ESPN’s NFL draft analyst, Mel Kiper Jr., spoke on a conference call for about an hour and a half Tuesday, running down his thoughts on pretty much every significant aspect of next year’s draft.
From a South Carolina standpoint, the call was of particular interest because running back Marcus Lattimore will reportedly enter the draft and is expected to make his decision official later this week.
Moreover, the Gamecocks have a returning player, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who might have been a first-round pick if he turned pro after the 2011 season, when he was a true freshman. At least that’s what New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan told USC coach Steve Spurrier when Ryan attended USC’s pro day in the spring.
Kiper’s word obviously isn’t gospel. But for years, the man has spent a great deal of time analyzing players for the purposes of the draft, so his opinion is surely educated. Here now, his thoughts on Lattimore, Clowney, some other draft-worthy USC players and a couple Michigan guys who USC will face in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl …
Projecting where Lattimore might get picked is a “hard one to decide, to call,” Kiper said. “I’m sure it was a very difficult decision (for him to turn pro) because you’re coming off of an injury, obviously, from last year and you’re coming off now another injury, and (uncertainty about) when you’ll be ready to go. You go back to South Carolina, then there’s always that risk that you can get hurt again, and what would that do then to your grade? I guess he feels like, hey, Willis McGahee has a serious injury and still was a first-round pick.
“He’s got first-round ability, Lattimore does. He is right now a wild card. I don’t even want to say for sure (where he might get picked) because clearly the medical (issues) need to get checked out, and you think about: When will he be full strength? Obviously, when he’s healthy, he doesn’t have great, tremendous speed, but he still shows breakaway ability because he’s such a great runner – the pad level, the vision, the toughness, how impactful he was on a game-to-game basis running the football.
“But the durability concern is going to be there, and how he checks out from a medical standpoint is going to impact him. I thought he could go either way (turning pro or not). It wasn’t a shock that he’s going to go into the NFL draft. I would just say wild card. First-round talent. We’ll have to wait and see how the medical checks out. Do you think he’s going to be back at some point 100 percent? Do you know he will be, based on the way medical technology is now?
“You see a guy like (offensive tackle) Anthony Munoz had a ton of injuries at (Southern Cal) and comes into the NFL a long time ago with the Bengals and has a great, great, great career. Never had an injury with the Bengals. Sometimes guys get hurt in college and never get hurt in the NFL. Sometimes guys come in (to the NFL) with a clean bill of health and they get hurt right away in the NFL. Injuries are something you can’t predict. You hope for the best, but they’re part of the game, unfortunately.
“I think you look at it right now and first round, McGahee went. With Lattimore, I don’t think so, but you never know. So I like I say, I’d just put ‘wild card’ next to his name.
“You don’t have to declare until the middle of January, so you have some time to wait it out. That’s why I was a little surprised this early that decision was made (by Lattimore). But he’s had multiple injuries now in two successive years. You can’t afford a third. He probably figures now is the time to go into the NFL. He’s already shown when he’s healthy, he’s a great college back. There’s nothing more he can do, OK? So to go back and risk another injury at South Carolina doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you really think about it.
“You could go, ‘Well, if he goes back to South Carolina and he plays well, then he could go a little higher in the draft.’ But at his stage, he’s probably more concerned with: I’ve already shown I’m a great college back. I’ve already shown I’m a first-round caliber back. Now, once I get back to 100 percent physically, why can’t I have a great career in the NFL? It makes sense to do what he’s doing. You could definitely make an argument to do what he’s doing. I just made it. So I have no problem at all with that.
“There’s no first-round running backs (in the 2013 draft). There’s no elite running backs. He is the only elite running back, when he’s healthy, in this draft. Everybody else is a third-, fourth-round pick or back. Maybe some of them get pushed into the second (round) because of need.
“Now, as far as running backs and teams (that need them), obviously the New York Jets are a team that certainly could look at a running back at some point. I think the Cincinnati Bengals at some point could look at a running back. You go down the line of teams that could be looking at running backs and there’s not a ton of them. Green Bay possibly could look for a running back at some point. They’ve got a lot of guys in that mix there. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to prioritize the running back position. You look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, they could at some point, but not early, necessarily. So there’s a lot of teams that could, but how many are going to say it’s a key need area? Not many at all, especially in this pass happy league where most teams have two running backs and some teams already have three.
“Consequently, I don’t see a running back going in the first round. Lattimore is the only first-round caliber talent, and he’s got the injury questions. So there you go. If you need a running back, there are some guys that can help you. (Oregon’s) Kenjon Barner is going to be a factor. We saw LaMichael James on Sunday for the 49ers play pretty well. Showed flashes of being a real factor, giving them a real boost down the stretch, after playing very little for most of the year. Kenjon Barner is a little bit more complete as a back than what LaMichael James is. Montee Ball, Ray Graham, Andre Ellington – those backs have ability. They’re going to help you, but there’s no first-round caliber running back. The only first-round talent is Marcus Lattimore.”
** Kiper was asked about USC’s other guys – defensive end Devin Taylor, free safety D.J. Swearinger and strong safety/outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman.
“There really isn’t a highly rated player there, outside of Marcus Lattimore. Obviously, Jadeveon Clowney, if he was in the draft, he’d be No. 1 overall. He’ll be the No. 1 guy in the draft hopefully after his junior year.
“Devin Taylor, you kept expecting for some things. Everyone said, ‘Oh, he’s so great in practice and did so many good things there.’ But when he’s out on the field, he’s not the productive player you need to be. He looks the part. He’s got all the physical talent. Maybe in the NFL, you coach him up there. Maybe you find something there that’s not showing there at South Carolina in game situations. I thought he could be a second-round pick. He hasn’t been productive enough to go that high, in my opinion. I project him more in that third-, fourth-round discussion, just because he’s so physically gifted. But the production doesn’t equal the talent.
“You look at the other guys, Swearinger, Holloman, I think they’re more later-round guys, more Day 3 guys. They both are guys that have ability. Holloman has a lot of versatility (as a) safety or outside linebacker. You could make him an outside linebacker in the NFL. Obviously, Swearinger is a tough kid, loves contact, good special teams guy – should be (a good special teams player) in the NFL. But they’re more Day 3 guys.”
** Kiper talked a bit about where Clowney stacks up against the elite pass rushers he has seen over the years and what he needs to improve upon next season in his final year of college ball.
“He always been a guy that you just can’t handle one-on-one. He’s just physically so dominant. He was the No. 1 player coming out of high school. He’s been a top defensive end since his freshman year. You could put him No. 1 last year or this year (in the draft). That’s a rare quality. You think about when Bruce Smith went No. 1 out of Virginia Tech and all the other great pass rushers along the way, (Clowney) is a special player. Physically, athletically – incredible. Unbelievable quickness. You can’t block him in practice. You can’t block him one-on-one in a game.
“Every player can work on technique and just keep getting better from that standpoint, playing hard, play in and play out. The accolades just keep rolling in on Jadeveon Clowney. He’s a spectacular player. That’s why you look at him and say, boy, it’s not a stretch. It’s not exaggerating or over-stating to say he would have been the No. 1 pick probably if you think about as a freshman, I won’t go there, but certainly this year. If he were in this draft, he would be the guaranteed No. 1 pick overall. I don’t think there would be any doubt about that. He would be guaranteed to be the No. 1 pick in this draft.”
Kiper currently has Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones as his No. 1 pick.
** Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is not going to be an NFL quarterback, and where he fits in at receiver or running back as a pro is up in the air, until he proves he can play someplace other than quarterback with a degree of competency.
“That’s going to be something you could pretty much ask in April as well. It’s not going to change because there’s going to be that unknown about: Can he be a true slot receiver, return man? Now, the pro day, the combine, that will certainly help. Obviously, I think there are a lot of people hoping that he goes down to Mobile, Ala., and plays in the Senior Bowl and does what Antwaan Randle El did coming out of Indiana as a quarterback: He goes there and shows he can catch the football and can return punts and can do some things that way that’ll allow him to become Antwaan Randle El and become a second-round pick.
“If Robinson does that, we know he’s got tremendous speed, a tremendous burst. We know he’s a tough kid. We know he can run with the football in his hands. You can put him in the backfield. He could be a situational back. You could put him in the slot, in the wing. You can put him in the return game. You can get him the ball in space in a variety of ways in this league (with) the way they spread the field now. So I think as long as he shows he can catch the ball effectively, he’s got a chance to be a second-round draft choice. I really believe that. That’s where he could potentially go.”
Michigan’s left tackle, senior Taylor Lewan, is going to have a tough matchup in the Outback Bowl against Clowney and/or Taylor. And then he’ll be a high pick in the draft.
“I don’t think he’s going to be the first left tackle taken or the first offensive tackle overall taken. I think Luke Joeckel from Texas A&M, who won the Outland Trophy, I think he will be. Lewan right now is 13th on the big board. He’ll be battling, ironically, a kid from the Mid-American Conference not far away at Central Michigan in Eric Fisher. So it’s Eric Fisher or Lewan to be the second tackle off the board behind Joeckel. Lewan, you go back to the Ohio State game, he was beaten that one time. Overall, pretty solid this year, got better as the year went along. The situation there with Michigan producing a lot of offensive tackles for the NFL certainly helps.”