How we doin’ gang? At Week 6, we’ve almost reached the halfway point of the regular season for college football. As a fan, it’s tough to believe and even tougher to swallow. But as a draft analyst, it’s exciting. The futile preseason rankings we put out over a month ago? Those persist into the first few weeks of actual play. Jumping at the shadows of Weeks 1, 2, 3 is just shoddy work. And even now, there’s still good reasons those players were ranked where they were before a single ball was snapped.
But we’re in the thick of it now, and you can feel pieces getting moved. Just scroll through NDT’s plethora of recent articles, and you’ll get a feeling for the shake-up: From Director Kyle Crabbs’ recent piece on Trumaine Edmunds through Assistant Director Joe Marino’s thoughts on Uchenna Nwosu’s rise, players previously undiscovered are rising to the top of their respective classes. This will continue throughout the season and deep into the process (think Obi Melifonwu, Haason Reddick, and T.J. Watt), but it’s enjoyable to watch the bloom in real time.
So, let’s talk bloomers. Some names we knew to watch coming in, who have particularly impressed; others who have burst onto the season. If these players can keep rising in Week 6, there’s money to be made come April.
NC State DE Bradley Chubb v. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
“But you just said we’re gonna talk bloomers and we already knew about these players and they’re really good and–“
Take a chill pill, imaginary angry commenter.
Sure, you knew about these two before the season, but most folks didn’t have Chubb as the top EDGE rusher, nor Jackson as the top QB.
“Wait, I had Lamar as QB1 before–“
Bully for you.
The fact of the matter is that both Chubb and Jackson have played like the premiere draftable prospects at their respective positions–the two positions, incidentally, of greatest value to NFL teams. And the struggles that capped their preseason outlooks have been firmly answered in the first five weeks of play.
Chubb was touted in August as an athletically-limited, but savvy EDGE rusher, slotted behind longer and bendier players like LSU’s Arden Key, BC’s Harold Landry, and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. But Chubb’s improved explosiveness off the line, paired with elite hand usage and enough bend to take the corner tight, has illustrated an NFL-level pass rusher.
Some folks enjoy the Derek Barnett comparison, and I see it, but let me give you another. Carl Lawson went painfully under-drafted in 2017, due mostly to injury concerns, but questions about his overall athleticism led a few scouts to overlook his nuanced hand usage, arsenal of pass-rush moves, and stoutness against the run. Chubb and Lawson have significantly different frames and athletic limitations, but some may fool themselves into letting Chubb take a Lawson-esque draft path. Don’t do it, kids.
Chubb will be tasked with containing one of the most dynamic weapons of college football in Lamar Jackson. A runner from the QB position likened to Michael Vick, Jackson’s inconsistent accuracy, light frame, and reckless running style had preseason projections going so far as to put “WR” next to his name.
Those inklings have been firmly put to rest. Improved mechanics have led to greater accuracy, and a larger frame looks more durable. While improvements in footwork, release point, and even more mass will be welcomed, Jackson has single-handedly powered his Cardinals through every game, win or lose. In order to beat a talented NC State squad, on the road, he’ll have to be in top form.
I think Chubb has a day, Jackson doesn’t take over, NC State wins, and we start talking about Chubb as a Top-15 pick.
West Virginia RB Justin Crawford v. TCU LB Travin Howard
I’m as bullish on Bryce Love and Ronald Jones II as RB risers as anyone, but folks, we need to start talking about Justin Crawford. In only in his second year of NCAA play (two years at community college), he’s one of the top senior runners in the country. Late arrival means little hype, but c’mon now. Time to give the guy some love.
In 2016, Crawford worked through a timeshare with Rushel Shell in 2016. Through five weeks of 2017, he’s the undisputed workhorse, on pace for almost 200 carries and 1,500 yards–in both seasons, he’s got greater than 7 yards/carry. The tires oughta be fresh too, given the limited years of FBS play.
Crawford’s got that natural combination of vision and burst that make him a dangerous creator who can manufacture yardage despite sound defensive play. He’s wicked quick in space as well, and he’s ripped off some big runs in his short career. That big-play potential would only grow if he became more involved in the passing game.
Enter Travin Howard, a S/LB hybrid for the Horned Frogs. Howard plays a much more traditional LB role with TCU than I think he’ll be able to handle in the NFL, but his greatest strengths as a LB come when he’s handling quicker backs in space. Howard may have that ‘matchup-eraser’ sort of NFL potential: bring him on the field to cover your opponent’s flex TE or pass-catching RB. In order to push for more playing time, I’d love to see him make more plays when taking on climbing/pulling offensive linemen.
Howard and Crawford will be a chess match all day. Howard will have to fight through contact to take down Crawford between the tackles; Crawford must show some excellent tackle-breaking ability against an athlete like Howard. This West Virginia v. TCU bout is my sneaky fun match-up of the weekend. Y’all know how I feel about the Big 12.
Washington State DL Hercules Mata’afa v. Oregon OT Tyler Crosby
This one is a bit of a stretch. Mata’afa lines up absolutely everywhere for Washington State–which, for a 250 lb player, is pretty extraordinary. Wazzu runs a 3-man front with a ton of slanting, and Mata’afa excels at firing off the line of scrimmage and shooting gaps. He can get skinny, work his hands, and bend just enough to regularly penetrate and disrupt.
Here’s the rub: it’s very unlikely he gets put in a similar situation in the NFL. I would argue it’s essentially impossible. At his size, Mata’afa will be an NFL edge rusher, and the dramatic shift in responsibilities and keys muddies his draft projection. Some eyes that I respect are really high on Mata’afa–other don’t see the skill set translating. But the production (4.5 sacks, 10 TFLs) is undeniable. There’s gotta be potential here.
I want to like Mata’afa, I really do. But he gets ran around the loop far too often, his hands fall idle, and he can’t hold up in the running game at all. Every rep that Mata’afa gets lined up as a 7-tech or wider is crucial for his stock moving forward, as those looks will be limited. He simply must capitalize.
Speaking of players I do really like, Tyler Crosby is playing good football for the Ducks. He’s big, powerful, and balanced. Though his punch is too late for my liking, his grip strength alone ends plays for pass rushers. He climbs and pulls with surprising success, given his average agility, and moves people at will in the run game.
Crosby was certainly a known name coming into the season. However, this offensive tackle has seen some fallers due to injury and poor play. Crosby’s quietly putting together a solid campaign, but that work will only get louder if he can stymie Mata’afa’s surge.
Explosive rushers like Mata’afa should be able to take advantage of Crosby’s poor lateral quickness. If Mata’afa has NFL-quality bend, he’ll be able to beat Crosby to the corner and turn it to generate edge pressure. He should find ways to threaten the inside lane as well, given Crosby’s tendency to over-set. Mata’afa is likely the toughest test Crosby gets all year, and Crosby’s up there for Hercules as well. Money to be made in this one, man.