The analysis you typically see here and at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio is based on layers of analytical work. Processes with meticulously-defined details that are carefully weighted undergird my film observations and projections.
Yet, to be honest, I often have strong gut feelings about what I observe on the football field. What's difficult to explain is whether all of the analytical word has enhanced or sharpened that intuition or if the intuition operates independent of the tens of thousands of hours spent studying the game over the past 15 years.
There's a story that former NFL and college head coach Dave Wannestedt saw a handful of plays from Dion Lewis' high school tape and told the Pitt staff to award Lewis a scholarship. To a critic of Wannestedt's record as a head coach, this would be an anecdote used to criticize the man's process.
To someone who has spent a lot of time in a film room, Wannestedt's story has merit. If an individual watches football in a systematic fashion for thousands of hours, the idea that the brain begins to process the the details of the methodology fast enough that it begins to recognize what it needs to see more efficiently.
The problem is that we don't know the quality of the process. The methods Wannestedt used to learn about offensive and defensive line play could be great and had a direct impact on what matters for running backs.
On the other hand, Wannestedt might have gaps with what he knows about route running and it makes his intuition about receivers, quarterbacks, and defensive backs less reliable.
An observer's intuition could also be limited to a style of player at specific positions. Wannestedt might have had a better feel for scat backs with between-the-tackles expertise like Lewis because he spent thousands of hours observing Emmitt Smith but he can't identify a big back this way.
This isn't to say Wannestedt or anyone evaluating player performance leans on a handful of plays to provide a complete report on a prospect. However, there are what Footballguy and RSP contributor Mark Schofield terms, "put-the-pen-down moments," where you see a player execute enough intricate and/or important details during a play that you know the player has NFL ability.
We shared a few about Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in this YouTube video (bookmark it for later...).
The first time I saw Patrick Mahomes II, I had finished studying a game recorded on my DVR and as I was finishing up my report of the player, a bowl game between LSU and Texas Tech was playing in the background. Before I started the report, I saw Mahomes make throw that caught my attention and about 10-15 minutes later, I saw other.
At that point, I remember letting out a big sigh as I said, "Oooh boy...." and turned off the television. I couldn't wait to see more, but I knew it wasn't the time. Mahomes was a more than a year away from draft eligibility and I had a lot of work to do for the current year's class. If I kept watching it, I knew I'd be sidetracked and would want to watch as much Mahomes tape as I could get my eyes on.
This has happened with a number of players. Some that come to mind include former Giants wide receiver Steve Smith, Adrian Peterson, Preston Williams, and Alexander Mattison. There were also players who required methodical study to arrive at an accurate but dissenting conclusion from the crowd, including Matt Forte, Marqise Lee, Mitchell Trubisky, Darren McFadden, Lamar Jackson, and Russell Wilson.
This post features analysis "from the gut" about 10 players. Regardless of whether this analysis coincides or differs from my projections and rankings, it's adds another dimension to these players that I'll use as a tiebreaker if and when the opportunity exists to draft them in a re-draft or dynasty setting.
10-8. Atlanta's Waiver-Wire Trio: RB Qadree Ollison, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, and TE Jared Pinkney
Unless injuries strike between now and a week before the season, it's unlikely that you'll be drafting any of these players in any format but the deepest of dynasty league leagues. All three offer enough skills to not only contribute in the Falcons' lineup but potentially in a fantasy starting lineup.
A 6-1, 228-pound banger, Qadree Ollison was my 29th-ranked back in the 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. His 76.6 Depth of Talent Score in the publication places him in the range of players capable of contributing for an NFL team and, potentially developing into a starter.
The difference between Ollison's score of 76.6 and the No.13 runner, Bennie Snell is 2.2 points. Strictly looking at Ollison through the spectrum of the RSP analysis, those 2.2 points mean a lot and it could be the difference of 1-3 facets of running back play that matter greatly.
However, there are exceptional cases where the difference comes down to the type of plays one sees from the player on film and it may exclude interactions that would have helped the player raise his score. I thought this was the case with Ollison's contact balance and power that was on greater display during his first season with Atlanta.
What I watched Ollison at Pitt, I saw a lot of Arian Foster to his game.
A lot of people celebrated Devin Singletary's feel, toughness, and vision last year. Ollison has a lot of what Singletary has and he's quicker, stronger, faster, and bigger. He's a coach's son and you see that he's absorbed by the game when watching how fast he made decisions as a first-year player.
It's why he earned red-zone duties last year and scored four touchdowns on 22 attempts as a rookie, out-scoring Brian Hill, who was touted as the talk of 2019's training camp. UDFA rookies don't usually earn red-zone opportunities unless they show that IT factor enough that coaches trust them.
Ollison is a good fit for a zone scheme and if Todd Gurley can't last the year, expect Ollison to earn more red-zone opportunities, if not become a surprisingly effective lead back in a Falcons committee.
Olamide Zaccheaus is the third-best vertical receiver on the team behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. He's also an excellent open-field option who played a scat back and return specialist role at Virginia. Dropped passes were the bugaboo that sank Zaccheaus' draft value, but he didn't show this trouble throughout training camp in 2019 and he earned the trust of veteran passer Matt Schaub throughout scrimmages and preseason games as an option to target one-on-one against cornerbacks.
Justin Gage is getting the love as Mohamed Sanu's replacement and he has developed incrementally to earn that opportunity. My gut tells me to keep an eye out for Zaccheaus taking another step in year-two and posing a significant challenge for Gage's role.
Two reasons why Pinkney fell out of the 2020 NFL Draft that are easy to identify is his diminished stats in 2019 and his testing didn't match early-round standards. One reason that I have a feeling added an anchor to his draft stock is the idea that Pinkney doesn't "have the dog in him."
When a player doesn't exhibit physical and mental toughness or that somehow becomes the perception of the player, scouts and coaches scatter from the scene. However, we also know that coaches and scouts often exhibit poor judgment when evaluating these soft skills.
Based on what I've seen from Pinkney, his toughness should not be in question. He's been bent in ways that few tight ends get up from and continue performing. My gut feeling is that Pinkney had a difficult year with a struggling college quarterback and had some moments that he'll grow from.
I also have a feeling that Hayden Hurst may not be the answer that many of my peers expect him to be in Atlanta. He's an excellent athlete, but he couldn't take away playing time from Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle. Pinkney is a good blocker, a tough player at the catch-point, and a tough player to bring to the ground once he generates momentum.
In deep dynasty formats, I'm often drafting Pinkney late because I have a feeling he'll be a factor within the year.
7. WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, Cleveland
Donovan Peoples-Jones' game is far better than his production. He's not a complete receiver, but he does enough things at a high level that he should emerge as a contributor in Cleveland's offense sooner than later.
His profile presents one of the significant challenges with scouting talent. When and where does a scout favor athletic and motor talents ahead of technical and conceptual skills?
Every evaluator who has spent a lot of time and reflection on their craft has vacillated on this topic. Peoples-Jones was my 22nd-ranked receiver in the 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
Based on the way I've changed the scoring for the publication for the 2021 NFL Draft, he's one of the few 2020 prospects who might have a significantly different score if I used the 2021 system in 2020. I note the phrase "might have" because his projected 2021 score presumes that his 2020 score would translate to 2021 in a 1:1 fashion that is not 100 percent likely.
Still, the fact that Peoples-Jones is one of the few outliers whose score could have changed dramatically matches my gut feeling about Peoples-Jones' moments that stuck out the most on film.
His ball-tracking, body control, vision of the field, and skill as a finisher with the ball in his hands stood out to me. His technique as a route runner may never become elite with every route in the tree but he'll be effective with enough routes that I've found myself drafting him in a number of dynasty formats this spring because he fell far enough to be a value.
Cleveland won't be leaning as much on three- and four-receiver sets as it has in recent seasons. We'll see a lot more sets with two and three tight ends. However, Jarvis Landry is recovering from hip surgery and he's closing in on 30 years of age. Peoples-Jones is dropping far enough in dynasty drafts to consider as a flier. He's also worth monitoring for waiver wires in re-drafts.
6. RB Jacques Patrick, Bengals
The XFL lasted five weeks and once it ended, the Cincinnati Bengals signed Jacques Patrick to its roster. Patrick earned a tryout with the Cleveland Browns after the 2019 NFL Draft but the Browns were loaded at the top of its depth chart with established talent.
This was the only team interested in Patrick, who didn't earn an immediate offer from an NFL team during the first 1-2 weeks after the draft. He should have.
Patrick and I almost did an RSP Film Room in May 2019 on his game because he reached out to me after seeing my analysis of his play.
My fellow NFL Draft Fiends (and you are fiendish), if there was ever a theme for this running back class it's "Not how fast you run but how fast you can stop."— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) March 10, 2019
FSU Jacques Patrick is one of many who does this well. Excellent feet for the 6'1", 231-lb. RB.
Patrick was the RSP's 10th-rated runner in 2019's pre-draft publication and a player I expected to become a contributor for an NFL team within 2-3 years. He's a good receiver who could earn the big-back role in this offense if Joe Mixon holds out and the massively talented Rodney Anderson can't stay healthy.
I have a gut feeling that the Bengals will need to mine its depth this fall and Patrick has the talent to thrive as one of the lone survivors.
MyFantasyLeague.com has Patrick labeled as a rookie because he didn't stick with an NFL team before training camp in 2019 so if you have a deep draft, he's worth consideration.
If the Mixon holdout happens, take a summer flier on Patrick in dynasty leagues while you can bloat your rosters with fringe guys.
5. TE Albert Okwuegbunam, Broncos
The tight end position is one of the most difficult in the game, because it often calls for the player to be a wide receiver, offensive lineman, and fullback. The elite options can do so and they're among the most impressive athletes in sport.
However, I get the feeling that we err on the side of discounting the production potential of players who don't check every box that the Travis Kelce's, George Kittle's, and Zach Ertz's check. I get the feeling that we've nitpicked Okwuegbunam far beyond what he deserved, and Denver's offense will make the league pay for it.
Noah Fant may be the starter in Denver but he's not as dynamic at the catch-point as Okwuegbunam and doesn't have the same feel for open zones. There are a lot of loose threads to Fants' game that he must address or he's in danger of becoming one of dozens of excellent athletes who flash at the position but never put it all together.
Okwuegbunam's rapport with Drew Lock from their years together at Missouri will challenge Fant's place in the offense's pecking order if Fant doesn't not improve his techniques with hand placement at the catch-point and finding openings in zones when the first route doesn't break open. Okwuegbunam is better at these two important facets of receiver play as an incoming rookie than Fant was last year.
After studying Okweugbunam and publishing my scouting report on him, I noted a few evaluator's noting issues with detailed techniques as a blocker and route runner that I don't think will be as important to his success and failure on the field as it is to the success and failure of the overal scouting report grades.
If this feeling is correct, Okwuegbunam will place a lower ceiling on Fant's short-term potential in Denver and could lead to Okwuegbunam earning the second contract that many though would go to Fant.
Some times we over-analyze players and this might be on of those prospects.
4. WR Hakeem Butler, Cardinals
DeAndre Hopkins will be the leading receiver in Arizona this year. Larry Fitzgerald will still challenge Christian Kirk for the second-most receptions and yards among the starting members of the corps. But is the Cardinals' scheme set up to lean hard on one option?
I don't think so. Last year, Fitzgerald and Kirk were the top two options while the rest of the depth chart combined for 95 receptions, 1,090 yards, and 4 scores. I have projected 96 catches, 1.098 yards, and 6 scores for Hopkins in 2020 and took a little off the top from Fitzgerald's 2019 production to get thee.
Murray delivered 3,700 passing yards as a rookie and while it's possible the Cardinals quarterback earns a big jump in passing production, I have him at just under 4,100 yards. The line doesn't project to make a huge improvement and outside of Hopkins, most of the surrounding skill talent remains the same.
The other exception is Hakeem Butler. The rookie didn't make a lot of noise in last year's training camp and before he could potentially work his way into the rotation during the season, he suffered a season-ending hand injury.
At best, he earns an incomplete grade for his rookie year. Naysayers will point to the lack of buzz during the summer. The same is true to various degrees with Darius Slayton, A.J. Brown, and other young talents going back to the recent past of Odell Beckham Jr, Jr..
Training camp reports are a problematic way to get nuanced observation of a player because the beat writers provide analysis based what they saw in the moment and it's far less reliable than what they might see if they had time, and were encouraged, to analyze tape of the practice.
At his worst, Butler's game has similarities to Kenny Golladay. Neither currently excel against press coverage but both are physical, fluid, and coordinated at the catch-point and break tackles in the open field. Both can win in the vertical game and earn strong production from the slot in three- and four-receiver sets where coaches can create mismatches.
The Cardinals like to spread the field and using four-receiver and empty sets would allow them to place Butler in terrific spots for big plays. I have Butler projected for 28 targets, 12 catches, and 160 yards. If the Cardinals' offense generates significantly more passing offense than it did last year, I have a feeling Hopkins and Butler's presence are the reason why—and it could mean 500-600 additional yards to Butler's projected totals.
3. WR Laviska Shenault Jr, Jaguars
Shenault is the scariest player from the 2020 NFL Draft class. He's an incomplete receiver who has had three surgeries within a calendar year—a daunting resume for prospective NFL teams because didn't want to waste a pick on a prospect who can't stay healthy enough to develop his immense promise.
And that promise is immense, which scares NFL teams because if he stays healthy and plays to his potential, he could be the most productive wide receiver to emerge from this vaunted group. Receivers like Peoples-Jones, Michael Pittman Jr, and Antonio Gandy-Golden have the potential to become good starters thanks to 3-4 things they do well.
Shenault has the lower-body flexion, speed, quickness, stop-start ability, and hand-eye coordination to become a complete receiver who also happens to outleap, run over, and run around opponents.
Need Shenault to play small-ball? He can run quick-hitting slot routes and make the first and second man miss for extra yards.
Need Shenault to out-position and power-through in a one-on-one coverage situation? He can don his Dez Bryant hat and be the power forward.
Need Shenault to win the intermediate routes or go deep? He can give you a taste of Julio Jones on the perimeter.
The Jaguars hit big on D.J. Chark Jr and they have a good receiver coach in Keenan McCardell who was in the league just recently enough to relate to his young players and set an example. Jacksonville has a pretty good receiver corps and it's on the verge of solidifying its quarterback situation. Shenault could be that final piece to the skill positions on this offense that can get this team back to the playoffs.
While there's a lot of conversation about Shenault earning gadget work as a rookie, I have a feeling that he'll take over the flanker spot sooner than anticipated and be a less productive version of 2019's A.J. Brown. He's not early as refined as Brown but the athletic ability and diversity of the Jaguars offense will help Shenault shine where he's utilized.
2. RB Boston Scott, Eagles
Miles Sanders is a fantasy favorite as the player who takes the next step into the top-10 of fantasy-performing running backs. What's missing from this prognostication is a strong rationale about how this is going to happen.
The Eagles were not naturally built to roll 100 percent with gap-style blocking. Few NFL teams are because it's a style of play that often broadcasts its intentions and forces the opponent to stop them.
There's still enough of a gap in athletic ability to for college football programs to built a physically-dominant line that can play bully ball. Not so in the NFL. Most teams have to run a mix of zone and gap if they're going to run any gap plays at all.
Many forget that last year, the Eagles were a zone-heavy team but Sanders could not execute the plays well enough to generate the efficient gains we saw from Jordan Howard in the same situations. Philadelphia had to change its game plan and incorporate more gap plays to get more from Sanders.
It often takes 2-3 seasons for a runner to get a feel for the zone game, if they do at all. It means that Philadelphia either believes it can dominate with a high percentage of gap runs or there will be other backs involved in a committee where Sanders is the lead back but not earning enough touches to earn RB1 fantasy production.
In addition to the fact that I have been an original member of the Boston Scott fan club, I have a feeling Sanders' lack of development as a zone runner is a significant reason why the Eagles have discussed there would be a much bigger role for Scott in 2020.
Scott is a skilled zone runner who also catches the ball well from the backfield. He has the low center of gravity to work between the tackles and the burst, change of direction, and contact balance of a dangerous satellite back.
Philadelphia got productive use from Scott down the stretch as a red-zone player and it's likely that it will use him in similar fashion this year unless rookie Michael Warren can usurp that role. Even then, Scott showed enough last year that he could earn at least 500-800 total yards as part of an Eagles committee.
If called upon, he could deliver 1,200-1,500 yards from scrimmage. With the Eagles' offensive line, you're going to want Scott as a pick in the second half of your drafts.
1. WR Quintez Cephus, Lions
This is one of my favorite players from the 2020 NFL Draft. He's a receiver with immense strength for his size and excellent tracking of the football. His speed came into question after a poor 40-Yard Dash at the NFL Combine, but his tape and his subsequent Pro Day workout showed that his Combine workout was a fluke.
This isn't to say that Cephus is a blazer, but he has the speed to start in the NFL as a flanker or slot option. He's the best pass-catcher against tight coverage among the rookie receivers. Matthew Stafford is among the 3-4 best quarterbacks at targeting receivers against tight coverage.
He's one of those players that jumped off the screen for me when I watched a handful of plays from his tape in 2017 and looked forward to seeing more when he became draft eligible. It doesn't make him the next Mahomes, Smith, or Williams, but those strong "from the gut" reactions have been pretty good over the years. So was Cephus's actual evaluation.
Did you enjoy this article? Find more of Matt Waldman's work here.