Saturday, May 18, 2024

Better-Than Team for 2024 NFL Draft: Here are the prospects Pete Prisco likes more than scouts do

Throughout the draft process, there was a lot of hype about Utah safety Cole Bishop. He is a good-looking player, a guy a lot of NFL scouts really like.

I like the other Utah safety more. That’s Sione Vaki, a tough, violent player who plays a lot faster than he timed and a lot bigger than he looks at 5-11 1/8, 210 pounds. Vaki is this year’s captain of my annual Better-Than Team made up of prospects I like more than the scouts — with most being down-the-line draft guys. 

The team is made up of 20 players who have a lot of tradition to live up to, especially the captain. Some of my past captains were Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David and Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Some past members of the team were Dak Prescott, Stefon Diggs and Za’Darius Smith. Last year I had Tank Dell, Sam LaPorta and Demario Douglas to name a few. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been misses, especially since these are outside-the-first-round players for the most part. 

This year’s captain is pure football player, as evidenced by the fact he played offense (running back), defense and all special teams for the Utes. Let’s just say No. 28 showed up a lot for Utah. He had 53 touches as a running back, including five touchdowns.

But you are drafting him to be a part of the defense and a core special teams player.

Vaki timed at 4.62 in the 40, which isn’t great but his speed to get to the football and chase down plays is better than that. He has football speed.

There are a lot of plays on tape where he runs down a ball carrier, showing off the burst to do so. He’s also really good when lined up near the line of scrimmage, willing to take on bigger blockers and pullers while winning a lot.

Vaki also played some deep safety, which probably isn’t his strength, but he does come down in the run game and makes plays, and he’s more than capable in zone coverage to get over the top on long pass plays. Where he could have problems is if he’s in man coverage, but that could be because he lacks experience.

After high school, Vaki  went on a Mormon mission for two years and returned to the Utah program in 2022 as a freshman. He started 17 games the past two years, then was allowed to petition to enter the draft this year.

On offense, he can do a lot of things. As a runner, he took snaps in the wildcat but also showed he can take a handoff and pick up tough yards. Against Cal, he took a snap in the wildcat, cut to the left, made a nice move to freeze the outside defenders and then bounced to his left and went down the sideline untouched for a 72-yard touchdown.

Then you put the USC tape on and watch him excel as a receiver out of the backfield. He scored a long touchdown on a wheel route, beating the linebacker in man coverage, and then scored again on a short route where he stopped on a dime running to the inside and pivoted back to the outside to run for a touchdown.

Like I said, pure football player.

I think a team that drafts him will use him a variety of ways, even on defense. With a lot of teams using three-safety looks, he could be a big part of that. He does need to throttle down sometimes because he can overrun a play or get out of his gap. But that’s more from inexperience.

The right team, with the right coaches, will be getting a heck of a player. The testing might not be great to wow you, but the tape certainly is that. Bare minimum, he will be a special teams star but I think he will be much more than that.

For more draft coverage, you can hear in-depth analysis twice a week on “With the First Pick” — our year-round NFL Draft podcast with NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson and former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. You can find “With the First Pick” wherever you get your podcasts: Apple PodcastsSpotifyYouTube, etc. Listen to the latest episode below!

Brennan Jackson, EDGE, Washington State

I almost made him the captain of the team, but he just lost out to Vaki. I love this kid’s game. At 6-4, 264, he plays with a toughness and power you want from the position. He isn’t a dynamic edge player when it comes to an explosive skill set, but he’s one of those guys who knows how to win. He needs some coaching to develop his moves as a rusher, but the talent is there. He beat Jordan Morgan of Arizona for a sack, blowing past him, and some have Morgan as a late first-round pick. The team that takes Jackson will be getting a rotational player who will develop into a quality starter. 

Troy Franklin, WR, Oregon 

Pop on an Oregon tape and you will see Franklin running away from defenders. He is a long strider who has impressive speed, clocking at 4.4 in the 40 at the combine. There were also a lot of plays where he was behind the defensive back, but had to wait for the football. The flip side is he did have some drops. He needs to improve his catching of the football. He struggled with it at the combine workout, but was much better at his pro day. He showed last season he could take a slant, split the defense and take it to the house. There aren’t a lot of guys who can do that, running away from defensive backs. He can, which is why he should be a late first-round pick in my book but will likely go in the second. 

Jared Wiley, TE, TCU 

He started his career at Texas, but transferred to TCU in 2022 and has developed into a nice receiving tight end. At 6-6. 245 pounds, he has good size and his hands are impressive on tape. He is a long strider after the catch — see first touchdown vs. Baylor last year — but has the speed to run away from defenders.  He was timed at 4.62 at the combine. That’s one-tenth of a second behind what Travis Kelce ran coming out of Cincinnati. I am not saying he’s Kelce, but he has a lot of traits when it comes to catching the football. Wiley isn’t a great blocker, but he’s willing. He held up enough blocking defensive ends in pass protection when asked to do it, but a team would draft Wiley for his ability to catch the football, not for him to block in pass protection. 

Mason McCormick, G-C, South Dakota State

He played left guard in college, starting 56 consecutive games. A lot of teams like him as a center on the next level, which gives him positional value. He is 6-4, 309 pounds and was really impressive at the combine with his athletic testing, which was among the tops for any offensive lineman. His tape shows a tough player who just needs to improve his technique. He does turn 24 in May. 

T.J. Tampa, CB, Iowa State

He is a long corner at 6-1, but he isn’t a burner after being timed at 4.53 at his pro day. He is the type of corner who would fit in with a team that runs a lot of zone — which he played a lot of in college. He is smart and athletic enough to be a good zone corner who can improve his man techniques enough on the next level. He will throw his body around in the run game, almost getting too overaggressive at times but he isn’t a great tackler because of the misses. He had two picks last season. I could also see him moving inside to safety and holding up well there on the next level because he is aggressive, and a team wants that. 

Bub Means, WR, Pittsburgh 

He played at two previous schools before transferring to Pitt and was a cornerback at Tennessee before becoming a full-time receiver for the Panthers the past two seasons. He is a physical receiver at 6-1, 215 pounds and plays that way. But he also can run, timing in 4.4 at the combine. He flashed that speed on tape, but the quarterback play was dreadful for the Panthers. There are so many passes that sailed wide and low and high when Means was open that it limited his chances. His skill set screams NFL receiver, and I think he will become a good one. He does need to improve his route-running and he didn’t run a lot of the route tree at Pittsburgh. But there is a lot to work with and he’s tough enough since he was a corner. 

Jarvis Brownlee, CB, Louisville

He transferred to Louisville from Florida State two years ago and developed into a top-level corner for the Cardinals. He is a shorter corner at 5-10, 195 pounds, but he makes up for that lack of size with a feisty toughness that shows up on tape. He will mix it up with receivers and loves to get his hands on them, maybe too much. He will have to limit that on the next level. He looks comfortable playing man coverage, but also has good recognition in zone. He can play inside and outside, which is key. Teams in need of a nickel will give him a long look. He did miss time with a foot injury last season. I love his fiery style. He’s from Miami and it shows. 

Javon Solomon, EDGE, Troy

He is a smaller edge player at just under 6-1 and weighing 250 pounds, but he has the speed and burst you love off the edge. He has a quick first step and he has a nice bend as a rusher. Since he isn’t big, he can sometimes have issues disengaging with the tackles. But he compensates with his speed off the edge. He isn’t great against the run, which can be a problem on the next level. But he had 31 1/2 sacks in college and 16 last season. He is a much better player rushing from a two-point stance than as a three-point rusher. That means he’s either a Wide-9 edge player or a 3-4 outside linebacker. The first step is worth a later-round pick. 

Michael Pratt, QB, Tulane 

In a league starved for quarterbacks, which is why guys like Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy will be overdrafted, Pratt is quietly going to end up being a great value pick for the team that takes him. I would take Pratt in the third before I would take McCarthy in the top 10. Pratt was really good in 2022, but he battled through a knee injury last season, one that forced him to miss two games, but he still threw 22 touchdown passes and five picks. He was playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons, which is a challenge. He did improve every year, which matters. Pratt doesn’t have a huge arm, but it’s plenty good enough. Word is his pro day showed off more arm strength. He can also throw on the move and he has the ability to escape pressure with his legs. 

Dallin Holker, TE, Colorado State

He started his career at BYU and served a Mormon mission before playing one season at Colorado State. Holker is a good receiving tight end who is more than a willing blocker. He doesn’t back down when taking on defensive linemen on wham blocks. He made some outstanding catches in his only season for the Rams, including an amazing end-zone catch against Washington State for a touchdown. He had 64 catches with six touchdowns. He isn’t a burner, but he tested well at the combine and plays fast enough. He could be a good move tight end for some team. 

Mike Sainristil, CB, Michigan 

This converted receiver — he had 21 catches in 2021 for Michigan — was all over the field for the Wolverines defense last year as their nickel corner. He is a willing tackler who can cover and also attack off the edge as a blitzer. He’s one of those guys who might not have all the measureables, but he makes plays. He is just 5-9, 190 pounds, but he plays bigger. He was also timed at 4.4 at the combine. He reminds me of a faster Mike Hilton of the Bengals, who makes up for his limited size with smarts and toughness as a slot corner. Sainristil is just a damn good football player. 

Junior Colson, LB, Michigan

He is an old-school type of linebacker, which was on display twice in his career. In 2022, he had a foot injury that forced him to wear a boot during the week, but never missed a game. Last year, he injured both hands and wore protection for both — one was club-like — and he kept on playing. That’s desire. He’s also tough as a player, which shows up on tape. But he’s a better coverage linebacker than some of those similar old-school linebackers would be in today’s game, which is a must nowadays. He really seemed to be the heart of the Michigan defense, which was special and loaded with talent. At 6-2, 238 pounds, I think he can be a three-down linebacker on the next level, which is valuable. 

Jalen McMillan, WR, Washington 

McMillan reminds me of former NFL receiver Keenan McCardell, who is now the receivers coach with the Minnesota Vikings — but McMillan is faster. He is a good route runner, ran 4.45 at the combine and has a knack for getting open. He missed time last year with an injury, but returned to be a big part of Washington’s playoff run. He did play some outside for Washington, but his route-running was best suited inside where he was able to use that and his instincts for sitting down in the soft spots in zone as his strengths as a receiver. At Washington, he competed for passes with likely top-10 pick Rome Odunze and first-day pick Ja’Lynn Polk, and when McMillan was healthy in 2022 he caught more passes than both of them. I think he can be a big-time slot receiver. 

Patrick Paul, OT, Houston 

He is a huge tackle at 6-8, 331 pounds who has been a three-year starter at Houston. I thought his 2022 tape showed a player who could be a top-15 pick with some improvement, but his 2023 tape wasn’t as good. Even so, there is a lot to like. He just needs to work on his techniques, which is why I see a player who can be a longtime starter in the league. He also needs to improve his run-blocking on the next level and get a tad nastier when doing it. He had some impressive plays against Texas Tech first-round pass rusher Tyree Wilson in 2022. 

Maason Smith, DT, LSU 

He was a big recruit coming out of high school, but after flashing early in his career he suffered a torn ACL in his first game in 2022 during a celebration. That ended his season. He returned to the field last season and looked rusty. But down the stretch he started to play like the big-time recruit he was for the Tigers. He is 6-5, 306 pounds and has an impressive first step. He does play high, but that can be coached out of him. The tools are definitely there for him to become a quality NFL starter. 

Jha’Quan Jackson, WR, Tulane 

He is a smallish slot receiver at 5-9, 188, but timed at 4.42 in the 40 and plays with good quickness to go with that speed. When watching Pratt on tape, Jackson always seemed to make plays. He is a good returner, which will help his chances. He does need to refine his route-running, but that can happen on the next level. He will be a productive slot for a long time in the league if he can hold up at his playing weight. He averaged 16.9, 16.8 and 17.3 the past three seasons. That shows his big-play ability.

Rasheen Ali, RB, Marshall 

His tape is loaded with big plays, breakaway runs and even a lot of power runs, although he runs high at times. Against East Carolina, he ripped off a long run for a score with nobody catching him, then ran through six tackles to bull in for a touchdown a little while later; impressive for a guy who is 5-11 and weighs 205 pounds. He did miss time with a knee injury in 2022, but returned last season as a better player. He injured a biceps tendon at the Senior Bowl, but he is expect to be ready to go for camp. 

Mo Kamara, EDGE, Colorado State

Kamara is a 6-1, 250-pound pass rusher who played five years for the Rams. He had a lot of production with 30 sacks and he really popped on tape. He doesn’t have the ideal size, but makes up for it with toughness and physical play. He ran 4.57 at the combine, which shows up in his ability to run down plays from behind. His lack of ideal size might scare some teams away, but he would be a nice outside rusher for 3-4 teams or those that use their edge players in a Wide-9 look. Rotational edge player is what he will be early in his career.

Trey Benson, RB, Florida State

He is the best back in this draft in my eyes, which means he should be a mid-second-round pick for somebody. At 6-foot, 216 pounds, he has 4.4 speed in the 40 and he plays to it. Just check out his 85-yard touchdown run against Virginia Tech to see that on display. He ran away from a defensive back who had the angle. He did have a bad knee injury at Oregon in 2000, but he has responded well to come back from that. He does need to be a little more decisive at times, but his burst is impressive.

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