Weekend watching: ACC draft prospects

The ACC Championship Game features about 20 players that could be drafted into the NFL next spring. NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas takes a look at the talents of draft prospects in the game.

Below, I take a look at this week’s conference championship matchups from a draft perspective, examining the talent on those teams that are being analyzed by NFL teams, along with their current status on our draft board.

Florida State (12-0) vs. Georgia Tech (10-2)

Thanks to Western Kentucky’s 67-66 victory over Marshall, Florida State enters the postseason as the only undefeated team in the major-college ranks, but this has not been an easy campaign for the Seminoles, both on and off the field. This will mark the fourth time in the last five years that FSU will play for the league title and their third consecutive appearance.

With five appearances in the title clash, Florida State is tied with Virginia Tech for the most trips to this game among league participants. While a young Georgia Tech “snuck up” on the rest of the country, sandwiching five victories to start the season around two losses before spinning off another five-win stretch.

The Yellow Jackets were not even expected to have a winning season, thanks to a roster filled with underclassmen, but they’re making their fourth trip to the ACC title game. While Las Vegas is taking heavy money on the Seminoles pulling out a victory, the last time the two teams met in the ACC title tilt, they were lucky to go home with a 21-15 win over Tech in 2012.

To go undefeated is a major accomplishment for any team, but with all the arrests, off-field issues and their 2013 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback trying to combine Dennis the Menace and Stewie from “Family Guy” into his character, with a lot of Beavis and Butthead tossed in, you wonder if these characters should be on a work release program rather than attending a university.

Not only have the Winston, Karlos Williams and Terrance Smith incidents been a distraction, the team seems to have a bunch of four-leaf clovers in its locker room. How else can you explain all those victories with a suspect offense? With its quarterback misfiring at an alarming rate heading down the stretch, can the upstart Georgia Tech kids pull off a monumental upset?

Florida State was running on all eight cylinders last season, as it averaged 51.6 points per game, ranked 28th in the nation in rushing (203.1 ypg), 14th in passing (315.9 ypg) and sixth in total offense (519.1 ypg). The Seminoles led the FBS with a 156.5 pass efficiency rating. The defense was equally dominant, returning five of 26 interceptions for touchdowns while leading the country by holding opponents to 12.1 points per game and allowing just 156.6 aerial yards per game.

The Seminoles also caused 12 fumbles, scoring three times on nine recoveries. The front wall totaled 35 sacks for losses of 253 yards, 98 tackles for losses, broke up 49 passes and had 29 quarterback pressures on the way to the 2013 national championship.

This season? Not so great, as the offense has been tagged for 19 interceptions, ranking 121st among the 125 colleges at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. FSU is 46th in total offense (460.3 ypg), 101st in rushing (131.2 ypg) and 29th in scoring (34.6 ppg). The defense is ranked 106th nationally, having registered just 17 sacks and 12 interceptions. The Seminoles are ranked 46th with 371.1 yards allowed per game, as opponents have averaged 145.8 yards rushing and 225.3 yards passing.

Of course, teams coveting a quarterback will probably close their eyes, mortgage the ranch and pray that Jameis Winston matures both on and off the field. Fair warning from the staff at The NFL Draft Report: In a comparison game, we place Winston between JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf. In other words, unless you are a general manager with incriminating evidence on your team’s owner, it might be better to pass on a player that has shown all the signs of being as equally toxic as the two mentioned above.

Williams, probably the best athlete on the team, is in search of his perfect position. Having joined the team as a five-star prospect, he’s been tried in the defensive and offensive backfields. This season, he’s second on the team with 138 carries for 609 yards (4.4 ypc), but leads FSU with 10 scoring scampers. He’s also proven to be a nice safety-valve receiver, snatching 24 passes.

Winston has distributed the ball to 15 different receivers, with nine of them recording touchdowns. His favorite target has been split end Rashad Greene, who has hauled in 86 passes for 1,183 yards (13.8 ypc) and five touchdowns. The senior’s numbers have been impressive, but he’s also left a high amount of balls on the ground (10). While he entered the season as a first-round favorite, he’s more likely to wait until late in the second or early in the third round.

Nick O’Leary, a finalist for the 2013 and 2014 Mackey Award (top tight end), is a tough-as-nails type in the Mike Ditka mold. He’s second on the team with 44 grabs, picking up 517 yards and reaching the end zone five times. As one of the best blockers in the game at his position, this no-nonsense throwback will probably be selected right after Greene.

What has kept this offense from self-destructing is the outstanding performance and chemistry demonstrated by its front wall. All five starters could be drafted, led by one of the most talented linemen you never hear about — Cameron Erving. The left tackle can play any position on the line and recently stepped in at center when Austin Barron suffered a broken leg in October vs. Wake Forest. Most teams still have Erving in the second- to third-round projection level, but once position coaches start breaking down game film on him, you get the feeling that he will be a Patriots first-round choice.

Erving will have lots of company celebrating on draft day, as left guard Josue Matias continues his steady climb into the early rounds (second-round target) and right guard Tre Jackson will not be around after the early stages of the third round. Right tackle Bobby Hart and center Austin Barron will get strong consideration late in the draft, and Hart’s experience as a guard adds versatility to his resume.

The lack of a pass rush is quite puzzling, though. The Seminoles were relentless in the opposing backfields last year, with 35 sacks, 39 pressures and 98 tackles for losses in 2013 to 17 sacks, 19 pressures and 71 TFLs in 2014.

The front wall was supposed to be the “feeding ground” for Mario Edwards Jr. to establish himself as a solid first-round choice. He’s made 41 tackles this year, including 11 for losses, but he dealt with concussion issues early in the season and lacks any semblance of pass rush moves (relies on brute strength) to get the job done.

He’s still considered a top-two-round guy by some teams, but more and more clubs have been dropping him on their draft boards, feeling he lacks good snap-count anticipation. Teams are concerned that he’s better suited for under-tackle, lacking the range to make plays down the line, along with being incapable of generating much of a rush playing off the edge while lining up at the “Jack” position.

Edwards has been overtaken by nose guard Eddie Goldman in the hearts and minds of most scouts. So much so, he’s sneaking into the first-round picture. Used mostly to occupy multiple blockers, he’s managed to deliver 35 tackles with four sacks among his eight stops behind the line of scrimmage this season.

Behind the line, middle linebacker Reggie Northrup leads the team with 101 tackles. The junior has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David. While he tips the scales at just 220 pounds, his powerful frame and quick feet could see him play the weak-side inside spot in a 3-4 alignment.

Current weak-side linebacker Terrance Smith trails Northrup with 83 tackles and has two pass thefts under his belt in 10 games, missing one contest with a leg injury and another while on suspension. Both juniors are expected to leave school after this season and could be selected no later than the third round, if they perform well at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The secondary has struggled quite a bit this season, at least compared to last year. In 2013, the Seminoles had 26 interceptions, deflected 49 other tosses and led the nation by allowing just 156.6 yards per game. This season, they have 12 thefts and rank 62nd nationally with 225.3 passing yards allowed per game.

The top prospects in the defensive backfield are cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, but after that duo combined for five interceptions last year, only Williams (one) has managed to record a theft this season. A fringe first-rounder, Williams added 51 tackles and broke up ten passes this year, while Darby has accounted for 35 hits. Darby has been burned for four touchdowns this year, and while the junior has indicated he will leave school early, he might have to settle for a third-round pick on draft day.

The best player on this team is actually redshirt sophomore placekicker Roberto Aguayo. While he probably will return to school, there is no question that if Sebastian Janikowski could become a first-round pick, so can Aguayo – he’s that much better. He shattered school records with 157 points last year, hitting on 21-of-22 field goals, including 9-of-10 beyond 40 yards. He has “just” 115 points this season, but that includes 22-of-24 three-pointers, making all three shots beyond 50 yards and 9-of-11 from 40 yards or better.

While Florida State could have 16 players selected in the 2015 draft, Georgia Tech might be lucky if two of its Yellow Jackets hear their names called. One of those two is a vastly underrated talent, junior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis, an Australian native who was selected to the IFAF World Team roster that played Team USA in USA Football's International Bowl and who played Australian Rules Football for eight years before coming to the United States in 2011.

Gotsis boasts 26 consecutive starts for the Yellow Jackets and, in addition to excelling on the football field, he’s received school and league academic honors. A big, physical type, the Australian has scouts comparing his raw strength and burst off the snap to former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton. During the last two years, he’s delivered 7.5 sacks and 20 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He’s also performed as a kick blocker on special teams, boasting an 80-inch wingspan to go with a 34.5-inch vertical jump.

The Georgia Tech secondary is paced by its hard-hitting safety tandem of junior Jamal Golden (free) and senior Isaiah Johnson (strong). Johnson is a pure hitting machine, ranking third in school history among defensive backs with 262 tackles. Like Golden, he was sidelined in 2013 with injury issues, but has produced 61 tackles with a pass theft and five deflections this season.

Johnson plays in control and has a good feel for taking angles to close in pursuit. He is capable of fitting in space and brings his arms and feet to secure with good strength and pop on contact. He has above-average body control in the open and it is rare to see him miss a tackle. He packs a strong punch for a player his size and excels at filling the alley, breaking down and delivering solid hits.

The rest of the Georgia Tech starting lineup has a few draft-eligible types that might impress in training camp – like linebacker Quayshawn Nealy (second on the team with 84 tackles and has three fumble recoveries), big, physical receiver Darren Waller (16 catches for 255 yards and four scores) and H-back DeAndre Smelter (35 catches for 715 yards and seven touchdowns), but this roster is one to watch in the future, as it features 16 underclassmen starting this year that should return to the university in 2015.

Florida State Featured Prospect

JAMEIS WINSTON: Quarterback, 6:03.2-228-4.65

Winston has completed 255-of-392 passes (65.1 percent) for 3,250 yards and 21 touchdowns, but has thrown 17 interceptions. He is still a strong candidate to be the top pick in the draft, but somebody better be confident they can rein him in off the field, or 2015 will be a long season for some coach.

The quarterback also has a school board hearing for the sexual assault charge before the ACC title tilt, but based on all the “cover up” the school has mastered with its players lately, you doubt that he will even get a slap on the wrist. Maybe it is fitting that the backfield highlights another player with dubious character off the field – tailback Karlos Williams, who was involved in a domestic dispute earlier in the year and a traffic infraction that the Florida area police tried to squash. Off-field issues have put Winston under the microscope, as many are concerned that he could be one incident away from seeing his career greatly impacted.

Winston Positives…Where he excels is his ability to make all the throws, as he can throw on the move and when off-balance…Very good at improvising, but must show better consistency in keeping his eyes downfield…The thing that separates him from most young quarterbacks is his consistency laying the ball over the top down the seam, as he has shown nice deep ball placement…Generates great velocity and ball speed firing up the seams and is an excellent prospect for a vertical passing game…His arm strength and fluid mechanics let him get the ball out quickly once he sets his feet…Shows no wasted motion and is consistently in good position to deliver the ball on time…His fluid, natural motion allows him to throw a tight spiral, doing a nice job of spinning the pigskin and you can see he rarely ever has a windup in his release…Shows good fluidity and quickness in his drive back from center, and he does a good job of buying time for his receivers when rolling out (six touchdowns on the ground this year)…Has good balance in his dropback and generally moves in control, showing a nice rhythm while planting his feet through his delivery.

Winston Negatives…Maturity issues aside, he is an excellent athlete, but has had some ball-security issues (six fumbles), as he is not always alert to the edge or bull rush…Tends to get a bit impatient in the pocket and showed too much confidence in his arm strength, firing the ball right into coverage. When he tries to force the issue, bad things happen (17 interceptions in 2014, see Louisville, Virginia, Florida games)…There are times when he would hold the ball too long waiting for his targets to get open and this would result in a sack or costly fumble…Has good field vision, but needs to be more patient rather than trying to force the issue…Makes right decisions on long throws, thanks to his raw power, but needs to vary the speed on his short throws, as his targets sometimes have a hard time fielding the ball cleanly (puts too much zip on the throws)…When being chased out of the pocket, he would step back and fall away from his throws.

Georgia Tech Featured Prospect

JAMAL GOLDEN: Free Safety/Return Specialist, 5:11.1-193-4.53

What makes Golden “special” is his special teams ability. He holds the school season (2012) and career records for kickoff returns for touchdowns (two, both in 2012) and is third with a 28.3-yard average.

Fully recovered from 2013 injury issues, he has produced 46 tackles this year, leading the team with four interceptions. He’s also averaging 25.2 yards via 25 kickoff returns and boasts a career average of 10.2 yards handling 30 punts.

Golden Positives…Displays natural hands to make the easy catch as a returner or ball thief…Demonstrates good vision and running stride to gain valid yardage after the pass theft…Plays with alertness and shows no hesitation in his reactions, making quick and proper adjustments on the field (shows proper timing moves to make plays on the ball in flight)…Competes for the ball and when tackling, will deliver a blow and try to dislodge the pigskin from the ball carriers (has five forced fumbles during his career)…Maintains position on the receiver in man coverage, whether playing, trailing, covering or allowing cushion on the pass…Has a good feel for zone coverage, adjusting to the receiver throughout the route’s progression…Makes plays on the ball, showing vision, instincts, and the ability to anticipate, as he has superb ball reaction skills, displaying exceptional timing and a break on the play, with excellent hand/eye coordination.

Golden Negatives…Shows good foot quickness, agility, and body control on his turns, but he’s not always fluid…Has quickness to accelerate on breaks, but lacks a strong burst and great top-end speed…Has a developing frame, but needs to add more bulk and strength, as he can be washed out of the play by a physical blocker when coming up to make plays in the box…Gets turned around at times and doesn’t possess a burst or the top-end speed to recover (gets a bit narrow in his base, failing to clear his feet on the move)…Slips on his backpedal plant at times and while he has good acceleration, he lacks a closing burst (does not have the explosive speed to quickly recover).

*AGUAYO, Roberto Florida State PK06:00.6 2034.96 7.22
%*WINSTON, Jameis Florida State QB06:03.2 2284.65 7.21
*WILLIAMS, P.J. (FS) Florida State CB05:11.5 1964.48 71-2 
ERVING, Cameron (OG/C) Florida State OT06:05.2 2985.16 6.82
*GOLDMAN, Eddie (DT) Florida State NG06:03.1 3145.28 6.61-2
MATIAS, Josue Florida State OG06:05.4 3285.28 6.32
O'LEARY, Nick (H-B) Florida State TE06:03.1 2444.74 6.23
*GOLDEN, Jamal Georgia Tech FS05:11.1 1934.53 6.13
%#*SMITH, Terrance (IB) Florida State OLB06:02.4 2284.74 63-4
JACKSON, Martrevius Florida State OG06:03.5 3375.38 63
*NORTHRUP, Reggie Florida State ILB06:00.5 2204.73 5.93-4
*DARBY, Ronald Florida State CB05:10.5 1904.46 5.92-3
*GOTSIS, Adam Georgia Tech DT06:04.2 2854.74 5.84
GREENE, Rashad Florida State WR05:11.4 1784.47 5.83-4
HUNTER, Tyler Florida State SS05:11.0 2054.67 5.83
*EDWARDS JR, Mario Florida State DE06:02.6 2944.88 5.74
%WILLIAMS, Karlos (SS) Florida State TB06:01.0 2264.42 5.55
JOHNSON, Isaiah Georgia Tech SS06:00.7 2114.57 5.45
WALLER, Darren (H-Back) Georgia Tech WR06:05.4 2314.54 4.87-FA
HOLLIN, Desmond Florida State DT06:03.0 2864.92 4.87
SMELTER, DeAndre Georgia Tech WR06:01.5 2234.58 4.77-FA
WAISOME, Nick Florida State CB05:09.4 1824.48 4.7PFA
NEALY, Quayshawn (SB) Georgia Tech ILB05:11.5 2364.82 4.7PFA
MASON, Shaquille Georgia Tech OG06:01.1 3135.27 4.7PFA
HART, Bobby (OG) Florida State OT06:04.4 3225.3 4.6FA
*CASHER, Chris Florida State DE06:03.6 2604.79 4.6FA
*NEWBERRY, Giorgio Florida State DE06:05.1 2804.79 4.5FA
GREEN, Christian Florida State WR06:01.1 2074.54 4.4FA
#BARRON, Austin Florida State OC06:03.0 2925.17 4.5FA
BOSTIC, B.J. Georgia Tech TB05:10.0 1724.62   
GREEN, Shawn Georgia Tech DT05:11.4 2825.31   
HAPLEA, Kevin Florida State TE06:04.0 2464.86   
HILL, Deon Georgia Tech TB05:10.7 1944.63   
LASKEY, Zach Georgia Tech FB05:11.7 2174.88   
MENOCAL, Nick Georgia Tech DE06:03.0 2444.76   
WILSON, Torrian Georgia Tech OG06:03.1 3085.28  
NOTES: An * indicates the player is an underclassman…# indicates major injury that could impact draft grade…CL indicates college class…HT indicates height of the player…WT indicates weight…40 indicates 40-yard dash time…225 indicates repetitions in the 225-pound bench press…VJ indicates vertical jump…BJ indicates broad jump…SH indicates 20-yard shuttle…3C indicates three-cone drill…PRO-indicates The NFL Draft Report’s projected pro potential grade (see chart below)…RND indicates the round we project the player to be selected.

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