Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- One trade between a pair of playoff teams that really caught my eye.
But first, a look at the new buzz around a top prospect who's seen his stock rise, fall and seemingly rebound ...
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It's not a secret that the NFL draft is an inexact science, with teams often overrating or undervaluing prospects based on how they perform during their final college season. Given the powerful image of the last snapshot of a collegiate career, we shouldn't be surprised to see a blue-chip player being undervalued at a time when scouts are salivating over the late bloomers and one-year wonders that tend to rise up draft boards around this point in the process each year.
With that in mind, I thought it was the perfect time to revisit my evaluation of Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, particularly on the heels of his strong performance at the Cougars' pro day on Thursday. The former five-star recruit was considered a viable contender to become the No. 1 overall pick entering the 2018 season, but an injury-marred junior campaign, a verbal altercation with his head coach and questions about his size sent his draft stock tumbling a bit heading into the NFL Scouting Combine.
Despite alleviating concerns at the combine by measuring a sufficient 6-foot-2, 287 pounds before putting together a solid performance in testing drills (36-inch vertical jump, 10-foot broad jump and 32 reps on the bench press) and a strong showing in bag drills, the buzz didn't appear to surround Oliver's prospects to be a top-five pick until my NFL Network colleague Peter Schrager positioned the Houston standout in the No. 4 hole as the Oakland Raiders' selection in his most recent mock draft earlier this week.
Now, I'm not saying mock drafts are always an accurate barometer of how teams are valuing a player, but I do believe well-connected guys like Schrager don't arbitrarily throw prospects into the top five unless they get a tip that the player has a legitimate chance of landing on that hallowed ground on draft day. However, I'm here to tell you that Oliver not only has a chance of cracking the top five, but, while it seems unlikely, he could be the first defender off the board -- yes, before the likes of Ohio State's Nick Bosa, Alabama's Quinnen Williams and Kentucky's Josh Allen -- if a team drafting early falls in love with him and a quarterback run develops at the top of the draft.
While some will suggest Oliver is a reach as a top-five pick, I believe he is worthy of being selected that early and he should be in the discussion as the top player in the draft based on his entire body of work as a disruptive player at Houston.
Oliver is a nightmare to block as a three-technique with exceptional first-step quickness, athleticism and closing burst. He has arguably the best "get off" I've seen from a prospect since Von Miller entered the league in 2011 and his first-step quickness makes him a disruptive force as a one-gap penetrator at the point of attack. No. 10's snap-count anticipation and initial quickness enable him to shoot through gaps and avoid double-team blocks on the inside. It's hard to find defensive tackles with the explosive combination of skills that the 2018 Outland Trophy winner (top interior lineman in college football) possesses.
As a run defender, Oliver combines extraordinary strength and power with his quickness to win at the line of scrimmage. He is capable of stacking and shedding blockers at the point of attack but is at his best when allowed to shoot through gaps on assigned games and movement maneuvers along the line. When put on the move, Oliver consistently destroys blocking schemes and racks up negative plays, as evidenced by his 54 career tackles for loss.
As a pass rusher, Oliver's anticipation, quickness, and explosiveness create disruption in the middle of the pocket. He blows past interior blockers and forces quarterbacks off their preferred spot in the pocket. Although Oliver fails to consistently snag quarterbacks on his first attempt, he tallies a number of sacks on extra-effort plays outside of the pocket. He plays at a fever pitch and few blockers can match his energy and intensity over the course of a game. To that point, Oliver's non-stop motor pops off the tape when studying him throughout his career. He is relentless in his pursuit of the ball and few defenders fly around like No. 10.
From a critical standpoint, I believe scheme fit is more important to Oliver than other defensive tackles in this draft. He struggled mightily as a zero-technique nose tackle in Houston's defense as a junior. He didn't handle double teams well and the lack of movement along the front limited his effectiveness as a one-gap penetrator.
Additionally, Oliver's high-strung personality led to a highly publicized sideline incident last fall with his head coach during a nationally televised game. Oliver's outburst came after his coach, Major Applewhite, told him to remove a coat reserved for active players -- Oliver was not playing in the game. The next day, Oliver described the incident as "a misunderstanding" and Applewhite downplayed the kerfuffle. Now, some coaches and scouts won't bristle at coaching a strong personality like Oliver, but it is important for his position coach and coordinator to know exactly what they're getting when he enters the meeting room.
In looking for a pro comparison for Oliver, I believe Geno Atkins is a perfect choice. The two-time All-Pro defensive tackle has been a dominant force as an undersized interior pass rusher with explosive quickness and violent hands. Oliver has similar physical traits and his explosive pass rush can upgrade a front line lacking a difference maker on the inside.
While it is important for the defense to feature some games and stunts designed to get the defensive line on the move, Oliver is a blue-chip defender capable of taking over games in a system that allows him the freedom to attack the ball instead of reading and reacting at the snap.
If I'm going to spend a top draft pick on a defender, I want to make sure he's capable of dominating the game and enters the league with a resume that backs up that assertion. When I look at Oliver's total body of work as a collegian, I have no doubt that he's worthy of being one of the first five players off the board when the draft begins on April 25.
Replacing Gronk: Will Patriots double down at TE in draft?
The New England Patriots might attempt to replace the recently retired Rob Gronkowski with a value-priced free agent, but history suggests the team will "double down" on the tight end position on draft day. Excuse my blackjack reference, but the Patriots have been known to hedge their bets on departed position players, particularly tight ends, by devoting multiple picks to the position.
Back in 2006, the Patriots drafted David Thomas and Garrett Mills to fortify the position after their tight ends combined for only 53 receptions for 733 yards and nine scores the season prior. The Patriots doubled down again in 2010 when they grabbed Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to upgrade a unit that only accounted for 43 receptions, 546 receiving yards and seven scores in 2009. Granted, Randy Moss and Wes Welker were perennial Pro Bowlers at that time, but the team needed additional playmakers with the capacity to control the middle of the field, particularly against two-deep coverage.
Gronkowski certainly held up his end of the deal during a spectacular nine-year run that featured 79 touchdowns and an average of 15.1 yards per catch as the Patriots' No. 1 option in the passing game. The four-time All-Pro tight end constantly created mismatches on the perimeter with his rare combination of size, strength, athleticism and ball skills. No. 87 could overpower linebackers and defensive backs with his sheer size and strength or win with a deadly post-up game that could blow up any defensive tactic.
As a blocker, Gronkowski was viewed as the gold standard at the position. He mauled edge defenders at the point of attack, exhibiting exceptional strength, power and physicality blowing edge rushers off the ball. Considering his overall dominance as a pass catcher and run blocker, the Patriots' "double down" strategy might serve them well in the 2019 draft.
After studying the tight ends in this year's class, I can say the Patriots will have plenty of intriguing options to choose from when looking for replacements. Although the odds are against one of the prospects emerging as a perennial Pro Bowl candidate like Gronk, the Patriots have enough resources -- including a league-leading 12 draft picks -- to grab a "Y" (traditional tight end) and "flex" (pass-catching tight end) to fill the void created by his departure.
With that in mind, here are a few intriguing combinations that the Patriots might be able to put together to address their tight end needs via the draft:
Iowa's T.J. Hockenson (Y) and Texas A&M's Jace Sternberger (flex): Hockenson is the quintessential "Y" tight end in today's game. He's a rugged blocker in the running game but also displays the route-running skills and pass-catching ability to dominate between the hashes. Sternberger is a dynamic vertical threat with big-play potential as a "seam" runner over the middle.
Alabama's Irv Smith, Jr. (flex) and Washington's Drew Sample (Y): Smith could be classified in either category as a swift pass catcher with B-plus blocking skills. He can align anywhere within a formation to create mismatches in the passing game. Sample is a hard-nosed player capable of moving defenders off the ball in the running game while also making an occasional play as a pass catcher.
Ole Miss' Dawson Knox (Y) and UCLA's Caleb Wilson (flex): Knox is the rugged "Y" that every offensive coordinator covets in their "21" (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) and "11" (one RB, one TE, three WRs) personnel packages. The Ole Miss product is a sticky blocker with the body control and relentless effort needed to win consistently on the edges. Wilson is a pass-catching tight end with soft hands and outstanding route-running ability. He is a natural "flex" tight end with the potential to exploit mismatches in space.
Stanford's Kaden Smith (Y) and San Jose State's Josh Oliver (flex): Smith is a polished "Y" with a solid all-around game. He is a sticky blocker with a non-stop motor and a nasty demeanor. Oliver is an athletic playmaker with the speed and post-up skills to be a difference maker in the passing game. He should be an effective "jumbo" slot receiver in a spread offense designed to create mismatches in space.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Is Daniel Jones a first-round talent? One of the biggest challenges facing scouts during the pre-draft process is separating your own talent assessment of a player from where he will actually be selected. Although every grading scale is designed to reflect a prospect's long-term potential, it is hard to resist the temptation of trying to be right on a guy's actual slot on draft day.
That's why I'm struggling with my evaluation of Jones. Many projections have the three-year starter out of Duke as a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I don't know if he is really a franchise-quarterback candidate based on his talent. Jones, who threw for a total of 8,201 yards while compiling a 52:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a Blue Devil, finished his career as a sub-60 percent passer (59.9) at a time when most elite collegiate QBs are at least in the mid-60s. While some of his passing woes can be attributed to a butter-fingered receiving corps (38 drops in 2018, according to colleague Lance Zierlein), questions regarding his arm strength and ball velocity persist in the scouting community.
Evaluators wonder if Jones has enough arm talent to make all of the requisite throws in most NFL offenses, particularly in inclement weather conditions. Although A+ arm talent isn't a requirement for success in this league, the lack of a big arm puts a greater emphasis on touch, timing and anticipation in the evaluation.
Studying Jones' film, I believe the three-time Academic All-ACC selection is an effective "connect the dots" playmaker from the pocket. He plays like a pass-first point guard, leading fast breaks with timely dishes to receivers coming out of their breaks. Jones' anticipation and timing are outstanding for a college passer. He not only flashes superb touch and ball placement on vertical throws and hole shots (tight-window throws between the cornerback and safety along the boundary), but he cranks up the RPMs on slants and seam routes following play-action fakes. Jones' effectiveness on these RPO-like concepts will enable a creative offensive coordinator to incorporate some new-school schemes into the game plan.
Jones' athleticism and mobility also stand out when evaluating his game tape. He is a nifty runner and ball handler in the backfield when executing read-option concepts. Jones capably spots and explodes through cracks at the line of scrimmage, exhibiting quick feet and an explosive short-area burst running away from defenders. With the QB also showing some Harlem Globetrotter-esque ball-handling ability (pulling the ball out of the running back's belly at the last possible second on read-option plays), Jones gives defenders plenty to think about when he's directing an option-based offense that features runs and throws off similar backfield action.
In addition, Jones' dexterity and movement passing skills pop when watching him execute a variety of bootlegs at Duke. He is an effective runner/passer on the edges with a knack for making the proper decision and accurate throw in key moments. Jones' efficiency on the move leads me to believe he could thrive in an offense that prominently features stretch/bootleg concepts (THINK: Kyle Shanahan/Gary Kubiak systems).
From a critical standpoint, beyond the aforementioned questions about his overall arm talent, I would cite his quiet persona as an additional concern. Scouts wonder if Jones can command the locker room with his soft-spoken demeanor. While his high school coach, Larry McNulty, disputed that notion when I spoke to him recently, I believe that it took Jones some time to win over his teammates at the Senior Bowl and he will likely experience a similar transition at the next level. That said, Jones walked away with Senior Bowl MVP honors and led his team to a win. Truth be told, if the 21-year-old can simply perform and produce, that'll mitigate concerns about him being able to earn his teammates' respect and lord over the locker room as a QB1.
When Duke head coach David Cutcliffe was recently asked about Jones' prospects as a franchise guy, he went all in on his pupil's potential as a first-round pick/QB1.
"Absolutely," Cutcliffe told The MMQB's Conor Orr. "I can't imagine there's someone out there more equipped, top to bottom, in this draft or in the next draft if he had stayed, than he is to be an NFL quarterback. A starter. A star. People that evaluate a lot of this don't know it. They haven't seen every 1-on-1 drill ... 7-on-7. They haven't seen those things. I have. And yeah, he is (a first-round pick) -- he's going to follow in those footsteps if he stays healthy."
With a strong endorsement from a well-respected quarterback guru who helped develop Peyton and Eli Manning, it is possible that we've underestimated Jones' potential due to the packaging. Instead of appreciating his multi-faceted game and underdog mentality (former walk-on who became a three-year starter), we've minimized his long-term promise because he doesn't come off as the rah-rah guy with a cannon arm many envision when dreaming of a QB1.
There's no reason why Jones can't win as an Alex Smith-like leader with a game that perfectly matches that of the former No. 1 overall pick.
The Chicago Bears sent the one-time Pro Bowl selectee to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2020 sixth-round pick (that could flex into a fifth-round selection). That seems like peanuts for a guy who is one of only three players (Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley) with at least 250 touches and 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of the last three seasons. Moreover, you're talking about a running back who set the Bears' rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and reached 2,000 rushing yards faster (24 games) than Walter Payton and Gale Sayers.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I don't view Howard as an elite runner, but I still find it curious that the Bears were quick to discard a highly productive back still playing on his rookie contract. Although he is slated to earn $2 million in the final season of his original four-year contract, that number pales in comparison to the money paid to the league's Tier 1 backs. Gurley, Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson are all making $13 million-plus in average annual salary.
The Bears could've easily kept No. 24 in the fold and squeezed the last bit of juice out of the orange before letting him walk as a free agent or retaining him (via multi-year deal or franchise tag). Without the veteran runner on the roster, the Bears will lean on Tarik Cohen and free-agent signee Mike Davis to anchor the running game. While each has flashed potential, neither has a 1,000-yard rushing season on his resume. It's risky to assume that these two will match the production posted by a departed runner who rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL (3,370) over the past three seasons.
In Philadelphia, Howard's arrival gives the Eagles a No. 1 option in a backfield that didn't hold up its end of the bargain in 2018. The team's rushing game disappeared without a legitimate threat in the backfield -- to be fair, injuries leveled the position group -- and part of Carson Wentz's struggles can be tied to the lack of offensive balance.
Despite Howard's declining production a season ago, the 24-year-old remains a rugged runner with a combination of strength, power, balance and body control that makes him an effective inside runner. He will run behind one of the best offensive lines in football, which will increase the likelihood of him returning to his Pro Bowl form in 2019.
The move doesn't prevent the Eagles from venturing into the draft pool to grab a talented runner in the second or third round to fill out an "RBBC" (running back by committee). With plenty of options likely to be available in the middle rounds (SEE: Damien Harris, David Montgomery, Rodney Anderson and Darrell Henderson), the Eagles could find a young runner to groom while Howard plays out a one-year rental agreement.