FanPost

Russ Lande on the top prospects

I'm a big Russ Lande fan. He does a nice job of breaking down players and has a long track record of picking out good future players, especially finding diamonds in the rough.

He's got a ongoing piece right now on some of the top prospects that i thought a few of you would enjoy. I gotta say, the Manziel one really surprised me. I would happily eat crow if he was the pick and turned out to be good.

In it he covers Barr, Mack, Bridgewater and Manziel. I'll add more as he does them. Apparently Clowney is up next.

Manziel:

When you watch a football game on television, it is usually easy to get an impression as to whether a quarterback has the tools to play in the NFL. With Manziel, however, it takes a lot more time studying film and breaking him down to determine what his NFL future holds. I have spoken with numerous respected NFL scouts about him, and it's an understatement to say that opinions are split. A few have told me they feel he is the best quarterback in the draft, which is high praise indeed. But on the other hand, others have actually said they would not draft him. Needless to say, opinions split that drastically on a player are rare.

The first thing that grabbed my attention is that Manziel definitely has what scouts call a "plus arm," which means he can make every NFL throw with ease. While he often looks like he is playing schoolyard football, he has consistently shown quickness in getting rid of the ball and can make throws to lead receivers that few other passers can. Both in the pocket and on the move, Manziel's ability to throw accurately 16-plus yards downfield is outstanding, and you can see from watching film that he has spent a lot of time working with his receivers, as their timing on back-shoulder throws is remarkable. Although some of his moves to escape sacks will get him killed in the NFL, he does possess a rare ability to avoid pressure and sacks to buy himself a second chance that can extend plays longer than any quarterback I have ever evaluated.

Having to throw as many passes as he did, it's also impressive that Manziel throws few, if any, passes that defenders can get their hands on. Of the top five quarterbacks I have evaluated so far (Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Bridgewater, Zach Mettenberger and Manziel), he has the lowest error/interception rate of any of them. Not only does Manziel have the passing skills to succeed in the NFL, but his ability to lead his team and carry them on his back to comebacks consistently has been incredible.

After evaluating film, I was shocked by how good Manziel is as a passer, but that's often not what people associate with him when his name comes up. Despite the media reports, nearly everything I have been able to dig up on Manziel's character has been positive. (Having worked for two NFL teams, I completely understand that scouts lie to media all the time to deceive and hide intentions, but I have tremendous confidence in my sources on this subject.) No one I spoke to will deny that Manziel can act like a spoiled kid who is still maturing as a young man, but none expressed great concern about his true character, with the consensus being that football is very important to Manziel and that he consistently does more than is asked to make sure he is successful.

Manziel is viewed within the program as a rare competitor who will do anything to succeed, and this shows in his willingness to play through pain and confront teammates when needed as leaders must do. One thing that shocked me when speaking to scouts is that prior to practice and games, Manziel actually goes through the process of making tough throws from awkward positions when he cannot set his feet and this shows up in his ability to make great throws despite terrible positioning. Not that his raw footwork is good when he has a clean pocket or time and space to reset feet, but it clearly pays dividends when outside the pocket.

Apart from positive character reports, scouts definitely expressed some real concerns that he must address in order to be as successful in the NFL as he was in college. High on that list is Manziel's tendency to overstride when trying to put extra zip on the ball, which leads to passes sailing on him. When he goes through progressions in the pocket and tries to make short (5 to 15 yard) throws quickly, his accuracy is inconsistent and too often his passes dip in front of the receiver. One issue that I found very concerning on film and addressed with NFL people is Manziel's tendency to vacate the pocket out the back, which rarely works in the NFL and can lead to major errors. He will need to become much more consistent stepping up in the pocket to avoid deep pressure if he hopes to become a successful NFL passer.

The last thing scouts raised as an issue is that Manziel is not especially large for a quarterback and needs to learn to get down or out of bounds when running with the ball. Otherwise, he will expose himself to too many violent hits, which will cause his body to break down if he does not learn to better protect himself. (Russell Wilson is a great example of a player who gains yards scrambling with the ball, but is so smart that he rarely takes a hard hit.)

Despite all of the analysis and my thorough charting out of Manziel, the debate about his likelihood for success in the NFL will likely continue until he proves himself or fails. Whatever team drafts him better have a smart offensive coordinator whose ego is not so big that he will force Manziel to fit his system. He will need to be willing to tailor an offense around Manziel's very unique skill set in order for them both to be successful.

Mack

Mack showed that he had the goods right off the bat when he dominated Ohio State's offensive tackles in Buffalo's season opener. Thick and powerfully built, it was routine for Mack to jolt run blockers upright with excellent hand use and hold ground because of his strength and ability to maintain proper base/leverage. Once he stood up run blockers it was surprising how easily he could shed and make the tackle on running plays despite having to defeat an offensive lineman who out-weighed him by at least 50 pounds. Not only effective making plays on runs directly at him, Mack's playing speed and explosive closing burst allowed him to track down fast ball carriers in backside pursuit. This is not to say everything was easy for Mack as he definitely struggled moving through traffic and would occasionally get bounced around. While Mack was consistent as a run defender, his impact as a pass rusher tended to come in bunches.

For a player that has consistently shown the ability to close on quarterbacks/ball-carriers explosively, Mack's first step off the ball was not as quick as expected when I reviewed video. In games evaluated he was only the first pass rusher moving 35% of the time, which is lower than most other elite college players. But Mack was a dominant and disruptive pass rusher when he was aggressive. Unlike many college defensemen who rely solely on speed and athleticism, Mack is surprisingly polished, especially for a player who was lightly recruited out of high school and played in the MAC. That refinement showed up in his ability to defeat offensive tackles with a bull rush, slap and arm over move, rip move and a nasty change of direction move back underneath/inside. Once he defeated pass blocks, he did not pause like many others, but rather closed on the quarterback with the aggressive, elite closing burst the top pass rushers naturally possess.

Although there is no doubt in my mind that Mack will end up being a top 10 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, there are definitely some concerns that I have, many of which have been expressed by NFL scouts. He made a dynamic interception and returned it for a touchdown against Ohio State and had another interception against Kent State, so many might assume NFL teams are comfortable with Mack's play in coverage, but that is not the case. I've spoken with a number of scouts who expressed to me concerns over Mack's instincts in that area and his movement skills out in space. When he drops off the ball into coverage, he has the tendency to get upright and straight-legged, which limits his ability to flip hips and change directions as quickly and smoothly. Additionally, while he reads the quarterback well, he does not always move with confidence when it comes to his zone responsibility and does not always feel/sense receivers within his area. While choosing not to participate in the Senior Bowl (his decision was due to choice, not injury) shouldn't hurt his draft stock, it definitely makes the Combine and his Pro Day more important as he still has things to prove.

Although Buffalo is a FBS football program, it is in the MAC and NFL teams will watch closely at the Combine to see how Mack works out. While many in the media will put a lot of focus on his timing/testing numbers, teams will be much more focused on how he compares to the other top pass rushers and linebackers in the positional drills. In addition to that, Mack will need to shine in team interviews so that teams feel comfortable with his ability to handle the more complex defenses he will be forced to learn and play against in the NFL. For the record, I'm not as concerned about this last point because the variety of places he lined up in Buffalo's defense that I saw on film point to his possessing excellent football intelligence.

When May 8 arrives and the NFL draft kicks off, Mack should not have to wait long before hearing his named called. In today's pass-first NFL, elite pass rushers are the hardest players to find besides quarterbacks, so they always go high. He will be competing directly with Jadeveon Clowney and Anthony Barr to be the first defensive end/pass rusher selected, and if he performs well over the next three months, I believe he has a chance to be the first one selected.

Bridgewater

I'm always skeptical when evaluating players who have received a ton of hype, but I was pleasantly surprised by Bridgewater's overall game. Possessing a quick release and an underrated arm allows Bridgewater to easily make every NFL throw with zip and precision when his footwork is on. Out of the presumptive top five quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL draft (Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Zach Mettenberger), Bridgewater finished second in accuracy when I charted them out (although scouts do have one concern, which I'll delve into below). Excellent football intelligence helped him to be consistently productive against the blitz as he was able to identify where the rush was coming from, make the appropriate read and get rid of the ball quickly and on the mark to the correct receiver. Not only did his accuracy help him to make big plays, but it also made him be a much more efficient passer.

Bridgewater made few mistakes this season (31 touchdowns with only four interceptions) thanks to the aforementioned skills. Few college quarterbacks possess the athleticism to avoid sacks and buy second chances while also having a quick release and the ability to make good throws in nearly any situation. These traits are what allowed Bridgewater to consistently convert third downs into first downs to keep drives alive, something that's often overlooked. When you add up all the great things he does on film and combine that with his smarts, leadership and character, you have nearly the complete package -- which is why many expect the Texans to draft him with the first overall pick. However, there are still a few questions that have been raised.

The first relates to hand size. Scouts that have seen Bridgewater in person have told me that his right hand will measure less than nine inches -- the standard of measurement is from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinky on the throwing hand when the hand is pressed down and spread out on a table with a measuring tape on it -- which is basically the minimum that NFL teams consider acceptable. Small hands make it difficult to handle the ball in less than ideal weather conditions and often lead to accuracy and fumbling issues. As an underclassman who entered the draft early, Bridgewater has not been measured by combine scouts yet, which is why the question still persists. Even though some reports claim that NFL teams are also concerned about Bridgewater's general physique, numerous scouts I have spoken to are not worried about this and feel that he will add weight and fill out as most players do once they are in the NFL.

The question that cannot be answered by a quick measurement at the combine is about his inconsistent stride length. This may seem like a minor issue, but NFL teams always prefer quarterbacks who have stability in this area as it enables them to be a more predictably accurate passer. In the games I evaluated, Bridgewater showed a tendency to overstride at times, especially when he really had to get a lot of zip on the throw, which led to passes being high. While his overall accuracy was excellent, it could be that much better if his stride length were consistent on every throw for which he has the space. Scouts are interested to watch him throw at both the combine and his pro day to take a closer look at this.

The reality, though, is that when you're down to picking on a quarterback's hand size and stride length, it tells you that nearly everything they do on film is excellent. That, combined with his outstanding intangibles, means that Bridgewater has a good chance of being the first quarterback selected in the 2014 NFL draft.

Barr

With only two years of experience playing on defense, Anthony Barr's development into one of the premier defenders in the nation is remarkable.

After evaluating six games from the 2013 season, I emerged both tantalized by his raw physical talent, yet frustrated by his inconsistent production during each game. A quick-twitch athlete, Barr flashes a rare first step off the ball to get to the corner before the offensive tackle can set up. When he maintains knee bend, he can turn the corner sharply and close on the quarterback in a flash once he clears the blocker. Uncommon for a pass rusher with so little game experience, Barr can be outstanding using his hands to chop the pass blocker's hands away so that he can stay free. Although he usually is facing an offensive tackle that outweighs him by 50-plus pounds, when he maintains leverage and rushes the passer aggressively, he shows surprising ability to jolt and drive his man backwards into the quarterback's lap.

This natural strength also enables him to anchor and maintain contain responsibility against offensive line run blocks when he plays with leverage and uses his hands well. When he does this, he flashes the ability to shed blocks and make tackles on runs to his side of the field. Even more impressive, when he lines up a little off the line, he has the ability to burst up the field, avoid run blocks and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Although his technique dealing with low/cut blocks and working through traffic needs work, he has elite playing speed chasing after ball carriers in pursuit and the rare closing burst to finish plays most linebackers have no chance to make.

While Barr has shown the physical skills to be a dominant defensive playmaker, scouts definitely have concerns about his play. His lack of experience on defense is readily apparent in many areas, but none more so than his pass-rush repertoire. Relying heavily on his explosiveness off the ball and speed to out-race blockers around the corner, he has no real variety of pass-rush moves. Scouts confirmed to me that for a top pass rusher too often he gets high when rushing the passer and needs to be more consistent maintaining bend/leverage, because when he does he is drastically more effective. Scouts have seen him pass rush aggressively and with leverage, so they want to figure out if his inconsistencies in this area are due to his lack of experience or effort.

Most concerning to scouts is Barr's inconsistent production on running plays at him. No one doubts that he has the talent to play strong at the point of attack, shed blocks and make plays, but more often he takes on run blocks high, is slow to shed and gets ridden out of the play.

Working in Barr's favor is his outstanding character, work ethic and leadership. When combined with the improvement he has made since he switched to defense in 2012, the future looks very bright. However, he will need to impress during the interview process when teams grill him on defensive schemes and adjustments, as this will be his chance to prove he has a complete grasp of what his responsibilities will be, despite his lack of experience playing defense.

After all the evaluating, Barr will almost assuredly be a top-10 pick in the 2014 draft. Right now he would be a good pass-rushing outside linebacker, and if he becomes more consistent in the areas scouts have concerns about, he could become a great player who changes games like Lawrence Taylor did from his outside linebacker alignment. When you look at his combination of elite athleticism, great character, work ethic and leadership, I'm confident that he will improve enough to become a top NFL player.

Great stuff. I'm confident to say RM will have quite a few options at getting a standout player at #5.

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