SMU defensive end Margus Hunt began his career as a successful track athlete, capturing gold medals in the shot put and the discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships (he was the first athlete ever to win gold in both events). He initially came to SMU to train with legendary track coach Dave 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.
To put it baldly, Hunt is an extraordinary athletic specimen. Three years ago, many BTB members were championing Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, citing his combination of production and off-the-charts measurables. In terms of raw athleticism, Hunt outstrips Watt; even at his arm length, he can bench press 225 pounds 35 times. 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 list of college football's athletic "freaks."
Once a gridder, Hunt quickly made a name on special teams (over his Mustang career, he has blocked 17 kicks, one short of the NCAA record) as he slowly learned the nuances of the game. Apparently, it was slow going; despite playing in 13 games in 2009, he recorded just eight total tackles. In 2010, his production enjoyed a significant jump, as he notched 45 tackles (6.5 for loss) and three sacks. Hunt's playmaking would increase as a junior (7.5 TFLs, including 3 sacks) and senior (11.5 TFLs, 8 sacks). That said, his last two seasons haven't shown the level of improvement that scouts might have envisioned after his first two campaigns.
The 6'7", 288 pound Hunt boasts terrific size, with a huge 82" wingspan and amazing strength, power and explosiveness. He uses his long arms to keep offensive linemen at bay and can shed and close quickly. That said, his hand placement leaves much to be desired, so rival blockers often stay engaged with him far too long. He doesn't play with power and too often finds himself off balance and thus out of the play. Want evidence of this in action? Here he is in Conference USA action against in-state rivals TCU and Texas A&M (from 2011) and butting heads with Fresno State's offensive goons last season.
What does our panel of scouts extraordinaire think of Hunt as a prospect? Funny you should ask, as I've got them on speed dial...
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 6th-rated DE; 41st overall
Pass Rush Skills: Average overall pass rusher on tape but the flashes are tough to ignore. Massive frame with long arms to keep OL off his pads (when hands are used properly). Shows straight-line explosiveness as a pass rusher. Has room to improve his hands but doing a better job now than earlier in career, especially with slap and rip moves. Impressive straight-line closing burst to track quarterbacks down from behind. Saw big improvement with speed-to-power moves in last two tapes of his career (Tulsa and Fresno St.), which is a promising sign. However, instincts and savvy as a pass rusher are lacking, and he has poor lateral agility. He takes too long executing double moves. Snap anticipation needs work, as well. Have seen him jump offside multiple times during 2012 tape study.
Versus Run: Wide base and above average pad level considering height. Has very long arms and good upper body strength. Shoots hands inside and presses blockers inside. Hands aren't as violent as they could be and takes too long to get off some blocks sometimes, but flashes the ability to stack and shed in time to make the play. Strong drag-down tackler. Very mechanical when trying to redirect and chase. Misses too many tackles in space but he does have very good speed to pursue from behind.
Versatility: Effective interior pass rusher with experience lining up inside. Capable of playing DE in a base three-man front (like the one he played in at SMU) and/or LDE in a 4-3 base scheme. Has some experience dropping and length/straight-line speed are assets in underneath coverage, but his biggest weakness is change-of-direction skills so asking him to take snaps as a 34 OLB is likely a mistake. Exceptional value on special teams because of his kick blocking skills. Those skills will translate to the NFL.
Instincts/ Motor: Can play with even more of an edge but doesn't gear down when teams commit two blockers to him or back down when offensive linemen get into his face at the end of the play. Above average effort rushing the passer and scraping down the line as a run defender.
Intangibles: Over-aged prospect; will be 26 years old at start of 2013 NFL season. Quick learner with above average work ethic. Hometown is listed as Karksi-Nuia, Estonia. Had never played football before SMU and it took a year for football coaches got him to participate in a tryout. Has been enrolled at SMU since the fall of 2007, when he began training privately with track & field coach Dave Wollman. Won gold medals in both the shot and the discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, becoming the first junior athlete ever to win a shot/discus gold medal double. Has put track career on hold to focus on football.
CBSSports.com (Rob Rang): 9th-rated DE; 49th overall
Strengths: Certainly looks the part. Possesses a long, tapered build with room for additional muscle mass. Boasts a surprisingly quick first step and gains ground efficiently due to his long strides. Closes quickly on the ballcarrier due and can provide a thump on arrival. Naturally powerful defender who can simply bull-rush his opponent deep into the pocket. Big, strong and reasonably active hands to fight through blockers' attempts at grasping a hold of him. Good hand-eye coordination and times his leaps well to aid in his kick-blocking prowess. Has emerged as a player the offense must account for on virtually every snap and yet remains a better athlete than football player, which speaks to his exciting upside.
Weaknesses: Highly inconsistent. Has a tendency to make a splashy play and then disappear for long periods of the game. Struggles with pad level and can get blown off the ball against the run because he loses the leverage battle. Like a lot of taller defensive ends, Hunt is stiff in his upper body and he struggles to re-direct when attempting to break down and tackle agile ball-carriers. Can be eluded and has a tendency to lunge at ball-carriers as a result, leading to some ugly whiffs. Doesn't get his hands into passing windows as much as he should considering his height and kick-blocking prowess. Has only seven passes defended in 53 games. Inconsistent effort in downfield pursuit.
Compares to: Corey Wootton, DE, Chicago Bears -- Wootton was a productive player at Northwestern who slid on draft day due to injury concerns. Optimistic talent evaluators preached patience as Wootton had shown the length, power and surprising speed to be successful once he acclimated to the NFL and healed sufficiently. While the concern with Hunt lies with his relative inexperience and inconsistency, the team that gambles on Hunt could be similarly rewarded with a future standout.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 9th-rated DE; 127th overall
Positives: Rare frame. Long arms. Outstanding weight-room strength - bench pressed 225 pounds 38 times at the Combine and maintains 13.6 percent body fat. Can extend and stack the point. Good first-step quickness. Intriguing size-speed ratio - runs like a linebacker. Plays hard and competes. Very good backside effort production. Exceptional ability to block place kicks - towers over the line and has 34.5-inch vertical.
Negatives: Will be a 26-year-old rookie. Average instincts and feel for the game. Not girthy or brute strong to anchor. Plays too tall and narrow-based (gets outleveraged). Struggles to protect his legs. Needs to improve hand use. One-trick pony. Not a natural leverage player. Does not dominate physically and tape leaves you wanting more. Lackluster tackle production.
Summary: Native Estonian spent two years in the military, came to SMU recruited as a shot put and discus thrower before being recruited to walk on. Overaged, underdeveloped, still raw and developing base left end with sub-package inside rush potential. Age and durability (knee, shoulder) could affect draft status, but impressive workout in shorts is likely to command early attention. Better athlete than football player. Has warranted some TE-conversion discussion, similar to Tennessee` Titans fifth-rounder Taylor Thompson.
National Football Post (Russ Lande): 7th-rated DE; 78th overall
Strengths: Margus Hunt is a tremendously gifted athlete, possessing natural speed and power and ridiculous size for the position. He is an explosive player who flashes great speed on film. He has a very quick first step, and there is power behind it as well. When he knows exactly what to do, he can excel using a combination of speed, power and explosion. As a pass rusher, Hunt is at his best when he can quickly split gaps and bend the edge around the corner through contact. As a run stopper, he has great ability to hold his ground and make plays, as well as the ability to beat linemen through a gap with his quick get off and disrupt a play before it gets started. Hunt can pursue with his great speed and has excellent closing speed. Throughout his career at SMU, he has been used in a variety of ways and schemes and has decent positional versatility going forward. He is a fiery competitor and plays whistle to whistle and throughout his career at SMU he has shown good durability.
Weaknesses: There are really no weaknesses to speak of when it comes to Hunt's athleticism and agility. There is room for Hunt to add weight as he does have a slender frame. Hunt is too reliant on the speed rush as there is very little power rush in his game. While he possesses a reasonable variety of pass rush moves for a newer player, they are all about speed and the rip move. He doesn't use his hands while rushing the passer as he wants to run past the lineman he is facing. He plays too high and stops his feet, playing without leverage with his pads far too high. When playing without leverage, he looks like a very average player and athlete. Hunt looks lost at times without great instincts, and it causes him to overrun plays and get too far up the field. Teams will take advantage of his aggression by running the ball right at him at the next level. He lacks awareness and instincts and has trouble diagnosing the run versus the pass. For a big man with great overall athletic tools, he tackles like a smaller player, rarely making great contact. While Hunt can close on the ball, he doesn't attack the ball carrier when he tackles and he isn't physical in this aspect of the game.
Summary: Hunt is a gifted athlete who possesses great speed, agility and explosiveness. This was fully on display during the 2013 NFL combine, but a big question arises when we compare his play during actual football games as opposed to his workout in Indianapolis. Hunt flashes great speed on tape and can really get up the field to rush the passer, but he is overly reliant on his speed at this time, ignoring the bull rush almost entirely. He is quick enough to split a gap with a subtle lateral move, but he is limited with his hand usage and loses power at the line of scrimmage when he allows his pad level to get too high. When he doesn't play with good leverage, he looks like an average athlete without any elite traits at all. Hunt is remarkably gifted when he knows exactly what is happening with the play, and this explains why he has blocked as many kicks as he has. When there isn't anything else to do but block the kick, Hunt has the explosive first step and finishing speed to split the gap and get to the ball. However, it leads to his lack of instincts because Hunt has trouble diagnosing run versus pass and it slows him as an athlete. There are too many instances of Hunt disappearing during games, and he simply needs to be more productive if he is to match his elite athletic tools to his production. While he has great physical power, there are times when he plays like a much smaller player as he doesn't use his hands with power and is not a powerful tackler. Currently, his production on the field doesn't match his workout, but he has great potential to grow into a productive player down the road. Teams must understand that his development will take time. However, I have no doubt that some teams that run a 3-4 defensive scheme will fall in love with Hunt's freaky athleticism to select him higher than this grade reflects. When considering his incredible athletic upside combined with his current shortcomings on the field, a late second-round or early third-round grade is warranted.
Hunt has as much upside as any player in the draft: he's long, strong and capable of amazing athletic feats. After four years as a collegian, however, he remains a better athlete than football player, and is still learning how to play the game. As a consequence, Hunt ranks as one of the bigger boom-or-bust prospects in this draft. This is evident in our scouts' evaluations; they have slotted him anywhere from the 41st pick (early second round) to the 127th selection (late fourth round). All it takes is one team to fall in love with his potential to push his actual draft spot closer to 41, so I'm inclined to move him in that direction and place him in the late second/ early third round.
But here's the rub: I can't figure out how he might fit into the Cowboys plans. Above, I compared him to the Texans' J.J. Watt, who currently stands as the leagues' prototypical five technique. Hunt's build and game seem similarly suited to the 3-4 defensive end spot. This is further compounded by the other DEs in Dallas' orbit, be they on the roster or prospective draftees, all of whom hover around 250 pounds. I suppose he could be a strongside end, but Hunt seems an odd fit.
My conclusion? The team's real interest in him is nominal. As a local prospect, he was extended a "kick the tires" invitation, but won't be high on the Cowboys board and, as a result, isn't likely to be on their roster in 2013 and beyond. I'll leave him on my little board, but I'm writing his name in pencil, not in ink.
Next up: UConn OLB Sio Moore