Draft Class Heroes: Tennessee's Lone Shining Star

Photo: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

You know the drill. Tuesday morning means one thing, and one thing only...it's time for the ninth edition of Draft Class Heroes!

This week we focus on the one bright spot at Tennessee, three NFL rookies that are quietly excelling and a host of NFL teams that can start looking ahead to the NFL Draft after Week 4.

Draft Class Superhero of the Week: Darrell Taylor, EDGE, Tennessee

Not much is going the Vols' way these days, although you have to appreciate their effort against Georgia. The player doing the most to keep them in the game was redshirt junior edge rusher Darrell Taylor, who tore up the Georgia offensive line for three sacks on Saturday.

These weren't gift sacks either, as Taylor showed legitimate skill to win 1v1 and get home off the edge. His consistency was an issue in 2017, but it really looked like he's found some go-to moves this year, featuring a chop-rip and enough bend to win the edge.

I'll be very curious to see what Taylor tests like at the Combine if he does declare, as I don't think he's ultra flexible, but certainly has enough fluidity in his hips to corner if his hands keep improving. In what is quickly becoming a potentially loaded edge class, Taylor could be a lock top 100 pick if he continues to play he has the past two weeks. He was my big sleeper coming into the year, so I'm happy to see him playing well so far.


Let's talk about three NFL rookies that have been quietly excellent despite generating very little buzz in the national media.

1. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos

There have been whispers that Chubb is off to a slow start in the NFL, but I just don't think that is true at all. People made a big deal about Kolton Miller locking him up in Week 3, but Miller had consistent help in pass protection throughout the game, and Chubb played on both sides of the line and in a heavy rotation.

While Chubb may not be as explosive as Harold Landry, he's been able to show a versatile rush arsenal, capable of getting back inside opposing tackles as well as winning the edge. Oh yeah, and he'll also go right through you if he wants to.

Chubb's numbers aren't eye-popping, but very few rookie edge defenders come out of the gate posting massive sack numbers. The reality is that he has been very good, consistently creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks and challenging offensive tackles in a variety of ways. He's going to be a stud in Denver.

2. Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals

What a monster Jessie Bates has been to begin his NFL career, showcasing all the traits that made him one of the best true free safety prospects in last year's class. His range, ball skills and instincts have been on full display this season, providing the Bengals with a playmaker they sorely lacked last season.

Not a lot of safeties can essentially defend two routes with their positioning and still arrive at the catch point in time to make a play on the ball. Bates is also much-improved as a tackler, getting runners on the ground with greater consistency than he did in college. Considering that was easily his biggest weakness, if Bates can continue to be reliable in that fashion, the Bengals will have landed one of the steals of the draft.

3. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

It's early into Vander Esch's career obviously, but given how raw he was coming out, his development to this point is encouraging. He is going to be more of a splash play guy than a snap-to-snap force, but LVE's range, athleticism and tackle radius are just rare for the position.

He was terrific against Detroit, and could be tough to keep out of the starting lineup when Sean Lee returns from injury. For a Cowboys team that desperately needs a multitude of young draft picks to pan out on the defensive side of the ball, LVE's emergence could be huge.

Villains of the Week: Teams That Are Cooked

It seems harsh to call the NFL teams that are unofficially eliminated from the playoffs by Week 4 "villains", but the world is a harsh place, so we'll just have to get over it.

The Arizona Cardinals top the list, largely due to back-to-back horrendous game management decisions by head coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. As bad as they are, the team could easily be 2-2 heading into a Week 5 showdown with the very beatable 49ers, but 0-4 essentially ends their season. Never great to be the last winless team in the NFL.

Believe it or not, there was some buzz around the New York Giants before the 2018 season, but at 1-3 heading into a four game slate of Carolina-Philadelphia-Atlanta-Washington, I'm considering the Giants cooked. I don't think either side of the ball has been good enough, but it might be more important for the Giants to lose a lot this season than any other NFL team. If they can fall far enough to draft Justin Herbert as their quarterback of the future, their drafting gaffes from a year ago might be forgiven more easily.

I give the San Francisco 49ers a ton of credit; they've been competitive despite a ton of injuries/suspensions to many of their top players. That's a credit to Kyle Shanahan, but even healthy, I believe this team was at least a year away. A ton of their young players look terrific this season, and drafting high could be the best thing for San Francisco anyway, allowing them to nab a top-tier edge rusher in the draft.

The Buffalo Bills are a franchise in complete limbo right now, which is a weird spot to be in after breaking the longest playoff drought in any of the four major sports last season. The Bills fortuitous victory against the Vikings aside, this looks like a team destined for 3-4 wins at best. Josh Allen has been bad, but he'll be the least of their concerns next offseason, when the team should work diligently to get an entire new starting offense around him.

The New York Jets offense is totally inept, largely due to offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates' conservative approach, but also because Sam Darnold and the offensive line have struggled. The future is bright for New York as their young defense evolves, but a change at head coach is probably necessary if they are to take the next step.

On Thursday night the Indianapolis Colts take on the New England Patriots in Foxborough, which I believe will result in a 1-4 record for the visiting team. The good news is that Andrew Luck is returning to form and the coaching staff appears to be the desirable group to have in place for a rebuild. The Colts are headed in the right direction, but they aren't ready to compete for a playoff spot this season.

I'm tempted to put Oakland and Detroit on this list as well, but I think both have played well enough recently to leave the window cracked for them to play their way into contention. I doubt either make a playoff push, but we'll give them another week to bury themselves or live on. The Texans have a winnable slate coming up and the AFC is bad, but I'm not sure there is a high ceiling with that offensive line. Dallas could finish them off on Sunday night.

In the lair this week...

  • I'll be dropping my updated Top 50 Big Board this Thursday, so the rest of today/all day Wednesday will be dedicated to film study. Guys I'm hoping to get an in-depth look at (and hopefully post some clips on Twitter) include Notre Dame offensive lineman Alex Bars, Boston College edge Zach Allen, Florida edge Jachai Polite, Ole Miss offensive tackle Greg Little, Washington cornerback Byron Murphy and Kentucky edge Josh Allen.
  • Hoping to get eyes on Sam Darnold's tape from this past Sunday, as I haven't studied as much of him as I'd like this season. Also want to take an in-depth look at Harold Landry and Kemoko Turay, who leads all rookie edge defenders in sacks.