By Jeff Risdon
1. The player I get asked about more than any other is Manti Te’o and what his horrible last month has done to his draft stock. The correct answer is “It’s too early to tell.” The more informed answer is that the awful game against Alabama hurts him more than the bizarre girlfriend hoax and cover-up, but also that the former was almost certainly impacted by the latter.
The Combine interviews will be huge for Te’o, who must satisfactorily explain why he persisted with a lie. Creative Artists Agency, which represents Te’o, also needs to show its acumen and market Te’o for what he was heading into December, an impact inside backer with excellent instincts, great power, and commanding leadership presence. I still believe Te’o is a top 30 talent, but I do know that a couple of teams (at least) are wary of the ancillary implications of taking Te’o and that could cause him to slide.
2. No player helped himself more during the All-Star games than Florida International safety Jonathan Cyprien. From the moment he walked up on the stage in his underwear for Senior Bowl weigh-ins, Cyprien impressed. It was my first real exposure to him, as it was for most of the coaches as well. His size, range, and physicality were on display and piqued the interest of many. I’ve now watched two game films and like him even more; he stood out despite having little help and tried very hard to make things happen. His coverage skills need development and his reckless pursuit of every pump fake needs to be tamed, but those are coachable flaws. I will be surprised if Cyprien is not a top 40 pick. It’s worth mentioning that his agent is Drew Rosenhaus, the master of the “help me here and I’ll help you there” negotiations with teams, and that Cyprien is his most prominent draft client this year.
3. Speaking of surprise Top 40 picks, remember the name Menelik Watson. The massive Florida State tackle doesn’t get the publicity of similar foreign greenhorns Ezekiel Ansah or Margus Hunt, but Watson is a British native who came to the United States to play basketball at Marist. He moved onto community college and thrived, earning a place at FSU for the 2012 season. As their starting right tackle, Watson flashed glimpses of physical dominance and the excellent footwork you would expect from a power forward and childhood soccer player. One Director of Collegiate Scouting told me this past week that Watson could be the best offensive tackle in the draft five years from now, and that he has no bad habits to unlearn. Don’t be surprised if Watson comes off the board in the 15-22 overall range, and those numbers are not arbitrarily chosen. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more…
4. For someone headed in the opposite direction, I give you Virginia tackle Oday Aboushi. He was a first rounder in my preseason mock draft and was widely seen as someone who could step forward with a big senior season and crash the top 20. That didn’t happen. In a down season for the Cavaliers, Aboushi struggled. Instead of improving his footwork and showing more aggression, both regressed. During Senior Bowl week his passivity in pass protection was really exposed as a major issue. Tackles can be passive and still be effective if they have the requisite strength and quick feet (think Branden Albert), but Aboushi has neither. I had Aboushi mocked in the third round recently but was told by the above Director Of Collegiate Scouting that I was at least two rounds too early. He told me his regional scout was not even that high on him after seeing almost every UVA game the past two years.
5. One unheralded player I really like is Sam Houston State corner Daxton Swanson. This week he was among the names on the Combine list, and Swanson deserves the recognition. He was as close to a shutdown corner as I’ve seen at the FCS level, showing great instincts, quick reactions, and a passion for stickiness in coverage that all the great ones have. The Toledo transfer lacks great size and probably won’t break 4.5 in the 40, viable knocks that relegated him to one of the top programs in the FCS. I’ll quote a regional scout who saw the Bearkats live about Swanson: “That kid is a baller, man.” I’ve seen four of Swanson’s games, including one in person, and I concur. He will be a Day Three gem and prominently featured in my annuals “Booms and Busts” draft column, coming in early April.
6. On the Combine front, the official list of names was released this week. Here are a few names on the list that caught me by surprise:
Cal RB C.J. Anderson
Jacksonville St. WR Alan Bonner
Notre Dame S Jamoris Slaughter
Boston College T John Wetzel
Kansas St. FB Braden Wilson
Utah DE Joe Kruger
And a few guys I expected to see on the list but were not invited:
Florida St. LB Vince Williams
Mount Union WR Jasper Collins
Oklahoma DE David King
Harvard FB Kyle Juszczyk
Alabama TE Michael Williams
All five of the guys I listed here should be drafted before any of the players in the first list.
7. There continues to be a wide variation between the quarterback evaluations that you find. National Football Post scouting director Russ Lande, someone I respect for his actual NFL experience and I know puts in the work, grades Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib as his top overall talent in the draft. Bleacher Report lead scout Matt Miller, another trustworthy and respectable evaluator, has Nassib at 34. You can find others who have Nassib in the low 60s, myself included. North Carolina State QB Mike Glennon has the same kind of range. As recently as two weeks ago Mel Kiper had him as a top 15 talent and waxed poetic on national radio about his greatness, while Miller ranked him in the 80s. Glennon will not make my final top 123 prospect list, but trusted friend and colleague Eric Galko at Optimum Scouting gives him a second round grade.
What exactly does that mean? For one, it means there is no obvious or clear-cut consensus on any quarterback in this draft. That includes Geno Smith, who is more likely than anyone to be the #1 overall pick at this still-early point. It also indicates that teams who are looking for immediate help from the draft at QB are in for a long and painful year. One of the big variations in evaluations is how different people weigh the future potential against the current ability. Some favor the eventual upside higher than current flaws, while others emphasize the converse point. I’ll stand by the declaration that there will be four first round QBs in this draft: Smith, Nassib, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, and Glennon, even though only one of them (Smith) will appear in every reputable top 32 rankings.
8. Two former Big Ten quarterbacks will be at the Combine, but neither will be a fulltime quarterback in the NFL. Denard Robinson from Michigan and MarQuies Gray from Minnesota must both make position changes if they want to keep playing football. Robinson is more well-known, and we’ve already seen him going through the growing pains of learning to play wide receiver and return specialist. I still maintain he should be a running back, but that’s just one man’s opinion.
Gray is a different animal altogether. He has bounced between wideout and quarterback during his Gophers tenure, primarily because they failed to recruit anyone who could beat him out at quarterback. His size (6’4”, 242) dictates that he is a tight end in the NFL, yet he is listed with the quarterbacks on the official NFL Combine listing. I like Gray’s potential more than Robinson’s as a receiver, because he has shown the ability to make tough catches in traffic and his size and strength are vastly superior, but he is in that dangerous no-man’s land of being too big and slow for a wideout but not physical enough to be an effective tight end off the bat. If Gray runs in the low 4.5s he stands a good shot at being drafted. Look for the team that takes him to stash him on the practice squad for his rookie season to ascertain exactly what they have in MarQuies Gray.
9. It’s too early for any concrete projections as far as draft stock or tiering at this point, but here are three statements in which I am pretty confident right now:
--Cordarrelle Patterson will be the first wide receiver off the board, and it will be in the top 15
--Oregon OLB Dion Jordan will be drafted before Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones, whose neck injury is going to scare teams more than it scares the sprawling draft community
--Five Tennessee offensive players will be drafted in the first four rounds (Patterson, Bray, Hunter, Thomas, Rivera), an amazing number for a decidedly below-average offense.
10. Straying from the draft just a bit to a related discipline, the world of collegiate recruiting. I’m not a National Signing Day guy at all, and I pay absolutely no attention to recruiting class ratings or high school all-star camps and games. Some of that is a function of my alma mater, Ohio University, never signing anyone who would make any top 250 list. Some is that I’m not a die-hard college football fan, per se; I have largely lost the ability to derive enjoyment from college football because it is impossible for me to stop scouting. That’s work to me, unfortunately.
But the biggest reason is a piece of advice I got from a prominent NFL GM. We were at a dinner and someone asked him about a player who was once a very prominent HS recruit to a major BCS program and was now in the draft. I can’t provide the exact quote but I’ll closely paraphrase: “The only reason he was highly rated is that he peaked early athletically. We consciously try to avoid those players because it’s been my experience that those guys don’t have the mental makeup to handle the rigors. They’ve already played their best football. I want guys that can still grow.”
The player in question had gone from 5-star recruit to immediate contributor to essentially losing his starting job as a senior to the next 5-star recruit. He wound up being drafted in the sixth round but did not survive past the second preseason game. As far as the NFL goes, most good GMs couldn’t care less about what a college junior did in high school. There are obvious exceptions like Jadeveon Clowney or Orlando Pace, but those guys produced at elite levels in college too, instead of just resting on their recruiting glory laurels.