NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The situation facing the USC Trojans in Monday’s Sun Bowl isn’t what they had planned for this year’s college football season. Instead of playing in the BCS National Championship Game as many had predicted they would, the 7-5 Trojans will be playing one week earlier on New Year’s Eve, and it will be without senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who will miss out on playing in his final collegiate game due to a shoulder injury.
For draftniks, not being able to watch Barkley is a disappointment, as he is in the mix to be one of the top quarterbacks drafted in a wide-open 2013 NFL draft class that lacks an elite quarterback prospect. Even without Barkley, however, this game has some draft prospects well worth watching, including some at positions the New England Patriots will likely be targeting this April.
Robert Woods, WR, USC (Jr.) (#2 in our WR Rankings)
If USC wide receiver Robert Woods declares for the draft, he should be near the top of the Patriots’ draft board. With Wes Welker potentially leaving as an unrestricted free agent, and the Patriots already lacking depth at wide receiver, they could look to draft a receiver as early as the first round, and Woods is the best all-around receiver in the draft class.
Woods is an exceptional route-runner, has terrific hands and is a dynamic playmaker in the open field with very good quickness. He doesn’t have prototypical size or speed for a first-round wide receiver, but that is becoming increasingly less important in modern-day NFL offenses, especially in an offense like the Patriots.
Woods has the physicality, strength and vertical ability to play on the outside, but has the quickness and route-running skill to play in the slot. This makes him a great fit for any offense, with his ability to line up anywhere on the line, but especially for the Patriots.
While Woods may not be much of a deep threat, the Patriots’ offense is predicated around the intermediate passing game, and the receivers who have the most success in the offense are those who can run crisp routes and aren’t afraid to be physical with opposing defensive backs. Woods fits those criteria well, and would be a great pick if the Patriots could get him late in the first round.
Nickell Robey, CB, USC (Jr.) (#9 in our CB Rankings)
Junior cornerback Nickell Robey is less likely to declare for the 2013 draft than Woods, but if he does, he is a likely Day 2 draft pick who could be on the Patriots’ radar.
Robey is a very consistent cover corner with good athleticism and fluid hips, and he consistently limits the opposing team’s best receiver. His biggest deficiency is his size at only 5’8” and 165 pounds. He plays much bigger than his stature, however, by getting physical with opposing receivers and tackling well.
Robey’s lack of size will keep him from being a No. 1 cornerback at the next level, but he has the coverage skills to hold his own in an NFL secondary. For the Patriots, he could provide much-needed depth and potentially take over as their slot cornerback next season.
T.J. McDonald, S, USC (#6 in our SAF Rankings)
Throughout his career at USC, senior safety T.J. McDonald has been a playmaker all over the field. He has terrific measurables for a safety at 6’3”, 205 pounds and very good athleticism, and he is a very good tackler who has lined up everywhere from deep coverage safety to defensive end for the Trojans.
McDonald is a very good in-the-box safety who is a sound and hard-hitting tackler, is disciplined against the run and is effective at breaking up short passing routes. The weakness of McDonald’s game is in deep pass coverage, where his size and speed suit him well but he may not have the hips to cover NFL wide receivers over the middle downfield.
In the NFL, McDonald projects as a player best suited to play in nickel/dime packages at the “star” position, where he can line up as a safety/linebacker hybrid. If the Patriots are to bring in a safety early in the 2013 NFL draft, they will likely be looking for a better cover safety than McDonald, but he has big upside and could be looked at potential safety depth and a player who can improve both their run and pass defenses in a situational role.
McDonald is a likely second- or third-round draft pick.
Rod Sweeting, CB, Georgia Tech (#30 in our CB Rankings)
Georgia Tech doesn’t have nearly the NFL talent on either side of the ball that USC does, but they also have one defensive back who will likely be drafted in senior cornerback Rod Sweeting. If the Patriots are looking for secondary depth late in Day 3, Sweeting is a potential option.
Sweeting is a skilled cover corner with very good speed and solid ball skills, but he is unlikely to be selected earlier than the sixth round due to inconsistent play, missed tackles and a lack of physicality. Given his athleticism, he has potential as a fourth or fifth NFL cornerback and special teams player at the next level, but there is nothing special about his game.
Other Prospects to Watch:
Khaled Holmes, C, USC – Grade: 2nd-3rd Round
Morgan Breslin, DE, USC (Jr.) – Grade: 4th Round
Silas Redd, RB, USC (Jr.) – Grade: 5th Round
Wes Horton, DE, USC – Grade: 5th Round
Omeregie Uzzi, G, Georgia Tech – Grade: 6th-7th Round