Another Saturday results in a shake-up at the top of the college football rankings and even more pride in the Magnolia State. It was also a very good week for next level prospects found in the defensive front seven.
There was a breathe of relief after Arizona receiver Austin Hill turned in a seven reception, 70 yard performance against USC on Saturday but truth be told there’s a bit of concern about his play. Hill was stamped as a second/third rounder entering the season but most scouts now feel he presently grades as a mid-to late rounder. Six games into the year Hill sits with 25 catches for 345-yards. There’s a feeling in the scouting community that Hill may not be fully healthy from the knee injury which kept him on the sidelines in 2013.
Two weeks ago when, I joined my friend Fran Duffy for his Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast, we briefly spoke about South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge. Since then league insiders have told me Bridge is building a real buzz inside war rooms. One league source compared his physical skills to Colin Kaepernick’s as Bridge has the arm strength to make all the throws as well as the leg speed to make big plays running the ball. When questioned about his rather ordinary completion percentage of 55% this season I was told there have been 40 recorded drops of catchable passes by South Alabama targets this season. As mentioned during the podcast, the talk is Bridge will likely receive a Senior Bowl invite, though for disclosure purposes none of this is coming from Senior Bowl staff. If he does turn up in uniform next January in Mobile it will be a huge opportunity for Bridge.
Rashad Greene/WR/Florida State: Things have not come all that easy for the Seminoles this season yet a real buzz is building around receiver Rashad Greene in scouting circles. The senior is on pace for a career season, accumulating 44 receptions, 683 yards (15.1 yard average) and 3 scores midway through the campaign. His quickness, ability to get open and playing smarts have been impressive as has Greene’s dependability. He’s not going to put up eye popping numbers at the combine yet many scouts feel Greene is a legitimate top 65 selection.
Leonard Floyd/DE-OLB/Georgia: Floyd was someone I spoke of in glowing terms prior to the season and he’s met expectations placed on him. During the Bulldogs blowout victory over Missouri this weekend Floyd was a disruptive force posting 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss and was credited with 4 quarterback hurries. The sophomore is a tremendous pass rusher with the athleticism and mobility to bend off the edge then alter his angle to chase down quarterbacks or ball handlers. While I plan to get into more detail on underclassmen later this week, the word from Athens is Floyd, a true sophomore who spent a year in prep school, is likely to enter the draft.
Grady Jarrett/DL/Clemson: Jarrett has quietly been rising up draft boards and scouts are positive about his next level ability. The senior leads all Clemson defensive linemen in tackles this season, most recently posting 5 tackles with 1 for loss and a fumble recovery during the victory over Louisville. Slightly undersized at 6-feet/.5-inches and 280-pounds, his athleticism and movement skills have scouts believing Jarrett will be the perfect three-technique tackle on Sunday’s.
Henry Anderson/DT/Stanford: More and more the name of Henry Anderson continues to pop up in conversations with scouts when speaking of prospects on the rise. Entering the season with late round grades, Anderson has rebounded well from an injury plagued 2013 campaign, playing smart, tough football this season. Scouts feel, and justifiably so, Anderson will be a solid middle round pick who’ll go onto to have a long career in the NFL as either a two-gap end or defensive tackle.
Mark Nzeocha/OLB/Wyoming: Originally stamped as a last round pick by scouts, Nzeocha is making a move up draft boards with terrific play this season. The athletic linebacker leads Wyoming in tackles, sacks and pass break-ups during the first half of the campaign. In the teams loss to Hawaii this weekend Nzeocha posted 13 tackles besides forcing a fumble and recovering one. The senior is a three down defender who comes with weak side linebacker measurables (6-feet, 3-inches, 235lbs and 4.5s/forty).
Dak Prescott/QB/Mississippi State: In the day and age of read option quarterbacks, Prescott is drawing a lot of attention. He’s a physically gifted prospect that’s displayed consistent progress as a quarterback and improved his passing skills. Prescott has delivered better accuracy this season while reducing the number of misreads and poor passes thrown. He’s also developed into a field general and has scouts buzzing.
Dan Vitale/FB/Northwestern: The junior fullback has stood out in a variety of areas this season. He’s a terrific lead blocker for Northwestern’s diverse running game and is the team’s leading receiver. Vitale has been a consistent short and intermediate range target in the passing game from the start of the season and his skill set makes him a perfect west coast fullback.
Sleeper of the Week: Bobby Richardson/DL/Indiana: Its tough to call Richardson a sleeper, especially after the IU defense gave up 45-points this weekend. But watch the tape and you’ll see Richardson constantly making plays behind the line of scrimmage. On Saturday he blew past Hawkeyes left tackle Brandon Scherff, a unanimous top 15 pick next April, for a sack early in the game which brought his total to four this season. Richardson has the size and skill set to get consideration as a two-gap end or three technique tackle at the next level.
Small School Prospect: Zack Hodges/DE-OLB/Harvard: Teams love players that can rush the passer and Hodges has made a living doing as much in the Ivy league. Though a bit inconsistent this season Hodges has totaled 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in four games. He’s athletic, quick and easily moves about the field, rushing the passer or pursuing the action. Hodges, graded as a potential late round pick entering the season, comes with an upside but a quirky personality that may not sit well with some. Don’t be surprised if he plays in the Shrine Game then receives an invitation to the combine.
Cody Fajardo/QB/Nevada: Scouts were high on Nevada’s dual threat quarterback entering the season. And while the senior displays a good deal of athleticism in his game he also shows a large degree of inaccuracy in his throwing. Except for one outstanding performance against Arizona, Fajardo has completed under 60% against every other IA opponent this season. On film he makes receivers work too hard as they are continually slowing in routes, reaching backwards or getting vertical to make the grab.
Christion Jones/WR-KR/Alabama: Stamped as a last round pick, Jones was graded as much for his return skills as his receiving ability. The former has not worked out well and fumbles forced Jones to the bench on punt returns last weekend. Jones has caught just 11 passes this season and is averaging 4.6-yards on 8 punt returns.
Week 5 of the NFL season brought us the same thing we see almost every week: Injuries to multiple running backs, and late-round picks and undrafted free agents unknown to the common fan making a name for themselves. Only one player drafted in the first 100 picks made the list this week, and Chris Tripodi returns to tell you who it was and break down what he saw from a few players taken outside the first three rounds that are making an impact for their teams.
Branden Oliver (RB-SD)
With the San Diego backfield beset by injuries to Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead and ineffectiveness from free-agent acquisition Donald Brown, Oliver provided Chargers fans with glimpses of another diminutive back that used to wear #43 in powder-and-blue, Darren Sproles. Standing at just 5-8, the undrafted Oliver took over after Brown suffered a first-half concussion against the Jets. After rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and adding 68 yards and another score on four receptions, Oliver is likely to take over as San Diego’s lead back until Mathews returns to the field, regardless of Brown’s status.
The former University of Buffalo star may look similar to Sproles, but there are two big differences in their skill sets. Oliver is a far sturdier runner on the inside, playing bigger than his height with a 208-pound frame and showing the tendency to fall forward and finish runs. Sproles, on the other hand, is purely a space back with the top-end speed to take plays to the house, while Oliver ran just a 4.56 at his pro day and doesn’t have that extra gear. Both of these differences were easy to spot on Oliver’s 52-yard run in the third quarter.
A patient runner who sets up his blocks before ducking behind his lineman to make himself difficult to locate, Oliver started the play running outside to the left of the formation. Oliver quickly changed direction to cut inside his blocks and showed nice burst to head up the seam, but was met by David Harris in the hole. Unfortunately for Harris, Oliver stiff-armed the lunging linebacker to the ground and burst into the secondary. While Sproles may have been stuffed for a short gain or taken this play to the house if he was able to break free, Oliver was eventually caught just outside New York’s 20-yard-line.
Oliver’s other long play came on a 50-yard reception where he had tons of space to work with in front of him. Oliver did use his quickness and shifty feet in the open field to make two Jets defenders miss before being dragged down from behind. It’s rare to see such a small back pushing the pile and carrying tacklers for extra yardage, but that’s exactly what Oliver has the ability to do. He uses his low leverage to his advantage and stayed lower than Jets safety Calvin Pryor on his second touchdown of the game, a nine-yard reception where Pryor met Oliver at the goal line and went for the big hit out of desperation. Oliver stayed lower than Pryor and bounced right off the tackle, showing incredible balance and core strength as well as top-notch technique for a small back.
The rookie from Buffalo displayed that balance earlier in the game as well after going to the air to make a catch, barely landing before being hit. It looked like he was about to go down, but Oliver used his left hand to keep himself up to gain a few extra yards on the play. Oliver runs like he’s burrowing through a hole in the ground, always keeping his legs moving and making sure he’s the low man upon contact. Mathews is due back soon and Oliver should inherit Woodhead’s old passing-down role when Mathews returns, but the injury-prone starter may not last the rest of the season even when he does return. Fortunately for San Diego, this undrafted gem shows enough skills running inside that he won’t be overmatched getting 15-20 carries per game if the team needs him in that role. With Philip Rivers already playing at an MVP level, Oliver should be continue to make an impact regardless of his role in the offense.
Andre Williams (RB-NYG)
After sporadic usage through the season’s first three games, Williams saw an increased role in Week 4, as the Giants played the Redskins just four days after giving starter Rashad Jennings over 30 carries. The fourth-round pick from Boston College ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, serving as a precursor to his Week 5 performance. Jennings suffered a sprained MCL in Sunday’s win over the Falcons, giving Williams an opportunity to take over as the team’s bellcow. Williams responded with another 65 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and should start the team’s next two games before New York heads into their Week 8 bye.
The first thing that’s evident when watching Williams is the power and violence he runs with. Williams is a smooth runner at 5-11, 230 pounds and shows surprising 4.5 speed as well, which he uses in conjunction with his size to punish defenders. The 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist is devastating at the second level, lowering his shoulder into defensive backs and running them over with ease to create extra yards. Williams even punishes defenders his own size as well, as he ran right through Falcons inside linebacker Paul Worrilow on his three-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Not only is Williams a powerful runner who always falls forward, he also has quick feet in the backfield that he uses to change direction and slightly alter his path of attack. The former Boston College standout shows good patience on inside and outside running plays and obviously trusts his ability as a runner. Williams consistently breaks through first contact at the line of scrimmage, shows the speed to turn the corner and get into the secondary and loses very little momentum in and out of cuts.
The main knock on Williams coming out of college was his lack of pass-catching ability and while he caught two passes for 18 yards against Atlanta, he’s still a work in progress as a receiver. His first reception went for 14 yards, but Williams trapped the ball against his body before breaking first contact and running for the first down. His second catch went for just four yards in the right flat, but he extended to make a catch with just his hands, a promising look for a player most thought would never have an impact as a receiver. Williams has been better as a pass protector than as a receiver, but lacks experience as a blocker and needs to work on his skills in that area as well to keep Eli Manning upright and stay out of head coach Tom Coughlin’s doghouse.
Coughlin is usually tough on rookies, but said he is very confident giving Williams the ball. The rookie was on the field for 31 out of 37 snaps once Jennings was injured, proving that he has the trust of Coughlin and the coaching staff. Williams is a better pure runner than his fourth-round draft status would suggest and if he can continue to impress with patience, power and speed, he has a chance to play himself into 8-10 carries per game even when Jennings returns, likely after New York’s bye. Williams is the type of runner that can wear a defense down as the game goes on, and should prove to be extremely effective in the fourth quarter.
Odell Beckham Jr. (WR-NYG)
With new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo installing a West Coast offense heavily predicated on three-receiver sets, it was disappointing to see Beckham struggle with injuries during training camp and the preseason. Finally healthy after missing New York’s first four games of the season, the team’s first-round pick (12th overall) made an instant impact despite playing just over half of the Giants’ snaps in Week 5. The team originally planned on the rookie playing 20-30 snaps but his explosive ability was immediately evident, leading to Beckham seeing the field more than twice as much as fill-in third receiver Preston Parker.
Beckham was quiet in the first half, catching his only target for seven yards and a first down on a curl route. Beckham slipped coming out of his break, but was able to keep his feet and make the catch for a first down. With the Giants down 20-10 more than midway through the third quarter, though, the rookie burned Falcons cornerback Robert Alford down the left sideline, showing off his 4.4 speed in the process. An accurate throw from Eli Manning would have resulted in an 81-yard touchdown, but the throw landed out of bounds instead.
Manning and the Giants started to recognize the need to get Beckham more involved in the second half and continued to feed him the ball. The former LSU star stands just 5-11, 198 pounds, but understands how to avoid contact, uses his hands well at the line to keep defenders off his body and shows the awareness to cut crossing routes sharply to avoid contact over the middle. After eluding defenders in coverage, Beckham has the speed and acceleration to quickly create separation, which helped him draw a pass interference penalty in the second half and get to the sideline on a crossing route against a linebacker.
Beckham’s biggest impact came on the first drive of the fourth quarter, as he did a great job selling a deep route before gathering himself at the stem of a curl route to create separation, make an easy catch and gain a few yards after the play to get the Giants into Falcons territory. Six plays later, Beckham made his biggest play of the game to put New York ahead. Fighting through contact at the line and throughout the route, the rookie was able to stay on his feet while Manning lofted a jump ball to him in the end zone. Despite standing less than 6-0, Beckham showed off his ability to attack the ball in the air, letting the corner’s momentum take him beyond the catch point and high pointing a catch for the go-ahead touchdown. This clutch play allowed New York to decline the defensive holding penalty against Robert Alford, who was covering Beckham.
Every skill Beckham offers was on display against the Falcons, from his top-end speed, quickness and burst to his body control and ability to box defenders out with his frame in the air. He extended away from his body on multiple catches to show off his strong hands, and Giants fans are loving the upside Beckham showed in Week 5. The rookie is set for more snaps going forward and as long as he stays focused on the field in practice and on game days, Beckham has a bright future ahead of him and will be an asset to the New York offense.
Prince Shembo (LB-Atl)
An outside linebacker at Notre Dame, the Falcons drafted Shembo in the fourth round and shifted him to the inside of their 3-4 defense thanks to a lack of depth at the position. A prospect with off-the-field questions stemming from a 2010 sexual assault, Shembo’s stock was in limbo leading up to the draft before Atlanta grabbed him 139th overall. After seeing time off the bench in the first three weeks of the season, Shembo has started the past two games and filled up the box score against the Vikings and Giants. A week after he made eight tackles (four solo), Shembo upped the ante with 14 takedowns, including seven solo stops, against New York in Week 5.
While Shembo was very involved against the run, the Giants also ran over 70 offensive plays, which helped him pad his stats. Just three of his tackles came on plays that gained less than three yards, and only one of those was a solo stop. This is a classic case of film telling a different story than the box score, as even Shembo’s late solo tackle that stopped a play for one yard was him guiding Andre Williams out of bounds after a teammate slowed him up. While many of the rookie’s tackles were ineffective, he did show some skills that could help him make more of an impact for the rest of the season.
At 6-0, 253 pounds, Shembo has the size to play inside and take on blocks, which he did well against the Giants. He used his hands well to keep blockers off his body and was only taken out of plays when he was caught standing straight up. Shembo showed good discipline in sticking with his assignments, keeping gap integrity and following his keys. On one play in the second half, Giants right guard John Jerry pulled to the left looking for a kickout block to spring Andre Williams off tackle. Shembo attacked Jerry’s pull on Jerry’s outside shoulder, setting the edge and forcing Williams to stay inside. Multiple Falcons swarmed to the ball and stopped Williams for two yards, while Shembo only picked up an assist coming back into the play late. This was one of his best plays of the game from a team defense perspective, yet one barely reflected on the stat sheet.
The former Notre Dame star was also effective reading and reacting to plays, but lacks special speed or athleticism to make big plays in the backfield from an inside alignment. He showed reliable tackling ability by not missing a tackle during the game, filled holes and gaps nicely and used his strength and toughness to fight through blockers to get involved in the action. Shembo lacks great potential but has the skill set to be an effective “thumper” in the 3-4, taking on blocks to free up teammates to make plays while showing an ability to make plays on his own as well. While his play on the field didn’t quite match the box score against the Giants, Shembo has played well overall this season and should continue to see the bulk of the snaps next to Paul Worrilow on the inside.
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.
Michigan State’s safety Kurtis Drummond has really turned it up after a tough outing against Oregon. He was splendid against Nebraska, tallying 9 tackles, breaking up 1 pass and blowing up a play late in the first half which resulted in Ameer Abdullah fumbling the ball and ending a Cornhusker scoring drive. Questions surround Drummond’s skill in man coverage and his ability to play over the slot receiver. Its something that may not be answered until the Senior Bowl, assuming Drummond receives then accepts an invitation.
Chaz Green seems a bit dinged up from his ankle injury several weeks ago but the Florida tackle displayed his versatility against Tennessee. Usually lining up on the left side, Green moved to the strong side and did a solid job run blocking.
After Michael Dyer rushed for 1242-yards as a sophomore during the 2011 campaign, which came on the heels of his record setting 1093-yard freshman season, many pegged him as a first rounder. I never bought into that opinion. Dyer was eventually dismissed from the Auburn program, transferred to Louisville and for a variety of reasons has never regained a starting job. He’s carried the ball 26 times for 65-yards (2.5-yard average) in three games this season. Dyer was a wait for the hole to open ball carrier with average physical skills and was never anything more than late round material on a good day.
Jaelen Strong/WR/Arizona State: I was cool towards Strong entering the season as I saw no single distinguishing skill in his game yet the junior has put together a string of dominating performances in the early going. The latest was against USC in which Strong caught 10 passes for 202-yards and 3-touchdowns, the last score being the game clinching 46-yard Hail Mary. Strong is not a true deep threat but catches the ball well and wins out for contested passes. I’ll hold final judgment until his true size/speed numbers are recorded but must admit Strong has definitely improved his draft stock this season.
Josh Harper/WR/Fresno State: Harper entered the season stamped as an early round prospect and thus far the senior has lived up to expectations. His numbers during the Bulldogs victory over San Diego State included 5 receptions for 76 yards. Harper has performed well against top competition in the early going including USC (6 receptions), Utah (6 receptions) and Nebraska (9 receptions). He’s accounted for almost 30% of Fresno State’s receiving production and is presently graded as a third round prospect.
Sammie Coates/WR/Auburn: Despite struggling with a knee injury Coates has excited scouts with his big play ability in 2014. Sized well, the junior plays strong as well as fast, winning out in battles but at the same time beating opponents down field for long gainers. He tallied 4 receptions for 144-yards (36-yards per catch) with one score in his most recent effort against LSU. Coates is fluid on the field and deceptively fast. He has the physical skills and upside to develop into a second receiver for an NFL team.
Akeem Hunt/RB/Purdue: During my Big Ten rankings I described Hunt as a diminutive ball carrier but a gamer with home run hitting speed. Illinois experienced what I was talking about on Saturday as Hunt burnt the Illini for 177-rushing yards and 1 score while also leading Purdue with 4 receptions. Hunt is averaging 5.9-yards per carry this season, leads the Boilermakers with 22 catches and has seen duty returning kicks. He’s not very tall (5-feet/8-inches and 185 pounds) but plays big and has a style similar to Darren Sproles.
Benardrick McKinney/LB/Mississippi State: The stats were nothing spectacular as McKinney recorded 9 tackles including one for a loss, posted 1 sack and broke up a single pass. What was impressive Saturday was his play in space, the was he played assignment football and how McKinney was never caught out of position. He did well in the middle, on the outside in two linebacker sets and oozed an understanding of what was happening during the Bulldogs blowout victory over Texas A&M. McKinney is more forceful than fast and a difference maker in the front seven. When asked if McKinney will enter the draft sources tell me, “he’s gone.”
Taiwan Jones/LB/Michigan State: Prior to the season I raved about Jones, referring to him as the hidden gem on the Spartans defense. The senior is a secret no more and looked outstanding during State’s win over Nebraska. He led the team with 10 tackles, including 3 for loss and added a sack. More importantly Jones was the main ingredient in holding the Cornhuskers Ameer Abdullah to just 45 yards. Abdullah had averaged 166-yards in Nebraska’s first five games this year. Jones displayed great skill in space last season when he lined up on the outside and the ability he’s showing as an interior run defender in 2014 is only improving his draft stock.
Bobby McCain/CB/Memphis: Looking for a sleeper at the cornerback position? Keep an eye on Bobby McCain of Memphis. To date McCain has recorded 3 interceptions and another 3 pass break-ups in the Tigers five games. Included is a 2 INT performance against Mississippi. He’s a feisty 195-pound corner with excellent ball skills but average height (under 5-feet/10-inches) and ordinary speed (4.5s). McCain is a late round prospect with potential as a nickel/dime back in the NFL.
Sleeper- Clayton Geathers/S/Central Florida: Geathers entered the season stamped as a free agent prospect by scouts but has since elevated his game. In four games this year the senior posted 35 tackles and during UCF’s conference victory over Houston last week he intercepted 1 pass while breaking up 2 more. He’s a forceful safety best in the box and plays with a special teams mentality.
Small School Prospect- Darius Allen/OLB-DPR/CSU-Pueblo: Allen was graded as a street free agent by scouts but they may want to rethink that opinion. In five games this season Allen has registered 4.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. He small (under 6-feet/2-inches and 240-pounds) yet has shown the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage throughout his college career. I’m still not sure Allen gets drafted but feel he could make a roster as a designated pass rusher/special teams player.
Jeff Driskel/QB/Florida: Driskel was the number one rated high school quarterback prospect out of high school and displayed next level skill early in his Gator career but its been all downhill since his injury last season. The most recent evidence was Saturday as Driskel could not move the Gators offense and was pulled from the game after completing under 50% of his passes, throwing three pick and getting sacked three times. He has the necessary physical skills to play in the NFL but the intangibles and signal caller intelligence are lacking.
Thomas Teal/DT/North Carolina State: Early in his career Teal looked like a legitimate next level prospect but his game has leveled off the past two seasons and in some ways regressed. He was dominated during the Florida State game, finishing with one tackle. Teal flashes ability but need to consistently play at a high level for any chance of making a roster.