Every NFL draft is different. Each year has its particular collection of deep (and shallow) positions, a natural fluctuation that can nonetheless impact draft position: when a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that players at these strong positions will fall. When pursued over the long term, therefore, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value. And, in recent years, the Cowboys appear to have pursued this strategy, targeting players at deep positions, with the thought that they can accrue value by doing so.
That's why it can be of benefit to begin studying the various collegians at these deep positions. In this series, we are taking a longer look at the top candidates at the 2015 selection meeting's perceived positions of strength: running back, quarterback, defensive end, inside linebacker. Last time around, we offered a list of quarterbacks for your perusal; today, it's the defensive ends, a position the Cowboys have been chasing for about three years now. And, just because they drafted DeMarcus Lawrence and Ben Gardner in the 2014 draft doesn't mean they won't spend another high pick on a top-flight pass rusher next spring.
As is usually the case, most of the best prospects are juniors. That doesn't mean that all the good'uns are also young'uns, though. Our list is dotted with excellent senior candidates. Also, please note that I have included several players who will be projected as 3-4 OLBs in the Pros, with the idea that the Kiffinelli system values quickness over size, and could conceivably draft a 6-2, 240 pound defensive end if he had Von Miller's get-off. Along those lines, I haven't included bigger DEs like USC's Leonard Williams or Florida State's Mario Edwards, Jr., because they project as 5-techniques or 4-3 defensive tackles (I would love to see either of those fellows line up at DT in this system for the Cowboys)
Note: Juniors are designated with an *
*Randy Gregory, Nebraska (6-6, 245)
In 2013, his first season at Nebraska after starting his career at a community college, Gregory immediately went into beast mode, notching 66 tackles (with a whopping 19 for loss) and 10.5 sacks, one pass batted and an interception. But Gregory's game is not all about speed; he boasts enough strength to shed blocks, and is an excellent pursuit defender with terrific agility and alarming closing speed. Check out these highlights to see his evident athleticism:
Although he lines up at defensive end for the Huskers, Gregory is more than athletic enough to play 3-4 outside linebacker at the NFL level. As one pundit put it, "Pass rushers of Gregory's size and ability don't last long on draft weekend." He has the traits to be a top-10 pick.
*Shalique Calhoun, Michigan St. (6-4, 257)
After a nondescript freshman year, Calhoun broke out as a sophomore in 2013, establishing himself as one of the top players on Michigan State's superb defense, racking up 37 tackles (14 tackles for loss), 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception, adding three scores. For his efforts, he was rewarded with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Calhoun has a nice burst off the edge and the agility to get into the backfield; his quickness is particularly evident on stunts. Plus, he plays with good leverage, given his length, and has an underrated initial punch. Spartan scouts praise him for his disciplined approach, something that should appeal to Jason Garrett. Take a look at Calhoun's skill set here, as he destroys South Florida:
Calhoun should be even better as a junior in 2014 after a year of starting experience and developing his body in the offseason. He possesses sufficient size to intrigue 4-3 teams and enough quickness for 3-4 teams to place him high on their boards.
Vic Beasley, Clemson (6-2, 235)
Beasley is probably the top pass rusher in the upcoming draft; the reason he's not rated higher here is because of his size, which will relegate him to playing OLB or filling a Bruce Irvin-style pass rush specialist role in the NFL. Indeed, in Beasley's breakout sophomore season in 2012, he was a situational pass-rusher who made only 14 total tackles - but eight of them were sacks. In 2013, Beasley assumed a starting role, and registered 41 tackles (a staggering 23 for loss) and 13 sacks, batted down six passes, forced four fumbles and had a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Beasley has explosive burst off the snap, incredible body control, and excellent closing speed. But he also boasts surprising upper body strength and leg drive, pushing opposing OTs onto their heels with a bull rush. On the other hand, he struggles against the run, not only because he lacks the bulk to anchor and set the edge, but also because he seems to lose track of plays and takes bad angles.
Beasley may be a one-trick pony, but he's really, really good at that one trick - and it's a trick that is valued highly by NFL clubs. Because of that, expect him to be selected in the top half of round one - most likely by a 3-4 team.
*Devonte Fields, TCU (6-4, 240)
As a freshman in 2012, Fields took the Big XII by storm, tallying 53 tackles (an impressive 18.5 for loss), ten sacks, four passes batted, two forced fumbles and an interception, garnering First-Team All-Conference and the Big XII Freshman of the Year laurels. He also was voted as the best defensive player in the conference by the media. As a sophomore, however, he recorded a mere four tackles in two games before injuring his foot and undergoing season-ending surgery.
Hungry? Here are some delicious highlights from Fields' explosive freshman campaign:
As this tape shows, Fields is a freakish athlete with tremendous upside, showing off great quickness and, most importantly, the skill to dip around the corner and close in a hurry. As a pass rusher, he can spin, chop his feet and stop and start quickly. In addition, he's athletic enough to drop back into coverage if required. On the downside, he might not fit the Cowboys "RKG" requirements; Fields was suspended for the 2013 season opener against LSU, and Frogs' head coach Gary Patterson openly criticized Fields' performance in spring practice.
After falling off the radar a bit in 2013, Fields will have the chance to build upon a 10-sack season two years ago. Some scouts think he can be a top-five player if he regains his old dynamic form.
Markus Golden, Missouri (6-3, 260)
In 2013, his first year in Columbia, Golden, a former junior college transfer, served as a backup to future NFLers Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, recording 55 tackles (13 for loss), 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown against Toledo.
Golden is an outstanding athlete who demonstrates great burst and good edge speed. He's got a real nose for the ball and plays with a relentless, non-stop motor, Plus, he's versatile; he can play with his hand in the dirt as well as standing up and all along the line of scrimmage. Last year, he often kicked inside, and showed he could hold off two blockers. Check out his 2013 highlights:
With Ealy and Sam off the NFL, 2014 could be a breakthrough year for Golden. I've heard several scouting types say he may be the best pass rusher in the SEC next season. If that proves true, he'll go early in the 2015 draft.
*Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida (6-2, 261)
As a rotational backup in 2012, Fowler logged 30 tackles (eight for loss) and 2.5 sacks. He was one of the top recruits in the nation and could be poised for a huge junior season. In 2013, Fowler racked up 50 tackles (10.5 TFL), 3.5 sacks, one pass batted and three forced fumbles. And coaches claim he was more disruptive than the numbers indicate.
The sophomore also played well against good competition, as you can see in this video of an early-season game against Tennessee and their two NFL-caliber offensive tackles:
As you can see on tape, Fowler is extremely quick for a 270-pound man; although he has the bulk to play defensive end, he's athletic enough to play OLB at the NFL level. He is an explosive athlete, getting off the line with impressive burst. In addition, he exhibits good range and flexibility. He could be in line for a breakout season.
Best of the Rest
*Noah Spence, Ohio St. (6-3, 252)
After spending the 2012 season as a backup, Spence jumped into a starting role in 2013, collecting 52 tackles (14.5 for a loss), a team-leading eight sacks, one forced fumble and two passes broken up. He might not be a Jason Garrett favorite, however; Spence was suspended for three games, including the Orange Bowl against Clemson, after testing positive for the drug ecstasy.
On the plus side, Spence offers an intriguing blend of size, agility, and the speed off the edge to beat opposing O-linemen at the snap. Plus, he has a lot of natural strength. However, he can lose ground when rival blockers lock onto him. A college defensive end, Spence will need to play with better strength and leverage at the point of attack to play DE as a pro.
Alvin Dupree, Kentucky (6-4, 267)
Dupree has been one of the top seven or eight pass-rushers in the SEC for the past two years. After a solid freshman debut (21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, two passes broken up and a blocked kick) Dupree broke out in 2012, tallying 91 tackles (12.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks. In 2013, he added 61 tackles (nine TFL) with seven sacks, and two forced fumbles.
Dupree is a quick, strong and physical defender who boasts a long, athletic frame, a quick burst off the snap, and good lateral agility. He is excellent chasing the ball, pursuing ballcarriers with passion. On the downside, he can be over-powered when blockers get into his chest, which makes him a more likely 3-4 OLB than a 4-3 DE at the NFL level.
Cedrick Reed, Texas (6-6, 258)
Like Dupree, Reed broke through in 2013. After a 1.5 sack season in 2012, he piled up 68 tackles (17.5 for loss), ten sacks, four passes batted and five forced fumbles, taking home Second Team All-Big 12 honors.
Reed has the look of a strongside 4-3 end, with good length, size, and the ability to hold up well at the point of attack. He also possesses a revving motor and strong football character. Like many of the SDE candidates in the '14 draft, can be moved around the line of scrimmage to create matchup problems. He lacks elite quickness, however, and doesn't play as powerfully or physically as his body suggests he might. He also needs to work on developing his pass rush arsenal.
*Shawn Oakman, Baylor (6-9, 275)
Oakman started his career with a redshirt year at Penn State, and then sat out the 2012 season after transferring to Baylor. In 2013, in his first season of college football, Oakman totaled 33 tackles (12.5 TFL), two sacks and two forced fumbles. What intrigues scouts is that he was more disruptive than these numbers indicate, with plenty of room to grow.
Speaking of growth, Oakman is extremely long (perhaps too much so), with a massive, powerful frame; indeed his best NFL position might well be a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense. That said, he demonstrates a surprising combination of burst and quickness. Simply put, a player with his size shouldn't be able to move as quickly as he does. So, although he is raw and needs a lot of development, his pure athletic ability will keep scouts watching closely.
Trey Flowers, Arkansas (6-4, 267)
Over the past three seasons (26 starts), Flowers has been a steady contributor for the Razorbacks. After chipping in 28 tackles and a sack as a freshman in 2011, Flowers had 50 tackles and six sacks as a sophomore. In 2013, he broke out, totaling 44 tackles (13.5 TFL), five sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception and two passes batted - enough to garner Second-Team All-SEC honors. He has 32 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in his Razorback career.
Flowers has the size and length of a prototypical right DE, with a thick base that allows him to hold the point against the running game. He has strong hands and uses them very well, shedding and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. That said, he has below-average burst, lateral agility and flexibility, shortcomings that are evident when he tries to get around the edge or to chase down a play along the line of scrimmage.
*Kyler Fackrell, Utah St. (6-4, 245)
As a freshman in 2012, Fackrell enjoyed a solid campaign, with 87 tackles (eight for loss), seven quarterback hurries, three sacks and three pass breakups. The following season, he earned second-team all-Mountain West honors after finishing with 82 stops (13 TFL) five sacks and two forced fumbles. Thanks to a 99-yard pick six against Hawaii last year, he ranks tied for ninth all-time in Utah State history with 125 career interception return yards.
Fackrell is a college linebacker with the frame to transition to defensive end in the pros. He is extremely athletic, fast, and physical. More important for NFL scouts, he's a skilled pass rusher with a variety of moves.
*Jordan Jenkins, Georgia (6-2, 246)
Like Fackrell, Jenkins is a college linebacker with sufficient size to transition to 4-3 end in the Cowboys' system, which values quickness over size. After a freshman year in which he registered 31 tackles (8 TFL) five sacks, and a forced fumble while mainly in a backup role, Jenkins was expected to step into the recently-departed Jarvis Jones' shoes as the Seminoles' primary pass rusher.
In 2013, Jenkins had a solid but unspectacular season, with 45 tackles (12 for loss), four sacks, and a forced fumble. Still, scouts expect him to bounce back, as Jenkins radiates talent; he's super fast, plays with good awareness and displays enough power to stack and shed. If he harnesses his ability, expect to hear his name called early in the 2015 selection meeting.
In case you missed a previous post in this series, you can look them up here: