2024 NFL Draft: Bucky Brooks’ favorite prospects at each position

During the pre-draft process, scouts evaluate hundreds of prospects, but a handful become their favorites. The “pet cats” might not rank as blue-chip prospects, but something about their respective games will enable them to flourish at the next level regardless of their draft status.

After closely examining the 2024 NFL Draft class, I have collected a few “pet cats” along the way. These are my favorite players in the draft — a collection of overachievers who will crush it at the next level when they can play.

Here are my favorites:

Quarterback: Michael Penix, Jr., Washington

The left-handed gunslinger is a big play hunter with the best deep ball in the 2024 quarterback class. Penix excels in a vertical-based passing game that pushes the ball down the field and over the top of the defense. Moreover, he thrives in a system that features option routes that require the quarterback and receivers to always be on the same page.

As the director of a quick-rhythm offense with a collection of NFL-caliber playmakers on the perimeter, Penix led the nation in passing yards per game in back-to-back seasons while throwing for 9,544 pass yards with 67 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The robust stat line reflects the super senior’s playmaking prowess as a pinpoint passer with supreme arm talent and unlimited range.

If healthy and placed in an aggressive scheme prioritizing the deep ball, Penix could light it as an underrated prospect with superstar potential.

Check out the best moments from Michael Penix Jr. during his 2023 season with the Washington Huskies

Check out the best moments from Michael Penix Jr. during his 2023 season with the Washington Huskies

Running Back: Will Shipley, Clemson

Teams looking for a spectacular playmaker with big play potential as a runner-receiver should pay close attention to the Clemson standout. Shipley is a game changer with RB1 potential in a “scat back” body. Measuring 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, he is a shifty runner between the tackles with outstanding balance, body control, and vision. He slithers in and out of holes, utilizing various jump-cut maneuvers to elude defenders in traffic, but he flashes enough power and pop to run through arm tackles and glancing blows.

As a high school track star (who won the state championship in the 55-meter dash in North Carolina) and lacrosse athlete who received college offers, Shipley is a terror in the open field. He exhibits exceptional speed, quickness, and burst weaving through traffic. With Shipley’s soft hands and outstanding route-running skills, offensive coordinators can build creative game plans around his unique talents as a runner-receiver.

Considering he joined the likes of Darren Sproles (2004), Reggie Bush (2005), Jahvid Best (2008), CJ Spiller (2009), Ameer Abdullah (2014), Christian McCaffrey (2015 and 2016), Joe Mixon (2016) and Saquon Barkley (2017)) as the only Power Five players to finish a season with 1,150-plus rush yards, 200-plus receiving yards and 300-plus kickoff return yards (2022), the odds are in Shipley’s favor to make his mark in the NFL as a designated playmaker occupying multiple roles.

Wide Receiver: Ricky Pearsall, Florida

The acrobatic pass catcher from Florida is a “plug-and-play” slot receiver with extraordinary skills. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder finished a two-year run with the Gators with 98 receptions, 1,626 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns as the team’s featured playmaker in the passing game.

Pearsall flashes exceptional route-running ability and ball skills, dominating the middle of the field. He possesses the high IQ, instincts, and awareness to find voids against zone coverage while also displaying the speed, quickness, and savvy to win against aggressive bump-and-run defenders in the slot. Moreover, he is a reliable option in “gotta have it” moments (third-down and red zone) who should quickly earn the trust of the quarterback and playmaker in the clutch.

Pearsall also displays soft hands and explosive running skills as a punt returner. The fifth-year senior should carve out a lengthy career as a scheme-friendly WR2/WR3 playmaker.

Michigan’s Blake Corum headlines RJ’s Top 5 NFL Draft Diamonds in the Rough

Michigan’s Blake Corum headlines RJ’s Top 5 NFL Draft Diamonds in the Rough

Tight End: Ja’Tavion Sanders, Texas

The pass-catching specialist has the talent to blossom into an elite “FLEX” tight end in a pass-heavy system. Sanders terrorizes opponents by running various routes between the numbers, particularly on seams that exploit single-high coverage.

Despite clocking a 4.69-second forty-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, the Texas product is an athletic playmaker with a knack for getting open against man or zone coverage. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder plays with a touch more finesse than some teams desire, but Sanders is a mismatch weapon with the potential to create problems for safeties and linebackers tasked with covering him in space.

As an ultra-talented playmaker in a creative scheme with the Longhorns, Sanders was a two-year starter who finished his career with 99 catches, 1,295 yards and seven touchdowns. Given his polished route-running ability and superb ball skills, the underrated playmaker could quickly outplay his draft status as a pro.

Offensive Line: Zak Zinter, Michigan

Scrappy interior blockers with prototypical size and elite toughness always have a place in the league. The Michigan product enters the league regarded as one of the toughest players at his position, with a mauler/brawler game that reflects his old-school mentality.

Measuring 6-foot-6, 324 pounds with long arms and big hands, Zinter possesses the size, strength, and length to neutralize big-bodied defenders at the point of attack, utilizing a variety of “clutch-and-hold” and wrestling maneuvers to win each down. Though not always picture-perfect, Zinter consistently opens holes for runners on short pulls and second-level climbs on gap scheme runs. He flashes a little nastiness and violence, finishing defenders at the end of runs.

In pass protection, Zinter is a masterful “quick setter” adept at getting into interior rushers quickly with strong punches. He can be knocked by power rushers but shows enough balance, body control, and lower body strength to sit down and anchor against the rush. While pass-heavy teams might opt for a more proficient blocker in pass protection, Zinter’s savvy and awareness should enable him to flourish in a run-heavy/play-action scheme that showcases his aggressiveness and toughness at the line of scrimmage.

Joel Klatt on how Michigan united for Zak Zinter’s injury

Joel Klatt on how Michigan united for Zak Zinter's injury

Defensive Line: Mohamed Kamara, Colorado State

Teams looking for pass-rush specialists should watch the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year closely. The 6-foot-1, 250-pounder is a disruptive force off the edge with 30.5 career sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss in 49 career games.

Kamara displays exceptional first-step quickness and burst pursuing quarterbacks with fanatical effort. He overwhelms opponents with his snap-count anticipation and “get off” quickness while utilizing a variety of hand-to-hand combat maneuvers to win on the edges.

From his patented “dip-and-rip” maneuver, which enables him to slip past blockers relying on speed and quickness, to punishing opponents with a “stab-and-go” move that freezes them after a blow to the chest, Kamara keeps blockers guessing in one-on-one matchups.

Given his standout sack production, including 13.5 this season, the Colorado State standout should create plenty of splash plays for a defense looking for an impact playmaker on the edge.

Linebacker: Payton Wilson, N.C. State

The most disruptive defender in the draft is a rare find as an A-plus athlete with exceptional skills as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker with pass-rushing skill. Wilson controls the game as an instinctive second-level defender with outstanding awareness, diagnostic skills, and reactions.

Measuring 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, and with 4.4 speed, the N.C.State standout is an explosive athlete with the speed, power, and pop to stonewall runners in the hole. He attacks the line of scrimmage quickly against the run and flashes knockback power, punishing runners when he makes contact on “face-up” tackles.

Wilson’s athleticism and explosiveness also appear when he pursues the quarterback on blitzes from various angles. He has a knack for eluding and evading blockers at the point of attack, displaying an outstanding closing burst when tracking down quarterbacks from the backside.

With 400-plus tackles, 48 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, and seven interceptions, Wilson is the disruptive playmaker that every defense covets in the middle. If he can shake the injury bug that plagued most of his collegiate career, the athletic tackling machine could earn Pro Bowl honors early in his career.

Joe Milton talks NFL Draft process, Michigan & proving doubters wrong

Joe Milton talks NFL Draft process, Michigan & proving doubters wrong

Defensive Back: Mike Sainristil, Michigan

The transformation of the NFL into a passing league has made it imperative for teams to find “Nickel” cornerbacks with speed, quickness, instincts, and awareness. Surveying the 2024 class for candidates with the ideal traits to flourish at the next level, Sainristill stands out above his peers as a former receiver-turned-defensive back with outstanding playmaking ability and production.

Despite his slender frame (5-foot-10, 183 pounds), the Michigan standout punches above his weight as a polished slot defender with superb cover skills and tackling ability. Sainristill excels in man or zone coverage and showcases underrated skills as a pass rusher from the slot. The energetic playmaker is the total package at the position, displaying the awareness, IQ, and savvy to handle significant responsibilities as a matchup player on the perimeter.

Considering the challenge of finding slot defenders with experience and the expertise to excel at the position at the next level, Sainristil looks like a “can’t miss” prospect with blue-chip potential.

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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