Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr.: Eli Apple's NFL Stock Rising, Cardale Jones Most Intriguing Prospect, Other Ohio State Talk

By Eric Seger on February 22, 2016 at 2:00 pm
Mel Kiper Jr. talks Ohio State's draft eligible players.

Like him or loathe him, people pay attention to what Mel Kiper Jr. says when it comes to the NFL Draft.

Kiper is one of the first full-time draft-only analysts in sports media, joining ESPN as its head NFL Draft guru in 1984.

That means Kiper is preparing to analyze his 33rd NFL Draft in April. In his latest mock draft, Kiper has four Buckeyes being taken off the board in the first round: Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Taylor Decker and Ezekiel Elliott.

Other draft analysts see more than four Ohio State players going among the first 31 picks, but Monday Kiper fielded questions from media members via a conference call on a number of players and franchises for roughly 90 minutes.

As is typically the case with the Draft, quarterbacks drove the conversation. Kiper, however, spoke highly of cornerback Apple, called Cardale Jones one of the more interesting prospects in their year's draft pool plus other Ohio State-centric topics. It's hard to avoid the Scarlet and Gray this year; 14 Buckeyes are invited to the NFL Combine, which starts this week in Indianapolis.

Eli Apple — Cornerback

Kiper has Apple going 14th overall to the Oakland Raiders, a team he identified to need not only defensive back help but have holes on its offensive line. He slotted Apple to the Raiders because he thinks Michigan State's Jack Conklin will come off the board one pick earlier to Philadelphia.

"The more I thought about Philadelphia one pick ahead, could they pass Conklin up? I didn't think they could," Kiper said. "So once I gave Conklin to Philly, I tried to find a corner that was viable. By viable, I mean it didn't necessarily looks like he was going to be a guaranteed mid-1, a lot of people may not have him there. It may raise a few eyebrows now, but come late April it won't. It's a real possibility. Apple is a big corner, he's a great athlete. He did real well against some top receivers. He's only a third-year sophomore. I think that's the kind of pick Oakland has traditionally made over the years."

Kiper said Apple and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander are two of the best prospects this year at corner. He holds Apple in a higher regard, however.

"It got down really to Apple, Mackensie Alexander, but his lack of height and not even intercepting a pass in two years, I pushed him down a bit," Kiper said. "So I don't think Apple would be an out of the question pick because after it's all said and done, we get to late April, he's going to be way up there on a lot of boards."

Kiper believes the Raiders are set with Latavius Murray at running back, so Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott wouldn't be in their plans. If Apple isn't there, however, another third-year defensive back from Ohio State could eventually don the black and silver.

Vonn Bell — Safety

As stated before, the Raiders need defensive back help — especially since NFL legend and 18-year veteran safety Charles Woodson announced his retirement upon completion of the 2015 season.

"I think (the Raiders are) satisfied with Murray at running back, so I don't think Elliott will be in the discussion," Kiper said. "Then it got down to cornerback and safety. Not a safety to think about, but Vonn Bell from Ohio State would be the first safety, late 1, but not mid-1."

Kiper does not have Bell listed in his latest mock draft, but said he could sneak up if a team late in the first round has a high need at safety.

Cardale Jones — Quarterback

Jones could have left following Ohio State's 2014 national championship season, but elected to stay and duke it out with J.T. Barrett for the starting spot in camp.

He won the job, but eventually yielded to Barrett — a better run threat at the position — in October. Still, Jones finished his Buckeye career 13-0 as a starting quarterback and will always have the lightning in the bottle moments that led to postseason victories against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon two seasons ago.

"He had those three great games two years ago where he could have been a second-round pick last season," Kiper said. "He's the intriguing guy, I think."

Jones is an interesting prospect because of his pure arm talent, but the holes in his game were evident when he held the keys to the car last season. He was by no means the biggest issue with Ohio State's offense, but caught flack as the quarterback. That comes with the territory.

In a quarterback class that includes Christian Hackenberg, Jared Goff, Connor Cook, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Vernon Adams and others, Jones is the most interesting.

Ezekiel Elliott — Running Back

It is pretty widely understood Elliott is the top running back in this year's draft class, even outpacing Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from Alabama.

Elliott fell five spots to No. 22 in Kiper's most recent mock draft, who said the recent devalue of the position could keep him out of the first round.

"I've always said no running back in the first and think last year proved that again," Kiper said. "Elliott, he doesn't have the grade that (Todd) Gurley did, he doesn't have the potential and the talent that Gurley does. Is he a first round possibility? Yes. Is he a guaranteed, lock-1? No. I'd say he goes anywhere from where I have him at 22 all the way to the early second round."

Elliott and Henry headline a weak running back draft class, but Gurley and Wisconsin great Melvin Gordon both went in the first round last season to end a two-year hiatus of backs taken among the top 32 picks.

Joey Bosa — Defensive End

Many believe Bosa to be the best prospect available in this year's class, but Kiper has him going sixth overall to the Baltimore Ravens. The five teams above Baltimore — Tennessee, Cleveland, San Diego, Dallas and Jacksonville — all have greater needs than defensive end.

That's why Kiper thinks the Ravens could jump at Bosa if he's still available.

"He's a pass rusher, and that's what they need," Kiper said, before mentioning a slew of other prospects that either play defensive end or outside linebacker.

"There's a lot of players, so you can't say for sure who would get anybody," Kiper said. "Will be probably a minimum of three really good options at pick No. 6."

It'd be a surprise if the two-time All-American falls outside the top-5, but if he does he won't have to wait that long to hear his name called.

Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas — Wide Receiver

Miller and Thomas are lumped together because they're fringe late first round, early second round talents in Kiper's eye. One team that needs help at the position that could bite on either are the New England Patriots, who had to forfeit their first round pick because of Deflategate. The Patriots own the 30th pick of the second round, or 61st overall.

"Look at Braxton Miller from Ohio State in the slot potentially," Kiper said. "Michael Thomas from Ohio State, could still be there."

Miller and Thomas might not be available by the end of the second round, but if they are Kiper said expect the Patriots to buy in.

"I think there's going to be some really nice options from a true wide receiver standpoint available for the New England Patriots," Kiper said. "I think that's what they have to go after. They have other needs, obviously, but I think a true wide receiver is important."

Can you imagine Miller snagging passes from the slot in Bill Belichick's offense from Tom Brady?

Nick Vannett — Tight End

Kiper called Vannett "arguably the best overall tight end in the class" for 2016, even though his receiving numbers from Ohio State are limited.

"He's a throwback to the 70s and 80s class of tight ends," Kiper said. "Doesn’t give the pass catching ability as other guys, but can block well."

Kiper projects Vannett as a second or third round pick.

Other Notes:

  • Kiper said he sees Taylor Decker as the second best tackle in this year's draft behind Jack Conklin of Michigan State. He projects Decker will play right tackle in the league.
  • Former Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence — who played this past season at Eastern Kentucky — is "a top 10-15 player" in this year's draft, Kiper said.
  • The linebacker class is extremely deep this season, Kiper said. Darron Lee and Joshua Perry are integral parts to that.
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