Not since 1960 has an NFL Draft gone by without at least one Arizona State player getting the call to the next level. That streak will grow to 52 years this week, though just which day of the draft the first Sun Devil will go is a little uncertain.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler seems a safe bet to come off the board first, but cornerback Omar Bolden might just beat him to the pros.
After just one full season as the starter in Tempe and a 7-8 record as a starter in college, Osweiler decided to make the leap. The 6-foot-7 Montana native threw for 26 touchdowns and 4,036 yards in 2011, making him the first signal caller in ASU history to eclipse 4,000 in a season.
Osweiler’s draft status might have benefited from another year’s experience, but with his mentor Noel Mazzone leaving ASU for UCLA and a new offense to learn under Todd Graham, Osweiler elected to go pro.
There is no shortage of talented quarterbacks in the draft, headlined by Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. But after the obvious top two, opinions vary, according to FOX Sports NFL Draft analyst Taylor Jones.
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“I like him as my fifth best quarterback, but he could easily be number four on that list and he may even end up being the third best quarterback in the draft,” Jones said. “(Texas A&M’s) Ryan Tannehill is kind of the sexy pick right now because of the athleticism he brings to the position.”
Jones ranks Tannehil third among quarterbacks, followed by Brandon Weeden out of Oklahoma State. Some teams may see it differently.
There are a few knocks on Osweiler, Jones said, among them his lack of experience as a starter, inconsistent accuracy and unproven ability to drop back from under center after playing in shotgun formation at ASU. But there’s also plenty of upside, including his size, athleticism and quick feet.
“He probably has the strongest arm in the entire class,” Jones said. “That’s not necessarily an indicator of success, but I think he’s pretty fluid in his motion.”
Jones said Osweiler is not as heavy-footed and pocket-dependent as he’s sometimes made out to be. He said Osweiler is comparable in size and athleticism to Ryan Mallett, who was drafted in the third round last year by the Patriots, though Osweiler is likely a superior athlete.
While some mock drafts have Osweiler creeping into the second round, Jones believes the third is more likely.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league, and everyone needs to find that next guy,” Jones said. “People are willing to do that and bet the farm on a QB, especially with the new (collective bargaining agreement) where you’re not giving huge contracts out (to draft picks).”
Jones says the likely match for Osweiler is a team that can groom him behind an established starter. One possibility: Denver, behind Peyton Manning.
Bolden, a five-year Sun Devil, presents a more complicated case. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound cornerback comes missed half of the 2009 season and all of 2011 with injuries. He decided against declaring for the draft after the 2010 season in hopes of winning a Pac-12 Championship but then got hurt in spring drills. Still, Jones believes Bolden’s value remains high.
“Cornerback is a need position in the NFL,” Jones said. “With the way teams are spreading it out, you’ve got four receivers on the field at any given time. … You need three good cover guys.”
Bolden’s injury history and the year off will factor into his evaluation, but Jones doesn’t believe it’s an overriding concern.
He pointed to North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn, who missed all of his junior season in 2010 after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Based on his potential alone, Quinn was selected 14th overall by the Rams in the 2011 draft. The circumstances are different, but the idea is the same: Teams are willing to gamble on quality talent.
While there are some concerns about Bolden’s size, Jones said, he makes up for it in physicality. He might be mismatched against some of the NFL’s taller receivers, but his tackling ability is above average. Like Osweiler, he could sneak into the second round.
“People are going to flip every stone, they’re going to talk to every coach he’s ever played for,” Jones said. “The kid has flashes, but early third round is probably accurate for him, anywhere through the fourth round.”
Beyond Osweiler and Bolden, the big question mark among potential Sun Devil draftees is linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose disappointing 2011 season and NFL combine performance caused irreparable damage to his once enormous draft value.
“You talk about a guy falling from grace — this kid fell further than anybody I can think of in recent memory,” Jones said.
Burfict’s combine performance included lumbering 40-yard dash times and the worst vertical leap among linebackers. That performance and strong concerns about his character have Burfict in a place no one could have foreseen when he was named a 2011 preseason All-American.
“This was a guy that was potentially the top middle linebacker in the draft, and now he’s potentially fallen all the way out of the draft completely,” Jones said. “He’s got a lot of people scared of him, and he didn’t do enough athletically to prove anybody wrong at the combine.”
Jones believes some team might be willing to take a chance on Burfict somewhere between the fifth and seventh rounds. If he can rediscover the player who starred his first two season at ASU, he could be one of the steals of the draft.
Center Garth Gerhart and wide receiver Gerell Robinson are also on the late-round radar, and receiver Aaron Pflugrad has reportedly drawn interest from multiple teams.