You know the drill, my people! Tuesday means it's time for another edition of Draft Class Heroes!
NFL-focused column this week, with one of the best rookie performances I can recall leading the way. In addition, I tab three rookie that have been shockingly impressive out of nowhere, while also highlighting a familiar disaster for today's Villain of the Week.
Draft Class Superhero of the Week: Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
I've seen a lot of rookie performances in my time covering football, but what Jaire Alexander did on Sunday was nothing short of special. The 14th overall player on my board, Alexander's size and injury history threatened to drop him out of the first round, but the Packers wisely traded back and nabbed him with the 18th overall pick.
Alexander had a ton of flashes in preseason and early regular season action, but a groin injury forced him to miss the past two games for Green Bay. Coming off the bye to face the high-powered Rams offense, Alexander was ready, shadowing Brandin Cooks for much of the game and making life extremely difficult for the star receiver.
He's so smooth and fluid in his transitions, making mirroring-and-matching on every type of route look so easy due to no wasted movement. Alexander doesn't need to be grabby either, fully comfortable playing in the hip pocket of a receiver and then breaking on the ball as it arrives.
Insanely well-timed and well-placed two-handed jam, then falls out of phase when the linebacker chips Robert Woods away from him. Watch how incredible Alexander's burst is to recover and close on this route. That is jaw-dropping.
Alexander finished the game against L.A. with five passes defensed and blanketed several other windows to completely discourage a throw. That's the most pass breakups ever recorded in a single game by a rookie cornerback. He was constantly in position at all levels of the field, minimizing throwing windows and giving Jared Goff and Cooks all they could handle.
This is just the beginning for Alexander, whose athletic ability and ball skills suggest a sky-high ceiling. He plays with a competitive edge that belies the top corners in the NFL, which should make the competition between he and Denzel Ward for best corner in the draft one that lasts the length of their careers.
Three rookies that I didn't scout pre-draft (largely due to working multiple sports media jobs at the time) have stunned me with their early season contributions at the midway point.
1. Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos
I saw some of Lindsay live at Colorado, but never thought he looked like anything special. Tough kid with great hands who could make an NFL roster, sure, but this? I never saw this coming.
Lindsay has 93 carries for 531 yards and three touchdowns, averaging almost six yards per carry while also chipping in as a receiver. His explosiveness at the line of scrimmage and in the open field is rare, as Lindsay appears capable of destroying pursuit angles and hitting home runs on any snap. Royce Freeman has been great, and Lindsay's brilliance is still keeping him from balling out this season.
2. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, Green Bay Packers
Valdes-Scantling is 6-foot-4, 206 pounds and ran a 4.37 40. Just based on those facts alone, I wish I would have gotten to the South Florida receiver pre-draft, as his measurables and athletic testing were absolutely elite for his position.
Is Valdes-Scantling a finished product? Absolutely not. But he's learning quickly, and his vertical skill set has the potential to be highly productive with Aaron Rodgers. This release on Sunday against Rams cornerback Troy Hill had my head SPINNING.
3. Taron Johnson, CB, Buffalo Bills
I saw a little of Taron Johnson at the Senior Bowl and thought he was one of the better corners amidst a weak group there, but I never got around to his tape. What I've seen of him in the NFL has revealed toughness, physicality, tackling and terrific natural instincts. Johnson isn't the biggest corner, but he's the perfect nickel for Sean McDermott's defense, filling a spot that has been a huge hole for Buffalo. He's been a big reason why that defense has been so successful.
Villain of the Week: The Cleveland Freaking Browns
Where do you even begin with this organization?
First, I'm glad they finally wised up and fired Hue Jackson, though why in god's name it took that long we'll never know. As only the Browns could do, they somehow prompted more questions with a good move than answers, largely due to the moves that preceded Jackson's firing, and the ones that came after it.
I like a lot of what John Dorsey has done, both in Cleveland and in his career, but this can't be perceived as a good look for him. Yes, convincing Jimmy Haslam that firing Jackson was the correct move was obviously important, but it's a little too late to salvage Baker Mayfield's rookie situation. The Browns are a cultural and schematic mess, somehow in worse shape than when Jackson landed there, even if the talent level is improved.
Maybe Dorsey wanted to move on from Jackson the moment he was hired and Haslam wouldn't let him. I understand that's a possibility, but that doesn't excuse Dorsey's decision to hire Todd Haley as his right-hand man, creating a situation that even the average football fan knew would be absolutely toxic. Like fire and gasoline, Haley and Jackson created almost immediate sparks during training camp, as revealed by Hard Knocks, and things clearly didn't improve a lick as the year rolled on. To the surprise of no one.
Not only was the hiring of Haley a massive disappointment on the football field and in the Browns building, but things were so unbearable that Dorsey's first big hire, the man who was supposed to mentor his franchise quarterback to early career success, didn't even make it to the midseason point. That's a terrible warning sign for the hiring skills of a man about to embark on the most important coaching search in recent Browns history.
Nevertheless, Dorsey did the right thing by turning the page and moving on from both coaches, so all that was left to do was promote an offensive-minded head man that would keep things as stable as possible for your rookie quarterba--GREGG WILLIAMS?!
I mean, literally all that the interim head coach position needs to be is a figurehead who won't stir the pot, won't bring the organization bad P.R. and, I don't know, maybe doesn't have a history in the league that involves instructing his players to cause significant injury to the opposition?
Instead, the Browns decided to hire Williams as their top guy for the rest of the season, creating a public relations situation and putting the guy who decided it was ok for defenders to hit the quarterback in practice in charge of the future of his franchise. The only way this could be worse is if the defensive face of your franchise had openly criticized Williams' scheme following a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Oh, wait...
Rule no. 1 to being an analyst of the National Football League: Never, ever be surprised by anything the Cleveland Browns organization does.
Already deceased: Giants, Cardinals, 49ers, Bills, Colts, Jets, Browns, Broncos and Raiders.
Welcome, Cleveland Browns. It looks like the rebuild will take at least one more year, as they enter Week 9 at 2-5-1. The Browns need to fix the tackle spots, add at least one more talent at wide receiver and find a starting corner opposite Denzel Ward.
Denver Broncos, y'all can get buried too. That team isn't good enough to rebound from 3-5, and although Case Keenum hasn't been great, he's not even the cause of death in this situation. The Broncos might be looking at a rebuilding offseason, with some familiar faces getting jettisoned to new teams.
I thought about burying the 3-5 Jaguars, but I just couldn't do it yet. They enter the bye week with a lot to sort out, but if they can get a little healthier, I still think 9-7 could win that division.
In the lair this week...
- Kyle, Joe and I are meeting Thursday night to finalize the new TDN top 500 consensus big board, so you'll have that puppy up to date here very soon.
- Scouting reports on Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney, LSU tight end Foster Moreau, Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield, Oklahoma offensive tackle Cody Ford, Texas A&M linebacker Tyrell Dodson and Texas A&M edge defender Landis Durham are coming soon.
- Thursday I'm compiling and analyzing the first TDN Midseason All-Rookie team, as decided by votes from the entire staff. Should be a fun piece.
- It's a good weekend to be the SEC guy for TDN! Georgia-Kentucky at 3:30, then Alabama-LSU at 8...lot to learn, but I want to see the Bulldogs be aggressive and attack the Wildcats through the air, utilizing a deep stable of weapons against a talented Kentucky secondary. As for LSU, time for that star-studded defensive backfield to do their thing. The best matchup in college football all season will be Greedy Williams, Kristian Fulton, Grant Delpit and John Battle against Irv Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs. My body is very ready.