Column | Panther draft class filled with most first-round talent in years


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Pitt’s defensive end duo of Rashad Weaver (pictured) and Patrick Jones II received AP All-America honors on Monday.

By Tyler Mathes, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt has produced loads of NFL talent over the years, including nine Hall of Famers, but no Panther has been drafted in the first round since 2014, when the St. Louis Rams selected All-American and future NFL All-Decade defensive tackle Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick.

The NFL Draft will be held April 29 to May 1 in Cleveland. Pitt comes in with a strong class including not only the six players listed below, but at least five others who have a shot at a late selection or at least might receive training camp invites.

I’ve listed the players below in the order I project them to be drafted, but not necessarily the round I think they’ll get picked. Instead, I’ve listed what round they should be drafted in, based on their talent. For example, I see Paris Ford as a first-round talent, but he won’t come off the board in the first 32 picks because most teams who badly needed strong safety talent filled those gaps last year.

Patrick Jones II, Defensive End, First round

Emerging as an unstoppable force this season, Jones leads all Power Five players in the nation in sacks with eight. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound edge rusher is a candidate for multiple awards this season, and for good reason. Outside of the stats, Jones impacts the game in ways most ends can only dream of. Everywhere he goes on the field, the entire opposing offensive line must remain aware of his presence, and he can easily win most one-on-one matchups. He has speed moves, power moves and an incredibly high football IQ.

Jones is a day-one defensive end, and he’s used this season to boost his draft stock past that of his former Pitt teammate, defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Jaylen Twyman, Defensive Tackle, First round

Twyman looked like a lock for the first round back in June, so it’s understandable that he didn’t want to risk injury by playing this season and instead took the time to train privately and prepare himself for his NFL future. Jones skyrocketing up draft boards this season should not take away from the incredible talent Twyman presents.

With 41 tackles, 12 for loss and 10.5 sacks in his redshirt sophomore season, Twyman drew comparisons to Donald, who posted 47 tackles and 11 sacks in his sophomore year. Any time you get mentioned in the same conversation as arguably the best NFL defensive tackle of the decade, you have entered good company.

Twyman is strong, physical and incredibly well-rounded as a pass rusher and run-stopper. He overpowers offensive linemen and commands double teams, which opens up rushing lanes for his teammates, even if he can’t get into the backfield to make the sack or the tackle for loss. Team needs might keep him off the board until day two.

Paris Ford, Safety, First round

Ford recently decided to forego the remainder of his redshirt junior season, but not before racking up 41 tackles and three interceptions. Tied for the most interceptions in the ACC this season, Ford has solidified himself as a third-round pick, at the latest. Ford ranks among some of the top safeties in the class, and although he doesn’t excel in man coverage, as many of the others do, he makes ferocious hits and possesses elite closing speed.

Ford can become a starting strong safety in his first year if he lands on the right team, and few prospects bring the physicality, motor and athleticism he presents. His size will likely prove his biggest weakness, at 6 feet, 190 pounds, but safeties like Earl Thomas have created long and successful careers for themselves, although undersized.

Rashad Weaver, Defensive End, Second round

Jones’ counterpart makes Pitt’s defensive line truly terrifying to play against. Redshirt senior center Jimmy Morrissey summed it up best in an interview from last week.

“When you’ve got two [defensive ends] like Pat Jones and Rashad Weaver, that’s a nightmare for offensive lines, and offenses too,” Morrissey said.
The Weaver-Jones combination remains lethal and causes constant problems with constant pressure. Exclude every other player on Pitt’s defense, and the team still ranks top 50 in the nation in sacks. Weaver missed an entire year of football with a torn ACL, but returned this season with a vengeance. He’s not as polished as Jones in terms of technique, but he brings immense power to his matchups. It’s hard to keep him from moving the play, as Weaver forces the quarterback into pressure if he can’t get home. The pocket moves with him, making life hard on opposing quarterbacks.

Jimmy Morrissey, Center, Third round

Morrissey has become a staple on Pitt’s offensive line since he won the starting center job in 2017. He’s played in 44 career games up to this point, only allowing five sacks to date. The most trusted blocker on the team, and the leader of the offensive line, Morrissey shifts protections and keeps senior quarterback Kenny Pickett safe. The redshirt senior could go anywhere from round three to round five, but he’ll provide a great addition to whichever team chooses him. Not only does he bring strength and technique, but he’s a very smart player and has been Pickett’s second set of pre-snap eyes for four years now.

Damar Hamlin, Safety, Fifth round

I don’t think Hamlin will end up being a fifth-round pick. As well as he’s performed at Pitt, racking up 269 tackles and six interceptions in his five years, last year’s draft featured a stacked safety class, and most teams filled their free safety needs. He’ll bring a high motor and strong zone coverage skills with him to whichever team decides to draft him, however. His biggest downside at the next level remains man coverage, much like Ford, but Hamlin has many of the intangibles you can’t teach.

It’s difficult to predict the NFL Draft, because no one knows how highly each team values each prospect. As you can see, I value three different players as first-round picks this season, but I only see Jones landing in the first 32 because of his skillset and production this season.

Everyone else on the list will most likely fall below their potential due to team needs. Regardless of where they land, all six of these athletes have potential for long NFL careers ahead.