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Draft Tip Sheet: Georgia Tech WR U; Poe, Barron, Crick updates

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

Even with the prospect of having a second player in three years selected at the position in the first round, and the third in six drafts, no one is ready yet to anoint Georgia Tech as "Wide Receiver U."

But it is more than unusual, especially with the offense that coach Paul Johnson operates, to have such success in placing pass-catchers in the early rounds of the draft.

Calvin Johnson as the second overall choice in 2007? That one is certainly understandable, and has worked out swimmingly for the Detroit Lions.

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But Johnson played under Chan Gailey for the Yellow Jackets, and not in Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, which has finished no worse than fourth in the country in rushing yards since the coach arrived in 2008, and has ranked either first or second in each of the past three campaigns.

The rush-heavy offense notwithstanding -- the run has accounted for nearly 73 percent of Tech's offense in Paul Jonson's four seasons, and more than three-quarters of the snaps, and the Yellow Jackets have averaged only 167.0 passes per year in that stretch -- Stephen Hill figures to be picked in the first round. Just as Demaryius Thomas was by Denver in 2010.

Hill and Thomas are tremendous examples of NFL scouts projecting talent, no matter the college offense in which they played, to the league level. But they also are, in addition to being players who will help Johnson recruit receivers who might otherwise be reluctant to perform in such a ground-based attack, good examples of how downfield blocking can help to accentuate a wideout's total skill set.

Make no mistake, Thomas was chosen in the first round by the Broncos (No. 22 overall) and Hill figures to get into the first round on April 26, because each is big, fast, and catches the ball well. But the downfield blocking ability of the two Tech players figured into the equation somewhere.

Notable is that Hill caught just 43 passes his past two seasons. Thomas had 85 grabs his final two years.

"It doesn't hurt," Hill said last month when asked about the blocking. "I think it helps to (dispel) some of the (diva) image that wide receivers have. It's something you have to want to do. The natural thing at the position is to want to catch passes. But here, if you don't block, you're not going to play. It's part of what you buy into when you come here. And I do think it makes an impression (on scouts)."

In fact, at Hill's pro day workout, the scouts who gathered on the Tech campus were far more concerned about his route-running skills, since they were a bit difficult to discern given the offense in which he played. What they found was that Hill, who has blistering speed in the low 4.4 range, is quick in and out of his cuts. What the scouts already knew was that Hill is unselfish and willing to perform the "grunt" tasks that others might avoid.

And, it seems, he's not the only such receiver this year.

The Sports Xchange noted in passing last week that the pool of wide receivers in the 2012 draft class was, as a group, relatively solid in terms of blocking for the run. In addition to Hill, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd has been noted as a standout downfield blocker. LSU's Rueben Randle has garnered mixed reviews for his blocking, but most scouts seem to feel he is above average. Among the highly-regarded wide receivers, Kendall Wright of Baylor is cited as a willing blocker. Some of the middle- and late-round candidates are also mentioned as good blockers by scouts, and not all of them possess great size, but do have obvious tenacity.

Again, teams aren't likely to invest even a late-round selection on a receiver based principally on his blocking prowess. But, as one NFC area scout noted: "Hey, it is part of the job description, you know? It still jumps out at you when guys do it."

And even with the "spread" offenses becoming so prevalent at the college level, more receivers seem to be doing it.

"I don't care where you play," Randle said, "you aren't going to see many long runs without a (wide receiver) blocking somebody down the field. It's almost as if it's become a lost art, and scouts are surprised when they see it. It's an effort thing ... and people want to see effort."

Draft notebook

 Although there is only a little more than a week to go until the first round, and draft boards for most teams have been fairly solidified, some prospects are still being much debated in war rooms, and few more so than Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe.

As noted here last week, and by several other draft-related sites, Poe isn't particularly productive on tape. But the equally-discussed element of his game is whether Poe, who has almost exclusively played in a 4-3 front, can transition to 3-4 nose tackle. "He's not classic," said the general manager of a 3-4 team. "If you want a guy to just eat up blockers, and not worry about the other stuff ... I don't know if he's the guy."

Then again, Baltimore tackle/end Haloti Ngata, the veteran to whom Poe is frequently compared, is hardly a nose tackle, and he's been chosen to the Pro Bowl four times.

 Unlike a year ago, when the talent pool seemed chock-full of five-technique defensive end possibilities for 3-4 fronts, there aren't a lot of candidates for the 2012 draft.

One guy who is getting attention, and who might have worked himself up to the third round, in part because of the thin crop at the position is Jared Crick of Nebraska.

The former Cornhuskers' standout has some injury concerns, and at 279 pounds at the combine, isn't nearly as bulky as some teams would prefer as a 3-4 end.

But Crick, who ran under five seconds in Indy, is deceptively strong, can hold the point, and really uses his hands well to get rid of blockers.

At 6-feet-4 1/4, he might not be able to hold a lot more weight, and a lot of teams project him more as a 4-3 guy who can move inside on third down, but he has some natural 3-4 skills, and is getting play as such.

 There don't seem to be many players jumping up boards around the league as much as Alabama safety Mark Barron has the past few weeks.

Although solidly in the first round all along, Barron was thought to be a prospect more in the 20s,but might go off the board more toward the halfway point of the stanza now.

There just aren't that many safety prospects overall -- and Barron certainly is the only one who merits first-round consideration -- and he is gaining momentum. The former Crimson Tide standout seems to have answered all the physical questions, after having undergone hernia surgery earlier in the spring. While he still isn't great against the pass, teams like his toughness, smarts and versatility.

 Perhaps the cornerback equivalent to Barron is South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore, who was highlighted by The Sports Xchange last month.

Big and quick, and able to play a variety of styles, Gilmore could suddenly be the No. 2 corner on a lot of boards, with the dropoffs of Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama and North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins. What has helped Gilmore, among other things, is that some "cover two" teams that have worked him out in recent weeks are more convinced he can fit into that scheme.

Sometimes a hit-and-miss tackler, Gilmore nonetheless doesn't avoid contact and will support the run, a key attribute in the cover two.

 Keep an eye, too, on the Clemson defensive line duo of end/linebacker Andre Branch and tackle Brandon Thompson.

Each can line up at multiple positions -- a few teams actually feel Thompson might be best as a 3-4 end -- and both have had individual workouts for several franchises in the past two weeks. The second round is the most likely landing spot for the Clemson standouts, but it wouldn't be all that shocking to see one of them, Branch in particular, sneak into the first round.

 No inkling yet about who might replace the deposed Steve Hale as CEO and president of the annual Senior Bowl college all-star game in Mobile, Ala., but some locals are pushing hard for Philadelphia Eagles personnel consultant Phil Savage to at least consider the post.

A Mobile native, Savage is a longtime and widely respected league personnel man, was general manager in Cleveland (2005-2008), and a key member of Ozzie Newsome's top-shelf scouting staff in Baltimore for many years.

Hale was ousted last month after 19 years of running what is arguably the most conspicuous of the college postseason contests.

 Quick kicks: Some of the smaller-school cornerbacks, who seemed to be so fashionable only a few weeks ago, appear to be dropping on draft boards. There is a chance now that few, if any, will go off before the third round. ... Brandon Brooks of Miami (Ohio) isn't the only small college guard to get attention. He won't be drafted nearly as high as Brooks, who is likely to be the first non-combine player off the board, perhaps as early as the third round, but Gino Gradkowski of Delaware figures to be in the sixth or seventh round now. The main concern with Gradkowski is a lack of lower-body bulk. ... Defensive lineman Chigbo Anunoby has been fairly impressive in individual work and could be the second player from Morehouse drafted in the past three years.

 The last word: "I'll go anywhere, but you want the teams that didn't take you to wish they did." -- Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, expected to be a top five pick in the draft, but probably affected a bit by the NFL's trend to not take running backs as high in the lottery in recent years


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