Kyle Willingham’s Utah Utes had quite an interesting 2014 season. They opened 6-1 with impressive wins over ranked UCLA (on the road) and USC before dropping three of their next four contests, including a blowout loss to Oregon. A squeaker of a road win over lowly Colorado sent them to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, where they bombarded Colorado State 45-10.
There are several draft prospects from Utah this year. Two were impressive enough to earn Senior Bowl invites and will hear their names called on the draft’s first two days. There are also a handful of late-round prospects with legitimate NFL aspirations. I attended their game at Michigan and watched contests versus UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, USC and the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Colorado State.
Eric Rowe--my official Draft Man Crush of 2015, Rowe is the classic case of a player who blossomed after changing positions.
A safety for the first three years of his Utah career, Rowe moved outside to cornerback as a senior. He was a decent, middle-round prospect as a safety, not much of a playmaker but a smooth coverage-oriented rover with length and athleticism. Yet from the onset of the 2014 season, Rowe was a duck to water at cornerback. His long arms, quick reactions and predilection for being physical shined right away. I caught him in person against Devin Funchess at Michigan, and Rowe won most of the battles and the war against the highly (overly) touted hybrid tight end/wideout. Rowe thrived at controlling the release on the break with sound, physical body positioning and great vision to see both his mark and the quarterback. That is precisely what most of today’s top NFL corners do.
As with young ducks finding their way in a bigger, unfamiliar pond, Rowe’s feathers still need to grow. One thing that has to change when a player moves from safety to corner is the footwork, and Rowe had some struggles shortening his stride in tighter quarters and understanding when to open the hips and charge. He got burned for a long TD by UCLA because of this, and the receivers at the next level will only be quicker and better at running routes to exploit his learning curve.
Fortunately, Rowe has the outstanding athletic metrics to work with. As noted in my scouting report over at Detroit Lions Draft:
Any concerns about lateral agility or explosive athleticism evaporated at the Combine, where Rowe notched a fantastic 6.70 mark in the 3-cone drill. His 4.45 40-time came with an outstanding 1.57 10-yard split, and his 39” vertical, 19 bench press reps and 10’5” broad jump all ranked near the top of all defensive backs as well. His 3.97 short shuttle made him one of just six DBs to break the 4-second barrier, and he’s one of only two taller than 5’10” (with Towson’s Tye Smith). That’s projectable upside, folks…
How much upside? Give him two more years of experience at cornerback and he can be a Pro Bowl perennial. All the tools are there, and Rowe has proven he’s a smart, positive player who can quickly grasp new tasks. And if he does somehow wash out at corner, he can handily transition back to safety. He instantly became the best safety in Mobile when working at that spot during a Senior Bowl practice session. Predominant zone teams will probably prefer to keep him at safety, but that’s wasting his outstanding potential as a man-cover corner. Rowe is a legitimate 1st round talent, though he could wait until the 2nd round to hear his name called if teams are overly concerned with the current deficiencies in his game.
Current projection: 20-35 overall pick
Nate Orchard--like Rowe, Orchard is a player who greatly augmented his draft status with an impressive senior season. He was a nice prospect heading into 2014, a solid, high-motor defensive end with modest production but obvious football IQ and requisite measurables.
Then Orchard exploded with a bountiful senior season. He posted 21.5 tackles for loss with 18.5 sacks, also forcing three fumbles and breaking up 4 passes. Those are numbers which draw major attention and pique scouting curiosity. Here’s what the curious cat will discover:
- Non-stop effort from pre-snap to whistle
- Ability to beat tackles inside or outside with quickness and power moves
- Great football IQ
- Strong initial burst but otherwise an average athlete
- Finishes against the pass better than against the run
- Lacks anchor strength and is effectively neutralized by double teams
His relentless effort and in-play craftiness is on great display here, as he sacks UCLA QB Brett Hundley after besting the running back futilely assigned to block him. This is a typical Orchard play.
Because he’s not the most stout inline presence, Orchard probably holds better appeal for a 3-4 team as an OLB. He has worked all offseason at playing more in space, improving his quickness and agility, and it shined positively during Senior Bowl practices. When aligned off the ball, his quickness helps mitigate his lack of anchor and lethargic handiwork versus the run. Orchard can certainly play DE in a 4-3, but he’s not the flame-throwing edge presence many teams prefer in that role and he’s not stout enough to man the strongside end.
I see Orchard’s future similar to Ryan Kerrigan--an outstanding complementary rusher to a major edge presence on the other side, but a 7.5 sack guy when he’s the featured dog. Of course Kerrigan proved last season he’s capable of a breakout year on his own right, and Orchard has that potential too. Just don’t draft that chance too highly. The late second to mid-third round is the sweet spot, picks 50-75. Whatever team takes him there will get great return on draft investment. Any earlier and the expectations might be writing checks his body cannot cash.
Current projection: 2nd round
Dres Anderson--it is apparently requisite this draft season to list Dres Anderson as a “sleeper”. Search sleeper wideouts for this draft and Dres comes up without fail.
If everyone is aware of Anderson’s apparent talent, how can he still be a sleeper? Anyone who watched any Utah football the last two years is certainly aware of the son of Flipper Anderson, the NFL record holder for most receiving yards in a single game. Even in the games Anderson missed after injuring his knee last fall, the announcers constantly invoked his name when citing the lack of playmaking talent outside and how much the offense missed the senior from California.
Anderson’s best asset is his speed. He’s not the fastest guy, but he has an innate understanding of how to judiciously change gears and set up the fantastic burst to blow past unwary defensive backs. Sometimes Anderson explodes off the line, others he slow-plays his route to keep the corner guessing. Because Utah runs a lot of quick-hit plays, it makes his deception even more successful. It also augments the impact of his double moves.
The biggest knock is a lack of strength, and it’s a real knock. Even against relatively passive zone coverage, Anderson has issues when operating in traffic. At 6’2” but a slight 190 pounds, he’s not going to overpower many defenders or win contested catches. Against both Stanford and Michigan he was forced out of bounds on deeper routes because he tries to run around the coverage instead of toughing it out inside or adapting through it.
While there are some drops (notably an egregious one vs. Washington State which cost Utah the game), Anderson generally has soft hands and a decent catch radius. He can make would-be tacklers miss in space, though he does frequently go down on first contact. Again, his game is elusiveness and speed instead of physicality and power. As long as his knee recovers fully, Anderson should be a very effective #3 wideout/deep threat in the NFL.
About that knee…
#Utah WR Dres Anderson will hold on-campus Pro Day on April 14. Will do everything there after MCL surgery during season kept out of Combine— Rob Rang (@RobRang) March 13, 2015
Current projection: Tough because of the injury, but 3rd-4th round seems right
Brian Blechen--if you like your safeties to take the job title literally, you will like Brian Blechen. He’s the epitome of positional responsibility, seldom being caught in the wrong spot and ever more seldom allowing any offensive player to get behind him.
It’s an interesting change for the senior from California, who was a dynamic playmaker early in his Utah career. Back in 2010 Blechen was a first-team freshman All-American, starting right away and picking off four passes to go with 67 tackles and two forced fumbles. He was big enough and tough enough to play some linebacker as well, with a bright NFL potential as a playmaking strong safety with the requisite size at 6’2” and a 215-pound playing weight.
Then adversity struck. He was suspended for three games in 2012 for a failed drug test. His 2013 season was washed out with a knee injury, taking a medical redshirt during which time he gained valuable perspective on being more of a leader.
His 2014 season was underappreciated. Primarily playing the “deeper keeper” role in the back of the Utes zone, he wasn’t around the ball all that much. In the UCLA game, it’s difficult to spot Blechen on most plays because he’s deliberately embracing his deep cover role. The dynamic plays, the INTs and TFLs from his pre-injury career, were largely in absentia. As a result, he’s not getting the draft love he should.
He proved as a senior he’s got the deep ranginess in coverage teams want against the speedy NFL receivers. During Utah’s pro day he showed the agility by clocking a sub-7 second 3-cone drill, a very impressive number. That quickness shows on the field, as he can change direction with choppy feet and get into chase mode adeptly. He packs great power behind his pads as a hitter, and he’s quick to recognize the play developing in front of him. The traits are there for Blechen to be a future NFL starter at strong safety or even the heavy nickel role against flexed-out tight ends. He just has to show the consistency; Blechen was fantastic in the Las Vegas Bowl against Colorado State and at Michigan but left some plays on the field against UCLA. I gave Blechen a grade commensurate with a 4th round pick and see him as an undervalued potential gem.
Current projection: 6th-7th round
Jeremiah Poutasi--as bullish as I am on the underrated Blechen, I swing the other direction on Jeremiah “C.J.” Poutasi, the behemoth left tackle. While some have projected Poutasi as a potential 2nd round pick, I struggle to find any reason to spend even a 7th rounder on the 335-pounder.
Here are my notes from the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Colorado State:
--loses inside leverage on DE on down block for inside run, his man makes the tackle for no gain
--flagged for holding and he still couldn’t stay engaged
--way too upright in 2 pt. stance, has no leverage
--late to get to his reach block inside
--Utah is running a quick swing pass to his side. The DE pulls out right away and Poutasi simply falls to the ground as he lunges at nobody in particular. This is embarrassing.
--finally a positive as he makes a strong (clean) peel block as Booker scrambles on a broken run play
--flagged for holding, is guilty of grabbing jersey with each hand
Sadly, he was better in that game than he was against UCLA, where he often faced first-rounder Owa Odighizuwa. The lack of foot movement, the poor balance, the lunging, the short-arming his punch, the inability to sustain engagement, none of it indicates an NFL-caliber tackle, not even a practice-squad level talent. Xavier Cooper at Washington State found his best success in that game when aligned on Poutasi, too.
Because he can be a mauling run blocker and his terrible footwork and range will be mitigated in the smaller area inside, teams will probably project him to playing right guard. If he can go heads-up against a defensive tackle, I can see some success in that capacity. But he’ll never be able to handle traps or reach blocks successfully. Sorry Utes fans, I really don’t see it with Poutasi.
Current projection: 4th-5th round
Kaelin Clay--the best way to evaluate Clay is to watch him once he became the primary focus in the passing game when Anderson got hurt. All of the sudden, Clay was asked to be more than a field-stretching vertical threat or quick-hit bubble screen option to a more complete receiver. Other than brief flurries against Oregon and CSU, it did not go well.
Clay is a Cal transfer, and he spent just one season in Provo after spending time on the JUCO level. He’s a former track star, and that raw speed shines in his game. He might be the fastest player in this draft class in a straight line, though his Combine time of 4.52 says otherwise. That time is awfully deceptive, as Clay routinely got behind defenses and ran past corners who timed better than that Combine figure.
Unfortunately, Clay is very much a track guy playing football. His hands are not natural, often resorting to basket catching or trapping the ball against his shoulder pads. He doesn’t attack the ball in the air well, nor does he adjust adeptly to throws which aren’t quite on target. He’s small at 5’10” and has little wiggle as a route-runner, which basically limits him to fly patterns or quick-hits. Clay is built like a slot receiver but doesn’t have the footwork, slipperiness or toughness required to succeed inside.
Then there is what the average fan knows best about Clay…The Fumble. Against Oregon, Clay secured the catch behind the defense and blazed towards the end zone. Except he forgot to take the ball with him, inexplicably discarding it at the 1 for a fumble, which Oregon alertly picked up and ran back the other way for a TD. You can see the play here courtesy of Huffington Post.
Clay’s best shot in the NFL is as a return specialist. He shows vision, burst and better toughness as a runner while running back punts and kicks. Four of his efforts (3 punts, 1 kickoff) wound up in the opposing end zone, and he routinely manufactured extra yards with nifty moves and aggression with the ball in his hands. He’s the best return specialist in this draft class, and because he does offer some usefulness to the offense as a 5th wideout or gadget play weapon, he probably deserves to come off the board in the 6th round. His poor time at the Combine likely killed that, however, even though he ran 4.42 (unofficially) at Utah’s recent pro day.
Current projection: 7th round or UDFA
Junior Salt--the veteran offensive guard had some buzz entering the 2014 season after showing decent run-blocking power and just enough ability as a pass protector. I had him pegged as a potential middle-round talent with a strong senior season.
Alas, that did not happen. He lost his full-time starting job after allowing several uncontested pressures on the rotating cast of quarterbacks behind him. His feet--always his biggest detriment--got even slower. Salt already faced an uphill climb to get drafted by being overaged, as he’s 27 after serving a LDS mission and redshirting after transferring from JUCO. Now he’s an untouchable commodity for an offensive lineman.
Perhaps Salt can find greater success moving to the other side of the ball…
Another note on the Utah players interacting w/Colts' officials today: OG Junior Salt (6'2", 331lbs) started his career at DT. Nose tackle?— Brent Fatig (@GoHorse88) March 26, 2015
It’s worth giving him a try at nose tackle as an undrafted free agent.
Current projection: undrafted free agent
Others who will at least be in a camp…
TE Westlee Tonga, a speedy (4.65) flex option from Houston who is overaged (he’ll be 27 in July) and needs to play tougher to make his reliable hands more of an asset
LB Jordan Hale, a 4th-5th round prospect as an undersized WILL backer when he’s been on the field, but staying on the field has been a major challenge. Missed at least 4 games in all four years at Utah with various maladies, including a torn ACL/MCL in 2014. If he can stay on the field, he’s a great find as an UDFA. Big if, however…
DE Greg Reese, an intriguing athlete without much football savvy
DT Sese Ianu, an undersized (290) nose tackle best known as Mike Iupati’s cousin