Saturday, April 25, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Inside Linebackers

In this post I'll be looking at some of the inside linebackers up for grabs in this years draft. This is another group that I love watching and another that I think is somewhat under appreciated in general. A great inside linebacker can be one of the best pick ups that any team makes. They can be hard hitting run stoppers, out of the blue interceptors, and a nightmare on the blitz for pocket passing quarterbacks. Inside linebackers are the beating heart of the defense and for me - along with a great pass rushing defensive lineman - would be one of the first acquisitions I would want to make when building a defense from the ground up.

So what am I looking for as I watch them?

1) Run support,
2) Pass coverage,
3) Lateral speed,
4) Pass rushing,

One is mainly to do with coming downhill quickly to support the run game. It's ok for a runner to gain a few yards, but what I'm looking for is a linebacker that can consistently help the defense to bottle up running backs for limited yardage. Point two is fairly self explanatory and refers to the ability of the inside backer to play both man to man and zone coverage. Some players are good at both, some good at one and not the other, and as such teams will have to take that into account with their selections.

Point three is a bit misleading when you first read it so deserves a better explanation. I'm not talking about the ability to run side to side. More I'm referring to the ability of the player to run sideline to sideline, which is a big difference. Some of the most effective inside linebackers are the ones that can read the play in front of them quickly and make plays all across the field within that ten yard zone from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker, and sideline to sideline. Just go and watch some old clips of Mike Singletary playing for the Bears if you still have any queries and you'll quickly see what I mean. Watching him run down wide receivers from behind (I'm not even kidding or exaggerating) is something truly amazing to watch.

Finally point four should be obvious, the ability to rush the passer on blitzes, particularly the ability to take on blockers and defeat them. This isn't such a huge issue as this isn't really the prime reason why you recruit inside backers, but it's a huge advantage if they can help the pass rush by being a serious threat up the middle that teams have to account for. And as always with these lists, it's ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. You'll need to read the specific text about a player to find out what I think of them. Starting with:

Paul Dawson, TCU
Erm, so why is Dawson touted as a 2nd round backer? I fail to see it personally. He was not overly athletic, he's a little slow to react, his pass coverage is incredibly sketchy and generally he just seemed to be meandering around waiting for the ball to come to him as opposed to going to find it. He did not look like the sort of impact player that you would expect for a second round pick. To me he's a later round guy, bordering on undrafted, who has some utility as a back up player and a work in progress for the future, but by that point he'd already be gone so it's safe to say I'd pass.

Eric Kendricks, UCLA
This is more what you would expect out of a second round pick, possibly even a late first rounder. Quick, great instincts, a sure tackler and superb in the pass game. Didn't play a huge amount it seemed on third downs but given the quality of his coverage in both zone and man I could see Kendricks being a three down backer in the NFL. To me he's a great pick up. He's not an elite level inside backer at this stage and still needs some work, but he's broadly there in terms of talent. He can be a bit grabby at times in man coverage, but seems to understand where the line is between physical coverage and a holding penalty. I think if I had a late round first pick I'd probably be willing to use it on Kendricks depending on what else was available. Certainly from the second round onwards I think he represents good value.

Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
So uhm, why is McKinney so highly rated? Like Dawson, I don't understand him either. He did nothing that I could see. He's 6'4" and 246 pounds, who did ok at the combine, which I'm just going to hazard a guess and say is the main reason why scouts like him so much. On the film for Miss State he did very little of note. He looked a lot slower in pads, he made little contribution to pass coverage and always seemed like the last person to arrive at the ball excepting the defensive backs. Might he develop into something better given his size? Well I guess he could. But you'd be better off probably trying him at a different position given his size. As an inside backer I don't see it. I'd pass.

Stephone Anthony, Clemson
Very quick, proved deadly when a gap opened up in the middle of the O-line for him to exploit. Pass coverage was ok without being amazing. He has the speed to close in zone coverage but in man coverage he could get a little grabby and rough down the field, which is a penalty waiting to happen in the NFL. Overall he did a great job of shutting down running backs when he came down hill. The problem with Anthony is that his instincts are not great. He buys fakes hook, line and sinker. Because of his speed he ends up rapidly taking himself out of position and sometimes effectively running himself into a spot that makes blocking him easier.

All things considered then at his best I think Anthony probably begins to find his value at the end of the second round, but I also think he could be very much a hit or miss player. He might even be both, hitting on some plays and missing wildly on others. So the question you then have to ask yourself is how tolerant are you of that miss potential? Against Georgia for example he made some really good plays with his speed, but for large portions of the game he also looked outclassed and at times was reduced to being a spectator. As such I'm of two minds about Anthony. I think he'll draw a lot of praise when things go well but I'm not sure I personally could live with the lows. This is one of those players that I would want to take a more extensive look at if I was a GM/Coach, but simply don't have the time to now as a blogger. For that reason I tentatively and slightly reluctantly say pass.

Denzel Perryman, Miami
A lot of people seem to be going crazy for Perryman. People are talking about him as a late first round pick in some circles. I think that's crazy. Perryman is ok and sometimes he makes some great run stuffing tackles, but he has very limited coverage skills, generally not great instincts, was not really a great sideline to sideline runner and against the toughest opponents seemed to be a very limited contributor. Certainly not a a late first round pick. I'd put Perryman more in the fifth to sixth round region, a back up guy who plays a bit of special teams and you hope develops over time into a consistent starter, even if it's only a two down starter (which isn't a bad thing).

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State
You get some good, some bad with Jones and it's up to you to decide if you want the good and can live with the bad. The good is that Jones played in a one gap system and he understands his role in the offense. He knows which gap he has to defend and he will plug it, even against guards. He reads screens well and gives maximum effort on every play. If you run a four man front and just want a gap sound, run stuffing linebacker then Jones is 100% your guy. The problem is that Jones is quite slow and not a huge amount of use in the passing game. He can't cover man to man, he's too slow to close in zone coverage, and he lacks the burst necessary to get to the quarterback on blitzes. That means Jones will probably be a two down backer in the NFL, brought in to play the run then coming off for passing downs. For me that moves his value to somewhere around the fourth to fifth round (because he is a very good run stopper).

Ben Heeney, Kansas
Simply put, Heeney is probably not strong enough to survive in the NFL. He's quick, but that's because he only weighs 231 pounds so he's getting down to the bottom end of what is considered desirable size at the inside linebacker spot in the pros. And without a solid base of strength he gets muscled out of the play far too easily. His speed allows him to make the occasional play, but that's really not enough for the NFL. His pass coverage is also pretty weak. For me I'd have to pass.

Hayes Pullard, USC
Was largely a spectator in the run game. Had a tendency to just stand there and wait for the running back to come to him (or for other team mates to make the tackle) as opposed to coming down hill and closing the running lanes and delivering hits to the backs. Did ok in pass coverage it seemed though. Had a decent feel for holding the hip of a tight end and eliminating them from the play. For that reason I think Pullard might have value as a seventh round/undrafted guy, initially trying to win a spot as a third down linebacker for passing situations who can overtime try and develop a more aggressive demeanour against the run.

Jeff Luc, Cincinnati
Meh. Has a bit of speed but didn't seem to do much. In pass coverage he looked confused as to what was going on and could frequently be found running to finally cover his assignment once the ball was already in the air heading to the other side of the field. He made a few thumping tackles, but by and large did nothing that made me think "I'd part with a pick for this guy". Maybe as an undrafted camp body, see if your linebackers coach can't make something out of him?

John Timu, Washington
Considering Timu is 6'1" and weighs in at 246 pounds, he certainly seems to get man handled quite a bit. There were a couple of times where he struggled to bring down quarterbacks running in the open field which is clearly not ideal. He doesn't seem that quick either. And yet despite those problems he does have really good instincts. He reads what is in front of him, often makes the right choice, and then charges off to make the tackle. So there is a dilemma with Timu; those instincts are great but he needs a bit more speed to make the most of them, which would suggest cutting off some weight, but then if you do that is that going to make it even harder for him to make tackles?

For that reason I see Timu as an undrafted project, possibly as a weak side "Will" linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. Mentally he's there, but physically he can't always take advantage of that footballing brain. So he'd be an off season project, dump maybe as much as 10-15 pounds off him, then see how it gets on. Might be a practice squad player for a bit but if someone can tap the obvious potential that resides in his brain then he could be a good little player.

Bryce Hager, Baylor
So let's say you took 10 pounds off of Timu, what would that look like? He'd look a lot like Bryce Hager as it happens. Might even match Hager's 4.6 second 40 yard dash time. And that's really Hager's selling point, the fact that he's reasonably quick and has decent instincts to find the ball and take down the ball carrier. Not the strongest guy in the world and probably finds his best spot in the NFL as a weak side backer in a 4-3 scheme, but not a bad pick up I suspect for the seventh round/undrafted region. Will have to work hard to earn his spot but has a kernel of talent to work with. As a back up, potentially a third down guy just to start with, he could make a few plays.

Cole Farrand, Maryland
As an undrafted guy I actually really like Cole Farrand. I've definitely got a soft spot for Maryland this year. At 6'3", 245 pounds Farrand has a lot to work with physically. He wasn't an outstanding linebacker by any means (there's a reason he's down here) but he was quite tough, hunted the running back well and was a decent tackler in the open field. He played some ok coverage on top of that. I just think as an undrafted guy you can't go too far wrong with Farrand. He's cheap, has good size and the basic traits of a good linebacker, either playing inside (in any defense) or on the strong side of a 4-3. A bit of a project that probably needs to cut a little weight, but with long term potential if handled correctly.


And that's it for your inside linebackers. Just 12 guys on this list, but the draft is closing in on us. Safeties next, which I accept might come too late for the draft itself, or at least the first day of it. I'll do free and strong safeties together. Thanks for stopping bye, hopefully I'll see you again soon, and please share this post around if you enjoyed it. It really makes a difference.

Monday, April 20, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Outside Linebackers

In this post I'm looking at the outside linebacker prospects. Which judging by the quality of the lists I've been working from previously that means there will be all kinds of players on it playing everything from defensive end to probably a strong safety in there somewhere. Still I digress.

Basically what I'm looking for here is linebackers who could either play as an outside backer in a 3-4 or in a 4-3. In a 3-4 these players are predominantly pass rushers like Justin Houston or Clay Matthews for whom pass coverage is a secondary consideration. In a 4-3 these players can either be strong side ("Sam") or weak side ("Will") backers. Sam linebackers tend to be larger and tougher than "Wills", good against the run with the ability to bump a tight end at the line in pass coverage and even to blitz at times. Will linebackers normally line up in a spot that would qualify them as inside linebackers in a 3-4, but they have to be better against the pass, often having to cover quite a significant chunk of ground in coverage on the weak side of the formation.

So what am I looking for out of all these various players? Well it's tough to summarise because of the wildly different roles depending on which scheme a player ends up in, but broadly speaking I'm interested in:

1) Pass rush,
2) Run defense,
3) Pass coverage,
4) Versatility,

Hopefully one and two should be obvious. Three is likely to be a mix of man to man and zone. Generally in man coverage defenders need to be stronger in the early phase of the route and have the speed to cover either a tight end or running back down the field. Usually this is not a good match up for the defense, but linebackers that can pull it off gain an advantage. For teams that play zone a different set of skills is required, generally favouring players that can read the play in front of them, react quickly and then race to break up the pass or tackle the catcher. And versatility is a handy metric to use to separate players that are otherwise closely matched.

And as always this list is ordered the way it is because that's the way the list I'm working from is ordered. You need to read the specific description of a player to find out what I think of them. Starting with;

Dante Fowler Jr, Florida
Played a mixture of roles for Florida. At times they had him with his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 end, sometimes standing up as a 3-4 outside backer, and even lined him up on occasion standing opposite the center to try and create some confusion. Looking around Fowler is a consensus top 5 pick on all the mock drafts and almost everyone has him going number 3 overall to the Jaguars. It would appear that the only thing that might change that is if the Titans take Mariota at 2 or someone trades with them to do the same, which would leave Leonard Williams on the board still at 3. Either way, Fowler goes early. Everyone at least seems to agree on that.

And I think it would be a massive mistake.

The one thing that never ceases to perplex me each year is how few dissenting opinions there are, if any. I can understand that if several people think a player is great then there's a good chance that he actually is and as such it would be normal for everyone else to agree. Kevin White is a consensus top 10 player and I can see why, because he's great. But you'd at least expect, just on pure probability given the number of people that are out there assessing the draft, to see at least one or two dissenting opinions in the mainstream press. But you don't. In Fowler's case that really makes me wonder why.

I say that because there are some things that Fowler does really well. He's pretty quick for a start, running a 4.6 second 40 at the combine. When left unblocked he closes with the quarterback at tremendous speed. But here is where I'm surprised that the alarm bells didn't immediately begin ringing for more people. Fowler, even when left unblocked, struggled to chalk up the sacks like he should have. I saw multiple examples across a number of games where he had a free shot at the quarterback but failed to bring him down even when he got his hands on them because he wasn't strong enough and lacked the body control to set himself correctly, instead swinging off wildly and normally ending up on the floor. Granted he works hard to get back to his feet and pursue, and generally seems to play hard overall, but it's a worrying start.

The second alarm bell should have been that Fowler is really not that great as a pass rusher. He most frequently gets blocked, often times by tight ends and running backs. Now I wasn't a huge fan of Khalil Mack last year, a guy that has been over hyped to the moon since arriving in the NFL, but even I would consider it immensely stupid to try and consistently block someone like Mack with just a tight end (which is exactly what Cleveland tried to do and paid the price). With Fowler I don't have that same fear. Looking at it from the perspective of an offensive coordinator I would look at Mack and at least think to myself "we have to make sure we don't end up with a back or a tight end blocking him or we'll have problems". I look at Fowler and think "as long as we get someone on him we'll be fine".

And this now leads us into the third alarm bell that should be ringing with regards to Fowler. Continuing this theme of looking at this problem from an offensive coordinators perspective, if I'm looking at Fowler I see a guy that we can easily bully in the run game. Don't believe me? Go and watch the LSU game. They got Fowler pinned to the inside on one early run and from that point onwards they just started attacking him mercilessly. Granted LSU had decent success all night running to their left, even once Fowler had been moved, but any time they went at him he was a non-factor.

Now all these things are obvious problems and like I said they should have caused way more alarm bells to ring than what I'm seeing right now, but it's not all bad. Fowler still has a lot of potential. He's clearly a great athlete and at the NFL level I expect that a team will choose a position for him and then let him settle down as opposed to having to move about all the time, from one side to the other, from end to linebacker etc. Given the chance to fix himself in one spot and dedicate his preparation to it should allow him to truly start to unlock his raw athletic ability and focus his training and skill development. It should also allow him to make adjustments to his body in terms of how much weight he carries to maximise his performance at that spot.

But here comes the catch; for me that turns Fowler into a project. A project with a lot of potential, if everything works out the right way? Absolutely. A project with a very high ceiling if a team can figure out a way to minimise the weaknesses and maximise his strengths? Absolutely. If. That's a big "if" for a first round pick if you ask me. And yeah, I said first round pick, not just top ten. I just don't see how you can justify using a first round pick on Fowler. If you're picking at number three then think about all the talent that would still be on the board by that point, guys like Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Amari Cooper, Malcom Brown, Shane Ray. Why on Earth would you gamble on Fowler? At best he improves over time and becomes as good a pass rusher as Ray is right now. So why not just save yourself the time and hassle and draft Ray? It makes no sense to me.

I'd even argue that by the bottom end of the first round there will still be better players on the board, in general and pass rushers specifically. There is no sound reason that I can see for taking Fowler in the first round, let alone in the top ten. He's an experiment, a slight gamble, a guy with tremendous physical potential who needs a bit of time to settle somewhere along with a lot of hard work to develop his pass rush technique beyond just a quick outside step and then coming back inside. He'll probably only really start to come into his own as a player a year from now in the 2016 season and even then you're projecting what might be. He might be outstanding. More likely he just be pretty good. For me that represents a big risk and first round picks are not really about risk. I think in the second round the potential if all goes well makes it worth the gamble, but no higher than that and also dependent on who else is on the board by the time you pick.

Vic Beasley, Clemson
I watched the Georgia game and I didn't see Beasley make a single play. Indeed Georgia figured out pretty quick that because Beasley kept diving to the inside they could simply run the ball outside of him with few problems. I watched two more games during which Beasley made just two plays, both of them sacks. The first was just a speed rush around the tackle who - along with his tight end - got their assignments confused and they ended up both trying to block an inside rusher. The second was a nice spin move after the tackle (second game now) kick stepped too deep, and Beasley just spun inside of him.

So I had difficulty figuring out why Beasley is so highly talked up. Sure he did some good things and is clearly a good athlete, but he wasn't eye popping. He looked like someone who makes one play then disappears for the rest of the game. And then I saw those eye popping combine numbers. Putting up 35 bench press reps, which is lineman territory, despite being 50-75 pounds lighter than most of those guys? Coupled with the fact that he put on 13 pounds of purely lean muscle in just 8 weeks? So for my own reasons that I won't go into here I'd pass. In fact I'd stay well clear.

Randy Gregory, Nebraska
Drug and PED testing in the NFL is often referred to as idiot testing. Everyone knows it's coming and in most cases players know exactly when they will be tested. To get caught you either have to be extremely careless or extremely stupid. Or a bit of both. So guess who got caught by a drug test at the combine! And this is not the first time that Randy Gregory has been busted for this. His apology seemed reasonably contrite, but honestly there is only so many times you can say sorry before people start to tune you out.

His positive test means that Gregory will enter the league already in stage one of the league's drug program. That means he will be tested repeatedly throughout the season and another positive test would result in a suspension. Now considering that he failed multiple tests in college despite being on thin ice with his team over his drug use, that would suggest that Gregory is not exactly deterred by the threat of a ban. It's for that reason that he's been moving down draft boards despite his obvious talents.

And he does have talent, which is the real shame of his situation. He has speed and developed pass rush moves that allow him to beat a number of tackles one on one and get to the quarterback. He's not the best pass rusher in the world. Not even the best pass rusher in this draft. But as a 3-4 outside backer he has potential (that word again, potential). Part of the problem though is his size. He's light and was frequently controlled in the running game. So you get a plus side and you get a negative side. And the drug issue on top of that.

For me I want the pass rushing skills, but I'm worried about people targeting him in the run game and I'm worried that he'll end up spending more time in the stands than on the field. The kind of risk premium I would want for that is to move him to the third round at least and by that point I think he'll already be gone.

Eli Harold, Virginia
I'm sitting here trying to figure out what to make of Eli Harold. I saw a lot of great things. He was quick around the edge with some great body lean. He had a counter move up the inside against tackles that tried to race him to the edge. He even had a pretty good bull rush. He used his hands well to bustle the offensive linemen about and used the torque from his hips to throw people aside.

So the question is, why was his production so limited? He picked up sacks in just five games in 2014, and none in his final four games which were against opposition much more representative of the NFL than Richmond, Kent State and North Carolina. It just seemed like Virginia's defense was running over everyone, but Harold was never the guy making the final play. And yet I have that gut feeling, the kind you can't always explain, that in the NFL he'll be a quality outside backer in a 3-4 (and might just be able to play end in a 4-3). Sometimes people have runs of bad luck, just like some players have runs of good luck. He was a hard working guy who pursued brilliantly and I always felt watching him that he was just on the edge of breaking out and taking over college football as a top pass rusher.

Taking into account the negatives I think Harold is probably a second round pick. Depending on how the board fell he might even be worth a late first, but the second round is more appropriate I feel in order to provide for a risk premium that takes into account those question marks about his overall production. One to keep an eye on though. His ceiling could potentially be in that Justin Houston, league sack leader range.

Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Kentucky
I watched five games back to back in what was probably the most mind numbing few hours I've ever spent watching football. Dupree is a top 16 pick according to all the mocks. From what I can tell that's based exclusively off his combine numbers and his height (6'4"), because his game film is average at best. He has some speed which he showed at the combine, but he lacked any kind of play strength. If a tackle could touch him then they could block him and he got blocked a lot. He spent most of every game being a total non-factor, only popping up when he was either left unblocked or the quarterback held the ball for 7-8 seconds. There was nothing there that screamed first round pick at all.

If people want to draft him based on those combine numbers then fine, but nobody can claim at a later date that they saw something in him because there is nothing to see on the field. It would be a pure punt based entirely off a quick 40 time and a very explosive vertical leap. Both of which, given his weight, give me reason to hold private reservations similar to those I have with Beasley. I'd pass.

Shaq Thompson, Washington
Played outside linebacker, inside linebacker, safety, running back and special teams at various points over the last year. That kind of versatility has Patriots written all over it as this is the kind of player that Bill Belichick has historically coveted. For me I think Thompson would find his best fit as an outside linebacker at the "Will" spot in a 4-3 defense and given his height and smaller frame I suspect that might be the only spot (along with being a reserve running back) that he can cope with in the NFL. And in that spot he's pretty good.

Thompson is not really a rush linebacker. He's a coverage guy. He might find he's not even be able to play run downs in the NFL due to his smaller size. But in coverage he's great. He can cope with man to man and has superb play instincts in zone coverage. He reads the quarterbacks eyes, moves to keep open receivers inside his play radius and then breaks on the receiver quickly when the ball is thrown, often arriving in time to make the break up or at least a yardage saving tackle. He's not the greatest player in this draft and has somewhat limited utility, but he has utility none the less. Probably from around the 4th round region I think you'll get value out of Thompson, especially with his special teams play. He won't be a major player on your team, but he'll likely still be there for a second contract as a developing role player.

Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington
I'm of two minds about Kikaha. On the one hand he put up sack numbers last year that would have put him in the top 3 for regular season sacks in the NFL. Considering he only played 13 games that is a phenomenal achievement in its own right. If he could sustain that pace across a 16 game NFL season he would have topped the league. That on it's own has to make you sit up and take notice and give him some respect.

So what's the hold up? Watching him play he really looks like a bit part for most of the game. Normally he has to be unblocked to make a play on the quarterback. Sometimes he gets a good arm move in and generates some pressure with his technique, but for a lot of the game he seems like a spectator. He doesn't contribute much in the run game and doesn't have the athletic ability or awareness to really play in space as a coverage guy. He ran a 4.9 40 at his pro day which for his weight (253 pounds) is not great. Indeed his numbers in pretty much all the drills were pedestrian and he looks it on the field. As a result teams have to make a judgement call about Kikaha come draft day; was all that production just a mirage, the beneficiary of playing many weak teams that throw the ball a lot? Or can he overcome his lack of outstanding physical talent and produce similar numbers at the next level?

Added to the problems are a pair of historical ACL tears. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact they happened way back in 2011-2012 and he's since gone on from then to produce consistently, but it does add another question mark over long term durability. Overall I'm tempted say he's worth a second rounder. There's inflated production and then there's blowing everyone else out of the water sack numbers. He produced against Oregon and you just have to feel that there's something in that. Yet in my mind I just can't shake those question marks? It's one I'd need way more time than I currently have to mull over in my mind, so we'll split the difference and call it third round value, knowing that he'll probably be gone by then and that if he isn't then he almost certainly would provide value.

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville
Ok, if we're talking first round 3-4 outside backers then this kid should be in the conversation. He has some great hand technique in his pass rush, the ability to bully tackles out of the way to get to the quarterback, and he can play a bit of run defense as well. The biggest knock on Mauldin would be that sometimes his brain is clearly operating quicker than his feet can keep up with. At 6'4" and a relatively cut looking 259 pounds it's difficult to see Maudlin being able to shed weight to quicken up. Given that the run game is his weakest area right now it might actually be desirable for him to put on a bit of weight and sacrifice a little speed to become stouter in the run game.

Overall I think he's a really good player. He had a much more consistent impact than pretty much everyone I've seen on this list so far. He made his presence felt in the oppositions backfield on a regular basis and to me it is far more valuable to have a guy with a solid body of work on film who perhaps isn't the greatest athlete than to have a combine warrior who is all promise but with very little to show for it on game day. Of course most scouts disagree, because that way they can blame it on the coaches for not coaching the guy up and getting the best out of him (something that is significantly more difficult than most scouts seem able to comprehend) when it all goes wrong, and can claim the credit for "discovering" the player when it goes right.

I'd take Mauldin over all of those guys above in a heartbeat. For me he's late first round quality, definitely second round, and a steal at the third round price that most people seem to put on him. Keep an eye out for this one.

Kwon Alexander, LSU
Purely an outside backer prospect for a team that runs a 4-3 defense. Probably more of a strong side guy than a weak side guy, but could develop in time to be either. Alexander was pretty handy. His coverage skills will need some work but he has good speed and recognises plays quite quickly. Has the strength to take on fullbacks and tight ends one on one and beat them to get to the ball carrier. I think from around the fourth round or so Alexander has value, depending on what you're looking for. Still needs a bit of work though.

Jordan Hicks, Texas
Played a variety of linebacker spots for scheme reasons, but basically a weak side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. That's where I'd put it him if I was drafting him, though might have some flexibility in a 3-4 depending on what you have planned. He's quick and reasonably tough, and I think he has the versatility to play in coverage and be an occasional blitzer. Probably finds the right value in about the fifth round. Not an outstanding player, but a solid one.

Max Valles, Virginia
Played as an outside backer in a 3-4 scheme and appeared largely ineffectual to me. Wasn't really around the ball much, didn't hold the point really in the running game. Just seemed to be a warm body on the field and not a lot else. I'd pass.

Davis Tull, Tennessee-Chattanooga
Quick, gave even Tennessee some problems around the edge and had a spin move to the inside as a counter to over reaching tackles. I have a problem though with the general level of competition he faced. For that I'd want a risk premium that drops him to the third round but from there, as a 3-4 outside pass rusher, I think Tull is a decent pick up who could surprise a lot of people with that 4.57 speed.

Jake Ryan, Michigan
Well of course there's an inside linebacker on a list of outside linebackers, why wouldn't there be?

Anyway, Jake Ryan, inside linebacker behind a 4 man front. Could easily play in a 3-4 if needed and indeed might actually prefer that and be better at it as he seems to have a knack for reading plays on the move, recognising them quickly and then flying down hill with his 4.65 speed to make the tackle. Because of the nature of the Michigan defense he didn't have to blitz much but he seems to have at least some talent for it and combined with that speed I think he'd prove surprisingly useful in a 3-4 scheme. The only big knock I really have on him is in pass coverage. He doesn't seem to have the technique to stick with people man to man and seems to get confused in zone coverage, allowing himself to be lured away by the wrong receivers, leaving big holes underneath where he should be covering.

For that reason I think Ryan might be limited to being a two down linebacker to start his career, with his long term future dependent on whether he can learn to play better coverage and fit into a scheme. If he can do that then he might have quite a promising career ahead. For now though I think he's in that fourth to fifth round region value wise, probably leaning a bit more towards the fifth because the NFL is fundamentally a passing league and he has a lot to learn if he's going to find a home in it.

Martrell Spaight, Arkansas
Technically a weak side backer in a 4-3, but played pretty much as an inside guy. Might be a little light for that in the NFL, but given the high quality of his open field tackling and his demonstrated ability to take on and beat offensive linemen both when blitzing and in the open field on screens and runs, I think he might just get away with it. I was very surprised however to see that he only ran a 4.88 forty yard dash at the combine because he looks much quicker than that on the field. Given that he weighed in a bit heavier than he looks in pads, I wonder if he bulked up a little for the combine? I also noticed that team mates often seemed to look to him for play call adjustments (sometimes referred to as "fine control" by defensive coordinators) which would suggest that he both understands the ins and outs of the defensive scheme as well as commanding the confidence of his team mates. These traits would point towards Spaight being something of a natural leader.

For those reasons, along with the fact that he made the all-SEC team in just his first year of "big time" football, I think Martrell is a very intriguing prospect who deserves to be rated higher than the 5th-6th round grade that most seem to have given him. I think Spaight's true worth is probably a 3rd round pick at the top end and that valuation mainly includes a risk premium for his lack of experience and the fact that his pass coverage was ok but nothing to write home about. Given the valuations kicking around you'd probably wait to pull the trigger, maybe as low as the fifth round, but the teams themselves would have a much better idea about where other teams have valued him and would be able to adjust accordingly, a luxury that eludes me. A late round gem it would seem.

Mike Hull, Penn State
Did well at the combine and on his pro day, but looked unathletic on the field. I suspect someone has been training hard in preparation for their NFL job interview. What else to say about Hull? Well, he's not really an outside backer. Normally a "Will" linebacker in a 4-3 is someone you associate with having a bit of speed and the ability to play the pass in space. Hull didn't possess either of these traits. He was ok. I can see why some linebacker coach might badger the decision maker for their team to at least give him a shot in training camp, but I wouldn't use a draft pick on him. Not even close.

Deion Barnes, Penn State
Somewhat average defensive end in a 4 man line. Apparently some think he could make the move to outside linebacker in a 3-4. Maybe if he sheds 20 pounds he might have enough speed for that, at which point he would become even more of a non-factor in the run game. I don't see much in Barnes to be honest. I'd pass.

Jermauria Rasco, LSU
Below average 4-3 end from what I could see. I'd pass.

Zack Hodges, Harvard
When you struggle to make an impact against Holy Cross, that concerns me. But. But, says I, Hodges is pretty explosive for a 250 pound dude and played much better on the few occasions when he was standing up. So if he falls into free agency, or perhaps in the seventh round if you have absolutely nothing else on your board, then Hodges might intrigue. He played a bit of inside linebacker (literally a handful of snaps per game) so you can mess around with him a bit and see where you want him. If he plays inside he could probably give up around 10 pounds and thus pick up a bit more speed, which would make him brutally quick at closing on the quarterback in blitzes, coming down hill to hit running backs, and probably let him hang even with the faster tight ends in the league in coverage. That's intriguing, but it's a big long term project for your linebackers coach to work on.

Tony Washington, Oregon
Didn't do much for me. Was a body that needed blocking I guess.

Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Maryland
Oddly enough for an outside backer, Cudjoe-Virgil did some of his best work lining up inside and rushing the passer, frequently making a fool of guards and centers with his swim move. Has decent speed for his size and obviously has some pass rush moves, so I think he's worth a shot as an undrafted guy. Bring him in, see how it gets on, maybe a development project for the future either as an outside pass rusher or even a bit experimentally as an inside backer, dropping a few pounds to make himself a little more mobile in space. 


And that's that for the outside linebackers, twenty players covered. With just under 11 days to go I'm up against it to get all these done in time, but I'm getting there. Next up is the inside linebackers. Thanks for stopping bye and don't forget to share this post if you enjoyed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Defensive Tackles

I love the defensive tackle group because they're fun to watch and because they play such an important but unheralded role in football. Occasionally one or two guys get a mention, but for the most part they're not the highlight reel celebrities that the press like to focus on in the same way that they do with wide receivers, quarterbacks, cornerbacks and the like. Which is a shame because it's the hard work done in the trenches by the D-linemen that make a lot of the other highlight reel defensive plays possible. These are the men that drive the pocket backwards into the quarterbacks lap, giving him nowhere to run when the edge rushers close in from the sides. These are the guys that most frequently blow up running plays with their pressure up the middle, cutting a path through the offensive line to snap at the running backs heels.

Now this list will contain two broad groups of players; 3-4 nose tackles and 4-3 tackles of both the 1 and 3 technique variety. Nose tackles and 1 techniques play a broadly very similar game, though normally nose tackles are expected to two gap the center (play head to head on the center and cover running lanes on both sides of him) whereas 1 techniques normally get to single gap, taking just the one shoulder of the center and driving through that hole. 3 techniques are a somewhat different breed, lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard and rushing just the one gap, they very rarely have to cope with the same level of double teams that the other two techniques do. I'll endeavour with each player to lay out both where he played in college and where I think he'd fit in the NFL.

So what am I looking for in these tackles?

1) Run stuffing,
2) Pass rushing,
3) Alignment on the ball,
4) Versatility,

One is as it would appear, basically the ability to stop the run. In some cases this will involve penetrating through the line and getting into the backfield but for some, particularly the nose tackles, this often involves standing up the blocker in front of them and reading through to the running back before shedding the blocker sideways and making the tackle. Two should also be self explanatory, but again in some cases it will be a mark of the players ability to beat an O-lineman one on one and get penetration, while for some other players it will be a measure of whether they can go head to head with the lineman and drive him back into the backfield.

Alignment on the ball is a pet peeve of mine, which along with versatility (the ability to play at multiple spots along the line) I'll use as a tie-breaker between equally good D-tackles. Basically with alignment I'm looking at how close to the neutral zone does the tackle line up. I've noticed in recent years that many defenders now have a tendency to give the offensive linemen an unnecessary advantage by lining up too far off the line of scrimmage. A D-tackle that cheats up as close as he can often gains the kind of small advantage that makes a big difference at the pro level.

And as always this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. You have to read the specific feedback to find out what I think of a particular player. Starting with:

Arik Armstead, Oregon
Other than the fact that he's 6'7", I'm not sure what Armstead is doing this high up. I can't seriously believe that any of the 32 teams actually rates him this much. Rather I suspect that the person who produced the original list I'm working from has taken leave of their senses. And to cap it all off, of course the first player on the list of defensive tackles would have to actually be a defensive end. Because... scouting (Armstead played as an end in a 3 man front).

So could he move inside and be a tackle? Maybe. Despite weighing 292 pounds, because of his height he actually looks quite skinny, like almost wide receiver skinny from some angles. There is easily room for more weight if required. To me though I think I'd want to keep him about where he is as he seems comfortable playing at that size. The problem is that because he doesn't carry much of that weight in his lower body you can clearly see that he struggles to drop his anchor and hold the point of attack in the running game. He also seems to lack the ability to get under the lineman's pads and really drive him back into the backfield. So nose man in a 3 man front, or a 1 technique in a 4 man front are both off the cards I suspect. As is, oddly enough, the position he played in college as an end in a 3 man front. I just don't think he's stout enough against the run to do any of those, or at least I wouldn't want to try him in any of those.

Where he might garner some interest is in a 4 man front, either as an end or a 3 technique. In both cases he'd be asked to only deal with the one gap and here he has potential. That unholy word which has gotten many a coach fired. The reason I think he has potential in either spot is because he's actually quite quick and has some decent pass rush moves. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a 6'7" player has a pretty well developed swim move. With them long arms of his he can also post an O-lineman back and at the very least occupy a gap in the running game.

Now conceivably you could also coach him to use that length and play as a 3-4 end, but I'm generally of the opinion that given the number of quality players that will be kicking around in the first round then it's a tough ask to gamble that pick on what I think is an unproven commodity. For that reason I think I'd be reluctant to use anything more than a third rounder on Armstead. Not because he's a bad player, he's not, but just purely because that's the risk premium that I would require to compensate for the risky nature of what is basically a development project. His production in college was very limited and to me Armstead represents something of a crap shoot. He might, might, develop into quite an exceptional lineman with that size and the basic pass rushing techniques that he has, but that's quite an ask. I'd prefer something more proven in the early rounds.

Danny Shelton, Washington
Shelton provides a perfect example of what I'm talking about with the alignment issue. On many plays he lines up almost a yard away from the ball. Why? Why give the offensive line a yards worth of free space to work with and make your own life a lot harder? Anyway, Danny Shelton. Let's cut right to the chase; Shelton is pretty much a consensus top 10 pick among all those assessing the draft, but I wouldn't use a top ten on him. I wouldn't even use a first rounder on him.

Is that because he's a bad player? No, not at all. At times he's an absolute monster, chucking people left and right or pursuing the ball carrier laterally down the line. Despite his combine numbers not being outstanding he is most definitely a great athlete. I admire a dude who is 339 pounds at 6'2" yet can still chase down plays from behind and leap over fallen bodies. The trouble is that for a guy that is 339 pounds he certainly seems to get thrown around a lot. He seems to carry most of his weight in his upper body which makes him somewhat unstable. My worry is that while on same plays he'll man handle guards at the NFL level, there will also be times when guards will man handle him. He didn't perform consistently against the best opposition and that to me poses a serious question mark.

I think his best position in the NFL will be as a three technique in a 4 man front, working one on one in a one gap scheme, mostly against right guards. If you can get him to line up on the ball instead of one yard off it then I think this gives him the best chance to show off his athletic abilities and size. I just think that for me I'd want to apply a risk premium that moves him down to the second round. Again, that's not saying that he's a bad player, just that I have question marks on him that I think would make me uncomfortable using a first rounder on him, especially when you consider that he's likely to go in the top ten where there will be some great talents available.

Malcom Brown, Texas
Note to all mothers; spelling your sons name correctly can save people a lot of aggravation at a later date when they try looking for "Malcolm" Brown without thinking to double check the spelling. Anyway, Malcom Brown, D-tackle at Texas. Any good?

Yep. Displays tremendous power in the lower body and understands how to rotate his hips to transfer that power into a chuck move, throwing offensive linemen aside. When two gapping he's able to hold the point of attack against guards, centers and even tackles, keeping them at bay with his arms while looking through them to find the ball carrier, then makes his move. When one gapping he shows decent burst for a big man and is able to get penetration into the backfield on a consistent basis, delivering pressure to the quarterback and hunting down running backs.

If we look at the drawbacks for the moment these are predominantly two fold. One is a lack of elite level speed for his position when running in the open field and the other is that he appears to have become so reliant on his power and leverage that he has no developed pass rush technique, instead simply trying to bulldoze his way through on each play. He is versatile though and I could see him playing pretty much any spot on a 3-4 line (though he might need a few more pounds of bulk to play the nose) or either spot in the interior of a 4 man line. 

Overall I like Brown, despite the missing "L" in his name. He always seemed to be around the ball, always causing mischief along the line, and generally seemed like a difficult guy for the other team to block. That's the kind of disrupting talent that NFL teams are looking for in a D-lineman. Though he could of been a bit stouter against the run, Brown looks like a first round pick. I think he might be more of a middle first guy, there being better players ahead of him in this draft, but he's certainly a talent. His best fit is probably a 4-3 defense, with the three technique being his most likely home, but like I said earlier I think he could be versatile.

Eddie Goldman, Florida State
For me Goldman can really be summed up by the contrast that I saw in two games in particular. In one Goldman went up against linemen who are projected to be drafted either this year or next and he looked average. They controlled him for most of the game and he was barely relevant. Occasionally he popped up with a tackle, but by and large he was a non-factor. In the other game he went up against much weaker opposition. Here he was still barely a factor, but did make a few more plays. So for me I question where and why I would use a pick on Goldman?

First round? No way. Second round? Na. Third round? Naw. Fourth round? Nope. Fifth round? Maybe. See the problem is my general philosophy on the draft is that this is your (almost) free opportunity to get better each year. Providing you don't trade away your picks then you get seven shots to make your team better, to add players who can potentially be great and help you reach a Superbowl. I don't see Goldman in that light. He showed very little potential in terms of pass rush and looks nothing more than a rotational run defender, either as a 1 technique in a 4 man line or as a nose in a 3 man line, really just filling in to give other guys a rest.

Now that has a certain value. Just for me that value is probably not worth a draft pick. In the early rounds there will be many better players, and in the middle to late rounds there will be players with much more potential upside. I'd have to pass on Goldman I think.

On a side note, while watching him play against Louisville two guys caught my eye. One was quarterback Will Gardner, now a Junior for 2015. I saw a bit of him when watching DeVante Parker but I was mainly focused on Parker as opposed to where else the ball was going. Louisville runs very much a pro-style system under Bobby Petrino, someone with plenty of NFL experience including as a quarterbacks coach, and it really shows in Gardner. He wasn't perfect and some of his receivers let him down, but Gardner looks like an NFL quarterback already and he still has at least one, possibly two more years left to develop. Keep an eye out for this guy in the 2016 or 2017 draft.

The other guy I paid more attention to was Louisville running back Michael Dyer, who was a senior in 2014 but wasn't on my list of running backs so I wasn't really on the lookout for him. His playing time was sketchy and he didn't have that many carries, but Dyer looked good to me. He's 5'8", has a nice burst, has good balance and body control as he works his way through the line and I think as an undrafted or maybe just about a late round back then he has some value. Might not have the longest NFL career because he's not the biggest dude, but definitely caught my eye.

Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma
In keeping with this theme that's developed, I'd like to start by actually talking about two offensive players who I stumbled across, both from Clemson. One is running back Wayne Gallman who is entering his junior year this year. He looks like an absolute one to watch for the future, 2017-18 draft time. The other was quarterback Cole Stoudt, who is actually out of college football this year having played his senior season in 2014. He played vary sparingly for Clemson over the years because of Tajh Boyd, but he has that little nugget of potential. He made some really nice reads, some nice throws, and worked the pocket very well in his limited time. He's not someone you would use a draft pick on because he's not even being talked about, but absolutely having seen him I would offer this guy a spot for the off season with a view to putting him on the practice squad for the future. Physically he has the tools and mentally he looks pretty good as well. He'll probably disappear into obscurity judging by the lack of any interest in him, but I hope someone gives him a shot. I would.

Anyway, back to Jordan Phillips. I absolutely love this kid. 6'5", 329 pounds. Loved the robot sack dance. Love the way he lines up in a four point stance, but with his chest up like he's about to take a dump right there on the line of scrimmage. And I love what he brings to the table as a defensive tackle. When talking earlier about Eddie Goldman, I mentioned the desire to find players who are difference makers. Phillips is a difference maker. He's a guy that can play either in a 3 man or 4 man front and will materially improve pretty much any roster in the NFL.

In a 3 man front you can easily see Phillips slotting into any role along that line. He could be the nose tackle or an end, though he's probably better suited to the nose tackle with his size. In a 4 man front I can easily see him either as a 3 technique or a 1. He certainly has the combination of size and athletic ability to pull off any of these spots. Physically he dominates most centers and even coped well with being double teamed by guards, able to hold the point of attack and in many cases still fight through into the backfield. He was constantly in the oppositions backfield, either driving offensive linemen back into it or simply sweeping them aside or swimming over them. He even chases plays down from behind when possible and showed a remarkable turn of speed chasing runners down the field. He also clearly gives maximum effort on each play.

Probably the biggest compliment you can give Phillips is that he makes everyone else around him better. He is a force in his own right but the real benefit of having Phillips on your line is that he draws double teams away from other people (and still beats them), plugs holes on the line, forces running backs to make massive cuts to the outside and flushes quarterbacks off the spot. He creates multiple opportunities for other players to make plays, but crucially still makes plays for himself. For that reason I think Phillips is first round quality. Top ten? I don't know about that, because I think there will be better players still on the board for a while, but if you're picking from the middle of the first round onwards Phillips is very likely to be one of the best players still available.

Michael Bennett, Ohio State
Exclusively a 3 technique guy in a 4 man front I think. It's where he played in college and it's the best fit for his skills. And what skills this young man has! It's odd watching him because he's not a standout, grab you by the throat and make you take notice type guy that takes over games, and yet he just keeps finding a way to make plays, game after game, down after down. Another player who helps those around him by creating disruption and pressure up the middle, forcing quarterbacks and running backs to play around him. Against the run he shuts down his gap consistently and cuts off outside runs, forcing the play back inside. Against the pass he manhandles guards and collapses the pocket from the front, snagging the unwary quarterback who tries to step up and doesn't respect his closing speed (he ran a sub 5 second 40 time at his pro day).

An every down player (almost literally at times) I think Bennett has real potential. I see a lot of negative comments saying he's a rotation type player which is crazy talk for me. He's not the largest defensive tackle and yes he's restricted I think to being that one gap, three technique player in a 4-3 defense, but he looks like an absolutely sound first round pick. Again I think like Phillips there will be better players on the board up until about the middle portion of the first round, but after that Bennett will join Phillips as one of the top players on the board I suspect. Needs the right team to pick him and I don't think they'll regret doing so.

Carl Davis, Iowa
Big old hoss at 6'5", 320. Lines up right on the ball, getting every last inch that he legally can out of his alignment. And surprise, surprise that means he often beats the center right off the snap with an explosive getaway. Who'd have ever thought that lining up as close to the offensive line as you possibly can would allow you to close with them quickly and jump into the gap? Madness I tells ya! It'll never catch on...

Generally I really like Davis. He played in a 4 man front at Iowa playing a bit of three technique but mainly as a one. If drafted into a 3 man front he could play defensive end with ease and I suspect could probably cut it as a two gapping nose tackle as well, so top marks for versatility. He gets great penetration into the backfield when one gapping and has the size and strength to handle double teams as well if necessary. When the offensive line makes a mistake he has sufficient athletic ability to make them pay, but lacks that truly elite level of speed for a defensive tackle. When plays go away from him he also has a tendency to switch off and start loafing, something which will go down like a sack of bricks with NFL defensive line coaches.

Overall I'd be tempted to say that Davis is worth a first rounder. Most people seem to think he'll fall into the second and at that price he should prove to be a bargain. Some really good D-line talent to be had this year by the looks of it, providing you know where to shop. Makes you wish you could play a 5 man D-line!

Grady Jarrett, Clemson
This is a good year for D-linemen!

Let's get the knocks out of the way first for Jarrettt, aside from the fact that I've been repeatedly typing his name as "Garrett" and then having to constantly go back and correct it because I'm basically an idiot. Jarrett is 6'1" and 304 pounds, which means that from a physical standpoint his frame is basically maxed out. There's not much more muscle (or fat) that's going on that body. Luckily he's pretty strong already, having taken his bench press reps (220 pounds; basically a running back) from 30 at the combine to 33 at his pro day. He's also pretty quick. He flies out of his stance and gets some great penetration in the backfield. He uses his hands really well to shake people off or swim past them and constantly seems to be harassing quarterbacks and ball carriers.

In terms of where you can play him, he's a bit on the small side to be a nose tackle in a 3-4 but I reckon he could play as an end in that scheme. I think his best spot would be as a 3 technique in a 4-3 defense. His speed and hands seem to fit this better and I just think he's another one of these players who you don't want to have to over think things. You want to just give him a gap, give him his job, and then let him go and feast. And I think he will feast in the NFL. A lot of people are putting a downer on him because of his size but this is a quick, powerful dude who can cause disruption up the middle. Graded by most as a second rounder I think that's a fair price.

Bobby Richardson, Indiana
Played as an end in a 3 man line but that doesn't really seem to suite him much. He's a little light for that at 283. Gil Brandt has suggested that Richardson could be tried out as an offensive line due to his height (6'3") and long arms (over 34 inches). Just watching him though I'm not so sure about that because I don't think that even if he put more weight on he would be strong enough. I'd be more interested to see someone put him through his paces as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. He's pretty quick for a tackle, without being blindingly fast, but has some good technique with his hands. Either that or he's a 3 technique.

Broadly though there's just something missing from Richardson. He did ok against the pass but against the run he never seemed to be a factor. I'm not sure he's strong enough to stay on the field for first and second downs if he moves inside, and may not be quick enough to justify being used on third down vs a true defensive end. Like I said earlier, I think his best bet might be to shed a few pounds, like twenty, and play as a defensive end in a 4-3. I'd be willing to use a low priority camp spot to find out whether that could work, but I wouldn't want to use a draft pick on him. Just too much uncertainty for me.

Gabe Wright, Auburn
He's from Auburn and played in the SEC. 6'3", 300 pounds.

That's all the positive things out of the way then. No seriously, that was it. Wright did almost nothing that I saw. He was blocked out of the play on almost every occasion, doesn't strike me as especially athletic and generally contributes nothing. Maybe if you want an extra camp body then go ahead, knock yourself out. It can't hurt to bring in a guy with that size and see what you can make of him. But a draft pick? On a dude that played a very limited number of downs from what I could see and did nothing to really help his team? No.

Mario Edwards Jr, Florida State
Lit it up at the combine. Stunk it up on the field. I read one review that effused about how he could move up and down the line to play many positions in a 4-3 or even play end in a 3-4. That's hilarious, because he played end in a 4-3 scheme and got brutally manhandled at times. At one point I saw a tight end drive him off the line and five yards back. Does that suggest NFL quality defensive lineman to you? If it does, I'm worried. Other than playing for Florida State and having a dad who played corner in the NFL I fail to see what is even notable about him. Oh, unless you count the combine warrior workout. I'd pass personally.

Xavier Cooper, Washington State
6'3", 293 pounds, Cooper is a cool little find for someone I think. Projected it would seem as a third or fourth round guy I think that's good value. Cooper might even be second round material. Fault wise he's not always the strongest player against the run and can struggle with double teams. He played a bit of end in a 3 man line which produced his weaker moments. When WS brought on an extra lineman though and let Cooper one gap he really started to show his potential. He has a great burst off the snap and got great penetration, even against some of the top teams in college football (including players who will be drafted ahead of him this year).

For that reason I think Cooper has potential. He's a one gapping, three technique type of guy, possibly could even play end for a 4-3 team considering he's pretty quick (ran a 4.86 second dash at the combine) for a guy that weighs 293 pounds. I can see him being a guy that starts as a relief tackle or end on passing downs but who gradually proves himself to his coaches as he learns to play the run and develops into a starter down the line. He might even be able to come in and start right away on some teams depending on how they rate his run stuffing skills. It's not like he's a liability in the run game, it's just not the strongest part of his game. In a pass first league I can see why someone might be prepared to live with that in order to tap into Cooper's pass rushing potential.

So yeah, maybe a second rounder depending on what else is out there, but certainly from the third onward he's good value.

Derrick Lott, Tennessee-Chattanooga
I bet that's a pain in the butt to paint onto an endzone.

Derrick Lott then, what to say? A transfer from Georgia he absolutely dominated weaker opposition. At 6'4", with 33 inch arms and weighing 314 pounds he was able to bully most of his regular opposition simply using size and weight. His pass rush style often just involved getting his hands on the guard and then chucking him aside. The real game of interest then was when Lott came up against better opposition, something approaching more the standard he'd expect to face in the NFL, which would be the Tennessee game. Here he was significantly less dominant, though part of that was because he was the only guy that drew double teams. But that said, he still showed some good looking flashes.

There will always be question marks over Lott going into this draft. Why couldn't he force his way into the Georgia line up? Can he produce at the next level considering his routine level of opposition in college? Those question marks immediately demand a risk premium to hedge against failure and for me that pushes Lott right down into fifth or sixth round territory. There was a glimmer of potential there, but even then against weaker opponents he relied heavily on his strength and still seemed a little sluggish in the feet. For that reason I think I'm actually leaning more towards the sixth/seventh round region for Lott. Possibly undrafted, depending on what else is out there at the time. In the NFL he's not likely to be the main target that people want to pick up with double teams so he might find a bit more luck. He also has a degree of versatility in that he could probably play either tackle spot in a 4-3, play as an end in a 3-4, and maybe if he put on a bit more bulk (he's a lean looking 314) he could even play as a two gap nose man.

It's that potential that is very intriguing. He has NFL type size and looks like his best football is yet to come. But I just can't shake that ringing alarm in my mind that keeps reminding me that he played mostly against weaker opponents and didn't stand out against the tougher ones. That's why I'd want to sit and wait to see what was about later on. If nothing else caught my eye by that sixth/seventh round region and he was still on the board I'd consider taking the shot. Otherwise it'd be undrafted, give him a call type of thing, though projections seem to be that he'll be gone by that point.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Southern Mississippi
It wasn't hard to spot Rakeem during the game against Alabama (yes, the Alabama). When the ball was snapped the entire Southern Miss D-line went backwards while Rakeem was the only guy that managed to go forward. And by forward I mean right into the Alabama backfield. They simply could not block him one on one. Even the double teams could only nudge him back a yard or two. Southern Miss lost that game - unsurprisingly - but I came away from watching it with the impression that at times Rakeem was almost single handedly keeping the score down. 

For that reason I'm quite interested in this kid. His draft projection is for rounds 6 or 7, but I think he's worth more than that. Yes, he has his limitations. He was mainly a one gap guy in a 4 man line and probably isn't big enough to consistently two gap in the NFL (6'2", 307 pounds). He relied a lot on leverage, getting underneath the offensive linemen and driving through the hole with strength and balance, so he doesn't have much in the way of developed pass rush moves. But let me reiterate the point from earlier; Alabama could not block him one on one. Offensive linemen from what is basically an NFL production line could not cope with this kid without help. He seemed to spend more time in their backfield than he did on his own side of the ball. That for me says a lot about a player.

I'd be tempted to say a fifth round grade, just to get in ahead of everyone else. If it wasn't for his low draft projections you might even go higher than that and say fourth round, which I think is basically a fair trade off in terms of his proven ability to perform at a high level against NFL representative talent being offset by his lack of size and limited pass rush moves. A team would have more information on what sort of buzz around the league surrounded him and so would be able to make a slightly more accurate assessment of his projection than what I have to work with here, but I think a fifth would probably be enough to snag him. Regardless, that's where I see his value in that 4-5 region. One to watch closely I think.

Kaleb Eulls, Mississippi State
Wasn't that bad, but didn't do anything special either. Seemed a little slow off the snap and ran a slow 40 time at his pro day for a guy of his weight (295 pounds). Probably could be useful as a training camp body and might work his way into a team, but I didn't see anything that would convince me to part ways with a draft pick. Low priority free agent.

DeShawn Williams, Clemson
Under sized guy who already looks like his body is maxed out and who struggled to make an impact I felt. He was muscled around in the run game and didn't really have an effect in the passing game. Seemed like he was working hard and had plenty of energy so again you might consider Williams as a low priority free agent, but I wouldn't expect him to make it. Maybe if someone can find a niche for him then he can carve out a career as a special teams guy who also provides cheap depth on the D-line.

Xavier Williams, Northern Iowa
Didn't really do a lot that I could see. Got bullied around some and pancaked a few times, and even that wasn't exactly playing against the best opposition. Pass.

Darius Kilgo, Maryland
I've been having great fun watching the Maryland D in the run up to this draft, but sadly I think Kilgo is the weakest player on it. He is basically just a space eater, a guy they lined up opposite center for the most part to consume blocks in the middle and create opportunities for other guys. The problem is he didn't really chew that space up all that well. He had his moments, for example when he could get his shoulder under a guy and work just the one gap he was able to get some penetration, but I feel like he'd need a little more weight on his frame (6'3", 319 pounds) to be a truly consistent block eater in the NFL. Might have a career as an undrafted project for the end spot in a 3-4, or maybe a three technique in a 4-3 (for which you'd actually want him to cut a bit of weight - he's already moderately quick). Low priority undrafted free agent for me.

Chucky Hunter, TCU
Under sized and looked completely ineffective. Presumably TCU just had nobody else they could send out so they rolled with Hunter. Pass.


And on that drab note we end the defensive tackles. Next up is outside linebackers, then inside linebackers, corners, and safeties to finish. Time is tight though and I've been quite busy (which is why this one took a week) so it's looking possible that I might have to finish these off post draft, which isn't much fun. If it looks like I might have time to do three groups but not the fourth then I will probably skip corners as this is my least favourite group.

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