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April 26, 2008
Roundtable: Beware of first round busts
At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for their opinion about a specific topic from the past week in college football.
TODAY'S QUESTION: Which projected first-rounder do you foresee struggling in the NFL? And which player not projected as a first-rounder do you think will be an NFL star?
Projecting a player to be a bust makes me uncomfortable. Guys who see more games and a lot more game tape than I do – and are paid lots of money – obviously believe the first-round players will be successful. Of course, somebody taken No. 1 each year will fail to live up to expectations, and that could be California wide receiver DeSean Jackson. He has great speed, but marginal size and didn't play up to his potential last season.
Jackson caught five or fewer passes in 10 games last season. Now, that could be a matter of defenses adjusting their coverage to neutralize him, but won't NFL defenses do the same? He's also a dangerous punt returner, so he has that going for him and he does have blazing speed. But speed's not enough. A check of the past few drafts will show several speedy receivers taken in the first round who haven't produced to the level deserving a No. 1 pick.
Conversely, the player that doesn't project as a first-rounder that may emerge as a star could be East Carolina running back Chris Johnson, who dazzled the scouts with his speed at the Combine. Don't dismiss his college productivity as merely success against inferior competition. Several "small school" running backs have done quite well of late, including LaDainian Tomlinson of TCU, Brian Westbrook of Villanova and Brandon Jacobs of Southern Illinois.
A co-worker (OK, my boss) suggested I look at Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge as a potential sleeper. I chuckled a little bit, then took a closer look. On paper, Ainge is comparable over his junior and senior seasons to the quarterbacks ranked ahead of him: Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Joe Flacco, Andre' Woodson and John David Booty. Ainge has the second-highest completion percentage (.001 behind Brohm). He has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than Ryan and Henne. And he threw for more touchdowns than everyone but Woodson and Booty. Ainge is coming off two years under quarterback guru David Cutcliffe – who coached the past two Super Bowl MVPs (the Manning brothers) in college. Ainge did all this despite just one season with a top-flight receiver.
I've watched Ainge enough to realize he has the tools of an NFL quarterback but needs some seasoning and the right system to blossom as a pro. He'll be taken after Ryan, Henne, Brohm and Flacco, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a team get some late-round value out of picking Ainge.
As for the other side of the equation, Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston can be dominating at times. Ask first overall pick Jake Long, for example. But to me, he always performed in spurts. In two national-championship games, he was never the best pass-rusher on the field, though that's supposed to be his bread and butter. Gholston is a fantastic athlete, but I could never justify taking him ahead of Chris Long and would have trouble taking him in the top 10.
Every team wants a big-time pass rusher at defensive end, and I think teams are overlooking some concerns when they look at this year's crop of ends. There are three ends who could go in the first round who – to me – have bust potential: Ohio State's Vernon Gholston, Clemson's Phillip Merling and Miami's Calais Campbell.
That Gholston was seen as a possible overall No. 1 pick is stunning; he has great speed off the corner and certainly looks the part (heck, he looks as if he were chiseled out of marble). But he's not the guy I'm picking; my choice for biggest bust potential is Merling.
He wasn't close to being the best end in the ACC (that would be Virginia's Chris Long) and he wasn't close to being as good with the Tigers as end Gaines Adams, who went fifth overall to Tampa Bay last year. Merling has 12 sacks total in three seasons, and while he was solid in the Clemson games I saw, "solid" does not equate to first-round status.
I can't see him becoming a feared pass rusher off the edge. And teams that use first-round picks on defensive ends need guys who wreak havoc with their pass rush.
As for a sleeper, I think Louisville's Brian Brohm will end up being the best quarterback in this draft class. He played in a sophisticated passing offense at Louisville – and under two different coaches. A lot of folks forget that Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe is a former NFL quarterback coach, so the tweaks Kragthorpe made with Brohm last season eventually are going to pay off.
Don't put the blame for Louisville's bad 2007 on Brohm. The Cardinals were bad because of their defense, the lack of a consistent running game and injuries.
And with Louisville, Brohm showed he can get the ball to his wide receivers, his tight ends and his running backs on dump-off passes. Simply put, I think Brohm is going to be a star in the NFL.
Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com has Miami defensive end Calais Campbell going to San Francisco with the 29th overall pick. If Campbell does indeed get taken that early – most other mock drafts have him in the second round – it seems a little too high for a guy who had such an inconsistent 2007 season.
Campbell had 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in 2006, but he didn't come close to matching those numbers in 2007. Campbell recorded only six sacks, with half of them coming against lightweight opponents Duke and Florida International. Campbell clearly has the physical skills to have a long pro career, but most teams want a sure thing with their first-round pick. There's too much uncertainty surrounding Campbell after his so-so junior season.
The clear choice for a potential sleeper pick outside the first round would be Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason, the Jim Thorpe Award winner whose outstanding skills as a cover man have been overshadowed by his perceived lack of speed. A few mock drafts have Cason going in the first round, though, so if I can't pick Cason, I will choose Notre Dame's Trevor Laws. The Irish DT led all defensive linemen last year with 112 tackles and followed that up with solid performances in the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine. Laws isn't an elite pass rusher and probably won't get taken in the first round, but his tenacity and versatility should allow him to have a long pro career.