Due to the lockout, 2011 could be more difficult than usual for undrafted free agents trying to make it in the NFL. Yet, there will be players with the talent, the skill, and the work ethic to enter a camp and make the most of their limited opportunities. This week, I’m profiling offensive skill players who I believe have the ability to develop into quality professionals if they have been training hard enough in this crazy offseason to hit the ground running. Profiles of these players are excerpts from my publication, the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, available at Footballguys.com
Dane Sanzenbacher (5-11, 180): The two words that best encapsulate Sanzenbacher as a football player are “smart” and tough.” I saw the smarts up close at the Senior Bowl when Sanzenbacher was brought to Mobile as an injury replacement on day two of practice. He walked onto the field and received a crash course on the routes and the passing system that the Bengals used while he was still getting equipment. Fifteen minutes later, Sanzenbacher was consistently the best route runner on the field. He was also one
of the more adept receivers at gaining a release against press coverage in drills. The Bengals coach was effusive with praise with every rep because of Sanzenbacher’s precision and speed.
This skill with routes is nothing new to anyone who watched him at Ohio State. He understands zones and he knows how to fluidly run a route to set up the defense. Sanzenbacher also executes breaks with strong footwork and hip movement. He knows how to avoid jams at the line of scrimmage and his angles on breaks are consistently strong enough for him to get good depth and help his QB make an optimal throw.
Sanzenbacher’s pass catching is just as strong. He adjusts very well to errant throws and he catches the ball well with his hands away from his body. He has the concentration and toughness to rip the ball away from a defender’s hands and he can take a hit in the act of making a catch. As skilled and tough as he is, Sanzenbacher has a thin frame and he’s never going to be a powerful runner or blocker. He’s much quicker than fast and there will be concerns that he won’t be able to hold up to the rigors of the NFL. As good as Austin Collie has been when healthy, some teams might shy away from Sanzenbacher and cite the Colts slot receiver’s injuries as the reason I think that would be a mistake, but some team is likely to get it right. When they do, Sanzenbacher could develop into a good slot receiver. This might limit his upside, but it still makes him worthy of a later pick for the production that could come with the right offensive fit.
Cameron Kenney, OU (6-1,199): Kenney was a JUCO player with too few starts in the Big 12 and overshadowed by Ryan Broyles. I can’t argue that Broyles isn’t a strong prospect in his own right. However, I suggest Kenney’s performance against top-tier prospect CB Prince Amukamara. Kenney was matched against perhaps the best cover cornerback in the nation and his six-catch for 65-yard performance was better than the stats suggest. Amukamara gave Kenney a ton of respect, often playing a significant cushion. When the CB pressed Kenney, the receiver demonstrated the skills with his hands to work away from the press and get open.
Kenney does a fine job of working back to the quarterback and attacking the football from his break. He is also big enough to gain yardage after contact, but quick enough to get downfield and get on top of a defender in press. Kenney adjusts well to the flight of the ball and he has very reliable hands to make plays in tight coverage or impending contact. He might be closer to the ceiling of his potential than some of the other prospects because the pass catching-route running skills are a little more refined than those with better strength, speed, and agility. However, he has enough promise to develop into a productive contributor with starter potential for any system. He’s a fluid football player who can contribute as a receiver, punt return specialist, or even a punter.
Terrence Toliver, LSU (6-3, 212): Toliver is one of those players with immense talent that is easy to spot, but he’s not consistently integrating that skill on the field. He has deep speed, adjusts well to the football, and he runs with good strength and balance. Although he lacks great speed, his initial burst is good enough to get on top of defenders and run by them and he understands how to make late adjustments on deep routes to get open.
When the ball arrives Toliver has the agility to get high or low on less than perfect throws and he flashes the skill to track the ball well and snatch it with his hands. When he gets into the open field he has the quickness to make the first defender miss with a turn, spin, or dip, and he runs with strength for his frame. He doesn’t go down after the first hit when he’s tackled high and he frequently keeps his legs moving after contact.
Toliver has two issues that hold him back. The first is his technique with catching certain passes. He tends to drop passes because he’s not using the correct hand position to secure the pass in relation to its location to his body. This is something he should be able to correct with year of time in an NFL camp. The second issue is effort and it is more difficult to deliver a prognosis, because it’s all up to Toliver to address it. It’s the greatest concern I have for him because his spotty effort is seen in all phases of the game.
He has all of the tools to be a very good run blocker, but he’s slow to move his feet, square the defender, or deliver a punch. When he does get his hands into the defender’s pads they are still frequently too wide to really control the opponent without risk of drawing a holding penalty. I have seen Toliver do everything technically perfect as a blocker so I know when he doesn’t it’s about effort. Toliver needs to work on making sharper breaks with his hip and weight transfer. As a ball carrier he doesn’t run with good pad level and with his nice first step and change of direction he could finish runs more effectively with his balance if his pads were lower.
Toliver also has the size and power to develop into a good route runner against press, but he’ll need to work at this. If Toliver is willing to work, he has starter skills and the upside to become a fine player. If not, he’ll remain a player that flashes moments of goodness couched in disappointing mistakes.
DeAndre Brown, S. Miss (6-5, 233): Brown was often mentioned in the same breath as A.J. Green and Julio Jones when they were all high school prospects. Brown has the hands, height, size, and leaping ability to develop into a starting NFL receiver. His skill sets remind me of a Plaxico Burress-type of athlete.
Brown has worked well against press coverage at the college level and he tracks the ball well enough to make adjustments to errant throws away from his body. He possesses good concentration to catch the ball with his hands and his height advantage helps him highpoint the ball in tight coverage despite a below average vertical leap.
Brown sets up vertical routes and he understands how to play the sideline on these routes to his advantage. He is a smooth runner after the catch although he can sometimes make reckless decisions with his body. When Brown is square to a defender in the run game he has the strength willingness to deliver a punch and work his hands inside an opponent to establish control.
Brown’s greatest nemesis has been his health. He broke his tibia in a 2009 bowl game and he then had a rod inserted into his shin when doctors discovered a subsequent fracture. However, doctors believe Brown will not have a higher likelihood of injury. If he can stay healthy and get better with his routes, I think he’s at least a decent possession receiver.
Keith Smith, Purdue (6-2, 214): Smith had the size and skill combination to elevate his stock if he didn’t suffer a torn ACL and MCL early in the 2010 season. The Purdue senior has the makings of a sound possession receiver with some big-play ability. He catches the football away from his body and he has nice-sized hands to snare the ball.
He had the vertical explosiveness to high-point passes, but he also had the flexibility to adjust to low and away throws. He’s also quick enough to set up angles with dips away from defenders as a runner after the catch.
Smith runs with good balance and uses his body with a reasonable degree of physicality. He drags tacklers for extra yardage, doesn’t go down when hit high, and he has a good stiff arm.
Smith can set up breaks on deep routes, but he’s not very adept at doing this in the short/intermediate range of the field where he has to sink his hips or make a sharp turn inside, outside, or back to the quarterback. He tends to round off his breaks here. Smith’s blocking needs work. He has the size to generate a push and sustain blocks and he often uses his hands well to get a decent reach or shield of an opponent, but he frequently overruns his assignment or allows defenders to run past him that he should have had the awareness to block rather than his initial assignment.
If Smith can return from this significant knee injury and perform close to his pre-injury form, he could be a bargain for a team. However, heading to the draft injured is a difficult position for a receiver. Danario Alexander and Mike Sims-Walker are good examples. Smith tried to avoid this route by petitioning for a sixth year of eligibility, but the NCAA denied his request and he’s forced to go pro.
I believe Smith has the tools to be as good or better than a Jonathan Baldwin or Greg Salas – two receivers in this draft that I think Smith was the optimal blend of what they do well – it’s dependent on his knee. I dropped him to this spot due to the injury, which should indicate I have reasonable confidence in him developing into a quality pro.
Jeremy Ross, Cal (6-0, 209) Ross looks (and runs) like the star high school RB that was converted to a WR. He has a thick lower body and he runs with the power and balance of a halfback in the open field. He flashes a good stiff arm against linebackers and safeties and he runs with a nice pad level to get under contact and uses his powerful legs to run through it.
With his strong open field moves when the ball is in his hands that includes an assortment of stutter steps, jukes, spins, and lateral cuts to get an angle on defenders, I wonder if he shouldn’t be switched back to running back at the NFL level. The fact he didn’t beat out Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen (if given a chance) isn’t necessarily a reflection that he can’t play the position.
If he remains a receiver, Ross has the raw skills to excel. His acceleration is noticeably good and he has the explosiveness to get airborne and highpoint the football. He makes quick turns out of his breaks and he can adjust to the ball high or low.
Ross demonstrates the ability to work back to the quarterback and he understands zone coverage well enough to find openings. His routes against single coverage need more work. He tends to tip off the direction of his breaks and at this point he doesn’t set up or make breaks with the precision of a pro receiver .
Ross catches the football with his hands, but he has a tendency to juggle the ball. This becomes more pronounced when he has to catch the ball with his back to the quarterback and in tighter coverage.
Although a dangerous open field runner, Ross tends to rely too much on the hurdle move, which could get him to trouble. He has enough confidence to use this move in areas where there are too many defenders around to get a shot on him before he lands.
Although very athletic, he doesn’t have the size advantage over most NFL cornerbacks that make other receivers potential assets on the outside. Yet, Ross’ 39-inch vertical leap does compensate for his average height. If he fulfills his potential, he could be a sturdier Steve Smith or Santana Moss.
Ross is second all-time to DeSean Jackson in punt return average at Cal and he has earned five strength and conditioning records. The receiver/runner is an impressive athlete and an intriguing offensive project with a ton of upside. When I see him run, read that he can squat 500 pounds, leap 39 inches, and run a 4.39-40, I see Ross as a halfback. Regardless, he’s a player to remember even if his best chance is initially earn a spot is on special teams.
Jarred Fayson, Illinois (6-0, 207): Fayson was a top-tier prospect that enrolled at the University of Florida with Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. He began his college career as an “athlete,” and after initially returning punts and getting the ball as a runner and receiver in special packages for the Gators, he transferred to Illinois because he liked playing for Ron Zook and wanted a shot to play quarterback. Injuries have held back Fayson’s progress as a player and his most successful stint for the Illini has been as a slot receiver.
Fayson has very good hands. He consistently caught passes thrown away from his body where he had to make adjustments to the football. He exhibits good concentration and he doesn’t seem fazed by the prospect of going for the football in traffic. I like that he makes a strong effort as a blocker. He gets his hands into the defender and he moves his feet well enough to sustain his blocks. He also shows some on-field awareness to shield multiple defenders away from the flow of the play.
Fayson flashes good pad level as a runner after the catch and he is good at setting up angles to beat defenders in the open field. He’ll need to develop his skills against man coverage and learn to defeat press on a consistent basis to stick with an NFL team. Fayson doesn’t sink his hips into breaks or get the right depth on outward breaking routes. If Fayson can demonstrate good quickness/speed and better route skills, he could be a nice find for an NFL team with his size and physical style of play. He’ll need to stay healthy to develop and that has been a problem for him as a collegian.
James Cleveland, Houston (6-0, 205): Cleveland is a very fluid, instinctive football player with a nice combination of physical play and elusiveness in what could be best described as average-sized dimensions for a possession receiver.
Cleveland doesn’t have a lot of experience facing single coverage in the Houston Cougar’s spread offense, but he adjusts very well to the football and he is comfortable working in a tight area of defenders to catch the football. Cleveland understands how to make quick adjustments to his routes to get open for his QB after his initial break isn’t targeted.
After the catch, he has a decent initial burst to get beyond defenders in the open field and he shows enough versatility as a ball carrier to get the job done in the NFL. He can make the first defender miss with a dip, spin, or change of direction. If he has a defender over top, he’ll lower his pads and be the first to make contact.
As long as he proves to a team that he has the necessary physical skills to hit the baselines of what the NFL expects from a wide receiver, he has the skills, on field intelligence, and toughness to become a surprisingly good player. Cleveland might need a year to develop his route and release skills against single coverage and then another year to earn the confidence of his quarterback, but I think he’ll eventually transition into a contributor with statistical relevance if his on- field speed is better than his poor 40-time.