NFL Draft 2014 Risers/Fallers: UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Anthony Barr closing the gap
Nebraska tried with all its might Saturday to avoid UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. The Cornhuskers worked away from him in their offensive sets, especially in the first half, with a quick passing attack designed to prevent Barr from cranking it up as a rusher.
The plan didn’t work.
Barr was named the Pac-12′s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday, after racking up 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and forcing three fumbles in UCLA’s come-from-behind win. With each passing performance like that one, Barr moves closer and closer to cementing his status as a top-10 (and possibly top-five) pick next May. After Jadeveon Clowney, Barr has staked his claim as the top defender in the draft class — and with Clowney struggling a bit in the early going, Barr might be closing the gap.
UCLA’s quarterback, Brett Hundley, is doing the same at his position. The 2014 QB class is Teddy Bridgewater and everyone else at this point, but Hundley may be atop that non-Bridgewater group.
The reasons why were evident Saturday, even if Hundley’s performance was a bit lethargic in the first half. He still finished the game with 355 total yards (294 passing, 61 rushing) and three TDs. Just a redshirt sophomore, Hundley has that exciting dual-threat game that has become all the rage in the NFL, thanks to QBs like Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick.
Hundley may be capable of stepping in next season and delivering the type of impact that those signal-callers did, too. He plays a very smooth game in the pocket, with more than enough athleticism to break contain or execute option plays. Nebraska found out first-hand just how talented he is Saturday, just in case the Cornhuskers did not remember Hundley shredding them last September.
Which other potential 2014 draft prospects answered the ball or fell flat this week?
• Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M: There could be a bunch of players from that Alabama-A&M thriller on here (two made it, as it is). Evans, though, introduced himself to a lot of fans who may not have known just how good he is.
Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards in the Aggies’ loss — a 39.9 yards-per-catch average that was bolstered in a big way by his 95-yard TD grab. He showed his speed off there. Later, he went up and high-pointed a Johnny Manziel lob to come up with a grab at the goal line. As his route-running continues to improve, Evans could become a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
• A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama: There remain limitations and a bit of a ceiling to McCarron’s game. He continues to prove, though, that said ceiling stands a lot taller for him than it does for other QBs. McCarron was 20-for-29 for 334 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in Alabama’s win. It was an outing filled with smart, impressive decisions and even better throws.
McCarron is not going to leapfrog guys like Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Hundley or Tajh Boyd in the 2014 pecking order. But he definitely has an NFL future. Not one of those other quarterbacks mentioned has shown the consistent swagger to win on huge stages like McCarron has time and again.
• Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin: Gordon is in the same boat as Evans — a redshirt sophomore, who might be ready to make the NFL leap after this season. Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, in fact, has been hyping Gordon as the top running back in this class for some time now. It’s not hard to see why more and more people are coming around to the Badgers’ star. He has the smarts to let his reliable Wisconsin blockers set up in front of him, then the breakaway speed to threaten the end zone every time he touches it.
Saturday, he piled up 193 yards on just 15 carries against Arizona State. Gordon is now averaging a remarkable 12.9 yards per carry — and at 37 attempts, the sample size is not all that small anymore.
• DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State: Lawrence is a tough one to gauge, because he keeps piling on to his list of red flags. He sat out the Broncos’ game against Tennessee-Martin on Sept. 7 because of a one-game suspension, his third of the past two seasons. That’s going to be problematic for him come draft time.
What will help the cause is his continued production on the field. With the national spotlight on Boise last Friday night, Lawrence turned in nine tackles, including two for loss, in a win over Air Force. He’s an athletic and disruptive force off the edge, seemingly well-suited for an NFL game that’s evolving into a faster and more wide-open product.
• Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: Sometimes, it’s the quietest performances that speak volumes. Texas Tech’s Eric Ward caught 84 passes total in 2011, 82 last season and entered Thursday’s showdown with TCU having reeled in 16 catches over the Red Raiders’ first two games of ’13.
Verrett absolutely smothered him. Ward finished without a catch for the first time since a November game against Houston in his freshman season. The Texas Tech offense is designed to get its receivers open in a hurry, so Verrett’s ability to stick on Ward throughout the contest highlights what he can do in coverage.
• Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame: That’s two weeks in a row now that Tuitt has been almost totally silent. He did have that diving interception in the end zone against Michigan, but Tuitt finished that game with zero tackles despite avoiding the Wolverines’ Taylor Lewan. Tuitt then followed up that outing with a one-tackle showing against Purdue on Saturday.
Tuitt is way too impressive a player to continue slumping like this, but the Notre Dame defense needs much more out of him and fellow 2014 draft prospect Prince Shembo.
• Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington: Whereas Melvin Gordon’s stock is rising at a position with minimal top-end draft depth, Seferian-Jenkins’ standing has taken a hit in part because the 2014 tight end class is stockpiled with talent. So this start — a one-game suspension followed by a three-catch, eight-yard showing — puts the Washington talent in a bit of a hole.
• Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: Martinez’s first half against Hundley and UCLA was nearly perfect — he threw three TD passes and the Cornhuskers walked to the locker room with a 21-10 halftime lead. The second half was a complete mess, for everyone on the Nebraska sideline.
Martinez did his part to aid Nebraska’s collapse, which turned a 21-3 edge into a 41-21 loss. With the UCLA front pressing him at every turn, Martinez fell back into some troubling patterns: poor decisions, ill-advised attempts to scramble, etc. He also put the ball on the deck twice, though Nebraska recovered both fumbles.
Some draft minds are higher on Martinez’s potential than others. I’d consider him very borderline as a draftable prospect … and Saturday won’t help.
• Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida: Lynch falls into the same boat as Tuitt, his former teammate at Notre Dame. We all know the talent is there, but where is the production? The dynamic edge rusher was supposed to break out after transferring to South Florida. So far, amid an 0-3 start, he has zero sacks and 0.5 tackles for loss. Even though opposing offenses may be paying extra attention to him, those numbers are extremely disheartening.
• Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan: I mentioned Lewan above — he was spectacular against Notre Dame in Michigan’s Week 2. Not so much Saturday, when the entire Wolverines roster seemingly took the day off and nearly fell to lowly Akron. Michigan had trouble all over its line, allowing Akron to slow its run game and consistently pressure Devin Gardner. Lewan was part of the problem, turning in a very average performance, far from what we’ve come to expect from him.
Given the depth at the offensive tackle spot in 2014 (A&M’s Jake Matthews and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio put on a show later Saturday), Lewan needs to put his Akron letdown behind him quickly.