Once the games end on a college football Saturday, my work begins as I pore through the coaches’ film of each game, taking notes and writing reports.
Here are 10 plays from Week 3 that help illustrate the skills of eight 2024 NFL Draft prospects.
Shedeur Sanders, QB, Colorado
Coach Prime’s team has become must-see TV each week. And with a quarterback the caliber of Sanders, the film from every game is a must-watch for NFL scouts.
I don’t think Sanders put anything on the Colorado State tape that we didn’t already know — Colorado’s showdown with Oregon next week should be more illuminating. But here are my main takeaways from Sanders’ performance after reviewing the double-overtime thriller:
Pocket presence and poise: Sanders shredded Colorado State’s soft Cover 2 on the final drive of regulation, including on the touchdown that allowed the Buffs to tie the game.
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In that situation, the point of Cover 2 is to take away vertical options and force the quarterback to chew clock by working underneath. Poised and alert quarterbacks like Sanders, though, will pick apart undisciplined depth or techniques by the coverage.
On the play below, Sanders’ eyes start in the middle of the field, and it appears he wants to hit the vertical pattern by the tight end. The field safety is thinking the same thing and begins to work inside the hash, despite the route being pretty well covered by the dropping linebacker. With the safety taking the bait, the “Flat-7” concept leaves the slot receiver wide open on a corner route for an easy completion.
This is poor discipline and execution by the defense, but it’s still an impressive play for Sanders — another example of his outstanding pocket presence and movements.
Despite rushing only four, the pass rush muddies the pocket. Sanders calmly climbs and works to his left while keeping his eyes downfield the entire time, allowing him to find the open receiver. His poise and no-panic play style — especially in gotta-have-it moments — were the difference in this game.
Accuracy: The next most impressive takeaway from Sanders’ tape has been ball placement. His completion percentage this season is a staggering 78.1; accounting for drops and throwaways, his adjusted completion percentage is 85.8 (No. 2 in the FBS). A heavy dose of screens and quick throws have inflated those numbers, but Sanders’ accuracy on passes of 10-plus yards has been terrific.
On this third-and-11, I love the placement and timing of Sanders’ throw in another one of those gotta-have-it moments. Sanders starts his eyes to the left to help clear the middle-field passing window, then steps up in rhythm and fires a strike between three defenders to the in-cutting tight end.
Not only is timing imperative to complete this ball but so is the low placement. If the ball arrives anywhere else, the safety will have a chance to pop the receiver, potentially creating an incompletion. This season, on throws between the numbers that travel 10 yards or more downfield, Sanders has a completion percentage of 78.6 (22-for-28).
What he needs to improve: Like in Colorado’s first two games, there were far more positive than negative moments for Sanders on Saturday night. But it wasn’t all perfect. A few areas of his game tend to remind evaluators that Sanders is still a young quarterback, which is understandable considering this stage of his development.
At times, Sanders is guilty of holding the ball too long, and the passing anticipation isn’t always there. He has already been sacked 15 times this season — with plenty of blame to go around between a QB who’s still developing his process and an inexperienced offensive line. Against Colorado State, Sanders also had a few ill-advised decisions that put the ball in harm’s way.
He threw his first interception of the season early in the game and should have been saddled with a second pick on this play:
The backside rush speeds up Sanders’ process, and he makes a hasty decision to get the ball out on third down. Whether he doesn’t see the underneath defender or thinks he can layer the throw to the receiver, I don’t know. Regardless, it’s a low-percentage throw that he will learn from after reviewing the tape.
Jer’Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois
Penn State got the win, but Newton was arguably the best player on the field (or maybe second-best behind Penn State OT Olu Fashanu).
With the way he explodes off the ball, Newton creates vertical push, and blockers have a tough time answering his fast and physical hands. On this play, the right guard has no counter for Newton’s attack and ends up on the ground while No. 4 slams into the quarterback, forcing an incomplete pass.
Newton finished the game with seven pressures and now leads all FBS defensive tackles on the young season with 14 pressures. He also had six tackles (one for loss), two batted passes and a blocked field goal against the Nittany Lions.
The other impressive part of this tape? Newton didn’t come off the field, yet his motor was revving deep into the fourth quarter. Through three games, he is averaging 64.7 defensive snaps per game, easily the highest among FBS defensive tackles. Not every NFL team is high on Newton because of his lack of ideal size (6-2, 295), but his disruptive and energetic play style against both run and pass will get him drafted in the first round.
Malik Nabers, WR, LSU
When I studied Nabers over the summer, I was impressed with his route acceleration — the way he could win at the snap and throttle his speed downfield to create separation. On this play, Nabers skillfully settles his feet and forces the cornerback to react, then accelerates back to full speed for a full 5 yards of separation.
This play wasn’t one of his two touchdowns, but it could have been a third with a better pass. I won’t beat up quarterback Jayden Daniels too much, however, considering he completed 88.2 percent of his throws (30-for-34) for 361 yards.
If anyone needed a reminder of why Nabers is in the mix, the Mississippi State tape provides that.
Josh Williams, RB, LSU
It is easy to overlook the LSU running backs, considering the committee style the Tigers utilize. On Saturday, five different LSU backs logged double-digit snaps — the most going to Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs.
However, it was Williams, a fifth-year senior, who stood out because he displayed a diverse skill set. At 5-foot-9 and 209 pounds, Williams showed elusiveness in tight quarters as well as inside power on a goal-line touchdown. He also caught the ball cleanly on his only target.
But what really jumps off the tape is his execution in pass protection. He has the competitive chops plus the awareness to read and react to pressure packages.
Williams might not have an exceptional trait on his NFL scouting report, but his well-rounded skills make him useful and give him a chance to be drafted.
Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia
With his athletic traits and pass-catching prowess, Bowers doesn’t need to convince anyone he deserves an easy first-round projection.
However, one of the more subtle aspects of his game is also my favorite: Bowers is a master of the “hidden” yards. Whether breaking tackles or making defenders miss, he consistently picks up more yardage than expected with the ball in his hands. Of his 135 receiving yards this season, 108 have come after the catch.
On this first-down play against South Carolina, Bowers runs 7 yards before contact, then another 8 after contact — dragging defenders and keeping his feet alive.
His competitive toughness with the ball in his hands is as impressive as his natural athleticism.
Denzel Burke, CB, Ohio State
Burke looked like a future first-round pick as a freshman, but he struggled with durability and consistency last season as a sophomore, putting his draft projection in limbo.
Through three games this year, Burke appears to be back on track with a Big Ten-best six passes defended (including one interception). When targeted, opponents are completing only 29.4 percent of their passes against him. Burke is playing with a lot more confidence in 2023, which allows him to burst and drive on plays like this:
Ohio State hasn’t been truly tested yet, but Western Kentucky does have a prolific passing attack and a quarterback (Austin Reed) who will be drafted in April, making last Saturday’s tape of interest to NFL teams. There were double-digit NFL teams (Arizona, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Green Bay, Minnesota, New York Jets, New York Giants, San Francisco and Seattle) visiting Columbus for a reason.
Kris Jenkins, DT, Michigan
The son of a 10-year NFL veteran, Jenkins (No. 39 on my preseason top 50) is known for his initial quickness and power at contact. But this play helps show his smarts, as he alters his attack and sniffs out the screen.
During pre-draft meetings in the spring, you can bet NFL scouts will give him a hard time for allowing the running back to tackle him at the 1-yard line.
Kedon Slovis, QB, BYU
Amid a stacked quarterback draft class, Slovis is one of the seniors in need of a strong final season to hear his name called in April. The former USC and Pittsburgh quarterback transferred to BYU in the offseason and has led the Cougars to a 3-0 start, including a clutch win over Arkansas on Saturday.
Slovis’ performance was far from perfect, and it highlighted several areas in which he needs to improve. Even this throw can be better, as he leaves it a tad short. But in the fourth quarter, on the road and in a tie game, this is the type of execution NFL scouts want to see.
Slovis holds the safety in the middle of the field before delivering a 30-yard touch pass down the sideline, setting up first-and-goal.
Two plays later, Slovis would throw the go-ahead touchdown.
(Top photo of Shedeur Sanders: Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)