In terms of elite draft-eligible NFL prospects, there’s a good balance this year between USC and UCLA.
Neither school has any.
Some of the players who will take the field at the Rose Bowl on Saturday will wind up playing on Sundays, but not very many relative to years past. It’s unusual for both Los Angeles schools to be in a simultaneous down cycle, but that’s the case now, with no marquee talent causing pro evaluators to stare at their stopwatches and blink back disbelief.
Even with the glory days of USC’s Pete Carroll a fading memory, the schools have produced their fair share of NFL talent in recent years, from Trojans Sam Darnold, Adoree’ Jackson, Leonard Williams and Robert Woods, to Bruins Josh Rosen, Takkarist McKinley, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr.
That’s not to suggest someone can’t rise in the months to come, surprise people at the Senior Bowl or scouting combine, and surge up draft boards. It’s just that hasn’t happened yet.
As it does every year, the Los Angeles Times asked NFL personnel executives to look over the rosters from the two schools and project who might be drafted, and in which round or range. The two who participated this year did so anonymously, so they could be candid in sharing their opinions and information that pro teams pay them to gather.
These evaluators cut through the hype, and typically are blunt and succinct in their assessments. They are identified here as Scouts 1 and 2. The Times has conducted this evaluation annually for the last 13 years, and the scouts who have participated are often uncanny in their predicting acumen.
The NFL is a passing league, and last spring quarterbacks from the L.A. schools went in the first 10 picks — Darnold third and Rosen 10th. The draft-eligible quarterback in the game Saturday is UCLA’s Wilton Speight, a graduate transfer whom Scout 1 projects as a rookie free agent: “He’s a big kid, pretty good arm, who’s been banged up. He’ll end up in a camp for sure.”
For Scout 2, the most intriguing UCLA player is 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end Caleb Wilson, a junior: “He doesn’t wow you athletically, but he’s big. He’s a big target, pretty good ball skills, but he had some drops this year. You can’t teach that size, and he runs good enough. He’s a mid-round guy.”
Offensively, the scouts agreed that USC’s most interesting prospects are on the line, particularly left tackle Chuma Edoga and center Toa Lobendahn.
Scout 1 said Edoga is probably among the better tackles in the West this year, but leaves evaluators wanting more: “You want more consistency. You want more finish. He’s a guy who has all the tools, but you want more. … He probably won’t be drafted as high as he should. He’s a mid-round talent who might not go as high.”
Scout 1 called Lobendahn “a technician” who projects more as a guard in the NFL but at 6-3, 295 is actually undersized for that position. “He wins with his technique and his intelligence,” Scout 1 said. “Somebody will give him a look late, but he’s probably a free agent.”
Evaluators on Saturday will be watching 6-4 USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr., although both scouts think he would benefit from another year in college. Said Scout 2: “He does have some deep-ball skills. He’s got gradual, long speed but he’s not a real sudden guy. I would say he should stay in school, but he does have redeeming traits in terms of size, ball skills and toughness. The question is, can he separate at the next level?”
USC has a few defensive players on the radar. Both scouts praised outside linebacker Porter Gustin, but he’s dealing with a knee injury.
“He’s a tremendous program guy, tremendous work ethic,” said Scout 1, suggesting Gustin might have gone in the fourth-round range before the latest injury but is now a wait-and-see player. “He’s lifted every weight, he studies, he lives, breathes and eats football. He’d be a great locker room guy.”
Scout 2 said USC middle linebacker Cameron Smith has potential to make an NFL roster as a late-round pick or free agent: “He’s more of a two-down linebacker. He plays hard and is instinctive. … He knows how to play the game, but it’s just that in this space and cover league, you want them to be a little better cover guys.”
UCLA safety Adarius Pickett isn’t huge at 5-11, 198, but he’s among the top tacklers in the Pac-12 Conference.
Said Scout 2, who projects Pickett as a late-round pick or free agent: “He’s really tough. He’s going to make a roster. He should make it on [special] teams. You love the kid. You just wish he was a little faster, little bigger.”
USC cornerback Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell III are intriguing, the scouts said.
Said Scout 2 of Marshall: “He’s big, physical, tough. You question his deep speed to play at the next level. Maybe he’s a safety, or a zone-type corner. He helped himself this year. I think he’s a mid-rounder unless he runs fast [in pre-draft testing].”
Whereas Scout 2 sees Marshall as a corner who projects as a safety, Scout 1 sees Tell as a safety who could play corner in the pros.
Said Scout 1 of Tell: “He’s fast, fluid, instinctive. … Some people have said he’s a first- or second-rounder. I don’t see that. I think he’s more of a mid-round pick, maybe third. But he’s got a big upside to him. He could be an even better pro than he is a college player. He’s got to build up his body and get stronger.”
Perhaps fitting for where the schools are at this stage, among the more interesting players to watch is UCLA’s Stefan Flintoft, who leads the conference in punting.
“He’s probably going to be a free agent, but he’s on the radar of most teams,” Scout 1 said. “I’m sure he’ll get several workouts in the spring.”