GROUP OF FIVE NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: AAC (EAST DIVISION)
By Rebecca Rennie
The final Group of Five conference to feature, the AAC is loaded with draft talent. The East Division has regularly provided high-upside prospects from the likes of UCF, Temple and Cincinnati. This year is no different, in an offense-heavy group from the East. See which players stood out in Part 1 of our look at the AAC!
An early run on offensive tackles is one of the widely expected trends at the top of this year’s draft. The talent available at the position does not end there, however. Despite being under-the-radar on one of the poorest teams in the FBS (2-10 overall, 0-8 in the AAC), Matt Peart has the traits to be among the next tier of OT’s off the board.
In addition to his encouraging film on the struggling Huskies offense, Peart further boosted his stock through a strong week at the recent Senior Bowl. Flashing well in practices, he replicated his play against better competition in the game to close the week. With traits that project well to both tackle and inside at guard, Peart has starting experience at both spots during college.
Peart’s frame and physical measurables immediately garner attention. His size and ideal length (over 35” arms and 86” wingspan) are combined with coveted athleticism and overall movement. Quick and light on his feet, the UConn O-line prospect is fluid and flexible. With a great first step out of his stance and redirecting with ease, Peart plays with balance, control and a consistent wide base.
The resulting comfort and execution in pass protection are consistent in contending with explosive and polish pass rushers off the edge. Where Peart needs to improve to continue that execution at the next level is in his upper body technique. His hand placement is regularly off-target. In addition, Peart often fails to maximize on his immense reach by not fully extending his arms.
As a run blocker, Peart is not a truly imposing mauler. However, his plus movement sees him excel as a lead blocker. The appeal for playing Peart at guard is easy to understand. His ability to pull in the run game can be utilized more regularly from the interior. There’s no lack of physicality either, as a competitive battler at the point of attack. In pass pro, he may not always take the initiative but holds up well to power attacks.
While he remains relatively low on many media boards, Peart would be worthy of an early Day 2 investment. Given the high ceiling and desired measurable and athleticism, he could go higher than many expect to the right team. His versatility to line up inside and outside adds to his value and range of team fits.
The interior O-line class may not have the same star power of the tackles outside but there is plenty of quality linemen to choose from over the course of Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft. Hennessy could also play guard but is an experienced and adept center. There are a couple limitations in his game but a high floor to trust in.
Entering the Senior Bowl, Hennessy’s film had some questioning his size and physicality for the next level. In a positive week at the All-Star event overall, the Temple lineman measured in bigger than expected and emphatically answered any unknowns in handling power. Hennessy held up well at the point of attack and often aggressively took the initiative engaging in 1-on-1 drills.
With smooth, polished movement and execution in pass protection, it’s understandable that his technical savvy might give the impression of Hennessy as a finesse blocker. He is rarely troubled by physical challenges or forced back significantly in the pocket, however. Continuing to add strength to his game will be beneficial, though he is not a liability in this area.
Though smooth in his movements with efficient lateral agility, Hennessy is not the most explosive athlete. He might not test as well as some, while his run game contributions may not be on the level of others in the class. The high IQ, vision, technical proficiency and angles taken allow him to be effective as a run blocker regardless of any other limitations. The elite mental aspects continue with his recognitions of late pressure and overall adjustments mid-play in pass pro.
The primary traits that stand out from Hennessy’s game are his coordination and impeccable balance. That control allows him to comfortably handle speed-to-power switch-ups and a variety of combination rush moves and counters. His outstanding stability and consistency should allow the experienced center to start in the league for a long time.
A starter from his true freshman season, Davis has been present for the entirety of the recent run of success for the UCF Knights. Declaring for the draft early was no surprise. With three years’ experience, progressing statistically each season, he is as ready for the pros as he’s likely to get. A big play threat, Davis totalled 12 touchdowns and averaged over 17 yards per catch. His 72 catches led to 1,241 yards in 2019.
While Davis’ performances through the first half of this past season caught the eye of draft media, his ultimate draft stock is still fluid. The Knights receiver will be among those to keep a close eye on at the upcoming Combine testing. Though a smooth runner, Davis appears to have average at best play speed. His initial burst, top speed and suddenness in his route breaks are sufficient but can underwhelm at times. Frequently targeted deep, replicating that success down the field might be more challenging at the next level.
That said, there’s more than enough reasons to be optimistic about the UCF playmaker’s projection. Davis is highly polished in all aspects of his play. Clean releases off the line, sharp footwork and subtleties in his route execution aid his ability to find space and to earn the trust of his QB to be in the right positions. When faced with tighter coverage, he shows he can win often in contested situations. Tracking the ball naturally and with strong hands, he is physical at the catch point.
The 1st team All-AAC receiver impressed with his fight post-catch. No play is over until it’s over. Fighting for extra yardage and using an effective stiff-arm, Davis can generate yards after contact. His commitment and physicality as a blocker further accentuate that area of his game and his unselfishness.
The instincts and refinement in his game should offer a dependable floor for Davis. The upside is tougher to project. A selection on Day 3 seems most likely, though a team coveting his polish and toughness could see him taken earlier. The depth of this talented 2020 receiver class could lessen the chances of that, however. After going back-and-forth on Davis’ film, he lands with a steady 5th round grade here, for now.
MICHAEL WARREN II
Much like the receiver position, this is a deep and diverse running back class for 2020. Everyone has their personal favorites, and count Warren as a favorite here. He may be coming off a season that saw declining statistics from his 2018 year and lacking in ideal top end speed but there is so much to like. Dismiss the production drop firstly; a struggling passing game saw consistently loaded boxes to stop Warren. The film clearly highlights a talented runner with NFL qualities.
The physically imposing back earns his nickname of Truck. With a low center of gravity, Warren takes advantage of his natural leverage, aided by a nasty stiff-arm. The contact balance is fantastic and sees him regularly break tackles and emerge from congested traffic. Once at full speed on the second level, he may not out-run many, but is tough as heck to bring down by a single defender.
While not a home-run hitter, Warren accelerates well in the initial phase of runs. Though physical, the Bearkat runner is smart with plus vision. He balances being patient and setting up his blocks with knowing when it’s time to turn upfield. Exceling between the tackles and fighting through contact, he picks he way through the bodies and churns his feet for additional yardage.
There are more explosive athletes but Warren does not get enough credit for his cutting ability to evade defenders with lateral shifts more often than expected. The footwork is under-rated with little wasted motion. That said, Warren isn’t going to be most effectively used calling outside runs and asking him to beat angles to the sidelines.
No-one will be comparing him to Christian McCaffrey, but Warren is detailed and reliable enough to handle his requirements in the passing game. Where he will earn trust of his coaches and quarterback early is as a pass protector. With his physicality, pad level and build, he shows good recognition and form to win most blocking assignments. There are higher ceiling backs, but Warren is an appealing mid to late round RB target.
There’s no getting around the fact that the film is tough at times. Fantastic flashes in coverage are interspersed with poorer reps. The inconsistency isn’t ideal, but Clarke can be an ideal late round developmental prospect.
The aggressive play to attack the ball shows up often. The combination of length and ball skills at the catch point are certainly appealing to work with. Clarke boosted his draft stock with some standout performances in practices at the East-West Shrine event.
The lightweight frame concerns on paper, but the Knights corner doesn’t look too lean on film. That may be different in person, but he certainly plays up to physical challenges. Either way, an aspect of his developmental projection will likely involve bulking up and adding core strength. With receiver experience in high school, Clarke has totalled 24 PBUs and 4 INTs over the past two seasons.
Clarke’s upside includes good athletic traits to go with the length he offers at 6’1”, including 32” arms. Despite the leggy frame, Clarke has better footwork and short-area agility than many at his height. Often using his long arms effectively from press coverage, he shows loose hips as he backpedals and flips his hips. If he loses a step early in routes, his long strides aid in recovering with solid looking long speed.
Staying in phase consistently is a work-in-progress. A combination of late reactions and inconsistent anticipation in man coverage, along with some inefficient footwork, can lead to allowing regular separation at the top of routes. He reportedly looked more dialled in at the Shrine event in this area, so there’s encouraging signs that can improve.
When in position as the ball arrives, Clarke’s competitiveness at the catch point should be coveted. The ability to challenge vertically leads to frequent passes broken up. The honorable mention All-AAC corner is worth a shot at some point on the final day of the draft. With nice upside, the investment could pay off down the line.
There are a multitude of outstanding single-play examples to use in highlighting prospects. In this 2020 class, Deguara’s TD-saving play vs UCLA back in Week 1 is a personal favorite. In an excellent performance overall, the standout moment of the game saw him chase down Bruins DB Jaylon Shaw after an interception in the end zone, saving a defensive touchdown by catching up to Shaw from behind (video below). Shaw did so despite being listed as 55lb lighter than Shaw. That effort and work ethic will give a prospect who lacks ideal measurables a chance of making an NFL roster.
The Senior Bowl participant lacks ideal length for the position, though measured in with 32” arms. It’s likely that he will take on a varied role incorporating some full back and H-back assignments. His toughness will lend itself to handling plenty unheralded dirty work in addition to being a special teams ace.
Deguara’s success as a receiver ought to translate well. The former Bearkat has a nice burst of acceleration and runs crisp routes. Regularly winning over linebackers and safeties, his setups to his route breaks earn him separation. His footwork is sharp and hands reliable. Deguara gets results on underneath routes, over the middle, deeper down field and excels after the catch. When up to speed with the ball in his hands, he’s tough to take down.
He knows his role as an inline blocker, bringing intensity and aggression. That said, he needs to get stronger to be effective on the O-line at the next level. Where he does stand out is in his execution blocking in space and in directing defenders laterally to open holes. There’s intelligent and well-studied application to everything he does on the field. The size and strength limitations and modest ceiling should keep him on the board until Day 3 but ought to be a useful contributor.
Temple suffered one of the most one-sided defeats of bowl season this year, out-classed throughout by North Carolina. It sums up the mentality and motor of Shaun Bradley though, that the hard-working linebacker continued to fly around the field making plays long after the game was out-of-hand.
Bradley is a player who surprised on film and quickly became a bit of a personal favorite, but one with worrisome inconsistencies. The “Temple Tough” linebacker fits the current trend of smaller but athletic and rangy off-ball LBs. Playing with fantastic energy and burst, Bradley plays fast, though his mental processing speed needs to match up.
Bradley frustrates game-to-game. Some performances such as versus UNC, he’s making solid reads, diagnosing to quickly take off toward the action. Other performances such as against Memphis, he looked lost. He’s capable of an active game, working well in space with sideline range.
Bradley is constantly playing with a spring in his step, light on his feet and showing off nice lateral agility. He may lack ideal length and size but regularly demonstrates his ability to break down in space and make open field tackles. Despite his modest frame, Bradley brings force to his tackling.
The toughness as a finisher is great but he does have some struggles elsewhere. Bradley can show issues working through traffic and dealing with blocks. He can be forced to take some scenic routes to ball carriers between the tackles and be washed out of some plays entirely. There’s potential though, and Bradley was noticed at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Confirmed as a Combine participant, he has a chance to further improve his stock.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
Under-the-radar as an early entrant, Harrison Hand could become a more frequent name discussed as the draft approaches. A transfer from Baylor, the Temple cornerback has ideal measurables that could lead to a standout Combine showing if fully healthy. The game film can underwhelm, but Hand has rarely been at 100%, factoring into what he’s been able to show.
Hand is raw and late in his reactions in man coverage. The 6’0”, 192lb DB is a bit stiff in his backpedal but has a good vertical at the catch point, straight-line speed and plenty physicality in his game.
Another from Temple with a good chance of being drafted, Isaiah Wright offers a good sized frame, explosive traits and appealing versatility. Wright has been a highly productive special teams returner, key to his roster chances in the pros. He saw a reduction in his role as a receiver in 2019, outplayed by younger teammates. However, he reinvigorated his stock with a good Shrine Bowl week.
One of the smaller prospects in this or any class, Adrian Killins Jr is a situational playmaker who can be devastating in space. The 5’7”, 162”lb running back has significant physical limitations but explosive speed. With upfield burst, elusiveness and cutting ability on the 2nd level, the dynamic athlete is tough to corral. He’ll have his share of touches that are smothered for no gain but the big play potential could make that worthwhile.
South Florida tight end Mitchell Wilcox has been on the draft radar for a few years. However, he’s never quite taken his game to the next level. While the Bulls offense may have factored into that, he failed to show more at the recent East-West Shrine bowl. Reportedly underwhelming in practices, Wilcox was noted as not looking as athletic as hoped. The flashes as a playmaker have been there, so a late round selection is still possible.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: UConn Athletics