Our tour of Cowboys draft prospects stays in the defensive front seven, but shifts back one position group, to outside linebacker. We'll look at a couple of them before moving on to the defensive backfield. The first of these is Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis. Lewis is an early-entry junior who, as an undersized college defensive end (he's 6'2", 253), will almost certainly be moved outside linebacker in the NFL. Indeed, 3-4 teams have been sniffing around his door of late, with the Cowboys and Steelers being two of the principal sniffers.
Lewis has already ably negotiated one transition - from eight-man high school football to a big-time BCS football program. At OU, he was moved around the lineup a bit, playing several front-seven positions before settling in at defensive end in 2011. As an end, he wreaked a havoc in rival Big 12 backfields, finishing the season with thirteen tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks. As one scout has opined, Lewis played "like a wild animal chasing his last meal, especially when in pursuit of a quarterback." To see Lewis in his native habitat, check out this greatest hits compilation. Want more? Here he is in action against Texas in last year's Red River rivalry game, and against Florida State.
As these videos indicate, Lewis brings a load (he was nicknamed "The Hammer" by teammates for the way hits). In addition, he's strong enough against the run to hold the edge, and can shed blocks and get to the ball. He also has a little burst to his game, with sufficient speed to run down ball carriers to the outside. His athleticism was certainly on display at the Combine, where he registered a 4.68 forty and pressed a position-best 36 reps at 225 pounds (his 4.00 short shuttle score also lead all linebackers.
The downside? A paltry 31-inch vertical jump, which might doom him against more explosive NFL players. Other negatives include some immaturity issues - Lewis struggled with his class work to the degree that he was suspended at the end of last season for academic reasons - and a slight injury history, in 2010, Lewis had minor knee surgery, causing him to miss two games and suffered a slight neck injury in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
That's a lot for the Dallas braintrust to digest on one candidate. Let's see what our collection of draft analysts have to say about Lewis and his game. After the jump, of course...
National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 7th-rated OLB; 70th overall
What I like: The guy has a passion for the game. He will play special teams, loves contact and the game is important to him. Exhibits a good motor when working toward the football and doesn't take many plays off in any aspect of the game. Exhibits an impressive first step, reaches top end speed quickly and his combination of speed, size and power makes him one of the most violent strikers in the country. Is a good wrap up guy as well when asked to close. Showcases "plus" range from the backside and uses his length well to wrap while bringing his legs through contact. Coils up into his stance well as a down defensive end. Keeps his base under him, takes a positive first step off the snap and eats up a lot of green quickly. Exhibits the first step to routinely threaten the edge and quickly gets on top of opposing tackles. Understands how to use his hands in order to gain leverage on the edge. Loves to work in inside rip and has the power and balance to fend off tackles trying to push him well past the play. Demonstrates "plus" closing speed when working back around the corner and creates a lot of his pressure off second effort. Has developed a better feel off the snap setting up his outside speed rush with an inside jab step and using his hands to stay clean and accelerate toward the corner. Is coordinated enough to stand-up from a two-point stance and rush off the edge as a 34 guy. Is versatile and will be on both 34 and 43 team's draft boards. Showcases the ability to keep his pad level down, maintain balance and shoot his way through the "C" gap initially off the snap, working his way through contact. Gets his hands up quickly vs. the run game, can sit into his stance and locates the ball well when trying to fend off contact. Is patient from the backside. Closes the back door well and showcases some suddenness when trying to keep himself clean with his footwork avoiding blocks.
What I don't like: He's never been that productive as a pass rusher, finishing 2011 with only 5.5 sacks. His pass-rushing arsenal is limited. Looks more like a linear athlete who doesn't understand how to use his hands to counter off his speed rush yet. Looks tighter when trying to turn the corner. Struggles to really dip his shoulder and bend with ease, gets upright and has a tough time taking a clean angle past opposing tackles. There isn't a ton of sudden lateral quickness to his game as a pass rusher when trying to side step blocks. Will extend his arms at times, but I don't a real naturally quick athlete. Looks a bit tight in his drop when asked to hold his own in coverage. Doesn't keep his base under him or sink his hips. Plays upright and needs a step to collect himself before changing directions. Isn't a great anchor player vs. the run, can be worked backward at the point vs. even college tight ends. Does have some character concerns off the field as he really struggled with academic eligibility during his time at Oklahoma
Impression: Possesses an impressive physical/athletic skill set, a "plus" motor and a real passion for the game. I don't think he's ever going to be a top end pass rusher in the NFL. However, as a 6-8 sack guy long term who can help out on special teams and give you all he has play in and play out, I think he warrants a second round type grade.
CBS Sports (Dane Brugler): 8th-rated OLB; 65th overall
Pass rush: A very good athlete who plays fast and accelerates quickly upfield. Plays with fluid quickness and sharp footwork. Struggles to shed once engaged and plays with very predictable hand use. Doesn't flash many secondary pass rush moves and has unrefined mechanics as a pass rusher -- can't simply rely on his natural ability at the next level.
Run defense: Keeps his eyes up and quickly locates the ball with good patience and overall awareness. Needs to develop better pre-snap recognition skills and anticipation. Plays hard on every snap, doing a nice job not giving up on the play and making tackles downfield in pursuit. Limited against the run at the line of scrimmage with a suspect base and overall anchor.
Explosion: Not a quick-twitch or sudden player and lacks an explosive first step with an inconsistent get-off. Possesses smooth change of direction skills and can make plays in any direction. Doesn't always play with the competitive fire teams seek in a pass rusher.
Strength: Naturally strong and always looking to finish. Plays physical and violent with aggressive hand use. Doesn't have great growth potential and might be maxed out physically.
Tackling: Reliable tackler in small areas. Strong hands to secure tackles and knock the ball out of the ballcarrier's grasp. Tight-hipped and will miss tackles in space.
Intangibles: Has a lot of raw ability and overall upside for the next level. Had only 14 starts at the collegiate level with underwhelming production. Never led the Sooners in tackles, tackles for loss or sacks. Undersized to play with his hand on the ground and might be limited to specific schemes -- lacks a natural position and was used in various spots over his collegiate career. Has some maturity and character concerns, not leaving Oklahoma on great terms and struggling with academics throughout his career -- was suspended for the bowl game this past season due to poor grades and was told by the coaching staff that he was better off moving on and going pro.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 4th-rated OLB; 42nd overall
Positives: Thick, compact and strong—bench-press reps (36) paced linebackers and were comparable to those of top defensive tackles. Athletic. Plays fast—flushed QBs and has edge burst to get home for sacks. Flashes quick hands to protect himself and play off blocks. Has shock in his punch. Redirects, accelerates and closes hard. Arrives with bad intentions. Violent striking ability. Operated from two- and three-point stance. Stands out on kickoff coverage—has a knack and can be an ace. Has a passion for the game.
Negatives: Lacks ideal height and has small hands. Has tweener traits. Raw—still developing instincts. Is not a natural pass rusher—does not display much variety or sophistication. Shows some stiffness in his hips and upper body. Gives ground vs. double-teams. Undisciplined. Can be short-circuited if asked to process too much. Needed Combine drills explained in extra detail. Has a 31-inch vertical jump and average agility. Average sack production. Marginal intelligence. Personal character and durability needs to be investigated.
Summary: Has very intriguing quickness, burst and edge-setting strength to excel as a leverage rusher for an aggressive odd front used by a team like the Packers, Steelers or Ravens where he can be allowed to pin his ears back and attack upfield. Could have diminished value for even fronts as a situational pass rusher. Minimally will make an impact as a hammer in special-teams coverage. Will be best with simplified assignments, and character concerns invite some risk.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 2nd-rated OLB; 45th overall
Instincts/Recognition: Instincts are adequate but have room for development. Generally finds and reacts to the ball well. Flashes playmaking instincts and will finish plays. Possesses above-average awareness as pass rusher and will go for the strip when closing from behind. However, he can get caught peeking inside and lose edge contain. Also can be a split second late recognizing screens out of the backfield.
Take-on Skills: On one hand he possesses a wide base and plays with balance. However, lacks and elite frame and has room for development in terms of strength in the upper body. Can get engulfed by more massive blockers in a phone booth when aligned with his hand down in a traditional DE position. Absorbs blocks well in space and does a nice job of using hands to disengage. Also flashes ability to slip blocks in space.
Range vs. Run: Overall movement skills are adequate for position. Displays some tightness when having to make a sudden change of direction. However, possesses above-average speed when pointed in the right direction and closes quickly when in pursuit.
Tackling: Area of strength. A strong wrap up tackler that possesses a wide base and brings his hips though upon contact. Flashes ability to deliver a heavy hit and halt runners' momentum. Also can deliver a violent strike when lining target up on the move. Will have some limitations when caught in one-on-one situations in space due to tightness.
3rd Down Capabilities: Best attribute here is pass rush ability. Possesses good first step quickness and can establish initial position. Also uses head-and-shoulder moves well to set up offensive tackles. Lacks elite torso flexibility to dip and shave the corners. However, can dip his inside shoulder and get underneath offensive tackles' pads. Flashes ability to generate push with power moves but lacks prototypical finish strength and power at this point. Possesses a relentless motor as a pass rusher and gives great second effort. Displays enough fluidity to spot drop and hold up in underneath coverage but will have limitations if matched up in man coverage.
Intangibles: Hard worker and a tone setter both on the field and during practice. Nicknamed 'The Hammer" by teammates due to his intensity on the field. No off-the-incidents we are currently aware of.
These media scouts are neatly divided on Lewis; two have him as a mid-second rounder, and two as an early third-rounder. But, although they disagree by 28 picks, mid-second to early third is still a fairly tight range. And it seems that he's both a good fit for Dallas and a player in whom the Cowboys are legitimately interested. The question is: when might they take him. If the above draftniks' assessments are at all accurate, he'll come off the board as early as the Cowboys second round pick, but is likely to be snatched up by the time the draft rolls around to the 81st pick.
Will they spend their second-rounder on Lewis? I doubt it, honestly. I think they're hoping for one of two scenarios: 1) someone on their board with a first-round grade falls to # 45; 2) the second best guard in the draft is sitting there. Neither of those scenarios includes Lewis. Because I'm confident, that, in a weak pass rush draft, Lewis will be taken earlier rather than later, I'm going to slot him in round two on my "little board" - but I'm going to cross my fingers that he lasts until Dallas is on the clock in round three.
They took an athletic former Sooner in round three last year, and that worked out alright. Can history repeat itself? I think I'll cross my toes as well, just in case...
Next up: Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw