Tuesday, April 07, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Defensive Ends

At one point I considered doing the defensive linemen as one big post. Then I saw how many names were on the list and thought it'd be better to split the two in half! This post will cover the defensive ends, which means I'm going to be looking at three types of player; 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 defensive ends, and outside linebackers who could make the transition to a 4-3 end. Because I don't have the time to assemble my own list of players I end up having to use someone elses, which means it will inevitably contain a number of players who shouldn't really be here but are because the list maker thinks they would transition to that position. In a sense it's a bit like the list of centers and guards that I worked from which contained a fair number of offensive tackles who had been put there because the list maker presumed to dictate which players fit which position based on their own opinion and not where the player played in college.

So what's the difference then between these three types? Well clearly a 4-3 end is a defensive end who plays in... drum roll please... a 4-3 scheme. He's one of the outside of the 4 down linemen, will normally play in either a 3 or 4 point stance, and primarily will be drafted for his ability to rush the passer, with run defense something of an afterthought (there's good money to be made even by prime pass rushing ends who struggle in run defense. That's not necessarily true of the reverse).

A 3-4 end is, surprise, surprise, a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, being one of the two outside ends. They too normally line up in either a 3 or 4 point stance and are often drafted more for pass rushing ability than run stopping ability, but generally 3-4 teams expect their ends to be a bit more versatile than a 4-3 team would. Often a 3-4 end will have to line up further inside, even sometimes playing as what's called a 3 technique, a role that in 4-3 defense would be handled by a defensive tackle.

And of course there will end up being some outside linebackers who the original list writer felt were perhaps too big to play outside linebacker in the NFL and as such they get lumped in here, regardless of whether or not that's appropriate. I'm sure when I get round to looking at the outside linebackers there will be a variety of defensive ends included there who were considered to be too small to make it in the NFL as an end and as such were moved for no other reason than the list writers opinion. Can you tell that annoys me? Does it show? Ah well.

So what am I looking for out of these players? Four primary things;

1) Pass rushing technique,
2) Run defense,
3) Alignment to the ball,
4) Pursuit angles and effort,

One should be obvious. It's the culmination of speed, power, balance, agility and hand work to get past the offensive line and sack the quarterback. The NFL is fundamentally a passing league and so pass rushing technique is given the highest priority. Players should be able to demonstrate the ability to consistently defeat pass blocks and provide pressure on the quarterback, either to sack him, cause a fumble or force an error such as a missed throw or interception. Point two should also be fairly obvious, being the ability to execute their assignment as part of the teams run defense, holding their ground against the blocks of the offense before shaking off their blocker and making a tackle on the running back if they happen to be at the point of attack.

Three sounds a little odd but it's something that's always been a good tip for me. When the refs place the ball down ready to be snapped, the area from tip to tip of the ball is referred to as the neutral zone and only the center is allowed to have any part of his body in it. But in a game where inches often matter as much as yards, defenders can gain an advantage by lining up as close to the neutral zone as possible. I've noticed when recently looking at the offensive linemen that a surprising number of defensive linemen will set themselves a foot or more off the line of scrimmage. This only gives the offensive line more time and more room to make their blocks, especially when they're reach blocking or angle blocking, and as such it's something I like to keep an eye on.

Finally we have pursuit angles and effort. So this mainly becomes relevant when a running play has gone away from the defensive lineman, or when the ball is passed. Defensive linemen (indeed all defenders) should immediately begin to pursue the ball carrier, keeping in mind the need to take the correct angle in order to cut him off if possible. No defensive player in the NFL will be permitted to "loaf", that is to give up on the pursuit and jog, without taking a lot of stick from their coaches (and frequently team mates as well). Pursuit is vital to gang tackling, as well as increasing the chances of recovering fumbles and setting up blocks in the case of an interception. Pursuit effort can therefore be used as something of a tie breaker between equally talented defensive ends in much the same way that I often use run blocking as a tie breaker between equally talented wide receivers.

So with that out of the way let's get down to the action and as always this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. You need to read the specific feedback about a player in order to find out how I rate them. Starting with;

Leonard Williams, USC
A lot of people have Williams as the best player overall on their boards. In almost every mock draft he goes number 2 overall, with Winston only beating him to first because of how important quarterbacks are (you'd have thought people would have learned their lesson by now when it comes to reaching for first round quarterbacks). So is Williams all that? In a word, yes.

Williams played defensive end in a 3-4 scheme but he basically has the size and the technique to move almost anywhere you want along the D-line. I wouldn't be surprised if he could put on weight and play as a nose tackle. I actually think his best position might be in a 4-3 defense though, probably as an end, but potentially even as a 3 technique defensive tackle. He's that versatile. He can jack up guards and offensive tackles alike with his power, he can swim over blocks, he used a spin move on occasion, he pulled people out of the way. At times he looked like he was toying with the opposition. Although he can two gap, I think he played much better when USC set it up so he only had to worry about the one gap. This allowed him to set about destroying the man opposite him without having to be so cautious.

And this is not a player you want to be playing cautiously. This is not someone that you want to get too clever with. He's an amazingly talented defensive lineman, just let him play. Don't get cute, don't try and disguise him etc. He doesn't need that. You'll just get in his way. Literally just line him up, say "that's your gap right there" and then let him go and feast on the opposition. Because this kid is going to be an utter nightmare to block. Whether he's rushing the passer from the outside or crushing the pocket up the middle as a 3 technique, he looks every bit like the most naturally skilled pass rusher to come out of college in years. His combination of size, strength, speed and technique is fantastic. I'd go so far as to say that he's the first player I've ever reviewed that I'd be willing to trade up for (as long as the price wasn't excessive). Any team that has a chance to draft him and passes up this talent will live to regret it I feel.

Shane Ray, Missouri
Another SEC Defensive player of the year out of Missouri? Except this years one is a top 5 pick that everyone is raving about, whereas last years guy - with almost identical production and attributes - was a mere seventh round pick, which of course had nothing what so ever to do with him being gay. Nooooooo....

So is Shane Ray worth the hype? Kind of. He played as a 4-3 end and moved around a little bit, but not much. He is quick. Very quick. And that is basically the long and short of Ray. He's quick, but that's all. He's very weak in the run game and gets chucked about at times by bigger tackles. He is strictly an outside pass rushing guy. Either as an end in a 4-3 or standing up as an outside backer in a 3-4 (with the occasional appearance at the three technique on 3rd and long, i.e. passing downs, for variety) Ray is a dedicated pass guy. He's fine as long as you know what it is you're getting and act appropriately.

Don't get all pissy if someone runs an outside zone rush away from him and the fullback or tight end comes out to block the backside and takes Ray out, leaving a huge running hole on the backside of the play. He's not a great run defender. I say again, he is not a great run defender. He makes some plays in the running game don't get me wrong and perhaps I'm making it sound worse than it is, but fundamentally he is a smaller guy and is unlikely to be a major run force. Just as long as the person that drafts him appreciates that this is and probably always will be a weak point of his. But then again, you're not drafting Ray because of his run defense (or at least you shouldn't be. If you are, what's wrong with you?). You should be drafting Ray because this is a pass first league and teams need every good pass rusher they can get their hands on (except gay ones of course. Gay ones can go dance or something. Purely because they're not good enough you understand. Not at all because they're gay. Honest).

Ray is quick around the edge and he has some decent pass rush technique. Not a huge variety, but enough to go with his speed. He's not the most talented defensive end I've ever seen. He's not even the most talented defensive end in this draft. But what he will do is consistently produce you sacks. At some point in the game he will get fed and this predator chows exclusively on quarterbacks. As long as you can live within who Ray is and not get all upset if he gets muscled around sometimes in the run game then you've got yourself a hell of a player here. He's a bit like Aldon Smith in some regards. But without all the DUIs and weapons offenses. I think he's worth a top 5 pick.

Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA
Pronounced something, something, O-diggy-zoo-wah. 6'3", 267 pounds. Described by NFL.com's draft analyst Lance Zierlein as having "average athleticism", despite the fact that he ran the second fastest 40 yard dash time of all defensive linemen at this years combine (4.62 sec) which was actually faster than a number of wide receivers. If a 267 pound player running a 4.62 is "average" then I'd love to see what Zierlein thinks is exceptional. Keep in mind that the 266 pound Jadeveon Clowney ran a 4.52 the year before and was touted highly for having jaw dropping speed, elite athleticism, once in a life time athletic ability yaddah, yaddah. Can you say "inconsistency"?

So is Odighizuwa any good? Does that speed translate onto the field? Very much so I feel. Zierlein claims that Odighizuwa has "marginal pass-rush skills", which is the sort of comment you would expect from someone that either a) didn't watch any of his games, or b) did watch them, but just doesn't understand what he's looking at it (If NFL.com needs a new draft analyst next year I'd be more than happy to take the check). Any time Odighizuwa was asked to single gap he did really well. His speed and strength were obvious and he demonstrated some variety in his pass rush techniques. His spin move isn't exactly on a par with Dwight Freeney just yet, but broadly speaking he proved that he could beat blockers in different ways and do it consistently.

And I think perhaps where Zierlein has gotten confused is because of the team effect of UCLA, as Odighizuwa was one of the few linemen on that defense that was able to consistently generate penetration from down to down. What that means is that the quarterback often had room to run in order to escape from the pressure generated by Odighizuwa. Not always, and UCLA in general seemed pretty good defensively, but it was a good demonstration of the dynamic that exists between pass rushing ends and their interior tackles. By comparison when you look at Ray at Missouri you can see how the entire D-line generated pressure as a unit and frequently left the quarterback with nowhere to go. You could also clearly see on a number of downs that Odighizuwa was being lined up to play run first and not pass first, mainly against opponents who were not strong passing teams, so schematically and game plan wise it wasn't always the case that Odighizuwa was allowed to rush all out.

Speaking briefly of run defense, Odighizuwa was very solid. His pursuit was not always the best and I suspect with his speed and agility that defensive coaches will be looking to light a fire under his butt in that regard but he was stout, defended his gap(s) well and did what was required for the team. Although he played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme (and a bit of defensive tackle now and again, mainly on passing downs) I could see Odighizuwa also being able to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, probably better suited on the strong side (tight end side) due to his run stopping ability, but potentially also an end in a 3-4. He's a little light for that maybe, but his play suggests he would be able to adapt and he has room on his body to put on a bit of weight if needed. 

Overall I was very impressed with Odighizuwa. I think he's a talented guy that can help in all phases of the game, both run and pass, and probably play special teams as well. He has the versatility to move around and play different positions, can beat people one on one, can hold the point of attack and generally make a nuisance of himself on defense. I think he has pro bowl level potential and honestly I find it a bit odd that he's being talked about as a second rounder. I think Odighizuwa is worth a first round pick and wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a team bit on him outside of perhaps the first 16 picks, a price which I think he's worth.

Preston Smith, Mississippi State
Not sure what to make of Smith. He was a defensive end in what was normally a 4-3 scheme but also played a bit of nose tackle as part of a three man front on third down passing situations. And here is where we run into problems with Smith. As a classic 4-3 end he was largely ineffective. He just couldn't generate any pressure. He wasn't even close. Yet on those third downs, moving inside and typically playing over the center, he was much better. It's a little bizarre frankly. I can't see him making it as a 4-3 end in the NFL. He just isn't cut out for it. But as a 3-4 end? Maybe even a switch to defensive tackle, playing as a 3 technique in a 4-3 scheme? I could possibly see that. Maybe.

I just can't shake this itch that I have that Smith is something of a one trick pony who can only perform that trick in a certain, very specific set of circumstances. Smith is rated as a second round pick but I would have serious question marks about that. Given some of the talents that I've looked at already who will still be available in the second round (and beyond), how do you justify using a second round pick on a player who was only relevant in third and long situations, when placed in the right spot? To me that's a complete waste. Now maybe someone will find a way to get him sacks on a more regular basis, perhaps simply by playing him on more downs than Mississippi State did, but I'm not sure I'd want to take that gamble. Maybe in the unlikely event that he was still around by the time round five came about I'd bite, to use him mainly as a situational pass rusher who you could try and develop over time. But as a second rounder? No way.

Nate Orchard, Utah
Orchard posted some eye popping numbers in 2014, but having watched his bowl game against Colorado State and been less than impressed I wondered how it was that a player that looked so average in that game could have posted such impressive sack figures. So I then went to his best game of the season, a four sack performance against UCLA. The first sack came from what appeared to be a mix up. The left tackle barely tried to block him and when the play was done the tackle turned around with his hands out as if to say "well what the hell happened there, I thought we running play x?". The second sack was one on one with a running back whose effort was shocking. The third was a coverage sack where the quarterback held the ball for almost five seconds before Orchard got home. Only the fourth was a genuine pass rush around the outside of a blocking tackle. As a side note, UCLA's line and quarterback play was pretty horrible in that game.

And that concerns me. I wonder how much of that one season of superb production is the result of Orchard as a pass rusher and how much of it was just one of those freak seasons that happens now and again in football when all the pieces just seem to drop into place for a player. I could be wrong. I've come across this sort of thing in the past with players that have one year wonders or who seem to be the beneficiaries of an unusual amount of luck. Two I can think of were Jason Pierre-Paul and Von Miller. In both cases I remember coming away from watching them with the impression that their success in college couldn't transfer to the next level and in both cases I was wrong (by quite some margin as it turned out). So do I trust my eyes and gut instinct with Orchard? Or do I trust the numbers and back him?

I just can't shake the feeling that his production has been inflated. Those numbers are huge even by NFL standards and yet the year before he barely scraped together three sacks. Coupled with what I saw in the UCLA game, I'd have to push Orchard down the order a little. He still does have some speed and some technique, though at the minute he's a little raw. I think from the third round down he's worth a shot, but by that point I suspect he'll already be gone.

Danielle Hunter, LSU
Is an absolute dream for offensive coordinators. Yes, offensive coordinators. He doesn't generate any pressure, he doesn't stop the run, has almost no impact on the game, and the best bit is you can often block him in the passing game with a running back. It's that bad. I'd pass.

Frank Clark, Michigan
I'm a bit at a loose end with Clark. He had his moments. On the field and at the combine he showed that he has the athletic ability to at least compete in the NFL, even if he's not outstanding. The problem mainly was that his technique was not great. He wasn't really a major player - playing as a 4-3 end - but he popped up here and there to get a hand on the odd pass, make a correct read on a bootleg play etc. I think there is like a nugget of potential there in Clark that can be worked and possibly moulded into something more. Would I use a pick to get my hands on that potential? Probably not. Maybe a seventh rounder. But much more likely I'd wait to see if he made it through the draft then give him a call.

Henry Anderson, Stanford
Played a lot of defensive end in a 4-3, but was probably at his best when moved inside to the three technique position. And if we're being honest, Anderson's best wasn't that great. All I saw that caught my eye was a few nice swim moves when he was asked to one-gap against a guard when playing inside. Anderson is another person that I wouldn't use a draft pick on, but if he was still available after the draft then he would be a non-priority free agent signing to have a closer look at.

Za'Darius Smith, Kentucky
Bloody awful. Came off the snap about a half second after everyone else had started moving. Looked labored in his movements and barely contributed. Why is he even on a list? What does anyone see in him?

Markus Golden, Missouri
I'm pretty sure I could just sit and spend an entire day watching cut ups of the Missouri D-line. They're great. And that includes Golden. Played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and consistently generated pressure off the edge. Played the run pretty well too. There were times where I felt he was a little too eager against the run to get his shoulder into the tackle and work back down the line when the run went away from him and backs were thus sometimes able to cut back behind him. It didn't happen that often though so I can live with that. I was also impressed that Golden seemed to give maximum effort on every down throughout the game, regardless of whether it was the first snap or the last. I really like that, as well as his pursuit.

In terms of where he ranks on my hypothetical draft board, I think he has to pay a slight penalty because his pass rush moves were somewhat limited and as such a lot of his production came purely from speed around the edge and his constant running. I'd say perhaps second round, more third round though. I'm not certain he'd be an every down end in the NFL straight off. I think he'd have to work his way into the team as a backup first, but with very solid potential to go on and develop into an all around quality defensive end. I quite like Golden.

Anthony Chickillo, Miami
Played as a 3-4 defensive end. And did almost nothing of note. He was a body that needed blocking and that's about the only good thing I can say about him. I'd pass.

Obum Gwacham, Oregon State
Do you remember all those great defensive ends who were once wide receivers? No, nor do I, because that's an incredibly odd transition that I don't think has ever worked out well. There was a guy called Al Wallace who went undrafted in 1997 and eventually played nine years in the NFL, totalling a career tally of 23 sacks. Coincidentally Gwacham is the same height as Wallace at 6'5". Now because he used to be a receiver it's no surprise that he's very quick. But having spent just his senior year as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, it's also no surprise that he's not a very well developed pass rusher. 

Gwacham then is a project. A massive, multi-year project that may very well run over time and over budget. I think he'd probably be a better fit as a 3-4 outside backer personally, because I don't think he's strong enough to play the run consistently without help and is not really a pure pass rusher. He's more of a scheme guy that gets moved around, drops into coverage etc. At 246 pounds he already looks like he's maxed out what his body is physically able to carry without losing a ton of athletic ability. As a non-priority free agent who will most likely go nowhere in the NFL but has an outside chance of being a major hit, I can see the value. As a draft choice? No.

Cedric Reed, Texas
Played as a 4-3 defensive end, which is laughable because he was so slow. God help your team if they draft this guy. Partly because he's taking up a spot in your camp (can't see him making a roster) and partly because it casts a very worrying shadow over your teams player evaluation system. Reed - along with big chunks of this years draft class - also serves as the perfect statement as to why I don't watch College football. It's mostly boring and the standard of play is horrendously variable. It seems in some cases that some teams go from being brilliant to miserable in the space of one off season. There's some stuff I don't mind, like watching Missouri's D, but a lot of college football at the minute just looks like amateur garbage.

Shaquille Riddick, West Virginia
He's 6'6" and ran a 4.66 average 40 at his pro day. These are the good things about Shaq Riddick. The rest is bad. He's another "potential" guy, another non-priority free agent, bring him into camp and see what you can make of him type player. Good luck to him, he has speed and size, but don't hold your breath waiting for him to make the pro bowl.

Brian Mihalik, Boston College
An absolute giant at 6'9". Shame that despite having a dominant size advantage he didn't really do anything with it. He was nothing special, but again as a non-priority FA you might be interested to see what he can do with that height. In the long run I don't think he's really cut out to be a defensive end, but I could see him putting on weight (he's a somewhat slim 295 pounds) and moving inside to become a run stuffing defensive tackle, or even flipping to the other side of the ball and either trying out as an offensive tackle with that huge frame, or perhaps (though far less likely) trimming right down to get as lean as possible and trying to make it as a massive target man tight end.

Andre Munroe, Maryland
He's actually not on the list that I'm working from and probably isn't on many other lists either. I suspect a big part of that is because he's a D-lineman who is only 5'11" and there aren't many guys like that in the NFL, though Baltimore Ravens 5'11" outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil had 17 sacks last year, so it's not a completely unknown phenomenon. There's a good chance that this is the last article you will ever read about Andre Munroe in relation to football. But I saw him while scouting Brandon Scherff for the centers and guards post, liked what I saw, and decided to take a closer look.

And on closer inspection I saw what I liked. Munroe had 10.5 sacks last year which is impressive considering he was a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, which isn't really a position ideally suited to a guy of his size. Having to two gap against offensive line severely restricted him and exposed his shorter arms as he tried to go head to head with much bigger opponents. Now don't get me wrong, even then he held his own and was pretty strong and stable at the point of attack, he just wasn't able to generate much push backwards. Where he excelled was when he was asked to one gap as the Terrapins (what a chronic name for a football team) brought pressure with their linebackers. Here his size was no longer a restraint. It was an advantage.

Because when you're 5'11" it means that offensive linemen often have to dip forward to get their hands on you. It also means that you can get one of your shoulder pads under them quite easily and with a good burst off the line you can fill your gap quite effectively, often getting penetration. He also demonstrated a good swim move. Yes, a 5'11" guy was able to use a swim move on 6 foot and a bit offensive linemen. It's quite something to witness I can tell you that. Now the question is will Monroe ever be a pro bowl caliber player? It seems a little unlikely. But here's a different question; can you really make me believe that there are 32 teams in the NFL that genuinely can't afford to use a camp spot on this guy? Because I'm not buying that.

Undrafted I'd give this guy a chance in a heartbeat. We all know that very few undrafted guys make it. Even most low round picks don't make it in the long run. I think Monroe has potential as a one gapping lineman. Either by shedding a little bit of weight and playing as a 4-3 end, or even a slightly optimistic conversion to a 3-4 outside backer, I think Monroe deserves a shot and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was able to carve out a little spot for himself as a backup pass rusher somewhere. I hope that someone at least gives him a chance.


And that concludes the defensive ends post, which took a little longer than expected on account of me spending the Easter holiday with family. Next up is the interior defensive linemen, another of my favourite groups to assess. If you liked this post then please don't forget to share it. Every little helps.

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