2014 Season Preview: A Look at What’s to Come

With the start of the NFL Season just two days away, it’s time to start gearing up and getting ready for the NFL season.  In order to help prepare for the upcoming season, here are a few things to look out for in 2014.

Breakout Players

Every year there are a few players who, after a decent season the previous season, are poised to have a big year.  Some players don’t quite make a large impact in the following year, but many do.  So here’s a list of players that are set up to have big years following a good performance in 2013.

Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles

Last year, Ertz put up respectable numbers (36 rec, 469 yds, 4 tds) as Philadelphia’s number 2 TE behind Brent Celek.  That was only Ertz’s rookie season, and he definitely has the skillset to improve on those numbers.  This year he’s poised to overtake Celek as the number one tight end, and even if he doesn’t, he stands to get an increase in targets from last year with the departure of DeSean Jackson.  Look for Ertz to become one of the better young tight ends in the league this year.

Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys

After a slow start to last season, Williams really came on late in the year and put up some good numbers (44 rec, 736 yds, 5 tds) opposite Dez Bryant.  Another year under his belt, and working with Tony Romo should do wonders for Williams, and he should be able to play a whole season like he played the second half of last year.  As long as Dez is in Dallas, Williams will never be a top tier receiver, but he has the ability to be an incredibly good number 2.

Khiry Robinson/Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints

Ok, I’m kind of cheating here by putting two names, but I doubt anyone knows who the lead dog in New Orleans’ backfield is, even Sean Payton.  That being said, both Robinson and Ingram have the talent to really take over if given the opportunity, so whichever one of these two gets the better shot should be in for a big year.  Who knows, maybe both of them will end up having a big year, stranger things have happened, especially in the NFL.

Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints

Doubling down on Saints players here as Stills looks poised to take over the number 2 receiver and number 3 passing targets gigs. While Brandin Cooks and Joseph Morgan bring a lot to the table, they are a rookie and streaky respectively.  They gives Stills plenty of opportunity, and with a QB who both loves the deep ball and loves spreading it around, Stills’ deep skills make him a clear target to have a big year this year.

Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Yep, another offensive player.  I promise there will be some defenders on this list, but Ellington has to make this list.  After an impressive rookie season, in which he didn’t get the starting gig until late in the year, and his coach still limited his touches anyway, Ellington should be the lead back who gets the lions share of the carries in 2014.  Coach Bruce Arians has made it clear that Ellington is the main back in Arizona, and he definitely has the talent to make a big impact.

Ian Williams, DT, San Francisco 49ers

Last year, Williams was poised to be the starting NT, but an injury sidelined him and allowed for Glenn Dorsey to resurrect his career as a NT instead of a DT.  This year, Dorsey is the one that’s hurt, and that should open the way for Williams to regain the starting NT gig.  He has the talent to run with this opportunity, and as long as he stays healthy, I don’t see why he won’t.

Corey Lemonier, LB, San Francisco 49ers

With the suspension to Aldon Smith, the Niners will be without their star linebacker for a majority of the season and need a replacement.  Enter Lemonier, who played well last year in limited opportunities, and could very well play as just as high a level this year while Smith is out.  He’s had the talent, now he finally has the opportunity.

Mike Daniels, DL, Green Bay Packers

After not doing much his rookie year, Daniels got an opportunity for playing time in 2013 and did the best he could with it, becoming one of the lone bright spots on the otherwise weak Packers defensive line.  This year, he has a full season of production under his belt, is poised to get a lot of snaps at DL and has some more help around him.  All a recipe for a breakout year from the big man.

Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

After a rookie season where his coach needlessly buried him on the depth chart until late in the season, Patterson’s second season should be a lot better.  Coming out of college, it was known he had the physical tools to succeed, but was incredibly raw.  When he finally got a good opportunity late in last season, he showed that he’s not as raw as he once was, and another offseason could have only helped that.  This year he should be the number 2 across from Greg Jennings, and could possibly make himself Minnesota’s number one receiver.  If there was a player to be called “this year’s Josh Gordon”, it would be Patterson hands down.

Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills

This is the only prediction here that is also dependent on another player’s success (or lack thereof).  If E.J. Manuel shows he can be an NFL quarterback, Woods stands to reap the benefits.  Right now, Woods is the number 3 receiver in Buffalo, but only has Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams ahead of him, so upward mobility is definitely there.  Last year he showed that he and Manuel had chemistry as his biggest games came when E.J. was healthy.  A healthy, talented Manuel would make for a great year for Woods, but if Manuel doesn’t pan out, Woods may find himself on a list like this again next year.

Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Indianapolis Colts

After character concerns led to Rogers going undrafted, and then later being cut from the Bills, Rogers had the cards stacked against him last year.  He however ended up landing on the Colts and having something of an impact last year.  This year will be an uphill climb with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Hakeem Nicks in front of him, but Rogers did it once and he can do it again, and he has the talent to be a top target of Andrew Luck’s for quite a while.

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

After a year in which he pretty much did not see the field, Kelce could be a top target in Kansas City.  He doesn’t have much else to compete with in the passing game, with Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, and Jamaal Charles the only other names of note, and he definitely has the ability to leapfrog Anthony Fasano for the starting tight end job.  Once Kelce has the starting job locked down, or forces the Chiefs to use two tight-end sets, he should be set up for a big year.

Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers

Late last year, Green put up a few games where he showed that his athletic talent can make the jump over to the NFL level.  That talent might just force San Diego to start using more 2 tight end sets in order to get him on the field more.  Even if that doesn’t happen, Antonio Gates is on the downswing of his great career and Green is in the perfect position to take advantage of that and become a very, very good tight end.

Rookies to Watch

Every year there are rookies that produce, whether you see it coming a mile away, or whether they surprise as a late-round pick or undrafted free agent.  Here’s a list of rookies that could have good years based on their talent and where they landed.  This list is separate from the breakout players list because some of these guys may not have huge years, or they may have their big year in the second or third year, so these are more long-term suggestions for who to keep an eye on.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, Houston Texans

No surprises here, as the number one overall pick this year is of course someone to follow.  Clowney will likely have to transition to playing some OLB this year, but with players like J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing around him, and in a scheme created by Romeo Crennel, there is not a lot of pressure for Clowney to produce, and the lack of ridiculously high expectations could make the transition from 4-3 to 3-4 easier on him.  If the preseason is any indication, the transition shouldn’t be a bother and he should be terrifying QBs opposite J.J. Watt all year.

Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons

Offensive line may not be a sexy position, but it is definitely necessary.  The Falcons had a real deficit in it last year and it showed.  Matthews has the talent to help them shore up their offensive tackle situation, and the Falcons are more than going to give him an opportunity to do so.  Look for him to be shutting down edge rushers pretty often, with the occasional rookie mistake once in a while of course.

Calvin Pryor, S, New York Jets

Despite Rex Ryan’s love for defense, the Jets secondary has been lacking a bit in recent years.  Pryor was the first safety taken in the draft this year, and all preseason has shown why the Jets picked him and are going into the season with him as one of their starting safeties.  The Louisville Slugger should be a big part of the Jets defense this year.

Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay Packers

See: Pryor, Calvin.  Clinton-Dix was the second safety off the board, and like Pryor, went to a DB needy team and had a good preseason.  He’s in position to get lots of playing time and is talented enough to make some impact with that playing time.

Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

Dennard is an extremely talented, young corner who ended up on a team with a few good, but older corners.  He may not get a lot of reps this year if those in front of him don’t get hurt, but he is the heir apparent to the CB job in Cincinnati, and should do a great job with it once he has it.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers

Despite how raw Benjamin looked coming out of college and the knocks against him, Kelvin has looked very good in preseason and it appears that receivers coach Ricky Proehl has worked his magic on Kelvin, helping him come along much faster than many thought he would.  The state of the Panthers receiving corps pretty much guarantees that Benjamin will be their number one receiver as well.

Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders

Carr will be the first quarterback drafted this year to start, and this year’s class was a pretty good quarterback class.  While winning the job from Matt Schaub didn’t seem like a challenging task, he still did quite well for himself so far, and looks even better than he did at Fresno State.

Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Atlanta Falcons

To win you need to be strong in the trenches, and Atlanta didn’t seem to get that memo last year.  This year however, they seemed to listen as they added both Matthews and Hageman.  Hageman should be able to play DT for them from the get-go if need be, and should be able to contribute both against the run and the pass, giving Atlanta the defensive line talent they sorely need.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

Matthews continued his string of impressive play from his time at Vanderbilt to Eagles camp and preseason.  He should start the season as the number three receiver behind Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, but in Chip Kelly’s offense he should still see a lot of targets, and will probably shine.

Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers

Hyde was drafted to be the heir apparent to Frank Gore, and after some injuries and loss of what was considered incredible RB depth for the Niners, that position looks to be more secure than ever for Hyde.  He’ll likely be the number 2 back this year, but will probably get most of the carries that spell Gore and will likely eventually take over as the starting back in San Francisco.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Houston Texans

I don’t know if a Fiedorowicz hype train exists, but if it does, I’m driving it.  With Owen Daniels out in Houston, only Garrett Graham stands in C.J.’s way of becoming the top tight end there.  With the currently murky quarterback situation, Fiedorowicz’s production could be a bit limited this year, but after what he showed at Iowa, I feel he can produce whether it be Ryan Mallett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Tom Savage throwing him the ball.

Trai Turner, OG, Carolina Panthers

Heading into the offseason, two huge, and I mean huge, holes loomed for the Panthers, wide receiver and offensive line.  They addressed wide receiver early in the draft by taking Benjamin, and then took Turner later to help with the offensive line.  Turner may not be asked to start right away, but along with Byron Bell and Ryan Kalil, he can help from the beginning of a semblance of an offensive line in Carolina.

Cyril Richardson, OG, Buffalo Bills

Richardson was seemingly a high quality prospect out of Baylor, but he slipped into the late rounds.  The Bills are working on overhauling their offensive line the last couple years after losing key lineman to FA and getting poor production out of others.  Richardson was one of three picks used on lineman this year by the Bills, and he should help fix one of their offensive guard spots.

Silas Redd, RB, Washington Redskins

After going undrafted, Redd managed to beat out 6th round pick Lache Seastrunk, Evan Royster, and Chris Thompson to land the number 3 running back gig in Washington.  While it should be tough for him to usurp either Roy Helu or Alfred Morris, the fact that he made the roster means he should be worth keeping an eye on.

Allen Hurns, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

Hurting at the wide receiver position after suspensions to Ace Sanders and Justin Blackmon, the Jags attacked the position in the draft by adding Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee.  Their biggest find, however, may have come in UDFA as Hurns had a huge preseason and could open the season as the number 3 or number 4 receiver in Jacksonville.  With the addition of Hurns, Robinson, and Lee, WR has suddenly become a position of strength for the Jaguars.

Jayrone Elliott, LB, Green Bay Packers

After a relatively productive career at small-school Toledo went relatively unnoticed, Elliott landed with Green Bay as an UDFA.  He then proceeded to have a great preseason, and should be a rotational pass rusher, at the least, for the Packers this year.

Season Predictions

It’s that time of year where everyone’s doing it, so why not?  Here’s my predictions for each division (wild card predictions with an asterisk), conference and Super Bowl winners, and award winnners.

AFC East

  1. New England Patriots
  2. Miami Dolphins
  3. New York Jets
  4. Buffalo Bills

AFC South

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. Tennessee Titans
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars
  4. Houston Texans

AFC West

  1. Denver Broncos
  2. San Diego Chargers*
  3. Kansas City Chiefs*
  4. Oakland Raiders

AFC North

  1. Cincinnati Bengals
  2. Baltimore Ravens
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. Cleveland Browns

NFC East

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. Dallas Cowboys
  3. Washington Redskins
  4. New York Giants

NFC South

  1. Carolina Panthers
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  4. Atlanta Falcons

NFC West

  1. San Francisco 49ers
  2. Seattle Seahawks*
  3. Arizona Cardinals*
  4. St. Louis Rams

NFC North

  1. Green Bay Packers
  2. Chicago Bears
  3. Detroit Lions
  4. Minnesota Vikings

AFC Conference Champions: Cincinnati Bengals

NFC Conference Champions: San Francisco 49ers

Super Bowl Champions: San Francisco 49ers

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Offensive Player of the Year: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals

Official 2014 Mock Draft

With the draft swiftly approaching on Thursday, what better time than now to put out a mock draft?  This mock draft will only be one round deep, and will not account for any trades, so accuracy isn’t really the goal here.  The purpose of this mock draft is to show what each team should do instead.  Each pick will be provided with analysis about the player, how he fits the prospective team, and reasons why that player was selected over certain other ones.  This is not a simple run down the big board of prospects with disregard for positional need, but there will not be an egregious amount of attention paid to positional need.  Hopefully this mock draft can give some context to what some teams need and where certain prospects fit well.

#1 Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

While QB may be a much more pressing need than edge rusher for Houston, they just can’t pass up this much talent at the top of the draft.  While I personally think Teddy Bridgewater will be an excellent QB, I don’t think the Texans can really pass up the opportunity to pair up Clowney and Watt in their front seven.  Clowney doesn’t seem to have a clear spot to fit in the Texans defense with them running a 3-4, but Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel has said he plans on running a lot of nickel packages, which would allow for Clowney and Watt to both play on the line often.  The fact that Bill O’Brien is Houston’s new coach makes this pick a bit easier, as he is known for coaching up QBs, so Houston can take a risk on a mid-round QB, especially if a specific one strikes O’Brien’s fancy.

#2 St. Louis Rams: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

I think ultimately that St. Louis trades down from this spot in order to accrue even more picks, but I’m not accounting for trades in this mock, as they are very unpredictable.  With that in mind, Watkins is the best player the Rams could really pick without reaching at this spot.  He gives them a true #1 WR who really helps solve some offensive problems.  Watkins on the outside with Tavon Austin in the slot, and some combination of Austin Pettis and Chris Givens on the other side can be a very, very good set of weapons for Sam Bradford.  I was slightly tempted to have a tackle go here, but even if Jake Long misses a few games, the Rams still have Joe Barksdale and Roger Saffold to hold down the tackle positions just fine.

#3 Jacksonville Jaguars: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo

For the past couple of drafts, the Jaguars have stayed away from taking a QB.  Now, the reasons for that seemed to have changed depending on the GM in charge.  Gene Smith was likely giving Blaine Gabbert time to turn into something, and David Caldwell seems like he wants to build a team up and have the QB be the last piece, which is a very smart way to build a team.  While the Jags roster is much improved now as compared to the end of 2011, it still isn’t a QB away.  They made some nice FA additions in the offseason, and adding someone like Mack can add even more to that offseason.  The Jags front seven looks decent this year, but nothing special, and Mack can immediately help out the linebacking corps.  Add a wide receiver or two in the middle rounds, and suddenly you have a good defense and some nice weapons for a QB from the seemingly loaded 2015 class.

#4 Cleveland Browns: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

The Jaguars taking Mack has to be an absolute dream for Cleveland.  Even with the promising play of Brian Hoyer in his short audition last year, the Browns desperately need a QB.  They also could use another weapon opposite Josh Gordon.  If two of the top three picks are Clowney and Mack, then Cleveland is locked in for either Sammy Watkins or Teddy Bridgewater, which is a huge boon for them.  In this case, they end up with Bridgewater and may just have found their franchise QB for the first time in a loooooong time.  The Browns already have a solid defense and a good line, and with another pick in the first round, they can really build a good team round Bridgewater (or Hoyer) very quickly.

#5 Oakland Raiders: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

The Raiders could go a lot of ways with this pick as GM Reggie McKenzie chose to gut the roster and start over when he took over.  They could go QB here, but I feel that if it isn’t Bridgewater, they might be reaching a little.  Instead they solidify their offensive line to give Matt McGloin (or a mid-late round choice) something less sieve-like to stand behind.  Menelik Watson looks like he can be a good tackle, but he doesn’t seem like a long-term choice at left tackle.  Jake Matthews can either immediately take over on the blind side, or start on the right and then switch to the left when the decision is warranted, having experience with both in college.  Greg Robinson is seen by some as the best lineman in the draft due to his ceiling, but Matthews is much more polished and can have an impact right away.

#6 Atlanta Falcons: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

With back to back teams with offensive line needs, the top two tackles go off the board very quickly.  The Falcons, like a few other teams, were absolutely ravaged by injury last year, and it really showed on their offensive and defensive lines.  The Falcons might try to swing a trade up for Clowney, but failing that, they should address the other side of the trenches.  Robinson gives them someone who can start at right tackle right now, and can possibly move to left tackle and take over for Sam Baker down the line.  While Robinson doesn’t solve all of the Falcons O-Line woes, he helps as much as one pick can at this point.  If Matthews doesn’t go in the top 5, I don’t see how Atlanta can pass him up instead, but either way, I see them going tackle.

#7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M

There is no team that I am less confident is going to pick in their assigned slot than the Bucs.  I feel like they could move up or down and fill their needs better than they could at number 7.  I really think they could move down and get Evans later, or get one of the top corners, or trade up for Clowney or Mack.  However, since I’m forcing everyone to stay put, I’m going with Evans with this pick.  Some might say that Evans is redundant since they already have a big physical receiver in Vincent Jackson, but the Bears have two big physical receivers and have one of the top receiving corps in the league.  Evans can be a big target who can fight for the ball, and the Bucs don’t have a whole lot of receiving threats outside of V-Jax right now.

#8 Minnesota Vikings: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama

Minnesota is another QB needy team in the top picks, but I feel like Derek Carr really fits them well, and 8 is too early for them to pick him, so instead they shore up their defense by adding to a dismal linebacking corps form last year with one of the top inside linebackers in the draft.  Putting a good interior linebacker like Mosley in the middle can take pressure off of Chad Greenway, and with the addition of Captain Munnerlyn at CB, the Vikings would be in great position to run the nickle with Mosley and Greenway being the linebackers.  Adding Mosley would put the Vikings a safety and a corner away from having a very good and very underrated defense.

#9 Buffalo Bills: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

I’m not actually a huge fan of Dennard going in the top 10, but with the Bills needs, this is really the best pick I could see them making without trading up or down.  The Bills have a very good front seven with Kiko Alonso, Brandon Spikes, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus headlining, but their defensive backfield could use some help.  Taking one of the top CBs in the draft class to play opposite Stephon Gilmore helps shore up that backfield, and takes pressure off of the safeties to try and cover for the loss of Jairus Byrd.  With the defense they’d have, and the offensive line and weapons they do have, E.J. Manuel would have no excuses to not produce something with the Bills next year.

#10 Detroit Lions: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

Just like the Bills, the Lions have a very good front seven and a questionable defensive backfield, and just like the Bills, going CB here is probably their best option.  They could go safety here, but I feel that they wouldn’t get good value with a pick like that, so they would be better off trading down if they are going to go safety.  As of right now, the Lions have a bunch of young promising CBs, but none of them really seem like a true number 1.  Gilbert would give them a potential #1 corner and allow them to rotate the rest of their young corners through the second spot and give a few different looks in nickle and dime packagaes.  Really, what this pick does is take a good defense and make it better.

#11 Tennessee Titans: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

I was very tempted to go wide receiver here, but with the depth of this year’s class and the fact that the Titans already have Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, who could both keep improving, I couldn’t really justify it. So instead, the run on corners continues.  The Titans could go safety here, but, like the Lions, I think it’s a bit too early for safeties.  Also, Jason McCourty is an excellent number 2 corner, but he’s not a real number one, and Coty Sensabaugh isn’t really an answer on the outside.  Roby would come in and be able to play opposite McCourty and really solidify this defense.

#12 New York Giants: Eric Ebron, TE, UNC

The Giants seem to have two pressing needs right now: (especially after their free-agency splurge), offensive line and tight end.  With Matthews and Robinson off the board, there are no O-Lineman I like that would be available here that wouldn’t be considered a reach.  So instead, they go the tight end route and nab the top tight end in the draft.  Eric Ebron is more a receiving tight end than a balanced one, but he is very athletic and can be yet another weapon for Eli Manning to throw to.  The Giants haven’t had a really reliable tight end since Kevin Boss left, and taking Ebron would allow them to return to that type of threat.

#13 St. Louis Rams: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA

Outside of safety, I don’t see a pressing need for the Rams at this pick, so they can afford to take a risk a bit here.  If trades were a thing, I would expect a team to trade up to snag Barr by now, as he’s very talented but not polished enough for any of the top teams to risk a pick on him.  The Rams, however, can afford to take the risk because, if Barr struggles early, they can run the nickle often (like they already do) and keep James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree on the field instead while he develops.  Then, assuming he improves as he should, they can get more creative with their front-seven looks through moving around Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Barr.  This is a sort of a luxury pick, but the value is too high to pass up.

#14 Chicago Bears: Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

The Bears have to be very happy that Donald falls to them here.  He’s a very good 3-technique tackle for 4-3 fronts, and is a borderline top 10 talent. However, barring a trade up by a team like the Cowboys, no one is really in position to take him and use him.  Donald can come in and help lessen the pain from losing Henry Melton, and might help bring the Bears defense back to something at least looking somewhat like the Bears defenses of old.  They could also go safety here, but getting a value who also fills a need like Donald is better than just filling a need in the end.

#15 Pittsburgh Steelers: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech

The Steelers unfortunately miss out on the run on corners, but they have such a need there with the aging Ike Taylor, that they should go with the best available one anyway.  Fuller is not as talented as the trio who went before him, but the Steelers can have him back up Taylor for the time being, and then let him take over when it’s time for Taylor to hang it up.  It’s also very hard to not pick defense for the Steelers, as it feels as if they pick a defensive player in the first round of every draft, and usually to good effect.  Fuller isn’t a reach, so the Steelers can justify going need over best available here more than the average team can.

#16 Dallas Cowboys: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville

With Aaron Donald off the board, the Cowboys go with someone who fills a huge hole at a proper value with Pryor.  I do like Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix more than Pryor as an overall prospect, but the Cowboys had an issue with tackling last year, and Pryor is more of an in-the-box, hard hitting safety, where Clinton-Dix’s strength is coverage.  Pryor helps fill the hole at safety well enough that he could potentially make this defense a lot better.  With how bad they were last year, I doubt he’ll be a savior, but I think Pryor can have quite the noticeable impact on the Cowboys’ defense.

#17 Baltimore Ravens: Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama

With the addition of Matt Elam last year, the Ravens got a new hard-hitting strong safety to replace the departed Bernard Pollard, but they didn’t really have a replacement at free safety for Ed Reed.  Clinton-Dix is one of, if not the, best free safeties in the draft, and pairing him with Elam would give the Ravens a very good safety combo for at least a few years, if not longer.  Finally getting a cover safety who can at least passably take over where Reed left off would help bring the Ravens defense back to the strength it was for a long time.

#18 New York Jets: Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, LSU

The Jets benefit from the depth of this class, as a lot of teams with somewhat of a need at wide receiver can afford to pass up on the top wide-outs with an eye on taking a mid-round receiver or two.  This allows Beckham to be available when the Jets pick at 18.  With no receivers really worth mentioning outside of Jeremy Kerley and the newly added Eric Decker, the Jets probably have the biggest need for a receiver out of anyone in the league.  Adding Beckham would give them a number one option, allowing Kerley to operate in the slot, and take pressure off Decker to be the number two. (Though Decker would likely start as the number one)  If the Jets could do as well as they did last year with no real weapons, they can go far with Beckham and Decker being brought in.

#19 Miami Dolphins: Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame

Even if the Richie Incognito-Johnathan Martin scandal didn’t happen last year, there still would have been huge holes on the line for the Dolphins and they really need to address them.  As of right now, LT and C are locked down with Brandon Albert and Mike Pouncey respectively.  Since they have such a need at the three other spots, a versatile lineman like Martin would do them well.  Martin played tackle at Notre Dame, so he could play RT for the Dolphins and give them bookend tackles, or he could be moved inside to play guard, where he could help give the Dolphins a very good left side of the line, and prevent Tannehill from being blindsided too often.  Either way, Martin makes a vast improvement to Miami’s O-Line, and I feel that this is the easiest pick of prospect to team in the first round since Clowney.

#20 Arizona Cardinals: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

The Cardinals only really have two pressing needs, safety and guard.  With Clinton-Dix and Pryor off the board, all of the remaining safeties would be a reach this early, and the same is true for guards.  So the Cardinals can nab Bortles to have him sit and develop behind Carson Palmer for a couple years with the idea that he can fix his flaws and take over when Palmer’s contract is up or he retires.  If Bortles is forced to start right away, he could flame out, so going to a team like the Cards where he can sit and learn for a little while is really beneficial for both parties.

#21 Green Bay Packers, Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State

The Packers have two large needs this year, and, in typical Packer fashion lately, they’re both on the defensive side of the ball.  Those positions being safety and linebacker.  With trades, I actually think the Packers are in a good position to trade down and snag Jimmie Ward, but staying put they can address the linebacker spot instead.  A.J. Hawk is solid, but outside of Clay Matthews, there aren’t really any linebackers the Packers can count on to perform week in and week out, whether due to injury (Nick Perry) or talent level (Brad Jones).  Shazier would be able to come in and complement Hawk in the run-stopping department and help the Packers front seven get a lot better than it has been.

#22 Philadelphia Eagles, Jason Verrett, CB, TCU

Another team that needs safety help that picks too late to nab one of Clinton-Dix or Pryor, the Eagles are in a prime spot to trade up, but barring that, they can pick up the last of the top 5 CBs in Jason Verrett and still add to the quality of their defensive backfield.  Having better pass defenders coupled with their pass rush, the Eagles defense should improve with the upgrade at CB that Verrett represents.

#23 Kansas City Chiefs, Bradin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

Behind the Jets, the Chiefs may be the next most wide receiver needy team in the draft.  Outside of Dwayne Bowe, their receiving threats leave more than a bit to be desired.  Cooks can come in and give them a threat in the slot immediately.  With a QB like Alex Smith who is excellent at making smart, safe throws, Cooks’ underneath game should thrive in Kansas City, and really help the offense take off.  A legitimate QB like Smith throwing to Bowe, Jamaal Charles, and Cooks is a recipe for a good offense.

#24 Cincinnati Bengals: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame

The Bengals biggest needs are in the secondary, but there aren’t really any safeties or cornerbacks left that I can really justify spending a first on, so instead the Bengals get their replacement for the departed Michael Johnson.  Tuitt can play DE in a 4-3, and if he can adequately fill Johnsin’s shoes, he can help keep the Bengals already formidable front seven as good as it was last year. A line with Tuitt, Domata Peko, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins on it is not one to be taken lightly.

#25 San Diego Chargers: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan

I am not a fan of Lewan as a first round pick because of some mechanics issues and his off the field incidents, but a left tackle is pretty much the missing piece to the Chargers’ line and possibly offense in general.  Lewan can start at LT right away, and if he can iron out the mechanical issues he can be dominant.  With this pick, the Chargers could either solidify their line and give Philip Rivers plenty of time to throw, or they could just be drafting King Dunlap’s backup.  This is the most high risk high reward pick I’ve put in this mock so far.

#26 Cleveland Browns: Marqise Lee, WR, USC

Since they snagged Teddy with their first pick, the Browns can grab a weapon for Bridgewater to play with here.  Lee is one of the more raw receivers in this draft, but he has incredible potential and could develop into a great threat opposite Josh Gordon.  Adding Lee to Gordon, Jordan Cameron, and Ben Tate would give the Browns’ QB (in this case, Bridgewater) a ton to work with, and pair that with their very good defense, and the Browns might finally be turning the ship around.  Of course Lee is a risky pick due to how raw he is, but since the Browns have two first rounders and a bunch of second, third, and fourth rounders, they can afford to take a risk here.

#27 New Orleans Saints: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

None of the Saints’ needs (ILB, CB, S) are really good picks at this point, so if this is the position they are in in the real draft, I fully expect them to try to trade down.  However, standing pat they can try to lessen the loss of Lance Moore by getting Drew Brees a new toy to play with.  Matthews is a perfect outside receiver to play second fiddle to Marques Colston, and in the likely event that Colston misses a few games, Matthews can likely carry the load as the number one for a little while.  Like the Rams with Barr, this is a bit of a luxury pick, but you don’t get to be pick number 27 without being good enough to make luxury picks.  There are enough defensive backs in the mid-rounds for the Saints to take a chance on for them to get hurt by this pick too much.

#28 Carolina Panthers: Joel Bitonio, OT, Nevada

With the retirement of Jordan Gross, offensive line has leap-frogged wide receiver as the biggest need for the Panthers (especially after the additions of Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood).  Also, with how deep this draft is at WR, they can afford to wait on WR for a little while.  The Panthers have a need both at tackle and at guard, but I feel that this draft is a little bit deeper at guard then at tackle.  Bitonio can help fill the hole left by Jordan Gross and lessen the pressure put on Byron Bell to play better than he is.  I was thinking of having them take Xavier Su’a-Filo here, but taking Bitonio means they could take David Yankey or Cyril Richardson later, and I’m not sure there’s a tackle of equal quality who would be around when those two would be, so Bitonio won out.

#29 New England Patriots: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

The Patriots love to run a lot of two TE sets, and with Aaron Hernandez no longer around, they need a new H-back/move-TE.  Jace Amaro can fill exactly that role, as he was more of a H-back at Tech than a traditional TE.  Also, if and when Rob Gronkowski goes down with an injury, Michael Hoomanawanui is not exactly the best answer to fill in, so Amaro would be valuable in that way.  Last year was considered a bad year for the Pats offense with all of the injuries and lack of weapons, so one can only imagine what adding someone else for Brady to throw to can do for this offense.

#30 San Francisco 49ers: Louis Nix III, NT, Notre Dame

Nix is one of the few true nose tackles in the draft, and for the past couple seasons the Niners seem to have kept trying and trying to find a permanent solution there.  While Glenn Dorsey seemed to work last year, I’m not confident he can do that long term, so Nix can take over the spot.  And if Dorsey can hold down the NT spot?  Then Nix could probably slide to 3-4 DE and be a rotational player until he takes over for Justin Smith.  Either way Nix provides a boost to the Niners’ already strong D-Line.

#31 Denver Broncos: Xavier Su’a-Filo, OG, UCLA

With the departure of Zane Beadles to the Jags, the Broncos are left with a hole at guard, and their biggest objective on offense should be protecting Peyton Manning.  With that in mind, taking Su’a-Filo here is a no brainer.  If he can be the answer at guard, the Broncos will once again have a very strong line, and a strong line brought together with Peyton, multiple receiving threats, and good running backs equals lots of points.  The Broncos don’t have many positions where they are truly hurting so taking Su’a-Filo here just makes a lot of sense.

#32 Seattle Seahawks: Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

The rich get richer here, as the Seahawks add to their impressive line with Hageman.  Hageman can play pretty much every spot on the Seahawks defensive line besides the LEO end, as he’s not a pure pass rusher.  However, he can play the interior line positions on Seattle’s front quite well, and can play the run stopping end if needed every once in a while.  Hageman can start off as a rotational player on their line and then allow the Seahawks to have the luxury of letting some of their D-Line players walk in free agency.  With no huge needs outside of maybe offensive line, the Seahawks can afford to add to a strength here.

Trojan Horse: Marqise Lee

This year’s draft is deep at most positions, but it is incredibly deep top to bottom at receiver.  Rising to the top of that crop was Marqise Lee from USC, who is often considered a true first round receiver, even if he’s not as well regarded as Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans.  Marqise Lee is a very raw player, but the raw skills he possesses are quite impressive.  He is very athletic and naturally gifted, but he isn’t very polished, and needs improvement in a few key areas of being a receiver if he wants to succeed at the next level.

Intangibles

Lee profiles as a typical outside receiver, not only due to the fact that his skills lend him to it, but because he is also 6’0″, 195 lbs.  He’s small enough where he can move inside if need be, but he is by no means a slot receiver, and will almost definitely be an outside deep threat for whoever drafts him.  He has a good head on his shoulders and has a very good motor, and he keeps going whether he is a receiver, blocker, or even out of the play completely.

Physical Skills

Lee has good speed, enough to be a deep threat, but not enough that he’s going to win any track meets.  He’s not the Mike Wallace type where you just tell him to run a fly and chuck it to him, but if the situation calls for him to do that, he can.  He’s a good leaper, allowing him to win jump balls, which also lends to him being a good option as a deep threat.  However, he also has good change of direction ability, so he can catch the ball short and make something happen.  He’s quite strong, and when combined with the effort level he puts out, this makes Lee a very tough player to bring down in the open field.   Lee has good explosion off the line and can get by a defender in the first couple steps, allowing him to get open.

Blocking

For most receivers, it’s good enough to just be not terrible at blocking in order to be as good as your team wants you to be at it.  Lee, however, is better than not terrible, he actually looks quite solid as a blocker.  He does a good job of keeping his man engaged throughout the play and finishing his block.  As mentioned when discussing his motor, he doesn’t give up on blocks and he doesn’t give up on a play just because he missed a block or finished one block.  Lee is not afraid to be physical when blocking, and does make an impact in the run-blocking game as a result.

Technical Skills

Lee is VERY good at understanding where the sideline is.  Both on tape and at the combine, Lee did an amazing job of keeping himself in bounds, which is something that is very valuable for a receiver.  However, in regards to having technique down, that’s pretty much the end of the list of things Lee does very well.  He’s solid at catching the ball, not bad, but he’s not going to make amazing catches either.  Ideally, you’d like his hands to be a bit more reliable.  His route running is also ok, but that’s all it seemed to be, just ok.  He rounds his routes sometimes, and it seemed like he was where he shouldn’t be a bit too often.

Summary

In the end, Lee is the type of wide receiver you would refer to as someone “you can dream on”.  He’s not very polished, but he has the physical skills and the motor that makes it seem like he can develop into a top-flight talent at the next level.  I’m of the opinion that by the time you reach the NFL, your hands aren’t going to improve much more than they already have, so his catching inconsistencies worry me a bit.  The rest of his issues seem like they can be fixed.  Lee is your prototypical wide receiver prospect who, if developed properly, could explode, or could not develop at all and accomplish nothing at the NFL level.  He seems a bit too risky for me to put a first round grade on him, but taking him late in the first isn’t a terrible reach to me, with my opinion ultimately being he’s a great pick in the early second round.

Games watched for this analysis: 2013 vs. Hawaii, 2013 vs. Stanford, 2013 Las Vegas Bowl vs. Fresno State

Marion Grice: Running with the Sun Devil

In regards to running backs, this year’s draft is incredibly deep.  Well, in regards to pretty much every position, this draft is incredibly deep, the only difference with the running backs is there isn’t any surefire 1st round talents.  However, that’s not an indictment of this year’s class, that’s really just due to the extinction of the 1st round running back.  That being said, the depth of this class has led to the stock of a lot of backs who would be top backs in other classes to be a bit lower this year.  One of those backs is Marion Grice.  If Grice were in last year’s draft, he might be one of the first backs off of the board, possibly after Gio Bernard and Eddie Lacy, but this year, he seems a bit middle of the pack to me.

Intangibles

Grice is 6’0″, 207 lbs, so he’s fairly large for a running back, which makes his running style make a lot of sense.  He’s not blazing fast and won’t break tackles due to being slippery, but he will push the pile and run over tackles.  He’s not really a bruiser, but he’s just a larger back that plays like one.  He’s not really big enough for his size to help in the pass-blocking game either, so he’s not a big-bodied back when it comes to that aspect either.

Vision

Vision is where Grice causes himself to be in the middle of the pack.  He doesn’t have bad vision per se, but it’s definitely lacking.  He’s not very patient, and while that means he won’t dance behind the line, he doesn’t really wait for holes to open before attacking them either.  He doesn’t find cutback lanes too well unless the initial lane is clogged and he’s forced to cut it back.  This leads to him getting decent 3-4 yard gains and leaving 7-8+ yard gains on the field at times.

For all of the bad aspects of his vision, he does have some good vision as well.  While he doesn’t do the best finding the initial hole, when he gets to the secondary he finds the proper secondary hole there that can turn decent runs into big gains.  He also does a good job of following blockers, letting them get out in front and set up their blocks on sweeps and screens and letting a pulling guard, pulling tackle, or fullback get the second-level block before he cuts off of their block.

Physical Skills

Despite the somewhat lacking vision, Grice has the physical skills that he could still contribute meaningfully if his vision doesn’t improve.  While he’s not blazing quick, he has more than enough speed to get by, and can run by defenders and avoid being caught from behind when it’s necessary.  He is explosive though, so when he needs to turn on the speed, he does.  Grice can catch the ball decently, so he can be relied on as a decent receiving back, but that shouldn’t be considered his specialty.    He makes good cuts, and can change direction somewhat quickly, allowing him to break tackles by running away from the defender.  Grice also has a good spin move, which can be used to keep defenders off-balance.  He is also somewhat strong, able to push the pile to gain a couple extra yards.  That strength is also his main skill he uses to get out of tackles, as he needs to be extremely well wrapped-up before he’s going to go down.  As mentioned before, he isn’t the best pass-blocker, and Arizona State didn’t really use him in that capacity too often, so he didn’t get much of a showcase of his skills.

Summary

Grice is definitely a talented back, but his deficiencies in some areas, like vision, hold him back from being a top back in this class.  His physical skills are enough that he can still be a good back if the vision becomes a problem.  Worst case scenario, he never learns how to find a hole and becomes Trent Richardson 2.0, but that’s only if everything goes wrong.  Chances are, he’ll develop at least a bit, and can at least be a second back in a running back by committee.  I’m not sold on him as an outright starter at running back though, so I don’t foresee him being drafted too early.

Games watched for this analysis: 2012 vs. Oregon, 2012 vs. Arizona, 2012 Bowl Game vs. Navy, 2013 vs. Washington State

De’Anthony Thomas: The Duck on the Pond

Last year, Denard Robinson and the Jaguars had a somewhat entertaining few weeks where Robinson was listed as an OW (Offensive Weapon) until the NFL told the Jags to change his position to something official.  This year, there’s another player in the draft who it’s tempting to slap the OW label on because he has bounced back and forth between RB and WR, De’Anthony Thomas.  During his time at Oregon, Thomas was primarily a running back, but he played a decent chunk of time at receiver, and there has been some chatter of him going in the first couple rounds as a wide-out.  Ultimately, his future NFL  position looks like a running back, but he may be able to play a little wide receiver from time to time, kind of like Reggie Bush.

Intangibles

Thomas is pretty small for an NFL player, but not necessarily for a running back, at 5’9″, 174 lbs.  He uses his size to his advantage most of the time, and he does so much more than it hinders him.  It aids his ability to break tackles, and the only real downside for being short at running back is pass blocking, but it isn’t a huge issue with Thomas at all.  He never got into any off-the-field issues that I have ever heard of, and he seemed pretty level-headed on the field, so character is anything but a concern for De’Anthony.

Vision

The most important skill for a running back is the ability to find the hole, and to be able to find cutback lanes and second-level holes.  Thomas is very good in all aspects of vision that a ball-carrier needs to have.  He’s very patient when waiting for blocks to develop, letting his blockers set-up instead of panicking and just trying to force what isn’t really there.  While he is patient, he also doesn’t dance behind the line waiting for the parting of the Red Sea like some “patient” backs do.  He knows when the hole is the best he’s gonna get, and attacks it.  He follows his blockers to the outside very well as well, letting a pulling guard or tackle block a defensive back before charging ahead instead of running in front of them and getting tackled.  Also, when the hole is plugged, Thomas can find the cutback lanes very well and can turn what should be a stuff into a 4-5 yard gain.

Physical Skills

While Thomas’ vision is very good, and his versatility only helps matters, his physical skills are what earns him such a high pedigree.  He is incredibly fast, being able to both beat guys and break away from them after he’s beaten them.  Thomas can, and will, change direction very quickly, and his cuts can leave some defenders absolutely bamboozled.  Despite being small, he is strong enough that he can break arm tackles.  He’s not going to move piles too well, but a defender can’t expect to just yank him and pull him down.

Watching Thomas receive has me question why he was considered a receiver prospect.  For a running back he is actually an exceptional receiver, but when it comes being a wide receiver, he’s rather unspectacular.  Oregon didn’t have him run a lot of routes other than swings and screens, so it’s questionable, at best, whether he can run routes well.  He’s decent at catching, and this transfers to other parts of his game, as he doesn’t fumble easily either, but he’s nothing special as a receiver.  Because of the amount of plays he spent at wide receiver, there weren’t a lot of plays where he pass blocked, and based on his size, it doesn’t seem like something he would excel at.

Summary

Thomas is a very fast, very agile, very smart runner who can definitely excel in an NFL scheme.  He’s not the receiver he’s made out to be, but he is still quite good, especially for a running back.  While Thomas doesn’t excel at pass blocking, he’s still athletic and versatile enough to not just be a two-down back, and his team will likely find him a way to get as many touches as physically possible.  Thomas reminds me of a C.J. Spiller type of running back, where you get the ball into his hands in as much open space as often as possible and just let him do what he does best, make people miss.

Games watched for this analysis: 2013 vs. Virginia, 2013 vs. Tennessee, 2013 vs. Stanford

The Golden, Golden Gopher: Ra’Shede Hageman

Defensive line talent seems to be quite the rage this year, with the big headliners being Jadeveon Clowney, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, and the like.  There is a defensive lineman who is making some noise, but is being somewhat overlooked, who could be the first defensive tackle off of the board.  That would be Minnesota’s Ra’shede Hageman.  Hageman, who mostly played DT in Minnesota’s 4-3 scheme, is an intriguing prospect who could play a couple different positions at the pro level across both the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.  Hageman is very talented, but he doesn’t have the elite talent to warrant top 15 selection.  That being said, he is still a very, very good prospect.

Intangibles

Hageman weighs in at 6’6″, 311 lbs, which is good size for a DT.  He is a bit small for a 3-4 NT, and that position is likely not an option for him.  He is large enough to play either 4-3 tackle, 3-4 end, and potentially some 4-3 end.  Although, his size seems to lend itself to being a 4-3 under tackle.  Hageman also shows good effort, as he has a high motor and doesn’t give up on the play until it is over, even if he has been taken out of the play by the offensive linemen.  This never say die attitude can only help at the next level.

Physical Skills

Hageman gets off the snap well, allowing him to move offensive linemen back, and either create issues for the running back or make the pocket tough to form.  He is very strong and can both push back offensive linemen, and avoid being pushed back by them, and will sometimes even knock his man over.  This allows him to be good at occupying blocks to allow other players to make plays or have single-teams when they would otherwise be getting double-teamed.  This strength allows him to shed blockers and make plays that he otherwise wouldn’t be able to make.  He is also able to collapse the pocket in the passing game, creating pressure even when he isn’t a threat to immediately get a sack.  Hageman can also even stay engaged with his blocker and still make the play that he needs to make, he is just that strong.  He has decent speed, especially for a defensive tackle, which allows him to never be completely out of the play, and that, combined with his high motor, allows him to chase plays down from behind.  Since he’s a defensive lineman, they don’t really get to be on display often, but he actually has surprisingly good hands and can catch the ball well.

Technical Skills

While most linemen rely on moves like rips, swims, and spins to beat their man, Hageman almost never employs these tactics, opting to try and beat his man with either speed or strength.  While this might be an issue if he was an edge rusher, it’s not so much an issue for him as an interior lineman, as if he doesn’t beat his man, he’s still occupying a blocker, which helps out the other defenders.  Pass rushing is definitely his specialty, and he shows a very good understanding of how to bounce rushes to the outside, and can create pressure from the outside despite starting the play on the interior line.  When engaged with a blocker, he keeps his feet moving and doesn’t let his man push him back.  He also understands when and where to get his hands up in passing lanes, and he batted quite a few passes down, and came close on quite a lot of others.  While he didn’t do it much, he did show that when he dropped back in coverage he was pretty good at it.  He doesn’t really try to keep the offensive lineman’s hands off him, which, again, could be an issue if he were an edge rusher, but if he’s engaged, at least he’s occupying a block, which is what you want defensive tackles to do if they’re not making the play.

Position

Since the responsibilities of a defensive end and defensive tackle differ depending on whether you run a 3-4 or 4-3, being able to figure out what position a D-Lineman can play on either line is very important.  In Minnesota’s 4-3 scheme, Hageman lined up mostly at the 2-technique with a smattering of 0-tech, 1-tech, 3-tech, and 5-tech.  Due to this he seems like he’d be most at home playing a pass-rushing, under-tackle in a 4-3 scheme.  However, the snaps at the 5-tech, and his body type, suggest he could also possibly be a pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end.  His NT line-mate would have to be a good run stuffer for that to work, as Hageman doesn’t excel at that, but it is still possible.  He might be able to rotate at 4-3 end some due to his pass-rushing ability, but he’s too big to play there regularly.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, he lacks the size and run stopping ability to play 3-4 nose, so that position should largely be out of the question for Hageman.

Summary

Hageman is a very talented, pass-rushing defensive tackle who won’t be a Ndamukong Suh-like gamechanger, but can still be a very good player for a defense.  He’ll likely be a Henry Melton-like pass-rushing 4-3 defensive tackle, but could be a pass rushing 3-4 end as well.  He very well could go in the first round, or he could slip to the second.  Once the elite defensive lineman and edge rushers like Clowney, Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, and the like are off the board, look for Hageman to go to a team that needs a pass rush on it’s defensive line, regardless of whether that teams runs a 3-4 or 4-3.

Games watched for this analysis: 2012 vs. Wisconsin, 2012 Bowl Game vs. Texas Tech, 2013 vs. Northwestern, 2013 vs. Syracuse

The Cyrus Kouandjio Story: Market Crash

Two weeks ago, if you asked someone to name the top tackles in the draft, their response would likely be either “I don’t know” or some order of Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan, and Cyrus Kouandjio.  Recently, that list is one name shorter as Kouandjio’s stock took an absolute nosedive at the combine.  Between pretty bad performance in combine drills and reports that Kouandjio has an arthritic knee, he went from potential first rounder to mid-round pick in a hurry.  There always seems to be at least one player every year whose stock gets torpedoed at the Combine, and Kouandjio seems to be this year’s casualty.  While Kouandjio may have had a very bad combine, he can take solace in the fact that teams will still rely on his quality tape, and that he didn’t have a Vontaze Burfict level of implosion.

Intangibles

Kouandjio is 6’6″, 310 lbs, which is fairly solid size for an offensive tackle.  He does however, have an odd build with a lot of that weight seemingly coming from his top half.  This could just be an oddity and not a concern, but it’s something I noticed.  Kouandjio has a very high motor, almost never giving up on the play, and seems to have a very good understanding of what’s going on, doing a good job of selling draw plays and play-fakes.  He’s a very smart lineman, which will definitely help him at the next level.  He anticipates what his man is about to do well, and can get to the spot before his man does.  He also understands stunts, and picks them up very well.

Physical Skills

Kouandjio is very quick for an offensive lineman, and does a good job getting to the second level in order to make second level blocks.  He also uses his speed well when pulling, as he is quite good at executing pull blocks.  He’s quite strong, in fact, he’s strong enough to push his man around to where he wants him to go, and can sometimes push his man right out of the play.  While he is strong, he sometimes doesn’t always act like it, as there were times when he would get shoved to the ground by his man, which is a bit worrying.  He will also sometimes not even be able to make the block, but those instances were few and far between, and seemed more fluky than anything.  He gets off the line very well, and can start blocking very quickly.  In fact, a few times I was certain that he had committed a false start, but it turned out that he was just that quick off the line.

Technique

Kouandjio has decent footwork, it probably will never hinder him, but it could be a bit better.  For example, his kick step is a little bit awkward, but it still seems to work well enough for him to get in front of his man, so it doesn’t seem like a huge issue.  He does a very good job of staying in front of his man, regardless of whether he is coming straight at Kouandjio or is trying to use something like a spin move in order to beat him.  He is able to stay in front of his man and execute well enough to completely wall his man out of the run game sometimes.  He does an alright job of keeping his hands inside his man, but you’d like to see him improve that a bit, as that has the potential to be a bunch of holding penalties at the next level.  He also has a tendency to cut block a lot, way more than he really should need to.  This raises the question of whether he is doing it because of scheme saying that he’s supposed to, or if he’s doing it of his own accord.  If it’s the former, at least he follows his scheme properly, if it’s the latter, that’s a bit worrying about his blocking talent and confidence in it at the NFL level.

Summary

Kouandjio is a prospect who has a lot of high end talent, but comes with some concerns.  Before the disastrous time that was the combine, I’d say that Kouandjio would be a borderline first round pick.  He looks to be a very good run blocker and a solid pass blocker.  However, the poor performance at the combine drills is worrying enough to drop him into being just a second day pick.  Add to that the fact that he may have an arthritic knee, and Kouandjio could even be a third day pick.  I no longer think that he can be a first rounder, but wouldn’t be surprised to see him go anywhere from the 2nd to 5th rounds.  It all depends just how much the medicals hurt his stock, but if he falls quite far, a lucky team might be getting quite the steal.

Games watched for this analysis: 2012 vs. Missouri, 2012 vs. Michigan, 2012 vs. Texas A&M, 2013 vs. Virginia Tech, 2013 vs. Texas A&M

Joe Don Duncan: Sleeper of the Year?

There’s a common saying among fantasy football players regarding drafting that really applies to actual, NFL drafting as well, “the later rounds are where you make your money”.  In both cases, the top rounds are loaded with talent, and while there are always some spectacular busts from each draft class, it’s relatively not hard to hit on those picks.  Where most GMs and personnel people make their money is in the late rounds.  If you look at most recent Super Bowl champions, a lot of the key players on their team were late round picks.  Take this year’s Seahawks, for example.  While they had their high draft picks like Marshawn Lynch, Earl Thomas, and Bruce Irvin, they had players like Richard Sherman (5th round), Russell Wilson (3rd round), and of course, Super Bowl MVP, Macolm Smith (7th round) make huge impacts after being taken late in the draft.  One of the top candidates for that honor this year is Dixie State tight end Joe Don Duncan.  A lot of people have never heard of him (probably because he plays for a D-II school), but Duncan has more talent than most pro prospects of his reputation level.

Intangibles

Duncan is 6’3″, 268 lbs, and he looks fairly typical for a tight-end who can block, but is more receiver focused, which he seems to be.  He’s big enough to block if needed, but not big enough that he can be treated like an extra lineman who can catch.  The biggest concern I had with Duncan is that he seems to give up on plays too soon sometimes.  Whether it be just not finishing a block, not trying to make a play after it didn’t initially occur near him, or jogging while he could still be in on the play, the effort level from Duncan raised a few flags for me.

Physical Skills

Duncan has decent speed, but has more than enough for a receiving tight-end.  He can get separation from defenders and can run to make the play, whether it be receiving or blocking, just don’t expect him to wow you with his wheels.  He has good leaping ability, whether it be jumping for the ball or trying to hurdle a defender and gain a few more yards.  He’s very strong, and doesn’t go down easily, using his size to break tackles and extend the play.  He’s strong when it comes to blocking as well, allowing him to make effective blocks when need be.

Receiving

If Duncan were a regular wide receiver, he’d probably be an unremarkable solid contributor, but since he’s a tight end, that’s a very valuable skill-set to have.  He has very solid hands and route running skills, but he will falter on both from time to time, but not enough to really hold it against him, it’s definitely still a plus.  His speed comes into play when he’s receiving as he can break away during his route or after the catch.  He was dominating defensive backs, but those were D-II DBs, Division I defensive backs are known for being a bad barometer for success against pro DBs, so whether that domination can translate in any way is really guesswork at this point.

Blocking

Duncan isn’t really the best blocker, but he does do well enough to get by, as he won’t cripple a team with his blocking.  There are times when he just doesn’t engage with his man and misses his assignment, but thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often.  He doesn’t stay in to block too much, whether this is a matter of scheme or a matter of lacking the talent to do so is unknown, but his number of inline snaps definitely follow the Jimmy Graham school of tight ends.  When he is blocking, he doesn’t necessarily keep his legs churning, which leads to him stagnating when blocking, and not getting the best block possible.  Despite the issues he has with blocking, he does do some things well.  He extends his hands well, so when he does find his man, he keeps him at a distance where he can’t do much.  He is strong enough to push his man back and take him out of the play, and he keeps a good base so that when he gets engaged, he stays engaged.

Summary

For a player from a D-II school, Duncan definitely has D-I talent.  The questions with him are if his blocking will be a big issue, and can the dominance of D-II translate in any way to the professional level.  The only way to get these answers is for him to  play on Sundays and show what the answers are.  That being said, Duncan is definitely not a first rounder, but he could sneak into the second day.  I see him more as a third-day pick, who will either not be able to translate his skills from D-II to the pros, or someone who will be a key contributor to a very happy team.  Basically, Duncan is the definition of a sleeper, and the question is, will he wake up or just keep right on sleeping in the NFL?

Games watched for this analysis: 2013 vs. Humbolt State, 2013 vs. Simon Frasier

The Troubled Tight End: Colt Lyerla

At the end of the 2012 college season, when everyone was starting to turn ahead to the 2013 season and the key players that could be drafted, Colt Lyerla was near the top of the list for tight ends.  Then, he left the team for undisclosed reasons and later got busted for cocaine.  As a result, his draft stock plummeted.  Most people forgot about Lyerla, as he wasn’t playing football for almost a year, but he still declared for the draft, and is still an interesting prospect.  Lyerla is tough to scout because you don’t know if you’re scouting what is still his current talent level, but you have to do the best you can with what you have.  Lyerla looked good and in shape at the combine, so I feel comfortable relying on his 2012 tape and then adding in a grain of salt when evaluating him.

Intangibles

Lyerla is the typical big, athletic tight end at 6’5″, 238 lbs.  He uses his big body to make plays, whether it be blocking or receiving.  However, as was made obvious in the initial paragraph, Lyerla’s issues appear when it comes to character and makeup.  His leaving of the team was abrupt and unexpected, and the subsequent arrest for cocaine possession further clouded matters around who was once a top tight end.  This issues are definitely major and something to be worried about, and they likely will have huge ramifications on his draft stock, even after accounting for all the games he missed as a result.

Physical Skills

Lyerla has pretty good strength, as is expected with a player of his size.  He can move his man back when blocking and can create space when receiving.  He doesn’t really box out like most tight ends will in the red zone, but he makes space for himself nonetheless.  Because of his strength, he doesn’t go down easily and he can really move the pile even when he is wrapped up.  He is a very athletic tight end, as evidenced by his speed and 40 time at the combine (4.61), which allowed him to be quite a good receiver in his time at Oregon.  Lyerla is athletic enough that Oregon would sometimes use him as a running back and he would do quite well.  They would also line him up at H-back as well, so he is a very versatile player.

Receiving

Lyerla is a good route runner, especially for a tight end.  He doesn’t round off his routes and he is where he is supposed to be a majority of the time.  He also has very good hands and can be relied on to make the catches that he’s supposed to, and then some.  He holds onto the ball well whether he’s catching it or just avoiding the fumble.  Lyerla is a very good leaper who can go up and get the ball when receiving.  With his athletic skills and sound fundamentals, Lyerla is a very good receiver, especially for a tight end.

Blocking

Lyerla also blocks very well, and is very much a complete tight end.  He has most of the fundamentals of blocking down, keeping his hands inside his man for the duration of the block.  He keeps his feet churning enough to be prevented from being pushed back.  He doesn’t really keep his legs moving enough to really drive his man out of the play, but it’s not something to really complain about in Lyerla’s case.  He keeps his pad level low, so it’s not easy for someone to get leverage on him.  He likely will not be blown out of many plays at the pro level when blocking.  He’s not perfect when blocking, however, as he doesn’t always get the best jump off of the ball and speedy edge rushers can just beat him sometimes.

Summary

When talking about pure skill-set on the field, Lyerla is excellent and would definitely be a top 2 round talent in this year’s draft, even with it being stacked at TE (and most positions, to be fair).  However, you can’t ignore the off the field issues with a player when they are as enormous as they are with Lyerla.  I dread making this comparison because it of course leads to comparisons in off the field activities that I am not trying to draw at all, but Lyerla’s versatility and skills remind me a lot of Aaron Hernandez.  So, if a team can take care of the issues he ran into at Oregon, they could have a very talented tight end on their hands.  With his off-field incidents and the depth of this year’s draft class, look for Lyerla to be a third day pick.  If the combine is any indication, Lyerla may have cleaned up and gotten his act together, and could be a steal for whichever team takes him.  Of course, he could also not have learned from his mistakes and be a complete wash-out.

Games watched for this analysis: 2012 vs. Cal, 2012 vs. Arizona, 2012 vs. Stanford, 2012 Bowl Game vs. Kansas State

JFF’s Favorite Man: Mike Evans

When it comes to Texas A&M football this year, there are two players who it is near impossible to not mention together.  Those players would be quarterback Johnny Manziel and his top target Mike Evans.  Both on and off the field, Evans and Manziel seem to get along very well, and when in doubt Manziel chucked the ball in Evans’ general direction, and for good reason.  Evans is a very good receiver, and it’s not surprising that he became Manziel’s favorite target.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he is treated the same way by his quarterback at the next level, as Evans is the type of receiver that you can count on to make the play you need to be made.

Intangibles

Mike Evans is your prototypical big-bodied receiver, with the big target checking in at 6’5″, 225 lbs.  For comparison, that is essentially the same size as Calvin Johnson, and if he puts on a few pounds in the NFL (as most young players do) he can basically be a Calvin Johnson clone (at least where size is concerned).

When it comes to receivers, character is always an issue people care about.  Is he going to have on-field issues like Dez Bryant, is he going to have off-field issues like Justin Blackmon, or is he going to be a model citizen both on and off the field like Larry Fitzgerald.  When it comes to Evans, he seems to fall into that Dez Bryant category.  He can be a bit hot-headed and let it get the best of him on the field.  Off the field he doesn’t seem to have any issues, but against Duke, he got called for two avoidable penalties (well, one may have been a bad call), late hit and unsportsmanlike conduct.  Also, when Manziel tried to get him to calm down, Evans seemed to resist and not listen to Manziel for a while, which can be a bit troubling to see.  Whoever gets Evans will be getting a handful, but, like always, if he produces, it’s all worth it.

Physical Skills

Of course, Evans is a very big, physical receiver who uses his strength to his advantage.  Being as big as he is lends itself to being a big target, but it allows him to also push around cornerbacks when he needs to.  Although, that propensity to push around cornerbacks leads him to pushing off a bit more than he should.  Every player pushes off once in a while, but Evans does it a bit more often than most.  He’s strong enough to break tackles, and is not easy to take down.  He also jumps very well, and can go up and get a ball, almost never losing jump balls, which makes him an ideal target for goal-line fades.  Evans also has very good hands, and not only catches the ball well, but he holds onto it well as well, making the ball very hard to punch out.  His speed is not Sammy Watkins level kind of speed, but it’s good enough to get by defensive backs.

Blocking

Blocking is of course a key component of a receiver’s role in the offense.  For someone with his strength, and for a physical receiver, Evans’ blocking is a bit underwhelming.  He’s not necessarily bad at blocking, but he could be better.  Of course, when you are as talented of a receiver as Evans is, you could be an atrocious blocker and you’d still see playing time, so this isn’t really an impediment.

Technical Skills

The big separator between the top tier receivers and the average receivers is how well they do the little things.  Evans definitely does the little things well.  Regardless of how he does it; be it straight speed, his strength, or a swim move, Evans has a propensity for beating the first man, and less talented cornerbacks almost always needed safety help to avoid being burnt by Evans.  He is also generally a very aware receiver, regardless of the context.  He understands to come back toward the quarterback once he starts scrambling in order to help make the pass easier.  Evans also is very aware of where the sideline is, and does a good job of staying in bounds because of it.  He’s not a spectacular route runner, but he is still quite good and is more than good enough to be relied on as a top target.

Summary

Evans is exactly what you want from a big, physical receiver.  He’s a great target both in the red-zone and as a possession receiver to compliment a burner on the other side.  He doesn’t have the big play ability that someone like Sammy Watkins does, so he’s not really a top 10 pick, but he’s definitely a first rounder because he’s a very good receiver.  Look for him to go to a wide receiver needy team like the Jets to stabilize the receiving corps, or to go to a team that only really has a speedy guy as a good receiver like the Rams.

Games watched for this analysis: 2013 vs. Alabama, 2013 vs. LSU, 2013 vs. Arkansas, 2013 Chick Fil-A Bowl vs. Duke