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Cowboys Draft Prospects: Martez Wilson

Martez Wilson shows of his superb athleticism during a Combine drill
Martez Wilson shows of his superb athleticism during a Combine drill

Our final look at the bevy of linebackers who were invited to Valley Ranch is reserved for Illinois' Martez Wilson. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is widely acclaimed as the top-ranked inside linebacker in the draft. Wilson was a three-year starter; as a freshman and sophomore, he played outside linebacker, then shifted inside for his junior, seasons. His first attempt at a junior campaign was curtailed by injury almost before it began. In the season opener against Missouri, Wilson was having a superb game before suffering a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery and sidelined him for the majority of his junior campaign. After receiving a medical exemption, he returned in 2010, leading the Illini in tackles, adding 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles, four quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, an interception, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick (I know, right?)--and then finished it off by playing out of his mind in Illinois' 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.

WIlson is a deluxe athlete: he's built like a prototype and can mix it up inside but also has the necessary height, arm length and explosiveness (with superb 36-inch vertical and 10-4 broad jump figures) to play outside in a 3-4. Moreover, he can run like a deer, notching an attention-getting 4.44 forty at the Combine. In Indianapolis, he also showed off his strength (bench pressing 225 pounds 23 times) and quickness (with a 4.28 short shuttle and a 7.04 three-cone drill). Here's a video of his impressive combine workout. All his terrific work at the Combine was curtailed somewhat during Wilson's disappointing pro day, where he appeared stiff, demonstrated bad footwork and poor hands--and apparently came across as if he didn't want to be there.

His pro day results should not surprise; Wilson reads as a bit of a workout warrior, whose game doesn't measure up to his extrordinary raw athleticism. While he's definitely got an NFL body and elite tools, his instincts and technique appear to be middling. This combination of traits is on diplay in videos of games against Ohio State, Mizzou, and Penn St. In watching these, I was immediately struck by how often he took missteps as plays developed and how easily he was moved back at the point of attack. On the other hand, look at this acceleration as he chases down and sacks Ohio St. QB Terelle Pryor (at the 1:00 mark of the OSU video).

Apparently this disparity in his game served to intrigue several NFL teams; in addition to the Cowboys, Wilson scheduled pre-draft visits with the Ravens, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Jets, and Titans. Given his injury history, its not surprising that so many teams want more information--and an opportunity for their team doctors to check him out. Moreover, he seems to be the kind of supremely talented player with decent tape who will divide a warroom--so the more teams can learn about him, the better. Before we speculate abut Dallas' interest, let's see what our top draftniks think of Wilson, after the jump...

National Football Post (Wes Bunting) 4th-rated ILB 37th overall

A tall, high cut linebacker who possesses a broad set of shoulders but looks really thin through the lower half with a skinny pair of legs. Has a long set of arms and good overall closing range in pursuit. Possesses a solid feel inside keying off blocks, reading his run keys and finding the football inside. Isn't a real physical tackler, doesn't display a real snap through the hips on contact, but breaks down well and knows how to wrap on the play. Displays good short-area quickness in tight areas, has the ability to use his length to slip blocks and keep himself clean when trying to beat slide down blocks toward the edge. Showcases a solid work rate from the backside and closes well in pursuit. However, struggles to consistently stack and shed inside. Is easily washed out of plays when you can get into him and struggles to fight off blocks and disengage vs. the downhill run game.

Exhibits some unique talents when asked to blitz from the inside and has some natural pass-rush ability. Looks comfortable using his length in order to keep himself clean, is shifty when asked to work the inside move and has a real savvy as a pass rusher. Was used toward the end of the year as a rush linebacker off the edge and was extremely productive closing on the football from the backside, threatening the edge and forcing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket. Looks more comfortable rushing the passer from the inside where he can use his quickness to side step blocks, is a bit stiff and high off the edge when trying to turn the corner.

Displays above-average fluidity for a guy with his build, has the ability to open up his hips and generate a burst out of his breaks when asked to close in coverage. Isn't real comfortable with his footwork, seems to just bounce upright off the ball and doesn't get much depth in his drop. However, displays a solid feel in zone coverage reading his pass keys underneath and has the ability to hold up in man as well, closing quickly on the football and driving on the throw.

Missed the 2009 season after suffering a herniated disc in his neck and will need to check out medically.

Impression: A long, V-cut linebacker who doesn't seem to have the lower body girth to hold up inside. However, he has some range in pursuit, reads his run keys well and exhibits some pass-rush ability. Could get some long looks as a potential 3-4 rush guy as well as strong side back in a 4-3.

The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 5th-rated ILB; 59th overall

Strengths: Has excellent size and arm length for the position at the NFL level. Is an explosive, straight-line athlete with excellent closing burst and acceleration on a straight-ahead track. Has good overall playing instincts and awareness with outstanding production as a run defender and part-time pass rusher. Has strong hands, upper body strength and big-hit ability as a tackler. Shows the ability to rush from either inside or on the edge of the formation.

Weaknesses: Does not consistently wrap up and ends up on the ground too often. Is a marginal tackler on the move in space. Has average power on contact, dropping to his knees at times. Is a liability in man-to-man coverage due to his poor transition skills. Has durability issues.

Bottom line: Wilson started two years for the Fighting Illini, but missed the entire 2009 season due to a neck injury. He'll show the competitiveness in camp to try and gain a starting spot and will be a core special teams member as well. Wilson fits best in a 3-4 defense, where he can even be considered to play on the outside as well.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) top-rated ILB; 61st overall

Positives: Body beautiful. Looks every bit the part with vines for arms and a chiseled physique—maintains less than eight percent body fat. Athletic with intriguing size-speed ratio. Strong-handed. Punishing hitter with explosive striking ability. Outstanding straight-line sped and deceptive burst to close when he sees it. Flashes ability to pressure the edge as a blitzer. Good hands. Tested well at the Combine—was the fastest linebacker (clocked as low as 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash), recorded 10-yard amrks comparable to cornerbacks, vertical-leaped 36 inches and broad-jumped 10 feet, 6 inches.

Negatives: Not a natural inside ‘backer. Raw instincts. Slow trigger—eyes and instincts still developing. Does not play to timed speed. Too tight-hipped and straight-linish. Plays tall and narrow-based and is too easily engaged between the tackles. Takes questionable angles. Not physical taking on blocks and can be mauled at the point. Most of his production is uncontested, and struggles with movement coming at him. Needs to improve hand use. Too much body stiffness. Lateral quickness is just adequate. Not fluid or agile to shadow backs. Can play with more urgency. Character and durability need to be investigated.

Summery: Raw, long-limbed, high-cut, sinewy physical specimen who will be considerably overdrafted on measurables. Possesses moldable tools and significant upside if his instincts and football sense ever catch up with his natural ability. Straight-line, high-collision banger with predatory closing speed who also could warrant interest as a rush linebacker.

ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton) 5th-rated OLB; 73rd overall

Instincts/Recognition: Shows above average instincts against the run. Reads keys and locates ball quickly. Keeps head up and can adjust when ball carrier changes course. Below average awareness in coverage and gets caught in no-man's land too much. Can bite on play action and get spun around. Gets caught peeking into the backfield and loses track of receivers when drops into zone.

Strength/Toughness: Downhill run stopper that doesn't shy away from contact. Meets lead blockers and backs in the hole. Strong upper body and ability to post up offensive linemen allows him to track the ball once engaged. Flashes the ability to stack and shed in time to make plays at the line of scrimmage. Plays too upright and concerned about ability to protect legs from cut blocks. Endurance could be an issue. Appears to wear down at times.

Range vs. Run: Above-average straight-line speed and sideline-to-sideline player when he's fresh. However, there is some stiffness in hips. Will struggle to redirect and get into sound tackling position when over pursues.

: Effective wrap-up tackler between the tackles but can whiff trying to deliver the big hit in space. Doesn't always keep head on downfield side of ball carrier.

3rd Down Capabilities: Powerful pass rusher that flashes the ability to run over backs in the backfield. Closes well and can deliver the big hit when gets to the quarterback. Active hands. Effective slap to swim. Has experience lining up on the outside and can rush off the edge but didn't show the ability to dip and bend back inside. No urgency in drops and could get to depth quicker in zone coverage. Can jam and run with tight ends but lacks ideal man-to-man cover skills.

: 2008: Suspended for the season finale (Northwestern) for violating team rules. Stabbed in back outside Champaign bar at 2 A.M. in December. Reportedly coming to the aid of a former teammate and head coach Ron Zook said that Wilson did the right thing at the time.

I'm highly skeptical about Wilson's ability to withstand the rigors 3-4 inside linebacker. On the other hand, he seems like the very definition of a 3-4 OLB. The problem for Dallas is that his natural position seems to be the one currently manned by DeMarcus Ware: weakside rush linebacker. Assuming Ware stays healthy for the next few years (fingers and toes all tightly crossed), and the fact that he usually takes about ten plays off per season, how much return might the Cowboys get from such an investment?

More worrisome is that Wilson comes across as the classic scout's conundrum: do you draft him where his plentiful athletic upside falls--somewhere in round one--or where his college tape lies--somewhere in round three? Most of these scouts seem to lean toward the latter, placing him at the end of the second round or beginning of the third. Because I'm particularly concerned about Dallas' history of drafting athletic specimens who aren't particularly good players, I'm inclined to follow suit. 

I'll slot Wilson at the top of the third round, where the Cowboys currently sit with the 71st pick, with the hope that a player with a high second round grade is still on the board at the same time. Let Wilson become some other scout's conundrum.

Next up: Hampton DT Kendrick Ellis

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