We begin draft week (its NFL Christmas, y'all!) with a look at another of the many defensive backs at whom the Cowboys have taken a closer look in the past month or so: Oklahoma's Jamell Fleming. Fleming wasn't an instant starter in Norman; he spent his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons largely starring on special teams, where he was a demon - and where he will be expected to help whichever NFL team drafts him. In 2010, his first year as a starter, Fleming exploded. His surprising production (71 tackles, 8.5 for loss, five interceptions, 14 pass break-ups) earned him All-Big 12 first team honors, which he then topped off with a terrific Fiesta Bowl performance, carrying home Defensive MVP laurels for his efforts.
The 5-11, 202 lb. Fleming is thick for a cornerback, which helps to deliver solid blows to ball carriers, although he'll need help working on jamming receivers to succeed at the NFL level. To go with his size, Fleming boasts good cover skills, fluid hips and a smooth backpedal (apparently, he can backpedal for an uncommonly long amount of time, even by NFL standards). On the other hand, Fleming can be undisciplined and has some technique issues, which negate his natural ability when he's required to plant, drive, and react to plays. Want to see him in action? Here's a homemade highlight reel; here he is last season against Iowa.
Fleming's post season hasn't hurt his draft status. He has a very good week at the Senior Bowl; by most accounts, he was the best defensive back on the North squad. Even when in off coverage, reports noted, his athleticism was evident. At the combine, Fleming had a pedestrian unofficial clocking of 4.53 seconds in the 40, but did well in the other tests: he bench-pressed 225 pounds 23 times, broad jumped 10'5", and registered very good 3-cone (6.71) and short shuttle (3.97) scores. Lastly, his his 60-yard shuttle time of 10.75 seconds led all defensive backs. Here is video coverage of Fleming's Combine workout.
The question marks on Fleming concern his intelligence and studiousness. He had academic issues throughout his college career, resulting in his attending junior college and missing spring practices in 2009 and 2011 - during the latter, it appeared that Fleming's OU career might be over. I'm not surprised the Cowboys wanted to take a second look: his size and press/ man skills scream out Rob Ryan corner; his academic questions offer an equally potent counter.
What might the Dallas braintrust think of Fleming? Before considering this, lets see what our esteemed panel has to say, after the jump.
National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 7th-rated CB; 46th overall
Possesses good height and length for the position. Is a bit thin framed, especially through the lower half, but has the natural size to continue to fill out. Is a smooth, coordinated corner who does a nice job off the line sitting into his drop, cleanly works his back-pedal and maintains good balance throughout. In off coverage/zone will start to get a bit upright at times taking away from his initial burst. However, he doesn't waste much movement out of his breaks and possesses a good closing burst on throws. Displays good instincts as well. Has a natural feel for the pass game, deciphers information quickly and routinely gets early jumps on the football.
Plays fast, displays good lateral quickness when asked to play in man near the line. Isn't overly physical, but does a nice job being patient, looking fluid when opening up his hips and getting up to speed quickly. Possesses good speed for the position, but not great. However, plays fast because he can keep his pad level down when asked to turn and run, tracks the ball well vertically with the body control to adjust and get his hands on the pass. Displays good confidence vertically and does a nice job maintaining his footing when asked to look and lean. Will at times get caught drifting backward off the line in press bail and won't keep his feet under him. Possesses the body control to catch himself quickly, but will give up inside leverage at times.
Isn't a real physical kid on the outside when asked to fend off blocks and tackle in the run game. Displays some savvy timing up snap counts and flying off the edge, but is a drag down guy only who can be handled and pushed past run plays easily. Plays exclusively on the boundary and his lack of elite make up speed might be covered up by playing in tight areas often. Wasn't enrolled at the University during the spring of 2011 for academic issues. But was re-enrolled the following June.
Impression: He's a balanced, coordinated kid who keeps his feet under him when changing directions and can turn and run. Doesn't give up much separation, knows how to make plays on the football and if he can improve as a tackler looks like a guy who warrants a starting job in the NFL down the line.
CBS Sports (Rob Rang): 9th-rated CB; 70th overall
Positives: Should excel as a zone defender because of his closing speed to wrap receivers after the catch. Can deliver the big hit and isn't afraid to jump inside to slow the ball. Transitions well from coverage to close on the ball. Strong hands, quick reactions for the interceptions. Former high school receiver with good ball skills. Willing and successful blitzing off the edge. Consideration for move to safety with combination of range and sure tackling.
Negatives: Body type similar to 2003 first-round bust from Oklahoma, Andre Woolfolk. Questionable technique and he gets lazy with fundamentals, high in his backpedal and will breach the coverage call seeking flashy plays.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 16th-rated CB; 116th overall
Positives: Good size. Plays with his eyes and diagnoses. Zone-aware to anticipate and react. Flexible hips. Shows burst to close and recover. Very good ball reactions and production—is active and shows timing to break up throws. Has a knack for stripping the ball. Effective special-teams contributor as a young player. Bench-pressed 225 pounds 23 times and ran 3.97 seconds in the short shuttle.
Negatives: Average top-end speed. Limited functional strength—underpowered jam and is too easily sealed outside. Unreliable setting the edge and is a shoddy, grab-and-drag tackler. Unrefined technique. Loses at the line—struggles to reroute receivers and loses a step off the snap. Upright, slightly choppy pedal. Loses leverage. Suspect character.
Summary: Lean, athletic, finesse college boundary corner with flexibility and ballhawking skills, though he needs to get stronger and be coached up technically. Could earn a backup job, function in zone and contribute on special teams.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 15th-rated CB; 108th overall
Instincts/Recognition: Possesses above-average awareness and diagnostic skills. Flashes adequate route-recognition and anticipation skills to get an early jump on ball. Displays good awareness in zone coverage. Does a nice job of reading quarterback's eyes and can come off of primary assignment to make a play on the ball. However, can get caught peeking in the backfield on occasion. Quickly recognizes and reacts to screens. Opportunistic and consistently capitalizes when put in position to make a play.
Cover Skills: Overall movement skills are average. Displays very good balance and can flip hips to run with receivers downfield. Displays some tightness, though, and can raise up and take a split second too long to gather when breaking forward. Also will round off breaks and does not have the elite ability to quickly plant and drive. Closing burst is good and can make up ground with the ball in the air. Did not see the extra gear to recover once caught in trail technique.
Ball Skills: Solid in this area. Shows good awareness to turn, locate and play the ball. Aggressive playing the ball and can break up passes without drawing an interference flag. Does a nice job of positioning himself to make play. Hands are good and can come down with routine interception. Playmaking skills have improved since junior tape.
Run Support: Active and willing in this area. Will set the edge. Protects feet well and does a nice job of quickly disengaging from blocks. Generally takes solid angles in pursuit. A reliable tackler that does a nice job of wrapping up and getting ball carriers to the ground.
Intangibles: Did not participate in 2011 spring practice and was not enrolled in school for the spring semester due to academic reasons. He was later reinstated in July before the season began and played started all 11 games he participated in.
As with players after the first 40 picks or so, the scouting reports on Fleming are fairly inconsistent; our panel rates him anywhere from a mid-second to a mid-fourth round selection. This makes sense given his combination of athletic ability and inconsistency. Although I've been pushing bigger corners up the board, I'm less inclined to do so in his case. Given the seeming dearth of pre-draft visits that Fleming has scheduled (which is unusual for a player with his particular blend of talent and character concerns), I think he's likely to last a bit. While I think the mid-fourth is too low for him, I don't think it unreasonable to slot him in the third round, where he'll be one of the Cowboys' options with the 81st pick. So that's what I'm-a-gonna do.
Next up: Vanderbilt CB Casey Hayward