Defensive-end Roulette

NFL general managers struggle to sort out the good pass rushers from the bad. Don’t believe me? Here’s all the evidence you need: Tyson Jackson, Aaron Maybin, Larry English, Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan, Shea McClellin, Nick Perry, Dion Jordan, Jarvis Jones.

And that’s just the past few years.

Anyone with access to the internet can distinguish the college players who rack up sacks from those who don’t. The challenge is filtering out those who will struggle at the next level despite college production (see list above), and occasionally projecting success for a player who didn’t put up huge college numbers for one reason or another (think, Ziggy Ansah). The NFL executives charged with separating the wheat from the chaff consistently struggle to do so.

sportsthink doesn’t pretend to have a magic formula. Like most, I simply consider the demands of the NFL game and college players’ game film to decide who can meet those demands.

Where many draft analysts – not to mention scouts and GMs – seem to fail is in considering college-level film that is simply irrelevant to an NFL projection. An easy example is the coverage sack. In the NFL, the quarterback has thrown the ball before 2.5 seconds elapse. Almost without fail. So the college player who registers a sack four or five seconds after the snap may have shown none of the skills necessary to succeed in the League. While he should be congratulated for his effort, that player has to find a way to apply that effort to get to the quarterback faster. If he hasn’t accomplished that yet in college, signs don’t look good that he’ll do so in the pros.

What follows are three players in this year’s draft who will struggle with the college-to-pro transition more than most think, followed by three others who may make the transition much more adeptly than they’re being given credit for.

I have my doubts

Dee Ford – It’s tantalizing to project double-digit sacks in the NFL based on Ford’s quick first step. Suppress that urge. Ford has a limited power element to his game. He is also too small to play defensive end in the League, so he’ll have to take on the responsibilities of an outside backer. Ford had three sacks against SEC competition in four seasons coming into 2013; that doesn’t erase his performance this year, but it certainly makes you question which is the exception and which is the rule. At his best, hopefully he’s a valuable situational rusher in the mold of Bruce Irvin two years ago.

Khalil Mack – Khalil Mack deserves a lot of credit for forging a top spot in this year’s draft. He consistently performed at Buffalo, stepping up on the biggest stages, and certainly presents none of the character concerns swirling around Jadeveon Clowney. He just isn’t the athletic equal of a player like Clowney – or several pass rushers rumored to go much lower in the Draft.

Anthony Barr – Barr reminds me so much of Dion Jordan, it’s scary. He dominated in college on athleticism. But his pass rush game is undeveloped, meaning he may have to play off the line. And he will encounter a different class of athlete in the pros. Think about it: Luke Kuechly is almost Barr’s dimensions, but blankets underneath routes and fights through blocks to crush ballcarriers. That’s the standard; Barr is nowhere close.

Like Their Chances

Jeremaiah Attaochu — Attaochu overflows with athletic talent — the kind that translates to success around the line of scrimmage in football. He has quick-twitch movement and plays extremely violently. He also has lateral agility, meaning he can combine on stunts effectively and drop into coverage. He looked adept in every phase of the outside linebacker position at Georgia Tech, and will find a way to be productive in the NFL. If he wasn’t just a bit undersized, he would be in contention for first-round pick.

Josh Mauro — Sneaking in an interior lineman here. I think Mauro’s ceiling is as good as almost any 3-4 end in this draft. He is thickly built with a quick first step. On his best days, he disrupted the run by pressing hard to the play and shedding blockers with good timing, and pressured the quarterback with deceptively quick stunts and an impressive spin move. He won’t put up huge sack numbers, but picture a raw version of Justin Smith to pair with a quicker edge rusher. Mauro is inconsistent, and needs to improve on fundamentals. But the upside is there. He should get a look in the third round or so.

Lokombo has the speed and quickness to track down skill players on Sundays, too.

Lokombo has the speed and quickness to track down skill players on Sundays, too.

Boseko Lokombo – He’s 225 pounds. So he’s a few years away from significant playing time. But Lokombo may be the best quick-twitch athlete coming off the edge in this year’s draft. He embarrassed college offensive tackles with lightning fast spin moves at times. He also looked awfully comfortable dropping into coverage. I have seen him projected as undrafted; from the fourth round on, his name should be in play.

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Draft Prospect Watch — Pass-rushing Trio of Dion Jordan (Oregon), Bjoern Werner (Florida State), and Damontre Moore (Texas A&M)

“Double-digit sacks” is sometimes used as a barometer for pass rushing success.  Want to know how many NFL players posted 10 sacks or more in 2012?  Twenty.  In 2011?  Seventeen.  In 2010?  Twenty.

Why did I start this post by throwing a bunch of arbitrary numbers at you?  Because they suggest, at least if you believe double-digit sacks mean anything, that pass rushers are sort of hard to find.  Some of the top performers came into the league within the past few years: J.J. Watt, for example, topped the charts last year with 20.5 sacks.  Some have been around a lot longer: think DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, even John Abraham.  Almost all of the leaders have been drafted within the last 10 years.  So we’re really talking an average of two exceptional pass rushers in any given draft.

The lesson?  Teams selecting in the 2013 draft have to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to pass-rushing ends and linebackers.  Three that seem to fall into the “chaff” category are Dion Jordan, Damontre Moore, and Bjoern Werner.

There’s definitely something to like in all three.  Jordan, in particular, has obvious speed and athletic prowess — I would trust him to drop into coverage on backs and tight ends underneath, for example.  Moore has a good motor.  And Werner is a solid tackler with some athletic ability.

Nothing about the game tape on any of the three suggests success manning the end of the defensive line in the NFL.  Jordan shows very little strength at the point of attack; in fact, he is often so overmatched on sweeps and tosses that he dives at the blocker’s legs to at least present an obstacle for the ballcarrier.  Jordan also struggles with play recognition: he makes a dozen misreads on misdirection plays in the Stanford game alone.  His superior speed enables him to make a few plays every game — chasing down a quarterback when the secondary has the receivers blanketed, or dancing around a slow-footed tackle — but nothing that would suggest he will routinely overmatch NFL-caliber offensive tackles.  We saw Aaron Maybin use the same repertoire to good effect during his college days, too.  Jordan should go in the second round based upon athletic ability alone, but he’s a project, and taking him higher is a mistake.

I’m even less optimistic about Moore and Werner.  Moore looks like he has a stouter build than Jordan, but does not play like it.  Offensive linemen seem to have little trouble with him on run plays.  I heard one scout describe his pass-rushing limitations as an inability “to translate speed to power,” and that seems accurate.  He gets off the line quickly enough, but doesn’t seem to know how to use his hands effectively, and so tends to bounce off the tackle in a way that kills any momentum towards the quarterback.  He does pursue hard consistently.  He might be worth a flyer in the middle rounds, but I’m not sold on anything higher.

Werner seems to have more natural strength that the other two don’t, but he doesn’t use it particularly effectively.  He sometimes sets the edge or occupies blockers on run plays, even shucking them aside occasionally to make the tackle.  But he gets caught up in useless hand-fighting on most pass attempts, neither collapsing the pocket nor getting by his man.  He does tackle well, and seems to have some natural tools.  He also might be worth a flyer in the third round on, particularly if a team thinks he’ll translate to outside linebacker in the mold of, say, Jarret Johnson.