In what is the penultimate weekend of the college football regular season, a top ten shake-up is in the offing. And while a number of sleeper prospects are rising up draft boards one big named player makes our Sliders list.
Word from the PAC 12 has two cornerbacks moving in opposite directions.
I continue to hear a lot of good things on Steve Nelson of Oregon State. The senior entered the year with free agent grades but has elevated himself into the middle rounds. Sized well at just under 5-feet/11-inches and 200-pounds, he could elevate to a top 100 pick with a good post-season showing.
On the other hand the flow of information on Marcus Peters has gone from bad to worse. The issues which led to his dismissal from the Washington football program are well documented but several area scouts say it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
On Saturday I closely watched Florida Gators defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and have to say he was relatively impressive. The junior plays with leverage, quickness and shows good movement skills. He looks as though he’ll be a solid three-technique prospect and possibly defensive end in a three man line/one-gap system. Bullard is expected to enter the draft but the consensus in the scouting community is he’d really benefit from another season in college.
Antonio Morrison/LB/Florida: Slightly undersized but swift and explosive, Morrison is very much a linebacker in the body of a safety and a defender who makes plays sideline to sideline. Prior to the Florida State contest Morrison led all Gator defenders with 98 tackles, 40 more than his nearest teammate. He added 5 more during the loss to the Seminoles. He’ll be looked upon as a natural fit at weak side linebacker yet considering the multiple fronts used in today’s NFL, Morrison will also be given consideration on the inside of a 3-4 alignment which allows him to freely run to the action.
Brandon Doughty/QB/Western Kentucky: For the moment let’s dismiss the fact Doughty threw for 491-yards and 8 touchdowns during the Hilltoppers victory over Marshall this weekend. Rather look at the accuracy and timing of Doughty’s throws, as well as his completion percentage. I first mentioned Doughty last season and was surprised he never received as much as a mention from scouts entering the 2014 campaign. He does not possesses a big arm but Doughty’s ability to run a timing/west coast offense should at the very least, get him into a camp next summer.
Jermauria Rasco/DE/LSU: Fact is I was never very high on Rasco entering the season and neither were NFL scouts, who expected him to be a mini-camp casualty. But give credit where its’ due as the senior has played consistently productive football this season. He finished the year with 8 tackles and 1 sack during the LSU victory over Texas A&M, and finishes the season atop the team with 4 sacks. Rasco does not possesses the upside of teammate Danielle Hunter who holds a 2nd/3rd round grade, but at the same time he does not disappear for stretches as the junior does.
Laken Tomlinson/OL/Duke: Four years a starter on the Duke offensive line, Tomlinson has been a consistent blocker in college and intrigues NFL scouts. He’s a wide bodied lineman at 6-feet/3-inches and 325lbs, strong enough to open holes on the line of scrimmage and nimble enough to remove defenders on the second level. He’s not expected to wow anyone in pre-draft testing rather Tomlinson will be a name that slips into the later rounds of the draft then fights for a starting role at the next level.
Willie Beavers/OL/Western Michigan: I continue to be impressed by Beavers, the collegiate left tackle who projects to guard on Sunday’s. The junior hits the tape under 6-feet/4-inches yet moves well off the edge and easily adjusts to cover a lot of area. He’s shown improvement in each of the three years he’s started at WMU and is another wide bodied blocker that jumps out on film.
Doran Grant/CB/Ohio State: Entering the season I was of the opinion that Grant, stamped as a late round pick by scouts, was overrated yet his play this season has impressed me. Its as much his consistency on the field and ability to stay away from mental mistakes as much as anything else. Grant has a knack for staying on receivers hips out of breaks then making plays on the ball. He’ll be a solid nickel back/special teams player on Sunday’s.
Sleeper Prospect: Chris Conley/WR/Georgia: The Bulldogs have found ways to slip receivers into the late part of the draft. Receivers who then go on to have moderate success on Sunday. Kris Durham immediately comes to mind and Conley could be next. The sure handed pass catcher is a consistent underneath target who finds ways to get open or wins out in battles. Though his production has been slightly down this season the senior comes through for Georgia during important moments, including late in the Georgia Tech game on Saturday. His pre-draft workouts won’t excite anyone but his work ethic and personality will surely be embraced by NFL coaches and will help him stick as a fifth receiver.
Small School Prospect: Chris Bonner/WR/CSU-Pueblo: Bonner is the fourth CSU-Pueblo player written about this year and like his cornerback teammates, another one overlooked by scouts. Watch the game film and you can’t help but be impressed. He’s a tall signal caller with impressive pocket stature and a rocket arm. Bonner easily delivers all the throws and does so with a nice degree of accuracy. Relatively nimble, he can escape the rush and connects with receivers throwing on the move. I find his physical skills favorable to those of Mike Glennon, another tall and rangy quarterback, and feel Bonner is a terrific developmental prospect at the position.
Jameis Winston/QB/Florida State: Two years ago at this time when many were anointing Geno Smith as the top pick in the 2013 draft I watched the film and thought “no way.” It was a similar feeling with Johnny Manziel a year ago when most positioned him as a top ten selection. Watching Winston, whom I grade a much better prospect than Smith or Manziel, I feel much the same. Off the field transgressions aside, his play on Saturday’s has been exciting but not the caliber of an early first round pick. His ability to bring the Seminoles from behind is becoming legendary yet many gloss over the fact his mistakes force FSU to play catch-up or kept opponents in the contest. Take a look at the last five games. Four interceptions against Florida on Saturday. An interception against Boston College the prior week which led to game-tying points for the Eagles. A drive killing interception at the end of the first half against Miami. Interceptions thrown on consecutive series against Virginia which the Cavaliers converted into touchdowns. Three interceptions against Louisville. In the end Florida State won all those contests, which was most important for the team, its fans and the national rankings. Yet talk with scouts or next level decision makers who watch the film in its entirety rather than the highlights and they’ll tell you Winston’s penchant for turning the ball over very disconcerting. Talent? Lots of it. Upside? An enormous amount. But also an equal amount of downside risk which is dangerous for any signal caller, especially one who seems to struggle controlling himself off the field.
Eric Lefeld/OL/Cincinnati: Lefeld was highly rated by many entering the season except league scouts, who were proven correct. He’s a solid college tackle but lacks the balance, athleticism and necessary skills to be anything other than a small area blocker at the next level.
A few highly drafted offensive linemen have been stellar all season for their teams on the inside, and Chris Tripodi returns to give Browns guard Joel Bitonio and Cowboys guard Zack Martin their due. As usual, a few skill players have seen their opportunities increase over the past few weeks as well, and two came through with their best games of the season in Week 12.
Isaiah Crowell (RB-Cle)
With last week’s release of veteran running back Ben Tate, who entered the season as the Browns’ starter, extra playing time opened up for rookie third-round pick Terrance West (profiled here after Week 2) and the undrafted Isaiah Crowell. While West handled 15 touches to Crowell’s 12, the latter played 16 more snaps by a count of 47-31 after starting the game and was easily the more effective back. That’s not a knock on West, who ran well, but Crowell’s talent pops off the screen every time you watch him play. His 12 carries went for 88 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 12 win over Atlanta, compared to 62 yards on 14 carries for West.
Crowell got off to a slow start early, as his first three runs went for zero yards, but an 11-yard touchdown late in the first quarter got his day going nicely. Backfield penetration from the Falcons’ defensive line threatened to shut down a run to the right, but Crowell’s quick feet allowed him to quickly cut away from the lineman towards an open hole on the left side. Spotting a Miles Austin seal block on the edge, Crowell cut upfield and showed elite burst and acceleration to get through the hole before it closed on his way to the end zone. His hip flexibility is also top-notch, which allows him to cut laterally with ease and get skinny through tight creases.
The former Alabama State star was stopped for no gain on his next run, but most NFL running backs would have lost yardage. Crowell used his aforementioned flexibility and quick feet to get away from a defensive lineman in the backfield before quickly cutting upfield to get back to the line of scrimmage. The rookie then ripped off 25 yards on his next four carries, continuing to show impressive burst and acceleration and hitting the hole like a back 30 pounds lighter than his 225-pound frame. Crowell just plays at a different speed and it’s easy to see on the field, especially in comparison to West.
Crowell’s second touchdown of the game combined everything he does well into one 26-yard run. A play that started right was going nowhere, and Crowell quickly reversed field to the left, again showing the flexibility to make cuts parallel to the line of scrimmage without losing much speed. After cutting upfield, he froze a defender with a stutter step before stiff arming him on his way back to the right side of the field. Crowell stiff armed a second defensive back before turning on his speed, beating the rest of the defense to the pylon for the score. On the Browns’ next possession, Crowell turned a toss play into 18 yards by again showing good speed to turn the corner, and he exhibited impressive patience on a seven-yard carry where small stutter steps allowed his blockers to finish their assignments before he exploded past them.
Undrafted due to the off-the-field issues that led to him getting kicked out of the University of Georgia and finishing his college career at Alabama State, Crowell’s talent was never the issue. If he can keep his nose clean and stay out of trouble, Crowell is the most talented running back in this year’s rookie class and it’s not really close. With the quickness of a scatback and good downhill power, Crowell is the complete package as an NFL running back. With Tate out of his way and West a plodder in comparison, Crowell will be featured again heading into Week 13 and has a chance to build on the best game of his career against a solid Bills defense.
Jarvis Landry (WR-Mia)
Despite being drafted in the second round after a great college career at LSU, Jarvis Landry has been overlooked from the start. His college teammate, Odell Beckham Jr., was the third receiver drafted in May, while Landry was the 12th. His Dolphins teammate, Mike Wallace, headed into the season with hopes for a bounce-back year after busting in year one of his big contract. Through it all, Landry has gone from fourth on the depth chart behind Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson to second over the past few weeks, passing both Hartline and Gibson to become Ryan Tannehill’s most trusted short and intermediate target. While Beckham’s one-handed catch this weekend made all the highlight reels, Landry had a great game himself in Miami’s loss to Denver, with seven receptions for 50 yards and two touchdowns.
Six of Landry’s seven catches went for nine yards or fewer, and the longest one came on a short pass as well. Lined up in the slot, Landry came inside to chip the defensive end before quickly cutting out to the sideline and creating separation between him and the slot corner. Showing strong hands to reach out and grab the pass in front of him in tight coverage, Landry also showed the strength to slip the tackle and stay on his feet, picking up extra yardage down the sideline for a 20-yard gain. It was the rookie’s lone catch of the first half, but there was more to come later in the game.
Landry’s third-quarter touchdown reception came from five yards out, as the first-year wideout ran a slant from an outside alignment on the left side. Beating his corner to the inside, Landry reached above his head to snatch the pass with sure hands before being pushed into the end zone for the score. His sticky hands were a theme in this game, which has led to him being Tannehill’s top security blanket on short routes. Landry’s other reception in the third quarter came on a short cross for three yards, as he kept his route going towards the sideline as Tannehill was flushed out of the pocket.
The fourth quarter was where Landry made his biggest impact on this game, both positively and negatively. The rookie started out with a nine-yard reception on a banana out, slipping another tackle for extra yardage. His next target resulted in an interception, but the pass was rifled too hard on a short route in tight coverage. Landry was able to get his left hand up, but the ball deflected away into the hands of safety T.J. Ward. It was a somewhat-catchable pass, but the blame lies with both Landry and Tannehill on the play. The pair bounced back though, completing a simple in route on fourth-and-two on Miami’s final drive to move the chains while down 39-28.
Landry’s second touchdown brought the Dolphins within three points and although it only went for a yard, it was an impressive display of route-running and situational field awareness by both Landry and his quarterback. The receiver broke off the line into a curl route after angling his release to the outside. Once Landry reached the goal line, he immediately sat down in a small opening in Denver’s coverage. Tannehill was ready, firing the pass into tight quarters to Landry, who made the catch for the score. The pass was almost broken up by a nearby defender, but Landry’s understanding of where he needed to be to secure the score and stay away from the coverage made this play. If the rookie had ran his route even a half-yard deeper into the end zone, the pass likely would’ve been knocked away.
While both Beckham and Wallace make the highlight-reel plays, Landry does the dirty work to move the chains, keep drives alive and bail his quarterback out of tough situations. He did it consistently for Zach Mettenberger at LSU, and has done it consistently for Tannehill so far in his rookie season. Landry isn’t a burner, and doesn’t have the size to be a jump-ball threat, but the comparisons to Hines Ward during the draft process accurately portray the type of receiver he is; polished, reliable and trustworthy with the game on the line. Landry will never be a star, but he should enjoy a long NFL career as a chain-mover with the spatial awareness in small windows to score his share of touchdowns as well. His five scores this season have all come within his last seven games, and it’s reasonable to expect more the rest of the way.
Joel Bitonio (OG-Cle)
While Isaiah Crowell just recently got his prime opportunity for the Browns, Cleveland’s second-round pick took over at left guard in Week 1 and hasn’t looked back since. Not only has Bitonio been arguably the best rookie offensive lineman this season, he’s played like one of the best in the NFL, sitting second in Pro Football Focus’ guard rankings through 12 weeks. The site also gave Bitonio a negative grade in just one game this season, while his Week 12 performance was one of his most impressive so far.
Rated as a borderline first/second-round prospect by Draft Insider during the months leading up to the draft, Bitonio was actually viewed as a tackle by many NFL teams. He’s settled in on the interior of the Browns’ offensive line, and has been especially important considering the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to injury. A fundamentally sound lineman who plays smart football, Bitonio has consistently shown his ability to utilize angles to his advantage. On Crowell’s 18-yard run in the fourth quarter Sunday, Bitonio quickly got his feet into position off the snap to get outside. The rookie guard wasted little movement getting to the second level, cutting off linebacker Paul Worrilow’s pursuit angle and allowing Crowell to get almost 15 yards downfield before being touched by a defender.
Bitonio has shown impressive speed to the second level this season, and has also been very quick and smooth on pulls. Staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and again wasting little movement, Bitonio gets outside quickly and breaks down well before making contact with defenders. The former Nevada star fires low off the snap and gets under defensive linemen’s pads to drive them off the ball. Bitonio took his man out of the play right off the snap on Crowell’s first touchdown, which was a key to the play considering his teammates allowed penetration on the other side. Clearing out this space allowed Crowell to cut back into a huge hole for the score.
The first-year guard also displays extremely strong hands once engaged with opponents, and used this skill to clear a hole for Crowell on a seven-yard run up the middle. With the defensive lineman engaging Bitonio on his inside shoulder and the play set to cut up inside him, Bitonio redirected his opponent out of the hole and ended up with him on his outside shoulder by the time the block was complete, giving Crowell enough of a crease to hit.
Bitonio has been an excellent addition to a Browns’ offense that initially struggled to run the football when Mack got hurt. The team has since recovered, with both Bitonio and Crowell playing important roles in the revival. This first-year guard is a huge reason Cleveland is in the thick of the AFC North race heading into the season’s final stretch and, while it be somewhat surprising to see him voted into the Pro Bowl, he certainly would be deserving. In addition to his stellar run blocking, Bitonio has allowed just eight quarterback hurries, one quarterback hit and no sacks this year.
Zack Martin (OG-Dal)
With all the hype surrounding the performance of the Cowboys’ offensive line, and rightfully so, Martin has been a perfect addition in Dallas. Drafted in the first round in May out of Notre Dame, Martin was billed as an NFL-ready guard or tackle prospect, but with Tyron Smith entrenched on Tony Romo’s blindside in Dallas, Martin has settled in at right guard. Not only has he stepped smoothly into the starting lineup, but Martin has been arguably the most effective lineman in Dallas against both the pass and the run, as Pro Football Focus has him rated as the league’s fourth-best guard so far this season. Week 12 wasn’t one of Martin’s best performances this season, but he played well in a win over the Giants.
Like Bitonio, Martin shows the necessary speed to get to the second level, and uses angles well to set up blocks down the field. An early DeMarco Murray seven-yard run followed Martin right up an alley he created on the right side, and the rookie guard got to linebacker Jameel McClain quickly and handled him long enough to allow Murray to pick up nice yardage. A tenacious blocker, Martin plays with an attitude that showed through on this play, as he continued to fight McClain once engaged and kept his feet moving to drive the linebacker off his spot.
The first-year guard also moves well laterally, quickly breaking out of his stance and smoothly moving to the outside on pulls and kick-out blocks, allowing Murray to keep running without breaking stride before cutting up inside. Martin stands his ground well at the point of attack, preventing backfield penetration and showing the ability to leave his blocks once finished to seek out another defender. A smart lineman who plays angry, Martin gets the most out of his physical tools.
Also strong in pass protection, like Bitonio, the Cowboys’ rookie guard hasn’t allowed a sack this season. Romo has been hurried just five times and hit just twice on Martin’s account, and his skills in pass protection as a four-year tackle with the Fighting Irish have translated well to the inside at the NFL level. Martin may not have much room left to improve on his very polished skill set, but he’s already an impact NFL guard who will only get more recognition as he gains experience. In a similar fashion to Bitonio once again, I expect multiple Pro Bowls to be in this rookie’s future.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com/
Week 13 in the college season saw Florida State once again hang on while other teams in the top ten had a much easier time against much easier opponents. It was also a week where sleeper prospects and lesser known next level players made scouts take notice.
I’ve been out front reporting on the number of league sources who feel Randy Gregory of Nebraska is a worthy candidate for the first pick of the draft. And though a terrific pass rusher, Gregory’s ability in run support is something that concerns me. On several occasions during the loss to Minnesota this weekend he was handled by Gopher tight ends as ball carriers ran past him for big gainers.
Ohio State’s Michael Bennett is another Big Ten lineman who gets a lot of love from scouts yet he too has issues getting off blocks. Throughout the season Bennett will look like a world beater on one snap then is handled the very next play. He’s not much of a play maker (27 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks this season) and at 6-feet/2-inches and 285-pounds, Bennett has size limitations.
Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong receives a lot of attention on the outside as the junior is in the midst of a career campaign. Speak to scouts and you’ll get a different point of view. Many are concerned with his lack of speed, quickness and the struggle he’ll have separating at the next level. Several area scouts have stamped Strong as a third rounder based off the film and many grade Dres Anderson of Utah as a better receiver prospect for the next level.
The word is center/guard Max Tuerk of USC is heavily considering the draft but prior to making a final decision he should head the advice of scouts. Many area scouts like Tuerk’s athleticism and upside but believe he’s not strong enough for the NFL and needs another year in college to physically mature.
Ezell Ruffin/WR/San Diego State: Entering the season with middle round grades from scouts, Ruffin has really turned it on since returning from the broken collarbone which sidelined him for five weeks. Well built with deceptive speed, the senior posted a season best 7 receptions for 126-yards during the win over Air Force. Sneaky fast, Ruffin in averaging just under 20-yards per reception the past three games. He’s a legitimate middle round choice with the potential to develop into a third receiver at the next level.
Clive Walford/TE/Miami-Fl: Admittedly I was never high on Walford entering the year and neither were NFL scouts who stamped him as a late rounder. Yet to his credit Walford continues to produce on the football field as both a pass catcher and blocker. His latest effort, 7 receptions for 105 yards during the loss to Virginia, was a season best. And as consistent as Walford has been catching the ball (4 receptions per game) his blocking has been even better. The senior lacks classic tight end measurables but has the skill set to slide into the later rounds then make the two deep at the next level.
Cameron Artis-Payne/RB/Auburn: Its’ been a career campaign for Artis-Payne who entered the season with grades usually reserved for a street free agent. He’s broken the century mark on the ground in eight games this season with his best effort of 221-yards coming against Texas A&M. Though not much of a pass catching threat scouts and are moving Artis-Payne up draft boards in part due to the success former Auburn back Tres Mason has experienced this season.
Aaron Davis/LB/Colorado State: The Rams continue to romp through their schedule and stand as one of the nation’s most underrated teams. The unsung hero on defense is senior linebacker Aaron Davis. Tough, instinctive and competitive, Davis leads CSU with 104 tackles this season, outdistancing his nearest teammate by almost 20 tackles. Displaying versatility in his game he’s also broken up 6 passes while recording 5.5 tackles for loss. Davis won’t impress many with pre-draft workouts as he’s just a good football player worthy of being selected in the late rounds next April.
Chi Chic Ariguzo/LB/Northwestern: Ariguzo is another linebacker who falls short in the area of computer numbers but on film he’s omnipresent. The three year starter is relentless, making plays sideline to sideline and showing skill in pursuit. He leads the Wildcats with 92 tackles, including an 8 tackle effort this weekend during the win over Purdue. Ariguzo will need a terrific pre-draft workout to push him into the late rounds but a number of teams feel he has the football skills to line up as an eight linebacker/special teams player on Sunday’s.
Jack Conklin/T/Michigan State: Conklin, a redshirt sophomore and second year starter, has taken his game to new heights this season. Manning the left tackle spot for the Spartans, he grades out as the top blocker on the unit and his performance against Ohio State sackmaster Joey Bosa raised eyebrows. Many are of the opinion Conklin is best at right tackle in the NFL and most believe he has first round potential down the road.
Brian Mihalik/DL/Boston College: Mihalik’s stats are nothing to scream about as he’s posted 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this season besides intercepting one pass. This includes a two tackle performance in the recent loss to Florida State. Yet on film the lineman, who stands a shade under 6-feet/9-inches, is consistently getting pressure up the field, making quarterbacks uncomfortable or forcing ball carriers to alter the angle of runs. He’s someone who must be accounted for on every down and though likely a later round choice, Mihalik offers the skills to be a rotational lineman for both three and four man fronts.
Sleeper- Jeremiah Johnson/CB/Maryland: Entering the 2013 season Maryland had a pair of next level cornerbacks, Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, both who went down to injury during the campaign. And while McDougle, a third round pick last April, was well known the 2012 film showed Johnson to be his equal. Initially slow returning from the foot injury which kept him on the sidelines last year, Johnson has shown excellent form in recent weeks. He’s a physical corner with top ball skills and the ability to shut down opponents. Well schooled in all facets of the position, expect Johnson to be a late round bargain who’ll surprise people in camp next summer.
Small School- Jacob Rodgers/OT/Eastern Washington: The Washington State transfer transitioned to the starting left tackle spot for EWU and has been impressive. He’s a big bodied blocker (6-feet/6-inches, 325-pounds) who plays strong football while using proper angles and body positioning to dominate opponents. Always working to finish blocks, he has a nasty disposition as defenders are unable to get around or through Rodgers. Likely best on the strong side, he’s a solid developmental prospect with a large upside to his game.
Austin Hill/WR/Arizona: While he entered the season with second/third round grades the word circulating in the scouting community is Austin Hill may not be fully healthy from the knee injury suffered more than a year ago. Never a speedster from the get-go, the inability to separate from defenders on the college level is causing a lot of concern from area scouts, many who now stamp Hill as a late rounder.
Zach Banner/T/USC: Two weeks ago I reported sources saying Banner, a redshirt sophomore, was considering the draft. After his performance against UCLA the NFL should be the furthest thing from his mind. Banner looked awful and was exploited all game by defensive lineman who ran over him and defensive backs that ran past him on the blitz. He’s a big bodied blocker who shows little in the way of technique, balance or coordination.