Editor's note: NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Bucky Brooks shares some of his college scouting notes, including:
» A look at one of the most intriguing QBs who'll be available in next year's draft.
» The early buzz about the next wave of O-line prospects.
But first, Brooks' take on the latest star WR in the pipeline at Alabama.
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The comparison game is a huge part of the evaluation process in the scouting business, particularly when attempting to project the potential of top prospects off game tape. Evaluators will closely study body types and playing styles to come up with a solid comparison for how the prospect could play at the next level.
At Alabama, the recent successes of Pro Bowl receivers Amari Cooper and Julio Jones have led scouts to wonder if Calvin Ridley is the next Crimson Tide pass-catcher with All-Pro potential.
The 6-foot-1, 188-pound junior has lit up the SEC, racking up 161 catches for 1,814 yards and 14 touchdowns in 30 career games. He exhibits the polished game of an NFL veteran.
Ridley's smooth route-running skills and spectacular ball skills make him tough to defend on the perimeter, particularly when he has free access at the line. He varies his speed and tempo throughout the route, but also adds a little wiggle at the top of his cut to create separation. Ridley's combination of quickness, balance and body control makes him a natural WR1 in an offense that covets route runners at the lead position.
As a pass-catcher, Ridley exhibits strong hands and natural tracking skills down the field. He snatches the ball from defenders in traffic while also flashing centerfielder-like fielding skills on over-the-shoulder tosses. Ridley's late ball-flight adjustments are exceptional for a young receiver still mastering the nuances of the position.
As a runner, the Crimson Tide star is dangerous with the ball in his hands. He shows outstanding short-area quickness and explosiveness in the open field, particularly on quick screens, crossing routes and reverses/jet sweeps. For teams looking for a "catch-and-run" specialist to move the chains in the passing game, Ridley has all of the traits to be a great one.
With Ridley's dominance coming on the heels of Cooper's success at the Alabama, scouts constantly pepper Crimson Tide coaches with questions about their similarities and differences. When I spoke to a former Alabama assistant about the playing styles of their former WR1s, he told me that it was apparent that Ridley not only studied Cooper's game but stole several of his favorite moves and incorporated them into his repertoire.
"It's very obvious that Calvin has studied Amari's game," the coach said. "They are very similar because neither guy is a one-trick pony. They are smooth route runners with speed and quickness, and they have unique stop-start ability that's better than anyone I've ever been around. ... As route runners, they do a great job of threatening defensive backs vertically with their speed and arm action, which forces the DB to turn and run, before quickly sinking their hips to stop and get out of their breaks. They are able to get out of their breaks in (two steps).
"... I think Amari is better at the line of scrimmage and catches the ball cleaner, but both guys were pretty polished coming in."
When I survey the college landscape to see where Ridley compares to the top wide receiver prospects in the potential 2018 class, I believe he could rank near the top of the list solely based on his combination of route-running ability, ball skills and playmaking potential. He has a natural set of skills that would make him an ideal No. 1 receiver in most offenses, particularly a West Coast Offense scheme that places a premium on "catch-and-run" playmakers on the perimeter.
If I had to compare Ridley to a high-level NFL receiver, I would compare him to former NFL great Reggie Wayne based on his size and playing style. Ridley is so smooth and effortless in his actions that he reminds me of the six-time Pro Bowl receiver during his time with the Indianapolis Colts. While I'm reluctant to put that kind of expectation on Ridley's game or potential career, I firmly believe he is a natural plug-and-play receiver capable of making his mark immediately as a pro.
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What Falk needs to do shed "system QB" label
Whenever NFL scouts see a quarterback prospect coming off back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons with a 76:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a completion rate of nearly 70 percent during that span, they will hustle into the film room with the stat sheet to see if the numbers are telling the full story about the passer's talents.
In Luke Falk's case, evaluators wonder if the Washington State quarterback is a legitimate franchise quarterback candidate or another "system QB" ringing up big numbers as coach Mike Leach's joystick in a video-game-like offense that features one of the most prolific aerial attacks in college football.
The Cougars have ranked as one of the nation's top-five passing offenses in four of Leach's five seasons at the helm, including a pair of No. 1 finishes in 2014 and 2015. Not to mention, Leach helped Connor Halliday toss 30-plus touchdowns in back-to-back seasons (2013 and 2014) and become the first Washington State quarterback to post a 4,000-yard season.
With Halliday failing to latch on to an NFL team like so many other Leach proteges (Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Graham Harrell led the nation in passing at Texas Tech, but combined to throw only six passes in their NFL careers), the "system quarterback" label is quickly affixed to any stat-stuffing gunslinger thriving in his scheme. That's why scouts are taking a long, hard look at Falk over the summer to see if he has a legitimate chance to stick in the league as a potential franchise quarterback.
"I think he's a little different than the other guys who've played in this system," said an NFC personnel executive. "He has more ownership of the offense and it's reflected in the balance (run-pass ratio) that they displayed last fall. ... Their coaches rave about his ability to manage the game at the line and get them into the best possible play, particularly when the run is available against teams loaded up in coverage. Sure, he can make the throws and put up big numbers, but it's his ability to manage the game that makes him a little different than his predecessors."
Falk definitely deserves some credit for balancing out the offensive attack with his smart checks at the line of scrimmage. After rushing for just 478 yards in in 2015 (39.8 rushing yards per game), the Cougars finished the 2016 campaign with 1,560 rushing yards (120 rushing yards per game) with three rushers averaging more than 5.4 yards per carry. That's quite a jump in production and most of the credit goes to Falk for his wise decision-making at the line of scrimmage.
Of course, scouts won't draft a quarterback in an early round simply due to his high IQ or efficient management skills. He must be able to make all of the throws while displaying a game that translates to other systems.
After studying Falk on tape, I believe he has to work on a few areas of his game to convince evaluators that he has the goods to be a QB1 at the next level. While I love his toughness, courage and poise within the pocket, he needs to become a more accurate thrower, particularly at intermediate and deep range. He frequently missed receivers on routes beyond 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, which could be problematic in the league, where the ability to make tight-window throws separates the good ones from the great ones at the NFL level. With Falk only showing average arm talent (arm strength, zip, velocity and range) on tape, he has to develop into a superb timing and anticipation passer to succeed.
Although his gaudy completion rate suggests that Falk is already one of the best "dime droppers" in the country (70 percent completion rate in 2016; 69.4 percent completion rate in 2015), I believe his numbers are a bit inflated due to the staple routes featured in the "Air Raid" offense (bubble screens, swings, snags and short crossing routes). The 6-foot-4, 214-pound former walk-on essentially "nickels and dimes" the ball down the field on a host of catch-and-run throws that allow his playmakers to snag the ball on the move underneath the defense. To their credit, the Cougars' pass-catchers excel at making the initial defender miss in the open field, which allows the offense to gobble up first downs on a host of low-risk throws delivered near the line of scrimmage.
While there are plenty of NFL quarterbacks who excel in schemes with similar principles (see West Coast Offenses), the top quarterbacks have the capacity to play in a variety of systems due to a diverse game that's reminiscent of an elite MLB pitcher. Basically, the best quarterbacks in the game are capable of changing ball speed and trajectory to make the required throw at any moment. In addition, they are capable of playing "small ball" or "bombs away" from the pocket in their own way.
If I could give Falk a checklist of things to work on in the fall, I would like to see him display better arm strength and accuracy from the pocket, particularly on throws beyond the 10-yard range. He can improve his ball placement and velocity by using better footwork and mechanics in the pocket (he tends to fade away or fall off his throws). If he can fully incorporate his lower body into his throwing motion, he can maximize his ability to push the ball down the field despite his limitations.
If Falk wants to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the gunslingers that could headline the 2018 quarterback class, he needs to clean up his game to have a skill set that matches the management skills that have already piqued the interest of NFL scouts.
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Bounce-back year in the offing up front?
"Where are all of the offensive linemen?"
After seeing only a handful of offensive tackle prospects earn top grades in the 2017 NFL Draft, I had an NFC scout pose that question to me based on the lack of elite offensive tackles available in this year's class. However, scouts should be a little more optimistic when looking at the talent at the college level, as I see a couple of blue-chip prospects at the position. In surveying the preseason rankings, I believe there are several big-bodied athletes with the combination of size, feet and hands to earn solid marks.
Led by Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey, Texas' Connor Williams, Clemson's Mitch Hyatt and Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, Jr., the headliners are massive edge blockers with strong pass-blocking skills and rock-solid run blocking ability.
"It's hard to find elite edge players in any class, but this group definitely has potential," said an AFC scout.
Considering how desperate teams are to find edge blockers capable of moving defenders off the ball while also thriving in pass protection, the depth of the 2018 class could be an intriguing storyline to follow next spring.