The evolution of the passing game in the NFL is transforming the tight end position.
Teams are searching for the next Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jermichael Finley or Aaron Hernandez. They're bypassing big, physical tight ends who can block in favor of explosive athletes with size, speed and movement skills. These hybrids offer little in the way of blocking on the edges, but they can create mismatches in the passing game.
After trekking to Ireland to get an up-close view of Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, I'm convinced that he will be the next tight end to take the NFL by storm.
Eifert, who measures 6-foot-6 and weighs 251 pounds, is a versatile athlete with the size and speed to enjoy significant advantages over linebackers and defensive backs in space. Last season, he used his superior physical tools to catch 63 passes for 803 yards and five scores. Most of Eifert's production was generated from an assortment of seam routes and intermediate crossers that allowed him to thrive against overmatched defenders.
As I closely watched Eifert work against Navy, it appeared that coach Brian Kelly and his staff had expanded his role, utilizing him extensively as a quasi-receiver in most of their formations. For instance, Notre Dame routinely aligned Eifert on the outside as a flanker in their "12" (one back, two tight ends and two receivers) and "13" (one back, three tight ends and one receiver) personnel packages, pitting him against Navy's corners. Eifert was targeted a handful of times on bubble screens and fades, including one pass that led to a four-yard touchdown, and he looked like a natural playmaker in space.
Eifert also motioned into the tackle box to play as an H-back, creating some conventional two-back sets. This allowed Notre Dame to use Eifert as a lead blocker on power running plays or take advantage of his receiving skills in space by implementing several variations of the bootleg pass.
The next Steven Jackson is ...
In my scouting days, I routinely compared college and pro players as a way to provide head coaches or general managers with a vivid image of a prospect's potential. I saw Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell put on a one-man show against Boise State, and his game looked eerily similar to that of St. Louis Rams star Steven Jackson.
The 6-2, 244-pound Bell is a hard-nosed runner with a unique combination of size, speed and strength. He can pick up the tough yards between the tackles and flashes burst to get to the corner on outside runs. Bell is also a solid receiver with outstanding hands and route-running ability.
Against Boise State, Bell showcased his all-around game, amassing 254 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 50 touches. (Bell rushed 44 times for 210 yards and added six receptions for 44 yards.) Most importantly, he took over in the fourth quarter, dashing off several key runs that showed he can thrive as a "one-man gang."
I scouted Jackson when he was at Oregon State and I was working as an area scout for the Carolina Panthers. Jackson and Bell have similarly bruising running styles and good receiving skills out of the backfield. Bell also runs with a Jackson-esque level of ferocity that helps him make long fourth-quarter gains against weary defenses.
Given that Bell has a similar build (Jackson is listed at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds), it won't be long before evaluators are comparing the Michigan State star to the Pro Bowl running back.
Word on the Street
I spoke to several college scouts familiar with USC quarterback Matt Barkley's game, and he is not a consensus lock to be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Evaluators who have watched him in person have serious concerns about his height and arm strength. There is also a belief in some circles that his success is the byproduct of playing with a stellar surrounding cast featuring two of the top receivers in the country (Marqise Lee and Robert Woods). The scouts I spoke with were overwhelmingly positive about Barkley's football aptitude and game management. His lack of elite physical tools, though, could leave the door open for an unheralded signal-caller to emerge as the top prospect by the end of the 2012 season.
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Freshman running backs aren't usually the best player on the field in Game 1, but that was certainly the case with Johnson. In the Hurricanes' 41-32 win over Boston College, Johnson rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries. He displayed a combination of speed, quickness and vision that makes him a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. On both touchdown runs, Johnson slipped past multiple defenders in the second level to get into the open field. Johnson showed these same skills while dominating the competition as a talented playmaker at Norland High School in Miami. He definitely appears to have the goods to shine in the ACC.
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Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Smith could shoot up draft boards across the league if he can show off his spectacular combination of pocket-passing and playmaking skills this season. Smith has all of the tools (arm talent, athleticism, leadership ability and a winning pedigree) that evaluators want, and they were on display in the Mountaineers' 69-34 drubbing of Marshall on Saturday. Smith connected on 32 of 36 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns, adding 65 rushing yards on eight carries, including a 28-yard touchdown on an impromptu run. Scouts will question whether or not Smith can transition from the Mountaineers' high-powered spread offense to a pro-style attack, but he has routinely shown he can deliver accurate throws from the pocket and does not have the run-first mentality of a stereotypical athletic quarterback.
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Te'o raised eyebrows in the scouting community when he bypassed an opportunity to enter the 2012 NFL Draft. But after watching his dominant performance in Notre Dame's season-opening win, I'm convinced he has improved significantly as a playmaker. Te'o amassed six tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery while displaying outstanding instincts and awareness against the triple option. Te'o flowed to the ball quickly, nimbly avoided blockers targeting his legs and made several key plays at the point of attack. Most importantly, he collected the first two takeaways of his career, an essential achievement for anyone hoping to play the turnover-driven pro game. If Te'o can continue to hone his coverage skills and ball awareness, he could be the first linebacker to come off the board next April.
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
Ellington is the running back to watch in college football as a potential first-round sleeper in the 2013 NFL Draft. He has a terrific combination of size, speed and vision, and is starting to put it all together as a consistent playmaker in the Tigers' spread offense. Against Auburn, Ellington showed he can handle a heavy workload -- gaining 231 rushing yards on 26 carries -- and he routinely carried the ball between the tackles on a host of inside-zone runs. This is an important development for Ellington, considering his reputation as an edge runner; he could raise his value as a potential three-down back in the NFL.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
He is routinely overshadowed by superstar teammate Robert Woods, but one could make the case that Lee is the Trojans' most explosive offensive player. Lee torched Hawaii, hauling in 10 passes for 197 yards, including a spectacular catch-and-run on a 75-yard game-opening touchdown. As if that weren't enough, Lee returned a punt 100 yards for a score and displayed the explosive running skills that make him one of the country's most electrifying playmakers in the open field. Lee's performance builds on the momentum created by a sensational freshman year, and he deserves to be mentioned as one of the top receivers in the country.
Mike Glennon, QB, and David Amerson, CB, N.C. State
Glennon entered the season with scouts projecting him as a potential first-round draft pick, but he didn't play to that level in the season opener against Tennessee. He completed just 27 of 46 passes for 288 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions. He also showed sloppy ball-handling skills, fumbling twice under pressure, with one of those turnovers leading to a safety. Glennon's blunders cost his team dearly in a very competitive matchup and raise concerns about his ability to perform well in big games.
Amerson also will face some scrutiny following his disappointing performance in Week 1. He surrendered two long touchdown receptions and showed an unexpected vulnerability against double moves and deep routes. Amerson's undisciplined eyes and overaggressive nature allowed Cordarrelle Patterson to score an easy 41-yard touchdown for the Volunteers on an out-and-up. Scouts certainly appreciate Amerson's length and penchant for playmaking (he led the nation with 13 interceptions in 2011). But he'll need to show he can withstand the bombardment of opponents willing to take deep shots in his direction if he wants to retain his status as one of the top corners in college football.
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Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
The odds of Robinson playing quarterback as a pro were greatly diminished by his dismal performance against Alabama, in which he connected on just 11 of 26 passes for 200 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He didn't appear to have a feel for where to go with the ball against the Crimson Tide's zone defense. Most importantly, he couldn't make pinpoint throws into tight windows, showing that he remains a work in progress as a pocket passer. Most teams will evaluate Robinson as a potential slot receiver or kick returner. If he continues to struggle from the pocket, that will further limit his chances of making a team as a potential change-of-pace quarterback.