Some will tell you that free agency doesn't change the draft. That's not something you'll hear in this article.
As the craziness of free agency continues, it's important to not only track signings and dollar amounts, but to continually update and revisit each team's needs. How does signing Branden Albert change the Miami Dolphins' needs and thus, their draft day plans? The same goes for all 32 teams and the moves they make.
As the offseason goes on, this week's Scouting Notebook will update you on pro day workouts, rumors and news from around the league and continue to profile one player per week with a full scouting report. You'll also get a fresh mock draft that looks at needs and value post-free agency.
Five Up, Five Down
5. DT Aaron Donald, Pitt
It seems like every week I'm moving Aaron Donald up in the rankings, but he's worth it. There are no new revelations here; his game has been fully reviewed and charted. But what does change is my feeling about him as a sure-thing 3-technique pass-rusher. And the value of an interior pass-rusher in today's NFL is what causes me to keep moving Donald up the board.
Current ranking: No. 17 overall
4. DE/OLB Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State
Watching Lawrence at Butler Community College, where my good friend Troy Morrell does an amazing job as head coach, you knew he had the athletic ability to develop as an edge-rusher. That happened at Boise State, and Lawrence is the type of player teams covet in a 3-4 system. His flexibility, burst and active hand use are catching the eye of NFL evaluators too. He's moving up quickly.
Current ranking: No. 32
3. OC Marcus Martin, USC
When juniors declare for the draft unexpectedly, it means a lot of catch-up time on their film and scouting reports. That's been the case with USC center Marcus Martin, and the more I watch the more I walk away impressed with his athleticism and intelligence at center. He's NFL-ready and should be an early Day 2 pick.
Current ranking: No. 52
2. OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA
A Day 1 starter-type player, Su'a-Filo has the movement skills I want in a guard. But he's also powerful enough to step in and handle solo blocking assignments. The more I watch, the more Su'a-Filo looks like the player I hoped Cyril Richardson would be earlier this year.
Current ranking: No. 44
1. S Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
More on Ward below with a complete scouting report, but a re-check of his film this past week allowed me to verify some of the things seen at the combine and the Senior Bowl. As happens this time of year, the ability to sit back down and view a player again often leads to a new conclusion about how they can be used in the NFL.
Current ranking: No. 46
5. RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
I was asked by an NFL team scout this week to tell him what Carey does better than any other back in this class. I had no reply.
The Arizona back is patient, shows good vision and decent power, but doesn't stand out in any one area. Of course, neither do Arian Foster or Alfred Morris, but Carey's lack of a "wow" factor is something I, and NFL teams, are concerned about. In a draft with home run hitters and big power backs, Carey's balanced style of play doesn't inspire.
Current ranking: No. 114 overall
4. SS Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Dixon has been one of my favorite players to watch all season, but when push comes to shove, his lack of flexibility in space could be a limitation NFL teams won't overlook. Dixon's built like a linebacker, and often plays like one, but in a league that's becoming all about passing, safeties must be flexible in their hips and show range. Dixon doesn't stand out from the crowd in that area and, as such, moves down this week.
Current ranking: No. 67
3. OC Travis Swanson, Arkansas
When evaluating the center class, a lot of emphasis goes into NFL-readiness and football IQ. Swanson has both, but when compared to Weston Richburg or Marcus Martin, his lack of athleticism and strength show up. Swanson's work ethic and production were impressive, but from a pure upside perspective, he's falling behind the competition.
Current ranking: No. 109
2. Oakland Raiders
Whether you believe Rodger Saffold actually failed his entry physical with the Oakland Raiders or not, the whole situation is a bad look for a franchise struggling to find credibility.
The back story? Saffold, a talented but often-injured offensive lineman, agreed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract with the Raiders as soon as free agency opened on Tuesday. The move was met with wide criticism from media members and league officials. Saffold, who played his entire career with the Rams, passed the team's exit physical at season's end.
That's what makes the Raiders' failing Saffold on his physical all the more puzzling. And I've not talked with one person in the NFL who honestly believes he would need shoulder surgery. No, the common belief is that Raiders owner Mark Davis read the reaction to the signing and put an end to it.
1. DE Aaron Lynch, South Florida
Off-field issues are an interesting area to try and evaluate and grade. For some players they're so large you can't miss them or overlook it. That's Aaron Lynch.
The former Notre Dame defensive end left school and transferred to South Florida to be closer to home. He sat out a year of college due to transfer rules and never quite looked as powerful or explosive in 2013. That's red-flag No. 1. Maturity issues, a questionable support system inside and outside his family—that's what led one prominent agent to tell me he declined signing Lynch after meeting him and doing background on his family.
NFL teams will surely do the same, and while it only takes one team to love a player, the background work on Lynch could scare them all off.
Current ranking: No. 161
The Scout’s Report
—Catching up on pro day workouts, the buzz has been the performance of Anthony Barr at UCLA. After turning in an official 4.66 in the 40 at the combine, Barr threw down an electronically timed 4.44 at the Bruins' pro day. Already considered a top-10 talent—and No. 7 overall on my big board—Barr has surely kept himself in the conversation to be the draft's first outside linebacker selected.
—The Pittsburgh Steelers were all over the Michigan State pro day, and you can easily connect the dots there to cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Both head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert attended. With the No. 15 overall pick in the draft, the Steelers are in range to land the aggressive cornerback.
—The Detroit Lions continue to be linked to Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. I'm told both head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Martin Mayhew attended the school's pro day.
—Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been among the top-ranked players at his position all season. That might be changing. One team scout told me they worried about his instincts and ability to read and react at the NFL level.
—Another Alabama player, Cyrus Kouandjio, has been the subject of much debate due to the NFL Scouting Combine report from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that he failed team physicals. I spoke with three team officials this week, and none of them failed Kouandjio on their reports.
—Will Sutton has made news for his weight control this season, and not always in a good way. The big man weighed in at 315 pounds when I was at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama in late January. In late February, he tipped the scales at 303 pounds. I'm told by an Arizona State source that Sutton weighed 297 pounds at the team's pro day last week. The key for Sutton isn't showing he can lose weight quickly, but answering why he ballooned from 285 pounds in 2012 way up to 315 this January.
—Every move the Atlanta Falcons have made this offseason points to a move to a 3-4 defense, at least part of the time. As Mike Nolan looks to implement a more versatile scheme, the team must find outside pass-rushers. The link between them and University of Buffalo's Khalil Mack will be very strong if he's available with pick No. 6 overall.
—The move to re-sign Rodger Saffold could have a huge impact on the No. 2 overall pick. With Jake Long and Saffold on the ends, the St. Louis Rams could now focus on wide receiver Sammy Watkins if they do keep the second overall pick.
—I'm told by sources at Oregon that running back/return man/receiver De'Anthony Thomas has told teams he wants to play wide receiver in the NFL. This is his best fit, as his lack of size doesn't lend itself to the running back position.
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's the life of an NFL scout like this week? Boring, actually.
As free agency kicks off, most scouts are sitting around waiting for work to do. That leads to many hours spent cross-checking the players they were assigned to grade. A pro scout may receive a call from his scouting director wanting clarification or more information on a potential free-agent signing, but the first few days of free agency require all the bandwidth a general manager has to offer. That leads to a lot of scouts doing double- and triple-checks on their incoming draft-class reports.
As the draft gets closer, prepare to hear plenty about "tweeners." These are the players who don't fit into one position group and are "in between" two spots. This is most commonly used when referring to a defensive end.
Take Michael Sam, for example. Athletically he looks more like a defensive end, but his lack of size and strength makes him better suited for an outside linebacker position. Since he's not a true fit at either position, the "tweener" label is applied.
This used to be a negative term for a player, but in today's age of specialization and versatility in the NFL, it's not always a bad thing. Bruce Irvin was a tweener, for example, and has worked out well in that department for the Seattle Seahawks.
S Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
Jimmie Ward stands out as a coverage safety both on film and in person. During his time at the Senior Bowl he showed smooth hips and fluid, controlled movement in space. That makes him a threat to play immediately in the NFL, even if he's used only as a nickel coverage safety or slot cornerback.
Ward may be listed by some as a strong safety and others as a free safety. The latter is where I see him being the best fit in the NFL, due mostly to a lack of bulk and strength. That said, he is active and aggressive as a hitter and will come down to make plays on the ball. His versatility is another asset in his tool belt.
What impressed me most with Ward was his efficiency as a mover. There are few false steps and once he's keyed in on the ball, his speed and confidence allow him to showcase exceptional range.
The biggest knock on Ward's scouting report is his lack of elite size. He comes into the NFL needing to fill out his 191-pound frame from the Senior Bowl. Ideally you want him at or over 200 pounds, and that's something he'll need to work on once in a pro weight room. The question then is if the added weight compromises his speed and fluid movement.
Outside of his lack of bulk, Ward doesn't show the strength to project as a great tackler in the NFL. And that's an important part of the job description with so many running quarterbacks and athletic tight ends. He's not the biggest safety you'll ever see, and the hope is that his coverage skills allow him to play off the ball enough so as to not be asked to make a ton of plays on the run.
You will hear from team scouts that playing at Northern Illinois didn't expose Ward to top-tier passers or wide receivers, and that his acclimation to the NFL may be rough at first. If you put stock into level-of-competition concerns, this is one to note.
As for the foot injury that kept Ward out of the combine? It's not a concern for me as a minor fix.
Pro Player Comparison: Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
The Big Board
|1||Texans||DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina|
|2||Rams||WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson|
|3||Jaguars||QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville|
|4||Browns||QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida|
|5||Raiders||OT Greg Robinson, Auburn|
|6||Falcons||OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo|
|7||Buccaneers||OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA|
|8||Vikings||QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M|
|9||Bills||OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M|
|10||Lions||FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama|
|11||Titans||OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan|
|12||Giants||DT Aaron Donald, Pitt|
|13||Rams||CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma St.|
|14||Bears||DT Timmy Jernigan, FSU|
|15||Steelers||WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M|
|16||Cowboys||DE Kony Ealy, Missouri|
|17||Ravens||WR Kelvin Benjamin, FSU|
|18||Jets||OLB Dee Ford, Auburn|
|19||Dolphins||OT Zack Martin, Notre Dame|
|20||Cardinals||QB Derek Carr, Fresno State|
|21||Packers||TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina|
|22||Eagles||SS Calvin Pryor, Louisville|
|23||Chiefs||WR Odell Beckham Jr., LSU|
|24||Bengals||CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State|
|25||Chargers||CB Jason Verrett, TCU|
|26||Browns||ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama|
|27||Saints||OLB Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State|
|28||Panthers||WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State|
|29||Patriots||TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech|
|30||49ers||CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State|
|31||Broncos||CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech|
|32||Seahawks||WR Marqise Lee, USC|
10. Early free-agency winners: Denver Broncos (obviously), Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots.
9. Early free-agency losers: Oakland Raiders (overpaying and embarrassed), Cleveland Browns (got older and more expensive on defense), Kansas City Chiefs (losing starters, adding backups), Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys.
8. Best players on the market: OC Alex Mack, DE Julius Peppers, DE Jared Allen, WR Steve Smith, DT Henry Melton, OLB Lamarr Woodley, CB Antonio Cromartie, WR Hakeem Nicks, RB Ben Tate, WR Julian Edelman, ILB Brandon Spikes and CB Walter Thurmond.
7. The left tackle market was as active as advertised. Branden Albert (Dolphins), Jared Veldheer (Cardinals), Eugene Monroe (Ravens) and Anthony Collins (Buccaneers) all signed big deals within two days of free agency starting. Each also crosses off a major need for their new team and will allow greater draft-day flexibility.
6. I have no idea what the Carolina Panthers are doing, but being patient as a fan there must be tough. The team lost Jordan Gross, Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers to retirement and then released Steve Smith. Yes, they put the franchise tag on Greg Hardy to keep their front four together on defense, but who is going to protect Cam Newton? And whom will he throw to?
5. Many people were harsh in their reactions to the news that the San Francisco 49ers traded a sixth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Two things: 1) Gabbert is a backup quarterback, and paying a sixth-round pick for a good second quarterback is a fair price; 2) Gabbert still has potential.
The situation in Jacksonville was not good, as the entire offense was a dumpster fire. This isn't to say Gabbert will ever be a starting quarterback, but if you believe in Jim Harbaugh's ability to develop quarterbacks, and I do, then this marriage will be an interesting one.
4. The closer we get to the draft, the more it seems like the Houston Texans will not draft a quarterback first overall. That's not what I would do—Teddy Bridgewater's name would already be on the card if I were the general manager—but Rick Smith and Bill O'Brien are either doing a good job smokescreening the media or they really don't like the top quarterbacks.
3. I get as excited as anyone when free agency roles around, and this year more than previous seasons seems to be one in which teams can legitimately change their fortunes with good signings. The trick is knowing that big-money signings aren't always "good" ones. Quality over quantity, and impact over cost.
2. Darrelle Revis, Julius Peppers, Steve Smith and DeMarcus Ware all being released this week should serve as a reminder to everyone that NFL contracts mean nothing after the guaranteed money is paid. And even so, anyone can be cut at any time if a younger, cheaper option is thought to be available.
1. Alabama players leave the school with much attention from the NFL and the NFL media. Nick Saban has built a football powerhouse in Tuscaloosa, but should teams start to question his prospects? Saban's players haven't quite panned out in the league as expected, and many enter the pros worn out physically and nursing injuries.
Take a look at the best Alabama prospects since Saban arrived in 2007 and you'll find a list of injuries, disappointments and missed evaluations. Sure, Saban is a god on the college football level, but teams need to look past the helmet and look at the Crimson Tide players' track record of poor health in the NFL.
Twitter Must-Follow of the Week
@Jason_OTC, Over the Cap (Jason)
Want to make sense of all the free-agency deals and salary-cap room? Jason has you covered. As the leader of the must-read site Over the Cap, he's providing invaluable updates as players sign and teams make moves.
For those of us who didn't major in finance or salary-cap 101, Jason is a great resource and follow on Twitter.
Working and Reading
Here's a quick look at what I'm working on and reading this week.
Bleacher Report: "Why Are NFL Safeties Making More than Ever?" (Matt Bowen)
Grantland: "Free Agency Day 2, An Island Unto Himself" (Bill Barnwell)
SB Nation: "Nickel & Diming: The Importance of Specialization" (Danny Kelly)
Monday, March 17: NFL 1000 series continues with the top 101 wide receivers.
Wednesday, March 19: NFL 1000 top 50 safeties.
Friday, March 21: NFL Scouting Notebook.