With Christmas in our rearview mirrors, college football heads into bowl season, and a crucial time of player evaluation begins.
For many college players, the best competition they will face all season comes in a bowl game. For players like Fresno State's Derek Carr, who struggled against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl, it's important to hit the ground running after the bowls to repair any damage done to their stock in the bowl game. But can a player really hurt his stock in one game? That's something we'll dig into this week.
This is an exciting week on the NFL draft calendar, and a full slate of games gives us plenty to watch this week.
Let's get started.
Five Up, Five Down
5. DE Marcus Smith, Louisville
Productive, athletic and eye-catching when you turn on the film, Louisville's Marcus Smith has flown too far under my radar this season. With a second look at Louisville before its matchup against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, I finally gave Smith the full attention he's deserved. And I was impressed.
Smith is quick off the ball and has the hand use you want to see from an edge-defender. At 6'3" and 255 pounds, he looks more like a left defensive end (LEO) or stand-up 3-4 linebacker, but Smith's quickness and range are underrated at this point. He's firmly in my top 120 prospects heading into the new year.
4. OT Joel Bitonio, Nevada
The Nevada football program has churned out solid prospects for years now, but with few draftable 2014 players on the roster, I hadn't sat down and dedicated time to its film yet. Thankfully I was nudged to look at offensive tackle Joel Bitonio.
Based on 2012 film, I had a preseason undrafted grade on the left tackle prospect, but his agility and strength stood out as I took a new look. Bitonio isn't the biggest guy at 6'4", but he packs a punch and is able to slide out with pass-rushers. With the ability to play tackle or guard, Bitonio looks like a top-100 prospect.
3. DE Josh Mauro, Stanford
Injuries allowed senior Josh Mauro more playing time at defensive end in the Stanford 3-4 scheme, and with that opportunity he has flourished. Mauro, at 6'6", 282 pounds, has the ideal length and strength to play as a 5-technique in the NFL. And after his production and impact were on display during the second half of the season, Mauro has shot up my board.
A one-time seventh-round prospect, Mauro is now inside my top 100.
2. OT Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
A 50-game starter for Vanderbilt, tackle Wesley Johnson is ready for the NFL. He's a mobile, agile left tackle who added strength this season in order to better fuel the run game. It's paid off, as Johnson has been a dominant tackle in the SEC all season.
With his athleticism and experience, Johnson will get plenty of NFL looks. Add in his improved strength and his fluid footwork, and you have a player now inside the top 120 prospects of the 2014 class.
1. OLB Jordan Tripp, Montana
It's fun to imagine how dominant Jordan Tripp could have been at a major program or even at Montana if used better. A fluid, impressive athlete in space, Tripp was never unleashed on the offense. His numbers may not be special, but his upside is.
Tripp is an attacking player off the edge, and I see a future NFL starter in his range, instincts and three-down ability as a linebacker. Tripp, who recently accepted a Senior Bowl invite, has the tools to shoot up boards once NFL teams get a closer look at him.
5. OT James Hurst, North Carolina
James Hurst has lived off his reputation as a stonewall against defensive ends, but the closer I look at the tape, the more concerns I have.
Hurst uses his hands well and has nice technique, but his agility and quickness on the edge are questionable. From Hurst I see a well-timed and well-placed punch, but his pass-pro sets aren't as quick as you'd like from a left tackle in the NFL. A move to right tackle or guard could be in his future.
4. OG Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
A powerful player in the run game, Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson looked like a future road-grader. Now, with a full season of film available, there are some areas of concern. Jackson plays with power but not always controlled power. He'll get reckless in the run game and can lunge at defenders instead of driving into them.
It's all coachable, and you have to like Jackson's physical makeup, but he's not the finished blocker he appeared to be from first glance.
3. SS Craig Loston, LSU
Craig Loston has this reputation of being a big hitter and top-tier athlete at the strong safety position, and those things are both true. But where is Loston in coverage? The NFL today is a passing game first and foremost, and a safety must be able to play in man or zone coverage, not just attack the run.
That's where I worry about Loston's game. He's physical in the box, but I see him struggling when asked to turn and run with a tight end or back. He'll need to fix those flaws in his game before he's a pro-ready starter.
2. LB Morgan Breslin, USC
A productive pass-rusher from USC is sure to catch the eye of evaluators, but does Breslin live up to the hype?
Before an injury-shortened 2013 season, Breslin looked like a solid 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level. He didn't have "greatness" in his scouting report, but he looked like a lunch-pail starter for the next decade as a left outside linebacker.
But Breslin doesn't win with speed or strength on the edge, and while it's normal for a pass-rusher to be a mix of the two, I don't see in Breslin's film the combination required to beat NFL blockers.
With shorter arms on a 6'1" frame, Breslin will have to improve his speed and strength to succeed in the NFL. And that's not the bottom line I want on a guy drafted in the top three rounds.
1. DT Daniel McCullers, Tennessee
One of the biggest players in all of college football, Daniel McCullers has been a known freak in NFL circles. The big question is whether he's a sideshow or a serious prospect at 6'6" and over 350 pounds.
McCullers has all the natural strength you'd expect from a man that size, but he's not been dominant in the SEC. The reason for that is leverage. McCullers towers over blockers, especially guards who play with a low center of gravity, and that opens him up to being driven off the ball by players with better technique. McCullers may be a mountain, but he's a moveable one. And in the NFL that won't work.
The Scout’s Report
— The instant Twitter overreactions to Derek Carr's subpar performance against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl was incredible. Carr didn't play his best game, but you also cannot ever scout a player based on one game. As I said during the game, Carr's weaknesses (happy feet in the pocket, overthrows under pressure) are all coachable. He has all the tools and abilities of a franchise quarterback, regardless of one poor game against USC.
— One name I continue to hear when talking to league scouts is Ego Ferguson. The big LSU defensive tackle wasn't as highly acclaimed by NFL folks over the summer—most of the attention went to Anthony Johnson—but with a season under their belts, it's Ferguson who is catching the eye of NFL teams. He is a top-50 player on at least three scout's boards if he enters the 2014 draft.
— Another underclassman has entered the draft. According to Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer (via Syracuse.com), the team's leading rusher, Jerome Smith, will head to the pros. Smith had good production for the Orangemen, but he'll graduate this semester and feels he's ready for the NFL. I currently have him graded as a midround talent heading into the Texas Bowl against Minnesota.
— I asked one high-level team executive this week who the safest player in the 2014 draft is. His response, "Jake Matthews." The Texas A&M left tackle has an NFL pedigree and is what the team source called a "blue-chip prospect." Matthews figures to be a top-five pick in the May draft.
— If you're looking for the next Russell Wilson, check out Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. The junior quarterback wasn't on my 2014 radar until an area scout tipped me off on his game this week. After charting three games, it's tough to not like Kelly's accuracy, mobility and poise. While not expected to declare for this year's draft, Kelly is worth watching for future classes.
— Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald accepted a Senior Bowl invite this week, according to Executive Director Phil Savage. Donald is a player several NFL teams and agents have asked me about this season. His quickness will draw comparisons to Geno Atkins, as will his smaller size. A big week in Mobile could be huge for his rising draft stock. Donald won the Outland, Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik this year in a rare sweep of the four major trophies awarded to linemen.
— There is still one quarterback spot open on the Senior Bowl rosters, and you should safely expect that invitation to be accepted by Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. Crimson Tide players have fared well in Mobile, and McCarron's status in the state would be a major draw for the All-Star Game.
— There was some debate in the media this week about Buffalo pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com called him a late first-round pick, while another anonymous scout told Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel that Mack is better than UCLA's Anthony Barr, a player most consider top-10 worthy. While I can't predict what NFL teams will do in May, I have Mack rated as a top-10 talent and do-it-all linebacker in a Von Miller mold.
— The Seattle Times' Adam Jude reported that Washington running back Bishop Sankey received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. This is in-line with my ranking of Sankey—No. 94 overall currently—and what teams have told me. The biggest concern is that Sankey doesn't break tackles or pick up yardage after contact and will struggle to find openings once in the NFL.
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 are the grinders of the NFL front office doing?
"Sitting in a press box, freezing my ass off" is what one area scout told me he'd be doing during Christmas week. While the world mostly stops for the rest of us, team scouts are still traveling to bowl games and are still tasked with the same process they followed during the season.
The good news for some teams is that they allow the bowl games to be evaluated from the comforts of the home office via uploaded video the day after the game. Each NFL team subscribes to a service that allows the scouts to view games digitally—similar to NFL Rewind—a day or two after the contest.
But for those old-school scouts and general managers, sitting in the press box is still the best view of a player. So while we're slamming back eggnog, they're preparing their notes for another day on the road.
"Arm strength, arm talent, velocity, spin, zip and wobble."
When talking to NFL scouts and coaches about a quarterback's arm strength, prepare yourself for a barrage of words being thrown at you. And oddly enough, most of them mean the same thing.
NFL scouts are looking for a passer who throws with velocity—ideally a tight spiral on the ball from the time it leaves the quarterback until it's caught by the receiver. So why all the different terms?
Some are a catch-all, like "arm strength" and "arm talent," that allow a scout to generally discuss a player's passing ability. When you hear "velocity, spin, zip or wobble," you're starting to dig down and speak more about the actual movement of the football once thrown.
Confusing? Maybe at first, but there is value in both the general and the specific when discussing the most important aspect of a quarterback—his arm.
DE Kony Ealy, Missouri
Big, long, strong and fast. That's Kony Ealy. The Missouri defensive end is a listed 6'5" and 275 pounds of lean muscle. He uses that to terrorize the edge for the Tigers but shows off his length and strength when kicked inside as a 3-technique defensive tackle at times. Versatile, agile and downright scary.
As a pass-rusher, Ealy is able to set up blockers with his long arms and then make a countermove thanks to his speed and strength combination. He has the ability to fire off the line with speed but then convert that to power if engaged by a blocker. And with good hand and arm use, Ealy is able to get through traffic and still impact the backfield.
Ealy has been productive at Missouri, but will his strength translate to the NFL? Ealy doesn't have quality film of him showing up as a run defender or as an edge-setter. He has one gear—and that's to get into the backfield and go after the ball-carrier. If asked to play gap responsibilities or be an anchor on the edge, Ealy would be washed-up by NFL blockers.
He's raw against the run, but so were Aldon Smith and Ezekiel Ansah coming out of college. Ealy has clear-cut first-round tools and athleticism. He's a top-10 player on my big board and a player I'd want on my team.
Pro Player Comparison: Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions
The Big Board
|Updated Big Board—The Top 32|
|2||Jadeveon Clowney||DE||South Carolina|
|3||Jake Matthews||OT||Texas A&M|
|8||Derek Carr||QB||Fresno State|
|11||Justin Gilbert||CB||Oklahoma St.|
|12||Johnny Manziel||QB||Texas A&M|
|13||Darqueze Dennard||CB||Michigan State|
|16||Mike Evans||WR||Texas A&M|
|18||Jace Amaro||TE||Texas Tech|
|19||Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||FS||Alabama|
|20||Eric Ebron||TE||North Carolina|
|21||Ryan Shazier||OLB||Ohio State|
|24||Devante Adams||WR||Fresno State|
|25||Michael Bennett||DT||Ohio State|
|30||Allen Robinson||WR||Penn State|
|Matt Miller's Big Board|
10. If you love football, the next 10 days will be amazing. Between Week 17 of the NFL season dictating many playoff spots and a ton of college football bowl games on TV, I may not leave my office.
9. Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State) and Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) would have been the best cornerbacks in the 2013 class by a long shot. Now we'll get to see the two go head-to-head for the top spot in 2014, and that's going to be a treat.
8. It looks like a lot of people are still sleeping on Kony Ealy and UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. I asked on Twitter this week if anyone else had them in their top-10 players. No one does, except for me. Feel free to hop on the bandwagon if you're reading this.
7. If Stanford's David Yankey leaves school for the NFL draft, he'll be the best guard in the class. He's David DeCastro-like in his technique but plays meaner at the point of attack.
6. I hate to see anyone lose his job, but there is no way Jim Schwartz should be able to keep his position after watching the Lions collapse this season. Their undisciplined, inconsistent play is a reflection of the head coach.
5. My predictions for NFL firings following Week 17: Schwartz (Detroit), Mike Shanahan (Washington), Leslie Frazier (Minnesota), Greg Schiano (Tampa Bay) and Jason Garrett (Dallas).
4. I love that NFL teams are starting to overlook size when evaluating a player. The old ideas that a quarterback had to be so tall or a linebacker so heavy are slowly dying thanks to guys like Russell Wilson and Lavonte David. With that in mind, keep your eyes on Ohio State's Ryan Shazier as a top-15 pick this May if he leaves school early.
3. Prepare to hear a lot of talk about how this draft class isn't very good. And please prepare to ignore that. The 2014 class might not have greatness at the top, but it's better top to bottom than the 2013 class already. There may not be an Andrew Luck, but I'm happy with a Jake Matthews, Jadeveon Clowney and others.
2. We're going to have a lot of great debates between now and May about who the top player in the 2014 NFL draft should be. I'm putting my vote in now for Teddy Bridgewater. As long as he enters the draft this year, he'll be my No. 1 player.
1. As 2013 comes to a close, I wanted to take time to thank you all for the support, the conversations and the feedback throughout the year. I have the best job in the world, and that wouldn't be possible without you, the reader.
Twitter Must-Follow of the Week
If you want to follow people on Twitter who lived and breathed the NFL scouting life, Greg Gabriel is for you.
The former Director of College Scouting for the Chicago Bears, Gabriel has 30 years of NFL scouting experience. He's now working as an NFL draft analyst for National Football Post. Enjoy him while you can, as he'll likely be back in the NFL soon.
Who I’m Scouting This Week
With the regular season over, I'll highlight five players who I'm taking a look at each week.
1. QBs Blake Bortles, UCF, and Bryce Petty, Baylor
The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl brings us two top-tier quarterback prospects on one field as Central Florida and Baylor go head-to-head. The leader of the UCF offense, Bortles hasn't yet declared his 2014 intentions. Petty, meanwhile, has said he'll return to Baylor for the 2014 season.
Bortles has a chance to be a top-five pick in the 2014 class, and Petty will be in tight competition with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota for the likely top spot next season.
Seeing the two on the field in a high-profile game will hopefully give them the national spotlight they both deserve. Bortles especially is being underrated and overlooked by many fans. That'll change after Jan. 1.
2. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
The No. 1 overall player on my big board, Teddy Bridgewater will make his 2014 intentions known after the Russell Athletic Bowl. How he plays on the field against a raw, athletic Miami (Fla.) defense won't change that decision, but it will affect how people see the junior quarterback.
The biggest knock people bring up regarding Bridgewater is the level of competition he's played against. A dominant performance against the Hurricanes won't silence every critic, but it will help Bridgewater's public perception. That, of course, doesn't matter to NFL teams, as all they need to see is more of the same from the nation's most NFL-ready quarterback.
3. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
A top-20 player and one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, Darqueze Dennard has a chance to really move up my board this offseason. That rise can begin against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Dennard is a physical man-coverage cornerback, but he'll be tested by Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal offense. If he continues to hold his own against this offense, expect to see a nice little pre-Senior Bowl jump on boards.
4. LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin
An undersized (5'11") linebacker, Chris Borland jumps off the film every time you watch Wisconsin play. But can he continue to do that against a big, bruising back like South Carolina's Mike Davis and a mobile quarterback in Connor Shaw?
Borland needs to show that he can get off blockers and make plays outside the tackle box. If he can do that and handle the Gamecocks' run game, you'll see a lot of people fall in line with the second-round grade I have on the gritty linebacker.
5. OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
One of the top prep players I can remember seeing, Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks to be equally as impressive as an NFL blocker. With legitimate top-five potential, Koudanjio can put a statement on his college career with a big performance against a talented Oklahoma defense.
Kouandjio needs to show better burst out of his stance and consistent balance tracking to his left—two areas that will be tested by Oklahoma's pass rush. I'll have my eyes on Kouandjio the entire game.