The NFL Draft is fast approaching, so let's continue with my series on "hybrid" player-types among this year's draft prospects. I talked about the development and evolution of the "Joker Tight End" and the "H-Back" in parts one and two, but now I'll shift to the defensive side of the football.
Defenses are changing, too. Now, there's a shift that has seen hybrid 3-4/4-3s and defenses dominated by nickel and dime packages. The "base" 4-3 or 3-4 is almost a misnomer these days because of all the different packages defensive coordinators will throw out on any given down. The defensive nickelback is pretty much its own position now and the lines between defensive ends and defensive tackles have blurred a bit. It's harder to project where a player might go because of all the different things any of these schemes might ask from them.
For instance, in 2011, marking the first time it had happened in NFL history, Justin Smith was named All Pro at both defensive tackle and defensive end, and the venerable DE/DT accomplished that feat again in 2012. How does that happen? Well, technically speaking, he plays both positions. He's a defensive end for the Niners in their base 3-4 looks but kicks inside to defensive tackle in their nickel packages and dominates in both. It's no secret that he's among the best overall players in the NFL and his versatility and ability to play both "outside" at the 5-technique and on the interior at 1- and 3-technique is a big reason the Niners' have so much success.
Start Smith out at 5-technique in a base look, then slide him in to a 2-technique position, nearly on the inside shoulder of the offensive guard, and boy, it makes things hard on the opposing defensive line.
Then, say, the very next play, start Smith out in almost a wide-9 technique look and watch him just abuse your opponent's left tackle.
Smith's main specialty, of course, is just a simple bull-rush. I don't know how a 284 pound guy overpowers so many bigger offensive linemen, but he does. He's just country strong, I guess. See him push the left guard right into Sam Bradford below, disrupting Bradford's timing and footwork as he looks to step into his throw. This affects his accuracy and he misses long, deep.
Of course, every team is looking for the next Justin Smith, and I'd be remiss if I failed to mention J.J. Watt, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who plays a similar role. Watt racked up 20.5 sacks in 2012 and played all over the Texas defensive line, "starting" as a 5-technique defensive end but seeing a lot of action on the interior as well. There are many other examples of this type of "hybrid" or "tweener" type player throughout the NFL, but Smith and Watt seem to be the most dominant two, albeit in similar ways and on differing ends of their careers.
So, as teams look to find "the next J.J. Watt" or "the next Justin Smith," which players in this year's Draft possess the qualities that scouts look for in that fairly broad job description? There are probably many, but I have a few in mind. When I ask myself these types of questions, typically I'll go back and take a look at some of the measurables and scouting reports for a now-elite player like Watt, and see what he did at the Combine and what was being said about him coming out of school. At worst, it gives you a baseline.
Watt measured in at 6'5, 290 with 34" arms and comically big 11 1/4" hands. He ran the 40 in 4.84, put up 34 reps on bench, registered a 37" vert and a 120" broad jump, and ran a nice clean 6.88 in the 3-cone and a 4.21 in the short shuttle. Here's an interesting nugget from Doug Farrar, on Watt, after he was picked by the Texans:
"Players like Watt are in a "right place/right time" scenario with the upswing in hybrid fronts (3-4 to 4-3 and back) and the increased need for defensive linemen who can alternate between penetrating past guards at defensive tackle and stopping the run at five-tech end. Half a decade ago, Watt may have been relegated to a straight three-tech position that really didn't fit him (think Adam Carriker with the Rams), but he's now got a lot more options at his disposal."
Well put. Also, first off, sorry, but there's really no one in this year's Draft like Watt. In addition to his freak-of-natureness physically, Watt was/is also very intelligent, had/has a high motor, and did/does possess very high character and drive. He is/was the total package and the price of the 11th overall pick now seems like a steal.
Now, that said, let's make some comparisons. If there's one player in this year's Draft that has a similar style as Watt and may play a similar role as Watt in the NFL, it's UCLA's Datone Jones. Mind you, I'm not saying Jones is the next J.J. Watt (really, I'm not), only that he might be used in a similar manner by a team looking for a "hybrid" type of DT/DE.
Datone Jones, UCLA
Jones measured in at the Combine at 6'4, 284 pounds with 32 3/4" arms, 10" hands, and ran the 40 in 4.75 seconds, the short shuttle in 4.32 seconds, the 3-cone in 7.32 seconds, and put up 29 reps on bench. He had a 9'4 broad jump and a 31.5" vert.
CBSSports.com's blurb on Jones starts out pretty similarly to what Farrar had said of Watt a few years back:
"As NFL offenses increasingly turn toward the passing game, defensive coordinators are countering with hybrid defenders capable of lining up inside and out depending on the down and distance. As such, players like Jones, who has alternated between defensive tackle and defensive end over the past two seasons for the Bruins, offers great value to NFL teams featuring the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments, alike."
When I first started scouting Jones, I must admit that I wasn't overly impressed and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed. For a guy that many had touted as Seattle's most probable first-round pick (prior to the Percy Harvin trade), I just didn't see it. However, after watching more tape and re-assessing my point of view on what he'd actually be doing for the Hawks, I came around on him.
He's a violent player, and that's always a good thing for a defensive lineman. Jones seems to play a little bigger than his 284 and when I went back and realized that Justin Smith is listed at 285, Jones' "bully" style on the field further piqued my interest. The way that Smith plays, you'd think he was 320 or so, and I admit that when I watch Jones rush from the 3-technique position for UCLA, he doesn't look out of place or undersized.
He can push the pocket, keep himself clean with his upper body strength, and as you see below, has the wherewithal to keep his eyes in the backfield and get himself in a position to make a stop. He's not just a pure pass rusher, in my opinion.
Again, below, he penetrates with a quick first step, collapsing the pocket and at the same time, the running lane for Houston's ball carrier, and then makes the tackle. The Houston offensive line had a tough outing against the probable first-round pick in Jones.
Of course, when Jones rushes the passer, he did so in a variety of ways, but his strength was almost always evident. He plays with a lot of energy as well, something you just can't really teach. Below, he does his best J.J. Watt/Justin Smith impression by pushing the pocket right into the quarterback from the left hand side 3-technique spot. This forces the QB to rush his throw and deliver from his back foot, causing a turnover.
Jones finished the 2012 season with 17.5 tackles for a loss, including six sacks. His role in the NFL is a question mark for some scouts and I've seen fairly wildly differing scouting reports on his talent (can be said about just about anyone), but I like him as a disrupter from several different spots on the line. He could play in a 3-4, with a similar role to Smith/Watt, and I could even see him on a 4-3 team, provided it is willing to use him creatively. He's just quick enough to play some strongside defensive end on run downs, but put him inside on passing downs and look for him to overpower offensive guards and centers with his combination of quickness and strength.
Videos (and footage for GIFs) from the excellent DraftBreakdown.com.
Now, while Jones is roughly the same size as San Francisco's Justin Smith, in the 6'4/6'5, 285 pound range, Alabama's Jesse Williams, at 6'4, 323, reminds me more of the current version of the two-position All-Pro 49ers anchor. That is to say, Williams has insane strength, nice versatility, anchors very well, and can take on a double team when asked to in order to free up his fellow pass rushers.
Jesse Williams, Alabama
6'4, 323; 32" arms, 9 3/8" hands, 4.90-4.94 40-yard dash, 30 reps on bench. 4.78 short shuttle, 7.69 3-cone.
Williams is another guy whose stock seems to fluctuate anywhere from the late first round all the way into the second or third rounds, depending on which source you're reading. I just can't get a real feel for how high he'll go. My guess is that it'll be higher than some think, despite tape that is, frankly, sometimes a little boring to watch. For me, it's about potential. I know, it always is with defensive tackles, but it seems especially true with Williams.
In metrics, he's 191cm tall, 145 kg. The Australian, nicknamed "the Monstar," started playing football late and coming from Down Under, had to start his college career in the JUCO ranks. After transferring to Alabama, he played 5-technique defensive end in 2011 and then moved to nose tackle in 2012, faring well at both spots.
His former coach, Nick Saban, framed it pretty well:
"That's what people look for, guys that have size but are athletic and have initial quickness and some power and can run and finish on the quarterback and run ball-carriers down. He played really well for us and he's going to continue to get better because he has more upside ... He doesn't have the same background of growing up as a football player like a lot of players we have in our program."
You're always looking for the guy whose best football is ahead of him. My hunch is that Williams may be one of those guys.
He's known for being absurdly strong, and his ability to anchor against double teams while keeping his eyes in the backfield is what makes him so attractive to teams running both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
Williams has quickness for his size, and plays mean -- again, a trait you love to see in a defensive lineman. He finished his senior year with 37 tackles, 2.5 for a loss, and two sacks. His junior year, spent mostly at DE, he had 24 tackles with 4.0 for a loss.
It's sometimes hard to put into words something you're seeing on film, but my colleague Ben Harbaugh, while convincing me on Williams' potential, said it well when he posited:
"When fresh, he can synchronize quick hands, quick feet, and brutal power to completely overwhelm offensive linemen. He also does an excellent job getting low and driving forward in short yardage situations."
"Williams doesn't just occupy blockers against the run, he actively destroys it. He almost always wins the initial push at the point of attack. Then he can shuck blockers aside as they lean forward to regain position. Williams will often disengage so quickly that running backs must alter their course purely to avoid him. I think this is part of the reason why his stat line looks so meager."
You can watch his tape from 2011, at defensive end, and 2012, at nose tackle, below, both courtesy of DraftBreakdown.
William Gholston, Michigan State
6'6, 281; 34" arms, 10 3/8" hands, 4.8-4.93 40-yard dash, 4.59 short shuttle, 7.20 3-cone. 9'2 broad jump, 28.5" vert, 23 bench.
Gholston is an interesting case. He's a former 5-star recruit that flashed brilliance in school at times and was underwhelming at others. He has the length and size that intrigues, though, and at 6'6 he could potentially play outside in a 3-4 (or a 4-3 that utilizes a 5-technique strong side end), but I see him becoming most effective in the pros as an interior pass rusher, provided he gains a little weight.
Here's what I like about him: He's active, strong, and seems to be in on a lot of plays in one way or another. He uses his length well and surprisingly holds his own in leverage battles with shorter players. When he times the snap well, he has a good first step and as you can see below, shows an ability to slice into the backfield. He needs to finish plays a little more consistently, but again, Gholston is a "potential" prospect more than a finished product, in my opinion.
He has a spin move...
... But to me, his game is centered around the bullrush. "Speed to power" is a phrase you'll see thrown around a lot, and while he's a little slow as far as a 40 time is concerned, when I watch his game, I see a guy that can use a first-step to set up a bull rush nicely, get the offensive lineman off balance and lay into him with all your weight.
He does this below (again, doesn't finish the play though):
Gholston reminds me a little bit of a bigger version of Jason Jones. Jones isn't quite explosive enough to play on the outside full time, but has done well in his career, when healthy, of rushing the passer from the interior, using his length and quickness to translate speed to power. Example:
Game tape below courtesy of DraftBreakdown:
Finally, one of my favorites in this year's class: The underrated Lavar Edwards.
Lavar Edwards, LSU
6'4, 277; 35 1/2" arms, 10" hands, 4.75 40-yard dash, 4.51 short shuttle, 7.03 3-cone, 9'11 broad, 33" vert.
Edwards has insane length at 6'4 and 35.5" arms, and he uses his leverage well. At 277, he could conceivably bulk up in the pros to about 285 or 290 and maintain a 4.8 or so speed, I'd guess. His 3-cone and short shuttle numbers are very good, and his broad jump and vertical jump numbers show lower body explosiveness.
Again, "speed to power" is on showcase in the play below. A lightning quick first-step that he turns into a power bullrush after the left tackle is into his second kick-step.
Edwards, too, reminds me of a Jason Jones, J.J. Watt-lite type of player, and the Tigers used him on the interior in nickel situations and passing downs to rush the passer from several spots, including straight up on the center.
This is where I see Edwards carving out a role for himself at the next level -- he's a rotational pass rusher that can play on the outside with some speed and strength, but also kick inside to provide a different look to guards and centers than a traditional 3-technique or nose-tackle would furnish.
He's not a first-round talent. He had to split time with some very highly touted defensive linemen at LSU in Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan, but as you can see below, he has enough power and footspeed to play on the inside as well. He just needs to keep his eyes up and disengage.
Nonethless, Edwards is a player I'll be watching because he's got that versatility that a lot of teams seem to be looking for.
Another player to watch:
Lawrence Okoye, UK Track and Field
No film on Okoye, unless you're watching YouTube highlights from the 2012 Olympic Games Discus events. The 21-year old is a freak of nature, nonetheless, and posted J.J. Watt-esque speed/agility numbers at the Dallas NFL Super Regional Combine.
At 6'6, 304 pounds, Okoye ran the 40 in 4.88/4.78 seconds, registered a 10-foot-5 broad jump, and a 35-inch vert.
As for his position in the NFL, the ex-Rugby player projected himself pretty much exactly where I would:
"At the moment people seem to be thinking 3-4 because of my size and I can play the run as well as the pass. In the 4-3 you get smaller guys at defensive end, in the 4-3 I can play defensive tackle and plug up gaps there. I really want to use my athleticism."
"JJ Watt is a prime example of playing 3-4. He plays the run and pass just as well, getting 20.5 sacks from that position is amazing. He's shown you can do it from there. I'm not saying a defensive tackle in a 4-3 is out of the question, but 3-4 at the moment looks most likely. Who knows, maybe I can play outside linebacker and rush from that position. We'll see what the coaches want to do with me."
Should be interesting.