The college football season comes to a close this week, with only the must-see Army vs. Navy game left on the schedule. As sad as the end of the regular season makes us all, the good news is the NFL draft season really starts to heat up now.
With fewer games each Saturday—and fewer NFL coverage responsibilities—this is the time of year when I'm able to dig in and start scouting players heavily. My focus, like that of NFL teams already eliminated from the playoffs, starts to shift from Sundays to the film room. And each week you'll find what I've learned in this space.
Let's get started.
Five Up, Five Down
5. RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
The Ohio State running back has made big improvements to his game over the course of the last season. As the 2012 season ended, Hyde looked like a big back who lacked the speed and burst to excel at the next level.
This year, though, he's shown much better quickness, vision and anticipation. That's led to over 1,400 yards rushing and a crazy 7.7 yards per carry. How well Hyde does after the season will dictate his draft stock, but he's in my top 50 players right now.
4. QB Bryce Petty, Baylor
Bryce Petty has elected to return to Baylor for the 2014 season, but his play down the stretch this year showed that he's already a prime candidate for an NFL starting job whenever he's ready. Petty is more than a system quarterback at Baylor, showing the arm strength and ball placement needed to distribute the ball in the pros. He has a classic, quick release, and if he can continue to improve, he has the look of a top-five pick.
3. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
I'm often asked where the next Alshon Jeffery is hiding, and the best answer may be at Florida State. Redshirt sophomore Kelvin Benjamin reminds me of Jeffery with his big frame, long stride and ability to high-point jump balls. Where the two differ is in Benjamin's inconsistent hands, but the 22-year-old wide receiver has the body, strength and raw athletic ability with which scouts fall in love. If he declares for this draft, it's tough imagining him slipping past the second round.
2. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Of all the cornerbacks I've evaluated this year, none played better in man coverage than Justin Gilbert. The Oklahoma State cornerback has the size, length, speed and technique to ride the hip pocket and jump routes to secure an interception. He's rarely out of position and has the profile of a long-term starter on the boundary. Gilbert, my top-ranked cornerback, has top-15 talent.
1. DE Kony Ealy, Missouri
The SEC Championship Game helped Kony Ealy's stock considerably, as he notched one sack and three tackles for a loss against top-tier tackle prospect Greg Robinson. Ealy has the length, speed and strength that many will compare to Aldon Smith, and that comparison is tough to dispute. Ealy isn't great against the run—yet—but his size, strength and quickness make him a first-round talent.
5. LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
There is no doubting that the Ohio State junior is talented, but later in the season he struggled to free himself from blockers on the edge and impact the game when the offense focused on stopping him. Shazier's first-step quickness and athletic ability are still first-round caliber, but his stock is in the latter half of the round and not the first half, where many had him earlier in the year.
4. QB David Fales, San Jose State
A one-time contender to be the top senior quarterback, Fales has seen his draft stock slip despite astronomical production this year. The San Jose State offense helps him quite a bit, as does the competition in the Mountain West Conference. When taking away the level of competition and scouting his traits, Fales shows an average arm, good feet and field vision not quite developed enough for a high-level passing game. He's out of my top three rounds right now.
3. OW De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon
I dove in head first on the De'Anthony Thomas love this summer, but with the cold of winter, the reality has set in that he's more of a situational threat and less a game-changing offensive weapon. I still drool at the thought of Thomas as a returner/runner/receiver in a creative offense, but he's the type of player for whom you have to scheme touches—and those guys don't always succeed in the NFL.
2. CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State
After Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin took him apart, I defended Bradley Roby. It's one bad game, I said.
Well, now he's had two with similar issues. Michigan State's offense exposed Roby (again) as a stiff-hipped cornerback who gambles too often on routes. He's big, physical and athletic, but he's flawed too. Roby is still a first-rounder, but he's not the top-10 player he looked to be last fall.
1. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Mike Evans, meet E.J. Gaines. You will not like him. Gaines held Texas A&M's big wide receiver in check in the Aggies' showdown against Missouri. This further highlights concerns that Evans doesn't have the speed to separate or create at the next level. His size, strength and production are first-round caliber, but that lack of speed and burst is a major question mark for me.
The Scout’s Report
— If Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin lands an NFL job this offseason, don’t expect him to make a big push for quarterback Johnny Manziel. I’m told by a team source that the two egos don’t mesh well.
— Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson has entered the 2014 draft class. The big man dominated in 2012, shutting down Jadeveon Clowney and others, but he hasn’t been as elite this year. That doesn’t change his raw ability, size profile and upside. He looks like a Day 1 pick.
— South Florida pass-rusher Aaron Lynch has been talking to agents, a source tells me, and is “100 percent” on entering the 2014 class. The Notre Dame transfer has talent, but he lost weight in an effort to gain speed and hasn’t been as productive. There are also off-field concerns surrounding Lynch and his family that could hurt his draft stock.
— Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy has been on fire as of late. The big pass-rusher has the height, length, strength and burst that teams love. One NFC area scout told me he sees him as a “top-10 talent” in this year’s class.
— Baylor coach Art Briles will be a hot name among NFL teams looking for a new head coach. Even after signing a new deal with the Bears—one that has a $5 million buyout—he’s among the names I’ve heard most for job openings. If you’re Daniel Snyder in Washington, paying a buyout to get Briles back with Robert Griffin III might be worth it.
— Big news for the 2014 (and 2015) draft: First-round prospect Brandon Scherff is returning to Iowa for his senior season. He will enter the 2015 class as my top-ranked offensive tackle.
— Auburn’s Chris Davis is headed to the Senior Bowl. He’ll join teammates Jay Prosch (FB) and Dee Ford (DE), as well as Georgia Southern’s Lavelle Westbrooks (CB) and Jerick McKinnon (RB) and Notre Dame guard Chris Watt.
— Also accepting a Senior Bowl invite: Arizona State RB Marion Grice, Washington State SS Deone Bucannon, Mississippi State TE Joe Don Duncan, Tennessee State OG Kadeem Edwards, Florida OG Jon Halapio, Tennessee OT Ja'Wuan James, Tennessee DT Daniel McCullers, North Carolina State CB Dontae Johnson, Penn State DT DaQuan Jones, Miami (Fla.) OG Brandon Linder and North Carolina DE Kareem Martin.
— One NFC North team scout told me his club loves Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, noting that “his arm is better than (Derek) Carr’s, and he’s smoother in the pocket.” While I don’t agree, Garoppolo is a very intriguing small-school prospect, and he does have a huge arm.
— What does the trade value look like for Kirk Cousins? I’m told by one team source to expect Washington to trade the second-year quarterback this offseason in an effort to convince Robert Griffin III that he shouldn’t be threatened by Cousins’ presence on the depth chart. Teams willing to spend a third-round pick on the talented pocket passer should be calling Snyder.
— Where's the best fit for Johnny Manziel? Don't overlook the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars rolled the dice on athletes Denard Robinson and Ace Sanders in the 2013 draft, showing that the front office likes those types. Manziel isn't a classic quarterback in any sense, but in Jacksonville he could be an exciting playmaker at quarterback.
A Day in the Life of an NFL Scout
Each week you’ll get a glimpse inside the life of everyone’s dream job—being an NFL scout.
What goes into investigating the background of NFL draft prospects? I asked former NFL scout John Middlekauff for insight on how he would go about digging into a player's off-field life.
"We talk to position coaches, coordinators, strength coaches, academic advisors, teammates...hell, the equipment manager if need be. (If the) guy has a lot of baggage, you go back to the high school coaches. No stone is left unturned. The better the player, the more digging we had to do."
What Middlekauff describes is why many area scouts are equal parts investigator and talent evaluator. It's also why a negative review from a college head coach can be a killer for a player's draft stock.
So when the draft season really heats up after the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to enter, you'll know who it is out on the streets tracking down dirt on the top players.
QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida
Strengths: The first thing you notice when watching Blake Bortles is that he looks a lot like Andrew Luck out on the field. The same thick, athletic body type and chin-high hold on the football is obvious when watching Bortles roll out and execute. And he does have some Luck-like qualities—an underrated runner, tough to bring down in the pocket, eyes-up mobility and throws a very catchable pass. Bortles makes plays, even without a ton of talent around him, and that shows he can elevate the talent of those around him. That's a key trait I look for in a quarterback.
And when throwing deep, his accuracy is very noticeable. Bortles' decision-making is on-point, too. He threw just seven interceptions this year, and by my count, four of those were his fault. Accurate, athletic and careful with the football. Sounds like a scout's dream.
Weaknesses: The fact that he's facing lower-end talent in the American Athletic Conference will bother some teams, and there's no getting around that. On the field, his release is a little longer and slower than you'd like, but he's not Tim Tebow. Coaches will likely ask him to speed up that release, though.
The biggest knock on film is his footwork. Like many athletic passers, Bortles throws the ball from all kinds of awkward stances. Learning to step into throws and control his lower body will be big for his early success.
Pro Player Comparison: Jake Locker, but more accurate
The Big Board
|2||Jadeveon Clowney||DE||South Carolina|
|3||Jake Matthews||OT||Texas A&M|
|8||Derek Carr||QB||Fresno State|
|10||Blake Bortles||QB||Central Florida|
|11||Mike Evans||WR||Texas A&M|
|12||Johnny Manziel||QB||Texas A&M|
|13||Jace Amaro||TE||Texas Tech|
|16||Justin Gilbert||CB||Oklahoma St.|
|19||Ryan Shazier||OLB||Ohio State|
|20||Cameron Erving||OT||Florida State|
|21||Eric Ebron||TE||North Carolina|
|23||Louis Nix||NT||Notre Dame|
|24||Darqueze Dennard||CB||Michigan State|
|27||Michael Bennett||DT||Ohio State|
|32||Allen Robinson||WR||Penn State|
10. I love the way the 2015 draft class looks today. It seems like we always say that one year out, but with Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Bryce Petty, Brandon Scherff, Andrus Peat and others playing one more year of college ball, next year’s class looks special.
9. I think that the 2014 quarterback class is going to underwhelm a lot of people. Injuries to Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray hurt, but so does a lack of a good second tier. David Fales hasn’t risen up boards, leaving a big gap between the first-rounders (Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr) and the others.
8. I hate the Twitter venom surrounding AJ McCarron’s NFL prospects. I’m all for standing your ground on an opinion, but too many people have already written their book on McCarron’s NFL career before he finished at Alabama. The kid has positives and negatives just like everyone else. State those after evaluating film and assign your grade. But trashing McCarron and anyone who supports him is petty.
7. I think commenting on a player’s character is a risky move for anyone in the media, but especially if you’ve never spent considerable time (more than one interview) with the player. It’s fine by me to reference arrest records and facts, but speculation on a player’s personality isn’t something you’ll see in this space.
6. I love that college football players can leave school early, but I hate that we’re seeing a record number each year. There’s a lot of value in an education and also in taking time to develop your skills at the college level before jumping to the NFL.
5. I hate that we’re so quick to toss aside rookie quarterbacks. Geno Smith has struggled in New York, but who wouldn’t with the lack of talent the Jets have on offense? Take a breath, fans, and let’s see what the kid can do with a legitimate wide receiver and some help on the offensive line.
4. I love the way Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) moves at left tackle. If you were to take the best pieces from Joe Thomas (patience), Ryan Clady (athletic ability) and Luke Joeckel (footwork), you’d have who I think Matthews can become in the NFL.
3. I love what West Virginia running back Charles Sims brings to the next level. He’s the next Matt Forte waiting to happen.
2. I hate that an immature act like a speeding ticket has become so overblown for Jadeveon Clowney. He’s 20 years old, folks. I’m just thankful there were no media following my every move at that age.
1. I think by the time you read this, Mike Shanahan might be fired in Washington. And that’s OK, but as long as Daniel Snyder is a super-involved owner there, the team will never win consistently.
Twitter Must-Follow of the Week
@FieldYates, Field Yates (ESPN)
As @tomecurran said, Pats worked out DE Cordarro Law today. He had 14 sacks for Calgary of the CFL this season, 3rd best in the league.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 11, 2013
One of the best young guys in the business, Yates does Patriots coverage for ESPN Boston and NFL coverage for ESPN Insider and is the cohost of Fantasy Underground, and you've no doubt seen him on NFL Insiders. He also worked as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs.
While he doesn't spend much time covering the NFL draft these days, his eye for talent and ability to break down players and situations is key. He's also become quite the newshound and is one of my top 10 follows.
"Heavy-Legged Waist Bender"
We've all heard Jon Gruden call out an offensive lineman for being a "heavy-legged waist bender," but what the hell does it mean and why is it bad?
It's exactly how it sounds. When an offensive lineman bends at the waist instead of sinking his knees, it's bad. Blockers need to be light on their feet, and when they bend at the waist, it's hard to move laterally or hold your ground with any power. That's where the "heavy-legged" comes into play. You can't move well when bent at the waist.
When evaluating offensive linemen, you want someone who naturally sinks at the knees and not at the waist. Think of a lineman like a coil, ready to spring into action. To be agile, mobile and powerful, you need bent knees and not a bent waist.
Who I’m Scouting This Week
With the regular season over, I'll highlight five players that I'm taking a look at each week. Those players will then be referenced in next week's Scouting Notebook.
1. Texas DE Jackson Jeffcoat
The AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jeffcoat finished the regular season with 12 sacks (good for No. 3 nationally). Jeffcoat closed out his college career with the dominant season we had been waiting for from the former prep star, but NFL teams aren't high on his ability. This week I'll be going through his game film to see if he's all hype or a worthy NFL-caliber pass-rusher.
2. Florida CB Loucheiz Purifoy
As happens so often this time of year, an underclassman declares for the draft and evaluators spring into action. With Loucheiz Purifoy leaving Florida early, I'll be digging into his tape to see if he's all athlete or if the technique is there to make him a Year 1 starter.
3. Florida State OLB Telvin Smith
The Florida State roster is loaded with current and future draft prospects, and you know most of them. But the one under-the-radar guy I need to spend more time on is outside linebacker Telvin Smith. As he's built like a safety, defining Smith's role in the NFL will be tough, so a much closer look is needed.
4. South Carolina CB Vic Hampton
Like Purifoy, Vic Hampton is leaving early for the NFL. That means going back through his South Carolina career to track his coverages, interceptions and upside. Hampton wasn't on my radar in-season, so this will be a fresh look at his ability.
5. Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Every draft has at least one small-school quarterback worth checking out, and this year it's Jimmy Garoppolo. I've seen four of his games, but I want the whole picture. Charting his throws and going through my quarterback checklist with Garoppolo is what I'm most looking forward to.