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RB Eddie Lacy – Draft Profile

By: — April 23, 2013 @ 9:13 am
Filed under: NFL Draft
Eddie Lacy

The most powerful RB in the draft.

Height/Weight: 5’11/231
Hands: 9 1/2”

Important Pro Day Numbers (NFL Combine – DNP; hamstring)
40-Yard Dash: 4.64
Vertical Jump: 33 1/2”
Broad Jump: NA
20-Yard Shuttle: NA

Background (College Stats)
A four-star recruit despite playing only seven games in his final year of high-school football in Louisiana, Lacy is just the latest in what is becoming a long line of first-round quality NFL running backs from the University of Alabama. (Mark Ingram went in the first round in 2010, Trent Richardson went No. 3 overall in 2012 and freshman T.J. Yeldon projects as a high future first-rounder himself.) Lacy overcame a tough upbringing, including but not limited to being displaced by Hurricane Katrina as a teenager. Although he was never the featured back at Alabama, he accepted his role as a complementary back and played a critical role in two of the school’s three national championships over the past four seasons.

NFL Player Comp(s): Andre Brown

Lacy is without question the most powerful back in this draft, faster and more athletic than most would expect a back his size to be. Unlike many draft-eligible running backs, he is already where he needs to be in terms of his build, meaning his transition to the NFL will almost exclusively be above the shoulders. And unlike most runners his size, he is not strictly a straight-line runner. But perhaps the most surprising part of his game is his spin move – which he will utilize multiple times per game – underscoring the fact he is not just a big back, but one that is light on his feet with very good balance. The first-team All-SEC selection is also not one of those big backs seems to embrace contact and will fight for every yard. For a player who runs as violently as Lacy does, the fact that he wasn’t worn down (355 carries in three years at Alabama) in college makes him more attractive to talent evaluators. Vision and patience are underrated parts of Lacy’s game as he does a good job of pressing the hole and bursting through it when it develops. Those skills – along with his one-cut ability – make him a more than adequate fit as a back in the zone-blocking offense while his size and tendency to break through weak tackle attempts should allow him to hold up well in a power-based run-blocking scheme. Lacy is also a willing and improving pass blocker, meaning he isn’t likely to embarrass himself in those situations.

Foot injuries (ankle sprains, turf toe) were a slight concern in college, which made his durability a question mark before the draft process began. He then suffered a partial hamstring tear during pre-draft training, causing further anxiety. His willingness to accept contact also likely means he will struggle to remain healthy enough to stack consecutive 16-game seasons together. While it is always hard to knock a runner during an evaluation for playing with superior offensive line talent, Lacy rarely ever had to dodge a defensive tackle or linebacker penetrating the line of scrimmage because it rarely ever happened. (Consider this aspect of his game more of an unknown than a weakness at this point, but it needs to be pointed out that big backs are typically more dependent on their lines to hold the point because it takes them a split second more to build up their speed and get to the hole in order to create the momentum necessary to power through the linebacker or safety.) Lacy has adequate hands, but it is doubtful he’ll ever emerge as anything more than a dump-off or screen option simply because he isn’t sudden enough nor does he run the sharp routes necessary to free himself.

Bottom Line
(To give readers some idea on how I would rank the recent Tide runners in terms of pro potential, I would go Richardson-Yeldon-Lacy-Ingram.) Critics of Lacy may point out that he was rarely the best back in his own backfield, but talent evaluators – or at least the good ones anyway – recognize that Alabama simply has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at the position. While I must admit I was turned off by his answer to a question he received on his pro day (he suggested the reason he couldn’t make it through his workout was because he didn’t eat enough prior to the workout), it is hard to knock the way he closed out his college career. If he had only managed to perform at that level for his entire junior season, my final assessment of him might be different. Lacy projects as a player that should have an immediate impact as a red-zone/bruiser/end-of-game role, similar to the role the Detroit Lions had in mind for Mikel Leshoure before the start of the 2012 season. While Lacy is unlikely to be a bust simply because he has what a lot of teams want – power – I also don’t see anything about his game that screams “must-have” either.

RB Johnathan Franklin – Draft Profile

By: — April 22, 2013 @ 12:38 am
Filed under: NFL Draft
Johnathan Franklin

“Elite” status may be out of the question for Franklin.

Height/Weight: 5’10/205
Hands: 9 1/8”

Important NFL Combine Numbers
40-Yard Dash: 4.49
Vertical Jump: 31”
Broad Jump: 9’ 7”
20-Yard Shuttle: 4.31

Background (College Stats)
Franklin didn’t enter college football with all that much fanfare (a three-star recruit) and redshirted in 2008 before emerging as a four-year starter for UCLA. Although he began to show his wares as a sophomore in 2010 with his first 1,000-yard rushing season, it really wasn’t until the arrival of new coach Jim Mora Jr. and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone that Franklin truly entered the conversation as an upper-echelon first- or second-day running back. In Mazzone’s zone-read offense, Franklin produced back-to-back 200-yard games against Rice and Nebraska in 2012 that generated early Heisman Trophy buzz. Perhaps most amazingly, Franklin set single-season records for rushing yards (1,734) and all-purpose yards (2,062) as well as career marks for rushing (4,403) and all-purpose yards (4,920) for a Bruins team that went 26-27 during his four-year stay.

NFL Player Comp(s): Warrick Dunn / Shane Vereen

Franklin has the tools necessary to excel in the zone-running scheme that just about every team uses to a degree and some teams feature. He runs bigger than most backs his size, is patient and willing to run inside. He also ranks among the best in this class in terms of his vision and has the balance necessary to not get knocked off his feet in the hole. Although he won’t make his living by generating yards after contact, he does a fine job of keeping his legs moving and falling forward. Along with his vision, his best attributes may be his cutting ability and explosion, the three traits that will likely be how he makes a name for himself in the NFL. Toughness and durability are two other traits that Franklin has displayed that are somewhat uncommon for a player his size. Mazzone’s offense accentuated his ability to catch the ball and excel in the open field as the Bruins frequently used him on swing passes to get him on the perimeter of the defense. Franklin didn’t get a chance to showcase his receiving ability for much in his career, but his senior tape proves it wasn’t because of a lack of skill. Ball security had been an issue throughout his first three years, but he did a much better job of holding onto the ball in 2012. Intangibles – such as leadership, work ethic, work in the community, etc. – are also not in question.

Two of the primary concerns entering the 2012 season – ball handling and picking up the blitz – will remain his biggest question marks entering his rookie season, until he can prove that he can do it again. (It should be noted that he had zero fumbles in 2012, showed dramatic improvement as a pass blocker and backed the latter up with a solid performance during Senior Bowl week.) Franklin knows he is at his best outside the hashes and bounces a few too many runs to the perimeter, although that is not an uncommon thing for any college back that has enjoyed as many big plays in his career as Franklin has. While the second-team All-American can make defenders miss in the open field, he isn’t exactly a player that will stack one open-field move on top of another. Franklin has likely already maxed out his frame, meaning he probably isn’t going to add 10 pounds without sacrificing a few of his aforementioned strengths. Given how NFL teams have taken the bigger-is-better approach in short-yardage situations, Franklin probably won’t see a great deal of time on the field in at the goal line.

Bottom Line
Mora is said to love Franklin more than Dunn, who he coached for several years with the Atlanta Falcons, and it is a very appropriate comparison to make – on and off the field. Franklin isn’t likely to get a lot of action in the red zone in the NFL, although he wasn’t exactly a slouch in that department in college. (Remember, Dunn lost a lot of those opportunities to T.J. Duckett even though Dunn was the better inside/goal-line back.) While I don’t believe Franklin will ever be an “elite” back, I have little doubt he can emerge as a 250-carry back at some point early in his career. He doesn’t take a lot of big hits and has shown the ability to make dramatic improvements from one season to the next, suggesting he cares about his craft and wants to be great. Franklin has also drawn comparisons to Frank Gore (minus the catastrophic knee injuries), Bernard Scott and Maurice Jones-Drew – a fellow UCLA alum. While none of those comparisons are completely off, he’s almost certain to be viewed by coaches as a 1A/1B kind of back (as opposed to “featured” back), which brings us back to Dunn and Vereen. Franklin should be a solid, steady 6-7 year pro that averages about 220 touches.

Tavon Austin Draft Profile

By: — March 29, 2013 @ 10:18 am
Filed under: NFL Draft
Tavon Austin

Austin: The next Randall Cobb?

Height/Weight: 5’8/174
Hands: 9 1/8”

Important NFL Combine Numbers
40-Yard Dash: 4.34
Vertical Jump: 34”
Broad Jump: 10’
20-Yard Shuttle: 4.01

Background (College Stats)
A two-time Maryland high school player of the year that set a number of state career and single-season records, Austin led the NCAA in all-purpose yards as a junior (198/game) and finished second in the category as a senior (224.4). Austin was already in consideration to be a potential late-first or early-second round draft pick midway through last season, but likely solidified his standing as a top-20 selection with a historic performance against Oklahoma on Nov. 17, 2012. In that contest, Austin – a wide receiver who had no more than five carries in any of his first 48 career games – rushed 21 times for a school-record 344 yards in his first action at running back since high school and set a Big 12 record with 572 all-purpose yards. As a result of his stellar senior season, Austin won the Paul Hornung Award (most versatile player) and earned first-team All-America honors as an all-purpose player.

NFL Player Comp(s): Randall Cobb / T.Y. Hilton

Austin combines incredible acceleration with breathtaking quickness, allowing him to be the kind of “space player” the NFL has found a role for in recent years. Perhaps the one aspect of his game that really jumps off the tape is his stop-and-start ability which – when combined with his body control and vision in the open field – allows him to create a lot of “whiffs” and make defenders look silly. These same qualities obviously bode well for his chances to be one of the NFL’s top kickoff and punt returners – areas in which he excelled in college. While his size will likely always be an issue, defenders rarely get a chance to square up Austin – particularly in the open field – and, as such, he never missed a practice or game at West Virginia. That quality, along with the fact that he plays to his timed speed, should help quickly dissolve the notion that he is a slot-only receiver with return skills. Austin gains separation rather easily, has a solid feel for the soft areas in zone coverage and transitions out of cuts effortlessly. Although he wasn’t used much as a deep threat in college, he certainly has the ability to do that and will fight for the ball in the air.

Size – and how it relates to his ability to absorb punishment in the NFL – is probably always going to be the biggest question mark with Austin. He isn’t the most consistent “hands-catcher” and will drop balls that he should catch. On the rare occasion that he can’t make a defender miss, he tends to get tripped up easier than he should. Austin often plays as if he has gotten used to defenders being unable to corral him – which could easily come back to haunt him at the next level. His vertical jump is average for a receiver – which accentuates his lack of height even more – meaning quarterbacks probably won’t throw to him as much down the field despite his top-end speed unless he has at least a step or more on his defender.

Bottom Line
Austin isn’t built in the same way Percy Harvin is – and probably never will be – which will likely result in him being used slightly less on offense than he should be, at least initially. The upside for his future employer is that while he may only see 30-40 snaps on offense per game in his first season or two, his contributions as a returner may help make for it. In that way, it is entirely possible that his career trajectory is similar to Cobb’s in which he essentially forces his way into the starting lineup in Year 2 simply because he will prove to be his team’s most explosive playmaker. As is usually the case with a young skill-position player entering the league, the creativity, aggressiveness and scheme of the offense he enters will have a big say in his overall production. His best fit will likely be in a wide-open passing offense that uses him all over the field and isn’t scared of how someone of his size will hold up long-term. Austin projects better to the NFL than a similar-sized player such as Dexter McCluster simply because he is more elusive and explosive. While Austin could line up in the backfield in theory to dictate defensive personnel, it would be a mistake for his future team to put him in a position where he may be forced to run in between the tackles. Austin is a slot receiver that should hold his own on the outside in two-receiver packages and contribute as a returner, not a receiver that should be asked to serve in a third-down back role at any cost.

NFL Mock Draft – Version 2.0

By: — March 13, 2013 @ 10:49 am
Filed under: NFL Draft

NFL DraftRound 1
Listed by pick, team, player, position, college

Mock – Version 1.0

1. Kansas City Chiefs – Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
For the first time since 2008, the first overall pick won’t be a quarterback. The Chiefs acquired Alex Smith for a second-round pick this year and a conditional third-round pick next year. That move combined with the team’s decisions surrounding their current offensive line seems to clear up the picture at the top of the draft, at least on position if not player. The Chiefs released right tackle Eric Winston and gave left tackle Branden Albert the franchise tag, instead of a long-term deal. This sets them up to draft Fisher or Luke Joeckel with the first overall pick and plug that pick in at right tackle. With Albert returning at least for a year, the team has the luxury of easing their top pick in on the right. Not that Albert has the final word on it, but when asked via Twitter after the trade and release of Winston if he would move from right tackle to offensive guard to accommodate the presumptive pick of tackle, “nope” was the reply.

While Joeckel has been the consensus best player available for some time, Fisher continued through the Combine riding a wave of positive momentum that started at Senior Bowl practice and has closed the gap. Don’t confuse my pick here as simply overvaluing Fisher’s superior testing. While that played in to it, more interesting to me are the historical tendencies of head coach Andy Reid. He has shown some preference during his career for valuing extra experience and drafting seniors, specifically Senior Bowl alums. In 9 of his 14 drafts, he has selected a senior with his first overall pick, and only one of those (Corey Simon) had not participated in the Senior Bowl.

Previous pick: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia

2. Jacksonville Jaguars – Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Rarely in the last 15 years has a team had the opportunity to take the first quarterback in the draft after the first overall pick. New general manager David Caldwell and new head coach Gus Bradley have expressed confidence in quarterback Blaine Gabbert, but I may have bought in to that too much in my last mock. Bradley, Seattle’s former defensive coordinator, could push to resolve the lingering absence of a pass rush with one of the many promising ends in this class, but he has also seen the impact the right quarterback can instantly have on a team. Smith didn’t overwhelm at the Combine, but he did enough to maintain his status as the top quarterback prospect in this class. How high that means he’ll go remains to be seen.

Previous pick: Jarvis Jones, DE, Georgia

Oakland Raiders3. Oakland Raiders – Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Some had Floyd rated as the best defensive tackle ahead of Star Lotulelei prior to the Combine. While Floyd furthered his case at the Combine, Lotulelei pretty much had the worst case scenario come out of the Combine when he didn’t work out after it was found he has a heart issue, the severity of which has yet to be determined. In my previous mock, I addressed the reasons Oakland should be looking at defensive line, rather than just the best player available. With the team potentially releasing Carson Palmer, they could enter the quarterback derby, especially if Jacksonville passes. They should see what they have with Terrelle Pryor if they let Palmer go, but head coach Dennis Allen refused to give Pryor a sufficient opportunity last year when it made sense, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Allen jump right to a new option at the position if Palmer is cut.

Previous pick: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

Philadelphia Eagles4. Philadelphia Eagles – Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Injuries devastated the Eagles’ bookends last season. Left tackle Jason Peters ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon twice and right tackle Todd Herremans suffered ligament damage, a strained tendon, and bone crack in his foot last November. While the team is optimistic about their return, Peters just turned 31 and Herremans turns 31 this season. If Joeckel or Fisher is available, they would be smart to reload at the position. The Outland Trophy winner impressed at his Pro Day last week and this should be his floor.

Previous pick: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

Detroit Lions5. Detroit Lions – DeMarcus “Dee” Milliner, CB, Alabama
As I mentioned in my previous mock, speed was the only question about Milliner. He answered that with two sub-4.4 times in the 40 at the Combine. Milliner is having surgery this month for a torn labrum in his right shoulder. It is a minor issue and should not impact his draft stock.

Previous pick: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

Cleveland Browns6. Cleveland Browns – Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon
Concerns remain around Jarvis Jones, and new ones have surfaced regarding Damontre Moore and Björn Werner after the Combine, so I’m moving Jordan, Barkevious Mingo and Ziggy Ansah to the front of the line among edge rushers for now. I’d be a bit surprised if one of them wasn’t taken within the first five linebacker picks, but I don’t see a perfect fit for the Browns right at this moment. Still, with Cleveland converting to a 3-4, I like Jordan slightly more in an outside linebacker role, whereas I like Mingo slightly better as a conventional 4-3 defensive end.

Previous pick: Barkevious Mingo, DE, Louisiana State

Arizona Cardinals7. Arizona Cardinals – Matt Barkley, QB, Southern California
Despite not working out, Barkley helped himself at the Combine with his interviews and the fact no quarterback turned in a dominant performance. New general manager Steve Keim seems likely to move for a quarterback here, and the decision probably becomes easier if Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel are unavailable, though fellow tackle Lane Johnson continues to rise after testing excellently at the Combine. I’d go with Geno Smith first among the quarterbacks, and after him I see either Barkley or E.J. Manuel being the second off the board. As previously mentioned, I’m not a fan of Barkley’s ceiling, but he is likely the best prepared to start from day one in the NFL and this team needs that. They need someone to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball, and Barkley showed he can do that for stud receivers in college. His pocket presence, decision-making and intelligence are all strong attributes.

Previous pick: Matt Barkley, QB, Southern California

Buffalo Bills8. Buffalo Bills – E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
The league will be chasing the next Colin Kaepernick, and while Manuel is neither as swift a runner nor blessed with the same arm, he is the closest thing in a draft full of questionable quarterback prospects. I don’t think Manuel will ultimately be drafted this high, but his stock should continue to rise, and whoever wants him may have to maneuver in the first round, trading down or moving back up from the second round, acquiring another first-round pick. General manager Buddy Nix has indicated his desire to find a future franchise quarterback, but could Manuel be the target? New head coach Doug Marrone revamped his offense last season at Syracuse and integrated elements of the zone-read option offense that continues to successfully gain traction in the NFL. Draft analysts Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s Todd McShay have both tagged Manuel as the best read-option quarterback in this class. Mike Mayock has moved him up to his second-rated quarterback prospect. The Eagles’ new head coach and zone-read option guru, Chip Kelly, whose Oregon offense Marrone borrowed from last year, has expressed his interest in Manuel. Whether or not that is a smokescreen, Kelly did recruit Manuel, so the praise has some truth to it. Manuel was the star of the Senior Bowl and tested out as well as expected at the Combine. He isn’t a fit for every team but is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.

Previous pick: Mike Glennon, QB, North Carolina State

N.Y. Jets9. New York Jets – Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Louisiana State
My previous pick here, Damontre Moore, had a Combine performance that could be devastating to his draft stock. While at his Pro Day last week, with head coach Rex Ryan in attendance, Moore improved in agility tests and knocked out 19 reps on the bench, after a brutal 12 at the Combine, but he tweaked his hamstring while working out. He was unable to run the 40 to improve on his disappointing 4.94 at the Combine and it also hampered him in positional drills. What Moore’s done on the field doesn’t jibe with his test results, and that will be taken in to account, but the concern is lack of preparation. Players adapt training regimens to prepare for the Combine tests, and teams put that against the tape for those who exceed athletic expectations. By the same token, when a player doesn’t live up to athletic expectations it won’t erase accomplishments on the field; but when the numbers are this far out of tolerance, it’s clear the player didn’t dedicate the time or effort to prepare, and that is more of a concern than the test results. Regardless, I had Mingo rated higher than Moore prior to the Combine, so he falls here in this mock. He is better suited to be a conventional 4-3 left defensive end, and less a fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker than fellow top-rated pass-rush tweeners like Jordan or Jarvis Jones, though Mingo does have more than enough talent to fit in to that role. I think his excellent Combine performance locked him in as a top ten pick.

Previous pick: Damontre Moore, OLB, Texas A&M

Tennessee Titans10. Tennessee Titans – Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Brigham Young
I made the case for Ansah with this pick in my previous mock and he helped his cause with his Combine performance. But because of how raw he is, I’m still awfully concerned about his being a high first-round pick. He may disappoint out of the box, and his limited football experience makes his instincts questionable—the main reason workout warriors can fail to translate at the next level. However, the buzz remains high around him so I’ll keep him here for now.

In my previous mock, I also made the case why this pick won’t be an offensive guard, another potential direction for the Titans. Johnathan Cooper has joined Chance Warmack as two picks that could buck the conventional wisdom of not drafting guards this early.

Previous pick: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Brigham Young

San Diego Chargers11. San Diego Chargers – Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
My previous pick, Eric Fisher, has shot up draft boards, but I’ll stick with the position and another player who has done the same. Johnson, a converted quarterback and tight end, impressed as expected with his athleticism at the Combine and likely moved from a fringe first-round pick to the first half of the round. As the team had not yet locked up star guard Louis Vasquez as this article was going to press with free agency set to open on Tuesday, this could also be where we see either Johnathan Cooper or Chance Warmack, the highly-rated offensive guard prospects, taken—especially if Johnson is not available with this pick.

Previous pick: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan

Miami Dolphins12. Miami Dolphins – Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
At the Combine, collegiate teammate Justin Hunter made his case to be the first receiver off the board with numbers that rivaled those of Julio Jones. However, Patterson was no slouch at the Combine either. I still see Patterson as a super-sized version of Percy Harvin and think he will be the first wide receiver off the board. Cornerback will also be a consideration here, since Miami traded Vontae Davis last year and could lose Sean Smith in free agency.

Previous pick: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee

Tampa Bay Buccaneers13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
I wanted to put a corner here in my previous mock, but no one had made their case at that point. I believe Rhodes and Desmond Trufant have now separated themselves enough to be in consideration in the first round.

Previous pick: Björn Werner, DE, Florida State

Carolina Panthers14. Carolina Panthers – Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
This pick is essentially a placeholder until we find out more about the heart condition discovered at the Combine. For a simple summary of it, see this Desert News article by Ryan Carreon. The cause could have been as simple as the flu, which would keep Lotulelei in the mix as a potential top five pick, but it is a bit of a concern that we haven’t heard a lot more about it yet. The only new news I’ve seen is that it is still considered serious and is being monitored. It would seem that if the cause were simply a viral illness, he’d be over it by now. So I moved Sharrif Floyd ahead of him as the first defensive tackle off the board—which some argued even before Lotulelei’s condition arose—and make Lotulelei the second tackle taken.

Previous pick: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

New Orleans Saints15. New Orleans Saints – Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Clearly I’ve arrived at the point in my mock where the parachute opens on some falling top prospects with health concerns. Combine medical reports for Jones’ reported spinal stenosis condition had opinions split. Some teams reportedly removed him from their draft boards while others didn’t consider it an issue at all. There was a report this week by Dan Pompei of National Football Post of an independent orthopedist saying the issue was never significant and this should be a non-issue. Every team is trying to hide their hand this time of year, while agents are working equally as hard to pump their clients up, so it is hard to know what to believe. If Jones is fully cleared, he ends up a top ten pick. If concerns remain, he could fall out of the first round altogether, so this compromise probably isn’t a realistic scenario, but I’ll plug him in here while we wait for more information. The Saints are switching to a 3-4 defense and a pass rush specialist is the team’s number one need right now.

Previous pick: Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon

St. Louis Rams16. St. Louis Rams – Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
No change here. I expect them to go with the best offensive lineman available with their first pick in the first round and with a wide receiver or safety in the second.

Previous pick: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama

Pittsburgh Steelers17. Pittsburgh Steelers – Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
I continue to go with the best linebacker available at this pick for a team who never fails to properly reload at the position. On the field Ogletree flashed ability worthy of a top ten pick, but he didn’t show the expected athleticism at the Combine and has some baggage with off-field issues. The latter could move him off the Steelers draft board, but his floor isn’t far from here.

Previous pick: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

Dallas Cowboys18. Dallas Cowboys – Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Previous pick Sharrif Floyd won’t make it this far, and Richardson may not either, but I think an explosive three technique tackle is a top priority as they convert to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Kenny Vaccaro will also be a consideration here, as the team has struggled to settle the position and has the opportunity to add a playmaker up the middle.

Previous pick: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida

N.Y. Giants19. New York Giants – Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
As we went to press, it looks like the Giants failed to prevent tight end Martellus Bennett from hitting the free market. Eifert may have slightly separated himself from Zach Ertz as the top tight end prospect at the Combine. Eifert has work to do to become a serviceable blocker—a facet of the game that will be the biggest loss if Bennett departs—but he is a fantastic receiver who would give Eli Manning a great weapon in the passing game, especially around the end zone, where their running game is under transition.

Previous pick: Kevin Minter, ILB, Louisiana State

Chicago Bears20. Chicago Bears – Johnathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
It’s looking more like the team will have to address offensive tackle in free agency, as the top tackle prospects should be off the board by this point. But their needs up front don’t end there. Linebacker will be a strong consideration too. I could easily see Mantei Te’o go here, but the team has aspirations to win now, and if Brian Urlacher returns, they have more pressing needs than drafting his future replacement.

Previous pick: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma

Cincinnati Bengals21. Cincinnati Bengals – D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
The Bengals have the money to pay right tackle Andre Smith but still look like they will let him hit the market. Fluker or Menelik Watson appear to be leading the second tier to be the fourth tackle drafted and sneak in to the first round.

Previous pick: Sam Montgomery, DE, Louisiana State

St. Louis Rams22. St. Louis Rams (via Washington Redskins) – Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
With the team potentially losing both Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola, I’m starting to reconsider whether the Rams are best served just signing a free agent, as discussed in my previous mock. They might have to address the position early in the draft as well.

Previous pick: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

Minnesota Vikings23. Minnesota Vikings – Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
I previously mocked Keenan Allen here, but his lingering knee issues are becoming a concern. Gil Brandt tweeted that Allen is seeing Dr. James Andrews about the knee this week, which is never good. After missing the Combine, Allen won’t be working out for NFL teams until next month, so as far as I’m concerned his stock is in a freefall until then.

The trade of Percy Harvin makes wide receiver an even bigger need. Austin was considered a borderline first-round pick and has become even more appealing after flying at the Combine. He runs crisp routes like Carolina’s Steve Smith, and has speed like Smith did in his prime, but it remains to be seen if he has Smith’s toughness. For a smaller guy, he certainly isn’t afraid to stick his helmet in their in the blocking game, which is critical on a team with Adrian Peterson.

Previous pick: Keenan Allen, WR, California

Indianapolis Colts24. Indianapolis Colts – Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
I still love the fit for Datone Jones as a five technique end, but I wonder if cornerback isn’t a more pressing need after Joe Flacco lit them up in the playoffs. They traded for Vontae Davis last year, so they will likely be looking to pair the veteran with a rookie instead of bringing in another veteran and allocating too much cap money at the position.

Previous pick: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA

Minnesota Vikings25. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle/Percy Harvin) – Datone Jones, DL, UCLA
After wide receiver, an aging defensive line is the Vikings’ next big concern. The versatile Jones can add value rotating across the line while the team evaluates what his best eventual fit is.

Previous pick (Seattle): Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State

Green Bay Packers26. Green Bay Packers – Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
The release of Charles Woodson leaves a hole in the secondary that the team will have to address. Kenny Vaccaro may be hard to pass on if he’s still here, but I still think the opportunity to select the top running back in the class will be harder to pass on.

Previous pick: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama

Houston Texans27. Houston Texans – Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
Hunter tested extremely well at the Combine and has himself in the discussion for the first round. I’m sticking with this position from my last mock, just changing the player.

Previous pick: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson

Denver Broncos28. Denver Broncos – Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
Again, I’m sticking with the position I chose in my last mock, but I’m now torn between Williams, Johnathan Hankins and Kawann Short as the player. I’ll keep it Williams for now, but I’ll be tracking updates on the other two and could easily see this pick being any one of them.

Previous pick: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama

New England Patriots29. New England Patriots – David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State
Like most, I viewed Amerson as the top cornerback prospect heading in to last year, but he plummeted after a mostly disappointing season. My feeling is his stock took too big a hit. He had a lot of negative press early in the season that pushed draftniks and pundits to focus on other players, yet not enough notice of his improvement down the stretch or enough blame given to the atrocious pass defense the Wolfpack had overall, which is shared with his supporting cast and the since-terminated coaching staff. I think he goes earlier than expected, with this as his ceiling, as another Belichick pick that bucks conventional wisdom.

Previous pick: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State

Atlanta Falcons30. Atlanta Falcons – Björn Werner, DE, Florida State
Tony Gonzalez said he’ll return in 2013, so my pick of Zack Ertz here in my last mock changes to defensive end, where I see a lot of value, this time around. Werner didn’t display the athleticism expected of him at the Combine, and this fall may be too steep, but I thought he was overrated previously.

Previous pick: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford

San Francisco31. San Francisco 49ers – Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
I made the case for a nose tackle in my previous mock, but Hawkins, who I rate higher than Jenkins, fell here this time. He is also a great fit in the middle.

Previous pick: John Jenkins, NT, Georgia

Baltimore Ravens32. Baltimore Ravens – Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
No change, although I strongly considered Damontre Moore. Moore’s disappointing testing results juxtaposed against his performance on the field is reminiscent of the team’s current leading pass rusher, Terrell Suggs, albeit not as extreme.

Previous pick: Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame

Full Seven-Round Draft Order

By: — March 5, 2013 @ 2:59 pm
Filed under: NFL Draft

2013 NFL Draft We’ve updated the NFL Draft Tracker to include picks for all seven rounds. Compensatory picks (awarded at the bottom of Rounds 3-7) will be announced by the league later this month.

The 49ers have 11 picks currently, plus 3 more compensatory picks expected along with a 2nd-round pick from Kansas City as compensation for the pending Alex Smith trade.  That’s 15 picks in total. Division rival Seattle has 10 picks in the upcoming 2013 Draft.

Chiefs Revive Niners’ QB Pipeline with Trade for Smith

By: — March 1, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

Throughout their history, few teams have shown more disregard to developing quarterbacks through the draft than the Kansas City Chiefs. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only three quarterbacks drafted by the Chiefs – Mike Livingston (1969-79), Steve Fuller (1979-82) and Todd Blackledge (1983-87) – won a game for the franchise. Put another way, Blackledge – in 1987 – was the last quarterback selected by Kansas City to win a game for the Chiefs.

Alex Smith

Another San Francisco QB is headed to Kansas City.

Over that time, one trend has developed: Kansas City typically has a need for a quarterback and the San Francisco 49ers typically have a signal-caller to spare. Even though the transaction cannot be made official until March 12, the teams essentially wrapped up a deal on Wednesday to send Alex Smith to the Chiefs in exchange for a second-round pick in the upcoming draft (the 34th pick) plus a conditional third-rounder in 2014 that can escalate to an additional second-rounder. Smith is the latest Niner-turned-Chief quarterback on a list that includes Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac. Shockingly, former San Francisco quarterbacks have accounted for 95 of the franchise’s 404 wins – 34 more than the aforementioned trio of KC-drafted field generals.

But that is enough of the historical significance. New HC Andy Reid and GM John Dorsey had little choice but to pursue the most established veteran quarterback on the market in a year where the incoming rookie class doesn’t appear to possess a single must-have talent at the position. Combined with Reid’s history of developing quarterbacks and the fact he holds Smith in high regard, the Chiefs can make the case their new employee is a battle-tested quarterback that is a proven winner. Furthermore, the overall compensation for Smith wasn’t quite what it was for Matt Schaub or Kevin Kolb – other veteran quarterbacks less accomplished than Smith when they were traded.

Reid stated in his opening press conference the Chiefs needed to find the next Len Dawson, who incidentally was another quarterback the franchise did not draft (selected and traded by the Steelers to the Browns, who later released him). Few Kansas City fans will argue that Matt Cassel needed to go and Smith is an upgrade – even if he has earned a reputation as a “game manager”. (Anyone who watched the Chiefs’ offense last season should be able to appreciate a quarterback who can manage a game.) Whether the “game manager” tag is an appropriate one is a discussion for another day, but what Smith does have for the first time in years is a front office that is invested in him and a coach that has publicly stated that he has long been a Smith fan.

Fantasy Impact
So the question becomes: will fantasy owners join Reid aboard the Smith bandwagon? Just as importantly, how does his arrival affect the fantasy fortunes of players such as Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe (if he returns to the team)?

Smith was in the midst of a career year in 2012 before a Week 9 concussion effectively ended his 49er career and gave birth to the rise of second-year stud Colin Kaepernick. How much of his “late development” stemmed from the fact he worked under seven different offensive coordinators and how much of it was the coaching and confidence he received from HC Jim Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman? It’s a fair question. In fact, I think most people would agree that after seven seasons and 75 NFL starts, we still really don’t know who Alex Smith is or what he could become. If only for that reason, the soon-to-be 29-year-old Smith is about as much of a wild-card as there is entering the 2013 season.

Fortunately, we do know that Reid has admitted on several occasions he can’t help himself when it comes to the passing game. As a result, there is a very good chance Smith will set career highs across the board. Another factor in Smith’s favor is that Reid has consistently received a lot of production from his quarterbacks, even taking a strong-armed option quarterback out of Syracuse in Donovan McNabb and molding him into an efficient West Coast passer. Therefore, I think that while learning yet another system isn’t likely to yield immediate results, most of us can agree Smith is transitioning from one quarterback-friendly offense to another.

In regards to his new supporting cast, it’s hard to believe the biggest beneficiary from the Reid-Smith marriage will not be Charles. While the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher this season is a bit more reliant on speed and a bit less reliant on elusiveness than Brian Westbrook or LeSean McCoy, all of them are accomplished receivers. Given the fact that the 2013 Chiefs would look a lot like Reid’s early teams (without DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin) if Bowe leaves via free agency – and more like the Eagles prior to Maclin’s arrival if Bowe stays – there’s every reason to believe Charles will be a 50-60 catch player either way. Charles’ fantasy outlook was going to be better than in 2012 because of the way Reid utilizes his backs, but a solid Smith can only help his week-to-week consistency.

Bowe makes the most interesting fantasy case. In this whole San Francisco-Philadelphia dynamic, he compares most favorably to Michael Crabtree. When focused and properly motivated, however, Bowe could be the most dominant wide receiver that Smith has thrown to in his career and the second-most dominant one Reid has coached. I can only assume Reid received some kind of assurance from management that Bowe would remain a Chief – be it via a new contract or the franchise tag – before he took the job or else the new coach is open to the idea of seeing his new quarterback start out the same way McNabb did (with the likes of Charles Johnson, Torrance Small, James Thrash and Todd Pinkston serving as the main receivers). Since I doubt the latter is the case, Bowe has a chance to be the first high-volume receiver Reid has coached since Terrell Owens. While that level of production is unlikely, it could happen – Bowe has already flashed that kind of ability.

In closing, the Chiefs either made a savvy move in trading for a “proven” veteran in a year where the rookie quarterback talent pool appears to lack a clear-cut “franchise quarterback” or severely overpaid because need trumped common sense. If Smith’s last two seasons were a sign that he was just a late bloomer that needed someone to believe in him, then Kansas City took a significant step forward with this move. While the price was to acquire was a bit steep in my opinion, I have little doubt that Smith will be at least serviceable in reality and fantasy, pending any improvements the Chiefs make at receiver this offseason. Assuming Bowe returns, Smith should be a viable QB2 in 12-team leagues in 2013 while a happy Bowe could easily return to top 10 WR status.

What We Learned at the Combine – Quarterbacks and Running Backs

By: — @ 10:22 am
Filed under: NFL Draft

NFL Combine Quarterback Geno Smith performed well participating in all the drills, and his 4.59 speed was better than expected. He did enough to maintain his status as the draft’s top quarterback but didn’t overwhelm enough to make the case to be the first pick overall.

Mike Glennon and Tyler Bray displayed the best natural arms among quarterbacks. Bray really impressed with his throwing and may have inserted himself in the discussion to be the second quarterback selected. Teams will weigh his Combine performance against the inconsistency he showed on the field and his immaturity off of it. Glennon showed off his big arm but also his problems with accuracy and mechanics. His performance was as expected, which doesn’t necessarily hurt his stock but seems to push him from consideration as a first-round prospect. Glennon also needs to fill out his Olive Oil frame. The first hit he takes in the NFL may be his last.

His throwing isn’t as natural as the quarterbacks mentioned above, but E.J. Manuel also showed off a strong arm. He’s the most physically impressive also, standing at just under 6’5” with big hands and turning in the expected strong performance across the board in athletic tests, including a 4.65 40 time—second to Smith among quarterbacks. Manuel built off the momentum of a great Senior Bowl with an impressive Combine and, to me, has made the best case to be considered the second quarterback off the board, with potential to become the top quarterback picked if Smith slips in the next two months. His upside is that of a faster Daunte Culpepper with more accuracy on shorter throws.

A growing favorite of many pundits and draftniks heading in to the Combine, quarterback Ryan Nassib, was generating plenty of buzz before hitting Lucas Field. On it, he was solid but unspectacular. He had a few good throws, but his sudden media-generated reputation far exceeded his skills. Slow and shorter than ideal without a great arm, it’s hard to project him as more than a backup or placeholder.

Quarterback Collin Klein didn’t help his NFL future by declining to work out as a tight end. At best he’s a No. 3 quarterback on an NFL roster, but as he isn’t really a developmental prospect to be a future starter, he would be more appealing if he could bring some other things to the table.

Teams will be digging up old tape on running back Knile Davis to learn more about him. The former Arkansas runner broke out as a true sophomore in 2010, garnering All-SEC honors after leading the conference with 1,322 yards in Bobby Petrino’s offense. His collegiate career was derailed after a broken left ankle in a preseason scrimmage cost him the 2011 season. Davis returned a shell of himself in 2012. He couldn’t hold on to the ball, battled hamstring problems, appeared to run tentatively, and lost his starting spot when he struggled to find his place in the offense of new head coach John L. Smith. He had been tumbling down the running back rankings until the Combine. He ran a 4.37 40, the second fastest among running backs, and a ridiculous time for someone at 227 pounds. Davis was solid in the other tests, including 31 reps on the bench, and looked very good in the drills. The explosion and decisiveness he lacked during the season were back. A hard worker who was respected enough to be voted a team captain in 2011 despite not playing, he likely impressed in interviews too, which teams will have to weigh against his injury history. In addition to his hamstring problems last season and the broken left ankle that erased 2011, dating back to high school he has also broken his right ankle twice and his collarbone twice.

Building on the momentum of a strong Shrine Game performance, running back Christine Michael put together a portfolio of the best all-around test results among running backs and looked good in drills. However, he undid some of his work on Lucas Field by reportedly missing a couple of team interviews by oversleeping. As an isolated incident, it might not have been a big deal, but maturity and attitude questions linger after a poor relationship with his head coach last season. Considered one of the top prep runners coming in to college in 2009 (generally third behind Trent Richardson and Bryce Brown), Michael exploded as a true freshman for Texas A&M before injuries impeded his upward trajectory. A broken right leg after eight games in his sophomore season ended a strong encore, and a torn left ACL ended his junior year after nine games. In 2012, he struggled to get on the same page with new head coach Kevin Sumlin. Michael was relegated to a reserve and goal-line back role, while overshadowed by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. The Combine showed that his talent clearly remains, but at what round does it outweigh attitude and injury concerns?

For a smaller back whose main upside was as a home-run threat, running back Andre Ellington tested poorly, including a disappointing 4.61 40 time. I really like what I’ve seen on the field through his career, but between a hamstring knocking him out of Senior Bowl week and now with this Combine, he is having a rough road to the draft since the season ended. I expect he’ll improve some of his numbers at his Pro Day, but this is very disappointing for a guy who I thought could come out of the Combine locking up a place among the top five running backs.

Running backs Montee Ball was solid, but unspectacular. He didn’t have to demonstrate pass protection, a weakness that could limit him to a two-down role early in his career. I appreciate the kids who decide to stay in school, but from a pure football decision standpoint, it is clear Ball should have come out last year. He put more wear on the tires without helping his draft stock. I had a similar solid, but unspectacular opinion of running back Giovani Bernard, but he appears to have impressed others more. Multiple sources report comparison of Bernard to Ray Rice by NFL scouts and execs. I don’t know if he made the case to pass the injured and absent Eddie Lacy as the top running back in the class, but he appears to have separated himself from Ellington and Ball as the number 2 back in this class.

While the consensus top-rated running backs in this class either ran in place or hurt themselves at the Combine, Johnathan Franklin climbed draft boards. He tested well and looked great in drills. After flying under the radar at UCLA most of his career, despite being a four-year starter, he overcame fumbling problems and put together his best season last year under new head coach Jim Mora Jr., who has heaped effusive praise on Franklin over the last year. Also significantly helping their cases were Le’Veon Bell and Kenjon Barner. The biggest pure running back at 230 pounds, Bell surprised with more speed than expected (a 4.6 40) and by catching the ball extremely well. He flashed more ability than the typical punishing, between-the-tackles runner, thus raising his ceiling. Barner tested well, but he really stood out in the receiving drills, running crisp routes and showing good hands. On the flipside, running back Stepfan Taylor failed to take advantage of the lack of separation by the other top-rated running backs. No one expected him to be a burner, but his 4.76 40 was worse than expected and he lacked explosion in drills.

The best all-purpose back looked like small-school running back Kerwynn Williams, who turned in one of the best all-around performances. The WAC record holder in all-purpose yardage tested well and turned heads in drills.

Defensive Players to Watch at the Combine (And a Couple of Offensive Linemen)

By: — February 23, 2013 @ 10:50 am
Filed under: IDP, NFL Draft

For the IDP enthusiast, and anyone who has read his share of articles about skill players, here are the defensive players I’m looking forward to watching at the Combine starting this weekend. Also included are a couple of offensive linemen…keeping with the non–skill player coverage.

Brandon Jenkins, DE/OLB, Florida State
After 8 sacks as a freshman and then a breakout 13.5 sacks (third in FBS) and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2010 on a FSU defense that tied for the FBS lead with 48 sacks, Jenkins was a favorite to lead the nation in sacks in 2011. It ended up his numbers dipped (8 sacks and 12 TFL) as he battled some injuries, but Jenkins was learning to play with his hand on the ground more often and faced frequent double teams, which freed up opportunities for others, particularly Björn Werner, to make plays. With hard work in the weight room over that offseason, Jenkins also significantly improved his play against the run. The NFL Advisory Board gave him a late first-round to early second-round grade. He had his mind made up to declare early and informed head coach Jimbo Fisher shortly after their victory in the Champs Sports Bowl. Fisher reportedly asked Jenkins for a few days to investigate more with his NFL contacts, and after a two-hour meeting with his family and Fisher, Jenkins still seemed set to go. He changed his mind later that evening, however, and informed Fisher he would return for his senior season. Unfortunately, his decision to return didn’t work out. Jenkins suffered a season-ending broken left foot in the second quarter of their first game. In 40 career games, Jenkins was credited with 22.5 sacks and 37.5 tackles for loss.

I appreciate that Jenkins was able to graduate by returning, but I feel he got some bad advice from Fisher, regardless of his injury, and should have left after 2011. There was a report prior to last season that Fisher told him to stay focused only on defensive end in the offseason. While Jenkins doesn’t have elite speed around the corner, he has great quickness off the ball and an excellent spin move. I think his development for the next level would have benefitted from more opportunities to play in space with his hand off the ground and not exclusively at right defensive end, as he may end up as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Jenkins could have petitioned for an extra year, and likely would have gotten it, but instead enters the draft with Werner. The duo join the lineage of outstanding pass rush specialist tweeners from FSU (Andre Wadsworth, Peter Boulware, Reinard Wilson, Kamerion Wimbley, et al). While Werner now looks likely to be the first-round pick, Jenkins could climb back to become a late second-round pick with an impressive Combine.

Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
A phenomenal athlete, Taylor was a varsity basketball player and state triple-jump champion in high school. As a 3rd year sophomore in 2010, he showed in addition to his ability to penetrate from the edge (7.5 sacks and 13 TFL) that he was fluid enough to drop into coverage. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson successfully mixed him into that role and Taylor led the team with 8 passes defensed and an interception returned for a touchdown. He stood out on a talented D-line that led the SEC in sacks with versatile defensive end Melvin Ingram and tackle Travian Robertson anchoring the interior, both of whom would be drafted. Taylor earned first-team All-SEC honors and most draftniks had him pegged to leave early and be a first-round pick. However, he didn’t deliver the dominant encore that was expected as the 2011 season began. He drew more attention from opposing offenses and disappeared at times. Instead, it was Ingram and blue chip freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney who racked up the big plays. Taylor adjusted and began to string together stronger showings as the season wound down, including an impact performance in the Capital One Bowl, but finished the year with just 6 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He said the NFL Draft Advisory Board told him he wouldn’t go in the first three rounds, so he decided to return. Clowney was the story again last season, while Taylor managed just 3 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He regained some draft stock momentum with a dominant week of practice prior to the Shrine Game and a great game as well, posting a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 tackles for loss.

Interestingly, his father is named Lawrence Taylor (no relation to the NFL HOF’er) and owns a restaurant called L.T.’s. Foreshadowing? At 6’7”, Devin seems too tall and stiff, despite his athletic ability, to play outside linebacker, and he hasn’t flashed natural pass-rush ability. He bulked up about 25 pounds since last year and seems to be adjusting to playing with the new weight. He gives great effort and has an excellent work rate on the field, which has helped contribute to the success of the Gamecocks and will appeal to NFL teams. He presents a great problem in space, and his agility and wingspan could make him an outstanding zone pass defender in stunts. However, he simply lacks a quick first step and explosiveness off the ball, which is why he isn’t a great pass rusher despite his athletic ability. Any tackle in the NFL is going to be able to get his hands on him every time. It doesn’t help that with his height he lacks a natural bend and opens himself up too quickly, giving the opponent plenty of real estate to work with. I like Taylor, and his work ethic will make him a project some team will want to take on. The athleticism he displays at the Combine will go a long way toward determining how early he is drafted.

Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE, Brigham Young
I currently have him mocked in the first round, and I write about him extensively here. However, he’ll really need to bring the “wow” in Indianapolis to go that high and live up to the mythical levels at which his athleticism is currently portrayed. He is one of the most polarizing players among draftniks, and one side of the debate over him will gain more evidence at the Combine.

Jarvis Jones, DE/OLB, Georgia
He has just stated he won’t work out at the Combine to focus on preparing for his Pro Day. That deprives us of a preview of a player who, talent-wise, might be the best overall prospect in the draft. However, his medical evaluations were going to be as critical to his draft stock as his Combine or Pro Day performance. As I discussed in my first mock, his mild spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column) caused USC doctors to not clear him and recommend he not play football, while other doctors have cleared him and said the risk is not a major concern. While we won’t have access to the details of his medical evaluations, he is still a player to watch as rumors and reports of those evaluations emerge.

DeMarcus “Dee” Milliner, CB, Alabama
The consensus top cornerback in the draft comes to the Combine with a torn labrum he apparently played with through at least some part of last season. However, he is currently planning to do everything except the bench press and then have surgery afterward. There is a talented crowd in the queue behind him at cornerback, which the Combine will help to sort out and may even provide others the opportunity to pass Milliner if he is more limited than expected or disappoints.

David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State
Like most, I viewed Amerson as the top cornerback prospect after his sensational sophomore season in 2011 where he picked off an ACC-record 13 passes and was an impact player. However, this past season he got off to a horrible start before improving down the stretch. Former Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien offered various explanations during the year: Amerson had gotten away from fundamentals, was missing basic assignments, trying too hard to make big plays instead of doing his job, and was stressed out and distracted by off-field issues. Those issues involved his relationship to Eric Leak, a disassociated booster and former N.C. State player who was previously found by the NCAA to have been providing illegal benefits to Wolfpack basketball players. Leak was allegedly soliciting agents for Amerson. So we’ve got the effect of that situation plus the pressure to repeat his historic season, and reading his own press clippings from that season; but what does the tape of his on-field activity show? His drop in productivity wasn’t because teams were afraid to throw at him. He was beaten a number of times, his low point being his involvement in all four touchdown passes by the Hurricanes in the Wolfpacks’ loss at Miami. Amerson also struggled with his footwork—both poor technique and lack of the instinct for when to come out of a backpedal. Some of that could be attributed to the “off” coverage he excelled at in 2011, baiting quarterbacks to try for the pick. But that is still a problem because it would indicate he lacks his previous quickness and recovery speed to execute those baits successfully. He played better in the second half of the season, including a 55-yard pick six in the team’s final regular season game. He finished with 5 interceptions and 17 passes defended—respectable numbers.

My feeling is his stock took too big a hit. He had a lot of negative press early in the season that pushed draftniks and pundits to focus on other players, yet not enough notice of his improvement down the stretch or enough blame given to the atrocious pass defense the Wolfpack had overall, which is shared with his supporting cast and the since-terminated coaching staff. At 6’2”, Amerson has the size to hang with the elite big receivers. If he shows quickness, speed and athleticism at the Combine, the issues with technique he displayed will be less of a concern and viewed as correctable. As I went through my mock, he remained in the debate for the second corner after Dee Milliner, so I can see him making a huge leap with a big Combine.

Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
The Honey Badger was one of the most exciting players in college football in 2011, with an incredible knack for turning in the big play, and in a variety of ways. He was kicked off the team prior to last season for reportedly failing drug tests and was later arrested for marijuana possession. Even if you take his baggage out of the picture, there was the question of his diminutive stature (I predict he measures 5’8” and under 175) and whether he has the elite athleticism to mitigate concerns about his talent translating at the next level. He reportedly has been living with the family of former teammate, and first-round pick, Patrick Peterson and training with workout warrior Peterson.

Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern
This dominating Division II player is the top NFL prospect of D2 guru Josh Buchanan. That’s enough reason to keep an eye on him.

Zavier Gooden, OLB, Missouri
The converted safety lacks the size of former teammate of Aldon Smith but is expected to impress with his own freakish athleticism. Gooden should emerge as one of this year’s Combine workout warriors, turning heads with his speed and strength.

Michael Buchanan, DE and Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
In each of the last two years, an Illinois defensive lineman (Corey Liuget in 2011 and Whitney Mercilus in 2012) recruited by former head coach Ron Zook has risen from the obscurity of a terrible college team to meet his individual potential and end up as a first-round pick.

Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
When you look at his skill set alone, Te’o is a no-brainer. But after his imaginary girlfriend drama, I want to hear the reports of how his interviews are going. Regardless of the girlfriend situation, Alec Olgetree and Kevin Minter emerged as threats to his preseason status as the top inside linebacker prospect, so how Te’o tests is of interest too.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut
Todd McShay has him as a first-round pick, and Tony Pauline says he is hearing similar rumblings from some at the Combine. He wasn’t on my radar to go that high, so I’ll be interested to see how he performs.

Jelani Jenkins, OLB, Florida
It was a bit of a surprise when he declared, despite his being a redshirt junior. Prior to his injury-plagued season, he was considered a potential first-round pick.

Walter Stewart, DE/OLB, Cincinnati
After he suffered a back injury in a win over Forham on Oct. 13th, Stewart was stunned to hear from the team doctor that his football career was over. X-rays identified a birth disorder. The Bearcats’ captain was missing the posterior arch of his first cervical (C1) vertebra. Second opinions since then have varied, with some NFL doctors validating the original recommendation and others telling him it isn’t an issue. Stewart chooses to believe the latter and is expected to undergo a full workload. The underrated tweener has been a favorite sleeper of mine ever since I saw his big performance in the Sugar Bowl after his redshirt freshman year in 2009. It’s hard not to root for Stewart, who left a tough home situation on his own at age 13 to end up with an inspirational foster family that became the nurturing parents he didn’t get in the biological lottery.

Bruce Taylor, LB, Virginia Tech
Here’s another player I really like(d). After a breakout year in 2010, a Lisfranc injury on his right foot cut his 2011 season short. He didn’t have the same explosion and first step when I watched him last season. He’s now over a year removed from his injury. I’m interested to see if after some rest and training in the offseason he displays more athleticism at the Combine, or seems destined as a two-down, backup inside linebacker.

Kevin Minter, ILB, Louisiana State
I’m a bit higher on Minter than others and hope his Combine validates the high consideration he’s getting based on his athleticism.

Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Other than the bench press, offensive linemen are the least interesting to watch work out. So it isn’t that I’m looking forward to seeing Armstead in any specific drills or tests (although he is predicted to run a sub-5.0). I just want to see how well he performs overall and view the feedback about him. After a great week of practice at the Shrine Game, the small-school prospect is a hot name among O-linemen. Because their contributions aren’t measured statistically like every other position and they don’t make many YouTube highlights, there are always some unheralded O-linemen who no one but actual NFL scouts already know about that jump up draft boards after the Combine (usually going to the Patriots).

D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Fluker dropped 16 pounds since the Senior Bowl and is apparently looking to change opinions on his ceiling as a right tackle. If he impresses with his agility and athleticism and moves into the left tackle discussion, he could join the first-rounders in a draft that continues to look increasingly impressive on both sides of the line.

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