HARRISONBURG — In most seasons, Earl Watford, according to ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., would project as a third-round pick. But this isn’t most seasons.
Kiper said an uncommonly strong class of offensive guards has bumped the James Madison Division I-AA All-American down to a fourth- or fifth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, which runs April 25-27 and will be broadcast on ESPN.
“In a normal year, he’d be one of the top five guards,” Kiper said on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “Now, he’s in the top 10. He probably projects right now, because of the strength at guard, as a maybe a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Normally, he’d be a third-round pick, but now I think, because of all the guards who are top quality, he goes fourth or fifth round.”
The conference call was crowded and didn’t allow for follow-up questions, but Kiper spent about a minute and 15 seconds talking about Watford, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound guard from Philadelphia. Kiper — who has previously referenced Watford as non-I-A player to watch — specifically liked Watford’s athleticism and versatility.
“I like him,” said Kiper, a now-iconic figure who has been dissecting draft classes for ESPN since the network began televising the event in 1984. “I actually wrote about Earl Watford during the year when I do that column on Sunday for ESPN.com. A nice football player. He’s 300 pounds, he can move, he can pull. He can fit a number of schemes. He’s not just locked into one. … I think he can fit anybody. He did a great job with lower-level competition.”
Watford — who could not be reached for comment Wednesday — is expected to be JMU’s first NFL draft pick since Arthur Moats and Scotty McGee were selected in 2010. Both went in the sixth round, Moats to the Buffalo Bills and McGee to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Last season, D.J. Bryant signed with the Houston Texans as free agent before ending up on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad. The Ravens won the Super Bowl.
After a strong showing at the NFL combine in February, Watford received a 68.1 rating out of 100 from NFL.com. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.06 seconds, completing 24 bench-press repetitions at 225 pounds and having a 30-inch vertical jump. He left the combine projected as fourth- to seventh-round pick, according to that site.
That’s not the only website that projects Watford as a mid-round pick.
ESPN.com gives Watford a player rating of 61 out of 100, projecting him as a “middle-round draft pick.” It’s an improvement from an initial rating of 33 in December, when ESPN ranked him the 14th-best guard and considered a borderline draft pick. Now, ESPN ranks Watford as the 10th-best guard in the draft and the 150th-best player overall. (The rankings are based on analysis from ESPN SCOUTS INC.)
Being in the ESPN’s 60-69 range means that a player “will give a solid effort week in and week out, but he is overmatched versus the better players in the nation,” according to the website. “His weaknesses will be exposed against top competition. He is usually a prospect that is missing something from his game. For example, he has the size and skills to be an outstanding prospect, but lacks the speed.”
In a general overview and on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the best), Watford got a 1 for durability and 2s for production, height/weight/speed and intangibles.
The scouting report said Watford was “on the lighter side” and had an “excellent blend of height and top-end speed.” The report also referenced his long arms (34 inches) and big hands (10 inches).
The top five guards, according to ESPN, are, in order, Alabama’s Chance Warmack, North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, Oregon’s Kyle Long, Kentucky’s Larry Warford and Kent State’s Brian Winters.
“When you really look at the guard position, there’s some real good ones this year,” Kiper said. “This is a strong year for guards.”
It is unclear what teams are interested in Watford, who received middling marks from ESPN when rated amongst fellow guards.
He received 3s for pass protection and run-blocking and a 4 for awareness. Questions about Watford had to do with his size and strength, an inconsistent first step (but good overall footwork) and his ability to pick up blocking assignments downfield. Another criticism is that he plays “too high,” which former JMU offensive line coach Chris Malone has said could be an issue.
In the final guard category — toughness — Watford got a 2, which was his best score in the guard-specific ratings.
ESPN said Watford’s effort was “above average” and “excellent at times” and that he plays with emotion. It also referenced his strong play against I-A West Virginia and a strong week of practice before the East-West Shrine game. Watford didn’t play in it because he got hurt during practice and chose not to risk his health.
Two other James Madison players are listed as prospects on ESPN, but have not elected to continue their careers. Tight end Brian Barlow is now an assistant coach at D-II Virginia State and safety Jakarie Jackson intends to go into law enforcement. Both had 30 ratings, making them borderline draft prospects but most likely post-draft free-agent signings.