I had the opportunity last weekend to attend the Philadelphia Eagles’ rookie minicamp. It’s always enjoyable to see college players react to NFL coaching for the first time. If you’re a defensive lineman, I can guarantee you’ve never seen a coach quite like Jim Washburn, the old-school defensive line mentor who’s been dispensing his particular brand of knowledge for over 30 years. Washburn is one of the best in the business, and I love seeing his passion and attention to the smallest of details.
Washburn has two rookies to mold in 2012: Fletcher Cox, whom the Eagles moved up to take with the 12th overall pick, and Vinny Curry, a late second-rounder many teams had rated as a first-round talent. Cox and Curry were part of an Eagles draft that was one of the best in the NFL. There’s only one way to evaluate a team’s draft immediately after it happens, before the draftees have taken a snap on Sunday: Heading into the draft, how did you project each player’s transition to the NFL? Based on my film study, the Eagles’ brain trust (led by Howie Roseman and Andy Reid) did an outstanding job.
Cox was the top defensive linemen in this draft class. He was primarily a tackle at Mississippi State, but what fascinated me most was his play at end. He aligned outside on significant snaps in each game I evaluated, and showed the pass-rush ability of a fine defensive end with his initial burst and overall quickness. Cox is a Washburn kind of player: position versatile with the skill set to become an outstanding pass rusher.
Curry played both defensive end positions at Marshall. What stood out on tape, and it’s not a characteristic you often see in college pass rushers, was his quick, active and violent hands. That attribute reminded me of San Francisco 49ers first-rounder Aldon Smith when he came out of Missouri last year, and we all know the success Smith had as a sub-package rusher with 14 sacks. Curry could well be a factor early in Washburn’s “Wide 9″ scheme, in which he has more space to build up speed and velocity.
Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin were the Eagles’ other two defensive selections in the 2012 draft. I believe both will transition very well to the NFL. Kendricks is a movement player — a speed and range linebacker with an explosive element to his game. In today’s NFL, with the emphasis on the passing game and the increased speed and athleticism of tight ends, those traits have become magnified. In addition, Kendricks was utilized as a blitzer at Cal, predominantly from the outside. There’s no question he can do that at the NFL level.
Boykin played in the slot in Georgia’s nickel package. The 2011 Eagles’ struggles at slot corner were well documented. As I’ve written before, given the prevalence of three-receiver personnel packages, slot corner is now a defined position that demands coverage ability, run support and blitzing. Boykin, despite his 182-pound frame, performed each of those tasks well at Georgia. Based on my evaluation, he was the No. 2 slot corner in this draft, a notch below Alabama’s DeQuan Menzie.
The AFC team whose draft caught my attention was the Cincinnati Bengals. Let’s start with their second pick of the first round: Kevin Zeitler, the offensive guard from Wisconsin. I don’t know how the Bengals felt about the Zeitler/David DeCastro comparison, and we’ll likely never know because DeCastro had already been selected by the Steelers, but I felt that Zeitler was the more athletic and more complete guard prospect. Zeitler was very efficient in the zone-run game with his quick feet and sustained movement. He’s an excellent fit for the Bengals.
The two wide receivers Cincinnati selected, Rutgers’ Mohamed Sanu in the third round and Cal’s Marvin Jones in the fifth, also possess NFL attributes. The Sanu pick was particularly intriguing to me. Based on my tape study, I projected him as a slot receiver. In fact, I saw similar physical attributes to the New Orleans Saints’ Marques Colston: good size, fluid movement, excellent hands and the ability to work effectively in traffic in the middle of the field. But don’t lose sight of Jones. He will compete with Sanu for the starting job opposite Green. Jones had the widest catching radius of any receiver in this draft class. His ability to snatch balls outside his body frame is outstanding.
Keep this in mind: The Bengals feature A.J. Green, one of the most vertically explosive receivers in the NFL. Green tilts coverage, often commanding the attention of multiple defenders because of his game-breaking skills. And don’t forget Jermaine Gresham, a very talented tight end with the ability to align anywhere in the formation, including split outside the numbers. Green and Gresham impact the other wideout in base personnel packages. Sanu and/or Jones will likely encounter significant snaps of single coverage.
One other Bengals pick interested me: safety George Iloka from Boise State. I know safety is not a highly valued position in the NFL, unless a player is deemed special. Yet I was surprised Iloka was still available at pick 167. There are not many safeties who are 6-foot-3 1/2, 225 pounds with the speed and movement skills of Iloka. He also aligned on the outside at corner in Boise State’s final three games of the season due to injury and was not overmatched athletically. I watched many games, so I understand the concerns — one of which was a lack of splash plays — and I was told that was a main reason why he fell in the draft. But with his rare size, long arms, good range and closing speed, plus the fact the Bengals lack quality at the safety position, Iloka will get an opportunity. And I would not be surprised if he emerged as a significant contributor in Mike Zimmer’s defense.
The Bengals and Eagles — two teams who drafted players that I believe will transition effectively to the NFL. And that’s the entire point of the draft, right?