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:
-- A dual-threat quarterback prospect who could fly up draft boards over the next month.
But first, a look at a top QB prospect who isn't getting his due ...
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I don't get it.
I don't understand why there isn't more love for Justin Herbert as a potential franchise quarterback.
I've been racking my brain since the fall trying to understand why a four-year starter with prototypical physical dimensions and outstanding arm talent hasn't been touted as one of the blue-chip prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft, particularly when factoring in his athleticism and intelligence.
On paper, Herbert looks like a create-a-quarterback from a video game with a 6-foot-6, 236-pound frame, 10-inch hands and explosive athletic traits (SEE: 4.68-second 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-3 broad jump last month at the NFL Scouting Combine) that are uncommon for a big quarterback. Moreover, he is a three-time Academic All-American with a 4.01 GPA and a degree in general science. Want more? Well, there's also the fact that he helped reinvigorate a program that had fallen on hard times in his first year on campus.
Yet, I haven't seen or heard many verbal bouquets being tossed in Herbert's direction to this point in the pre-draft process, which is a surprise given his accomplishments on and off the field. That's why I made the trek to Oregon's campus on Thursday for the school's pro day, where I'd be able to get another look at No. 10's game to see if he really has the tools to be an elite QB1 at the NFL level.
Studying his performance at the pro day, I was impressed with his combination of size, athleticism and arm talent. It's hard to find big, athletic passers with Herbert's mobility, running skills and passing skills. He looks like a classic dropback passer at first glance, but he flashes the ability to work on the edges as a mobile passer. I believe he's at his best playing in the shotgun, but he has made strides to improve as a traditional passer from under center. He showed better balance, body control and quickness in his drops at Oregon pro day, and the quick improvements should encourage coaches to take a closer look at his progress since the end of the college season. In addition, Herbert flashed the ability to make pinpoint throws to short and intermediate areas on in-breaking and out-breaking throws.
On movement passes, No. 10's combination of athleticism and arm talent stands out as he easily makes throws on the run while working to either side of the field. In fact, Herbert appears to be at his best when throwing off play-action, particularly on stretch-bootleg concepts designed to put him behind the offensive tackle when he's ready to launch.
From a critical standpoint, I must point out that Herbert appears to guide the ball on his short and intermediate passes. He doesn't appear to cut it loose and you wish that he would rip it at times to show off his arm strength and velocity. I can't determine whether it's the perfectionist in him that holds him back or if he is ultra-conservative on those throws, but he has to become a little more aggressive and decisive in this area to become a Tier 1 quarterback at the next level.
When I reviewed Herbert's game film to compare it with his performance in the workout, I came away more impressed by how he managed the game with the Ducks. He wasn't asked to push the envelope as a playmaker, yet he was willing to comply with coaches' orders and played winning football by making the necessary plays when his number was called. This was apparent in the Pac-12 Championship Game (vs. Utah) and the Rose Bowl (vs. Wisconsin) when he utilized his running skills/athleticism to spark the Ducks' offense.
I love watching Herbert throw off play-action. He is a superb ball-handler and he appears to have better rhythm when he fakes to a runner before firing the ball to the perimeter. Part of his comfort level could be attributed to the Ducks' heavy reliance on play-action and RPO-like concepts, but I also believe he just performs better when he executes old school play-action plays. From traditional power-based play-action to stretch-bootleg movement passes, Herbert is at his best leaning on the threat of the running game. Teams interested in his services should have an extensive play-action package featured in the playbook to maximize his talents. Additionally, Herbert's athleticism and mobility should encourage teams to sprinkle in some read-option and designed quarterback runs to add an element to the offense. Although Herbert isn't a Cam Newton-like force as a runner, he is certainly dynamic enough to pick up easy yards on the perimeter against over-aggressive defenses failing to account for the quarterback in the running game.
When pressed to come up with a comparison for Herbert and his game, I believe teams would be wise to follow the Tennessee Titans' blueprint with Ryan Tannehill. As big, mobile quarterbacks, they are at their best executing a mix of old school bootleg/movement plays and new school zone-read concepts while pushing the ball down the field behind the second level of the defense on an assortment of intermediate throws. They also have the ability to connect on the home-run ball while displaying outstanding arm strength and range from inside the pocket.
Although I believe Herbert is a more polished player right now than Tannehill was coming out of Texas A&M, I believe the comparison is a solid starting point for how he will need to play as a young starter and how his game could evolve with the right coach crafting a plan to elevate his play. Given how well it worked for Tannehill in Tennessee (led the NFL in passer rating and was named Comeback Player of the Year), I believe Herbert is an underappreciated gem at the position. Teams should dig a little deeper when projecting his potential as a pro. If I'm looking for a quarterback in today's NFL, I would want a big, athletic quarterback with smarts and a winning pedigree. That's what I see in Herbert. I'm sold on his potential as a QB1. Now, as for the best landing spots for him ...
Miami Dolphins: If head coach Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier follow the old New England Patriots model, Herbert should earn high marks for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. As a high-IQ player, it's easy to envision him playing in an offense that morphs from week to week based on matchups. Moreover, it's quite possible that offensive coordinator Chan Gailey would build a dynamic offense around his talents as a strong-armed passer with movement skills and great awareness.
Indianapolis Colts: Head coach Frank Reich has successfully built a system that featured a variety of play-action passes and rhythm throws that worked for a cerebral athlete at the position (he did it in Andrew Luck's final NFL season). Now, I'm not touting Herbert as the next Luck, but they share some similar athletic traits and his intelligence/football aptitude should enable him to handle a diverse, voluminous playbook that challenges the defense at every turn.
Carolina Panthers: Joe Brady, the LSU passing game coordinator in 2019, unlocked Joe Burrow's game by leaning into his quarterback's athleticism and IQ, so he certainly can build a dynamic offense around a big, athletic playmaker like Herbert in his new post as the Panthers' OC. With a solid supporting cast on the perimeter and the coach's winning pedigree, this pairing could be a match made in heaven.
SMALL-SCHOOL PROSPECTS: My top five in the Class of 2020
Norman entered the league as a fifth-round selection of the Carolina Panthers in the 2012 draft following a stellar career at Coastal Carolina (then an FCS member). He steadily climbed up the depth chart before becoming a full-time starter in his third season and an All-Pro in Year 4. This kind of ascension is what every scout and coach hopes to find when he rolls the dice on a small-school prospect. That brings us to the 2020 draft class, which has a few hidden gems boasting blue-chip potential. Before I give you five under-the-radar names to track as we speed toward the draft, though, it is important to understand a few things about small-school prospects -- and what allows some to pop at the NFL level.
When referencing small schools, I'm referring to colleges that participate below the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) level. Whether it is FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) standouts or Division II or Division III All-Americans, evaluators refer to any prospect participating at those levels as small-school players. According to NCAA.com, last season's opening-week rosters featured 157 FCS players, as well as 49 from Division II and eight from Division III.
When scouting small-school players, I was taught by Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf to make sure that prospects at lower levels completely dominate the completion. Their superior talents should jump off the screen when studying the tape and they also need to possess prototypical physical dimensions or exceptional athletic traits to be considered legitimate NFL prospects. Additionally, Ron advised me to pay closer attention to small-school prospects in postseason all-star games to see how they handle the change in competition. If a small-school guy can hold his own at the East-West Shrine Bowl or the Senior Bowl, he'll have a greater chance of succeeding at the highest level.
With that criteria in mind, here are my top five small-school prospects in the Class of 2020:
1) Kyle Dugger, S, Lenoir-Rhyne:The "BMOC" on the Hickory, North Carolina, campus has caught the eye of scouts searching for a playmaking safety with explosive return skills. Dugger not only displays great instincts and ball skills as a deep defender, but he flashes unique traits as a punt returner. The 6-foot-1, 217-pounder is strong, powerful and explosive with the ball in his hands, exhibiting skills that remind me of former All-Pro returner Josh Cribbs in his prime.
2) Adam Trautman, TE, Dayton: It's hard to find tight end prospects with refined skills in blocking and receiving. Trautman is quite impressive as a big-bodied pass catcher with a gritty demeanor and a rugged game, particularly as a blocker. He knocks defenders off the ball at the point of attack and flashes impressive finishing skills. With Trautman also displaying advanced route-running ability, teams are buzzing about the Dayton product's potential as a TE1.
3) Jeremy Chinn, S, Southern Illinois: The NFL's seismic shift to a passing league has prompted defensive coordinators to covet hybrid playmakers on the second level. Chinn falls into the category after his emergence as a multi-faceted all-star defender for the Salukis. Despite questions about his coverage skills, Chinn is such an active pass rusher from the second level that his future NFL defensive coordinator would be wise to keep him near the box as a "down" safety. If Chinn lands with the right team -- one that employs a scheme that will allow him to play in a Kam Chancellor-like role -- the small-school standout could emerge as the best of this bunch.
4) Isaiah Coulter, WR, Rhode Island: The 2020 WR class is so deep that a number of hidden gems will go unnoticed by the masses on draft day. However, astute evaluators have kept a close eye on Coulter following his breakout season in 2019. The 6-foot-2, 198-pounder is one of the smoothest route runners in the class and his separation skills will make him hard to defend in one-on-one situations. Coulter's soft hands and dynamic running skills make him an ideal fit for teams utilizing a variety of catch-and-run concepts on the perimeter.
5) Ben Bartch, OT, Saint John's (Minn.): The converted tight end has blossomed into a rock-solid offensive tackle prospect during his time with the Johnnies. Bartch displays the agility and movement skills to develop into a starting edge blocker down the road. He might need a few seasons to acclimate to the speed of the game and the nuances of an NFL scheme, but he certainly has enough intriguing tools to entice a team to view him as an ideal developmental prospect.
DRAFT SPOTLIGHT: Rising dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts
If you're looking for the developmental quarterback with the potential to climb up the charts as a late riser in the pre-draft process, you might want to keep an eye on Jalen Hurts. The former Oklahoma and Alabama standout has been a hot topic of conversation in the scouting community since the Senior Bowl and his star continues to rise after a solid performance at his pro day this week.
Before you @ me regarding the irrelevance of workouts in T-shirts and shorts ... Yes, I understand your point, but scouts are re-thinking their opinions on his arm talent and throwing ability after watching him work out at the NFL Scouting Combine and Oklahoma's pro day.
"He throws it much better than I thought," an AFC national scout told me. "I already liked his leadership skills, athleticism and toughness. He's a winner who knows how to get it done. I had some concerns about his throwing, but I'm willing to take a chance on his intangibles because I've seen him lead his team to wins with his play."
Reviewing Hurts' workout at Oklahoma's pro day, I came away impressed with his quickness in drops and the timing of his throws. He swiftly retreats, sets up and delivers when executing traditional dropbacks from under center. Hurts' rhythm and cadence are in sync and the ball comes out with plenty of velocity and zip. He has been able to hit the strike zone consistently in workouts and the superb ball placement in drills has been encouraging to scouts harboring questions about his accuracy when studying the tape.
As a deep-ball thrower, Hurts has shown good range and touch on vertical heaves, particularly go routes and post-corners. He has been able to drop the ball in over his receiver's correct shoulder while pushing the ball down the field beyond 50 yards. Although accuracy is valued over range on deep throws, Hurts' ability to throw the home-run ball makes him an ideal fit for an offense built around a run game with a complementary play-action package featuring an assortment of vertical throws.
On the move, Hurts' combination of arm talent and athleticism has started to pique the interests of evaluators searching for a dual-threat playmaker in a league trending toward more athletes at the position. The 6-foot-1, 222-pounder is effective throwing short and intermediate crossers and out-breaking routes rolling to his right or left. Watching Hurts execute these throws during the workout makes it easy to envision the athletic passer thriving in an offense that features a variety of bootlegs and movement tosses that put him on the perimeter with a run-pass option.
While it's easy to get excited about Hurts' passing skills in these workouts without defenders on the field, I believe it is important to compare the workout to the game tape in order to track his progress. After going back to review Hurts' performance last season at Oklahoma, I believe he has grown immensely as a passer. He took advantage of playing in a more wide-open offense than the one he quarterbacked for Nick Saban at Alabama. Lincoln Riley's OU attack enabled Hurts to sling the ball all over the yard on an assortment of quick-rhythm throws, crossing routes and deep balls that showcased his diverse skill set.
In Oklahoma's version of the Air Raid with Hurts at the helm, the offense stretched the field horizontally on swings, screens and crossers while also attacking down the field on deep overs, seams and go routes. Hurts displayed a great command of the offense and showed impressive awareness getting the ball to his playmakers in space. Although his accuracy and ball placement were a little inconsistent, he posted a completion percentage that's on par with his OU predecessors, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. That's pretty significant, seeing how Mayfield and Murray and the last two No. 1 overall picks.
As a runner, Hurts is a bruiser with exceptional strength and power for a quarterback. He bounces off tacklers in traffic while displaying outstanding contact balance and body control. While it is unlikely an NFL coach would advise Hurts to attempt running through tacklers at the rate he did in college, it is possible a team could view him as an effective option in short-yardage/goal-line situations. With speed-option and triple-option plays becoming increasingly popular at the NFL level, particularly on third-down and goal-to-go situations, Hurts' athleticism and running skills could make him a dangerous weapon for a team employing a creative offensive approach.
From a leadership standpoint, Hurts' intangibles make him a coach's dream. He's an accomplished student with natural leadership skills and a strong work ethic. Plus, he's been a successful leader of two prestigious college programs, having learned from two of the best coaches in the game. Given those experiences and the way that he's handled football adversity in the past (losing the starting job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa), I can see Hurts being coveted by coaches searching for a true field general as their QB1.
In fact, I liken Hurts' plight and game to Dak Prescott, based on how the latter surprisingly took over the Dallas Cowboys' No. 1 job despite entering the league as a fourth-round selection. Prescott, a two-time first-team All-SEC selection at Mississippi State, showed maturity beyond his years and experience while also displaying superb leadership skills as a surprise starter, earning him Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2016. Not to mention, he has utilized a multi-faceted skill set as a dual-threat playmaker to add a dimension to the Cowboys' offense.
When I look at Hurts' game, I can see him thriving in the same capacity for a team that's built around a dominant defense and strong running game. He's proven on the collegiate level that he can guide a top organization to the winner's circle (SEE: 38-4 career record at Oklahoma/Alabama) and his management skills would work well for a team looking for a quarterback with the capacity to check his ego for the sake of wins.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Hurts' leadership ability and dual-threat playmaking skills could make him the perfect successor to Ben Roethlisberger in the Steel City. He not only adds another dimension to the offense as a runner, but his high football IQ, superb judgment and poise would certainly upgrade the Steelers' QB2 situation following the disappointing play from Mason Rudolph and Devlin "Duck" Hodges during critical moments in 2019.
Las Vegas Raiders: Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden are committed to changing the culture in the Raiders' locker room by bringing in "winners." Hurts is not only a proven winner, but he is an athletic quarterback with a malleable game that would work well within Gruden's version of the West Coast offense.
Los Angeles Chargers: Anthony Lynn has a solid track record working with athletic quarterbacks. With Tyrod Taylor already in place to potentially handle the QB1 duties in 2020, Hurts could serve as an apprentice during his rookie season until he is ready to lead a team that features enough playmakers on the perimeter to help a young QB1 thrive in the AFC.