Film Study Boosting Four Players
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Steve Muench's Stock Report
Up: Alabama ILB Don't'a Hightower*
He is unlikely to pass Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict*, Boston College's Luke Kuechley* or Notre Dame's Manti Te'o*, who all project as first-round inside linebackers, but Hightower is doing all he can to improve his overall value. His athletic limitations on passing downs were the biggest knock on Hightower coming into the season, and while he's never going to be great in coverage he is rarely out of position in underneath zone, and he did a nice job of hauling in a tipped pass for an interception against Tennessee.
In addition, Hightower can rush the passer from his inside linebacker spot or off the edge, and he's showing above-average upper-body strength when asked to get after the quarterback. Finally, he continues to be a stout run defender, and at 260 pounds there aren't many lead blockers that can root him out of the hole.
Down: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins
Cousins made strides in his first two seasons as Michigan State's starter, but some disturbing trends are starting to develop. Cousins isn't playing as well late in games or on the road this season, and he hasn't always made sound situational decisions. For example, he tried to force the ball downfield and threw a pick with the Spartans leading by just 10 points late in the fourth quarter at Ohio State, and Cousins hasn't made enough progress in terms of his ability to beat pressure.
It's not a matter of toughness. He's willing to stand in the pocket and take the big hit. His problems stem from trying to do too much. He throws too many off-balance passes and tries to thread the needle a little too often.
Kevin Weidl's Stock Report
I had a chance to see McLellin live in the season-opener against Georgia and have watched more tape since then, and I continue to be impressed. He is a smart, instinctive player who shows a quick first step off the edge, and he uses his hands well as a pass-rusher. McLellin also flashes the ability to bend the edge on the pass rush.
He also has a relentless motor and is constantly working to locate and get to the ball. McLellin didn't get a grade in our preseason evaluations, but he looks like a good fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level and could bring good value in the middle rounds.
Down: Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley
I saw Hosley in person last week at Duke, and it was not his best outing. He took some chances jumping routes that didn't pay off, and he was surprisingly inconsistent playing the ball. His ball skills are normally one of his strengths, but Hosley was late locating the ball on some fade routes, drawing two pass interference penalties and also getting burned once as a result.
Hosley is coming off a hamstring injury and wasn't fully healthy, so that likely affected his play. He's clearly a talented player with quick feet and the ability to transition easily out of breaks, and his change-of-direction skills are also strong. He remains in the second-round range, but he just was not impressive against the Blue Devils. I'm looking forward to seeing Hosley live again on Nov. 17, when he'll hopefully be healthier for a date with North Carolina.
Scouts Inc. Observations
Muench: Organizations looking for short-yardage backs in the middle rounds could be in luck. Tennessee's Tauren Poole, Ohio State's Dan Herron and USC's Marc Tyler fit the bill, and all project in the mid-round range. None is likely to be a big contributor on third down -- Poole's production has dipped and Herron and Tyler have some off-field concerns -- but all are hard-nosed runners between the tackles and could prove to be steals.
Inconsistent offensive line play, instability at quarterback and facing tough defenses make Poole's numbers misleading. Herron has quickly regained his form after being suspended early in the season, carrying the ball 20-plus times and rushing for more than 100 yards in each of his first two games back. He just needs to stay out of trouble and on the field. Injuries continue to plague Tyler, but he showed some toughness playing with a dislocated shoulder against Notre Dame and has the most upside of the three.
Weidl: After no true linebackers were taken in the first round of the 2011 draft -- Von Miller was a 3-4 pass-rusher -- it looks like we could have as many as six come off the board in the first two rounds in 2012. Kuechley fits best on the weak side at this point but could be a Mike linebacker if he adds some bulk, while Burfict is a natural fit in the middle as a violent, downhill thumper. Te'o also shows the skill set of a first-round middle linebacker.
The North Carolina duo of Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown is not far behind with their athleticism and range. Both project at least to the early second round, while Hightower is another true middle linebacker who fits in the middle of the second round right now. Teams seeking a physical presence and/or athleticism and range at the second level will have options early on in the 2012 draft.