The Washington Huskies are one of the best teams in the country. They shouldnât be considered a âsleeperâ or âunderappreciated.â They should be considered in the same breath as Louisville, Clemson, Michigan and, yes, Alabama.
While theyâre led by a Heisman candidate at quarterback, their depth of NFL talent proves they can hang with any team in the country on both sides of the ball.
Vanderbilt may not be having a great SEC season, but they do feature one of the countryâs best defensive players. Get to know their standout linebacker and why he may be a first-round pick come May. Plus, the top ten tight ends in the country and a star in Texas A&Mâs disappointing loss.
Washingtonâs NFL talent rivals Alabama
With a Texas A&M loss, Washington is a clear top four team in the country, something they should have been a week ago if not for the College Football Playoff committee’s baffling ranking of Texas A&M above them. Theyâve started to see more national attention, with sophomore quarterback Jake Browning earning more and more Heisman hype and the team now being discussed as a viable Alabama-killer.
But this team is more than just a Browning-led surprise. The Huskies are loaded with NFL talent. Thereâs a chance that, after Alabama and depending on who declares early, the Huskies could have the most draft picks in the 2017 NFL Draft.
On offense, junior receiver John Ross has quietly been in the top overall receiver discussion for the better part of the year among West Coast NFL scouts, and his 208-yard, three touchdown performance against California showcased that his elite deep speed and finishing ability is better than last yearâs first-rounder Will Fuller. Also, TE Darrell Daniels, who had a touchdown reception this past week, is a 6-3 tight end with verified 4.4 speed. In a loaded tight end class, he could have a Vernon Davis-like rise (though not into the top 10) during the draft process.
Defensively, though, Washington is loaded with players at each level that scouts are excited about, and they are led once again by a standout defensive back group. The same school that produced one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL, Marcus Peters, is likely to have three draft picks this year. Junior Sidney Jones is arguably the top cornerback in the class. He stays remarkably close throughout his pedal-and-turn-and-run, and finishing without the need to over-engage and threaten interference. He looks the part of a first-round pick despite being a strong cornerback class. Safety Budda Baker offers awesome range from his free safety spot, with plus speed and active feet to the perimeter. And senior Kevin King has 6-2 length, has value at both safety and all three cornerback slots, and has plus bend for a potential press cornerback.
The defensive front seven features linebacker Azeem Victor and defensive end Joe Mathis, but the most intriguing prospect NFL teams have rushed to learn more about is defensive tackle Vita Vea. The redshirt sophomore was repeatedly stifling against Cal in the run game, and at 6-4, 240 and with plus movement on the inside, he is a massive interior presence that may be the second coming of Haloti Ngata. If he declares, he could take advantage of a mediocre interior defensive line class and be one of three Washington first-rounders.
With Ross, Jones and potential defensive tackle Vita Vea in round one and as many as seven other draft picks, the Huskies are more than just a surprise in college football this year. Theyâre a legit national title contender. And they should compete with Alabama both in the College Football Playoff and in players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft come May.
Player Spotlight: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt has just one SEC win this year (against a struggling Georgia program), but their defense has kept them within seven points of South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and, this past week, Auburn. Former Stanford defensive coordinator and current Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason has finally gotten his defense turned around, and thatâs in large part due to defensive leader and junior linebacker Zach Cunningham.
Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt (Getty)
Cunningham offers an ideal body type for a linebacker, wide and thick in his upper half and with long arms to finish away from his frame. He meets and engages interior blockers without losing focus and finishes both inside while engaged and on the perimeter with great knee bend, something few linebackers can truly accomplish from a strong-side linebacker spot. His bouncy athleticism allows him to work upfield as a tackler and to the perimeter without losing balance, and he remains in ideal position to play powerfully as a tackler. Against Auburn, he continued to show he can meet and transition downfield as a tight end/running back coverage option, and his versatility is what makes him not only college successful, but NFL coveted.
Despite hailing from a middling SEC program, Cunningham has plenty of supporters from NFL teams. If and when he declares, Cunningham has a real chance to be the first linebacker drafted and potentially a first-round pick in May. If Cunningham can reach the top 32 picks by May, Derek Masonâs rebuild of the Vanderbilt program may be well on its way to getting the Commodores back to fringe top-25 discussion in the SEC, something not seen since the James Franklin era.
Top 10: Tight Ends for the 2017 NFL Draft
Last yearâs tight end class has already seen Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper emerge as focal points in their new offenses, and Tyler Higbee has flashed as a viable tight end/slot receiver option. Three quality tight ends from a draft class is strong, but the 2017 class has a chance to go six or seven deep with feature offensive weapons.
Jake Butt is a throwback Big Ten tight end, finishing as a blocker, working on underneath routes and finishing away from his frame. Heâs about as plug-and-play of a tight end prospect as weâve seen in some time. Bucky Hodges and Phazahn Odom are massive offensive weapons and both have shown more as a blocker this year than in years past. Odom hasnât produced as much as in years past, but has the athleticism NFL teams still covet. Finally, watch for Darrell Daniels of Washington rise in the draft process. At 6-3 and 235 pounds, heâs likely to run in the 4.4s.
Hereâs the full list, with approximate round grades as of now.
1. Jake Butt, Michigan â 1st-2nd Round
2. O.J. Howard, Alabama â 1st-2nd Round
3. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech â 1st-2nd Round
4. Darrell Daniels, Washington â 2nd-4th Round
5. Evan Engram, Ole Miss â 2nd-3rd Round
6. Jordan Leggett, Clemson â 3rd-4th Round
7. Phazahn Odom, Fordham â 3rd-5th Round
8. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas â 3rd-5th Round
9. Gerald Everett, South Alabama â 4th-6th Round
10. Josiah Price, Michigan State â 4th-6th Round
Something you missed it: Christian Kirk
Texas A&M was shockingly ranked fourth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, and not surprisingly lost against a mid-level SEC team in Mississippi State. Their defense allowed scores early and with Trevor Knightâs injury, the Texas A&M offense couldnât get things going until late in the game.
The Texas A&M offense hasnât been all that special this year, but receiver Christian Kirk (sophomore) has been a substantial bright spot on the roster.
The 5-11 receiver was getting separation consistently, and finished with more than 100 yards for just the second time this year. He also ran a kick back in explosive fashion along the sidelines. Kirkâs 250-plus total yards and two touchdowns werenât enough to keep Texas A&M in the top five.
Updated at 10:38 a.m. ET