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The Gut Check No.395: 2017 Rookie Prospects
A sneak-peek at Waldman's film research for 2017's Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
by Matt Waldman, December 28 2016 Photo: Ken Blaze, USA TODAY Sports
What do you do for a living?
If I'm at a party, a bank, or talking with a stranger on a plane or train, the answer is simple.
I write about football.
But there's also a seasonal component to this answer. Between February and June, I'll have some RSP readers ask me if I could recommend a good fantasy football website.
And between August and January, I'll have a fair share of Footballguys readers ask me, "What is the RSP?"
If you already know, I'll be sharing 2017 prospect insights in this column and you can skip the appetizer below and get to the meal.
Intro to the RSP
If you're one of those Footballguys who has been meaning to ask me about it, you're in luck this week. The Rookie Scouting Portfolio is my 12-year-old publication devoted to the analysis of NFL Draft prospects at the fantasy skill positions: QB, RB, WR, and TE.
The publication is split into two parts: a pre-draft analysis that I publish for online download April 1 and a post-draft analysis that I publish for download no later than a week after the NFL Draft. The April version is a long-term look at a player's talent unclouded by the factors of organizational fit, scheme match, and depth chart.
New readers sometimes ask if they could purchase the May version only, but the April and May versions are a package deal. The work for the April version informs a lot of what readers get in May. Also, long-time readers often share with me that they felt the same way as new readers at first, but discovered the long-term value of the April version and after seeing its value play out as I shared earlier, would not want to go without it.
This week's Gut Check will feature notes and commentary about some of the 100 players I've already studied for the 2017 RSP.
A late December look at the 2017 class
The top player in this class is probably not an offensive skill player, but Texas A&M's defensive end Myles Garrett. I don't study IDP players for the RSP, but I often profile them in film room sessions on YouTube.
Here's one of Garrett with Cowboys-centric draft writer John Owning.
Past IDP options of note in the RSP Film Room include:
Skill Player Overview and State of the Quarterback
As for the skill players, the perception among draft media is that the running backs and tight ends are the strength of the skill portion of the class. Quarterbacks are weak and wide receivers are a mixed bag. I agree with the first assessment about backs and tight ends. I'm not yet in agreement with this perception of quarterback and wide receiver and I have a feeling it won't change.
Quarterback is a tremendously difficult position to evaluate. College coaches have adopted spread offenses with simpler concepts and the NFL has been slow to adjust. NFL coaches have adopted bits and pieces of these offenses with greater use of spread looks, but the schemes are still rooted in complex verbiage and processes that require time and experience to master.
The root issue is that the NFL is filled with long-time assistants that have a strong ego attachment to the old offenses they learned in their youth. They believe they were hired because of their scheme. While this is somewhat true, they sometimes forget that they were primarily hired to create a successful offense with the parts they're given.
Norv Turner's exit from Minnesota is a dramatic example of when an assistant's attachment to his process no longer fits the state of the team. There are a lot more examples of conflicts like this that aren't exacerbated by a major injury to a key cog and the decimation of supporting players. The result is 2-4 years of subpar play, draft-day "busts", and quality players jettisoned to other rosters where they thrive (Taylor Gabriel and Willie Snead, anyone?) before the owner has enough and cleans house yet again.
This background is necessary for understanding that the quarterback position and how it is evaluated is undergoing a slow change—even if many in the draft media aren't aware of it. The media often talks about the lack of good quarterback play and looks to the draft. But I have a feeling that one day within the next 5-7 years, major media will shift the focus on the NFL infusing its offenses with a lot more of the college game than occasional gadgetry or bells and whistles.
For now, we're in an uncomfortable pre-transition period: Old ideas coaches, new ideas young talent, and an impatient set of owners and fans. It means that many of these spread quarterbacks in this 2017 class will not earn the seal of approval as top prospects but if placed in the right scheme to match their talents, they could thrive.
Think about Colin Kaepernick with Jim Harbaugh or even Tim Tebow's rookie run. These players don't fit the traditional NFL template, but it can work. The problems surrounding Kaepernick and Tebow were not solely on them. Neither is a great pocket passer and they're not going to give you what Tom Brady or Drew Brees offer and only a fraction of what Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson can do.
But will Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Matt Barkley, Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, and a host of other pocket passers? Some will come close if all the supporting factors fall into place, but there is the thought that they're all figureheads of a grand mirage across the league; a bought-in belief that you must win with a pocket passer—even if he's not nearly as good as the elite options.
Kaepernick and Tebow in the right schemes would be no worse than the also-rans mentioned above and we've seen flashes where they are much better. The reasons we're not seeing more experimentation with these types of quarterbacks and schemes is the old-style thinking of the NFL and just how much a team would have to change the way it does business.
Scouting quarterbacks would have to change because it would be wiser to have backups with similar skills as the starters. If Denver kept Tebow and ran the offense that got them past Pittsburgh in the playoffs, it wouldn't want to have a stable of pocket passers that couldn't run. It's one of the reasons why TCU QB Trevone Boykin is Russell Wilson's backup in Seattle.
But deeper changes would be necessary. Many of the players would offer resistance. Wide receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders would prefer to play for a timing-pocket passer like Peyton Manning or Trevor Siemian than Tebow because they want strong stats.
Although it seems this way, I'm not casting these guys as me-first players. It's only natural that receivers want to help their team win and strong stats are one of the primary ways they're graded.
Also, players are thinking about the span of their careers and it includes that second and third contract. If they're playing for a Tebow-led play that lacks a high-octane passing game, their stats won't match their talent. When it's time to test the open market because:
A) the Tebow-led team no longer wants them or
B) the Tebow-led team wants them for much less money than they think they're worth, their production won't be strong enough to earn favorable dollars in negotiations with other organizations.
The same could hold true for left tackles or hybrid tight ends who might not be as vital for one of these schemes versus a scheme for a Manning or Brady-led unit.
A team making a long-term change to the way it looks at quarterbacks also changes the style of offense, coaching, personnel, scouting, payroll, and negotiations for free agency. It's a big deal, but I think there will be some teams that eventually look at the years of failure and cost with using a byzantine offensive scheme when it could compete with simpler and refined college schemes and a wealth of quarterbacks who won't have to be re-taught the game of football to execute them—and a glut of them in supply (once a team embraces the style and learns how to evaluate within that mold of player).
I don't know if or when this will happen, but I believe it will. If it does, there will come a point where spread players who aren't earning top grades despite displaying excellent talent will see their stock rise and tall, thick, slow pocket passers won't automatically earn higher grades because they simply match the predominating rubric of schemes even when the talent to execute at the NFL level is dubious.
If an organization embarks on this bold steps, quarterbacks from this class that could fit this Kapernick-Tebow idea (and offer more) include Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, and Patrick Mahomes. I tend to wait until late December before I begin studying quarterbacks so I'm not going to spend a lot of time discussing the specific talents of this position just yet, but this trio has potential for growth as pocket passers and could thrive sooner than later in spread-friendly offenses.
North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky has earned the old-school, three-step/five-step/seven-step/check-down seal of approval as the most NFL-ready quarterback of the class. I spent 18 hours studying Trubisky in recent days. I like his skill for maneuvering a pocket even if he's not a quick-twitch athlete or powerful runner. He's aware of pressure off the edge and up the middle and successfully incorporates the variety of escape techniques drilled into his game.
Trubisky is also good at delivering the ball in the short range of the field while on the move. I was impressed with his short-range accuracy while moving to his left, especially after evading pressure with a spin or reduction of his shoulder. He incorporates these moves well and most importantly, finishes with an accurate throw.
But I'm troubled with Trubisky's reactions to pressure. He truncates his release or doesn't follow through this his footwork when he feels pressure that's imminent, but not on top of him. This three-minute look at this pivotal play with 0:14 left against Florida State is a good example. If not for a questionable pass interference call on the following play, this would have been the best opportunity for North Carolina to win this game and Tribusky would have failed them.
Other quarterbacks that intrigue me include Miami's Brad Kaaya, Mason Rudolph, and Luke Falk. Based on what I've seen thus far, I will be talking about at least two of them a lot more in the coming months.
I'm thoroughly enjoying this running back class. Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette are the obvious headliners. Both are versatile players that can pass protect and catch the football.
Cook is a little more versatile because he's equally adept at gap and zone schemes. He's also a better creator behind the line of scrimmage when the blocking isn't there.
Fournette needs a longer runway downhill that a gap scheme does the best to provide a physical runner with top-end speed. Two years ago, I compared Fournette to Tyrone Wheatley. This drove some LSU super fans nuts, but they forget how good Wheatley was at Michigan and some of my NFL contacts saw and liked the comparison immediately.
Fournette has a greater chance of disappointing early due to a bad fit with a team, but I would not be too concerned about it right now. He's a fine prospect and if used correctly, he'll inflict physical and statistical punishment on opponents.
James Conner, Kareem Hunt, Royce Freeman, Wayne Gallman, and Christian McCaffery will all earn spots near the top of the list from a variety of draft outlets. Each has potential to provide immediate production with a good team fit, but they have flaws that could prevent a top-end breakout right away.
Instead of profiling each of them, let's mention other guys.
D'onta Foreman is also in that James Conner-LeGarrette Blount mold.
The Texas back paired with Chris Warren's son for a potent backfield and I think he'd be a nice fit for the Patriots if they want to find Blount's replacement and Conner, who is one year removed from a major illness, didn't fit the bill for them.
Joseph Yearby was a five-star recruit at Miami and considered one of the top high school backs in the nation. Despite losing the starting job this year, I've seen little to dissuade me that he's a strong on-the-field talent.
The greater question mark is off the field. I don't mean to imply he's a bad guy; I haven't seen anything to indicate this at all. What I question is his relationship with the current regime in Miami. Was it simply a bad fit or is there more on the surface that will ultimately be a negative for how teams view Yearby as a potential professional? You don't lose the starting gig with this kind of talent and then have the head coach tell the media that he hasn't spoken with Yearby about his plans to enter the draft when that same coach is advising his quarterback closely. Something's off here, but he's a top talent capable of starting in the NFL.
Jamaal Williams of BYU is one of my favorite options heading to the Senior Bowl. He's a versatile player with feature back potential. He's a mid-to-late-round find if the NFL dings him for an arrest earlier in his college career than the time he spent away from the team. Based on what I've read thus far, I think Williams turned it all into a true character-building exercise.
Brian Hill is also one of my faves at the position that isn't at the top of the list on most boards, but he's a smart, physical runner who understands how to play the position. Common opponents often share that Hill is a tough guy and one of the most difficult backs to take down in college football.
I could mention several more backs, including back-flipping scat back from North Carolina A&T, the son of a Hall of Famer, a low-riding Hilltopper, two ultra-competent big conference runners, and I wasn't even referring to Donnel Pumphrey, Aaron Jones, Jovon Robinson, Samaje Perine, or T.J. Logan.
It's that rich of a class.
Wide receiver has talent, too. Throughout the early fall, everyone has asked me about JuJu Smith-Schuster. I've seen enough games that I think he's more likely a possession receiver and not a "wow" talent. I have certain things I'm seeking from the rest of the games I study of Schuster's to make sure that assessment isn't based solely on what his offense dictates.
Taywan Taylor is also a draftnik favorite. He has a flair for the spectacular that catches the eyes of the athlete-centric crowd:
I have more to study, but I'm currently more partial to the trio of Cooper Kupp, Dede Westbrook, and Josh Reynolds. Kupp is a big-play receiver with a versatile game and excellent hand-eye coordination.
Reynolds understands how to work back to the ball, makes tough plays in traffic, and he's quick for his height. I think he'll grow into an NFL starting role.
A video posted by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 17, 2016 at 10:13am PDT
Another Taylor that I think a lot more people will be talking about by May is Louisiana Tech slot receiver, Trent Taylor. He's a fine route runner who displays quickness in and out of breaks and I've seen him make plays against SEC-caliber athletes like the one from Westbrook above. He's not a top prospect, but he could wind up a top-producer in the right offense. Slot guys are always risky fantasy investments in this respect, but Taylor is a good player to monitor.
The headliners I didn't mention: Mike Williams, John Ross, K.D. Cannon, Isaiah Ford, and James Washington. Ross is earning DeSean Jackson comparisons. I like what I've seen from Ross, but at this point, I see a player who is a better version of Phillip Dorsett when Dorsett entered the league than the lights-out player Jackson was.
Cannon is also in this neighborhood of explosive deep threats and he's especially destructive with his library of double moves in the deep game. Of this group, James Washington appeals to me because he's excellent at tracking the ball against tight coverage and he can release against press coverage.
My favorite player right now is Corey Davis. I graded several of the Western Michigan receiver's games last year and he would have been among my top prospects at the position if he declared in 2016. If you remember what made former Cowboys-Niners-Browns receiver Antonio Bryant good (and not what made him bad), Davis has that kind of smooth play and refined skills that belie however he tests out in shorts.
There are some excellent hybrid prospects at the tight end position. Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges is a 6'6" or 6'7" (TBD) option who wins the ball in ways that remind me a little of Jimmy Graham. Ole Miss' Evan Engram has some of that Aaron Hernandez-Jordan Reed style of play in the middle of the field and as a ballcarrier.
O.J. Howard gets a lot of love for his big game against Clemson last year. He's an inconsistent player with high-end ability. Think Coby Fleener. Jordan Leggett doesn't appear as athletic as the options above, but he's athletic enough and integrates his physical skills and football skills at a high level.
Jeremy Sprinkle of Arkansas needs further integration of these areas. If he does, look out. There's some Dwayne Allen-like potential (if Allen ever consistently reaches his) in his game. Cethan Carter of Nebraska is a freakishly good athlete that LSU originally had under wraps, but he has to learn to control his feet to maximize his potential.
Darrell Daniels also fits in this category. If David Njoku of Miami declares early, he'll also jump to the top of this board. Near the top right now is Michigan's Jake Butt. A savvy, in-traffic option with good hands and burgeoning skill as a blocker, Butt looks like the type with a long steady career ahead.
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