Looking over the shoulder of (collegiate) greats

Staring over the shoulders of (collegiate) greatness

A hot topic currently swirling among scouting circles is the viability of Auburn’s Cameron Newton as a legitimate first round talent for the 2011 NFL Draft.

To take a closer look at this inquiry, TFY’s DraftInsider.net would like to welcome our newest guest contributor, Richard Alan Phipps.

Phipps take the time to break down two similar talents who were drafted highly as they compared with the Tigers’ Heisman Trophy front runner…

With the relentless spectacle surrounding the recruitment of Auburn junior gunslinger Cameron Newton likely to linger long after his weird eligibility journey earlier in the week, most draft pundits and college football observers expect the athletic quarterback to announce his intentions to enter the 2011 NFL Draft shortly after the Tigers impending bowl game in January.  As Stanford’s junior signal-caller, Andrew Luck,  settles in at the top of most draft boards, followed by Arkansas junior Ryan Mallet and Washington senior Jake Locker, Newton continues to carve his niche into the cluttered landscape of this draft class.

Scouts and evaluators have mixed reviews on Newton as a quarterback transitioning to the NFL.

“A prospect that could revolutionize the position,” claimed one national scout.

Another insists, “Newton will use his athleticism to transition to an h-back or he’ll go the rounds.”

Regardless of the shady recruitment of Newton, his prospects as a pro-caliber quarterback have skyrocketed due to his play on the field. Newton has an impressive arsenal of tools, possessing elite arm-strength, impressive mobility to get out of the pocket, and ideal height for the position. Newton also has an uncanny ability to produce under the lights, and he seems to possess that “it” factor, as his head coach, Gene Chizik, told the nation months ago.

“You can just see Cameron, physically, when he walks in the door you know he’s a very athletic, very talented young man,” Chizik said at his SEC media day in July.

There are detractors out there, and they are quick to point out Newton’s problems, mainly a host of footwork issues and mechanical concerns in the pocket. He has a bad tendency of staring down one side of the field before he tucks it and runs, and the offensive philosophies of Florida, Blinn College, and Auburn all limit coverage reads in the passing game. He is fairly accurate out of the pocket, but he consistently shows bad balance and telegraphs too many of his intended passes.

Outside of his physical tools, it is hard to evaluate Newton without bringing up the names Tim Tebow and Vince Young; two mobile quarterbacks with similar collegiate success and cult followings and two players who left lasting impressions on the field in their final seasons.  Each one of these prospects faced three daunting challenges in their final season that many professional scouts would equate to playing on Sunday’s in the NFL.

Vince Young

( @ Ohio State )

18/29  62%  270yds  2 td 2 int

76 rush yds

( Oklahoma )

14/27  52%  241yds  3 td 0 int

45 rush yds

( USC )

30/40  75%  267yds  0 td 0 int

200 rush yds  3 td

Tim Tebow

( @ Alabama )

20/35  57%  247yds  1 td 1 int

63 rush yds

( Tennessee )

14/19  74%  115yds  0 td 1 int

76 rush yds  1 td

( LSU )

11/16  69%  134yds  1 td 1 int

38 rush yds  0 td

Cameron Newton ( @ Alabama)

13/20  65%  216yds  3 td 0 int

39 rush yds  1 td

( LSU )

10/16  63%  86yds  0 td 0 int

217 rush yds  2 td

( Arkansas )

10/14  71%  140yds  1 td 0 int

188 rush yds  3 td

When it comes to comparisons with Young and Tebow, it is often the things that are left unspoken that seem to differentiate these prospects in terms of draft positioning. Young, for example, was drafted by an Oklahoma native in Bud Adams, an owner with strong ties to the state of Texas and its university. Young has yet to claim his position as the unquestionable full-time starter for the Tennessee Titans, seemingly in a constant struggle to hold off the ageless Kerry Collins while continuing to battle maturity issues and mediocre success at the position.

Tim Tebow, the quintessential poster-boy for the Cameron Newton hype, brightened living rooms and bars around the country for four years at Florida  begging the question… If Tebow was Superman, what does that make Newton, a player who has put up similar seasonal numbers in just one year of SEC play? If Tebow only warranted the 25th pick in the draft, where does that put Newton in terms of market value?

The Denver Broncos ultimately pulled the trigger on Tebow late in the 1st round of the 2010 NFL Draft, amid some controversy over the pick. In terms of value, Tebow brought instant financial benefits to Denver, along with a Christian pedigree and a strong work-ethic that all coaches crave. Tebow has a total of three yards passing for his rookie season. The single completion being a goal-line touchdown pass.

Newton has led his team to success this season using an offensive philosophy tailored to his individual talents. Like Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick at the beginning of the decade, Newton’s coaching staff will not put the career 63% passer in many situations where he must complete a pass, something that many NFL brass will frown upon.  One undeniable fact working in his favor is his decision-making in these big games, throwing no interceptions while enduring enormous pressure at certain points in all three of his big games.

As the hype and glamor of the college football season winds down and scouts get the film rolling on Cameron Newton, expect them to find too many flaws and questions marks in his toolbox to warrant a high first-round grade. The grumblings surrounding his recruitment, along with his felony arrest and consequential court  approved deal to dismiss the charges and enter a diversion program, will cast a giant cloud over his head for some teams in the league. Still, with is ability to create buzz and excitement, and the potential to strike gold with his physical talents, his name will probably be called late on the first night of the annual draft.

Injuries around the league have opened the door for more rookies to see extended playing time. Chris Tripodi is back again to let you know who took advantage of their opportunities.

Rusty Smith (QB-Ten)

On last week’s podcast Smith was discussed and I mentioned that he might be better off turning and handing to Chris Johnson all day. But even that wasn’t an option against the Texans, who held Johnson to 5 yards on 7 carries and intercepted Smith three times while keeping Tennessee off the scoreboard all game. Smith, a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, was hurt by 6 drops by Titans receivers, but still went just 17-for-31 for 138 yards on the day.

Two of Smith’s interceptions really hurt the Titans; one from his own endzone that led to a Houston touchdown and the other in Houston’s endzone that halted a potential scoring drive. If this is what Smith and the Tennessee offense looks like against the league’s worst pass defense, the rest of his tenure as Tennessee’s starter won’t be pretty to watch.

Toby Gerhart (RB-Min)

Gerhart saw extended action in Minnesota’s win over the Redskins on Sunday when an ankle injury forced Adrian Peterson to the sidelines. The second-rounder out of Stanford ran the ball 22 times for 76 yards and a touchdown as the Vikings made the running game a focus in their first game under new coach Leslie Frazier. He was a big part of the Vikings second-half gameplan and picked up two key first downs on the team’s final drive that kept the ball away from Donovan McNabb for the game’s final six minutes.

Gerhart is a powerful inside runner with great vision and instincts and the footwork to make defenders miss in small areas. He doesn’t have the speed to break away from defenders in the open field but adds pass-catching ability out of the backfield and if Peterson is forced to miss any games, Gerhart should be able to handle another big workload.

Anthony Dixon (RB-SF)

Another rookie running back who received an opportunity thanks to injury, the sixth-rounder out of Mississippi State had 14 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown while splitting time with Brian Westbrook (23 carries, 136 yards). Frank Gore’s season-ending hip injury should open the door for Dixon to receive more work, although Westbrook will likely shoulder the majority of the load for San Francisco.

Dixon led the league in rushing yardage in the preseason and his powerful inside running style will complement Westbrook’s skill set nicely and should give the 49ers two solid options to replace Gore’s production. Dixon lacks the speed and elusiveness of Westbrook but is perfectly suited for short-yardage and goal-line work as well as keeping the aging, injury-prone veteran fresh for the season’s final stretch. He has starting potential in the future and with Gore’s injury prone nature, that future could come sooner than many expect.

Marlon Moore (WR-Mia)

Brandon Marshall’s injury opened the door for the undrafted rookie receiver out of Fresno State to see reps as Miami’s third receiver on Sunday. While Moore had just 1 catch on 4 targets he made the most of it, taking it 57 yards down the sideline for his first career touchdown.

After a strong sophomore season Moore looked like an up-and-coming prospect but struggled with injuries and totaled just 38 catches in his final two seasons with the Bulldogs. His size (6-0, 190), speed (4.51) and athleticism make him an intriguing player to watch but he will have to improve his focus and awareness to stick as a fourth or fifth receiver in the NFL.

Maurkice Pouncey (C-Pit)

It’s rare to hear offensive lineman thrown into the mix for Rookie of the Year honors but Pouncey was Brent Sobleski’s choice as of last week and has been discussed as a legitimate candidate in many circles. With injuries and inconsistency being the norm on Pittsburgh’s offensive line this year and over the past few seasons, the first-round pick out of Florida has been one of the few constants in the trenches for the Steelers.

Pouncey has the size and athleticism any team would want in their starting center. He also possesses great awareness, vision and blocking fundamentals and plays with a nasty attitude on the field. There’s good reason he was the highest-drafted center since Damien Woody in 1999 and Pouncey has made an impact from day one and should continue to develop into one of the league’s best centers.

Jason Pierre-Paul (DE-NYG)

When Pierre-Paul was drafted 15th overall out of South Florida, most thought he would be a project after playing just one season in college. He had just 11 tackles on the season before breaking out against Jacksonville this week with 8 tackles (6 solo), 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, both of which were recovered by Jaguars quarterback David Garrard and the second of which set up a long third-and-26 that led to Terrell Thomas’ game-clinching forced fumble on Garrard.

Pierre-Paul has the size (6-5, 270), growth potential and edge pass-rushing ability to be one of better defensive ends in football.  His limited exposure to big-time competition in college will lead to inconsistencies until he can develop a wider array of pass-rush moves and learn to shed blocks quicker. If he can build on this performance and continue to take steps forward every week, it might only be a matter of time until he cashes in on his vast upside.

Dan Williams (DT-Ari)

Although Williams has been unable to beat out Bryan Robinson as Arizona’s starting nose tackle, coach Ken Whisenhunt has been pleased with his progression throughout the season. That improvement was evident on Monday night against San Francisco, when Williams had a career-high six tackles compared to Robinson’s two.

At 6-2, 327 pounds, the first-round pick out of Tennessee has prototypical nose tackle size and went from a free agent grade entering his senior season to a first-rounder in April. He has continued that development since joining the Cardinals and while he has marginal pass-rushing skills, he is very difficult to move off the line of scrimmage and has the potential to anchor the Cardinals’ interior defensive line for years to come.

Amari Spievey (S-Det)

A third-round pick out of Iowa, Spievey has been starting at strong safety for Detroit and had a huge game against New England on Thanksgiving Day, racking up a career-high 10 tackles (8 solo). In his past four games, he has 25 tackles and has distanced himself from former starter C.C. Brown.

A cornerback in college, Spievey has been great in run support around the line of scrimmage as a safety. He’s a physical player who works hard to get off blocks and make plays up the field. He has the size (5-11, 195) and skill set to stick at safety in the NFL or develop into a starting cornerback, and that versatility will serve him well in the future.

A Fairley obvious top ten selection?

A Fairley obvious top ten selection?

In most years Thanksgiving in Alabama serves as the official introduction to Iron Bowl weekend. Occasionally the stakes for the game are raised by having one team in search of an undefeated season. On the rare occasions that both teams are highly ranked with one in contention for a national championship, the atmosphere is engulfing. Such was the case Friday and our area scout Brent Foshee was in Tuscaloosa for the game.  He offers this insight, gives on update on some of the news regarding underclassmen we’ve broken the past two months and contributes additional news that will impact April’s draft!

There were no fewer than five first round prospects and a dozen or so other draft eligible players on hand during this game. They, along with their teammates, did not disappoint.The most well known and controversial college athlete in the nation is Cam Newton. Newton has made a name for himself by running through, past, and around defenders all year long. He was not able to do that against Alabama’s extremely talented front seven and was forced to throw the ball for much of the second half. Newton has terrific size and arm strength, and his athleticism will be evident in the NFL. Against Alabama, Newton made crisp pass after crisp pass, frequently in tight coverage, and always placed the ball safely away from defenders. Newton’s biggest weakness is his tendency to focus too much on the rush. He’ll need to develop a better sense for when to release the ball, although having an offense with more hot reads and contingency options will likely help him.
Auburn’s veteran offensive line has four draft eligible players, all considered mid to late round prospects. Left tackle Lee Ziemba will almost certainly be moved to the right side in the NFL where he will have a chance to use his size and strength in run blocking situations. Ryan Pugh, a fourth year starter, is an intelligent center who plays with excellent technique. Pugh needs to get stronger but certainly has the skills and wherewithal to play center in the NFL. He currently looks like a very good mid round prospect for a pass friendly offense. Guard Mike Berry is a physical specimen. The athletic mauler has the ability to block in motion and moves defensive linemen off the ball.
Tasked with stopping Auburn’s explosive offense was the Tides talented defensive front seven, lead by Marcel Dareus, considered by many to be the top defensive line prospect in the country. Dareus was disruptive all day showing the ability to get penetration and contain Newton. This was the most complete game of his junior season and Dareus improved his already superb standing in the eyes of scouts.

Safety Mark Barron did not fare nearly as well. Barron badly misplayed several balls and was unable to effectively cover any of Auburn’s receivers down field. He is still very effective playing down hill and looks to be best suited as an in the box/strong safety at the next level.
Offensively for Alabama the big winner was Julio Jones. Jones had a superhuman first half of football in which he showed good route running and soft hands. Jones left the game for a period in the 4th quarter with a bruised knee but was able to come back late in the game. Upon returning Jones was unable to get separation from defenders. Even when McElroy threw him the ball he was out muscled by Auburn defenders and could not maintain possession.

Mark Ingram had a rougher day. He is clearly not the same running back he was last year as his knee injury is still hampering his play. Although he finishes his runs with power unlike last year Ingram does not gain much yardage after contact. Ingram did a nice job catching the ball out of the backfield but just didn’t show much straight line speed. Knee injuries can be corrected and Ingram remains a physical one cut runner. He should be the first running back off the board next April without question.
Defensively, Nick Fairley had another in a series of great games. With 2 sacks, one which included a forced fumble that he eventually recovered, Fairley looked unstoppable. He made several plays in pursuit to the sidelines and up the field, harassing McElroy consistently during the last three quarters of football. Fairley can play the tackle position or end in a 3-4 defense. His versatility and play making ability might put him in competition with Marcel Dareus to be the first defensive lineman chosen in the draft.
Other prospects
Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens had his best game of the season. Stevens was able to make plays in the passing game and on the perimeter against the run. Stevens wraps up tackling and drives the ball carrier backwards, finishing his tackles.
Alabama linebacker Donte Hightower wasn’t in a position to make many plays but he was effective in pursuit. When Hightower gets a chance to make a big hit or even secure a ball carrier in the open field he frequently does so.
Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes still needs to do a better job of wrapping up ball carriers. His athleticism and instincts are obvious and he is frequently found around the ball. Bynes, like Stevens looks equally comfortable against the run or the pass.
Alabama Linebacker Courtney Upshaw said after the game that he felt healthy for the first time in over a month and his play showed it. Upshaw had three sacks and was all over the field. With the speed to run sideline to sideline Upshaw really impressed today.

Notes from the Press Box

The New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs both had large contingents at the game. The San Francisco 49ers also had scouts present.

Cam Newton is not speaking to the press. While this is clearly related to the ongoing NCAA investigation, additional sources in Tuscaloosa told TFY on Friday that Auburn expects Newton to leave after this season to take his shot at the NFL. This was first reported during our October 27th podcast.  Not having Newton speak to the media minimizes any potential distractions related to these situations.
Courtney Upshaw said he has not considered entering the draft and cited his health as a reason why. He wants to get healthy and see how he plays before making any decisions.
As initially reported by TFY Draft Insider on October 12th, sources in Tuscaloosa on Friday confirmed linebacker Donte’ Hightower appears poised to make the jump to the NFL after the season.
Scouts in attendance have not been impressed by Mark Barron’s play this season. Barron, who gave serious thought to entering the draft before the season began, may have no choice but to return to Alabama based on his performance this year.

Alabama defensive tackle Josh Chapman and receiver Marquise Maze will both consider leaving early depending on their draft grade, sources told us on Friday.

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