NFL DRAFT 2021: FIVE FROM THE GROUP OF FIVE - WEEK 2
By Rebecca Rennie
There were more games to choose from in Week 2 of the 2020 college season. With much of the remaining Power Five conferences not in action yet, Group of Five football continued it’s opportunity in the spotlight. Among those that caught the eye were a number of interesting defensive prospects:
The selection of games has continued to be relatively sparse to this point, but with some hidden gems. Those tuning in to Tulane against South Alabama contest enjoyed one of the week’s more dramatic and entertaining matchups. It also featured one of the more dominant performances by an NFL Draft prospect from Tulane’s DL standout Cam Sample. During the off-season, Green Wave EDGE Patrick Johnson was highlighted here, but Sample is arguably looking the more enticing prospect.
Sample was a game wrecker throughout, particularly during the second half comeback by Tulane. Prominent playing both the run and pass, he racked up 7 tackles, 3.5 for loss with 2 sacks, 2 QB hurries and a forced fumble. Despite his bulky 280lb frame and modest explosiveness, he consistently caused problems rushing from a 2-point stance.
The powerful defensive lineman stole the show during the final twenty minutes. With Tulane 21-6 down midway through Q3, Sample recorded a TFL and sack on consecutive plays to kill a South Alabama drive. Late on after Tulane took the lead, Sample’s second sack followed by a pressure prevented the Jaguars from mounting a comeback drive. He was close to unblockable for much of the second half of the game.
While Sample isn’t a clear top-level athlete, he moves very well for his size. He frequently shows excellent timing and reactions off the snap plus a good first step to set up his rushes. He makes full use of his impressive strength and powerful frame, attacking into the body as he engages, doing much of his best work at the point of attack. The Green Wave senior gets consistently good extension and punch, working from there to dictate the action.
Sample’s game is more appreciated with the more snaps watched. When let loose to rush the passer he brings the heat and aggression. That should not detract from the sophistication behind his technique, using refined hands alongside the violent strikes to unbalance O-linemen. His finishing particularly stands out, taking down ball carriers with force. Scheme diverse, Sample lines up from multiple spots and from 2- and 3-point stances, effective both outside and inside. He looks to be a high-floor prospect to target on Day 3 of the draft.
JONATHAN ADAMS JR.
Highlight performances don’t come much better than the one Adams put together in Arkansas State’s surprise win over Kansas State. Watching Adams against Memphis the previous week he arguably underwhelmed, despite the undeniable physical traits. He showcased all the potential on offer in his follow up performance however, completely dominating throughout. Adams was a contested catch monster, owning the catch point over the completely outmatched Wildcat DBs.
The physically imposing receiver totalled 8 receptions for 98 yards (12.25 average) and 3 TDs. The performance was better even than the numbers read. Prior to his first score, he nearly secured a spectacular fingertip grab that was just out of bounds. The trouble he creates led to an interference penalty on the crucial 4th down pass on a fake punt that set up the Red Wolves to win; that key moment didn’t register on the stat sheet. Add in some destructive off-ball blocks and it was an all-round commanding showing.
In addition to the sheer size and length on offer, Adams showcased his eye-opening vertical on his first big reception. Combining that lower body explosion with the ability to box out coverage is so difficult to defend. His strong hands were on full display in securing multiple catches outside his frame at full extension.
There remains many areas to work on, however. Adams is undoubtedly still fairly raw, in both technique and execution. There’s much inconsistency in his timing and route running. Though strong and with good top speed, his releases and acceleration are more modest. His footwork and route breaks can also sharpen as part of his development. However, if Adams can be this impactful at his current floor, the potential is unquestionably exciting. More games like the last one, and he’ll be a work-in-progress worth investing in.
Malone was featured here during off-season scouting, following a statistical explosion in 2019. He continued where he left off to begin his senior season with a productive opening performance against good opposition in Louisville. Against an explosive ACC offense, Malone registered 8 tackles with 3.5 TFLs, a sack and a forced fumble. Last season, Malone piled up 99 tackles, 21TFLs, 11.5 sacks and 16 QB hurries.
As noted during summer scouting, Malone is slight in build but finds ways to be much more impactful than as only a situational rusher. Though not notably powerful, he has more strength than expected at his size. What often shows up is a knack for evading or slipping off blocks, finding a path through traffic to the ball carrier. While other smaller players can get washed out or controlled on contact, Malone creates avenues to remain a frequent participant around the action.
Fantastic speed, burst and agility are among his primary assets. His quick-twitch movement and energetic style is backed up by his motor and hustle. Against the Cardinals, Malone came close to scoring a safety on consecutive plays with Cunningham and the Louisville offense backed up on their own goal line. That included knocking the ball loose, with Louisville fortunate to recover.
Malone showed some notable negatives from 2019 film, some of which appear to remain. There’s a tendency to jump upright often out of his stance. While his aggression into the body of opposing linemen is commendable, the high pad level emphasizes the relative lack of power. However, he has nice length in his arms and sharp, fast hand technique to make him tricky to shut down.
There’s a lot to like about the versatility within Malone’s game. He has a variety of different rush moves to string together. He can switch up his attack and keep linemen guessing. His dynamic movement and sharp changes of direction allow him to counter and redirect effectively. The variance extends to lining up at different spots across the front seven. His athletic ability aids him in dropping back into space, looking the part working space and shallow zones.
Malone’s final numbers looked good, but the Hilltoppers edge did have quiet moments through the middle two quarters. His overall impact was evident once again, though. A strong performance against another Power Five team continues to solidify his draft stock. He’s not always the most conventional but clearly has traits that will translate to the pros.
The afore-mentioned Malone was part of our off-season look at Group of Five edge rushers. As a junior, UAB’s Jordan Smith was not listed in that deep group of talent. However, he’s a candidate to leave early for the pros and is another with fantastic upside. The Thursday night contest against Miami feels a long time ago now and had to contend with the NFL opening game for viewership. However, Smith made a number of plays against relatively good opposition in an important game film for his evaluation.
Smith totalled an impressive 9 tackles (5 solo) against the Hurricanes. That included 2 tackles for loss and he added a QB hurry to the stat sheet. It’s worth noting that one of his TFLs was unblocked, and it was a mixed performance overall. He hustled his way into a number of run stops, but also was exploited in the ground game on occasion. He flashed much of the upside he clearly possesses though.
The Blazers’ edge defender immediately stands out with his ideal length and size. He’s by no means too lean currently, yet looks to have plenty room to add further bulk and power. He has the athletic traits to go with his frame, showing a nice first step and upfield burst. He redirects well and looks comfortable working laterally and backward with fluid hips and footwork. Smith covers ground with long strides, gaining depth and closing quickly on ball carriers.
When able to get his leverage right, Smith demonstrates decent power within his frame. A couple occasions saw him drive Miami linemen backward when he got underneath their pads. As with much of his game however, he’s currently inconsistent in doing so. That includes making use of his length by extending into contact and with his overall pad level and form.
Smith is developing some pass rush variety to assist his physical advantages. He tends to take wide and rounded paths into the backfield that result in being taken out of the play or being late to the action. He’s still a work-in-progress with softening the edge and flattening his angle to the QB. His recognition and decision making in the run game will hopefully come with time but can let him down at times.
There aren’t many with his prototypical physical traits though. A former Florida Gator, Smith was part of the credit card fraud incident back in 2017. The former 3-star recruit moved to a junior college before joining UAB. Last season, he totalled 53 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 10 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. Should he decide to leave UAB early, he should prove an interesting pass rush prospect with upside.
There were multiple potential draft prospects on the field during the Tulane South Alabama matchup. Jags linebacker Riley Cole was watched closely as someone with draft buzz as a sleeper prospect. Cole was coming off an active opening game that saw him total 12 tackles in the Southern Miss win. He was unable to replicate that production with just the four stops (2 solo) against the Green Wave.
It was clear to see the reasons for appeal as a prospect. At the same time, there may be certain flaws that might make him a longshot. His lesser tackle total was in part through missing some opportunities during the game. He glanced off a couple tackle attempts, one on a long carry in the open field, another up the middle on a QB draw in the red zone. On Tulane’s game-winning touchdown run, Cole got owned physically by the center driving him out of the play to open the running lane.
Already relatively undersized for the position, the limited power is a concern, being outmuscled too often. It’s worth noting however, that Cole has been a much more consistent finisher in the tackle in other performances. He has plenty of other positives to his game regardless. Cole is an excellent combination of intelligence, technique and smooth athleticism. He moves well in all directions, navigating space efficiently with good angles taken.
The former 3-star is a plus player in pursuit, chasing everything down with a great motor. Spending plenty of his time in coverage, the Jaguars senior takes up good positions and is quick to react and take off toward the action. The Tulane game may not have been his best performance, but he has traits to work with, a great work ethic, high football IQ, loads of starting experience and a polished game. Those positives could see him make a roster, or at least a practice squad spot.
Feature Image Credit: Tulane Athletics