NFL Draft Update: Defensive Line
This might end up being one of the best drafts for defensive linemen to come around in, well, ever.
Robert Quinn — North Carolina — 6040 / 265
If you were to draw up what the perfect defensive end would look like as a physical specimen, it’d probably be Robert Quinn. His freakish athleticism and tremendous size/weight/speed combination are perfect for rushing the passer. For sure, the measurables are certainly sexy and Quinn passes the “eye test” with flying colors. I’m not denying his awesome potential, I’m just wary of the hype surrounding a guy who played just two full seasons of college football and, in his breakout year, racked up 10 of his 11 sacks against unequivocally shitty teams (check the stats link below). It’s easy to annihilate the little sisters of the poor and fatten up your stats that way, but things won’t be as accommodating in the pros. How can I not be concerned by the fact that Quinn underwhelmed against legitimate ACC competition? And it’s not like the ACC is the football force it once was, either. Yet here he is, the top defensive end on pretty much every draft website. Then again, what do I know, right?
J.J. Watt — Wisconsin — 6053 / 290
A former tight end and gifted athlete for the position, Watt is a rare combination of size, length, and speed/quickness. Strong, powerful, and relentless, he’s a classic 3-4 defensive end who’s superb against the run and uses his hands really effectively to shed blocks. Sifts through traffic to find the ball carrier and can chase him down. Watt gives maximum effort on every play, has elite instincts, and gets his hands in passing lanes better than any other end in this class (and perhaps better than any other defensive player I’ve ever seen, period) — he’s the tallest DE in the draft at 6’5.3”, recorded the highest vertical jump for his position at 37”, and that’s before he puts his arms in the air, so you do the math. Watt played his best against top competition and will team with Mario Williams in Houston to terrorize quarterbacks for the foreseeable future. Unique, special package of physical traits and talent.
Ryan Kerrigan — Purdue — 6037 / 267
From the post-Combine report:
After being pigeonholed as a relatively unathletic player who made up for his deficiencies by displaying a relentless motor, Kerrigan came into Indianapolis and totally crushed the Combine drills. He ran a 4.67 (third among defensive ends), put up 31 reps on the bench (second), had a 33” vertical (fourth), and broad jumped 10’2” (first). At the very least, Kerrigan seems to be more than just a "blah" athlete and should fit as either a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 edge pass rusher. So much for not testing well at the Combine, right? Given his performance in Indy and robust production as a Boilermaker, I expect Kerrigan will see his stock rise as the draft nears. I had a friend, someone whose opinion I value, tell me back in early October that he really liked what he saw out of Kerrigan (and on a somewhat unrelated note, thought the uber-hyped Allen Bailey was a bum). Based on this recommendation, I tuned in for Purdue’s games against Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, just so I could watch Kerrigan. I too was impressed by his play — the guy was everywhere; in the backfield blowing up plays and terrorizing the quarterback, going sideline to sideline, running down ball carriers — and have been a fan ever since. He’s a good one.
Edit: Wait a second, are the Redskins actually turning a corner here with regard to how to effectively build a football team? They traded down to acquire an extra second round pick (#49 overall) and still were able to draft an edge rusher to pair with Brian Orakpo?! Hell hasn’t frozen over just yet, so let’s see what the Skins do today and tomorrow.
Da’Quan Bowers — Clemson — 6033 / 280
I watched Bowers absolutely murder Maryland last year. He was completely unblockable and looked faster than 4.92 on tape. Bowers was, for lack of a better word, destructive and had at least one sack in 10 of Clemson’s 12 games (10 of 11 if you discount Presbyterian, when be barely played). Teams are petrified about his surgically-repaired right knee, however, and that’s never a concern to dismiss. The rumblings are that it’s a degenerative condition. On the list of things that will scare NFL teams away from drafting a player, “degenerative knee condition” is probably up there with “mass murderer.” Still, Bowers’s talent and ferocity are evident, as is his length and athleticism. He’s also not strictly a pass rusher and holds his own against the run. Who knows what will happen with that much-maligned knee, but I know what I’ve seen in game action, and it was impressive.
Cameron Heyward — Ohio State — 6045 / 294
Cameron Heyward is a solid, blue-collar kind of player, a four-year starter with NFL bloodlines — his father, the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, played 11 years in the league — who’s versatile and can play anywhere on the line. It’s not surprising that he ended up getting picked by the Steelers, who know a thing or two about drafting defensive linemen in the first round, as his style and personality fit with what they look for in a player. Heyward isn’t dominant in any one facet of the game and was inconsistent at times this past season, but there’s no question he should benefit from playing in that Steelers defense.
Cameron Jordan — California — 6041 / 287
At one point this past season, Jordan was projected as the possible first overall selection. Better against the run than the pass, but he’s solid overall. Plays hard, always gives maximum effort for four quarters, and can fit anywhere along the line. What concerns me most is that virtually all of his sacks throughout his college career came against teams that would never have been mistaken for legitimate contenders. Then when he went up against a top talent like Tyron Smith of USC, he didn’t have much of an impact on the game. I will tell you this, though: His best fit is at end in a 3-4 defense.
Underrated/Flying under the radar:
Greg Romeus — Pittsburgh — 6047 / 264
I actually mentioned him in my "How to Fix the Washington Redskins" article. It happens every year: A talented and productive player who was once a highly rated prospect gets injured and sees his stock drop precipitously. Enter Greg Romeus, from Pittsburgh, who would have almost surely been a first round pick had he declared for the 2010 draft after his junior season. Once mentioned among the top prospects at his position, Romeus lost his senior season to two separate injuries that required surgery (first on a herniated disc in his back, and then to repair a torn ACL in his right knee). Who knows if he will ever regain the form that made him an elite college player at his position, but in the late middle rounds I think he constitutes a risk definitely worth taking. Romeus was a consistent force on Pittsburgh’s defensive line for three seasons and is a prototypical 4-3 defensive end with good size, speed (at least before the injuries), and strength. However, what might be most enticing is his exceptional length (7’ wingspan), which is a major advantage both in terms of combating offensive tackles and getting his arms/hands up to knock down passes. I watched Pitt more than a few times when Romeus was a sophomore and junior, and he was always noticeable. If he can get healthy and return to form (namely regain that quickness and explosion), he could end up being a real steal for whatever team takes a chance on him. The guy who played opposite Romeus on the other end of the line, Jabaal Sheard, is a pretty good prospect in his own right and won the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award this season.
Might as well sign him as an undrafted free agent:
Tom McCarthy — Yale — 6055 / 265
Yes, Yale. Excellent physical specimen for the position with ideal height and bulk; possesses impressive speed (4.72) and explosiveness, to boot. Excelled as a baseball pitcher in high school. Team captain and All-Ivy League First Team selection in 2010.
I know that Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley are the consensus best players at this position and two of the top prospects overall, and it’s with good reason. I have Dareus first — he’s awesome, a real force in the middle; then again, the history of defensive tackles being picked in the top five isn’t exactly, uh, stellar — and Fairley second (Edit: Fairley next to Suh?! Well done, Detroit). Even after those two, the defensive line depth in this draft is as stacked as it’s been in recent memory.
Muhammad Wilkerson — Temple — 6041 / 315
I’ve already written about Muhammad Wilkerson at length; he’s raw but has upside as high as any prospect in the draft because of his size, athleticism, and fluidity.
Pre-Combine: One of my favorite defensive prospects in the entire draft (first mentioned in the “How to Fix the Washington Redskins” article from a few months ago). Wilkerson emerged onto the college football scene as a sophomore and only continued to improve as a junior in 2010. He’ll be a fit at either defensive tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4, as his versatility allows him to play anywhere along the line. I was able to watch two of his games this season (@ Penn State, @ Miami-OH) and came away highly impressed each time. Wilkerson displays keen awareness, a great burst off the line, and fluid athleticism for a guy his size (was a standout basketball star in high school), which, especially when coupled with his brute strength, makes him a terror for opposing offensive linemen to block. He uses his hands (well, at least tries to — he’s still pretty raw when it comes to technique) and is a heady player with a nose for finding the football. I also noticed his ability to get leverage and shed blockers and am interested to see what length his arms are once all the measurements are done at the Combine (that’s when we’ll find out his official height and weight, too).
This past season Wilkerson put up pretty gaudy statistics for a defensive tackle, notching 70 tackles (13.5 for loss) and 9.5 sacks (according to Temple’s official athletics site; the ESPN.com player page for him says 68 tackles and 10 sacks). As you can tell from his sack totals, he’s quite the disruptive presence when teams decide to pass and consistently gets penetration into the backfield. Also keep in mind all that production came while Wilkerson was being double-teamed because he was the one player along the Temple defensive line that offenses KNEW they had to stop him in order to have success. Detractors can say he played in the MAC and therefore won’t be as effective against NFL competition, but I’m not buying that argument because I think his natural ability will more than make up for the significantly increased talent level he’ll face in the pros. Plus, Wilkerson totally dominated that lower level of competition, which is what you look for when evaluating a player from a less noted school. I actually think the challenge of going up against NFL-caliber players everyday will only make him better.
Right now Wilkerson looks to be a second round pick with first round talent. If he has a big Combine, don’t be surprised to see him sneak into the first.
Post-Combine: Already mentioned a few times on this blog, Wilkerson put forth a good performance at the Combine and continued to impress teams as both a player and person. If anything, he should now be considered a probable first round pick. This draft is rich with defensive line talent, and Wilkerson is an example of a guy who’s being overshadowed by more hyped prospects. Teams love his size, athleticism, and versatility, and he has the look of a player who will succeed as a pro. I know the Eagles selected Brandon Graham in the first round last year and a defensive tackle to pair with Antonio Dixon isn’t the highest priority, but if Wilkerson is there at #23, I think they’d be smart to take him. You still win in this league by dominating up front and getting pressure on the quarterback; a fearsome front four is something the Eagles have lacked for quite some time now. Also, Wilkerson’s ability to play defensive end would help alleviate whatever adverse effects might hamper Graham in his first season back from ACL surgery (and you know how players say it normally takes a full year to really get back to normal). If Graham is healthy and proves himself worthy of starting (which he will — if healthy — with Jim Washburn as his position coach), then Wilkerson can play tackle full time and rotate with Dixon and Mike Patterson (and Broderick Bunkley, if he’s still on the team). Whatever the case, we’ll be boasting a shit ton of talent on the defensive line. Besides, Andy Reid obviously felt the defensive line needed to get better because he hired Washburn, generally regarded as the best in the business at his profession. Now give him some more talent with which to work so we can get after the fucking quarterback.
Edit: Great selection by the Jets, both in terms of the player and value for the spot at which they picked him. I’m not surprised that Rex Ryan liked Wilkerson. He’ll play end in their 3-4, which is probably a better position for him than defensive tackle in a 4-3. Wilkerson makes an already elite defense that much more formidable.
Phil Taylor — Baylor — 6032 / 334
Well, he’ll play nose tackle in a 3-4 and immediately improve your run defense by leaps and bounds. Phil Taylor is fucking HUGE. Significant questions regarding whether he’ll be able to keep his weight under control or end up eating his way out of the league.
Kenrick Ellis — Hampton — 6047 / 346
Ellis, a transfer from South Carolina, is a player I really like in the second or third round. Here’s what I wrote about him in the Combine preview:
This dude was born to play nose tackle in a 3-4. He sports a figure that blocks out the sun and throws opposing blockers around like rag dolls. After a dominant week of practice down in San Antonio during the NFLPA Bowl festivities, Ellis is generating a lot of buzz in draft circles. Character and effort are the two main red flags (transferred from South Carolina after being suspended multiple times for off-the-field incidents) that could hurt his draft stock, but his talent level will never be in question.
To amend the above: those character questions are no longer a concern. In fact, it’s been reported that he’s interviewed very well and is a mature and accountable individual who has grown from his mistakes. Remember, this is a guy who was recruited to play college football at an SEC school, so it’s not like he came out of nowhere or lacks top tier talent. I’m not too concerned about the lower level of competition because he so completely dominated it and then did so again against Division IA talent at the NFLPA Bowl. Hampton already has a successful alumnus playing in the league in Kendall Langford (third round pick in 2008), who has emerged as a key cog along the Dolphins’ defensive line. Ellis hopes to follow suit — and he will.