Scouting the Draft - Worthy versus Still

You never know what choices you’ll have in the draft when you’re at #25 - or wherever Denver ends up making their first pick. I expect some movement - GM Brian Xanders has moved around a good deal in all three drafts he's run for Denver, and likely will again, so the first pick could be one other than 25. 

I’m a bit DT-centric in general at times, but a bit more so at the moment. I’ve made no secret of my feelings about the trenches, and DTs often take a few years to develop. Denver hasn’t made the move to deal with that in a long time, and the people they've wanted haven’t dropped to them. I understand that. Even so - each year you can’t find the right one, you are another year away from having one developed and in place. It puts more emphasis on free agency.

In the short term, that’s fine. I have no problems with the FA approach as long as it’s intentional, planned and generally fairly brief. However, it’s not a great approach long term to stick guys into holes because time is running out, and that’s shown for a long time with Denver. I’ve said this before - I think Denver should take two DTs in this draft. There are likely to be good RBs available in most rounds. The better DTs, though, are at the top. Like Willie Sutton, the famous old bank robber, said when asked why he robbed banks, "because that’s where the money is." That’s true of DTs, too, and it’s an unusual and deep year. Denver needs to fill their slots with the kind of talent that’s available this time. Claiming that this or that guy doesn’t fit your scheme has been overplayed. There are plenty of good guys this year that do.

A potential question bedeviled me - if Denver finds themselves in a position where both Penn State's Devon Still and Michigan State's Jerel Worthy drop to them, and Denver assumedly takes one of them, which should  they go with? It’s purely speculative, of course, but I hadn’t covered either player thoroughly, so it was also a chance to take a longer look at them. I’ve looked at Fletcher Cox to deal and I covered several other penetrating DTs of note, but Worthy and Still have been so much in the spotlight that I didn’t spend a lot of time on either.

Maybe it’s time that I did. They’re often seen as roughly equivalent in value, depending on who you ask and when.  They seem to be ranked at a similar level in many ways. Ted ranks them as his sixth- (Still) and seventh- (Worthy) best DT prospects in this draft. Despite their essentially even level of rank, they’re also very different players. Let’s look at the background noise first:

Since last autumn, both Jerel Worthy and Devon Still have slipped considerably in the mock ratings, for whatever those might or might not be worth. Still was once considered the consensus #1 (which tells us a bit about committees). Worthy was also higher on the charts. Both have had questions raised at one time or another on the number of plays they take off - a difficult charge to make stick at times, because so much else might be happening. Let’s look at some things that we don’t have to guess about.

Jerel Worthy

Worthy, at 6-2, 308 out of Michigan State, is upfront about the fact that he's coming out early due to his father's bad health and medical bills - it's a huge strain on any young man and he recognizes that his move can help out his family. A gentle word with him would be likely to solve any small issues on effort, if they ever even come up (which, again, is very nebulous. It's just as likely that he's been simply worried about his father and it interferes with his mindset at times). He's still a growing kid and an All-American to boot - you’re getting a guy with multiple slot versatility who’s leaving school a bit early and might need some watching as he makes the jump, but who has a powerful reason to be there. You want him to be on the field because he loves the game, too, so the interviewing and background process would have been substantial.

I love his upside, for what that's worth.  I think that he can go back to being a somewhat slimmer, harder-toned off-tackle, a role he handled well earlier in his college career. His role in college then changed, and although some of the media made a fuss over it, all that happened was that he was put at NT more recently and had the kinds of performances (and stats) that are normal when you’re playing well at that position. It’s not about numbers with him - his role was to eat double teams and obstruct his gap(s), which makes evaluating him harder. You have to value his versatility, though. I think that you could work on firming him up, put him through a lot of technique training, put him at off-tackle, and see very good things. That's really Denver's biggest DL need in my own mind - production at off- or undertackle hasn’t been strong. They could use youthful talent at both positions, though, it’s true. Worthy has value in that he could be asked to do either - go bigger at NT or smaller at UT and have some expectation of success either way.

Worthy also is athletic enough to have blocked an extra point against Youngstown State in 2011. He already has good bull rush, swim, and rip moves in his pass-rush repertoire. One thing that you notice over time is that he’s got a preternatural snap anticipation. He’s fairly explosive, but it’s not so much that. He is in motion a millisecond before the other players, and yet is rarely offside. It’s a great skill, and often is an indication that the player studies a lot of film. Or, sometimes they’re just good at it - that’s fine too.

As our friend and reader Drew Thorn reminded me the other day, Worthy also was calling the defensive formations for the Spartans. With that kind of intellect, comprehension of the game, and leadership, you have to give Worthy high marks. From what I’ve seen (and some others seem to agree), Worthy deals well with keeping his legs clean in clutter.

Some film always helps. Worthy is #99 for the Michigan State Spartans:

Devon Still

Still is a 6-5, 303-lb player out of Penn State - he’s about the same weight as Worthy but a few inches taller. What was obvious immediately on film (I watched some of his full games) is that Still has absolutely beautiful fundamentals at times - pad level, hand technique and first-step explosion, as well as the ability to tackle by getting a partial grip on any legal part of the ballcarrier and not letting it go. I admired that greatly.

Despite all the things I liked, his media problem is inconsistency - he has had long stretches where he plays poorly, then suddenly is back to the old Still, dominating people. You hope that it's a coaching or conditioning issue but that he interviews well and can explain it. If it's a lack of concentration, I'd be more worried.

Then, two more things came into the equation about him. First, Still had a better year in 2011. He felt that his time with DL coach Larry Johnson helped him with his ability to watch film - he used to have a tendency to run past the play due to poor recognition and reading of his keys. That improved noticeably last season. Second, the periods of time where he tended to disappear have turned out to frequently overlap with issues that include his playing through a turf toe injury, one of the most painful things a player can have to deal with on the field. The guys who have to plant, anchor, and cut or turn on one have a miserable time with it. So, part of the mystery is solved.

By the way - Devon has two notable cousins who starred in the NFL: former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end and four-time Pro Bowler Art Still played for 12 years (with his last two in Buffalo), and Levon Kirkland played for the Pittsburgh Steelers for nine seasons of an 11-year career, made two Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro once. Genetics are one of the things that come into a player’s makeup - it’s not always conclusive, but it’s always interesting, even subconsciously. Both of the other members of his family had long careers. Durability is greatly a genetic predisposition. It’s not unreasonable to consider that in the decision, although it isn’t a primary factor.

YouTubes for your viewing pleasure; Still is #71:

Conclusion

In the end? I doubt that both will be there for Denver, or that they will be up against each other as the top player on the Broncos' board at their earliest picks, but who knows? Drafts are quirky, at the least, and as Ted pointed out, there are 10 good 4-3 front DTs at the top of the draft. If they do go head to head, Still brings coachability, technique and a deep (if more recent) respect for film study, all of which are in his favor.

Worthy is only a junior, so some things that Still learned last year might take Jerel a year longer to catch, not unlike Fletcher Cox versus Michael Brockers, where Cox is more mature, but Brockers has more upside and should be better in a few years. I think that Worthy has a similar situation vis-a-vis Still, and he’s probably somewhat more athletic and looks like he can drop a little weight and move into the off-tackle if that’s what Denver wants.

I think that Still is a better, more mature player despite the dry spells - if you take him, you have to be willing to condition him and teach him to do what he already knows how to do, but on every play, full speed. Denver has the guys around to do that. This looks like a first-class organization again, and between Peyton Manning and Jack Del Rio the level of encouragement should be sky high. Worthy may be a better player in the long run - he's more raw, but he's a powerful guy with a big motivation, and motivation can be quite a force.

I’ll be honest, though - I think that if Denver goes this route with either player, they have good basic material to mold into an NFL player. They might make certain decisions as to playing them at nose versus off- or under-tackle, but both players have skills that might work in either slot. I’d probably put Still more at NT and Worthy at UT, but Denver needs both, in some degree, so that’s no issue one way or the other. It’s a great matchup of two players who both have substantial potential.

While I agree with those that say that DT may be less of a concern than some fans see it as, two Broncos ‘starters’ in Kevin Vickerson and Ty Warren are returning from injury, and Warren hasn’t played in two years, whereas Vickerson didn’t look as strong last year as he had at a higher weight. Justin Bannan isn’t young. Robert Ayers is talented, but he’s lighter in weight, and Ben Garland’s been out of football for two seasons and is an unknown, no matter how enticing. Take a look at this -

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., April 25, 2012  – At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 305 pounds, Air Force 2nd Lt. Ben Garland looks more like a football player than a typical officer.

If Garland is up to 6-6 and at or over 305 lb (he's listed on the official site at 6-5, 275), he’s just become even more enticing as a potential DE/off-tackle candidate. My concern for years has been that Denver hasn’t obtained even one high quality young DT player and developed him since Mike Shanahan was there - and better starting material tends to create a better player. It’s okay to play free agent roulette for a while, but if the Broncos are serious about building through the draft, then obtaining a DT to build with isn’t an unrealistic desire, at whatever pick they find the best value without letting the position get away from them (again).

Garland might be the equivalent of using a later pick on a tackle, if he’s able to get back into game shape and put the mental aspects of the NFL together. Given what our men and women in uniform deal with at West Point, Annapolis or the Academy, I doubt that anything majorly unpleasant will come up - the only question I have currently is how high his ceiling goes. Steve Belichick, a brilliant mind as a scout and a coach, decided to devote himself to coaching at Annapolis because he was able to have the privilege of working with young men who had that kind of determination and focus. It’s a rare thing in our culture, and no team ever complained of having an excess of focus, courage and dedication.

Summary

In the final analysis I think I’d go with Worthy, given the choice. I like Still’s height at nose (blocking passes at the line is a very useful skill, and it’s easier for taller DTs), but a pass-rushing off-tackle is a valuable piece that Denver has lacked for a long time, really. A quality pass-rushing DT or a quality 3-4 DE of any kind has been too rare. Part of this is how I see defensive theory, but for many reasons - solidifying off-tackle would strengthen the defense. It’s no insult to the players that Denver has available to say that the position is still in flux.

I know that John Elway has said several times that DT is a position that Denver feels they’re in better shape for than others may see. What I hear when he says that is Liars Season Alert. What, he was going to say, “Yeah, we’d do nearly anything to get a good DT or two”? Anything’s possible, but  I’d be surprised if Denver leaves this draft without a DT prospect in hand.

I also believe that one way or the other, Brian Xanders is going to use that second fourth-round pick (or some other mechanism) and change that #25 pick into more. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong - I’m used to it - but the chance to move into having an extra pick, if a partner can be found, would be extremely tempting to Denver, who has to add more impact players at multiple positions. This is the area that I’ve seen the most skill out of Xanders each draft, and it’s a very good skill to have.

By the way, about Xanders - I spoke to him briefly a good while back. People roast him because he’s not good on camera, but I don’t care about that - he’s not hired to be a media guy, so it doesn’t matter to me. I want his scouting knowledge, his contracts knowledge, and his skill at manipulating the draft (not who they pick at what slot - how they work the board to maximize their slots).

It was back during the dead season before training camp, and I’d called with a team question that no one knew the answer to. I was transferred a couple of times enroute to a solution and the next thing I know, a man’s familiar voice says, “This is Brian.” It was Xanders. He was polite and helpful, despite having far better things to do, and was able to answer the question for me as well. I don’t care how he shows on television - I appreciated the gesture of fan support and courtesy, and I’m hoping that he’ll once again move the Broncos into their best possible position on the draft board. Go for it, Brian. It’s your time again.

Bring on the Draft!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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