Wednesday, May 22, 2024

NFL draft boom-or-bust prospects: Drake Maye among 11 players offering high risk, reward

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The months leading up to the 2024 NFL draft have been replete with cautionary tales of unfulfilled potential and botched player development.

Just before free agency opened, the New England Patriots struck a deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars to send former starting quarterback Mac Jones off in a trade for a mere sixth-round pick. And on Monday, just three days before the first round is set to kick off in Detroit, the New York Jets finally brought an end to Zach Wilson’s tenure with the team, trading the former No. 2 selection to the Denver Broncos in a late-round pick swap.

The disappointing fates for the two signal-callers taken in the 2021 class served as a reminder of how easily things can go awry for once-promising prospects. Yet for all those who earned the dreaded bust label, there have been plenty of others who had a shaky outlook entering the pros and still went on to find significant success.

Figuring out which players present the most volatile range of potential outcomes isn’t always easy, but each draft class tends to produce at least a handful of picks who offer both higher risk and greater upside than most of their peers.

These are the 11 biggest boom-or-bust players to watch in this year’s draft:

Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina

Finding the next Josh Allen or Justin Herbert is one of the optimal routes for any franchise to flip its fortune. Easier said than done, of course. There are only so many passers who can attack the entire field thanks to top-notch arm strength and comfort throwing on the run, and even fewer who can still patiently operate from the pocket when defenses try to take away the big play.

Often compared to both of the star AFC quarterbacks, Maye hopes to follow those two’s trajectories as NFL sensations who found their footing after uneven college careers. At North Carolina, the 6-4, 223-pound signal-caller often looked the part of a future No. 1 pick, dazzling with deep shots and off-platform throws on the move. But an overreliance on those rare tools seemed to create a tendency for Maye to play hero too often. Bad habits followed, from iffy decision-making and fluctuating footwork to erratic ball placement and poor processing. All that makes Maye an uneasy projection, especially for any team investing a top-five pick. A good number of his most pressing problems should be resolvable with proper coaching. It’s on Maye and his future team, however, to sort out his shortcomings in order to get him on the same track as Allen and Herbert.

Jaylen Wright, RB, Tennessee

The 5-10, 210-pounder’s big-play credentials were already evident in a 2023 season in which he averaged 7.4 yards per carry, but Wright underscored his explosiveness by posting a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and 11-2 broad jump at the NFL scouting combine. He’s more than just a linear threat, too, as he regularly shakes defenders in tight quarters to open up daylight.

Running between the tackles is a bit dicey for Wright, however, as his patience and vision are lagging behind the other elements of his game. While it’s distinctly possible Wright carves out a career as an all-purpose threat who can readily rip off big gains, earning a starter’s workload could depend on his ability to be a more instinctive, hard-nosed inside runner.

Johnny Wilson, WR/TE, Florida State

A 6-6, 231-pound target who can threaten defenses down the seam should be a sure thing to carve out a valuable role in any passing attack. Between his size and knack for adjusting to haul in off-target throws, Wilson might seem like a natural red-zone weapon.

But that’s just not his game – at least not at this stage. Despite the advantages afforded to him by his build and massive wingspan, Wilson has a mixed track record at best on contested catches, and only two of his 41 catches last season were for scores. Drops also have plagued him, as he too often looks uncomfortable securing even the easiest passes. Wilson still can create mismatches downfield, but he might require a coaching staff that can use him creatively and help him become a more precise and focused pass catcher.

Tyler Guyton, OT, Oklahoma

What’s not to like about a 6-8, 322-pound offensive tackle who moves like a tight end? A former H-back before transferring from TCU, Guyton puts together all the requisite characteristics of a premier pass protector. His frame and fluidity give him a chance to hold his own against even the NFL’s most athletic edge rushers.

With only 15 career starts, however, Guyton is still learning to tap into his abilities. Leverage issues could hinder him throughout his career, particularly in the run game. The best plan for his development might be easing him in on a team like the Philadelphia Eagles, who are set with their offensive tackle starters but could use someone like Guyton to serve as the successor to Lane Johnson, who already has taken the fellow former Sooner under his wing.

Amarius Mims, OT, Georgia

After making his first two career starts in the 2022 College Football Playoff for the champion Bulldogs, Mims looked squarely on track to follow in former teammate Broderick Jones’ footsteps in becoming a top-15 pick. But a left ankle injury limited him to playing just six games last season. Now, evaluators have to balance his overall inexperience against the raw ability of a 6-8, 340-pound blocker who moves much more nimbly than one would expect from a blocker his size.

Those physical tools should still earn Mims a ticket to the first round. He might need to be brought along more slowly than some of his peers, however, which could be difficult if he lands with a playoff-caliber team looking for an immediate starter at offensive tackle, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys.

Kingsley Suamataia, OT, BYU

Any five-star recruit will face heightened expectations. So, too, will an offensive tackle who is a cousin of Penei Sewell, the Detroit Lions’ two-time All-Pro right tackle. It was no surprise, then, that Suamataia arrived at Oregon – Sewell’s alma mater – touted as a future standout NFL pass protector in the making.

After one season, however, the Utah native transferred to BYU. And despite spending the last two years as a starter – first at right tackle, then on the left side – Suamataia’s biggest selling point is still rooted in what he has yet to accomplish rather than what he has shown. Though he has the agility and strength to stop a variety of imposing edge rushers, he could be exploited by savvy linemen who can get him off balance or work back inside. Playing him early could prove problematic, especially for any legitimate contender.

Chop Robinson, DE, Penn State

The combine numbers speak for themselves. The 6-3, 254-pounder recorded the fifth-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.48 seconds) and 10-yard split (1.54) since 2003 of any player weighing 250 pounds or more, according to Next Gen Stats and ESPN. He continued to highlight his explosiveness with a 10-8 broad jump, tied for the best mark among all edge rushers. That elite package of physical traits has some envisioning the next Micah Parsons, Robinson’s predecessor at Penn State.

Naturally, that lofty comparison falls short in several areas. Robinson didn’t produce at the same level that Parsons did for the Nittany Lions, recording just 9 ½ sacks in two years after transferring from Maryland. Whereas Parsons demonstrated he could disengage blockers to free himself up to make plays, Robinson still is too easily neutralized when he doesn’t beat linemen instantly with his first step. Still, he has all the trappings of a double-digit sack artist. For now, however, he projects as a high-upside pass rusher who could flash on one snap and disappoint on the next.

Darius Robinson, DE, Missouri

At 6-5 and 285 pounds with a massive wingspan and a forceful approach, Robinson is a nightmare one-on-one matchup for any blocker. A first-team All-Southeastern Conference pick in 2023, he walked back linemen to repeatedly disrupt offenses, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 14 tackles for loss. His extensive reach helps him to rip past blockers and corral opponents, making him a significant asset in stopping the run.

That unique make-up, however, also has its downfalls, as it could leave Robinson with the unwanted tweener label. While his breakout season last year came after a move to the edge, Robinson might lack the fluidity and burst to consistently win there at the next level. He could prove plenty disruptive in the right role, but Robinson won’t be a fit for every defensive scheme.

Braden Fiske, DT, Florida State

When Fiske beats opposing offensive linemen off the ball, look out. The sixth-year senior and transfer from Western Michigan excels at tracking down ball carriers, utilizing his high-energy approach and closing speed to notch six sacks last season. Everything about Fiske’s play is relentless, and he can exploit opponents who let up even for a moment.

The 6-4, 292-pounder can experience trouble, however, when he’s stonewalled out of the gates. Fiske lacks the counters to keep his rush alive and the sheer strength to disengage from bigger blockers with longer reach. Teams seeking more of a stout presence on the interior likely will turn elsewhere, but any defense looking to enhance its disruptiveness up the middle likely will gravitate toward Fiske in the first two rounds.

Trevin Wallace, LB, Kentucky

It’s not difficult to figure out the appeal of a linebacker who was a former track standout and weightlifting champion, especially in a weak year at the position in the draft. The 6-1, 237-pound Wallace comfortably chases down ball carriers all over the field and can hold his own in a variety of man coverage matchups. As a blitzer, he’s not afraid of charging past or through much bigger blockers to create disruption in the backfield.

All those descriptions, however, capture Wallace operating at his peak. There are still far too many occasions – both against the run and pass – in which he is caught out of position, as he regularly misdiagnoses plays and lets his aggressiveness get the best of him. Seeing the field consistently early in his career might hinge on him adopting a more disciplined style of play. As it stands, Wallace seems equally likely to vex opposing coaches as his own.

Khyree Jackson, CB, Oregon

Jackson’s football career has been nomadic, as the cornerback attended three different junior colleges before enrolling at Alabama. He then transferred to Oregon for his lone season as a starter and flashed the promise many had been waiting to see, recording three interceptions and 10 passes defensed. At 6-4 and 196 pounds, Jackson has an ideal makeup – both physically and mentally – for press coverage. His ultracompetitive and physical demeanor routinely surfaces when he’s smothering receivers at the line of scrimmage and attacking at the catch point.

It comes as little surprise, however, that a player with his limited experience still needs polish. Jackson’s footwork can give him problems, and savvy route runners too often break free from his coverage with a simple change of direction. His disruptiveness is worth harnessing, but even teams that utilize him heavily in press man coverage could be in for a bit of a wild ride as he develops his technique and hones his instincts.

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