By now you've read the articles stating just how magical and historic the 2016 NFL Draft was for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Karl Joseph's selection by the Raiders with the 14th overall pick continued a recent trend for WVU by producing a top-15 talent. Karl wasn't the only selection taken as four defensive players were taken in the first five rounds of the draft along with Big 12 rushing champion Wendell Smallwood. This marked the first time since 1999 that five players were taken in the NFL draft and pointed to an upswing in talent for WVU. It even generated a short video, showing the latest four first round selections.
The question we have to ask is "Can WVU continue this recent trend and who will be one of those players?". Certainly the Mountaineers have coaches capable of developing players into NFL talents provided they work hard and dedicate themselves. To be a first round talent you typically need to be a skill player (wide receiver, running back, quarterback) or dynamic defensive player.
Here is the breakdown of first round selections by position since 2012. It should be noted that players are listed by the position they played in college, not where they were eventually shifted to in the NFL. Several players were defensive ends in college were shifted to linebacker, similar to how Bruce Irvin was used by the Seahawks. Players like Zach Martin were drafted as a tackle but eventually shifted inside to guard.
|Position||Number of Selections||WVU Players Selected|
|WR||22||Kevin White - 2015, Tavon Austin-2013|
|DE||15||Bruce Irvin - 2012|
|S||9||Karl Joseph - 2016|
Looking at the chart you can see that NFL teams have started to devalue running backs and safeties as first round talents. They have elevated quarterbacks, receivers, corners, and offensive tackles. This isn't a surprising trend as those four positions are typically glamour positions and are some of the highest paid positions in the league. Knowing how the league is drafting we can ask "Are there any players who could be a first round talent in 2017?"
I like Skyler Howard. When you read his interviews and watch him play you can tell the kid loves football. He is competitive, a leader and a gamer. He doesn't complain, he's smart and has picked up the offense and was praised by Dana Holgorsen as to knowing the checks and audibles. He, however, is not a first round talent. Generously listed at 6'-0", he doesn't have the NFL size (6'-3" or taller) or arm.
Rushel Shell has the talent to be an NFL running back. He set the Pennsylvania state rushing record in high school. He has NFL size (5'-10", 220 pounds). He is the type of back that when given 20-25 carries in a game, he gets better as the game goes on. What he lacks is production and NFL speed. On film, he isn't breaking away from defenders and in three years he has never run for 800 yards. NFL teams do not spend first round picks on running backs who aren't fast and don't produce at an elite level.
WVU has six players on the roster who would be draft-eligible (three years removed from their high school graduation) this year: Daikel Shorts, Ka'Raun White, Ricky Rogers, Chris Parry, Shelton Gibson and Devonte Mathis. Parry, Mathis and Rogers are all backups who, barring an litany of injuries, aren't going to get the chance to produce enough to be seen by scouts.
Let's start with Daikel Shorts. He's taller than six feet and listed at 204 pounds. Those are both positives. He isn't the fastest player on the field, having been timed at 4.60 seconds in the 40 in high school. He showed a lot of positives in the Cactus Bowl and could work himself into the draft, but not likely in the first round.
That leaves us with Shelton Gibson and Ka'Raun White. Ka'Raun is of course the brother of former WVU receiver and first round pick Kevin White. The coaches have been careful not to bring up Kevin too much so they don't set expectations too high, but every time Ka'Raun catches a pass and jukes a defender, you can't help but be reminded of Kevin's magical 2014 season. Kevin missed all of the 2015 season with a leg injury but appears to be fully health for the 2016 season. If Kevin has a solid year and Ka'Raun produces close to what Kevin did in 2014, it would not be unheard of for a team to use a first round pick on Ka'Raun.
Shelton is the other receiver on the team who could produce enough to move himself into the first round. Last year, as the number one receiver on the team, Shelton amassed 887 yards on only 37 catches with 9 touchdowns. He demonstrated great body awareness in the bowl game and once again in the Gold-Blue game. Four times he broke 100 yards and caught a touchdown in eight of the thirteen games played. Shelton has elite speed, having been called the fastest player Holgorsen has coached. If Shelton continues to grow and has a great year, he could easily be on teams radars in the first round.
Unfortunately for Tyler Orlosky, NFL teams do not spend first round selections on centers. Tyler is being praised as one of the best centers in the Big 12 and is on watch lists for Big 12 Preseason Awards but it most likely is not going to result in a first round selection.The glamour position on the offensive line is left tackle and it is manned by redshirt sophomore Yodny Cajuste. Technically as a redshirt sophomore, Cajuste is draft-eligible. He however likely needs more conditioning and seasoning. He plays the right position and could be a 2018 or 2019 first round pick with continued improvement. Kyle Bosch at guard is someone to keep an eye on but likely is not a first round pick at this time.
Dana has not used a true "tight end" in his offensive sets as much as he as used a Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman as H-backs. The official WVU roster lists TE and Fullback together. Wellman is a solid player but isn't used in the traditional NFL tight end matchups enough nor does he have the size teams have tended to look for. Michael Ferns, the incoming Michigan transfer, has the size at 6'-3 but hasn't played yet for WVU. Depending on how he develops, 2018 or '19 might be the time for him to shine and hear his name called.
The glamour position along the defensive line, defensive ends are typically the players getting highlight sacks against the quarterback. Noble Kwachukwu lead the team in sacks last season and displayed a knack for getting into the backfield. The redshirt senior from Texas has NFL size at 6'-2" and 275 pounds and would profile well as a right defensive end for a 4-3 defense. If Noble continues to progress and can register 10-12 sacks, NFL teams may consider him in the first round next year.
Despite installing a 3-3 front, Tony Gibson doesn't really have the typical defensive tackles and ends seen in a 3-man front. When teams run a 3-man (defensive end, nose tackle, defensive end) front, those players are often bigger and able to absorb blockers better than the 4-man front of a 4-3 or 4-2-5. Christian Brown profiles well as a 4-3 defensive tackle 3-technique but without the production and what he is typically asked to do as a nose tackle, he won't be hearing his name called in Round 1.
I believe WVU is well positioned now and in the future at linebacker. Players like Al-Rasheed Benton and Xavier Preston will help bridge the gap between 2016 and the future when Brendan Ferns and Logan Thimons are making plays. The problem with Benton and Preston is that they have no tape to speak of. Sure players come out of nowhere all the time but generally speaking you see flashes of greatness throughout college careers. None of the linebackers have played enough nor seen enough live action to know for sure they will take the final step to NFL first rounder. I wouldn't hold my breath for any of the linebackers to continue the first round tradition.
WVU has two players who will have plenty of chances to show their skills this season. Miami transfer Antonio Crawford and JUCO cornerback Rasul Douglas both will see time against some of the best wide receivers in the country. Douglas has great NFL size at 6'-2". He was reportedly clock in the 4.5-range in the 40-yard dash. Douglas profiles well for NFL teams that prefer bigger physical corners like Green Bay and the New York Giants. Crawford reportedly runs in the low 4.4s. Teams that play zone may be intrigued by Antonio's skillset.
There is absolutely no way that the Mountaineers could produce a first -round talent at safety, especially when the NFL has only selected 9 in the last five years, right? Well the Mountaineers have a pretty good safety in Dravon Askew-Henry. A three year starter who has shown terrific centerfield type skills, Henry definitely has the talent to be a first round selection. I don't think it will happen this year though. Much like Karl Joseph who only profiled as a mid-to-late-round selection after his junior year, Dravon is likely a year away from being known.
There you have it, each position looked at and the players who could hear their names called in the first round. If you were looking for a quick and dirty guide, keep an eye out for Noble Kwachukwu and Shelton Gibson to carry the mantle and keep the tradition alive for WVU.