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2024 NFL Draft: Brock Bowers headlines 6 first-round wild cards; what is Michael Penix Jr.'s ceiling/floor?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he explores a half-dozen prospects who've thrown a wrench into mock drafting ...

In today's pass-centric NFL, several tight ends have become the queen on the offensive chessboard. Creative coordinators have transformed these heavyweight hybrids into playmaking machines, utilizing their superior athleticism, size and ball skills to create nightmares for opposing defenses.

George Kittle has been at the forefront of the movement as a Swiss Army Knife for San Francisco 49ers, but the league is about to welcome a multi-dimensional weapon from Georgia with the potential to further revolutionize the position and game.

While draft season has a tendency to produce excessive hype on some prospects, Brock Bowers is the truth. The tape absolutely backs up the buzz about his extraordinary talent and NFL potential.

Checking in at just over 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, the Georgia standout is a truly rare talent with unique tools as a playmaker. Bowers can line up anywhere in the formation as a flex tight end with a new-school game. The 21-year-old can create and exploit mismatches, whether aligned in an attached position as a traditional "Y" or in the slot as a quasi-receiver. In addition, the big-bodied athlete can jump into the backfield to take handoffs on off-tackle runs and also execute jet-sweeps. His spectacular burst and running skills allow him to turn bubble screens into touchdowns. He simply dominates games as an exceptional route runner with soft hands and devastating RAC (run after catch) ability.

Wha'ts not to like? The league anxiously awaits the arrival of this dynamic football player with an elite combination of size, speed and skill.

Watching Bowers run through or around defenders, I'm reminded of a young Jeremy Shockey, the Miami All-American who entered the league as the No. 14 overall pick back in 2002 and earned first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie. Though that comparison might not quite match the gold-jacket expectations some have placed on the Georgia product, Bowers' physicality, toughness and smooth receiving skills are eerily similar to those of the four-time Pro Bowler.

Teams looking for an offensive spark are certainly familiar with Bowers' game. A combo tight end with underrated blocking skills, he can stay on the field for all three downs as a run blocker/pass catcher. He displays the potential to provide a Kittle-like hybrid impact.

Of course, Kittle was a fifth-round steal for the 49ers back in 2017. In fact, many of today's best tight ends -- including Travis Kelce, Sam LaPorta, Mark Andrews, Dallas Goedert, Trey McBride and Cole Kmet -- entered the league as non-first-round picks. Meanwhile, some of the most highly drafted players at the position in recent years (think: Kyle Pitts and O.J. Howard) have struggled to provide the production most anticipated. That's why you're seeing a pretty wide spectrum of forecasts for Bowers' draft slot at the end of this month.

Personally, I see Bowers' draft range spanning from Pick No. 10 (New York Jets) to No. 21 (Miami Dolphins). In between, the Indianapolis Colts (No. 15), Seattle Seahawks (No. 16) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 18) feel like potential landing spots.

I'm quite confident that whoever drafts Bowers at the end of this month won't regret it. This dude is a different breed, with instant-impact, superstar potential on any team that incorporates a plan to exploit all of his fantastic traits.

Five more first-round wild cards

Laiatu Latu
UCLA · Edge · Senior
  • Draft ceiling: 9) Chicago Bears
  • Draft floor: 19) Los Angeles Rams 

As the most refined pass rusher in the 2024 class, Latu has created quite the buzz within the scouting community due to his long-term potential as a disruptive force. The UCLA standout's edge-rushing prowess resulted in 23.5 sacks and 34 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, with the 6-5, 259-pounder flashing a dizzying array of moves to blow past blockers. Latu wreaks havoc on foes ill-equipped to deal with his varied techniques, from his nifty Euro step to his slick two-handed swipe to his nasty dip-and-rip maneuver. 

Though scouts are salivating over his potential as a premier pass-rushing specialist, his past medical issue is the unknown factor on his ultimate draft position. After suffering a serious neck injury, Latu was forced to medically retire at Washington in 2021. He transferred to UCLA, was cleared to play and starred for the Bruins. But the history still casts uncertainty on where he'll end up being selected.

Cooper DeJean
Iowa · DB · Junior
  • Draft ceiling: 15) Indianapolis Colts
  • Draft floor: 31) San Francisco 49ers

DeJean missed most of the pre-draft process, having suffered a broken leg this past November. But after putting on a sensational showing at his private workout this week, DeJean is shooting back up the charts as a late-rising prospect. He displays rare tools as a versatile defender with significant college experience as a cornerback, nickel and safety.

As a former high school track star with Iowa state titles in the long jump and 100-meter dash, DeJean is an explosive athlete with a diverse set of skills that would enhance any defensive backfield. The former Hawkeyes star possesses unique playmaking skills that mesh superb instincts, awareness and athleticism between the lines. Though coaches covet his versatility and explosiveness, it is challenging to devise an effective plan to maximize his talents as a decathlete in the back end. Thus, he's a tough prospect to mock.

Michael Penix Jr.
Washington · QB · Senior
  • Draft ceiling: 13) Las Vegas Raiders
  • Draft floor: 43) Atlanta Falcons

The deep-ball specialist has superb arm talent and instincts as a pocket passer. Penix carves up coverage with surgical precision, displaying pinpoint accuracy and ball placement on vertical throws. With Penix's highlight reel loaded with bombs flying over the defense, teams looking for a gunslinger with an attack mentality will place the Washington standout near the top of the board.

Despite his spectacular flashes, Penix is downgraded due to his extensive injury history (four season-ending injuries at Indiana, before he transferred to Washington) and somewhat-limited system fit (doesn't shine as a middle-of-the-field, timing-based passer). There is some question as to whether his video-game numbers were more a product of Kalen DeBoer's dynamic college offense than a reflection of elite ability.

Brian Thomas Jr.
LSU · WR · Junior
  • Draft ceiling: 17) Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Draft floor: 28) Buffalo Bills

The LSU standout ranks a notch below the "Big Three" wideouts of this class (Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze), but he is among the few wideouts in the class with true WR1 potential. A gifted pass catcher with a smooth stride and sneaky acceleration, Thomas is a big-play machine, as evidenced by his average of 17.3 yards per catch and nation-leading 17 touchdown grabs.

While some have cast Thomas as a one-dimensional vertical threat who cannot run the full route tree, I see natural ability that can make him an early WR2 with WR1 upside.

Amarius Mims
Georgia · OT · Junior
  • Draft ceiling: 13) Las Vegas Raiders
  • Draft floor: 30) Baltimore Ravens

The extra-extra-large offensive tackle has the raw tools to blossom into a premier NFL player. Mims' rare combination of size (6-foot-8, 340 pounds), length (36 1/8-inch arms and 11 1/4-inch hands) and athleticism to stonewall edge rushers with unpolished technique. Though a few tweaks to his game could lead to consistent dominance on the edges, the Georgia product might spend most of his career crushing defenders as a mauler/brawler on the perimeter.

With the 2024 class featuring a deep collection of offensive tackles with more polished games, Mims could see his draft stock tumble a bit when scouts debate his inexperience (eight career starts at Georgia) vs. his long-term potential as a former five-star recruit with blue-chip traits.

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