Matt Miller’s Week 12 NFL Scouting Notebook: Meet the Next Joe Thomas

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A shortened workweek is here (happy Thanksgiving!) but the Scouting Notebook is still here to get you through those long Black Friday lines—yes, you can read this while your wife makes you shop. It’s a big week for football with college and NFL news affecting all things draft. Here’s what we’ll get to this week:

  • The next Joe Thomas
  • Updated NFL team needs
  • Senior Bowl roster update
  • …and pro player comparisons for the Michigan/Ohio State and Alabama/Auburn games

The Scout’s Report

—What’s next for Texas running back and Heisman candidate D’Onta Foreman? A source in the Texas football program told me the Longhorns expect Foreman to declare for the 2017 draft if head coach Charlie Strong is fired. Foreman carries a Round 1 grade on my board at this time.

—The 2017 quarterback class is still tough to stack with so many underclassmen yet to make decisions about next season. A player in the running to be QB1—DeShone Kizer—is reportedly undecided, according to a Notre Dame assistant I spoke with this week. Kizer, says the source, is torn on whether to stay and risk not being further developed by head coach Brian Kelly.

Connor Williams is only a true sophomore at Texas, but that hasn’t stopped scouts from peeking at No. 55 when they visit Austin. Said one scout this week: "[He] reminds me of Joe Thomas, and I’ve never said that before about a player."

—With 151 catches this year, East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones is on the precipice of breaking the NCAA single-season receptions record, currently held by Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes (155 in 2009). A 6’1", 200-pounder with top-notch route-running, Jones is currently a third-rounder on my board.

—Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reported this week that the Cleveland Browns are "honing in" on North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. This is very possible, and it was last season around this time that scouts in Cleveland told me the team loved Jared Goff—but then those scouts were let go and the Browns never had a chance to get Goff at No. 2 overall. Trubisky is an Ohio kid (he’s from Mentor) and has the arm strength needed to survive in the AFC North.

—Auburn pass-rusher Carl Lawson will go through Senior Day activities this weekend, according to a team news release. When an underclassman does this, it ultimately means they’re leaving school early. Lawson, who battled back from a hip injury in 2015, has become one of the best edge players in the country. He has a firm Round 1 grade if his health checks out.

Leonard Fournette has an ankle injury that’s bothered him all season, and Will Carroll of SEC Country reported it was a "chronic" condition and that the "loose ankle" is correctable with surgery. Will this affect Fournette’s draft stock? I hesitate to answer definitively after what seemed like a routine meniscus tear caused Myles Jack to fall from top five to Round 2 this past year, but the early word I got from scouts is that they’re not concerned.

—In six years of covering the NFL draft for Bleacher Report, I’ve not met a more humble and genuine player than linebacker Jaylon Smith. So let’s end on a high note this week: Gil Brandt of NFL Network reported that the nerves in Smith’s knee have begun regenerating—quoting both Smith and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

The injury Smith suffered last season in the Fiesta Bowl was catastrophic, and his future in the NFL hinged on the ability of his nerves to regenerate and "fire." With that happening, the likelihood of him playing in the NFL is much better. The Cowboys taking Smith off the non-football injury list doesn’t mean he’ll be playing anytime soon—he won’t practice or play at all this season, per NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport—but it’s encouraging news.

5 Names to Know

5. T Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky

I wrote about Lamp in this week’s "Hidden Gems" article, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite interior offensive line prospects in the country.

Lamp plays tackle for Western Kentucky but has the size of an NFL guard at 6’4" and 300 pounds. He has the versatility to play at guard or even right tackle in a pinch. With excellent agility and an understanding of how to handle defenders in space, Lamp will be turning heads at the Senior Bowl.

4. CB Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson

This year’s cornerback class is so good, which allows players like Cordrea Tankersley to easily be overlooked at times. That has to stop.

Tankersley, a senior, was thought to be the better pro prospect last season than teammate Mackensie Alexander, according to scouts. He has pro-level size (6’1", 200 lbs) and the ball skills to make plays against the pass. Tankersley isn’t getting publicity alongside guys like Adoree’ Jackson or Jourdan Lewis, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he’s drafted higher than them in April.

3. DL Montravius Adams, Auburn

Every year, there is a defensive line prospect who flashes on film and has the look of an NFL starter but might have questions about work ethic or something off the field. This year, that’s Montravius Adams—a player who flashes the talent of a top-15 pick on film but doesn’t always play with the motor you’d like from an elite player.

Adams has incredible potential as an athlete, which could lead to the NFL valuing him above where his production would slot him. Given his ability as a 3-technique pass-rusher—and this being a fairly weak class at that position—Adams’ stock could skyrocket with a strong end to the season and a big showing at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.

When I started this week’s film reviews, I had Adams with a Round 2 grade. After watching four more games to prepare for the Alabama matchup, I’ve moved Adams into the top 20.

2. G Dan Feeney, Indiana

The best offensive lineman in this class might not play tackle or center. He might not be at an SEC or Big 12 school. Indiana’s Dan Feeney, who has a Round 1 grade right now, has a legitimate chance to end up the highest-ranked offensive lineman by April.

Feeney plays with a mean streak but also has the agility and balance to finesse in pass protection. He is also athletic enough to get out in space and make plays on traps and pulls. Watching him use his hands and maul defenders at the point of attack, I see a player very similar to Ryan Kelly in last year’s draft.

1. TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss

Evan Engram leads all college tight ends in receiving yards and has already accepted a Senior Bowl invitation. His athletic profile is ideal for a flex-tight end, and from a physical standpoint, he’s reminiscent of Jordan Reed.

Engram isn’t an elite blocker, but if you want an athletic tight end (6’3", 235 pounds) who can play in the slot and be a nightmare in the middle of the field, he’s your man. And as players like Reed and Delanie Walker become attractive to teams, Engram’s name will start to move up draft boards.

The Big Board

Where does each team need to improve this offseason? Here are my updated Team Needs for 2017, including free agency and the draft:

Updated Team Needs

Pick Team Needs 1 Cleveland QB, T, CB, WR, G 2 San Francisco QB, EDGE, WR, ILB, RB 3 Jacksonville T, DT, G, S, QB 4 Chicago QB, CB, LT, S, TE 5 New York Jets QB, EDGE, CB, G, TE 6 Cincinnati LB, EDGE, C, WR, DL 7 Carolina T, DE, CB, S, RB 8 Tennessee (from LA) WR, CB, LB, EDGE, TE 9 Green Bay WR, EDGE, G, RB, CB 10 New Orleans DE, LB, CB, QB, RB 11 San Diego T, WR, S, QB, EDGE 12 Arizona QB, LB, EDGE, G, C 13 Tennessee WR, CB, LB, EDGE, TE 14 Indianapolis EDGE, LB, T, CB, RB 15 Tampa Bay WR, S, DL, CB, TE 16 Buffalo T, WR, DE, CB, S 17 Pittsburgh EDGE, LB, CB, S, OL 18 Cleveland (from PHI) QB, T, CB, WR, G 19 Miami DE, CB, S, TE, WR 20 Philadelphia (from MIN) WR, CB, RB, T, S 21 Washington QB, DL, C, RB, S 22 Denver T, S, DL, G, QB 23 Kansas City QB, S, CB, WR, ILB 24 New York Giants DE, LB, T, RB, QB 25 Baltimore WR, EDGE, S, DL, CB 26 Atlanta CB, EDGE, DT, TE, FS 27 Detroit CB, DT, RB, G, DE 28 Houston ILB, OL, S, NT, TE 29 Seattle OT, DT, CB, WR, QB 30 New England LB, EDGE, OT, WR, S 31 Oakland MLB, LT, RB, CB, S 32 Dallas DE, WR, CB, TE, QB

Parting Shots

10. The deadline for eligible underclassmen to enter the 2017 NFL draft is Jan. 15, but that doesn’t mean players aren’t already indicating what they’ll do next season. Here is a list of those players confirmed to be entering:

Declared NFL Draft Underclassmen

Player Position College Projected Round Wayne Gallman RB Clemson Round 3 Carl Lawson EDGE Auburn Round 1 Artavis Scott WR Clemson Round 4 Mike Williams WR Clemson Top 10 Charles Walker DL Oklahoma Round 3-4 Deshaun Watson QB Clemson Round 1-2

9. The Senior Bowl announced the first 12 players to accept invitations to the annual all-star game in Mobile, Alabama, last week. This week 17 more were announced. The full list:

2017 Senior Bowl Rosters

P Toby Baker, Arkansas K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State QB Seth Russell, Baylor LB Vince Biegel, Wisconsin WR Zay Jones, East Carolina DT Tanzel Smart, Tulane OL Dion Dawkins, Temple DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, Virginia FB Freddie Stevenson, FSU G Jessamen Dunker, Tennessee State WR Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington WR Ryan Switzer, North Carolina TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss G Jordan Morgan, Kutztown WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech WR Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse G Taylor Moton, Western Michigan WR Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky TE Gerald Everett, South Alabama DT Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte QB Davis Webb, California G Dan Feeney, Indiana LB Duke Riley, LSU WR Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma DB Johnathan Ford, Auburn CB Ezra Robinson, Tennessee State RB Jamaal Williams, BYU S Nate Gerry, Nebraska FB Sam Rogers, Virginia Tech

8. The Iron Bowl is this weekend, featuring No. 1-ranked Alabama and No. 13-ranked Auburn. The game will feature a ton of future NFL talent, but who are the players to watch for the 2017 class? Here’s my watch list with a player comparison for each based on initial film study:

Alabama vs. Auburn Watch List

Rank Player Team Comparison 3 DL Jonathan Allen Alabama Fletcher Cox 4 LB Reuben Foster Alabama NaVorro Bowman 14 EDGE Tim Williams Alabama Vic Beasley 15 EDGE Carl Lawson Auburn Cameron Wake 16 DL Montravius Adams Auburn Kawann Short 25 EDGE Ryan Anderson Alabama Markus Golden 32 T Cam Robinson Alabama Michael Oher 35 TE O.J. Howard Alabama Travis Kelce 41 CB Marlon Humphrey Alabama Trae Waynes 98 FS Eddie Jackson Alabama Darian Stewart

7. There is no bigger game this weekend than Ohio State vs. Michigan. Want to scout this game from the couch? Here is my list of players to track with the pro comparisons for top players:

Michigan vs. Ohio State Watch List

Rank Player Team Comparison 5 S Jabrill Peppers Michigan Landon Collins 12 S Malik Hooker Ohio State Reshad Jones 17 CB Gareon Conley Ohio State Desmond Trufant 36 TE Jake Butt Michigan Jason Witten 39 CB Marshon Lattimore Ohio State David Amerson 42 LB Raekwon McMillan Ohio State Dont’a Hightower 50 CB Jourdan Lewis Michigan Chris Harris Jr. 62 DL Chris Wormley Michigan Cameron Heyward 74 T Eric Magnuson Michigan Rob Havenstein 90 WR Jehu Chesson Michigan Marvin Jones 92 C Mason Cole Michigan Justin Britt 93 WR Amara Darboh Michigan Pierre Garcon

6. Running back C.J. Prosise was providing a missing spark to the Seattle Seahawks’ offense before going down with an injury Sunday, something all-too-familiar to Notre Dame fans. Looking back at Prosise before the draft, where did he rank and what was thought of him?

On my final Big Board, Prosise ranked No. 91 overall and as the No. 8 running back. He was drafted 90th and was the fourth back off the board—as expected, that run on backs never happened early last year.

Prosise, a converted receiver, was often injured at Notre Dame. That contributed heavily to his being available in the third round. Here’s what I liked about his versatility:

Prosise has good speed with a 4.48-second 40 time, but he also has field speed. According to Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus, Prosise gained 49.7 percent of his rushing yards on runs of 15 yards or more. That ability to produce chunk plays is a big reason why Prosise ranks this high, even with limited reps at running back. He’s a slasher who finds a path to daylight and then has the speed to make defenses pay.

Prosise isn’t just a speed player. He will lower his pads and get after defenders, showing up in our charting with 40 broken tackles on 156 carries.

5. If you’re like me and grew up with dreams of making it to the NFL, you probably had that one last-ditch moment of thinking you could at least make it as a kicker…before realizing that kicking a football through goal posts with large men running at you is really, really hard.

This past Sunday featured a record 12 missed extra points, which makes me wonder whether I should have tried a little harder to convert to kicker.

The NFL’s decision to move extra points back from the 2-yard-line to the 15-yard-line was met with yawns, but the play is now much more important to the result of each game. Thankfully, there are still three commercial breaks between the touchdown, extra point and kickoff for when you need to hit the bathroom and grab a new drink.

4. Last week’s idea to take questions from Twitter was so popular that I wanted to do it again with this being a short week. Here are four of the best questions submitted:

What I would do and what Ted Thompson will do are often polar opposites—for example, I would have drafted edge-rusher Noah Spence last year instead of defensive lineman Kenny Clark. To fix the gigantic mess in Green Bay right now, I’d start by getting an outside pass rush and then working to supplement the offense with better weapons in Rounds 2-7.

Round 1—Derek Barnett, EDGE, Tennessee

Round 2—Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Round 3—Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina

Round 4—Dorian Johnson, G, Pitt

Round 5—C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa

Round 6—Riley Bullough, LB, Michigan State

Round 6—Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama

Round 7—Demetrious Cox, S, Michigan State

Round 7—Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State

It’s important to remember that not every need can be addressed through the draft. The Packers would probably love an inside linebacker and a tight end earlier than this, but given the value of the players in this class and the needs of other teams, this is a realistic look at what I would do to restock the team.

3.

You would think that my being a Texas Longhorns fan would tip me off about D’Onta Foreman before this season, but being a fan of the team makes me a little tougher on the prospects than others. Foreman has risen highest on my board this season—in fact, I didn’t have him ranked heading into the year.

Foreman was expected to be the No. 2 back behind Chris Warren—his dad played for the Seahawks back in the ’90s—and serve as more of a short-yardage guy. No one expected him to take off like he did at the end of last season and then what he did over the summer to improve his vision and cutback ability.

I’m as surprised as anyone else by Foreman’s ascension from part-time back to Heisman candidate, and right now he’s on my board as a first-rounder.

2.

This is a surprisingly tough question in late November, since we really don’t know which quarterbacks will or won’t declare for the draft yet. Let’s assume all the underclassmen—Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky, Brad Kaaya, Luke Falk and Mason Rudolph—declare for the draft and go from there.

It’s safe to assume Kizer, Trubisky and Watson are gone by Round 2 for the 49ers, but I could see Watson having a Teddy Bridgewater-like tumble down boards. If so, he would be a good fit in San Francisco as a Day 2 pick. Kaaya would be fine in San Francisco given his accuracy and quick decision-making, but he’s not bringing the running element to the game I know many want.

Falk and Rudolph don’t fit the mold, in my opinion. Rudolph really struggles with ball placement and velocity and Falk is several years away—or one great coaching job at least—from being field ready.

It’s rough for fans of a team that so desperately needs a quarterback, but this isn’t a great year to go get a guy. If I’m the 49ers, I’d be much more comfortable sending pick No. 33 or No. 34 to New England for Jimmy Garoppolo than drafting a quarterback there.

1.

The 2017 safety class could go down as one of the best ever, and definitely the best I’ve ever scouted. Thus far, I have 10 safeties in the top 100 and two more very close. They are:

Top Safeties in the 2017 Draft

Overall Rank Player College 5 Jabrill Peppers Michigan 6 Jamal Adams LSU 12 Malik Hooker Ohio State 34 Justin Evans Texas A&M 45 Marcus Allen Penn State 46 Marcus Williams Utah 64 Marcus Maye Florida 70 Armani Watts Texas A&M 75 Budda Baker Washington 98 Eddie Jackson Alabama 110 Josh Harvey-Clemson Louisville 119 Quin Blanding Virginia

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.