Alabama enjoyed an incredibly impressive season on offense considering the circumstances. They lost their Heisman Trophy winning running back to the NFL and a 19 year old freshman quarterback would be leading the unit. Alabama only lost one game and their offense was dynamic as it has ever been under Nick Saban. While that was in part due to Jalen Hurts' dual threat ability at quarterback, the offense was loaded at the skill positions and the offensive line to make the Crimson Tide hum. One of the team's more unsung heroes, and one of the more underrated players in the class, is ArDarius Stewart.
This play does not show much considering this is a pretty egregious breakdown by the defense. However, it does show Stewart's impressive second gear. That speed was a huge tool for Stewart and Alabama this year and they tried to get him the ball as much as possible to take advantage of that.
Stewart is not just an impressive athlete, he has very good vision with the ball in his hands. This made these types of plays so affective for Alabama. His speed is instantaneous when he gets the ball, making him a weapon on offense. Although Alabama loved getting him the ball in the running game (this is technically recorded as a passing play, logistically), Stewart is more than just an athlete playing wide receiver. There is some pro-ready aspects to his game to get excited about.
It is rare that Stewart saw targets against man coverage, especially on the outside, but this is not only an impressive route, but his turning up field to score the touchdown is electric. This is the combination of polish at the position and dynamic ability with the football that a lot of football teams will covet. On 63 touches in 2016, Stewart 21 missed tackles. In other words, he forced a missed tackle on every third touch. To put that into perspective, Mike Williams forced 13 missed tackles on 99 receptions. Obviously they are different players, but it just shows the type of game changing ability Stewart has.
Stewart recognizes the two high safeties here and it looks like he cuts the first stem of his route short to find the soft spot and score the touchdown. This coverage recognition by him is very impressive. However, this play also reveals one of the problems with Stewart. Though it is not his fault, at all, he faces a lot of zone coverage and gets a lot of free releases due to the Alabama offense. A lot of teams are not going to play man coverage against a mobile quarterback like Jalen Hurts because if the defense turns their back to him, they could be giving up massive yards on the ground. This gives an athlete like Stewart a lot of soft spots in a defense to take advantage of and a lot of his production as a wide receiver came in these types of situations. Also, cornerbacks are less likely to try and get physical at the line with an athlete like Stewart. Because on the chance they lose the initial battle, it is probably a touchdown or a massive gain. In the NFL, teams will have tighter coverages and cornerbacks will be a lot less timid about pressing Stewart and generally getting more physical with him. I am not saying he cannot handle these things, just that it is a relative unknown due to his unique college situation and role.
My other concern with Stewart is drops.
Stewart only had three drops this season, but they all came when he was trying to catch a pass away from his body with defenders around him. In terms of projecting him to the league where there will be less uncontested opportunities, it is worrisome that this is an issue. Of course, drops are not the worst thing in the world when players have the dynamic ability to offset and reward offenses with sticking with him, but Stewart will need to prove he can get open traditionally to be a consistent threat in an offense.
Pro Comparison: I do not want this to be a kiss of death, but Stewart has a lot in common with Nelson Agholor at USC. Both measured in around 6'1", 200 pounds and got their paycheck after the catch. Both were solid college route runners who did not deal well with physical defenders, but also rarely saw that physicality due to their ability to separate. Agholor's career has taken a nose dive more due to confidence than ability, however, so Stewart drawing comparison to a former first round prospect should not be an indictment.
There is a lot to love about Stewart, eve with the drawbacks and questions. In the end, he is still a solid route running receiver who can change the game once he has the ball in his hands. Even with the fact that he is an older prospect, that is a valuable dynamic to have in a player.
I could see his fit in any offense but it really hinges on how he adjusts to the NFL. To see immediate returns, he could do his best work in the slot where he would see a lot of intermediate targets that he could hopefully turn into big gains. Depending on how he adjusts, he could transition to playing outside as well. For the Eagles, it would be hard to say no to a player with his game changing ability. However, given the learning curve and age, I would wait a bit on getting him. He should not be a primary target in the first two days but if he is around at the end of the third round or makes it to the last day of the draft, that is when he becomes too good a value to pass up. Even with a certain rawness, guys who can change a play on one touch are rare and god knows the Eagles need them.