Scouting Spotlight: NFL Draft Prospects Week 1
Backs are back.
Yes, the 2015 NFL Draft will have at least two quarterbacks in the mix for the first overall pick. And, for the third year in a row, there are potentially three left tackles among the top 10 prospects.
But the big story in next year's draft will be the return of running backs to the first round. The two-year schneid ends with two first-round talents, both of whom open the 2014 season with intriguing matchups: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon against LSU and Georgia's Todd Gurley against Clemson.
Let's start with Gurley, who scored a 75-yard touchdown against Clemson on his first carry of 2013. He finished that game against the Tigers with a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns, and that was a pretty decent Clemson defense. There are three or four pro prospects in the Tigers' front seven this year, so a similar performance by Gurley will speak volumes.
First and foremost, it would indicate that the ankle injury that abbreviated his 2013 season is behind him, like so many defenders in futile pursuit. Gurley (6-foot-1, 216 pounds) is a powerful runner, who can pound away between the tackles when asked. But he has so many other dimensions to his game: he has both breakaway speed and cutback ability, which makes him deadly in the open field. Plus, he is a capable receiver, a talent I suspect new Georgia quartback Hutson Mason will take full advantage of.
While Gurley is taking on one top-20 opponent at home, Gordon faces another in Dallas -- and LSU will be stingier against the run than Clemson.
Like Gurley, Gordon is a home run waiting to happen. Only Gordon is less likely to run over defenders and more likely to beat them in a blur. His acceleration and ability to make the first guy miss are the keys to his success, which, at the moment, is unparalleled. No back in the country has a better average per carry (8.1 yards) than Gordon, who will be the Big Ten's all-time leader in that category once he has enough carries to qualify (which he'll have by halftime).
Where Gordon needs to show improvement this year is in the passing game. If he wants to be an every-down back in the NFL -- where every down is a passing down -- he needs to be more of a factor than he was a year ago. The hope is that he learned from watching James White do everything asked of him, from catching balls in the flats to understanding and executing protection assignments. If so, he'll challenge Gurley to be the first back off the board.
If not, Gordon is just a running back -- a gifted, natural ball-carrier whose stock will suffer in the eyes of NFL decision makers, who need their backs to be more.
Other prospects to watch Week 1:
Garrett Grayson, QB, Colorado State vs Colorado (FRI): Garrett had an efficient outing against Colorado in last season's opener (22-for-39, 201 yards, neither a touchdown nor an interception). And though he set a CSU passing record by throwing for 3,696 yards, he must take a step or two forward to grab some attention. The loss of running back Kapri Bibbs will put more of a burden this year on Grayson, a pocket passer who already has a more pro-ready game than fellow Mountain West quarterbacks Cody Fajardo of Nevada and Chuckie Keeton of Utah State.
Christian Covington, DT, Rice vs Notre Dame: Covington has established himself as a potent interior pass rusher, and he'll be facing an Irish offensive line that lost Zack Martin and Chris Watt to the NFL. With Everett Golson back, Notre Dame has a quarterback more a threat to run the ball than throw it. If Covington can use his surprising quickness to penetrate and pressure or sack such a mobile quarterback, and if he can hold his own against Notre Dame's loaded running back rotation (probably the deepest position on the team), he will continue to make a case for being a borderline top-50 prospect
Derron Smith, FS, Fresno State vs. USC: Smith ended the 2013 season on a high note. In the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, he intercepted USC quarterback Cody Kessler and returned it for a touchdown. And he racked up 18 tackles -- a ridiculous total for a defensive back (or anyone). Now, Smith and the Bulldogs open the 2014 season by playing Kessler and the Trojans again. Much of the buzz will focus on Josh Shaw, the USC defensive back and team captain who was suspended indefinitely after lying about how he hurt his ankles. But Smith's focus will be on the field, where he can begin to establish himself as the premier senior safety prospect in the 2015 draft class.
Xavier Williams, DT, Northern Iowa vs. Iowa: It's tough to top the first impression Khalil Mack made against Ohio State in the 2013 season opener. While Williams is nowhere near the prospect Mack was coming into last season, he is on the radar. And if he can assert himself against Iowa's promising running game -- the best he'll face all season -- it will leave an impression on the minds of the scouts. He won't have much opportunity to tangle with left tackle Brandon Scherff, a potential top-10 draft pick, but if he does, Williams' highlight reel would be made with a win or two in that matchup.
David Seigerman's new book, "Under Pressure," co-authored with former NFL quarterback Ray Lucas, is available on Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere.