Sometimes when we evaluate players we tend to get caught up in the metrics.
How fast did he run? Is his three-cone time translatable to the skills he’ll need on Sundays? Is his 10-yard split more important than his 40-yard dash based on the type of player he is?
The numbers can be overwhelming at times, but beneath all the reams of data there remains an organic, human side to scouting players that will never be repressed. That inkling in the back of your mind that tells you this player has the potential to be special. Most of us call it the eye test or ‘going with your gut’ – and I believe it has just as much a part to play in an evaluation as the numbers.
I’m going to borrow a term coined by one of the best NFL Draft analysts, Mike Mayock, to highlight some players in rookie drafts that you should target. The diminutive guru of prospects often refers to players he would ‘bang the table for’ if he were in a war room with ‘Player X’ still on the board.
It is much easier to snipe defensive prospects in the late rounds of rookie drafts than to acquire the services of their offensive counterparts, who are better known thanks to the coverage afforded to them by the ‘Big Draft’ community. So without further ado, these are the defensive rookies I would bang the table for on draft day.
Note: ADP predictions assumes a balanced scoring league (IDP/offense) of 12 teams
DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson
Where I would take him: Mid-third round/Early fourth round
Ideal scheme fit: Left defensive end in 4-3
Biggest obstacle to success: A decent but not great get-off at the snap may hinder his sack totals, but he will more than make up for it with his willing work in the run game and his overall disruption as he gets NFL coaching.
What the tape told me: Lawson is capable of pressuring the passer in numerous situations. He is comfortable taking on double teams, his one-on-one game is very effective and although not the quickest-twitch athlete he is more than capable of causing havoc off the edge. His discipline snap to snap really stood out to me. He is a willing run defender and this will endear him to coaches early on.
DT/DE Jonathan Bullard, Florida
Where I would take him: Late fourth round/Early fifth round
Ideal scheme fit: 4-3 RDE who kicks inside as 1-technique or 3-technique DT on passing downs
Biggest obstacle to success: Has a tendency to get a little nosy on certain plays and lost discipline against option runs. His lack of ideal bulk and strength may hurt him if he is played at defensive tackle in the league. The depth of talent in this defensive line class may see him drop further than he should, which may have a knock-on effect to limit his snaps.
What the tape told me: Many knock Bullard for his lack of a true position, labelling him a ‘tweener’ prospect. I would agree he is a tweener, but I wouldn’t consider it a detriment to his prospects as a pro; in fact, it may serve to help him in this pass-first modern NFL. Bullard has a knack for anticipating the snap count and has a nice get-off. He plays a little out of control at times, but makes up for it with his relentless pursuit of ball carriers. His motor runs hot and he is not afraid to take on blockers to disrupt the flow of an offense. Bullard is a typical example of a player who may not meet all the criteria, but just stands out as a damn good player. I believe his explosion and versatility will be enticing to teams like Arizona, Philadelphia, Denver and Oakland.
LB Kentrell Brothers, Missouri
Where I would take him: Mid-fourth round/Late fourth round
Ideal scheme fit: 3-4 inside linebacker in a 2-gap scheme where he can scrape and flow through traffic to make tackles in space
Biggest obstacle to success: Brothers does not possess ideal athleticism to be a true three-down linebacker from day one, so he will have to show coaches he is trustworthy against wide open passing attacks.
What the tape told me: One of my favourite ‘bang the table’ prospects in this entire class, Kentrell Brothers is a player I will be targeting in all my rookie drafts. The ancient art of tackling, unfortunately lost on many players in today’s NFL, is something he is a master of. You rarely see him falling off tackles; instead, he shows good technique, breaks down and wraps up. He is excellent at filling his gap and attacking blockers, stacking and shedding very quickly to make a play. He was often sent as a blitzer at Missouri and could see early work in the NFL in a similar role. His diagnosis of plays is excellent and is one of his standout traits; he trusts his eyes and shoots gaps before plays even have time to develop at times.
S Darian Thompson, Boise State
Where I would take him: Late fourth round/Early fifth round
Ideal scheme fit: Free safety or strong safety flexibility
Biggest obstacle to success: Thompson lacks ideal hip flexibility to transition smoothly from his backpedal and make plays that require great range, but he makes up for this with his keen sense of how routes will develop and his timing on breaks.
What the tape told me: Darian Thompson has an uncanny feel for the intricacies of opposing offenses. In every game I watched, he demonstrated the ability to break on the football with precision and timing, often resulting in a pass broken up or an interception. And that is where NFL teams will see him – as a ball hawk capable of changing games. Thompson backs his playmaking up with a great tackling technique and will not be a liability for the team who drafts him. His usage by said team will be fascinating, but he has the ability to play deep centre-field and near the line of scrimmage. He is a player who will be an intriguing flier in the late rounds of rookie drafts.
LB Antonio Morrison, Florida
Where I would take him: Mid-fourth round depending on his landing spot
Ideal scheme fit: 4-3 middle linebacker with flexibility to play weak side in either 4-3 or 3-4 front
Biggest obstacle to success: Morrison tore his ACL in the bowl game following the 2014 season but bounced back in 2015 to lead the Gators in tackles. The feat is even more impressive when you consider the normal timetable for players to return to peak performance after an ACL injury. However, the injury may hurt his draft stock as teams opt for the more sure fire options – namely those with no major surgeries on their resumes. Being picked in a lower round will naturally limit Morrison’s opportunities, so he may be a patience play in dynasty leagues.
What the tape told me: A ferocious competitor snap to whistle (and sometimes beyond), Morrison fits the mould of a grinder on the field. At times he can overpursue the ball carrier and leave himself in bad positions, his aggressive nature working against him. However, he is a player with great instincts and power in his tackles and he should quickly earn his place as a core special teamer – if not more – right away in the NFL. He is outstanding at shedding blocks as well, which will see him get early down work on a linebacker-needy team. His scheme versatility is yet another feather in his cap. A favourite of mine, I expect Morrison to start slow but finish strong in his rookie year. The sky will be the limit from there.
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
Where I would take him: Fifth round
Ideal scheme fit: 5-technique in a 3-4 with the ability to kick inside on passing downs
Biggest obstacle to success: Jones’ pad level will get him into trouble in the NFL unless he can be coached to iron out his faults quickly. He often exposes his body to hits early in the down and can take himself out of plays before they have even started. His effort isn’t exactly where you would like it to be on a snap to snap basis.
What the tape told me: Despite the aforementioned flaws in Jones’ game, he offers a blend of size, strength and natural tools to be a really disruptive force at the next level. More of a projection than any of the players on this list, Jones has a steep learning curve to get where he needs to be, but he has the package of skills to reach that goal. He has an easy efficiency in run defense, using his length to fend off blocks and cause disruption instantly. In two to three years Jones could be a Kawann Short type of pass rusher, capable of a 8-10 sack season in the right scheme.
DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville
Where I would take him: Fifth round/priority FA on waiver wire
Ideal scheme fit: 3-4 DE or 4-3 3-technique DT
Biggest obstacle to success: Rankins’ lack of speed off the snap could hurt him, but despite this he has such good hand usage and technique overall that it may not hinder him all that much. He is also unable to finish plays at times due to a lack of luck (slipping on his way to the quarterback) or closing speed. Sometimes he uses his hands well to put himself in a position to make a tackle, but does not finish the play.
What the tape told me: With Rankins, you have to look past the picture you’re seeing and focus on the results. And often they’re just the kind you’re looking for from your interior defensive line – disruptive ones. Rankins’ ability to fend off blockers with his hands and push the pocket will give him an early opportunity to get meaningful snaps in the NFL. He will never be a premiere athlete, but ask him to blow up a play before it has a chance to develop and he will do it with aplomb. Rankins will not be an in-demand asset in IDP leagues, but he should be a name on your watch list entering the season, especially in DT-required formats.
DE Carl Nassib, Penn State
Where I would take him: Late draft pick or priority free agent on waiver wire
Ideal scheme fit: 4-3 DE with possibility of kicking inside on passing downs
Biggest obstacle to success: Like one or two others on my list, Nassib’s lack of athleticism and change of direction skill could hurt him at the next level. At times he missed tackles he simply shouldn’t and can be exposed in space. His lack of snaps over the past two seasons at Penn State – only 42.4% of all defensive snaps according to Pro Football Focus – could mean he is a slower transition to the pros.
What the tape told me: It’s not all doom and gloom for Nassib, however. A ‘try hard’ player who lets his snap-to- whistle graft do the talking, he is a sneakily effective pass rusher. I think Nassib’s ceiling in the league is a Jared Allen type of player, who can succeed with good technique and, with a little refinement, can be a very solid pro. Nassib is not a player I would metaphorically rush up to the podium for in your IDP leagues; rather, the best play might be to see which team he catches on with and examine the early trickling of reports out of minicamps to see how the young Nittany Lion is progressing. If Nassib can latch on to a contending team with a solid defensive line coach, he could be a nice DE2 for dynasty owners down the line.
LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Where I would take him: Late second or early third round
Ideal scheme fit: 4-3 ‘Will’
Biggest obstacle to success: The elephant in the room for Smith is the knee injury he sustained in the bowl game this January. It has placed his career in jeopardy and is a crying shame for such a talented player. Assuming the best case scenario – that Smith can overcome the injury and return in 2017 – my main concern lies in his lack of aggression against the run. He was far too often reluctant to get ‘down and dirty’ against bigger blockers and instead tried to weave between them to make plays. That kind of play will not suffice at the pro level, where he will be swallowed up. He will need a patient coaching staff to invest time in his rehab and coach him up to remedy this part of his game.
What the tape told me: Prior to his injury, the tape was very kind to Smith for the most part. Notwithstanding his less than stellar play against the run at times, he showcased the ability to fluidly move sideline to sideline and attack ball carriers. Some might label him more athlete than football player, but I think that is unfair to his improvement as a player. Keep in mind he came out as a junior and still has growing – both mentally and physically – to do. Smith is a fantastic pass rusher who can create chaos in the backfield, chasing down running backs and quarterbacks with ease. He’s not quite at Myles Jack’s level when it comes to coverage, but he isn’t far off. I would recommend grabbing Smith with a luxury pick in your rookie draft. Where he is drafted come the end of April will tell the tale of how bad his knee injury truly is.
If you have any queries or follow-up questions about any of the defensive prospects in the upcoming rookie class, don’t hesitate to drop me a line either by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @davlar87