A conference that’s seemingly in constant motion when it comes to the teams in it, the AAC still boasts NFL talent despite Rutgers and Louisville heading out. The new addition of East Carolina and the rise of the Central Florida program certainly help things, but it’s a Connecticut Huskie that leads the way when it comes to the top prospects in the AAC conference for the 2015 NFL Draft.
1. Byron Jones, CB, Connecticut
The senior leader of a Uconn defense that lacks great depth this year, Byron Jones will be asked to follow a line of Huskie defensive back draft picks. Jones possesses the plus length and bulk, using it well as he engages his receivers downfield and when in short-area coverage. With plus athleticism and versatility to play in man and zone coverages, Jones has the fluidity and control as he works downfield. He still needs to be more consistent in his mid-area steps and in downfield timing, but his athletic and length upside along with strong character should put him firmly in the top-100 range.
2. Justin Hardy, WR, East Carolina
Getting most of his work in the slot, Hardy is the premier weapon in the East Carolina offense who threatens defenses from the slot receiver position, which allows for openings elsewhere in the passing and running game. Hardy possesses great concentration in traffic in the middle of the field, and finishes catches both inside and outside, regardless of defensive positioning (unless they can get their hands on the ball based on the quarterback’s throw). He also plays with very composed and controlled feet, allowing him to have success in three key areas: separating in short-area routes, gaining control to adjust upfield after the catch, and attacking the ball in-air front different levels of his route tree. Without elite measurables and likely good, not great testing times, Hardy is still a fringe top-100 pick, but could be a reliable NFL receiver in time. Teams will love his blocking ability and willingness.
3. Clayton Geathers, SAF, UCF
A pleasant surprise as I watched film on the expectedly mediocre defense, Clayton Geathers is an explosive and rangy safety who flashed in run support as well as in vertical coverage. A clearly explosive defensive back, Geathers transition steps with great bend, attacking upfield with quickness and control, allowing him to finish tackles in the run game and pinch down on in-breaking routes with success. His positioning initially off the snap and when transitioning vertically when starting out closer to the line of scrimmage is an issue, but both can be corrected if he can improve in the same fashion he did from 2012 to 2013. He could be a darkhorse top-100 pick with his clear talent level.
4. Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina
The passer responsible for making Justin Hardy a top-100 pick, Shane Carden is a strong prospect in his own right. While he doesn’t have the plus-size or top-end velocity Carden places the ball very well in the 5-15 yard range, utilizing plus mechanics and release point that allow him to spin a consistent ball. His footwork in quick drops and lateral movement is efficient, keeping his placement in-line on the move. He’s draftable as of now, but a big season could put him in in the mid-round discussion.
5. Torrian Wilson, OG, UCF
After playing left tackle for three years, Torrian Wilson is moving inside to left guard this year, which is great news for his NFL draft value. With just 6’3 height and limited length, he struggled with longer, quicker edge rushers, forcing him to back pedal and play off balance too often last year. His hand placement, especially after the first rush move, will need work, but should be less of an issue inside. He has a strong, grappling ability initially, and his efficient short-area kick slide inside should work well at guard. His scattered hand placement and need to adjust inside will be concerns for NFL teams, as well as lackluster foot speed (particularly upfield), but he has NFL ability.
6. Terrance Plummer, ILB, UCF
One of the leaders for the UCF defense, Terrance Plummer is a thick inside presence that is asked to contribute as a rusher, interior run stuffer and to drop into coverage. Playing both inside and strong side in the defense, his 6’1, 240+ body type and style of play leads him to more of a 3-4 ILB role in the NFL. A build-up speed rusher, he has success in slowing and driving back inteirior linemen blockers and fullbacks, using active hands as an upfield rusher and in run support to disengage. However, his lower body tends to lose balance at times, limiting his ability to finish tackles/sacks against more polished runners/quarterbacks. His coverage and run defense read steps need some work, as one or two missteps for him costs him plenty of ground that limits what his defensive backs behind him can do.
7. Ralph David Abernathy, RB/Returner, Cincinnati
An explosive returner who’s used situationally in the Cincinnati offense, Abernathy will need to really impress teams as a returner and offensive weapon to warrant anything more than a late-round flyer. He falls somewhere between Tavon Austin and Trinton Holiday as a college player, except he’s at a program that hasn’t used him nearly as well as the former two. However, teams are well aware of the impact he can make in the NFL thanks to his quick-twitch laterally, vision after first move and open-field breakaway ability, and another productive season could have him reminding scouts of Dri Archer a season ago (with less build).
8. Mike McFarland, TE, South Florida
The former Florida Gator out of high school, McFarland transferred after one season with the Gators, and was ruled eligible to play immediately for the Bulls. Still a bit under-utilized in the USF offense, McFarland has clear athletic upside and size based on his flashes in 2013. His ability in the seam and sheer size should get him into the draft discussion, but it’ll be his senior season that will be the telling sign for his future.
9. Eric Lefeld, OT, Cincinnati
Playing with the plus-length he possesses, Eric Lefeld relies on this too much as a pass blocker, allowing more active and physical defensive lineman to move him laterally and backwards. Playing as more of a finesse blocker, Lefeld struggles at times to reposition his feet as he extends away and engages. With plus length, however, and success against all types of rushers situationally, he’ll certainly draw NFL interest, and maybe a draft pick if he can clean up his footwork and adjustments as a senior.
10. Connor Reilly, QB, Temple
Despite hailing from a program not known for producing quarterbacks, Connor Reilly has a real chance at NFL interest thanks to a live arm, over-the-top release and plus-athleticism. While he’ll be adjusting to another new offensive this year, he’s shown the ability to improvise as well as take shots down the field when given the opportunity. His mechanics seem to be in check, but his footwork as a pocket and mobile passer could use some work, and his touch/velocity control downfield could also use an upgrade. Still, the clear talent is there to remain intrigued in-season.