A year ago, WSU defensive lineman Xavier Cooper was nowhere to be found on anyone's NFL Draft radar. And yet, last Sunday, Cooper finished up his rookie minicamp with the Cleveland Browns after being selected in the third round.
I'm reminded of this as I look over Jon Wilner's list of top 2016 NFL Draft prospects in the Pac-12, in which there is nary a Cougar to be found. Not in his top 15, and not even in his 11 "also considered" names. Now, I'm not here to quibble with Wilner's list; goodness knows, he watches a lot more Pac-12 football than I do as part of his job, while I tote kids from practices to games to swim lessons to piano lessons all while trying to keep them from injuring their poor mother.
What I will do, though, is speculate as to which draft eligible players on the roster are most likely to get the attention of scouts either through a huge season (a la Vince Mayle) or by wowing people with their athleticism, as Cooper did.
Photo: James Snook - USA TODAY Sports
Williams will assume the role of Vince Mayle in the Air Raid offense, and he's aiming to put up the same kind of eye-popping production as his predecessor. At 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds, Williams isn't quite the physical monster Mayle is; that said, Williams has bulked up quite a bit in the last two years -- his most recent weight gain was noticeable at the spring game -- and is no longer a slouch in the strength department.
I think Williams is faster than Mayle, and he's certainly more polished as a receiver. He's proven to be explosive on screens ...
... and adept at getting behind defensive backs - sorry not sorry for lowering your draft stock, Ifo:
Of course, he's also good for dropping easy passes he should catch, and he has yet to show he can regularly be effective in the types of intermediate routes that made Mayle such a workhorse for the Cougars last season. If he can shore up his hands and become a more well-rounded receiver, he'll no doubt catch the eye of NFL scouts.
Photo: Casey Sapio - USA TODAY Sports
WSU's coaches have been in love with Vaeao's athleticism for years; former defensive coordinator Mike Breske even played him at Buck linebacker when he was 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds against certain run-oriented opponents. But the production has been fairly sparse -- just seven tackles for loss over the past two years. Vaeao is now up over 300 pounds, and if he can retain his athleticism at that size, he could break out in a big way.
Photo: James Snook - USA TODAY Sports
This would seem to be a bit of a longshot, as Cracraft doesn't fit into the general mold of an early entrant to the NFL Draft -- he doesn't possess the prototypical size (6-foot, 198 pounds) or speed that gets the attention of scouts -- but he is, quite simply, an incredible wide receiver who produces. He's far more athletic than most people give him credit for, he's got amazing hands, and his route-running is second to none.
Go ahead, try and convince me he's not fast enough:
Remember how he basically was uncoverable for conversion after conversion against Utah? He didn't catch a touchdown in that game, but the Cougs don't come back for that win without him. On the season, exactly one third of Cracraft's 66 receptions came on 3rd down, 16 of which went for first downs, including 13 conversions on 16 receptions of 3rd and 9 or less. For comparison, 15 of Mayle's 104 receptions came on third down. Connor Halliday knew where to go with the ball when a play simply had to be made:
Mike Leach called Cracraft -- not Mayle -- his best receiver. I don't know how well it will translate to the NFL, but if you can get open, you can get open. Besides, if Nelson Spruce can make Wilner's top 15, surely there's a case to be made for a guy who's as good as Spruce, right?
Durability has proven to be a concern for Cracraft, but if he can stay healthy for 12 games, he's going to catch somewhere around 100 balls for somewhere around 1,000 yards. That might be enough to intrigue the league.
Other guys I thought about including were Gabe Marks and Joe Dahl. Jacob Thorpe made a curious comment about Marks during the spring that essentially hinted the redshirt junior might not be around past this year. I'm not sure if I buy that just yet from a guy who lacks prototypical size and doesn't have blazing speed and who just spent a year redshirting. And as for Dahl, I actually am high on him figuring out a way to carve out an NFL career -- he reminds of a guy like Corey Withrow from the 1997 team who just is sneaky, steady good. That probably won't be enough to see him shoot up draft boards, though, which is what this exercise was all about.
That's what I've got. Who do you like as a guy on this roster who could surprise non-WSU fans by forcing their way onto draft boards in 2016?