It’s time to talk about prospects worth your attention in the 2021 NFL Draft who aren’t already being endlessly bloviated about.
Often, a brief video is worth more than 1,000 words of scouting jargon.
At the 41-second mark of this video, UCF defensive back Richie Grant lines up at strong safety on the left side of the offensive formation.
Grant crashes the line of scrimmage from the edge, but the Memphis quarterback hands off to Rodrigues Clark up the middle on what appears to be a zone-read. Clark bursts through the line, so it appears Grant is in no position to have any sort of impact. Yet Grant diagnoses the play, makes a U-turn before he reaches the backfield, runs down Clark from about four yards behind him and pokes the football loose before the running back can reach the goal line.
Instant draft crush!
Grant demonstrated on that forced fumble that he’s alert, changes direction quickly, hustles in pursuit and has the closing speed to chase plays down from behind. That’s a lot of information from one play.
A single play does not make or break an NFL prospect’s profile, of course. And watching highlights ain’t exactly scouting. But you’d be surprised at how much stock NFL evaluators will put in a handful of splash plays (or major blunders).
Editor’s note: See: Clowney, Jadeveon
Grant is a buzzy prospect who may be drafted as high as the early second round. Plays like that forced fumble are a big part of the reason.
If you enjoy watching college football players in action and drawing your own conclusions about them, this week’s Inside the Draft is for you! We’re tired of telling you who to like and who not to like. It’s time for you, dear reader, to grind a little tape of your own, with our curation and guidance of course.
Once you get a taste for it, you may even start you down the road to becoming a draft expert yourself! Because you know how the old saying goes: give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day; teach them to fish and they’ll be threading 200 Tweets about backup Mountain West Conference defensive tackles on Tuesdays in February.
Jaycee Horn Porn
If you only watch five minutes and 48 seconds of cornerback prospect footage in your lifetime, make sure it’s this cutup of South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn against Auburn in 2020.
Among the highlights to look for as you watch: Horn bats away a pass in the end zone at the 0:11 mark. Note that the bunch receivers criss-cross at the start of their route to confuse the coverage. Horn has no trouble identifying and sticking with the outside receiver.
- Horn swats a slant away from his receiver near the end zone at 0:41 seconds.Horn intercepts scrambling Bo Nix at 1:31. It looks as though Nix wanted his receiver to beat Horn with a double move (Nix pump fakes in Horn’s direction), but it doesn’t happen. The pass is not even to Horn’s receiver; he just reads the play and jumps in front of everyone to make the pick.Horn appears to break up an underthrown jump ball in the middle of the field at 1:51, but Auburn receiver Seth Williams makes a miraculous catch.Horn blows up a blocker to make a tackle on a quick RPO at 2:15.Horn blankets Williams in the slot and pokes an ill-advised Nix throw to teammate Javlin Nickerson for an interception.Yawn. Another pass defensed at 3:50, with Horn swatting a sideline throw away from Williams on third down.Yet another interception at 4:19! Nix sails one too close to the right sideline. Horn is the only person in position to make the catch. He almost runs it back for a touchdown.The final 30 seconds of the video feature a South Carolina red zone stand while leading by 8 points. You can see Horn glued to his receiver in the end zone as poor Nix pump-fakes, flails and scrambles.
Horn also gets flagged for pass interference twice during the Auburn video, so it wasn’t a perfect game. And Horn looks much more mortal against other opponents, most notably Alabama. But his two-interception game against Auburn was the greatest performance by a college cornerback that Inside the Draft has ever seen in 20 years of draft coverage.
It’s generally impossible to scout cornerbacks using television tape, because much of what they do, right or wrong, takes place downfield when the camera is on the quarterback. But sometimes the draft ultra-experts enjoy shrouding things in a little too much mystery. If a guy looks like Ronnie Lott for three hours against an SEC opponent, then he’s a worthy high first-round pick.
Cade Johnson: Jackrabbit Slim
Did you ever wonder what obsessives like Inside the Draft do all week when we attend the Senior Bowl? Mostly, we eat barbecue. For a change of pace, we sometimes switch to Cajun or Creole food. Or seafood. Or Nutter Butters. But we also watch lots and lots of practice reps.
Draftnik Brad Kelly was thoughtful enough to post this cutup of South Dakota State wide receiver Cade Johnson’s Senior Bowl 1-on-1 drills for those of us who couldn’t attend this year’s Senior Bowl because we were fetching some Pfizer for our octogenarian moms. As you can see from the film, the Jackrabbits standout gets open over and over again against major-program defenders, often leaving them with their ankles twisted like a freeway cloverleaf.
Sessions like Johnson’s must be analyzed with a grain of salt. Nifty-shifty little receivers have an advantage in 1-on-1 drills. They can string together a dozen little head-fakes and stutter steps that they would never be able to use in an actual game, where the timing and spacing of a pass route must be precise down to the yard and split second.
Also, an unfamiliar helmet is like a “half priced beer and ribs” sign to many draftniks: we love to gush over small-program prospects, especially receivers who can wriggle away from Michigan, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech defenders.
Speaking of Virginia Tech defenders, that’s Divine Deablo getting beat at the 0:55 mark. Deablo may sound like a fourth-level Tiefling sorcerer, but he’s really a safety/linebacker hybrid trying to establish himself as a Tyrann Mathieu-type of “positionless defender.” Deablo will probably end up as a nickel linebacker at the NFL level and should never be asked to defend a shifty slot receiver like Johnson.
That Senior Bowl practice cutup does NOT prove that Johnson is the FCS version DeVonta Smith. It does prove he belongs in the NFL and can help a team as a third or fourth receiver, if not more.
It’s also fun to watch, which is not something you can say about most practice sessions.
Jordan Smith’s Two-Man Tackle
One of the easiest traits to evaluate is an edge-rusher’s initial quickness. It can be spotted on television tape, and it’s incredibly important to the defender’s success. Scouts often use the term “first guy off the line” to praise a defensive lineman and “last guy off the line” to indicate that all the strength and technique in the world won’t save a guy who gets beaten out of his stance by offensive linemen.
UAB’s Jordan Smith is a buzzy edge-rush prospect with lots of sexy tape against mid-major competition. Unfortunately, it’s hard to project whether a Conference USA defender will be as effective once he starts facing blockers who are not future gym teachers or real estate salesmen.
To get a true glimpse of Smith’s NFL potential, check out the 24:35 mark of this video of the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl against Appalachian State. Smith arrives in the backfield while the quarterback and running back are still executing the “mesh” on a zone read. Smith tackles the running back, who does not have the ball. Luckily, he also trips up the quarterback, who does have the ball!
Freeze the video one second after the snap to see just how far into the backfield Smith gets. That kind of initial explosion is unteachable and hard to find.
Smith is a likely mid-round pick. The team that drafts him will be looking to take that initial burst off the line of scrimmage and add to it, refining the other things Smith does well so they can convert into NFL production..
Javonte Williams: Beast Mode
Our final video is a cutup of North Carolina running back Javonte Williams’ 236-yard, three-touchdown game against Miami. If you wish to skip to the chorus, check out Williams’ Marshawn Lynch impersonation at the 4:18 mark, where he bulldozes multiple Hurricanes defender. It will make you want to stuff the nearest Running Backs Don’t Matter nerd in a locker and draft Williams in the top 10.
North Carolina beat Miami 62-26 in that game, and it really wasn’t that close. Williams did not even lead the Tar Heels in rushing: teammate Michael Carter rushed for 308 yards. That’s right: Miami gave up 554 rushing yards in one game! It was as if they turned into Prairie Rock Teachers’ College facing Notre Dame in 1937. Or the Green Bay Packers defense in a typical playoff game.
Miami did not have a mass COVID outbreak three days before the game. At least, none was reported. (Who knows what really goes on in Florida?) Their defense, which ran hot-and-cold in the second half of last season, just fell apart against North Carolina. As great as both Williams and Carter looked in that game, there were lots of plays in which defensive backs were pushed around by wide receivers, no one set the edge of the defense, and the pursuing linebackers waved white surrender flags.
Williams is not Marshawn Lynch any more than Jaycee Horn is Ronnie Lott, Cade Johnson is Tyreek Hill or Jordan Smith is Bruce Smith. Evaluating prospects requires a healthy mix of excitement and skepticism. A few great plays can reveal a prospect’s upside, but it takes lots and lots of additional viewing, stat analysis and other tools to get a clearer picture of what each player can and cannot do.
But all of that other stuff is Inside the Draft’s job. You get to just watch the highlights and enjoy the show.
The Skeptic’s Guide to Ja’Marr Chase
Each week at Inside the Draft, The Skeptics Guide will choose one of the brightest stars in the 2021 draft class and explore the biggest weaknesses in his game and reasons why he might fail. Think of it as “devil’s advocate” reasoning or opposition research, and please don’t take it personally if he’s your favorite player ever.
Let’s grasp at some straws, shall we?
Inside the Draft sees nothing wrong with Chase as a prospect. There are things he is phenomenal at (snagging less-than-perfect passes, generating YAC) and things he is just pretty good at (like the finer points of route running).
Inside the Draft, however, has the luxury of not having to fill “positives” and “negatives” bullet points in a scouting report. Most media prospects breakdowns reports have “positives” and “negatives” columns, and those “negatives” columns had darn well better be filled, otherwise there’s blank space on the computer screen, which makes editors cranky.
The need to fill up a great player’s “negatives” column with quibbles sometimes leads to content that looks something like this:
Clark Kent, Linebacker, University of Kansas-Smallville.
- Impervious to harm.Can literally toss blockers into the sun.Can use heat vision to make the football explode while still in the quarterback’s hand.Sometimes freezes the entire offensive line with his breath.Ran the circumference of the earth in 0.44 femtoseconds at his Pro Day (hand timed).
- Glowing green rocks give him trouble.Turns into an ordinary player when the sun suddenly cools from yellow to red.Anonymous scouts question whether he loves social justice more than football.
Here’s the best part: it’s actually harder to find negatives for Chase than it is for Clark Kent, because there is no obvious Kryptonite.
Here are some of the negative bullet points the great Chad Reuter came up with for NFL.com:“Average short-area foot quickness in release and route breaks … Upright target who can be too easy to disrupt by press … Relies upon athletic gifts and can be nonchalant with routes … Doesn’t create enough cornerback tilt out of stems and turns … Route trees have been fairly basic.”
Now let’s check in with the folks in the Sports Info Solutions Football Rookie Handbook, which is an excellent publication written by folks who really do their homework. Here is their complete list of negatives for Chase: “physicality through re-routes … Creativity as a route runner … Separation before the throw.”
“Physicality through re-routes?” Like … what? A phrase like “physicality through re-routes” screams I am required to put something in this space, so let me sling some impressive-sounding jargon that sounds too technical for anyone to question.
All of the negatives about Chase listed above are true to some degree. As it happens, elite college wide receivers are often so-so route runners, because they can afford to be. In fact, if you see a college receiver using lots of refined technique to get open, it’s potentially a bad sign: he might lack the athleticism to just win with speed and talent (which means he will be smothered by NFL cornerbacks). Laquon Treadwell was a great route runner at Ole Miss. He’s a fifth receiver at the NFL level.
Chase was also sometimes jammed effectively at the line of scrimmage. He’s not 6-foot-4, and he plays against the best cornerbacks in the nation in the SEC. Saying he’s jammed or re-routed at times is like saying he’s human.
Here’s Inside the Draft’s trusted colleague Tony Pauline cutting through the jargon a bit at Pro Football Network. After two full paragraphs of “Positives,” Pauline keeps the negatives simple: “Gets a little upright in and out of his breaks. Must be more focused running routes. Stands to improve his downfield blocking.”
Now, that’s some evaluation that Inside the Draft can get behind: the dude is awesome, but here are a few things that need cleaning up.
No matter how they phrase it, most evaluators reach the same conclusion on Chase: he’s a superior overall prospect who needs the sort of refinement that most college players need, particularly at wide receiver.
It’s up to The Skeptics Guide to turn Chase’s negative traits into a worst-case scenario. That’s not easy. Sammy Watkins has some Chase-like properties (hands, YAC, ordinary routes) and has been stuck in neutral for much of his career, but Watkins had both injuries and personal issues. The same can be said of other high first-round semi-disappointments at wide receiver: the bust rate at the position is surprisingly low, an an ACL tear or off-field trouble (neither of which are anticipated for Chase) is typically the culprit.
Chase could get trapped on a bad organization after playing with Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the 2019 National Championship team. Great prospects often acquire bad habits from bad organizations. Chase is not a size-speed marvel, and if he doesn’t fine-tune his route running the way every rookie receiver must, he could end up looking like just another guy.
But if he does develop a little, Chase will be a more compact version of D’Andre Hopkins.
In summary, “might get drafted by a crappy team” is the ultimate “negative” bullet point, and it belongs next to every top ten prospect. It’s also the only thing really standing between Chase and NFL superstardom.