Our look at the 2013 draft's positions of strength continues with the top DE/ OLB types expected to be available next April. I'll just come out and say it: there are a lot of good'uns on the draft horizon, which has to be welcome news in NFL circles, as 2012 was a down year for pass rushers (how else to explain Bruce Irvin being chosen with the 15th pick?). If you'll recall, the players at the head of the class - Melvin Ingram and Courtney Upshaw - were tweeners who, at 6'2", were shorter than ideal. The draftees who did have ideal size also came with motor issues or other red flags.
2013, on the other hand, boasts a cornucopia of ideal size-speed talents. This is great news for the Cowboys. In the post that kicked off this series, you may recall, I noted that the current NFL has five "Positions of Great Import" - positions at which its most desirable to have Pro Bowl caliber players. In the past three drafts, the Cowboys have acquired young blue-chip talent at three of these: WR, OT and CB. At the other two, they enjoy Pro Bowl caliber players in Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware; unfortunately, both of them are at an age where players' skills at their positions traditionally begin to decline.
Last Tuesday, Archie took a look at the available replacements for Romo in 2013. Here, we'll look at guys to help Ware for several years and, ideally, to replace him as the Cowboys' leading pass rusher somewhere down the road.
Who might be Ware's sidekick in 2013 and beyond? Prepare to be awed...and then make the jump!
Sam Montgomery, LSU (6'4", 245)
In 2011, it was difficult to stand out in LSU's stellar defense, but Sam Montgomery managed to do just that, leading the team with 9 sacks and racking up 49 tackles, 13.5 of which were TFLs. For his work, the rangy DE was the only LSU defensive lineman to be selected as a First-Team All-SEC selection (fellow Tigers Barkevious Mingo and Michael Brockers, who was picked 14th overall last April, were Second-Team).
The question for Dallas is whether or not Montgomery can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. I'd bet he can; although he hasn't dropped into coverage, he's a rare athlete with a solid build (and, at 245, the frame to add more weight), who plays the run with impressive power holding the point (watch him walk the Oregon tackle into the backfield in this video).
Although they also like Montgomery's active hands and non-stop motor, scouts note that Montgomery tends to get his pad level too high at times, which reduces his effectiveness against the run. Also, he needs to become a more consistent pass rusher; adding to his rolodex of moves wouldn't hurt. In spite of these deficiencies in his game, the LSU end is expected to be a consensus top-ten pick in the 2013 selection meeting.
Here's Montgomery in action against SEC rivals Alabama and Georgia:
Barkevious Mingo, LSU (6'4", 240)
Mongomery's running mate, Barkevious Mingo, is a sure-fire first-ballot candidate for the Hall of Name. Mingo shares Montgomery's length and lean frame; indeed, Mingo showed up in Baton Rouge as a 200 pound linebacker (imagine current Cowboys wideout Andre Holmes' body). However, now that he's filled out, he has improved strength to go with his explosive speed off the edge. As a pass rusher, he's a terror; although he was limited in 2011 to obvious passing downs, Mingo managed to pile up seven sacks and a team-high 15 tackles for loss.
This production is primarily the result of his off-the-charts speed and quicks; Mingo has been timed in the 4.5 range (and lower), has an electric first step and combines these desirable traits with a high motor. Because the situations in which he was on the field last season allowed him to pin his ears back and neglect the run, if opposing tackles hesitated for even a millisecond, they were toast.
That said, the fact that he figured largely as a situational pass rusher suggests that he doesn't have the requisite sand in his pants to hold up against the run. Indeed, this is the aspect of his game that he'll need to shore up to become an elite college DE/ OLB, and to be anything more than a one-down specialist at the NFL level. One wonders: might the league's premium on rushing the passer be such that he'll go in the first fifteen picks even if he doesn't improve against the run?
Here's Mingo playing in a big SEC match-up against #3 Arkansas:
Jarvis Jones, Georgia (6'2", 242)
Although he was all over the field for the Bulldogs last year (tallying 70 tackles, with 19.5 of them for loss, 13.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 pass breakups), and could have translated that into an early first-round draft slot, Jones opted to return to Georgia for his redshirt Junior season. As a result, he's very high on draftniks' radar; heading into the season, Mel Kiper has Jones as the second best draft-eligible prospect.
This is because Jones is a superb athlete, with an almost supernatural burst off the line of scrimmage, good lean and long arms. But he's not just a pass rusher; Jones is fierce against the run as well, playing with good leverage and laying the wood on opposing ballcarriers. Moreover, he's unlikely to struggle making the transition to 3-4 OLB; at FSU, Jones has already been asked drop into coverage and done so effectively.
Jones isn't perfect. He struggles to get off of blocks in the run game, is undersized and, like most of his peers, could use a more complete pass rush arsenal. Nevertheless, Jones is fast, smart and plays with a mean streak (which only serves to strengthen his resemblance to Steelers OLB James Harrison). Unless he suffers an injury or a significant drop-off in performance, he should be a top-ten pick.
Want more? Enjoy Jones facing off against SEC rivals Kentucky and Tennessee:
Jackson Jeffcoat (6'4", 250) and Alex Okafor (6'4", 260), Texas
Next up is another defensive end tandem, UT's Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor. As a junior, Okafor had 56 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 14 quarterback hurries, earning All-Big 12 first team honors. Scouts maintain that he projects well as a 3-4 outside linebacker. If he makes that transition, Okafor is probably best suited to the strong side, a la Anthony Spencer. As a DE in 2011, he played the strong side, lining up in both three-and four-point stances; in 2010, the Texas coaches lined him up at defensive tackle.
Thus it should not surprise that Okafor is very solid as a run defender. He holds his ground at the point of attack and does not get pushed around. In addition, he defends the perimeter well, playing with good technique. That said, the senior Longhorn's high draft status can be attributed to one quality: he's an accomplished pass rusher. Okafor's game features a blend of burst and power, and he deploys violent hands to get to rival quarterbacks.
Although he lacks Okafor's raw strength, Jeffcoat is the more athletic of the two players. Coming out of high school, some scouts claimed Jackson had the upside of a Julius Peppers. He certainly had the size and speed combination to warrant those claims. When rushing the passer, Jeffcoat shines, with a quick first step and terrific short-area quickness. Against the run, he breaks down well in space and uses his long arms to stack and shed, peeling off of blockers to wrap up opposing ballcarriers.
The son of former Cowboys DE and Texans DL coach Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson is, as might be expected, a polished player, using superb technique and hand placement. Like Okafor, he's versatile; he's played in three-and four-point stances, and has occasionally dropped into coverage as well (in particular against Oklahoma). That said, he has been streaky (although he racked up 7 sacks in 2011, he didn't register his first until the season's seventh game) and has an injury history that has put scouts on alert.
Here, Texas' dynamic duo goes up against Texas A&M's standout tackle tandem of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews (this is not Jeffcoat's finest hour):
Brandon Jenkins, Florida State (6'3", 265)
A local Tallahassee product, Jenkins currently ranks sixth on the Seminoles' all-time sacks list (with 21.5) and, with a productive senior season, could challenge Reinard Wilson's FSU career sack record. After spending his freshman year as a back-up, Jenkins finished third in the nation in sacks as a sophomore with 13.5, adding 21.5 tackles for loss. Jenkins' production took a dip last season as he finished with "only" 8.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss, both figures that led the team.
Jenkins plays with explosive burst off the snap, a quick first step and impressive acceleration. He demonstrates the desired bend coming around the corner - the mark of an elite pass rusher - uses a variety of moves to get to quarterbacks, and has a non-stop motor. Although he lacks prototypical DE size and struggles with instincts against the run, Jenkins plays with violent hand usage and has sufficient size to succeed as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the run game at the NFL level.
Here's some film on Jenkins from his stellar Sophomore campaign:
Best of the rest:
Sean Porter, Texas A&M: He's smallish for a 3-4 OLB (6'2", 230) but that didn't stop him from inviting comparisons to former Aggie Von Miller. Indeed, Porter has elite first-step quickness and bend. A proviso: A&M will be switching to a 4-3 defense, so it remains to be seen how much Porter will rush the passer in 2012.
Corey Lemonier*, DE, Auburn (6'4", 242): Lemonier, who plays DE for the Tigers, showed the ability to be a game-changing pass rusher in 2011, finishing with 9.5 of the team's 22 sacks.
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina (6'6", 260): Long, fast and strong, Taylor often rushes the passer from a three-point stance and drops into outside zones vs. the pass. Although Taylor can stack and shed and shows a good punch, he doesn't have an elite pass rushers' bend.
Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon (6'7", 246): My sleeper pick. His ridiculous speed (reports say he may run as fast as 4.4 in the 40-yard dash) and wingspan give him Jason Pierre-Paul-style upside. Needs to take on blockers rather than run around them.
Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford (6'4", 240): An OLB in Stanford's 3-4 scheme, Thomas was among NCAA leaders with 22 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2011. He also is adept at dropping into coverage. Needs to work on shedding blocks (he's working to gain weight and strength this offseason to do just that).
James Gayle, Virginia Tech (6'3", 256): Although he doesn't have ideal length, Gayle is strong and demonstrates natural burst and quickness off the edge, rushing the passer with flexibility and raw power. In fact, he relies too heavily on his quicks, and needs to hone his repertoire of pass rush moves.
As you can see, there's a lot of potential candidates, several of whom should be available even if the Cowboys pick late in the first round (which we all hope they do). Given the Cowboys need at the position, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see one (or more!) of these guys wearing the star in 2012.
Next up: a look at the 3-4 DEs available in the 2013 draft.