10 perfect NFL team-to-prospect fits
Using PFF data on college performance and NFL team need, Jeff Dooley pinpoints 10 optimal draft pairings.
10 perfect NFL team-to-prospect fits
It’s mock draft season, which means that NFL prospects are being connected to a number of different teams as a result of various scenarios. But what are the most ideal pairings between prospects and teams?
We came up with 10 perfect fits, using PFF data on college performance and NFL team need, factoring in the evaluations performed by our analysts in creating this year’s draft board.
- San Diego Chargers: DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
While there is a case to be made that Tennessee should take Buckner with the No. 1 overall pick, he arguably fills a bigger need in San Diego. The Chargers had the fifth-worst pass-rush grade and worst run-defense grade in the NFL last season. For visual proof of the defensive line’s problems, see below (author’s note: the red negative numbers are bad):
Buckner was PFF’s top-graded interior defensive lineman in college football last season, and would be a potential impact performer as a 3-4 defensive end in San Diego’s defense. He was a force against the run for the Ducks and produced 67 total QB pressures, meaning he could provide a strong inside pass-rush presence to pair with edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaouchu.
- Dallas Cowboys: Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State
The defensive problem the Cowboys haven’t been able to shake the last few years has been their pass coverage, and Ramsey could change that in a big way. He was the best all-around defensive back in college football, earning the top cornerback ranking in this class on the strength of his positive grades in coverage, against the run and as a pass-rusher.
Ramsey would be ideally suited for the role Dallas gave to 2015 first-rounder Byron Jones last season – a hybrid cornerback-safety-slot defender – which would ease Ramsey’s rookie learning curve and allow him to have an immediate impact for a team that is in win-now mode at the tail end of quarterback Tony Romo’s career. It also allows the Cowboys to move Jones to outside corner, further strengthening their secondary.
- Baltimore Ravens: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
This might seem odd at first glance, given Baltimore’s 3-4 base defensive scheme and Bosa’s ideal fit as a 4-3 defensive end, but colleague Josh Liskiewitz has convinced me that Bosa is the perfect successor to Terrell Suggs as a power outside linebacker in the Ravens’ defense.
Like Suggs, Bosa was a super-productive college player who didn’t measure out as an elite athlete. After grading as the No. 1 edge defender two straight years, Bosa could be a lockdown run defender on the edge and also produce as a pass-rusher. Suggs will turn 34 years old this year, coming off his season-ending Achilles injury, and the Ravens got very little pass-rush impact from anyone other than Elvis Dumervil last season.
- San Francisco 49ers: Jared Goff, QB, California
One could make an argument for Goff being a perfect fit for any of the teams in need of a franchise quarterback. The Niners certainly have a need at the position, with Colin Kaepernick coming off a season in which he ranked as PFF’s second-worst QB and reportedly interested in playing elsewhere, but it’s the possibility of Goff playing for new San Francisco head coach Chip Kelly that is particularly intriguing.
Kelly earned a winning record in Philadelphia in part due to his ability to elevate a mediocre group of quarterbacks. Sam Bradford was PFF’s No. 11 QB in 2015, earning the highest grade of his career, a year before Mark Sanchez earned the second-highest grade of his career and two years before Nick Foles posted his career-best grade. Moreover, Goff’s experience in a play-action-heavy offense (37 percent of dropbacks last season were off of play-action, the seventh-highest rate in this draft class) meshes well with what Kelly has done in the NFL. If Goff lasts until the No. 7 pick, consider this a steal.
- New York Giants: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
There hasn’t been a ton of buzz connecting Elliott, the consensus No. 1 running back prospect in this class, and the Giants, owners of the No. 10 overall pick, but the more I consider the match, the more I like it.
There’s a positional value question with taking a running back anywhere in the first round, much less in the top 10 picks, but for a team like the Giants that is clearly in win-now mode with a 35-year old QB in Eli Manning, having spent big on free-agent D-linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison, the instant impact Elliott could provide would justify the selection.
Manning’s supporting cast is limited aside from Odell Beckham Jr. (see image below), and neither Shane Vereen nor Rashad Jennings has Elliott’s upside. Not only was he No. 1 in yards after contact per attempt in 2015 among draft-eligible RBs, but he allowed just one pressure in pass protection all season.
- Chicago Bears: Sheldon Rankins, DL, Louisville
The Bears have continued to remake their defense over the last two offseasons, adding big-money free-agents in edge rusher Pernell McPhee in 2015 and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan last month, but there is still room to improve over last year’s 25th-ranked run-defense grade and 15th-ranked pass-rush grade.
That makes Rankins an ideal fit as a 3-4 defensive end, if he’s available with the No. 11 overall pick. He was one of the best interior linemen in college football the last two years, trailing only Stanford’s Henry Anderson (who was having a great rookie season for Indianapolis prior to being injured) in overall and run-defense grades at the position. While he is most disruptive against the run, he has proven to be effective at rushing the passer as well.
- Buffalo Bills: Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
Colleague Steve Palazzolo has been preaching this as a perfect fit since his first mock draft of the season. Conklin has graded out as the third-best tackle in college football each of the last few years, earning the fourth-best run-blocking grade each season as well. He’s also been good in pass protection, allowing just 25 quarterback pressures, including four sacks, over the past two seasons.
Not only would Conklin fill a need at right tackle – the left side of the Bills’ line was great last season with tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito, while the right side struggled – but he fits the power run-blocking style head coach Rex Ryan loves. If he lasts until the No. 19 pick, the Bills would be wise to draft him.
- Minnesota Vikings: Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
Shepard graded out as PFF’s No. 1 college receiver in 2015 (a year after Tyler Lockett, a breakout third-round rookie for Seattle last season, earned the same distinction). While he could be a fit for many teams, likely in the second or third round, despite his being a first-round prospect on the PFF draft board, the Vikings look like a particularly good match.
Not only does Minnesota have a need at receiver, but Shepard would be a great fit for the underneath passing game preferred by Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings QB had the sixth-shortest average depth of pass in 2015, and is not believed to have the arm strength to regularly challenge defenses in the downfield passing game. Shepard’s ability to win from the slot (71 percent of his targets came from the slot last season, and he earned the No. 1 catch rate in the country from that position, at 83 percent) would provide Bridgewater with an ideal weapon.
- Seattle Seahawks: Cody Whitehair, G/T, Kansas State
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2016 Seattle Seahawks offensive line as it stands today:
(Those grades are out of 100, by the way.)
So while it feels much more like the Seahawks to draft a high-upside pass-rusher like Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun or Mississippi State’s Chris Jones at No. 26 overall, this team desperately needs to improve its O-line, and we have Whitehair ranked as one of the best linemen in this draft.
Whitehair doesn’t possess the measurables that the Seahawks are perceived of requiring in their offensive linemen, but Whitehair merits an exception if such a rule exists. He was PFF’s top-ranked tackle in 2015, earning the No. 1 run-block grade while also holding up well in pass protection, allowing just 14 QB pressures, including two sacks. Our analysts are confident in his ability to transition to guard, if necessary, and he projects as a fit in Seattle’s zone-blocking-heavy scheme.
- New England Patriots: Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
The Patriots saw how efficient their offense could be with an extremely quick, pass-catching running back prior to Dion Lewis’ season-ending injury (he was breaking the scale on PFF’s elusive rating, which measures a back’s ability to generate yards on his own, prior to getting hurt). Lewis is expected to return for the 2016 season, and James White filled in well during his absence, but Dixon has the skill set to be a star in that role if the Patriots were to draft him somewhere in the middle rounds.
Dixon ranked second in the nation among RBs in college elusive rating in 2015, and first in yards per pass route run. Louisiana Tech’s QBs earned nearly a perfect passer rating when throwing to Dixon, and he was close to uncoverable when lined up as a wide receiver.
Jeff Dooley | Editor-in-Chief
Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.