Around the time LSU hunkers down for bowl preparations, coach Les Miles will usher a handful of players into meetings to discuss their intentions on staying in Baton Rouge.
“When we get to the back end of the season,” Miles said, “that’s when we’ll have one-on-one interviews that are descriptive of their future.”
Picking the brains of analysts, the ninth-year coach could expect at least four key underclassmen to put their names in the draft pool after projections slot them in the first three rounds of April’s draft.
Two months ahead of decision day for potential picks, the early consensus is that junior defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson and the junior receiving duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. probably will have the grade of NFL scouts worthy of submitting papers.
In August, Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 294-pound native of New Orleans, was the sole underclassman rated highly on draft boards. Ten games, though, have taken some luster off Johnson’s credentials. The O. Perry Walker product, a former five-star recruit, has battled shoulder and elbow injuries along with double teams in the trenches.
Still, it’s fair to say Johnson, whose 29 tackles rank 13th for LSU, has been inconsistent.
“Anthony Johnson’s just got to be more productive and reliable week in and week out,” said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., who slapped a late-first-round grade on Johnson.
Of Johnson’s 6.5 tackles for loss, only three have come in SEC play, and two of those were sacks against Florida and Mississippi State. Against Georgia and Alabama, he tallied five assisted tackles (none for loss) and no sacks.
“For a guy of his size to have the athletic ability, the lateral agility and speed is rare,” CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang said. “You get excited about that, but there’s the struggles getting off of blocks. He struggles to disengage (from blocks) sometimes.”
But if Johnson’s season has raised skepticism, then Ferguson’s sample of film has only helped improve his draft stock. Among underclassman defensive tackle prospects, Ferguson has moved ahead of Johnson, Kiper said. And if Johnson is built more for a traditional 4-3 defense, then Ferguson’s frame at 6-3, 309 seems more suited to a nose tackle in a 3-4 system.
“If he can sustain what he’s done, then he’s played a little bit better than I expected,” Rang said of Ferguson.
The svelte and speedy pair of Beckham and Landry, who have combined for 2,023 yards and 16 touchdowns on 114 catches, don’t induce qualms about consistency. Instead, the potential knock is a lack of top-end speed.
Each is exceptionally quick and can accelerate well within the first 5 yards of a route. Both have exceptionally strong hands and compete well for balls in the air. The looming question is just how much straight-line speed they can put on display in workouts, at LSU’s pro day and the NFL scouting combine.
“He doesn’t have elite, top-end speed,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said of Beckham, who he added has to show he can be more physical getting of press coverage at the line. “I’ve got him in the 4.5-(second) range. I don’t know if that’s legitimate. We’ll find out quickly, but he reaches top-speed quickly.”
As for Landry, what puts him slightly behind his roommate and best friend is the fact that Beckham can be a threat in the return game, with scouts calling up his punt return last season against Ole Miss or his missed field goal return against UAB this year.
“Landry is the more consistent route runner of the two and has more consistent hands,” Rang said.
The man targeting Beckham and Landry might have the best projection. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who has thrown for 2,733 yards and 20 touchdowns, entered the year rated anywhere between the third round (Rang) and the sixth or seventh (McShay), but his development under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron now has him vying to come off the board in middle of the first round or in the second.
“I see a quarterback now that’s dropping back and knows where his eyes should go,” McShay said. “He’s a lot more decisive. It’s obvious with young quarterbacks: When they know what they’re doing, they can focus on the physical aspect.”
Mettenberger isn’t exactly a mobile signal-caller, which has come into fashion recently in the NFL. Yet NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah makes a salient point that Mettenberger’s mental make-up means he can understand a scheme well enough to adjust for being a prototypical pocket passer.
“It’s more of, ‘Can he swallow and digest an NFL-style playbook and the verbiage?’ ” Jeremiah said. “The good thing, you already know that coming in that he can handle that. He can handle it mentally and grasp the information.”
Soon enough, Miles’ task will be to sort through the clutter of evaluations and opinions — which might be more enticing to some players than others.
“The good news is there’s things for our guys that can go,” Miles said. “Then there’s those guys with a lot left to accomplish. There’s always a piece with, ‘What’s market value?’ Until you get a quality opinion from the NFL, you don’t know.”