Like we did last year, we will take an in-depth look at some of the most talked-about NFL draft prospects from each week. Below, NFL Draft expert Matt Richner recaps Week 4 and looks ahead to Week 5. As the season progresses, we will highlight prospects who are rising up the draft boards along with others who are starting to fall off the radar due to their poor performances.
In what has become an annual tradition to step away from the Prediction Machine Draft center (ok, it's just my home office) and onto the road to see some of the nation's top players, this past weekend I went back to Lincoln, NE to watch Miami vs. Nebraska in a matchup of two of the nation's top rated running backs.
Before we get to the game, I just want to take a moment to share with you how unique the Nebraska football experience is. Having attended games from coast to coast and in different conferences and venues across the country, I would rank the Nebraska game day environment as the best in the country.
The people and crowd are friendly and are as warm and welcoming as your favorite grandparent. The fans inside the stadium are knowledgeable and passionate for their team, proven by their record setting 336 consecutive sellouts. The tunnel walk before the game brought the house to their feet (all 91,585 of them) and made the whole stadium rock. The energy from kickoff to the final whistle was endless. My hat goes off to the Nebraska faithful, you are one of a kind and it was truly an honor to watch another game in Memorial Stadium.
Player of the Week: Ameer Abdullah (RB, Nebraska):
One of the most impressive all-around performances I have witnessed in person from a running back, Abdullah proved that despite the fact he is 5'9” and 195 pounds, he can still carry the entire Nebraska offense to a victory.
Only a two star recruit out of Alabama, he was overlooked because of his size as both Auburn and Alabama failed to see his true talents.
On almost every carry Abdullah made at least one defender miss and was able to make a few would-be tacklers just look ridiculous, leaving them flat footed and in some cases, falling backwards. He doesn't take a lot of hits straight on and he can overpower linebackers. His small stature allows him to get low and compact while bouncing off tackles like a pinball
The majority of Abdullah's rushing attempts were in between the tackles. He can get low, hide behind his blockers and just when you think he has gone down, he is able to find just enough room for a big gain. Abdullah had 35 carries for 229 yards and 2 TD. The most impressive stat of all is that he only had one carry for negative yards (-1) for the entire game.
In pass protection, Abdullah showed toughness when taking on would-be pass rushers. He had a few cut blocks that were successful and when needed, he made himself a target as a check down option. He had one reception for three yards and a touchdown.
Abdullah's speed and short area quickness make him dangerous in almost any situation. Defenses have to worry about losing him in traffic. While he will be compared to Darren Sproles because of his height during draft time, if Abdullah can gain 1,377 rushing yards during the rest of the season, he will tie Sproles career rushing yard mark.
Duke Johnson (RB, Miami):
It's really too bad that Miami doesn't have a quarterback and some other talented skill position players to take some of the responsibility of carrying the offense off Johnson's shoulders. With the exception of tight end Clive Walford, Johnson is the only real difference maker for the Hurricanes on offense.
Limited to only eight games last season due to an injury, Johnson is not the biggest back at 5'9” and 206 pounds. He was able to put on some extra weight during the offseason to better withstand the beating a workhorse running back takes throughout the season.
Against Nebraska, Johnson was the center of the Hurricane offense. He was their leading rusher and second leading receiver. He finished the game with 18 carries, 93 yards, and 1TD. As a receiver, he recorded five receptions for 84 yards.
Johnson displayed excellent vision, perfectly suited for a zone blocking scheme, seeing the cut back lanes and quickly getting up field. A tough runner, he doesn't shy away from contact and won't go down with just an arm tackle. He fights through contact and is always looking to pick up extra yards after contact.
Miami put Johnson out wide as a receiver on a few occasions. He created an instant mismatch when facing a linebacker in coverage. He does a good job of not letting the ball into his body and catching it away from his chest.
Nebraska is one of the toughest teams in the nation against the run, allowing just 116 rushing yards per game. The Nebraska defense routinely stacked the box against the Hurricanes making it difficult for Johnson to find any room to run.
Johnson did have one costly fumble, which resulted in a Nebraska recovery and touchdown. As he was going to the ground, he extended the football and it was knocked out of his hands
. Johnson has a handful of fumbles throughout his career and scouts will question his ability to hold up to the size and speed of the NFL. He can help erase some of these doubts by improving his ball protection.
Randy Gregory (DE, Nebraska):
With a lackluster performance to start the season and a knee injury forcing Gregory to miss a game, it was imperative that he have a big game. Through two games, he failed to record a sack or a tackle for loss. A JUCO transfer, Gregory has only nine games left to erase any doubts in scouts minds that he can be a dominant player at the next level.
Last season, Gregory burst onto the national scene with 9.5 sacks, 19 TFL, 66 tackles, and 1 INT. He led the conference in sacks last season, finishing tied for 19th in the country in total sacks. A dynamic athlete off the edge at 6'6” and 240 pounds, Gregory can hold his own at the point of attack and he showed the ability to outmuscle the Miami offensive tackle.
Gregory's biggest asset is his speed off the edge; he is capable of almost getting around the tackle without his opponent getting a hand on him. During one of the more impressive plays of the night, Gregory took a few steps inside on a zone read run. In most cases, the quarterback keeps the ball and is able to scramble for a big gain. Gregory displayed the quickness and agility to recover and make the tackle, allowing only a minimal gain. Few defensive ends in the country can recover as quickly as he was able to.
He finished the game with 7 tackles, 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble. His forced fumble on Duke Johnson led to a recovery and touchdown for Nebraska.
I'm not sure if he is routinely able to get under the skin of his opponents, but he did against Miami. During the second half Gregory was involved in multiple scuffles and skirmishes, but he held his composure and didn't get a personal foul penalty called.
At 6'6” and 240 pounds, Gregory has the versatility to line up as a traditional 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, which will allow him to move up to the top of most team's draft boards. He has the athleticism, speed, quickness, and intangibles that most teams covet from a premier pass rusher.
Now that he has a couple of sacks under his belt for 2014, Gregory will need to continue to show scouts that he can be a consistent difference maker for the rest of the season.
Players to Watch This Week
Trey Flowers (Arkansas):
Though he decided to return for his senior season, Flowers was given a mid-round grade by the NFL Draft board last year. Flowers will have an excellent opportunity this week to show scouts that he is more than just a mid-round prospect. Against A&M, Flowers will be matched up against All-American tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, the top offensive tackle in college football. Flowers has only has one sack this season; he can make a big impression on scouts if he can record a couple against Ogbuehi.
Shane Ray (DE, Missouri):
Only a redshirt junior, Ray has had to wait his turn while sitting behind Kony Ealy and Michael Sam during the past couple of years. It is Ray's turn to shine this season. He has made the most of his opportunities so far, recording five sacks and is currently leading the nation with 9.5 TFL through four games. At 6'3” and 245 pounds, he isn't the big-bodied run stuffer seen in most traditional 4-3 defensive ends. He has the quickness and agility to make himself small and get underneath opposing tackles' reach. Ray, along with teammate Markus Golden, are two of the best pass rushers in college football. Watch for them to cause some havoc in the backfield versus South Carolina this weekend.
Marcus Peters (DB, Washington):
There was a lot of preseason hype for Marcus Peters; some thought he might just be the best cornerback in college football. Unfortunately for Peters, he hasn't quite lived up to the hype so far this season. He had a bad game against Eastern Washington University, allowing a couple of touchdown receptions. He was suspended one game for an undisclosed reason. This weekend Peters will be matched up against Stanford's top wide receiver threat, Ty Montgomery. Montgomery is a bigger and more physical wide receiver than Peters is used to seeing. Last year Peters was able to hold Montgomery to three catches for 56 yards and one touchdown. Scouts will be watching this matchup to see who comes out ahead. If Peters can shut Montgomery down, it will go a long way to encourage scouts to overlook some of this season's earlier mistakes.