2014 NFL Draft: Matt Miller's Scouting Notebook for Conference Championships

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2014 NFL Draft: Matt Miller's Scouting Notebook for Conference Championships
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL draft season is heating up right as the playoffs come to a close. And with just four teams left standing, there's a lot on the NFL draft calendar this month.

The Jan. 15 deadline for all underclassmen to enter the 2014 NFL draft has expired, which means we have a good look at the entire class as it stands. That can change, though, as players can withdraw if they have not signed an agent. That rarely happens, but it's something to watch this week.

Saturday puts an end to the Shrine Game week. Held in St. Petersburg, Fla., the game is host to the second-tier seniors in the nation. The top seniors will be in Mobile, Ala., next week for the Senior Bowl, and the Scouting Notebook will come to you live from Ladd Peebles Stadium.

What changed in the last week? We have a record number of underclassmen in the draft, NFL coaching hires that will affect team schemes and so much more.

 

Five Up, Five Down

 

Five Up

5. RB Devonta Freeman, Florida State

The 2014 running back class looks stacked immediately after the underclassmen deadline. The overall talent has been helped by the influx of juniors leaving college, and one player to check out is Florida State's Devonta Freeman.

Part of a three-headed monster at running back for FSU, Freeman is the best of the bunch. He's an aggressive runner with the skill set to immediately make an impact on third downs with his hands and pass-blocking ability.

Freeman might not be the first running back drafted, but he could be the best of the bunch at the end of the 2014 season.

 

4. DE/LB Scott Crichton, Oregon State

There will always be a need in the NFL for a strong edge-defender. Especially in today's era of running quarterbacks and spread-out schemes, you need your outside defenders to be able to stop the run with strength but also chase down ball-carriers.

That's Scott Crichton.

The Oregon State defender is similar to Bjoern Werner, a player the Indianapolis Colts drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft. Both have excellent strength to get through traffic, but they show enough burst and flexibility to be projected as a stand-up rusher in a 3-4 scheme.

 

3. QB Jeff Mathews, Cornell

When I watched film on Jeff Mathews, it was easy to fall in love with his big arm. But the negatives were a concern. Mathews too often had poor footwork on throws—failing to follow through, not driving off his back foot and inconsistency in his mechanics kept him out of my top 100 all season.

Mathews looks improved at the Shrine Game practices, according to Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey. If Mathews has cleaned up his mechanical issues in practice, and if that carries over to the game, he'll be back in the fight to be a drafted quarterback in a very deep class.

 

2. FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville

One of my top-rated underclassmen on defense, Louisville's Calvin Pryor is officially in the 2014 draft class. He's a big hitter at the free safety position, but what stands out most to me is his athleticism in tracking the ball. He may not be the biggest guy (even if listed at 6'2"), but he plays big. 

More on Pryor below in this week's Scouting Report.

 

1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois

Our own Michael Schottey is at the Shrine Game practices this week and pointed out in his notes column how good Garoppolo looked. When you watch him on film, it's easy to really like his playmaking ability, and a week of showing off his arm against better competition could be a big boost to his draft stock.

The quarterback class is defined at the top, but the second and third tiers are still waiting to be set. Garoppolo has a bit of the unknown factor working in his favor right now.

 

Five Down

5. QB Keith Price, Washington

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

It seems like it wasn't that long ago that Keith Price was making a mockery of the Baylor defense in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Since that time, though, his stock has only dropped.

Price, who is a good athlete in the backfield, hasn't developed as a passer.

He's a run-first quarterback, but unlike other dual-threats, he's not become a competent or confident passer. That was highlighted during Shrine Game practices when he tucked the ball and ran in a seven-on-seven passing drill. For those unfamiliar with the drill, it's designed for the offense to work on routes and timing, and there is no pass rush.

 

4. QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois

I've never been the biggest fan of Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch as an NFL quarterback, but his college success causes fans to ask about him repeatedly. Lynch's play at the Shrine Game should quiet anyone who considers him an NFL-level quarterback.

Lynch has struggled, and according to NFL Network's Bucky Brooks, a move to running back or safety is likely. That's the best fit for Lynch, who enjoyed a brilliant college career but may not be long for the NFL.

 

3. MLB Max Bullough, Michigan State

Max Bullough made the "5 Down" list during bowl week for missing the team's Rose Bowl game after a suspension. Two weeks later, he's back.

Bullough wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl and showed up at the Shrine Game weighing 265 pounds. That's 20 pounds more than his listed weight at Michigan State. Not only was he heavier, but Bullough has reportedly declined interviews with the media, according to the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman.

In a league dominated by athletes, there's not much room for a stiff, heavy inside linebacker.

 

2. The Cleveland Browns

Two years ago, at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, I shared a report that three agents of potential top-10 draft prospects didn't want their guys ending up with the Browns.

Two years later, it's now coaches who don't want to attempt to resurrect the Browns.

Todd Bowles has taken his name out of consideration, following the lead of Josh McDaniels, who did the same last week. There are also reports by NFL Network's Albert Breer that the job is "radioactive."

The Browns may be waiting for Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, but if so they're doing themselves no favors by putting all their eggs into one basket. They made the same mistake with Chip Kelly last year, and look where that got them.

 

1. QB AJ McCarron, Alabama

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has officially hired an agent, and they've announced that he will skip the Senior Bowl. Barring a legitimate injury, McCarron is doing himself harm with this decision.

I've said in the past that it's each player's decision whether or not to compete in an all-star game. There are risks for those who play and risks for those who decide not to. Geno Smith skipped the game last year, and it was speculated that he could have helped his draft stock in the week of practices and the game. However, Smith was also a "consensus" first-round pick at this time last year.

I've spoken to people close to McCarron, and they tell me that he's being told to act like the top quarterback in this draft. The top quarterback doesn't play in the Senior Bowl if he's eligible.

This strategy may backfire, but McCarron's agents reportedly believe this is the best course of action to promote their player to NFL teams.

 

The Scout’s Report

 

— With Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel in the 2014 draft class, I've been asking around about how teams view him. Three high-level scouting sources told me he's a "lock" to be a top-10 pick, and they like his value there. On the other hand, ESPN's Cecil Lammey tweeted that a team source told him they "didn't want" Manziel. Opinions will vary team to team, but it only takes one to draft him early.

— TCU cornerback Jason Verrett is a player many scouts are talking about as they prep for the Senior Bowl. One NFL source told me, "if he (Verrett) were 1.5" taller, he'd be a top-five pick." Verrett is physical and plays the ball well. He'll have a big chance to impress at the Senior Bowl.

— The cornerback position is deep this year, and one AFC scouting director told me he's most excited to see Keith McGill (Utah) and Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska). Both are listed at 6'3", and if they run well and show flexibility at the Senior Bowl, they could shoot up draft boards as teams look for the next Richard Sherman-type corner.

— Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat was a surprising snub from the Senior Bowl. His agent, Jordan Woy, tells me that Jeffcoat is preparing for the combine already and looks to impress there with his speed and overall athleticism.

— Running back Jeremy Hill has left LSU for the NFL, and teams are in love with his talent. The downside is his off-field issues, which one team source told me "terrifies us." Hill was arrested for battery last spring, according to Saturday Down South's Jon Cooper, and has a previous arrest for "engaging in a sexual act with a 14-year-old in high school." He's serving a supervised probationary of two years for that charge. If teams look past his off-field issues, Hill could be the first running back drafted.

— You'll hear a lot about hand size during the Shrine Game and at the Senior Bowl, but what are teams looking for? The minimum hand size for a quarterback prospect is generally 9". Like every rule of thumb, there are exceptions, but teams will "knock" a quarterback for a hand measuring smaller.

— The hire of Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee will be interesting for several reasons. 1) Does Whisenhunt feel he can develop Jake Locker at quarterback? 2) Will the Titans switch to a 3-4 defense? I would wager the answer to both is "yes," which will help shape the Titans' offseason needs.

— How good is Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson? One scout who was responsible for evaluating Eric Fisher for his NFL team last year has Robinson graded out higher.

— LSU tackle La'el Collins will return to school for 2014, and the early grade on him is a first-round projection. He will be competing with Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M) and Brandon Scherff (Iowa) for the top tackle spot next year.

— Speaking of next year, since it's never too early, my projected top five players are: 5. QB Brett Hundley (UCLA), 4. OT Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M), 3. DT Leonard Williams (USC), 2. QB Jameis Winston (FSU) and 1. QB Marcus Mariota (Oregon).

— I'm hearing a ton of buzz about Texas wide receiver Mike Davis. He's working out with former USC wideout Marqise Lee, and the word is that Davis has been the more impressive of the two.

— Alabama's C.J. Mosley isn't expected to participate at the Senior Bowl, but unlike teammate AJ McCarron, his decision will be understood. Mosley was called a "to-20 lock" by one team scout, and it's widely recognized that risking injury at the Senior Bowl isn't worth it.

— North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron has a chance to be a top-15 draft pick. One source told me Ebron has been called the "cleanest tight end prospect since Vernon Davis" in their meetings.

 

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.

The Shrine Game's practices are over with for NFL teams, and area scouts are packing their bags to head home before leaving for the Senior Bowl on Sunday. The time between all-star games isn't just for kissing babies and giving the wife a break. It's time to study up.

As scouts dump their notes and memories of Shrine Game practices and interviews, they'll start preparing for the Senior Bowl by getting a list of all players in their area who have been accepted to the game. Some teams also divide the rosters by position, but the most common way is by area.

The scout will then familiarize, or re-familiarize, himself with his players. That includes game film, stats and any notable biographical information that may come up in individual interviews. There's not much time between games, so efficiency is key. 

 

Scouting Dictionary

 

"High Point"

A term you'll see and hear a lot during Senior Bowl practices is "high point." What does this mean?

A wide receiver is taught to catch the ball at the highest point, hence the term "high-pointing." In practices and in games, we want to see wide receivers attacking the ball as opposed to waiting for it to come down to them. This is especially important when a pass is thrown up in a jump-ball situation, as the wide receiver must get higher than the coverage to make the catch.

A great example of this is Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. He's not the fastest guy on the field, but he is able to succeed by attacking the ball and securing it at the highest point. 

 

Scout’s Take 

 

FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville

Strengths

When evaluating defensive players, I want a guy who is a little bit crazy. You have to be if you're going to consistently attack the football and punish offensive players.

When you find that in a free safety, you take notice.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Calvin Pryor has all the athletic ability you want at the position. He's big enough (listed at 6'2", 208 lbs) and shows very good speed on film when running in coverage and when attacking the ball. And he's a hitter. That's what I like best.

Pryor isn't afraid to lower his shoulder and knock the hell out of a wide receiver, tight end or running back. He's not always controlled in this area, but that recklessness makes him a feared player in the secondary.

 

Weaknesses

The first thing that stands out to me on film is that Pryor may find himself fined often in the NFL. He's a big hitter, and he will have to condition himself to NFL rules when it comes to defenseless receivers. That's also a bit of a strength, though, as Pryor can and will be an intimidator.

In coverage, you don't see great speed to turn and run with receivers, but he has quickness when making a play on the ball. His hip technique will need to be cleaned up if he's drafted onto a team that likes its safeties to play in man coverage.

There are flaws here, but Pryor's biggest issue is that he's too aggressive at times. Teach him to play under control, and you have an All-Pro-caliber safety in the making.

 

Pro Player Comparison: Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints

 

The Big Board

 

Updated Top 50 Players: Pre-Senior Bowl
Rank Player Rank Player
1 QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville 26 OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan
2 DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina 27 TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
3 WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson 28 WR Allen Robinson, Penn State
4 OT Greg Robinson, Auburn 29 DE Trent Murphy, Stanford
5 OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M 30 OG David Yankey, Stanford
6 QB Blake Bortles, UCF 31 WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon St.
7 OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo 32 RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
8 DE Kony Ealy, Missouri 33 DE Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
9 OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA 34 OT Zack Martin, Notre Dame
10 CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma St. 35 DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minn.
11 QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M 36 DT Aaron Donald, Pitt
12 ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama 37 DE Scott Crichton, Oregon St.
13 OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama 38 C Travis Swanson, Arkansas
14 QB Derek Carr, Fresno State 39 OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor
15 CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan St. 40 RB Tre Mason, Auburn
16 TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina 41 DT Will Sutton, Arizona St.
17 OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State 42 WR Jarvis Landry, LSU
18 DT Timmy Jernigan, FSU 43 QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
19 FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama 44 OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
20 WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M 45 WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
21 CB Jason Verrett, TCU 46 OT Antonio Richardson, Tenn.
22 WR Odell Beckham, LSU 47 DE Trevor Reilly, Utah
23 FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville 48 SS Deone Bucannon, Washington St.
24 DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame 49 OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA
25 WR Marqise Lee, USC 50 CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State

Matt Miller's Updated Big Board

An updated big board will be available following the Super Bowl.

 

Parting Shots

 

10. Not to sound like Peter King here (although if I'm ever confused with him, it will be a good day), if you're in Mobile for the Senior Bowl this week, do yourself a favor and stay away from the chain food restaurants. The Brick Pit, Wintzell's Oyster House, The Royal Scam and Heroes Bar and Grill are a must for the first-time Senior Bowl attendee.

9. Beware the smokescreen this time of year, but also remember whom you're talking to. I took considerable heat last year for tweeting what a team scout told me about Matt Barkley and the Cardinals. The tweet got sent around and interpreted, and before long people believed I was predicting Barkley would be their pick at No. 7 overall. Team scouts will talk freely about their views on a player, but they also don't control whom their team picks. The information is valuable and insightful, but not always predictive.

8. I love that Mike Zimmer has been hired as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. I've had the honor of meeting Coach Zimmer, and he's a blunt, engaging, intelligent football coach. He'll be a stark, much-needed contrast to Leslie Frazier.

7. I hate the idea that we can judge a player's leadership abilities from the sidelines. Too many speculate on Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel's leadership skills instead of simply asking their teammates what they think of them. 

6. The string of bad information given to underclassmen continues. When Cal, a team that went 1-11 this year, loses five juniors to the NFL, you have to take notice. Of those five players declared (RB Brendan Bigelow, TE Richard Rodgers, DT Viliami Moala, LB Khairi Fortt and CB Kameron Jackson), it would be a surprise to see Bigelow drafted at all. Fortt and Moala rank as late-round prospects and borderline undrafted free agents.

5. For the second year in a row, LSU will lose the most underclassmen to the NFL. With six entering this year, Les Miles' team is again sending a talented group of players to the NFL.

4. When you step back and look at the entire 2014 draft class, you have to like the talent available. This is the deepest draft class I've covered since I started as a part-time writer in 2002.

3. You can't help but love defensive end Vic Beasley's decision to return to Clemson for his senior season. As a near-lock for the top-20 picks in the first round, Beasley is willing to wait on the NFL to get his degree.

2. I love mock drafts. In fact, I started as a draft writer by doing mock drafts for a small Internet site. That said, as my 12 years' experience in this area has shown, mock drafts in January are to be taken lightly. They're entertaining, but not for accuracy's sake. No one can predict pre-Senior Bowl and pre-combine what teams will do. Any correct picks made now are luck or very good educated guessing. Enjoy mock drafts, but don't make them the gospel.

1. All-star games are an exciting time of year, but all evaluators must condition themselves not to place too much emphasis on practices. It's easy to do, and it's a mistake I made early in my career. You see a player in person, and he's instantly your favorite player and the best of all time. But what does the film show? You may be frustrated to see little movement in my Big Board after the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, but when changes are made it will be because of film study and not an all-star game.

 

Twitter Must-Follow of the Week

 

@LanceZierlein, Lance Zierlein

One of the people I trust most when I need to talk about a prospect is Mr. Lance Zierlein. An accomplished radio host in Houston, Zierlein is the son of longtime NFL offensive line coach Larry Zierlein.

If you need real talk about draft prospects from someone who has taken the time to study and really analyze each player, Lance is your man. He's one of my absolute must-follows for football news and insights.

 

Who I’m Scouting This Week

 

With the regular season over, I'll highlight five players I'm taking a look at heading into Senior Bowl week. 

 

1. CB Keith McGill, Utah

A big cornerback from a school with a history of producing solid NFL defenders, Keith McGill is a player I'll be spending the weekend getting familiar with before the Senior Bowl. At 6'3", he has caught my eye when looking at pass-rusher Trevor Reilly and is definitely worth a second look.

McGill will be tested by the North Team wide receivers in the game, but how he plays in practice against his own team is the real test.

 

2. OT Morgan Moses, Virginia

When an NFL source texts you to say you're "flat-out wrong" about a player's ranking, you go back and look at the film again.

That's what happened this week, so I'm going back to take a fresh look at the mountain of a man from Virginia. Moses definitely passes the eyeball test, but my first look at his game film showed stiffness and heavy feet. 

 

3. S Terrence Brooks, Florida State

The 2014 safety class looks to be very deep, but where does Florida State's Terrence Brooks fit in?

I saw Brooks in the BCS Championship Game and need to take a closer look at his play over the course of the season. He pops off the screen as a good athlete with smooth hips in transition, but testing his instincts and play recognition will be big.

 

4. WR Shaq Evans, UCLA

The wide receiver class has been flooded by underclassmen entries, leaving many to forget about the seniors out there. Shaq Evans is one such senior. He's played well in a pro-style scheme at UCLA and helped make quarterback Brett Hundley into the star that he is.

The question I'll be tackling is whether Evans is made better by the scheme and quarterback, or if he excels outside of the system.

 

5. WR Robert Herron, Wyoming

Robert Herron has a chance to be this year's Marquise Goodwin: a super-fast, smaller wide receiver who wasn't always used to his fullest abilities in college. I'm anxious to see Herron at the Senior Bowl, but before heading down and preparing to be blown away by his speed, I need to see the film.

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