The 2018 NFL Draft is less than 3 weeks away and every team is putting the finishing touches on their draft boards. We all know the consensus top prospects such as Saquon Barkley, Bradley Chubb and Quenton Nelson. Then there are those middle round prospects that don’t get the recognition they deserve. Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft are where the general managers make their money. Hitting on those picks can be the difference between contending for the Super Bowl and clawing for a Wild Card spot.
Here I will highlight 3 prospects that I think will go late on Day 2 or Day 3. All three of these players most certainly have their flaws, as they are projected middle round players, but I believe each one has the ability to make an impact, not only this upcoming season but for the longevity of their respective careers.
Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
Darius Leonard is one of my favorite players in this draft. There isn’t too much tape on him but I had a chance to see him at the Senior Bowl this year and he stood out the entire week. What I look for in an off-ball linebacker are their athleticism, instincts, tackling ability and coverage skills.
Leonard’s athleticism will be the main reason for him going as high as he does. He moves very well in short areas with good, quick feet. He also has very good closing speed which teams will covet in today’s game. Granted he only ran a 4.70 40 yard dash at the combine but he looks much faster running down running backs on film. He shows the ability to flip his hips in coverage to be able to match up on either tight ends or running backs. Not to say he’s weak, but his strength, or lack thereof, on the field can show up when he struggles to get off blocks every now and again.
Instinctually he could be a little quicker diagnosing a play, especially against the run. This can cause him to potentially hit his hole late or miss an angle but he does have the sideline-to-sideline speed to make up for his deficiencies at times. When he does get a good jump on the play I tend to see him taking good angles and cutting off lanes for the ball carrier.
This may be my third most important skill for a linebacker, but if you are not able to tackle you will never get on the field. Thankfully, this is not the case for Leonard. Despite his smaller stature he consistently gets his man down. Leonard is a patient tackler who always squares up his target. He stays true in his stance and doesn’t get out of control, so he doesn’t aim too high or too low. I don’t get the sense that he will miss many tackles if he is in position. You may not the see the biggest hits out of him but he will be sufficient in getting the job done.
His coverage skills are really what stood out to me in the Senior Bowl practices and game. I got to see him cover wheel routes by the running back, which is one of the tougher routes for a linebacker to cover, and each time I saw him in great position to disrupt the play. He did get scored on in the Senior Bowl but on that play I personally couldn’t ask for better positioning against a perfect pass by Josh Allen. His quickness and smarts in coverage should be an asset for teams right away.
It’s not hard to believe he doesn’t get a ton of recognition coming from a school like South Carolina State, but he is a name to remember come draft day. I expect him to go in the 3rd or 4th round and I believe it would be worth it to spend a 3rd round pick on him, especially to a team that could use a weakside linebacker, such as the 49ers, Vikings, or Raiders. Worst case, his rookie year he can excel as a special teamer and can be asked to play on third downs.
Darius Phillips, CB, Western Michigan
Darius Phillips is one player I seem to be higher on than most when I look at rankings among cornerbacks. Phillips is another one I was able to see down in Mobile, and not having a ton of tape to watch on him it really helped me get a better look at the Western Michigan corner. What I look for in a cornerback are their speed, agility, instincts, technique, and tackling.
When it comes to speed Phillips is not necessarily a burner, running a 4.54 at the combine. I do believe, though, that he has quality speed that could allow him to make up ground if needed. But when combining his average speed and size, it’d be best to keep him off bigger bodies.
His instincts are a big reason why I think he will succeed at the next level. He does a great job anticipating routes in man, however, in zone coverage he seems to be a little late reacting and sometimes it looks like he can be too laid-back. When the ball gets thrown his way he shows tremendous ball skills to make a play on the ball, which includes 12 career interceptions.
Phillips has shown flashes of good change of direction, but then there are times he reacts too late. He is physical at the line of scrimmage despite only being 5′ 9 7/8″ and 193 lbs, so I wouldn’t let that prevent me from drafting him into a system that likes to play press. He does a great job sticking on his man in coverage, showing quick feet as well as the ability to flip his hips and turn with whoever he is covering.
Tackling is not what gets a cornerback drafted high (i.e Marcus Peters) but it could be the difference between being picked before another corner. In Phillips’ case, I’ve noticed that he can sometimes wait for other tacklers to make a play on the ball carrier which can hurt him. Other times, he’ll be the first to the ball carrier but will go for the strip, which allows the ball carrier to get an extra couple yards or break the tackle completely. Being able to force strips is a good skill to have, but Phillips needs to be smarter about when to do so.
At the end of the day I think he will go somewhere in the middle of Day 3, but I’m a fan of Darius Phillips and would take a chance on him in the 3rd round. Not only has he shown what he can do in coverage and display his playmaking ability with 5 defensive touchdowns, but his skills as a returner could get him drafted in this area as well, bringing back an additional 5 touchdowns. This is another small school prospect, however I wouldn’t let that stop me from drafting a good player. I believe his best fit would be on a team that plays majority of their snaps in man coverage (such as the Jets, Chiefs, or Patriots), preferably on the inside as a nickel corner, but I wouldn’t rule him out of playing on the outside.
Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
In a deep running back class, Akrum Wadley often gets left out when mentioning some of the top backs. The past two years he has been the lead back for Iowa running behind my top center in James Daniels. What I look for in a running back are their vision, quickness, ball security, speed, balance, durability and third down skills.
As far as vision goes, I found that Wadley does a good job finding and also creating holes, getting small enough to get to where he needs to go. Whenever he gets to the second level unscathed he usually makes the most of it. However, he can tend to bounce it to the outside more than he should.
Where Wadley stands out to me is his quickness and elusiveness. He possesses great short area quickness and has the innate ability to move in and out of cuts, including behind the line of scrimmage. He is no sure tackle in the open field showing a variety of moves, such as jukes, jump cuts and spins. He is one of the more shifty backs in the draft class.
Wadley has some fumble problems, having 8 in his collegiate career and in the games I watched he had two of them. What I did notice is that in both instances the defender made a very good play and it wasn’t necessarily Wadley being careless and holding the ball away from his body. You would like to see the total number drop, but it’s not too much of a concern if you ask me.
At the combine, Wadley ran a 4.54 which is plenty fast enough in the NFL, but he will never be considered a burner. He has shown the ability to outrun defenders to get to the outside and down the field.
When it comes to balance he has the ability to stay on his feet after first contact but does have a smaller frame than some would like. Going against bigger, stronger defenders at the next level he may need to pack on some muscle in the lower body to have success after contact.
Considering he has been the workhorse for the last couple seasons in Iowa, he doesn’t have a crazy amount of wear and tear, accumulating just about 600 touches. There have been no serious injury concerns with him which is always great to see, especially out of a running back prospect.
Lastly, his third down skills. As a receiver he can make an instant impact on third downs, showing soft hands and plus route running, even showing that out of the slot position at times. As a pass blocker he doesn’t always show the willingness to block and doesn’t show great technique. This is the one area where he will need to get coached up the most. The aforementioned extra muscle in his legs would help in this area as well.
As of now I believe that Wadley will go somewhere early on Day 3 with a small possibility he goes late Day 2. Personally, I currently have Wadley as a early-mid 4th round prospect. The main thing for him, and most rookie running backs, is becoming a better pass protector. So many talented rookies don’t get on the field because they can’t help keep the quarterback clean. I think his best fit would for him to go to a team that likes using their running backs outside in space and as a receiving weapon such as the Dolphins, Rams, or Washington.