For eight NFL teams, this week will be all about preparation for the upcoming divisional round of the playoffs. For the other 24 teams, this week is about NFL draft preparation.
As the playoffs wind down we start to enter the all-star season in the run-up to the May 8 draft. This week is the Medal of Honor Bowl, followed by the Shrine Game next week and then the Senior Bowl on the last Saturday of January. It's a month jam-packed with football when you consider the college football bowls played just last week.
What does that mean for fans already looking ahead to the 2014 draft? It means that the class of available prospects is coming together ahead of the January 15 underclassman deadline and that every team in the league is sitting down and watching the same prospects we are.
Five Up, Five Down
5. DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan could theoretically be listed as both a riser and faller this week.
The 6'2", 300-pound pass-rushing defensive tackle was a wrecking ball from the middle of the defensive line throughout much of the game. Jernigan showed the first-step quickness to consistently beat blockers off the ball, and he converted that speed to power when he needed to bull rush or rip through blocks.
That's the upside, and with Jernigan the potential is amazing. The downside is that on the most important drive of the game for Florida State's defense, Jernigan was sucking wind on the sidelines. Some NFL scouts will hate that, while others won't mind at all. But you'd be foolish to think it won't come up with teams if Jernigan enters the 2014 draft as expected.
4. DE Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma
The redshirt junior pass-rusher was all over the Alabama offensive line in the team's surprise win over the Crimson Tide. Geneo Grissom was well-known as an athletic pass-rusher, but his play against a highly decorated Alabama line opened my eyes.
Grissom showed the quickness off the ball that an NFL defensive end needs to beat blockers, but he followed that up with good strength to break off hands and get through traffic to the ball. He fires off low and with follow-through on his leverage.
While not expected to enter the 2014 class, Grissom is a name to remember.
3. RB Tre Mason, Auburn
The Auburn offense was impressive against an athletic Florida State defense in the final game of the year. That tempo was set by running back Tre Mason.
The junior tailback hasn't declared for the 2014 draft as of this writing, but should he enter he'll be ranked as my No. 2 back behind only Carlos Hyde. Mason's quickness in and out of the hole is exciting, and with his vision, patience and open-field burst it's easy to see him as a starting NFL running back.
What I liked most about Mason, though, was the soft hands he showed in the passing game. His blend of speed and three-down skills makes him a back I'd want on my team.
2. DE Dee Ford, Auburn
Last week's article mentioned Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford as a player moving down after I spent time in the film room evaluating him before the BCS title game. That quickly changed once the actual game started.
Ford's lack of size at 6'2", 240 pounds was never an issue against the Florida State offensive line. Coming off the right edge of the defense, Ford was able to continually win with quickness and a nice hand slap that kept blockers off his frame.
That's where he'll need to be in the NFL, but teams running a 3-4 set or a Gus Bradley 4-3 will want Ford's quickness on the corner.
1. OT Greg Robinson, Auburn
No one player dominated the BCS title game more than left tackle Greg Robinson. Big No. 73 stood out from the opening snap and continued to dominate until the final whistle in what was his final college game.
Robinson has rare athletic ability for a left tackle. That was on display when he sprinted 20 yards downfield to put a crushing block on an FSU defender to spring running back Tre Mason into the end zone on a screen pass.
We'll get to Robinson later in the article, but you can't mention this week's risers without giving him credit.
5. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State
The player I'm most often asked about this season on radio shows and Twitter and by my own friends is Florida State redshirt sophomore Jameis Winston. Is he the next great NFL draft prospect at quarterback?
I hadn't taken time to study Winston before the BCS title game, as he's not draft-eligible. That changed this week as I decided to get a jump-start on my report for Winston heading into the 2015 class. What I saw surprised me given the narrative of Winston as the next big thing at quarterback.
He's talented, there's no doubting that, but he's far from finished as a prospect. Winston's release is very long and very slow. That can be fixed, of course, but he needs to become much more compact in his delivery before he's ready for the speed of an NFL defense. The potential is all there, but my first look at Winston's season will keep him ranked below Oregon's Marcus Mariota heading into the offseason.
4. QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama
I used this article to defend A.J. McCarron against Twitter last week, but there is no excusing his poor play against Oklahoma.
McCarron was consistently exposed by the Sooners defense. When pressured, McCarron showed good agility but also panicked and became erratic with the ball. When the pocket was clean, he saw ghosts and couldn't effectively step into throws to power the ball as needed.
That's an issue for McCarron, who doesn't have exceptional arm strength as it is.
3. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
I see a lot of people online talking about the potential of Kelvin Benjamin, and while it's tough to argue against his size and upside, what he brings to the table right now is too inconsistent for me.
Benjamin has great reach and can box out defenders, but in space he's stiff and too often drops the easy passes. When you look at similar raw, oversized receivers with pass-catching problems (Stephen Hill comes to mind), it's scary to weigh Benjamin's potential vs. his current value.
Maybe I'm too cautious, but he looks like a third-rounder to me.
2. DE Michael Sam, Missouri
For 59 minutes, Missouri's All-American defensive end was absent from any impact plays against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl. The casual observer will remember Sam's beautiful strip-sack of quarterback Clint Chelf, but where was he the rest of the game?
Sam was a one-year wonder at Missouri, and while he had great production and seems to fit the athletic profile of a hybrid pass-rusher in the NFL, his disappearing act is a concern given his lack of long-term production for the Tigers.
1. Jay Gruden, Cincinnati Bengals
You might wonder what an NFL offensive coordinator is doing listed here, but the Stock Up, Stock Down isn't limited to college players. And Gruden has earned his placement.
The Bengals' play-caller will interview for four head-coaching jobs this week after a bed-wetting performance by the Cincinnati offense in the opening round of the playoffs. Again. For three straight years Gruden has struggled to get his team to perform in the postseason. In his three games as chief play-caller, quarterback whisperer and game-planner the Bengals offense has wracked up two touchdowns and eight turnovers.
The Scout’s Report
— The previous record for underclassmen entering the NFL draft has been broken. Last year set the bar with 73 players entered, but as of this writing we have 74 players who have announced their intention to enter the 2014 draft.
— Why are so many juniors leaving college? "Bad information" is what one NFL scout told me this week. This particular scout blamed the agent community, calling it "overpopulated" and pointing out that agents will use media reports on underclassmen to convince them to enter the draft early.
— A name I've been hearing often in the lead-up to the Senior Bowl is Morgan Moses. The big Virginia left tackle passes the eyeball test, but hasn't always shown great quickness or athleticism in his pass protection. If he's better conditioned and shows well in Mobile, his stock with the media could soar.
— I texted an AFC West scouting director about Auburn's Greg Robinson this week. His short reply was perfect: "He's gonna come off the board early." Robinson's BCS performance and his athletic ability will make him a lock for the top 15 picks.
— Former Chicago Bears scout Greg Gabriel tweeted that Robinson could have gone No. 1 overall in last year's draft. With Robinson's rare movement ability, it's easy to agree with Greg that he would grade out higher than Eric Fisher, last year's No. 1 pick, did pre-draft.
— A few names heading back to college for the 2014 season to remember: CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), QB Brett Hundley (UCLA), QB Marcus Mariota (Oregon), QB Bryce Petty (Baylor), QB Sean Mannion (Oregon State), DE Trey Flowers (Arkansas), WR DeVante Parker (Louisville), CB Quandre Diggs (Texas) and OT Cameron Erving (FSU).
— Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi told me he received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. He'll make his decision regarding the 2014 draft on Thursday after speaking with his coaches and family.
— As of this writing we've heard little from Alabama regarding the Senior Bowl or any underclassmen entering the 2014 draft. I am told that LB Trey DePriest and DE Jeoffrey Pagan are leaning toward returning for another season.
— The Senior Bowl rosters are nearing completion and it looks to be absolutely loaded. I'll be in Mobile for the week and the Scouting Notebook will be updated from there.
— The top underclassmen who have not declared their intentions as of publishing time: OT Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama), FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama), OT Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M), DT Timmy Jernigan (FSU) and DT Michael Bennett (Ohio State).
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.
All-star season is like water in the desert for NFL scouts. That makes the month of January a nice retreat for scouts attending the Medal of Honor Bowl, Shrine Game and then the massive Senior Bowl to end the month long road trip.
Scouts take all-star practices very seriously, but you might be surprised to see how many use these trips as a job fair. Many scouts attend practice for the networking as much as the scouting. And since all practices are filmed for later reference, they're able to relax and enjoy the weather and company more than you might imagine.
Throughout the year this section highlighted some of the pitfalls of a road-scouting job, but for the three weeks on the road in January it's a pretty sweet gig.
When talking about offensive tackles, you're sure to hear scouts and coaches talking about a player's "kick slide", but unless you played or coached offensive linemen this isn't a term you've likely heard before.
To reach a wide outside rusher, the tackle must get depth in a hurry to hit his ideal interception point of three yards. That's where the tackle wants to meet the pass-rusher to stop him from getting to the quarterback. To get there in time, the tackle will need to kick slide.
To execute a kick slide, the tackle will pick up his outside foot and throw it back as far as possible while keeping the rest of his body balanced. If you've ever done lunges before, it's like a reverse lunge on fast-forward. That's the kick part. The slide comes from a backward shuffle the tackle does to continue getting depth to meet the pass-rusher. So you have the kick and the slide now.
As an evaluator we're looking at kick slides to judge a player's athleticism, balance, flexibility and how well he's been coached in pass protection. It's the most important move for a pass protector on the edge, and if a player can't execute at a high level he could be moved inside to guard.
LT Greg Robinson
Excelling at left tackle is about athleticism, mechanics and repetition. Mechanics can be coached. Repetition can be earned. Being able to move like a smaller man when you're 6'5", 300 pounds simply cannot be taught.
That is the appeal of Greg Robinson. The Auburn left tackle moves like a tight end trapped in a tackle's body. His footwork off the line isn't always perfect, but it is always smooth and fast. Robinson's kick slide is a thing of beauty as he explodes off the line of scrimmage and quickly kicks his left foot back and out to protect the corner.
If you're reading this and picture Robinson as a light-footed athlete, keep reading. He's the most dominant run blocker in this year's draft class. Bar none. Robinson is mean, aggressive and thorough as a run blocker. He'll lock on to a defender and drive him five, six or seven yards off the ball.
Yes, he's athletic and has a high ceiling, but he's a finished, dominant product as a run blocker.
The biggest flaw I see in Robinson's game film is his habit of playing tall in his pass-protection sets. That's something NFL coaches can quickly fix, and it may even be hammered out in his pre-combine training.
Playing with a vertical pass-pro set is something most young players do, so it's not a rare flaw in his game. Robinson will learn to play with more bounce in his knees and less bend in his waist while timing his punches better. But those few technical issues aren't enough to keep Robinson out of the top 15 picks of the 2014 draft. If not higher.
Pro Player Comparison: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
The Big Board
|1||Houston Texans||QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville|
|2||Rams (from Washington)||OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M|
|3||Jacksonville Jaguars||QB Blake Bortles, UCF|
|4||Cleveland Browns||QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M|
|5||Oakland Raiders||DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina|
|6||Atlanta Falcons||DE Khalil Mack, Buffalo|
|7||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson|
|8||Minnesota Vikings||QB Derek Carr, Fresno State|
|9||Buffalo Bills||TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina|
|10||Detroit Lions||CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma St.|
|11||Tennessee Titans||OT Greg Robinson, Auburn|
|12||New York Giants||OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA|
|13||St. Louis Rams||FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama|
|14||Chicago Bears||MLB C.J. Mosley, Alabama|
|15||Pittsburgh Steelers||OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama|
|16||Baltimore Ravens||WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M|
|17||Dallas Cowboys||DE Kony Ealy, Missouri|
|18||New York Jets||WR Marqise Lee, USC|
|19||Miami Dolphins||DT Timmy Jernigan, FSU|
|20||Arizona Cardinals||OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M|
|21||Green Bay Packers||TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech|
|22||Philadelphia Eagles||OLB Vic Beasley, Clemson|
|23||Kansas City Chiefs||WR Allen Robinson, Penn State|
|24||Cincinnati Bengals||CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan St.|
|25||San Diego Chargers||CB Jason Verrett, TCU|
|26||Browns (from Indianapolis)||WR Odell Beckham, LSU|
|27||New Orleans Saints||OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State|
|28||New England Patriots||WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt|
|29||San Francisco 49ers||WR Jarvis Landry, LSU|
|30||Carolina Panthers||WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon St.|
|31||Denver Broncos||DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame|
|32||Seattle Seahawks||TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Wash.|
Matt Miller's Updated Mock Draft
An updated seven-round mock draft will be available following the Super Bowl.
10. I completely understand a college running back leaving school early if he feels he'll be drafted in the top four rounds. Why run for free in college and risk injury while wearing your body down? Running backs only have so many carries in their body, so jumping to the NFL sooner rather than later is always something I'll support.
9. On the other hand, I love seeing redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley return to school for another season. Go be a leader of your team and become a more sound passer before you head to the NFL. The patience level is at an all-time low in the NFL right now, so learning in college before throwing yourself to the wolves in the pros is a smart move for quarterbacks.
8. I love Mike Zimmer. There's no way the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator should be passed over, again, for a head-coaching job. The work he did with the Cincinnati defense minus Geno Atkins is Exhibit A on his resume. The way he took Vontaze Burfict from troubled undrafted free agent to Pro Bowler is Exhibit B.
7. I will never understand the NFL fan's belief that myself and other writers hate their teams. I don't hate the New York Jets or that team in Washington. I may strongly dislike their moves and performance, but no writer worth his paycheck truly hates or even dislikes a team. Be real.
6. Count me among those in favor of expanding the NFL playoffs to 14 teams. You can't tell me the playoffs wouldn't be better with the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers playing the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots last week.
5. What I don't like is the idea to re-seed the playoffs based on wins and losses. Every team that wins its division should be rewarded, and a home playoff game is the right kind of motivation and reward for winning a division.
4. This may be a week late, but I love the job Phil Emery has done in Chicago. Outside of a questionable first-round pick of Shea McClellin, Emery has hit on draft picks, free-agent signings and the hiring of head coach Marc Trestman. The Bears are in very good hands.
3. I think if there's one front office man I'd overpay for, it's Eric DeCosta of the Baltimore Ravens. He's locked into a sweetheart deal with the Ravens and is the eventual successor to general manager Ozzie Newsome there, but DeCosta would be the first person I'd call if an NFL owner wanted my take.
2. I think if I were an owner filling out a front office and coaching staff this offseason, it would look like this:
General Manager: Eric DeCosta (assistant GM - Ravens)
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (defensive coordinator - Bengals)
Offensive Coordinator: Hue Jackson (running backs coach - Bengals)
Defensive Coordinator: Jim Tomsula (defensive line coach - 49ers)
1. I think the Twitter draft community is amazing, but during this time of year it's important for draftniks, evaluators and casual fans to remember that it's perfectly normal for two people to disagree about a player. It happens in NFL war rooms, press boxes, coaches' offices and the corner bar. The key is to disagree respectfully. No one is right before the May 8 draft, and even then it takes years to really see how well a player will do in the NFL. Save the arguments and try to learn from contrasting views.
Twitter Must-Follow of the Week
@LeCharlesBent65, LeCharles Bentley
I didn't play football past high school, where I was an average wide receiver and free safety. When I coached my time was spent with quarterbacks. That leaves my understanding of offensive linemen at a low point among all positions.
That's where LeCharles Bentley comes into play.
The former NFL offensive lineman now works as a trainer for pro and college linemen, and on Twitter he's great at in-game scouting of the trenches. He's also quick to answer questions about technique that they don't teach at the high school level.
If you want to get better at scouting offensive-line play, Bentley is a must-follow.
Who I’m Scouting This Week
With the regular season over, I'll highlight five players at whom I'm taking a look each week.
1. DT George Uko, USC
USC defensive lineman George Uko offers a lot of potential. As a big body he shows the quickness to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. That was my first impression, at least, but now it's time to really dig in and look at his strengths, weaknesses and best fit in the NFL.
As is the case with many juniors, Uko will go under the microscope in the next few weeks as I try to get caught up on scouting notes for all the declared underclassmen. My immediate reaction to him was positive, but we'll see how well he holds up with a closer look.
2. QB Brett Smith, Wyoming
Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith is an intriguing player for this year's class. He left school a year early but doesn't project as a first- or second-round player. A coaching change likely spurred his decision, but there's a lot of ground to make up on Smith.
He's a mobile, athletic passer but shows up too often as a raw gunslinger. The next week will be spent looking at his accuracy, field vision and pocket presence when facing higher-level talent teams during his Wyoming tenure.
3. RB Kapri Bibbs, Colorado State
A surprise entry into the 2014 draft class, my notebook is surprisingly thin on Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs.
My initial look at him showed a well-built back with the speed to run outside the tackles. What I need to go back and look for is his vision on inside runs and to see whether or not he has ability to help in the passing game as a receiver and/or blocker.
4. QB Blake Bortles, UCF
Now that Blake Bortles has officially entered the 2014 class, he'll get my quarterback treatment. That means going through every game he's played in as a college quarterback and charting his throws.
Bortles is a player I've given plenty of attention to this season, but going back to see his earlier film is important. That's a great way to see how much the player has developed to date and what old weaknesses were fixed and to identify any lasting bad habits.
It's a lot of work for one player, but when we're talking about the potential No. 1 overall pick, it's worth it.
5. DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State
The 2014 draft class doesn't look to be heavy in terms of 4-3 defensive ends—at least not in the conventional sense.
Players like Jadeveon Clowney and Kony Ealy are first-rounders, but the other college defensive ends receiving a high grade are smaller, undersized rushers that project to outside linebacker in the NFL. That leaves a decent-sized hole for a big-bodied pass-rusher.
Crichton, a junior at Oregon State, has already declared for the draft and will require a deeper look to see if he has the goods to hold up on the edge in a four-man front.