Yes, it is absolutely too early to be doing this. If you turn back now I completely understand; we’ve just gone through almost five months of the last draft cycle. Some rookies haven’t even picked their jersey numbers yet.
But it’s still fun to look towards the future, and with New Orleans Saints fans asking me about the 2018 NFL Draft I don’t mind doing a little forecasting to indulge them. Seriously, I ran a poll on Twitter last week and over 200 of the degenerates voted on whether this article should happen:
Would you be interested in a brief preview of four or five 2018 draft prospects— Adrian Deterson (@JSiglerNFL) May 1, 2017
So feel free to kick back, relax, and take a minute to see which NFL prospects will be looking to make their mark this time next year.
Linebacker Skai Moore, South Carolina Gamecocks
My favorite linebacker in next year’s draft (besides Texas Longhorns linebacker Malik Jefferson, who is a whole other story) is South Carolina’s Skai Moore. Moore missed his senior year after suffering a herniated disc in his neck, but he’s been a full-go in padded spring practices and is expected to start as a redshirt senior in the fall. He brings elite ball skills to a position that doesn’t usually see many interceptions, boasting eleven through his first three years.
South Carolina’s starting quarterback, Jake Bentley, appreciates the challenge Moore brings in spring training:
“Every day he was a factor in practice. It got to the point that the read told us, throw it here, but you thought, ‘Skai is there.’ He’s able to take his coaching and tweak it a little bit because he’s so smart. If he has to cover curl-flat, but he sees the flat route first, he’s going to jump it. He’s a great player, and it’s hard to go against him.”
Moore also isn’t just a one-year wonder. He’s on pace to be the first Gamecocks linebacker to lead the team in tackles in each year of his career:
- 2013: 55 tackles (3 for loss), 4 interceptions
- 2014: 93 tackles (2.5 for loss), 3 interceptions
- 2015: 110 tackles (6.5 for loss), 4 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles
That’s exactly the kind of playmaking ability and athleticism the Saints are missing at linebacker. Moore is one of the leaders of South Carolina’s defense and should show out in the fall. He didn’t miss a start prior to his neck injury, but will have to answer questions about his durability - an obvious concern considering he’s listed at just 6-foot-2-inches, 221-pounds. Moore was also recently (like, two weeks ago) connected to a bar fight near South Carolina’s campus, though law enforcement cleared him of any involvement.
Defensive end Harold Landry, Boston College Eagles
If you liked Derek Barnett in this past year’s draft cycle, you’ll love Harold Landry. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound pass rusher plays with terrific bend in his lower body, and looks to be winning off the snap with a good first step more than Barnett did with good guessing. He’s exactly who you want out of a backside defensive end as the guy who can get into the backfield and pursue the ball-carrier, or turn a tight corner towards the quarterback.
Landry, just 20-years old, could have come out in this year’s draft but a third round grade from the NFL Draft Evaluation board and the potential to earn his degree before preparing for the NFL Scouting combine drew him back to school:
“I knew that coming in early out of high school that I knew I would be able to get my degree and not have to worry about the extra semester after the football season so I will be getting my degree in December and then I will be able to go and train for the [NFL] Combine. Another reason is obviously I want to prove that I can be a top 20 pick. I just think I am and I know the things I need to work on and I plan on getting those done this offseason and proving that I can do certain things on the field this upcoming season.”
He didn’t enter the starting unit until his sophomore year, but Landry is going into his senior season with some great production behind him the last two years:
- 2015: 60 tackles (16 for loss), 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
- 2016: 50 tackles (22 for loss), 16.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles
Don’t assume that Landry is beating up on future pharmacists, either. He was unblockable against a well-recruited offensive line at Florida State (four tackles for loss, two sacks, and a forced fumble). Maryland also fielded an offensive line full of local blue-chip prospects in their bowl game, which saw Landry run amok (two tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups, and his first career interception). He’s a legit talent.
Defensive end Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State Wolfpack
Earlier this spring the Saints hired North Carolina State’s widely-respected defensive line coach, Ryan Nielsen, so it makes sense that they could look to some of his former students in next year’s draft. The name that makes the most sense is Bradley Chubb. The big defensive end (listed at 6-feet-4-inches, 275-pounds on the 2017 roster) was a revelation as a junior, doubling his tackle for loss and sack totals.
Chubb doesn’t win often with athleticism, instead playing with a methodical, well-coached approach. He’s a smart player who can quickly read and react to what’s in front of him and knows how to fully extend his arms to hold up on the edge or fight through contact. Think of him as a more experienced and disruptive version of Taco Charlton, now a Dallas Cowboys first round draft pick. NC State head coach Dave Doeren emphasized Chubb’s importance to the unit:
"I don't think people realize, he's going to be special. We've had good D-linemen, but we haven't had a guy where [teams] had to change their protections because of him. When you played Vic Beasley or some of those guys, there wasn't a play you threw the ball you didn't know where he was. Bradley is that type of guy. If he's playing at his best, he could be that good."
Though he played sparingly as a freshman linebacker, Chubb is entering his senior year with a very solid two-year resume behind him:
- 2015: 66 tackles (10.5 for loss), 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
- 2016: 56 tackles (21 for loss), 10 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Chubb was recruited and developed by Nielsen, the first-year Saints defensive line coach, so there’s an obvious connection here. Keep an eye out in the fall to see how Chubb does without Nielsen’s immediate influence, and whether that connection turns into genuine interest from the Saints next year.
Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama Crimson Tide
It would be odd to see the Saints invest another high draft pick at defensive back after picking so many in the last few years, but it fits a pattern:
- 2017: Marshon Lattimore (first round), Marcus Williams (second round)
- 2016: Vonn Bell (second round)
- 2015: P.J. Williams (third round)
If they go after New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler in unrestricted free agency next spring, the Saints would have an embarrassment of riches at defensive back before even considering someone like Minkah Fitzpatrick, the only underclassman on this list.
Fitzpatrick is the model for a next-gen defensive back. He plays with a vicious streak that matches his ideal size (listed at 6-feet-1-inch, 201-pounds) while holding down the slot and seamlessly moving into some safety alignments for Alabama. He’s arguably their most important defender on the back end. A rare freshman starter in Tuscaloosa, check out the statlines Fitzpatrick has thrown down so far:
- 2015: 45 tackles (3 for loss), 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 10 pass breakups
- 2016: 66 tackles (5.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 6 interceptions, 7 pass breakups
Fitzpatrick owns the rare trait of playmaking instincts without a gambling nature. He doesn’t sacrifice tight coverage for a chance at an interception, or abandon his run fit to improvise. Alabama head coach Nick Saban didn’t dance around how highly he values Fitzpatrick’s talents:
"Minkah is a really hard worker. He's a bright guy. He's a smart guy. He's a very instinctive player. And he's played really, really well for us. Hopefully we're going to be able to continue to get him to play that way. When I talk about discipline and eye control, looking at the right things, understanding what the other team is trying to do so you put yourself in the best position to take advantage of it, he probably does that as well as anybody that we have on defense. I think that he ends up making plays because of it."
Alright, cool. Glad that’s over. Let’s get back to figuring out who’s winning the Saints long snapper battle in training camp, yeah?