INDIANAPOLIS — It seemed as if every time Noah Brown looked up, another former teammate’s name was scrolling across the fantasy ticker, an instant hit on the NFL dance charts. Ezekiel Elliott … Michael Thomas … Joey Bosa … Vonn Bell …
“I don’t think that’s something that just started this year,” the former Ohio State wide receiver said at the 2017 NFL Combine. “That played a role in me going to Ohio State in the first place, because they translated well to the NFL.
“Seeing that has definitely encouraged me, seeing that I was in the right program and getting taught by the best. And feeling like I’m fairly prepared and excited to play and continue to train.”
The Buckeyes’ draft class of 2016 was like a beautiful comet, the sort of collective rookie impact that might only come along once in a generation. Or three.
Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns last autumn in Dallas. Bosa racked up 10.5 sacks with the Chargers. Wideout Michael Thomas, a second-round pick, led the Saints with 92 catches and nine touchdown grabs. Cornerback Eli Apple worked his way into the Giants’ starting secondary and stabilized the boundary. Offensive tackle Taylor Decker and started 16 games with the Lions; Vonn Bell 13 at safety for the Saints; Adolphus Washington 11 at defensive tackle for the Bills; Darron Lee nine at outside linebacker for the Jets; and Braxton Miller six at wideout for the Texans.
NFL.com’s Gil Brandt named seven ex-Ohio State players to his 2016-17 All-Rookie team: Elliott, Bosa, Thomas, Decker, Lee, Apple, and Buccaneers defensive end Noah Spence, who’d finished his career at Eastern Kentucky after being ruled ineligible by the Big Ten in 2014.
All of which had one trickle-down effect immediately — as the Buckeyes of now started to weigh their respective draft stocks, they felt that if they could run with Zeke and Eli (and they had), then they could run with the rest of the big boys at the next level, too. But as the combine hits its apex Saturday and Sunday in downtown Indianapolis, two questions remain:
Do NFL front offices feel the same? Or was 2016 too fantastic a fluke to be repeated so soon?
“You know the kids, the ones that came out (early), maybe they were there and they saw those guys (perform),” offered Dan Shonka, a longtime NFL scout and general manager with Ourlads.com. “Their egos are, believe me, beyond reproach, you know? I mean, they’re all going to say they’re strong, they’re fast, they’re going to run the 4.5-something, that’s about right. They’ll measure at 5-11, they go, ‘I’m 6-1.’ They’re like that.
“But not necessarily — I don’t think they’re inflated. They’re all evaluated on their own talent. And I don’t think you get any bonus points because of all the guys that came out last year.”
That said, you might get a few more second looks. Pro-Football-Reference.com credited the 12 Ohio State draftees in the 2016 class with a cumulative Career Approximate Value (CarAV) of 60 points based solely on their respective rookie seasons. A player’s typical rookie campaign usually scores between 0 and 18 CarAV points, and Elliott accounted for 16 right out of the chute.
To put that tally in perspective, the 18 Buckeyes drafted from 2012-2015 have accumulated 137 AV points over the previous five seasons of their NFL careers — and after Year 1, the Class of 2016 is almost halfway there.
‘Just to be on the same team as them was pretty cool.’
— former Buckeyes center Pat Elflein
“Well, you come off on the heels of what happened last year — I never saw a class like that,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said earlier this winter when asked about the Buckeyes’ 2016 crop. “We can go back into history and find classes that were really, really, really spectacular. Not like this. Because you had the offensive star in Elliott and you have the defensive star in Bosa and then you have other guys that were doing a really good job as well.
“I mean, the list goes on and on and on from this program, as to what these guys were able to do as rookies and had the spectacular rookie (years) like they did.”
Kiper Jr. projected safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Marshon Lattimore as first-round picks; linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Gareon Conley and H-back Curtis Samuel as likely second-round picks; center Pat Elflein as a third-rounder; and Brown in the fourth-round-ish range.
“So to come off that (2016) and still have all these high picks this year,” Kiper Jr. continued, “is pretty amazing.”
What remains to be seen is how high. And how many. Just how much of that mojo from the Buckeyes’ rookie class of 2016 could trickle down this spring come draft weekend? When your name gets kicked around the War Room, how much will the class before yours actually help?
“The guy that probably affects this class the most is Eli Apple,” Pro Football Focus analyst Josh Liskiewitz said. “He’s a one-year starter at Ohio State … but he had all the athleticism and was really, really quite good for the Giants and helped turn this defense around.
“And then you’ve got two corners (coming out) this year. Conley’s got more experience. Teams are really starting to love Lattimore, but their expectation is just off the charts. Those guys could be huge beneficiaries of what Apple did and I wouldn’t be surprised if you get into a situation, and if you look on film, if it shows on combine (workouts) that Lattimore ends up being the first one of those (guys) taken.”
Draft classes are separate entities onto themselves, historically. But name brands matter.
“I think that team will go down as one of the most talented teams ever in college football so that’s definitely going to stand out,” Elflein noted. “But what also is going to stand out is how we faced adversity through the season and came back and beat two really good teams (handily) at the end of the season, so that’s going to stick out to me most. Then just all those great players that got drafted, they were great guys. Just to be on the same team as them was pretty cool.”
A pretty high bar, too. Will the 2017 class chase the comet’s tail or wind up circling a different orbit?
“There is a little bit of pressure,” Brown admitted. “But putting on the scarlet and grey is pressure. You’ve got to live up to that standard. And if you don’t live up to that standard, you weren’t successful. So I feel like there’s definitely a little bit of pressure. But I’m ready for it.”