It's been awhile since we've had a special guest here at MTC.
With the draft just eight days away, today we welcome in Matt Waldman, who contributes to The Fifth Down Blog at the New York Times, FootballGuys.com and Football Outsiders.
Matt puts out a publication called The Rookie Scouting Portfolio, which is a tremendous resource that breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the skill position players in this class. I am still going through the information and find his in-depth notes and breakdowns extremely valuable.
Below are five questions I asked Matt via e-mail. Please keep in mind that his publication focuses on offensive skill position players, so that's what this Q&A is about.
Q: You wrote that when all is said and done, Ryan Tannehill could be as good as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. What are the qualities you see in Tannehill that give him a chance to be special?
A: There are two skill sets of quarterbacking that Tannehill performs as well or better than Luck and Griffin, and both are valuable tools for the pro game that are difficult to teach. The first is pocket presence and management. We like to talk about sensing pressure and mobility as assets, but in my opinion these aren't the correct terms. Blaine Gabbert sensed pressure last year and Mike Vick has always been mobile. However, Gabbert and Vick - in very different ways - didn't do the best job of maintaining their presence in the pocket.
Ideally, a quarterback should sense pressure but not overreact to it. Dan Marino was one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, but he understood how to manage pressure with efficient steps to climb the pocket. He knew how to avoid defenders with no more than a few steps, and he could make these adjustments while keeping his feet under him, his eyes downfield and the ball in a good throwing position so he could deliver with power and accuracy. Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady are also excellent examples of pocket managers. Tannehill demonstrates these skills more often than any quarterback I have studied in the college game this year.
And like Vick or Griffin, Tannehill is an above average athlete at the position. The Texas A&M quarterback has the speed and acceleration to break longer runs if he needs to leave the pocket, which allows him to bait linebackers and safeties and help his receivers get open. This leads to Tannehill's second skill that he performs at a high level - throwing the ball on the move with accuracy. He demonstrates good mechanics, accuracy and velocity with his throws while moving to his left or his right.
There's a lot of talk about Tannehill being a raw prospect because he only started 19 games. Cam Newton started fewer games in Division-I college football. So did Mark Sanchez. Another misconception is that he's raw because he's a converted wide receiver. He was a quarterback that the team converted to wide receiver, but he still attended quarterback meetings while he played the receiver position. He displays good anticipation and accuracy, and he can make every throw necessary for a starter to succeed in the NFL. Like many young, athletic quarterbacks, Tannehill will make dumb throws in situations where he felt pressed to make a play after his team fell behind. However, I've seen the same tendencies from Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford and just about every mobile prospect capable of throwing the ball on the move. He'll surely make these mistakes early in his NFL career, but I believe his potential is not as far behind Luck and Griffin as many think.
Q: Of the second-tier quarterback prospects, which do you think would best fit the Eagles' offense? Can you compare how Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson stack up to one another?
A: I just profiled Cousins and Wilson for my Futures column at Football Outsiders, and I think there's a significant gap in skill and performance between the two prospects. For my money, I'd much rather make the investment in Wilson, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles consider him. Cousins has a quick release, and he has played in a pro-style offense. However, the Michigan State quarterback has significant issues with his footwork and pocket presence. Cousins waits too long to adjust to certain types of pocket pressure, and this forces him to make off-balanced throws where he doesn't have the opportunity to step through his release to generate the velocity he needs to complete throws in the intermediate range of the field.
Some quarterbacks can make these power throws from unbalanced positions - Vick, Stafford and Cutler are three examples. Cousins is not one of those players. What exacerbates his issues as a passer is that he doesn't step through his throws even when the pocket is clean. His front foot moves to the side rather than forward, which prevents him from transferring the weight in his hips to generate velocity on the power throws that require more of a line drive than a high arc. In the NFL, quarterbacks must be able to make these kinds of "stick throws" and Cousins needs to improve his footwork to develop more power. This is something a quarterback can learn, but what concerns me is that Cousins told the media prior to his senior year that he worked on stepping into throws, and based on what I saw against Notre Dame, Iowa and Georgia, the results of his work did not translate to the playing field.
Wilson's height is supposedly dropping his draft stock. We'll see if this is true. I'm not sure if teams still take a hard line on height after Drew Brees and Vick demonstrated that they see passing lanes well enough to win in the NFL. What I do know is that the former N.C. State quarterback transferred to Wisconsin and performed at a high level behind an offensive line that is bigger than all but four NFL units. If that doesn't make a statement to NFL general managers and coaches that height isn't an issue, then it's possible organizations are still behind the curve on this issue.
Wilson has a strong arm - stronger than Tannehill - and he's an a excellent play-action passer on designed rolls. He also throws the ball with good touch. I've seen him make successful off-balanced throws to receivers where he had to throw them open against double A-Gap blitzes that the Eagles' defense likes to employ with great success. He's smart, mobile, accurate, and he's played in two different pro-style systems. If it weren't for his height, I think more people would have considered him a first- or second-round prospect. I think he's a better prospect than Brandon Weeden, who many project to go in that range of the draft I just mentioned.
Q: The Eagles will be looking for a running back to spell/complement LeSean McCoy. In my opinion, they're going to want someone who can catch the football and be counted on in pass protection. If the RB has potential as a returner, that's an added bonus too. Who are some of the backs that might fit that description?
A: The first back that comes to mind who fits these skill sets is Isaiah Pead. The Cincinnati Bearcat is a strong receiver from the backfield, and when he's focused, he has demonstrated the skill to pick up the blitz with good stand-up technique. Pead is a good space runner like McCoy. In this Eagles' offense, where Vick's speed to move to the flat before making the exchange with the runner helps stretch plays function a lot like screen plays, Pead could contribute immediately as a reserve. However, like McCoy when he first joined the Eagles, Pead has a tendency to bounce runs outside that he needs to keep between the tackles. Pead needs to learn that sometimes it's better to gain 2-3 yards, rather than risk losing 2-3 yards. If Pead can develop greater maturity, he'll be a fine reserve for the Eagles and capable of solid production if McCoy gets hurt.
One back that I think is as good of a fit with the Eagles system as Pead, but has greater upside, is San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman. Like Pead, Hillman has excellent change of direction and good receiving skills. What I think makes Hillman a better prospect than Pead is that he's more disciplined between the tackles, and he has better top-end speed and acceleration to generate big plays. He reminds me of Tiki Barber - a player who could grow from a role player to a good, versatile, lead runner. I think Washington's Chris Polk would be an interesting change of pace banger for McCoy. It seems the Eagles have tried to find that option with Charles Scott in 2010 and Tony Hunt in 2007. Polk is a physical runner, but also a former receiver with perhaps the best skills as an option from the backfield of any prospect at the position. However, Polk's pass blocking needs a lot of work. I mention him only if his stock falls beyond round three and the Eagles perceive him as a value.
Q: You have Michael Floyd ranked ahead of Justin Blackmon. What gives him the edge as the top-rated WR in this class?
A: Floyd's ability to make plays anywhere on the field makes him a better overall prospect than Blackmon. When I watched Floyd earlier in the year, he was still dealing with injuries. While productive, his speed and burst seemed more on par with Blackmon. However, when I got the chance to watch fully healthy Floyd later in the season, his speed and acceleration was so much better - it practically flew off the screen in terms of the difference.
I think Floyd is a better vertical threat than Blackmon, but he also has no problem making plays in tight, physical coverage. He knows when he's going to take a shot, but he welcomes the challenge. An offense can use him as a flanker or split-end, he's a red zone threat, a weapon over the middle and on the perimeter, and he can make big plays on short or long passes. Blackmon has a lot more trouble separating from defenders on deep routes. When it comes to his on-field talent, I think Floyd is the best receiver prospect this year.
Q: With DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin already in the fold, the Eagles could use a wide receiver with some size who's capable of working the middle of the field and making plays in the red zone. Who are some of the receivers that fit that description?
A: We just mentioned Floyd and Blackmon, but I suspect the team isn't considering a first-round receiver. Cal's Marvin Jones is one of the best route runners in this class, capable of making plays all over the field. He handles physical play well, but he's not considered a big, physical guy.
Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu is not as refined a player as Jones, but he's a versatile weapon with great hands and body control. He also has some of the versatility that we see from Percy Harvin. He can return kicks, run the ball between the tackles and develop into an option that can play all three receiver spots. With Rutgers around the corner, I wouldn't be surprised if he's on the Eagles' radar.
Juron Criner's (Arizona) style of play has a lot of Cris Carter-like influences. He's terrific on fade routes and a strong runner after the catch. A late-round/UDFA prospect could be East Carolina receiver Lance Lewis, who reminds me of Brandon Loyd when it comes to his ability on routes used in the red zone.
Big receivers in the mid-rounds to consider include Arkansas' Greg Childs. If his knee is healthy as it appeared at his Pro Day, he could be a steal. He was easily a top-five receiver before his patella tendon injury. South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery reminds me of a faster Mike Williams of the Seahawks - a big, physical player capable of bullying defensive backs in tight coverage. I'm not a fan of Appalachian State receiver Brian Quick's game, but if he continues to develop beyond the limitations I think he has, he could fit the bill. So could Wisconsin receiver Nick Toon.
There are a lot of big-bodied receivers in this draft like North Carolina's Dwight Jones, Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Miami's LaRon Byrd, and Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller, but I wonder just how effective they'll be when paired with a quarterback like Vick, who I believe is at his best when his receivers have the speed to get true separation on defensive backs. I know you mentioned size, but slot receivers like Wes Welker do well in the red zone on underneath/timing routes, and if the Eagles decide on a more dynamic slot receiver capable of tough catches against contact, but with the quickness to generate the separation where Vick doesn't have to throw them open, Fresno State's Devon Wylie or Virginia Tech's Danny Coale fit the bill. I think both are highly underrated players - Coale can also play outside if needed.
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