As the 2019 NFL draft nears, ESPN.com over the next month is telling in-depth feature stories on several of the top prospects. Check back here throughout the month to read more.
The draft begins April 25 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN App. Coverage continues live from Nashville, Tennessee through April 27.
Khalen Saunders is ready to make a prediction.
It’s not about where he’ll be selected in next week’s NFL draft (ESPN’s Mel Kiper pegs the defensive tackle from Western Illinois as a second-round pick). It’s not about becoming the next Aaron Donald, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who has eased anxiety about drafting short linemen. Saunders’ prediction isn’t even about football. It’s about basketball.
“After a few years in the NFL, I’m getting in one of those [celebrity] all-star games,” he said, “and I guarantee you I will be the MVP.”
Saunders is sitting on a couch inside the townhome of his in-laws, about 30 miles west of Chicago. It’s a rare quiet afternoon for a man whose life has been in fifth gear since January, and who will pass another milestone when his name — pronounced “Colin,” as noted by his Twitter handle, @khalenNOTkaylen — is called at the draft.
As Saunders recounts the past three months — the backflip video that went viral after an Adam Schefter tweet; the Senior Bowl week that brought both personal joy (his daughter, Kambridge, was born on the first practice day) and professional headway; a validating performance at the NFL combine — as well as the past 22 years, he speaks with both pride and humility. The journey isn’t lost on someone who received no FBS scholarship offers and only one from an FCS team.
But there are moments when the swagger appears. Like when he’s reminded of his brilliance on the basketball courts of Western Illinois’ student rec center, where the legend of “Fat Kyrie” was born. Read the full story from Adam Rittenberg.
When Jonah Williams stepped onto the campus at the University of Alabama, it couldn’t have taken long to notice he was different. He was already a self-described “film junkie” upon arrival, not exactly the norm for a teenager whose counterparts were more likely binging on Fortnite than on football tape.
On a normal day in Tuscaloosa, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see Williams toting a notebook that included three points of focus for that day’s practice. It was part of his routine. He also created personalized spreadsheets that detailed each opponent’s pass-rush preferences. He then turned that data into spider charts to help decipher the information.
Williams viewed playing offensive tackle at Alabama as a “full-time job,” to the point that there was no telling where the unattainable search for perfection would lead.
“He’s a football addict,” former Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal, who is now the head coach at Oregon, has said. “I mean that in a good way.” Read the full story from Jordan Raanan.
Chase Winovich is rolling now. He already explained how as a kid he ate a live fish for $20 — he caught the smallest one, ate it, saw the blood and hated it. He has delved into what it’s like to share your vulnerabilities with the world as someone whose public profile is starting to grow exponentially.
He has admitted he’s learning how to deftly deal with the realities of fame — both positive and negative. And he knows it’s all about to change again this weekend, as he’s days away from being an NFL draft pick — possibly as high as the second round. He’ll become a professional athlete.
Much the way it did at Michigan, when he had his first touch of stardom, he knows things are going to change again. His process might be uniquely suited to handle it, though. It’s how Winovich’s brain works, how he processes the very existential questions life often presents. And yet, all of it — everything he’ll discuss over an hour-plus conversation — often leads back to one thing. One word.
He always asks it. Always wants to know. It’s how he learns, how he tries to figure out his way in the world. It’s why, he thinks, he might be different than most — something he’s very OK with. Read the full story from Michael Rothstein.
Quinnen Williams is having a blast. This time last year, he watched the NFL draft in his dorm room, dining on Domino’s pizza and wings. He had yet to make a single start for the Crimson Tide — had logged only 151 defensive snaps all season long, in fact. Now he’s here, days away from hearing his name called in Nashville, Tennessee — in all likelihood, among the first five players Roger Goodell invites to the stage. Perhaps among the first three.
Truly, since that Friday in January when he stood at a podium and announced that he’d be leaving Alabama after his breakout redshirt sophomore season — 18.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, one Outland Trophy and 623 defensive snaps — he’s had nothing but fun.
In the space of three months, he has enlisted Young Money to see to his branding and marketing. (“I signed with, like, basically Drake and Nicki Minaj. That’s crazy.”) He has wandered around the Cardinals’ locker room, eyeing Larry Fitzgerald’s locker. (“I was mind-blown.”) He’s visited cities he’d only ever seen on screen. (“You ever watch movies based in San Francisco? It’s amazing. It’s just like that.”) And he has moved to Los Angeles — the Calabasas area, more specifically — to train for the combine.
He did not, however, spot any Kardashians. “I lived in Thousand Oaks,” he says. “They live in, like, multi-Thousand Oaks.”
But Quinnen Williams is having more than just a moment. He’s arriving at the exact right time. Read the full story from Hallie Grossman.
The phone buzzes early on a Friday morning in early April. Nothing good comes from calls at the crack of dawn, and when Laura Lock answers, her son is hysterical on the other end.
“Mom!” he yells.
“Drew, what is it?” she responds.
“I missed my flight!”
Todd McShay is adamant Drew Lock will be a first-round pick, but recognizes the former Missouri QB had plenty of ups and downs in college.
In the nearly four years that Drew Lock was Missouri’s starting quarterback, he developed a well-earned reputation for having his act together. Never, not once in his life, had he missed a flight, an accomplishment he touted to friends and family while mocking those who had.
But now, it’s him. Lock is devastated and embarrassed and feeling super empathetic. Over the course of the morning, he croaks out one apology after another. It guts him that the staff at CAA will have to re-book a later flight for him; he calls once to make the request and then again a few hours later to ask for forgiveness. He agonizes over pushing back an interview scheduled for that day at his parents’ suburban Missouri home.
“Anything that would involve someone’s heart and how they feel,” Lock says later, “I’ll get pretty sensitive about that.” Read the full story from Kevin Seifert.
It’s anomalous that Ed Oliver is at the University of Houston at all. Three years ago, when he committed to play college football in his hometown, he famously became the first five-star recruit to choose a school outside the Power 5 conferences. This decision, the first of a few unconventional choices, was the result of another Ed — Ed Oliver Sr.
“Oh yeah, he wanted to go to LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame,” recalls Ed Sr. “But I said, ‘You ain’t gonna do that. You’re not gonna leave your brother.’ We fought about it.”
Ed Sr. and I meet in the living room of his sister’s bungalow in Marksville, Louisiana, some four hours east of Houston. He lives next door in a small house of his own, his personal share of a roughly 30-acre property. By Ed Sr.’s count, there are about 11 houses in all, belonging to various members of the extended family. Out back, there’s an abandoned old car, its surface oxidized to green, camouflage earth tones; a lurking cat Ed Sr. calls “Twin”; a copse beyond that is a large field of unruly grass. In the near distance, a cousin is tilling the ground for a small garden. And of course, there is the barn for the horses that are a well-documented part of Oliver’s air of peculiarity. The barn is a simple and rugged DIY structure that houses Sugar (“Your sweetness is my weakness,” says Ed Sr.), Caldonia, April and Coffee (“No cream, just sugar”), which is Oliver’s horse. Averse to conventions as he is, Oliver typically rides bareback. Read the full story from Dotun Akintoye.
Kyler Murray is many things other than short. He is wickedly fast, smart, strong and slightly mysterious. He throws the ball with both ease and a force that can be measured audibly. He possesses an undercover agent’s awareness of his immediate surroundings and a distant reserve that is easily — and inaccurately, according to those who know — taken for cold detachment.
Some of the stories seem to border on the apocryphal. He is so fast that his center at Oklahoma, Creed Humphrey, swears there were times he would block on a quarterback draw and “feel the wind coming off him when he’d go by.” At the risk of further hyperbole, Murray’s athletic ability might be generationally transcendent. By the end of April, he will be the only person ever drafted in the first round in both Major League Baseball (ninth, by Oakland, in 2018) and the NFL. The Athletics gave him a $4.7 million bonus and projected him to be their star center fielder of the future. They also gave him their blessing when he said he wanted to play one more year of football at Oklahoma, which he turned into 4,361 yards passing, 1,001 yards rushing and that Heisman. The Athletics’ generosity came with a cost; now he’s someone else’s quarterback of the future. (Unless, of course, they return with the offer of a major league contract that might be lucrative enough to change his mind one more time. Baker Mayfield got $32.7 million guaranteed as last year’s No. 1 pick — the A’s could double that if they choose.) Read the full story from Tim Keown in ESPN The Magazine.
Marquise Brown remembers the moment he realized he was faster than anyone else. He was only 6 years old, playing quarterback in pee wee football.
“My hands were kind of small, so I used to drop the snap,” he said. “But I would just pick it up and outrun everybody.”
Brown has been outrunning the opposition ever since.
Nicknamed “Hollywood” because of his Florida hometown of the same name and his propensity for dazzling downfield grabs, Brown might very well be the fastest player at any position in this year’s NFL draft. The Oklahoma All-American led college football with 11 catches of 40 yards or more last year and produced consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons starring as the go-to playmaker for Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, respectively, as they won consecutive Heisman Trophies.
That spectacular speed is the primary reason that Brown, even with a slight 5-foot-9, 166-pound frame, projects to be a mid-to-possibly-high first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
“His speed is good on any football field, in any league, anywhere,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. “It’s a game-changer and people recognize that.” Read the full story from Jake Trotter.
Nick Bosa, who happens to be built like a baby rhinoceros, is chasing me.
I’m moving as fast as my 41-year-old legs can churn through the uneven sand. We’re on a private beach in South Florida, and there is a prop football in my hands, a detail that seems irrelevant at the moment because there is a hint of malice in Bosa’s eyes. It’s like a predator about to run down its prey.
In theory, Bosa is chasing me as part of a photo shoot for this magazine. Prior to this, we’d been tossing a football back and forth for 10 minutes, my creaky-but-capable dad arm lofting passes in the direction of his giant frame. But then, to spice things up, the photographer wondered if we might turn up the intensity a bit: How about Bosa comes flying at me and I’ll try to evade him, like I’m a helpless Big Ten quarterback and he’s, well, himself?
With a mixture of apprehension and adrenaline I agree, and now the chase begins (although calling it a chase is, at best, generous).
For the most part, Bosa has the temperament of a tiki bar happy hour regular — mellow, bemused and carefree. But the look on his face has me wondering whether his football instincts are about to override reason. Read the full story from Kevin Van Valkenburg in ESPN The Magazine.
The Kentucky Wildcats‘ pro day is underway in Nutter Field House, where 15 NFL hopefuls are running, jumping and short-shuttling for an army of stopwatch-wielding men who look as if they jumped off the pages of “team store” catalogs. Every team is represented as they evaluate the draft-eligible players from Kentucky’s winningest team in 40 years (10-3 overall), but the best of those players is a spectator. He’s off to the side, mingling with onlookers, chatting with scouts and doing the dad thing.
On this day, linebacker Josh Allen‘s only physical activity is chasing around his 14-month-old son, Wesley, who has a deceptively quick first step. Papa Allen has decided not to perform with his teammates — he’s standing on his NFL scouting combine workout in Indianapolis — and there’s something wonderfully ironic about that.
For nearly eight years, Allen tried to get football people to recognize his potential. He was ignored by college coaches, overlooked by recruiting services and bullied by teammates early on in high school. Heck, he wasn’t even the best athlete in his own family. He was so far removed from the recruiting radar that it took a fortuitous series of events to land an 11th-hour scholarship to Kentucky, the only FBS school that showed serious interest. Now, with more than 50 NFL talent evaluators on his campus, Allen is in an enviable position:
He can afford to chill on pro day. Once an afterthought — only a two-star recruit in high school — Allen has made himself into a projected top-three pick in the draft. Read the full story from Rich Cimini.
Montez Sweat set a record at the NFL scouting combine for the fastest 40-yard dash by a defensive lineman: 4.41 seconds. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds. The scouting world took notice.
After a 12-sack season in 2018 in which he also had 14.5 tackles for loss, Sweat had already established himself as an edge defender prospect. But Sweat’s natural competitiveness pushed him to reach for more as he prepared for April’s NFL draft.
“I am not scared to compete,” Sweat said. “It’s in my nature since I grew up. If you beat me in a game, I always had to run it back. Any opportunity to go out there and compete, I am going to take it because I want to showcase my talent.” Read the full story from Turron Davenport.
Jerry Tillery blinked first.
While in Indianapolis last month for a job interview that is the most unique/intense/absurd/important in pro sports, Tillery met with several NFL teams. One asked Tillery, a defensive tackle from Notre Dame, to make 48 cents with six coins of different denominations. Another quizzed him on his typical dinner attire: shirt tucked in or untucked? (“Usually, I’m a tucker.”) He had casual, unscripted conversations with some teams, and dived deep into football techniques with others.
Then came the staring contest. Tillery can’t recall if his opponent was a coach or a scout, but the other guy won.
“I wear contacts,” he said, “so my eyes dry pretty quickly.”
There were some layups for Tillery at the NFL combine. One team asked him to name the capital of Australia and then followed up with: Who is Nelson Mandela? Tillery politely answered, although he easily could have countered by asking if they wanted the 60-second response or the 60-minute one.
“I studied institutionalized racism in South Africa, the main figure being Nelson Mandela,” Tillery said. “I probably told them more than they wanted to know.” Read the full story from Adam Rittenberg.
When Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson was a toddler, his pediatrician told his parents their son had the potential to grow to 6-foot-7.
Sue Jackson, who is 5-9, and Fluarry “Flo” Jackson, 6-1, laughed.
For a while, the Jacksons’ doubts seemed to be confirmed. Born Nov. 7, 1997, Tyree grew a step behind his peers and prayed to be taller so he could play in the NFL. That dream is close to being realized. Now 21 and 6-7, Jackson is ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s eighth-ranked quarterback prospect in advance of the draft, set for April 25-27 in Nashville, Tennessee.
With one year of college eligibility remaining, Jackson bet on himself by declaring for the draft. The NFL’s college advisory committee did not grade him as a first- or second-round pick after the 2018 season, implying he should stay in school.
However, intrigue about where he will be selected was heightened after he was named South MVP of the Senior Bowl in January and ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at February’s NFL combine.
“He’s got some unbelievably unique traits,” said former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer, who has been preparing Jackson for the draft. “I have no idea what round he’s gonna go.” Read the full story from Mike Rodak.
By the time the 2018 college football season began, Dwayne Haskins was more than prepared to be the man. The Ohio State quarterback might have been a first-time starter, but he had spent the previous decade building to this moment. A year ago at this time, Haskins was working to beat out Joe Burrow for the starting job. He did. Then he flourished, throwing 50 touchdown passes and becoming a top-10 prospect for the NFL draft.
“I knew before the season I had the talent to play in the NFL,” Haskins said at the scouting combine. “I know I’m a franchise quarterback.”
Haskins later admitted he knew he would head to the NFL after three years of college. His first two seasons were spent behind J.T. Barrett, learning how to be a leader.
“He came a long way,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, “in a short period of time.” Read the full story from John Keim.
“We had a guy walk in our room last night, a receiver out of Ole Miss. His name is Metcalf, and he looked like Jim Brown,” Gruden said. “I mean, he’s the biggest wideout I’ve ever seen, and you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Who’s tackling this guy?'”
People couldn’t help but react. Coaches. Scouts. Players. Fans. Just about anyone with a Twitter account and an interest in football, or the potential of the human body.
When Metcalf finished his 4.33 40-yard dash, he grabbed his smartphone, took a seat on a bench and placed a FaceTime call. Cameras were rolling as he broke down and wept while looking at the faces on his phone.
“We did it,” he told them. Read the full story from Tim McManus.
It would be so much more fitting if Greedy Williams had earned his nickname on the football field.
That’s where he gobbled up eight interceptions in two seasons to position himself as the latest first-round NFL draft talent to be churned out of LSU’s cornerback factory.
That’s also where he has an insatiable desire to be considered the best. When asked at the Tigers’ pro day if he believes he is the top cornerback in this year’s draft, Greedy replied with a big smile and an incredulous, “What?! What?!” before going into a speech about how the “stats don’t lie.”
And the football field is where Greedy has gone to work, hoping to use his talent to create a better life for his family — including his 2-year-old daughter, Khloe, and his mother, Lakesha Williams, a single parent who raised four kids in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Shreveport, Louisiana, before she wound up marrying Greedy’s youth football coach.
“Football changed my family’s life,” Greedy said. Read the full story from Mike Triplett.
Their bond began with a break-in.
With playbooks in hand, they began running drills. There were a few hoots and hollers as well, reverberating off the empty stands inside the stadium also known as Death Valley.
“That’s when I kind of knew we’ve really got a chance to be special,” Bryant said. Read the full story from David Newton.
N’Keal Harry, a wide receiver prospect out of Arizona State, is expected to be picked in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL draft. To help his draft stock, Harry needed a strong performance at the combine, specifically in the 40-yard dash. Harry, as told to ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss, describes his combine experience.
I took everything day by day.
Thursday night [at the combine], I was just thinking about the [bench press] over and over in my head, and after the bench was over, that’s when I started thinking about the 40 and the position drills and everything, just constantly and constantly going through them in my head.
I knew that’s what people were looking for, but I wasn’t thinking too much of the 40. It wasn’t in my head that the 40 is, like, everything. I was still focused on the position work, the vertical, the broad jump. I wasn’t just completely focused on the 40.
I just tried to keep everything the same.
I was just envisioning me doing what I do. Going down the gantlet. Getting in my stance in the 40. Just going over my technique in my head. In my head, I just envisioned me doing everything extremely smooth and trying to get a feel for it, trying to get a mindset for it. That’s the mindset I wanted to go into the day with. I do that a lot of the time at night before games. I envision myself making big plays, just things like that. I just go over it in my head a lot. Read the full story from Josh Weinfuss.