The Human Torch: Devin Smith

If you haven’t watched any tape of Ohio State wide receiver Devin Smith, then you’re in for a treat. He’s preternaturally gifted when it comes to making catches deep down field. In fact, that’s essentially all he does. He only caught 33 passes as a senior, 12 of which were touchdowns, for an average of 28.2 yards per reception. These numbers are meaningless without context. That’s what the game tape is for, and thanks to Draft Breakdown I’ve been able to watch four of them (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Cincinnati).

In the game against Michigan State, Smith makes two beautiful over-the-shoulder catches. On the first play, he starts off standing on the 35-yard line, runs more or less straight down the field, and makes a rather ridiculous reception around at the 20-yard line. I’ll leave the math to you. That’s a big chunk of yards. The most impressive aspect of this play isn’t the speed, but the way he locates  the ball midair and plucks it with both hands over his shoulder at an awkward angle. Later in the game he makes this catch for a touchdown. Just another routine over-the-shoulder 45-yard reception. I feel bad for the Michigan State safeties there. That is a touchdown presnap as long as the ball is on target.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wisconsin fans might want to skip this next section.

  • Touchdown #1 is all about the adjustment to the ball. He locates it in the air when he turns his head, then he gets his body where it needs to be in order to make the catch. He also plays it like a basketball player boxing out his opponent to snare a rebound.
  • Touchdown #2 is similar to his touchdown in the Michigan State game. This time he gets one-on-one coverage from the slot against a safety. Lamb to the slaughter.
  • Touchdown #3 is a leaping two-handed grab. Smith’s location, location, location abilities are otherworldly. He didn’t drop a single deep bomb in any of the games I watched.

Alright, so he can catch deep bombs. Can we move on? If this is what you are asking, get the hell out of here. Two more. First, this play against Illinois. This guy Devin Smith sure can make deep over-the-shoulder touchdown catches. To prove he is, in fact, human, watch this play. He… almost didn’t catch it! Throwing the ball in the general direction of Smith and letting him do the rest is a foolproof plan I’m tellin’ ya.

He can do a bit other than run deep routes. Not a lot, mind you, but I have some evidence that he can. For instance, there’s this play where he finds the right spot to sit against zone coverage and runs in for a touchdown. Here he makes a catch over the middle on what appears to be a post route. On this play he just comes to a screeching halt. Even though the quarterback is looking the other way, you still need to try to get open if the play breaks down. And, at least to me, both this and this are poorly run routes.

In order to stay on the field (or become elite), Smith must get better at running short to intermediate routes. He will come in on multiple receiver packages and force the defense to respect his deep game, which opens up space for teammates. His deep game is special even among NFL players. He knows how to locate, and, more importantly, to adjust his body in order to make difficult catches with the ball flying 40+ yards. Over and over again.

If you’re going to be a one-trick pony as a rookie wide receiver, this is the best trick to have up your sleeve. Smith has excellent hands. In the four games I watched, he dropped one pass, and the degree of difficulty on his catches were very high indeed. At the end of the first round, I wouldn’t hesitate to send in his name if I needed some help outside. Are you telling me you don’t want to see Devin Smith catch bombs from Andrew Luck, or Russell Wilson, over the next five or more years? Please.

Scouting Jameis Winston

With the combine behind us, it’s time to start taking a deep look at prospects. Quarterbacks always generate the most chatter, as they usually result in the biggest boom or bust outcomes. Everyone has an opinion on each specific individual, whether or not it is informed. This year, the highest profile quarterback is none other than Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

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“F— It, I’m Going Deep” (Sleeper Series): Brandon Bridge

Hello once again, fellow draft devotees and combine connoisseurs. I speak to you today to preach the word of Brandon Bridge. He comes from a land where pines and maples grow, great prairies spread, and Lordly rivers flow. That’s right: Mobile, Alabama, where sits the University of South Alabama, playing football in the Sun Belt conference. And he’s come to save your franchise from years of quarterback misery (results may vary). The tale of the tape reads as 6’4″, 229 lbs., with 34 1/4 inches of flame-throwing arm power.

Bridge does not inspire much confidence statistically. He completed a paltry 52% of his passes, and only threw 15 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Not exactly folkloric numbers, but I’ve seen two of his 2014 tapes, and the kinds of throws he can make will leave your head spinning. One game is against Appalachian State via Draft Breakdown, and I found another on the YouTube channel ‘CollegeFBDude‘ against Mississippi State. Thanks to both for uploading.

 

Appalachian State

The first play I want to show displays a number of positive attributes in my book. Bridge sees the blitz, but trusts his protection. His eyes scan from left to right as he drops back and climbs the pocket. There’s no wasted motion in his throw. The ball hits his receiver in stride. Then on the very next play, he throws the ball over his intended receivers head. Don’t ask me. He ends that drive with a nice rushing touchdown.

Overall, he uses the pocket well. Here you see him using every last second of his time, and all of the space possible, to stay in the pocket and find a receiver. This is not his first read (it might be his third). Watch his eyes.

Guess what happens next. If you answered “a touchdown strike to the running back on a wheel route,” then congratulations on being wrong. That almost happens. It *should* be the result. Alas, Bridge rushes the throw under no pressure and misses an easy touchdown.

Not everyone can roll to their left with a defender on pursuit, square up, and fire a strike to a receiver. It looks easy for Bridge. He has functional mobility in both directions. Now look at this play. He sells the pump fake to the bubble screen man – the corner bites hard,leaving him completely flat footed. Bang! Bridge hits his receiver in stride, again. Notice how he slides ever so slightly in the pocket before releasing that one. I really like how he can move in the pocket.

Bridge can throw a great deep ball. He releases the ball on the far left hash of the 26 yard line, and it hits the receiver in stride along the right sideline at the 22 yard line. That’s impossible. Seriously, what?  Of course, the difference between that pass and this pass is the amount of pressure he’s under. He can’t get it done in the face of true pressure. Except, well, yes he can. With a free rusher bearing right down on him, Bridge makes a picture perfect toss deep down the sideline for a touchdown. It is actually impossible to put the ball in a better location.

OH. MY. GOD.” Jaw meet floor. Words cannot describe my reaction when I saw Bridge break multiple would-be tacklers and impossibly make that touchdown throw while on the run. Without any hyperbole, that is one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen. Yeah… next game.

 

Mississippi State

If you didn’t follow college football last year, Mississippi State was ranked #1 in the polls for several weeks. That’s the level of competition Brandon Bridge is facing on this tape. The first play of note is this beauty deep down the middle, behind the defense, right into the hands of the receiver. In and out of the receivers hands, that is.

On this play, Bridge probably needs to take the brief running lane and pick up however many yards he can on the ground instead of pulling the ball back and attempting to escape around the left side. Most likely, he ends up near the line of scrimmage. In trying to make a heroic play on 1st down, the ball ends up on the ground. Live to fight another down.

Here is an important 3rd down where Bridge simply makes a poor decision. He’s about to get sacked on his blind side, and, well, he just dares the defender to intercept this ball. It’s a spot where a field goal is likely difficult for a college kicker. I’m not certain what he should do here without seeing the all-22 camera angle, but this isn’t the answer.

I really want you to see this play. It looks like the ball is bending into the receiver who is breaking right off the top of his stem. Bridge keeps hitting players at full speed with perfect ball placement in these two games. No one man should have all this power (watch that throwing-across-your-body thing though). How the heck did he only complete 52% of his passes? Someone out there upload more games.

About that interception he nearly threw earlier, this time the corner does make the catch. Also, this is a much worse decision. It isn’t 3rd down. He isn’t under pressure. His receiver is double covered. There’s no deception by the defense or anything. Of all the throws in both games, this is the worst. I can make some excuse for the other mistakes. Not this one.

After making such a boneheaded throw, I’m glad to see him rebound here. It’s a similar throw – and result, unfortunately – to the first play I showcased. Bridge can sure rip some deep balls. If only his receivers could catch them. His accuracy down field is very impressive, which I can’t say about a prospect like Bryce Petty in this 2015 class.

So we return to Mr. Bridge’s poor decision making with this throw. That comes stamped with postage saying “return to sender.” If you’ve figured this guy out yet, you already know that his very next throw is right where it needs to be. On the ground, because his receivers cannot catch (duh).

There are a few notable plays in the rest of the game. On the bad side, he doesn’t see the underneath defender here, and almost throws another interception. I’ll leave off with a rather funny play. Bouncy! In all seriousness, he shows some nice elusiveness there.

 

THE WRAP

Consistency is king in the NFL. Bridge is not consistent. We’re looking at a developmental prospect. I see one with huge upside. I omitted a few plays where he manages to escape the pocket to scramble for positive yards. He does possess that dimension to his game, when necessary. I’m dying to find more tape on Brandon Bridge. His arm talent is rare even among NFL starters.

A good comparison from last year might be Logan Thomas, who is currently being mentored under Bruce Arians in Arizona. I think Bridge flashes NFL talent more consistently, and those flashes of talent are at a higher level (Thomas was much more frustrating to watch). Thomas got picked in the 4th round last year. All it takes is one team to fall for Bridge as much as I did for him to go in a similar spot. This class is really poor with quarterback prospects after Mariota, Winston, and Hundley. I’m laughing at any team that takes any of the senior bowl guys ahead of Bridge.

2015 Draft Peek: Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Markus Golden

The 2015 NFL draft is right around the bend– well, in geological time, anyway. In any case, it’s never too early to take a look at some senior prospects. Our players today are both highly athletic defensive ends. Markus Golden was on my watch list before the season. He was the ‘other’ end on that incredible Missouri defensive line rotation which featured Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Owamagbe Odighizuwa – say with me, OH-DIG-E-ZOO-WAH – leaped off my screen while I was leisurely watching UCLA open the season on the road against Virginia. I’ll start with him.

Thanks to Draft Breakdown for the videos, as always; none of this would be possible without their work.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa

Edge Rusher, UCLA

Owamagbe Odighizuwa (“Owa” from now on) missed all of the 2013 season with a hip injury that required surgery. He’s listed at 6’3″ and 270 lbs., and as The Daily Bruin put it in a profile last year, “His hands are the size of baseball mitts and his arms are bigger than most people’s legs.” His explosiveness off of the snap is extraordinary, as I’ll show soon. I watched UCLA’s opening game on the road at Virginia with the purpose of checking out quarterback Brett Hundley; but it was Owa who captured my attention. He plays again today versus Texas.

Look at his first few steps on this play. Watch it frame by frame from 1:16 to 1:18, if you can. That is an elite burst. What he fails to do there is rip or swim through the tackle and pressure or sack the quarterback.  The opportunity is there, but the hand work is not. He chooses to dip around the edge and the left tackle does a great job taking Owa out of the play in spite of getting beat at the snap. The next play is textbook run defense. Owa immediately extends both of his arms right into the tackle’s chest, pushes him 3-yards in the backfield, and makes the tackle for a loss.

The play of the game happens soon thereafter. On this play our man uses those long arms on a pass rush to perfection. Once again he displays an elite burst off of the snap, and this time due to his hand work he’s able to attack the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. This allows Owa to free up his right arm; and he slaps the quarterback on the wrist right before the release. Interception. If you keep the tape rolling, the next play shows off his bull rush.

While spin moves usually result in making the pass rusher look ridiculous unless he happens to be named Dwight Freeney, Owa uses one beautifully here. His explosiveness is simply too much for Virginia to handle throughout the game. Here he uses a speed rush, and I want you to watch his left arm. That’s why he’s able to get around the edge. On this play we get to see him playing over a guard. Well, that was easy. If you keep the tape rolling he makes several more plays. You get the idea. The schedule for UCLA will get much tougher as the season rolls on. Keep an eye on him. Next up: Texas.

Markus Golden

Edge Rusher, Missouri

As I mentioned in the introduction, Markus Golden made quite a splash for Missouri last year. He finished the season with 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and picked off a pass for a 70-yard touchdown. At 6’3″ and 260 lbs., he has good, albeit not incredible size, and can explode off of the snap at times. He’s another fifth-year senior with some experience at linebacker.

Golden is off to a hot start this year. We’re going to take a look at his game against Toledo. While Toledo is not the program that Missouri is, they have won at least 8 games in each of the last three seasons. In other words, this isn’t simply a team expected to roll over early in the season to the big, bad SEC opponent.

Golden relies almost exclusively on his speed. While impressive, he does not show any of the technical skill that Odighizuwa does. He gets blown off the line in the run game a number of times against Toledo. The tackle not only seals him off on this play, but drives him down the field as well. There’s a particularly ugly play on the goal line where Golden crashes inside only to have his back turned to the runner, who walks in for an easy touchdown. You need to be able to hold the point of attack in order to see the field on a regular basis in the NFL.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason why I decided to bring him up. His first step can be awesome. Here’s an example. Golden is two yards into the backfield by the time the ball reaches the quarterback. The play is completely doomed, an easy tackle for loss. On this play, it’s almost unbelievable that he is not offside. Even among top-tier pass-rushing prospects this kind of first step speed is rare. I mean, how many players can do this? How many tackles are thinking “no problem”? Not many. This next play is caused due to the quarterback inexplicably rolling out of a clean pocket, but I want to show it due to Golden’s closing speed.

If you watch the rest of that game, you’ll see him flash more here and there. He’ll also hesitate in spots where a play could’ve been made. Between these two players, Odighizuwa has better size, technique, and a higher football IQ. Golden possesses a more impressive first step, but that’s it. There’s a lot of football left to be played. Keep an eye out for both of these players as the season progresses.

49ers “Gone to Carolina”: Brandon Thomas and Bruce Ellington

In three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers’ worst result has been a loss in the conference championship. Not bad, huh? Oh, and talented young quarterback Colin Kaepernick angered his peers by inking a flexible, team-friendly, six-year contract extension that will supposedly revolutionize the way teams pay superstars. In related news, Cam Newton is working on his curveball. With all of this success, you would think everything is coming up roses in San Francisco, but not so fast. Talks have stalled on an extension for coach Harbaugh in what amounts to a dick-measuring contest between he and general manager Trent Baalke. Go figure.

The 49ers one-upped themselves in the 2014 draft with twelve total picks, after picking eleven times in 2013. All of these picks are quite a luxury as the 49ers are one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The team used several of its six picks on the first two days addressing needs with safety/corner hybrid Jimmie Ward, center Marcus Martin, and inside linebacker Chris Borland (All-Pro NaVorro Bowman will miss significant time following a gruesome knee injury). I’ll briefly discuss them along with a few other picks in the conclusion. Our feature prospects are mid-round selections Brandon Thomas and Bruce Ellington.

 

ROUND 3, PICK 100

Brandon Thomas, OT/OG, Clemson

At a workout for the New Orleans Saints, Brandon Thomas tore his ACL and is very likely to “redshirt” the 2014 season for the 49ers. He almost certainly would have been selected in the second round without this misfortune. Thomas played left tackle as a senior and was projected as a guard in the NFL by most draft sites. If he fully recovers, I believe he can play both tackle and guard. It’s nothing new for the 49ers to use picks on injured players; they used two of their eleven picks in 2013 on Tank Carradine (ACL tear) and Marcus Lattimore (knee explosion), both of whom missed all of last season.

For this article, I looked at Thomas in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State, along with contests against Syracuse, South Carolina, and Georgia Tech. We’ll only be looking at pass protection in the latter two games, because I watched Thomas through Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd’s tape. Always watch the left tackle, #63.

Thomas’ best game tape comes against Ohio State. He sets the key block on Clemson’s first touchdown by cracking down on the defensive tackle and then moving to the second level to shield a linebacker from the runner. Throughout the Orange Bowl, Clemson runs behind Thomas and he does not fail to deliver. Here he gets under the defensive tackle and blows him off the ball, creating a running lane. Watch him shove a linebacker deep into the second level here, and tell me this later play does not give you déjà vu.

In pass protection, Thomas often displays great feet, agility, and everything else you need from a tackle. Here is an example of perfect technique in pass protection: He quickly slides outside, creates a strong base, and stonewalls the pass rusher upon contact. You can see both his speed and strength facing Jadeveon Clowney on this play. Once again, perfect and perfect. All of these are plays you want to see consistently from an offensive tackle.

What you do not want to see is a tackle getting beaten on inside rush moves. Here we see Clowney swim right past our man with an incredible burst. Thomas does not have an answer. He has a similar result when facing Chargers second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu here, where Attaochu crashes hard inside, and Thomas is immediately beaten. Later in the game, Attaochu gets Thomas to cheat inside with a step in that direction before exploding around the edge for a near sack.

Thomas has a few other lapses in pass protection. For example, he gets no depth when dropping into his stance on this play, and the result is a safety. He barely moves off of the snap here against Syracuse, and the defensive end unloads on Boyd. Later in that game, it looks as if Clemson’s entire line is on the wrong page facing a stunt. Boyd again takes the punishment. Rather than properly kick out, Thomas lunges at the Georgia Tech defensive end here. These issues are less problematic than his proclivity to get beaten inside a few times each game.

The good news is that he can stop an inside rush, and he does tend to rally well in general. If you recall Clowney defeating Thomas inside earlier, note that Thomas reacts in time to stop him here and here. Thomas’ strength allows him to rally here, where Clowney initially gets in a strong bull rush. You don’t want a tackle allowing two or three free shots at your quarterback each game in the NFL. Thomas is not perfect in pass protection, but he has no athletic limitation to prevent him from playing tackle. With a full recovery from his ACL tear, there’s a good chance we will see him starting somewhere along the 49ers offensive line in 2015.

 

ROUND 4, PICK 106

Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina

Don’t let Bruce Ellington’s 5’9″ stature fool you; he plays much taller. It’s all in his 39.5″ vertical. After all, we are talking about a basketball player here. In the four games I watched– Wisconsin, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Missouri– Ellington dropped exactly one ball. As we’ll see shortly, this is rather spectacular, given the degree of difficulty on many of his receptions. His ability to concentrate and make the tough catches is nearly unparalleled in this draft class. The only negative plays other than the one drop all came in blocking, and he is not a poor blocker overall. Sit back and enjoy the show.

As with Brandon Thomas, Bruce Ellington saved his best game for last with six receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Oh, he also threw a touchdown pass. On the first play of the game, Ellington runs a post from the slot and shows toughness in bringing the ball down through contact. Here he simply runs a deep post for a touchdown, showing off that 4.45 speed. Look at the adjustment he makes on this ball for a catch around his feet. Speaking of spectacular catches, take a look at him tipping a ball to himself here. Keep the tape rolling to see a touchdown on the next play.

Missouri featured one of the top defenses in college football in 2013. Nobody told Bruce Ellington:

  • He catches this ball in traffic even though he bobbles it initially.
  • Does this look incomplete? Initially, yes. The replay shows his incredible field awareness and concentration, and, yep, it’s a touchdown.
  • Fourth quarter. Three minutes remaining. Down a touchdown. A diving catch over the middle. Overtime? Please. Touchdown.

In the Arkansas game, Ellington catches two touchdowns and this deep ball. Neither touchdown is particularly special. Both occur near the end zone and Arkansas decides not to cover him. Facing Vanderbilt he makes this pretty over-the-shoulder deep catch from the slot. Double coverage? No problem, Ellington splits them and makes a very difficult catch through contact for a touchdown. All he does is make plays.

I suspect he will find a way to get on the field even with Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and newly acquired receiver Stevie Johnson (among others) battling for receptions. If nothing else, I expect Ellington to be a preseason sensation, and to make his mark in 2015. I didn’t show any problems with his game because he didn’t show any in what he was asked to do. The only issue, I suppose, is that he’s limited to primarily playing in the slot, and he isn’t six feet tall. His fearlessness in traffic and great hands remind me a lot of Anquan Boldin. And he’s out to take his job.

 

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND

As I said earlier, the 49ers addressed some needs with their first several picks. Jimmie Ward is a safety who can be pressed into service at cornerback and should provide the 49ers with a formidable safety duo for years and years with pro bowler Eric Reid (both were born in 1991). Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde was my highest graded runner in the draft and his selection could very well mean the end of Frank Gore’s long tenure in San Francisco. Wisconsin middle linebacker Chris Borland has big shoes to fill as he’s the likeliest candidate to step into NaVorro Bowman’s role until he returns. The good news is that he’s an experienced player; the bad is that he isn’t NaVorro Bowman. Zone Reads video analyst and contributor Needle made a video on each Carlos Hyde and Chris Borland; I recommend checking out both.

Third-round pick Marcus Martin will almost certainly be the opening day starter at center. Thirty-five year old Jonathan Goodwin had been the starter at center the past three years, but the team let him leave in free agency. Fourth-round cornerback Dontae Johnson is 6’2″ and ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine. He flashes ability in coverage here and there, and given the lack of depth at the position will likely make the team (or, you know, get claimed by Seattle). Defensive end Aaron Lynch will face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster, but he does have some ability. I have not seen tape on the remainder of the 49ers’ draft class.

The 49ers have done a masterful job of both developing young players and retaining their star veterans. Look at this list: Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid. All of them were drafted by the 49ers. (It’s a completely different story down the street in Oakland.) Unless Blaine Gabbert is pressed into action (the horror, the horror), the 49ers have the talent to make another run at the Super Bowl.

Raiders Identity Crises: Khalil Mack and Derek Carr

The Oakland Raiders have not fielded a team with a record above .500 since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers humiliated them 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII. The team’s record since that loss is a league-worst 53 wins and 123 losses. Yes, even worse than the Detroit Lions, who in that time followed up their historically bad 0-16 season with a 2-14 season and have made five top-two selections in the draft over the same time span. The Raiders have ousted not one, not two, not three, but seven head coaches over this period.
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The Jets infusion of young receivers

I previously wrote that I wasn’t in love with the Jets offseason, but that it was decent enough. Like any other fan, I’ve been slowly coming around on that. Unlike most other fans, it has been due to watching 2013 film of these prospects.

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