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Two Wildcats in Round One? PFF’s Trevor Sikkema weighs in on 2023 Northwestern NFL prospects

Only seven days from the draft, get a better sense of the NFL evaluations and projections for Skoronski, Adebawore, Hull and Mitchell.

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NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, the 2023 NFL Draft is almost here.

Since the conclusion of Northwestern’s season on Nov. 26, it’s been a whirlwind five months for Peter Skoronski, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Cameron Mitchell, Evan Hull and other Wildcats intending to turn pro. From declaring for the draft itself to tenacious Senior Bowl practices to the bright lights of the NFL Combine to Northwestern’s Pro Day on March 14, the pre-draft process has little let-up, if any.

Only a week away from the start of Round One, not even a substandard arm length measurement will prevent Skoronski from hearing his name called on April 27. Further, following an all-world Combine showing, Adebawore’s stock has continued to climb with some sites even prognosticating the former Wildcat DL to sneak into Night One.

What are some of the best traits and upsides of the four Northwestern prospects likely to be selected this year? How can their games translate at the NFL level? In what pick ranges may they hear their names called, and by what organizations? What do NFL teams understand they’re getting in Pat Fitzgerald products?

To answer such questions, Inside NU had the pleasure to speak with Pro Football Focus’ Trevor Sikkema. Hear what the NFL Draft expert has to say about a Northwestern draft class that could have four players picked for the first time since 1985, and two in the first 31 selections.

Note: Trevor’s work is available here. You can follow him on Twitter @TampaBayTre.

Inside NU: Starting at the top, with Peter Skoronski. That arm length number is definitely concerning for some people. Is it alarming for you at all, in any way?

Trevor Sikkema: I want to start by saying this: Skoronski is one of the best players in this draft class. Now, do I wish his arm length was longer? Yes, I do, because there are certainly times when he will go up against guys, and you can tell. Pass-rushers who have the length advantage on him, they can get into his chest a little bit. He’s got the technique to recover, and he’s got the size to be able to anchor when that does happen. But, you’ll notice there’s a handful of times where he’ll get pushed back into the pocket just because when you’re losing that leverage, and where you’re really getting pushed on your heels, you’re gonna give up a little bit of ground. So for offensive tackles that have longer arms, sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes you’re not getting that kind of off balance; the back doesn’t arch. But for Skoronski, it kind of does. He’s good enough to recover from it, but those things still happen.

I’ll say this too: it’s not just the shorter arm length. I think he’s got shorter strides as well. When I watch some these other bigger, longer offensive tackles, when they get into their kicks slides on their vertical sets for pass sets, they can cover more ground quickly or in less steps, just because they’re so long — they’re so much bigger, and their legs literally just cover more space. So for Skoronski, again, he makes up for it because he’s got incredibly explosive and quick feet. He makes up for having shorter strides, but that, along with the arm length, you notice those little length deficiencies with him.

Whereas if he had those, we’d be talking about a guy who would have unanimous top-10 grade, probably from everybody, because his tape is so clean. I mean, we’d be talking about him in the same realm as we did with Rashawn Slater, who only went outside of the top 10 because it was a really, really good draft class around him. In a lot of other years, Rashawn Slater’s going in the top 10 guaranteed. I think that we would be talking about a similar type of skill-set player with Skoronski if he was just a little bit longer with his legs and his arms.

INU: Where do you project Skoronski at the next level?

TS: I do project him as an interior offensive lineman. I just think the ceiling is a little bit higher there. Again, he’s such a clean prospect outside of some of those measurables that if you put him into guard, maybe have him gain a little bit of weight, a little bit of extra strength, I mean, you almost can’t sculpt a better guard. You can’t have a better play in that regard. So I feel like he’s an All-Pro guard no matter what. He reminds me a lot of the way the Jets have used Alijah Vera-Tucker over the last couple of years. He’s primarily their guard, and they want him to play guard. But with their tackle injuries, they have no problem kicking him out to right tackle or left tackle because they know he’s talented enough to fill in in those areas. So that’s the way that I view Skoronski.

I’m likely going to have him still as a top-10 player in this class. I can’t really imagine him being too far outside of the top 10 if he’s not in the top 10. He’s one of the 10 most talented players in this class. Even though he’s just playing an interior offensive line spot, I think, in the NFL, he’s still so good at what he does. He’s such a natural trench player that you gotta have him up that high on the big boards.

INU: Where do you think Skoronski’s best fits in the NFL might be, and does he have a “floor” of where he’ll be picked?

TS: I don’t think they’re gonna do it, but Seattle picking him. He’d be great in Seattle. I don’t think they’re gonna do it at five, but I think he’d be fantastic there. He’d be an incredible offensive lineman for Vegas. He could play inside, he can play outside for them. I think that would be great in that regard. If the Bears wanted to still have Teven Jenkins on the outside or if they were okay with Peter Skoronski playing tackle, I think he’d be an option for them.

The true floor for Skoronski is the Jets at 13. I just cannot see him getting past the Jets at 13, because if he makes it to 13, that means Paris Johnson Jr. is probably off the board. Maybe Broderick Jones is off the board as well. 13 or 14 at the very latest. Those 13 and 14 picks with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, he’s not going to get anywhere past that.

INU: What were your reactions to the Combine performance of Adetomiwa Adebawore, especially relative to expectations?

TS: Insane. I thought he was gonna be a good athlete, but like, that’s all-world athlete. You look at his body type. He’s 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2. 280 pounds. He’s got that tweener build to him. He’s got plenty of snaps on the interior, but he’s got a lot more snaps on the edge. And so what is he: is he an edge rusher, is he an interior player? You figured if he was gonna stack up with the interior defensive linemen, he was going to look more athletic. But, shoot: we didn’t know he was gonna be that much more athletic. I brought this up with his testing compared to Travon Walker. Not to compare them as players — they’re not the same type of player — but we freaked out about how athletic Travon Walker was. I mean, Adetomiwa Adebawore was able to run faster and look more explosive while having 10 more pounds on him, which is crazy. I mean, to me, that’s absolutely insane.

I would love to see him in the NFL use the three-technique position, the defensive tackle position as his home position, because, to me, his biggest strengths can shine brightest as a three-tech player. He’ll probably have to gain weight, because if you throw him in as a three-tech, you’re basically having the same conversation that you did with Calijah Kancey, because Calijah Kancey’s around the same weight. He’s got longer arms than Kancey does, so you don’t have to have that topic of conversation, but the weight overall holding up against double teams, not getting blown off the ball. He’s probably going to have to play between 290, 295. But, I still think that he can do that and have a lot of that explosiveness. He’s smaller, so he has the natural leverage in height. And yet he’s got those uniquely long arms which can create a lot of trouble for interior offensive linemen who generally don’t have as long of arms as offensive tackles do. You combine that all with the explosiveness that he can have getting out of his stance and getting off the ball, I think that’s where he thrives the most.

The Combine performance was incredible. Was certainly one of the best that we’ve seen from a defensive lineman, but that’s where I predict him best in the NFL. I’d love to see him just hone in on being a three-tech.

INU: There’s been some buzz that Adebawore could sneak into the back end of Round One. Do you think that could happen, and, if not, where might he fall?

TS: I think that it could happen. I think a team like Philly is built around taking chances on defensive linemen. Philly at 30, Kansas City at 31 as well; those are two teams that I think could definitely take a chance on him in the back end of Round One. He’s not gonna get that far into Round Two. The Rams would love him. Seattle Seahawks would love him; they’re picking at 36 and 37. Vegas would love him, too. I think that they would love to get some more juice on the interior.

So 36, 37, 38, I feel like that’s almost the sweet spot right there, those picks. You’ve got New Orleans sitting at 40. They’ve got a lot of new interior defensive linemen as well. 40 feels like it might be the floor for him. The first 10 picks of the second round, he’s gonna have his name called.

INU: Moving on to the other Northwestern prospects who haven’t been as heralded, but who still could make an impact in the NFL. What are your feelings about Cameron Mitchell? What did you see out of him, not only on tape, but in Indianapolis as well?

TS: I like Cam Mitchell; I really do. I think that he is getting lost in a really deep and talented corner class. I just think that he’s not getting talked about enough because of what you mentioned, really. There’s a lot of players who either went to the Shrine Bowl or the Senior Bowl, had crazy Combine standout performances, some sort of testing. We talk about those guys a lot, but Mitchell, I thought that his tape was really well-rounded. I think he’s got the footwork. I think he’s got the athleticism. I think he’s got the instincts.

Would love to see him get his hands on a few more balls, because I think that he was right there in the hip pocket of a lot of guys where he had a chance to turn a little bit earlier and maybe make a play on the ball. I’d love to see a little bit more of that in the NFL. He’s gotta get a little bit stronger when it comes to him playing off coverage and receivers eating up the space right in front of him, getting into where he’s going to break on his route. I’d love to see him get a little bit stronger to physically change or reroute or just disrupt receivers once they’re getting into their breaks because I don’t think that he does that as much. I think it probably goes into the fact that he needs to just get a little bit stronger anyway. That’s part of his game that I think is a little bit of a deficiency.

But, in terms of what kind of an athlete is he is and the instincts he has as a corner, he’s a guy that I really like in this class. I think he’s underrated. I had him a little bit higher than I feel like a lot of other people did. I have a late second, early third-round grade on him. So I’ve got a middle of Day Two grade on him, and that’s kind of where I’d like to see him go.

INU: Mitchell closed the year strong, locking down Marvin Harrison Jr. and Charlie Jones. How did you go about evaluating him, and did you weigh those games more strongly given that they were against better opposition?

TS: Something that I like to do when I watch film is, first of all, I like to watch games in succession. A lot of people might go, “Oh, look, they played Ohio State; they played Marvin Harrison Jr. Let me go to that game first. I’ll will watch this game first,” or like, “I’m gonna watch the Charlie Jones game first, and then I’m gonna go back to the beginning of the season. I’ll watch the Nebraska game at the beginning.” And I don’t like that because even though you definitely put a premium on when they play in either championship games, rivalry games or just against big opponents, guys that you know are gonna go to the NFL. I like to watch games in succession because I want to see how a player improved throughout the season — if they did improve.

For Mitchell, I don’t think that it was this drastic improvement this past year. But you mentioned he ended the year on a high note, which was great to see, and you love to see how he’s going to face against a lot of those guys. Nobody really matches up that well against Marvin Harrison Jr. He’s just so crazy talented, but I did think that he played him well. Charlie Jones is one of the best route-runners in the class. Even if it’s not a ton of separation, even if he’s not the best athlete, he can really set guys up well. If you are not a disciplined corner, he’ll cook you; he’ll attack your blind spot. He’ll really get after you. I felt like those are two games that you definitely gotta watch. That’s kind of the case with with all players: you want to watch them against the best.

INU: You talked about having a second- to third-round grade on Mitchell. Do you think he ends up going in that spot, or might he fall later?

TS: It sounds like he’s going to be more of a mid-round guy. At this point, it just kind of depends on interviews; how he did with teams — if a team really likes him a lot. But, he feels more of like a third- to fifth-round player. The window is pretty big for him, just because there’s a lot of unknown, but that would be my guess. I’d put it between Rounds Three and Five.

INU: Moving on to Evan Hull, do you feel like he also has gotten lost in this running back class?

TS: Evan is somebody who, when I watched him, I was like, “This is gonna be people’s favorite preseason player.” He’s gonna come in, he’s gonna be a depth guy. He might make a special teams roster throughout the regular season, but no matter what, every single year, at least throughout his rookie contract, it feels like this is gonna be the guy who’s gonna get the ball in the second half of every single preseason game that they play. He’s gonna be this massive training camp fan favorite because there’s a lot to like about him.

I mean, he’s got good size. The Combine showed that he’s got pretty good all-around athleticism. I love how much he was used as pass-catcher. They used him a ton as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. You know that he’s experienced with third-down responsibilities. He’s got the size, so you hope that he can be reliable as a pass-blocker as well. And I feel like that’s probably going to be the way, if he makes a regular-season roster. One, he’s going to have to be great on special teams, as every depth player is. You gotta be good on special teams. But you gotta have value somewhere in the running back room. I feel like third-down responsibilities could be where he is able to really make a difference.

The thing holding him back is he’s a really nice north-to-south runner. He’s a guy who, I like his footwork at the line of scrimmage. He can find daylight, but he’s not somebody who’s going to give you breakaway speed. He’s not this creator in the open field. He’s not gonna make people miss. He doesn’t have that kind of flexibility; he doesn’t have that kind of agility. He’s got that one-hop, I can make a guy miss if I’m hopping left to right, but once you get into open space, it’s kind of a different game. You need to be a little bit more fluid of an athlete [than] he is. Really productive guy and again, somebody who I think could probably hang around the NFL a while if he really hones in on those third-down responsibilities.

INU: What do you think Hull’s role is at the NFL moving forward? How do you think that impacts how teams feel about him, and where he might go in the draft?

TS: Your willingness of how effective you’re going to be as a special teams player and then what kind of a specialized role you’re going to have determines whether or not you’re going to be a fifth, sixth seventh or undrafted player. That’s just what goes into it on Day Three, because you’re looking to fill out the back part of your roster with players that you know you can depend upon, and that feels like it could be right up Evan Hull’s alley, honestly. That’s the way that I see him: I think that he is going to be a third-down, pass catching back. If he continues to shore up the strength part of his game, become a reliable pass protector.

When I was covering the Buccaneers back in 2017, 2018, Dare Ogunbowale from Wisconsin was somebody who, they brought in a lot of running backs, I feel like over those two years, that could have replaced him. But he was so reliable on third down, they couldn’t. There were better ball-carriers that came through in training camp, who, between the tackles, or if they break off the highlight runs that you’d see in training camp or the preseason or whatever. But when it came to those third-down responsibilities, he was just so steady at it that when final cuts came around, that was the guy they were keeping. A more maybe talented, more explosive runner was somebody that they were letting go. That is, to me, the path for Evan Hull to succeed in the NFL: to really hone in on those third-down responsibilities and be a great special teams guy, too.

INU: A bit more on a macro level: Northwestern will likely have four picks in this year’s draft, and maybe two in the first round, but only won one game. To what do you attribute this discrepancy?

TS: I’m not super familiar with the nitty-gritty details of the program, but their passing game was really bad last year. I mean, it’s a passing league. You’ve gotta be better through the air. I think that, going back to Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome II, they’ve had some good players that have come through, clearly that have been draftable guys that are NFL impactful-level guys. I do feel like that’s the case, is that Northwestern gets a handful of really, really good and talented players — guys that fill up the NFL Draft on all three days. But with not knowing a ton about their situation, you gotta be better with the passing game, especially in the Big Ten, where you’re going up against some really, really good teams.

INU: What are some of the traits NFL teams know they’re going to get in Northwestern players that make the jump to the next level?

TS: It’s funny that you mentioned the coaching staff’s entirely different, but it feels like they’re really well-coached players. I know the team as a whole has not played very well. But, when I think of Skoronski and Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome II and what I was talking about even with Cam Mitchell, those guys are players who I’m not really worried about them being overwhelmed at the NFL level. I think they’re coached up really, really well.

And so even though there’s a lot of turnover there, it does feel like that is just a theme with Northwestern players that we’ve seen over the last couple of years; you don’t feel like they’re going to be these massive boom-or-bust players. It feels like it’s a “what you see is what you get,” and that kind of has turned out be a really great thing for them, especially at the top. Slater’s evaluation was easy. Everybody knew this: Slater was going to be good. I feel like that’s the same exact thing with Skoronski. Greg Newsome II was fantastic throughout the process, and I feel like that’s just a reputation that Northwestern is getting. They’re not going to compete for national championships every single season. But, this is absolutely a team that you have to comb over in this conference as a team that’s got NFL talent.