The Titans and the Los Angeles Rams swapped first-round picks last week — a trade that sent shock waves throughout the NFL, its ripple effect reaching as far as Oxford to a few draft-eligible Ole Miss Rebels. The Titans dropped down from No. 1 to No. 15, while the Rams came up to likely choose one of the top quarterbacks available.
Former Rebel left tackle Laremy Tunsil is widely regarded as the best prospect in the draft. He was long the presumed selection for Tennessee, and the Rams, in need of a top-end wide receiver, made sense as a possible destination for Laquon Treadwell.
Tunsil is now assured of falling a least a few spots. Dane Brugler, Senior NFL draft analyst for NFLDraftScout and CBS Sports, likened Tunsil’s situation to that of Leonard Williams of USC last season. Williams, like Tunsil, was considered the prize of the draft. He surprisingly fell out of the top-5, landing with the New York Jets.
“That’s going to be one of the main storylines on the first day of the draft on Thursday,” Brugler said. “We know Laremy Tunsil will be a top-10 pick, we know Laquon Treadwell will be somewhere in the top-20 or top-25.
“The top player in this draft, in my opinion, is Laremy Tunsil. He is the best player that I have scouted in this draft class. Some guys were just born to play football, some guys are born to play quarterback at a high level. Laremy Tunsil was born to protect those quarterbacks. He’s such a natural pass-protector. His body control, his technique, his strength, his feet are just outstanding. Some teams might be a little bit worried about his injury history or his suspension last year, and here’s a player that, as good as he was, he never earned first team All-SEC or SEC Lineman of the Week or any of those things, mostly because he was hurt and the suspension. He’s not a squeaky-clean prospect. On the film, he’s outstanding. He’s the best player in this draft. Off the field, there are little things you have to be comfortable with.”
Where Treadwell ends up is anyone’s guess. Treadwell ending up in L.A. was no sure thing, even before the Rams made their move. The Minnesota Vikings at No. 23 is a popular projection for Treadwell among NFL Draft pundits, while the Detroit Lions (16) and Buffalo Bills (19) have been linked to him as well.
Treadwell was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award (given to the nation’s most outstanding wide receiver) after he leading the SEC in receiving with 1,153 yards last season. He was named All-SEC and received All-American honors. Ole Miss finished 10-3, including a blowout win over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.
“When you watch Laquon — when you evaluate him, when you grade him — and you list what you like most about Laquon Treadwell, speed isn’t going to be among the top-10 things you write down,” Brugler said. “A 4.6 (40-yard dash) was not surprising. His lack of speed, or his average speed was already a part of the evaluation.
“What I see is a player that’s a lesser dynamic version of Dez Bryant because of his ability to attack the ball in the air. He’s so physical, and he doesn’t turn 21-years-old until June. But he’s already just a physical marvel. He’s built like a grown man already, and he goes after the ball like it. The ball skills, catch radius and he has a little bit of twitch after the catch to bowl over some defenders and make something happen. So he does have some run-after-the-catch ability. He’s a player that can be a No. 1 in the NFL. He can be a difference-maker. He’s not going to consistently stretch the field, but you put him opposite, say, a Sammie Watkins in Buffalo, he’s going to thrive in that type of role both as a receiver and as a blocker.”
Ole Miss was already positioned to be a top story on day one. The Rebels could very well see three players — including defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche — taken in the first round for the first time in school history. The current Rebel record is two in 2009, when Michael Oher and Peria Jerry went back-to-back to the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, respectively.
But while Tunsil and Treadwell are sure-fired first-rounders, there’s doubt surrounding Nkemdiche, one of the most-talented prospects in the draft, but also one of its most vexing. Off-the-field concerns and lack of numbers (namely his pedestrian six career sacks and 16 tackles for loss) have teams vetting the former All-American unlike any other.
The 6-foot-3, 294-pound Nkemdiche ran a 4.87-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February, and he also had a 35-inch vertical jump and 28 reps on the 225-pound bench press.
“Here’s a player who’s a top-10 talent, but he’s not a top-10 football player right now for several reasons,” Brugler said. “Will a team take a chance on him in the late-first round and hope they can coax the rest out of him, trust him away from the facility. There’s so many wildcards going on in the first round, and Nkemdiche might be the biggest one of them all. I do think he has a good chance of going first round. It’s hard to say. It comes down to a team’s comfort level not only with the player, but the person and who he is as an individual, and does a team believe in him to invest a first-round pick with him.”
Nkemdiche has held pre-draft visits and private meetings with some 20 teams. In the last two weeks, he’s visited, among others, the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens. He’ll meet with the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday.
The questions he’s facing center on his December arrest following a fall from an Atlanta hotel room, as well as his NFL Combine comments, where he admitted to taking plays off and “lazy” tendencies. He also never broke the 30-tackle mark despite starting 35 games over three years in Oxford.
“What he said at the combine is tough to get out of your head,” Brugler said. “The question was about his talent and his production on the field. The question didn’t even include the word lazy. Robert used the word lazy. It’s kind of hard to forget. But he’s a trimmed, well-conditioned athlete. Broad shoulders, muscular frame. Balanced athlete with excellent flexibility and bend. He’s explosive. He can launch himself with cat-like quickness. He has a quick trigger. He tends to play too fast at times, a little bit out of control. That hurts his ability to break down in tight areas. But he has the skillful ability to cross the face of blockers, use his hip action to sink or redirect. Active hands, keeps himself free, plays low to the ground with leverage.
“There’s so much you like about just his movement skills. I think that’s what NFL teams love about him. You do have to worry about the lack of production. When you talk about prospects, the golden rule is you want traits over production. Traits are far more important than your college production. But at the same time, for Nkemdiche, as talented as he is, 35 starts and only seven sacks. That is a little bit alarming. You want to see him get home a little bit more. At the same time, he is seeing a lot of doubles, he is impacting what the offense is doing in the pocket just by his presence out there. On film, you see an outstanding player (that) as long as he’s helping and as long as he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s going to make an impact in the game.”