Just a week remains until the 2012 season kicks off. In preparation, I will share preseason first impression breakdowns of the top seniors I have evaluated at each position, along with short rankings of non-senior prospects and a small list of other players at the position I will be evaluating next.
I have withheld my evaluations on non-seniors for multiple reasons. I understand these draft-eligible prospects usually generate the most attention, but I feel prospects in their final season deserve our attention right now. We have no clue which juniors will forego their final year of eligibility in January and enter the Draft. And although juniors may make up the top layer of the prospects at certain positions, the senior class generates the depth and even diamonds in the rough.
Offensive Tackles Preview
Interior Offensive Linemen Preview
Running Backs Preview
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends Preview
The final part of the preseason series, below I offer my first impressions of this year’s crop of senior pass catchers. Instead of clumping them into one group, I separated the receivers into projected slot options and those that would fit best on the outside. These projections certainly are not set in stone. As always, I’d be thrilled to read your feedback on Twitter and be sure to check out the previous positional writeups, which are listed above.
1. Marshall’s Aaron Dobson (6’2/205) - Dobson can really fill up a highlight reel with his leaping ability and stick’em hands in traffic. Big and thickly built, Dobson positions himself in a dominant location against cornerbacks and create that sliver of separation to win in tightly contested situations. He does flash struggling versus press at the line of scrimmage, specifically on screen passes, and attempts to run east and west to pick up yards rather than upfield. Dobson slow plays his outside release on vertical sideline patterns so he doesn’t have to use his hands, but does well to sit in soft zones before turning to turning find the quarterback. I do question what kind of an athlete Dobson is outside of his hops because he does not seem to have that burst or powerful strides to produce after the catch, and despite his outstanding circus catches, he tends to bobble body catches.
2. Arkansas’ Cobi Hamilton (6’2/209) - Somewhat of the forgotten option at Arkansas, Hamilton should see far more targets this season. He can really get down the field due to his long strides but Hamilton’s routes get too complacent in space, lacking crispness on his breaks to create even more separation. I do like how Hamilton works through contact when getting downfield, using an inside armbar or dipping his shoulder to weave through awaiting defenders. He does drive hard down the field and works to stay on his feet after the catch. That kind of physical style may be Hamilton’s best asset, since he is willing to go up at the catch point and absorb contact.
3. Elon’s Aaron Mellette (6’3/214) - A box score stuffer, Mellette was the benefactor of Elon’s transition from an air-raid/spread scheme to implementing more pro-style concepts. The best word to describe Mellette is reliable. His routes are textbook but I question if he can create separation beyond that due to a noticeable lack of burst compared to other receiver prospects. Mellette does come down with contested catches because of his large frame and has a great sense of timing on how to set up the defender covering him and when to break off routes. After the catch Mellette is somewhat limited in that he finishes plenty of gains after running out of bounds or attempts a spin move. The Phoenix torched a Vanderbilt secondary that featured Casey Hayward last season, but the Commodores predominantly played soft zone coverage, allowing Mellette catch short receptions and take advantage of terrible tackling. Because of his understanding of the position, Mellette is able to line up in the slot and produce, but I question if he can be anything more than a reliable third receiver on an NFL roster. Instead of consistently body catching, Mellette will need to use his length to maximize his talent.
4. Virginia Tech’s Marcus Davis (6’4/228) - A massive bodied target, it is somewhat surprising that Davis struggles to deal with a physical jam at the line of scrimmage. The Hokie excels at going up and getting the football downfield in contested situations, but he is not as strong on the simpler, underneath stuff. Unlike many others on this list, Davis is strictly an outside target and I question if he is not just another prospect that builds up straight-line speed with strong strides but loses it on breaks due to a lack of burst. He did flash some shiftiness after the catch, but it does bother me that Davis consistently body catches in an unnatural way.
5. Auburn’s Emory Blake (6’1/197) - Blake does not offer much that is unique or even uncommon. He definitely can track the ball downfield and flips his head quickly before consistently hands catching targets. Blake is definitely reliable and likely learned a few things from his father, and former NFL quarterback, Jeff. Other than running determined routes, Blake does not offer any separation skills in terms of urgency or suddenness.
1. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin (5’8/176) - An absolute joystick as a ball carrier, no one can make people miss in the open field like Austin. The Mountaineer is used in a variety of ways; in the slot for screens, out of the backfield as a running back, and in the return game. Some may struggle to project Austin because he does not fit into a traditional position. That is understandable. But there is nothing more difficult in the NFL than tackling someone in space, and only a few players have movement skills like Austin. As with anyone with his type of juking ability, Austin does take wasted steps at times, but he can certainly turn a short play into a long one. Also, Austin is not small, just short. There is a big difference and it shows when he runs through tackles after the catch. With a creative play caller that can get the ball into Austin’s hands in space, the senior can be a difference maker.
2. Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope (6’0/206) - Swope is so smooth in and out of his breaks and continues to create separation from man corners with quick and short cuts.Tannehill’s safety blanket, Swope is so sudden and is constantly looking back to the quarterback on broken plays, which frequently resulted in completions due to improvising routes. He was repeatedly sent in motion prior to the snap, likely to be kept from being jammed, but even when immediately contacted Swope worked through trash well. I do not see someone with blazing speed, instead Swope is overly quick, and along with being a hands catcher, the Aggie is an intriguing slot prospect.
3. Baylor’s Terrance Williams (6’1/190) - In the past year Williams has seen teammates Kendall Wright and Josh Gordon drafted with a top two round selection. Williams will not be as highly valued. After spotlighting the senior, he projects as a vertical slot threat with inconsistent hands. Williams’ cuts are not crisp and instead of sticking his foot in the ground to work back to his quarterback on sideline routes he prefers to shuffle and sit. Also,the Bear does not deal with contact very well, whether it be at the line of scrimmage or after the catch. Williams is not a natural hands catcher, and even many of his receptions started with a slight bobble. His straight-line speed is undeniable, but Williams struggles to create separation outside of vertical routes.
Junior Wide Receivers:
1. Tennessee’s Justin Hunter
2. California’s Keenan Allen
3. USC’s Robert Woods
4. Washington State’s Marquess Wilson
5. Tennessee’s Da’Rick Rogers
6. West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey
7. TCU’s Josh Boyce
8. Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills
Seniors Wide Receivers On Deck (To Watch):
Kansas State’s Chris Harper
Arizona State’s Jamal Miles
LSU’s Russell Shepard
Utah’s DeVonte Christopher
Georgia’s Tavarres King
Texas’ Marquise Goodwin
Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton
Florida State’s Rodney Smith
TEs with versatility
1. Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert (6’5/249) - With experience as an inline and slot/Joker tight end, Eifert has the positional versatility coveted by NFL teams. Unlike other thin, conversant, tight ends, Eifert flashes low pad level on first contact when blocking, putting his helmet on the oppositions chest. However, his grasp is not strong enough to consistently sustain blocks and prohibit the defender from moving to the play side throughout an entire run. But, almost just as often, the senior gets thrown off of his base immediately and even whiffs on blocks occasionally. Eifert is at his best when adjusting his body to throws down the seam. The Irish tight end is excellent at high pointing passes and throwing his back shoulder towards poor throws in traffic. Despite flashing difficulties working through traffic on shorter crossing routes, Eifert absorbs contact at the catch point to make tough grabs.
2. Arkansas’ Chris Gragg (6’3/236) - The likeliest H-back of the group, Gragg does have experience in the backfield, slot, and inline. Purely a positional blocker, Gragg will either need to add weight to his lean frame or lower his pad level in order to mirror more effectively. Gragg is a long strider that gets down the field well, but those long legs don’t help when cutting on routes. However, the Razorback does turn upfield immediately after a completion and runs hard after the catch. Right now, his best match up is against linebackers but I worry if he has the suddenness to beat box safeties. He may need to add some mass to gain the physical mismatch, but Gragg already flashes adjusting to poorly placed throws.
3. UCLA’s Joseph Fauria (6’7/252) - A Notre Dame transfer, Fauria was misused in the Bruins’ offense last season. He was frequently asked to trap block from the H-Back position and failed miserably, either whiffing his assignment or getting planted on his backside from a filling defender. In order to be effective at the next level, Fauria will have to get tougher at the catch point. I doubt he will be used as an inline target, instead Fauria may be limited to a mismatch slot receiver that can win with his height since he lacks a base to handle physical play.
Junior Tight Ends:
1. Stanford’s Levine Toilolo
2. Michigan State’s Dion Sims
3. Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz
4. Stanford’s Zach Ertz
5. Florida’s Jordan Reed
Senior Tight Ends On Deck (To Watch):
Alabama’s Michael Williams
Auburn’s Philip Lutzenkirchen
Rutgers’ D.C. Jefferson
Ohio State’s Jake Stoneburner
Nebraska’s Ben Cotton