After the 2014 NFL Draft produced what was hailed as the best wide receiver class in NFL history, albeit one that has struggled so far this season, the 2015 NFL Draft was one of the strongest drafts in recent memory when it came to the running back position. To nobody’s surprise, each week of the NFL season has featured a breakout performer at the position. Week 1 saw Ameer Abdullah electrify before Matt Jones busted out in Week 2 and Karlos Williams got loose during Week 3.
Karlos Williams (RB-Buf)
The trend continued this week with not just one, but two rookie running backs looking to put a stranglehold on their team’s starting jobs. Chris Tripodi breaks down those two running backs, along with a couple Saints linebackers who helped their team to a much-needed win in primetime Sunday night.
Todd Gurley (RB-StL)
After sitting out the first two games of his NFL career to complete his recovery from a torn ACL suffered last November, Todd Gurley returned to the field with a six-carry, nine-yard performance in Week 3. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher vowed to get his team’s first-round pick more involved in Week 4, but after the No. 10 overall pick had just four first-half carries for two yards and found no room to run behind St. Louis’ shaky offensive line, it looked as though his second week back on the gridiron would be just another lost game on his road to recovery. Little did anybody know what Gurley had in store for the second half.
It started midway through the third quarter with the Rams leading, 10-9. Gurley took a carry to the left side and immediately cutback by design behind his pulling tight end. The rookie runner showed the speed to get around the corner before busting through the second level for 23 yards. On the next play, Gurley let his blocks develop on an off-tackle handoff to the right before showing the burst to destroy defenders’ pursuit angles and gain 12 yards. After that drive ended in a touchdown, Gurley took a first-down carry on the next drive deep in his own territory for four yards before losing his footing and fumbling. Luckily for St. Louis, tackle Rob Havenstein jumped on the ball to keep the Cardinals from getting great field position at Gurley’s expense.
Showing confidence in their burgeoning young stud, the Rams stuck with Gurley as their feature back for their first drive of the fourth quarter and it paid immediate dividends. Once again displaying the elite burst that made him a monster at Georgia, Gurley shot through a hole on the left side and beat the cornerback’s pursuit angle to reach the secondary. The Rams rookie then used a stiff arm to keep the safety at bay without losing speed, gaining an extra 35 yards to finish off an impressive 52-yard scamper to set up another St. Louis touchdown.
With the Rams nursing a two-point lead with under two minutes to play, they looked to Gurley to ice the win. Even as the Cardinals stacked the box with eight defenders to stop the run, the former Bulldogs star managed two big gains on the final drive to keep the ball out of Carson Palmer’s waiting hands. His interior blocking almost let him down on the first run, allowing immediate penetration up the middle, but Gurley spotted an opening outside and used his quick feet to redirect into the hole for a 20-yard gain. Backfield penetration ruined his next run which turned into a four-yard loss but Gurley refused to succumb to the pressure on the next play, breaking an arm tackle four yards deep in the backfield to turn a potential loss into a two-yard gain.
On the ensuing third-and-long with 1:17 to go, the Rams stuck with Gurley again and he rewarded their confidence with a 30-yard run around the left edge to seal the win. Gurley easily turned the corner with a little help from reverse-action and had a legitimate chance to score and put the game completely away. With defenders in pursuit from the opposite side of the field, however, Gurley instead chose to slow down and go to the ground just inside the 10-yard line to keep the clock moving, allowing the Rams to kneel the rest of the clock. The rookie’s situational awareness saved St. Louis an unnecessary offensive snap as they closed out the win.
Thanks to his big runs, Gurley finished with 146 yards rushing on 19 carries, running at a 9.6-yard-per-carry clip in the second half. He got stronger as the game went on and his confidence in his surgically repaired knee will only improve as the season continues. Gurley looks ready to be the Rams’ workhorse runner, and they’ll need his special skill set to overcome their deficiencies up front and run the ball effectively. The rookie’s combination of strength, quickness and vision will come in handy against the backfield penetration he’s bound to face, much like he did Sunday, and the Rams have to be excited with what they’re getting from Gurley less than 11 months after his ACL surgery.
Duke Johnson (RB-Cle)
One of the best receivers in this year’s running back class, Duke Johnson was inexplicably targeted zero times in the Browns’ first two games despite receiving 19 carries out of the backfield. The third-round pick caught six passes in Week 3 and head coach Mike Pettine promised to get him the ball in space more this week. Mission accomplished on Sunday, as Johnson led the Browns with nine receptions for 85 yards and his first career touchdown, adding eight carries for 31 yards on the ground and playing more snaps than starter Isaiah Crowell.
Johnson made an impact on his first carry of the game during the Browns’ third drive, beating backfield penetration by shaking off a Manti Te’o tackle to turn a two-yard loss into a three-yard gain, once again proving stronger than his size (5-9, 207) would imply. The young runner showed off his quickness through multiple cuts a few plays later, gaining five yards via a string of quick moves to manipulate small creases into running room. Johnson broke another tackle a few plays later on a screen pass when he was dead to rights, but still lost six yards on the play as the pursuit eventually caught up to him. On the ensuing third-and-long, Johnson showed awareness by working toward the sideline to help a scrambling Josh McCown and his soft hands helped him grab a low pass just short of the first-down marker.
The Browns rookie scored early in the second quarter on a 34-yard reception. Lined up in the slot left, Johnson dusted his man deep and showed excellent ball skills, tracking the pass over his outside shoulder before tapping both feet down in the corner of the end zone to secure the score. Johnson could have very easily been mistaken for a wide receiver on the play, and the Browns have wisely involved him heavily in the passing game over the past two weeks considering their lack of talent at the receiver position.
Johnson had several more catches in the first half, leaving Te’o in the dust multiple times with sharp route breaks and a well-executed double move to create separation. The first-year back was heavily used in Cleveland’s two-minute offense as well, acting as a nice safety valve for McCown when he couldn’t find anybody open downfield. Despite being targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage on short dumpoffs, Johnson used his quickness to get upfield and fell forward for extra yardage to finish those plays effectively.
The rookie’s usage waned in the second half, however, as the Browns gave Crowell more work, particularly on the ground. Johnson did receive several carries, showing nice burst through the hole and electric ability in space, effectively using defenders’ momentum against them with impressive stop-and-start quickness. Cleveland still utilized Johnson in the slot, something that should continue moving forward as the team looks to get their dynamic rookie more involved on offense.
After touching the ball just seven times in Week 1, Johnson has double-digit touches in the past three games, including Sunday’s 17. The Browns are starting to integrate him into their offense nicely, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Johnson log a few more 15-touch games as the season goes along. Crowell will remain involved but the second-year back found himself in the doghouse a few times last season. If history repeats itself, Johnson could be in for some heavy usage and has the potential to take over as the Browns’ lead back regardless of what Crowell does with his touches.
Stephone Anthony (LB-NO)
Stephone Anthony was a surprise pick at the end of the first round during the 2015 NFL Draft. A linebacker with great size (6-2, 243) and speed (4.53), Draft Insider had him rated as a second-round pick but the Saints saw things differently, grabbing the former Clemson star with the 31st overall pick. While New Orleans has once again had issues stopping the run so far this season, they have shown some improvement in that area, some of which can be attributed to Anthony’s play in 2015. Through four games, the rookie linebacker has 23 tackles (14 solo), including seven stops and his first career sack in the Saints’ Week 4 win over the Cowboys.
Much of Anthony’s impact came in the first half Sunday night, as the rookie was obviously amped up for his first primetime experience. All of his tackles, including his sack, came in the first half, and he showed off his impressive array of skills to stop Dallas’ running game before it could get started, as the Cowboys averaged less than three yards per carry excluding an early 45-yard scamper from Lance Dunbar. On that long run, Anthony got caught up on a block before he could fill the hole off tackle, and Dunbar used his quickness to shoot through the gap and get downfield in a hurry.
The rookie linebacker showed good recognition skills and stayed disciplined in the middle of the defense, two traits that stood out in his tape at Clemson. Anthony showed the ability to scrape down the line effectively and keep himself away from blockers, patiently reading and reacting to the running back’s first move to fill the hole and putting himself in good position. He showed great closing speed through the gap once he committed to heading upfield and stopped both Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden in their tracks on multiple plays, not allowing either Cowboys back to gain extra yardage once they were in his grasp and aggressively taking them to the ground.
His sack came late in the second quarter with Dallas driving near midfield. Anthony blitzed off the left edge but saw the right guard uncovered waiting for him to engage. Instead of trying to work through the guard, Anthony stunted around the other side of the offensive line to penetrate the backfield. After Brandon Weeden broke a sack attempt from Kenny Vaccaro, he looked up to find Anthony closing quickly and had little choice but to go down to the ground and accept the sack, setting up third-and-long and effectively ending the Cowboys’ march down the field.
Anthony showed the ability to get good depth in coverage as well, using his speed to quickly close on receivers in the short field to prevent run-after-catch opportunities. As a player who primarily played downhill at Clemson, this was good to see from the rookie, who has the athletic ability to be a solid cover linebacker as well. His solid start to the season has gone a long way towards improving New Orleans’ linebacking corps, and Anthony’s presence in the middle of the Saints’ defense will give them a three-down weapon for years to come.
Hau’oli Kikaha (LB-NO)
A second-round pick out of Washington, Hau’oli Kikaha was an unbelievably productive college player with the Huskies. After missing most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to multiple knee injuries, the 6-2, 245-pound linebacker posted 40.5 tackles for loss and 32 sacks as a junior and senior. Due to his medical history and athletic limitations (4.9 40-yard dash), we had him rated as a seventh-round prospect and the 19th-best outside linebacker in the draft. So far this season, Kikaha is doing everything he can to prove us and other scouts wrong and reward the Saints’ confidence in him with 26 tackles (16 solo) and three sacks in 2015.
Despite Kikaha’s lack of speed, his backside pursuit was impressive Sunday night against the Cowboys. While going mostly unblocked off the edge on plays run away from him, Kikaha did a nice job moving parallel down the line of scrimmage without overpursuing, taking good angles to keep Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden from cutting back against the grain. His sure tackling ability made it impossible for either back to break free of his grasp, and teams may want to think twice about leaving Kikaha unblocked off the edge in future weeks.
Not only was Kikaha effective on plays moving away from him, but he also excelled when the ball was run at him. Using his hands effectively like he did in college, Kikaha fought hard to avoid getting engaged by opposing linemen at the point of attack, working his hands non-stop to hold his ground and using good extension to set the edge. In addition to setting the edge and staying clean, Kikaha maintained outside contain to force run plays back inside while also staying in position to finish tackles. He showed an effective rip move once extended to break free of blocks and flash in the hole as well.
Kikaha also used that rip move to beat Tyron Smith for his third sack of the season on a third-down play in the third quarter. After the rip got him underneath Smith and gave him leverage, Kikaha showed good strength and balance to render Randle’s help block useless, although it did allow Smith to recover. Kikaha continued to fight with his high motor, going right through Smith a second time on his way to bringing down Brandon Weeden for an 11-yard loss.
The former Huskies standout had many doubters in the draft community thanks to a laundry list of injuries and unimpressive measurables, but Kikaha has done nothing but make plays through his first four NFL games, much like he did throughout his college career. The Saints’ linebackers needed a facelift after last season’s struggles and if Kikaha can stay productive, he and Stephone Anthony could help New Orleans get back to respectability at the second level of their defense.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.
It was an exciting weekend of college football which will result in a major impact on the national rankings. And while most everyone was focused on the big names from Saturday’s games we found several lesser known prospects who improved their draft stock. Here are the Risers and Sliders for week five.
Emmanuel Ogbah/DE/Oklahoma State: Ogbah was highlighted during our week five preview and the junior delivered. He was omnipresent throughout the victory over Kansas State finishing with 6 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and a pair of quarterback hurries. Ogbah was forcing quarterbacks to move around the pocket and defeated blocks of opposing guards to stop ball handlers behind the line of scrimmage. He needs to improve his strength at the point of attack but Ogbah is developing into a fearsome front seven player.
Tra Carson/RB/Texas A&M: I previously bemoaned the fact Carson was not considered draftable by area scouts prior to the season after I stamped him as a potential sixth round choice. It looks as though I may be underrating him. The Arkansas game notwithstanding, Carson has been dominant all season long and registered another terrific outing, this time against a tough Mississippi State defense. He finished with 110-yards on 26 carries for an average of 4.1 yards per attempt. What I find most exciting about Carson is the shiftiness and agility he shows for a 230lb ball carrier. He’s much more than a downhill runner and though needing to polish his pass catching skills, he’ll receive middle round consideration for a team in search of a versatile, big bodied ball carrier.
Desmond Morgan/LB/Michigan: Morgan was another prospect dismissed as non-draftable entering the season then graded significantly lower than teammates Joe Bolden and James Ross yet he’s held his own in the early part of the campaign. He was dominant against the weak Maryland offense on Saturday, leading the Wolverines with 9 tackles as well as intercepting 1 pass and breaking up 2 more. Morgan’s built more like a classic weakside linebacker but has the wherewithal and physical skills to play three downs as a back-up in a variety of schemes at the next level.
Jake Coker/QB/Alabama: Its time scouts, who graded Coker as a street free agent entering the season, readjust their opinions on the signal caller. Coker helped pace the Tide’s victory over Georgia with an efficient, mistake free performance. He was 11 of 16 for 190 yards with one touchdown pass and was not sacked by a Bulldog defense that makes a lot of plays up the field. When considering the overall weakness of the quarterback position from the senior class, coupled with the desire to add an SEC flavor to the Senior Bowl, there’s a real chance he receives an invitation to Mobile next January.
Dean Lowry/DE/Northwestern: The Wildcats are 5-0 and field one of the better defenses in the Big Ten with Lowry being one of the main ingredients of their success. During the shutout victory over Minnesota the senior finished with 5 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and was constantly getting pressure off the edge. Lowry entered the season as a potential late round pick and he may slide into the last frame for a team wanting a rotational defensive end.
Rashard Higgins/WR/Colorado State: The Rams have had a tough go of it this season after a triumphant 2014 campaign but Higgins has been on fire. He posted 10 receptions for 114 yards and 1 score during CSU’s loss to Utah State, the third game in a row he’s topped the century mark in receiving yards. Higgins has already made a number of underclassmen watch lists around the league and he’s a smooth, fluid receiver that makes a large number of plays down the field.
*Sleeper* Michael Thomas/WR/Southern Mississippi: Its not surprising Thomas was considered a street free agent by scouts when the season began. He’s under 200lbs, runs in the mid 4.5’s and stands barely 6-foot/1-inch. Yet Thomas is in the midst of a career campaign and after torching the Nebraska secondary for 5-receptions and 121 yards, he followed it up with 7 catches, 155 yards and 3 touchdowns against North Texas. Good workouts prior to the draft could put him into the late part of the seventh round if he keeps performing at this level.
*Small School Prospects* Brian Brown & Reggie Diggs/WR/Richmond: The Spiders have a terrific one-two combination at the receiver position and both players are NFL prospects. Diggs, a senior, is a nice sized pass catcher that goes 6-feet/4-inches and just a shade under 210lbs. He’s a game controller who physically beats down opponents in the middle of the field to come away with the reception. Brown, just a junior, is smaller but faster and more prone to big plays down the field. Diggs deserves late round consideration while Brown could develop into an early third day pick if he continues to improve his game.
Dadi Nicholas/DE-OLB/Virginia Tech: Entering the season scouts graded Nicholas as a potential first round pick but five games into the campaign he’s played more like a late rounder. Nicholas has yet to register a single sack or tackle for loss and has just 12 tackles and 3 quarterback hurries this year.
Joel Stave/QB/Wisconsin: There are a number of scouts who feel Stave’s best possibility at the next level is at the safety position rather than the quarterback spot. It was easy to see why against Iowa. Stave deserves credit for good completion percentage (over 60%) but his touchdown-to-interception ratio raises red-flags as do many of his throws. During the loss to Iowa he tossed a pair of costly picks then late in the game as the Badgers were driving in a last ditch effort to win, Stave missed open receivers. While some whittle it down to mechanical issues Stave has never truly elevated his game at the quarterback spot.
Zack Sanchez/CB/Oklahoma: Reviewing the 2014 film this summer Sanchez was one of my favorite corners. He shut down opponents with polished ball skills yet the one blemish during the Sooners 20-point victory over West Virginia was the play of Sanchez who was beaten deep and seemed to play back on his heels. It was not the type of performance one expects from a top 40 prospect.
Junior cornerback Desmond King of Iowa, a week three riser, picked off two passes and broke up two more to go along with nine tackles during the Hawkeyes victory over Wisconsin. In conversations the past week there’s a feeling from many King has first round potential if he enters the draft. At present time most believe King will likely stay in school. From a character point of view I’ve heard nothing but positives about him.
Week four riser Shaq Washington had a major impact in Cincinnati’s victory over the Miami Hurricanes. Besides catching 8 passes for 106 yards he also had a 69-yard punt return early in the game which eventually turned into seven points for the Bearcats. Washington is considered a 4.5-second prospect by scouts but plays much faster and his pre-draft workouts will be something to keep an eye on.
Florida International is struggling through a losing campaign but scouts have shown a lot of interest in junior tight end Jonnu Smith. The athletic pass catcher has posted 19 receptions in five games and has shown marked improvement in his game.
The first Saturday in October on the college football schedule is turning into one of the biggest weekends thus far as a number of games will impact the national rankings. Scouts will be paying close attention to a pair of battles on the edge as well as two more through the air.
Indiana vs Ohio State
3:30PM EST ABC
Everyone knows of Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, who sits atop most draft boards as the number one overall prospect heading towards 2016. Bosa’s statistics are down this season as he’s recorded just 2.5 tackles for loss and .5 sacks in the three games he’s played but the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Bosa, who is expected to enter next April’s draft, has applied a lot of pressure up the field and created opportunities for teammates.
And while most are familiar with Bosa the same cannot be said about Jason Spriggs.
The fourth year senior has started at left tackle for the Hoosiers since his freshman season and has done a terrific job keeping his quarterback upright. He has excellent length and is a great technician protecting the edge. What he lacks is athleticism and run blocking strength. I’ve graded Spriggs as a potential third round pick since his sophomore season while scouts have him as an early second day choice.
The opportunity is available for Bosa or Spriggs to make a statement tomorrow. Bosa needs to get rolling on his production while Spriggs wants to prove he can compete with the nation’s best.
Kansas State vs Oklahoma State
4PM EST Fox Sports 1
This is another terrific battle on the edge featuring a highly rated senior left tackle against a well regarded pass rusher from the junior class.
Area scouts grade Cody Whitehair as one of the top three tackle prospects from the senior class and many believe he’s a top 45 prospect. He’s a three year starter for Kansas State that’s played both left and right tackle as well as guard with the first team. Presently I rank Whitehair as the top guard prospect moving towards the 2016 draft but feel he’s more a bottom of round two prospect.
Whitehair will have a battle on his hands Saturday when he faces off against one of the most underrated pass rushers in the nation.
Prior to the season I ranked Emmanuel Ogbah as a potential third rounder but raved about his upside. Thus far he’s not disappointed during the season’s initial four games posting 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss besides intercepting 1 pass. Ogbah is an explosive athlete who quickly gets up the field and also easily moves in reverse to make plays in space.
The contest is an important battle for both players; Whitehair has the opportunity to prove he can handle an athletic speed rusher off the edge. Ogbah must show he can compete against a true mauler.
Ole Miss vs Florida
7PM EST ESPN
This may not be much of a battle on the scoreboard as ‘Ole Miss is justifiably more than a touchdown favorite over the Gators, but I expect a big battle in the air.
A week ago I wrote about the Florida secondary, which has been hit by injury, as they prepared to battle Tennessee. Cornerback Brian Poole has played better than expected this season while safety Keanu Neal and corner Vernon Hargreaves have been slowed with assorted injuries.
Injuries or not the Gators secondary will face their stiffest challenge of the year against ‘Ole Miss on Saturday.
Start with receiver LaQuon Treadwell, a big, dominant pass catcher who I ranked as top three prospect from the SEC before the season began. Treadwell is a game controlling pass catcher that will out finesse or out muscle defenders for the reception. He natural, fluid but also physical and will be a top ten selection if not medically red-flagged.
Teammate Cody Core is the vertical receiver for the Rebels and the one who stretches the field. He’s able to beat defenders in a foot race and makes big plays from the line of scrimmage. A week three riser, scouts have told me since the Alabama game Core could land in the second day of the draft.
That’s not all as the Gators can’t sleep on tight end Evan Engram, who plays like a big possession receiver. Engram has just five receptions this season, albeit for an average of 13.6-yards per catch, and will challenge Keanu Neal in the short and long field.
West Virginia vs Oklahoma
12PM EST Fox Sports 1
Here’sanother battle brewing in the secondary which should provide offensive fireworks.
The Sooners are well know for their air attack and have been true to form this season with passing yards which more than doubles their ground totals. The star of the show is senior Sterling Shepard, a slightly undersized but dependable wide out that plays with a fearless attitude and a lot of athleticism. Shepard, stamped as a last day pick, is averaging 6 receptions per game and is the Sooners top punt returner. He’s slippery, effective running after the catch and always finds ways to separate from opponents.
On the other hand West Virginia has a history of placing talented cornerbacks in the league but it’s a pair of safeties who are the focus this year.
Seniors Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon were both deemed draftable by scouts entering the season and the former is in the midst of a career campaign.
After three games Joseph has posted a team leading 4 interceptions and lists second on the Mountaineers defense with 15 tackles. Known more for his run defense, Joseph has really improved his play against the pass this season. On the other hand Dillon is more natural against the pass and shows better range than his teammate.
The Mountaineer tandem will be challenged to stop both the run and pass against an Oklahoma offense which posted 45-points and a combined 510-yards when the teams met last season.