It's a long off-season, which can be both good and bad in the sense that you have plenty of time to let your mind wander. While speculating among friends last year, my mind wandered to the Gables as I thought about the chances that Brad Kaaya would remain a Hurricane after the 2016 season. That premonition became reality months later (not saying that it was good or bad—it just happened). Speaking of off-season thoughts, I wonder who will be the next group of underclassmen from Miami to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft .
If you have not done so already, please check out _JoshRWhite’s Way-Too-Early Look Ahead Toward The 2018 NFL Draft. MichaelBurns_BaydreamCreative’s in-depth analysis of the group of new ProCanes from the 2017 NFL Draft is a excellent read as well.
RB Mark Walton (Junior)
The player most likely to be considering declaring early for the 2018 NFL Draft is running back Mark Walton. Since Duke Johnson elected to turn pro after his junior season, the running back position was waiting for someone to establish themselves as the workhorse of the group. Walton did what a good back is supposed to do: tuck it under his arm and run for daylight as the lead back.
After a season where Walton clearly was the lead dog, rushing for 1,117 yards at a solid 5.3 yards per carry average, a similar if not greater performance is going to be needed once again, especially given the uncertainty at that other position in the backfield as well as the group of backs who will be lined up behind him hungry for their share of carries. Between 2008 and now, Miami has produced four rushers who have surpassed the 1,000 rushing mark: Lamar Miller, 2011 (1,272); Duke Johnson, 2014 (1,652); Joseph Yearby, 2015 (1,002); and Mark Walton, 2016 (1,117). Before this run, the last Hurricane rusher to surpass 1,000 yards was RB Willis McGahee in 2002 with his 1,753 yards and 28 TDs on 282 attempts.
If Walton can remain healthy and improve each season, it should not be a shock when the news comes of him electing to enter the draft. There was the minor setback of his arrest last off-season for some juvenile acts, but nothing serious resulted from the incident.
Early declarations have been an all-too-common trend for Hurricane backs. Lamar Miller declared his intentions to go pro as a redshirt sophomore. Duke Johnson decided that he wanted to try his hands in the pros after his junior season. Most recently, Joseph Yearby took his talents to the NFL after three years as a 'Cane. The thought is that the career mortality for a running back tends to be the shortest of any position in the NFL. With growing concerns about running backs’ usage rates during their collegiate careers and the amount of meaningful production they have remaining when they enter the league, NFL teams are now opting to use the running back by committee approach, as opposed to the feature back of days past.
After the 2017 draft last weekend, which contained what potentially could be the best running back group in a decade, only two RBs were selected in the first round, and six RBs were taken in the second round. Looking back at the past three drafts, no more than two backs have been taken in the first round, as teams prefer to address the running back position in subsequent rounds.
The last Miami RB to be taken in the first round was Willis McGahee, who was selected with the twenty-third pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2003. The closest another Miami RB has come to being a first-round pick was Frank Gore, when he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in 2001 (third round, sixty-fifth overall). Duke Johnson was not far behind, as he was picked in the third round at seventy-seventh overall by Cleveland in the 2015 draft.
Other Names to Consider
Kendrick Norton (Junior)
Norton has ideal measurables at six foot three and 315 pounds to be a pro defensive tackle. Miami has been starved for someone to anchor the interior of the defensive line, and Norton has truly delivered stellar play at the position. While he's still a true junior like Walton, sticking around for his senior year wouldn't be a detriment to his pro stock.
Since we’re making predictions, there’s a possibility, however, that the 2019 draft will be loaded with interior defensive lineman (who are currently sophomores). Assuming Houston's new DC has changed his spots, it's hard to imagine Houston DT Ed Oliver regressing after an explosive debut on the college football stage. There's also Dexter Lawrence of Clemson, who had himself a similarly impressive season. Norton may simply find himself in one of the best defensive tackle drafts in a decade, should he stay for his senior year.
The 2016 NFL draft included the selection of four defensive tackles in the first round. In comparison, the 2017 draft did not see any DTs picked in the first round (Jonathan Allen and Solomon Thomas were designated as defensive ends). The first DT selection did not occur until round two. This may have spoken more to the talent of this class than to the value of the position.
For those wondering, the last Miami player to be drafted in the first round as a defensive tackle was Kareem Brown by the New England Patriots in 2007 (twenty-eighth pick, fourth round, 127th overall).
Jaquan Johnson (Junior)
Johnson is the least likely of the players listed here to jump to the NFL, but he definitely has the talent and desire to be a good pro in the future. With Rayshawn Jenkins now a Charger and Jamal Carter trying to make it as a Bronco, the path is clear for Johnson to illustrate why he was given the nickname “The Franchise” coming out of high school.
Johnson has received playing time in spurts throughout his UM career, and 2017 is poised to be his first season as a starting safety. There will not be an extensive amount of game film for Johnson, but we’ve seen what one good season can do for a player this past class with Colts safety Malik Hooker.
If Johnson decides to enter his name in the draft, he has the potential to continue the Hurricanes’ streak of safeties being drafted to a third consecutive year (Jenkins in 2017, Bush in 2016).
The stigma around selecting a safety early in the draft appears to have dissipated somewhat, with three safeties (including Jabrill Peppers) taken in the first round and six more taken in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
As much as IT'S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U, one couldn't help but feel proud for a player who has the once-in-a-lifetime shot of providing for their family by turning pro.