Having wrapped up our tour of Dallas' potential offensive prospects, we move on to the defensive side of the ball. Given that the Cowboys are likely to spend the bulk of their draft choices on defensive guys, paying closer attention to the upcoming profiles will be time well spent--so I heartily encourage you hit your browser's BTB Bookmark (of course you have one) early and often between now and the draft, our NFL Christmas.
We'll begin our defensive profiles with what has, pre-draft, been the most hotly-debated position group: the three first round DT-DEs, Fletcher Cox, Dontari Poe, and the subject of today' post, LSU's Michael Brockers. Brockers has been pooh-poohed in the media since the Combine, where he put up less-than-stellar numbers. But not by scouts, who value game tape more than the annual underwear Olympics. For them, Brockers remains a dream prospect: that rare big man with size (6"5", 322), strength and athleticism. Plus, he's a young'un, with tremendous upside; Brockers, a redshirt sophomore, is good now, but should be absolutely dominant in a couple seasons.
Brockers signed on with LSU as a 250-pound freshman defensive end in 2009 and, after his redshirt year, flashed potential in 2010 before blowing up in 2011, becoming a beast in the middle who imposed his will on the interior of the line throughout a season in which he started every game on a dominant SEC defense. The former Tiger jumps out on tape. He's quick off the ball, uses surprisingly quick and heavy hands to jolt offensive linemen, driving them backwards before disengaging to make plays, often in the backfield (he was third on the team in tackles for loss in 2011).
And, he played best when the stakes were highest: Brockers recorded a combined 11 tackles in his two games versus Alabama, including a career-high seven stops in the BCS Championship game. Brockers also recorded a tackle for loss and blocked an Alabama field goal in the early second quarter that kept the Crimson Tide's lead at just 3-0. Here's video of him in action against Georgia in the SEC Championship; here he squares off against 'Bama in the BCS Championship Game.
The post-Combine narrative surrounding Brockers is that, with his middling workout numbers, he must be gifted but lazy. This isn't the case; scouts point out that he has an excellent work ethic in the weight room, exemplified both by his physique (even though he weighs 322 pounds, he looks lean) and his film: Brockers competes at a high level on every snap and, unlike most big defensive linemen, he does not become easily fatigued in game. According to one scout, Brockers possesses an "unmatched combination of size, athleticism, strength and youth."
Brockers is certainly a risk/ reward player, as Bob Sturm points out in his excellent profile of Brockers. In analyzing him, scouts must weigh his tantalizing combination of skills against his poor Combine showing and the fact that, as a redshirt sophomore, he's largely unformed. He only has one season of dominant play, during which was surrounded by a tremendous quantity of future NFL talent and managed to collect a piddling two sacks. Finally (and I don't see this as a factor), he comes from the program that produced other disappointing first-round defense linemen; he's guilty by association with Marcus Spears, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. NFL teams certainly seem to see him as a head-scratcher; about half of the league's 32 teams have scheduled private meetings with the Bayou Bengal manchild.
What do scouting insiders say about the enigmatic Brockers? Check out their collective wisdom after the jump...
Came to LSU as a 6-6, 255-pound strong side linebacker recruit. Has added significant weight since than and really filled out his thick, broad frame. Displays impressive lower body strength through his lower half, with a thick set of legs and strong bubble. Possesses natural bend when asked to sit into his stance for his size and generates an explosive snap off the football. Plays the run game about as well as any 6-6 prospect I have seen inside. Is able to keep his pad level down, gain leverage and sit into his stance. Showcases the ability to anchor vs. the double team as well, despite his size and is a bear to move off the football. Would like to see him do a more consistent job extending his arms into contact. However, has the length and upper body strength to extend through contact, overpower/shed the block and make plays off his frame. Is a solid athlete off his frame, but is better in tighter areas where he can use his length to wrap on contact. However, when he does extend his arms off the snap showcases the burst and athleticism to create a jolt and slip his man, allowing him to get into the backfield. Exhibits "plus" ball awareness and overall instincts for the game as well. Routinely is able to sniff out the screen game, locate the ball inside and make his way toward the carrier.
Now, is still developing as a pass rusher. Showcases a good get off burst and when he keeps his pad level down has the ability to gain leverage, extend his arms and use his long arms to shed. Showcases some nasty with his length in order to keep himself clean and shed. Also displays some natural body control and suddenness off the snap in order to slip blocks initially and get up the field. However, too often allows his pad level to get upright initially when trying to slip blocks on contact and through the play. He's so naturally powerful/gifted that he can still force his way up the field. But is easy to seal from the action and stick to through contact. Looks athletic enough to stunt toward the edge and displays some know how of when to work his club toward the edge; at times will even try to turn the corner. But again gets upright and will expose his frame. Uses his powerful club inside as well and can gain a step, but eventually pops upright in the process. It's just a matter of him learning how to be a more effective pass rusher though because he displays the suddenness/length and natural power to overwhelm initially on the bull rush and shed.
Doesn't have a ton of experience playing inside either. Is a redshirt sophomore who started only one year at the position and is still raw. However, he has displayed the willingness to put on the weight off the field and keep himself in good shape. Plus, he's an instinctive kid who finds the football. That tells me he puts in the work, has a passion for the game and will continue to get better.
Impression: He might be a little raw and could have used some more work at the college level. However, he's an NFL talent with "plus" upside but can also come in and play vs. the run at a high level right away. Should get looks at both the three and five-technique spots and in my mind has the ability to become one of the better defensive lineman in the NFL down the line.
CBS Sports (Rob Rang): 2nd-rated DT; 14th overall
Pass rush: Only registered two sacks in 2011 but appears to have blossoming natural pass rush skills. Good initial quickness off the snap and flashes an explosive burst to split gaps. Surprising use of leverage for a player of his height. Good arm length and strength to keep his opponents' hands off his chest. Good bull rusher due to his use of leverage and good leg drive. Good quick arm-over swim move, which is made especially effective due to his long arms. Stymied at the line of scrimmage by chop blocks early in the season (Oregon) but improved his awareness and balance as the year went on. Good lateral agility and an explosive burst to close when the quarterback is near. Good awareness to get his hands in the air. Knocked down three passes in 2011 including making a diving interception against Northwestern State.
Run defense: Again, shows surprising bend and power to win the leverage battle despite his height. Used as part of a rotation and loses his effectiveness when his pad level rises as he tires. Good upper body strength to stack and shed. Lacks the anchor to hold up to double teams, but shows good quickness and aggression to seize the gap and works hard to split it. Pursues well when he has a lane to do so. Can get tied up inside and lose track of the ball. Good effort. Gets up quickly when knocked to the ground and gives his all to the whistle.
Explosion: Flashes enough quickness off the snap to threaten gaps at three-technique, especially when slanting. Heavy hands, good lower body strength and the ability to roll his hips into his opponent to drive them backwards on the bull rush. Arrives with a thud as a tackler.
Strength: Still growing but shows very good strength to hold up as an interior run defender when he maintains his proper pad level. Long, strong arms for the take-down tackle despite being engaged with a blocker.
Tackling: A forceful hitter who brings his hips to explode into the ball-carrier. "Only" forced one fumble in 2011 but did the same in 2010 despite considerably less playing time. Appears to have the athleticism and closing speed to improve in this area with more experience. Generally a good wrap-up tackler who brings ball-carriers to the ground quickly and securely. Good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit.
Intangibles: Given a late first to early second round grade by the NFL Advisory Committee. Lined up as a three technique, on the nose (zero technique) and outside at defensive end (five technique) for LSU in 2011. Has had no known off-field or injury issues while at LSU. Though Brockers' 2011 season seemingly came out of nowhere, head coach Les Miles predicted it heading into the 2010 season characterizing Brockers as "becoming a bear to handle inside.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 3rd-rated DT; 21st overall
Positives: Outstanding size. Well-proportioned with sheer mass and an enormous wing span. Powerful base—not easily moved and is capable of reestablishing the line of scrimmage or creating a pileup in the backfield. Flashes two-gap, stack-and-shed ability. Can push the pocket inside and flush the QB or force early throws. Active hands. Fairly good range for his size. Strong, productive tackler—wraps up and rips down ballcarriers. Versatile—can play inside or outside. Has clear upside.
Negatives: Small hands. Can do a better job protecting his frame despite his arm length. Does not play heavy-handed. Limited twitch and explosive body power. Showed heavy feet at the Combine, clocking poor 40-times and the worst pair of 20-yard short-shuttle times among defensive tackles (4.81. 4.87). Can play with more consistent leverage—lets his pads rise and gets displaced. Needs to cultivate counter moves. Does not accelerate off blocks. Green instincts. Turned off some teams in the interview process with immaturity and lack of intelligence.
Summary: Could endure an adjustment period, as he worked out like a young player prematurely thrust in the draft ringer, but should benefit from an NFL strength and conditioning program (bigger than he is strong at this stage of his development). Wet-behind-the-ears, extremely long-armed, gigantic plugger capable of stacking the inside or outside in an even or odd front, and best football is ahead of him once he matures….is most ideally suited for a 3-4 front.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 2nd rated DT; 14th overall
Versus the Run: Shows adequate-to-good initial quickness and power. Will come off the ball a bit high at times but shows ability to play with leverage and continues to improve in this area. Displays above average awareness locating the ball. Powerful upper body. Flashes ability to ragdoll some OL. Does a nice job with swim and rip moves but can be a little loose with technique at times. Generally does a very good job of disengaging quickly once ball is located. But occasionally will let his pads rise while looking for the ball, and will allow OL to establish leverage advantage. Lower body strength is adequate but can improve. Works hard to fight through double-team. Does a nice job of defending lower body on cut blocks. Gives a good effort in pursuit. A powerful hitter. Will sell out to make the play."
Pass Rush Skills: Good initial quickness but not elite first step to consistently penetrate. Shows power to collapse the pocket at times as a bull rusher. Does not appear to have a game-plan as a pass rusher at times and wastes a lot of steps and energy. Effort is not in question; he will chase if he gets a clear line to the quarterback and he keeps fighting even when he's not making headway. Also shows good awareness. Will get his long arms up and disrupt passing windows. Has tools to improve but results in this area have been underwhelming.
Quickness (hands/feet): Lacks elite first step explosiveness but is still a very good athlete for his size. Shows good lateral agility and balance. Hand quickness is above average. Will continue to improve hand usage with more focus on technique details.
Toughness/Motor: Had luxury of playing on deep defensive line at LSU and got plenty of rest. However, his effort is very good. He works hard to find the ball and pursue. He's not afraid to sacrifice his body to get into the mix. Fights hard to split the double team.
Intangibles: No off the field issues to our knowledge. One of five children. Reportedly has a strong work ethic and passion for game.
I think Brockers, and where he is selected, will prove to be one of the 2012 draft's major storylines. There's no question that the kid is a first-round pick - our panel of scouts has slotted him anywhere from fifth to 21st - and that's where I'm slotting him on our pre-draft "little board." The question is: where in the first round he'll be chosen. Check out the organizations that invited Brockers for pre-draft interviews: he has meetings set up with teams picking in the top ten (Tampa Bay, at # 5; St. Louis at # 6; Jacksonville at # 7 and Miami at # 8) and with squads slated to pick at the end of the round (Cincinnati, with the 17th and 21st picks; Tennessee, at # 20; New England, who sits at 27 and 31). And, there, in the middle, sit the Cowboys.
Although I think Dallas would like to pick a defensive lineman in round one, I'm not sure a newly-conservative organization, with an aging group of core veterans, will pull the trigger on such a high risk/ high reward proposition at the 14th pick. In order to have a chance at a Super Bowl run before Tony Romo is too old to lead it, they have to hit on every first and second day pick they make. As a result, even though I think Brockers will be another Richard Seymour, I suspect the Cowboys brass will pass, even if the other D-line candidates, Cox and Poe, are off the board. Part of me hopes I'm wrong....
Next up: Mississippi State DT-DE Fletcher Cox