by Colin Lindsay
GBN Editor and Publisher

January 23: Super Bowl Buzz building … ‘The’ big game is still over a week away, but already there is a real buzz growing about this year’s Super Bowl in New York next weekend. Certainly, the NFL and CBS network execs have to be thrilled with a match-up of arguably the league’s best teams this year in Denver and Seattle in a match-up of arguably the NFL’s two best teams this year. And the game won’t lack for storylines as Peyton Manning and the potent Broncos’ offense battle Richard Sherman and the stingy Seahawks’ defense. And with a record audience expected to tune in at some point next Sunday, there are also expectations some Super Bowl betting records to be broken. For the record, sports bookmakers such as bwin are currently listing Denver as a slight favorite. Figure, though, that football fans, both fanatic and casual, will also be betting on just about anything that moves including the weather at the Meadowlands and whether it will impact the start of the game.

December 18th

Lesser Aggie WR to enter draft among underclass notes … New Mexico State junior WR Austin Franklin has announced that he will be putting his name into the 2014 draft. The 6-1, 175-pound Franklin is considered to be a late round type prospect for the upcoming draft; this past season he caught 52 passes for 670 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing the first four games of the year because of academic issues after notching 74 receptions for over 1,200 yards and nine scores the previous season. Meanwhile, it also appears that San Diego State junior RB Adam Muema will also be entering the draft. Muema posted a twitter earlier in the week about his intention to enter this year’s draft, although the post has since been deleted and Aztecs‘ head coach Chuck Long says the player has yet to finalize his decision. Muema is a 5-9, 205-pound slasher, who ran for just under 1,100 yards and 12 scores this fall after posting 1,500 yards and 16 TDs in 2012, is also considered to be a late round or free agent type prospect. Meanwhile, it appears that USC junior SS Dion Bailey is leaning heavily to entering the 2014 draft, although he has yet to say anything officially. On the other hand, emerging Michigan State redshirt sophomore DE Shilique Calhoun has confirmed that he will be returning to school next season. Same for Syracuse junior RB Jerome Smith will be returning to school for his senior year next fall. And in a rather interesting move, Oregon redshirt sophomore QB Marcus Mariota, who had been considered to be a top 5 prospect for the 2014 draft, has reportedly requested an evaluation of his draft prospects from the NFL’s special draft advisory committee despite the fact that he announced earlier in the month that he would be returning to school next fall. Both Mariota and school officials say that his decision stands, but it is something that bears watching. At the same time, Mississippi junior All-American  FS Cody Prewitt, who until recently had not been high on the draft radar across the country, but could add some depth to one of the draft's weakest positions, has started to show up on underclass watch lists across the country. The 6-2, 220-pound Prewitt led the SEC this past season with 6 interceptions, while he broke up 7other pass attempts and forced a couple of fumbles. Underclassmen have until January 15th to file paperwork with the league in order to be eligible to be selected this coming May, however, already as many as 19 juniors or redshirt sophomores have indicated in one way or another that they will be entering the draft. And the fact is that most of the top names won't make their announcement until after their team's respective bowl game later this month or in early January.

UCF QB hottest guy in the draft …
No position among prospects for the 2014 draft has been more fluid than the QB situation with it seems like a new guy in the top ten just about every week. And the ’hot’ guy this is Central Florida junior Blake Bortles who has emerged as a legitimate top 10 prospect for the upcoming draft with the skill set to be one of the first 2-3 players taken this year. Indeed, there is just a bit of a buzz that no one should be shocked if Bortles were the first player taken this year ahead of conference rival Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, who has been ensconced in the #1 slot for months. In fact, it was Bortles UCF Golden Knights who beat Bridgewater and the heavily favored Cardinals in their regular season game and then went on to win the conference title and the automatic BCS bowl bid that went with it. And it was Bortles, not Bridgewater who was named conference player of the year and first-team all-star. Of course, NFL teams aren’t drafting players to play college football. However, Bortles appears to have all the tools of a prototype NFL QB including good size (6-3, 230), decent mobility and a real live arm. For the record, Bortles had a completion rate of 68% this fall as he threw for 3200 yards and 22 scores against 7 picks in leading unheralded UCF to an 11-1 record that included wins over Penn State and Louisville, with the lone loss coming against SEC power South Carolina by just three points. With Bortles now projected to enter the draft, most mock drafts are showing four QBs - with Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M joining Bridgewater and Bortles - going in this year’s first ten picks. Even at that, though, the whole business has a kind of ’you ain’t seen nothing yet’ quality as next crop’s at the position could be absolutely loaded starting with Jameis Winston of Florida State, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Baylor gunslinger Bryce Petty all having top pick credentials. Bucky Brooks ofNFL.com has a quick preview of next’s year’s top QB prospects for team’s that don’t get one this coming May - and he didn‘t include Brett Hundley of UCLA, who has not yet declared for this year‘s draft, Oregon State‘s Sean Mannion or Braxton Miller of Ohio State!

Didn’t you use to be ???
There are a couple of names in this year’s draft class that a lot of fans probably don’ realize are still playing college football. Boston College OT Matt Patchan, for example, played for what seemed like forever at Florida, however, he was hurt so often that he got a 6th year of eligibility, transferred to BC and ended up as one of the anchors blocking for Eagles’ RB Andre Williams amazing 2000-yard season. The long history of injuries - he tore an ACL, has had back problems, as well as torn pec that forced him to miss the entire 2012 season - may cost Patchan anything more than a passing chance at being drafted, but the one-time DT has some atleticism and if nothing else is a survivor. Meanwhile, former Iowa RB Brandon Wegher, a freshman phenom way back in 2009, resurfaced at NAIA Morningside this leaving the team for personal reasons and ultimately sat out 3 full years which included a couple of failed comebak attempts because of academics as well as a couple of run-ins with the police. Again, Wegher is an even longer shot to be drafted than Patchan, but he was a tough inside runner with good hands who some team might be tempted to give a shot in free agency.

October 8, 2013

Best ever ???? Over the course of the summer the consensus around the NFL scouting community appeared to be that the strength of the 2014 would again be the offensive and defensive lines, while it looked like it was going to be another down year of sorts for the more glamorous skill positions on offense. The consensus also appeared to be that for the second straight year a QB would not be the first player selected with the #1 pick overall after a streak in which passers were the first player chosen in 10 of the previous 12 drafts. However, with the college season still not at the half way mark, it is beginning to look like QB could be the deepest position at the 2014 draft. In fact, there are whispers around the NFL that this year’s draft class could be one of the strongest ever at any position. Certainly, this year’s QB crop will be the most interesting one in awhile.

In fact, it won’t surprise anyone if QBs end up going 1-2-3 at the 2014 draft. Louisville junior Teddy Bridgewater, for example, had been considered to be at least a top 5-10 prospect entering the season, but his strong start this fall has many teams penciling him in as the likely first pick this year. At the same time, a pair of PAC-12 redshirt sophomores – Marcus Mariota of Oregon and UCLA’s Brett Hundley – have rocketed up draft boards around the leagues in recent weeks to the point where it won’t be a surprise to anyone if they end up in the discussion to be the first player selected overall. Interestingly, both Mariota and Hundley are being compared to emerging San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick. And the Pac-12 could actually make it three potential elite QB prospects in this year’s opening round as there is also a real buzz starting to percolate around Oregon State junior Sean Mannion who is arguably the best pure passer in this year’s draft. Meanwhile, Tajh Boyd of Clemson is a little shorter than NFL teams like their first-round QBs, but he has all the other tools to be a solid mid-round selection on this year’s opening day.

Then, of course, there is Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, the ‘mother-of-all’ redshirt sophomores who became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman last season last season, but then went through an off-season from heck which reportedly had more than one team reportedly leaning toward not including him at all on their board because of questions about maturity. However, Manziel has followed up is remarkable freshman year with a solid sophomore campaign which appears to have him at least back in the opening round discussion. Like Clemson’s Boyd, Manziel lacks prototype measurable, but no one questions his arm strength and  mobility, as well as his heart and flare for the dramatic on the field. Plus it won’t hurt Manziel’s ultimate grade in that he is the most marketable player to come out of the college ranks since Tim Tebow.

What makes the 2014 QB class even more impressive is the incredible depth. Indeed, a case could be made that any of seniors Aaron Murray of Georgia, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron of two-time national champion Alabama, Fresno State’s Derek Carr, the brother of David Carr, the first player selected in 2002, Stephen Morris of Miami, and David Fales of San Jose State, along with Ohio State junior Braxton Miller all have at least some opening round credentials, although each does have some kind of wart on their resume. Meanwhile, there is a solid third-tier group of QBs which includes Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech, Bryn Renner of North Carolina, Mississippi State’s Tyler Rusell and Keith Price of Washington, while Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois and Cornell’s Jeff Matthews are top lower level prospects.

Put me in coach …  or maybe not !! The other big emerging draft story this past weekend was the fact that South Carolina DE Jadevon Clowney opted at the last minute to sit out the Gamecocks’ win over Kentucky ostensibly because of sore ribs. It certainly came as a surprise to Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina coaching staff who had expected Clowney to play pretty much up until game time. Needless to say, the fact that Clowney chose to sit out – and in the fashion that he went about it – revived speculation that he might be on the verge of tanking the season in favor of getting healthy for the 2014 draft where he is projected to be one of the first 1-2 defensive players off the board. Recall that were rumblings prior to the season that Clowney, who more than obserser considered to be the best overall non-QB prospect to come along in awhile might choose to sit out the season to prepare for the 2014 draft. That never amounted to anything, but the current season has been anything but special for Clowney who has been slowed by illness and injury including bone spurs in one of his feet that will require surgery once the season is over. Indeed, he has just two sacks to date after posing 13 last fall in a breakout sophomore year.

At least within the media, there is also speculation that all the red flags will have a negative impact on Clowney’s ultimate draft, however, the vibes from the NFL scouting community tend to be more along the lines of ‘who cares’ . Most teams figure they already know what Clowney can do and if he tests well at pre-draft workouts and doesn’t blow the interview process will still be atop 5 prospect. However, there does appear to be an emerging debate whether Clowney or UCLA OLB Anthony Barr is currently the top-rated defensive prospect in this year’s draft class. And in the end it may simply come down to whether the first team selecting defensive help this coming May is looking for a prototype 4-3 DE (Clowney) or a 3-4 edge rushing LB (Barr). The bad news for teams seeking defensive upgrades at the upcoming draft, though, is that it appears there is a steep drop to the next level of prospects on that side of the ball after Clowney and Barr. Stay tuned!

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September 19, 2013

To QB or not is as easy 1-2-3 ... Over the course of the summer the consensus around the NFL scouting community appeared to be that the strength of the 2014 would again be the offensive and defensive lines, while it looked like it was going to be another down year of sorts for the more glamorous skill positions on offense. The consensus also appeared to be that for the second straight year a QB would not be the first player selected with the #1 pick overall after a streak in which passers were the first player chosen in 10 of the previous 12 drafts.

However, just barely three weeks into the season there are rumblings here and here that QBs could actually go 1-2-3 at the 2014. Louisville junior Teddy Bridgewater, of course, has been considered to be at least a top 5-10 prospect, but his strong start this fall has many teams penciling him in as the likely first pick this year. At the same time, a pair of PAC-12 redshirt sophomores – Marcus Mariota of Oregon and UCLA’s Brett Hundley – have rocketed up draft boards around the leagues in recent weeks to the point where it won’t be a surprise to anyone if they end up in the discussion to be the first player selected overall. Interestingly, both Mariota and Hundley are being compared to emerging San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick. Mariota, in particular, is an angular player who looks a little lean, but appears to have good strength as well as the frame to add some additional bulk if necessary; he’s also an outstanding athlete with a projected 40 time in the 4.5 range who can escape trouble in the pocket, as well as cause havoc when he runs by design. And while there are concerns that Mariota may be a product of the Oregon offense which is averaging over 60 points per game through three games this fall, he’s actually a polished passer who stands tall in the pocket, sets his feet well and has a smooth delivery with a high release point. He also has the arm strength to make all the throws and throws a nice catchable ball, although he needs to improve his accuracy, as well as art of going through progressions.

Meanwhile, Hundley, who is a better pure passer than Mariota, really exploded on the national scene this past week when he lead UCLA to that remarkable turnaround win at Nebraska when the Bruins rallied from down 21-3 to a 41-21. Fact is, though, people took notice last year when Hundley completed 67% of his pass attempts for over 3,500 yards and 29 TDs as a redshirt freshman last fall, but just weren’t expected that he’d come quite as far quite as quickly this fall. For the record, Hundley is a solidly built 230-pound with 4.7 speed and the arm strength and accuracy to make all the throws, although like Mariota he’s still learning the finer points of the position. Indeed, the big question for both guys over the next few months is whether they opt to bolt for the pros this fall with a huge payday pretty much guaranteed or take a chance and return to school for more seasoning.

One other QB who is starting to generate a little buzz is Utah State junior Chuckie Keeton who has been putting up Heisman like numbers, although in playing for an unfashionable program like USU doesn’t get much national attention. Still, he’s completed 78% of his pass attempts this fall including 12 for TDs while throwing only one pick. Keeton isn’t all that big at just 6-2, 200, but he’s yet another excellent athlete playing QB and is on pace to run for close to 800 yards this fall. If nothing else, Keeton will get a chance to show his stuff on a wider stage this weekend when the Aggies travel to LA to play Southern California.

And it could be hardly a column focusing on redshirt sophomore QBs without ever a mention of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, the ‘mother-of-all’ redshirt sophomores, who became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman last season. No one questions his athletic ability or arm, but questions about his maturity in the wake of all those on-going off-field issues reportedly have some teams leaning toward not including him at all on their board, if as expected, he declares for the 2014 draft. However, it only takes one team to make a player draftable. Stay tuned!

There is something of a similar story at the wide receiver position. Prior to the season, juniors Marqise Lee of Southern Cal and Clemson’s Sammy Watkins were considered to be legit top 10-15 prospects, but there were real questions as just how good was the next level of WRs. There is still a lot of sorting out, but a small army of young WRs has emerged some of whom have the skills to even challenge Lee and Watkins at the very top of the board at the position. Texas A&M redshirt sophomore WR Mike Evans, for example, is a 6-5, 225-pound specimen who is just too big and athletic for collegiate CBs and could ultimately end up with a top 10 grade. Same for Penn State junior Allen Robinson, while fellow juniors Brandon Coleman of Rutgers and Ole Miss’ Donte Moncrief also have the size-speed combinations that grow on pro teams in the pre-draft testing period and could ultimately sneak them into the latter part of the opening round. Pro scouts are also said to warming to juniors Paul Robinson of Colorado and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, the NCAA’s top two receivers to date this fall. Neither is all that big, but both have good speed and quickness, nice hands and the ability to get open and could be attractive candidates to a team looking for a solid complimentary receiver lat in the second day of the upcoming draft.

On the other hand, a couple of highly rated defensive linemen may have seen their stock slip since the start of the campaign. Notre Dame 5-tech DE Stephon Tuitt, for example, who many scouts compared to current Texans’ star DE J.J. Watt, was considered to be a potential top 5-10 prospect for the 2014 draft after posting 12 sacks and 3 forced fumbles last fall, but he has bulked up in the off-season and just doesn’t appear to be as quick or agile. Same story for Arizona State DT Will Sutton who was arguably the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in the country last fall when he had 13 sacks and 10.5 other tackles for loss. However, Sutton played at under 270 pounds last fall so bulked up this off-season to closer to a more prototype 300 pounds, but he too has lost speed and quickness.

September 5, 2013

Let the battle begin … For months leading up to the start of the current season, the consensus around the NFL scouting community was that South Carolina junior DE Jadevon Clowney was clearly the #1 prospect at any position for the 2014 draft. Just one week into the campaign, though, and it appears we may yet have a horserace to see which player ultimately grades out as the top prospect for the upcoming draft. On the one hand, Clowney had a somewhat underwhelming – at least for a potential #1 pick overall – performance in Gamecocks’ season opening 27-10 win at North Carolina. Clowney finished the game with just three tackles and while he was credited with three QB hurries ultimately went sackless; he also went offside on one third-and-two and overran a number of other plays in his haste to get into the backfield. What had scouts buzzing after the game was the fact that Clowney was clearly gasping for breath most of the evening, particularly after the first couple of series, and seldom was able to play for more than 3-4 snaps in a row without having to go to the sidelines. Admittedly it was a hot night and Clowney reportedly had been ill in the hours before the game, but still it was not the kind of performance that pro scouts were expecting, particularly from a player who has admitted taking plays off and not always being in the best of shape in the past. All that said it still wasn’t all that hard watching the UNC to see why pro scouts are so high on Clowney’s potential as he showed an explosive first step, the ability to plant and change direction on the fly and nice closing speed for a big man; he was also very effective using his arms to gain separation and was able to get fight through several double teams to get some pressure. And Clowney will have another chance to cement his status as at least the top defensive prospect for the upcoming draft when the Gamecocks play at Georgia in a monster early season SEC show-down on Saturday afternoon.

Ultimately, though, if there is a QB worth the #1 pick then all things being equal the QB is almost assuredly going to be the first player taken at the upcoming draft. And there is a growing buzz around the NFL that Louisville junior QB Teddy Bridgewater is going to be worth the #1 pick. The athletic Bridgewater was able to put an early season exclamation point on that assertion this past weekend when he shredded the Ohio defense by completing 23 of 28 passes for 355 yards and 5 scores in just under three quarters of play in leading the Cardinal to an easy 49-7 season opening triumph. Granted the Ohio defense isn’t in the same league with those of Alabama or LSU, but Bridgewater showed a major league arm with the ability to make all the throws, along with a very compact, easy release, excellent mechanics and touch, and real poise and composure in the pocket.

At the same time, though, there is also a growing buzz around the league that Oregon redshirt sophomore QB Marcus Mariota could also ultimately end up in the #1 pick discussion. Mariota is still learning the finer points of going through progressions and the like, but is an angular, athletic QB who is starting to draw comparisons to emerging 49ers’ star QB Colin Kaepernick.

The opening week of the season also offered the opportunity for several of this year’s top senior QB prospects to show their stuff against quality opponents, but unfortunately for Aaron Murray of Georgia , Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech what really stood out were the flaws in their respective season openers. Murray, who was making an NCAA-leading 42nd straight start at Clemson, had decent numbers as he completed 20 of 29 passes for 333 yards, but had no TD passes, while throwing a costly pick in a tough 38-35 loss in which the difference was a blown 15-yard FG attempt by Georgia. And while the Bulldogs were that close against a ranked opponent on the road, UGA still ended up losing for an 11th time against 15 top ten teams in Murray’s tenure in Athens. Obviously, that is going to alarm pro teams, especially given that it was Georgia’s ground game rather than Murray’s arm that was primarily responsible for keeping the Clemson game close. Pro scouts also had to be concerned about Murray’s body language at times when the Bulldogs’ offense was struggling; plus his mechanics appeared to fall apart when he was forced to move his feet in the pocket and his velocity and accuracy really declined. However, Murray gets a shot at redemption Saturday afternoon as they face something of an early-season must-win situation when Jadevon Clowney and South Carolina come to Athens.

Meanwhile, McCarron and Thomas went head-to-head against each other in Atlanta, but combined to complete only 15 of 49 passes in a game a 35-10 Alabama win dominated by the defenses, as well as the Alabama special teams. McCarron, of course, has led the Tide to back-to-back national titles, but is still considered by many scouts to be more of a game manager than potential elite QB prospect in large part because of his lack of prototype arm strength. And that lack of arm strength was pretty noticeable against Virginia Tech as he struggled to get the ball downfield when he couldn’t step up into the pocket because of the Hokies’ pass rush. In fact, there are scouts out there who think that Tech’s Thomas is still the better prospect despite the fact that he completed an anemic 5 of 26 pass attempts against the Tide. Thomas’ mechanics still looked to all over the lot, but at 6-6 with 4.6 speed and the arm strength to throw the ball through a wall, has the better physical tools, although he is clearly very much a work in progress and there are real concerns as to just how passionate he is about the game.

Getting back to the South Carolina-UNC game for a moment, North Carolina LT James Hurst had a very strong outing. Hurst looks a little chunky, but looks to be very light on his feet and can plant and change direction as well as re-anchor well after absorbing initial contact. He also uses his arms well and did a nice job riding USC’s Clowney away from the pocket when the latter tried to blow his past him on outside edge rushes. Pro scouts, though, would still like to see a little more nasty from Hurst in the run game; he did a decent job sealing his guy away from the ball, but he doesn’t really explode off the snap and had a tendency to fall off blocks when he was on the move. Hurst probably lacks the pure athleticism of some of this year’s other top OT prospects such at Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Alabama junior Cyrus Kouandjio, but should get some late-first round interest at the upcoming draft.

One of the nice things about early season games is that occasionally a good prospect who doesn’t get much national exposure gets to play in a warm-up game against a top team. That was the case this past weekend when Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack was all over the field against Ohio State as he continued to draw comparisons to Denver LB Von Miller. Mack looks a little skinny through the lower body and wasn’t all effective fighting through blocks against the Buckeyes, but looked to be very instinctive with an explosive first step and relentless closing speed. Indeed, while the Bulls were overmatched against OSU, Mack was able to come up 9 tackles including 2.5 sacks, while he also picked off a pass and returned it 45 yards.

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