Separation Saturday was exactly that as three teams (LSU, TCU and Michigan State) are likely out of the hunt for the national title while Alabama and Oklahoma State made themselves contenders. There was also a nice mix of defensive front seven players along with skill prospects who impressed NFL scouts on the weekend. Along with some major news on the underclassmen front, here are the Risers and Sliders from week ten.
A’Shawn Robinson/DT/Alabama: Everyone will focus on Robinson getting vertical to block a field goal late in the game but his play leading up to that point was incredibly impressive. Robinson proved he could effectively clog the middle of the line and collect blockers or just as easily collapse the pocket by bull rushing opponents off the ball. Robinson posted two tackles for loss, one coming on a twist where he displayed the ability to easily change direction then tackle the ball handler in the open field. The big defensive lineman is proving himself to be a three down, multi-purpose lineman. Everything I’ve heard since September has Robinson entering the 2016 draft where he’s destined to be a top 20 choice.
Nick Vigil/LB/Utah State: In a bit of a shocker Utah State lost to New Mexico by a single point after missing a field goal during the final minute. Despite this, Vigil once again led the Aggie defense which gave up under 250-yards of total offense. Vigil finished the night with 9 tackles, which gives him a team leading 98 tackles this season. The junior also has 9.5 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles to his credit. He’s a tough, two down defender with terrific instincts and tackling ability. I’m hearing Vigil is seriously considering jumping into next April’s draft, where he projects as a middle round choice.
Kylie Fitts/DE-OLB/Utah: With so much headlining talent on the Utah defense its easy to get lost in the shuffle and that’s exactly what’s happened to Fitts. Yet the junior, who sat out last season after transferring from UCLA, has progressively improved this year. His latest outing included 6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 1 pass break up during the victory over Washington. That’s 4.5 sacks this season for Fitts who primarily comes off the bench, to go along with 6 pass defenses. He’s a long, angular athlete with good upside and effectively makes plays standing over tackle or coming out of a three point stance. Several weeks ago I was informed Fitts will consider entering the draft if he finishes the season strong and he’s doing exactly that.
Aaron Burbridge/WR/Michigan State: Entering the season Burbridge was completely ignored by scouts despite posting 51 receptions the prior two years. He’s now in the midst of a career campaign and scouts are intrigued. The senior leads Michigan State in all receiving categories with 62-receptions, 994-receiving yards and 6-scores. Sized well at 6-feet/205lbs, Burbridge is averaging 16 yards per reception and more than 110-receiving yards each game. He’s always been a sure handed wide out and the addition of his vertical pass catching skill plus stepping up as the Spartans top offensive threat will surely push him into the late rounds.
Josh Ferguson/RB/Illinois: Ferguson, who’s been struggling with a shoulder injury this season, returned after a three week absence and dominated the scene. The versatile running back posted 133-yards rushing (on just 12 carries) and added 6 receptions. Ferguson is a three down back and fits somewhere in the middle of the draft’s last day if his medicals check out.
Marquise Williams/QB/North Carolina: The Tar Heels have not lost a game since dropping a four point contest during the first week of the season and Williams is the primary reason. The senior signal caller has improved in all areas and manhandles opponents. Williams had a “wow” game against Duke, throwing for 494-yards and 4 scores. For the year he’s completed 66% of his passes. He entered the season with free agent grades but the ability to make plays with his arm and legs will surely give Williams late round consideration.
*Sleeper Prospect* Cleveland Wallace III/CB/San Jose State: Wallace was a player who caught my eye over the summer when I scouted his teammate Jimmy Pruitt. So impressive was his sophomore film I graded him as a potential late round pick. He’s been even better as a junior, significantly improving his entire game. To date Wallace has 3 interceptions to his credit and has broken up another 6 passes. He comes with a slight build but offers terrific ball skills and the ability to line-up in zone packages or backed off the line of scrimmage at the next level.
*Small School Prospect* Deandre Houston-Carson/CB/William & Mary: Entering the season as a fringe late round pick, Houston-Carson is a small school corner on the rise. The teams leading tackler (71), the senior is also tops on the defense with 4 interceptions and has added 3 more pass break-ups. He’s a solid athlete with next level size (6-feet/190-pounds) and ball skills. I’d expect to see him at the Shrine Game and an invitation to the combine is a real possibility.
Shawn Oakman/DL/Baylor: There’s was much surprise this summer after I reported scouts considered Oakman a middle round pick and to date they’ve been proven correct. During the Bears victory over Kansas State when Oakman faced off against Cody Whitehair, an offensive lineman with a second day grade, he collected just three tackles. He was slow getting off blocks and for the most part really did not seem to chase hard or show a lot of hustle. Oakman has totaled just four sacks this season, one a piece against Lamar, Rice, Kansas and Iowa State. Seven of his eleven tackles for loss came against Lamar (3.5) and Iowa State (3.5). His build, a long 6-feet/7.5-inches with skinny lower legs, also concerns next level decision makers.
Alonzo Russell/WR/Toledo: After his sophomore season of 2013, Russell looked like a big time prospect and potential top 100 pick. He was slowed considerably by injury during his junior campaign last year and has since struggled to get his game back on track for a variety of reasons. In eight games this season he’s caught just 24 passes for 396 yards. Russell has dropped from a potential middle round pick into the late rounds. He possesses the receiving skills necessary to play at the next level but must quickly pull it together on the field before teams expend a draft pick for his services.
I’m told there could be a number of underclassmen entries from Clemson next year. Sources tell me defensive lineman Shaq Lawson, a week eight riser, and cornerback Mackensie Alexander will enter the draft. That said one must remember coach Dabo Sweeney has done a heck of a job re-recruiting highly rated juniors and getting players such as Vic Beasley and CJ Spiller to return for another season. Several people inside the scouting community believe Alexander will be a top three corner if he enters.
Sources tell me they expect a jailbreak of underclassmen from Ohio State to enter the draft once the season is complete. Big names such as cornerback Eli Apple and running back Ezekiel Elliott are expected to opt for the draft but I’m also hearing lesser known players such as receiver Jalin Marshall will also considering making the jump.
South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore is leaning towards entering the draft according to sources. Moore leads the team in tackles (89), tackles for loss (6.5), interceptions (4) and pass break-ups (4). He’s slightly built and may be a scheme-specific, one-gap defender but Moore has been described to me as a freakish athlete.
Notre Dame vs Pittsburgh
12PM EST ABC
Panters receiver Tyler Boyd continues to receive high praise from the scouting community and ranks fourth on most receiver boards around the league after Treadwell, Fuller and Doctson, though a few have Michael Thomas in the mix.
During a four game stretch this season which included Iowa, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech, teams which all possess NFL caliber cornerbacks, Boyd totaled 30 receptions for 301 yards. This weekend’s contest against Notre Dame will be another big challenge for the junior wide out.
Irish corner Keivarae Russell is a highly rated prospect that’s played reasonably well since returning from his suspension. Scouts loved safety Elijah Shumate entering the year and the team’s other safety Max Redfield has shown flashes of next level ability.
Word is Boyd will enter the draft and some are saying he’s already latched onto an agent. The Notre Dame secondary possess good ball skills and likes to hit hard, will look to intimidate Boyd. Expect a physical contest for the receiver, who projects as a top 40 draft pick.
Auburn vs Texas A&M
7:30PM EST SEC Network
Last week I stated Germain Ifedi rates higher on my board than most other. The Texas A&M right tackle is a nifty blocker with the footwork necessary to slide over to the left side as well as the athleticism to be used as a zone blocking guard.
Against Auburn the junior faces off against a resurgent Carl Lawson, who returned from injury last week then dominated highly rated Laremy Tunsil of Mississippi.
Lawson explodes off the edge to make plays up the field. He’s a disruptive force with a large upside. Were that not enough Ifedi must also guard against Cassanova McKinzy, a productive football player with average next level measurables.
But for Lawson and McKinzy, Auburn is not a good pass rushing team yet this is another tough battle for Ifedi, who projects as a first round pick.
LSU vs Alabama
8PM EST CBS
I’d be remiss not to mention what has year in and year out been one of the biggest and most important games in the SEC.
There’s a lot on the line for Reggie Ragland, the senior linebacker many believe will be selected in round one. Ragland is a three down defender that’s stacks well against the run and shows ability in coverage.
He best stack well against the run as the Tigers offer Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette, the large, powerful ball carrier who will be an early first round choice when he enters the draft.
With no offensive rookies emerging in Week 8, this week’s Rookie Report will focus mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Two first-year defensive backs recently moved into the starting lineup thanks to injuries to the veterans ahead of them, and both were impressive in their extended opportunities. Meanwhile, a Tampa Bay linebacker broke out with a big game in the Bucs’ win and Chris Tripodi breaks down the struggles of one of the most hyped members of this year’s rookie running back class.
Melvin Gordon (RB-SD)
After two straight years where no running backs were drafted in the first round, Melvin Gordon became the second runner taken in the top 15 after the Chargers selected him to replace the departed Ryan Mathews. Like the rest of the Chargers outside of the passing game, however, Gordon has struggled this season, topping 55 rushing yards in a game just once and proving to be a non-factor in the passing game. While the second part of that equation was expected based on his lack of receiving production at Wisconsin, Gordon continued to struggle on the ground in Sunday’s loss to Baltimore, carrying 18 times for just 54 yards.
Despite the poor numbers, Gordon did a nice job of picking up consistent yardage early in the game. Of his first six runs, three went for three yards and three went for four yards as the Chargers offense worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun. Normally a boom-or-bust runner who is often stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gordon stayed on schedule with effectively early runs despite the San Diego offensive line struggling to open up holes. The rookie showed good burst to get moving upfield and avoided hesitation at the line of scrimmage, instead just plowing forward for as many yards as he could get. Gordon also used a nice juke move to avoid backfield penetration and a three-yard loss before heading straight up the field for four yards.
Gordon started to produce more middling results in the second quarter, taking eight carries for 24 yards with a long run of six yards, when he followed his blocks well from the shotgun and pushed forward for extra yardage. Gordon could’ve had a longer run on the following play, but ran into his own lineman at the second level rather than cutting back inside the block and ended up with just five yards. While the Chargers’ problems along the offensive line don’t help matters and neither did facing a good Ravens run defense, Gordon seems to be running with a lack of confidence in his patience and vision, which will happen when you’re used to getting hit early. As Gordon’s scouting report noted, he isn’t a creative runner that can create on his own, despite his home-run speed, and that weakness is even more glaring behind a bad offensive line.
His speed hasn’t even helped him in the open field, as Gordon hasn’t capitalized on the few opportunities he’s gotten in space. After catching a short pass early in the third quarter, Gordon had time to put a move on the defensive back and break free. Instead, Gordon hesitated after catching and turning upfield, allowing himself to get undercut and stopped after just four yards. After that play, Gordon touched the ball only four more times all game, including two consecutive plays where he was almost stopped for a safety. The first was a run up the middle where Gordon had no room to run and his forward progress was stopped as he broke a tackle and was taken down in the end zone, but he was ruled down at the one-yard line. On the ensuing swing pass, Gordon had his legs taken out inside the one-yard line, just feet from a safety that would’ve cut the Chargers lead to just two.
Gordon’s rookie struggles continued in Sunday’s loss, and the rookie has yet to break out of his slump. As a runner with great burst and change-of-direction ability, Gordon isn’t getting the opportunity to showcase those skills behind his team’s shoddy offensive line. When he does find himself in space, Gordon lacks the confidence to make moves to get free and create extra yardage. After years of running behind Wisconsin’s traditionally elite offensive line, Gordon is getting a taste of the other end of the spectrum, and it’s affecting him as a runner. It’s tough to have confidence in Gordon breaking out anytime soon, either, especially with Danny Woodhead receiving his share of touches out of the backfield as well.
Kwon Alexander (LB-TB)
After signing Bruce Carter to a four-year, $17 million to play inside linebacker this season, the Bucs changed course thanks to Alexander’s strong play during training camp and the preseason. The fourth-round draft pick out of LSU has been starting in the middle for Tampa Bay since late August and turned in his finest game of the season in Sunday’s win over the Falcons in Atlanta. Alexander made a career-high 11 tackles (six solo), intercepted his second pass of the season and forced a fumble as well as recovering one.
Alexander made a highlight play on Atlanta’s first drive after the Falcons drove inside the Bucs’ 10-yard line. The rookie linebacker made a leaping interception in the end zone and showed off his 4.55 speed with the ball in his hands, bursting through the Falcons offense all the way down to the Atlanta 11-yard line. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they were called for offsides on the play, nullifying the interception, but that doesn’t take away from the talent, speed and ball skills Alexander showed on the play.
It took Alexander just two plays on Atlanta’s following drive to force a turnover that counted. The rookie bit on Matt Ryan’s play-action fake, which allowed Julio Jones to get behind him over the middle for a big gain. Alexander hustled after Jones though, catching the unexpecting receiver from behind and ripping the ball right out of his hands before returning it for 21 yards. This was the ultimate run-and-chase play, which epitomizes who Alexander is as a player based on his scouting report out of college.
Late in the second quarter with the Falcons threatening near midfield, Alexander made another big play for the Tampa Bay defense. Turning and running easily with tight end Jacob Tamme up the seam, Alexander took advantage of a poor throw that Matt Ryan left too far inside and secured the interception, stopping Atlanta’s drive and leading to a Tampa Bay touchdown after returning the pick 15 yards back to midfield.
With the Falcons down big early and forced to abandon the run, Alexander made most of his stops in the passing game. His sideline-to-sideline speed and ability to cover ground was on full display, as the first-year linebacker chased down multiple screens out to the flanks and laid a couple big hits at full speed in the process. Alexander’s emergence has been a key to Tampa Bay’s surprisingly stout run defense this season and will make it easy for the Bucs to cut Carter after the season, as the veteran has no dead money left on his contract. Alexander and Lavonte David should combine to make Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps one of the fastest in the NFL over the next several seasons.
Kevin Johnson (CB-Hou)
Draft Insider’s top cornerback available in the 2015 NFL Draft, Kevin Johnson was the second player drafted at his position after the Texans made him the 15th overall pick. Playing behind both Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph as Houston’s nickel corner, Johnson has been a steady presence in the Texans’ secondary as a rookie and enjoyed his best game of the season last week filling in for the injured Jackson, making six tackles including five solo stops and two for loss as well as breaking up a pass and making his first career interception.
Johnson was quiet for much of the first half, which is generally a good thing for a cornerback, but the one play he made was impressive, showing off his physicality and aggressive nature. Lined up as the closed corner on a first-down run play, Titans receiver Justin Hunter attempted to block Johnson as the corner approached the line of scrimmage. Despite a thin build at 5-11 and just 188 pounds, Johnson tossed the 6-4, 201-pound Hunter several yards into the backfield, knocking him into running back Antonio Andrews in the process to trip him up. Johnson then touched the fallen Andrews down for a one-yard loss.
With Houston up 10-3 midway through the third quarter, Johnson saved a touchdown by chasing down Andrews across the field after the Titans running back had broken multiple tackles to get through the second level. Two plays later, Johnson came up hard on a screen pass to Kendall Wright, stopping the receiver in his tracks for a loss of three and knocking Wright out of the game with an injury.
The Texans entered the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead as the Titans crossed midfield, but Johnson refused to let Tennessee drive any further. Taking advantage of a Zach Mettenberger pass thrown late and behind Dorial Green-Beckham in tight coverage, Johnson made the easy interception and returned the pick 22 yards back into Tennessee territory. The rookie corner ran Green-Beckham’s out route right with the receiver, putting himself in great position to make a big play.
Johnson showed out against both the pass and the run against the Titans in Week 8 and while Tennessee is a bad football team, standing out against them is a sign that you’re doing your job. Johnson was aggressive coming up to sniff out screen plays and allowed just one catch on the day, while his interception put an end to one of the Titans’ few opportunities for a comeback. Jackson doesn’t seem close to returning from his high ankle sprain, which will give Johnson a few more weeks to show he deserves to hang onto his new starting spot once the struggling veteran returns.
Jaquiski Tartt (S-SF)
Early in the week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Rams, the 49ers placed veteran safety Antoine Bethea on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, opening up the strong safety role for Tartt. A rookie second-round pick out of Samford, Draft Insider had Tartt pegged as a fourth- or fifth-round prospect, but San Francisco coveted him enough to draft him with the 14th pick of Round 2. Tartt had a solid game against a run-based St. Louis team that plays to his strengths Sunday, recording six tackles (five solo) and forcing a fumble.
Playing deep safety late in the first quarter, Tartt found himself too deep and allowed a 24-yard reception to Tavon Austin in front of him after a play-action fake from Nick Foles. Even though Tartt was over 10 yards away from Austin when Foles released the pass, the rookie safety quickly closed the gap and hit Austin shortly after he made the catch, ripping the ball loose in the process and forcing a big turnover early in the game to keep the Rams’ offense off the scoreboard.
Tartt continued to impress with his speed and closing ability throughout the rest of the game, coming up aggressively from his safety position to make plays around the line of scrimmage. He was shot out of a cannon on an early five-yard completion to Bradley Marquez, immediately shutting down any chance of yards after the catch with a strong close and sure tackle. Tartt did the same on a second-quarter swing pass to Todd Gurley, coming up to pick Gurley up in man coverage and riding him out of bounds quickly for no gain.
Sometimes an aggressive safety can be too aggressive, however, which was the case near the end of the first half for Tartt. The rookie came up hard to fill his spot in a Cover 3 zone and allowed Jared Cook to slip past him into the seam. Cook busted through two tackles and rumbled for 49 yards before Tartt used his 4.4 speed to catch up to Cook just before he made it to the end zone. The rookie safety wasn’t responsible for covering the seam on the play, but he showed his intent too quickly, allowing Nick Foles to anticipate Cook running open.
At 6-1, 221 pounds with his aforementioned 4.4 speed, Tartt is a physical freak at the safety position. His explosiveness and closing speed makes him a dangerous run defender, but Tartt could use some work on his efficiency in coverage. Coming out of a small school like Samford, growing pains are to be expected from Tartt, who is one of the few 49ers to flash consistent talent on film. The starting strong safety job should remain his for the rest of the season, and Tartt will give San Francisco fans something to look forward to when it comes to the team’s future.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.