2024 NFL Draft: 5 polarizing prospects

2T2XDMH Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, right, scrambles against Michigan State defensive back Malik Spencer (43) during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

QB J.J. McCarthy, Michigan: Projection is often the biggest variable in the NFL draft, especially when there isn’t a preponderance of data. One thing is for certain — Thursday night won’t be the last that the masses will argue about J.J. McCarthy’s potential.

QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington: Penix’s potential presence in the first round, particularly in the top 15, could shake the foundations of the rest of the draft. It will be interesting to see how divided the opinions of Penix are within NFL front offices.

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Every year, there are a handful of prospects in the NFL draft who bring about a wide variety of opinions. Questions about size, ceilings and scheme fits are abundant this time of year, and there are certainly opinions flying around about a class loaded with electric talent.

We’ll take a look at several prospects who may start some draft-day arguments.

QB J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

Michigan’s national championship-winning quarterback has been the most talked about player of the 2024 draft season. His proponents point to his level-headed approach to winning as he racked up a 27-1 record during his time with the Wolverines. He seems to have the requisite arm strength and athleticism necessary to play the position. 

Those supporters could be right, evidenced by the fact that McCarthy finished 2023 with a 90.6 overall PFF grade that sandwiched him directly between Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. He also threw just four interceptions, three of them in one game, and owned a 90.9 PFF passing grade on third down, third-best in the nation. He consistently executed what was asked of him on a team that relied on its defense and running game more than an explosive passing attack.

That last point is almost certainly what draws the ire of his detractors. McCarthy wasn’t required to drop back with anywhere near the volume that his potential first-round peers were. He averaged less than 25 dropbacks per game this season and threw for 300 yards just once in 15 games. That game against Purdue in Week 10 provides a tangible cutoff for those on each side of the McCarthy argument.

J.J. McCarthy 2023 splits:
Metric First 9 games Last 6 games
Passing grade 91.2 67.5
Yards per attempt 10.4 6.7
Big time throws % 7.7% 3.0%
Turnover worthy play % 2.1% 4.1%
Completion % 75.7% 66.1%

McCarthy’s early season performance is comparable to the rest of the superstar quarterbacks in this draft class. His statistics down the stretch could have some labeling him a “game manager.” The likely prognostication is somewhere in between, but that is unlikely the opinion either side would be satisfied with.

Further complicating the debate is that McCarthy has such a small sample of work. McCarthy finished his college career with just 795 official dropbacks. Each of his potential first-round peers finished their career with well over 1,000, including Bo Nix with a staggering 2,129, nearly tripling McCarthy’s total.

Maybe the ambiguity created by such a small sample gives hope that McCarthy's best has yet to come. Projection is often the biggest variable in the NFL draft, especially when there isn’t a preponderance of data. One thing is for certain — Thursday night won’t be the last that the masses will argue about J.J. McCarthy’s potential.

QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington

Standing next to J.J. McCarthy in the avalanche of controversy is his national championship title game counterpart, Michael Penix Jr., who has several polarizing aspects of his resumé that draw attention to his strengths and weaknesses.

The surface-level debate for Penix is his physical ability. He has an absolute cannon for an arm, evidenced by his outstanding 94.3 PFF passing grade on 10-plus yards throws over the last two years. His pocket-passing style, though, seemed to display a lack of mobility, possibly caused by a litany of injuries he suffered while at Indiana.

That theory is upheld statistically with the fact that Penix ran for just 402 yards, excluding sacks, during his six-year college career. It seemed that his athleticism was either naturally middling or sapped by his extensive injury history. Just as the doubters were gaining ground in the argument, Penix shined at his pro day, running a 40-yard dash rumored to be in the 4.4-second range.

Despite that athleticism, Penix clearly prefers to be a pocket passer anyway. Over the past two seasons, Penix owns a 92.5 PFF passing grade when he is not moved off his spot, second-best in the nation behind Drake Maye. When he has been moved off his spot, his PFF passing grade drops to a startling 39.3.

Penix’s improvisation ability, or lack thereof, gives his detractors a key reason to believe he won’t be successful. However, Penix mentioned at the NFL combine that his processing is possibly his greatest weapon. He makes a valid point, with statistics that hold up compared to his contemporaries.

Passing grades past first read, excluding scramble drill (2022-2023):

Penix excelled when reading defenses beyond his first read from the pocket. He also leads the nation in big-time throws in those scenarios. Penix is certainly going to improvise less than the rest of the potential first-round picks, but he arguably is the best processor from the pocket as long as he has sufficient pass protection.

Penix’s potential presence in the first round, particularly in the top 15, could shake the foundations of the rest of the draft. It will be interesting to see how divided the opinions of Penix are within NFL front offices.

TE Brock Bowers, Georgia

Brock Bowers’ talent isn’t in question for anybody. He’s arguably the greatest tight end in college football history. He was the best offensive player on two national title-winning teams at Georgia and led all Power Five tight ends in receiving yards this season despite missing three games with an ankle injury.

The debate with Bowers is about whether or not selecting a tight end within the top 10 or 15 picks is worth it, even when it’s someone with elite talent. An examination of recent first-rounders shows how hard it can be to find elite production.

Career receiving grade, first-round TEs drafted since 2014 (with NFL rank*)

Kyle Pitts (2021) 82.4 (11th)
T.J. Hockenson (2019) 81.7 (13th)
O.J. Howard (2017) 75.0 (24th)
David Njoku (2017) 74.9 (26th)
Noah Fant (2019) 72.5 (35th)
Dalton Kincaid (2023) 70.5 (43rd)
Evan Engram (2017) 70.3 (44th)
Eric Ebron (2014) 68.1 (54th)
Hayden Hurst (2018) 66.3 (62nd)

*out of 119 tight ends with at least 100 targets since 2014

First-round tight ends have mostly produced in a decent, but not elite, manner over the past decade. Only one of the top ten tight ends in receiving grade since 2014 was selected in the first round. That player is Greg Olsen, who was drafted in 2007 and didn’t find that success until he went to his second team.

Again, the debate isn’t about Bowers’ talent or production. Since 2014, he leads all Power Five tight ends in receiving grade, receiving yards, touchdowns, yards after contact, explosive receptions, and missed tackles forced. On paper, there is nobody more worthy of a first-round selection than Bowers.

Given the risks involved, Bowers’ future production could be the ultimate litmus test for how NFL front offices handle the position in the future. It’s unlikely that another tight end with his resumé will arrive in the near future. If he does flop, it could significantly deflate the value of the tight end position in the draft for many years.

WR Keon Coleman, Florida State

Keon Coleman’s draft stock has oscillated more than any wide receiver on the board. He peaked at 16th on the midseason edition of the PFF big board before dropping to 55th right after the NFL combine, where he ran a mediocre 4.61-second 40-yard dash. After further analysis, he sits 41st on our board as a player likely to be selected in the second round.

Coleman’s highlights during his time at Michigan State and Florida State are dazzling. One-handed catches, contested catches, and long touchdowns are his forté. He even excelled as a punt returner, despite his 6-foot-4 frame, and finished 2023 with the third-most punt return yards in the nation and ranked seventh with a 90.2 punt return grade.

PFF’s Sam Monson profiled Coleman’s potential flaws earlier in the offseason. Coleman hasn’t produced quite like his peers in this draft class despite his acrobatic highlights. His reliance on winning contested battles as opposed to separating during his routes portrays a highly volatile play style.

Expanding on that lack of separation, during Coleman’s career, PFF has charted just 80 of his 184 college targets as open (43.5%). For comparison’s sake, Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze both sit at over 50%, and Ricky Pearsall, who could be drafted in the same range as Coleman, was charted as open on over 63% of his targets over the last three years.

Keon Coleman certainly has immense talent. He should be expected to produce in the NFL, but life in the league could be tough for Coleman if he doesn’t separate at a higher rate than he does currently.

DL Darius Robinson, Missouri

Missouri’s Darius Robinson was a key piece on an underrated defense who played well during his only college season on the edge. He also was a Senior Bowl standout who was at that time being discussed as a potential top-20 pick. He played primarily on the inside during his first four seasons. He produced all over the defensive line but seems to be fully in the “tweener” heading into the draft.

At 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, Robinson had a somewhat disappointing combine performance if we consider him a true edge player. He has terrific length and is incredibly strong, but lacks the premier explosiveness that generally comes with the NFL’s elite edge players.

His production, though, tells us that he may be capable of handling edge assignments at the professional level.

Grades by alignment since 2021

Alignment Overall Grade Pass Rush Grade Run Defense Grade
Between Tackles 75.0 74.5 78.0
Over Tackle 75.3 69.3 74.3
Outside Tackle 82.5 76.0 79.0

Robinson held up reasonably well anywhere he lined up facing mostly SEC offenses. He did not have a single game grade this season below 60 but also had just one game where his overall grade was at least 80.

This level of consistency will always be welcomed, but it does call into question whether or not Robinson can be a dominant force at the next level. Opinions of his talent are wide-ranging. He’s currently ranked 61st on PFF’s big board but is inside the top 30 on multiple others. He could be a first-round selection for a team that believes they can further develop him on the edge. An early selection, though, could be met with intense scrutiny.

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