Louisville’s Lamar Jackson isn’t eligible for the draft until 2018, but NFL decision makers are already sizing him up. Here’s what scouts think of the Heisman winner and the other four finalists
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson, a sophomore, is not NFL eligible until 2018.
“Lamar is not really a passer… yet. I think right now he’s in the same stage that Dak Prescott was in around that age. You’re an athlete, you’re a running athlete that can throw the ball, now learn to be a passer. That’s where Dak grew the most, between junior and senior year, and when you’re looking at Lamar you’re hoping he makes that same jump from this year to next.
“Obviously teams haven’t done full evaluations on him yet, being that he’s an underclassman. But when a guy is in the spotlight this young, especially as a Heisman winner, it gives teams plenty of time to do their research. Sometimes too much time. You want to see how he’s going to react to being in the spotlight, after acclaim at a young age. He’s only 19. [Posing with] Johnny Manziel [for a] photo after the Heisman… hanging in the hotel room… it wasn’t a great look, but you’re not going to hold it against him. You are going to see what types of things he gets into off the field. Over the next year, you’re going to be able to nit-pick everything, find out everything. You look at a situation like [North Carolina quarterback] Mitch Trubisky who comes out of nowhere and now teams are all scrambling to get as much information as we can; this is the opposite of that.
“When you look at his body composition, the first thing you notice is his frame. He’s skinny, very skinny. You worry that if he can’t bulk up he will have a hard time absorbing some hits when he gets to the next level. He didn’t have the best offensive line and his receivers dropped quite a few balls. That said, he’s been less than a 60 percent passer both this season and last season. I do think he’s gotten a lot better with accuracy, but you’re going to want to see improvement.
“He has a future in the NFL, no doubt, I just think we need to see a little more from him to see where he fits in. Yes, he’s a runner, but he’s a talented runner. Very talented. I’d like to know more about his football IQ. It seems like the coaches simplified a lot of the reads for him, a lot of the offense. How much will the coaching staff be able to add to his plate, how quickly can he process?”
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Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson, a redshirt junior, is set to graduate this December and is expected to declare for the 2017 draft.
“He's a winner, and he’s more accurate than he’s given credit for. I also think he’s more mentally apt than he’s given credit for. Most of all, he’s a leader. He’s played in big games and he’s won in big games, and those are ultimately the things you’re going to fall in love with.
“He’s special off the field. Teammates love playing for him. He’s got face-of-the-franchise qualities.
“He’s probably a little smaller than his school measurements [6' 3", 215 pounds]. He’s tough to tackle and does a great job of avoiding unnecessary hits. He’s got great awareness, he has a smart field IQ. He knows the situation, knows when to run out of bounds or slide, qualities that some guys just don’t have at that level. He’s making a lot of short underneath throws on predetermined reads, but I think the footwork is there. Will need some work but mostly there. When he’s on the run he has excellent vision. He can move defenders with his eyes. As for his arm, he has a quick release and pretty good arm strength. The bottom line is, he can make all of the throws that an NFL quarterback needs to make.”
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Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield, a junior, announced he will return to school for his senior season.
“He’s a fiery competitor. He’s going to be a good locker room guy. He’s always looking to be a playmaker when the ball is in his hands. I’d like to see him tone down his renegade play and become more of a pocket passer, but I’m not sure he has the arm strength to do so. To be honest, I don’t think he has the arm to succeed in this league.
“He’s listed at 6' 1", Dede Westbrook is listed at 6-foot. When they stand next to each other, Westbrook looks a clear two inches taller than Baker. Baker is short, he might be 5' 11".
“He wasn’t ready for the league this year. I don’t think he would have been drafted above the fifth round. Returning for his senior season was the right decision.”
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Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma
Westbrook, a senior, is NFL draft eligible. He accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl.
“Right now I’d say he’s a third- to fourth-round guy, who could move to be a second-round guy based off what he does in the Senior Bowl and combine. Everyone is talking about how fast he is, his sub-4.4 speed, even sub-4.3 speed. His numbers from the spring workout were an unofficial 4.43. That’s still pretty freakin’ fast, but not as fast as people think. I love his body control, you watch that touchdown in the Baylor game, where he somehow stayed in bounds, that was one of the most unbelievable touchdowns I’ve seen this year. The average athlete does not stay in bounds.
“The biggest knock on him is character, there’s a few off-field concerns [Westbrook was twice arrested on domestic violence complaints, but never charged, before arriving at Oklahoma]. Also, his frame. He’s very thin-boned. Lean body, thin frame. He’s a guy that is listed at 176, I don’t think he’ll be much bigger than that; I don’t think he has a frame that can hold any more.
“You go back to that Oklahoma State game where he got knocked out from a big hit over the middle, that’s concerning because it knocked him out of the game. He’s obviously a competitor, though, because you see the way he fights for extra yards. The stiff arm against West Virginia was awesome. He’s stronger than he looks, he’s quick, he’s fast, he has great hands and is an explosive playmaker. Probably more of a vertical threat than he is a catch-and-run.”
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Jabrill Peppers, S/LB, Michigan
Peppers, eligible for the draft as a redshirt sophomore, has not yet announced his decision.
“He’s probably in the top four of best all-around guys you’ll see this year: It’s Myles Garrett, Jonathan Allen, Leonard Fournette and Jabrill Peppers. There have been a few national scouts who are saying he’s the best guy they’ve seen all year. You’re going to hear a lot of talk about where he should play in the NFL, considering he’s such a versatile athlete, but the word seems to be unanimous that he should be a safety. I don’t see him projecting as a linebacker, he’s a safety to me.
“He can do everything. He can blitz, he can drop back, he can match up against a slot guy in man [coverage]. His closing speed is something. And of course you can use him as a returner.
“He’s special, he has great instincts. He’s not going to fit every scheme for every team but coordinators willing to be creative will be rewarded. I’d love to use him blitzing off the edge. I know the knock on him [that he doesn't have a natural position], but he’s going to produce at the next level. First-round talent.”
• EVERYTHING LEONARD FOURNETTE DOES… EXCEPT RUN: You already know that Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then I spent a Saturday watching Fournette do everything else but run.
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Packers defensive lineman Kenny Clark hyping former UCLA teammate Takkarist McKinley.
“I played with him for two years. He’s an emotional player, he’s an active player, and he’s tough. He plays when he’s hurt. He’ll give it all. In 2015, my final year playing with him, he stepped onto the scene, but the reason why people didn’t hear about him was that he’d get to the quarterback every time, but he just miss the sacks. I’ve watched every UCLA game this season. Now he’s taking care of the opportunities and closing on the sacks that he missed. Before I left, I told him, ‘You need to get some sacks this season! You’re a top-10 player—you just need to finish out plays to show people that you are.’ He’s balling right now, and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s going to kill it at the combine because he’s a sick athlete. He’s one of those track-runner guys. Anybody can go hard, but he cares about his team and would do whatever it takes. Those are the types of guys that you look for and he could be a first rounder, no doubt.”
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame: He has qualities of a true pocket passer. He can run, but he’s not run-first. Nice velocity on ball but needs to work on placement. Good vision, moves his eyes through progressions.
Taylor Moton, OT, Western Michigan: I was impressed watching his Ohio State tape [in 2015]. A lot of good film this season too. Solid in pass protection. Good body control and agile for his size (6'5", 328 pounds).
Carroll Phillips, DE, Illinois: Hasn’t been great against the run, but think there’s a high ceiling as a pass-rusher. He’s twitchy. He could be a guy you fall in love with and overdraft. I might try him at outside linebacker.
• DESHONE KIZER AND THE ND QB FRATERNITY: Former Fighting Irish signal-callers weighed in on the pressures of South Bend, and why Kizer might be the one to become Notre Dame’s first great NFL quarterback since Joe Montana.
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
Of 128 FBS programs, only 14 are coached by African-Americans. That’s a stat from Adam Kilgore’s excellent Washington Post article exploring diversity in college coaching, specifically looking at Oregon, the only state in the country with a version of the Rooney Rule: House Bill 3118, enacted in 2009.
(Oregon hired Willie Taggart, an African-American, to fill its football head-coaching vacancy, though Kilgore writes it’s impossible to directly correlate Taggart’s hiring to this bill.)
To me, the article’s most interesting nugget came from a study by Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Lapchick says Charlie Strong joined Tyrone Willingham as the only black coach to get fired from a major college football program and be hired again as a head coach at another. While it’s important to advocate for a fair hiring process and open opportunities for all candidates, it’s equally pertinent to discuss the double standards often harbored in football hiring practices, where white coaches are often granted second chances while black coaches aren’t.
• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round
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GENIUS COACHING DECISION OF THE WEEK
For the first time in a dozen years, Mount Union won’t be in the NCAA Division III championship game. The Ohio powerhouse was upended in the semifinals by Mary Hardin-Baylor of Texas, which is now 14-0 on the season.
Leading 14-12 with 45 seconds remaining, and facing fourth-and-4 at Mt. Union’s 32, Mary Hardin-Baylor lined up to punt. Instead of kicking, punter Baylor Mullins threw a pass to Trinton Ynclan to secure a first down, and the victory. I’d like to give this genius coaching decision to Mary Hardin-Baylor’s coach, Pete Fredenburg, but turns out it wasn’t his call. Here’s Fredenburg to reporters after the game: “I wish I could take credit for calling that play, but little number 32 [punter Baylor Mullins] made that call. If I would have had the option to call it, I probably wouldn’t have. It was a spur of the moment thing, and it just happened to work out.”
Mullins, for the record, is a two-way player. He’s listed at 5'8", 180 pounds. He began his career as a linebacker before switching to defensive back.
UMHB will face University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the championship on Friday.
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Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage previews the position groups for the 2017 Senior Bowl. Practices in Mobile begin Tuesday, January 24.
In six weeks, the Reese’s Senior Bowl practices will be underway and, offensively speaking, the most impressive group on the field could be the tight ends. This class is the deepest we have seen in five years and includes lots of variety. As a matter of fact, we typically invite six players for this position, but expanded our depth chart to include eight for our 2017 game. Through our evaluations, we see at least 14 tight ends who could be drafted this spring, and that does not include any underclassmen. As of this writing, Jake Butt of Michigan, O.J. Howard of Alabama and Clemson’s Jordan Leggett have been extended invitations, while Evan Engram of Ole Miss, South Alabama’s Gerald Everett, Louisville’s Cole Hikutini and Arkansas’ Jeremy Sprinkle have confirmed their acceptances. All of these candidates have the ability to play Y (stationary on-the-line) or H (off-the-line and motions) with the potential to create mismatches against linebackers or safeties in the passing game.
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