This week’s edition is defiantly SEC-free! You’ll hear enough about the inherent awesomeness of the Southeastern Conference on the morning yakfests, and several SEC teams will make a triumphant return to next week’s column.
Stanford at Washington, Friday 9 PM on ESPN
The PAC-12 smartly puts its marquee game in prime time on Friday, where the entire football nation can watch two top-10 teams square off in Seattle.
Everyone knows Cardinal star Christian McCaffrey, the best playmaking RB in the nation and in this draft class. The obvious draft comparison is one McCaffrey himself has endorsed, Reggie Bush. Heck he even wears No. 5 in tribute to the former USC star, who had an uneven NFL career pockmarked by numerous injuries. McCaffrey is more sturdily built but just as explosive. Like Bush, I see him being a fantastic receiving RB but more hit-and-miss as a traditional runner at the next level. If he can find success against Washington’s strong run defense. They did give up over 300 yards on the ground to Arizona, but that was largely the work of dual-threat QB Brandon Dawkins and not the Wildcat RBs.
This will be my first extensive look at Washington. I’ve only caught the first half of the Arizona game so far, and the guy I really wanted to see barely showed up on the screen. That would be safety Budda Baker, a junior who many in the draft community really like. Baker can drop the hammer but I have concerns about his size (listed at 5’10” and 192) and what appears to be trouble breaking down under control after hitting full speed. He can win me over by snuffing out McCaffrey and showing athletic range in coverage. Junior corner Sidney Jones is taller and just as aggressive but also lacks mass like Baker did before packing on at least 12 pounds this summer.
Stanford has some lower profile prospects who have impressed me so far. Foremost is OLB Peter Kalambayi, who looks lither and quicker in his senior season. He’s got great timing on his edge rush but can also crash the edge against the run well. Safety Zach Hoffpauir has returned from a baseball foray and looked draftable after missing the 2015 season. Right guard Johnny Caspers comes off a solid performance against UCLA wrecking ball DT Eddie Vanderdoes. Washington is very young on the DL so an experienced, athletic guy like Caspers should show up in positive moments while getting out in space to help spring McCaffrey.
Both kickers here are legit NFL prospects too. Stanford’s Conrad Ukropina has made 24 of 26 FG attempts over the last two years, though he does not kick off and has a career-long of just 52 yards. Cameron Van Winkle from Washington needs to rebound from a bad week, missing two from between 41 and 44 yards. He also doesn’t handle kickoffs, which is a flag for NFL scouts.
Baylor at Iowa State, 12 PM on Fox Sports 1
I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I cannot recall the last time I actually watched a full Iowa State game and not just some clips of players here at Draft Breakdown. Granted the Cyclones haven’t had much NFL talent lately, but I still try to watch at least two complete games of every Power 5 conference team.
I haven’t seen but two Iowa State drives this season. Though they don’t have any players likely to get drafted in 2017, I still saw center Brian Bobeck and CB Nigel Tribune on various watch lists this year. I’ve heard positive things about big junior wideout Allen Lazard as well. Time to see if I need to watch them any further, or if any other senior pops off in what is likely to be a lopsided loss to high-flying Baylor.
For the Bears, I’m hoping flashy wideout K.D. Cannon returns after leaving the Oklahoma State game early last week. For what to watch with the speedy Cannon, please check out Matt Waldman’s excellent breakdown here.
Baylor QB Seth Russell broke his neck in last year’s game against the Cyclones. Really. He’s looked just fine so far, but that’s a pretty glaring flag for me as an evaluator. This would be a fine opportunity for talented RB Shock Linwood to break out. He’s lost touches this year as the Bears are using a troika approach at running back. The upside for Linwood is he won’t have as many miles on his tires when he hits the middle rounds of the draft next spring.
UCF at East Carolina, 12 PM on CBSSN
A spotlight game for the best wideout you’ve yet to hear much about in draft circles, East Carolina’s Zay Jones. The 6’1”, 197-pound senior from Austin TX has an astonishing 49 receptions for 558 yards thru the Pirates’ first four games. Jones posted 10 and 115 last week against Virginia Tech, a week after snagging 22 (!?!) in the heartbreaking loss to South Carolina.
The numbers are amazing, for sure. In watching those two performances, it’s easy to see Jones’ body control and footwork in routes. He sets up corners with subtlety and snaps them off with outstanding attention to detail. The one thing I haven’t seen is the explosive athleticism. Not that Jones is slow or stiff, but he doesn’t stand out in that regard. He’s not quite as top-end fast as last year’s Draft Twitter darling Mike Thomas from Southern Miss, but he’s got some similarities. The wider audience will come, and he’ll likely get wildly overhyped as Thomas did. That’s not Zay Jones’ fault. This game is a good chance to see him in a situation where he should dominate at an oddly thin early time slot.
Wisconsin at Michigan, 3:30 PM on ABC
I’ve seen these two teams in person in the last two weeks, catching Michigan’s close win over Colorado and Wisconsin’s blowout upset at Michigan State last Saturday.
One of the players who stood out for Wisconsin was OLB Vince Biegel, but he will miss this one…
BREAKING: Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel had surgery tonight to have a screw inserted for a cracked foot, his father told me. Out 2-4 weeks.
— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) September 30, 2016
That’s quite disappointing as I liked the athleticism, leadership and football IQ. Biegel was almost always in the right place at the right time when Wisconsin’s defense smothered Michigan State. This will put more pressure on T.J. Watt to have another impact game. He was great at Spartan Stadium, picking up 2 sacks and another 2 TFLs while using his length and explosive short-area strength to get off blocks. Just a junior, J.J.’s little (relative, he’s 6’5” and 245) brother definitely got my attention. Michigan RB De’Veon Smith can be a real handful with his powerful build and heavy style, so Watt and his mates will have to wrap up to follow those hits. Guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis both made the Senior Bowl watch list, and Braden finally looked healthy in last week’s romp over Penn State.
Seeing how the Wisconsin defenders handle the downhill attack, with a mindful eye to the jet sweeps to speedy wideout Jehu Chesson and freshman fan favorite Eddie McDoom, is a great evaluation situation. Throw in sure-handed TE Jake Butt and the field-stretching long strides of Amara Darboh and the Wolverines are a handful for the second level of the defense.
Along with 75,000 or so others in East Lansing last week, I was stunned with how well Badgers redshirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook played. The lefty was poised, accurate and showed a big arm. That will challenge a Michigan defense loaded with NFL prospects but one that got picked apart by the accurate and poised Sefo Liufau and Colorado two weeks ago. One of the best matchups will be the Michigan ends, Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley, against a physical Wisconsin OL led by redshirt junior LT Ryan Ramczyk. The D-III transfer showed natural knee bend and dynamic power on the edge.
Wolverines CB Jourdan Lewis made his ’16 debut last week and looked solid, but Wisconsin has a much more diverse attack than Penn State. Robert Wheelwright is very good with the ball in the air for the Badgers, and that’s where Lewis excels too. I hope they square off a few times.
Of course the marquee performer is Michigan defensive wildcat Jabrill Peppers. I’ve been advised by a couple of different NFL scouts they see him as a strong safety who can also play nickel LB, so the time to watch Peppers with the scouting eyes is when he’s in one of those spots and not roving to slot corner or Mike backer in the base defense. He’s a top 5 player on my board right now.
North Carolina at Florida State, 3:30 PM on ESPN
One of the fun parts of evaluating players is when someone rises from out of nowhere and forces himself upon you, demands you take notice. This year one such player is North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky.
The junior from the greater Cleveland area is dropping dimes like Kevin Love in the hilarious State Farm commercial. Throws like this make you take notice…
His touch and mechanics remind me some of Jared Goff. Completing just under 75% of his passes and a 10-0 TD/INT ratio definitely pleases the box score scouts.If he can continue to impress against the likes of Florida State, it’s time to start including Trubisky in mock drafts.
It helps Trubisky that he gets to throw to Ryan Switzer, for my money the best slot receiving prospect in this class as well as a lethal return specialist. It’s cliché to compare smaller, quick white slot receivers to Wes Welker but by God it really fits with Switzer. Last week he posted 16 catches for 208 yards against Pittsburgh. If the Seminoles secondary doesn’t tackle well, No. 3 can light them up similarly. Safety Nate Andrews, who had a pick in FSU’s rollicking win over USF last week, will be on the spot.
Here’s what the good folks at PFF had to say in naming Switzer their All-American slot receiver to this point:
With Bug Howard and Mack Hollins, both of whom should make a postseason all-star game, each at least 6’4” and 210, Trubisky has a lot of potential NFL talent at his disposal and it blends well too. With Elijah Hood perhaps the most underrated of a very deep RB class (my vote for that honor goes to Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, but Hood is right there too), defenses cannot key on any one player. For an attacking defensive end like Demarcus Walker, this will be a good game to evaluate his all-around game. After destroying Ole Miss (4.5 sacks) in the opener, Walker has made just one play in the backfield in the ensuing three games. UNC has a solid offensive line with tackle John Heck and guard Caleb Peterson both likely headed for the Senior Bowl.
Western Michigan at Central Michigan, 7PM on CBSSN
Bitter rivals square off in Mt. Pleasant with MAC West bragging rights, and for the Broncos a top 25 ranking, on the line. There is also a few prospects to watch even if you’re not a #MACtion aficionado like me.
Foremost is Western wideout Corey Davis. At 6’2” and 220 or so pounds, Davis has the size and the breakaway speed in the open field to get some pundit speculation he could be a first-round pick. His raw numbers this year look fantastic but he stat-padded some in the romp over FCS-level NC Central. Davis did not have a great game last week against Georgia Southern,
Not the best night for #WMU WR Corey Davis. 6 catches for 78 and a TD, but had 3 drops (one, a would-be TD). Had a couple nice blocks, tho.
— Jeremy Hyde (@Froginthewindow) September 25, 2016
A big performance in such an important game against a hated rival would restore scouting faith in Davis. The Chippewas are small at corner, though junior Josh Cox will make some watch lists next season. A big factor is if senior safety Tony Annese can return. He missed the CMU loss at Virginia and the Chips defense sorely missed their Mr. Reliable captain on the back end.
Annese isn’t the only injury facing Central. Wide receiver Jesse Kroll is lost for the season with shoulder surgery. Kroll is a marginal draft prospect but was the guy Cooper Rush looked to when he really needed a completion. Rush remains in the Senior Bowl mix but needs to thrive without one of his top targets. A pair of juniors to watch for the 2018 draft will need to step up, WR Corey Willis and TE Tyler Conklin. I know Draft Breakdown colleague Joe Marino is a Conklin fan thanks to catches like this…
— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) September 10, 2016
Western’s QB is on the scouting radar as well. Zach Terrell has shown good creativity and mobility while also making great decisions all season. His accuracy has improved from last year. Terrell, a 6’2” senior with a decent downfield arm, has yet to turn the ball over for the undefeated Broncos. That includes two wins over Big Ten teams. Last year he lit up the Chips for 4 TDs while not getting touched by the pass rush. If he can do that again, Terrell should nail down a Shrine Game berth in January.
As I live in between these two schools and will be watching it at the home of a Central grad, I feel obligated for a prediction: Broncos 37, Chippewas 27
Oklahoma at TCU, 5PM on FOX
Sooners QB Baker Mayfield faces a speedy TCU defense that can get after him with end Josh Carraway and undersized tackle Aaron Curry, who projects as a 4-3 DE in the NFL. Curry excels at knifing through gaps, but last year against Oklahoma he was the genesis of many stunts and twists too. I want to see a better eye for the ball from the 6’2”, 280-pound DT. If he doesn’t show that, physical Samaje Perine and nifty Joe Mixon will find all kinds of running room.
This is a game where Perine should shine. His bowling ball on meth running style nicely counters what TCU tries to do. Big safety Denzel Johnson is generally a good tackler, but Perine is another animal than what the Horned Frogs have seen. Watch Johnson’s approach to tackles, as he can struggle to gather himself.
One of the things my good friend and Draft Breakdown podcast co-host Justin Higdon likes to talk about is how most NFL teams value defensive back productivity. NFL scouts, but more specifically NFL defensive coaches, love to see defensive backs who get their hands on the ball in the air. And right now no FBS secondary has fewer plays on the ball in the air than Oklahoma. Junior CB Jordan Thomas, who many suspect will declare early, has two PDs. That’s it. It’s a very odd turn of events for a team that produced Zack Sanchez, a corner who went for the INT even on run plays.
For the other players with NFL aspirations, this is a real issue. Safety Ahmad Thomas is strong at attacking downhill and an adept blitzer, but he has touched fewer balls than a eunuch in a convent. Thomas did pick off three passes a year ago and he’s not being used in coverage as much, but he needs to show more productivity or else the NFL will hold it against him, right or wrong.
Another Oklahoma prospect who needs to show more playmaking ability is wideout Dede Westbrook, who has yet to crack the end zone and averages under 10 yards per reception. The skinny (6’, 178 pounds) senior won’t get much NFL traction without making big plays. Mayfield looks his way a lot, but thus far it hasn’t produced enough. TCU’s normally stout pass defense ranks just 94th this season in yards per attempt, so there should be opportunities.
Louisville at Clemson, 8 PM on ABC
This will be a great chance to evaluate Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. He’s still a very exciting top-shelf prospect, but Watson has shown some issues working down the field. His passing chart illustrates this nicely,
Lots of time still for Deshaun Watson to improve, but this is definitely not the profile of a future 1st-round pick pic.twitter.com/X72fiVmhlW
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) September 28, 2016
Some of the issues have been drops, including at least two clear ones from top receiving prospect Mike Williams. The timing and the placement have both been off when Watson heaves it down the field. The release and mechanics still look just fine, but the results bear legit scrutiny. He’ll have to take some shots to keep up with Lamar Jackson, who I am not evaluating as a pro yet as he is not draft eligible. Notably, Watson just hasn’t been in sync with speedy Artavis Scott, who has done little to impress in 2016 but still merits scouting attention.
One reason why the NFL scouts like Watson is his touch on shorter throws and in the red zone. And while the 6’4” Williams has his faults as a receiver, he can win nicely in those areas too. Witness this opening TD against Georgia Tech:
Williams has a distinct size advantage on the Louisville corners, notably sophomore CB Jaire Alexander. He needs to use that size and win the contested balls. He lost a later TD against the Yellow Jackets by not making good use of his length but also lacking body control in getting even one foot down in the end zone. His long stride can be problematic in those situations.
Louisville plays their safeties quite aggressively, and Josh Harvey-Clemons thrives in the role. He’s got LB size but isn’t stiff in movement like many taller and bulkier safeties. Of particular scouting interest here is how he blitzes; No. 25 gets to rush the passer at least 5 times a game, and while he’s been effective at generating pressure he doesn’t finish them often. In the five games I’ve charted, he has just 2 sacks on 17 blitzes, though 2 others did result in another Cardinals defender scoring the sack and another forced an INT. Watson is slippery and throws quite well outside the pocket, so Harvey-Clemons must show discipline. Expect to see him near Williams a lot in coverage too.
A couple of those other Louisville defenders are definitely worth monitoring. Edge rusher Devonte Fields shows incredible fluidity and has solidified himself as a potential first-round 3-4 OLB. He’s played better than I expected in space, and will need to do so in Clemson. Senior LB Keith Kelsey continues to show up 0wherever the ball is, and he’s also looked more comfortable in the open field.
One other draft matchup to look at: physical Clemson CB Cordrea Tankersley against playmaking wideout James Quick, who averages 22 yards per reception and thrives when Jackson extends plays with his legs. Fellow wideout Jamari Staples, a transfer from the ashes of the UAB program, is a good Shrine Game candidate too. Tankersley is a good tackler with solid spatial awareness that will be tested here.