Editor's note: NFL.com analysts and former NFL scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of the Move The Sticks Podcast share some of their college-scouting notes, including:
But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Jeremiah's look at how the Super Bowl could affect this year's draft.
The NFL is known as a copycat league, where successful teams are often emulated. I reached out to some personnel executives around the league after the Patriots' win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI to see if the success of these two teams would have any impact on the upcoming offseason. What will teams look to adopt from the Falcons and Patriots? The answers were pretty consistent and very interesting.
The most popular theme revolved around the Falcons' improved defense. Speed! That is the word I heard more than any other during these discussions. Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff did an outstanding job of upgrading the speed on his defense by drafting explosive linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell as well as adding a dynamic safety in Keanu Neal. The emergence of Vic Beasley as a premier pass rusher also had a major impact on the Falcons' defensive performance this season. I think they could add even more speed in the upcoming draft -- I have them taking UCLA DE Tak McKinley in my latest mock draft. McKinley has a track background and is expected to post a blistering 40-yard-dash time.
Most of the teams at the bottom of the NFL standings are slow. That's a popular opinion in NFL circles. Speed isn't a luxury in today's NFL -- it's a necessity. Over the last handful of drafts, we've seen undersized linebackers with exceptional speed make an immediate impact at the next level. The Falcons' Deion Jones is the latest example, following guys like Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. I think you will see teams elevate these undersized speedsters in the upcoming draft. Big, physical players will be passed over for smaller/faster options.
When it comes to the Patriots, executives mention how much they admire the mental toughness of the guys on their roster. This is a little tougher to predict through the evaluation process. Scouts need to have outstanding sources on college campuses to accurately gauge both the mental and physical toughness of these draft prospects. There are many reasons the Patriots excel in close games and on the big stage (obviously a Hall of Fame head coach and quarterback helps) but having a bunch of mentally and physically tough leaders is a big piece of the puzzle. -- Daniel Jeremiah
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Debating the DTs: Most personnel departments are currently in the middle of draft meetings as they set their draft boards prior to the NFL Scouting Combine (March 3-6 on NFL Network). This is where some key positional debates begin to take place. One debate surely to rage in draft rooms is the battle between DTs Solomon Thomas and Jonathan Allen.
Both players are exceptional talents, but they have different skill sets. Allen is a dominating run defender and a powerful pass rusher. Thomas isn't as strong at the point of attack, but he is a superior athlete and he's more explosive. Both guys have some inside/outside flexibility and they're capable of playing in any scheme. In talking to personnel executives around the league, there's definitely a split in opinions about which one will be the better pro. I anticipate both guys landing in the top 10 on draft day. -- Daniel Jeremiah
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NFL comp for star safety: The pass-happy nature of the NFL has made nickelbacks hot commodities in the scouting community. That's why evaluators should be salivating over the potential of Washington safety Budda Baker at the next level. The 5-foot-10, 192-pound defender is an ideal slot corner. He's capable of shadowing receivers, thumping running backs and blitzing off the edge. Baker's versatility, toughness and physicality could make him a star in a multifaceted defense that features the nickel corner as a playmaker.
As I studied his tape, I was blown away by Baker's combination of athleticism and instincts on the perimeter. He has a nice feel for playing the position as a quasi-linebacker against the run. Baker flies up to nail runners on the edges and exhibits outstanding balance, body control and wrap-up tackling skills. The diminutive defender flashes some pop upon contact and does a great job of getting slippery runners down.
As a blitzer, Baker's combination of athleticism and physicality stand out on tape. He explodes off the corner to pummel quarterbacks on slot-corner blitzes. With that in mind, it's easy to envision a creative defensive coordinator accentuating Baker's electric rush skills off the edge.
In coverage, Baker shows outstanding athleticism and movement skills. Although he still needs to refine his footwork and transitions, he is such an explosive athlete that he is able to shadow slot receivers all over the field. With more reps and experience in coverage, Baker could quickly emerge as an elite nickel defender as a pro. In fact, I would compare the Washington standout to Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry as a versatile playmaker. While Berry has done most of his damage as a pure safety, Baker's positional flexibility should allow him to make plenty of splash plays as a dynamic defender. -- Bucky Brooks
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Wide range of opinions for LB: On our most recent Move The Sticks Podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I had an interesting discussion regarding Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham. My partner didn't include the All-SEC defender within his most recent Top 50 list. While scouts frequently view players in different lights, I found it interesting that Cunningham didn't make the cut despite the buzz that's been surrounding his name throughout the fall. I recently had an AFC scout tell me that Cunningham "might be the best inside linebacker in the 2017 class" when it's all said and done. When I challenged him on that assessment, he told me that he wasn't alone based on his conversations with other scouts in the Southeast.
It's not often that I'm speechless when discussing players, but the wide disparity between multiple members of the scouting community left me surprised. So, I conducted an extensive evaluation of Cunningham's tape. I saw a long, rangy athlete with good movement skills. Cunningham is a sideline-to-sideline player capable running down ball carriers on the edges. As a pass defender, he flashes enough athleticism to shadow tight ends and running backs down the seam. With his height, length and athleticism, Cunningham could be an ideal "run through" defender in a Tampa 2 scheme.
From a critical standpoint, I worry about Cunningham's instincts and disengagement skills. He appeared a step slow on some running plays, as evidenced by his penchant for playing behind blocks in the hole. In addition, Cunningham struggles getting off blocks when forced to take on centers and guards on the second level. He fails to use his hands and gets stuck on the block at the point of attack. Considering his suspect hand skills, I'm not necessarily surprised that he grades out as an average pass rusher. He lacks the natural hand skills to win against running backs and his inability to win on blitzes is problematic for a teams looking for a game changer at the position.
To be fair, I've seen other linebackers with finesse games (see Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl LB Derrick Johnson) blossom into difference makers as pros, but they must play in the right scheme to showcase their skills. After studying Cunningham extensively, I believe he needs to play in a system where he is consistently covered up (plays behind a defensive tackle assigned to occupy multiple blockers) in the middle so that he is free to run and chase within the tackle box without obstruction. If he can play in an aggressive system that accentuates his strengths as an athletic linebacker, there is no reason why he can't make an impact like the Chiefs' star. -- Bucky Brooks
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Ranking top TEs: In this week's Ask 5 post, I asked five personnel executives which position had the most depth in the 2017 NFL Draft class. One executive responded by pointing out the quality depth at the tight end position. He mentioned that there were seven tight ends capable of having an immediate impact. Who are the top seven tight ends? Well, here's how I have them ranked:
1. David Njoku, Miami: Njoku is an athletic freak with an extremely high ceiling at the position. He can stretch the field and he's outstanding after the catch.
2. O.J. Howard, Alabama: Howard is a complete tight end. He's capable of generating big plays in the passing game and controlling the line of scrimmage in the run game. He was outstanding at the Reese's Senior Bowl last month.
4. Gerald Everett, South Alabama: Everett has first-round ability on tape, but I was a little disappointed when he weighed in at 227 pounds at the Senior Bowl. Scouts that went through the school said that he played in the mid 240s during the fall. He has a very similar skill set to Engram, but I think he's more natural with his hands.
5. Jordan Leggett, Clemson: Leggett has an outstanding mix of size, length and catch radius. He is a very smooth route runner and he can adjust to balls down the field. Like most guys on this list, he is inconsistent in the run game.
6. Jake Butt, Michigan: Butt is a well-rounded tight end who is consistent in all areas. He lacks big-time speed, but he has a great feel for working in zones and attacking the football. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl, putting his status for the start of the 2017 season in doubt.
7. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech: Hodges is being evaluated as a tight end even though he lined up at wide receiver for the Hokies. He has excellent height and does a nice job of playing above the rim down the field. He does have some stiffness, and it will be a major adjustment to align with his hand in the ground at the next level. -- Daniel Jeremiah
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.