NFL Draft 2014 Primer: Scouting the AAC
Though the NFL draft is still months away, the college football season looms just around the corner. So, with that in mind, Audibles is taking a look at one intriguing draft prospect from each FBS team. Read the previous posts here.
The American Athletic Conference is Teddy Bridgewater’s world. The Heisman Trophy candidate and potential 2014 No. 1 overall pick torched Big East defenses last season, and appears set to do the same in the newly-former AAC.
Bridgewater is entering his junior season, so he would have to skip his final year of college eligibility to enter the draft. That feels almost like a foregone conclusion at this point, barring a stunning drop in play in 2013. There simply does not appear to be enough defensive talent in this conference to keep Bridgewater from having an eye-popping season.
The rest of the league, then, may be chasing Louisville for the duration of the conference year. And yet, there is NFL-caliber talent to be found elsewhere. In Part IV of our look ahead to the 2014 draft, we’re highlighting some of the AAC’s potential NFL talent.
Cincinnati: Deven Drane, CB.
There are a couple of prospects on the Bearcats — LB Greg Blair, G Austen Bujnoch — who enter 2013 more prominently on the draft radar than Drane. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound cornerback probably has more room than those players to elevate his stock in the coming months.
Drane will come up and make tackles (40 last year), and he does not shy away from contact when playing in man coverage. He also goes after the football when it’s in the air, as evidenced by the 19 pass break-ups he has totaled over the past two seasons. Cincinnati has lined Drane up in multiple spots in the secondary, which will be a draw for NFL scouts. The senior is a work in progress, but there is potential here.
Connecticut: Shamar Stephen, DT.
Stephen saved his best for last in 2012, turning in an impressive seven-tackle, 1.5-sack performance in UConn’s season finale against Cincinnati. Should that Stephen show up in 2013, there’s a definite possibility he will move up, given his size (6-5, 313) and ability to play with decent pace along the defensive line. Performances like the one against Cincinnati have been too few and far between so far, though. Stephen barely registered a blip in some of Connecticut’s games last season, as various offensive lines stymied him.
Houston: Zach McMillian, CB.
Statistically, McMillian had a strong 2012, with five picks, 11 pass break-ups and 51 tackles. That he put most of those numbers together after teammate and Raiders first-round pick D.J. Hayden exited the lineup speaks well to McMillian’s effort level. There is good and bad here, as is often the case with mid- to late-round talent. McMillian’s ball skills are evident, and he works hard to find the football when it’s in the air. He needs to get better pretty much everywhere else, from how well he plays one-on-one to his physicality at the line.
Louisville: Preston Brown, LB.
Brown is listed at 6-2, 260, and he looks every bit of it. He uses that size when he has a chance to make a big hit; he tackles high and he tackles violently, which can cause him to whiff on occasion. Brown needs to improve going sideline-to-sideline and fighting off blocks, though he makes up for those deficiencies by flying downhill. Louisville also has used him effectively as a blitzer — Brown is adept at finding holes in the line and getting to the quarterback.
For his size, he actually moves fairly well in coverage, too, even if there is some evidence out there of tight ends slipping behind him upfield. Brown is on pace to be picked next year. With a big senior season, he could climb pretty high.
Memphis: Antonio Foster, C.
Considering that Foster has just one season at the FBS level, after transferring to Memphis from junior college, 2013 can go down in the books as a nice building block. The 6-3, 305-pound Foster mans the middle of the Tigers’ line, but he appears to be strong enough that he could slide over to guard at the next level. All the normal caveats about a developing interior lineman apply here: Foster must refine his technique, quicken his feet, keep getting stronger, etc.
Rutgers: Jeremy Deering, S.
A bit of a wild card on a Rutgers team that may have several draftable prospects, led by hugely talented WR Brandon Coleman. Deering, 6-2 and 200 pounds, caught 21 passes and carried the ball 130 times for Rutgers in his first three seasons, maxing out in both categories as a freshman with 77 rushes and 16 grabs. He’s on the move for his final year with the Bearcats, heading to safety, where he is expected to start in 2013.
Will the move work? Deering has the athleticism for it, and he ranked as a top-50 safety back when he was a recruit. But it obviously takes more than just speed to excel as a defensive back. A bonus for Deering, when it comes to the NFL: He’s a dynamic kick returner, having averaged 27.7 yards per attempt over the past two seasons.
South Florida: DeDe Lattimore, LB.
A lot of NFL eyes will fall on Lattimore’s teammate, former Notre Dame defensive end Aaron Lynch. Any team overlooking Lattimore may be making a mistake because the 6-1, 237-pound linebacker has proven to be a force in his own right. Lattimore has averaged 79.7 tackles per season with the Bulls, while racking up 27 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He can play inside or out, with most of his QB pressures coming as a blitzer off the edge. Like Preston Brown, he also will lay a lick on a ballcarrier when the opportunity presents itself.
The challenge for Lattimore will be pulling the total package together. Right now, there are elements to like in just about every aspect of his game.
Southern Methodist: Jeremy Johnson, WR.
Johnson saw a lot more playing time in 2012, and he raised his game accordingly with a 67-catch showing. The speed and route-running abilities are there for the 6-0, 179-pound Johnson to work as an NFL slot receiver come next season. Can he stand up to an NFL pounding for 16 games, though?
A disappointing note: Johnson’s longest reception last season went for just 33 yards, a nod to how SMU uses him in its measured passing attack. He likely would run in the 4.4 range, possibly even high 4.3s, in the 40-yard dash, a combine staple. Displaying that speed with more catch-and-run explosiveness is a must, if Johnson wants NFL scouts to notice him.
Temple: Cody Booth, OT.
New Temple coach Matt Ruhle compared Booth to ex-Owl Steve Maneri, who’s currently holding down a spot on the Bears’ tight end depth chart. Maneri caught 38 passes over his four-year Temple career, only to wind up at tackle for the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie. He switched back to his more natural position last season, but Booth’s path to the NFL may be similar.
Ruhle has asked Booth, off a 17-catch 2012, to move to offensive tackle. That’s a massive challenge, stunted by Booth’s need to bulk up significantly from the 255 at which he formerly played, to close to 300 pounds. His time at tight end means that Booth has quicker feet than most tackles you’ll find, but learning how to block is another story.
UCF: Jeff Godfrey, WR.
Godfrey is one of those players who can be so much fun to watch on tape that you have to force yourself to step back and think, Well, is this going to work in the NFL? Godfrey, 5-11 and 190 pounds, played quarterback for UCF in 2010 and ’11, nearly transferred when he lost his job, then converted to receiver last season.
He had 39 catches in his first year at WR, after a 2,300-yard season at quarterback. Godfrey, as you might expect, is raw as a pass-catcher, but he could be in the 4.4 range for a 40 time and can fly on the field. Plus, he’ll take a hit when he needs to — while playing QB, he lowered his shoulder and scored on then-Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly.