Our draft prospects series remains in the middle of the defense with this look at Alabama DE-OLB Courtney Upshaw who, in 2011, was clearly one of the premier pass-rushers college football. Upshaw was an impact defender on the country's best defense and an integral part of 'Bama's National Championship run. For his efforts, Upshaw was given an entire trophy case full of awards: first-team All-American by the multiple organizations; finalist for the Lombardi Award, which goes to the nation's best linebacker or interior lineman, as well as the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's best linebacker.
The much-heralded Upshaw finished second in the SEC with 17 tackles for loss and led the team with 8.5 sacks, which gave him 16.5 for his college career. He also recorded a team-high 11 quarterback hurries. To add to this a bit, Upshaw posted at least one sack in five of his last seven games and the Crimson Tide coaching staff named him Defensive Player of the Week five times in 11 games. And he plays bigger in big games; in Alabama's 49-7 thrashing of Michigan State in the 2010 Capital One Bowl, Upshaw was voted MVP after a pair of sacks, five tackles (three for a loss) and a forced fumble. Here's a long set of cutups, from the 2011 season, and here he playing in the National Championship Game against LSU. As these clips attest, Upshaw is often dominant on the field, demonstrating terrific instincts and an uncommon awareness for draws, screens, counters and reverses.
The real head-scratcher with Upshaw is: what position will he play in the pros? He's a classic "tweener" - too small to hold up as a defensive end, and not quick enough to win match-ups as an outside linebacker. Some pundits claim he's best suited to inside linebacker. At the Combine, he seemed to be answering the question himself, showing up at a robust (and 4-3 DE-like) 279 pounds. Perhaps as a result, he struggled in the change-of-direction and linebacker-specific position drills, particularly when dropping back into coverage. Wanna see? Here's his incomplete Combine workout; at the last minute, he opted not to run the forty or to participate in the jumping drills.
In response, draftniks the world over began to point out Upshaw's slow first step, claiming that he was too slow to play linebacker in the NFL. At the Tide's April 7 pro day, Upshaw offered only a lukewarm rebuttal, running his two forties in the high 4.7's and low 4.8's, and looking stiff-hipped and athletically limited during positional drills. This leaves scouts analyzing Upshaw's game with a lot to process: stellar tape, a ringing endorsement from 'Bama coach Nick Saban, evidence of a slow get-off, superb play against the then top-ranked team in the nation, and evidence of athletic limitations. It looks like we have another enigmatic pick; clearly, this is the 2012 draft's dominant theme.
Would you take Upshaw wiht the 14th pick in the draft? Before answering that, see what our panel of scouts has to say...
National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 2nd-rated OLB; 25th overall
Overview: A physically imposing put together linebacker/defensive end hybrid who will stand up and play with his hand on the ground. Displays only average straight-line speed when asked to close from the backside. However, is quicker/more coordinated than fast in tight areas and gets up to speed quickly. Generates a lot of natural power on contact as a tackler. Is shorter armed however, but has a snap through his hips into contact and consistently exhibits the power to strike and wrap off his frame. Reads and reacts well in space, deciphers information quickly and doesn't take many false steps trying to find the ball.
He doesn't get much depth in his drop vs. the pass game. Is coordinated and keeps his feet under him, but is tighter in the hips and isn't going to hold up at the next level in space or man consistently.
Is extremely violent/powerful with his hands when attacking downhill. Consistently is able to take on blocks, disengage and make his way toward the football vs. both the run and pass game. Is at his best as a pass rusher standing up. Looks more sudden/shifty laterally off the ball from a two point stance and can win with power on his bull rush, with his hands or side step a block and fight through contact. Plays down in most nickel situations and when run at has the power to anchor at the point vs. SEC offensive tackles. Is violent/coordinated when asked to shed, has a good motor and can disengage consistently and make plays off his frame. Isn't as natural a pass rusher with his hand down at this stage. Is a bit inconsistent getting off the snap on time and is more of a power player only. Does a nice job sitting into his stance, keeping his base down off the football and generating leverage for himself vs. the bull rush. But doesn't do a great job suddenly changing directions and shedding when engaged. Loves to work the club/rip when trying to reach the corner both when down and standing up, can keep himself clean and works hard to close, but again displays only an average burst in pursuit.
Impression: I like him as a 34 outside backer who can play on the strong side, take on linemen at the point and also rush the passer. He's at his best attacking downhill, using his strong hands to disengage and always is around the football. Looks like a year one starter to me at the next level with scheme versatility.
CBS Sports (Rob Rang): 2nd-rated OLB; 22nd overall
Read and react: Essentially asked to pin his ears back and rush the passer as a weak-side defensive end in the Tide's scheme, though he shows enough play recognition to project as a linebacker. Feels screens coming and locates the running back.
Run defense: More stout at the point of attack when run at than you'd expect, given his lack of ideal size as a hybrid defensive end in Bama's scheme. Plays with excellent pad level and has very good upper- and lower-body strength to anchor. Uses his impressive swim move and quick, heavy hands to slap away the blocker's attempts at getting into his chest, showing the ability to disengage quickly. Good lateral agility to slip past the blocker and set the edge. Unselfish player. Good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit.
Pass defense: Didn't drop in coverage often. Has surprising fluidity when he does and keeps his head on a swivel. Reads eyes and breaks on the ball quickly, showing good agility for his height/weight. Might not be able to do this full time, meaning his future is at inside linebacker.
Tackling: This is the area in which scouts from 4-3 teams will want to see more from Upshaw -- little film of him tackling in the open field. Has the lateral agility and balance when breaking down in tight quarters to tackle elusive ballcarriers. Good upper-body strength. Capable of slowing the momentum of the ball carrier with one arm while simultaneously engaged with a blocker. Good effort and speed in pursuit. Physical, explosive tackler who can make the intimidating hit.
Pass rush: One of his best traits. Possesses a good burst off the snap and has an effective a swim move as you'll see in college football. Adept at whipping either arm over the head of the blocker and twisting his body around his opponent to gain clearance with remarkable efficiency. Heavy, active hands which he uses to bat away the tackle's initial punch. Good lateral agility to elude and possesses good straight-line speed for the position. Has a legitimate burst to close on the quarterback and arrives with explosion.
Intangibles: Established "The 41 Fund" during the spring of 2011 to raise money for tornado victims. Was arrested for domestic assault for an August 2009 altercation on campus with his girlfriend, which police happened to be on hand to witness. The charges were ultimately dropped by both parties.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): top-rated OLB; 19th overall
Positives: Very strong, power-based edge-setter—presses the line and can jolt and even ragdoll blockers. Plays with consistent leverage. Can sort out play action and quickly locate the ball. Strong-handed to play off blocks. Drive-through, wrap tackler. Hits with power. Chases down backs from behind. Defensive tempo-setter—highly competitive and it shows. Runs to the ball. Extremely tough mentally and physically. Excellent weight-room strength and body power.
Negatives: Has small hands. Average arm length—can be engulfed by bigger blockers (and was swallowed in drills at the Senior Bowl). Is wound tightly and lacks ideal edge burst and acceleration to take the corner. Average agility and coverage range—labors to flip his hips and can be stressed by quick backs in space. Is best when he is turned loose with simple assignments and allowed to attack. Average Combine showing—appeared out of shape, turned off coaches with lack of urgency jogging between drills, was very late to react and transition in change of direction and opted not to run. Character requires some scrutiny. Average booksmarts.
Summary: A very thickly-built, high-intensity, power-leverage rusher best with his hand in the ground moving forward. Is not as athletic as LaMarr Woodley but could best fit a similar type of role as an intimidating 3-4 rush linebacker.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 3rd-rated DE; 17th overall
Pass Rush Skills: Needs to be more consistent with snap awareness, Flashes good take-off speed to beat the OT to the point, but is not consistent enough in this area and will never have elite first-step quickness. Appears more natural and quicker off ball when standing up. Does not show sudden change-of-direction skills as a pass rusher. Usually wins with combination of power, leverage, hands and motor. Attacks the OT with good leverage and keeps him off balance with array of power moves. Shows quick and violent hands. Displays average torso flexibility. Shows above average closing burst when he gets a beat on the QB and will explode through contact.
Versus the run: Is short and occasionally gets engulfed by bigger blockers if reached. Dominates TEs at point of attack and does better than average job versus OT's for hybrid DE/OLB type. Displays good hand use, which allows him to keep separation from OT's for the most part. Plays with leverage. Is disciplined and almost always keeps outside contain. Also does a nice job of utilizing proper shoulder to take on blocks. Has quick, powerful hands to disengage in a hurry. Adequate tackling skills for position. Will leave feet and fall off some ball carries. But shows good closing burst for size and can make plays from behind. Is a heavy hitter. Can jar the ball loose (six FFs last two seasons). Plays hard and will make some effort plays in run pursuit.
Versatility: Played a hybrid DE/OLB role in college and has good experience both with his hand in dirt and standing up. Also has shown flashes of inside-rushing ability on tape. At his best when turned loose up the field (38-percent of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage). Most natural as a pass rusher when working in tight spaces Shows tightness in his hips and will be limited in coverage. However, shows balance and decent feet when dropping underneath in zone. Has some experience in short-area zone coverage but lacks good instincts. Will need work in order to hold up in occasional cover duty, if necessary (as SOLB in 3-4 scheme) in NFL.
Instincts/Motor: Physical, emotional player. Plays with a chip on his shoulder and can be downright nasty at times. Has a good overall motor. Loves to compete. Can be a quarter-count late locating the ball at times but is a naturally instinctive player who diagnoses plays at DE quicker than most. Does a nice job of sniffing out screens, reverses and draws. Plays with good scheme discipline and does not get caught out of position very often. Snap awareness needs improving, though. Jumped off-sides twice versus Mississippi State in 2011.
Intangibles: Hard worker. Team player. Was arrested in August of 2009 on charges of misdemeanor domestic violence/harassment. Coach Nick Saban speaks highly of Upshaw as a person, student and player, and he did not suspend Upshaw for this incident.
Here's a profile video from the fine folks at SBN:
Our panel is divided about where Upshaw will best fit as a pro (DE vs. OLB), but are unanimous in proclaiming him a first-round pick, with a narrow, eight-pick spread. You'll notice, however, that his range - picks 17-25 - falls after the Cowboys have picked, at # 14. Its certainly possible that they have rated Upshaw more highly that the amateurs above but, given his lack of elite athleticism or explosiveness, I think its more likely that he's a candidate should the Cowboys trade down in round one, as Stephen Jones recently suggested they might. So, I'll slot him as a strong trade-back candidate and no higher.
But... (and its a big but): rumors are starting to surface that Upshaw might not be selected in the first round, after all. Last week, Pro Football Weekly cited an NFL insider who said that he wouldn't take the former Tide star in the first round:
The more Courtney Upshaw talked (in the interview process), the more I got scared. He has a lot of distractions in his life. There are a lot of concerns there. We need an edge guy, but we wouldn't touch him in the first (round). I'd have hesitations in the second where we're picking, after hearing him talk about grabbing his girlfriend by the hair.
I don't think Upshaw's nearly dynamic enough to merit the fourteenth pick. I don't think he's rated in the right place to become a Cowboy. But you never know...If enough GMs feel about Upshaw as this mysterious source does, such that he were to fall to # 45? I'd probably dislocate my knee running his card to the podium.
Next up: Upshaw's defensive mate, CB Dre Kirkpatrick