In scouting hundreds of players in preparation for the NFL Draft, it is impossible not to develop some favorites.
Rang’s Gang is the collective answer to the question I’m often asked: “If you were running a team and you needed a (insert position), who would you take?”
There’s only one rule — no consensus first-round prospects. Anyone can compile a list of the top players per position and call them favorites. Let’s dig deeper.
This year’s squad joins a historical team that includes new Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (Class of 2012), Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (2013), Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (2012) and many others who have exceeded expectations since entering the NFL.
Introducing this year’s favorites …
QB: Kurt Benkert, Virginia, 6-3, 218, 4.95
Rare talent and depth at quarterback is likely to push Benkert well into Day Three of the draft, but I believe he’ll ultimately outplay that selection, at least becoming a solid backup and perhaps much more. Including the Senior Bowl, Benkert has fielded snaps in six different offenses dating to high school, and he left UVa with his master’s degree in higher education, an indication of his intelligence and ability to quickly adapt. While he does run a bit hot and cold, Benkert is a generally accurate passer with enough mobility and velocity to fit every NFL offense.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia, 5-11, 227, 4.52
Chubb’s consistency against elite competition throughout his career speaks for itself. A bruising downhill runner with underrated lateral agility and explosiveness, Chubb averaged a healthy 6.3 yards per carry in four seasons in the SEC, rushing for 44 touchdowns. Chubb’s recovery from a devastating knee injury in 2015 speaks to his grit, which, along with his aggression and bowling ball-like balance through contact, has earned comparisons to a young Frank Gore by some scouts.
TE: Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin, 6-5, 247, 4.84
There are plenty of bigger, stronger or faster athletes in this year’s underrated tight end class, but no one catches the ball any more reliably than Fumagalli, which is all the more remarkable given that he is missing the index finger on his left hand. Lacking the explosive element to run away from defenders or pulverize opponents in the running game, Fumagalli is not a future Pro Bowler. Don’t be surprised, though, when he earns a second NFL contract, as a complementary threat as a “move” tight end or H-back.
WR: Michael Gallup, Colorado State, 6-1, 205, 4.51
The aptly-named Gallup raced past Mountain West Conference defensive backs the past two seasons, collecting 176 receptions for 2,690 yards and 21 touchdowns. Flashy performances against Alabama and during the week of practice at the Senior Bowl proved that Gallup’s success was not simply a function of poor competition. A very good athlete already sporting an NFL-caliber build and competitive mentality, Gallup is a future starter who might still be on the board in the third round.
OT: Tyrell Crosby, Oregon, 6-5, 309, 5.23
Crosby dominated Pac-12 competition in 2017, not surrendering a sack or QB pressure and consistently clearing holes in the running game. Along with a prototypical frame and physical playing style, the reigning Morris Trophy Award winner — given to the league’s top offensive lineman as voted by the defensive linemen — possesses ideal intangibles, choosing to compete at the Senior Bowl and opting to switch his jersey number from 73 to 58 in the Las Vegas Bowl to honor the victims slain during a music festival held in his hometown a few months earlier.
OG: Austin Corbett, Nevada, 6-4, 306, 5.05
The state of Nevada knows better than most the value of a sure bet, which is exactly what scouts can expect if pairing Corbett — a Reno native — with Crosby, who was born just outside of Las Vegas. A former walk-on who starred at left tackle before moving inside at the Senior Bowl, Corbett plays with the technique and aggression that helped his Wolfpack predecessor, Joel Bitonio, excel in the NFL.
C: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas, 6-5, 312, 5.18
Turning down a potential top 64 pick last season, Ragnow showed his commitment to the Razorbacks by returning for his senior season. Instead of being rewarded, he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery and contributed to Arkansas’ disappointing 4-8 record. Big, strong and tough, Ragnow projects best to a power-based scheme, offering plug-and-play potential at center or right guard.
DE: Josh Sweat, Florida State, 6-5, 251, 4.53
It isn’t often that former five-star recruits make this particular team, but Sweat is an unusual story, fighting back from a horrific injury as a senior in high school that nearly resulted in his leg being amputated. He has since recaptured the initial explosiveness needed for chasing down quarterbacks off the edge. Due to exceptionally long arms (34 5/8 inches) and underrated power, Sweat is also much stouter against the run than his relatively slim frame suggests.
DT: Harrison Phillips, Stanford, 6-3, 307, 5.21
With all due respect to projected first-rounders Vita Vea (Washington), Da’Ron Payne (Alabama) and Maurice Hurst Jr. (Michigan), among others, no defensive tackle consistently dominated opponents in 2017 like Phillips, who recorded 100 tackles, including 17 for loss and 7.5 sacks, to lead the Cardinal in all three categories. While his lack of elite quick-twitch athleticism might push him out of the top 32, Phillips has one of the higher floors of any prospect in the draft. A former national champion wrestler in high school, Phillips understands leverage, winning with raw power, balance and sheer determination.
OLB: Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida, 6-0, 227, 4.38
Like cancer survivor James Conner (now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers) last year, Griffin serves as the honorary captain of this year’s Rang’s Gang because he is both an inspiration and, frankly, one hell of a player. Griffin wowed at the Combine, but he was even more impressive on the field for the undefeated Knights and at the Senior Bowl, where he turned heads splitting time at linebacker, edge rusher and safety. Griffin’s versatility is a testament to his size, speed and instincts. As most know, Griffin had his left hand removed as a young boy. He has adapted incredibly well, using his forearm to fend off would-be blockers and remarkably ranking as one of the more reliable wrap-up tacklers in this year’s class.
ILB: Micah Kiser, Virginia, 6-0, 238, 4.66
The hard-hitting, run-stuffing Kiser is a blast from the past, ranking among the nation’s leaders in tackles after each of his three seasons as a starter for the Cavaliers, topping out in 2017 with 145, including 50 solos, 9.5 for loss and five sacks. Kiser showed good speed in workouts, but may lack the jets and agility to handle third-down duties in the NFL. That fact could push him well into Day Three. Do not be surprised when the two-time All-American — who recovered eight career fumbles and recovered six — ultimately proves a steal.
CB: Duke Dawson, Florida, 5-11, 197, 4.46
The 2018 draft is loaded with talent at cornerback, but Dawson has separated as one of my favorites of the non-first-round prospects because of his versatility, instincts and playmaking ability. Playing behind future NFL draft picks Vernon Hargreaves, Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson over the past four seasons, Dawson saw time at safety, nickel and outside cornerback, showing off the instincts and physicality needed to earn playing time in the NFL. Better yet, the Senior Bowl standout is a proven big-play magnet, returning half of his six career interceptions for touchdowns.
S: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern, 5-11, 213, 4.44
A physical and reliable tackler with the speed, agility and ball skills to also be a weapon in coverage, Igwebuike is one of the few safeties in this class with the versatile skillset and proven durability to project as a future NFL starter. Igwebuike was a rare top recruit for the Wildcats, signing with Northwestern as a four-star recruit over offers from several more prominent programs. He leaves as a four-year starter, two-time all-conference pick and team captain with 324 career tackles and seven interceptions.