Much like former Alabama teammates Rolando McClain and Kareem Jackson, pass rusher Courtney Upshaw has risen up draft boards in his final season with the Crimson Tide before entering the pre-draft process.
He has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl game, where scouts can evaluate him thoroughly in person, something I did when I attended last year's bowl game against Michigan State—a game which he won defensive MVP with five tackles and two sacks.
But as the old saying goes, "the tape never lies" and that's what I rely on to fill out my scouting reports, which can be seen below.
Courtney Upshaw's size will be one of the most interesting aspects of his pre-draft evaluation as teams will find out if he is truly 6'2" and 265 pounds which is what Alabama athletics website, rolltide.com, lists him at.
Size is always one of the most important parts of evaluation because teams place an emphasis on big and athletic defenders that can disrupt passing lanes. While this may ultimately result in a knock on the Crimson Tide pass rusher, I do not have an issue with it.
In recent years, shorter pass rushers proven they can hold up well at the NFL level, using their compact body to gain leverage on taller pass blockers.
One last physical question that teams will ask is how long Upshaw's arms are. Lengthy arms are necessary for pass rushers because they must be able to create a gap between themselves and the blocker as they look to shed blocks in hopes of continuing their path to the quarterback.
Versatility in a defender is always very important because of the multiple fronts teams play nowadays. Defensive coordinators are often requiring their pass rushers to align on the line of scrimmage in a two point stance as well as in a three point stance off the edge or up the middle, as seen with linebackers such as DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews.
Fortunately for Upshaw, he will be able to adapt to the complex NFL defenses because of the various things he's asked to do in Alabama's hybrid scheme. He's aligned as a five technique (outside shoulder of offensive tackle) in a two-point stance as well as several techniques in a three-point stance.
The reason is that it already gives him experience in dealing with multiple responsibilities, which he surely will have as a starting 3-4 linebacker.
Furthermore, his experience in a two-point stance as an outside linebacker in Alabama's 3-4 defense has him understanding leverage and proper hand use, which is often a difficult transition for defensive end to outside linebacker converts as former Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky explained:
"The whole career had been spent with their hand down in the ground and it's a different sight lines different vision progression. When you get him back in the NFL in you're trying to stand him up at all changes. I think the first thing that players usually don't do is they don't use their hands as much as they do winners three point. You know usually fire with their hands when you're trying to make that conversion to that player the thing that he still has issued his hands in his -- a little bit different takes a look at a time."
He does a quality job of slapping the hands of offensive linemen away as he's rushing as well as getting his hands inside of the blocker and locking his elbows out.
Because of this and his very good strength, he is able to gain the leverage advantage, thus be in control and take the blocker where he wants to as well as shed the block—which is something pass rushers must be able to do.
He can often be seen getting leverage and then performing a counter rip move, which entails a slap to the inside shoulder of the pass blocker with the inside hand by the pass rusher, subsequently bringing the outside arm up and over the pass blocker's head. By doing this, Upshaw moves past the blocker and is able to get to the quarterback.
Upshaw's explosiveness is something that I initially had a question about when I first started evaluating him last season. He appeared to lack the sudden quickness at the snap of the ball that elite pass rushers like Dwight Freeney have. Freeney is often able to quickly get off the line of scrimmage and dip his shoulder to put his brilliant speed rush in effect.
As I looked further into Upshaw, I realized he was still an effective pass rusher and was doing it with an sprained ankle. Based off of games which he was deemed healthy, I came to the conclusion that he indeed had quality explosiveness and sudden quickness off the line.
Although at times it doesn't appear to be consistent, Upshaw shows the ability to literally beat pass blockers to the punch, closing the gap between himself and the blocker before jolting him back with a heavy punch to the breast pads.
The lateral agility of a pass rusher is very important to keep in mind while evaluating pass rushers on tape and timing them at the NFL Combine, although that can be tricky.
There have been instances in the past where pass rushers have timed what some would consider not quick enough in the 3 Cone drill, such as aforementioned pass rushers Aldon Smith and Ryan Kerrigan. While Smith's time was not great in comparison to other linebackers or even pure defensive ends, he showed better agility on the field as did Kerrigan (though not to the same extent).
Upshaw's agility is something that has flashed very well at times while other times, especially when he has had to break down in space, he's struggled.
He is not always quick to sink his hips and be agile enough to change directions to tackle a ball carrier that has made a cut.
He has also proven in the past to have a relentless motor when in pursuit, often enabling him to get to the ball carrier.
Stopping ball carriers is often the number one priority for defenses, even in a pass-driven NFL that we see today. Because once a running game is established, the entire playbook opens up.
Arguably the strength of his game, Upshaw doesn't allow that to happen if there is a run coming his way.
He applies various run defending techniques that have been taught to him by coaches, such as 'wrong-arming' which requires him to attack the inside shoulder, opposed to the usual outside, of the lead blocker in hopes of jarring the blocker back into the ball carrier.
Moreover, he does a very good job of setting the edge, forcing the ball carrier back inside into the teeth of the defense or shedding the block and wrapping up the running back himself.
He shows the ability to play with strong fundamentals, squaring his shoulders and applying the 'near foot, near shoulder' technique that's often preached by defensive coaches.
When evaluating pass rushers in pass defense, it is very important to keep in mind what is asked of similar players in the NFL. Unless the pass rusher is playing in a scheme that requires him to widen out and cover slot receivers in man coverage like rookie Ryan Kerrigan (unsuccessfully) did for the Washington Redskins, the majority of coverage drops by pass rushers are Seam or Curl to Flat defenders.
These kind of coverage drops are ones that he's executed while playing at Alabama and he's done well on them. He doesn't have great range but he gets to his landmark—designated area of the field in which the required depth of his drop is reached at—as well as keeps his eyes on the quarterback, which enables him to possibly make a play on the ball in the air.
Ball Location and Awareness
The final part of evaluating a pass rusher or any defensive linemen is identifying their ability to find the ball whether it be in pass coverage or as a run defender.
There are many times that a nose tackle or a defensive end can be seen penetrating up the field but taking themselves out of the play because he is unable to identify the location of the ball.
This is not an issue that Upshaw has; in fact, he does a very good job of this, often sniffing out screens based off of the depth of the offensive linemen's kick-slide as well as knocking the ball loose to force a fumble when he sacks the quarterback.
He has shown numerous times his ability to create a turnover with a sack-strip of the quarterback or bust a play because of his football intelligence and ball identification.
Alabama pass rusher Courtney Upshaw's stock is one of the fastest-growing of all draft prospects because of his physical talent as well as his ability to apply coaching techniques in games.
Although he may not have the prototypical size of a pass rusher, he is able to use it to his advantage by gaining leverage on pass blockers as well as dipping his shoulder to make his body compact in an effort to get around the corner.
Because of this ability, I expect him to ultimately be chosen in the first round. It would not surprise me if NFL scouts penalize him for his size or his past legal history (a dropped domestic assault case in 2009) which could put him in the tail end of the first round.
However, if they can get past these two issues (and I use that term loosely), I expect him to be selected near the middle of the first round.