As I mentioned previously, 54 FBS football teams were shut out of the bowl games and will be home for the holidays this year. And on those teams are a host of talented players who have played their final games as collegians, All-Star Game appearances notwithstanding. I have listed 25 of those players (if you missed the offensive prospects, click here) – including departing seniors and underclassmen who have declared themselves eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft – and compiled scouting notes on each based on tape from the 2011 and 2012 seasons. It’s probably important now to note that I did all of this before Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins declared for the draft on Monday. That’s some study for another day. Instead, below are the 14 defensive prospects I did get a chance to examine a little more closely. Underclassmen are designated with an asterisk…
John Simon Ohio State DE 6’2 260 – Simon possesses terrific brute strength. He gets push on his opponent and is at his best when he crosses inside to get after the quarterback. Simon can line up at either end. Sometimes he gets locked into a block and has trouble shedding, and he doesn’t use a great variety of moves. Simon has a relentless motor, something mentioned during every Ohio State broadcast during his career, but he is also an underappreciated athlete. He has good presence of mind to try and bat down passes while he’s being double teamed, or otherwise kept out of the pocket. Simon does not have the quickest first step. At times he is a half step slow getting off the snap. He will attempt to use other pass rush moves, but often he reverts back to the simple bull rush. A lot of Simon’s success comes from just constant effort. He keeps fighting to the whistle, so even when he is doubled he battles his way into a n occasional coverage sack. While he isn’t always quick out of his stance, he does demonstrate above average closing speed. Simon is a tireless worker and a valuable team leader, but his limited pass rush repertoire and the perception that he is a “tweener” without a true position may push him to the draft’s third day. In that case, some team could wind up with a late round steal down the road.
Michael Buchanan Illinois DE 6’5 240 – Buchanan is a lanky pass rusher with a quick first step. He demonstrates pretty good bend on his attack, and can beat slower tackles with a speed rush from a three-point stance, or from standing up. Buchanan gets caught on skates at times, and his troubles changing direction may be due to his build. Still, he has a good motor and will pursue run plays from the backside. He has long arms to disrupt passing lanes. He can bounce down the line of scrimmage and shadow the QB, ultimately getting his hands up to bat down the pass. On one play in particular, Buchanan lined up “wide 9” formation, flowed inside, batted a pass up in the air and intercepted it. It was simply a tremendous athletic play. He is not really strong, and can get pushed around a bit, but he has active hands and uses them well to free himself from blocks. Buchanan has a variety of pass rush moves. He can spin to either side, speed rush, cross the face, or come inside on a stunt. The only area he is lacking is the strength to bull rush. Buchanan is an intriguing talent, with speed and athleticism that should impress throughout the draft process. When all is said and done, it would not be surprising to see Buchanan off the board within the draft’s top 50 picks.
Sheldon Richardson* Missouri DT 6’3 295 – Richardson has elected to forgo his senior season and enter the 2013 draft. He has good bend and is quick off the snap. He has active hands and uses them well to stay free from blockers. He gets a great jump most of the time, whether standing up or playing with his hand in the dirt. Richardson uses a variety of moves to get penetration into the backfield. He can use a swim move or run a stunt to get pressure, or he can uses his powerful hands to bull rush his opponent. He also does a good job putting his hands up to affect the passing lane. Richardson does well to flow down the line, or stay at home to make tackles on run plays. His ability to get skinny and bend through gaps to get pressure up the middle best translates to a “3-technique” tackle in a 4-3. His explosion would be wasted at end in a three-man front. Richardson generally gives good effort trailing plays from the backside, but every once in a while he does not play to the whistle. It is not clear if this is due to fatigue or some other factor. It is clear that Richardson is a gifted athlete, with high end strength and speed. It’s likely that he will impress in workouts and could find himself drafted among the top ten players overall.
Star Lotulelei Utah DT 6’3 320 – Lotulelei is a gifted athlete for a man his size. For a man any size, for that matter. He has great anticipation and is incredibly quick off the snap. He has tremendous strength and often turns offensive linemen into rag dolls, tossing them aside on his way to the ball carrier. He does well to flow down the line of scrimmage even as opposing teams attempt to run the ball away from him. He is one of the best in the draft class at shedding his blocks, though he’d be even more effective if he got his hands up more often and batted more passes. The knock on Lotulelei is that he can do special things because of his strength and athleticism, but he isn’t as consistent as he should be. He does not use a variety of pass rush moves, but he is able to bull rush and push the pocket, and use an occasional spin move. He has remarkable closing speed, enough that he can chase down quarterbacks when they get flushed out of the pocket. He can show good bend to get through gaps, but he seems to forget to use it on occasion. If he plays at his highest level, he is virtually unblockable one on one. Lotulelei will be most valuable to teams that run a 3-4 defense, though he appears more than capable of playing in any front. While it’s widely assumed that he is best suited to play nose tackle, it’s entirely possible that he may be valued more as a “5-technique” end. Lotulelei has been at the top of many draft boards all year long. He didn’t have the greatest senior season, but he should still come off the board within the top five to ten selections in April.
Kawann Short Purdue DT 6’3 315 – Short is active with his hands and uses them well to keep offensive linemen from getting into his pads. He is quick out of the block and can split double teams to get into the backfield for tackles. Every once in a while he will drop into coverage as a wrinkle. He has a combination of strength and athletic ability that make him an interesting prospect. The problem is that Short will sometimes get caught loafing while trailing a play. He doesn’t seem interested in pursuit during some games, and can be seen jogging or tiptoeing after the play. The top defensive linemen in this class are always pursuing, even on runs away from them. He simply cannot take plays off. Short is a good penetrating defensive tackle, who seems best suited to play “3-technique” in a 4-3. He routinely gets into the backfield and disrupts, but some teams won’t like the inconsistent motor. His talent says “Day Two prospect”, but his body language says “Day Three.” He’ll get a chance to change some of those perceptions at the Senior Bowl next month.
Sylvester Williams North Carolina DT 6’3 320 – Williams possesses a very quick first step. He has good bend and does a nice job dipping his shoulder to get penetration. Williams has active hands to fight off blockers, and frequently draws double teams. He displays excellent strength with his bull rush, though at times he gets too upright, fails to anchor and gets knocked off balance. He’ll need some work on his technique to prevent this from happening. He’d also benefit from putting his hands up more often and attempt to bat down some passes at the line. Williams has a quick burst off the line of scrimmage and is able to disrupt running plays and pressure quarterbacks. He’s a power rusher and uses the swim move effectively. His spin move is perhaps his most impressive for the sheer fact that men his size don’t often have that kind of agility and athleticism. Williams’ effort is pretty consistent. He plays to the whistle, and on one occasion, after being knocked to the ground, he continued to crawl on the ground until he registered a sack. His conditioning may need some work. Toward the end of some games he appears to be running out of gas. Due to his interior pass rush ability, Williams seems best suited to play the “3-technique” spot in a four-man front. Players with his size and athletic ability don’t last long on draft day, so there’s a strong chance he’ll be off the board within the top 20 picks.
Jordan Hill Penn State DT 6’1 294 – Hill is an undersized “3-technique” type, who some teams may look at as a swingman in a defensive line rotation. He doesn’t appear that strong, as he allows himself to get driven back by offensive linemen quite a bit. Hill is able to get a good jump off the snap to beat his man, he just isn’t that consistent with it. He does a decent job flowing down the line of scrimmage and sticking with run plays even when they are away from him. He’s at his most effective using a swim move and when he out-quicks his opponent. Along with working on his strength, Hill needs to do a better job staying low so he doesn’t get knocked off balance. Hill is a pretty good athlete, with a skill set that suggests versatility. His ceiling is probably as a backup who can play end and tackle, and start in a pinch. Based on positional value and athletic potential, Hill looks to be worth a fourth or fifth round draft choice.
Jamie Collins Southern Miss 6’3 240 – Working mainly as an undersized defensive end for a dreadful 0-12 team, Collins stuffed the stat sheets with 20 tackles for loss, ten sacks, four forced fumbles, and five pass deflections in 2012. He’s a tremendous athlete who can bolt into the backfield before anyone has a chance to lay a hand on him, and drop into coverage on the next play. Collins isn’t just a speed rusher either. He’s strong enough to shed blocks and fight through traffic to make plays against the run. Collins is fundamentally sound, and disciplined. He’s an excellent fit to spy on an athletic quarterback. He appears to have excellent speed and can close in on the ball carrier in a heartbeat. Collins is expected to dazzle scouts at the NFL Combine in February, but first he’ll make an appearance at both the Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, where he’ll likely line up in a variety of roles to determine what his best fit will be.
Gerald Hodges Penn State OLB 6’2 238 – Hodges is such a gifted that Penn State coaches decided to give him a shot as the team’s opening day punt returner. The experiment didn’t go well, and Hodges stuck to what he knew best the rest of the way. He does a nice job finding his way through traffic and gives effort to pursue rushing plays from the backside. Hodges is a sure tackler who also looks comfortable dropping into pass coverage. He’s not the biggest guy, but does a decent job shedding blocks. He looks like he has good instincts – he knows when to stay home on play action and special teams fakes – and plays with a consistent motor. Hodges does well to read and react and knows when to wrap up versus when to go for the strip. Hodges looks to be at his best when he’s blitzing and in coverage. His athleticism will be coveted in a league trying to figure out how to cover big, athletic tight end. Hodges will be at the Shrine Game, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him work his way onto a roster in Mobile the following weekend.
Trevardo Williams Connecticut OLB 6’1 234 – Williams was an undersized defensive end in the Huskies’ defense, usually lining up with his hand in the dirt. He has a powerful punch, and seems to have good strength. Williams acts like more of a bull rusher than speed rusher, and that doesn’t suit his size. He’s a raw athlete who may test well and rise, but he lacks pass rush moves and polish. He shows decent bend and ability to dip his shoulder to get past the tackle, but he’s far from consistent. At his size, he’ll need to show he can cover a little and move to outside linebacker, or he’ll be viewed as just a situational player. Williams gives good effort and closing speed, but in his position he was always vulnerable to teams when they ran at him. Because of the conversion factor, and trying to project him into a new role, Williams’ value takes a hit. If he impresses teams in drills and looks like he’ll take well to coaching, he could move up. But for now he looks to be no more than a mid to late Day Three draft pick.
Travis Long Washington State OLB 6’4 245 – Long often lined up at both defensive end spots, as well as at outside linebacker for the Cougars. At the line, he shows good strength and active hands. At linebacker he displays the ability to read the quarterbacks’ eyes, and discipline to stay at home on a run play. He’s able to dip his shoulder to get by the blocker, and he has a solid array of pass rush moves. Long usually does a good job pursuing run plays from the backside, though he doesn’t always seem to be giving it his all while trailing plays. Long isn’t a particularly fast player, but he’s a good athlete, and his experience in different roles figures to serve him well at the next level.
Michael Mauti Penn State MLB 6’2 235 – Mauti is on the shelf with a knee injury for the second year in a row, so even if the Nittany Lions were bowl-eligible, he’d most likely miss the game. Throughout his college career, Mauti showed a nose for the ball carrier. He’s a tough, instinctive player and a sure tackler. He has ability to drop back into coverage and read the quarterbacks’ eyes, and the discipline and athleticism to stay at home and act as a spy. If healthy, Mauti will be able to contribute immediately on special teams, covering kicks. At Penn State he was one of the gunners and often one of the first players down the field. Mauti doesn’t have great speed, but he closes quickly and rarely fails to wrap up the runner. He gives excellent sideline-to-sideline effort and does a terrific job shedding blocks. Mauti is not expected to be healthy enough for an All-Star game appearance and his draft status will depend largely on how he checks out medically. It will be interesting to see how far along he is in his recovery by the time April rolls around.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson Connecticut CB 6’1 190 – Wreh-Wilson has experience lining up in man and zone coverage. He shows good ball skills, and ability to turn and locate. Wreh-Wilson is a tall, lanky corner who some teams may look at as a safety. He does a good job breaking on the ball but has the hands one would expect out of a defensive player. He is able to stay with his man down the field, and shows the ability to cover end zone fade routes. NFL coaches will put Wreh-Wilson to the test in late January in Mobile.
Terry Hawthorne Illinois CB 6’0 190 – Like the rest of his Fighting Illini teammates, Hawthorne had a few rough moments in 2012. However, he still has excellent size for a cornerback, and has been a solid cover man for most of his career. Hawthorne is a strong tackler and is not afraid to come up and help in run support. While he often lined up off the receiver, he’s shown ability to press at the line and be aggressive in coverage. He has a nasty streak and a short memory that NFL teams look for in defensive backs. His senior tape isn’t spectacular, but if scouts take a look back at his junior season, they’ll mostly like what they see. If Hawthorne can fully regain that form, he could wind up being a steal in the middle rounds of the draft.