Two fourth-round prospects who attended school in San Diego have had their professional potential greatly enhanced by tutelage from former NFL quarterbacks. For San Diego's Josh Johnson, it was Jim Harbaugh. For Kevin O'Connell, it's been Chuck Long who's helped him make a quick journey from a preseason in which he wasn't even listed as a potential NFL quarterback to his current "three feet high and rising" status. O'Connell is big (6'5", 225) and extremely mobile (Long, his head coach, has compared O'Connell to Vince Young from an athletic perspective).
What has kept O'Connell underground before the 2007 season? His numbers -- 34 career interceptions and a completion percentage under 60 -- and the perception that he's a work in progress. But he did enough in his senior season to get a second-team All-Mountain West Conference selection (17 straight quarters without an interception), and his Hula Bowl and Combine performances impressed a lot of people. This is not a quarterback who is going to start in his second year. He's a project to be sure, but the upside will make O'Connell worthy of having his name called on the second day of the draft.
Jordon Dizon, OLB, Colorado
Another Hula Bowl and Combine participant, Dizon also stood out in the Senior Bowl, and anywhere else he could line up and blow people away with his ability to make plays despite his small stature. At six feet and 229 pounds, Dizon will have to gain a bit of weight at the NFL level even to play the weak side. In a way, he's a throwback to a time in which smaller linebackers could roam the field in specific situations and get things done due to the presence of the players around him. If you've ever seen Tom Jackson with the old Denver Broncos, it's a good comparison. His coverage skills don't merit a move to safety, so the question is, where does an NFL team put him?
He'll need to be in a Cover- or Tampa-2 set, and on a team in which mobility is key for linebackers. The team that takes him will have to be more interested in production (he led the country with 160 tackles in 2007 and totaled 463 in his collegiate career) than workout numbers and sheer measurables. He flashed good recognition and open-field ability at the Senior Bowl. Dizon could be a situational fit with the right team, and there are few NFL executives more interested in looking past a player's size and seeing his heart than Tim Ruskell.
Dexter Jackson, WR, Appalachian State
Among the bunch of waterbug receivers in this year's draft -- the herd of 5'9"-ish, 170-pound range pass-catchers -- it's Jackson, and not DeSean Jackson of Cal, who's considered to be the one who could survive the slot at the NFL level. For one thing, he's measured at 182 pounds, which puts him out of that Ted Ginn, Jr. "Straight line, but don't tackle me!" category. Jackson also has great ability to break free in a zone and find open spots, and he's elusive enough to avoid direct hits from defenders who outweigh him by 50 pounds. There's some work to be done in his route-running and catching techniques, but his speed is very real and he's got a complete game to go with it.
Jackson's 2007 season was a series of dreams come true. He was the pointman in Appalachian State's September upset of Michigan, scoring two touchdowns. That put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but Jackson didn't believe in any jinx. He helped his team win its third straight title in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision. After showing great potential in the East-West Shrine Game, he was asked to join the Senior Bowl roster, and he was mentioned as one to watch by more than one NFL-level coach. Former Eagles, Rams and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil took a special interest in the young player. Jackson didn't rest on his laurels, running an unbelievable 4.27 40-yard dash at the Combine and looking very good in receiver drills. This is a pro-ready player who could help the Seahawks with some very serious depth issues at the position.
This is the next level of instinctive player with questionable track numbers and undersized status. It's long been a mystery to many how this guy suits up every week and puts up the numbers he does with sub-par size (5'11", 204), below average speed (4.78 40 at the Combine), and supposedly average athleticism. However you want to ding him for not measuring up to the prototype, you'll spend just as much time watching him take over the Shrine Game with tackle after tackle, picking off passes in key situations, and throwing himself around on special teams with a controlled fury that shows you just how much Jamie Silva loves the game of football.
Straight-line speed does not define him; what he does on the field is to reduce any deficits between himself and the players he faces with stellar technique and an understanding of correct angles and positions. His 115 tackles and eight interceptions in his senior season put everyone on notice. His postseason work upped the ante, and the fact that Rod Woodson, one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history, made a point to tell Silva how much teams are looking at his on-field skills rather than his 40 time, tells you all you need to know.
Young was cheated out of a potentially dominant senior season by a torn quadriceps, just the latest in a series of injuries that have masked his great potential. In his eight senior starts, Young didn't allow a single quarterback sack and showed the powerful run blocking that was a hallmark of his on-field time with the Vols. His stock will plummet because the quad injury will keep him from working out until after the draft. Young will require a team willing to take a chance on a prospect whose athleticism will have some people thinking he should be a tackle. The positive projection is his 21 straight starts before the injury. The negative? That he's a more talented Floyd Womack.
Craig Stevens, TE, Cal
It would require a specific series of circumstances for Stevens to be on Seattle's draft board instead of the mass of tight ends clogging up the second round. First, that the Seahawks believe Jeb Putzier is the offensive weapon they need at the position. Second, that Stevens' blocking ability, specifically his outstanding run-blocking fits a new power scheme in Seattle. Third, that Steve's 50 collegiate starts and high character impress Tim Ruskell as much as we imagine they would.
Given that Stevens has visited the team's facility, he is certainly on Seattle's radar -- the question is whether there are needs outside of this position earlier on in the draft that trump the elephant in the living room, The Seahawks need a tight end, they need one badly, and the only question is what kind. It could be anything from a big slot receiver -- a tight end in name only like Dustin Keller -- to Stevens and his impressive ability to mix it up inside.
Who Will Seattle
Pick? I don't think I'm going to surprise anyone who's read the draft
stuff I've been writing since before the Combine when I say that Jamie Silva
would be the smart choice in the fourth round. Silva is incredibly instinctive
on the field -- a much better player in pads than in shorts. There are players
whose lack of measurables really does hurt their ability to play in the NFL.
Speed and strength are required at this level, and not every "try hard
guy" is going to make it.
The difference with Silva, as it was with Lofa Tatupu at USC, is that his specific skillsets translate into immediate and significant production. Silva is also a dynamite special teams player, as evidenced by the kickoff return fumble he caused in the Shrine Game, which puts him in a position to contribute right away. If Tim Ruskell is the talent evaluator I think he is, and he appreciates the things I think he does, Jamie Silva is already at the top of his fourth-round board, and the only question is whether he'll have to trade up to get this done.
The "Six to Watch" Series