For the IDP enthusiast, and anyone who has read his share of articles about skill players, here are the defensive players I’m looking forward to watching at the Combine starting this weekend. Also included are a couple of offensive linemen…keeping with the non–skill player coverage.
Brandon Jenkins, DE/OLB, Florida State
After 8 sacks as a freshman and then a breakout 13.5 sacks (third in FBS) and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2010 on a FSU defense that tied for the FBS lead with 48 sacks, Jenkins was a favorite to lead the nation in sacks in 2011. It ended up his numbers dipped (8 sacks and 12 TFL) as he battled some injuries, but Jenkins was learning to play with his hand on the ground more often and faced frequent double teams, which freed up opportunities for others, particularly Björn Werner, to make plays. With hard work in the weight room over that offseason, Jenkins also significantly improved his play against the run. The NFL Advisory Board gave him a late first-round to early second-round grade. He had his mind made up to declare early and informed head coach Jimbo Fisher shortly after their victory in the Champs Sports Bowl. Fisher reportedly asked Jenkins for a few days to investigate more with his NFL contacts, and after a two-hour meeting with his family and Fisher, Jenkins still seemed set to go. He changed his mind later that evening, however, and informed Fisher he would return for his senior season. Unfortunately, his decision to return didn’t work out. Jenkins suffered a season-ending broken left foot in the second quarter of their first game. In 40 career games, Jenkins was credited with 22.5 sacks and 37.5 tackles for loss.
I appreciate that Jenkins was able to graduate by returning, but I feel he got some bad advice from Fisher, regardless of his injury, and should have left after 2011. There was a report prior to last season that Fisher told him to stay focused only on defensive end in the offseason. While Jenkins doesn’t have elite speed around the corner, he has great quickness off the ball and an excellent spin move. I think his development for the next level would have benefitted from more opportunities to play in space with his hand off the ground and not exclusively at right defensive end, as he may end up as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Jenkins could have petitioned for an extra year, and likely would have gotten it, but instead enters the draft with Werner. The duo join the lineage of outstanding pass rush specialist tweeners from FSU (Andre Wadsworth, Peter Boulware, Reinard Wilson, Kamerion Wimbley, et al). While Werner now looks likely to be the first-round pick, Jenkins could climb back to become a late second-round pick with an impressive Combine.
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
A phenomenal athlete, Taylor was a varsity basketball player and state triple-jump champion in high school. As a 3rd year sophomore in 2010, he showed in addition to his ability to penetrate from the edge (7.5 sacks and 13 TFL) that he was fluid enough to drop into coverage. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson successfully mixed him into that role and Taylor led the team with 8 passes defensed and an interception returned for a touchdown. He stood out on a talented D-line that led the SEC in sacks with versatile defensive end Melvin Ingram and tackle Travian Robertson anchoring the interior, both of whom would be drafted. Taylor earned first-team All-SEC honors and most draftniks had him pegged to leave early and be a first-round pick. However, he didn’t deliver the dominant encore that was expected as the 2011 season began. He drew more attention from opposing offenses and disappeared at times. Instead, it was Ingram and blue chip freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney who racked up the big plays. Taylor adjusted and began to string together stronger showings as the season wound down, including an impact performance in the Capital One Bowl, but finished the year with just 6 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He said the NFL Draft Advisory Board told him he wouldn’t go in the first three rounds, so he decided to return. Clowney was the story again last season, while Taylor managed just 3 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He regained some draft stock momentum with a dominant week of practice prior to the Shrine Game and a great game as well, posting a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 tackles for loss.
Interestingly, his father is named Lawrence Taylor (no relation to the NFL HOF’er) and owns a restaurant called L.T.’s. Foreshadowing? At 6’7”, Devin seems too tall and stiff, despite his athletic ability, to play outside linebacker, and he hasn’t flashed natural pass-rush ability. He bulked up about 25 pounds since last year and seems to be adjusting to playing with the new weight. He gives great effort and has an excellent work rate on the field, which has helped contribute to the success of the Gamecocks and will appeal to NFL teams. He presents a great problem in space, and his agility and wingspan could make him an outstanding zone pass defender in stunts. However, he simply lacks a quick first step and explosiveness off the ball, which is why he isn’t a great pass rusher despite his athletic ability. Any tackle in the NFL is going to be able to get his hands on him every time. It doesn’t help that with his height he lacks a natural bend and opens himself up too quickly, giving the opponent plenty of real estate to work with. I like Taylor, and his work ethic will make him a project some team will want to take on. The athleticism he displays at the Combine will go a long way toward determining how early he is drafted.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE, Brigham Young
I currently have him mocked in the first round, and I write about him extensively here. However, he’ll really need to bring the “wow” in Indianapolis to go that high and live up to the mythical levels at which his athleticism is currently portrayed. He is one of the most polarizing players among draftniks, and one side of the debate over him will gain more evidence at the Combine.
Jarvis Jones, DE/OLB, Georgia
He has just stated he won’t work out at the Combine to focus on preparing for his Pro Day. That deprives us of a preview of a player who, talent-wise, might be the best overall prospect in the draft. However, his medical evaluations were going to be as critical to his draft stock as his Combine or Pro Day performance. As I discussed in my first mock, his mild spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column) caused USC doctors to not clear him and recommend he not play football, while other doctors have cleared him and said the risk is not a major concern. While we won’t have access to the details of his medical evaluations, he is still a player to watch as rumors and reports of those evaluations emerge.
DeMarcus “Dee” Milliner, CB, Alabama
The consensus top cornerback in the draft comes to the Combine with a torn labrum he apparently played with through at least some part of last season. However, he is currently planning to do everything except the bench press and then have surgery afterward. There is a talented crowd in the queue behind him at cornerback, which the Combine will help to sort out and may even provide others the opportunity to pass Milliner if he is more limited than expected or disappoints.
David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State
Like most, I viewed Amerson as the top cornerback prospect after his sensational sophomore season in 2011 where he picked off an ACC-record 13 passes and was an impact player. However, this past season he got off to a horrible start before improving down the stretch. Former Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien offered various explanations during the year: Amerson had gotten away from fundamentals, was missing basic assignments, trying too hard to make big plays instead of doing his job, and was stressed out and distracted by off-field issues. Those issues involved his relationship to Eric Leak, a disassociated booster and former N.C. State player who was previously found by the NCAA to have been providing illegal benefits to Wolfpack basketball players. Leak was allegedly soliciting agents for Amerson. So we’ve got the effect of that situation plus the pressure to repeat his historic season, and reading his own press clippings from that season; but what does the tape of his on-field activity show? His drop in productivity wasn’t because teams were afraid to throw at him. He was beaten a number of times, his low point being his involvement in all four touchdown passes by the Hurricanes in the Wolfpacks’ loss at Miami. Amerson also struggled with his footwork—both poor technique and lack of the instinct for when to come out of a backpedal. Some of that could be attributed to the “off” coverage he excelled at in 2011, baiting quarterbacks to try for the pick. But that is still a problem because it would indicate he lacks his previous quickness and recovery speed to execute those baits successfully. He played better in the second half of the season, including a 55-yard pick six in the team’s final regular season game. He finished with 5 interceptions and 17 passes defended—respectable numbers.
My feeling is his stock took too big a hit. He had a lot of negative press early in the season that pushed draftniks and pundits to focus on other players, yet not enough notice of his improvement down the stretch or enough blame given to the atrocious pass defense the Wolfpack had overall, which is shared with his supporting cast and the since-terminated coaching staff. At 6’2”, Amerson has the size to hang with the elite big receivers. If he shows quickness, speed and athleticism at the Combine, the issues with technique he displayed will be less of a concern and viewed as correctable. As I went through my mock, he remained in the debate for the second corner after Dee Milliner, so I can see him making a huge leap with a big Combine.
Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
The Honey Badger was one of the most exciting players in college football in 2011, with an incredible knack for turning in the big play, and in a variety of ways. He was kicked off the team prior to last season for reportedly failing drug tests and was later arrested for marijuana possession. Even if you take his baggage out of the picture, there was the question of his diminutive stature (I predict he measures 5’8” and under 175) and whether he has the elite athleticism to mitigate concerns about his talent translating at the next level. He reportedly has been living with the family of former teammate, and first-round pick, Patrick Peterson and training with workout warrior Peterson.
Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern
This dominating Division II player is the top NFL prospect of D2 guru Josh Buchanan. That’s enough reason to keep an eye on him.
Zavier Gooden, OLB, Missouri
The converted safety lacks the size of former teammate of Aldon Smith but is expected to impress with his own freakish athleticism. Gooden should emerge as one of this year’s Combine workout warriors, turning heads with his speed and strength.
Michael Buchanan, DE and Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
In each of the last two years, an Illinois defensive lineman (Corey Liuget in 2011 and Whitney Mercilus in 2012) recruited by former head coach Ron Zook has risen from the obscurity of a terrible college team to meet his individual potential and end up as a first-round pick.
Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
When you look at his skill set alone, Te’o is a no-brainer. But after his imaginary girlfriend drama, I want to hear the reports of how his interviews are going. Regardless of the girlfriend situation, Alec Olgetree and Kevin Minter emerged as threats to his preseason status as the top inside linebacker prospect, so how Te’o tests is of interest too.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut
Todd McShay has him as a first-round pick, and Tony Pauline says he is hearing similar rumblings from some at the Combine. He wasn’t on my radar to go that high, so I’ll be interested to see how he performs.
Jelani Jenkins, OLB, Florida
It was a bit of a surprise when he declared, despite his being a redshirt junior. Prior to his injury-plagued season, he was considered a potential first-round pick.
Walter Stewart, DE/OLB, Cincinnati
After he suffered a back injury in a win over Forham on Oct. 13th, Stewart was stunned to hear from the team doctor that his football career was over. X-rays identified a birth disorder. The Bearcats’ captain was missing the posterior arch of his first cervical (C1) vertebra. Second opinions since then have varied, with some NFL doctors validating the original recommendation and others telling him it isn’t an issue. Stewart chooses to believe the latter and is expected to undergo a full workload. The underrated tweener has been a favorite sleeper of mine ever since I saw his big performance in the Sugar Bowl after his redshirt freshman year in 2009. It’s hard not to root for Stewart, who left a tough home situation on his own at age 13 to end up with an inspirational foster family that became the nurturing parents he didn’t get in the biological lottery.
Bruce Taylor, LB, Virginia Tech
Here’s another player I really like(d). After a breakout year in 2010, a Lisfranc injury on his right foot cut his 2011 season short. He didn’t have the same explosion and first step when I watched him last season. He’s now over a year removed from his injury. I’m interested to see if after some rest and training in the offseason he displays more athleticism at the Combine, or seems destined as a two-down, backup inside linebacker.
Kevin Minter, ILB, Louisiana State
I’m a bit higher on Minter than others and hope his Combine validates the high consideration he’s getting based on his athleticism.
Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Other than the bench press, offensive linemen are the least interesting to watch work out. So it isn’t that I’m looking forward to seeing Armstead in any specific drills or tests (although he is predicted to run a sub-5.0). I just want to see how well he performs overall and view the feedback about him. After a great week of practice at the Shrine Game, the small-school prospect is a hot name among O-linemen. Because their contributions aren’t measured statistically like every other position and they don’t make many YouTube highlights, there are always some unheralded O-linemen who no one but actual NFL scouts already know about that jump up draft boards after the Combine (usually going to the Patriots).
D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Fluker dropped 16 pounds since the Senior Bowl and is apparently looking to change opinions on his ceiling as a right tackle. If he impresses with his agility and athleticism and moves into the left tackle discussion, he could join the first-rounders in a draft that continues to look increasingly impressive on both sides of the line.