NFL Draft Prospect Showdown: Week 4

Derrik Klassen

Georgia vs Notre Dame

Georgia OT Andrew Thomas vs Notre Dame DEs Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem

Georgia versus Notre Dame is the premier ranked matchup of the week as well as the provider for the best matchup between futures pros. Georgia OT Andrew Thomas (#71), arguably the best offensive lineman in the class, will be put to the test against Notre Dame’s two stud defensive ends, Julian Okwara (#42) and Khalid Kareem (#53). 

The book on Thomas is that he’s an overwhelming run blocker first and a good-not-elite pass blocker second. Former Auburn OT Greg Robinson may immediately come to mind based off that short description, but that’s far from the right comparison. Robinson was a project who never put together consistent play despite incomparable flashes of dominance. Thomas is a ready-made NFL tackle — just don’t expect him to be Tyron Smith in pass protection. 

Thomas’ skill set matches a different Dallas Cowboy: right tackle La’el Collins. Thomas has longer arms than Collins (36.5 inches vs 33.25 inches) and is a bit quicker with his feet, but the comparison fits with regards to play style and general strengths/weaknesses.

Collins was a stunning left tackle at LSU. He got beat off the edge on occasion by being a bit slow to fire his feet out to the edge, but by and large, he was a quality pass protector. The reason he is at right tackle now isn't because he can't play left tackle, it's because Dallas already has the best left tackle in the league in Smith.

Collins was better known for his unmatched strength and mean streak in the run game, though. There is a case to be made that Collins did more to get Leonard Fournette drafted fourth overall than Leonard Fournette did. 

When Thomas’ tape comes up, that same power and nastiness seen out of Collins makes an appearance. Both at the line of scrimmage and the second level, Thomas will find his target and blow them off the ball to pave the way for Georgia’s talented running backs. 

Above all else, Thomas’ raw power stands out. He consumes a defender’s entire frame and knocks them a yard off their spot the instant he makes contact. The jolt of force that comes from Thomas’ initial punch is enough to win plays on its own from time to time. Better than a clean first swing, Thomas also has the control and lower body drive to force defenders to the sideline or into the dirt. Any rep in which Thomas gets a firm grasp on a defender — and he usually does — is bound to be a loss for said defender. No tackle in the country can compare to Thomas’ prowess in the run game. 

If either of Notre Dame’s ends are going to give Thomas fits in the run game, it will be Kareem. Kareem (6-foot-4, 265-pounds) is built like a brickhouse and commands the line of scrimmage in a way that few defensive ends in this class can. He is not the flashiest player, but if NFL teams are looking for a guy who can work to the correct gap/technique and get the job done, Kareem should be a priority player. 

Kareem’s technique here is flawless. Right off the snap, Kareem flies out of his stance and shoots his hands into the offensive tackle’s chest before the tackle can do the same to him. That alone is an impressive sequence and enough to say he did his job on the play, but what he does next is above and beyond for a college player. Kareem lifts his hands upward and outward with great force, getting his hands above his eyes in an effort to force the offensive tackle’s back to arch unnaturally and knock them off balance. Kareem then immediately looks to shed the offensive tackle once his balance is thrown off and squeeze to the running back’s path to bring him down in the backfield. The fluidity from Kareem’s punch to shock to shed to tackle is seamless. 

The NFL is a passing league, though, and Notre Dame’s defensive ends won’t go easy on Thomas on passing downs. While Thomas’ pass pro skills are not quite up to par with his elite run blocking, Thomas should face little issue locking down the blind side. 

One of Thomas’ defining traits in pass pro is that he does not panic and commit too early to a pass-rusher’s initial plan. Thomas knows he has the short-area quickness and long arms to respond to any move a pass-rusher makes. There is no reason for him to commit early in the rep. 

In the clip above, Thomas sits on the defensive end’s initial rush path while doing his best to stay square in front of him. When the end goes to make a move, Thomas lifts his hands to target the end’s chest. Even though the defensive end tries to run a stutter step inside before cutting outside, Thomas follows his frame and shoots his hands straight into the middle of the pass-rusher’s chest, immediately setting him off his desired rush path and nullifying any shot of QB Jake Fromm getting hit from the blind side. 

Okwara is the Fighting Irish’s best chance to get through Thomas on passing downs. To no surprise, Notre Dame’s defense is crafted to enable Okwara as a rusher. Unlike Kareem, Okwara often plays out of a stand-up position and from an alignment that is a gap removed from the offensive tackle. 

Okwara is a fairly bendy and agile pass-rusher, but it’s his ability to convert speed to power that carries the most weight in his skill set. If given the space to build up for a couple steps, Okwara can move into an offensive tackle’s chest in such quick, powerful fashion that they have no option but to stumble backwards and hope to recover before they bump into the quarterback. Okwara will have a tough time winning that way versus Thomas, though. Thomas has a fierce anchor and won’t let Okwara win off the initial punch. It’s going to take a little something extra from Okwara to get the best of Thomas. 

Suffice to say, Notre Dame’s defensive ends have a tough task ahead of them. Thomas is looking to be a top-10 pick seven months from now. The two Irish ends will be solid pros, too, especially Okwara, but Thomas is going to hand them one of their quieter performances as a duo. 

Advantage: Thomas

Vanderbilt vs LSU

Vanderbilt WR Kalija Lipscomb vs LSU CB Kristian Fulton

This is not LSU CB Kristian Fulton's first appearance in the Prospect Showdown and it probably won't be the last. He is the best draft-eligible cornerback in the SEC, maybe even the entire country. Tasked with trying to get the best of Fulton this week is Vanderbilt WR Kalija Lipscomb, who was kept quiet in his last outing versus a top SEC opponent (Georgia). 

Fulton does not require as much introduction as the last time around. Like a majority of elite cornerbacks, Fulton is a pro's pro in press/bail and off-man coverages. He does not want to waste his time sitting back in zones and waiting on the quarterback to show something; he wants to attack the wide receiver head on and dare the quarterback to beat him. Fulton's calling card is how comfortably he slides into the hip pocket of wide receiver's once he flips his hips to turn down the field. Once in phase, Fulton does a fantastic job of keeping track of the ball, almost as if he has an extra pair of eyes somewhere on his helmet. 

Through three games, Fulton already has four pass break ups, tied for second-most in the country alongside other top cornerbacks such as Paulson Adebo (Stanford), Parnell Motley (Oklahoma), and teammate Derek Stingley Jr. Fulton had nine pass breakups last year, so if his pace keeps up, he will outdo his junior season production. 

Lipscomb is a newcomer to this series, but a familiar face to anyone who watches the SEC. In a breakout 2018 campaign as a junior, Lipscomb caught 87 passes (most in the SEC) for 916 yards and nine touchdowns, with an extra rushing touchdown to boot. He isn't a big-play threat the way many top receivers are, but his ability to work the short-to-intermediate area, create space for himself, and go to work as a ball carrier is a perfect blend of skills for a chain-mover. It's a thankless job compared to the Jerry Jeudy and Justin Jefferson types, but it's an important job nonetheless. Hell, the New England Patriots built a dynasty through that type of player. 

This isn't a special play by any means, but if the Commodores want a chance to compete with LSU, they have to keep their offense on the field as much as possible. Lipscomb's work within 10 yards gives them the best chance to do so, as RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn has not gotten off to a hot start. 

How often Lipscomb gets paired directly against Fulton will be interesting to keep track of. Fulton is exclusively an outside cornerback, while Lipscomb can flip-flop between an outside alignment and a slot position. Lipscomb can operate just as well from either spot, but it's worth noting that Vanderbilt also like to hide Lipscomb off the line of scrimmage so as to give him clean releases. Lipscomb can struggle to fight off press coverage, which Fulton excels at. If Vanderbilt doesn't try to hide or steer Lipscomb away from Fulton, the stud receiver could get completely washed out of the game plan. 

The other thing to watch for is how healthy Fulton looks. Fulton left at some point during the Texas game (and came back to action) with an apparent injury and missed one of LSU's practices early this week. That said, Fulton is probably good to go and dominate his opponent, and him missing practice was likely a cautionary effort to make sure he isn't working himself too hard before game day. 

Advantage: Fulton

Texas vs Oklahoma State

Texas S Brandon Jones vs Okla State WR Tylan Wallace

Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace has put up immaculate production to this point in the year. Through three games, Wallace’s 390 yards and six touchdowns are both the top marks in the nation, with the touchdown title being shared with LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. Some of that is padded by playing lower-level FBS teams or FCS programs, but that is true of every player to this point in the season. 

Now it is time for Wallace to prove himself in conference play. In all honesty though, heading back into conference play to face Texas isn’t going to be much tougher than the past three weeks have been. The Longhorns defense currently ranks 108th in passer rating allowed (156.52) and 71st in overall defense in ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s SP+. Granted, a fair amount of that has to do with getting bludgeoned by an LSU offense nobody thought was that good, but they still didn’t show up on the day. 

Texas’ defense has to turn things around against Oklahoma State. The rebound starts with S Brandon Jones, a flexible box/nickel who can flip the switch between being a rangy coverage defender or a hammer down in the box. Versus Louisiana Tech in the opener and Rice in Week 3, Jones flip-flopped between a safety position and a slot corner position. In the game sandwiched between — the LSU game — Jones was exclusively in the slot. That is not meant to serve as any sort of indicator as to where Jones will play this Saturday, but it speaks to his versatility game-to-game, drive-to-drive, play-to-play. 

Among other things, Wallace is going to force Jones and Texas to be strong tacklers. Wallace is not particularly daunting in size at 6-foot-1 and 185-pounds, but he weaves smoothly through traffic and can hit a fifth gear that separates him from the pack in a few steps. If Wallace gets a sliver of space, he is going to make the most of it. Wallace isn’t quite Odell Beckham Jr., but at least at the college level, he has that quality to him where any touch can be a touchdown. 

Wallace isn’t just a track-star YAC-star, either. He plays with impressive pacing and decisiveness in his routes, all held together by stunning body control before and at the catch point. Sometimes Wallace's movements are so deliberate and delicate that it feels as though he is slowing down time around him. 

Again versus Oregon State, look at Wallace set up both the safety and the cornerback to cheat inside, only to slash up the field toward the right pylon. The key to any double-move route is to sell the first portion of the route as close as possible to the real thing. In this clip, Wallace’s first few steps out of the initial break are run with a pace that suggests he is legitimately looking for the ball and ready to run after the catch. That Wallace can sell the slant, come to a full stop, and fire back up the field to gain ground before any defender can respond is hell for defensive backs. Oh, and he finished off the play with an acrobatic back shoulder catch on the sideline — no big deal. 

Jones and the Longhorns can’t let Wallace beat them in space as often as he is capable of. Being that Jones is a safety, the burden isn’t all on him, but he should be able to serve as an enforcer on Wallace’s short YAC-centric plays and match him up for the few snaps he gets out of the slot. 

In these couple of clips, Jones is playing a slot corner position and does a good job of matching pace with LSU’s elite wide receivers. The first play, in particular, is more in line with what he could be tasked with doing against Wallace. Jones did well to flip his hips to run and fight with the receiver all the way down the field. Jones himself did not bat the ball away, but because he did well to slap at the receiver’s hands and arms to disrupt his pacing, the receiver can’t quite get to the ball. Wallace is primarily an outside receiver, but does find himself playing out of the slot for a handful of plays each game to mix things up and break tendencies. 

Whether it’s all Jones’ fault or not, Wallace should still have his way with the Longhorns defense. Wallace is every bit as good as any of the LSU receivers who torched Texas, and Oklahoma State is as pass-happy as offenses come. The Cowboys want to throw the ball and they want to throw it to Wallace at every opportunity. 

Wallace has hit either 100-plus yards or two touchdowns in all three games this year. Expect him to do that again against Texas despite Jones’ best efforts to stop him. 

Advantage: Wallace