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Five Prospects I Like More Than I Should

I doubt any of these guys (except one) are headed to Pro Bowls in the future, but these are players who I think deserve a second look from fans and GMs.

NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There are names that get talked about constantly, getting the likes of McShay, Jeremiah, and Infante to break them down. There are players who flash time and again and everyone agrees that they should go high. Mock drafts are fueled by fans hoping enough of the stars like this find their way to digital teams. Then there are the guys who just stick out. I don’t watch as much college ball as I used to and I have to prioritize my time watching video of prospects, but these are the guys I just had fun watching. Guys I watched a second time not because I needed to look for something, but because I liked watching them play.

Puka Nacua, WR, BYU

Why I Shouldn’t Like Him: He lacks speed of any kind. He doesn’t have twitch, he doesn’t have elusiveness, and he certainly doesn’t have long speed. He is only average in tracking deep balls. I’m not convinced that he does himself any favors with how he uses (or doesn’t use) his hips, either.

Why I Do Anyway: The younger brother of Kai Nacua, who was on six different pro teams in some capacity or another over the course of six years, it seems obvious that Puka “wants” it. He’s assertive and fights for the ball in traffic, and when he gets the ball in his hands he can make some plays and gain space where it might not have been available to another player.

Parting Thoughts: There are dozens of guys like him every year trying to make the NFL, in that he has some of the skills necessary to make the transition to the pros but probably not enough of them. Still, I think he would be a good priority undrafted free agent for a team that needs a backup who was willing to grind, and he’s the kind of kid who would absolutely do what he could to move the chains if he found his way onto a field.

Israel Abanikanda, RB, Pittsburgh

Why I Shouldn’t Like Him: He’s inconsistent, and he might not ever be a three-down back. He was only the lead back at Pitt for a year, and there are questions about whether or not he will be able to handle the load of a full-time running back.

Why I Do Anyway: Timing. I love how he times his bursts, and while I have seen write-ups that describe him as explosive, I think it’s more accurate to describe him as aggressive. When he has the chance to hit daylight, he takes it. He is also willing to hesitate for a heartbeat in order to let the opening form, and that’s something more running backs should do.

Parting Thoughts: He is probably going to be picked up by a team in the later rounds, and it’s unlikely that the Bears will be in the market for a late-round running back with all of their other needs (and with their recent signings). However, “Izzy” should end up playing on Sundays even if it might not be with Chicago.

Jeremiah Martin, Edge, Washington

Why I Shouldn’t Like Him: He’s neither explosive nor fluid, and bend (the all-important bend) can be nonexistent at times. He spent three years at A&M before having two years of increased playing time at Washington. However, it took until last year for him to really put together multiple good games. There are a lot of reasons to worry about whether or not he’ll have the athleticism to compete consistently in the NFL.

Why I Do Anyway: He has two traits that are almost impossible to develop later–a good motor and solid instincts. He’s aggressive on plays, wanting to be involved. More than that, he uses his length well and can work his way into the play with a variety of moves. I don’t like football players who rely on physical mismatches and who then don’t have a plan for when the other guy is ready for them, and Martin is sort of the opposite–he seems like he usually has a backup plan.

Parting Thoughts: Teams need pass rushers, even if they are simply rotational players who exist to give the starters a rest. I don’t know if or when Martin will be drafted, but I think if he is given the chance some NFL team is going to find a guy who makes his snaps count.

Mekhi Garner, CB, LSU

Why I Shouldn’t Like Him: Where to begin? He’s not a ballhawk (only three college interceptions and the last one was against Sun Belt competition in 2020). He is neither fluid nor fast, and he lacks top-end speed. Oh, and did I mention that his balance when transitioning is only so-so?

Why I Do Anyway: I like defensive backs who aren’t afraid of contact. At 6’2” and over 210lbs, Garner isn’t afraid to jam the receiver and he doesn’t mind hitting hard when the time comes. When he is able to position his body well, he looks like a highlight tape from thirty years ago.

Parting Thoughts: I worry about whether or not there’s a place in the NFL for Garner. He’s not really a special-teamer except maybe as a gunner, but there he lacks the requisite speed. He might be a career backup who gets a highlight moment once every eight or nine games, making fans wonder why he isn’t played more, but I can’t help but hope that he is able to turn the corner and find an extra gear that will help him catch on with a team.

Darnell Wright, OT, Tennessee

Why I Shouldn’t Like Him: He supposedly lacks elite quickness, he has small hands relative to his body size, and he might have the wrong kind of length–being too tall without enough bend. He is also “just” a right tackle.

Why I Do Anyway: Confession time. I’m cheating on this one, because Wright has consistently been graded well, and I have seen him given a first-round ranking. I just don’t think he’s getting enough positive attention, because it seems like the debate I have seen is about Johnson and Skoronski dueling it out for first-place and Jones as a dark horse candidate.

When I watch him play, I believe Wright should be in the conversation as possibly the best tackle in this draft, and it comes down to one ability–interruption. It’s one thing to be straight-line fast, and it’s something else entirely to be able to take someone else’s speed away from them. Wright can stop the other guy from turning speed into power, and he is fast enough and aggressive enough to use his own explosiveness to disrupt what defensive players were trying to do. That, to me, is a gift worth looking for.

Parting Thoughts: Like I said, this is a cheat. Wright is probably going to be gone in the first thirty picks, and almost certainly within the first few picks of the second round if that doesn’t happen. However, if Poles were to somehow snag Wright and one of the other lower first-round prospects, I think a lot of Chicago’s problems would be answered.

In the name of transparency, now that two years have passed, here’s my 2021 list of the five prospects that I liked then more than I should have.

Sam Ehlinger, QB, Colts

What I said then: “A tendency to play hero-ball led to him taking sacks when he shouldn’t have, and he does that awful thing where he runs around with the ball too low, begging for a strip sack. He will probably be a career backup if he’s lucky, but I like the way he plays, and I think he’s canny and tough in a way that I would love to see in Navy and Orange.”

How He’s Doing: He’s on the road to being a career backup, currently on a roster with a 76.1 passer rating, having taken 14 sacks while completing for 28 first downs. Oh, and he’s fumbled twice already.

Alaric Jackson, OL, Rams.

What I said then: “I think Jackson has a chance at being the best kind of depth player—the guy who you don’t worry about when he needs to step in, even if he’s not the guy you want to see starting. On the offensive line, that’s worth a late-round pick as far as I’m concerned.”

How He’s Doing: 12 games and 6 starts (4 at right guard and 2 at left tackle) into a career as an Undrafted Free Agent for the Rams, but he was placed on injured research due to blood clots.

Josh Palmer, WR, Chargers

What I said then: “Good hands, good routes, and good instincts always beat raw speed in my mind…he might not be athletic enough, but he could also be the kind of mid-round, reliable safety valve that statheads use to explain why it’s not worth spending a first-round pick on a receiver when guys like Palmer are available later in the NFL Draft.”

How He’s Doing: Drafted in the third round, Palmer has played in 33 games with 16 starts, picking up 1132 yards from scrimmage and catching 67% of balls thrown his way, taking 37% of targets for first downs.

Alim McNeill

What I said then: “He also seems to want to be out there, frequently pushing hard with a good motor. I like it when guys who play in the trenches treat every inch like it’s precious, and he does...He is currently slated as a second- or third-round pick, and the Bears have bigger needs than a rotational defender at the moment, which is what he would be at first. Still, I have this fear that in a few years I’m going to see him lined up opposite Chicago and he’s going to make the teams that passed on him pay.”

How He’s Doing: He was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the third round, and after spending one season as a rotational defender, he was a starter for all 17 games of the 2022 season. He already has nine tackles for a loss and ten quarterback hits. However, at least his best games have not been against the Beloved.

Benjamin St. Juste, DB, Commanders

What I said then: “I love physicality in defensive backs, and he is not afraid to mix it up. He tackles with power and he tries to wrestle for the ball. There’s an old saying that the defender has just as much right to the ball as the receiver, and St-Juste plays as if he wants every 50/50 ball lobbed his way (and some of the 70/30 balls, too).”

How He’s Doing: Taken in the third round,St. Juste has 21 games under his belt with 13 starts. He has yet to record an interception, but he’s broken up ten passes while recording two sacks and three quarterback hits.