Halfway through Nebraska’s season, a lot has changed surrounding the Huskers’ current NFL draft hopes. Matt Miller, the NFL draft lead writer for Bleacher Report and host of the Stick to Football podcast, spoke with Land of 10 before the season about players such as quarterback Tanner Lee and cornerback Chris Jones.
A little over two months later, we’re revisiting those players — and others — to see what Nebraska fans have to look forward to for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Lee received a lot of hype during the offseason. At the time, Miller looked at the tools he could see from Lee on the practice field. That included size, arm strength and accuracy. However, practice is different from an actual game and that became evident with Lee.
This season, Lee has completed 109 passes on 202 attempts for 1,406 yards. His completion percentage is 54 percent. That includes 10 interceptions on the season, as well as 8 sacks.
Seven of Lee’s interceptions game against two opponents — Oregon (4) and Northern Illinois (3). After so much hype this summer, it has been a disappointing start to the 2017 season for Lee and Nebraska.
“The hype over the summer was almost out of control,” Miller told Land of 10. “After Week 1 — and I was at the Iowa game so I didn’t get a chance to watch Nebraska live — but on my way home, an NFL scout texted me the next Carson Wentz or Mitch Trubisky might be pretty close to you. You need to go check him out. I was like, ‘Wait, who are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘The Nebraska kid. Everyone is raving about him.’ I said I would check him out and then he threw 7 interceptions in the next 2 games.
“It’s crazy because there was so much buzz about him and people were really excited, but he just dropped off so hard.”
While disappointing, Miller also said the traits Lee showed in the offseason are still there. He’s a good athlete with a strong arm, which is a big positive. However, because of his early performance, Miller is confident saying Lee should not declare for the NFL draft after the 2017 season.
Instead, there’s an opportunity for Lee to rebound and grow with players like wide receivers Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey. He also notes that there are currently no seniors starting on the offensive line — as David Knevel has been out with an injury — so that group will also benefit from more time with Lee.
“For him, having the offseason and summer to continue building a relationship with the receivers and getting comfortable in a system will be super important for him,” Lee said.
One exception to the rule for Lee? If coach Mike Riley and his staff were to be fired at the end of the season, Miller could understand the quarterback choosing to declare early. Even if his numbers and film aren’t that strong, it could spare him from having to learn a new system for one final year.
“If there is not going to be continuity in the coaching staff and he’s learning a new system again would be the only reason you may see a guy go ahead and declare, even though they may be a late-round pick,” Miller said. “They may choose to do that versus learning a new system and taking another year of getting beat up.”
Senior cornerback Chris Jones underwent a meniscus repair on his left knee in July that was supposed to sideline him for 4-6 months. A little over two months later, Jones saw the field for limited action against Wisconsin.
Against the Badgers, Jones recorded 2 tackles (1 solo). Considering how long he had been out, it was a big return for the senior. Plus, his 2016 statistics show how strong of a player he is. As a junior, he recorded 36 total tackles (33 solo) and 1 sack.
Seeing him return to the field so quickly, Miller sees it as a huge positive for NFL scouts looking at Jones.
“That’s huge,” Miller said. “I think at first you’re sort of surprised because I remember at first thinking he would be out six months, but he’s already back. I think without knowing the kid, you can start to make assumptions. He’s clearly a hard worker and he obviously loves the game if he’s trying to get back on the field instead of sitting out and declaring after the year.
“For a player to put himself in that position to get back so fast is really, really encouraging.”
As for what NFL scouts will be looking for, there are a few key factors. Is he going to be timid? Is the explosive speed there? For a cornerback, will he be able to make those change-direction moves? Those are the things Miller expects those evaluating him to look at now that he has returned.
When it comes to goals, Miller thinks Jones should be focused on getting invitations to the Senior Bowl and to the NFL Combine. Both would help extend his season, especially after it had been cut short.
“I still think for him because he is a senior that getting to the Senior Bowl and having one more week to show your skillset, I think that would be really big for him,” Miller said. “Even coming back now, he’ll only have a half-season of games to pull from and if the first couple of games are knocking the rust off, finding ways to stretch the season out where he can get more film will be big.”
Another player that has come on Miller’s radar is senior safety Joshua Kalu. While Miller sees him fitting more at a nickel cornerback position in the NFL, he’s also been impressed with what he’s seen from Kalu at the safety position too.
“He’s probably a late-round pick, which is the feedback I had gotten over the summer,” Miller said. “I do like [the safety] role for him because he is a really good athlete and he’s able to use his length a little bit better in that role. Not being asked to play in man-coverage all the time helps.”
Earlier this fall, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Kalu may be the “best safety in the country.” For Miller, he likes that the position change shows Kalu’s versatility, which could be a big selling point to an NFL team.
Miller would like to see Kalu turn his senior season into an East-West Shrine Game or Senior Bowl invite, so he can continue to show that versatility.
One final player on Miller’s Nebraska list is place kicker Drew Brown. On a list of about five senior kickers on Miller’s list that he’s watching and evaluating, Brown is currently the top-rated one.
Similar to any other player, Miller sees an all-star game invite as a big deal for Brown. He will have to show that he can do it all for an NFL team.
“The biggest things I see now are accuracy in that 30-35 yard field goal range,” Miller said. “I think the biggest question is whether or not he has the range to be a kickoff specialist, because you have to be able to do everything in the NFL. Does he have the leg to actually hit those? No one expects you to hit a 60-yarder all the time, but 50-yarders would be important for him.
“I just think being an accurate kicker, putting the ball in the end zone on kickoffs and having a high red zone percentage are big, and from my notes on him they look very good for him right now.”
Plus, Brown can lean on his older brother, Kris Brown, who had a successful NFL career. That’s something scouts will consider, as well.
“We talk about some guys that there best trait is that they were born for it,” Miller said. “Because Kris Brown played for so long, Drew has almost an extra coach. He’s probably been helping him most of his life figure out how to be a kicker at a high level and someone to help him deal with the mental part of kicking. Just having someone to bounce things off of and to be a mentor, I think that definitely helps.”