The start of the 2018 NFL Draft will be all about the quarterbacks. At least four will be first-round picks – Josh Rosen of UCLA, Sam Darnold or USC, Josh Allen of Wyoming and Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma – and possibly all four in the top 10.
Two others – Lamar Jackson of Louisville and Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State – also are first-round possibilities.
All eyes are on the QBs, but there are some intriguing defensive players who will make an immediate impact in the NFL. Here are three men that stand out:
The fan favorite: Shaquem Griffin of Central Florida
In case you haven’t heard, Griffin has only one hand. Here’s something else you probably haven’t heard: He’s a better player than 90 percent of the guys in this draft with two hands.
The only reason Griffin received a late invitation to the combine was pressure on social media from the NFL to give him a chance. Griffin made the most of it.
He was the star of the show in Indianapolis, consistently wowing everyone in attendance by doing things no one knew he could do.
For example, most people didn’t expect him to attempt the bench press, for obvious reasons. Griffin used a prosthetic attachment and proceeded to do an eye-popping 20 reps at 225 pounds.
He also ran a 4.38 40, the fastest time in combine history for a linebacker. And he outmaneuvered almost everyone else on his group on defensive drills and interceptions.
At 6-1, 225, Griffin is the twin brother of Shaquill Griffin, a third-round draft pick last year and a starting cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Shaquill is 30 pounds lighter, but they posted identical 40 times.
Shaquem, who had his left hand amputated at age 4 because of a congenital defect, played outside linebacker in college and was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in UCF’s undefeated season last year.
NFL’s coaches want to know if he can play safety as a pro, but why move him? Shaquem had 33 tackles for losses in his final two seasons at UCF, including 18 sacks.
The elephant in the room is whether is lack of a hand will hinder his ability to make tackles in the NFL. In 13 games last season, Griffin missed or failed to complete only four tackles in 79 attempts.
You don’t need two hands when you have as much heart as Griffin.
Best of the best: Vita Vea of Washington
No one in this draft, and only a few people ever, have the freakish physical attributes Vea possesses. At 6-4, 345, he is an unstoppable force on the defensive line.
It isn’t just his size, which is intimidating. Vea also has the quickness of a 3-4 alignment defensive end. Vea’s 40-time at the combine was 5.12, stunning for a man only one brick short of 350.
By comparison, Virginia Tech defensive tackle Tim Settle, who is 6-2, 330 and also expected to be an early draft pick, ran a 5.37. Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, 45 pounds lighter than Vea, ran a 5.21.
Vea’s combination of strength and speed enable him to play anywhere from nose tackle to a 5-technique defensive end. He also will break up running plays at the line of scrimmage with his powerful bull rush and his ability to take on two blockers without giving up ground.
His instincts and vision enable him to locate the ball carrier immediately and close on a play almost before it begins. The team that selects will see its linebackers suddenly become better tacklers because Vea will keep offensive linemen off them.
Most underrated player: Hercules Mata’afa of Washington State
Like Vea, Mata’afa was a disruptive defensive tackle in college. One big difference: Mata’afa is 90 pounds lighter.
That’s why people doubt he can get it done at the NFL level. They’re right to think he can’t play DT as a pro. They are dead wrong to think he can’t play somewhere else.
Mata’afa is an absolute buzzsaw of a player on every snap. He’s tenacious and never gives up on a play. Those traits will serve him well as he moved to a rush end or outside linebacker in the NFL. He also might play some snaps as a middle linebacker.
Wherever he lines up, he will make a defense better. The man had 22 sacks in three college seasons while playing against offensive linemen that were 50 pounds heavier. That tells you all your need to know.
Mata’afa is relentless in pursuit of a play, and his high-energy on the field is contagious for his teammates. Mata’afa is viewed as a mid-round selection. His effort makes up for his lack of his size.
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