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.

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