2016 NFL Draft: Matt Miller's Pre-Combine Scouting Notebook

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2016 NFL Draft: Matt Miller's Pre-Combine Scouting Notebook
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The Scout's Report

— As the combine approaches, one of the hottest names in the class is Boise State edge-rusher Kamalei Correa. One scout I spoke to this week thinks Correa could propel himself into the top 25 picks of the draft, especially given a weak group at the "EDGE" position this year.

— The hype for Ohio State safety Vonn Bell has been constant throughout the season, but an NFC scout I spoke to this week said Bell is "a small man who plays small" and will be moved down boards for his lack of willingness as a tackler.

— ESPN's Josh Weinfuss reported UCLA linebacker Myles Jack wasn't cleared to participate at the combine as he recovers from the torn lateral meniscus he suffered in September, but in speaking to sources in Jack's camp, I was told he's expected to do everything at his March 15 pro day. Holding out of the combine is a precaution only, given that he's already been cleared to work out. 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

— Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander left school after two seasons as a starter, but in talking to one AFC scout this week, they're not a fan of that decision. Three different team scouts confirmed this week that they have Alexander graded as a "Day 3" player given his smaller size (listed at 5'11", 195 lbs) and the fact he didn't record an interception at Clemson.

— Speaking of Clemson defensive backs, an AFC West team I spoke to this week has safety Jayron Kearse tagged as a late-rounder heading into the combine. Kearse, they said, doesn't have the fluid hips to play safety in the NFL and may need to move to linebacker like Mark Barron or Deone Bucannon.

— Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman is a polarizing player in this year's class due to his smaller size and the fact that he played in the wide-open Baylor offense. But one general manager I spoke to this week compared him to "a more complete John Brown" and expects Coleman to be a top-15 pick in April.

— The buzz around Louisiana Tech defensive lineman Vernon Butler continues to grow. Said one team scout after watching Senior Bowl practices on tape last week, "Butler can be another Marcell Dareus. He's that good." 

Brett Davis/Associated Press

— "I know you guys like Leonard [Floyd], but where the hell are you gonna play him in the NFL?" Those are the very blunt words of one general manager this week, remarking on the 6'4", 230-pound linebacker from Georgia.

 — Free agency will have a huge impact on what happens in the draft, but talking to scouts and coaches in Jacksonville, the expectation is that the Jaguars will target defenders through the draft while trying to patch any holes on offense through free agency.

5 Names to Know—Combine Edition

5. Edge-Rusher Kamalei Correa, Boise State

As noted above, the Boise State star has a chance to break into the first round. Looking at his film and observing how he moves, he's poised to blow up at the combine. Listed at 6'3" and 248 pounds, Correa has a chance to run close to a 4.60 in the 40-yard dash.

4. Safety Keanu Neal, Florida

Keanu Neal is the best player in the draft that no one is talking about yet. He's a heat-seeking missile coming down from his perch at safety, and with the drills in Indy designed to highlight burst and flexibility, Neal should dominate. 

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

3. Cornerback Xavien Howard, Baylor

Howard is a bit of a boom-or-bust guy in this draft class, but I expect he'll impress scouts at the combine based on what you see on film. He's a long, twitchy, yoked-up cornerback and has the athleticism to wow in the 40-yard dash and vertical jump.

2. Wide Receiver Kolby Listenbee, TCU

Fox Sports writer Bruce Feldman called Listenbee "the fastest man in college football" in his annual Freaks list, and that's accurate on tape. Listenbee better lace up some Adidas for his chance to win $1,000,000. Don't be surprised if he breaks 4.30 on scouts' watches.

1. Linebacker Darron Lee, Ohio State

Scouts I talk to regularly love Darron Lee—with one telling me he's a top-15 player pre-combine. The biggest question with Lee will be size. Ohio State listed him at 6'2" and 228 pounds, but I've heard he'll attempt to break 240 pounds at the combine weigh-in.

 

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Scouting Report: Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky

Throughout the 2016 draft season, I'll highlight one draft prospect each week with a first-look scouting report.

 

6'2 ", 254 pounds, 10" hands, 31" reach, 74" wingspan

A graduate redshirt junior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Noah Spence was a Parade All-American, the No. 2 defensive end in the class (ESPNU) and a top-five prospect according to ESPN and MaxPreps.

Spence played in 24 games at Ohio State (starting 13) in his freshman and sophomore seasons before being dismissed from the program following two failed tests for Ecstasy. In his lone season as a starter at Ohio State, Spence was a first-team All-Big Ten player. 

After being banned from the Big Ten, Spence spent the the fall of 2014 getting treatment for Ecstasy use and graduated from the program in October 2014. Spence then connected with Dean Hood, the head coach at Eastern Kentucky and a friend of Urban Meyer's, and transferred to the school he would eventually graduate from in December 2015. 

Strengths

On the field, there is a lot to like. Spence has the quickness and flexibility off the edge to bend the corner and attack the backfield. He's agile enough to stick his toes in the dirt and change direction but shows the speed to close on the ball in a hurry. At 254 pounds, Spence has the strength to handle blockers when they get their hands on him, and he'll either swim away from the block or drop his anchor and bull rush.

Spence understands leverage and works to win with his pad height throughout the play. He's a high-motor, high-effort player who doesn't take plays off or wear down in the fourth quarter. Facing FCS competition, Spence posted 11.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and 63 tackles in just 11 games in 2015.

As a natural pass-rusher, Spence shows fluid movement turning the corner on an offensive tackle, and has a very quick, tight hip rotation that lets him take the edge and expose the quarterback. 

Positional versatility is a key for Spence, who will do both defensive line and linebacker drills at the combine. He's agile and fast enough to stand up and play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme but disciplined and powerful enough to play down as a defensive end in a 4-3.

Spence doesn't have elite length, but he compares physically to Von Miller or Khalil Mack coming out of college.  

Weaknesses

There is obvious baggage off the field, but Spence's supporters will note that he was voluntarily drug tested at Ohio State and EKU after his second failed drug test and passed every one. Still yet, NFL teams must get comfortable with the player and the risk.

Spence needs to get stronger in his lower body to better take on the run and to better hold his ground when asked to set the edge as a run defender. Watching against better competition at the Senior Bowl, Spence showed that he'll often struggle in the run game if he's not breaking free from the block very early in the play. Better hand use will benefit him greatly.

As a pass-rusher, the biggest gap in his game at EKU was that he didn't always have a counter if his first move didn't work. Getting more flexibility in his ankles and developing that secondary pass-rush move will be keys for his success.

There may be an adjustment period for Spence getting back into the speed of elite competition, but there are few technical or athletic weaknesses to drive home here. 

Pro Comparison: Joey Porter, former Pittsburgh Steeler

The Big Board

The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off this weekend, and much will change on the landscape of the draft once testing numbers, injury histories and interviews are conducted. The combine is also huge for getting free agency started—unofficially, because of tampering rules. And that will change draft-day needs more than anything. But until then, and with a look at updated needs and player values, here's one more first-round mock draft.

Pre-Combine Mock Draft
Pick Player
1. Titans T Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
2. Browns QB Carson Wentz, North Dakota State
3. Chargers DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State
4. Cowboys LB Myles Jack, UCLA
5. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey, FSU
6. Ravens T Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
7. 49ers QB Jared Goff, California
8. Dolphins DE Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
9. Buccaneers CB Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
10. Giants DE DeForest Buckner, Oregon
11. Bears LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
12. Saints LB Darron Lee, Ohio State
13. Eagles QB Paxton Lynch, Memphis
14. Raiders T Taylor Decker, Ohio State
15. Rams CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
16. Lions DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville
17. Falcons DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson
18. Colts CB Xavien Howard, Baylor
19. Bills LB Reggie Ragland, Alabama
20. Jets RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
21. Washington DL A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
22. Texans WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State
23. Vikings WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
24. Bengals WR Corey Coleman, Baylor
25. Steelers DL Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech
26. Seahawks DE Kevin Dodd, Clemson
27. Packers EDGE Leonard Floyd, Georgia
28. Chiefs T Jack Conklin, Michigan State
29. Cardinals DL Jihad Ward, Illinois
30. Panthers T Jerald Hawkins, LSU
31. Broncos T Shon Coleman, Auburn

Matt Miller

Parting Shots

7. Let's talk about Shawn Oakman, because you're going to hear his name a lot next week during the combine.

Oakman, a player covered here often this season, was made famous by a meme that went viral during Baylor's Cotton Bowl appearance following the 2014 season. But the reality is that he's not a very good football player. He's lazy on the field, isn't football smart and doesn't play with strength or leverage. And no matter how many box jumps you can do holding a 70-pound dumbbell or how good your abs look in a crop top, the NFL is drafting football players.

Oakman may be overdrafted, but I wouldn't touch him with a top-100 pick. Until he can learn to work, and until he rounds out his game to more than a stand-up rusher at 6'7 ½" and 270 pounds, he's going to struggle to get on the field. 

6. I tweeted last week that I was updating my grading scale, and it's a bit of a work in progress as I combine the things I learn from NFL teams with my own ideas on how to grade players. This is the working chart, though, for future reference:

NFL Draft Grading Scale
Grade Description Pick # of Players
9.00 I've never handed out this grade...Hall of Famer, all-time great No. 1 Pick 0
8.00 Rare, generational talents Top 5 Less than 1 per year
7.5 - 7.9 Day 1 starter, potential blue-chip player Top 10 5-10 per year
7.0 Rookie starter Round 1 10-15 per year
6.0 - 6.9 Starter who needs developing Round 2-3 40-50 per year
5.9 High-level backups, future starters Round 4 40-50 per year
5.4 - 5.7 Player with traits worth developing Round 5-7 100-125 per year
4.5 - 5.0 Camp bodies UDFA 125-150 per year

Matt Miller

5. You hear it (or read it) every year—a media member waxes poetic about how the NFL Scouting Combine doesn't matter. And I used to be in that camp, too, as one of those guys claiming the 40-yard dash and bench press were overrated or downright useless.

I was wrong.

The combine matters on so many levels. The obvious is that every NFL team is able to get the same information on 332 players in one setting. That means accurate height, weight and length measurements. It means a consistent 40-yard dash time. It means a controlled setting where every player is evaluated the same way, wearing the same gear and on a level playing field.

But the combine also matters because the NFL is still about athletes, and that's something I missed earlier in my career that is becoming obvious now. I was originally taught to use the combine to break ties among similarly graded prospects, and while that's still a good strategy, the combine is also used to separate the wheat from the chaff. Players who don't meet baseline requirements in speed, hand size, height, weight or arm length can be discounted if their tape doesn't warrant a draftable grade.

Again, at the end of the day, the NFL is a height/weight/speed league, and the combine is the ultimate proving ground for finding those athletes.

4. Extending on the above thought, something that doesn't get talked about enough is that NFL scouts are trained to value athletic ability (A/A) over production. Anyone trying to evaluate players for the draft should be doing the same.

The easy example here is that Kliff Kingsbury dominated the NCAA record books, but players with less production but a better arm (Ben Roethlisberger is a good one) have become all-time NFL quarterbacks. Production matters, but production in context matters even more. It's too lazy to simply look at the stats and proclaim productive college players will be good NFL players. This is called "box score scouting" for a reason.

As many people who read this article are aspiring evaluators themselves, the one thing I hope you take from this is that athletic ability can't be overlooked and is often the basis for things like upside and potential.

3. A popular question on Twitter is to ask which players a favorite team should target in the draft. 

I have to be brutally honest here...that kills me. Teams don't target players in the draft; they target players in free agency. Or, I should say, smart teams don't target players in the draft.

Player evaluation is about stacking the board—putting a grade on players and then putting them in order from best to worst. Team building is about taking the best player left on that board when your pick comes in. You may qualify that and say "best player at a position of need" if you'd like (teams like Seattle do this courtesy of a horizontal draft board), but you ultimately aren't targeting a player or a position in the draft like you do in free agency.

Maybe it's semantics, but when you think team building, keep this in mind.

2. The strength of the 2016 draft class is at defensive tackle, but how about the weakness?

That, my friends, comes at edge-rusher. This is a very weak class in terms of top-tier talent, but also in terms of depth at the position. 

Noah Spence, as mentioned above, may be a top-10 pick based on his talent, but after him there is a big drop-off to the next tier of players including Leonard Floyd and Kamalei Correa. From there, it's another big drop to the Jordan Jenkinses and Shilique Calhouns of the class. 

The best value at the position likely comes in Round 3, unless there is a run on the position early. But if you subtract Joey Bosa, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd from the EDGE group, it's realistic that just one player (Spence) is drafted in the first round.

1. It's that time of year when you can trust maybe half of what you hear from NFL executives, but one constant buzz has been that the Tennessee Titans would love to trade out from the No. 1 overall pick.

Now, this isn't based on any insider information I'm hearing and is purely speculation, but that pick can't command the franchise-changing haul we've seen in the past. No one is coming in like owner Daniel Snyder did when Washington gave up a fortune to draft Robert Griffin at No. 2 overall in 2012. 

The most likely candidates (on paper) to trade up are the Cleveland Browns, but since they already hold the No. 2 pick, will they be motivated to swap picks with the Titans in order to secure their guy and make sure no other team jumps them for a quarterback? That's definitely possible, and it's exactly what they did in 2012 when they traded up one spot with the Minnesota Vikings to draft running back Trent Richardson.

You might read that and wonder why a team would trade up from No. 2 to No. 1, but if the Browns are worried about losing out on their prized prospect with the No. 1 pick—whether the Titans keep the pick or trade it to another team—they need to get on the phone and make a deal for the top choice.

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.

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