Pair of Prospering Prospects
NFL talent evaluators will tell you that pro days, by and large, represent a small fraction of the scouting process for most draft prospects. Ditto for team visits and private workouts. For a handful of players, however, the college pro day and subsequent visits with teams are must-win scenarios. And for two of the most athletic and intriguing prospects in the 2016 draft, the months of March and April are everything.
For different reasons, Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller and Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell are considered late bloomers by the teams who flocked to their pro days last month. Russell might have lined up opposite Miller during the Fiesta Bowl if not for the fractured tibia Russell suffered near the end of a college career slowed by injury and interrupted by a year-long suspension for plagiarism. And Miller, the former quarterback, might have been throwing the ball against Russell’s Fighting Irish if not for a shoulder injury that forced him to miss a season and subsequently change positions.
The pair have two major things in common: a shortage of applicable game film, and tantalizing athleticism that could propel them to the top of the draft. Also: They’ve become experts at self-promotion after fielding dozens of the same prying questions all winter and spring.
The reality for Miller and Russell is that neither of them will have a very firm handle on when they'll be drafted. Prospects with short and/or complicated résumés and elite measurables as their chief credentials must wait on the one team willing to take on a project with a high ceiling, and that team has to do its homework on which other teams have taken a liking to their sleeper pick.
The Raiders did their homework in 2009 when they drafted a little-known Ohio safety named Mike Mitchell at No. 47; the Chicago Tribune later reported the Bears liked Mitchell at 49, despite the fact he wasn't invited to the combine. Mel Kiper and his cohorts guffawed at the selection when it was made, noting that Mitchell was the 40th safety on Kiper’s board, but Mitchell has carved out a solid career as the current starting free safety in Pittsburgh. Like Miller and Russell, Mitchell blazed through his pro day, with 4.39 speed. Unlike Mitchell, no one will bat an eye if either player is selected in the second round of the draft.
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“I look at myself as an Odell Beckham-type of player. He loves the game and loves making plays. I want to be that guy you can always count on to go up and make a play.”
Given his lofty goals, Miller was understandably upset when he discovered his 40-yard dash time at the combine in February. He’d played only one season at receiver at Ohio State, catching 26 passes after yielding to Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett in a quarterback competition. Miller knew his speed and agility were saving graces. The agility was not in question after the world saw him spin a Virginia Tech defender out of his jock on national television. The speed was more of a question mark. His official time in Indy: 4.5.
“Absolutely I was pissed off,” Miller says. “I went straight to my college strength coach and said, ‘We’ve got to get this right.’ I’ve never run a 4.5 in my life. We switched up the training before the pro day and did more speed and agility.”
Two and a half weeks later, at Ohio State’s pro day on March 11, Miller clocked 40s at 4.33 and 4.36 seconds, which would have been the second-fastest performance in Indianapolis. (Notre Dame’s Will Fuller ran a 4.32.)
Next came the route-running tests, critical to the evaluation of a prospect who hadn’t played a position besides quarterback since before his freshman season in high school. Miller played his final season exclusively in the slot, taking a crash course in route-running from coaches and teammate Mike Thomas. Miller spent much of the offseason catching passes from Cardale Jones. (As a thank you, Miller arranged for his marketing partner, Element Electronics, owned by an Ohio State grad, to gift two 65-inch televisions to each of his draft-eligible teammates.)
“I just have to thank those guys for sticking with me and helping me with that transition,” Miller says.
Miller believes teams left his pro day and almost a dozen private workouts with a good impression.
“They want to see my outside receiver skills. They put me through the route tree on the outside,” Miller says. “They want to know how I did it. I was told I didn’t look like a QB out there running routes.”
Miller is considered a project who may take a season to transition from Ohio State’s quick-throw, screen-heavy offense to an NFL offense. Then there’s the issue of endurance; he says his legs felt like “rubber” towards the end of last season, something he’s worked to avoid this offseason once he reaches the NFL. Said one NFC scout who projects him as a mid-to-late second rounder: “He’s a guy that’s going to need a lot of coaching, but you have a lot of tools to work with.”
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KeiVarae Russell’s woes began in the summer of 2014 when he was suspended for the fall and spring semesters following an investigation of plagiarism charges. The Everett, Wash., native had been converted from a high school running back to a standout corner in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, earning freshman All-America honors.
Rather than transfer to another program, Russell returned to Notre Dame after a year of working out on his own. It’s something nearly every team has questioned Russell about.
“It wasn’t a character issue, and it doesn’t define me as a man,” Russell says. “It wasn’t smoking or drinking, abusive, missing meetings. I came back because I love my school, and I take responsibility for what I did.”
Upon his return, he approached practice with a manic focus that mirrors his way of speaking. He took reps with the ones and twos and eventually stressed his foot to the point of fracture. During the second half of the season he walked around campus with a walking boot but still played in games until fracturing his right tibia against Boston College on Nov. 21.
“After we played USC, that’s when it really started to hurt,” Russell says. “I just felt my 75% was better than the next man’s 100%.”
He finished the season with 60 tackles and two interceptions. After a late-November leg surgery, he began performing explosive movements three weeks before his pro day at Notre Dame. Even with a tweaked hamstring suffered in training, Russell made the 72 scouts in attendance do a collective double-take. Russell’s 4.43 40 yard dash, 4.0 shuttle, 38.5-inch vertical and 11' 2" broad jump would’ve ranked sixth, fourth, fourth and second, respectively, among cornerbacks at the combine.
“I knew for a fact running at the pro day would be the biggest thing for me,” Russell says. “The last time I was really healthy was sophomore year, 2013. They had to go back two years to see my long speed. People thought I would run a 4.5… Man, I knew at 80%, I wouldn’t run no 4.5.”
It was the kind of performance that sends personnel men back to the film to reevaluate. Ten teams interviewed the 5-11, 194-pound corner at his pro day, and he has completed or scheduled more than 10 private workouts. Several of those teams have approached Notre Dame defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, who spent just one season with Russell before he declared eligible for the draft. (Russell could have applied for a fifth year after missing all of 2014, but he chose not to.)
“He’s the type of corner where he’ll do best with a lot of man coverage where he can get up and press corners at the line,” Lyght says. “I would say the Chargers and Colts are the two teams that are really high on him.”
Lyght says the staff would’ve preferred to play Russell at nickel corner the entire season, where he could impact more plays in the passing and run game, but they settled for an outside corner role for most of the season as Russell played through pain.
Teams have been less concerned with the plagiarism charge than with Russell’s availability and versatility in terms of playing every position in the defensive backfield. Said Russell: “They want to know, are we going to get this athlete every day? If we need you to play inside can you play inside? Can you play safety, special teams? They don’t want some specialized guy who can only play left corner.”
Said Lyght: “I think he’s the kind of guy who will excel when his job is just football.”
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Five things you need to know about the draft
1. The best pro days. As pro days come to a close and NFL personnel hunker down in their respective cities, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the standouts, along with Russell and Miller, who answered lingering questions with their pro day performances. Among the quarterbacks, North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg earned high marks throwing against air, and TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson and UCLA defensive lineman Kenny Clark turned heads with first-round worthy measurables.
2. Paxton performs well. Speaking of throwing against air, Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch wrapped up the pro day circuit with 69 passes in 25-mph winds. All eyes were on Lynch’s footwork, which was deemed significantly improved by several in attendance. However, said one evaluator, “All that tends to go out the window when you see a 300-pounder coming down on you.”
3. Trade rumors at No. 1. Dane Brugler at CBS has a smart take on trade scenarios, with the Cowboys reportedly open to dealing for Tennessee’s No. 1 pick, along with Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Cleveland. I think Dallas is a longshot to spend draft capital on a Tony Romo replacement, but Jerry Jones has to seriously consider it with a rare Top 5 pick at his disposal. Mike Renner at PFF says the Cowboys are “simply too good” to draft a QB at the moment.
4. Another good read. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective takes a look at how often teams with good offenses draft a quarterback the following year, a position the Cowboys would more-or-less find themselves in if they take a passer. The upside is Aaron Rodgers. The downside? Jim Druckenmiller.
5. The Eagles love Carson Wentz. If the Eagles were to trade up to draft a quarterback, the target would be North Dakota State’s Wentz, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein: “I know Doug Pederson loves him. I know that from people behind the scenes, in the know. That's who he wants and that's who he likes. It's just going to be tough.”
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Quote of the Week
“Look inside a player's heart and check his belly for passion and fire.”
—Jack Elway, to his son John, as draft advice. Jack Elway, a former Broncos director of player personnel, passed away in 2001. He retired from football in 1999 with an 80-60-4 record as a college head coach. As Denver’s GM, John Elway has built a largely home-grown roster highlighted by several first-round triumphs, including OLB Von Miller (2011), DE Derek Wolfe (2012) and DT Sylvester Williams (2013). The Broncos will have the 31st pick on April 28.
“I'll be shocked if I'm not right. I think they're going to go one–two. I think there are two to four teams outside the top five that are willing to trade up to take Jared Goff or Carson Wentz. And Cleveland is obviously going to take whichever quarterback is left over at two.”
—Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, echoing Cris Collinsworth’s prediction that quarterbacks will be taken with the first two picks in the draft after Tennessee deals its No. 1 pick to one of several suitors.
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Stat of the Week
Plays from scrimmage totaling 20 or more yards in 2015 for Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, whose 40-yard dash of 4.63 seconds raised some eyebrows in a bad way. By comparison, Baylor's Corey Coleman, Notre Dame's Will Fuller and TCU's Josh Doctson had 41, 36, and 21 such plays, respectively. N.C. State's Jaylen Samuels, a sophomore tight end, bested Treadwell's mark by five.
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