By Russ Lande
In previous years, we would be just a week away from the NFL draft, but with the draft pushed back to May, there's still time for a lot of rumors to fly around about players moving up and down. Although players' draft stock can vary this late in the game for some teams, many have their draft boards nearly set and are just tweaking them now based on character and medical issues. Deciphering the truth about Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel's draft stock is nearly impossible, but below are things we have been hearing from NFL personnel in recent weeks.
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There's little doubt that Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage is going to be drafted significantly higher than he was expected to when the season ended. After talking to people around the league, the reason is not surprising. NFL scouts were definitely intrigued by Savage's combination of size, athleticism and a big-league arm. However, they were also frustrated and concerned by his inconsistent accuracy and decision-making, which is why most had him rated as a third- to fifth-round pick when the season ended. Now that coaches have become involved in the evaluation process, Savage's draft stock has risen because he has excellent physical tools.
As is often the case, coaches feel they can teach Savage to improve his technique and decision-making, which will in turn lead to better accuracy. When I have spoken to NFL personnel recently, they all admitted that Savage has the physical talent to be a frontline starter in the NFL, but they are concerned because few college quarterbacks who struggled with accuracy and inconsistency throughout their college careers ever realized that potential, which is why some told me that he is "tease."
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There may be no more scrutinized prospect in this year's draft than South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, but surprisingly two prospects, Notre Dame defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, have similar question marks surrounding them, none of which have led to major media speculation. While both are viewed among the most athletic players at their respective positions in the draft, neither was dominant on the field this year. Nix clearly had the better season in 2013 and displayed excellent competitiveness in games, while Tuitt struggled to produce throughout the season and did not display the passion or intensity on the field that is needed to succeed at the next level. Neither is regarded as a great worker off the field, and questions surround whether either one will step up and put in the time and effort necessary to produce consistently at the NFL level.
Those that I spoke with expressed that because Nix competed at a high level in games -- which led to good but not great production -- and is a rare athlete for his position, he will still likely be a first-round pick. However, they expressed the belief that Tuitt could be one of the big fallers come draft day because he did not display competitiveness in games in 2013, which led to disappointing production. While Tuitt has been compared to Richard Seymour by many in the media, every NFL person I spoke to told me that there was no comparison whatsoever based on their technique, competitiveness and production in college.
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They are not big names and will not likely hear their names called until the third day of the draft, but after their performances at the East-West Shrine Game, receivers Matt Hazel from Coastal Carolina and John Brown from Pittsburg State, I believe both have the talent to contribute in the NFL. While both were excellent small-school players, they are very different in terms of size, physique and style of play. Hazel is a long and linear receiver at 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds, while Brown is a shorter receiver at 5-foot-10 with a wiry build.
At Coastal Carolina, Hazel's lack of explosive acceleration did not hinder him, because once he was able to get to full speed, he made it look easy pulling away from defenders to get separation deep down the field. Although he dropped more passes than a player with his talent should, Hazel's height and natural hands showed up in his ability to make highlight-reel grabs when he maintained focus and aggressively went after the ball. Not a physical player, Hazel relied on his speed to make plays after the catch. He is not a polished or finished product and needs a lot of work, but his combination of height, long speed and the ability to make great catches has NFL personnel excited.
Brown, on the other hand, explodes off the line, gets to full speed in a flash and has the speed to run away from defenders with surprising ease. For a small-school player, Brown's route running is impressive, as he consistently gets in and out of his cuts quickly and has the burst to gain separation from tight man coverage. Despite the occasional drop, Brown has proven that he has good hands and consistently reaches out and plucks the ball away from his body. Brown uses his elusiveness, speed and deceptive strength and balance to make big plays running after the catch, although NFL personnel told me they are concerned that despite his strength, his wiry build could hinder his ability to stay healthy in the NFL.
In the end, both Hazel and Brown will not be drafted as highly as their physical talent would normally warrant because they produced at a lower level of competition, but I expect both to be drafted. Hazel will likely always struggle with inconsistency, but Brown will become a starting slot receiver who catches a lot of passes in the NFL.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.