SEC Country offers four detailed reasons why UGA star Leonard Floyd might be the NFL draft’s first linebacker off the board come Thursday night, ahead of play-making stars such as UCLA’s Myles Jack, Alabama’s Reggie Ragland and Ohio State’s Darron Lee.
All told, perhaps five UGA players could have NFL homes by the time the draft concludes — Floyd, linebacker Jordan Jenkins, offensive tackle John Theus, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and tight end Jay Rome.
1. The so-called ‘panic’ over Myles Jack’s knee injury scares off teams drafting in the top 12
It’s presumed that UCLA’s Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith would have been the highest-drafted defenders this spring if they hadn’t incurred major knee injuries during their final college seasons.
Smith (likely a third- or fourth-round pick) will take a ‘redshirt’ approach to the 2016 NFL season, with the hopes of returning in full force next year.
On the immediacy side, Jack has rebounded nicely from surgery, and by all accounts should be good to go for his forthcoming franchise’s May/June mini-camp.
However, there are still some lingering red flags regarding his top-10 candidacy:
a) Despite declarations of his knee being “absolutely fine,” Myles declined all chances to post an official 40-yard-dash time this spring.
b) Jack garnered adulation for being a two-position star at UCLA, stealthily handling linebacking and ball-carrying duties. But as a linebacker-only option for the pros, it’s worth noting his defensive stats (one sack, 15 tackles for loss, 178 total tackles over 29 games) weren’t among the national leaders.
c) According to draft guru Dane Brugler (CBS Sports), Jack’s recent medical “re-check” in Indianapolis didn’t yield overly positive responses from every team.
Of course, it’s also our obligation to say Brugler might have been fed this private information from sources drafting outside the top 10 — teams that could directly benefit from Jack inexplicably dipping on Thursday night.
2. NFL clubs don’t want to repeat assessment mistakes made about another UGA standout, Chiefs All-Pro Justin Houston
Five years ago, Houston had to overcome two knocks leading into the pros: His “tweener” size (6-foot-3, 270 pounds), relative to a defensive end vs. rush linebacker, and the reputation of occasionally taking plays off in college.
In the present, UGA’s Floyd must sell NFL front offices on his “projectability” at the next level, which is often code for: How does someone so big, so quick and so athletic NOT dominate his competition at the college level?
There are other examples of Houston (51.5 sacks since 2012) and Floyd being tantalizing and confounding assets prior to their respective drafts:
**In the 2011 scouting combine, Houston (NFL-high 22 sacks in 2014) topped his fellow linebackers in three different categories (bench press, vertical leap, broad jump).
For this year’s combine, Floyd similarly took positional honors in three categories — 40-yard dash (4.60 seconds), vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (127 inches).
**For his final two seasons with the Bulldogs (2009-10), Houston amassed 17.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss. Floyd couldn’t match that production; instead, he brought consistency to his UGA experience, averaging six sacks and nine tackles for loss during his three-year career.
Regarding 40 times at the combine, Floyd (4.60) only eclipsed Houston by less than one-tenth of a second. But Floyd’s initial burst off the edge has invoked some comparisons to Dante Fowler (first-round pick in 2015), Vic Beasley (first-rounder in 2015), Anthony Barr (first-rounder in 2014) and maybe even Von Miller (first-rounder in 2011).
— Big Cat Country (@BigCatCountry) April 26, 2016
Which brings us to …
3. Floyd’s high-end scheme versatility becomes too great to pass up in the first 10 picks
I’m a regular listener of the “ESPN First Draft” podcast, starring noted draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. At various times during the last two weeks, McShay has identified Floyd as the “fastest riser” among prospects currently outside the top 10.
McShay even doubled down on a glowing nugget, revealing that certain high-drafting NFL teams — both running 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses — have pledged serious interest in Floyd, based on his unlimited speed-rush potential.
4. The Saints, Jets, Colts, Falcons or Chiefs find a way to leapfrog the Bears in Round 1
NFL teams publicly pan the veracity of online mock drafts. But believe me, every front office has a spreadsheet tracking the ongoing results of popular mocks — as a tool of reference and gauging the market.
As such, there are many kernels of truth involving certain picks, especially when there’s a consensus target at a particular slot (consistently sourced or speculative information).
Let’s take the Bears, for example: The majority of mock drafts have the franchise pining for Floyd at the No. 11 spot. This is either deadly accurate information, or a well-conceived smokescreen from the Chicago execs in hopes of prompting someone to reach for Floyd in the initial eight selections … or maybe execute a draft-day trade for the 11th pick.
Regardless of Chicago’s actual plans, the following narrative has already been created for mass consumption: If you want Floyd, perhaps this draft’s premier rush end, you’ll need to outsmart the Bears to do so.
And isn’t that why we love the draft? Chaos, confusion and bluff-calling always trumps civility and rational planning.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.