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Unicorns of the 2018 NFL Draft

By Jim Johnson
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Just as the unicorns have gone from the future of the sport to the present day NBA reality, these six future NFL stars will shape the next generation of professional football.

If you follow the NBA, you’ll know that 2017 was the year of the unicorn. For the uninitiated, a unicorn is some sort of mythical horse thing that has a horn sticking out of its forehead, but as it pertains to this, it’s a term that has been used to describe basketball players with little to no real historical precedents.

There were 491 players on the 2017-18 opening day roster list for the NBA. There are about 3.5 to 4 times as many NFL players each year. Extrapolate that out over the history of the respective leagues and it’s obvious why it’s so much more difficult for football players to stand out as singularly unique. Yet, for whatever reason, the upcoming NFL Draft is chock full of them.

Tremaine Edmunds is Giannis Antetokounmpo. The latter, for all intents and purposes, is a 6’11 point guard. That shouldn’t be the case -- it’s terrifying -- but it is. He’s so big, so long, so fast, that he’s impossible to keep out of the paint, and once he’s there he’s either finishing at the rim or commanding so much attention that someone else gets an easy look. That’s Edmunds. At his size, he should be the prototypical edge rusher, but his skill set is that of a true linebacker.

Just five defensive players since 2000 that measured in at over 6’4 and 250 pounds at the NFL Combine have run the 40 yard dash as fast or faster than Edmunds. All of them were defensive ends or edge rushers. Over that time period, he is in the 96th percentile of linebackers, height-wise, the 90th percentile for weight, the 91st percentile for the 40, and the 97th percentile for both arm length and wingspan.

He’s too big, too long, too fast for most blockers to keep him out of the backfield, and once he’s there he’s a sure tackler. He effortlessly discards linemen and mirrors running backs. He’s got added value as a pass rusher, tallying six sacks in both 2016 and 2017, as well. He even graded out well above average in coverage last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

The knock on Antetokounmpo is that he doesn’t consistently knock down threes, but even if he never does, he’s going to continue to be one of the best players in the league for the next decade. Edmunds has some work to do in man coverage and his hand usage leaves something to be desired, but neither of these athletes’ flaws are anything hard work and good coaching cannot overcome.

Like Giannis, if Edmunds never fixes his couple of flaws, he’ll be among the game’s elite for the foreseeable future. If he does, just like if the Greek Freak extends his range, his upside makes him an immediate all-timer.

Lamar Jackson is Russell Westbrook. The reigning NBA MVP, last year, became the second player in history to average a triple-double for an entire season. Oscar Robertson had done it back in 1962, as a truly revolutionary “big” point guard -- he was 6’5 and the average height of an NBA player in 1962 was 6’5. Westbrook did it at 6’3 and the current average height of an NBA player is 6’7, so while Robertson’s triple-double season was and is incredibly impressive, it’s still somehow far less impressive than Westbrook’s, which, in itself, is very impressive.

Here’s a list of every single college football player to ever rush for at least 1,500 yards and throw for 3,500 yards in the same season: Lamar Jackson (2016), Lamar Jackson (2017). There was at least one other example of Westbrook’s achievement. No one has ever done what Jackson did. And not only did Jackson do something that no one had ever done before, he followed up his creation of the 3,500-1,500 club, of which he was the only member, by starting the ever more exclusive 3,600-1,600 club.

There’s a case to be made that Russell Westbrook is the most athletic person on the planet. There’s maybe one or two other NBA players with his top end speed, none with his endurance, and when he goes to dunk on a fast break he jumps with so much force that it’s less like he’s going up and more as if he were pushing the earth downward, off its orbital path, so that the rim has to meet him on his terms.

Like Westbrook, Jackson seemingly bends nature to his will. He gets from zero to sixty in no time flat. He contorts through gaps that exist for him and him alone. His collection of ankles stretches as far as the eye can see. And when he unleashes one of those effortless deep balls from that laser beam that sits where most folks have arms, his placement is such that it’s as if he’s remotely piloting the thing’s very arc... like Shuri from Black Panther or something.

In the pursuit of an apt player comp for Jackson, the closest one that comes to mind is along the lines of Matt Stafford from the waist up, with Michael Vick’s legs. That still doesn’t feel great. The most accurate description would probably be an amalgam of at least four or five other players. He’s that special.

Contrarians and people that don’t know what they’re talking about say things like “James Harden should’ve won the MVP” or “Lamar Jackson needs to move to wide receiver”. In reality, Russell Westbrook is, athletically, unlike anyone in the history of the NBA and the best point guard in the league, while Lamar Jackson is unlike any quarterback prospect ever (Vick is his only peer from an athleticism standpoint and was not nearly as polished of a passer as Jackson is, coming out of college), and deserves to be the first one taken in this draft class.

Derwin James is Draymond Green. Green is listed at 6’7, the aforementioned average height of a modern NBA player. Yet, it is not uncommon to find him playing crunch time minutes defending centers -- or forwards or guards, depending on the situation. He can defend anyone, 1 through 5, and do so at the highest level, losing no efficacy from one switch to the next. Green is positionless basketball personified.

Football is not as far along as basketball in the positionless revolution, but Derwin James is a step in that direction. At just under 6’2, he too is almost the exact NFL average height. Like Green, though, his arms give him the length to line up anywhere -- measuring in the 91st percentile among defensive backs. His 40 yard dash puts him in the 82nd percentile of safeties. The explosion numbers, however, are what really jump out, with the broad and vertical placing him in the 98th and 95th percentiles, respectively, among all prospects. At his size, only three prospects since 2000 have tested as well as James in the measures of speed and explosiveness, and none of them put up the strength numbers he did.

Tweeners used to be looked down upon, in both football and basketball circles. Now it’s a compliment. There’s great value in versatility, even in a league of specialization. Sure, there are reasons for hesitancy about a jack of all trades, master of none. Derwin James and Draymond Green, defensively, are masters of all trades.

James is elite in coverage, allowing the lowest catch rate of any power five safety in 2017. He’s got the athleticism and cover skills to cover receivers and the size and strength to cover tight ends from the slot. He can sit deep in cover two. He’s the perfect dime linebacker. He’s one of the best run stopping box safeties in the game, and a sure tackler, at that. He even has added value as a true pass rusher, boasting a career 34% pressure rate with seven sacks.

He’ll be listed as a safety in the NFL, but Derwin James, like Draymond Green, is beyond labels. These are just a couple of the best, most versatile defensive stoppers anyone has ever seen.

They’re both alpha dogs, too. They’re really good, they know it, they’re going to show you, tell you about it, and then show you again. That might be the best part.

Jaylen Samuels is Kevin Durant (bear with me). Kevin Durant is 7'0 tall. In a another era that just means he's a center, end of story. However, because of his skill set and a more progressive time in the league's history, he's basically a traditional wing, although more than anything he's a positionless weapon.

For the same reason -- that being Samuels' size -- there was a point in time that he would've simply been slotted as a fullback and told to bulk up. A more forward thinking NFL team will realize that there are but a handful of prospects as well-rounded and talented with the ball in their hands as Samuels is. In other words, just get him the rock and let someone else figure out what to call him.

Only three players since the turn of the century have as many receiving yards, as many rushing yards, and as many touchdowns from scrimmage as Samuels, just one of whom is within even a yard per touch of him. According to MockDraftable, his athletic profile from the combine is a 99% match with Eddie Lacy, Larry Johnson, and Micah Kiser, and a 96.9% match to T.J. Ward. That may not mean anything substantive -- it probably doesn’t -- but it’s awesome.

He may not fit cleanly into any one position but, as denoted by his senior bowl performance, he’s gaining comfortability at all of them. He graded out as the fourth highest RB/TE in one on ones, and showed increasing confidence as a ball carrier. He was one of the most dominant receivers in the country, from the slot, in 2017, finishing second among draft class tight ends in receptions and fifth in yards, on those snaps.

Samuels diverges from the other prospects listed in that he does not share an overall upside with his NBA unicorn comp. He may never be an all-pro caliber player, and will almost certainly not be whatever the equivalent Kevin Durant is. Nevertheless, for these purposes, he is as unique a prospect as any of the aforementioned or yet to be mentioned. If properly utilized, Jaylen Samuels can not only be one of the most useful offensive weapons in this draft class, but one of the biggest headaches for defensive coordinators in the NFL. It will take a play caller that’s willing to think outside the box, but the one that does will be rewarded handsomely.

Roquan Smith is Anthony Davis. Davis makes playing basketball look so easy that it’s almost boring -- as if it’s not fun to be so much better than everyone around you. He continues adding to his game and developing his craft and it’s beginning to seem like the only reason he doesn’t do everything perfectly already is so that he’ll have something to do while he’s killing time during the offseason. Maybe he can hang out with Roquan Smith… like a two person support group for athletes without flaws.

“Anthony Davis doesn’t score enough.” So he went and averaged over 28 points per game over the past two seasons.

“Roquan Smith was only an average tackler, at best, in 2016.” In 2017, he missed a grand total of five on 142 attempts.

“Davis needs to expand his range.” He’s shooting over 36% from behind the arc now.

“Smith still isn’t much of a pass rusher.” Albeit on a limited sample size, he ended up with eight sacks and recorded a pressure over 55% of the time, which is actually against the law in most Big 12 states.

These guys, despite already being better than most people at their respective sports, erase their few and dwindling (relative) weaknesses as if it’s the easiest thing that anyone has ever done. It’s honestly annoying.

Smith, like Davis, can do anything that would ever be asked of him at the next level. According to PFF, only Skai Moore had a higher coverage grade than Smith, last season, among NFL Draft linebackers. He finished sixth overall in run stop percentage, which is impressive in its own right, and further bolstered by the sheer volume of plays he made. Leighton Vander Esch was the lone linebacker to total more stops (wins for the defense), with one more than Smith, and he played over 50 more snaps.

His combination of instincts, feel, athleticism, and production is what makes him unique. Since the turn of the century, less than 40 linebackers have run a 4.51 40 yard dash, highlighted by the likes of Patrick Willis and Telvin Smith, among others. Over that same span, even fewer have tallied over 130 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and five sacks in a single season -- although Lavonte David and Ryan Shazier both breathed that rarified air. Yet, when those two small circles come together, only one name sits in the middle of the venn diagram: Roquan Smith.

The list of athletes that can fill up a box score like Anthony Davis and Roquan Smith is a short one. That’s what catches eyes. What makes them special, though, and what is often overlooked, is the meticulous technical work done to make them outwardly seem so effortlessly perfect. Not only are Davis and Smith better than just about all of their peers, they’re better at getting better than them, too.

Isaiah Wynn is Charles Barkley. In the 1986-87 season, the average height of an NBA player was 6’7. Barkley, listed at 6’6, and probably not even that tall, led the league in rebounding that year, grabbing 14.6 boards per game, and even average nearly 12 per game for his career, despite his stature. His size would dictate that he should be a wing, but his ability was so overwhelmingly suited to the power forward position that he not only made a living there, but even saw time at center, was the MVP in 1993, and is now forever enshrined in the hall of fame.

Conventional wisdom would declare a move inside for Wynn, who played left tackle during his most effective season at Georgia. However, his abilities, like Barkley’s, should overpower some false narrative about tackles are “supposed” to look like. It’s not like there have never been great undersized exterior blockers -- Brad Hopkins was a two time pro bowler in the early aughts and was smaller than Wynn, and even Trai Turner kicked out to tackle and made a pro bowl of his own as recently as 2016. Sure, those examples are rare, but Wynn is a rare caliber of athlete.

Wynn is an absolute technician -- extremely polished -- that could start right away if he’s at tackle. A move to guard would necessitate an improved power base, which would be something to work on regardless, but his elite athleticism for the position would allow him to get by without it in the meantime. As far as counting the better pass blockers at his position last year, it only takes one hand, and not even all the fingers. Even as a run blocker, despite a relative lack of strength, he plays with so much leverage and leg drive that it almost doesn’t matter. He gets the job done, and does so as consistently as anyone in this class.

Against SEC edge rushers last year, the highest caliber in college football, he allowed the third fewest outside pressures per pass pro snap of any tackle in the nation, and he was in the top 25 of inside pressures allowed. His lateral agility is such that he is more well equipped to handle even the better NFL speed rushers than he is to move inside and have to deal with increased power.

Wynn, like Barkley, spits in the face of what should be physical limitations and proves that it’s not what your body looks like, rather how you use it. Charles Barkley couldn’t dunk without jumping, but he was better on the glass than a ton of guys who could, because he used his round mound to box out. Isaiah Wynn might need a hand reaching the top shelf at the grocery store, but that doesn’t mean he can’t keep professional pass rushers at bay with that nasty kick slide.

The sheer volume of players that move through the ranks of the NFL, as compared to the NBA, makes it difficult for guys to stand out as unique, progressive athletes. Often, it's only with the benefit of hindsight that people recognize those rare game-changing talents. And not just the playmakers that may decide the outcome of one or two individual contests -- the guys that change the face and trajectory of the league forever.

That’s what makes this year’s class so special. No, the NFL won’t be as positionless as the NBA anytime soon. Of course, there’s still value in specialization. But, perhaps never before have the innovators of tomorrow been so plainly obvious.

Just as the unicorns have gone from the future of the sport to the present day NBA reality, these six future NFL stars will shape the next generation of professional football.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP