Roby_proBy the end of the NFL season, most of the league’s impact rookies have already made themselves known to the public. Some came out of the gates hot, like Kelvin Benjamin and C.J. Mosley, while others didn’t make an impact until the second of third month of the season, like Odell Beckham Jr. and Isaiah Crowell. With that in mind, Chris Tripodi takes a look at how some prominent defensive backs performed last week, as well as a few late-round picks that have seen a recent increase in opportunity thanks to injury.

 

Bradley Roby (CB-Den)

Like most rookie cornerbacks, Bradley Roby has experienced an up-and-down year in his first NFL season. The 31st overall pick out of Ohio State has played behind Aqib Talib and Chris Harris this season, mixing in a few solid performances with some stinkers as well. Roby did battle with fellow first-round rookie Sammy Watkins on Sunday, and while the former Clemson star got the better of Roby for most of the afternoon, the first-year corner didn’t allow much to the Bills’ other receivers and made a great play to force an early turnover.

On the game’s first possession, Roby lined up in press coverage against Watkins. Beaten badly by a sudden slant route to the inside, Roby had to make up ground to catch up to Watkins after he made the catch. The corner noticed Watkins holding the ball in his left arm while he cut back towards him, and Roby smartly clubbed his arm down on the ball to force a fumble that was recovered by Denver in Buffalo territory. The drive resulted in no points for the Broncos, but it was a big play that helped set the tone for the Bills’ rough day on offense.

Other than that mistake, Watkins dominated Roby for most of the game, catching all six of the balls thrown to him for 113 yards in Roby’s coverage. Roby struggled in both press situations and off coverage, struggling to find the ball on an 18-yard back-shoulder grab in the second half. Roby wasn’t called for illegal contact, but did have his hands all over Watkins 15 yards down the field once the receiver stopped to make the grab. That was the second big play Roby allowed to Watkins in the game, as he was beat deep for a 35-yard grab in the third quarter as well. Roby backpedaled and committed too soon to Watkins’ route, allowing the receiver to get behind him. With his back to the ball in an effort to catch up, Roby wasn’t in position to react to another back-shoulder throw.

Despite some struggles with the explosive Watkins in the aforementioned situations, Roby did show good awareness and sure tackling ability with Cover 2 responsibilities. A couple of short dump-off passes to Fred Jackson were stopped right around the line of scrimmage, as Roby closed quickly on Jackson and got into good position to make the tackle. He did make one mistake on a late crossing route by Watkins, however, not recognizing the receiver coming from the other side of the field and doubling the tight end inside instead. This allowed Watkins to turn the corner to get the first down and more after the catch.

Overall, Week 14 was indicative of Roby’s season so far. He made some good plays and showed an ability to come up hard against short passes, but also had some issues with footwork in the secondary as well as playing the football. Roby has looked more like the 2013 version of himself at Ohio State that dropped his draft stock into the late-first round rather than the emerging star he was viewed as after the 2012 season. The former Buckeye still has time to figure out the NFL, but his first year hasn’t exactly erased the doubts some had about him after his rough junior season.

Justin Gilbert (CB-Cle)

After a few early-season struggles, the first cornerback drafted in May was demoted to fourth on the depth chart recently, behind undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams. After seeing just 39 snaps in his past three games and losing his nickel role to Williams, Gilbert took over the spot Sunday when Williams left with a hamstring injury. The first-rounder out of Oklahoma State acquitted himself well against the high-powered Colts passing attack, recording his first career interception in the third quarter and returning it for a touchdown.

The interception was an impressive play from Gilbert, who was initially covering Hakeem Nicks on the outside. Feeling pressure in the pocket, Andrew Luck stared down Reggie Wayne running an out route from the slot. Reading Luck’s eyes, Gilbert squatted around the first-down marker awaiting the throw. With the pressure finally getting to Luck as he released the pass, Gilbert undercut the route for an easy interception, then forced a missed tackle and busted through the rest of the Colts for a 21-yard touchdown return. Gilbert was willing to take a risk on the route knowing he had safety help over the top, showing a good understanding of his responsibilities within the Browns’ coverage schemes to make a big play.

It wasn’t all positive for Gilbert, as he allowed a key 27-yard reception to Donte Moncrief on third-and-18 during the game’s final drive, keeping the drive alive that eventually resulted in the game-winning touchdown. Lined up over Moncrief in press coverage, Gilbert did little to impede the receiver and found himself trailing Moncrief for most of the play. Moncrief broke to the inside and made a nice grab for the first down, while Gilbert didn’t stand much of a chance after losing the initial battle at the line of scrimmage.

On just two plays, Gilbert summarized his strengths and weaknesses as a player. His seven-interception senior season proves his ability to make game-changing plays, but most of those turnovers came when Gilbert was playing off the line of scrimmage, giving him a chance to keep the receiver in front of him and read the quarterback. His closing speed combined with elite ball skills for a corner will allow him to make plenty of big plays in these situations at the NFL level. When asked to handle receivers in press coverage, however, Gilbert’s deficiencies show up. He isn’t quick or smooth moving in reverse, which was obvious when he lost Moncrief over the middle. If the Browns put him in situations where he can be successful, he has serious playmaking potential. Throwing Gilbert in press situations, however, is a good way for Cleveland to get a minimal return on their high first-round investment.

Bene Benwikere (CB-Car)

With the Panthers cutting Antoine Cason after their Week 13 game, Benwikere stepped into a starting role in Week 14 opposite Josh Norman. Playing every defensive snap for the first time this season, Benwikere turned in a great performance that has to make the Panthers feel validated in cutting Cason and promoting the rookie. A fifth-round choice out of San Jose State, Benwikere did a great job of keeping plays in front of him as well as making plays on the ball, including the first interception of his NFL career.

With his team already out to a 10-0 lead early in the game, Benwikere picked off Drew Brees on a deep pass intended for Joe Morgan. Lined up off the line of scrimmage in zone coverage, Benwikere flipped his hips quickly when Morgan got within five yards of him, doing what was necessary to keep stride with the speedster. While Morgan had a step on Benwikere, the ball was slightly underthrown and the rookie did a great job of tracking the ball in the air and cutting in front of Morgan for the interception. With his safety help not getting enough depth, Benwikere’s trailing coverage was the difference between an interception and a touchdown and a possible 14-point swing with Carolina scoring on the ensuing drive.

Benwikere continued to show excellent coverage instincts and fundamentals throughout the game, understanding when to leave his man in both man and zone coverages. On a third-and-two in the second quarter, Benwikere recognized Kenny Stills breaking open on a short route and left his man to stop Stills right at the first-down marker. While the play still resulted in a first down for the Saints, Benwikere was very close to stopping Stills short and forcing a tough decision on the offense thanks to his instincts.

Lined up in Cover 2 late in the first half, Benwikere executed his assignment perfectly and almost came up with his second interception. After pressing the receiver at the line and letting him run down the sideline after taking a few steps with him, Benwikere closed on a short pass to Pierre Thomas and was a split-second from another pick. He still did a nice job breaking on the ball to force the incompletion, and this was a textbook play from the rookie corner that could be found in instructional videos.

Benwikere also showed good instincts as a tackler in the short passing game, taking an outside route against a block on a short pass to Thomas to force him back into the defense. Thomas had nowhere to run and Benwikere got back up off the ground and got back into the play to assist on the tackle.

Overall, this was a very impressive performance for Benwikere in his first career start. His size (5-11, 195) and speed (4.6) dropped him into the third day of the draft despite an impressive college resume. That lack of speed did show up on the early interception if the ball had been thrown in stride, but Morgan is tough deep cover for most NFL cornerbacks and Benwikere did an excellent job playing the ball, one of the strengths he showed in college. If he can continue to play with great instincts and fundamentals, Benwikere may have a shot to be an NFL starter despite his below-average measurables. The rest of the season should be a good barometer to evaluate his 2015 potential.

Marqueston Huff (CB-Ten)

Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s early injury against the Giants on Sunday opened the door for additional playing time for Huff, a rookie capable of playing both cornerback and safety. A fourth-round pick out of Wyoming, Huff stepped in to make an impact in his best game of the season despite the Titans’ getting blown out by the Giants. In fact, Huff was the only reason Tennessee wasn’t shut out in Week 14, returning his first NFL interception for a third-quarter touchdown.

The Titans used Huff well Sunday, giving him opportunities as both a nickel cornerback and at the safety spot. His interception came with the Titans down 30-0 lined up as a safety. Huff initially showed blitz up the middle, but backed off the line before the snap and dropped into coverage. Once tight end Larry Donnell finished his chip and went into the flat, Huff was all over the play and positioned himself between Donnell and Eli Manning. Manning inexplicably threw to Donnell on the play, leading to an easy interception and 30-yard return for Huff.

While that was the play that put Huff on the highlight reels, he was otherwise solid and didn’t allow any big plays on a day when the Tennessee defense gave up plenty. The only pass completed in Huff’s coverage was a short five-yard pass to Donnell in the red zone. With the rest of the defense lined up in tight man coverage and Huff playing 10 yards off the ball, Manning made the quick read to find Donnell in the flat. Huff came up to make the stop after a five-yard gain, but it’s tough to fully judge this play without knowing the coverage. Lining up so far off the line on the snap implies he was responsible for the back end in a Cover 1, in which case he reacted quickly to come up and stuff Donnell. If it was Cover 0, which seems less likely, then the cushion Huff gave was unacceptable.

The first-year defensive back was called for a face masking penalty on a punt, but other than that he stayed within himself to keep the Titans defense on schedule. With Wreh-Wilson hitting injured reserve, Huff should play out the rest of the season in a hybrid role as the team’s nickel back while also getting reps at safety. His versatility makes him a nice depth player to have in the secondary, but nothing in his profile suggests starting potential at either position. His size (5-11, 196) plays best at corner, but his hard-hitting and sometimes overaggressive style fits better at the safety spot. Despite not having a true position, Huff has the potential to make a role for himself at the NFL level, and the final three weeks will go a long way towards solidifying the Titans’ confidence in him heading into 2015.

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/

WinstonIn what is the penultimate weekend of the college football regular season, a top ten shake-up is in the offing. And while a number of sleeper prospects are rising up draft boards one big named player makes our Sliders list.

 

 

 

 

 

Word from the PAC 12 has two cornerbacks moving in opposite directions.

I continue to hear a lot of good things on Steve Nelson of Oregon State. The senior entered the year with free agent grades but has elevated himself into the middle rounds. Sized well at just under 5-feet/11-inches and 200-pounds, he could elevate to a top 100 pick with a good post-season showing.

On the other hand the flow of information on Marcus Peters has gone from bad to worse. The issues which led to his dismissal from the Washington football program are well documented but several area scouts say it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

On Saturday I closely watched Florida Gators defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and have to say he was relatively impressive. The junior plays with leverage, quickness and shows good movement skills. He looks as though he’ll be a solid three-technique prospect and possibly defensive end in a three man line/one-gap system. Bullard is expected to enter the draft but the consensus in the scouting community is he’d really benefit from another season in college.

Risers

Antonio Morrison/LB/Florida: Slightly undersized but swift and explosive, Morrison is very much a linebacker in the body of a safety and a defender who makes plays sideline to sideline. Prior to the Florida State contest Morrison led all Gator defenders with 98 tackles, 40 more than his nearest teammate. He added 5 more during the loss to the Seminoles. He’ll be looked upon as a natural fit at weak side linebacker yet considering the multiple fronts used in today’s NFL, Morrison will also be given consideration on the inside of a 3-4 alignment which allows him to freely run to the action.

Brandon Doughty/QB/Western Kentucky: For the moment let’s dismiss the fact Doughty threw for 491-yards and 8 touchdowns during the Hilltoppers victory over Marshall this weekend. Rather look at the accuracy and timing of Doughty’s throws, as well as his completion percentage. I first mentioned Doughty last season and was surprised he never received as much as a mention from scouts entering the 2014 campaign. He does not possesses a big arm but Doughty’s ability to run a timing/west coast offense should at the very least, get him into a camp next summer.

Jermauria Rasco/DE/LSU: Fact is I was never very high on Rasco entering the season and neither were NFL scouts, who expected him to be a mini-camp casualty. But give credit where its’ due as the senior has played consistently productive football this season. He finished the year with 8 tackles and 1 sack during the LSU victory over Texas A&M, and finishes the season atop the team with 4 sacks. Rasco does not possesses the upside of teammate Danielle Hunter who holds a 2nd/3rd round grade, but at the same time he does not disappear for stretches as the junior does.

Laken Tomlinson/OL/Duke: Four years a starter on the Duke offensive line, Tomlinson has been a consistent blocker in college and intrigues NFL scouts. He’s a wide bodied lineman at 6-feet/3-inches and 325lbs, strong enough to open holes on the line of scrimmage and nimble enough to remove defenders on the second level. He’s not expected to wow anyone in pre-draft testing rather Tomlinson will be a name that slips into the later rounds of the draft then fights for a starting role at the next level.

Willie Beavers/OL/Western Michigan: I continue to be impressed by Beavers, the collegiate left tackle who projects to guard on Sunday’s. The junior hits the tape under 6-feet/4-inches yet moves well off the edge and easily adjusts to cover a lot of area. He’s shown improvement in each of the three years he’s started at WMU and is another wide bodied blocker that jumps out on film.

Doran Grant/CB/Ohio State: Entering the season I was of the opinion that Grant, stamped as a late round pick by scouts, was overrated yet his play this season has impressed me. Its as much his consistency on the field and ability to stay away from mental mistakes as much as anything else. Grant has a knack for staying on receivers hips out of breaks then making plays on the ball. He’ll be a solid nickel back/special teams player on Sunday’s.

Sleeper Prospect: Chris Conley/WR/Georgia: The Bulldogs have found ways to slip receivers into the late part of the draft. Receivers who then go on to have moderate success on Sunday. Kris Durham immediately comes to mind and Conley could be next. The sure handed pass catcher is a consistent underneath target who finds ways to get open or wins out in battles. Though his production has been slightly down this season the senior comes through for Georgia during important moments, including late in the Georgia Tech game on Saturday. His pre-draft workouts won’t excite anyone but his work ethic and personality will surely be embraced by NFL coaches and will help him stick as a fifth receiver.

Small School Prospect: Chris Bonner/WR/CSU-Pueblo: Bonner is the fourth CSU-Pueblo player written about this year and like his cornerback teammates, another one overlooked by scouts. Watch the game film and you can’t help but be impressed. He’s a tall signal caller with impressive pocket stature and a rocket arm. Bonner easily delivers all the throws and does so with a nice degree of accuracy. Relatively nimble, he can escape the rush and connects with receivers throwing on the move. I find his physical skills favorable to those of Mike Glennon, another tall and rangy quarterback, and feel Bonner is a terrific developmental prospect at the position.

Sliders

Jameis Winston/QB/Florida State: Two years ago at this time when many were anointing Geno Smith as the top pick in the 2013 draft I watched the film and thought “no way.” It was a similar feeling with Johnny Manziel a year ago when most positioned him as a top ten selection. Watching Winston, whom I grade a much better prospect than Smith or Manziel, I feel much the same. Off the field transgressions aside, his play on Saturday’s has been exciting but not the caliber of an early first round pick. His ability to bring the Seminoles from behind is becoming legendary yet many gloss over the fact his mistakes force FSU to play catch-up or kept opponents in the contest. Take a look at the last five games. Four interceptions against Florida on Saturday. An interception against Boston College the prior week which led to game-tying points for the Eagles. A drive killing interception at the end of the first half against Miami. Interceptions thrown on consecutive series against Virginia which the Cavaliers converted into touchdowns. Three interceptions against Louisville. In the end Florida State won all those contests, which was most important for the team, its fans and the national rankings. Yet talk with scouts or next level decision makers who watch the film in its entirety rather than the highlights and they’ll tell you Winston’s penchant for turning the ball over very disconcerting. Talent? Lots of it. Upside? An enormous amount. But also an equal amount of downside risk which is dangerous for any signal caller, especially one who seems to struggle controlling himself off the field.

Eric Lefeld/OL/Cincinnati: Lefeld was highly rated by many entering the season except league scouts, who were proven correct. He’s a solid college tackle but lacks the balance, athleticism and necessary skills to be anything other than a small area blocker at the next level.

Crowell_proA few highly drafted offensive linemen have been stellar all season for their teams on the inside, and Chris Tripodi returns to give Browns guard Joel Bitonio and Cowboys guard Zack Martin their due. As usual, a few skill players have seen their opportunities increase over the past few weeks as well, and two came through with their best games of the season in Week 12.

 

 

Isaiah Crowell (RB-Cle)

With last week’s release of veteran running back Ben Tate, who entered the season as the Browns’ starter, extra playing time opened up for rookie third-round pick Terrance West (profiled here after Week 2) and the undrafted Isaiah Crowell. While West handled 15 touches to Crowell’s 12, the latter played 16 more snaps by a count of 47-31 after starting the game and was easily the more effective back. That’s not a knock on West, who ran well, but Crowell’s talent pops off the screen every time you watch him play. His 12 carries went for 88 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 12 win over Atlanta, compared to 62 yards on 14 carries for West.

Crowell got off to a slow start early, as his first three runs went for zero yards, but an 11-yard touchdown late in the first quarter got his day going nicely. Backfield penetration from the Falcons’ defensive line threatened to shut down a run to the right, but Crowell’s quick feet allowed him to quickly cut away from the lineman towards an open hole on the left side. Spotting a Miles Austin seal block on the edge, Crowell cut upfield and showed elite burst and acceleration to get through the hole before it closed on his way to the end zone. His hip flexibility is also top-notch, which allows him to cut laterally with ease and get skinny through tight creases.

The former Alabama State star was stopped for no gain on his next run, but most NFL running backs would have lost yardage. Crowell used his aforementioned flexibility and quick feet to get away from a defensive lineman in the backfield before quickly cutting upfield to get back to the line of scrimmage. The rookie then ripped off 25 yards on his next four carries, continuing to show impressive burst and acceleration and hitting the hole like a back 30 pounds lighter than his 225-pound frame. Crowell just plays at a different speed and it’s easy to see on the field, especially in comparison to West.

Crowell’s second touchdown of the game combined everything he does well into one 26-yard run. A play that started right was going nowhere, and Crowell quickly reversed field to the left, again showing the flexibility to make cuts parallel to the line of scrimmage without losing much speed. After cutting upfield, he froze a defender with a stutter step before stiff arming him on his way back to the right side of the field. Crowell stiff armed a second defensive back before turning on his speed, beating the rest of the defense to the pylon for the score. On the Browns’ next possession, Crowell turned a toss play into 18 yards by again showing good speed to turn the corner, and he exhibited impressive patience on a seven-yard carry where small stutter steps allowed his blockers to finish their assignments before he exploded past them.

Undrafted due to the off-the-field issues that led to him getting kicked out of the University of Georgia and finishing his college career at Alabama State, Crowell’s talent was never the issue. If he can keep his nose clean and stay out of trouble, Crowell is the most talented running back in this year’s rookie class and it’s not really close. With the quickness of a scatback and good downhill power, Crowell is the complete package as an NFL running back. With Tate out of his way and West a plodder in comparison, Crowell will be featured again heading into Week 13 and has a chance to build on the best game of his career against a solid Bills defense.

Jarvis Landry (WR-Mia)

Despite being drafted in the second round after a great college career at LSU, Jarvis Landry has been overlooked from the start. His college teammate, Odell Beckham Jr., was the third receiver drafted in May, while Landry was the 12th. His Dolphins teammate, Mike Wallace, headed into the season with hopes for a bounce-back year after busting in year one of his big contract. Through it all, Landry has gone from fourth on the depth chart behind Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson to second over the past few weeks, passing both Hartline and Gibson to become Ryan Tannehill’s most trusted short and intermediate target. While Beckham’s one-handed catch this weekend made all the highlight reels, Landry had a great game himself in Miami’s loss to Denver, with seven receptions for 50 yards and two touchdowns.

Six of Landry’s seven catches went for nine yards or fewer, and the longest one came on a short pass as well. Lined up in the slot, Landry came inside to chip the defensive end before quickly cutting out to the sideline and creating separation between him and the slot corner. Showing strong hands to reach out and grab the pass in front of him in tight coverage, Landry also showed the strength to slip the tackle and stay on his feet, picking up extra yardage down the sideline for a 20-yard gain. It was the rookie’s lone catch of the first half, but there was more to come later in the game.

Landry’s third-quarter touchdown reception came from five yards out, as the first-year wideout ran a slant from an outside alignment on the left side. Beating his corner to the inside, Landry reached above his head to snatch the pass with sure hands before being pushed into the end zone for the score. His sticky hands were a theme in this game, which has led to him being Tannehill’s top security blanket on short routes. Landry’s other reception in the third quarter came on a short cross for three yards, as he kept his route going towards the sideline as Tannehill was flushed out of the pocket.

The fourth quarter was where Landry made his biggest impact on this game, both positively and negatively. The rookie started out with a nine-yard reception on a banana out, slipping another tackle for extra yardage. His next target resulted in an interception, but the pass was rifled too hard on a short route in tight coverage. Landry was able to get his left hand up, but the ball deflected away into the hands of safety T.J. Ward. It was a somewhat-catchable pass, but the blame lies with both Landry and Tannehill on the play. The pair bounced back though, completing a simple in route on fourth-and-two on Miami’s final drive to move the chains while down 39-28.

Landry’s second touchdown brought the Dolphins within three points and although it only went for a yard, it was an impressive display of route-running and situational field awareness by both Landry and his quarterback. The receiver broke off the line into a curl route after angling his release to the outside. Once Landry reached the goal line, he immediately sat down in a small opening in Denver’s coverage. Tannehill was ready, firing the pass into tight quarters to Landry, who made the catch for the score. The pass was almost broken up by a nearby defender, but Landry’s understanding of where he needed to be to secure the score and stay away from the coverage made this play. If the rookie had ran his route even a half-yard deeper into the end zone, the pass likely would’ve been knocked away.

While both Beckham and Wallace make the highlight-reel plays, Landry does the dirty work to move the chains, keep drives alive and bail his quarterback out of tough situations. He did it consistently for Zach Mettenberger at LSU, and has done it consistently for Tannehill so far in his rookie season. Landry isn’t a burner, and doesn’t have the size to be a jump-ball threat, but the comparisons to Hines Ward during the draft process accurately portray the type of receiver he is; polished, reliable and trustworthy with the game on the line. Landry will never be a star, but he should enjoy a long NFL career as a chain-mover with the spatial awareness in small windows to score his share of touchdowns as well. His five scores this season have all come within his last seven games, and it’s reasonable to expect more the rest of the way.

Joel Bitonio (OG-Cle)

While Isaiah Crowell just recently got his prime opportunity for the Browns, Cleveland’s second-round pick took over at left guard in Week 1 and hasn’t looked back since. Not only has Bitonio been arguably the best rookie offensive lineman this season, he’s played like one of the best in the NFL, sitting second in Pro Football Focus’ guard rankings through 12 weeks. The site also gave Bitonio a negative grade in just one game this season, while his Week 12 performance was one of his most impressive so far.

Rated as a borderline first/second-round prospect by Draft Insider during the months leading up to the draft, Bitonio was actually viewed as a tackle by many NFL teams. He’s settled in on the interior of the Browns’ offensive line, and has been especially important considering the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to injury. A fundamentally sound lineman who plays smart football, Bitonio has consistently shown his ability to utilize angles to his advantage. On Crowell’s 18-yard run in the fourth quarter Sunday, Bitonio quickly got his feet into position off the snap to get outside. The rookie guard wasted little movement getting to the second level, cutting off linebacker Paul Worrilow’s pursuit angle and allowing Crowell to get almost 15 yards downfield before being touched by a defender.

Bitonio has shown impressive speed to the second level this season, and has also been very quick and smooth on pulls. Staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and again wasting little movement, Bitonio gets outside quickly and breaks down well before making contact with defenders. The former Nevada star fires low off the snap and gets under defensive linemen’s pads to drive them off the ball. Bitonio took his man out of the play right off the snap on Crowell’s first touchdown, which was a key to the play considering his teammates allowed penetration on the other side. Clearing out this space allowed Crowell to cut back into a huge hole for the score.

The first-year guard also displays extremely strong hands once engaged with opponents, and used this skill to clear a hole for Crowell on a seven-yard run up the middle. With the defensive lineman engaging Bitonio on his inside shoulder and the play set to cut up inside him, Bitonio redirected his opponent out of the hole and ended up with him on his outside shoulder by the time the block was complete, giving Crowell enough of a crease to hit.

Bitonio has been an excellent addition to a Browns’ offense that initially struggled to run the football when Mack got hurt. The team has since recovered, with both Bitonio and Crowell playing important roles in the revival. This first-year guard is a huge reason Cleveland is in the thick of the AFC North race heading into the season’s final stretch and, while it be somewhat surprising to see him voted into the Pro Bowl, he certainly would be deserving. In addition to his stellar run blocking, Bitonio has allowed just eight quarterback hurries, one quarterback hit and no sacks this year.

Zack Martin (OG-Dal)

With all the hype surrounding the performance of the Cowboys’ offensive line, and rightfully so, Martin has been a perfect addition in Dallas. Drafted in the first round in May out of Notre Dame, Martin was billed as an NFL-ready guard or tackle prospect, but with Tyron Smith entrenched on Tony Romo’s blindside in Dallas, Martin has settled in at right guard. Not only has he stepped smoothly into the starting lineup, but Martin has been arguably the most effective lineman in Dallas against both the pass and the run, as Pro Football Focus has him rated as the league’s fourth-best guard so far this season. Week 12 wasn’t one of Martin’s best performances this season, but he played well in a win over the Giants.

Like Bitonio, Martin shows the necessary speed to get to the second level, and uses angles well to set up blocks down the field. An early DeMarco Murray seven-yard run followed Martin right up an alley he created on the right side, and the rookie guard got to linebacker Jameel McClain quickly and handled him long enough to allow Murray to pick up nice yardage. A tenacious blocker, Martin plays with an attitude that showed through on this play, as he continued to fight McClain once engaged and kept his feet moving to drive the linebacker off his spot.

The first-year guard also moves well laterally, quickly breaking out of his stance and smoothly moving to the outside on pulls and kick-out blocks, allowing Murray to keep running without breaking stride before cutting up inside. Martin stands his ground well at the point of attack, preventing backfield penetration and showing the ability to leave his blocks once finished to seek out another defender. A smart lineman who plays angry, Martin gets the most out of his physical tools.

Also strong in pass protection, like Bitonio, the Cowboys’ rookie guard hasn’t allowed a sack this season. Romo has been hurried just five times and hit just twice on Martin’s account, and his skills in pass protection as a four-year tackle with the Fighting Irish have translated well to the inside at the NFL level. Martin may not have much room left to improve on his very polished skill set, but he’s already an impact NFL guard who will only get more recognition as he gains experience. In a similar fashion to Bitonio once again, I expect multiple Pro Bowls to be in this rookie’s future.

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/

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