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Early Notes From The Scouting Trail
Authored by Jeff Risdon - 2nd October, 2011 - 11:51 pm

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I got the opportunity to attend the Oklahoma State/Texas A&M game in College Station, a contest packed with future NFL talent. While I was there I chatted with some scouts and talent evaluators and picked their brains for some opinions.

--I was most interested in the two premier wide receivers, Jeff Fuller and Justin Blackmon. Fuller was hampered by a bum hamstring, and the Aggie clearly wasn't able to explode out of cuts. Because he is not a big-time speed guy, the inability to cut hard and vary speeds made it hard for him to get separation all day long. He still has very good size and knows how to go get the ball in the air, but if this was the first time you were watching Fuller you would wonder why he gets much draft run. And that is a concern, because one of the things you have to do to succeed in the NFL is perform at a high level even when you're not 100%. As one scout pointed out, "I'm looking at maybe our 4th receiver there." Fuller is a big receiver that has been highly productive even with sometimes iffy QB play, comparable to Mike Sims-Walker or Michael Jenkins in the NFL. That is 3rd-4th round draft territory. His strong downfield blocking, particularly on a long run by QB Ryan Tannehill, was duly noted by all scouts in attendance.

Blackmon had a tale of two halves. In the first half, which TAMU dominated, Blackmon was frustrated by the soft man coverage with inside technique early, and on a couple of occasions he let his frustrations be known on the sideline. That did not endear him to one scout, though the same scout later pointed out "I do really like his passion for the game" and admitted the Cowboys needed to get him more involved. They sure did that in the second half and Blackmon shined. He is a thickly muscled bull of a receiver in the Anquan Boldin mold, not terribly fast but with some sudden burst and the strength and drive to get the ball in tight quarters. He is very difficult to tackle once he gets the ball. He did have one ugly drop (as did Fuller) but what impressed us was how he presents himself as a target. When you watch him on the field he appears much bigger than his 6'1", 215 listing. Unlike Fuller, Blackmon will tend to drift of routes and he doesn't get great separation down the field. Blackmon is a first round lock, and much like Julio Jones last year his draft slot will depend some on how fast he times. Like Jones, Blackmon plays like a guy that runs in the 4.5 range but is significantly smaller and less polished on routes. He probably belongs in the top 20 but the top 10 seems too high right now.

--Both quarterbacks are also NFL prospects. OSU's Brandon Weeden is a real intriguing guy, a former minor league pitcher that is 3 months older than Aaron Rodgers. He has a very live arm with excellent pinpoint accuracy to hit receivers on the move and the ability to throw guys open. Two different scouts raved about his effortless delivery, and his mechanics are textbook on every throw. He showed in this game more of an ability to look off a defender than I expected, and he moves in the pocket (always out of the shotgun) pretty adeptly. The age is definitely an issue though, as one scout pointed out succinctly, "If he can't start for us right away, he's useless. What do I want with a 30 year old (he's actually 28) rookie backup?" I sense that is going to be a tough obstacle for Weeden to overcome, because every time I bring him up to people the response is invariably "I like him a lot but..." and there is usually some reference to Chris Weinke. Weeden has much more going for him as a NFL quarterback than Weinke ever did, but coming from a shotgun spread system where he makes two reads at most on every play, it does make him a tough sell at his age.

Ryan Tannehill will go before Weeden in the draft, and he also had a tale of two halves. Tannehill broke off a 65-yard TD run right off the bat, a play where he showed the wheels and elusiveness that allowed him to be a pretty good wide receiver before he moved back to QB full time last season. He is very strong at throwing on the move and likes to use the floating pocket a la Colt McCoy or Tony Romo. Tannehill flashed the arm strength on a couple of deep inside patterns where he roped the ball over the intermediate coverage and inside the corner. He also had several instances where he held the safety with his eyes, and he has a nice play action fake.

But in the second half of the game he struggled more, getting more deliberate with his throws and making some poor decisions under pressure. There is still a lot of room for growth, as he has only started the last 8 games and was a wide receiver for his first two offseasons, so his reps are limited. He tends to push the ball on shorter outside throws and the clock in his head needs some tuning. But with his physical ability and outstanding intangibles, Ryan Tannehill is very attractive going forward. One scout told me he likes Tannehill much more than he liked Blaine Gabbert at this point last year, and Gabbert went 10th overall. Right now I see Tannehill in that similar range, and one of the scouts agreed with me that the middle of the first round is where he belongs.

--Two other Aggies of draft interest are running back Cyrus Gray and defensive back Coryell Judie. Gray is a shifty, productive inside-out runner that reminds me quite a bit of Jahvid Best, though Gray is not as explosive. When I asked one scout about his pro potential, he was enthusiastic in stating that Gray should make a very good speed back to pair with a power back, a la Ahmad Bradshaw. I see that as well, as Gray is much better running behind the tackles and breaking outside, particularly on misdirections and delayed handoffs. He is also a very good receiver, and he showed in the OK State game he is solid in pass protection. He also showed a tendency to dance a little when his primary hole is filled, and the Cowboys defense did an excellent job at swarming to him and limiting him to under 40 yards. While this is true of every back, Gray strikes me as a runner that will need a solid offensive line and a quarterback that defenses respect in order to be effective in the NFL. TAMU coaches have timed Gray as low as 4.42 in the 40, and he does have excellent quickness.

Judie was out with a hamstring injury against OK State, and that makes another strike against him. Even though Judie has shown he can be a very good shutdown corner with great physicality, he needs a signature performance against the likes of Blackmon to prove his skills are legitimately translatable to the NFL. He has some Antonio Cromartie to his coverage game, physical at times but inconsistent with it, and more of a ballhawk that likes to bait and close than a blanket. Unlike Cromartie, Judie is a very willing run defender that likes to hit. His footwork needs some work, and he tends to get too high out of his backpedal, but those are coachable. Where Judie gets bonus points is for his special teams play, which is what really disappointed one of the scouts in attendance. He is a premier return man with excellent open field running skills and uses his blockers as innately as any NFL return man. But there are knocks. He turns 24 in October and has had two shoulder surgeries already, a bad omen for a guy of his lithe build. Physically he looks like a very small-framed guy with a lot of weight-room fluff, which lends to durability questions that are reinforced by the hamstring issue. Judie has enough going for him to get looks in the 2nd round, but I agree with one scout that he's a hit-or-miss middle round pick that will either start for you right away or not make it out of his second training camp with a team.

--One of the scouts in attendance was also at the Texas/Rice game a few weeks back and we picked up on some of the things we were discussing there. The Longhorns have a couple of very intriguing players that are elevating their stock. Kheeston Randall is a senior defensive tackle that is off to a very impressive start despite not having much numbers to show for it. In the Rice game Randall consistently tied up two blockers and showed the ability to create upfield surge while engaged. This scout told me he loved how Randall attacks the gap and uses his hands to dictate the action. He demonstrated very good ball awareness and has good quickness and decent lateral agility. His weight is up to 298 and it seems like it has helped without losing and quickness. Like my scouting friend, I like Randall as a 3-4 defensive end, especially for a scheme like Pittsburgh where the emphasis is on the B gap. He looks like a 3rd rounder, as he is not much of a natural pass rusher.

The other Longhorn is junior defensive end Alex Okafor, another player that makes more of an impact when you watch him than he does on the stat sheet. There were several times in the Rice game where he got upfield quickly and disrupted the play, but what was impressive to both me and this scout was how well he played in space. He has the footwork and comprehension to turn and run with tight ends, and he showed he can close on the ball. Texas is known for having intelligent guys, and Okafor fits that bill. Like Randall, his draft stock probably won't be real high because Okafor is not a hyperactive pass rusher, but he seems ideally suited for a swing 4-3 end/3-4 OLB role the way the Ravens used Jarrett Johnson. The Texas coaches advised this scout that Okafor should be a better pass rusher at the next level than he is in college, and I see that.

--When I asked one NFC South scout to tell me a player that has unexpectedly impressed him, it took him about a half-second before he enthusiastically replied with Leonard Johnson, a corner at Iowa State. I'll admit to not being overly familiar with his game, so I asked what stood out. "He's just one of those smart kids that doesn't have any holes" was his response. He went on to praise his tackling form, his ability to play different coverage techniques, and his strength. This scout has unearthed some pretty solid corners in his time, so I am going to check out Johnson more thoroughly. I have watched some Iowa State tape this year but was primarily focusing on behemoth offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, a bedrock blocker that merits late 1st round/mid 2nd round consideration.

--Nebraska DT Jared Crick is a prospect that is the subject of a pretty wide divide in opinion. One scout told me "that kid is the most overrated stiff I've seen", telling me "he's a slower version of Adam Carriker...look what he's done (in the NFL)." He cited Crick's nasty tendency, which I have noticed as well, to come straight up out of his stance and let the blocker dictate the action. But another scout took umbrage, saying that Crick has a "nice package of moves. I like his shoulder and how he uses his hands". Crick has good productivity, getting 9.5 sacks the last two seasons and making a lot of tackles for a defensive tackle. It's the tackling that really boosts his stock with many, as he has shown he can get off blocks and chase down running plays outside the tackle box and from behind. I am skeptical that he will do much in terms of pass rush at the next level, but if he can learn to keep his pad level down and be more assertive on every snap he can start at 3-4 DE in the NFL. At 6'6" and 285 he will not have the base strength or leverage to line up inside, a point two different scouts agreed with. I suspect you will see Crick as a mid-first rounder in some mock drafts but as low as a late 2nd rounder in others. He is a player whose stock will be heavily dependent on how he performs on the workout/all star game circuit.

--Another player that is the subject of divided opinion is Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin. Heading into this season most observers believed Griffin would have to make a positional change if he wanted to advance to the NFL, but his play thus far in 2011 has some (myself included) thinking he has a real chance as a quarterback. Through his first three games Griffin has more TDs (13) than incompletions (12) and has shown improved throwing mechanics and better field vision. He has always had great touch but tended to want to throw on the run even if he had room in the pocket. This year he is standing taller but still very active with his feet. Griffin has a lot of the young Donovan McNabb to him, though he is not as big and not as polished as when McNabb came out of Syracuse. His arm strength down the field takes some effort but he is pretty sound with it. The scouts I talked with are still somewhat iffy on the offensive scheme and just how much a product of the system he is, but one in particular told me his attitude towards Griffin is changing quickly. Two things in Griffin's favor: he's an exceptional student, having graduated in 3 years and shunning law school to keep playing, and as one scout told me, he is the best leadership presence in the Big 12 since Colt McCoy. If Baylor keeps winning and Griffin continues to show how well he can throw the ball and guide his offense, he sure looks like a first-round quarterback talent, albeit one that will need some adjustment time in the NFL.

--Speaking of Baylor, I commiserated with a scout in our apparent misevaluation of former Bear offensive tackle Danny Watkins. I had him as the 2nd best offensive lineman, period, in the last draft, while this scout advised me his team very seriously considered taking Watkins with a pick several slots higher than where he went (27th). Alas, Watkins has not made the transition well despite seeming very NFL-ready, as he was inactive for Philly's first two games even though the Eagles offensive line is a bubbling grease fire. I asked the scout, "How did we miss so badly here?" and he espoused that the lockout inhibited his work with a very different type of blocking scheme, as well as the transition from tackle to guard. It is too premature to write off Watkins yet, but because he is 27 years old already the patience level with development is much lower.

--As we sat for dinner, the scores and highlights started rolling in. One stat line caught some real attention, as I brought up in last week's $.10 column. Rutgers wideout Mohamed Sanu pulled down a Big East record 16 receptions for almost 200 yards and two touchdowns against my alma mater, Ohio University. He is viewed as a pretty safe draft prospect, not a real game changing talent but a guy who can step right in, pick up any offense quickly, and contribute as an outside receiver in multiple wideout packages. Even though this is out of his regional realm, one scout told me Sanu reminded him of Muhsin Muhammad, and I can see some validity in that as well.

--From a personal observation standpoint, I have been amused with all the consternation surrounding Texas A&M's move to the SEC. I am an outsider here with no dog in the fight and no real strong feelings towards either Texas or TAMU. One of the things that I find strange is how much these school fan bases loathe one another. They could not be more diametrically opposite in terms of fan base and appeal to prospective students. Without getting into the deep specifics, suffice to say that if I were a high school senior in Texas I would know if I was a Longhorn or an Aggie. There would be no doubt, as anyone that would find Austin and UT appealing would most likely go crazy in College Station, and the converse is true as well. That is very different from the Big 10 and ACC and even smaller school rivalries I'm familiar with from the North and East. As an example, one of the reasons Michigan and Ohio State hate each other is because they are very similar schools that would appeal to the same prospects. Pittsburgh and West Virginia are the same way, though Pitt fans probably don't want to hear that, same with Central and Western Michigan.

After my first visit to College Station, I see why the SEC is such a natural fit. It reminds me of Tuscaloosa or Blacksburg (I know Virginia Tech isn't in the SEC...yet) a lot more than it does Austin or Lawrence, and the student body seems more oriented with Auburn and Georgia than Iowa State and Missouri. I still think it would be great fun if Texas joined the SEC as well, which would absolutely devastate Aggie fans. Of course Texas would never do it, because their egos are far too self-inflated to lend any thought that TAMU might have dictated their actions. My kids will go to neither school, unless the volleyball scholarships are full ride and come early.