Watching the playoffs last season, I was struck by several weaknesses on the Cowboys' roster that the teams in the tournament could boast as strengths. Foremost among these was the lack of a pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end, or "five technique" on the Dallas roster. The general mediocrity of the Cowboys defensive ends was made chillingly clear when watching the likes of San Francisco's Justin Smith and Houston's J. J. Watt wreak havoc, collapsing the pocket and getting their hands in signal callers' faces. Here, on the screen, were five techniques with games that I didn't recognize form watching my favorite team.
A 3-4 DE who can also generate pressure (a "pressure five") can make life a heckuva lot easier for his fellow pass rushing outside linebackers. He can participate in stunts and other games; he can angle inside, collapsing the pocket from the guard's outside shoulder; he can take the tackle outside, creating mismatches by forcing a tight end or running back to take on the OLB on that side. Although Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore and 2012 draftee Tyrone Crawford show a modicum of potential, none of Dallas' current defensive ends - and particularly not veterans Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman - can be understood as pressure fives.
And I think the Dallas brass knows this. In 2011 and 2012 drafts, they had opportunities to pickup top-rated pressure fives (in 2011, it was Watt; in 2012, they could have made a play for either Fletcher Cox or Michael Brockers) but, in both instances, opted for players at other positions, leaving the position bereft of a three-down difference maker. Thankfully, the 2013 selection meeting will once again present an opportunity for our Beloved 'Boys to add a pass rushing defensive end.
Who might these candidates be? Make the jump to find out...
Before we move on to the likely lads, a quick proviso: five techniques are drawn from the ranks of big (strong side) defensive ends and smaller (or quicker) defensive tackles. In the list I've compiled, I tried to find some of each, and have labeled each accordingly. Also, notice that there is a glut of players form Big Ten schools. This is not without precedent; recall the rich crop of five techniques in 2011, many of whom were from the Big Ten: Watt (Wisconsin); Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue); Adrian Claiborne and Christian Ballard (Iowa) and Cam Heyward (Ohio St.). I suspect that, because the Big Ten doesn't value speedy linemen as does the SEC, its teams collect bigger players and/ or encourage them to bulk up over their college careers.
Margus Hunt, DE, SMU 6'7", 288
Leading off this list is SMU defensive end Margus Hunt, an extraordinary athletic specimen. Two years ago, many BTB members were championing Watt, citing his combination of production and off-the-charts measureables. In terms of raw athleticism, Hunt outstrips Watt; he boasts terrific size, with a huge 82" wingspan and amazing strength and power. With his arm length, he can bench press 225 pounds 35 times (and SMU track coach Dave Wollman, who brought Hunt to SMU, predicts that Hunt will hit 45 reps at the combine next year). In addition, he's been timed at 4.6 in the forty. These and other numbers earned him the Number one ranking CBSSports.com's annual list of college football's athletic "freaks."
Hunt, from Estonia, began his career as a successful track athlete, capturing gold medals in the shot put and the discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships, the first athlete ever to win gold in both events. He initially came to SMU to train with Wollman, who had mentored another decorated discus thrower from Estonia. Since SMU has no track team, and thus no scholarships, Wollman figured Hunt's size and athleticism might interest Mustangs' football coach June Jones. Indeed, after Hunt destroyed a couple of blocking sleds and ran a 4.70 40 during a tryout, Jones snapped him up.
That move has paid off nicely; Hunt had 7.5 tackles for loss last season, including a breakout three-sack performance in SMU's bowl win over Pitt (see video of that game below). Hunt is very raw, and might not jump right into a starting role on an NFL defense. However, he'll provide immediate impact on special teams. Hunt has blocked 14 kicks in three years at SMU; with four more this year, he'll break the NCAA record for combined blocked kicks in a career.
As promised, here's Hunt in action against Pittsburgh, which was probably the best game of his collegiate career:
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State 6"4", 272
Werner, like Hunt, was born overseas (in Germany) and, as a result, is comparatively raw, but with tremendous upside. Werner came to America as an exchange student and fell in love with the football, then spent the next few years shuttling back and forth between Germany and the States, accruing two years of high school ball, which was enough to get him a scholarship offer from Florida State.
Werner is a tall strong side defensive end who could easily transition to the five technique. He is stout against the run, playing with tremendous leverage and power, and often is seen driving his opponent backwards, causing pileups behind the line of scrimmage. Moreover, he has good foot quickness and balance, which allows him to change directions smoothly as he chases down ballcarriers and quarterbacks alike.
The German import saw limited action as a true freshman back-up in 2010 with 20 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He was named one of the team MVPs the following spring and earned a starting job at left defensive end. Last season, he broke through, finishing with 11.0 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks, just behind Brandon Jenkins, his All-World DE running mate, for the team lead in both categories.
Werner played his best games when it counted most. Here he is facing off against Oklahoma:
If he continues on his current trajectory, Werner could be joining Patriots second-rounder Sebastian Vollmer as high-drafted German-born players on the NFL rolls, a development sure to make O.C.C. very proud.
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue 6'3", 310
Purdue Boilermakers defensive tackle Kawann Short has been a productive and disruptive player throughout his collegiate career. In 2011, he first-team All-Conference honors after registering career-highs in tackles (54), TFLs (17) and sacks (6.5). Short is built like a nose guard, although he doesn't play like one. He has a thick, wide frame, and plays with excellent strength (he squats over 600 pounds, bench presses in the 400s) and leverage.
That said, he is no mere run-plugger; Short has good hands and nimble feet (he was a standout basketball player as a prep) that allow him to shed blocks and change direction quickly. In the running game, he explodes through the line and splits blockers to make plays. Sadly, he's not as strong against the pass; although he flashes some pass rush moves, and a strong bull rush, Short is never going to beat offensive tackles with speed to the edge.
He will, however, collect effort sacks, thanks to a high motor that will allow him to maximize his opportunities. In addition, there are two other reasons I think he might be a good fit in Dallas: he an "RKG" (Short is a two-time team captain and a leader in the weight room) and is scheme-diverse player capable of kicking inside when the Cowboys go to a four-man line. Here he is in action against Illinois:
Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State, 6'4", 317
While fellow Buckeye D-lineman John Simon has garnered much of the attention this spring, Hankins is the one scouts drool over, after a sophomore campaign in which he finished fourth on the team with 67 total tackles along with three sacks and 11 TFLs. All season long, Hankins was a nightmare for opponents to block, living in the opponent's backfield and constantly demanding double teams.
Hankins has rare size, strength and athleticism. He gets off the ball quickly using his tremendous size and upper body strength to gain leverage and shed blocks quickly, using sound technique. He has rare quickness for his size (some reports list him at 330 pounds), which has prompted comparisons with 2012 Combine darling and first rounder Dontari Poe. A key difference is that Hankins shows consistent effort.
Like Poe, Hankins' value stems from his scheme diversity. Although he plays in a 4-3 scheme in college he has the size to anchor an NFL line in a 3-4 scheme as well, and promises to follow in the footsteps of big five techniques like Haloti Ngata, Poe and B.J. Raji. What do they all have in common? They all went in the first twelve picks.
Hankins can be seen competing against the Fighting Illini here:
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State 6'6", 278
We stay in the Big Ten with Michigan State's Gholston, the cousin of the former sixth pick in the draft (and subsequent bust) Vernon Gholston. As a redshirt sophomore, William enjoyed a breakout 2011 campaign during which he led Spartan defensive linemen with 70 tackles, 16 TFLs, a forced fumble and 5 sacks, which caught enough eyes to earn second team All-Big Ten laurels from several organizations.
Gholston is an imposing physical specimen who flashed first-round athleticism in 2011. He is strong, with a prototypical NFL frame and long arms to ward off opposing blockers. He's physical at the point of attack, stymieing opposing blockers. That said, he needs to polish his technique, needs to show a higher motor, and lacks an elite upfield burst required of 4-3 ends. That said, his length and strength make him an intriguing candidate as a five-technique capable of setting the edge for a 3-4 defense, and he has the physical tools to become a successful pass rusher.
Want to see Gholston in action? Here he is versus Big 10 rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota
Best of the Rest:
Malliciah Goodman, Clemson 6'4", 280: At 280 pounds, Goodman isn't the quickest or most explosive rusher off the edge, but he possesses raw athleticism, works hard to the pocket and has the strength to handle blockers in one-on-one situations. If he can elevate his statistics as a senior, look for Goodman to improve his draft stock, which is currently in the mid-round range.
Datone Jones, UCLA 6'4", 275: Blessed with size and speed and upside, Jones is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in the Pac-12, having logged snaps at both tackle and end. A broken foot robbed him of his 2010 season; once healthy in 2011, however, Jones really came on, especially late in the season, leading the Bruins with 6.5 TFLs and 3 sacks.
Cassius Marsh, DT/ DE, UCLA 6'3", 290: A former top-50 high school recruit, Jones's running mate Marsh is a good candidate to emerge in 2012. He possesses good power and leverage, pad level, hands, quickness, aggression and a good motor. All he needs now is to put it all together.
John Simon, Ohio State 6'2", 270: Number 5 on the "all- freak" list, Simon may be the nation's strongest defensive lineman pound-for-pound. He has benched 225 pounds 38 times, timed a 4.6 40 and broad jumped more than 10 feet. Plus, he brings a high level of intensity to everything he does, both in the weight room (where he is the clear team leader) and on the field. The real question is: at his size, where will he play in the NFL?
Bennie Logan, DT, LSU 6'3", 288: Playing on LSU's loaded defensive line, Logan managed to register 51 tackles, including 5 TFLS, and 2 sacks in 2011. This year, many pundits expect him to break out, becoming perhaps the SEC's best defensive tackle. He doesn't have prototypical NFL size for the position; if he can hone his pass rush, however he could become a top candidate at 3-4 end.
Sharrif Floyd, DE/ DT Florida 6'3", 301: Similar to 2012 first rounder Fletcher Cox, Floyd can be productive all over the defensive front, be it as a penetrator or a two-gap anchor. His strength allows him to collapse the pocket, even from DE where he was able to overpower offensive tackles, and he has more than enough first step quickness to get into the backfield as a three-technique. Like Marsh, all he needs to do is put it all together in 2012.
Sheldon Richardson, Missouri, 6'4", 295: Richardson was a 5-star recruit who couldn't matriculate due to poor grades. After two years at a JuCo, he returned to Mizzou in 2011 and, after an adjustment period, tore it up in the second half of the season. In his last seven games, Richardson, had 19.5 tackles, 6 TFLs, and was a disruptive force, commanding double teams and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. All he requires is experience.
The pass-rushing DT/ five technique appears to be a position so much in demand, and so high in the draft, that very few productive players return for their redshirt junior or senior seasons. As a result, many of the above candidates populate this list based on potential more than production. Nevertheless, a handful of them will be breathlessly discussed as potential game-changers next March and April, when the draft's hype machine is in full force.
The real question is: which of these guys will be the real deal? What do you think, BTBers? Who's this group;'s J. J. Watt? Who is its Vernon Gholston?