2024 NFL Draft confidential: Coaches pick Nabers over Harrison, Caleb Williams development and more

I had planned on leading The Athletic’s annual NFL Draft confidential with the quarterback intel I’ve gathered; after all, this is the exact kind of quarterback crop that makes the draft so fascinating: star power, intrigue and a half-dozen potential first-rounders. But after speaking to more than a dozen NFL coaches and scouts over the past month, I needed to audible. That’s what I realized after several interesting conversations about the receivers.

I came away from the NFL Scouting Combine thinking that the two closest players to sure things were Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and Washington’s Rome Odunze. In Harrison, you have the son of an NFL receiving great and the most complete of what has been a remarkable run of Buckeye star wideouts over the past decade — many of whom have shined in the NFL. I’d assumed he would be the No. 1 guy on everyone’s wide receivers board.

But apparently, that is not the case. At all.

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Marvin Harrison, Rome Odunze … and Malik Nabers above them both

“(Harrison’s) not No. 1 to me,” said a veteran NFL receivers coach, whose team is in the market for another top receiver, and whom we’ll ID as WR Coach 1. “(LSU’s Malik) Nabers is the No. 1 on my list and I think he is on a lot of people’s lists. He’s just different to me. I don’t think it’s anything toward Marvin, it’s just really that Nabers is that good. His skills with the ball in his hands are really different. His acceleration is just different. His explosive is different. He tracks the ball really well. He’s a smaller guy but he can still play outside. He’s rare in a lot of ways. He’s got some Ja’Marr Chase in him, some DJ Moore skills. I hesitate to say this because Tyreek Hill’s speed is just so different from anybody in the league, but Nabers has some of that kind of burst and just so explosive off the line of scrimmage.

“He’s as fast as the person chasing him. He’s gonna run away from whoever. If Deion was chasing him, he’d go 4.21 or whatever. He’s the best WR prospect since Chase and on tape, I think he’s even more impressive. This dude is different.”

Another long-time NFL assistant, who has coached receivers and been an NFL offensive coordinator, agreed that Nabers was the top receiver prospect.

“It’s Nabers and then there’s a gap,” said Offensive Assistant 1. “He is the best wide receiver in the draft in a couple of years, maybe more. He is Tyreek Hill combined with both of those San Francisco guys (Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk). He is so explosive. He has a second gear. He can stop on a dime. He breaks tackles. You can’t jam him because he’s just too quick and if you miss at all, he’s gonna outrun you. He’s really competitive but he can be a pain in the ass. He’ll be the guy who’ll have something to say to the coordinator coming off the field. He’s got that edge to him where he doesn’t know when to let up. He doesn’t know that those guys are on his side.”

Scout 1: “Nabers is so much more explosive. I think he has more upside. I don’t know if I trust him like I trust Marvin. I trust Marvin to be disciplined.”

WR Coach 2: “We have Nabers as No. 1. He’s got all the ability in the world. He’s got Receiver No. 1 written all over him. He does have some stuff he’s got to clean up. Route running, which will come naturally with the right coach and group of receivers. So much upside. He just brings a different presence. His physicality. You see that on tape. He’s got that dawg in him.”

Harrison, the 6-foot-3, 209-pound Biletnikoff Award winner, is bigger than the 6-feet, 199-pound Nabers, who finished second in the FBS with 1,569 receiving yards and third with 14 touchdowns. Harrison ranked No. 2 on the Freaks List in 2023 after putting up impressive numbers in the Buckeyes strength program. He’s bench pressed 380 pounds, broad-jumped 10 feet 8, clocked 3.94 in the shuttle and topped out at 23.5 mph, according to Ohio State sources. But Harrison didn’t do any of the testing in the draft process, which has added to some skepticism about his explosiveness.

“Marvin is great too,” said WR Coach 1. “You question just how fast he is. He can take the top off and he’s got elite ball skills and elite tracking. I don’t see 23 mph — that’s really, really fast. He’s to me more of a glider, build-up speed type of guy. Which you would expect, because he is huge.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “Marvin is really good. Polished. If you’re looking to pick on something, he’s not gonna run by people. They’re gonna squat on him at the top of the break. He’s good. I just wished he did the testing. He comes across as casual a little bit.”

Scout 1: “I think Marvin is pretty damn explosive.  Physically, he’s like a 6-3 CeeDee Lamb. He just doesn’t have that innate dog that Malik has.”

WR Coach 2: “Harrison is like a fluid, smooth receiver. He doesn’t have the same elite traits like Nabers. He can separate and catches the ball real well. I don’t think he wows you.”

Odunze is as tall as Harrison and a little thicker at 212 pounds. He did all the testing in Indianapolis, clocking a 4.45 40 with a 1.52 10-yard split, vertical jumping 39 inches and going 4.03 in the 20-yard shuttle. Last season at Washington, Odunze led the nation in receiving yards with 1,640 to go with 82 catches and 13 touchdowns.

Scout 1: “Rome is the safest guy of the receivers. He’s just not as talented as Malik or Harrison as far as getting consistent separation at an NFL level. I trust him a little more than those guys. As far as strength through the catch, he might be the best. He’s built right to last and run routes.”

WR Coach 1: “He’s great at tracking the ball; he’s rugged and has good run after the catch ability. Can play inside and out, and he’s so smart — like different type of smart. He can pick things up so easily and will adapt easily to the pro game because of the system and the concepts they had there, and that really shows up in his game.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “I like the grit and his lower body is really strong. But he’s not running by people or closing cushion like Nabers does.”

WR Coach 2: “I think you have a top two with Malik and Marvin, and then I think there’s Rome, who I don’t think is in that same tier as those two. Rome has the make-up to be really good but in my opinion he doesn’t have the elite traits like the other two. I question his top-end (speed). He doesn’t have that juice like Nabers. He’s more of a possession-type receiver. He’s a more polished route runner, but I don’t think he’s to the level of Marvin.”


NFL folks have LSU’s Nabers higher on their boards than Odunze and Harrison. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty)

On the other receivers

The consensus: Led by Nabers, Harrison and Odunze, this is overall an excellent group of receivers, much better than last year’s class (Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the first off the board at No. 20).

“After them, there is a big drop-off,” said WR Coach 2.

On Brian Thomas

The next guy is likely LSU’s Brian Thomas, who is built similarly to Harrison but with longer, almost 33-inch arms. Thomas ran a 4.33 40, vertical jumped 38 1/2 inches and broad jumped 10-6.

Offensive Assistant 1: “As long as he’s running posts and go balls, it’s fantastic. The rest of the route tree is where he loses a lot.”

WR Coach 1: “He’s got some wiggle and can sink his hips, but he just wasn’t asked to run everything on the (route) tree. He was more of a vertical guy. You worry about his ball skills a little. … I do think he has an enormous ceiling, maybe as much as anybody, because of his size and how fast he is.”

WR Coach 2: “He’s a deep threat but he’s not that physical. Not that great of a route runner. Has struggled to get separation on his own. When he gets to the next level, when he sees press almost every snap and there’s sticky coverage, how will he win? He’s got the traits you want. He still has a lot of room to grow. Does he have that edge in him? When he visited with us, he was very quiet and reserved.”

On Xavier Worthy

The Texas receiver created legitimate buzz with his combine-record 4.21 40, although his size isn’t ideal at 5-feet-11, 165 pounds.

Offensive Assistant 1: “I think he’s dynamite. This guy likes it rough. John Ross wasn’t like that. He has walk-on-earned-a-scholarship mentality. He’s really impressive to talk to.”

WR Coach 1: “He can thrive in the NFL. He’s not just a track guy. He can run routes. His speed shows up. It’s real. You can feel it. He backs people up. He’s a better player than John Ross. He’s a more natural football player.”

WR Coach 2: “The worry is about his size. He can fly. He reminds me of Marquise Brown, who was just a straight-line guy. He’s probably even faster than Marquise.”

The rest of the group is more of a mixed bag.

On Adonai Mitchell

WR Coach 2: “I think he’s a better overall athlete than Thomas. Brian Thomas is just straight speed, whereas Mitchell gets in and out of breaks a lot more fluid than Thomas does. Both of them struggled catching the ball. I think he’s (Mitchell) more of a project. He’s kind of a tease.”

WR Coach 2: “I don’t think it’s so much his route running. You can see him stick his foot in the ground and how well he can change direction. It’s more that he doesn’t always play as fast as he times. You always want to know how well will he fit into a room and those kinds of things.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “He’s really talented. This guy should be the one you want to develop as an X. He can really bend, but can you get everything out of him. He’s more of a wild-card guy.”

Scout 1: “I’m skeptical. He’s super talented. I like him. I do like Worthy better.”

On Florida’s Ricky Pearsall

WR Coach 1: “His biggest concern is his contact balance. He has elite ball skills and he can run. He tested great at the combine and those things show up in 7-on-7, but when you play real games and people start knocking you off routes and pressing you at the line of scrimmage, that contact balance is an issue.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “He reminds me of Ricky Proehl. He’s got the wiggle to him. The double moves. Turn the corner, but you can’t line him up in normal splits and think he’s gonna release and run by everybody. If you play in a Rams type of offense, where everything is motions, tight splits and stacks, he has more value.”

On Michigan’s Roman Wilson

Offensive Assistant 1: “He’s got good speed. I think he’s more of an outside guy mentality in a 5-10 body. He will be able to outrun you on a deep cross and can run a sail route, but I don’t know about the stop and start routes. I am not that excited about him.”

On Florida State’s Keon Coleman

Offensive Assistant 1: “He’s good. He just can’t run. He doesn’t have any 0 to 60.”

WR Coach 1: “You have to go back to earlier film in his career to see a lot of him sinking his hips and running in-breakers and things like that. But he does have big play ability and he can return punts.”

WR Coach 2: “He’s not very explosive and the 40 time told that. He’s a little stiff on tape, but he’s gonna make plays with the ball in the air. He can’t naturally separate but he makes a lot of contested catches.”

On Western Kentucky’s Malachi Corley

Scout 1: “He reminds me a lot of a raw Golden Tate. This guy is 210, a little bit puffed up. Contact balance is real. Corley has to learn how to be a better route runner. Deebo is a much thicker lower body guy. Might be a better route runner than Deebo.”

WR Coach 1: “He’s interesting. Really good player. I think that system where he was like a hybrid RB/WR. It’s a guess to say he could play running back. You can’t question how good he is with the ball in his hands. He runs through tackles and makes people miss. He’s got a lot of physicality in his game and I think he has better receiving skills than people give him credit for.”

On Georgia’s Ladd McConkey

WR Coach 1: “I think he’s a solid second rounder. Probably the best route runner in the draft. At the top of his routes, you can really see it. It’s just the physicality and his frame you question.”

Scout 1: “He’s smooth and talented. I worry about Ladd’s durability. Had some back issues.”

On UNC’s Tez Walker

WR Coach 1: “He’s really interesting to me because he’s got so much upside. He’s really fast but he’s really raw. There’s some bad tape from the Senior Bowl where he drops some balls. I do think he has better hands than that. You hate to say boom or bust but I think in a year or two he might be that guy people are either saying he’s really good or he’s about to be out of the league and playing in the UFL.”

On South Carolina’s Xavier Legette

WR Coach 2: “We’re big fans of his. He’s pretty special, and a great kid. What’s worrisome are a bunch of injuries and that motorcycle accident.”

On Washington’s other WRs, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan

WR Coach 1: “I like ’em both. Polk’s a little more rugged with the ball in his hands than McMillan. I think he’s best in the slot but he can also play outside. McMillan is a little less twitchy and more of a glider. He’s really good in the slot. I would be surprised if all three Washington wide receivers didn’t play for a decade in the NFL. Playing in that system really will help them translate to the NFL.”


Folks like Georgia’s McConkey, but his durability is cause for concern, they say. (Brett Davis / USA Today)

And now, the quarterbacks…

This year’s class has heavy Pac-12 flavor with Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix; additionally, Jayden Daniels started his career at Arizona State. That fact did give one QB coach some pause as he’s studied the film.

“The Pac-12 guys — Caleb, Penix, Bo — are really interesting,” QB Coach 1 said. “All of them have talent obviously, but the thing that is hard to determine is so many of the quarterbacks in that conference had such good years. (Five of the top 18 rated QBs played in the Pac-12 — Noah Fifita and Shedeur Sanders were the other two from the league.) You question what type of defenses they’re playing and then you watch the film and guys are wide open. Wide open. It’s like watching Big 12 film where dudes are 5-10 yards behind people.”

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Do the Bears have the QB room, coaching staff to help support Caleb Williams?

Caleb Williams: Talented, but ready?

QB Coach 1: “Caleb has a lot of stuff that he is going to have to break in the NFL. Now, look: That’s part of what you love about him. Those are great plays in college but not when Myles Garrett is rushing you.”

“I like Caleb as a player, but the locker room part of it concerns me. I don’t know him from a can of paint, but what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen from watching interviews, he’s going to have to understand the difference in where he’s at and how he’s been treated to being the quarterback in an NFL locker room. That system is one that when they get to the NFL, they really have to learn football, (like) Kyler Murray or Baker Mayfield. You can win a Heisman and do all that stuff. In the NFL, you have to know protections, and responsibilities and run game and managing the game. There’s no layups, like all the quick screens and bubble passes and all that other stuff that boosts up your completion percentages because those plays are taken away. But I would still take him high. You just have to hope that your team and staff and mentorship can support him.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “He’s ridiculous. He looked like he got bored and wanted to make wow plays. But he can do anything. My only reservation is the times he gets in trouble. He makes too much out of plays past 15 yards on the scramble. He doesn’t understand that the ball takes a lot longer to get there and that’s when the defenders can get in on it. He doesn’t see the difference between 10 yards and over 20 yards.

“He gives off a Russell Wilson vibe with this lack of self-awareness. ‘I’m kind of above everybody.’ Not bad. Just a little where you want to see him be a more regular guy. Are you gonna be able to coach him or is he gonna be more worried about his marketing team?”

Scout 1: “I think Caleb has a chance to be very good but I’m not sure about the wiring. For me, it’s how motivated he is to just win. He’s super talented. He really is one of the first quarterbacks to deal with as much celebrity and NIL as he has. I’m worried that he leans into this identity/persona of just being a little bit weird and different, and that detracts from his ability to relate to his teammates and just be about the team and work on winning. He’s gotta work on some things from the pocket, and that takes discipline and that takes humility. And I just don’t know if he has that. I’m not saying that’s his fault. I just don’t know if that’s how he’s been nurtured as such a high-profile quarterback that has made a ton of money. But if he can figure out those things from the pocket, he can be elite.”

QB Coach 1: “I would be more comfortable with Jayden than Caleb. Nobody is saying straight-up negative things (about Williams). You kinda have to decode the compliments and there is enough you see that concerns you. After the game, everybody else is shaking hands and you’re seated on the bench by yourself. You can be a superstar player on a team and have all your side stuff, and then you’re going down that Russell Wilson path, where you’re gonna have your own team and your own this and that. I just hear there’s a lot going on.”

On Jayden Daniels

Offensive Assistant 1: “His arm isn’t as good as Caleb’s, but he’s Lamar Jackson-like and he can actually throw progression reads for a living because he’s disciplined enough. He’s the ‘wake up at 5 a.m.’ guy. He had three coordinators in three years at ASU. I’m gonna do something for myself. He doesn’t say s—. The thing I don’t like is you’re not throwing outside the numbers. It doesn’t really zip out there. But he can throw with touch and anticipation. … He’s a passer who just happens to be able to run really good versus the other way.”

QB Coach 1: “Jayden is close to Lamar Jackson. He’s not as strong physically as Lamar, but none of these other guys can run like him, and I saw the downfield throws, the middle of the hash throws, and the timing, the accuracy from him. He just does it all for me. I’m confident about him.”

No consensus about the other four potential first-rounders

On Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.

Offensive Assistant 1: “Penix is third for me. He can already do all the pocket stuff. I just wish he had more juice. He’s more of a slow-burn guy. Get pissed off when you don’t throw one good in the workout. Get excited about something. … If he would’ve run a little more, he would definitely have been top-10. He and Caleb have the best anticipation. He doesn’t take sacks.”

Scout 1: “The arm talent is there. He’s a gamer. His teammates love him and he knows how to win big games. With him, it’s more physically concerning. He’s a thin-boned dude and he has had injuries. He is a very violent upper-body thrower where his lower body power is not there. I wonder if he is built to last. That concerns me.”

On North Carolina’s Drake Maye

QB Coach 1: “I wouldn’t take him in the top 10. I just don’t know if he’s ready now to go take over now. He had one of the more impressive interviews I’ve done in years in the NFL. He was very impressive on the board, talking ball and the different systems he’s played in and the responsibilities he’s had.”

Scout 1: “He never really learned the proper footwork to be accurate. His arm talent is crazy. He has a lot of upside. But he misses layups. He’s just not a naturally accurate passer. I do think he’s wired right. He has to figure out some things. It’s hard to have a shooter and tell him his jump shot is broken and then rebuild it where you have to play him.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “His personality is terrific. His improvement on that pro day was really good, because his film isn’t. His feet are all over the place. He’s off-balance. Everything is a run-around play. At least at the pro day, you could see he had fixed a lot of stuff. It’s gonna be a little while for him.”

On Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy

Offensive Assistant 1: “He does have talent. People like his personality. He’s a lot like Maye. I think there’s a long way to go for him. On tape, he over-strides a lot. Everything is a flat, hard rocket-shot. You have to throw over guys and around guys and take something off. I do think he can do that, but I don’t think it’s his default. And when something is not your default, you really got to work on it to iron it in.”

Scout 2: “The most impressive thing he does is throw on the run. There is some good stuff on his tape, but it’s not like he was asked to make the throws Penix was making. I like him a lot, but I think he’s one of those you don’t want to have to rely on him this year.”

QB Coach 1: “J.J. is talented. He’s the youngest of all of ’em. He won and is a very competitive dude. Their style of play and what he was asked to do, you don’t get a lot of answers that show up much on tape.”

On Oregon’s Bo Nix

Offensive Assistant 1: “I worry about his accuracy. He gets it in the area. He looks nervous when he plays. Fidgety. Who reacts the first to color showing in the rush? He does. He wants to turn everything into a runaround.”

QB Coach 1: “I like him a lot. He’s been through some stuff and come through it. I’ve seen Bo manage games, make certain throws against certain coverages, read coverages and go through progressions against certain teams that I saw Caleb struggle against. Bo showed at Auburn that when he was asked to do quarterback runs, when I’m asked to run around and do stuff, I can do it. Then, when he got to Oregon and he was asked to run an offense, he showed he could do that.”

On South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler

There’s a massive drop-off after those first six quarterbacks, but one was particularly intriguing.

Offensive Assistant 1: “He’s changing arm angles, trajectories. He stays in the pocket. I think he’s a real guy. Is he a Gardner Minshew-type of range guy? His arm is better than Minshew’s. He’s got a Baker-ish type personality but I don’t know if he can bring people with him like Baker can. It’s like, ‘I know what I can do,’ which is appealing. He likes the bright lights. He likes the flash but he likes to be coached and his technique is real good. He has a repeatable strike. He’s balanced. It’s like a nerf ball in his hands.”


“He likes the bright lights,” says one NFL coach of Spencer Rattler. (Matt Pendleton / USA Today)

Who else on offense are folks talking about?

On Georgia’s star tight end Brock Bowers

Scout 1: “He’s smaller and a little less explosive than people thought, but he is a real athlete. I see him as a really good starter. I think he’s gonna be in the slot as more of an F-tight end. Evan Engram is a good comp. Evan’s faster but probably not as physical.”

Offensive Assistant 1: “I think he’ll be an expensive luxury item. I think Bowers has more route-running wherewithal and savvy than (Evan) Engram. At least I’m hoping, for his sake.”

WR Coach 1: “Everyone thinks he’s a big dude. He’s a lot smaller than I thought. Can he block a 6-technique? No way in the world. I think people are gonna play him like a receiver. He is a matchup problem. More like a Sterling Sharpe. But back then, you didn’t see all these kinds of defenses like you do now. On film, this dude’s a beast. I watched that Auburn game. He just willed them to the win. He completely took it over.”

On the offensive line class

Scout 1: “It’s a good group of tackles.”

OL Coach 1: “It’s a lot better than it was last year.”

Scout 1: “(Joe) Alt makes too much sense. He’s just so big and so good. I like JC Latham. It’s so easy for him. Troy Fautanu is really good. I like Taliese Fuaga a lot. We thought Troy was better. (Oklahoma’s) Tyler Guyton has the talent to be a starter for the next 10 years, but in those first two I think he’s going to have a lot of growing pains. He gets sloppy. I worry about (UGA’s Amarius) Mims. He’s just so big and muscle-bound, and those guys have a tendency to get hurt. I think about the Jets lineman from Louisville (Mekhi Becton). He hasn’t played a ton of games (thirty-one games in four seasons after going No. 11 in 2020).”

OL Coach 1: “Alt is the most impressive of all these guys. Obviously, his dad was a pro. His ability of how he can bend for how tall is he is unheard of. He was a former tight end but physical enough to play offensive line. I think he’s gonna be a damn good pro and can play left tackle for a long time.”

Other prospects OL Coach 1 weighed in on?

Penn State’s Olu Fashanu

“He’s extremely athletic for his size. Their system is hard to watch. You’ve gotta sift through that stuff. The guys shuffle. They play with high-pad level. They don’t snap and strike guys. But he’s got all the traits. He’s a good prospect.”

On Washington’s Troy Fautanu

“Can play both tackle and guard. I know he can do it for a fact. Has that suddenness to play inside. He’s built that way. I think he might have a slight edge athletically to Fuaga.”

On Alabama’s JC Latham

“I think he’ll be a solid guard inside. He’s a definite gap-system guy for somebody. He’s athletic for being so massive at 350. I think he’s gotta lose some weight. This guy is just built like a guard.”

On Georgia’s Amarius Mims

“He has not played much. He missed a lot of time. He’s an unbelievable specimen. Probably one of the best looking kids in the draft. He doesn’t bend as good as Guyton or those other top guys and I do worry about his durability.”

On Duke’s Graham Barton

“He’s a neat prospect. He can play all over the line and I think he can be a great center. I think he’s tailor-made for a zone scheme team. Very intriguing. I do think he’s better inside than at tackle. I think he could play it if you need him to but the lack of length could get him in trouble out there.”

Don’t be surprised if no defensive players go in the top 10

“There are guys I like, but there’s nobody that I think is really worth a top-10 pick,” said Scout 2.

Another lament is a lack of physicality across the board. “Nobody wants to play the run,” said Defensive Assistant 1. “Everybody just wants to rush the passer, but if you never get to third-and-8, how do you pass rush? We say it all the time, you have to earn the right to rush the passer. So we have to figure out: Is it a deficiency in who they are, or is it a deficiency in what they were coached?”


Scheme matters for those watching Darius Robinson. (Joe Puetz / USA Today)

Folks are watching Darius Robinson

One NFL defensive line coach said his top guy is Missouri’s Robinson, who wasn’t in another NFL defensive coach’s top five.

“Darius is the most impressive of the group,” said DL Coach 1 of the 6-foot-5, 285-pound former Tiger with 34 1/2-inch arms. “He gives you so much position flexibility. In the 4-3, he’s your D-end or you can put weight on him and he can be 3-tech. In a 3-4, he can be your big end or a tackle. I think he’s best as a 3-4 big end. I could see him killing it in a 4-3 system too. He just gives you variety like nobody else in this draft can give you.”

Defensive Assistant 1: “I really like this kid. I think he’s got potential to be a true 4-3 end where he plays first and second down at end and then he’ll be a handful inside as a rusher on third downs.”

Defensive Assistant 2: “I think he’s gonna be a power rusher on the outside, but he can be dynamic on the inside and he is really good against the run. He’s a big man, who can be very versatile and is smart.”

DL Coach 2: “He was awesome. Amazing. Great personality. The only kid I’ve ever had that handed me a resume after. In our system, we think he’s probably a 3-technique or 3-4; he’s a 4i type of guy. He’s like 285. Can he be 295, 300? There’s probably a little development. This kid might take a year or two, but I think he’s sharp enough and aware to know that he might need more reps.”

Next up…

Others who got votes as the best defensive prospect in this class are Alabama’s Dallas Turner and UCLA’s Laiatu Latu, a 6-feet-5, 259-pound former rugby standout who won the Lombardi Award in 2023.

Defensive Assistant 2: “I think Dallas is the best bet of the bunch. He’s super smart. He doesn’t have the same inventory of moves as Latu and is not as polished, but he just wins with his athleticism.”

DL Coach 1: “Dallas is so fast. He’s long. He’s been coached well. Great kid. Really football smart. Never been in trouble. No major injuries. He’ll keep putting on weight.”

Scout 1: I like (FSU’s Jared) Verse a little better (than Turner). He plays harder and has a better feel for it. Verse has great upper body strength. Can go speed to power. Ran 4.58. He is a little bit stiffer and doesn’t bend the corner as well, though.”

DL Coach 2: “Latu’s toolbox is something special. No one else has a repertoire like this guy does. He can win in so many ways.”

DL Coach 1: “I think Latu’s the best of the edge guys. He’s the most polished. Watch his film. I think the only reason why I think Dallas Turner goes ahead of him is because of Latu’s neck issues. I think Latu is the most talented D-line guy in this draft.”

On the rest of the defensive line and the edge

On Texas’ Byron Murphy

DL Coach 1: “He’s something else. If this guy is in something where he’s gotta read it, he’ll get swallowed up. If he goes to San Francisco or the Jets or Houston in those systems, oh my God, he can be really good. He can beat a double team.”

On Illinois DT Johnny Newton

Defensive Assistant 1: “I really love this kid. He’s really disruptive. You just have to live with 6-feet-1, 305, and that isn’t gonna work for everybody.”

On Penn State edge Chop Robinson

Defensive Assistant 2: “He impresses me as a speed rusher. He reminds me of Dee Ford, although he’s faster than Dee. Ford went in the first but probably should’ve been a second.”

Scout 1: “Chop scares me. He reminds me a lot of the guy the Falcons took awhile back (Vic Beasley). Smaller guys who win with speed, but they don’t have much change up.”

DL Coach 1: “He’s OK at the point of attack. It seemed like they didn’t ask him to do a lot at Penn State. But in terms of get-off and bend, oh man!”

On Michigan’s Kris Jenkins

DL Coach 2: “He’s an interesting one to evaluate. Their system isn’t up-the-field friendly, but there are plays where you’re seeing him do it. They had a great defense.”

On Clemson DL Ruke Orhorhoro

DL Coach 1: “I think he’s just OK, but some people I think are falling in love with him. They (Clemson) don’t play any blocks there. They just slant every play.”

On Washington State edge Brennan Jackson

Defensive Assistant 1: “People aren’t talking about this guy enough. I think he’s a knock-your-face-off run defender.”

On LSU’s Maason Smith

DL Coach 1: “He is a boom or bust. In his defense, there is still a lot of football in him. He’s played 976 snaps in three years. 17 starts. He’s got everything you want. They had four D-line coaches in the past year. But he is a coachable kid. … If he goes somewhere where he gets a good D-line coach, people better watch out.”

Scout 1: “He told me he had six defensive line coaches in three years. I think he’s a project but he is talented. I worry about his block recognition and his instincts. He plays high and if he doesn’t see it fast enough, that is going to be a problem. I won’t be surprised if he goes in the third because someone is gonna bet on the talent.”

On Kansas edge Austin Booker

Defensive Assistant 2: “He’s a really good rusher and a legit polished pass rusher, but needs to develop in other parts. He’s 240 and didn’t run great (a 4.49 40), but he has a frame that can get to 255.”

On Texas Tech DL Myles Cole

Defensive Assistant 1: “He has the wingspan of someone that is 7 feet tall and he can move. But he doesn’t make a lot of plays. I think his deficiencies are things I can coach. I can teach how to shed properly.”

On Houston Christian edge Jalyx Hunt

DL Coach 1: “He tested as super athletic at the combine, and you see that on film. But it’s hard for someone to jump too far out there and say, we’re gonna take a kid too high that only had 9 1/2 sacks and came from Cornell by way of Houston Christian. But you see some toughness on film, and man, that is s—-y quality film. It was like my mother-in-law shot it from the stands.”

On Troy’s Javon Solomon

DL Coach 1: “I think he’s gonna surprise everybody. He is the sleeper guy. He’s had 32 career sacks. Nobody in the draft has production like this kid. The problem is he’s 6-foot, 246. My comp is the (Bryce) Huff guy who just got paid by the Eagles. Started off on special. Got him as a DPR (designated pass rusher). This guy might be a demon coming off that edge. He can bend and turn that toe. Somebody is gonna take a flier on that kid and he’s gonna be a DPR and will kill on special teams.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

NFL folks might be sleeping on these draft prospects, our CFB experts say

Subplot in the linebacker class

One of the more fascinating subplots is where NC State’s Payton Wilson will go. In 2023, he was the nation’s top defensive player. He won the Chuck Bednarik Defensive Player of the Year Award and the Butkus Award. He piled up 138 tackles with 17.5 TFLs, six sacks and three INTs. The 6-feet-4, 233-pound former standout wrestler and lacrosse player also burned his way to a 4.43 40. The bad news? He’s got one of the most concerning medical histories of any star player in the draft with knee and shoulder issues. In certain schemes, such as at Houston, San Francisco, Cleveland or now Washington, where there’s a lot of sideline-to-sideline run and hit plays, a healthy Wilson could be a tackling machine.

“He doesn’t have an ACL in his right knee,” said Defensive Assistant 2. “If he was healthy, he’d be the first (linebacker) drafted. I still think he’ll go later on Day 2. You’ve gotta expect that he’s only playing one contract. Anything you get more than that is a bonus. The kid plays like his hair’s on fire. His ability to play a block is an issue because he has really short arms (30 1/2) but the kid is friggin’ relentless. I think if San Francisco drafts him, he’ll get 150 tackles in that defense. If you get him in the third round and he’s a good player for you for four years, that’s not a bad pick.”

The first linebacker drafted will likely be Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper, a 6-feet-2, 230-pounder with 34-inch arms who ran a 4.51 40. Cooper made 84 tackles with 17 TFLs and eight sacks in 2023.

“I think he’ll be first off the board,” said Defensive Assistant 2. “I’m not sure he’s gonna run the defense, but he has really good instincts. He’s explosive and strong and can run and hit.”


One of the nation’s best defensive players also has some serious injury history. (Jaylynn Nash / USA Today)

Day 2 and 3 prospects Defensive Assistant 2 had thoughts about?

Kentucky’s Trevin Wallace

“He has great upside. Not a very good player now, but really athletic.”

Notre Dame’s Marist Liufau

“Lot of potential there. Gonna be a really good pro. He doesn’t make a ton of plays. He’s close to making them.”

Michigan’s Michael Barrett

“This is a really good player someone will get in the fifth or sixth round. Just a tough-ass kid. He’s a junkyard dog. Plays faster than what he runs. I hate saying that because once you get to the NFL that stuff catches up to you, but I like him a lot. I think he’ll be a really good special teams player too.”

Washington’s Edefuan Ulofoshio

“Explosive as s— but he’s really stiff. I think he’ll be a third day pick. I like him.”

It’s just a so-so group of defensive backs

There’s good depth at corner, but the safety class is underwhelming. “I can’t remember a Senior Bowl where the DBs got the better of the receivers until this year,” said Scout 1. “Part of that is because they allowed more juniors in, but it’s a deeper class than I’ve see in a while.”

The best bet to go first is Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell. The 6-foot, 195-pounder ran a 4.33 40 with a 38-inch vertical and also did 20 reps of 225 on the bench. He had six INTs and 38 passes broken up in the past two seasons.

“Love that kid,” said DB Coach 1. “Like a more physically mature Sauce Gardner. He’s a touch less fluid coming out. I think they’re similar in their play style. He’s the most complete corner. But there isn’t a lot of press tape there.”

“I think Quinyon has the best traits of any corner in this class but he’s still pretty raw,” said DB Coach 2.

Alabama’s cornerback tandem

Terrion Arnold and Kool-Aid McKinstry often get lumped together. They were part of an elite Crimson Tide secondary that also featured Caleb Downs, a fantastic young safety now at Ohio State.

DB Coach 2: “Terrion is a short-space guy. He’s quicker (than McKinstry). He can play in the slot and be a great nickel. He’s not really as big as you’d like but his movement skills are good. Kool-Aid is a super fluid mover, and a more physically developed player. You wouldn’t want to put him inside. High football IQ. He plays the right way.”

DB Coach 1: “Kool-Aid’s really good. His speed is OK but he’s a little lethargic, almost nonchalant out there on the field. I really like Terrion but the speed aspect I worry a little about. I think he’ll be a better player inside.”

On Clemson’s Nate Wiggins

Wiggins, at 6-1, 173, is the fastest DB in the class. He ran a 4.28 40 in Indianapolis. He had pick sixes in each of the past two seasons.

“He’s the best pure coverage corner but the habits aren’t there from play to play,” said DB Coach 2. “His tape two years ago, I thought he played the game the right way. He didn’t last year.”

“He is tall, fast and all that,” said DB Coach 1. “I think his skill set to be a press corner is pretty good.”

Who is most intriguing?

That might be Iowa star Cooper DeJean, a 6-foot-1/2, 203-pound Swiss Army knife for the Hawkeyes’ rugged defense. In the past two seasons, he had seven interceptions with three pick sixes and made 116 tackles along with 13 pass breakups.

Scout 1: “Love him. He’s tough. He’s athletic. Quiet confidence and he’s smart. I don’t think it’s best to make him an outside corner if you run a lot of man. There’s a little bit of stiffness. I don’t know if the transition quickness is elite. I think it would be best if he bought into a zone nickel or safety. He’s a punt returner and great special teams guy.”

DB Coach 1: “I think he’s a safety with potential nickel flex. I don’t think he’s a corner. I think that’s what he wants to play but I don’t think anyone has him as a corner. He’s a little straight-line. I think his skill set matches up for free safety. The only thing I worry about is if you’re gonna take a safety in that slot where he’s slated to go, you want him to be a monster, a dawg. I don’t see his physicality like that. He tackles and will tackle but is he gonna make a living like that as a high-level safety that’s gonna go in the first round? That’s my concern … not to say he can’t.”

DB Coach 2: “This is the best DB in the class. He has the rare ability to be a nickel one year, a safety the next and a corner the next. He’ll be a great chess piece. He doesn’t have the linear straight line transitions of what you want in a first-round corner. But you see some Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jevon Holland in there. He can play outside, in the slot, in the deep part of the field. I think whoever gets him will be really happy with him.”

Possible top-50 corners

On Missouri’s Ennis Rakestraw Jr.

DB Coach 1: “I think he’s a third corner with some upside. He’s thin-framed and has been hurt. You worry about about him getting hurt a lot.”

On Michigan’s Mike Sainristil

DB Coach 2: “He is one of my favorites. The habits are just so good. I’m not leery of his size because I think he plays a lot bigger. I have no reservations about him. He’s so aggressive and plays the ball so well in the air. I think he uses his lack of size to an advantage because he’s super quick and he’s able to get around blocks and people can’t get their hands on him.”

Scout 1: “He’s one of the best football players on anybody’s board if he’s on their board. Some guys will think he’s too small. Some guys will take him too high. Really good zone nickel. Really good player. He’s versatile, but the size is a concern. I like big guys. If he adds to your culture, it makes sense.”

DB Coach 1: “I’m not as high on him as some people. I think he’s a really good zone nickel. He has all the production with his eyes on the quarterback. He’s really good at that but does that fit what you do at that position? To me the highest value of the nickel is, can he cover the slot? And you don’t really see that as his major skill set.”

On Rutgers’ Max Melton

DB Coach 1: “Tested great. Good dude. Played corner well. When he plays Cover 2 he gets lost at corner but that’s correctable. He has the skill set to be a very good press corner in the NFL.”

On Kentucky’s Andru Phillips

DB Coach 1: “I’ve got love for him. I think he’s got some of the best change of direction in the draft. My only knock on him was the tackling when he was inside there at nickel wasn’t great. But I think he can improve it. I do think he can cover the high-level slots in the league.”

DB Coach 2: “Really bright kid. He can play NFL nickel. Very good feel for zones.”

On Georgia’s Kamari Lassiter

DB Coach 1: “I’m very high on him. I know the 40 (4.64 at Georgia’s pro day) is bad. I just think this guy is gonna be a player somewhere in the league. He’s got good instincts. The Georgia coaches just friggin’ rave about him. Hopefully, you get him at a discount because of the 40.”

On Pittsburgh’s MJ Devonshire

Scout 1: “I think he might be an NFL starting corner. Ran 4.4. Really long arms. Picks the ball off. Returns kicks. This is a good player.”


Devonshire (pictured here at ACC 2023 Kickoff) received some rave reviews in our confidential. (Jim Dedmon / USA Today)

Regarding some decent Day 2 and 3 safety options

On Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin

DB Coach 1: “I think Nubin is the best true middle-field safety in the draft.”

On Georgia’s Javon Bullard

DB Coach 2: “Can do everything well. His size (5-10, 198) is a problem, but he has good cover skills and is a great tackler. The other thing you like is he played in a defense that has a lot of complex calls.”

DB Coach 1: “I really like Bullard. He shows good range. Has coverage ability for a safety. Is he gonna be a nickel in the NFL? No, but I think he could get you out of a game if you had to play him there for a game.”

On Georgia’s Tykee Smith

DB Coach 1: “I like Tykee too. The only concern I have about him is he’s never really played in the deep part of the field. His overall spacial awareness and range is a little bit of a question mark. He is good on the perimeter. Good against screens. He’s heavy-handed. Good blitzer. Good in the box. But he’s not gonna play nickel in the NFL but he ran better than I expected. I have Bullard ahead of him.”

On USC’s Calen Bullock

DB Coach 1: “I have a lot of love for him too especially getting to know his character a little bit. He’s a little young and immature but I think he’s a football guy. I like his film (nine INTs in three seasons for a dreadful USC defense). A lot of people make a big deal about his tackling, but he’s more than willing to throw it up in there. I think he has really good range and is loose enough to cover in space. The reviews on him are all over the place. If you take him you could have a high-level starter or a big project.”

On Utah’s Cole Bishop

DB Coach 1: “He did a good job at the Senior Bowl. He showed some ability where I think he could cover some standard issue tight ends — not a Travis Kelce but normal tight ends. He has a little bit of range and has some speed. One thing that is concerning to me is he’s got 29 3/4-inch arms despite being 6-2. That’s like, anatomically weird to me. I do feel like arm length is important on defense.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photos: Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport, Jonathan Bachman / Getty )

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