COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the NFL draft, it’s all about fit, as seven drafted Ohio State players are about to discover.
Some of the former Buckeyes selected in the three-day draft appear ready to start right away, while others will have to fight to carve out roles. Unlike undrafted free agents, who to a degree can control where they end up, drafted players are at the mercy of the teams that picked them.
So which Ohio State products landed in the best spots? Here’s a breakdown of each Ohio State player and his new team, including a grade of 0-to-5 stars on the fit.
Marshon Lattimore (Saints)
Lattimore waited a little longer than many expected, going No. 11 overall despite being viewed as the best cornerback in the draft. But he found the perfect home. The Saints desperately need help on defense, with the pass rush and in the secondary. By taking Lattimore, they filled a huge need at cornerback and did so with a prospect few thought they’d have a chance to land.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 28, 2017
New Orleans has been trying to trade for Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. That never came to fruition, but they’ll settle for the top cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft falling into their lap.
Lattimore should get a chance to produce right away. The Saints struggled with health at cornerback last season. Delvin Breaux broke his fibula, came back, then injured his shoulder. P.J. Williams was only recently cleared to return from a concussion that knocked him unconscious two weeks into the 2016 season. Obviously, Lattimore is a risk in his own right because of hamstring injuries, but he’ll compete for a starting job as a rookie. What more could you want?
Malik Hooker (Colts)
Stop me if this sounds familiar. An Ohio State defensive back regarded as one of the best at his position fell further than expected in the first round only to land at an ideal fit. Four picks after Lattimore went to New Orleans, Indianapolis scooped up Hooker.
New Colts general manager Chris Ballard had to be thrilled, especially since most mock drafts had Hooker going No. 7 overall to the Los Angeles Chargers. Ballard is charged with rebuilding a pathetic Colts defense, and he found a perfect piece in Hooker. The Ohio State defensive back had one fewer interception (7) than the entire Colts team last season. As an added bonus, he returned three for touchdowns.
The big knock on Hooker is that he needs to be more physical, but the Colts need a playmaker more than they need a bruiser. Assuming that all goes as planned, he’ll go from debuting as a starter at Ohio State in 2016 to starting in the NFL one year later.
Gareon Conley (Raiders)
Conley made it three defensive backs chosen from Ohio State in the first round, but his situation is different. It became public two days before the draft that he’d been accused of rape, and that case has yet to reach a public resolution. Conley has not been arrested or charged and vehemently denied the accusation. Oakland deemed him worthy of risking a first-round pick, which should tell you how highly he’s regarded.
The good news for Conley is that he was picked by a team that sorely needs the help. Almost no team gave up more big plays in 2016 than the Raiders. Oakland ranked 30th of 32 teams in giving up an average of 7.9 yards per passing attempt. The Raiders need a shutdown cornerback, and Conley could prove to be a great value pickup.
Curtis Samuel (Panthers)
Samuel represents the good and the bad that can occur, sometimes simultaneously, in the NFL draft. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was taken early in the second round, 40th overall. That was on the high side of projections for him, which ranged from the second to third rounds.
The bad news, of course, is that the Panthers were the team that chose him. One round earlier, they selected Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, another versatile playmaker who will require touches (especially given the team’s investment in him). And, of course, the team is quarterbacked by Cam Newton, a prodigious talent who carries a big workload.
Samuel would have been a tremendous fit in a lot of places. Count me as a believer in his NFL potential. But it’s a shame he went to a team where he’s more likely to be marginalized. Samuel works best when he’s getting a lot of touches and it’s hard to see that happening in Carolina.
Raekwon McMillan (Dolphins)
I’m honestly amazed McMillan didn’t end up in Pittsburgh or New England. He’s a solid player who probably went a touch overlooked relative to how productive he was in college, and those organizations tend to load up on such players. At any rate, the Dolphins got themselves a value pick at No. 54 overall.
Analysts seemed uncertain whether a team would view McMillan as a three-down linebacker. However, the Dolphins seem to believe he can do that and start right away. He looks poised to start alongside Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons. According to Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post, Miami general manager Chris Grier believes Alonso and McMillan are capable of playing inside or outside. As such, it’s not certain where McMillan will line up.
“This is an alpha guy, a two-time captain, a guy who makes all the calls,” Grier told reporters. “He is a tackling machine. He is a big body in the middle. The guy can run. This is a guy we feel really strongly about.”
Pat Elflein (Vikings)
The NFC North has become the home of The Slobs. Former Ohio State offensive linemen Corey Linsley in Green Bay and Taylor Decker in Detroit will be joined by Elflein in Minnesota. Although he was the sixth of seven Ohio State players drafted, Elflein might be the “safest” pick of the bunch. Everything about him, from his versatility to his toughness to his consistency, points to a guy who will be in the league for a long time.
I'd take Pat Elflein in second round and have a very nice player for 10 years.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 3, 2017
Minnesota is an interesting spot, because it’s not certain how the line will shake out with Elflein added to the mix. Elflein played guard for the first three years of his college career before switching to center, where he became an All-American and won the Rimington Trophy. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman will leave it up to head coach Mike Zimmer to choose a spot for Elflein.
“We’ll probably start him at center,’’ Zimmer said. “He played guard the year before, but he’s a very, very good center.’’
The Vikings return starting center Joe Berger, but they could move him to right guard. Or they could move Elflein to guard. Either way, there’s a vacancy on the line and all signs point to Elflein being given a shot to start. If he does, don’t expect him to relinquish the position anytime soon.
Noah Brown (Cowboys)
Mock drafts had Brown coming off the board anywhere from the fourth to the seventh round. Nobody knew what to make of him after he made a surprising choice to jump to the NFL. Unfortunately for Brown, he was taken midway through the seventh round.
In cases like that, it’s often better to not be taken at all. In 2014, Ohio State safety Christian Bryant was selected by the Rams in the seventh round. St. Louis had 11 picks that year, and four were used on defensive backs. Bryant spent a year and a half on the practice squad before finally making the active roster.
That same year Andrew Norwell and Philly Brown went undrafted. Both signed with Carolina and not only made the team but started in 2014. Two years later, Jalin Marshall made the Jets and Tyvis Powell made the Seahawks as undrafted free agents. Sometimes, it’s all about fit.
It’ll be a battle for Brown to make the team in Dallas, and it’s worth noting the Cowboys also drafted wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Still, the talent at receiver on that roster behind the top guys isn’t daunting. If he performs in camp, he’ll have a job.