INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL Combine is in full swing and the defensive linemen are making their way through the gauntlet. First up were the official measurements, followed by a round of media interviews. The media room buzz was focused on DeForrest Buckner (combine record 11 3/4-inch hands!), Robert Nkemdiche (a very interesting presser), and Shawn Oakman (6'8 with nearly 36-inch arms!).
Physical measurements, medical checkups and interview portions of the combine are important, but it's what players have done on the actual football field that matters most. And nobody knows just how good these players are, as well as the guys they went up against on the gridiron. I talked to a bunch of offensive lineman this week, and asked them about some of the best defensive linemen they faced this year.
The first name on the list for Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker was Joey Bosa, his Buckeye teammate. Obviously, going up against Bosa every day in practice was a big advantage.
"That can't be understated," said Decker. "Getting to play against a guy like him, or a guy like Noah Spence for two years, and even Adolphus Washington, (Jaguars DT) Michael Bennett, (Giants DT) Johnathan Hankins, or (Texans LB) John Simon. I got to play against some really guys, more than I got in reps in the game," he said.
But the challenge of playing against Bosa was freshest in his mind. "Joey is an incredible player," Decker explained. "He's really complete. He plays the run really well. He's strong. He's quick off the ball. He's good with his hands. He's such a complete player. If you do something wrong, he's going to expose you. He made me a lot better player."
Baylor tackle Spencer Drango also had the advantage of going against a talented defensive lineman every day in practice. When asked to name a few of the most talented pass rushers he faced in college, his teammate Shawn Oakman was the first that came to mind.
"Saw him every day," Drango said. "His length, he's got what I say are 12-foot arms. He's kind of a freak guy. He's very good -- his length, he's very explosive and he's very quick for his size."
Texas Tech left tackle Le'Raven Clark echoed Drango on the difficulty in blocking Oakman.
"Shawn Oakman is a good one," said Clark. "He's up there too, he's a pretty good player, definitely. He's a good guy. He's strong."
When asked if Oakman's length at 6'8 was hard to handle, Clark's answer might be surprising. "Not so much," he said, instead citing other reasons. "He's a really powerful, strong guy. Once he gets going it's pretty hard to stop him."
LSU guard Vadal Alexander was one of a few players from the SEC who expressed his respect for Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.
"Robert Nkemdiche, his get-off was very good," said Alexander. "He's very athletic. His change of direction is very good, and he can make plays in the backfield if you let him."
Ole Miss tackle Fahn Cooper also sang his teammate's praises. "Robert Nkemdiche's got the nicest get-off I've seen," he said. "It makes it real difficult. I feel bad for the guards and center trying to come back off a power play, because he's boom, lightning off the ball.
"No. 86 from Alabama"
Alabama lineman A'Shawn Robinson was another player who left an impression on blockers.
Wisconsin tackle Tyler Marz spoke about Robinson's stoutness, especially in the run game. "I think No. 86 from Alabama (Robinson), in the three-down, he's a beast of a guy, he's a long guy."
Ole Miss' Fahn Cooper said the same thing. "In the run game," he said, "A'Shawn Robinson was a real strong dude. He's probably the best interior D lineman I played."
Obviously, Tide center Ryan Kelly thought highly of the player he had to go against in practice every day.
When asked about which defensive linemen were the toughest he faced all year, he immediately pointed to his own defensive line. "You're going against Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson every day, those guys are incredible," he said. "Going against those guys every day made us a better offensive line, made me a better player."
Speed, power and a nose tackle with a spin move
Taylor Decker mentioned Noah Spence, as well, an Ohio State transfer that ended his college career at Eastern Kentucky.
"Noah is definitely different than Joey," said Decker. "Obviously, they're both great pass-rushers. Noah is just pure speed. He can run for days. He could run with the linebackers and be beating them. He's really quick off the ball and has a really good motor.
"I'm just happy to see he was able to turn things around," after being permanently banned from the Big Ten for failed tests, "because I know he was going through some dark times. I like him as a person and I've always gotten along with him. It's cool to see a guy who had every reason to fail but didn't use one of them as a reason to fail."
N.C. State guard Joe Thuney also mentioned Spence. "I think that Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky was really good," he told a group of reporters huddled around his table. "Sheldon Rankins from Louisville was also a very dominant player, and then, Shaq Lawson (Clemson's defensive end). Those are the three that stick out to me."
"They're different in all respects," Thuney explained. "Spence is more of a speed guy, very fast around the edge. Shaq had a nice combination of speed and power -- he was great in the run game, as well. Then, Rankins was just a very powerful run stopper. They ran a 3-4 and was just really effective at plugging holes."
Michigan center Graham Glasglow also mentioned Rankins, a player he faced in the Senior Bowl.
"In the regular season," said Glasgow when asked about which defensive linemen impressed him the most, "I would have to say (Penn State defensive tackle) Austin Johnson, but I think Sheldon Rankins was pretty good. He's just real quick. He's quick and big."
Was it Rankins' spin move that made him so hard to block? "Not even that. He's just a good player," said Glasgow before admitting that the spin move was impressive. "Never seen that though. Never seen a nose tackle spin move. Never seen that."
Charles Tapper, the 6'2, 276-pound defensive end for the Sooners, was another player on Spencer Drango's mind.
"Bigger guy," said Drango, "had him inside at 4i (4-technique, heads up on Drango's inside shoulder), which made it a little more challenging, because you have to change up how you're going to block against him. But, he's also very strong and quick, as well."
Drango mentioned another tough one to block. "Shilique Calhoun from Michigan State was very good," he said. "Again, he was quick off the edge. They lined up in those wide-nines (aligned at a wide angle in what's called nine-technique), which we really hadn't seen a lot that year, so I had to adjust. He's quick and strong."
The best Big Ten defensive linemen that Iowa center Austin Blythe faced, "number one, (was) Malik Collins from Nebraska," he said. Collins, at 6'2, 300 pounds, was one of the Huskers' standout players over his career. "His size and strength and speed a combination of that is what makes him a good player," said Blythe. "When he's on the field, you can tell he wants to play."
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At the end of the day, combine exercises, and more importantly the interviews and medicals, will factor in to teams' decisions on which players they want to draft. All that stuff matters -- teams are using valuable draft capital to acquire them and then paying them a lot of money. Athleticism is important. Dependability is important. But, again, what matters most is what these guys did in games during their college careers.
Hearing the offensive linemen talk about their toughest matchups was enlightening, because at the end of the day, none of these guys are talking about their opponents' 40 times, or off-field red flags, or bad answers to weird questions. They were drawing on their experience trying to block these highly explosive, dynamic defensive linemen. These talented football players. That carries a lot of weight.
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