NFL Draft Stock Report: Spartans' Malik McDowell making a top-3 case
A look at NFL prospects who helped and may have hurt themselves this past weekend
Who helped themselves?
Malik McDowell , DT, Michigan State Spartans , JR. (6-6, 285, 4.92, #4)
With only four tackles and no sacks, box score scouts will say he didn't have an impactful performance in the win over Notre Dame Fighting Irish . But McDowell was a frequent visitor to the Irish backfield, creating havoc and getting the offense off rhythm. Whether lined up on the interior or on the edge, McDowell used various moves to beat blockers, showing off his rare blend of power and athleticism for a man his size.
His length, flexibility and initial surge off the snap puts blockers on skates, but while most bull rushers fall off balance, McDowell is able to detach and collect himself with ease to break down in the backfield. He uses quick lateral movements to sidestep bodies, make himself skinny and leverage gaps, creating instant momentum with his burst.
Not only is McDowell supremely gifted, but he never shuts it down either, competing with infection energy and routinely making stops outside the hashes. This was all on display on Saturday against the Irish, which is why McDowell is my No. 2 overall rated prospect in the country, behind only Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett.
James Washington , WR, Oklahoma State Cowboys , JR. (6-0, 205, 4.56, #28)
Oklahoma State could have easily showed up Saturday unfocused and upset following their "loss" last weekend to Central Michigan. But complacency wasn't an issue as Mike Gundy's squad posted 640 yards of total offense and defeated Pitt, 45-38 in Stillwater. After arguably the worst start of his career, quarterback Mason Rudolph rebounded well against the Panthers with a school-record 540 passing yards, including 296 of those yards when throwing in Washington's direction.
The junior receiver had a 91-yard touchdown reception on the game's first play from scrimmage, setting the tone for a career day with nine receptions for 296 yards and two scores, averaging 33 yards per catch. Washington isn't a size/speed marvel, but he does an excellent job creating space at the top of routes, catching the ball in stride and then creating as a ball carrier - six of his nine receptions went for at least 25 yards. The Oklahoma State spread, pass-happy attack certainly helps, but that shouldn't diminish Washington's production and impact.
Noah Brown , WR, Ohio State Buckeyes , rSO. (6-2, 222, 4.55, #80)
During the summer of 2015, Brown created some buzz as a player ready to break out and have a big sophomore season. But a devastating leg injury sidelined him for all of last year and put his trajectory as a big-play weapon on hold...until this past Saturday. Going into the Oklahoma Sooners game, Brown had only five career catches.
Against the Sooners, he posted five receptions for 72 yards and four touchdowns, including a remarkable one-handed grab behind the defender with two feet in the end zone for the score. Brown displayed excellent chemistry with J.T. Barrett on timing routes, locating the ball quickly and attacking with his hands away from his body.
He tied a school record with his four touchdown grabs and is still getting his legs underneath him after the severe break that cost him all of last season. But with his combination of size, speed and ball skills, along with Barrett's trust in the big target, Brown should continue to develop this season and draw the attention of NFL scouts.
Xavier Woods , FS, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs , SR. (5-11, 219, 4.58, #7)
Yes, Louisiana Tech gave up 59 points to Texas Tech on Saturday, but Woods stood out as one of the few bright spots for the Bulldogs' defense. Although he finished with only four tackles against the Red Raiders, Woods made plays when they were there and showed a versatile skill-set that teams look for at the position.
Against the run, he comes to balance well on the move and maintains a level strike zone in his tackle attempts, wrapping with strong hands and wrists to finish. His speed and tackling skills allow him to be a successful blitzer and also shows on special teams as well. In coverage, Woods does a nice job turning his head downfield to find the ball and make a play, using his body control and hand-eye coordination to undercut routes.
An NFL scout told me the Louisiana Tech coaches rave about his work ethic, preparation and make-up, showing the leadership traits to "get on teammates" when needed. He isn't a household name, but keep Woods on your radar for the 2017 draft class.
Nate Cole , WR, Cincinnati Bearcats , rSR. (6-0, 202, 4.53, #84)
Entering the 2016 season, Cole didn't surpass the 20-reception mark in any of his previous three years at Cincinnati. But through three games as a senior, he leads the Bearcats with 21 catches for 205 yards and four touchdowns, serving as the most reliable target for quarterback Hayden Moore .
Cole isn't the tallest wideout, but has good body thickness and strong hands to win a high percentage of the 50/50 balls thrown his way, attacking away from his body and wrestling the ball away mid-air if needed. He also shows his physicality as a ball carrier, delivering blows and not escaping out of bounds.
Cole isn't the type of start/stop athlete who will consistently create with athleticism alone, but he runs his routes to the proper depth with controlled footwork to give his quarterback a clean window. It has been a small sample size, but through three games this season, Cole has been a pleasant surprise as a senior wideout prospect on the rise.
Who hurt themselves?
Cole Luke , CB, Notre Dame, SR. (5-11, 193, 4.54, #36)
Entering the season with high marks from several scouts, Luke has struggled to live up to those grades, especially Saturday night against the Spartans. And it wasn't just one facet of his game as he received negative marks in coverage and vs. the run.
After Notre Dame jumped out to a 7-0 lead, it went downhill fast for the Irish defense, starting with a 38-yard touchdown to freshman Donnie Corley that sparked Sparty to score 36 unanswered points. On the first MSU touchdown, Luke stayed within arm's length of the receiver down the field and maintained proper position in the end zone as Tyler O'Connor slightly under-threw the pass. Luke jumped and caught the ball mid-air -- but didn't secure the ball cleanly, which allowed the 6-foot-2 Corley to reach over the top of Luke and steal the ball away for the touchdown.
Unfortunately, that was only the start as Luke was victimized on several other plays in coverage, giving up inside position to receivers on slants, displaying undisciplined technique in his transition and drawing a costly pass interference penalty after he was beat badly off the line of scrimmage. He made another inexplicable decision late in the fourth quarter when he left his man free to roam down the sideline, which allowed an easy completion to extend the MSU drive.
Luke also struggled against the run with several missed tackles and other plays that he was unable to make due to his inability to shed blocks. To play the position in the NFL, cornerbacks need to have the mental toughness to forget negative plays so the next few games will tell us how he responds from his forgettable performance against Michigan State.
Other NFL Draft notes
- The young Buckeyes impressed on both sides of the ball Saturday night with several of Ohio State's young talents growing up on the big stage in Norman. But despite Urban Meyer's squad defeating Oklahoma by three touchdowns, it was a mixed bag from several of Ohio State's impact players. Junior MLB Raekwon McMillan (6-2, 240, 4.78, #5) had several misreads against the run and his eyes stayed glued in the backfield too long in coverage. Redshirt sophomore FS Malik Hooker (6-2, 205, 4.57, #24) is a big play ready to happen with his range and toughness, but his spacing in coverage was an issue on several instances. McMillan and Hooker both have very high ceilings as football players, but Saturday night also showed that they are far from finished products from a mental standpoint.
- Ohio State has plenty of flashy skill players, making it is easy to overlook the specialists. But senior PT Cameron Johnston (5-11, 195, 4.84, #95) has been a powerful weapon for the Buckeyes. He currently ranks second in the FBS, averaging 50.6 yards per punt, and also shows terrific accuracy, dropping eight of his 11 punts inside the 20-yard line. On average, only one punter is drafted every year and Johnston is making a strong case to be that prospect next April.
- Staying with the Ohio State-Oklahoma match-up, the Sooners again underutilized their best player - redshirt sophomore RB Joe Mixon (6-1, 217, 4.52, #25). He averaged 8.7 yards per rush and had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown so he certainly made an impact (even though he got away with dropping the ball before entering the end zone). But he had only single digit carries and three targets as a receiver. Mixon has off-field issues that will certainly factor into his draft grade, but he is a gifted athlete for his size with the vision and versatility to impact the game in a lot of different ways. Junior RB Samaje Perine (5-10, 235, 4.57, #32) is a good player in his own right, but why the Sooners don't feed Mixon over and over, makes very little sense.
- Injuries are an unfortunate part of the sport and Saturday reminded us of that fact. Tennessee senior CB Cam Sutton (5-11, 185, 4.50, #23) suffered a fractured ankle against Ohio and might miss the next two months. The Vols best defensive back returned to Knoxville for his senior season to improve his draft status, but will unfortunately miss most of the 2016 campaign. On the bright side, Sutton is expected to return this season, meaning he should be fully healthy for the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine and the rest of the pre-draft process. The news is better for Oregon Ducks junior RB Royce Freeman (5-11, 230, 4.49, #21), who exited Saturday's game against Nebraska in the first quarter due to a right knee issue. The Ducks haven't been too specific about the injury, but he is reportedly day-to-day and it's not considered a serious setback.
- FCS-powerhouse North Dakota State again flexed their muscles on Saturday, upsetting No. 13 ranked Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. However, there was some bad news to come out of the game as senior LB Nick DeLuca (6-3, 245, 4.84, #49) will miss the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury. Despite banging up his shoulder in the opener, he started all three games this season, but the dislocation requires surgery, which will end his season. DeLuca, who received draftable grades from several scouts, was the Bison's best chance at having a draft pick in the 2017 draft class, but he now plans to petition the NCAA for another season of eligibility.
- The last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy was Charles Woodson (1997), largely due to his versatility on offense and special teams. And Michigan has a chance to do it again this season with redshirt sophomore LB Jabril Peppers (6-0, 210, 4.48, #5), one of the best athletes in the country. On defense, he has elite burst and closing speed with the physical nature to explode at contact and create impact collisions. Against Colorado on Saturday, Peppers was all over the field, finishing with nine tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and one sack. And like Woodson, he also showed his versatility on offense and as a return man. He had only two carries, but made the most of them with 24 rushing yards, adding a 40.5-yard average on kick returns and 24.8-yard average on punts, including a 54-yard return for a touchdown. Peppers is a special player and, like Woodson, has a good chance to be a top-10 pick when he enters the NFL Draft.
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