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Cowboys Draft Prospects: Christian Ballard

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As the draft draws tantalizingly near, we near the very end of our extended series on players who were invited to Valley Ranch for interviews earlier this month. Our second-to-last-profile looks at Iowa defensive end/ tackle Christian Ballard, who started in 39 straight games for Iowa over the past three seasons at both tackle and end. Ballard started his Hawkeyes career as a tight end but moved to defense as a freshman and eventually wound up playing inside as well. After his 2010 campaign, he received all-Big Ten honorable mention honors (no small feat in a conference populated by the likes of J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Heyward, Corey Liuget, and Adrian Clayborn) after notching 54 tackles--with 9.5 TFLs--and 5.5 sacks.

The 6-4, 283 pound Ballard's wing span and athleticism have made him an intriguing draft prospect. His long arms and quickness allow him to win battles at the line of scrimmage. In Senior Bowl practices, he wowed scouts in one-on-one drills by using an explosive first step to blow by offensive linemen. His explosion was verified at the Combine, where he registered a Combine best (for DEs) 31.5-inch vertical--although he gave disappointing performances on his other tets. At Iowa's pro day, he did a great deal to make up for this, running a 4.70 forty, a 4.56 short shuttle and a 7.23 three cone-drill in addition to impressive 34-inch vertical and 9-7 broad jumps. His performance left no question that he has top-flight measurable.

At the same time, his game tape is probably that of a third-rounder. When the whistle blows, Ballard doesn't dominate the way his raw athletic ability suggests he should, and he struggles to make impact plays. Take a look at this highlight video or his work against Wisconsin (in both I was struck by how many plays safety Tyler Sash was making--but that's a discussion for another time). Another factor that might mitigate his impressive athleticism is that scouts will have to determine what position Ballard's best suited for in the pros. In the Wisconsin video, you can see him lining up at both tackle and strongside end. On one hand, such positional versatility is a valuable commodity; on the other, it can also cause scouts to categorize Ballard as a man without a position.

Perhaps because of this uncertainty, only a couple teams other than Dallas--the Ravens and Bills--invited Ballard in for a pre-draft visit. You'll note that these teams run 3-4 defenses; I think Ballard's position at the pro level is going to be at the 5-technique (3-4 DE). So, it wouldn't surprise me if other 3-4 defenses had him on their boards as well. Before we speculate about what this might mean, lets take a look (after the jump) at what scouting types have to say about Ballard and his game:

National Football Post (Wes Bunting) 11th-rated DE; 65th overall

A tall, long-armed prospect with a really explosive first step. Has the ability to consistently fire off the football, gain leverage and work his way into the backfield as a bull rush guy. However, allows his pad level to get upright when changing directions and can be pushed past the pocket once he gains a step. Isn't a real natural pass rusher, flashes at times some lateral quickness, but doesn't use his hands well enough to consistently shed through contact and gets hung up too easily inside. But is the caliber of athlete who quickly regains his balance and instantly can close on the football. Exhibits a good feel when asked to shoot gaps up the field, plays off blocks well, uses his length to keep himself clean and really has a strong upper body. Showcases a good motor inside and even when his initial get off burst is stalled, he's very coordinated fighting his way toward the football. Loves to spin away from blocks and just exhibits a real powerful element to his game in everything he does. Rarely stays blocked for long.

However, needs to do a better job getting his hands up initially into blocks vs. the run game. Too often allows opposing lineman to get into his frame off the snap. Now, has the kind of power to begin to start extending his arms and play off the block. But, can easily be knocked off balance vs. any kind of double inside when run at and get cleared away from the play. Possesses only average anchor strength at the point of attack and can be pushed past the play when he doesn't locate the football quickly off the snap.

Impression: A long, gifted athlete who runs well in pursuit and has the ability to play the run as an end in either a 34 or 43 front. Isn't a real natural pass rusher, gets upright too quickly and doesn't know how to use his hands yet, but has some upside to his game.

The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 8th-rated DE; 24th overall

Against the run: Shows the strength to hold his ground at the point of attack and can make the tackle on runs at him. Tends to play upright and high at times, which leads to him being tied up and ridden out of the play by the offensive lineman. Has good playing speed and an explosive closing burst to finish plays in backside pursuit.

Pass rush: Has consistently shown the ability to defeat one-on-one pass blocks. Can threaten the corner and uses his hands well to stay free from the offensive tackle. Has developed a wide variety of pass-rush moves, which helps him to consistently pressure the quarterback.

Initial quickness: Is consistently quick off the ball and has the first-step explosiveness to threaten the edge. Does a good job of using his hands to keep the offensive tackle from getting a hold of him so that he can get on edge and shows ability to turn corner if he can stay free from blocker to the turn-point. Shows the agility to change directions quickly.

Run/pass recognition: Is a smart and aware defender who consistently reads and reacts to the play quickly and does not get fooled by trick plays or misdirection. Gets moving quickly at the snap of the ball. Does not get sucked down the line of scrimmage by runs away from him and does a good job of maintaining backside contain.

Pursuit/tackling
: Is productive chasing down the ballcarrier and making plays in pursuit. Does a good job of making sure the play is going away before accelerating down the line of scrimmage, and has the explosive closing burst to finish the play in pursuit. Flashes the ability to bend his knees and drive up into the ballcarrier to make the hard hit.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) 4th-rated DT; 32nd overall

Positives: Has long arms and large hands. Athletic, flexible mover. Outstanding foot speed. Explosive, short-area burst. Flashes disruptive ability—can shoot gaps and work edges. Outstanding speed and lateral pursuit—ranges to make plays. Redirects and flattens down the line. Hits with thump. Has versatility to play inside or outside. Intriguing measurables and upside. Flashed big-time ability in one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl—can bend, strike and run and was difficult to block.

Negatives: Lacks sheer mass, needs to improve upper-body strength and is not stout at the point. Inconsistent and has underachiever traits. Too often disappears. Does not have a defensive demeanor or show any nasty in his play. Takes plays off and does not breathe fire. Instincts are lacking. Late to feel pressure. Underdeveloped pass rusher. Plays short-armed and needs to refine hand use—does not rip off blocks. Inconsistent pad level. Gives ground against double-teams. Can protect his legs better. Ordinary production despite playing on a talented defensive line.

Summary: Raw, versatile, athletic, light-footed big man with athletic ability that cannot be taught. Possesses the speed and quickness to thrive as a three-technique in a one-gapping, 4-3 scheme, but the light has yet to come on and inconsistent motor, head-scratching production and deficient instincts are worrisome. Could be a better pro than college player if he dedicates himself and learns how to unleash the power in his body.

ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton) 8th-rated DT; 49th overall

Versus the Run: Has good initial quickness to gain positioning. Can jar OL initially but lacks ideal upper body strength to steer OL after initial contact. Has short arms (33.5') and small hands (10') for size. Does a good job of stacking initially but needs quicker diagnose and shed. Once free, he has very good range. Is quick and fast for size. Good athlete. Closes quickly and shows pop at point of attack. Will track some RB's down in backside pursuit (see: 11:31 remaining 1st QTR vs. WISC 2010)

Pass Rush Skills
: Fires off the ball with good first-step quickness and consistently generates initial penetration as an interior pass rusher. Lacks ideal awareness and instincts as a pass rusher. Does not show a lot of counter moves if OL establishes initial positioning and locks on. Will give up versus double-team too easily, as well. Lacks the speed to be more than a power-rusher on perimeter. Production was only adequate in this area. Notched 8.5 sacks in last two seasons primarily at DT but only three came in 2010.

Quickness (hands/feet): Excellent quickness and lateral agility for his size. Fires off the ball quickly and can change directions smoothly for a big guy. Hands are quick enough but not violent. Flashes good swim move but not polished with rip, club, etc.

Toughness/Motor: Motor is adequate but not ideal. He gives great effort on some occasions, good effort on most occasions but sometimes will mail it in. Iowa DL are on the field more than most starting DL at bigger programs but it still factors into his bottom line. Lack of natural instincts and diagnostic skills are what worry us most about his transition to NFL. Has physical tools to play versatile role but does he have the FBI's to handle mentally? And is he instinctive enough to develop into a playmaker? On tape, he is frequently late finding the ball and he takes the bait on too many counters, misdirections, play-actions, etc.

Intangibles: Mature, hard worker. No off the field issues to our knowledge.

These reports indicate that Ballard certainly has the tools to succeed at the next level. The burning question is: how eager is he to apply them consistently?--several of these evaluations note that his motor runs hot and cold. This is in accord with the assessment with which I opened: that he's got first round measurables and third-round tape. As a result, I'd slot him somewhere in the second round--which seems to be precisely the range the above scouts have placed him.

But wait: reports have recently surfaced that Ballard tested positive for marijuana at the Combine. Now, a prospect projected to go as early as the second round is likely to fall--but how far? I suspect some teams have taken him off their boards and others have left him where he was. As a result, some team will seize him by the late second, if not before. I'm not taking him at pick # 40--that's just too high for a player with an inconsistent motor and an (admittedly brief) history of knuckleheadery.

I'll slot him in the top of the third round, where Dallas has the 71st pick.

Next up: Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt