Mel Kiper Jr.’s Favorite NFL Draft Prospects at Every Position: A Closer Look at Potential Day 3 Gems

  • Mel Kiper Jr., Football analystApr 21, 2024, 06:30 AM ET

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      Mel Kiper has served as an NFL draft analyst for ESPN since 1984. He is a regular contributor on “SportsCenter,” ESPN studio shows and ESPN Radio. He is the co-host of the First Draft podcast, and he writes regularly for ESPN+.

Every April, as the NFL draft gets closer and I lock in my final Big Board rankings, I like to pick my favorite prospects at every position for the class. It has become a tradition, highlighting players I like more than the consensus, regardless of where they get drafted and where I have them ranked at their position.

What follows below is not a list of the best overall prospects in the 2024 class nor is it a list of the guys I consider the best at each position. I try not to take the obvious prospects; only one player is in my top 25 rankings. These are the prospects I’ve:

  • Often rated higher than other evaluators within the draft media or higher than team evaluators with whom I discuss prospects or …

  • Ranked higher in close debates within position groups or …

  • Watched and rewatched on tape, just because I like the way they play.

Let’s start with my favorite passer in this class — a likely Day 3 pick — and I’ll include projections for the round in which each prospect is likely to be drafted. I’ll also give a few notes and stats for each of the 13 prospects.

Round 1 will begin Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC, ESPN+ and the ESPN App.

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Quarterback

Last year, I picked former Houston signal-caller Clayton Tune as my guy here. He went on to start a game for the Cardinals after being drafted in Round 5. Once again, I’m going to go with a quarterback likely to be picked on Day 3.

Pratt has flown under the radar in a deep class, but I love his game. He’s just solid in all areas. He started 45 games over four college seasons, improving every year. He completed 55.1% of his passes as a freshman in 2020 and went all the way up to 65.4% in 2023. He threw 49 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions over his final two seasons while adding 15 more rushing scores. He went 22-3 as the starter over that time frame, elevating the Tulane program.

Is Pratt going to step in and be Brock Purdy for a team in 2024? No. But on Day 3, teams are looking for traits, and they’re looking for passers who won’t lose a game for the team. Pratt could be a longtime No. 2 QB at the next level.

Projection: The 6-foot-2 Pratt, my eighth-ranked quarterback in the class, should go off the board in Round 4 or 5.

Running back

Wright made my list of risers after the combine, where he put up a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, an 11-foot-2 broad jump and a 38-inch vertical leap, all of which ranked close to the top at his position. He is a supreme athlete, and his tape matches that too. In 2023, he averaged 7.4 yards per carry, which ranked third in the FBS, and 4.1 yards after contact per carry, which ranked ninth. How did he have only four touchdowns?

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Wright hits the hole decisively, but I also love that he is a stellar pass-blocker. He can handle blitzers and play on third downs in the NFL. He caught only 30 passes in three seasons for the Vols, but he has the tools to develop as a pass-catcher.

Projection: Wright is my second-ranked running back, but I projected only one back (Texas’ Jonathon Brooks) in the first two rounds of my latest mock draft, just based on the value of the position. I see Wright being picked early in Round 3 and making an impact as a rookie.

Wide receiver

Means had an interesting college career, as he played cornerback at Tennessee then transferred to Louisiana Tech, where he averaged 19.5 yards on 22 catches in 2021. He finished his career at Pitt, catching 68 passes for 1,122 yards and eight touchdowns over the past two seasons.

At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Means has an intriguing blend of size, strength and speed. He ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine and had a 39.5-inch vertical leap. He put up solid numbers even with some rough quarterback play. And he has huge hands and long arms. There’s a lot to like here for wide receiver coaches.

Projection: Means is likely to be drafted in Round 3, though he might need a little bit of development time before he reaches his potential.

Tight end

Stover is going under the radar a little bit, but he’s a heckuva player. He started his Buckeyes career on defense, and he made a couple of spot starts at linebacker at the end of the 2021 campaign. He has been a full-time tight end since 2022, though, and he had 77 catches for 982 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Stover understands how to get open against zone coverage, finding soft spots and showing his hands to his quarterback. He’s aggressive and tough. He is still inconsistent as a blocker, but he has the strength and movement skills to be really solid in the run game. He also didn’t drop any of his 52 targets last season.

Projection: The 6-foot-4, 247-pound Stover is my third-ranked tight end, and I see him going in Round 3 and making an impact as a rookie.

Offensive tackle

Rosengarten might have been a top-10 pick in next year’s draft if he had stayed in school for another season. That’s how highly I think of him. The 6-foot-5 308-pounder started at right tackle for the Huskies over the past two seasons, and he did not allow a single sack on 1,158 pass-blocking plays in that time frame. He locked down the blind side for left-handed quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

Rosengarten was overshadowed at times because he played on the other side of Troy Fautanu, who might be a top-10 pick in this draft. But Rosengarten is a great player in his own right. He also impressed at the combine, where he ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash, which was the fastest of any 300-pound player — on offense and defense — in attendance.

Projection: I’ve connected him with the 49ers at No. 31 overall in a couple of my recent mock drafts — as they need a right tackle — and I don’t think he’ll get out of the top 40 picks.

Guard

I’m going back-to-back with Huskies because Fautanu has been one of my favorites for the past year. He simply dominated on the left side of the line. He played left tackle the past two seasons, but I envision his highest ceiling as a guard, where he started two games in college. I see an All-Pro guard when I watch him move, in the vein of Zack Martin, who played tackle at Notre Dame before moving to guard for the Cowboys.

In his career, Fautanu allowed two pressures on passes thrown in 2.5 seconds or less, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. Not sacks — pressures. He was extremely consistent on a snap-to-snap basis.

Projection: There are some NFL teams that believe the 6-foot-4 Fautanu will stick at tackle, which means we shouldn’t rule him out of going in the top 10. Right now, I have my top-ranked guard going off the board at No. 16 overall to Seahawks, who desperately need a day one starter at the position.

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Center

Frazier is on this list because he broke his leg in late November and already has made his way back to be able to work out for NFL teams. He is one tough and fierce guy. A four-time heavyweight wrestling state champion in West Virginia, he played guard, tackle and center for the Mountaineers. He settled in at center over the past three seasons and developed into one of the best in the country.

Projection: Frazier is my second-ranked center, and I expect him to be picked in the top 50.

Defensive tackle

Orhorhoro went from not playing football until his junior year of high school to a three-year starter for the Tigers. That’s remarkable, and you can see on tape that he is still learning the nuances of the game. The 6-foot-4, 294-pound lineman has some upside as an interior penetrator; he had 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss since 2021.

Orhorhoro can play as a 5- or 3-technique, which ups his value at the next level. He is strong at the point of attack and can move guards and centers off the ball. He’s great against the run. I really like his upside.

Projection: Orhorhoro has had a great pre-draft process, rising all the way to being my No. 3 defensive tackle. I see a fit for him in Round 2.

Defensive end

Jackson is another player who made my list of post-combine risers. We know teams place a premium value on defenders who can get after quarterbacks, and in an edge rusher class in which there’s not much consensus, he’s an intriguing player. He had 19.5 sacks over the past three seasons, but what I love about his tape is that he never takes plays off. He flies around the field. He’s extremely quick off the ball. And his workout in Indianapolis was better than I expected.

Projection: I have a Round 3 grade on Jackson, my fourth-ranked defensive end, but he could slip into Round 4.

Outside linebacker

Die-hard draft fans should know this name by now because he has emerged as a potential Day 2 pick. Hunt has really impressive tape, and he has grown into his 6-foot-4, 252-pound frame. He began his college career at Cornell, where he played safety. He had 26 tackles in 2021. He transferred the following year and moved to outside linebacker, and he racked up 13.5 sacks and was credited with 133 tackles over the past two seasons.

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Hunt is fast to the ball in pursuit, and he started to develop some pass-rush counters last season. He also tested well at the combine, running a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and putting up a 10-foot-8 broad jump, which are tremendous numbers for his size. He is an impressive talent.

Projection: Hunt is very raw, but we know NFL teams covet edge rushers, and he has intriguing traits. So, while I have a Round 3 grade on him, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go in Round 2.

Off-ball linebacker

I could have gone with Edgerrin Cooper of Texas A&M here, but that’s too easy. Cooper is my top-ranked off-ball linebacker. Let’s instead look to Watson, a defender who stuffed the stat sheet in the SEC. Watson had 244 tackles, 24 total tackles for loss, 16 sacks and 3 forced fumbles over the past two seasons. He did all that while taking the majority of his snaps as a middle linebacker.

Watson isn’t the fastest player, but his long arms allow him to be a menace in passing lanes. He might not end up being a three-down player in the NFL, but he can be productive on run downs.

Projection: Watson, my No. 6 off-ball linebacker, likely will be a Round 4 or 5 pick.

Cornerback

I really think Tampa is being underrated. I would take him in Round 1 if I were the general manager of a corner-needy team drafting in the late 20s. Tampa checks every single box for me: He is fast, physical and long, has great instincts and gets his hands on passes. I really like how he leveled up last season, playing 378 coverage snaps while allowing just one touchdown as the nearest defender. He got better every single game in his career.

Tampa had two interceptions last season and just three total in his career, but I like his ball skills. He’ll get up and knock receivers around in press coverage. He’ll also tackle in the run game.

Projection: If Tampa were a little bit faster — he ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at his pro day — I think he’d be a no-brainer first-rounder. At this point, though, I see him as a top-50 pick who could sneak into the top 35. He is my sixth-ranked corner.

Safety

As I wrote in my two-round mock draft, Bullard’s value comes in his versatility, as he played as a slot corner, center fielder and up near the line of scrimmage for the Bulldogs. He had four picks over the past two campaigns, and he was stellar in coverage last season. He allowed just 54 passing yards as the nearest defender in coverage in 2023, and that came on 20 attempts.

Bullard is a little undersized at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, but I love his all-around game and instincts in coverage.

Projection: In a safety class with no consensus No. 1 guy, Bullard is at the top of my board. He should be drafted in Round 2.

2024-04-21 10:30:00
#NFL #draft #Mel #Kipers #favorite #prospects #position

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