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Analyzing Northwestern’s potential 2019 draftees

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Will Clayton Thorson be a first-rounder? Some experts thinks so.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NFL Draft just concluded, meaning it’s time for many draftniks to shift their focuses to next year’s draft because, you know, it’s never too early (and mock drafts get a ton of clicks). In the spirit of the “Way Too Early 2019 Mock Draft,” here’s an early look at which Northwestern players could be candidates for the next year’s draft.

Clayton Thorson

Thorson has been included in several 2019 mock drafts, which has generated a lot of buzz on Twitter.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Thorson pegged at No. 14 overall, another Bleacher Report mock (there are many) has Thorson going No. 3 (!) and WalterFootball.com has Thorson going No. 5 overall. Oddly enough, all projections have Thorson heading to the Giants.

All of this means absolutely nothing.

Many people remember when Todd McShay infamously projected Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner as a first-rounder, before he eventually went undrafted after an underwhelming season. So calm down, everyone, Thorson isn’t locked into the top five, or first round, by any stretch of the imagination.

But, his inclusion on this list speaks to how scouts have evaluated him in the preliminary stages of the process. He has the build of an NFL quarterback at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, and throws a pretty ball. He’s shown the ability to push the ball down the field with precision when given time in the pocket, and he’s mobile (assuming his knee heals to full strength after tearing his ACL in the Music City Bowl last December).

But, to project him as a first round pick given his current body of work is a bit silly. He threw 15 touchdowns to 12 interceptions a season ago, and finished ninth out of 12 qualified quarterbacks in the Big Ten last season, per ESPN.com.

Thorson has the tools to be a really good quarterback, and he’s been really good before, but he has to prove he can be more consistent before he enters the franchise quarterback, round one discussion. He has the chance to be the highest Northwestern player taken in a long time, but he’ll need to have a big year to do so. And before that, he’ll have to finish his rehab and get back on the field.

Our own Martin Oppegaard looked at Thorson’s NFL chances a year ago, and he didn’t really improve a ton since then. Obviously, he wasn’t working with great offensive line play, and his receivers let him down several times, but he’ll need to show a decent amount of growth this season to vault himself into the conversation at the top of the draft. He’s come a long way since his freshman season, so that’s not out of the question.

In what figures to be a relatively down QB class (from a long way away), Thorson has a shot to stand out if he bounces back from his knee injury.

Montre Hartage

Hartage’s role has grown throughout his time in Evanston, and he really emerged as a true shutdown corner during certain games last season. He had a breakout campaign as a sophomore, but took on more of an isolated, man-to-man role on the outside last season as a junior. Pro Football Focus rated Hartage as one of the best cover men in the FBS in 2017.

Hartage has strong closing skills and a knack for making interceptions, which allows him to make splash plays and lock down good receivers when he’s on. At times he struggles to turn around and find the ball, so he gets called for pass interference a decent amount. Still, he’s a good cornerback prospect. Like most Northwestern players with NFL talent, he’ll need to have a strong season to get drafted, but it’s certainly possible.

Joe Gaziano

After leading the Big Ten in sacks a year ago, Gaziano won’t take anybody by surprise as a junior in 2018. It feels like Gaziano should be older than just a rising junior, but that helps his stock, if anything.

At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, Gaziano has solid size for the position, though he could stand to gain a few pounds should an NFL team try to shift him to the 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense. He’s a sturdy run defender, which teams will like, but he’ll need to be able to show scouts he can win with speed and counter-moves, especially now that opponents will have better tape on him.

If he can add a pass rush move or two to his already strong frame, he should have a decision to make come next offseason.

Paddy Fisher

Fisher was a tackling-machine in his first season on the field for the Wildcats, displaying a keen knack for finding the football and attacking downhill. He made several All-Freshmen teams, which should elevate his national profile ahead of the NFL evaluation process.

For Fisher, playing the run is no problem. He consistently shot through gaps that Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson helped create, and often laid the lumber with some big hits. What will play a large role in his NFL stock, however, is how he can deal with the passing game and drop into coverage. The reason Fisher slipped a bit in recruiting was his speed, and he’ll have to show he’s ready to cover hyper-athletic tight ends to carve out a role in today’s sub-package-heavy NFL.

As the Texas native gets more comfortable with the calls on defense, he should have more and more opportunities to match up with tight ends and running backs in coverage. If Fisher can follow his stellar freshman season with a similar one, he should all over draft boards — and All-American lists. Pro Football Focus loves him, which can only help.

Nate Hall

Nate Hall just makes plays. He lived in the backfield a year ago, and definitely has the athleticism to make plays in space and cover smaller players. This versatility translates well to the next level, even if he got snubbed on the all Big Ten list.

After racking up 16.5 tackles for loss and eight passes defensed last season, he enters 2018 as one of the top linebackers in the conference. He did miss all of spring ball with a knee injury he suffered in the weeks leading up to the Music City Bowl, so his medical history could hurt his stock a bit. If he can get a bit bigger while retaining his patented speed, it will be hard to ignore him in the draft process next season.