You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
03 Apr 2013
by Matt Waldman
When you’re in my line of work, the most memorable players are often the unknowns, the underappreciated, and the underdogs. One of the most memorable for me was a player I watched in September 2006, whose performance against a top-ranked Tennessee Volunteers defense was so good that it belied his 24-carry, 72-yard box-score entry.
Here’s what I wrote about him in my game notes:
This was an impressive performance for [prospect], who
demonstrated unequivocally that he is a tough, physical back than can carry the load and get the difficult yardage as well as break the play outside or beat defenders in the open field with his moves and quickness. He rarely went down on the first hit unless the defender made a perfect form tackle.
It’s very impressive how low he can run in short yardage situations to get 2-3 tough yards against stacked defenses. Players bounced off [prospect] repeatedly in this game. This was one of the more impressive efforts I saw from a back all year.
These are notes meant for my own use, otherwise I would have found an appropriate synonym for "impressive," so I didn’t use it three times in a five-sentence span. This 5-foot-11, 192-pound runner had one of my favorite performances of the year -– a year where Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch were the headliners at running back for the 2007 NFL Draft.
Like most, Lynch and Peterson were my top two backs. However this runner, who wowed me despite a sub-par yardage day, was ranked fourth in my pre-draft rankings. In 2007, 25 running backs went off the board.
Ahmad Bradshaw –- that No. 4 back on my board –- was the last runner taken in the draft; the 40th pick in the seventh round, going 250th overall. If we look at current career production, I was wrong about Bradshaw as my No. 4 back.
He has actually been the third-most productive runner from this draft class.
Players like these are memorable because let's face it, unknown, unsung, and underappreciated usually means undrafted and unemployed. When a late-round or undrafted player makes his mark, it appeals to the part of us that roots for the underdog.
Whether it’s the small-school prospect with the big-time game, the well-known player whose skills are even better than advertised, or the overshadowed longshot with shocking moments of excellence, my favorite part of studying college prospects is watching talent that flies below the national radar.
Bradshaw’s obstacles towards reaching the NFL radar were injuries, off-field immaturity, and a B-list college program. I can think of others who fit the bill.
Victor Cruz was a small-school prospect with a big-time game. Ray Rice was a well-known college star who proved he was big enough, quick enough, and skilled enough to get the job done as a pro. Priest Holmes and Terrell Davis are great examples of talents that toiled in supporting roles behind talented teammates like Ricky Williams and Garrison Hearst after injuries cost them chances of earning more playing time.
My publication, the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, is a pre-draft analysis of offensive skill players that I publish April 1. (It also has a post-draft addendum.) What I enjoy the most about the April 1 publication is the opportunity to generate rankings where "draft stock" carries little to no weight. It’s a chance to focus more on the talent and less on the business.
This week, I'm sharing one unknown, one unsung, and one underappreciated prospect from my 2013 RSP analysis. I believe each prospect has the talent to out-perform his draft stock. These are excerpts from this year’s RSP that have been re-purposed for this column. It's a small preview of what you’ll find in the publication.
Northern Illinois’ player page on Ashford says the wideout "admires Steve Smith and Marvin Harrison." When I first watched Ashford, what stood out was a reliable pass catcher who always seemed to find a way to stay inbounds or reach the first-down marker, and he seeemed to often play beyond his 5-foot-11, 182-pound frame.
I remember giving him a good score, but I came away far more impressed with Martel Moore. What I didn’t know at the time was that Ashford, a second-team All-MAC (insert pithy Tanier comment here) performer in 2011, was battling through an ankle injury that limited him for much of the season.
Then I saw a play that got my attention and showed that Ashford had more big-play ability than I thought:
I continued to see plays that topped this one. Field-stretching back-shoulder fades. Circus acts of sideline contortion between multiple opponents. Receptions and yards after good hits. Flying acts of aggression across the faces of defenders 40 yards downfield.
See for yourself (Warning: Soundtrack not safe for work).
When the pass is thrown, Ashford adjusts to the ball and makes nice plays over his shoulder. He’ll attack the ball over the top or ahead of a defender on intermediate and deep routes with an aggressiveness seen from top-tier NFL talents.
What he does as well as any receiver in this draft is make acrobatic plays in challenging situations. He’s fearless with the ball in the air and will make difficult catches against contact where he has to win the ball. His hand strength is excellent.
Ashford could be an example of a player who scouts don’t have enough bullet-point data on to give a grade that won’t put them at risk of looking foolish:
According to Rob Rang, Ashford ran an average of 4.48 in the 40-yard dash on three attempts on his pro day. Even if Gil Brandt’s report, which listed the times as 4.50 and 4.58 are correct, there’s enough to see that Ashford has baseline NFL speed.
I doubt he’s drafted, but his skills are more promising than half the receivers who will get picked. This highlight tape demonstrates a lot about Ashford’s game:
He’s a decent return specialist, but it’s his skill as a receiver that is eye-opening.
At one point I thought it was a good idea to think of Ashford as a player with a style like Stedman Bailey, but one who would have to prove his worth on special teams. But after additional looks, I’m thinking he has enough upside that he might not have to do that. If Ashford can stay healthy, perhaps he can get to test his act in front of a tougher crowd.
I think one of the more underrated workouts that the NFL uses for measuring prospects is the 20-yard shuttle, or "short shuttle." It’s a test of lateral speed and coordination. While not a predictor of football skill. I think this exercise as well as the three-cone drill offer the best test of speed and quickness over a range of distance where 80-to-90 percent of football happens.
I have been tracking Combine and Pro Day times since 2006. I don’t have a complete list, so I can’t guarantee the statement I’m about to make is 100 percent accurate.
That said, when I looked up the three best running back short-shuttle times on record since 2006, the top time was from former Pittsburgh Steelers return specialist/Percy Harvin wannabe Chris Rainey at 3.93 seconds. The next two are from this year’s class: Texas A&M’s Christine Michael (4.02), a back whose athleticism and running style is the spitting image of Ahman Green, and Stony Brook runner Miguel Maysonet (4.01).
Michael also had a 6.69-second, three-cone drill, which is good for sixth-best -- one-hundredth of a second faster than Ahmad Bradshaw’s time. If the Texas A&M runner can figure out how to stay out of his own way, his athleticism, vision, and skill as a pass protector are good enough for him to prove that he is the most talented runner in this draft.
Maysonet does not have a style that incorporates dynamic change of direction. The 5-foot-9, 209-pound back is a strong, aggressive, and patient runner with excellent burst. He does much of his work between the tackles but can also get to the edge.
Maysonet attacks defenders downfield and runs with the pad level and leg drive to push the pile or carry defenders after eliminating good angles with his agility. He does a good job pressing and cutting from I-formation power sets as well as zone schemes.
I think Maysonet runs both styles well, but he’s a little better with gap plays right now because he has a targeted place to run and doesn’t try to bounce outside quite as much. Either way, he’ll be effective.
The question mark is Maysonet’s third-down game. I didn’t see him as a pass protector or receiver because Stony Brook is a run-heavy offense.
If he displays strong skills or is a fast learner, I think he has the fundamental skills as a runner to become a contributor, if not a starter.
I think Ryan Swope could easily have a better career than Tavon Austin. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a chance to take Tavon Austin first and the team fit is right, I’m going with the West Virginia star and not looking back. However, Swope might be one of the most underrated receivers in the draft despite the fact he’s considered one of the 15 best players at his position by many of my peers.
Swope is considered a slot receiver, but at 6-feet-0, and 205 pounds, he’s nearly identical in dimension to Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton –- Mike Mayock’s No. 4 receiver on his board -– and is as good or better an athlete in several measurable areas.
I think it also shows on the field.
Swope often makes the first man miss and demonstrates an array of moves after the catch that get him into open lanes downfield. Once he gets an opening, his 4.34 speed helps him defeat angles that defensive backs have on him.
The A&M receiver also has a little running back in him, the way Hines Ward did. He knows when to prioritize situations that call for elusiveness and those that require more economy.
What I value from Swope is his skill at catching the ball in traffic. This showed up a lot as a junior when he was paired with Ryan Tannehill, who demonstrated great skill at finding Swope in the seams of the defense on sprints and scrambles.
Swope is an excellent receiver with his back to the football and it makes him a versatile option as a flanker, slot man, or even backfield option in the ways we’ve seen NFL teams use Danny Woodhead, Randall Cobb, and Percy Harvin. A&M used Swope in the backfield as a starting point for the receiver; don’t be surprised if an NFL team does the same.
Swope may not be versatile in the sense that Austin is –- and he lacks the excitement factor and consistent breakaway upside of the West Virginia hybrid –- but he can approach Austin’s production inside more than Austin will approach Swope’s skill on the perimeter.
What that could mean in the NFL is that Austin will be a rich man’s Dexter McCluster (pre-Andy Reid) while Swope could be an upper-middle class Randall Cobb. Somewhere, Mike Tanier’s ears are burning from the class warfare commentary on prospect comparison.
In case you’re wondering, the 5-foot-10, 191-pound Cobb had these numbers from his pre-draft workouts:
Bigger, faster, quicker, more explosive, and just as strong as Green Bay's young superstar in the making, I think Ryan Tannehill has to be thinking he wouldn’t be at all disappointed with Ryan Swope in the second or third round if the Dolphins don’t take Austin.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download now and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.
12 comments, Last at 10 Apr 2013, 8:32pm by NIU Fan