Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the 1994 NFL Draft, Bucky Brooks played for five different teams (Buffalo, Jacksonville, Green Bay, Kansas City and Oakland) in five NFL seasons. After his playing career was over in 1999, Brooks joined the Seattle Seahawks' pro personnel department as a regional college scout. He served in the same capacity for the Carolina Panthers from 2003 to 2007, before joining Sports Illustrated as a football analyst. He joined NFL Media in 2009.
Thomas is draft's most intriguing developmental QB option
Posted: April 23, 2014 at 11:15 a.m.
If I had to pick a mid-to-late round quarterback prospect to draft and develop, I would invest my time and effort into Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas.
Now, I know there are plenty of skeptics who believe the former Hokie is better suited for a position change at the next level, but I believe Thomas offers more upside than nearly all of the quarterbacks being discussed as developmental prospects in this year's class. In fact, I would take Thomas over Pittsburgh's Tom Savage and SMU's Garrett Gilbert because he is more talented, athletic and experienced than those players, who are two of the fastest risers on the board at the position.
Of course, the naysayers will point to Thomas' maddeningly inconsistent tape and scattershot accuracy as reasons for bypassing the Virginia Tech standout, but I would point out that the NFL is a developmental league. Thus, I'm more concerned with Thomas' natural talent, athleticism and football IQ as a possible late-round pick. Measuring 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, Thomas is an impressive athlete with physical traits that are comparable to 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton.
I'm not suggesting Thomas is a playmaker of Newton's caliber, but it's important to note that several observers viewed the Virginia Tech standout as a first-round talent after his sensational sophomore year that saw him pass for 3,000-plus yards with a 19:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while tallying 11 rushing touchdowns. The big-bodied playmaker was so impressive guiding the Hokies' offense during the season that most expected him to challenge for the top overall spot in the 2013 draft, if he played up to his potential as a junior.
Although Thomas didn't match the production or performance of his breakout season in subsequent years, he isn't a throwaway at the position based on his arm talent, athleticism and developmental potential. He flashed promise running a more traditional offense in 2013, exhibiting improved pocket presence and anticipation directing a vertical passing attack. Sure, there were plenty of questionable decisions and inaccurate throws, but every quarterback viewed as a Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) prospect has warts on their respective games. Thus, a patient quarterback coach adept at polishing footwork and fundamentals could clean up Thomas' game and help the big-bodied playmaker develop into a quality starter down the road.
This is the same argument supporters of Savage and Gilbert are making in discussions with NFL executives; it's one that Thomas' team should pitch to teams looking for an athletic backup prospect with the potential to run an offense that features zone-read concepts, traditional play-action vertical routes and movement-based passes like bootlegs and sprint outs.
Watching Thomas work throughout the week at the Reese's Senior Bowl, I believed he possessed enough talent to convince a team in need of a developmental prospect to take a chance on him. He showed the biggest arm of any quarterback in attendance, and flashed the ability to string together completions in 7-on-7 and team drills when he trusted his reads and progressions.
After witnessing his significant improvement as a passer under the watchful eye of an NFL staff, I consulted with noted QB guru George Whitfield, Jr. about how Thomas' talent compared to some of his former pupils, including Newton and Ben Roethlisberger. He told me the Virginia Tech standout was on par with the Pro Bowlers from a physical standpoint and just needed some seasoning to become a viable option as a quarterback at the next level.
Looking at potential situations that would fit Thomas' skills and potential, I believe San Francisco, Carolina, Kansas City and Philadelphia would be ideal spots based on their experience developing young, athletic quarterbacks. Although those aforementioned teams aren't in need of a quarterback, the opportunity to bring along an intriguing developmental prospect in a low-pressure environment could pay huge dividends down the road.
Oh, I know there has been a lot of interest and speculation about Thomas switching to tight end as a pro. Although Thomas was rated as the No. 1 tight end prospect coming out of high school in 2009, it's tough to make a position change at the NFL level. First, Thomas must fully embrace making a position change and diligently work to master the nuances of a new position on the practice field. While Thomas certainly possesses the athletic attributes to thrive at the position, he hasn't expressed a desire to make a move to tight end nor has he worked out as a tight end in public workouts. Thus, any team considering Thomas as a tight end prospect must vet the prospect to see if he would enthusiastically make the change before pulling the trigger on the Virginia Tech standout with a late-round selection.
Where's the love for Ka'Deem Carey?
Posted: April 9, 2014 at 5:34 p.m.
I know the stopwatch isn't supposed to matter much in the evaluation process, but each year we see a talented prospect plummet down the charts because of a poor 40 time at the NFL Scouting Combine. Although scouts repeatedly suggest that workouts are only a small piece of the evaluation puzzle, the numbers on the stopwatch prevents some from trusting what they witnessed with their own eyes.
During my time scouting with the Carolina Panthers, I made the mistake of allowing the stopwatch to dictate my thoughts on a prospect's playing speed and pro potential when I changed my grade on Brandon Browner -- who went on to become a Pro Bowl CB -- after watching him post a pedestrian 40-time (4.63) at the combine. Despite grading Browner as a second-round talent based on my film study on the school visit, I changed my final grade after his disappointing workout in Indianapolis. While I wasn't alone in my assessment (Browner went undrafted in 2005 largely because of his questionable speed), I always regretted not sticking with my guns when he emerged as a Pro Bowl player in Seattle.
That's why I continue to believe Ka'Deem Carey will be a standout running back in the NFL despite his poor performance in the 40 in workouts. Although he is not an elite athlete, Carey is the most natural runner in the draft. He exhibits outstanding vision, balance and body control with the ball in his hands, yet is a violent runner who consistently runs through contact to fall forward at the end of runs. Carey's punishing running style belies his slender frame, but it is one of the reasons I believe he will excel as a feature back in a zone-based running scheme.
Watching Carey dominate the Pac-12 over the past two seasons, I'm convinced he excels largely because of his toughness, tenacity and physicality. He is best described as a grinder with a strong nose for finding creases in the middle of the defense on nifty cutbacks at the point of attack. Carey slithers into the open hole, but is also willing to punish defenders closing in for a big hit. By squarely delivering blows into the chest of would-be tacklers, Carey routinely falls forward at the end of the runs, which is critical to moving the chains at the next level.
From a production standpoint, I don't think there's any disputing Carey's effectiveness as a feature back at Arizona. He piled up 3,814 rushing yards and 42 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons, with 22 100-yard games during that span. More important, he has shown the ability to carry a heavy workload by averaging 26 carries per game the past two seasons. Even in a league where fewer running backs are being asked to carry the load, the fact that Carey has been an effective bell cow at the collegiate level will earn him high marks from coaches who covet tough-minded runners.
If there is a flaw in Carey's game, it is obviously his lack of breakaway speed. He lacks the speed, explosion and burst to score from anywhere on the field despite having a number of 20- and 40-plus-yard runs on his resume at Arizona. Although skeptics of Carey's game frequently cite his top-end speed as a major concern, it is important to note that the Matt Forte and C.J. Spiller tied for the league-lead with four runs of 40-plus yards (Alfred Morris led the NFL with 10 20-plus yard runs). Thus, Carey's home-run speed shouldn't weigh heavily in the evaluation because of the lack of big runs that actually occur in pro games.
I must acknowledge Carey's character concerns possibly playing a role in his ranking on some boards. He faced an assortment of charges stemming from a domestic violence incident in 2012. Although the chargers were eventually dropped, Carey's involvement in that incident created concerns about his personality and behavior in the minds of evaluators. He also was kicked out of a basketball game in 2013 after a run-in with a police officer. It is possible that his slide down the charts is due to his behavioral issues. (Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill must also have to address some character issues to maintain their lofty rankings on draft boards around the league.)
Overall, I know that Carey's speed and character should play a role in his final evaluation, but I've been around the NFL long enough to know talent outweighs everything on draft day. Given Carey's production and natural running skills, I believe he should be in the conversation as one of the top running backs in the 2014 class, despite a slow 40-time that has scouts second-guessing their evaluations from the fall.
Cody Latimer: Is the buzz legitimate?
Posted: April 8, 2014 at 12:16 p.m.
The pro-day season provides scouts with plenty of opportunities to uncover diamonds in the rough. Evaluators will spot a "workout warrior" shining in drills at an on-campus workout, leading him to spend extra time watching game tape to see if the athleticism shows up in game action.
I've stressed the importance of keeping a workout in perspective, but it's important to cross-reference the game tape of elite athletes to avoid missing out on a potential sleeper on draft day. More important, I've learned to pay close attention to any prospect creating a buzz on the pro-day circuit because he's likely to make a meteoric rise up the charts. The lasting image of a pro-day workout leaves an indelible mark on the minds of coaches searching for a hidden gem to develop at the next level.
That's why I'm intrigued by the sudden interest in Indiana WR Cody Latimer after he put on a spectacular performance at his pro day. A 6-2, 215-pound junior, Latimer clocked 40 times ranging from 4.39 to 4.44 despite recently recovering from a broken foot that kept him from working out in front of scouts at the NFL Scouting Combine. He also posted a 39-inch vertical jump, silencing the doubts about his explosiveness and athleticism. I thought I should pop in the tape to see if the recent buzz about his NFL prospects is warranted. Here's what I discovered:
It's hard to find big, athletic pass catchers with the kind of speed and explosiveness that Latimer displays on the field. He shows exceptional first-step quickness out of his stance, but I was more impressed with his balance and body control when changing directions. Additionally, Latimer flashes outstanding leaping ability on the perimeter, which makes his combination of size, speed and length tough to defend in one-on-one situations. Given the challenges Latimer's overall athleticism poses to defenders, I believe he will rank as a blue-chip athlete on most draft boards.
Latimer is a rare size-speed athlete with long arms and outstanding leaping ability. He expands the strike zone for the quarterback with his athleticism, which is a critical asset at the next level. As a pass catcher, Latimer shows strong hands and superb ball skills. He easily tracks and adjusts to errant passes, exhibiting tremendous body control snagging bad balls near the sideline. Lattimer will occasionally drop some easy passes, but his hands and length should make him a terrific pass catcher in traffic as a pro.
Latimer didn't have a lot of exposure to advanced route-running concepts in Indiana's spread offense, but his overall athleticism should make him a solid route runner in time. He has the straight-line speed to excel on vertical routes, yet also has the body control to get in and out of breaks on short and intermediate routes. He will need to eliminate the extra steps at the top of his breaks, but an astute position coach will help Latimer refine his game at the next level. If he can master the subtleties of route running early in his career, he could emerge as a potential No. 1 receiver in the right situation.
Latimer is a legitimate big-play threat with the ball in his hands in the open field. He possesses the size, physicality and toughness to run through contact but is also fast enough to separate from defenders in space. Placed in a West Coast offensive system that places a premium on "catch-and-run" playmakers, Latimer could thrive on slants, crossing routes and dig routes between the hashes. With more teams seeking big-bodied receivers on the perimeter to anchor the passing game, Latimer's running skills will make him a coveted prospect in several draft rooms around the league.
After studying Latimer's performance as a junior, I believe the buzz surrounding his game and potential is legitimate. He is a superb athlete with tantalizing physical dimensions. Although he is still a work in progress as a route runner, he has all of the traits to develop into a solid starter in the NFL, with the potential to become a No. 1 receiver. I would rank him as a solid second-round talent, but I could see him ranking higher in some draft rooms based on the growing preference for big-bodied receivers on the perimeter.
Evans, Benjamin among big WR prospects that could dominate
Posted: April 1, 2014 at 11:10 a.m.
Does size really matter?
That's one of the questions I routinely asked when I worked as a scout for Mike Holmgren with the Seattle Seahawks. As a proponent of the West Coast offense, Holmgren wanted big, physical receivers with strong hands and exceptional running skills to play on the perimeter in a passing game predicated on "catch-and-run" passes over the middle of the field.
At the time (early 2000s), receivers who topped the 6-foot mark were considered "big" by scouting standards, but today's NFL has raised the bar with the top receivers in the game looking like basketball players on the perimeter. Last season, six of the top seven receivers measured at least 6-3, with Josh Gordon leading the league in receiving yards (1,646).
Listed at 6-3, 225 pounds, Gordon joined the likes of Calvin Johnson (6-5, 236) Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229), A.J. Green (6-4, 207), Alshon Jeffery (6-3, 216) and Andre Johnson (6-3, 230) as the premier big-bodied pass catchers dominating the league with their size-strength-speed combinations. While most observers frequently cite the obvious size advantages "big" receivers enjoy over the smallish cornerbacks dotting most NFL rosters, the league's implementation of rules restricting contact downfield has empowered big, physical pass catchers on the perimeter.
Consequently, NFL executives are scouring the collegiate ranks looking for big, athletic playmakers with the potential to wreak havoc on opponents with their superior physical dimensions and athleticism.
Now, it's important to note that each of the aforementioned pass catchers posted impressive measurements in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump at the NFL Scouting Combine and pro-day workouts. These three drills showcase a player's explosiveness, which is critical to gaining separation from defenders in tight quarters. Additionally, the vertical jump and broad jump highlight the potential for a big-bodied receiver to expand the strike zone with outstanding leaping ability.
*Measurements recorded at pro-day workout
Of course, the numbers recorded at the combine and workouts are not necessarily indicative of a prospect's playing speed or athleticism, but as a scout, I was taught by a wily coach that big men who run 4.5 or better and post outstanding measurements in the jumps (35-inch or better vertical jump; 10-foot or better broad jump) possess the necessary explosiveness to thrive on the perimeter. Thus, I hold those measurements as benchmarks when evaluating "big" receivers in workouts.
Looking at the 2014 WR class, I believe there are several big-bodied receivers with the size-strength combinations needed to dominate the NFL. Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin are frequently cited as the crown jewels of the class due to their superior physical dimensions and on-field dominance. Evans, in particular, is an extraordinary playmaker with a game that is ideally suited to excel at the pro level. He played a key role in Johnny Manziel's success as an improvisational playmaker by routinely coming down with contested balls in a crowd.
Benjamin played a similar role for Jameis Winston at Florida State as the team's designated playmaker in the red zone. He scored 15 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore, with a number of his touchdowns coming on fades and skinny posts with defenders in close proximity. Benjamin's ability to expand the strike zone made him Winston's security blanket in key situations, enhancing his value in the minds of scouts as a potential No. 1 receiver at the next level.
If I had to point to a couple of under-the-radar "big" receivers to watch going forward, I would say keep an eye on Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews and Clemson's Martavis Bryant. Each possesses the size-strength combination that coaches desire in big-bodied receivers, while showing the potential to thrive on the field. Matthews finished his career as the most prolific receiver in SEC history. He amassed 262 career receptions and 3,759 receiving yards as the Commodores' top option in the passing game. With Matthews also shining in Reese's Senior Bowl workouts, it's very likely that his game fits in nicely with an NFL offense.
Bryant lacks the impressive resume of his counterparts, but scouts will find him intriguing due to his physical dimensions and raw potential. He capably works the perimeter of the field as a vertical threat. Although he still needs to refine his skills as an intermediate route runner, the potential impact he brings as a downfield playmaker should make him an intriguing option as a borderline Day 2 prospect.
RB class offers underappreciated value
Posted: March 30, 2014 at 11 a.m.
The devaluation of the running back position in the NFL has been widely reported over the past few seasons, but it wasn't until I conducted the NFL.com 2005 NFL Draft Do-Over presented by Under Armour that the change in appreciation for the position stood out to me in such stark terms. In that draft, three running backs were selected in the top five, with Ronnie Brown (Miami), Cedric Benson (Chicago) and Cadillac Williams (Tampa Bay) expected to become franchise backs for their respective teams.
Although these players didn't play to expectations during their careers, the "ground-and-pound" philosophy that permeated the league at the time made running backs marquee players in the overwhelming majority of most offenses, leading teams to place extraordinary value on college runners with the potential to carry the load at the next level.
As a member of the Carolina Panthers' front office, I was part of a team that frequently expended top picks on running backs in the draft to ensure our backfield rotation was loaded with young, athletic runners with the skills to handle a heavy workload (20-plus carries) against stout defenses. John Fox believed running the ball was essential to building a championship team -- we went to Super Bowl XXXVIII and made a subsequent appearance in the 2005 NFC Championship Game with a punishing running game paving the way. Looking back at the draft selections of DeShaun Foster (second round; 2002), DeAngelo Williams (first round; 2006) and Jonathan Stewart (first round; 2008), it's obvious that we believed building around the running back gave us the best chance to consistently win at a high level.
Studying the draft trends from the past few seasons, the philosophy of building around the running back has greatly diminished as more teams take pass-first approaches with the quarterback viewed as the marquee playmaker. Last year, no running back was drafted in the first round for the first time since 1964. While that development was certainly understandable due to the lackluster results of the first-round running backs selected since 2008, the fact remains that top running backs are still critical to a winning offensive formula despite their diminishing value on draft boards.
There were only three first-round selections (Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Ryan Matthews) among the NFL's top 10 rushers last season, but six Day 2 picks were among the group. Thus, teams are not only finding capable starters outside of the first round, but they are later on snagging feature backs with the potential to develop into upper-echelon talents at the position.
That's why coaches and scouts are bypassing the free-agent market and focusing their efforts on identifying a second- or third-round gem in the draft. This year, the draft lacks a premier runner at the top of the board, but features a number of workhorse runners with intriguing potential. They lack a few blue-chip characteristics and speed and quickness will likely keep them out of the first-round discussion, but it's very likely some in this year's RB class will become the latest Day 2 RBs to emerge as Pro Bowl players, joining Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew and others who have accomplished the feat in recent years.
Looking at my most recent list of the top five running backs in the 2014 draft, I believe each of the guys has displayed the talent and potential to thrive as primary runners.
If I had to point out one guy to watch moving forward, I would suggest keeping an eye on Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. The Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year amassed 3,814 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns on the ground from 2012-2013, displaying a relentless running style that is ideal for the pro game. While scouts have seemingly taken him to task for his pedestrian 40-yard dash time, Carey displays the vision, instincts and short-area burst frequently displayed by the most effective runners in the NFL.
Towson's Terrance West is another runner that I would keep an eye on. The small-school standout led the FCS in rushing with 2,519 yards and 41 TDs. Although the level of competition he faced in college will lead to questions about his game transferring to the NFL, the fact that he was a dominant runner who exhibited several blue-chip traits (power, toughness, vision and short-area quickness) makes me think he has the goods to thrive as a runner in a pro-style offense. With the buzz building about West's potential, don't be surprised if he comes off the board sooner than a few notable prospects.
In the end, the narrative about the devaluation of running backs will likely continue after this draft due to the likelihood that a rusher won't be picked in the first round, but astute evaluators will not only find value at the position in this draft, but perhaps even the bell cow to spark a playoff run on Day 2.
Keep pro-day workouts in perspective
Posted: March 23, 2014 at 2:50 p.m.
We've reached the middle of the pro-day season, so the daily reports of prospects "rising" and "falling" on draft boards are running rampant in the Twitter-verse. Now, I'm not trying to throw shade on my colleagues who are promoting the speculation, but I think it's important to understand the role pro-day workouts play in the evaluation process and how evaluators use them to put the final touches on draft boards around the NFL.
What is a pro-day workout?
A pro-day workout is a scheduled workout that takes place at a prospect's school or at a location within a 75-mile radius of their hometown. The workout is open to representatives from all 32 NFL teams. Draft-eligible prospects will undergo a variety of athletic assessment drills (height/weight, hand/arm, vertical jump, broad jump, 40-yard dash, 3-cone, pro-agility shuttle and 60-yard shuttle) and position-specific drill work in front of coaches and scouts.
Unlike the NFL Scouting Combine, pro-day workouts vary according to the scouts and coaches in attendance. Although the athletic-assessment routine typically remains the same, the position-specific drills conducted at the workout are significantly different than the drills seen at the combine. NFL assistants will put prospects through a series of drills that mimic the technique work done during individual periods at an NFL practice. Additionally, coaches will push the pace and tempo to see how well prospects perform while fatigued in order to assess their stamina, conditioning and concentration under pressure. While this approach varies from coach to coach, the overall premise of the workout is to see if a prospect has the necessary athleticism, technical skills and mental fortitude to be a contributing member of a team.
What are coaches and scouts looking for at a pro-day workout?
Coaches and scouts head to pro-day workouts with a specific agenda to accomplish based on film study. Evaluators are looking to confirm some of the traits seen on film, while answering some of the questions that also appeared on tape. Thus, scouts and coaches will put the prospect through a variety of drills to test their technical skills and athleticism. For most prospects, coaches will simply take prospects through an individual period to assess their technical skills, athleticism and movement skills. The coach wants to see where a player is in his development, and whether he has the potential to grow into a key contributor at the next level.
Additionally, coaches will use pro-day workouts to see if projection players have the skills to make a position change as a pro. For instance, a defensive end prospect who is projected to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker as a pro will undergo a number of coverage drills to see if he possesses the athleticism and agility to play in space. If the prospect flashes enough talent and potential, a coach will give the general manager a thumbs-up as a projection candidate.
That's why pro-day workouts vary in significance based on the circumstances surrounding the prospect. If a prospect is relatively clean on tape, then the workout is simply a confirmation of the skills seen on tape. However, a prospect with so-so film needs to impress evaluators in workouts to show scouts that he possesses the skills to play at a high level. Additionally, prospects expected to make position changes need to flash enough potential to alleviate concerns about the transition they'll be asked to make as a pro.
How does a pro-day workout impact a prospect's final grade?
The majority of a prospect's final grade should be determined by the film evaluation. The tape reveals a player's DNA and astute evaluators trust what they see in game action over the glimpse of potential displayed in a workout.
Thus, a pro-day performance should be kept in perspective. While evaluators need the empirical data to make sure a prospect meets the standard measurements, a workout in a t-shirt and shorts is not quite like watching a prospect perform in game action. Some players simply play faster in pads than their testing would suggest, while there are plenty of "workout warriors" who lack the toughness and physicality to perform well in a game environment.
When I was a scout with the Seattle Seahawks, we had a high first-round grade on Anquan Boldin based on his play during his senior season. However, the Florida State star tested poorly at the combine and our concerns about his overall speed/quickness led us to move him down the board. Here's a look at his testing numbers:
Needless to say, Boldin has performed like a first-round talent over an 11-year career that has included an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, three Pro Bowl nods and a Super Bowl ring even though he entered the league as a second-round selection (54th overall) largely due to a poor showing in workouts.
That's why I believe the best evaluators in the business rely more on film study than workout evaluations. While a pro-day workout is necessary to see a player's athleticism and skills in action, the film reveals whether a player can really perform at the next level. Therefore, scouts can't get caught in the hype of a prospect's pro-day performance if it doesn't match his tape. It takes a lot of discipline and restraint to avoid these mistakes with so much time between the end of the college season and the draft, but the astute decision-makers stick to the grades given shortly after the regular season because they are based solely off the tape.
How do pro-day performances affect the rankings on the draft board?
As I previously discussed, pro-day workouts represent only a small piece of the evaluation puzzle. They are used to help a scout complete a prospect's draft profile and provide some clues on long-term potential. While a pro-day workout shouldn't overshadow the film evaluation, the workout should confirm the traits displayed on film and allow scouts to make strong projections during their final evaluations.
On the draft board, pro-day workouts should only factor into the equation when scouts are comparing similarly rated players. If two or more players are graded similarly by scouts and coaches, the information gleaned from pro-day workouts could be the deciding factor. Most teams will opt for the better athlete in these debates with special-teams ability and future potential in mind. Although there aren't any guarantees that the better athlete will be a superior player, the speed and quickness of the pro game put the odds in the better athlete's favor.
That's why I would suggest observers should keep pro-day workouts in perspective unless you're comparing players with similar grades on draft boards. If that's the case, it's very likely the better performer in workouts will get the nod on draft day.
The case for Marqise Lee
Posted: March 20, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.
It's a foregone conclusion that Sammy Watkins will be the first wide receiver taken in the draft, but I'm not convinced that he is the top playmaker in the 2014 class.
Now, I know I'm the lone wolf in that assessment, but I remember the numerous accolades and honors hurled in USC WR Marqise Lee's direction a season ago. In case you forgot, Lee was touted as the most electrifying player in college football after tallying 118 receptions for 1,721 yards with 14 touchdowns in 2012. He finished the season with 2,683 all-purpose yards and averaged 16.7 yards every time he touched the ball. Those numbers certainly jump off the stat sheet, but it was his big-play ability (16 plays of 40-plus yards in 2012, including 11 of 50-plus yards and 7 of 70-plus yards) that separated Lee from a talented collection of playmakers in college football.
Somehow, we've forgotten about Lee and his impact on the game after watching him suffer through a miserable junior season that was marred by inconsistencies, injuries and scattershot quarterback play.
Of course, I definitely understand the concerns about Lee's hands and focus after watching him drop several passes on tape, but I can't get the image of him terrorizing the Pac-12 as a sophomore out of my head. He was the most dominant offensive player in a conference loaded with talented playmakers, while exhibiting the qualities offensive coordinators crave in an offensive weapon.
That's why I hold onto the notion that Lee will be a big-time playmaker at the next level. He was so impressive during his first two seasons that I'm willing to keep his dismal junior season in perspective. Lee struggled recovering from a knee injury; he never fully displayed the speed and burst that made him nearly impossible to defend on the perimeter. Additionally, Lee had a tough time getting the ball consistently due to questionable quarterback play. Although he dropped his fair share of passes over the course of the 2013 season, there's no doubt that his production was greatly affected by the departure of Matt Barkley. That's why I believe scouts and coaches would be wise to examine Lee's full body of work when comparing him to Watkins and some of the other receivers in the 2014 class.
Speaking of Watkins, I find it interesting that he has been anointed the cream of the crop, but a season ago we had our own doubts about his game after watching him suffer through a sub-par sophomore season that included a two-game suspension for an off-field incident (Watkins was arrested in May, 2012 and charged with possession of a controlled substance and simple possession of marijuana). While NFL scouts have certainly vetted Watkins' character during the pre-draft process, the questionable effort, preparation and focus that plagued his game in 2012 has rarely been introduced into conversations about his long-term potential.
Sure, he should be applauded for his spectacular junior campaign that saw him re-emerge as one of the top players in college football, but a look at his entire body of work suggests that his sub-par year is eerily similar to Lee's 2013 when examined in its proper context (Watkins snagged 57 passes for 708 yards and three scores in 2012; Lee finished with 57 receptions for 791 yards and four touchdowns in 2013). Like Lee, Watkins labored through a difficult season during his collegiate career where his production didn't match his immense talent and potential. Yet, he was able to bounce back a year later and play to the level of expectation. Lee could orchestrate a similar turnaround as a healthy pro and provide a team with the kind of production we witnessed in 2012 when he was healthy and at his best.
After studying both stars over the past two seasons, I believe Watkins and Lee exhibit similar traits as players. Both are exceptional athletes with explosive speed, quickness and acceleration. Although Watkins posted a superior 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.43 to 4.52), Lee's recorded better numbers in the shuttles and vertical jump. Thus, they are nearly equals as pure athletes in shorts and t-shirts.
Here's a look at their combine results:
As players, I believe Watkins and Lee have nearly identical playing styles. Both are legitimate vertical threats with exceptional speed and acceleration, yet they also display the ability to excel in the short-to-intermediate game. Watkins and Lee are rapidly improving route runners, with the balance and body control to make hard breaks at the top of their routes. Each needs to continue to master the nuances of changing speeds and tempo within their routes, but their explosiveness as playmakers makes up for their lack of polish in this area. With the ball in their hands, each player displays tremendous speed, power and burst in the open field. Both are capable of turning short passes into big gains, and their home-run ability sets the table for others in the lineup.
Of course, it's not surprising that both players are dynamic with the ball in their hands based on their outstanding careers as kick returners. Lee, in particular, is regarded as one of the top return men in the draft, after leading the Pac-12 in kick returns with a 28.5-yard average.
If I had to point to one deciding factor in the comparison between Watkins and Lee, I would credit Watkins for being a more consistent pass catcher throughout his career. He is more reliable and dependable catching the ball in most situations, which is critical when touting a prospect as a No.1 receiver. Although I believe Lee's flaws as a pass catcher are correctable, the inconsistencies would give Watkins the nod in an evaluation that is much closer than some would suggest based on the water-cooler conversations that are taking place around the league.
Here's a look at their college stats:
» Watkins averaged 22.9 yards per kick return with one TD; Lee averaged 26.1 yards per kick return with 2 TDs.
The skinny on scripted QB pro-day workouts
Posted: March 18, 2014 at 3:03 p.m.
For quarterbacks, a pro-day workout is akin to performing in a Broadway musical. If things go according to script, the star of the show shines on the biggest stage and earns high praise from critics.
That's why private quarterback coaches and consultants are increasingly playing a pivotal role in the evaluation process. Whereas a top quarterback prospect used to rely on his college offensive coordinator to design a pre-draft workout, the increased reliance on private pre-draft tutoring has put the power in the hands of quarterback gurus to script a workout that accentuates a prospect's strengths as a passer. With evaluators paying close attention to every throw, the design and execution of the script shapes the perception of coaches and scouts walking away from the workout.
Given the number of critical quarterback workouts taking place over the next few weeks -- including those for Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel -- I believe it's the perfect time to examine scripts and how they impact pro-day performance.
What is a script?
A script is a planned outline for a workout crafted by a quarterback coach. Most workouts feature 65-80 throws, so coaches will design the workout to put the quarterback in the best position to make a few "wow" throws to captivate scouts and coaches in attendance.
The script typically starts with a few footwork drills and light tosses designed to show off the quarterback's balance, body control and overall athleticism. After a solid warm-up, the quarterback will throw a series of quick routes (hitches, slant and quick outs) to showcase his timing with a three-step drop. The quarterback will progress to the five-step game to connect on an assortment of intermediate routes inside and outside the numbers. These throws consist of the traditional dropbacks that make up the bulk of the NFL passing game. The quarterback will eventually toss a few deep balls off play-action (seven-step drops) to showcase his arm strength and touch. Finally, a quarterback will mix in some movement-based throws to alleviate any concerns about executing the bootleg/naked passing game.
With the entire gamut covered in a 45-minute session, a top prospect can make a strong case about his pro potential with a cleverly crafted workout.
How do private QB coaches come up with an effective script?
Private quarterback coaches will speak to several NFL scouts and coaches leading up to pro day to gauge the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the quarterback prospect. Although the feedback might differ from evaluator to evaluator, a wily quarterback coach will cobble together a workout that accentuates his strengths while masking his deficiencies. Of course, every player attempts to do that during their respective workouts, but quarterbacks have greater control because of their ability to dictate which throws they will attempt during a pro-day workout. As a result, quarterbacks routinely shine during their workouts, exhibiting outstanding accuracy, ball placement and touch on throws that ideally fall into their wheelhouse.
For instance, I watched Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib put on a show last year at his pro-day workout. He nailed every throw during the session and looked like a potential NFL starter with his performance. However, I noticed that every one of his throws outside the numbers featured a sprint-out drop, which significantly cut down the distance of the throw. For a quarterback with average arm strength, the clever manipulation of the workout allowed him to earn solid reviews from observers in attendance.
On the other hand, I watched Mike Glennon conduct a risky workout with a number of deep throws featured throughout the session. The N.C. State standout displayed A-plus arm talent as a drop passer on film; the plethora of vertical throws showcased his exceptional arm strength. Most important, it allowed evaluators to see him make a number of pro-like throws that are mandatory in most offenses. Given Glennon's strengths as a deep-ball passer, the exhibition helped convince scouts that he possessed the tools to develop into an NFL starting quarterback.
How do NFL scouts and executives view scripted workouts?
NFL evaluators will attend the pro-day workouts of top quarterback prospects to get a feel for their arm talent and mechanics in-person, but performance plays a small role in the final evaluation. Coaches and scouts understand that most pro-day workouts are designed to allow the prospect to shine. Quarterbacks rarely attempt throws with a high-degree of difficulty, which makes it hard to examine a prospect's weaknesses. Additionally, traditional drop-back quarterbacks are rarely asked to execute movements within the pocket that test their athleticism and mobility. Thus, evaluators typically walk away from workouts with more questions than answers.
How do scripted pro-day workouts and private workouts differ?
Whereas pro-day workouts are open to all 32 teams, a private workout is conducted for one NFL team. The head coach and offensive coordinator will craft a workout designed to challenge a quarterback at every level. Teams will instruct the quarterback to execute a series of throws that are staples within their respective playbook, while also challenging their ability to take concepts from the board to the field. Additionally, NFL teams will have quarterbacks throw to some of their receivers to see how quickly they will adapt to the timing and rhythm needed to excel in the pro game. With the coaching staff in control of the workout, scouts and coaches are able to make solid assessments and projections of a quarterback's potential at the next level.
Man vs. Machine: Assessing defensive backs NFL comps
Posted: March 15, 2014 at 7:37 a.m.
The presence of big-bodied receivers in the NFL has led scouts and coaches to covet big, athletic defensive backs at a premium. Teams looking to match up with the likes of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald and others are making it mandatory for their scouts to scour the college ranks for defensive backs that measure 5-foot-11 or taller in the 2014 class.
This isn't a new phenomenon in the NFL. As a member of the Seattle Seahawks' scouting department in the early 2000's, we set 5-10 as the minimum height requirement for any defensive back that we considered adding to the roster. There were plenty of other teams in the league that set similar standards at the position, but we were adamant that bigger defenders were needed in the backend to match up with the basketball-like athletes that were starting to enter the league. We wanted tall, athletic defensive backs with the length and leaping ability to win the 50-50 balls down the field. While we understood that bigger defensive backs would probably lack the top-end speed and movement skills of shorter receivers, we were willing to accept that trade-off to increase our chances of winning the physical battle on the perimeter against big-bodied pass catchers.
Surveying the current landscape of the NFL, I believe the success of the "Legion of Boom" is leading more teams to add big, athletic defensive backs to their rosters. Just look at the start of free agency and the big money that was shelled out to the likes of Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Alterraun Verner and a handful of others as proof of the trend taking shape this offseason. Teams are willing to commit big bucks to defenders with the requisite size and skills to battle bigger receivers on the perimeter.
Looking ahead to the draft, the trend will certainly continue with a class of big, athletic defenders comprising the bulk of the 2014 defensive class. Here are the average dimensions and measurements of the 59 defensive backs that participated in the NFL Combine:
Interestingly, the average height of defensive backs remains under 6-foot, while the average wide receiver measured in at 6-0 1/2" at the event. Perusing the top-rated defensive backs in the 2014 class, it is not a coincidence that each measures at or above the standard dimensions established by most NFL teams.
Let's take a look at the tale of the tape for the top cornerbacks and safeties in the class:
Scout's Take: The first thing that stands out to me when viewing this list is the size/speed combination of the top cornerbacks in the class. That three prospects clocked sub-4.4 times in the 40 suggests they are capable of running with speedsters on the perimeter. Additionally, the impressive vertical jumps confirm the explosiveness and athleticism needed to battle big-bodied receivers on 50-50 balls. Factoring in the adequate arm length of each defender, the top cornerbacks in the 2014 class possess the size to match up with big pass catchers dominating the league. Of course, there are some teams that will have reservations about Verrett's size as a potential starter, but his exceptional short-area quickness (see three-cone time) should make him an ideal nickel corner, which enhances his value on some draft boards.
If I had to pick out the most likely candidate to be the first cornerback off the board, I would point to Gilbert based on his exceptional play on tape and his superior physical dimensions. He is the long, rangy defender that scouts and coaches covet on the perimeter. Plus, he brings a playmaking ability (takeaways and return skills) that produces the kind of game-changing plays that lead to win in big games.
Scout's Take: The battle between Clinton-Dix and Pryor for the top spot on the draft board will come down to scheme fit for teams. Both players are above-average athletes with the size/speed combination that coaches covet. Additionally, each guy displays exceptional leaping ability and explosiveness to win 50-50 battles against receivers in the red zone. With Clinton-Dix and Pryor showing solid tackling ability in space, the deciding factor will come down to a need for a free safety (Clinton-Dix) or strong safety (Pryor). Overall, I would give Clinton-Dix the nod as a player, but the margin is so slim that I would be comfortable lining up with either player as my designated playmaker in the middle of the field.
A note on 40 times
It was interesting studying the combine 40 times of some of the top players at the position in recent years. Although we rave about cornerbacks with sub-4.4 speed, this list proves that top cover corners aren't necessarily burners on the perimeter. That's why it's important to spend more time scouring the game tape than stopwatch when evaluating defensive backs. Instincts, awareness, technique and scheme can help a talented defender overcome his physical deficiencies on the field.
Anthony Barr vs. Khalil Mack
Posted: March 14, 2014 at 9:03 a.m.
The key to playing great defense in the NFL comes down to producing negative plays (sacks and tackles for loss) and turnovers. Teams that rank near the top of the charts in those categories typically field playoff-caliber defenses
While some observers will quickly credit the defensive coordinator with a clever play call or schematic adjustment, the key to generating disruptive plays comes down to personnel. Teams with dynamic players on defense routinely pummel running backs and quarterbacks in the backfield, while also displaying a knack for knocking the ball loose or snagging an errant pass on a tip or overthrow.Looking at the 2014 draft class, I believe there are several disruptive playmakers available on defense, particularly a pair of explosive outside linebackers--UCLA's Anthony Barr and Buffalo's Khalil Mack.
Both players are standout Rush linebackers with a knack for creating chaos off the edge. Mack finished his career with an NCAA record 16 forced fumbles and tallied 75 tackles for loss as a four-year starter for the Bulls. Barr was just as impressive as standout playmaker for the Bruins amassing 23.5 sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss in two seasons. Those numbers are remarkable for an edge player, especially one making a move to linebacker after starting his collegiate career as a running back.
Given their comparable physical dimensions, playing styles and production, it's not a surprise that teams are smitten with both players and divided on which player offers more potential as a pro. With a computer available to run the numbers and provide pro comparisons for each player, I thought taking a close look at the Mack vs. Barr debate would make perfect sense for the next installment of Man vs. Machine.
Scout's Take: Credit Jim Mora for identifying Barr's talent and potential as a disruptive defender upon his arrival at UCLA. The long-time NFL coaching veteran encouraged Barr to move from running back to outside linebacker; the switch paid huge dividends for player and team, with Barr developing into one of the most dominant defenders in college football. The senior standout dominated the Pac-12 with his unique combination of length, athleticism and explosiveness as a pass rusher. Additionally, he brought an unbridled energy and enthusiasm to the field that sparked his Bruins' teammates to take their respective games to another level. When I spoke to Mora about Barr and his long-term potential, he quickly compared his star defender to former All-Pro Julian Peterson. I see the similarities in their physical appearance and games, which is why I've routinely offered up the same comparison when asked about Barr. However, I must admit that I'm intrigued by the computer's suggestion of DeMarcus Ware, because the physical dimensions and athletic measurements are comparable. Of course, Ware is a bit more explosive based on the 40-time and vertical jump, but the closely matched 3-cone time suggests Barr could be a terrific rusher turning the corner off the edge. Given the importance of getting to the quarterback, the ability to "bend and burst" around the corner could make him a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker at the next level.
Scout's Take: Small school players must dominate their level of competition to become legitimate NFL prospects. Although scouts have a difficult time determining whether a small school standout can continue to excel against NFL-caliber players, the sight of a player playing at an exceptionally high level makes it easier to sell in the war room when debating the merits of a prospect at the top of the board. Mack left no doubt about his readiness for the NFL with his sensational play in the MAC. He established NCAA marks for forced fumbles and tackles for loss, while displaying a game built on physicality, toughness and guile. Against elite competition -- Ohio State, Baylor and Connecticut -- he showed that his game was ready for primetime by making a handful of splash plays that jumped off the screen. He was the best player on the field in those games, leading scouts to rave about his potential as a pro. Looking for a pro comparison, I've likened Mack to Pro Bowl LB Ahmad Brooks because of his explosive strength and power at the point of attack. He bulldozes opponents at the line on the way to corralling quarterbacks or ball carriers in the backfield. I don't believe Mack will consistently win with power as a pro, which is why I have concerns about his ability to thrive as a No. 1 rusher for a defense. I see him as a complementary playmaker on the opposite side of a dominant rusher in a 3-4 set. Interestingly, the computer offered comparisons to players in complementary roles. While Weatherspoon has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber defender in Atlanta, he benefitted from playing with Pro Bowl DE John Abraham. Additionally, Hawk has been a solid player in Green Bay, but the focal point of the defense is definitely Clay Matthews because of his explosive rush skills off the edge. With that in mind, it's important to keep Mack's potential in perspective when making comparisons leading up to the draft. He might be ideally suited to play the role of Robin instead of Batman for an elite defense.
The Blaine Gabbert experiment
Posted: March 12, 2014 at 7:33 p.m.
Whenever a top prospect fails to make his mark in the NFL, scouts around the league will study the player's performance and see why he failed to live up to expectations. While there are always a ton of factors, including misevaluation, scheme fit, injury history and mental make up, that can determine whether a player succeeds or fails in a situation, scouts will use the evaluation to help them assess future players down the road.
That's why I believe it's the perfect time to examine Blaine Gabbert and his failures with the Jacksonville Jaguars after being touted as a potential franchise quarterback in the 2011 class. Of course, it's easy to point out the flaws of the player in hindsight, but I believe it's necessary to review previous reports to see if we ignored glaring red flags on a player during the pre-draft process. Additionally, it is important to examine the team's role in the disappointment to determine if a change of scenery would produce a better result down the road. Here's are my observations:
The Gabbert evaluation
There's no doubt in my mind that Gabbert has all of the physical tools that scouts and coaches look for at the position. He measures in with prototypical physical dimensions, yet is an impressive athlete with better than anticipated movement skills. In college, Gabbert displayed above-average arm strength and capably made pinpoint throws at the intermediate range. While he struggled connecting on vertical throws outside of the numbers, Gabbert flashed enough to lead me to believe he would develop into a quality starting quarterback. I will acknowledge that there were some other issues that concerned me when I watched the tape -- pocket presence and blitz awareness -- but the talent and potential were there to justify his status as a top talent worthy of being a first-round pick.
In Jacksonville, Gabbert was a major disappointment based on his status as the franchise quarterback. He didn't exude confidence on the field; he struggled showing the leadership that teams expect from the quarterback. From a playing standpoint, Gabbert flashed outstanding talent and potential on occasion. He made pinpoint throws when operating from a clean pocket and showed the ability to hit receivers in the strike zone when he was able to work through his progression without duress. Additionally, he showed a decent feel for orchestrating the game from the line of scrimmage when given freedom to make adjustments.
Looking at the flaws in Gabbert's game, I would point to his questionable poise, courage and pocket awareness. He overreacted to rushers in close proximity, leading him to hold onto the ball instead of standing tall and delivering bullets to receivers downfield despite the pocket collapsing. I can see how playing behind a suspect offensive line can lead to jitters within the pocket, but Gabbert didn't show adequate blitz anticipation or awareness when facing pressure in the pocket. Of course, he will need to become a better playmaker from the pocket in blitz situations to become a quality starter in the NFL, but he has to make major strides in this area to play up to his talent and potential.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Gabbert's slow transition to the pro game is not surprising because of his limited exposure to pro passing concepts in college. Missouri operated a simplistic spread offensive system that consisted of a lot of "pick and stick" routes where Gabbert would quickly identify and deliver the ball to the primary receiver. The concepts didn't require full-field reads, nor did they put a tremendous burden on Gabbert as a decision maker. With most NFL offenses featuring complex passing concepts, the hesitation and indecision exhibited by Gabbert is partially because of his unfamiliarity with complex passing progressions.
Where the Jaguars went wrong with Gabbert
When a team selects a quarterback at the top of the board, the organization is expected to do everything within reason to help him succeed. The team must commit to surrounding the franchise quarterback with enough playmakers to succeed, while also adding enough big bodies upfront to keep him protected. Looking at the Jaguars' acquisitions during Gabbert's tenure, I believe instability in the coaching ranks derailed his chances of succeeding as a starting quarterback. Gabbert played in three offensive systems during his three years with the Jaguars; he never spent enough time in a scheme to master the nuances of the passing game. Thus, he never had an opportunity to really work on refining his mechanics because he was always starting from scratch during the offseason.
From a personnel standpoint, the Jaguars didn't add enough weaponry to help Gabbert succeed. To be fair, the Jaguars attempted to land a No. 1 receiver by selecting Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick of the 2012 draft, but the talented pass catcher has missed parts of the past two seasons battling a host of off-field issues. Additionally, the Jaguars misfired in free agency when Laurent Robinson failed to live up to the hype as a big play receiver. Without a big-time target to lean on in the passing game, Gabbert struggled finding his way as a passer and playmaker in Jacksonville.
Will Gabbert rediscover his game in San Francisco?
Yes. I'm not saying that Gabbert will supplant Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers' quarterback of the future, but I do believe he will fulfill some of the promise that he flashed at times in Jacksonville. Jim Harbaugh has a stellar track record of developing young quarterbacks -- Josh Johnson at the University of San Diego; Andrew Luck at Stanford; Alex Smith and Kaepernick with the 49ers -- so I'm willing to bet on his ability to rebuild Gabbert's game. Harbaugh will help Gabbert refine his mechanics within the pocket, while also crafting a quarterback-friendly system that will accentuate the quarterback's strengths as a player. He took a similar approach with Smith during his first season and transformed Kaepernick into a lethal weapon in Year 2. Given the different playing styles of each player, I'm convinced Harbaugh has feel for maximizing the talents of his signal caller through development and design.
With Gabbert in desperate need of a strong teacher, positive encouragement and a stable environment, I think we might see the fourth-year pro live up to some of the hype that preceded his arrival in the league. More important, he might show enough potential to give the 49ers some leverage in negotiation showdown with Kaepernick down the road.
Man vs. Machine: Assessing defensive linemen NFL comps
Posted: March 11, 2014 at 11:35 a.m.
The key to building a dominant defense in the NFL begins and ends in the trenches. Teams with multiple disruptive defenders at the point of attack enjoy a significant advantage over their opponents. Look no further than the impressive defenses of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers to see the impact of pitting a collection of ferocious defensive tackles and defensive ends against a hapless offensive line. Those aforementioned units didn't just bludgeon their opponents at the point of attack, but they wreaked havoc on the psyche of the quarterback due to the collective disruption of the frontline.
Looking ahead to the 2014 class of defensive tackles and defensive ends, there are a handful of prospects with the potential to overwhelm opponents with their size, strength and athleticism. While I could certainly rattle off a handful of names worthy of an extensive study, I thought taking a look at Jadeveon Clowney and Aaron Donald -- the top prospects at each position -- would allow the computer to spit out some interesting comparisons to discuss. NFL Insight certainly didn't disappoint in the latest installment of Man vs. Machine.
Scout's Take: I found it interesting that NFL Insight compared the top prospect in the 2014 class with a couple of enigmatic defenders with freakish athleticism and physical tools. Jason Pierre-Paul and Carlos Dunlap were undoubtedly two of the top defensive ends in the 2010 draft, but questions about their experience (Pierre-Paul only played one season at South Florida) and character (Dunlap was arrested for a DUI prior to the SEC Championship Game; scouts had reservations about his motor after spotting him taking a few plays off in big games) led to several teams dropping them down their respective draft boards. However, both guys have silenced the skeptics questioning their games by posting solid numbers as pass rushers (Dunlap has 27.5 sacks; Pierre-Paul has 29.5 sacks). With Clowney sporting similar physical dimensions and athletic characteristics, the comparisons to Pierre-Paul stand out to me due to his dominance as an edge rusher for the New York Giants. He notched 16.5 sacks in his second season; he showcased a dizzying array of moves at the line of scrimmage that made him nearly impossible to block off the edges. Although injuries have kept Pierre-Paul from playing at a Pro Bowl level the past two seasons, coaches and scouts still view the Giants star as an elite rusher in the league. If Clowney can up the energy and effort in his play, there's no reason why he shouldn't surpass Pierre-Paul on the way to becoming the league's premier pass rusher.
Scout's Take: Aaron Donald has surged up draft boards since the end of the season following spectacular performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. He dominated the competition with his relentless motor and remarkable first-step quickness, while also displaying strength, power and athleticism coaches covet in interior defenders. Looking at the comparable players suggested by NFL Insight, I'm not surprised Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins makes the list. The undersized tackle has dominated the NFL with his athleticism and disruptive skills, tallying 29 sacks in four seasons -- remarkable production for an interior defender. Donald is a natural comparison based on his sub-standard physical dimensions, but extraordinary athleticism and quickness. Studying their respective numbers from the combine, I'm a bit surprised Donald surpasses the veteran in nearly every category, including the 40-yard dash. Atkins is regarded as the quickest and most explosive defender currently in the NFL, so the fact that Donald clocks a faster 10-yard split time suggests that he could be nightmare to block at the point of attack. While I'm not ready to anoint him as a superior prospect to Atkins at this time, I definitely believe he has the tools to be a great one at the next level.
Landing Mallett could make Texans contender
Posted: March 9, 2014 at 10:20 a.m.
The team desperately needs to acquire a young quarterback with elite talent to legitimately compete in the AFC, yet the 2014 quarterback class doesn't offer a "can't-miss" prospect at the position. While I believe Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and eventually Blake Bortles could develop into solid starting quarterbacks in the NFL, there are certainly questions about whether each prospect possesses enough blue-chip characteristics (size, arm talent and leadership skills) to be considered at the top of the board.
That's why the Texans' potential move to acquire Mallett makes sense for a team trying to return to the ranks of the elite in the AFC. The third-year pro is a classic dropback passer who would likely rank as the top quarterback in this class based on his size, arm talent and production at Arkansas during his final season. In fact, you could argue that he should have been the second or third quarterback taken in the 2011 draft, if character concerns didn't cloud his evaluation. Mallett was a better pure passer than Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert by a considerable margin; he demonstrated more blue-chip characteristics than Andy Dalton throughout his collegiate career.
Although Mallett hasn't had many opportunities to showcase his talents as a pro in regular-season action, scouts have been impressed with his arm talent, pocket presence and leadership skills when studying his performance in the preseason. From the Texans' perspective, Mallett is intriguing because he is familiar with Bill O'Brien's offensive system and he has spent three seasons acclimating to the NFL as Tom Brady's backup. Of course, that doesn't guarantee success as a potential starter, but the fact that O'Brien played an integral role in evaluating and developing Mallett during his time in New England (they spent the 2011 season together with the Patriots) could help the third-year pro hit the ground running as a starter in Houston.
Looking at draft implications, the Texans would likely lose their second-round pick, but gain the services of a young quarterback with more potential than any quarterback in the 2014 class. Additionally, the retention of the No. 1 overall pick would allow the team to select Jadeveon Clowney to fortify a defense that is already regarded as one of the best in the league.
Given the recent success of the Seattle Seahawks, who won a championship behind a dominant defense and a young, talented quarterback, the move to acquire Mallett could help the Texans become a contender again in the AFC.
Switch to defense would suit NIU's Lynch
Posted: March 8, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
I'm not surprised to hear reports of Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch working out at safety during his pro day workout. I believed the Heisman Trophy finalist was destined to play a different position in the NFL after watching him struggle as a passer in the MAC championship game and the East-West Shrine Game. He simply lacked the arm talent, accuracy and precision to be effective enough as a pocket passer to make his mark in the league at quarterback. Thus, I believed teams would project Lynch as a running back, wide receiver or safety when they assessed his potential as an NFL prospect during the spring.
While I certainly understand the intrigue with Lynch playing running back or wide receiver at the next level due to his remarkable production as a dual-threat playmaker for the Huskies, I believe a move to safety would give him the best chance to carve out a nice career as a pro. Measuring 6-foot, 217 pounds, Lynch certainly possesses the size to play the position, while his exploits as an option quarterback suggests that he is tough enough to handle the physical demands of the position. Athletically, Lynch is a smooth mover with the speed and quickness (Lynch's 6.55-second time in the 3-cone drill was the third-fastest mark among all participants at the NFL Scouting Combine) to play in the secondary. Throw in his natural leadership ability and communication skills he displayed as one of the top quarterbacks in college football, and Lynch has several of the core traits defensive coaches covet in a safety.
Now, I will be the first to point out that Lynch will face an uphill climb to make a roster following a position switch, but his ability to contribute as a playmaker on special teams could buy him enough time to master the nuances of the position while making contributions as an active player. I underwent a similar transition when I moved from wide receiver to defensive back with the Green Bay Packers in 1996, but my ability to contribute as a kick returner and versatile special-teams defender allowed me to hold a spot on the roster until I was capable of making my mark as a defender.
If Lynch will fully commit to becoming a valuable member of the special-teams units, while learning the fundamentals as a defensive back, he could carve out a nice NFL career as a clone of former Jets safety Scott Frost.
Man vs. Machine: Assessing offensive linemen NFL comps
Posted: March 8, 2014 at 7:46 a.m.
During my time with the Seattle Seahawks, I had the opportunity to watch Hall of Fame offensive tackle Walter Jones develop into the most dominant player at his position. A nine-time Pro Bowler, Jones overwhelmed defenders with his size, strength and power, yet played with flawless technique and discipline on the edge. Jones also exhibited tremendous balance, body control and athleticism on the perimeter, and watching him helped me develop a keen understanding of the physical characteristics needed to excel at the position in the NFL.
Looking at the 2014 offensive tackle class, I believe there are three prospects -- Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson and Taylor Lewan -- with the tools to develop into dominant players at the next level. Each prospect is an extraordinary athlete with body control and quickness to thrive on the edges. Yet, they also display the strength and power to crush defenders with their physicality and toughness. Factor in their sound technical skills, and it's not a surprise scouts are excited about their long-term potential in the NFL.
Of course, my opinion comes from countless hours of film study, workout observations and conversations with scouts. Let's see what the computer says in the latest version of Man vs. Machine.
Scout's Take: Matthews surprised the NFL scouts with his athleticism and movement skills at the NFL Combine. While most evaluators expected him to perform well in positional drills because of his impressive technical skills, few observers expected him to post times that rivaled some of the top athletes at the position. I'll be the first to admit that elite athleticism isn't required to be a standout offensive tackle as a pro, but a technically sound player with superior movement skills has a chance to be special at the position. Looking at the list of comparisons produced by the computer, I'm not surprised two-time Pro Bowler Duane Brown was cited as one of the players linked to Matthews. The sixth-year veteran has been a standout performer for the Texans since entering the league, exhibiting exceptional technique and competitiveness on the edge. With Matthews showing the same qualities during his time at Texas A&M, it's very likely that he will earn Pro Bowl honors very early in his career.
Scout's Take: Robinson emerged as one of the most dominant offensive linemen in college football during his junior campaign at Auburn. He exhibited exceptional strength and power mauling defenders in the run game and displayed outstanding balance and body control in pass protection. Although Robinson's rare athleticism stood out on tape, it was his spectacular performance at the Combine that convinced most evaluators in the football community that he has the talent to develop into one of the top players at the position as a pro. Studying the pros listed by the computer, Joe Thomas is the ideal comparison for Robinson. The seven-time Pro Bowler has become the gold standard at the position, exhibiting exceptional technical skills and athleticism while dominating defenders on the edge. Robinson must perform well from Day 1 to merit this comparison to Thomas, who has set the pace at the position.
Scout's Take: Lewan was considered one of the top offensive tackles in the 2014 class heading into the NFL Combine, but a sensational performance in Indianapolis has vaulted him into the discussion as a possible top 10 pick. His rise up the charts has been fueled by an appreciation for his solid game on tape, but the remarkable display of athleticism, balance and body control bolstered his candidacy as a top pick. I believe Lewan deserves to be compared to Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson. Both prospects switched to their respective positions late in their athletic careers after playing as skill players as youngsters: Johnson played quarterback and tight end at Kilgore College before switching to offensive tackle at Oklahoma; Fisher played tight end in high school before moving to offensive tackle late in his career. Thus, they are raw, unpolished players prone to rely on their athleticism instead of fundamentals in key moments. Although each player has succeeded because of his athletic advantages, their struggles against elite defenders exposed their lack of polished footwork and fundamentals. While I regard Lewan as a better player than Fisher and Johnson at this stage of his career, I could see the Michigan standout taking some time to acclimate to the pro game because of his limited playing history at the position; Lewan played only one year at offensive tackle in high school before spending five seasons at Michigan).
Man vs. Machine: Assessing tight ends' NFL comps
Posted: March 6, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.
The NFL has become a passing league, with coaches entrusting their quarterback to make pinpoint throws to big-bodied targets all over the field. While the majority of teams have directed the majority of their passes to wide receivers positioned outside the numbers, the league's most explosive offenses have found a way to build their respective schemes around a big, athletic tight end roaming between the hashes.
That's why teams are intent on finding the next Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski to anchor their passing game for the next few years. With a 2014 class that features a host of big-bodied pass catchers with explosive speed and quickness, coaches are salivating about the possibility of adding a game changer to the line up. Looking at the crop of tight ends set to enter the league, I'm intrigued by the talent and potential of North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro. Both are dominant players within their respective conferences, exhibiting the athleticism, toughness and ball skills that are key to succeeding in the NFL.
Of course, my assessment is based off film study and workout observations. However, NFL Insight bases their comparisons off the empirical data compiled at the NFL Scouting Combine. While it will take at least three years to determine which method was correct, I'm excited to take a look at the numbers in this installment of Man vs. Machine ...
Scout's Take: Ebron is unquestionably one of the most explosive playmakers in the 2014 draft. He set a new ACC record for receiving yards by a tight end (895), while terrorizing opponents with his freakish athleticism. Measuring 6-4, 250 pounds, Ebron moves like a wide receiver, yet possesses the body of a basketball power forward. Given his agility, balance and body control, I believe the computer correctly selected a group of players with similar skills sets. Cook and Cameron are Pro Bowl-caliber players, but I foresee Ebron become an elite player at the position early in his career.
Scout's Take: It's hard to find a productive tight end with soft hands and polished overall game, but that's what I see when I study Amaro on tape. The Texas Tech star is a dominant playmaker with a crafty playing style that lulls defenders to sleep on the perimeter. Looking at the list of names produced by the computer, I believe Gresham is an apt comparison for Amaro. The two-time Pro Bowler is a wily route runner with strong hands and outstanding ball skills. Although he doesn't play at warp speed in the passing game, Gresham is nearly indefensible in one-on-one match ups. With Amaro showing similar traits on the collegiate level, I would expect the Texas Tech star to produce comparable results as a pro.
Man vs. Machine: Assessing wide receivers' NFL comps
Posted: March 5, 2014 at 4:42 p.m.
The 2014 NFL Draft features the deepest and most talented collection of wide receivers that I've seen in more than a decade. Teams looking for big-bodied pass catchers or explosive "catch and run" playmakers will be able to find their guys at every stage of the draft. I believed this group was special when I graded them individually during the regular season; that belief was confirmed when I watched them work out at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Now, I definitely believe the performance at the glorified track meet should be kept in perspective, but there's something to looking at the numbers to project what a prospect can produce at the next level. Of course, I cross-reference that opinion by my findings through film study, which makes it hard for me to completely buy into the NFL Insight's findings based on the pure empirical data. With that in mind, let's take a look at the wide receivers in my third installment of Man vs. Machine ...
Scout's Take: Watkins has emerged as the No. 1 receiver in the draft after totaling 1,464 yards on 101 catches with 12 touchdowns in 2013. Those numbers are certainly remarkable, but they pale in comparison to the exceptional skills that Watkins displays as an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands. The Clemson star is a rare speedster capable of making plays on vertical throws or converting short passes into big gains. Looking at the list of comparisons, Watkins is already a more complete receiver than Mike Wallace at this stage of his career. He is not as explosive (see times in the 40-yard dash and short shuttles, plus the vertical jump), but he is a more polished route runner and displays better hands. Williams and Randle have shown flashes, but neither is a valid comparison based on their skills.
Scout's Take: The Biletnikoff Award winner was cited as the best receiver on the West Coast by several scouts that I spoke to during the season. Cooks lived up to the hype by putting on a spectacular performance at the NFL Scouting Combine that showcased his rare combination of speed, quickness and body control. He caught the ball well in drills, and showed better than anticipated route-running skills during the workout. Looking at Cooks' performance on the FieldTurf at Lucas Oil Stadium, it matched the explosive playmaking skills that I saw when I studied the game tape. Comparing Cooks to the players spit out by the machine, I believe his game and skill set closely resembles Harvin. He displays cat-like quickness in the open field, yet is a hard-nosed runner who is tough to bring down. With his numbers (check out his ridiculous 20-yard shuttle time) bearing out that fact, Cook could be a special player at the next level.
Scout's Take: Big-bodied pass catchers like Evans are currently the rage in the NFL due to their ability to dominate in the red zone. Quarterbacks routinely throw alley-oop passes to big, athletic receivers near the back of the end zone to take advantage of their superior physical dimensions. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I was surprised by Evans' overall athleticism and route running skills at the NFL Scouting Combine. He looks like an ideal No. 1 receiver, with the ability to make plays on intermediate and vertical routes. While he certainly isn't in the class of A.J. Green based on his natural ability, it's certainly a better player and prospect than Quick and Baldwin.
Scout's Take: Lee is coming off a disappointing final season at USC, but scouts are keenly aware of his dynamic playmaking ability based on his first two seasons as a Trojan. Lee is one of the best athletes in the draft, exhibiting outstanding explosiveness in drills at the NFL Scouting Combine. Looking at the film, Lee is dynamite with the ball in his hands in the open field. Comparing Lee to the players mentioned on this list, Lee falls in line with Brown and Wright as a playmaker. Both guys are terrific "catch and run" playmakers, with the speed to take it the distance in the open field.
Scout's Take: Benjamin has been compared to some of the dominant big-bodied receivers in the NFL due to his big-play ability on the perimeter. While his combine performance suggests he isn't as explosive as anticipated, Benjamin falls in line with the guys mentioned on this list from an athletic standpoint. As a player, Benjamin appears to have better long-term potential, but he is a "one-year wonder" with a limited track record of production. I will give the nod to NFL Insight on this one because I would like to see longer resume of production for a prospect regarded as an elite player.
How NFL teams utilize mock drafts
Posted: March 5, 2014 at 11:52 a.m.
There's nothing that drives more conversation this time of year than mock drafts. And while I enjoy the banter and even the criticism that comes from Twitter and other forms of social media when I release one, I believe fans can become better acquainted with the pre-draft process if they understood the method behind the madness.
Here are some thoughts I wanted to share on mock drafts and the impact in NFL team war rooms around the league.
1. What's the strategy behind writing a mock draft?
A mock draft is simply an exercise that connects the dots between top prospects and teams based on team needs/player grades. Now, I know that sounds like a page from the Mock Draft 101 manual, but the exercise is truly a matchmaking contest with factors like scheme fit and positional depth playing a major role into the decision-making process.
As an NFL scout, I was taught to grade a player based on a set of criteria established by the team I was working for at the time. From physical dimensions and athleticism to playing ability and long-term potential, I was instructed to pay attention to the core qualities that will make him a productive player in our scheme. This is how most teams approach player evaluation, but the criteria changes based on the preferences of the head coach and general manager. Thus, scouts from various teams will rank top prospects differently on their respective boards based on the anticipated fit within a scheme.
When I sit down to conduct a mock draft, I attempt to take those factors into consideration. I try to get a feel for each team's preferences by analyzing their previous drafts and speaking to colleagues around the league. Additionally, I will assess and prioritize their team needs to determine their likely direction on draft day. I will also look at that depth and talent of the player pool at each position to determine the talent disparity at various levels of the draft.
For instance, the 2014 wide receiver class features as many as seven or eight guys worthy of receiving first-round grades. Thus, teams can wait on taking a receiver early because a comparable receiver could be available in the second round.
After conducting those scenarios at every position, I will work down the list of teams and players to determine which players are ideal fits. I will also look at the impact of free agent signings on the roster composition and see if the moves are significant enough to fill a team need. Finally, I will consider a potential surprise selection at the top of the draft to work through the possibilities down the line. While some of the moves might appear outlandish, we've seen odd things occur on draft day in recent history. Thus, it never hurts to play those moves out in advance.
2. What's the difference between a mock draft and a big board?
If you really want to know how I view a player, you should spend more time looking at my big board instead of the latest version of my mock draft. While I certainly love the exercise of playing matchmaker, I put most of my time and effort into getting players right on my board. This list mirrors the vertical board that is listed in every teams draft room because it ranks top prospects according to their talent and long-term potential. I watch at least three game tapes on each player before assigning a grade, which is the same rule I adhered to during my time as a scout.
From a team perspective, the big board is akin to the vertical board that I've discussed at length with Daniel Jeremiah and Matt "Money" Smith on a recent College Football 24/7 podcast.
Most teams will rank the top prospects in order from 1-150 on a sideboard based on overall talent and potential. It is important to note that this list doesn't separate players by position. It is a compilation of the best available players in the draft. If a general manager or head coach adheres to the "best available player" premise at their respective pick, the top player remaining on the list should be the team's choice when it's their turn on draft day.
Of course, it sounds easy to simply pick players off the board like we're playing a pickup game in the park, but the teams that traditionally draft well are confident in their rankings and stick with their board regardless of what the outside world thinks.
For instance, I've heard the New England Patriots will whittle their vertical board down to 75 prospects by draft day. Now, I know that appears to be a really narrow list based on the number of prospects in each draft, but having a clear idea of the players you want to add to the team reduces the chances of misfiring on a pick.
For my big board, I typically stick with 25 players because I learned from Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan that most drafts feature only 22-26 prospects with first-round ability. Although there are 32 spots in the first round, the back end is reserved for the 15-20 prospects that are considered borderline ones and twos.
3. Do NFL teams pay attention to mock drafts?
Yes. I must preface that answer by saying all mock drafts aren't created equal, but teams certainly pay attention to mock drafts conducted by prominent beat writers and NFL insiders. Some executives believe a handful of writers are privy to accurate information that plays out on draft day. While they are fully aware of the smokescreen element, the fact that certain teams are tied to specific players could indicate a serious interest in a player.
In fact, when I worked with the Carolina Panthers we would keep track of eight writers' mock drafts to see if there was a trend that popped up during the pre-draft process. Although we didn't place a lot of stock in that information early in the process, we would scan and discuss a few mock drafts during the week leading up to the draft to see if it matched up with the buzz that we heard from colleagues on the road. It didn't change our draft-day strategy or affect our ranking system, but it was one of the ways we prepared for every potential scenario leading up to the draft.
Man vs. Machine: Assessing running backs' NFL comps
Posted: March 4, 2014 at 3:49 p.m.
The devaluation of the running back position in the NFL was officially confirmed in the 2013 NFL Draft when no running backs were selected in the first round for the first time in 50 years.
Although I continue to believe the presence of strong running game remains essential to winning games, the facts support the notion that elite running backs can be found at every stage of the draft. Three of the last five regular-season rushing champions were drafted outside of the first round, including LeSean McCoy (Round 2, 2009), Maurice Jones-Drew (Round 2, 2006) and Arian Foster (undrafted free agent, 2009). And five out of the top six rushers in 2013 were drafted outside of Round 1, including McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray.
Without a clear-cut first-rounder in the 2014 running back class, I thought it was a good time to check out NFL Insight's comparisons to see if any of these runners has the potential to become a dominant player as a pro. While the computer will spit out pro comps based on physical dimensions and measurements, I prefer to rely on a combination of film study, statistical analysis and intuition to determine whether a player has the goods to excel at the next level.
Scout's Take: It's interesting that the computer kicked out Jennings and Greene as comparisons for Hyde. Both players have shown flashes of talent as temporary workhorses, but neither has been given a chance to fully operate as a feature back. Thus, I believe the evaluation falls a little short. Hyde has all of the tools needed to be a No. 1 runner in a power-based offense. He runs with power between the tackles, yet flashes enough speed to turn the corner on outside runs. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield, leading to a role as a three-down player. With a running style that's strikingly similar to Arian Foster, I believe Hyde is a better prospect than the players suggested by the computer.
Scout's Take: Hill is an old-school runner with the size, strength and power to wear down opponents as a feature back in a physical offense. He compares favorably to Bell as a downhill runner, but the Steelers' back is a superior pass-catcher out of the backfield. Although injuries derailed Wells' career, I believe Hill is a better overall player and it's not even close.
Scout's Take: Carey serves a shining example for why scouts must trust the film over the stopwatch. The Arizona star dominated the Pac-12 for the past two seasons, with 22 100-yard games during that span. Although he clocked a pedestrian 4.70-second time in the 40, a look at the tape reveals a violent runner with sneaky quickness and elusiveness. Additionally, Carey is a crafty receiver out of the backfield with a knack for making defenders miss in space. Williams and Ballard have enjoyed fleeting moments in the league, but neither is in Carey's class as a playmaker.
Scout's Take: Mason has been miscast as a system runner based on the remarkable deception and misdirection of the Auburn offense. But a close look at his skills reveals a talented runner with outstanding balance, body control, and vision. Now, Mason's size could prevent him from playing a prominent role in some offenses, but his natural running skills surpass the runners listed above. I'll take Mason in this scenario because he reminds me of a young Marion Barber III with the ball in his hands.
Scout's Take: Credit NFL Insight for spitting out a list of intriguing players, but Sims is a more versatile player than his NFL comps. The West Virginia star is a dynamic weapon out of the backfield with the running and receiving skills to develop into a 100/1,000 player in the NFL. If I had to make a comparison to a current pro, I would cite Matt Forte due to his overall versatility and smooth running style. As the NFL continues to evolve into a passing league governed by players with special skills with the ball in their hands, Sims brings a skill set that could help him become a star in an innovative offense that incorporates the running backs into the passing game.
Putting NFL draft analytics to the test
Posted: March 3, 2014 at 4:15 p.m.
I've often wondered why analytics have been used prominently in the pre-draft evaluations in other major sports leagues, but haven't been fully incorporated into the scouting process in the NFL. The old-school mentality of scouts in pro football prompts decision-makers to rely more on gut instincts and feel instead of statistical analysis when making player evaluations and comparisons.
That's why I initially resisted taking on a project that asked me to examine player comparisons based solely on NFL Insight, a statistical database developed by the NFL that examines data at the NFL Scouting Combine since 2003. While I certainly believe statistical analysis should play a role in evaluating players, I don't believe the numbers can accurately portray a prospect's talent or potential without factoring in key variables (scheme, opponent, weather conditions, etc.) that ultimately affect performance. I also believe the impact of pre-combine training has skewed the measurements in several drills, namely the 40-yard dash, pro-agility shuttle and three-cone drill. Thus, the combine numbers are no longer indicative of a prospect's pure speed or athleticism on the field.
A prospect's DNA is revealed on game film. Astute evaluators are able to assess a player's talent, performance, and overall potential by digging into the tape to see how well he has performed against elite competition. Although past performance is certainly not an accurate predictor of future results, it does provide a host of clues that allow scouts to make solid assessments on a player's long-term potential in the right environment.
With that as a backdrop, I would like to play a game of man vs. computer over the next couple of weeks to test my evaluation skills against NFL Insight. I will analyze the pro comparisons on a handful of prospects that the computer spit out, and let you know where it was right and where it went wrong. Given the importance of the quarterback position, I believe it is only right that we start with two of the top quarterbacks in the 2014 class, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles, to see what past prospects they're connected to based on their combine test results.
NFL Insight: Johnny Manziel
Scout's Take: Although both Smith and Kolb have carved out respectable NFL careers, neither possesses Manziel's improvisational skills, nor his ability to raise his game against elite competition. With the NFL game continuing to evolve to take advantage of the talents of athletic quarterbacks, I would expect Manziel to have a greater impact on the league than Smith and Kolb. In fact, I believe he will remind many of Fran Tarkenton and Doug Flutie when he steps onto the field this fall.
Interesting note: Manziel weighed 207 pounds at the combine, which would make him the lightest quarterback drafted in the first round since 2003 if he is taken on May 8th.
NFL Insight: Blake Bortles
Scout's Take: NFL Insight might have this comparison right based on the similar physical dimensions and playing styles of the group. Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub, in particular, are good comparisons because they are classic drop-back quarterbacks adept at doing their damage from the pocket. While Bortles offers greater mobility than Schaub, he can't rival the arm strength of Flacco as a pure passer. Regardless, the Super Bowl XLVII MVP ranks as an ideal player comparison for Bortles based on his game and overall talent.
Interesting note: Bortles (4.93) would be one of the slowest quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds of the draft since 2003.
Clowney critiques going too far
Posted: March 2, 2014 at 1 p.m.
I've been one of Jadeveon Clowney's harshest critics, but I believe the concerns about his work ethic and character have been greatly exaggerated at this point. While I certainly respect the dissenting opinion shared by an anonymous scout in a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about the South Carolina star, I've been in enough war rooms to know the difference between a legitimate character concern and a case of complacency. After studying Clowney extensively for the past two seasons, there is no doubt in my mind that his inconsistent effort and energy is simply a case of an ultra-talented player lacking the self-awareness to understand his deficiencies.
Now, I'm certainly not in love with Clowney's lackluster enthusiasm and hustle in some games, but I also understand that these poor habits were likely ignored on the practice field by the head coach, defensive coordinator and several defensive assistants. If the Gamecocks' coaching staff didn't emphasize running to the ball or playing from snap to whistle, I can't hold Clowney completely responsible for his actions on the field. He is simply doing what he's been coached to do without regard for the urgency and tempo needed to excel as a pro.
That's why it's important for scouts to observe top prospects in practice to assess their work habits, while also seeing if they've been pushed or challenged by their coaches. This information is critical for decision makers because it provides context and perspective on where a prospect is in his development and how well he will fit into the culture of the locker room. Most importantly, it allows a general manager and head coach to determine whether they have the ideal position coach or coordinator to teach, motivate and encourage a talented prospect to maximize his potential.
During my time with the Carolina Panthers, I watched John Fox and Marty Hurney take a similar approach with Julius Peppers. The eight-time Pro Bowler was regarded as a mercurial talent with a questionable motor when he entered the NFL in 2002, but the Panthers believed their locker-room culture and coaching staff would bring out the best in Peppers. The no-nonsense coaching styles of Mike Trgovac, Sal Sunseri and Jack Del Rio (who left Carolina after Peppers' rookie season) pushed Peppers to excel, helping him earn the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award at season's end. Additionally, the presence of veteran leaders Brentson Buckner and Mike Rucker created an environment of accountability in the meeting room that prompted Peppers to raise his level of performance to fit in with the group.
With that in mind, I believe it's important for teams considering Clowney to understand the makeup of their coaching staff and locker room. If there is strong leadership present in both areas, Clowney will thrive and fulfill the lofty expectations that will accompany his arrival in league. The collective peer pressure will help him practice and perform at a level that matches his talent. Given Clowney's impressive physical dimensions, athleticism and disruptive potential, I'm confident the freakishly talented playmaker can become a dominant player in the league, if put in the right environment.
Cooks player comparison: Panthers' Smith
Posted: March 1, 2014 at 7:52 a.m.
I found it interesting that Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier boldly compared his game to a pair of elite NFL linebackers in a recent interview with USA Today because the comparison game is a major part of the pre-draft process.
Scouts routinely liken prospects to current or former pros in their scouting reports to provide decision makers with a vision of what a player could become at the next level. Although these comparisons are certainly not accurate predictors of future success, they are critical to evaluations because they can sway the undecided voter in the room. This is especially true when presenting a prospect's case to the coaching staff. Unlike scouts who are taught to consider long-term potential when assessing a prospect's game, coaches are typically focused on immediate production and impact potential. Thus, they need to have a clear vision of how a player will make a contribution to the team and how his game could develop over the first few seasons of his career.
Given the importance of painting an accurate picture to the general manager or head coach, I would attempt to match up prospects with a top NFL player with similar physical traits and playing styles. Additionally, I would try to project the prospect's best position as a pro and find a comparable player excelling at that spot with like characteristics. That's why it's important for college scouts to study the NFL over the summer to have a better feel for the top players in the game, while also monitoring how young players have developed early in their careers.
For instance, I spent several years watching Steve Smith develop into a Pro Bowl receiver in Carolina after entering the NFL as a return specialist. Although he is a diminutive receiver by traditional standards, he was an explosive player with remarkable speed, athleticism and leaping ability. Those traits are the same ones that stood out to me when I watched Oregon State's Brandin Cooks dominate the Pac-12 this fall despite measuring only 5-8, 189 pounds. The Biletnikoff Award winner is a dynamic playmaker with exceptional speed and quickness. He excels at blowing past defenders on vertical routes, yet is a threat to take it the distance from anywhere on the field on "catch and run" passes. With Smith regarded as one of the top receivers in the NFL during his heyday, my comparison allows coaches to envision the kind of impact I expect Cooks to make as a pro.
A picture is worth a thousand words -- identifying a valid NFL comparison for a prospect is not only a critical part of the evaluation process, but it is key to selling a prospect's talent and potential to decision makers in meeting rooms.
Defensive coaches will prefer Manziel over Carr
Posted: Feb. 28, 2014 at 01:31 p.m.
I'm not surprised at the results of a poll conducted at the NFL Scouting Combine that revealed no fewer than 17 NFL quarterback coaches favored Fresno State's Derek Carr over Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
While I don't believe Carr is a better long-term prospect than Manziel, he is a more traditional quarterback, and NFL quarterback coaches will be more comfortable working with him because he is likelier to play within the confines of their systems.
Now, that doesn't appear to be a big deal on the surface, but offensive coaches have long preferred quarterbacks who stick with the script because it allows the success of the offense to be credited to the system. With owners prone to hiring the hottest offensive coordinator for head coaching vacancies, the need for credit runs rampant throughout the league.
In Manziel's case, I've always believed he would be viewed in a different light by a defensive-minded head coach. Former defensive coordinators have a deeper respect for an improvisational playmaker because they understand the challenges of defending such a quarterback. Just look around the league. It's not a coincidence Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger were selected by former defensive coordinators.
Those coaches embraced the idea of trotting out an athletic playmaker because they know the problems he creates on the field. With an athletic quarterback, offenses see fewer blitzes and more static coverage due to the threat of the run. If the quarterback is a capable pocket passer, the offense enjoys a decided advantage against simplistic schemes.
I believe Manziel will come off the board within the first five picks regardless of the prevailing opinion of quarterback coaches around the league. QB-needy teams Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland are led by defensive-minded head coaches. Given the option to play with or against a spectacular playmaker like Manziel, I'm confident one of them would choose to have Johnny Football on their side despite objections of their offensive coaches.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.