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MTS Notebook: Saints rookie class NFL's best at midseason

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  • By Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks NFL.com
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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 scouting notes, including:

» 5 players to watch in Saturday's highly anticipated LSU-Alabama game
» Brooks' look at the NFL potential of Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
» Examining the strange circumstances surrounding Washington State's Luke Falk

But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Jeremiah's take on which NFL team got the most from its rookie class in the first half the season.

As we hit the midway mark of the 2017 NFL season, the Saints (5-2) have the league's most impressive rookie class thus far. They lead the league in rookie starts (rookies have combined to start a total of 25 games) and they are getting outstanding play/production from several of their selections. Now, it's still very early in the careers of these players. It's often said a draft class shouldn't really be judged until three seasons into the players' careers. However, the early returns for the Saints are very positive. Here's a look at the New Orleans rookies that have stood out the most.

OT Ryan Ramczyk (started every game): The Saints selected Ramczyk with the final pick in the first round (acquired from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks trade) and the early returns have been outstanding. He's been reliable at both left and right tackle. Switching sides for a young player is a huge challenge and he's handled it smoothly.

S Marcus Williams (started every game): Williams was one of my favorite players to study last spring. The ultra-rangy Utah safety was very productive at the collegiate level and he's off to a great start in New Orleans. He's currently fourth on the team in tackles, he's intercepted 1 pass and broken up 2 others. He's been a very steady tackler in space. He should be a long-term starter for a much-improved Saints defense.

CB Marshon Lattimore (6 starts): Lattimore has been the crown jewel of the Saints' draft class. I was surprised when he fell to the Saints with the 11th overall selection and he has played like a top-5 pick. He has shown tremendous mirror-and-match skills in coverage and he plays the ball extremely well. I've also been pleasantly surprised with his physicality in run support. He's playing at a Pro Bowl level already and he's only going to get better.

LB Alex Anzalone (4 starts): The third-round linebacker from Florida was off to a promising start before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury Week 4. Prior to his injury, he was flashing the speed and athleticism he showed in Gainesville. His durability was a concern prior to the draft, but if he can stay healthy in the future, the Saints should have a very productive starting weakside linebacker.

I originally limited this list to rookie starters on first publish, but we need to mention running back Alvin Kamara, even though he hasn't started a game.

Kamara's been the Saints' most impactful rookie on offense. I was stunned he fell to the third round of the draft (the Saints took him with the 67th overall pick), and we've seen the outstanding burst he offers as a runner and receiver. His role continues to grow.

Here are some other teams with a rookie class that has stood out in the first half of the season:

New York Jets: The Jets have to love what they're getting out of their top two picks, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. These two form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the secondary.

Chicago Bears: The numbers aren't there yet, but Mitchell Trubisky is coming along. Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson have been impressive.

Buffalo Bills: I like what I've seen from Tre'Davious White and Zay Jones thus far.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles, who sport best record in the league, are getting good contributions from their rookies, namely Derek Barnett, Rasul Douglas and Mack Hollins. -- Daniel Jeremiah

5 FUTURE NFL PLAYERS TO WATCH IN LSU-ALABAMA

The annual Alabama-LSU matchup always features more than a dozen NFL prospects. This year's installment will be no different. However, there are 5 players I'm really going to focus on when they renew the rivalry on Saturday night. These players all have the potential to be big-time NFL players. Here's the list.

1. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick: Fitzpatrick has been the best player on the best defense in college football. He excels in the slot and he's capable of playing the high safety or lining up outside at cornerback. He has the size to match up with bigger wideouts/tight ends and plenty of speed to mirror vertical routes. I love his toughness in run support and he's been described as an outstanding leader. He usually finds a way to make a big impact in these types of games.

2. LSU RB Derrius Guice: Guice is one of the top running backs in college football. He's battled some leg injuries this fall, but he's finally healthy and coming off a monster game against Ole Miss (276 yards rushing). He doesn't quite have the same power as former teammate Leonard Fournette, but he's a violent runner. He has more wiggle and elusiveness than Fournette. He's also capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. A good game against this Alabama defense would shoot his stock sky high.

3. LSU edge rusher Arden Key: Key is extremely talented, but I was disappointed with his play earlier this year. He's carrying some extra weight and I haven't seen the same get-off quickness he displayed earlier in his career. He's coming off a big game against Ole Miss (2 sacks, forced fumble) and maybe that will carry over to this pivotal matchup against Alabama.

4. Alabama DT Da'Ron Payne: His stats don't jump off the page (30 tackles, .5 sacks) but every scout I've talked to has a crush on Payne. He dominates at the point of attack and he plays with great effort. He does need to show some pass-rush production to validate the big grades he's been getting from teams. This would be a good week to start.

5. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley: Ridley is one of the premier deep threats in college football and he's also developed into a very crisp route runner. He's dangerous after the catch because of his suddenness/burst and he's also a very competitive blocker in the run game. I really enjoyed visiting with him this week on the Move The Sticks Podcast. He's highly regarded in NFL circles. -- Daniel Jeremiah

SCOUTING J.T. BARRETT

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett has re-emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate while creating quite a conundrum for NFL scouts around the league. As a three-time team captain with 33 wins and an impressive resume that includes a high completion percentage and a strong touchdown-to-interception ratio, Barrett meets all of the requirements outlined in the "Bill Parcells Rule" for evaluating quarterbacks.

In order to be on the Hall of Fame coach's draft board, quarterbacks had to meet the following criteria:

» Be a three-year starter.
» Be a senior in college.
» Graduate from college.
» Start 30 games.
» Win at least 23 games.
» Post a touchdown to interception ratio of at least 2:1.
» Complete at least 60 percent of passes.

While there's some debate over whether some of that criteria is still applicable in today's game, it serves as an excellent baseline for evaluating quarterback prospects, which is why several NFL scouts still use it to assess the top quarterbacks in a draft class. When I worked with the Carolina Panthers, I frequently heard offensive coordinator and former Parcells assistant Dan Henning refer to those benchmarks during our draft meetings.

In Barrett's case, the rule suggests that the Ohio State standout merits serious consideration in the draft. He is a four-year starter with a 33-5 career record and a 94:22 career TD-to-INT ratio. He has posted a 64.4-percent career completion rate and steadily improved his efficiency throughout his career.

When taking a closer look at his numbers this season, it's hard to take issue with his 25:1 TD-to-INT ratio or his 69.5-percent completion rate. After arriving at Ohio State as a run-first playmaker, as evidenced by his heavy workload during his first three seasons (491 rushes for 2,465 yards and 31 touchdowns), Barrett has become a more balanced dual-threat quarterback for the Buckeyes and that could give him a shot to make a move up the draft boards when the spring rolls around.

However, after studying the All-22 coaches' footage of Barrett's play, I have mixed feelings about his game.

Early in the season, I questioned whether he could consistently make intermediate and deep throws based on his scattershot performances against Indiana and Oklahoma. Barrett repeatedly missed open receivers on vertical routes and his inability to connect on those throws raised questions about his deep-ball range and touch. He was so off the mark that I didn't know if he could make the necessary changes to his footwork or delivery to become a more dialed in passer from the pocket. This is one of the issues that popped up in Barrett's game in 2016 when he couldn't find the strike zone in a couple of the Buckeyes' biggest games, particularly against Michigan State, Michigan and Clemson down the stretch.

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Now, Barrett is playing for a new offensive coordinator (Kevin Wilson) this season, and the early 2017 struggles in Wilson's system led me to believe that the Ohio State passer simply didn't have the tools become an efficient pocket passer. My opinion has changed in recent weeks after watching Barrett put together an impressive string of performances against Big Ten competition.

While Rutgers, Maryland, and Nebraska aren't exactly viewed as heavyweights on the national scene, Barrett's solid play against them suggested that he could string together completions as a "connect the dots" passer from the pocket. He validated that opinion with a stunning performance last week against Penn State (completed 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns) that included a 16 of 16 passing streak to close the game.

Barrett's rhythm and efficiency on anticipation throws between the numbers vs. Penn State stood out to me. He squeezed the ball into some tight windows over the middle at intermediate range. Barrett threw darts to Marcus Baugh, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin on a variety of seam passes that resulted in touchdowns. From the ball placement to the touch, Barrett was on point with his execution on those plays. With the Ohio State star also showing outstanding poise and composure in the face of an aggressive pass rush, I came away impressed with the improvements that Barrett has made since his poor showings against the Hoosiers and Sooners.

In fact, I've been so impressed that I went back through a handful of his 2014, 2015 and 2016 games to see how his play has evolved throughout his career. While I don't think he's as explosive or as dynamic as he once was as a runner, he is athletic enough to make plays on the move in a scheme that mixes in some QB run game. Barrett will move the chains on zone reads and designed QB runs as a rugged runner with a glider-type running style. He won't necessarily scare NFL defensive coordinators with his legs, but he is mobile enough to pick up first downs on designed runs or impromptu scrambles.

As a passer, he has to become more consistent with his ball placement and accuracy as a senior while showing better anticipation and timing in the rhythm passing game. He's more of a threat as a passer in 2017 than he's ever been as a Buckeye, and that will encourage some teams looking for a developmental player to take a long, hard look at the athletic playmaker.

In the end, Barrett reminds me a lot of the Colts' Jacoby Brissett. He is a blue-collar player with the potential to develop into a high-end backup or spot starter if he can refine some key parts of his game (deep-ball accuracy, touch, and overall pocket poise) down the stretch. Barrett might lack the passing prowess to upgrade a team but his leadership, intangibles and winning pedigree could help him surpass scouts' expectations as a developmental prospect. -- Bucky Brooks

THE PECULIAR CASE OF LUKE FALK

One of the most bizarre storylines this fall has been the handling of Washington State QB Luke Falk. After the Washington State offense got off to a mediocre start against Arizona last week, Falk was benched for the second time this season.

Why is this bizarre?

Two reasons: 1) Falk is closing in on becoming the all-time leading passer in Pac-12 history and 2) he hasn't played poorly enough to warrant a seat on the bench.

I went back and studied last week's tape against Arizona and I didn't think Falk was the issue offensively. They had a few drops and his protection was so-so. His numbers weren't terrible: 13-23 for 93 yards, 1 touchdown and zero turnovers.

Obviously, you'd like to see more yardage production in a pass-happy offense, but I would think he's earned the right to stay on the field and self-correct instead of being pulled. Scouts have a high opinion of Falk, but his head coach, Mike Leach, isn't showing confidence in Falk when he sends the QB to the bench. The relationship between Falk and Leach is something team executives will instruct their scouts to investigate as we head toward the 2018 NFL Draft. -- Daniel Jeremiah

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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