it.

Yes, we’d like to see more from a potential top-five pick. Absolutely he’s being protected by a top-five offensive line (if you get a chance, get a load of LT Penei Sewell, who won’t be eligible until 2021). But Oregon’s receivers are shorthanded now, the run game has been so-so and the coaching is part of the problem.

Herbert has completed 71.4 percent of his passes or higher in each of his four games this season. He hit on 79.2 percent in the win Saturday at Stanford. Perhaps this isn’t a vintage Cardinal defense we’re talking about, but Herbert did his part. He has 14 TDs and zero interceptions in four games. The pass blocking hasn’t been as good as expected from such a well-respected group up front, too.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert has received some unfair criticism this season. (Getty Images)
Oregon QB Justin Herbert has received some unfair criticism this season. (Getty Images)

I mean, I kind of get it. We knew the expectations for Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa were going to be insane this season. I figured other quarterbacks elsewhere around the country would emerge and take some of the spotlight away. But I didn’t anticipate such indifference — or in some cases, disappointment — with what Herbert has done.

Sure, he can play even better. I had Herbert slightly ahead of Tagovailoa entering the season, and it’s fair to admit that Tagovailoa’s hot start now has me flipping those two on my board. But what we’ve seen from Herbert has been good, and the improved health elsewhere on the Ducks’ offense figures to be a big boost.

Let’s not kill the kid just yet, shall we?

First-round prospect with a glaring concern

Coming into the season, you would have been hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of LSU safety Grant Delpit than right here. His range, instincts, athleticism, coverage ability, and length screamed off the tape.

But to this point in the season, Delpit has struggled in one clear way: tackling. It has been glaring at times. After missing a few in the thrilling win over Texas, Delpit repeated that in the win this past weekend over Vanderbilt, straight up whiffing on RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 52-yard TD run.

This was a banged-up LSU defense that was missing EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson, linemen Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan, and S Todd Harris, who is out for the season. The Tigers also lost LB Michael Divinity Jr. mid-game.

Delpit also has had a rough stretch this year with health, having shoulder surgery in the spring, suffering a collarbone injury in camp and cramped up (or suffered muscle fatigue) in the Texas game.

LSU safety Grant Delpit must clean up his tackling. (Getty Images)
LSU safety Grant Delpit must clean up his tackling. (Getty Images)

Delpit’s coverage and versatility remain rare traits, both of which have been noticeable. I am not down on Delpit overall, but this tackling funk has been weird. Perhaps it has been injury-related. It has shown up in just about each of the Tigers’ four games this season — to the point where opponents will try to continue to exploit it.

You’ll see Delpit listed very high in most mock drafts that populate the internet, and it’s mostly for good reason. But with the clear tackling concern, scouts must drill down and figure out what the deal is. Delpit will likely be a first-rounder in my early mock draft. But I might have to resist putting him in the top 10 until we get more clarity.

What to make of Cal’s tackling machine

This summer we took a gander at Cal LB Evan Weaver and mostly liked what we saw. He’s a big, rangy hitter with some good pass-rush instincts and a nose for the ball as a downhill player. Here were some of the notes we had coming into the season:

Most of that holds up now still. Weaver wa sa box-score stuffer against Ole Miss on Saturday with a whopping 22 tackles (he was up to 11 with four minutes left before halftime), plus half a sack and two QB hits. The 4-0 Bears have been mostly very good on defense, with Weaver leading the team in tackles with 63 — his next-closest teammate has 36.

But I am still left to wonder how his game translates to the next level. His size, instincts, intellect and rush versatility figure to make him an interesting prospect. But as a coverage player he looks stiff and slow to react. I see Weaver fitting in as a zone defender, but asking him to cover backs and tight ends downfield is just a losing proposition.

The last thing I want to do is beat up a good football player after he played all 86 snaps, made tackles on more than a quarter of those and clearly had a hand in a big win over an SEC foe. But consider me just a bit ambivalent about Weaver’s overall NFL projection.

Next Irish tight end star?

If his first game this season is any indication, Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet has star potential. No, he’s not a finished product by any means. But there was a good reason why I included him on my list of Irish prospects to watch at the beginning of the season even when we knew he had just suffered a collarbone injury that would leave him on the sidelines until Saturday.

QB Ian Book’s first three pass attempts on Saturday at Georgia were to Kmet, which told us all we needed to know about the 6-5, 250-pound junior’s value to the offense. Kmet made the most of his season debut in the first half, catching seven passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. The TD pass appeared to be headed to the back of the end zone for another intended target, but the long-armed tight end showed some real concentration and hands by snagging it out of the air.

Having the success he did in this game, finding soft spots against what might be the best pair of safeties in the country in Georgia’s J.R. Reed and Richard LaCounte, only made it that much more impressive.

Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet, right, mostly was terrific in his 2019 season debut. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet, right, mostly was terrific in his 2019 season debut. (Getty Images)

Kmet played 62-of-64 snaps in the game, likely out of need. It was clear he was running out of gas by the end as the Irish tried in vain to come back in a noble effort. Kmet fumbled one ball in the first half (which he recovered) and committed two first-half false starts, plus one more in the second half on a third-and-short play that helped kill a drive as Georgia seized momentum. He also dropped a catchable ball late.

This clearly looked like a player who was still getting in rhythm, but it also was clear that the Irish are going to need him this season. Kmet finished the game with nine catches for 108 yards, with a long grab of 31 that set up a late score to pull the Irish to within a touchdown.

There’s so much to like about his game, and he’s fully focused on football now, having given up baseball (he was a closer for the Irish) this spring. His health and conditioning also will be areas we must watch. But goodness, in a TE class that lacks a little pizzazz right now, Kmet also figures to be a very intriguing option should he consider giving up his final year of eligibility and entering the 2020 pool.

The Irish have a tremendous TE tradition, having 13 players at the position drafted since 2001, including five in the first or second round. Talent-wise, Kmet might be the best they’ve had since 2013 first-rounder Tyler Eifert.

Other Notre Dame prospects of note

Like Kmet, Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool mostly put his best foot forward. The 6-4, 227-pound senior got off to a bit of a slow start in the game, not catching his first pass until the final play of the first quarter and whiffing on one block on the outside.

But as the game went on, Claypool started showing his skill. A play that NFL scouts will drool over was his fumble recovery on a Georgia punt return, flying down the field as the outside gunner and getting into a great position to pounce on the loose ball. That’s the stuff that gets you bumped up a draft board by an NFL special-teams coach.

Claypool also drew a pass-interference call, took over on the Irish’s fourth-quarter TD drive and was clearly a player the Bulldogs tried their best to eliminate from the game. Book threw 14 passes in Claypool’s direction (16 if you count two plays negated by penalty), and he was only able to catch six of them for 66 yards. But I would put most of those missed connections on Book and not on Claypool, who is a phenomenal athlete and a fascinating draft prospect on the rise.

One disappointing player for the Irish was LT Liam Eichenberg. He was flagged on the third and fourth plays from scrimmage for a personal foul and a false start and later was called for a facemask penalty with the Irish in the red zone. Overall, through three games, he’s been so-so.

We think he has NFL potential, and the Irish have produced a lot of pro talent on the offensive line in recent years, but the senior is off to a slow start in our view so far this season.

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