Kentucky stands a good shot at getting more players drafted in the 2016 NFL Draft than the 2015 draft. There's a lot of football to be played, as well as a Pro Day and the combines to attend, so the final number of draft candidates will certainly fluctuate over the next year. For today's far too early preview, I'm only going to concentrate on seven players who have the best odds as I see them today.
Trying to predict how everything will shake out is a fool's errand in many ways. Full disclosure for everything you read next: last May, I thought Bud Dupree would get drafted between rounds 4-6 and Za'Darius Smith would go rounds 6-7. I feel confident UK will have more defensive players drafted this year than in the last 20 years. This is largely a reflection of these players being developed by Mark Stoops, DJ Elliot, and Jimmy Brumbaugh.
You're probably sick of hearing me say it at this point, but Elliot and Brumbaugh have proven they are UK's best position coaches at developing talent. It's no coincidence three of the following players belong to them. The fact Brumbaugh is his coach is one major reason I've included Farrington Huguenin on this list.
So without further ado...
A.J. Stamps (Free Safety)
Stamps is UK's best NFL prospect heading into next season. The JUCO transfer reportedly received an offer by Ohio State coming out of JUCO, but chose UK instead to the surprise of many. So he's got a good pedigree. He was a December enrollee which benefited his development last year, and enabled him to contribute immediately last season.
He reportedly played receiver coming out of high school and his first year in JUCO before switching to the defensive side of the ball. The skills he honed at his previous position show today with his great ball skills. His abilities to cover a lot of ground in the back third allowed UK to take more risks with its front seven and blitz packages. He's also an outstanding tackler in the open field, and would easily be able to play strong safety in college but free safety is probably what he'll play in the NFL.
In last year's game against South Carolina, he made a solo open field tackle against running back Mike Davis late in the game on an important third down (making him practically the only person to tackle Davis that night). He's as much a hitter as an acrobatic safety.
Melvin Lewis (Nose tackle)
Lewis is another JUCO transfer but from Stoops first signing class, and he was subsequently redshirted. Last season, most UK fans suspected UK would mostly run 4 man fronts as it had the previous season, but during the first game Stoops opened with a 3-4 for the first time. So no 1 technique 4-3 defensive tackle as assumed, and now more of a "true" nose tackle. There was more surprise when it was Melvin Lewis, and not 5 star Matt Elam starting as the 3-4 nose tackle. Lewis would hold off Elam for the entire season.
Lewis had a very good season as a nose tackle; soaking up two blockers, and relieving pressure on the inside linebackers, but he still managed a good stat line for a position whose worth usually isn't reflected in numbers. He has to continue working on keeping his pad level low, but he's reportedly come a long way since stepping on campus.
Josh Forrest (3-4 Inside Linebacker)
Forrest is a great story. He's a converted receiver who has excelled after a position change. He didn't see the field much in Stoops' first season, and was an after-thought by most heading into the 2014 spring practice sessions. He ended up looking great last spring, and that carried over to the season where he led the team in tackles with 110. Forrest has length, speed, with good coverage and blitzing abilities/instincts.
If he has a knock it's that he's not an habitual physical tackler that regularly delivers blows upon arrival. He also struggled at times with beating blocks to make a tackle. None of which is unexpected for someone who was playing offense until being forced to change positions at a high level. He's probably better suited to play an outside LB in the 3-4 at the next level, but given UK's lack of depth at both positions he's almost certainly staying at ILB for next season.
He's the odds-on favorite to lead the team in tackles for the second straight season which would put him in Avery Williamson, Danny Trevathan, and Wesley Woodyard territory. A good senior season should see him added to that pantheon. I can already hear UK's sale pitch to future high school linebacker stars...
These are players who are on the fringe of being NFL candidates. I'm projecting these players to have great senior seasons, and put up at least average numbers at combines for their positions. I think they all could be late round picks if these things fall into place.
Fred Tiller (Corner)
Yes; BBN's favorite punching bag is on my list and it's not because contrarianism is a character trait I want to be known for. Tiller has started four seasons at UK, and his improvement has been noticeable since Stoops first season (his sophomore year). He's got pretty good length, and has improved his tackling abilities.
For example, perhaps you'll recall the UK-South Carolina game in Columbia two years ago when UK scored 21 points in the fourth quarter? In that game on a crucial third down late in the game, with UK having all the momentum, Tiller missed a pivotal open field tackle that UK had to have to get possession back. When I think about Tiller's development I think about how he's since proven that he can be relied upon to make that tackle today.
Coverage-wise, he usually is matched up against the opponent's best receiver suggesting the coaches feel he's the best defensive back on the team. He's played against some great receivers during his tenure (in this year's draft alone that included the fourth pick Amari Cooper, the fourteenth pick Devante Parker, Dorial Green-Beckham at 49th, and the 76th pick Chris Conley to name but four). Last season he still got beat at times, but he's getting beat less with each passing year. Given the high profile nature of getting burned on a deep route most fans probably don't see it that way.
My thinking that he's a NFL prospect is simply a projection. He's improved every year under Stoops and Ansley. With another year of improvement he'll have opportunity to make the case himself, and convert some elements of BBN.
Farrington Huguenin (Defensive End)
This one is will probably be interpreted as more forward-leaning than the others but hear me out. Huguenin's best quality at the moment is his NFL size measuring 6'4'' and 275 pounds. Critical to his projection was his solid play last season backing up Za'Darius Smith. Like Smith, he's a pretty good run-stopper which is imperative for a two-gapping defensive end. Brumbaugh has probably been UK's best position coach, and the work he's done "coaching up" UK's other defensive linemen (like Mike Douglas last season) causes me to judge he'll do the same for Huguenin.
What must happen to draw the NFL's attention will be for Huguenin to prove he can also be relied on to be an effective pass-rusher. Last season, Za'Darius Smith would usually sub back in on obvious passing downs. This year, Huguenin needs to earn, and then later capitalize, on those opportunities. He'll have JUCO transfer Courtney Miggins to compete with and push him, and Miggins should be better at pushing Huguenin than the redshirt freshmen would have been otherwise.
Jordan Swindle (Offensive Tackle)
Swindle was arguably UK's best offensive lineman during stretches last season. He's reportedly a great "locker room guy", and his inclusion to last year's SEC Media Day as a junior was a result of his leadership in the off-season. Motivation and focus are qualities he seemingly already possesses. Last season he played right tackle, and this season he's moved to the left side. Protecting either Patrick Towles' or Drew Barker's blind-side will definitely raise his visibility this season. Can he capitalize on that opportunity?
One thing working for Swindle is his size which is listed at 6'7'' and 309 pounds. For comparison's sake, the two best offensive tackles in the 2015 NFL Draft were Brandon Scherff and Andrus Peat listed at 6'5'' 319 pounds and 6'7'' 313 pounds respectively. Swindle's size will place him in the upper percentile come this fall.
Tackle may not be his position at the next level given athletic limitations, but the NFL doesn't employ many 6'7'' offensive guards; therefore, it's all the more important that he performs well at left tackle this year. With a good season, and continued improvements in footwork and technique, he'll make a case to play right tackle at the next level. If he holds his own against elite pass-rushers this season Swindle will get noticed. He wants to appear as positionally diverse as possible to NFL scouts and GM's (i.e. don't let them see you as just a guard).
There's only one player I'm comfortable believing could be an early entrant at this date. This isn't to say it'll happen, and it probably deserves its own post, but here's the quick version contingent on a good season.
Patrick Towles (Quarterback)
Towles has NFL arm strength, solid accuracy, and is surprisingly athletic in the pocket. His biggest issue last season was losing his fundamentals when the pocket was collapsing around him -- just like a lot of first year starters tend to do. The redshirt junior still threw for 2,700 yards, 14 TDs, and 9 INTs last season. That's not bad but his production fell precipitously in the last month after a strong first half of the season. A great quarterback would have performed better against the Top 20 defenses like Mizzou, UT, UGA, and UofL to close the season. Towles was still young but the next time he runs that gauntlet the expectations will be higher.
Working to Towles' advantage is that he'll have a ton of weapons to work with this season -- more than any other UK quarterback since Andre Woodson in 2006 and 2007 (including an experienced offensive line). The skill players should be better, and that should help Towles' stats. The hire of Shannon Dawson as OC means the offensive scheme isn't going to change much, so the possibility of disrupting his development is minimized. Also helping is redshirt freshman Drew Barker nipping at his heels for the starting job which will force him to stay hungry over the summer. Those factors tend to provide ripe conditions for off-season improvement somewhere between marginal and significant for a returning starter.
Patrick Towles' Doppleganger
Let's say Towles has a good season, but it's also well-within reason -- something like 3,100 yards passing, 22 TDs, and 9 interceptions. Those numbers would be similar to LSU's Zach Mettenberger in 2013, who also just so happens to share Towles' physical measurements, an injury history, nearly identical strengths and weaknesses, and Mettenberger crucially also had an eerily similar stats as a starter his first season at LSU. Mettenberger eventually was drafted in the 6th round after two years as a starter, but probably would have gone higher if not for some other personal issues. That's right, higher.
The quarterback position in the NFL has more demand than it has supply. It's a position that is a player's market so to speak. Towles doesn't share Mettenberger's character issues, and he's a pro-style quarterback with experience out of Shotgun and under center. If he matches Mettenberger's production he'll arguably be more marketable. Which agencies fight for his representation will be telling for his potential draft stock.
If he achieves those numbers why should Towles come back? He's already got the arm, frame, and athletic abilities the NFL craves, and achieving those projected stats would not only suggest he's improved on his weaknesses, but also that he's still getting better.
On top of all of that, is the continued presence of Drew Barker. Towles could have a great 2015 season, and still lose his job to an improved Drew Barker in 2016. At the very least, he'll have a much shorter leash to make mistakes which could risk playing time. So, again, why come back if his production improves in 2015? I mean, Mettenberger was drafted in the 6th round, but still got $2.2 million guaranteed over four years.
At next year's NFL Draft, Mark Stoops will look right into the television camera and boldly pronounce, "This was the greatest day in the history of the program."