Futures: Deep Diving for Small-School Sleepers

Futures: Deep Diving for Small-School Sleepers
Futures: Deep Diving for Small-School Sleepers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

By Matt Waldman

In his recent article on CSU-Pueblo quarterback Chris Bonner, Mike Tanier referred to me and Optimum Scouting's Eric Galko as "deep divers" of the draft analyst community. With my caps and "seafarer" grooming, I admit that I sport a resemblance to Steve Zissou on occasion. (I probably bear a greater resemblance to Russell Crowe lost at sea, but I'm hoping to sell you on Bill Murray. We all have our little delusions of self we like to hold onto.)

I have always been fascinated with deep dives -- be it the water, watering holes, or football prospects. No matter how remote you go, there's always someone going deeper. So as Mike Tanier leans over the railing of the S.S. Hangover holding a hair of the dog and pointing out the spot where he last saw me, I'm 2,000 feet below in my atmospheric diving suit at the edge of an underwater cliff as I spot Emory Hunt's submersible, the S.S. Football Gameplan, ascend from only God knows where. Hell, judging by the species attached to its hull I'm wondering if Emory found an undersea wormhole to another galaxy.

I share this because the first two players featured in this exhibition of my deep dive are prospects I first saw at Football Gameplan. Hunt, Gene Clemmons, and Turron Davenport do quality work and they deserve some props.

Tight End James O'Shaughnessy, Illinois State

The cutups of the Redbirds' tight end are deceptively outstanding. Built like an H-back (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), O'Shaughnessy does what he's supposed to do against "small-school" competition:

  • Beats defenders up the seam.
  • Makes receiver-like adjustments on deeper passes.
  • Breaks tackles and carries opponents for yards after contact.
  • Makes the first defender miss in the open field.
  • Gains position, punches, and drives defenders at the line and in the open field.

See for yourself. After 90 seconds you probably won't be overcome with the desire for your team to draft O'Shaughnessy. None of these plays are electrifying, until you put the Illinois State tight end's pro day into context of the tape.

"Shag" (a perfect nickname for a tight end) ran a 4.68-second 40, a 4.17-second 20-yard shuttle, and a 6.76-second 3-cone, and leaped 39 inches in the vertical jump. Shag's 40-time was the third-best for tight ends this year -- and it was his worst performance of these four drills.

The rest of these measurements take on a richer perspective when comparing them to the past decade of combine data. Since 2006, Shag's 20-shuttle is in the 93rd percentile of tight ends and his 3-cone and vertical are in the 97th percentile. NFL players who are within range of at least two of these three scores include Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, Virgil Green, Dennis Pitta, and Owen Daniels.

You're not watching a lesser athlete when you watch these cutups of O'Shaugnessy.

I'm looking forward to hearing about him this summer in an NFL camp. Meanwhile, this 28-minute compilation of cut-ups is sorted by receiving and blocking. Have fun.

WR Darius Davis, Henderson State

Another one of Hunt's gems, Davis has the build, style, and athleticism that reminds me of Packers great Sterling Sharpe. It was fun to know that Hunt had the same comparison when we talked a month ago on Twitter. A 5-foot-10 receiver listed at 210 pounds, Davis showed up at his pro day weighing 226 pounds, and his performance was disappointing enough that it was suggested he drop 15 pounds and schedule another workout.

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If there's a silver lining here, it's the fact that Davis' tape and some of his original workout showed enough for scouts to see what's possible. As Anquan Boldin and his 4.72-second 40 illustrated, a 4.64 40 on its own isn't a death knell for a wide receiver prospect with Davis' physicality (17 reps on the bench). Davis's 4.4-second short shuttle, 37-inch vertical, and 7.28-second three-cone bested all but Boldin's 4.33-second short shuttle.

However, Boldin's portfolio of work was from Florida State, not Henderson State, and the veteran receiver is the exceptional case. Otherwise, the NFL is seeing workout numbers that are similar to Seyi Ajirotutu -- and that's not an exciting best-case scenario.

2004 NFL Rookie of the Year Michael Clayton ran a 4.67-second 40, but his 4.15-second short shuttle and 6.79-second three-cone fit the quickness expected of an NFL receiver before his love of the nightlife superseded his love of the profession. Mohamed Sanu's 4.62 40, 4.22 20, and 6.88-3-cone also met the conditions of a viable receiver archetype.

For physical players, quickness matters more than long speed when paired with good technique. Whether 226 pounds was Davis' true playing weight or he gained weight after the season, there's enough explosion from the receiver's vertical to think that shedding 15 pounds might put Davis within an acceptable range of this archetype.

The compelling reason for another workout, as NFL.com's Gil Brandt implies, is Davis' on-field skill. There are a lot of dominant plays on his tape where he's displaying excellent timing to the football, smooth and acrobatic adjustments to the ball, reliable hands, and vision in the open field. (Audio NSFW.)

And if my gauge of his athleticism is correct, there is no shortage of burst, fluid change of direction, and long speed. At least similar to Anquan Boldin at Florida State (Audio NSFW):

WR Dezmin Lewis, Central Arkansas

The Central Arkansas product is on the collective radar because he earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl and acquitted himself well in practices. As I noted during those sessions, Lewis was impressive catching the football. However, his excellent body control at the catch-point was compensating for his lack of form with his routes, making life more difficult than necessary.

(Video courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com)

Lewis is a popular sleeper and his raw tools are good enough to develop into an NFL contributor. Even so, his combine results aren't much better than those Davis posted at his pro day -- and in some cases, they're worse:

  • 4.58 40 (Davis: 4.64)
  • 4.28 20-yard shuttle (Davis: 4.40)
  • 7.11 3-cone (Davis: 7.28)
  • Bench: 16 reps (Davis: 17)
  • Vertical: 33.5 inches (Davis: 37)

One of the larger differences is that draft folks with an uppercase "d" have identified Lewis as a player of note and ran him through the Senior Bowl and combine.

Opportunity matters, and Lewis has done well enough to distinguish himself as a developmental project. It also hasn't hurt that Lewis, with the help of speed training to improve his running form, built on his combine 40 with a 4.41-second time at his pro day. These workouts are often regarded with some skepticism, which would further underscore why a prospect like Davis would be compelled to lose the weight and schedule another workout if his performance is considered a disappointment.

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If Lewis' pro day performance is an accurate reflection of what promises to be a dynamic refinement process, he'll be a coveted developmental project on the second day of the draft.

RB Zach Zenner, South Dakota State

"The South Dakota State Superman" is a fun nickname, but we tend to take these monikers with grain of salt when the university isn't playing weekly on a major network. Zenner got to show his stuff against a top-25 team in Nebraska, and his performance may not have been Superman material, but for a running back he is not a mere mortal.

Zenner is 5-foot-11, 223 pounds of explosion (4.14-second short shuttle and 41-inch vertical) and strength (25 reps on the bench), but his small-school stature lulls big schools and evaluators into a false sense of security. My friend and colleague Alex Brown covers the SEC for Optimum Scouting, and he's one of the finest young draft analysts writing today. We watched Zenner's performance against Nebraska this fall at the RSP Film Room, and the runner surprised Brown.

Brown had seen Zenner perform in a divisional game as a freshman and saw a skilled back, but admitted on-air that until we began watching the game he wondered why I chose Zenner for our session. After seeing the burst, strength, and vision against the Cornhuskers, the light came on for Brown.

This first quarter run from 11 personnel versus a B-gap run blitz on the right side illustrates these three traits:

Zenner takes the exchange as the linebacker blitzes through the B-gap, and the runner has his line double-teaming the defensive end to the non-blitzing inside linebacker. There's immediate recognition and speed from Zenner to read and react. He sprints past the end at the right hash, delivering a perfectly placed stiff-arm. Zenner's hand meets the end's chest before the defender can lay a hand on the streaking runner, and that's all she wrote for defending the edge.

Zenner has enough acceleration after bouncing the play to work the corner and pick up the receiver's outside seal. The rest is fluid athleticism. Zenner dips outside a good angle from the safety in pursuit and runs through the wrap of the cornerback at the 45.

Once you can establish that a player like Zenner has the athleticism to hang with the big boys, vision becomes priority. There are several plays I could choose from, but this short-yardage touchdown versus eight in the box is a good display of an efficient cutback based on pressing the hole, reading the second level, and a willingness to finish with burst and pad level.

It's harder than it looks to hit these tighter creases with burst. No one likes to take punishment, and the water in those short-yardage swimming holes can be pretty bracing. There are a number of promising runners in this class who approach a crease like Grandma dipping her toe into the water as she contemplates a swim.

Pass protection is the reason Zenner might surprise sooner than later. He's skilled with cut blocks and stand-up. Here's a fine job of setting an angle on an edge rusher to funnel the defender outside the pocket.

The fact that Zenner reads this late blitz and cuts off the inside angle is probably the best part of the play. The lateral movement and hand position are important, but that initial angle without opening his hips early forces the edge defender outside. Many backs would have been beaten inside.

I'll be shocked if all four of these players get drafted, but I won't be shocked if at least three of them make a roster. If Davis earns another shot to work out sans 15 pounds, all four have the talent to turn heads in a training camp.

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.


1 comment, Last at 18 Mar 2015, 2:48pm

1 Re: Futures: Deep Diving for Small-School Sleepers

Hey, Zach Zenner, he's from my suburb and played at the stadium more or less across the street from my house. The thing I find genuinely amusing is he played for Eagan High School, which generally really, really sucks in football.

C'mon, Zach, succeed in the NFL so I have another pointless fan story along with my "shopped at the Cedar Falls Hy-Vee regularly while Kurt Warner was working there" story. That one's getting old.