To lead off this article, I want to look at Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch. I watched the Wyoming full game and the Oregon and San Diego State cut-up games. He’s an aggressive and active LB and his best trait is being able to work through the trash and make plays. When he sees it, he makes good things happen. However, his aggressive nature works against him at times – as he will bite on what he sees first. In the Wyoming game, a play fake saw the FB sneak out on a wheel route – he was out of position and Josh Allen completed the pass for 15 yards. He can hesitate at times as well – it will help that he can study full time, but his read and react right now is inconsistent. If you watch the highlights, you’ll think it’s great. In coverage his hips looks nice – he can get depth and flip his hips in zone and he can cover man to man as well. He blitzes frequently and does a nice job timing and his high motor helps him make plays. He shows a little more promise than many college LBs in terms of getting off blocks – I like how he understands the correct leverage and will attack the correct half of the blocker. If he attacks square on, he struggles more and has to peel off, and that can be tied into his read and react. I’ll be interested to see how he tests, I would say somewhere between Malik Jefferson and Josey Jewell. He’s not a perfect prospect, but with his size and ability to cover, I would say he’ll be a top 100 pick.
The Wyoming/Boise State game gave me another look at Wyoming QB Josh Allen. The first thing to note is that the Wyoming WR corp struggled to get open for their QB. Numerous times, Allen had nothing available – and he was forced to run or extend the play. I would say that stood out for me more than any real concerns about footwork and poor accuracy as with Lamar Jackson. There were a couple of misses where he didn’t sort his feet out – but he was under pressure quite a bit. He didn’t look scared of the rush though – he stayed calm and worked through his progressions, although I would like to see that speed up. One thing that is important – he has responsibility at the line of scrimmage – the coaching stuff trust him and that experience might mean he can start from day one. If you box score scout this game, you probably won’t think he played well, but in the circumstances, I don’t believe he could have done much more. I’d take him in the top 5.
A couple of positive Senior Bowl week prospects fell together for me – Trayvon Henderson (S, Hawai’i) at Austin Corbett (OG, Nevada). First, Henderson. He has length – and I would say the frame to carry a little more weight – he’s not wiry, but he still looks a little thin. As with many modern day college safety prospects, his skill set is varied. He played single high, two deep, in the box and over a slot receiver, often in man coverage (either off or up at the line). His angles and tackling are good – however, in pursuit on one play, he looked a little lacking in the long speed department, so his Pro Day 40 time will be worth monitoring. He had a mixed game in man coverage terms – he got flagged for holding, getting beaten easily inside and having to grab his man – and he also bit on a swing pass in off coverage and let a TD get behind him. However, he did have some nice moments, including excellent coverage on a deep crossing route. When he’s in off coverage, I would say he’s a bit flat footed. From this first watch, I would think 4th/5th round – but the Senior Bowl bump could see him go higher, particularly if he runs faster than I expect.
Austin Corbett is another college LT who projects inside as a pro. I say that, but not with a large degree of comfort as he plays high and inside, I think that might hurt him. He also was beaten inside quite a lot – and again inside against the modern quick NFL interior pass rusher, I think he will struggle. With Henderson I’ll be looking at the Combine 40, for Corbett it will be the shuttle and cone, as I think he might be slower than thresholds. Having said that, it wasn’t all bad. He has heavy hands and got movement. I really liked his skill as a zone blocker, particularly in terms of working square and setting an edge. In pass protection, he was too narrow in his base/high – but he tended to win in this one, with good hand placement. Projecting him forward to the NFL, I would have concerns even inside at guard.
Brandon Fusco’s career has gone downhill slightly post an injury, but prior to it, he was a steal on day three for the Vikings. I mention Fusco, as when I watched him for Slippery Rock he was mauling defenders – he was simply dominating. I watched two games of Humboldt State OT Alex Cappa (Simon Fraser and Western Oregon) and it was like watching Fusco – he dominated. In the running game, he did what he wanted with people – it’s not often you see two pancakes from one player on one play, but Cappa managed it – throwing down a DE and then delivering a heavy punch to knock a LB on his butt. Not only can he move people, but he understands zone concepts, showing he can get square. He moves well in the open and was outstanding. In pass protection, I thought he was a bit high against Simon Fraser, but showed he can sit in his stance against Western Oregon, so not sure why the difference. I thought he looked quite stiff in the lower body against Simon Fraser, so maybe he wasn’t 100% healthy? Anyway, in both games his first step didn’t give him enough depth – it wasn’t a problem at this level, but it will in the league. I did like his hand placement though (and given his hands are heavy, it’s a very effective initial punch) and he can mirror. He has the frame to add more weight – I hate to see what he would do to defenders when he’s bigger and stronger! Clearly the jump in talent is something he will have to deal with, but reports were good from the Senior Bowl. Finding OTs is getting harder and harder – and with a good Combine workout, I think he can be a 3rd/4th round pick – he’s certainly fun to watch!
I managed to find two games of South Carolina State LB Darius Leonard (Delaware State and North Carolina Central). I’m at a disadvantage with his evaluation as I didn’t see him at the Senior Bowl, where reports were positive. I can see why that might have been the case, as he has a nice frame, he can move, plus he looks good in zone coverage. However, I would say I liked him better in reverse in coverage than as a run stopper. He has to pause for a beat to see the play and he doesn’t always take correct angles to the ball. Indeed, at times, he looked a bit lost out there. Now, when he sees it and he’s clean, he looks good. I would anticipate a fast 40 time. However, he’s a bit leggy and I don’t know if he can drop his hips when taking on blocks. It’s a bit odd, because his hips look nice in coverage. I have to say, I spent most of the two games with a frown on my face, as I couldn’t quite work him out. I guess I’ll see what his times are at the Combine, but for now I would put him just outside my top 100 – although the Senior Bowl bump could well see him go a little earlier – particularly if that’s combined with a good showing at the Combine. It’s also worth me thinking about the fact he’ll play in the nickel from day one – given teams are in the nickel most of the time, perhaps I should push him higher…
I managed to find another North Carolina A&T game to watch, from week one at Gardner-Webb. OT Brandon Parker was comfortable throughout – and indeed he delivered some excellent blocks in the running game, getting good movement. At times he can get his head out in front of him, so if off balance – only a couple of times did defenders use that against him, getting off the block and sending him to the ground. I would imagine that would happen more in the NFL. In pass protection, he was untroubled. His base was solid, but I would say he’s more of a forced knee bender than a naturally flexible athlete. His frame is a bit leggy, so he’ll always have to work on playing lower. I thought on my first watch he was a bit heavy footed, but I didn’t come away with that impression – although he wasn’t really tested. I’m not sure this second watch gave me much more as it was a blowout win and he didn’t have much lining up against him – but clearly he’s big with long arms – and in the middle rounds, someone will take him to develop.
The RB class this year is strong, so junior RB John Kelly (Tennessee) could prove to be solid value as he might be around a round or two later than some years. I watched the full South Carolina game, plus Florida and Georgia Tech cut-up games. Kelly is an all-around back. He can pass protect – he got trucked once against Florida, but otherwise did a nice job, and was certainly willing. He can also run good routes and did a solid job as a receiver, although I wouldn’t say his hands are superb – he fights the odd one and he might be a bit short armed. As a runner, he’s tough. There are flashes of quick feet in a short area, but his power is good and he consistently gets yards after contact. I don’t know if he has that extra bit of explosion or wiggle to make him a day two pick in this class, but I do think he can have production in the NFL. I’ll be interested in his 40 time – which will impact his Draft slot, but not so much the likelihood of pro production – as I don’t know he’s super fast. His vision is a bit hit and miss – he can run into brick walls, but at times he feels the backside cut well and is dangerous when he makes the cut. He’s someone who can stay on the field in passing situations, which adds to his value, but in a deep class, he might be early day three.
This game also gave me another look at South Carolina TE/HB Hayden Hurst. As noted when I watched him in the Bowl game, he’s weak as an inline blocker. On a couple of short yardage situations, he was beaten badly and I can’t see him being used in this role as a pro. In terms of him as a receiver – he was held without a catch. I would say his routes were poor – he didn’t look to have any craft in them and up against Tennessee CB Rashaan Gaulden (more on him in the next paragraph) he got nothing. As an over-aged prospect who struggles as a blocker and needs to learn route craft, he might be 26 or 27 before he produces and I think that might hurt him. For me, he’ll need to light up the Combine for me to think of him as a top 100 prospect – right now I have him outside.
I went into my first watch of the aforementioned Rashaan Gaulden (CB, Tennessee) knowing very little. I came away impressed. He played over the slot receiver – often Hayden Hurst – and did a nice job in man or zone. In off man he showed he can “click and close”, doing so on a 3rd and 5 out route, making the tackle short of the first down. He’s physical and loves to tackle. He can also press – he can be physical beyond the first five yards, so will need to adjust to NFL rules – but there’s no reason why press man or zone teams wouldn’t like him. I could see him fitting a Seahawks style system – it’s easy to see length and say that, but you have to be physical and Gaulden is. He had no problem with Hurst – when in man he was in perfect position and was a big reason Hurst went without a catch. I couldn’t find any cut-up games for him – if I can’t find more in the next few weeks, I’ll watch two more Tennessee full games, as I think he is a genuine day two possibility – Combine pending, of course.