Feb. 20 – The Combine
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Almost all of the questions and e-mails into me over the past few weeks have been about the combine and several of the top players – mostly phrased something like, “what do you really think about ….”
I’m not a hip-snap type of scout – that word used very loosely – but after years and years of watching these players and seeing what they do and how they develop, it’s not that hard to keep an eye on the top prospects during games and figure out who they are and what they might be able to do at the next level.
So with that in mind, I kickoff this year of ASK CFN by addressing some of the key players at the combine and what they’re going to turn into as pros. So, to answer your question, here’s what I really think about …
Can you picture Jameis Winston holding up a Lombardi Trophy? Name the truly dysfunctional quarterback who has won a Super Bowl over the last 20 years.
Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Brad Johnson, Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, John Elway, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Steve Young. Those are the last 15 starting quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl. Outside of Roethlisberger and Favre, did any of them have any real off-the-field drama? Favre’s issues were with pain killers, and Roethlisberger had his motorcycle accident and his suspension following sexual assault allegations, but Winston’s immaturity on so many levels is too much of a red flag to ignore.
Winston will go down as one of the toughest calls in recent draft history – Johnny Manziel was easy for anyone with a brain, and Cam Newton was a lock to be very, very good – mainly because if not Jameis, then who? If you think this crop of quarterback prospects sucks, wait until you see what’s coming up next. Yes, there’s always a Newton or an RG3 who pops up on the NFL radar late in the game, but if you’re talking about franchise-making quarterbacks next year, you’re either rolling the dice on Cardale Jones, you’re hoping Christian Hackenberg turns things back around, or you’re thinking Connor Cook might be special.
As far as Winston as purely a prospect, do you want to hitch your wagon to THAT? Hanging around various Florida State beat guys and asking several of the talking heads about him, every one of them to a man – and a few women – said that Florida State was happy for the success, but not exactly upset that Winston was leaving. Remember, FSU’s previous quarterback was E.J. Manuel, who obviously wasn’t the same college player as Winston, but was an absolute dream in terms of who you’d want to be the face of your franchise. Then comes Jameis, and then comes all of the off-the-field stuff to go along with the weekly drama.
In terms of his play, he needs to tighten up his throwing motion and he needs to read and diagnose quicker – like Roethlisberger, he takes way, way too many shots because he’s just that big and strong – but the big problem for me is the interceptions. 28 for his career, 18 last year, he relied on his arm way too often and got burned. However, he can drive his throws as well as anyone currently in the NFL, and with a little tweaking, he has all the tools and a world of upside.
But you’re rolling the dice. Miss on this with the No. 1 pick, Tampa Bay, and it’s another five years of recovery. I’m not willing to take him first overall, but around ten or so, then yes, I take the chance.
Again, if you’re looking at the rest of this quarterback class, and if you’re projecting for the next few years, there’s not that much to like. Mariota will make the conversion to a pro-style quarterback, and in terms of style of play he could be like a taller, faster Russell Wilson in a lot of ways, but without the fiery leadership and personality. Unlike Wilson, and Winston, though, he doesn’t have the arm. It’s okay, but seeing him a few times in person, he just doesn’t have the NFL gun. He can be a very good starting quarterback, but his upside might be Ryan Tannehill – a serviceable and athletic pro quarterback, but not a guy you’re going to win anything big because you have him. Someone is probably going to pass up some terrific sure-thing pass rusher or offensive tackle to take Mariota in the top ten, but he’s around a 20th-pick flier.
He’s going to have a very, very short NFL shelf life, but he might be a difference-making three-year superstar until the wheels fall off. Yeah, yeah, yeah, running backs are devalued now and there’s no reason to spend a ton to draft one early, but can Gurley be the type of runner who can carry an offense like Marshawn Lynch or DeMarco Murray? After a year for his knee to get back to 100%, yeah. In a perfect world he’s a key part of a decent rotation, but he’s a special back. He’s worth taking in the late first round, but there’s no argument from me if you want to go for the better value and grab Tevin Coleman or Jay Ajayi in the second.
It’s sort of like the scouts are trying to find reasons to make him a top five draft pick. He has the rare size and the athleticism to look the part, and the tools are way too intriguing to ignore, but I kept waiting for more almost every time I saw him. He ate Michigan’s lunch in 2013, and he had a few nice moments last season, but he disappeared way too often and was non-existent in key times against Wisconsin and USC. I’m always very, very wary of taking project prospects in the top ten of the draft, and there are just enough reasons to put Gregory in the Tyson Jackson/Dion Jordan category to stay away considering all the phenomenal pass rushing prospects there for the taking.
I’m in. I’m always a fan of Missouri pass rushers, and Ray appears to be the best of the bunch since Justin Smith, albeit in a different way. I know he’s not quite bit enough, and I know he might be a one-trick guy, but he might be just one step below Von Miller in terms of pass rushing upside and ability. He’s not the same sort of athlete, but he might not be that far off as a franchise-changing disruptive force. Take him in the top five and don’t blink.
Dante Fowler Jr.
Welcome to my guy. I’m a little gunshy when it comes to falling hard for “sure thing” superstar defensive prospects – Vernon Gholston, Aaron Curry – but I’m diving in when it comes to Fowler. He might not be the best pure pass rusher among the top hybrids, and he hasn’t been consistent enough, but with the right coaching and the right responsibilities, he might be the best player in this draft. As long as he can keep his weight down a bit, and as long as he has the motor and drive to be special, look out. The upside is limitless, and I’m betting hard that he’ll be a better pro than a college player. Already good, I’m expecting another switch to be flipped.
He’s going to blow the doors off the workouts and become someone’s must-have late in the first round, and I’ve even heard a dopey idea that he might be the No. 1 overall prospect, but no, no, no, no, NO. He’s not Randy Moss in terms of combining off-field concerns with jaw-dropping tools, but he’s not Josh Gordon, either. I know the Missouri coaches all saw flashes of true greatness at times in DGB, and there’s a chance he puts it all together and becomes a special type of unstoppable star, but this is a strong, STRONG draft for receivers – there’s no reason to overpay. Late second round? Sure. Late first round? Maybe if you’re Seattle or New England, but he’s going to need the right coaching. Take a safer prospect, and if he turns out to be a perennial Pro Bowl performer, then you simply go on about your day.
I’m a huge fan if he’s used the right way. Yeah, he wants to be a wide receiver to avoid the Jimmy Graham payday issues, but he’s really a hybrid type who can fill a variety of roles for a passing attack. He’s just not fast enough to be a wideout, and he’s not athletic enough to be Graham, but he can jump, he can run, and he can be a phenomenal part of a passing game if used right. Don’t ask him to block, but make him a crisp route runner and he’ll be a quarterback’s best friend as a chain-mover.
ASK CFN: Top Combine Prospects