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11 Mar 2015

Futures: Two Non-College Prospects

by Matt Waldman

Some players are out of sight from NFL fans and media, but they aren't out of mind for many NFL teams. Every new draft class may seem like the terminus of football scouting, but personnel departments don't throw out their old scouting reports to make room for the new. Potential doesn't die; it bides its time behind a star player, it seeks work in a different league, or it trains at home and sends out feelers until another shot comes along.

Scouts and NFL personnel directors are often responsible for keeping tabs on those players whose fire still burns bright for a chance to fulfill their potential even though they have disappeared from the public eye. I'm talking about undrafted players who were cut well before they even figured out the best route to the facility without the help of a road map and bounced around until they proved they belonged: Fred Jackson, Joique Bell, Kurt Warner, James Harrison, Jason Peters, Cameron Wake, Michael Bennett, Jeff Saturday, Rod Smith, Brian Waters, Sam Mills, Joe Jacoby, Nate Newton, Wes Welker, Ryan Grant, and Bart Scott.

That's just a partial list. Go to Chase Stuart's blog for a comprehensive list of free agents-turned-ballers since 2002.

This week's Futures profiles two talented prospects at the tight end position. Neither are rookies from this class, but both would have graded within the same range of Minnesota's Maxx Williams (or do we mean Rotoworld's Josh Norris? It's so hard to tell.)

Veteran Virgil Green was my top rookie tight end prospect in the 2011 class. Joe Don Duncan of Dixie State was my No. 3 tight end prospect last year. The Broncos drafted Green in 2011, and signed Duncan on Tuesday. Both can thank Julius Thomas for the opportunity to compete for an expanded role in the Denver offense in 2015.

Finished laughing? I hope so, because I'm dead serious. Denver might have permanently pigeon-holed Green as a blocker, they might view Duncan as a training camp curiosity, and they could pursue a promising rookie within the first four rounds of the draft this May, but don't be surprised if the organization is quietly optimistic about this duo. Considering the amount of limited or raw talent in the 2015 tight end class, Denver's decision to invest in one of its own and add a potential steal of a deal from the unemployment line may prove a wise alternative.

Virgil Green's Pre-Draft Summary

Prior to a few seasons in a pro weight room, Green was a 6-foot-3, 249-pound tight end with 4.64-speed; a 4.4-second short shuttle; a 6.9-second three-cone; a 42.5-second vertical leap; and 23 reps on the bench press.

To give that data more context, Green's workout results are impressive when compared to Combine/Pro Day information I've compiled on tight ends since 2006:


Drill
Green
Ranking
40-yard dash 4.64 15th
Short shuttle 4.4 25th
Three-cone 6.9 12th
Vertical 42.5 2nd
Broad 130 1st
Bench 23 8th

We're talking about an explosive athlete whose physical skills leapt off the film, but what still surprises me five years later is Green's career trajectory. My friend and colleague Cecil Lammey, a Broncos beat writer and ESPN radio host in Denver, will attest that what headlines the current file on Green is his blocking. It was oddly Green's weakest area when he arrived in the Mile High City, at least from my evaluation of Colin Kapernick's favorite receiver in college:

The safest TE in this draft is Kyle Rudolph. So if you're looking for surer things, the Golden Domer has the combo of blocking skills, receiving, and toughness after the catch that should earn him a starting opportunity within the first 12-18 months of his career in the NFL.

However, if you're looking for the most dangerous TE in this draft, Green is the difference maker at the position in this draft class. The Nevada TE still needs work as a blocker. Right now, he's a lot more punch and pop without consistent technique and strength to sustain his blocks. In fact, Green may never have the frame to add enough muscle to become a great blocker at the position.

Although Green is a willing and aggressive blocker and he should develop into a technically sound player, his lack of polish will initially limit his opportunities to see the field on an every down basis. That's okay. If a team drafts Green as a blocker, the GM should be fired, because the Nevada tight end is much closer to Shannon Sharpe than he is Alge Crumpler.

Green has the quickness to consistently get 15-20 yards down field against most NFL defenders and his agility separates him from most of the tight ends in this class. When he catches the football, he's capable of making that quick cut, spin, or dip away from a defender and accelerate for significant yardage.

And that physicality that I mentioned with his blocking carries over to Green's ball carrying. Because he's a flexible, explosive athlete, Green is also very good at getting his pads low at the point of contact and bouncing off hits. What's most impressive about Green is that he combines his athleticism with terrific hands and toughness over the middle. He catches the ball in high-traffic areas and takes the punishment.

The team that drafts Green will be able to move him around the field as a x, y, or z receiver because of his receiver-like skills, size, and strength. If Green can add another 10 pounds and taper his reckless tendencies as a run blocker, he has the athleticism to become a statistical leader at the position.

"The GM who drafts Green as a blocker should be fired" is my favorite line. I don't know if it's because as a Browns fan growing up I'll never like John Elway or because I'm having a good laugh at my own expense. Of course Elway picked Green and made him a blocker/special teamer, and Green became the best blocker on the depth chart. The greatest laugh might come when Green finally earns a chance to show his best traits despite the fact Denver almost let him walk.

Joe Don Duncan's Pre-Draft Summary

I mentioned the former Dixie State tight end in the upcoming 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio chapter on tight ends, not aware that he was prominently on an NFL team's radar. However, the broken foot he suffered in workouts healed sufficiently for him to earn another shot after rumors of a potential post-draft tryout with New England and Indianapolis, but nothing materialized.

Duncan's receiving skills are tantalizing and I had him as one of the more underrated skill players in the 2014 class:

Joe Don Duncan, Dixie State: I'd feel far more comfortable making this assessment if I saw a 40-time or film of Duncan as a blocker. However, his receiving and ball-carrying skills are refined enough to overcome my caution.

As a receiver, Duncan plays like a 240-pound hybrid. His hand-eye coordination is impressive. He routinely plucks targets thrown away from him at odd angles, including one-handed catches that many receivers can't? make with the same consistency. On side fade routes, against cornerbacks, he regularly wins balls tight ends have no business catching.

He does this at 268 pounds.

His flexibility is startling. It's rare to see a player capable of bending at the waist to one-hand snag a low pass on a dead run in tight coverage -- and all this more than 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. He also has fire-hydrant thighs, slabs that can hurt a safety or linebacker challenging him over the middle. Hit Duncan a little too high and a defender will slide off the tight end's frame, just like a bird hitting a patio door.

Admittedly, Duncan sounds like a potential legend in the making based on this commentary so a healthy dose of caution is necessary. Dixie State isn't the Mecca of top-notch college football and a lot of the impressive work he did in 2013 came against defenders who wouldn't make an NFL club in any capacity. And if Duncan lacks the speed of the top-10 tight ends in my draft rankings, he may turn into nothing more than a powerful plodder with a brighter future as a fullback.

But I don't think this is the case. The Great Northwest Athletic Conference isn't well-known or stocked with high-end athletes, but 49ers tackle Luke Marquardt, Bears center Taylor Boggs, tight end Kevin Boss, and former Pro Bowl runner Christian Okoye transitioned from the unheralded GNAC to the NFL. And Duncan looks like another possible exception to the rule. A three-sport star who walked onto Sacramento State's football team, he suffered a micro-fracture of his right femur that left him bound to a wheelchair for three months. He transferred to El Camino Community College -- the same school where wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins began his career -- and at the end of his first season he earned 1st team all-conference honors and the team named him its MVP.

The tight end passed up Division-I offers to join his younger brother at Dixie State, but missed 2012 due to knee surgery for an injury related to his previous micro-fracture. Duncan studied film that year and returned in 2013 to statistically dominate the competition with 71 catches for 1045 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Although Duncan didn't run at the combine, he posted a position-best 35 reps on the bench press -- 7 more than Jace Amaro's respectable 28. If his athleticism translates to the NFL, he could be a player in the style of Dallas Clark with more strength as a runner.

Did the last sentence catch your eye? I'm sure Denver had similar thoughts from the tape.

Here's a summary of my analysis from this film:

This is an incomplete evaluation of Duncan because the only footage I could acquire was from the Internet and it was a six-minute cut-up of Duncan as a receiver in several games. I didn't see block at all. As a result of this one-sided look at Duncan, I realize there is a chance I am overrating his potential. However, based on what little he did at the combine and his college history, I believe Ducan will become an effective NFL starter -- and a statistically productive one.

Duncan is built like a tank with a gyroscopic device embedded in its powertrain. Not only does the Dixie State tight end have the strength to run through wraps and stiff arm defenders, but his balance and flexibility as a runner is startling for a 268-lb. ball carrier.

There are numerous plays where a safety or linebacker came flying downhill at Duncan -- pads low, at a good hitting angle -- and the tight end met the hit with some of the lowest functional pad level I've ever seen from a man this size. In these situations, Duncan either rode over top the defender and maintained his footing as if he was running a bear crawl without the use of his hands for support or he spun off the contact and earned extra yardage.

When Duncan isn't doing impersonations of wild woodland predators, it's a routine occurrence to see the tight end run through the first wrap or use a stiff arm. He has enough acceleration to pull away from safeties at this level of football as both a ball carrier and a receiver. The biggest question outside Duncan's skills as a blocker will be his speed, because he did not compete against top college athletes on a weekly basis.

Duncan shines as a receiver. He's a skilled zone receiver who finds openings from the slot or the backfield. When used on the perimeter he's conscientious about working to the quarterback from his break and attacking the football.

He also possesses good sideline awareness on outs, comebacks, and fades. This attention to detail as a route runner and his skill at creating gains in the short range of the field with his burst and balance makes Duncan an intriguing H-Back prospect.

This is especially true when watching Duncan catch the football. When it comes to attacking the football at the first window away from his body, Duncan is among the most consistent players I have seen in this class -- tight ends and receivers alike. In a league where coverage is tight, this is an underrated skill for any receiver and it is often missing from the arsenals of quality prospects.

Duncan make plays with his back to the line of scrimmage and he's especially skilled at tracking the ball. Target the tight end as a split end or slot receiver on an intermediate or deep route and he'll follow the ball into his hands or even make the rare and difficult catch on a dead run where the trajectory is over his head.

I've seen Duncan convert this difficult target in tight coverage while displaying excellent boundary awareness. I've seen Larry Fitzgerald and a few others make this kind of play in more difficult conditions in the middle of the field, but never near the sideline.

Duncan's hand-eye coordination is excellent. When necessary he can make catches with one hand on throws placed too wide of him to use two. There's a play in this six-minute cut-up where Duncan has to reach near his legs at the end of a fade route in tight coverage to snare the ball , which I had to watch numerous times to make sure I saw it right.

There aren't many players with Duncan's dimensions that do the things he does with the football. But as exciting as Duncan looks as a prospect, the tape is filled with work against athletes where he often looks like a man among boys and it's prudent to tailor some of these expectations until he can prove he can perform as well against NFL athletes.

I'm skeptical Duncan will be a superstar at his position, but I think his receiving and ball-carrying skills are good enough to develop into a starter if his quickness and speed are NFL-caliber. I think he has good burst and build-up speed, but not special speed for his position.

Considering that Duncan did 34 reps on the bench press at the combine and he was offered numerous Division-I scholarships before joining his brother at Dixie State, I think there's a good chance that what's on tape against lesser competition will still translate in the range of 15-25 yards.

If this is the case, then what Duncan has to address in his game is minor. As a route runner, he has to get quicker with his turns after his break.

This is a matter of focus as much as it is quickness. Tony Gonzalez was great at this with the Falcons despite losing any speed advantage from his game years ago.

Duncan also has to work on dropping his hips and making more sudden breaks in general. This might be more difficult, but if he can drop his pads as a runner or spin off hard, odd-angled contact to his legs and maintain his balance, I'm optimistic he can learn to sink his hips and execute the hard breaks that will earn him more separation against single coverage.

For Duncan to thrive as a versatile receiving option, he'll need to demonstrate better integration of his hands and feet to work through press coverage on the perimeter.

The greatest unknown for me is blocking. Duncan is four inches shorter than Troy Niklas, but only two pounds lighter and he's a highly coordinated athlete with power. I'm confident he'll develop into an adequate blocker if he isn't already.

I still may be reaching with my comparison for Duncan, but based on what I've seen his comparable upside is within the range of Heath Miller: not fast enough to be an every-down, vertical threat, but a fluid athlete with strength and excellent hands in tight coverage who can win in the open field.

By Saturday evening of May 2, this analysis could prove worthless. However, scouting is about information and contingencies. We'll begin to see which contingency plan is the most appealing to Denver by late August.

Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for pre-order now. The guide covers over 140 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 50-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece.

Take a video tour of the RSP.

Posted by: Matt Waldman on 11 Mar 2015

3 comments, Last at 12 Mar 2015, 5:14pm by Grendel13G

Comments

1
by BroncFan07 :: Wed, 03/11/2015 - 1:34pm

Hopefully Duncan can be the best Joe Don in the NFL since Looney and Meredith.

2
by TimK :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 4:01pm

Got to say that those two guys and Owen Daniels all for less than Julius Thomas is costing might well give more options for play designs. It isn't as if Julius is the only medium deep option Denver have.

3
by Grendel13G :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 5:14pm

Virgil Green, the athletic receiver; who knew? I certainly haven't been impressed with his receiving skills in the limited times he was thrown the ball, but this article has made me more excited about the prospects of some blocking/unknown tight ends since... um, never! Woo!