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14th October, 2010 - 2:34 am

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By Jeff Risdon

I attended the Texas A&M/Arkansas game last weekend with a scout from an AFC North team. While in Arlington we met with a few other scouts and a recently retired NFL player who is looking to establish himself as a draftnik. We covered a wide variety of topics throughout the game, dinner, drinks, and morning coffee. I can?t provide lots of exact quotes for a variety of reasons, the most pertinent of which is that the voice recorded on my Droid malfunctioned. The quotes included below are exact to the best of my recollection.

Quarterbacks

Ryan Mallett was the feature attraction, and his performance sort of validated both his critics and his supporters. As I reported in this week?s $.10 (see the ninth cent), Mallett earned points for his leadership but still has room for improvement in the throwing department. Because of his size, arm, and the leadership aspect while playing in a pro-style offense, Mallett will be a top 10 pick, but he?s not likely to be anyone?s #1 QB.

That #1 is unanimously Stanford?s Andrew Luck at this point. Luck was the subject of a long discussion about pedigree and coaching and how QBs benefit from those. His father was a NFL QB and he?s coached at Stanford by former NFL QB Jim Harbaugh--and it shows. ?Intangibles? is a huge buzz word and I heard it at least 10 times in reference to what separates Luck from everyone else. The guy just has ?it? to go with his enormous physical tool set.

As one scout noted, ?He?s better than (Sam) Bradford, he?s better than (Matt) Stafford, he?s better than (Mark) Sanchez already. I?m talking he could start today over any of those guys on their teams.?

I disagree with that sentiment, but I share his bullishness on Luck. I will likely grade him out higher than any QB in the seven years I?ve scouted, and I won?t be alone in doing so.

Opinions are also divided on Jake Locker. I?ll admit up front I?m not a fan; his inaccuracy and inconsistency are too great to merit 1st round consideration in my eyes.

I approached the subject of Locker by asking ?who does he remind you of? to these scouts. Among the answers were Vince Young, Tony Romo, a young Mark Brunell, and Bruce Gradkowski with a better arm.

It seems most are willing to cut him some slack for the awful Nebraska game, but everyone agrees that he tries to do too much with every play. His intangibles are also high and he?s probably a bit better of an athlete than Luck (who is bigger), but the accuracy issue is going to divide people. It?s not just completion percentage that factors into accuracy, but things like hitting the receiver in stride at the right place, or avoiding the defender, or throwing on the move.

One scout compared him to Tim Tebow in that regard, which I hadn?t thought of but makes perfect sense now that I think about it. Like Tebow, Locker makes his receivers work hard to make too many catches and substitutes high velocity for pinpoint placement over the middle and on the run. I suspect (and hope) that this comparison sticks as more scouts get more in-depth into Locker.

I also talked a little with one scout who had just recently seen him about Nevada?s Colin Kaepernick. To summarize his thoughts: bigger and quicker than he looks on tape, better arm than expected on long throws but still only average, great touch, better accuracy than Locker, makes quick decisions, slow release that starts too low though it?s improved, pistol offense and strong running game aids his skills, needs to see whole field better. My personal observation is that Kaepernick has some Matt Schaub to him, but will need to prove he can make throws against better competition.

Houston?s Case Keenum made a smart decision in petitioning the NCAA for another year of eligibility. All the scouts agreed he would have a hard time getting drafted, especially after coming off a knee injury.

Suspended Players

We got on this topic in reference to Georgia WR A.J. Green, who missed the first three games due to a violation of NCAA rules (he sold a game-worn jersey). This diverged into talking about attitudes regarding draft prospects that missed time due to NCAA or team-imposed suspensions. This is especially germane this season, with seemingly half the North Carolina team suspended, Green?s issue, and how Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant has performed after missing last season via suspension.

One scout told me his team considers it a ?college problem? and largely ignores it. Another said it makes it harder to evaluate the player (obviously). He brought up how hard it was to get an honest scouting report on Bryant. What is clear is that teams look at these players as individual cases and spend extra time researching the backgrounds. The former player relayed a story about a college teammate who was suspended for two games for internal matters (he was involved in a fraternity hazing incident). He told me all kinds of NFL personnel people asked him about this player?s character, and they went to other teammates, coaches, even his middle school gym teacher and youth pastor at his church. The tidbit I gleaned that I find most interesting is how much damage control the player in question?s agent did. We all like to pile on agents, but many do a great deal of real work representing their clients, and this player was a 2nd round pick repped by a notable agent. Without diligent effort from the agent, the player would have fallen at least two rounds lower according to his former teammate.

Back to the players

All that I asked had AJ Green as their top wideout, and all intimated they?ve heard he?s a lock to declare for the draft. His suspension is largely chalked up to a na?ve kid making a snap judgment error and that his talent is so overwhelming that the suspension will be ignored. One scout told me Green is every bit as talented as Larry Fitzgerald, and it?s very hard to see the dynamic playmakers falling out of the top 10 overall picks.

That is not true of some of the UNC players, notably Marvin Austin. The very skilled DT was viewed by all as a problem child. One scout who knows the situation well told me Austin is ?guilty to his eyeballs? in terms of instigating the scandal along with a former coach, and that Austin has zero remorse about his role. That doesn?t play real well when paired with his on-field issues, namely apathy in run defense and trouble getting off blocks. One scout compared him to Marcus Thomas, a similar bodied tackle with issues that quickly washed out of the NFL after an enigmatic career at Florida. This scout believes Austin is a better natural pass rusher and less churlish person, but it is his opinion that the off-field issues will be held against Austin.

LB Quan Strudivant is another Tar Heel with a lot of talent but some baggage. A marijuana possession charge isn?t a big deal in and of itself, but it gives teams a reason to focus on the other negatives. The same scout told me Sturdivant reminds him of Ernie Sims: great range, good speed, hard hits, but few impact plays and a lack of positional discipline that is very problematic. He pegged Sturdivant as a 5th round pick based on talent vs. issues, and my (brief) encounters with other evaluators regarding Sturdivant affirm that.

Deunta Williams is a safety for the Tar Heels that hasn?t played yet and will likely suffer in April because of it. His best asset is that he makes plays on the ball, but he gambles a lot and is a hitter, not a tackler. The safety crop is almost painfully bad this year, even if underclassmen declare, so he might not suffer too much. His status is still up in the air, and if he can in fact play and show the same ball skills, Williams is a likely 2nd-3rd rounder. If he can?t play and show improvement in his all-around game, he could fall to the 4th-5th round.

Defensive End Robert Quinn got much more glowing praise. He?s another case where his talent and upside will outweigh the suspension issue. Both scouts I asked about him raved about Quinn?s physical prowess and his functional strength in his long arms. One scout compared him to Brian Orakpo, a thick college DE that will make a better 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Both scouts preferred him to TAMU?s Von Miller, who finally looked close to 100% in this game and notched his first sack. Miller is viewed as more of a situational pass rusher, though I am higher on his football IQ and spatial awareness than these scouts are.

Cornerbacks

One player everyone raved about is Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara, with two scouts separately and unprompted comparing him to Darrelle Revis for his size, run support, and natural coverage instincts. In fact, one scouts said that at this point Amukamara is the best draft prospect he?s seen this year.

I have been impressed with his shutdown ability and his playmaking knack, a lethal combination. It seems that teams are looking as much for corners that can make plays on the ball and step up in run support as they are guys that can provide good coverage but little else. That?s good news for Amukamara and Colorado?s Jimmy Smith, who isn?t great in coverage but gets his hands on a lot of balls and thumps runners.

Three of us had an extended conversation about several recently drafted corners that have flopped, and the biggest common denominator wasn?t coverage ability but rather the inability to do anything other than just provide coverage. That strikes me as an interesting and fundamental shift, and it goes in hand with teams having little use for safeties that are lousy in coverage. The days of the soft corner and head-hunting oversized LB playing safety appear numbered, a trend that got some run during network coverage of the Combine last year.

Keep that in mind as you watch some of the more prominent CB prospects this year, which include Virginia?s hulking Ras-I Dowling, inconsistent Texas playmaker Curtis Brown, South Carolina speedster Chris Culliver, physical Michigan State stalwart Chris Rucker, and top juniors Janoris Jenkins of Florida, Patrick Peterson of LSU, and Texas? Aaron Williams. Every time you see a play on the ball or a strong tackle in run support, feel the draft stock rise. Likewise, dial back the value when you see them not locate the ball well, whiff on a tackle, or lose footing. Rucker and Dowling both earned praise for being all-around CBs, though the Dowling talk is based more on hype as he is just coming back from injury. If I had to do an informal ranking at this point, it would look like this:

1. Prince Amukamara, a legit top 5 overall pick
2. Patrick Peterson, who gets bonus points for being the best return man in the nation, will go in the top 15. It is assumed he will declare.
3. Chris Rucker, getting a lot of love from southern/western scouts, which makes this Big Ten guy happy. And this was before we saw what he did to Michigan.
4. Janoris Jenkins, too inconsistent for a couple scouts? likings. I would rate him 3rd myself.
5. Aaron Williams
6. Ras-I Dowling, who is upwardly mobile and superior to former teammate Chris Cook.
7. Jimmy Smith
8. Curtis Brown, who has not had a good month.
9. Chris Culliver
10. Davon House of New Mexico State, whom I have yet to see play.

I?m working on both an updated mock draft and Top 103, look for both in the next week or so!

A quick, late note about the SI story this week and how it somewhat implicated Mel Kiper. Ask any of us draftniks and if we?re of any repute at all, we are barraged by agents asking vis-?-vis favors. The more prominent agents tend to have little use for this, but a lot of smaller agents and those representing lower-profile players aren?t shy about pimping their clients in the hope that we provide better evaluations and favorable opinions. Most of the time these requests are not explicit in nature, but rather more like an info blast with the vague hint of interview access to the player or to another client. I have been around the block enough to know that for someone in Kiper?s position to knowingly steer players to specific agents would ruin his career, and Mel is no idiot. I?m not either.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com