The most impressive individual player in the country over the past three weeks has been Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan, who has seven sacks over that span and absolutely terrorized Duke's offensive line last week.
We've had Morgan in our top 15 overall since early October and in this week's updated rankings he will move ahead of fellow junior Carlos Dunlap (Florida) as the top defensive end on the Scouts Inc. board. And while there's no guarantee Morgan will skip his senior year we've been told by two people close to the situation that he's a virtual lock to enter the 2010 draft.
Morgan is no one-trick pony. He is a relentless pass-rusher but also shows great effort holding the point and in pursuit against the run, and recently he has shown the ability to play out of a two-point stance and drop into coverage on zone blitzes.
Should he elect to come out early and perform as well as we expect in pre-draft workouts it would not be a surprise to see Morgan become a top-five pick, and there is no way we see him falling out of the top half of the first round.
Hardy recently underwent season-ending surgery on a lingering wrist injury, which on top of a stress fracture that hobbled him last season and required offseason surgery and a nagging ankle early this season raises durability issues in the eyes of NFL scouts.
Hardy is as physically dominant as any defensive linemen in this class when healthy and motivated, but questions about Hardy's work ethic and ability to hold up for a full NFL season are hurting his stock significantly. It won't be a shock to us if this top-10 talent falls to the bottom of the first round.
The same can be said of Jones, who is done for the season thanks to a torn meniscus but at times this season was every bit as dominant as Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy and Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Problem is, because of lingering injuries (including a torn pectoral that required offseason surgery) there is limited film of Jones at 100 percent as well as concern that he won't be able to stay healthy in the NFL.
Jones never really appeared to be at full strength this season but he played hard and confirmed our feelings about his overall skill set. If he checks out physically at the combine and teams are convinced none of his past injuries will be an issue moving forward Jones could still come off the board in the first round. There just are not a lot of players with his combination of size (6-foot-3, 302 pounds), strength and quickness.
Finally, English has been lost to an ankle injury for the remainder of the season. Much like Hardy and Jones this most recent injury is just another on a laundry list of ailments for English, who came into the season looking like a third-rounder at best but now will be lucky to come off the board before the fifth.
• The trials and tribulations of some of the top wide receiver prospects --- including Dez Bryant (suspension), Eric Decker (injury), Arrelious Benn (injury/team struggles) and Mike Williams (quit team) -- have been well-chronicled in this blog. Now it's time to look at some wideouts who have stepped up their games and are moving up the board.
Jordan Shipley of Texas continues to produce consistently despite opponents bracketing him, double-covering him, rolling coverages toward him and utilizing any other form of extra attention a defense can give a receiver.
Shipley does not run a lot of intermediate or vertical routes and will need to be coached up in that area and in terms of getting off the line against press coverage, but there are still a lot of reasons to like his potential to emerge as a contributor both as a slot receiver and on special teams.
Among the traits that jump out are Shipley's toughness, competitiveness, willingness to make catches in traffic over the middle and his breakaway speed after the catch and as a return man. He is a notch below the elite prospects at the position but Shipley has certainly shown enough this season to warrant mid-to-late second-round consideration.
Georgia Tech junior Demaryius Thomas is a tough evaluation because he is so raw as a route-runner. Thomas makes the vast majority of his catches in the spread triple-option scheme on vertical sideline routes and is simply not asked to do much in terms of finding voids in zone coverage or working the intermediate areas of the field. Like Shipley, he will need a good position coach to help him develop in that area.
From a pure skill standpoint, though, Thomas is a beast when the ball is in the air. He is a big (6-3, 229), physical receiver who shows good body control along the sideline and also has the unique ability to consistently find the ball over his shoulder when running full speed downfield. If he comes out this year Thomas could sneak into the bottom of the first round.
The third member of the group is Notre Dame junior Golden Tate, who is a bit smaller and not as physically blessed as Thomas but competes hard for the ball, works back to the quarterback when the play breaks down and shows strong hands in traffic. Simply put, Tate just seems to make plays when his team needs them.
His fourth-quarter touchdown on a punt return against Pittsburgh is a perfect example. Tate has not been a major contributor in that area during his career but he pulled the Fighting Irish to within a touchdown late in the game. He just comes through in big spots.
Tate is not a first-round talent from a physical standpoint but he knows how to separate from coverage and bring the ball in and is always competing. There is room for players like him in the NFL and Tate has gone from an under-the-radar mid-round prospect to an early second-rounder and perhaps even a late first-rounder.
Around the nation
• Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh (Scouts Inc.-rated No. 3) will get plenty of chances to make tackles Saturday as the Huskers take on run-oriented Kansas State.
"Suh likes hard-nosed, physical football," the Omaha World-Herald writes: "So anytime the Huskers line up opposite teams that like to run the ball, Suh has extra motivation to play well.
"This is great for me," he said. "That's my type of football, not the cutesy stuff we see in the majority (of games) in our conference."
• Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy (No. 2) may anchor one of the best Sooners defenses ever. Had it not been for injuries to QB Sam Bradford (No. 10) and TE Jermaine Gresham (No. 28), who knows how far Oklahoma could have gone this season?
"It's been a neat group, like I said. It's probably been our best as far as their wanting to practice well and to really know. They're really smart," OU coach Bob Stoops told the Tulsa World "They see where an offense is trying to create gaps and how we need to cancel them. And some guys, or some teams, they go through practice and they get it but these guys really want to get it, you know? And really pay attention and practice well. They have a really strong pride about them and performing well. They love to perform well in practice."
• Was Saturday the last time Penn State LB Navorro Bowman (No. 13) will ever play in Happy Valley? "I can always get better as a football player," Bowman told the The Progress of Clearfield (Pa.). "There are a lot of things you have to put into perspective in making a decision like this. I'm going to do that. I can get better as a football player, but you have to make the choice that's right for you. I'm just blessed to be in this position. There are going to be a lot of things that play into this (decision)."
• Tulane WR Jeremy Williams (No. 101) has been one of the bright spots in a disappointing season for the Green Wave. Williams is 8 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season and the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that RB Andre Anderson (913 rushing yards) and Williams (992 receiving yards) could become the first duo in school history to reach 1,000 yards in the same season.
"It just shows we have done some good things during the year," Anderson told the Times-Picayune. "It's one of the few goals out there that we can grab and get."
• Is Washington QB Jake Locker (No. 7) going pro? Even his coach doesn't know. The Seattle Times talked to Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, who said Monday he doesn't know what Locker will do and that the coach will help in Locker's decision-making process once the season is over.
"We'll assess it after the year," Sarkisian said. "I think Jake is a bright young man who is patient, he's got two tremendous parents that have raised him extremely well, and we'll get all the proper information in place and he'll make a really good decision in what's best for he and his family, and not just the immediate, but for his future as well."