A pair of teams with terrific stories face-off for supremacy of Conference USA. Two years removed from back-to-back four win seasons, Rice enters the game with a 9-3 record and just one loss in league play. Marshall matched that record and is bowl eligible for the first time in two years.
Jordan Taylor*/WR/Rice: Taylor is a receiver prospect on the rise. The junior is a tall wide out with consistent hands and a nose for the end zone. He’s not a field stretcher rather a possession wide out with potential as a number four at the next level. 5th-6th Round
Tommy Shuler*/WR/Marshall: Shuler could not be any more different from Taylor in terms of size and speed but does offer reliable hands as well as a nose for the end zone. The small (under 5-foot, 7-inches) wide out is unstoppable and makes plays both down the field or in underneath coverage. He’s projects as a slot receiver at the next level and Shuler would help his cause by showing ability as a return specialist. 6th Round
Devon Smith/WR/Marshall: Like his teammate, Smith is a small yet dangerous receiver when on his game. The Penn State transfer averaged 18.5 yards on 31 receptions this season and was dynamic returning punts. He does not possess Shuler’s consistency yet his big play ability as a return specialist and receiver will get him late round looks. 7th Round
Phillip Gaines/CB/Rice: Gaines was barely noticed by scouts due to poor size (6-foot, 178-pounds) speed (4.6) numbers yet he’s a baller once the game starts. Gaines comes with excellent ball skills and the ability to shut down opponents. The senior posted a team leading 4 interceptions along with 6 pass break-ups this season. Unlikely to be selected even in the late rounds, he could play at the next level in certain zone schemes. Free Agent
Northern Illinois has been the class of the Mid-American Conference in recent years and aim for a second BCS appearance. On the other hand Bowling Green returns to the post-season after several seasons of futility.
Chris Gallon*/WR/Bowling Green: BGSU has had a number of super-productive receivers meet oblivion in the NFL but Gallon is poised to break that streak. He’s a big-bodied wide out that dominates opponents and controls games. Unlike prior Bowling Green alumni at the receiver position, Gallon is not a product of the system rather a legitimate next level pass catcher. Unfortunately for Gallon, his season was ended seven games into the 2013 campaign by a knee injury. Just a redshirt junior, Gallon offers third round potential if he returns to full health and gets his game back on track. 3rd Round
Jimmie Ward/DB/Northern Illinois: Ward could be the most underrated defensive back in the nation. Smart with a versatile game, he moved to safety this season after spending his junior campaign at cornerback. His numbers include a team leading 77 tackles and 6 interceptions. Ward also added 8 pass break-ups to his tally this year. At 5-feet, 11-inches and 197-pounds with 4.6 speed, Ward lacks great measurables for the next level but fits in as a dime back/special teams player. 5th round
Dechane Durante*/S/Northern Illinois: Durante is another sleeper in the NIU secondary people should not dismiss. The athletic safety shows the ability to go sideline to sideline, making plays against the run and pass. His computer numbers are lacking yet like his teammate Durrante is a complete defensive back with versatility for the next level. 5th Round
Jerry Gates/DB/Bowling Green: Another secondary prospect that can line up at cornerback or safety, Boo Boo Gates has shown skill covering the pass and defending the run throughout his college career. Best between the numbers, he’s a zone defender who must make his mark on special teams. Free Agent
This week was light on rookie impact around the league, at least from players who haven’t already been heard from in some way this season. A few more undrafted players showed off their skills this past week along with a couple of early-round picks who have bounced back nicely after early-season struggles. Chris Tripodi takes a look at which rookies are making a big impact as the NFL playoff picture takes shape.
Le’Veon Bell (RB-Pit)
A scary moment towards the end of last Thursday’s Steelers-Ravens game took some of the attention away from a great game by Bell, as he was involved in a late helmet-to-helmet collision that concussed him, caused memory loss and took away a touchdown. Bell looks like he will be fine to play this week which is great news for the suddenly competitive Steelers, who will need their new workhorse back to put together more games like he did against a strong Baltimore run defense with 136 total yards and a touchdown.
Bell’s 43-yard third quarter run was a great display of the various skills he’s shown this season. Starting by taking a handoff to the right, Bell stutter stepped and waited for the hole to open before quickly busting through to the second level. Using his vision to recognize Antonio Brown’s block developing, Bell stopped and juked at the last moment to avoid crashing into Brown’s defender and was in the open field. While he lacks the breakaway speed to take this play to the house, he showed good strength at the end of the run and fought for an extra 10 yards to finish the play.
His most impressive play of the game came on a 2nd-and-24 screen pass where he used his vision, quick feet and strength to take the short pass for 29 yards and a big first down that led to a potential game-tying touchdown a few plays later. Bell runs very instinctively and does a great job of waiting for openings, busting through them and making defenders miss in the open field and in small areas with good footwork. He’s also impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic and blitz pickup and is quickly becoming a legitimate three-down NFL running back who can help the Steelers in every facet of the game.
LaAdrian Waddle (T-Det)
Since replacing the injured Corey Hilliard in the starting lineup in Week 8, Waddle has thrived for the Lions despite his undrafted status. Waddle’s only hiccup came in his third start in Pittsburgh, as emerging outside linebacker Jason Worilds got to Matthew Stafford at will against Waddle and exposed the lack of blocking range we noted in his draft profile.
Waddle has been great otherwise and turned in another excellent performance against Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day, allowing just one quarterback hurry and opening holes for Reggie Bush and Joique Bell at will with the rest of Detroit’s offensive line. Rookie right guard Larry Warford has been outstanding this season and gets most of the rookie hype along the Lions’ front, but Waddle has done a great job stabilizing a position that was in flux as of midseason.
At 6-6, 318 with slow feet, Waddle was projected by scouts as nothing more than a backup right tackle at the NFL level due to his limitations in pass protection. He has surprisingly held his own pass blocking and while he’s been strong against the run thanks to his size and skill set, his surprising competence blocking NFL rushers has been a revelation for the Lions. Since he’s started just five games so far, it’s certainly possible Waddle could regress and show why he may be nothing more than a solid backup in the future. Until that happens though, the Lions will enjoy the great production they’re getting from a player they signed as a free agent.
Lane Johnson (T-Phi)
While Waddle has been great with low expectations in Detroit, Johnson started the season very slowly in Philadelphia and had trouble protecting against the pass. Since Nick Foles has taken over as the Eagles starting quarterback however, Johnson has significantly improved his play and is showing the dominant ability that led the Eagles to draft him 4th overall in April.
It’s more difficult than many realize to block for a quarterback who bails on the pocket as quickly as Michael Vick, especially as a rookie lineman. Foles’ presence has stabilized the Philadelphia offense and Johnson’s play as well, as the rookie from Oklahoma has allowed just 2 hurries and a sack in his last four games after letting up 29 hurries in his first eight games, a drastic improvement that says as much about Johnson as it might about Vick’s tendencies.
Johnson is in just his third season as an offensive lineman and his athletic upside is immense. A former tight end that runs a sub-4.70 40-yard dash and shows great footwork, Johnson is starting to flash his potential more consistently since Foles became the starter. With the Eagles flying high heading into the home stretch of the 2013 season, continued consistency and improvement from Johnson will go a long way to making them a tough out if they make the playoffs with an explosive offense and an offensive line that has been extremely good this year.
Chance Warmack (G-Ten)
Drafted 10th overall by Tennessee to solidify the interior of their offensive line, Warmack was viewed as a safe pick who was ready to contribute immediately the NFL level. While the former Alabama All-American has started every game this season for the Titans and hasn’t missed a snap, his play has been surprisingly inconsistent as he has struggled in pass protection early in his career.
At 6-2, 317 pounds with 5.5 speed, Warmack was always more dominant pushing the pile against the run and that has translated to the NFL level, although far from elite. His 22 hurries and 6 sacks allowed are both near the bottom of the league for guards however, as his heavy feet and inconsistent hand placement have been issues during his rookie season. Warmack did turn in his best performance against the pass this past Sunday against Indianapolis, allowing just one hurry on Ryan Fitzpatrick but struggled a bit in the running game.
Unlike Johnson who has put it together over the course of the season, Warmack is still trying to find his bearings at the NFL level. Considering his SEC pedigree and billing as a high-floor prospect, Warmack’s rookie season has to be viewed as a disappointment through 13 games. With Tennessee just a game out of the AFC playoff picture, the Titans could really benefit from their young players like Warmack stepping up. He may be slightly misfit in an offense that doesn’t emphasize power running, but Warmack has the talent to pick up his play over the final quarter of the season.
Devin Taylor (DE-Det)
A fourth-round pick from South Carolina, Taylor has seen inconsistent playing time so far season and his play has matched that lack of consistency. After replacing Ziggy Ansah in the starting lineup for Weeks 10 and 11, Taylor headed back to the bench the last two weeks. A subpar performance in 12 snaps against Tampa Bay two weeks ago seemed to signal that Taylor was due for a good game last week and despite seeing just 15 snaps, the first-year defensive end had the most productive game of his short career.
Used mostly in pass rushing situations, Taylor got the best of fellow rookie David Bakhtiari with a strong bull rush on multiple occasions. In the second quarter, Taylor shoved Bakhtiari back into Flynn for a quick pressure and overpowered him again in the third quarter, using his long right arm to knock the ball out of the Flynn’s hand as he threw to force a fumble that Detroit recovered. His sack late in the third quarter set up a safety on the next play, as Taylor worked hard through a chip from the tight end and a cut block from the running back to collapse the pocket on Flynn, who stepped up into the sack to avoid a safety.
While Taylor wasn’t on the field that often, he had a big impact in the Lions’ dominant defensive performance against a Green Bay team that sorely misses Aaron Rodgers. Taylor flashed dominance at times just like he did with the Gamecocks but still needs to improve the consistency issues that have dogged him since college. If Taylor can put it all together and do more than just flash his considerable talent, he and Ansah have the potential to become a dynamite outside duo to complement Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle.
Wes Horton (DE-Car)
Undrafted out of USC, Horton hasn’t had much success so far during his rookie season as Carolina’s fourth defensive end. He’s seen 20 snaps in a game just once and had just 4 tackles (3 solo) in his first 12 career games. Garbage time helped Horton improve those stats last week with 3 tackles (2 solo) and his first 2 career sacks, which came late in the fourth quarter with the game out of hand.
A fluid athlete who moves well but lacks playing strength and has trouble once engaged at the line, Horton showed off his quickness to avoid blockers altogether against Tampa Bay. He made a big first-down stop early in the game, showing a great first step to the inside to beat Donald Penn into the backfield and give Bobby Rainey nowhere to run.
His two late sacks came on edge rushes, the first when Horton got a step outside and ripped through the right tackle. He was 10 yards deep in the backfield by the time he got free but Mike Glennon still hadn’t gotten rid of the ball and made it an easy sack, as Horton showed a good motor to keep moving on the play. His second sack came on a stunt where he showed off his lateral speed down the line of scrimmage to get to a rolling Glennon. While his shortcomings are easy to see and he hasn’t played at a consistent level even in limited snaps this season, Horton flashed his potential as a situational rusher off the edge. Now all he needs to do is gain consistency in order to see increased playing time.
Kiko Alonso (LB-Buf)
After a hot start, Buffalo’s second-round pick from Oregon has seen his play level off since October although his tackle numbers remain strong. Alonso had 13 tackles (8 solo) in Sunday’s loss to the Falcons but played an uninspiring game overall and had his first game without a tackle for loss since Week 4 against the Ravens. By no means has Alonso been bad lately, but he hasn’t sustained his early success as the season has gone on.
Alonso was in on four stops for 2 yards or less but struggled with play recognition and was late to the hole on multiple occasions. He was caught up behind blockers a few times and while he was able to shed a few blocks to make plays, he wasn’t as aggressive playing downhill as usual. He missed just one tackle on the game and was efficient overall, but found himself making too many plays away from the line of scrimmage.
In coverage, Alonso did break up a crossing route intended for Harry Douglas and showed good timing on the play, hitting Douglas just as the ball arrived to make for a nearly impossible catch. He also allowed 3 receptions on the game and took a bad angle towards Jacquizz Rodgers on a screen pass that led to a missed tackle and allowed him to pick up a first down. Alonso was not at his best this week but has a chance to bounce back against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Jonathan Cyprien (S-Jac)
Cyprien has struggled in his rookie season but despite being graded as one of the NFL’s worst safeties by Pro Football Focus, his play has picked up in recent weeks as I expected when discussing him a few months ago. Jumping from the Sun Belt to the AFC South can be tough on even the most talented rookies, especially a defensive back joining one of the league’s worst teams. Cyprien’s run defense and pass coverage have both been better in his past three games and he looks a lot more like the player the Jaguars thought they were getting early in the second round.
Despite his improvement, Cyprien did allow two pass plays of 20 yards or more on the same drive in the second quarter, one where he was caught respecting Josh Gordon’s speed a bit too much and allowing Gordon to settle on a deep in route. The other came when Cyprien bit on play action in man coverage on Jordan Cameron, turning back to the inside and losing Cameron on a wheel route badly enough that he couldn’t recover on time. The first-year safety made up for these errors later in the quarter, breaking nicely on a seam route by Cameron to intercept a terribly thrown ball by Brandon Weeden.
Cyprien’s real impact in this game came in the run game, as he made two stops at the line of scrimmage for no gain and totaled 10 tackles (9 solo). He played solid assignment football on both plays, coming up hard to fill the outside lane once the Jacksonville front seven forced the play to the outside and stopping Fozzy Whittaker dead in his tracks. Even more promising for Cyprien is that after missing 10 tackles in his first 8 NFL games, he has made 27 tackles in the past four games without missing one. The former Florida International star is starting to emerge as a playmaker at the NFL level and it will be fun to watch him develop heading into next season.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and interviewing NFL prospects. He also writes for Optimum Scouting, Yahoo! and Jets 101 and has previously worked at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.