It's Lying Season for the NFL (moreso than usual), but it's no great secret the Broncos have a significant need at defensive tackle, again. Last month I profiled Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox, who is expected to be long gone when Denver makes its first pick at #25, provided they remain there. If that scenario indeed plays out, what will be the Broncos' options?
Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy has been talked about quite a bit. Certainly, cornerback is a point of need: perhaps of greatest need other than under tackle. Other folks will have other perspectives, but I think that in general, while interior OL, MLB (unless they like Nate Irving), RB, and possibly safety are all areas of need in degree, press-man coverage CBs and one-gap penetrating DTs might be the hardest to find as the draft moves on.
There are always the players who work out later in the draft, but my feeling is that the lines and the CBs are essential to Denver’s success this year. So is the Mike, but since we don’t know what Denver’s plans for Irving are, and we do on these two positions, I’m going to take the step of looking at the most desirable of the available DTs in Denver’s theoretical scope of scheme - the penetrating under tackle. Sadly, letting Brodrick Bunkley get away has also played hob with the nose tackle position, and some of these players make sense at either slot.
I recently rewatched the Combine film from Indy to study the DB tests and drills again. Combine can be overrated, but there’s an aspect to the live views of players that’s very helpful to a guy like me who makes part of his living doing and teaching postural analysis. It comes into evaluating players - usually ones that i’ve seen before, but if not, it helps me to understand what’s being said about them and to look for those tendencies, even on highlight film (which is often terrible).
I enjoyed watching the various players through the drills - not as much the tests, although I always like getting a greater feel for the players’ posture, and build - before I went back for a second and third look purely out of the pleasure of it. Although I strongly agree with those that feel the Combine tests are often heavily overweighted, the opportunity to do some analysis of why you see the things that pop out on film of the drill segment is one that I don’t get all that often.
Say, for example, that you have a player who has problems in his backpedal. On your average broadcast film, the back end of the field is out of the frame more often than not. I get to see the guy as the snap occurs (usually), then there’s generally a point where they don’t show anything on the defensive backfield until the pass is thrown or the runner breaks into the second level.
Perhaps the best linebacker-specific quote I’ve ever heard came from Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher:
I always say this: running backs and linebackers are very easy to recruit. When you hand them the ball and watch them, and you have to tell him where to run and what's going on, he's not a running back. If he's a linebacker and he's standing around the pile, he's not a linebacker. If he's at the bottom of the pile, he's a linebacker.”
I think that pretty much covers it. I want the guys who you find at the bottom of pile after pile. They generally have that only-slightly-controlled insanity that a top LB, particularly a middle linebacker, tends to carry, and finding them at the bottom of the pile tends to mean that they either made or helped make the tackle, or they've stolen the ball.
It’s official - according to the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective, there is no correlation between Combine tests or drills and success in the NFL. This is not news to me. The drills give me a chance to look at postures - how do they set their feet? Do they drop their hips easily on the backpedal? Smoothness? Power? The tests - the 40, three-cone and so forth - can confirm what you see on film, and they can sometimes give a marginal player’s scouts a reason to review his film, but they don’t prove much about future success. I list them for what they do or do not confirm, not what they predict.
I’ve fielded this question several times now, so let’s get straight into it - there’s probably not a lot of chance that Denver will take a center this year in the draft. I hope I’m wrong, but the facts are that John Fox really likes J.D. Walton’s blue collar attitude and work ethic. He’s dubbed J.D. ‘Trash Can’ as a result. The OL is the second-youngest in the NFL, and adding a rookie center would only exacerbate that unless that player is a major upgrade over Trashy. Denver looks, right now, as if they may try to keep the line together and let them mature as a group. Whatever my own feelings on that, it currently is how things stand. Jeff Saturday is still a possibility, and is scheduled to visit, but that’s about it as far as I’ve seen.
Even so, there’s really nothing like a good old position battle, and the centers from this year’s Combine are having a beauty over who is the best center in the draft. The question will be answered not by which goes first, but which plays best, but right how they’re jockeying for position with the fans, and it’s fun to watch.
With the rise of dominant tight ends like New England's Rob Gronkowski and the Saints' Jimmy Graham last season, and teams starting to see the position in a new (and very old) light, it was unfortunate to see that the TE pickings remain very limited this year. Yet, there's a chance one or two will surprise people down the road. The main reason is that the advent of the spread offenses in college have diminished the value of the position on that level, and fewer colleges are turning out legitimate TE candidates for the draft. There’s a disconnect there that will have to be worked out eventually, but for right now, all that matters is the options that are going to be available.
Georgia's Orson Charles and Clemson's Dwayne Allen were clearly the class of their group, with Coby Fleener of Stanford not participating. Both are extremely well put together - Allen looks a bit bigger, but Charles is by far the most defined in terms of his musculature. One thing that I look for is the level of muscular development - do they look more like a college kid or an NFL player? Are they at least slightly ripped? Do they have strong calves? Those are essential to anchor and cut well - Charles was the most impressive in that area, and in several others. If they block in line, do they have the bubble for it? How do they hold their hands in the rapid-fire drills? Are they natural receivers, or do they struggle to have their hands in position?
It’s no surprise that the running back group each year tends to garner a lot of attention. Among the skill players, these candidates may be returners, burners, slot receivers, outlet receivers, blockers and, oh yes, guys who carry the ball for you. It’s a pass-oriented league, which means that the ability to block and to catch out of the backfield or off the line in four- and five-wideout sets makes a player that much more interesting to teams.
Shonn Greene showed why this past season - he struggled some in running the ball, and his lack of skills at blocking and receiving left him on the bench more often than he or the Jets would prefer. I like Greene, and enough to write a bio praising the way he’s overcome his background. It’s not a matter of complaining about him, but a fact of life.
Greene had one great year in college and neither blocking nor receiving were a part of it. He’s a powerful, punishing runner, but those missing skills would have benefited both him and his team in 2011. Athletic skills, the ability to make tacklers miss, and the patience to see the lanes open up are the things that you usually get off of tape, but the athletic skill tests are essential to making sure that you have covered the bases of every player that might help you. The more skills a player brings to the table - short yardage, between the tackles, around the edge, blocking and receiving, etc - the more valuable they become. The better they are at each, the more that value ascends.
Fletcher Cox - DT - Mississippi State, 6-4, 298 lb
One of my favorite stories from the recent Combine was one told by NFL Network's excellent analyst and draft expert Mike Mayock about his own introduction to Bill Parcells. The first thing the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach said upon meeting Mayock was, “You’re like a bull in high grass, Mike.” "What’s that?" asked Mayock. “You’re lost.” Parcells replied.
Mayock may have come a long way since then, but it's also fair to note that even the best of draft guys are wrong a lot of the time. On the other hand - so are head coaches and GMs. Those that try to comprehend the draft are always going to be in some high grass. That's one of the things that makes it so enjoyable: you can always either find a diamond in the rough, or take a can't-miss candidate who can -and does.
Mychal Kendricks - ILB - California, 5-11, 240 lb
A former running back, and the son of UCLA running back Marvin Kendricks (who led the Bruins in rushing twice in 1970 and 1971), Marvin Mychal Hendricks out of Cal had the best 40 time among linebackers at 4.47 seconds, edging out North Carolina's Zach Brown by .03 seconds. He also lead the LBs in the vertical leap at 39.5 inches, the broad jump at a remarkable 127 inches, and the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.19 seconds. As you’d expect after that, he is extremely athletic and he has played both inside and out in the past, so he’s also very scheme flexible. At just over 5’11”, Mychal is shorter than your average linebacker. Of course, Mike Singletary was barely six feet tall, and ten pounds lighter than Kendricks, and they said that about him before he started piling up running backs and Pro Bowls. Height can be useful, but it’s not always the measure of a man - or a football player. Kendricks can play the Mike or Will slots in a 4-3, is experienced in Cal’s 3-4, and could even play Sam for some teams.
Mike Martin - DT - Michigan, 6-1, 306 lb
Mike Martin might have been one of the most enjoyable players to watch when I was catching the DT drills at Combine. I caught sight of him in some of the hand power drills, and it only took a minute to remember some of his games at Michigan. He also got consistently good reviews during Senior Bowl practices and stood out in both one-on-one drills and during team scrimmages.
He isn’t in the top tier of players, and he probably won’t go all that high. After watching him, I think that could be a bit of a mistake. Martin carries a seriously nasty punch that he fires from an incredible stance - low and powerful, using that naturally short, incredibly strong frame. He had fast, hammering movements and devastating strikes. Said Warren Sapp, ‘I dare you to cut him’. I thought that Warren’s got it right. That punch will leave linemen black and blue right through their pads.
I had a lot of fun this weekend pulling game tape out of the library, watching Combine film, reading, and writing about the offensive line candidates. Although I’m mentioning Mike Kalil first, the following list isn’t in any particular order. Neither will any of my subsequent prospect columns; some will get attention later for one reason or another.
A couple of general comments to consider: last year’s vertical leap average was 28.5 inches; for interior linemen it was 27.5. The average broad jump last year for OL was 8.5 feet or 102 inches. Last year’s fastest 10-yard split was 1.74 - this year it was in the mid 1.60's. The players continue to get bigger and faster. I offer these marks simply as a sort of loose basis for comparison. That said, let’s move on to some of the OL candidates:
Matt Kalil out of USC was pretty much as expected - fast and smooth on his 4.99-second 40. He came in at NFL weight (6’7”, 306 lb), measured adequately, and he did very well in the tests and drills. In particular you can see his silky smoothness and skill on the kickstep drill. He’s the complete package, and I’ll mention him from time to time in illustrating why certain players are and aren’t as desirable. Kalil pretty much has it all.