AlexanderThe national title game is less than a week away and underclassmen are now pouring into the 2016 NFL draft. Here’s the latest word on those choices as well as other notes that may effect the draft. Update: January 5th                                 

January 5th

Back on November 9th I mentioned a jailbreak of underclassmen from Ohio State would enter the draft. And though I may have used a poor term the expectation has come to fruition.

I’m now told its very likely we’ll see large numbers of underclassmen from Clemson and Alabama enter the draft once the national title game is completed Monday evening.

Its been known for a while Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson and cornerback Mackensie Alexander are planning to enter the draft as is safety Jayron Kearse. Add to that list two more defenders as cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and defensive end Kevin Dodd are also expected to enter the draft as is tight end Jordan Leggett.

Alexander could end up as the first cornerback selected in the draft but Tankersley is no slouch and fits as a second day selection. Lawson, whom I’m told is really banged up (knees, shoulder) could slide into the late part of round one while Dodd is another second day pick.

Leggett, who looks like a big possession receiver, is also a second day pick if he works out well prior to the draft.

I’ve not heard anything definite on the plans of Carlos Watkins, more of a middle round choice but a player with definite NFL potential

From the defensive side of the ball Alabama will lose linemen A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and possibly defensive back Eddie Jackson. I’m told defensive lineman Jonathan Allen is leaning towards entering the draft while the feeling is linebacker Rueben Foster will return for his senior season.

On offense running back Derrick Henry is expected to enter and the chances are tight end O.J. Howard will leave as well.

Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker is considering entering the draft and has been going through the process but has been told its best to stay in school despite terrific production.

Everybody loves a sleeper come draft time and the name of Justin Zimmer from Ferris State has been quietly spoken about in scouting circles.

Unmentioned by scouts prior to the season, Zimmer posted 81 tackles, 13 sacks and broke up 5 passes this season. The thee time Academic All American who measures 6-feet/3-inches and a shade over 290-pounds, has reportedly timed under 4.8-seconds in the forty and completed 46 reps on the bench press last summer.

The hope is Zimmer gets a last minute invite to one of this months All Star games but draft junkies best start watching film on this dominant defender and keep an eye on his pro-day workout.

December 22nd

The safety class in April’s draft was improved by the addition of Su’a Cravens and the position will likely be strengthened with even more underclassmen talent. I’m told two more juniors could be headed for the draft after receiving their grades from the advisory committee.

Word is Vonn Bell of Ohio State is giving signs he will enter the draft and his grade from the advisory committee, which will be a top 60 ranking, will cinch the deal.

The other junior at the position who could be headed for the draft is Florida’s Keanu Neal. I’m told Neal is leaning towards returning to Florida for his senior season but many feel once he receives his grade from the committee, which will reflect a top 60 selection, he too could be off for the NFL. I was blown away by Neal’s sophomore film and entering the season felt he was one of the most underrated defensive backs in the nation.

Staying in Gainesville, there’s been a lot of back and forth as to whether or not Gators receiver Demarcus Robinson is entering the draft as ESPN reported he would leave for the NFL while the player has denied the report. I’ve heard two consistent claims from various sources the past month; 1) Robinson is leaning towards entering the draft 2) the feedback thus far from scouts has been Robinson would be making a mistake if he enters the draft. Hence the confusion and lack of a final decision to this point is understandable.

Earlier I tweeted today’s Idaho Potato Bowl could be the final college game for Utah State linebacker Nick Vigil. I first mentioned this back on November 9th and the grades I’ve received on the junior range anywhere from rounds three through six. People around Vigil are encouraging him to enter the draft after today’s game but the player himself is still undecided. If Vigil chooses to opt for the draft I’m told he’s likely to post fast times and terrific testing marks at the combine.

December 11th

I initially reported in September that Christian Hackenberg would enter the draft and all signs point to this becoming reality very soon. A close source told me earlier this week it’s the best decision for the quarterback as the situation at Penn State is becoming untenable for Hackenberg and its time for him to move on.

Previous reports stated junior linebacker Scooby Wright had been meeting with agents. Sources tell me the Arizona product has in fact chosen who will represent him and the official announcement will be made soon after the New Mexico Bowl next Saturday. Where does Wright end up? The majority of people tell me Wright is no better than a mid-to-late round prospect, something I totally agree with.

Last week I reported Kamalei Correa of Boise State was been interviewing agents and I’m now being told the defensive end/outside linebacker will enter the draft.

I continue to be told Stanford tight end Austin Hooper will enter the draft. A few people have said the red-shirt sophomore entered the season with the intent of leaving for the NFL after the 2015 campaign.

It always interesting to watch what happens at LSU given the number of underclassmen who have entered the draft from that program the past few years.

Even though scouts have suggested he stay in school another season I’m told offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins is very likely to enter the draft. Sources also tell me center Ethan Pocic is entertaining thoughts of making the jump but the final decision is a long way off.

I’ve been getting mixed signal on the decisions for linebacker Kendell Beckwith and cornerback Tre’Davious White. Conventional wisdom all season long had both players entering the draft but I hear that’s not a definite. I’m told the decision to keep Les Miles as head coach has Beckwith and White reconsidering.

Two receivers from the MAC have requested grades from the advisory committee and are exploring their next level status.

Roger Lewis of Bowling Green has been speaking with agents and also has advisers to help him make the decision. Corey Davis of Western Michigan is also doing a bit of the same. Both prospects rank as middle round selections but are very much undecided to this point, though it seems Lewis is the likely one to enter the draft.

December 4th

People may remember two years ago I wrote about defections via early entry to the draft or transfers from the Cal program as Sonny Dykes had alienated many of the players he inherited from Jeff Tedford. It seems Dykes current battle with the school’s administration is having a similar effect and I’ve been told through an upperclassmen the situation is not good.

One of those affected is Jared Goff and those close to the situation tell me its 99% the quarterback enters the draft. As I reported weeks ago the junior has a team of people fully engaged in vetting agents and setting up meetings. Many inside his circle believe it makes no sense for the highly rated quarterback to return to Cal and get pulverized next season the way he has this year. I would expect an official announcement that Goff will enter the draft soon after Cal’s bowl game.

I’m also told Goff’s favorite target may be headed to the draft with him.

Receiver Kenny Lawler (47 receptions, 583 yards, 10 TDs) has been speaking with agents and its expected he declares for April’s draft. Many I’ve spoken with compare Lawler to former Cal receiver Marvin Jones, the fifth round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012.

Staying out west Kamalei Correa of Boise State has been interviewing agents. The defensive end/outside linebacker is receiving second day grades and at this time sources tell me its very likely he enters the draft.

The news for Correa’s teammate is not as positive.

Area scouts stamped Rees Odhiambo with second round grades prior to the ankle injury he suffered in late October, which ended his season. I’m told his recent injury plus previous issues with the other leg will push Odhiambo into the last day of the draft.

Washington State receiver Gabe Marks was ready to enter the draft then suffered a significant ankle injury during the season finale against Washington. Sources tell me it could take several months for the ankle to fully recover and there’s a chance Marks would not be ready to workout prior to the draft. As a result he’s expected to return to Wazzu for his senior season.

According to west coast insiders San Diego State cornerback Damontae Kazee is expected to enter the draft. Recently named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Kazee intercepted 7 passes this season and broke up another 7 throws besides posting 66 tackles.

Indiana guard Dan Feeney will ask the advisory committee for a grade and is considering the draft.

Several weeks ago, when I reported Yannick Ngakoue would enter the draft, I mentioned his teammate Quinton Jefferson may also follow and the more I speak with sources the more it seems likely to happen. Jefferson, who I’m told is married with children, looked like a dynamite prospect in 2013 before missing almost all of 2014 with injury then playing out of position at defensive tackle this year.

Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones has asked the advisory committee for his draft grade but sources tell me they believe whatever the result Jones will enter the draft.

Keep an eye on the situation surrounding his teammate, Will Redmond.

Technically a senior, Redmond was suspended by the NCAA the first year and a half he spent at Mississippi State for receiving “preferential treatment.” The way it’s been explained Redmond was given a discount on a car he purchased. I’m told the school is fighting to have his suspended time reinstated as they understandably feel the punishment was too harsh. If they succeed coach Dan Mullen will do a full court press to keep the highly rated cornerback for another season.

Mullen is reportedly already re-recruiting Da’Runnya Wilson in the attempt to get the receiver to stay for his senior season.

The big three prospects at cross town rival Mississippi including tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and receiver LaQuon Treadwell, are all entering the draft from what I’m told. As reported last week tight end Evan Engram is considering entering the draft while defensive back Tony Conner is waiting on his draft grade before making a decision.

Other juniors I’m told who are seriously considering making the jump include Texas A&M defensive end Daeshon Hall, Alabama cornerback Eddie Jackson and Louisville safety Josh Harvey-Clemons with some telling me Harvey-Clemons is definitely leaving for the draft.

Smith_proAs the NFL season winds down, coaches and general managers of non-playoff teams are actively using the final weeks to evaluate their rosters heading into 2016, seeing who can be valuable contributors for their teams’ future. Three youngsters saw increased roles Sunday for their downtrodden squads, while a second-rounder continues to emerge on defense for the NFC East champions. Chris Tripodi breaks down what he saw from the first-year crop in the Week 16 Rookie Report. 

Jarryd Hayne (RB-SF)

With Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn out of commission in Week 16, Hayne was recalled from the practice squad on Dec. 26 and thrown into the starting lineup a day later against the Lions. The former Australian Rugby star carried nine times for 27 yards and caught five passes for 20 yards in his first extended NFL playing time.

Hayne picked up over half his rushing yards on San Francisco’s opening drive, which culminated in a short touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead. On the game’s second play, Hayne took a handoff and cut back against the grain to find the hole in the defense before being taken down rather easily by a defensive lineman after four yards. A few plays later, Hayne showed good vision and squeezed through a tiny hole before running through multiple arm tackles on his way to 11 yards and a first down.

The 27-year-old rookie showed good strength and rushing fundamentals throughout, slipping weak tackles in the backfield and keeping a low center of gravity to stay on his feet after having his legs cut out by defensive backs. The 6’2’’, 220-pound Hayne did a nice job fighting for extra yardage and falling forward despite generally having nowhere to run.

Hayne’s passing-game work came late in the game with the outcome decided, as Hayne snagged several dumpoffs from quarterback Blaine Gabbert. He did show the ability to extend and catch the ball with his hands while making sure to stay with his quarterback when Gabbled scrambled out of the pocket, giving him a necessary safety valve once he found nothing open downfield.

While Sunday’s showing wasn’t the most impressive from Hayne, it’s important to consider the context. On a talent-deficient 49ers team just playing out the string until next year, Hayne showed he could at least competently step into an extended role and not be a detriment to the offense. His age limits his growth potential and while Hayne is a nice story, he’s probably not even San Francisco’s long-term answer as a No. 2 running back behind Hyde. At least for next year, Draughn seems likely to be the team’s top backup, with Hayne battling fellow rookie Mike Davis for No. 3 duties.

Preston Smith (LB-Was)

With Brian Orakpo leaving in free agency, the Redskins drafted Mississippi State edge rusher Preston Smith with the sixth pick of the second round in the 2015 NFL draft. While Trent Murphy has started opposite Ryan Kerrigan, Smith has made a nice impact as a sub-package rusher and played a key role in Saturday’s NFC East-clinching win over the Eagles with three sacks, including a forced fumble.

Smith’s first sack came on a 3rd-and-15 early in the second quarter with the Eagles driving into Redskins territory. The rookie destroyed veteran left tackle Jason Peters, getting off the line quickly and using his speed off the edge to get by Peters almost immediately. Smith didn’t even need to do much to disengage from Peters, using a very subtle rip move to maintain his balance and turn the corner before getting to Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford for the takedown. Peters was even flagged for a hold on the play, but nothing could stop Smith.

His second sack came later in the quarter and once again was at the expense of Peters. This time, the tackle got a good jump off the line to set the edge, but Smith ripped right through the slow-moving Peters to easily get the corner and bring down Bradford again. The rookie showed great strength on the play, not letting Peters get him off his path to the quarterback and turning the corner nicely before closing on Bradford.

With Peters sitting in the fourth quarter, Smith abused backup Dennis Kelly with another strong outside rip move, forcing Bradford to step up in the pocket. Smith didn’t quit once his initial pursuit was thwarted, however, and the rookie got to Bradford for his third sack, stripping the Eagles quarterback in the process. Philadelphia center Jason Kelce hopped on the ball, so it didn’t turn into a turnover, but Smith continued to dominate around the left side.

While Murphy still has two seasons remaining on his rookie contract and should continue playing a big role on early downs, Smith’s explosive ability off the edge will make Redskins fans quickly forget about Orakpo, as both have seven sacks this year. Smith obviously comes with a much friendlier contract, and his bend and leverage off the edge combined with an ability to quickly redirect to the quarterback make him a potential monster at 6-5, 271 pounds. Smith will be a key cog for Washington’s defense over the next few seasons and will allow Kerrigan to avoid constant double-teams.

Hayes Pullard (LB-Jax)

Telvin Smith’s absence from the Week 16 lineup opened up a starting role for Pullard, who responded with nine tackles (seven solo, one for loss) in Jacksonville’s loss to the Saints. A four-year starter with the versatility to play both inside and outside, Pullard fell to the seventh round due to questions about his size (6-0, 240) and speed (4.72). Originally drafted by the Browns before being stolen off their practice squad by Jacksonville in October, he proved he could handle starting in a pinch Sunday at the Superdome, even if there were a few warts.

Pullard started Sunday’s game playing well despite the struggles of his teammates, as he made two nice plays on the Saints’ opening drive. Playing on the edge, Pullard flattened nicely in pursuit along the line of scrimmage to bring running back Tim Hightower down for a three-yard gain. A few plays later, Pullard came in unblocked off the edge and laid a solid blow on Hightower, stopping the runner in his tracks in the backfield for a four-yard loss.

Later in the quarter, Pullard helped limit Brandin Cooks to just one yard on an end around. Not biting on quarterback Drew Brees’ pump fake, Pullard stayed home and strung Cooks out to the sideline, forcing the receiver out of bounds after a nominal gain.

In the second quarter, Pullard showed the downhill explosiveness to blow up tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the backfield and assist on a run that went for a short loss. He also showed good closing speed to quickly shut down underneath passing plays in front of him, keeping the Saints tight ends from creating yards after the catch.

The second half was a slightly different story for Pullard, as he was the culprit on running back Travaris Cadet’s 44-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. Lined up over Cadet in the slot, Pullard bit hard on Cadet’s out-breaking route before the back pulled out a double move and headed downfield. Pullard fell trying to transition to running deep with Cadet, giving New Orleans an easy TD down the sideline.

Pullard’s size does hurt him at times, and that was exposed as the game wore on. He couldn’t gain ground on a late five-yard touchdown run by Hightower and wasn’t able to make contact with Hightower until the goal line, when it was too late. Pullard was also blown off the ball later in the fourth quarter, and while he managed to make the tackle nine yards downfield, he was only able to shed the blocker after being pushed back several yards.

All in all, the rookie showed some nice ability moving downhill, but struggled in coverage and when forced to hold his ground at the second level. Those were issues for him in college, too, and it seems unlikely that the 23-year-old will be able to overcome these deficiencies now that he’s in the NFL. He played well at times Sunday, but didn’t show anything that would make Jacksonville consider him anything more than a backup in its future plans at linebacker.

Nate Orchard (LB-Cle)

Like Smith, Draft Insider had Orchard pegged as a firm second-round prospect, and the Browns followed suit by taking the former Utah star 51st overall. Orchard struggled early in the season, especially setting the edge against the run, but he has since displaced disappointing 2013 first-round pick Barkevious Mingo on the depth chart and has three sacks in his past three games, including one in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs along with his first career interception.

His increasing comfort level showed early in the first quarter, as Orchard made a nice play to hold Chiefs running back Spencer Ware to a three-yard gain. Keeping nice extension off the edge to keep the right tackle off his 6’4’’, 255-pound frame and maintain vision into the backfield, Orchard got back into the play after having the tackle beat upfield. Instead of giving up, Orchard stayed extended and easily redirected himself off the block to tackle Ware from behind after a short gain.

The rookie’s interception came in the second quarter with the Chiefs up 10-3 and driving in Browns territory. Orchard showed good physicality bumping tight end Demetrius Harris off his route at the line, and the result was a tipped pass from quarterback Alex Smith intended for the covered Harris. The pass was batted at the line and bobbled by teammate Craig Robertson before landing in the hands of Orchard, who was finally able to corral the pass with some help from Robertson on a bizarre play before returning it 46 yards into Chiefs territory.

On a third-quarter 3rd-and-6 with Kansas City driving past midfield, Orchard battled for his lone sack of the contest. After failing to gain the edge on right tackle Jah Reid, Orchard stayed aggressive and used his left arm to gain enough leverage on the 340-pound Reid to force his way to a sack of Smith. The rookie came awfully close to a face-masking penalty, but got his hand underneath Reid’s helmet on his way to the sack.

The Browns have whiffed on an awful lot of high draft picks in recent years, but Orchard’s late-season resurgence gives them hope that he’ll be a rare hit for a team that desperately needs some young talent to emerge. With the futures of Paul Kruger and Armonty Bryant uncertain and Mingo a constant disappointment, Orchard could very well be Cleveland’s No. 1 outside linebacker next season. If he continues to improve in one-on-one situations, Orchard’s natural pass-rushing skills should eventually shine after a slow start to his career coming out of the Pac-12.

Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.

Artis_proNo new rookies from the top 80 of the 2015 NFL draft made a notable impact in Week 15, while many mid-round guys continue to see increased playing time as the season winds down, many due to injuries. This week’s offensive rookies found themselves filling in for high-profile players on playoff teams, while the defensive players that made the report have been playing effective football for a few weeks now, also for contenders. Chris Tripodi takes a look in this week’s Rookie Report. 

Cameron Artis-Payne (RB-Car)

With injury-prone starting running back Jonathan Stewart finally succumbing to an ailment, Artis-Payne headed into Week 15 with an increased opportunity in the Carolina backfield. A late fifth-round pick out of Auburn who Draft Insider had rated as a third-round prospect, Artis-Payne led the Panthers backs with 14 carries for 59 yards and two catches for 34.

Mike Tolbert drew the start for Carolina, and Artis-Payne didn’t get his hands on the ball until past the midway point of the first quarter on the Panthers’ second drive. His first carry came with the Panthers just inside the Giants two-yard line, but Carolina’s offensive line got absolutely no push and couldn’t open even a small hole for Artis-Payne, who was taken down for a loss.

The rookie wasn’t heard from for a quarter after that, when he took a shotgun draw on 2nd-and-19 for nine yards. Artis-Payne showed nice patience and vision on the run, staying behind his blockers until they were able to get to their assignments before bouncing the play outside of a seal block from tight end Greg Olsen.

That run got Artis-Payne the first two carries of the following drive, and the 5-10, 220-pounder showed nice agility on a read option from the shotgun to juke away from a crowded spot behind center and hit the hole with power for nine yards. He was swallowed up on another read option on the following play, turning the corner before the pursuit got to him for no gain.

With the Panthers looking to protect their big lead in the second half, Artis-Payne got six carries in the third quarter alone. Those touches went for just 12 yards combined as the Giants keyed on the run on early downs, making it difficult for Artis-Payne to find any holes to run through. He did contribute with a big 20-yard reception to set the Panthers up in the red zone on a drive that culminated in a touchdown.

A versatile receiver out of the backfield at Auburn, Artis-Payne showed off his skills on pass thrown behind him by Cam Newton after swinging out into the flat. Not only did Artis-Payne reach back and make a nice catch on the ball thrown over his head, but he transitioned and accelerated quickly after landing on the ground to leave Giants linebacker JT Thomas in the dust and pick up extra yardage down the sideline.

The former junior college and Auburn standout again showed off his receiving chops on a 14-yard screen pass early in the fourth quarter. Artis-Payne continued to display excellent patience, waiting on a blocker that was behind him to put a hit on his defender before heading upfield and finishing the run with power as the defense tried to tackle him high.

On the next play, Artis-Payne rumbled or 26 yards off the left side on a read option. Another decisive one-cut move led the rookie to daylight through a huge hole, and he ran over Prince Amukamara at the end of the play to finish the run emphatically.

The play many will remember about Artis-Payne, however, is his fumbled exchange with Newton that set the Giants up deep in Carolina territory. It looked like Newton was supposed to keep the ball on the play, as Artis-Payne reacted like a decoy rather than an active runner after the botched handoff, and it looked like Newton rode Artis-Payne too long on the option and lost the ball. While this play isn’t necessarily the rookie’s fault, it shows the effect that inexperience can have on the continuity of any offense.

Artis-Payne wasn’t all that effective as runner, as he averaged barely 2.5 yards per carry excluding his 26-yard run, but the rookie showed good patience along with nice agility and burst for a 220-pound back. He ran with power, finished runs behind his pads and kept his legs moving through the pile, and Artis-Payne’s receiving skills were a nice boost for an offense that lacks elite playmakers at wide receiver.

Stewart seems likely to miss Week 16 as well, and the Panthers should look to get Artis-Payne involved much earlier in the game this time around. Neither Mike Tolbert nor Fozzy Whittaker has the all-purpose skill set that the rookie does, and Artis-Payne was impressive in his first substantial NFL action. For one week at least, he looked like he’ll provide very nice return on the 174th overall pick in this year’s draft.

Tyler Kroft (TE-Cin)

With starting tight end Tyler Eifert out against the 49ers after suffering a concussion in Week 14 against the Steelers, Kroft received his first NFL start in San Francisco. Kroft has primarily been used as a blocker this season and had just four receptions for 52 yards heading into the game, but the rookie caught all three of his targets for 31 yards and his first career touchdown from AJ McCarron, who was replaced the injured Andy Dalton.

Lined up in the backfield on third down early in the second quarter, Kroft released into the flat as McCarron’s safety valve and the quarterback looked his way after finding nothing downfield. The pass was tipped at the line and went high into the air, but Kroft did a great job finding the ball and timing his jump to come down with the catch in between four 49ers to maintain possession for the Bengals, even without getting the first down.

Later in the quarter, Kroft found himself wide open up the seam for an easy 20-yard touchdown. McCarron’s throw was slightly behind the first-year tight end at the five-yard line, but the athletic 6-6, 246-pounder easily reached back to make the grab on his way to the end zone for the score.

Recognizing his athletic talents, the Bengals designed a quick slip screen for Kroft in the third quarter. After chipping on the edge, Kroft caught the short screen and did a nice job following his blocks and moving up the field to pick up 15 yards and the first down. There was holding penalty after the catch, however, which officially shortened the play to nine yards.

Kroft finally got the opportunity to get tight end targets for the Bengals, and the third-rounder out of Rutgers made the most of his chances on a day when McCarron threw just 21 passes, as the two have developed solid chemistry working together on the second team. He’ll go back to being a backup whenever Eifert returns, but Kroft proved to be a more than capable fill-in with the upside to be a good NFL pass-catcher. Once he bulks up and improves his blocking, there’s definite every-down potential in his game.

Danielle Hunter (DE-Min)

With the Vikings devastated by injuries on defense over the past few weeks, they’ve had to rely on young players like Hunter to pick up the slack. Hunter has proven to be up to the task with eight tackles (six solo) and 2.5 sacks in his past two games. In Sunday’s big win over the Bears, the first-year defensive end tallied five tackles (four solo) and 1.5 sacks.

The first of those sacks came with the Vikings up, 10-0, and the Bears driving into Minnesota territory in the second quarter. On 3rd-and-14, Hunter lined up as a wide-nine end and stunted to the inside, going one-on-one with the guard. Using his length at 6’5’’, Hunter’s extension and strong hand fighting got him into the backfield, where he was able to take down Jay Cutler after a teammate couldn’t complete the initial sack.

Despite weighing just 252 pounds, Hunter showed off some strength to stop a run play early in the third quarter. Beating an initial double team when the tackle chipped on him before moving to the second level, Hunter tossed the guard to the inside and was in perfect position to meet Bears running back Jeremy Langford in the hole, bringing him down after just a two-yard gain.

The rookie’s half-sack came on a second-down play late in the third quarter with the Bears approaching midfield. Hunter again stunted at the line of scrimmage, but a nice slap move caught the tackle with his hands too low and the guard went out to stay with tackle Sharrif Floyd, leaving Hunter with a clear path to the quarterback. Floyd got there too, so the two split the sack, but either would have been able to make the play on his own.

Hunter was taken late in the third round, but Draft Insider had him pegged as a late first-round to early second-round prospect thanks to his athletic upside and discipline. Hunter has flashed that upside over the last few weeks, and while his playing strength was a concern coming out of LSU, he’s shown the ability to turn speed to power and utilize his length to gain leverage against opposing linemen.

Along with Everson Griffen, Hunter has shown the ability to really get after the passer, as he has five sacks this season after struggling to finish plays at the NCAA level. Playing for the defensive-minded Mike Zimmer certainly hasn’t hurt Hunter’s progress, and he’s looking like a player who can make a big impact on Minnesota’s playoff run this season, even when some of the team’s starters return from injury.

Jake Ryan (LB-GB)

Nate Palmer’s season-long struggles finally led to an opportunity for Ryan, the Packers’ fourth-round pick out of Michigan. Ryan has started the past three games in Green Bay, making a total of 23 tackles (17 solo). In Sunday’s win over the Raiders, Ryan set a new career-high with seven solo stops.

A prototypical box linebacker, all of Ryan’s tackles came within six yards of the line of scrimmage. He did a nice job of showing in the hole and making Raiders running back Latavius Murray change direction outside the play, and Ryan almost kept Oakland from converting an early 3rd-and-1 as a result.

Ryan flashed in the hole and forced Murray to bounce the run outside, where HaHa Clinton-Dix was waiting off the edge at the line of scrimmage, Clinton-Dix missed the tackle, however, leaving Ryan alone in pursuit of Murray. The rookie was able to bring the runner down, but not before he gained three yards and the first down.

Later on the drive, Ryan was able to quickly fill the hole on a run to the other side of the formation and stop the play for two yards. Ryan’s pursuit was completely horizontal to the line of scrimmage, which would have left him susceptible to a cutback in most situations. On this play, however, Murray hit the hole and was stopped after two yards.

Ryan showed a better angle of pursuit in the second quarter on a stretch play that went for just two yards. Ryan shadowed Murray and stayed in great position just behind the back in his hip pocket, finally closing once Murray committed upfield near the sideline and riding him out of bounds after just two yards.

The first-year linebacker from Michigan had a play in the third quarter where his pursuit again could have left him vulnerable to a cutback, but he didn’t have to travel the same distance and still shut down Murray in the hole. He filled a hole nicely on a fourth-quarter run before whiffing on his tackle attempt, but stuck with the play and ended up making the tackle in traffic after four yards.

Coverage skills were a problem for Ryan at Michigan and were a major reason he had just a sixth-round grade from Draft insider. With the Raiders in passing mode in the fourth quarter, Clive Walford released and ran a quick five-yard curl in the middle of the field. Derek Carr found him for the quick connection, while Ryan had his eyes on Walford the whole time and didn’t start to close on the play until the pass was almost there.

Had Ryan been watching Carr, even just out of the corner of his eye, he’d have seen the young quarterback staring down Walford from the start, which would’ve given him a headstart to break on the ball and cause an incompletion or even a turnover. Instead, Ryan was essentially frozen until he had to make the tackle.

By no means did Ryan play poorly against Oakland, but there were a few subtle things he did that make you think about whether he can be a long-term NFL starter. A back with better instincts than Murray may have embarrassed him with a cutback on one of those plays, and Ryan will find himself as strictly a two-down thumper if his recognition in coverage doesn’t improve, as his speed is no better than average.

Ryan is certainly likely to improve over time, which could help him develop into a starter. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s proven to be quite serviceable and a big upgrade on Palmer in the middle, which is all the Packers can really ask of him at this point.

Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.

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