I’ve commissioned four of our excellent player participation analysts / writers to tackle this new feature we’re calling The Scramble. Each week they’ll be handed a new mission and it’ll be their duty to do the necessary digging and present their findings, thoughts, and opinions on the topic. It’ll take on many forms and they’ll have to be on their toes to turn around this combo effort in the time allotted.
For this initial edition, they’ve been asked to identify and highlight the most intriguing late round picks from the 2011 draft–surprising players who are making an immediate splash. With only the fifth-through-seventh-rounders available to them (undrafted free agents as well), they’ve returned with four players that have flashed legit NFL-level talent in these early stages of their careers. Staking their claim to one player each, they present to you a short list of new NFL-ers to watch as their roles grow.
Of course, there are many who fit the mold outside of these four, but the contributions from this group of young players are what has caught our team’s eyes. Which late rounders have captured your attention? Please do chime in and share your thoughts in the comments section. The four writers will be around to discuss.
Richard Sherman, CB, SEA
Selected: 23rd pick of the fifth round, No. 154 overall
2011: +10.7 coverage, 577 snaps
by Steve Palazzolo
When discussing late round gems, the conversation has to start with cornerback Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. Sure he’s coming off his worst day as a pro as he picked-up four penalties on Monday, but regardless, he has been a huge piece of a very good Seahawks defense. Head Coach Pete Carroll plucked him in the fifth round out of Stanford, and like most low picks, Sherman started the season buried on the depth chart. However, an injury to starting cornerback Marcus Trufant led to Sherman being thrust into a nickel role in Week 5 against the New York Giants and he showed well on his 37 snaps. After a Week 6 bye, Sherman overtook CB Walter Thurmond as the starter at left cornerback, and he’s had a firm grasp on the position ever since.
Sherman’s breakout game occurred against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8. He was targeted 10 times, allowing only three completions for 25 yards. Perhaps most impressive is how he fared against fellow Rookie of the Year candidate WR A.J. Green. With 4:34 to go in the third, Sherman was in press coverage on Green with no safety help over the top. Green runs a “go” route and Sherman is right on his hip in perfect position and makes an outstanding leaping interception. It was an almost identical play at the 12:46 mark in the fourth quarter as the Bengals try to go deep again, and this time Sherman outworks Green for the ball and tips it to teammate Kam Chancellor for another interception. For the game, Green was targeted eight times when matched up with Sherman and came away with only two receptions for a mere 11 yards.
Two weeks later was more of the same against the Baltimore Ravens. This time he was matched up against another rookie in WR Torrey Smith, supposedly one of the faster wide receivers in the league. Sherman runs stride-for-stride with him with 12:35 to go in the fourth quarter and once again tips the pass away. He was in bump coverage on that play as well, but just to show he is more than a press corner, we have his interception against the Washington Redskins in Week 12. Sherman is about 10 yards off WR Santana Moss in 3-Deep coverage, while QB Rex Grossman runs the play action and looks for Moss on the deep post. Sherman reads the play perfectly, undercuts the route–almost runs the post better than Moss–and makes a great play on the ball for the pick.
For the season, Sherman has allowed 32-of-66 passes to be completed his way, good for a completion percentage of only 48 percent. Though he’s given up 403 yards, 68 of them came on a fluky tipped pass to WR Victor Cruz of the Giants. Sherman has clearly played the deep ball well and he has at least an interception or pass defensed in each of his last seven games. Finally, his +10.7 Coverage grade ranks third among cornerbacks, right behind a guy named Darrelle Revis. When a fifth-round pick gets his name mentioned next to Revis, credit goes to the scouting staff.
So the numbers are great, but what makes Sherman an intriguing prospect beyond this year? First off, at 6’3” tall, he has rare size for a cornerback. Teammate Brandon Browner also stands at 6’3” and they both perfectly fit the mold that Carroll loves for his cover men. Sherman has the size and speed mentioned earlier, but the thing that makes him a potentially special player is that he is only in his third full year playing cornerback. He was a wide receiver at Stanford before making the move to defense in 2009. With such little playing experience, he’s only scratching the surface of his potential. He also doesn’t lack for confidence. After his battle with Green, he referred to his counterpart as “a lot of noise-talking and bad routes.” Perhaps he can go too far at times as one of his penalties last Monday was for taunting, but if Sherman can keep his smack-talking in check, he will be a starter for a long time in the league.
Karl Klug, DT, TEN
Selected: 11th pick of the fifth round, No. 142 overall
2011: +6.0 pass rush, 455 snaps
by Rodney Hart Jr.
I actually first wanted to write about Denarius Moore if for no other reason than he was a receiver drafted by the Raiders who was fast and could catch, simultaneously. Since then, two things happened: Moore missed the last three weeks, and in those same three weeks Karl Klug (+7.9 overall) has continued to give opposing offensive lineman headaches. If you haven’t heard of him, you might get the picture that Klug–just by virtue of his name–is a mammoth of a man, but in the world of defensive tackles, his 6’3” 275-pound frame is borderline gangly. In fact, it’s the primary reason that Klug was the third player selected from Iowa’s defensive line.
Klug was taken by the Tennessee Titans with the 11th pick in the fifth round of this year’s draft and despite his “tweener” status, he has played all but two of his 455 snaps as an interior lineman. Now, that isn’t to say Klug’s role has been the run-stuffer. To this point, the Titans have used Klug primarily as an interior pass rusher, taking advantage of his speed and quick hands. In all, 317 of his 455 snaps have been as a pass rusher, and his +6.0 pass rush grade is a testament that his speed isn’t something O-lineman have easily coped with.
With 22 total quarterback disruptions on only 317 pass rush attempts, Klug has taken advantage of his size and speed on the inside, giving interior offensive lineman difficulties by getting skinny at the point of attack and not allowing them a good target to block. After watching him closely, it’s no surprise that he’s in the Top 10 of interior defensive lineman with five sacks. Even more impressive is his sack rate (sacks per pass rushing attempts) is good for fifth-best in the NFL among interior lineman, only behind familiar names like Geno Atkins, Tommy Kelley, Cullen Jenkins, and Henry Melton. Okay, fair enough, Melton isn’t that familiar, but you get the point.
No, Klug isn’t perfect, and neither is playing defensive tackle at 20 doughnuts over a linebacker’s weight. If there is an area that has been an issue in his game, it’s been his run defense (-0.7 run grade), if only slightly–of his 131 snaps against the run, he’s graded negatively on 22. But, this is a debate so enough about his deficiencies, time to bring out the big guns.
With all due respect to my colleagues, there are two Klug sacks that flat out win this “debate” for me. The first occurred seven weeks ago in a matchup against the Colts and the second happened last week against the Saints and was the catalyst to me selecting Klug over Moore. On the first, his strength and tenacity were on display, as he crumpled the Colt’s left guard, Seth Olsen, like a sheet of paper. After having him folded, he proceeded to hop over Olsen’s prostrate body to sack Curtis Painter for a 10-yard loss. Literally (and who better than ProFootballFocus to know) it was Olsen’s last snap this season.
Yes, I know, it was Seth Olsen. Well, the second sack I want to talk about occurred last week against the Saints’ formidable guard, Carl Nicks, who has allowed only two sacks on the season, one being Klug’s. On this play, Klug highlighted that he may be the quickest defensive tackle in the NFL. On 3rd-and-4, late in the fourth quarter with the game still in the balance, Klug jab-stepped right then ripped left so quickly that Nicks was barely out of his stance before Klug was two steps behind him. He finished off the play by exploding to and through Drew Brees, in one of the hardest hits I’ve seen on a quarterback this season that didn’t draw a flag, which is equally commendable.
You beat Olsen, well … you beat Olsen. You beat Nicks, well … people better start paying attention.
Chris Harris Jr., CB, DEN
Selected: undrafted free agent
2011: +6.5 overall, 331 snaps
by Chris Benson
Credit to these other worthy candidates, but no late round draft pick is more compelling than Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (+6.5). Why? Because he actually isn’t a late round draft pick–he wasn’t drafted at all. Harris wasn’t even invited to the scouting combine. Perhaps just as damning was respected draft analyst Mike Mayock’s admission during the Broncos-Jets Thursday Night game that he “did no tape work on the kid whatsoever because he was not listed as a draftable player.” But Harris did not let a high probability of failure stop his pursuit of an NFL career and he’s made an impact quicker than even his most ardent supporters could have anticipated.
Most undrafted players never catch a whiff of the NFL, and fewer still actually make a team. Then there’s the select group of undrafted players that have left their mark on the league in a big way. There aren’t a lot, but there is one trait that they all share. They work harder than just about anybody. Harris is no exception and his work ethic and aggressiveness earned him a role on special teams, which he parlayed into a roster spot after drawing praise from his coaches for his work in the final preseason game.
If that was the end of the story and Harris found his niche as a special teams player, he would have already done more than was expected of him. Instead, Harris set his sights higher and quickly ascended the depth chart, beginning in Week 4 against the Packers. With Champ Bailey nursing a hamstring injury, Cassius Vaughn started opposite Andre Goodman. Down 42-17 to begin the fourth quarter with the Packers in possession of the ball, the Broncos decided the remove the ineffective Vaughn and see what the undrafted rookie could offer over the final quarter. It wasn’t long before Harris was demonstrating the physicality, intelligence, and drive to succeed that has allowed him to overcome being perhaps a little less athletically-inclined that some players.
Within the first five minutes of his first game action on defense, Harris came up and dropped James Starks for a 1-yard gain on a stretch run. A few short minutes later, playing defense in the red zone for the first time in his NFL career, Harris saw his first target in coverage. It was a quick pass outside to Greg Jennings, the type of play in which the receiver is asked to make one man miss and hit the open field. Harris, though, read the play before the ball was thrown and wrapped Jennings up for no gain. That kind of performance against a high-octane offense like Green Bay’s wasn’t going to go unnoticed. In his next opportunity, Week 7 against Miami, he was targeted twice in only seven snaps. In overtime, his diving pass break-up over the middle–working against Davone Bess–displayed a clutch factor as well. Harris earned the trust of his coaches, took Jonathan Wilhite’s job as nickel cornerback, and hasn’t looked back.
Outside of Richard Sherman, no cornerback from 2011 draft class can make an argument for having been more productive on defense thus far than Harris and, in my opinion, Harris is the all-around more valuable player. While Sherman’s 48.5% completion percentage against looks far more impressive than Harris’ 73.2%, their coverage numbers aren’t so different when you look a little deeper. Sherman’s 32 catches allowed have yielded 403 yards to Harris’ 340 on 30 catches. So, while Harris allows a far greater percentage of balls to be completed, many of those catches can be considered wins for the defense. He is also an asset in run support with 16 defensive stops in 331 snaps, a rate exceeding that of any other cornerback this season besides Antoine Winfield.
Chris Harris will probably not ever be a shutdown cornerback, but he can be a very valuable role player in the years to come. He may not have the elite speed to run with the downfield burners or the size to cover imposing receivers like Calvin Johnson (whom he struggled with earlier in the season) but when a player has the work ethic, physical style of play, and intelligence (Harris has yet to be penalized on defense) that Harris possesses, he can have an impact on this league and there’s no reason to think Harris can’t have a long and productive career as a nickel back or No. 2 corner.
Pernell McPhee, DT, BAL
Selected: 34th pick of the fifth round, No. 165 overall
2011: +13.1 pass rush, 308 snaps
by Gordon McGuinness
For me, no late round draft pick is more intriguing than Baltimore’s fifth-round defensive lineman Pernell McPhee (+16.9 overall). He may be almost exclusively used to get after the quarterback, with just 48 of his 308 snaps coming against the run, but his dominance as a pass rusher more than makes up for him being one-dimensional at this stage in his career. In his rookie year, he has become an integral part of Baltimore’s pass rush, especially as the season has gone on, with key plays in the Ravens big wins against Cincinnati and San Francisco.
It took him a little bit of time to hit form in his rookie year, with four sacks, a hit, and five pressures through the first nine weeks of the season. Now I’m sure you’ll agree that most general managers and coaches would be happy enough to get that kind of immediate production from their fifth-round draft pick, but it’s what McPhee did next that makes him stand out in this draft class. In Week 10 in Seattle, he was on the field for just 15 pass rushes yet managed to put pressure on Tarvaris Jackson five times, once every three snaps! That was the start of a four-game run where he accounted for three sacks, four hits, and 10 pressures before coming back down to earth a little bit with just a hit and a pressure in last Sunday’s game against Indianapolis.
For McPhee to truly become a star on the already star-studded Baltimore defense, he’s going to need to improve against the run, he’s been used sparingly in that regard so far but when he has, he’s yet to really impress. Take a look all the way back in Week 2 when the Ravens went to Tennessee: with 4:18 remaining in the third quarter and the Titans facing 2nd-and-10, he bit on a draw play, blowing right by guard Jake Scott and taking himself out of the play altogether, allowing Chris Johnson to follow the gap left by McPhee for a 6-yard gain.
It’s hard to knock him too much for plays like that, though, when you see what kind of pass rusher he is developing into. There were two plays that occurred on back-to-back snaps that made me really stand up and take notice of him back in Week 11 at the end of Baltimore’s home win over Cincinnati. It’s rare to see a rookie step up with big plays to end the game, let alone a fifth rounder, but that’s exactly what he did here. 3rd-and-17 with 40 seconds remaining in the game and the Bengals driving for the would-be game-tying score, McPhee has the unenviable position of being lined-up opposite left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the league’s premier LTs. He gets past Whitworth inside almost immediately off the snap, forcing quarterback Andy Dalton to run out of the pocket and throw the ball away. The very next play he was the quickest Raven off the snap blowing by Whitworth on the outside this time before sacking Dalton to seal the game.
To see this type of production from a fifth-round pick is rare, but you can see the impact he has had on a Ravens defense that was crying out for pass rush help in the offseason. Keep an eye out for McPhee on third downs and obvious passing situations for the Ravens, it’s still early in his career but he has the skills to be a truly special player in the NFL.