Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dawgs' NFL Draft talent preview - one on hold, but ten with eyes on Sundays

Deandre Baker Was All Set for the NFL - Then This Happened
For Deandre Baker, it’s hard to forget: his University of Georgia team came within an inch of winning a national championship. In his head, he continues to recall how the game against Alabama came to an end. Georgia got behind the line to take down Alabama passer Tua Tagovailoa in overtime and take his team out of field goal range. Georgia believed that they were about to secure the University’s first national championship since 1980.

Then it happened. Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard TD bomb to DeVonta Smith to rewrite the Bulldogs’ story.

Baker could only watch as that play unfolded. That his team fell just one game shy of winning a championship was motivation enough to ignore the NFL draft and return to the program. Another factor in Baker’s decision was that he was watching ESPN on the very day of the deadline for players to make a decision on whether or not to declare. Then they replayed the TD. If there was any chance that Baker would change his mind, it had just been blown to smithereens.

In the lead up to the early entry deadline for the draft, Baker said that he had heard that he would be taken anywhere within rounds one to three. Both DC Mel Tucker and HC Kirby Smart had expressed their surprise in his decision to return to the Bulldogs.

Lockdown corner
Throughout last season, Baker, who recorded nine pass breakups and three interceptions, saw a limited number of balls thrown in his direction. Pro Football Focus revealed that the DB went 272 defensive snaps in a row without giving up a touchdown.

When Baker was given a national audience, he appeared to play some of his best football. While the Bulldogs were given a lesson in passing the football by Oklahoma in the first half of the Rose Bowl, he went on to make one of the game’s biggest plays.

On 3-and-12 in double overtime and making his way through traffic, Baker saw that Oklahoma was executing a misdirection play. He avoided any receiver looking to divert his angle and forced Marquise Brown out of bounds and shy of the first down.

This set up a Lorenzo Carter blocked field goal attempt, before a Sony Michel walk-off touchdown put them into the national championship.

In the title game, while Calvin Ridley scored a late TD, Baker held him to just 23 yards on 4 catches.
Baker first came to the fore as a sophomore. He started 2016 as a backup, with Juwuan Briscoe and Malkom Parrish on the outside. After week four’s 45-14 loss to Mississippi, however, Georgia decided to give Baker a chance to start.

It soon became clear that the move was a good one.

With safety Dominick Sanders, DB Aaron Davis, and CB Malkom Parrish all graduating, Baker is now the secondary’s only seasoned veteran.

Bulldogs could make draft history
This year’s draft, however, could prove to be a historic one for Georgia. Some 10 Bulldogs took part in the recent NFL combine. Should nine of those players be picked, it would be UGA’s largest-ever draft class.

The quality of Georgia’s class, however, isn’t just about depth. UGA can refer to a handful of their players as some of the best in the draft and could see up to three players taken in round one: a program record. Two UGA players have been selected in the first round of a draft seven times in the past.

In an NFL.com mock draft, Chad Reuter predicted that three Bulldogs would be selected in the first round: Roquan Smith to the San Diego Chargers (pick 23), Sony Michel to the Pittsburgh Steelers (pick 28) and Isaiah Wynn to the Jacksonville Jaguars (pick 29).

Reuter named six Bulldogs in total that he believes will be selected within the first four rounds of the draft. He predicts that RB Nick Chubb will be selected by the 49ers with the 59th pick, Lorenzo Carter by the Browns with the 84th pick, and Trenton Thompson picked up in the fourth round by the Chargers. If Reuter’s prediction comes true, the Bulldogs would only need to see three of its four players who were at the combine selected to set a single draft record.

According to many betting sites, how these draft departures will affect the 2018-19 Bulldogs remains to be seen. For a team that was three points away from a national championship, they are only fourth in the betting to win it, with Oddschecker listing bookies that place them at 10/1. On the one hand, Bulldogs fans may feel insulted but, on the other, they may be tempted to take advantage of the free bets available, with such favorable odds on offer. The champions, Alabama Crimson Tide, are favorites to retain their title at 11/4. The Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes are both favored above the Bulldogs, at 8/1 and 9/1, respectively.

Different paths
When it comes to two of these players (Smith and Thompson), their paths may have begun in similar fashion, but they’ve since taken very different routes along the way. Both were juniors last year and had one year remaining of eligibility when they make the decision to turn pro in January. Smith, however, is believed to have had a difficult time in making the decision, whereas Thompson supposedly had no doubts at all.

As each sit and wait, with the draft less than a month away, it’s Smith alone who seems to be destined for stardom in the NFL. It’s uncertain as to what will become of Thompson. He’s almost certain to be drafted, but it’s open to debate as to how long he will have to wait until his name is called.

The talk at Georgia’s Pro Day was that the best Thompson can hope for is the third or fourth round. Smith, however, looks likely to be a top-15 pick. He was told as much in December when he completed his underclassman evaluation application form. He claims his decision to enter the draft this year, however, was not the no-brainer that many assumed it to be. Smith, who led the entire SEC in both sacks and tackles for loss, said that he struggled in letting go of his Bulldogs family.

Sony Michel, Davin Bellamy, Nick Chubb, and Lorenzo Carter each returned for their senior seasons last year for largely the same reason. Not one of them, however, was given the same kind of high praise that went to Smith. Instead, they were given similar feedback to that of Thompson.
Such decisions are rarely based on contract potential and draft grades, however. There can be extenuating factors.

Tough time for once top prospect
The 6-foot-4 Thompson has suffered with injuries throughout his collegiate career. He underwent shoulder surgery last year, in addition to struggling with knee injuries. He also suffered a medical episode that led to him being hospitalized and forced to withdraw from school.

While it created health worries for Thompson, it also caused him further trouble, academically. It’s unclear as to whether he would have been eligible for another season, but most felt that it was the right time for him to make the leap to the NFL.

When Thompson arrived in Georgia from Westover High School, he was the top prospect in the country, according to 247Sports composite rankings.

At times, he lived up to his reputation, with 56 total stops in his sophomore year. Between recovering from shoulder surgery and suffering from a knee sprain, however, he saw fewer snaps in 2017. He missed a pair of games and finished with 38 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss.

Thompson seemed to struggle at Georgia’s recent Pro Day, appearing to be favoring his right leg during step-overs and timed runs. Smith’s workout was almost flawless, even though his status indicated that he wasn’t obligated to participate. Only time will tell how each of these players progress from here. For now, at least, it appears that their careers are destined to take very different paths.