NFL Scouting Combine: Names to know in Indy

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The first round of the 2019 NFL Draft kicks off in Nashville two months from tonight. The first day of the week-long NFL Scouting Combine is Tuesday in Indianapolis. So it’s a good time for college-football no-nothings like me to start the learning process on the new names that will be household names in the pro football world by late April.

This is not setting up to be a dramatic year in the draft, or in the run-up to the draft, except for one thing: where Kyler Murray goes. The undersized (5-9 7/8, Oklahoma says) quarterback set college football on fire last fall and could go anywhere from the first overall pick (Arizona) to fourth (Oakland) to seventh (Jacksonville) to 13th (Miami) to 15th (Washington), or to a slot somewhere else after a trade. I covered Murray in depth last week and will spend most of my time here on the other 330 or so players in Indianapolis this week.

One bit of Murray news before we move on. The new Mike Mayock at NFL Network, Daniel Jeremiah—talk about big shoes to fill—told me over the weekend that he heard Murray has bulked up to 203 pounds from his OU playing weight of 190. And calling around over the weekend, I heard it was 206. That is significant. Here’s why: Talking to NFL people about Murray, as I wrote last week, there was worry that Murray had more of a Mookie Betts build in college than a Russell Wilson physique. Meaning Muray was not only small, but also slight. If Murray has spent the past five or six weeks bulking up, that would play in his favor at the combine and in completing scouting reports on a complex prospect, because teams want to see a thicker player than Murray was at OU. Theoretically, it would mean he’d be more equipped to withstand the pounding he’ll obviously have to face in the NFL.

I spoke to two long-time NFL personnel men and three media folk—Jeremiah, Mel Kiper of ESPN and Matt Miller, a rising authority with Bleacher Report—for draft info in advance of combine week. For more, please listen to The Peter King Podcast, with Jeremiah and Miller, dropping Wednesday.

One note before we start: It was cool to hear Jeremiah pay homage to the new general manager of the Oakland Raiders, Mayock—something he wanted to do before we started discussing draft nuts and bolts. You’ll enjoy that on the podcast. “He was a good teammate,” said Jeremiah, “and as good of a dude as everyone at home thinks he is.”

Now for a few takes on the 2019 crop of collegians:

The Best Player in the Draft

• Nick Bosa. Nick Bosa. Nick Bosa. “Injured his senior year in high school [torn ACL], injured this year [core muscle surgery], but he’s my highest-rated player,’’ Kiper said of the Ohio State defensive end. “Great bend, great motor.”

• Said Jeremiah: “When I watch Nick, I see the exact same moves as his brother [Chargers pass-rusher Joey Bosa].”

• Pluses: 17.5 sacks in 29 college games, great instinct. The minus: season-ending injuries in two of his past four football seasons.

The Quality

• “Really strong defensive draft,” Kiper said. “Deep at defensive line. Deep through three rounds. Good running back and receiver depth in rounds two through five.”

• Jeremiah: “If you’re in the hunt for difference-makers on the defensive line, and overall depth on the offensive line … you’re going to feel great about this draft. Offensive line-wise, there’s no Joe Thomas, no Jonathan Ogden, but there’s depth.”

• For Jeremiah, 10 of his top 19 prospects in this draft are front-seven defensive players, including his top four: Bosa, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen and Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

The Passers

Not the quality of 2018, when quarterbacks went 1-3-7-10-32 in round one. On his big board, Jeremiah has Kyler Murray 14th, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins 18th, Missouri’s Drew Lock 26th and Duke’s Daniel Jones 32nd. Those are ratings, not a projection of where Jeremiah thinks they’ll go.

• I’m hearing Haskins and Murray, in some order, are solid top 10 picks. “Haskins is a pure pocket passer,” Jeremiah said. “If he were to have come out 10 years ago, we’d be talking about him as a surefire top five pick … He just doesn’t move around very well. When he has to move off his spot he really struggles.”

• Jeremiah loves Lock’s arm but not his overall mechanics. “His feel are kind of all over the place,” he said.

• On Jones, Jeremiah thinks his grade will be mixed on different draft boards, with team that want a power arm downgrading him.

The Injury Mysteries

• Oklahoma receiver Marquise Brown (Lisfranc foot surgery) won’t run full-speed till August, but he might have been the fastest guy at the combine had he been fit enough to run. “I remember scouting DeSean Jackson at Cal, and this is a clone,” Jeremiah said. Brown will be a late-first-round gift to some team.

• Mississippi State defensive Jeffery Simmons likely would have been a top 10 pick before tearing his ACL recently; how far he slides will be a big pre-draft story.

• Kiper loves Bryce Love, the Stanford running back recovering from December ACL surgery; Love could be a fourth-round bargain in a draft full of middle-round backs.

The Meat of the Draft

Rounds two and three. It’s a good year to have six picks between 32 and 101, which is where the rich-get-richer Patriots find themselves. Said Jeremiah: “You look at the Baltimore Ravens picking at 22. They have no second-round pick. To me, if the Ravens pick at 22 I will buy you dinner the next time we’re together. I know the new GM, Eric DeCosta, taking over there from Ozzie Newsome, is a very bright guy. The value in this draft is in that second-round range. I would be surprised a team like Baltimore doesn’t take pick 22 and look to get out of there and see if they can flex some more picks there in that second-round range.”

The Skill Players

• General consensus: One back (Josh Jacobs of Alabama) in the top 20. There’s a feel that, in a league when 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara was the 67th pick in a draft and 2016 NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt was the 86th that you’re fine getting a good back—like Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary or Iowa State’s David Montgomery or Penn State’s Miles Sanders—somewhere between picks 40 and 100. “Running back value is in the second to the fifth round,” Kiper said.

• As for wideouts, it’s another deep year in the second and third rounds. Oklahoma’s Brown and Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf lead the way on Jeremiah’s board.

• Interesting that Jeremiah has three tight ends among his top 25 players: Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson (5), Iowa’s Noah Fant (23) and Alabama Irv Smith Jr. (25). Yes, that’s two tight ends from Iowa in the first-round conversation. Fant will likely be the fastest tight end at the combine; he has run 4.64, And Hockenson is athletic with a Mark Bavaro-blocking streak. Add to that the fact that NFL teams love players from Iowa because they value coach Kirk Ferentz NFL-preparedness training. No school has ever produced two first-round tight ends in the same year.

Cautionary Tale

There won’t be many players who make or break anything in the next week, so throw anything you hear like that out of your mental window. I’ll tell you why. Last year, Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brownwas Mayock’s number-two-rated tackle in the draft entering the combine, and he had a disastrous performance. He ran an Eisen-like 4.85 40-yard dash, and did a feeble 14 reps of the 225-pound bench press. Brown was ridiculed. The Ravens picked him in the third round. He played 15 games at tackle for Baltimore. Pro Football Focus had a higher 2018 grade for Brown than for the following zillionaire tackles: Trent WilliamsTaylor LewanJack ConklinNate SolderTaylor DeckerJason Peters and Cordy Glenn. So chill on conclusions drawn this week.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.