2013 NFL Draft Preseason Watch List: Pass-Rushers

Chris KouffmanContributor IMay 17, 2012

2013 NFL Draft Preseason Watch List: Pass-Rushers

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    They say idle hands are the devil's workshop. Idle draftniks are just a nuisance to friends and family. Addictions must be fed. Outlets must be found and used. After a good couple of weeks off, I find myself beginning the slow process of getting my sea legs back under me in preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft.

    Tape will be watched, re-watched, and re-watched again. Observations will be made, forgotten, written down, lost, remembered and forgotten again. Proper draft evaluation is like painting a new car: you're not done after one coat. You have to keep putting fresh coats on it to get it right.

    Rather than start with everyone's favorite obsession, the quarterback position, I wanted to take a look at some of the top-billed defensive ends and pass-rushers that could be available in the 2013 NFL Draft. I have 12 of the best pass-rush prospects ranked and described within this piece.

    Before getting to the individual players, I wanted to sum up a few things about the 2013 class relative to the 2012 class.

    I felt the 2012 class of pass-rushers to be lacking in depth. As I went through the rank and file of the 2012 class, I found the number of players that could consistently bend the arc on an outside pass rush to be at a minimum.

    The best example I can cite is Bruce Irvin of West Virginia going in the 1st round to the Seattle Seahawks. Irvin is an explosive player and he can be relied upon to provide pass rush in certain situations. However, he has a criminal past and once told his coaches that he did not want to be a starter, that he preferred to only come on the field perhaps a dozen times a game. Later, he also claimed his coaches at West Virginia never taught him properly.

    In order to buy the explosive pass rush ability that Bruce Irvin possesses, the Seattle Seahawks were forced to pay by accepting poor character history, poor stamina, poor attitude and a diminutive frame that does not promise three-down potential. This was a simple result of supply and demand. The supply on genuine pass-rush ability was very weak, whereas the demand was as strong as ever. This forced teams to pay higher prices for their pass-rush products than to which they are usually accustomed.

    Similarly, in order to buy the pass rush potential of a player like Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, the San Diego Chargers were forced to take a risk on his very short arms, part-time player status, and inconsistent production. Many would say that, in order to buy the pass rush potential possessed by Quinton Coples of North Carolina, the New York Jets were forced to accept his laziness and lack of effort.

    While the future can never truly be predicted, I believe the 2013 class of pass-rushers will be much stronger and full of depth. Just looking at the top seniors and potential underclassmen, I see an abundance of players that consistently bend the arc on an outside pass rush. I see explosiveness. It may take me only five snaps to find plays in this pass rush that I might have had to sift through twenty snaps in order to find from the 2012 class.

    Now that I've whet your appetite, let's look at some players.

#1. DE Bjoern Werner, Florida State

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    Already, I am sure you are surprised. And, judging by past comments seen in my articles, many of you are already going to write me off. Such is the way of the draft. Everyone is so sure that the consensus opinion is right, until it isn't.

    I find Bjoern Werner of Florida State to be highly underrated. Because of his German heritage, he is generally thought to be new to the sport, which gives him a reputation for being "raw." This characterization is not entirely accurate.

    I don't care what his back story is. I am not yet to the point of evaluation where I am overly concerned with back story, character history, statistics or even triangle measurements. I am at the point in the evaluation when I allow the tape to speak to me on its own merit.

    I have watched Werner play a lot of football and he is a man amongst children. He combines the consistent gap control ability I saw out of Ryan Kerrigan with J.J. Watt-type ball skills (tipped balls, even an interception) and the ability necessary to explode off the line, get under a tackle's pads, and bend the arc.

    This ability was a little too rare in the 2012 class of pass-rushers, however Werner consistently shows it. He focuses his outside rush on the blocker, not the quarterback. He does not just try and run around or avoid the blocker, he uses his hands and feet to form a compression between the ground and the outside shoulder of the blocker, as he sling shots around the tackle and comes back to the quarterback. Even as a sophomore, he had a natural feel for this technique.

    He had the only sack given up by underrated Oklahoma left tackle Donald Stephenson in all of 2011, on a play where he was able to time the snap perfectly. He is a heady player and is consistently able to get an ideal jump off the snap.

    He has long arms, a great frame, power, speed, fluid hands for neutralizing the hands of offensive tackles. You name it, he has it.

    There is definitely some rawness to his game, but where many are attracted to the side story of his German heritage, I would attribute any roughness around the edges to the simple fact that he is only a sophomore. He will need to develop a little more endurance, and continue to work on his technique but, from what I have seen, the sky is the limit.

#2. DE/OLB James Gayle, Virginia Tech

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    If you were already tempted to dismiss my evaluations based on my cutting across the grain of consensus and naming Bjoern Werner as my top pass-rush prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft, then naming James Gayle as my second-best prospect ought to push you over the edge.

    Gayle reminds me of a cross between Jabaal Sheard, the Cleveland Browns' defensive end, and Miami defensive legend Jason Taylor. I never, ever, ever make the latter comparison to Jason Taylor. I cannot even recall the last time I made the comparison of any draft prospect to Jason Taylor. There are people who overuse the comparison, but I am not one of them.

    However, this guy's style, not necessarily skill level, does remind me a little bit of Jason Taylor. I don't know his exact height and weight measurements, nor what the stopwatches will say when he dons his Under Armour gear, nor even do I have a detailed awareness of his statistical history. This is all based on tape.

    He has great take-off ability, good counters, a deadly inside move, speed and the ability to bend the arc. He is another guy that benefits from long arms in his pass rush. His consistent initial jump off the snap reminds me of what drew me so strongly to Jabaal Sheard a few years before he was drafted out of Pittsburgh.

    If I had to nitpick a few areas of his game, they would be his endurance (playing in the fourth quarter the same way as the first, a common problem for young players) and edge rush.

    The latter is nitpickery at its finest, as his edge rush and ability to bend the arc is better than 98 percent of what you generally come across in the college landscape of pass-rushers. However, it still is not perfect.

    Where I feel Bjoern Werner uses his hands well to compress himself into the space between the blocker's outside shoulder and the ground, so as to cut the corner as sharply as possible, there are times (only sometimes) when I feel like Gayle is satisfied simply running around his blocker as if he were a stationary obstacle.

    However, make no mistake, this player shows a diverse array of pass-rush maneuvers. He has an effective spin move, the ability to re-direct and execute a deadly inside move without making contact with his blocker, he shows the ability to convert speed to power, and to uses his hands to counter and cross the inside shoulder after contact.

    Best of all, he has the ability achieve all of this from either a down position as a defensive end, or an up position. Not all players are able to achieve the explosive forward momentum necessary to execute all of these moves out of a two-point stance. He is able to do it consistently.

#3. OLB/DE Barkevious Mingo, LSU

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    This is the player currently making the rounds as the preseason favorite among pass-rushers for the 2013 NFL Draft. Make no mistake, there is a reason for his popularity.

    By the time all is said and done, Barkevious Mingo may be the guy that rises to the top of the 2013 NFL Draft at his position. However, that does not mean he will be the best in the NFL from among his class. I rank two pass-rushers above him because they strike me as better than him right now.

    Mingo's strength and power are just not all that impressive to me, unlike some of the other guys on this list. However, what is going to consistently grab you as you watch Mingo play, is the fact that he moves like he's controlled by a joystick.

    There are some pretty good players on that defensive line, and his movement skills put them to shame. He consistently gets off the snap quickest. He retraces like a jackrabbit. He shows Cameron Wake-type explosive movement ability, and flashes the ability to bend the arc properly.

    Though his strength will not impress, he is not weak. He is actually pretty feisty and physical, and does a good job keeping his feet churning through contact as he uses his hands to work himself free. However, at his size, the core strength is just not impressive. He is a liability at times against the run. You don't see him pushing through contact as much as you'd like.

    Still, the potential is massive. There are players who are stronger, including his teammate Sam Montgomery, but who stand a much greater chance of ending up "just a guy" at the next level. Barkevious Mingo's explosive movement ability should help him to avoid that fate. All I really need to see from him in 2012 is some more effective speed to power in his pass rush, and he will have sold me on his pro potential.

#4. OLB Jarvis Jones, Georgia

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    There is a part of me that actually wants to rate Jarvis Jones above Barkevious Mingo, because he is more fluid in his combination of hand and foot movements. He is a little more violent with his hands than Mingo, and quicker into the sort of counters that leave blockers grasping at air.

    However, there is something to be said for that dirty 'p' word, which is to say, "potential."

    When you get right down to it, Jarvis Jones is smaller than Barkevious Mingo and so Mingo's ceiling is probably higher. He is also not quite as consistently quick off the ball as Mingo.

    I mentioned James Gayle's unique ability to achieve explosive forward momentum off the snap even from a standing position. This is not something I feel Jarvis Jones is able to achieve consistently. He relies on his explosive hands and countering ability, rather than explosive movement off the snap. He is able to be effective at the college level that way, but his speed rush is not as polished as that of Gayle or Mingo.

    None of that will keep Jarvis from ending up a darn good player, though. As I said, he has impressively violent hands at the point of contact, and he is actually able to stand up well against the run.

    I pay a lot of attention to the body language of blockers as they attempt to deal with a player, and Jarvis Jones consistently shocks and frustrates blockers. He combines this violence with strong athleticism and some of the quickest and most fluid countering ability in the class.

#5. DE/OLB Alex Okafor, Texas

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    As I said before, my evaluations this early are based on film. I will take into account issues, like the one raised by Alex Okafor's recent arrest, at some later point in time.

    With that said, Alex Okafor is clearly the better pass-rusher on his defense compared with his linemate Jackson Jeffcoat. It is not even close.

    He does not rate as highly as the guys above him because I don't think he moves quite as quickly off the ball or throughout his rush as the guys above. His is a slightly different tempo than some of the players ranked above him.

    However, he does consistently show the ability to challenge the outside shoulder of blockers, get underneath a lineman's pads and come back to the quarterback.

    He's also more polished than some of these guys. He has a full array of pass-rush moves, and enough strength to be dangerous in all situations.

#6. DE William Gholston, Michigan State

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    I have seen suggestions that William Gholston of Michigan State is overrated.

    I would like to see another year before I come to any conclusions, but what I see of him is an extremely well built, brutishly strong player with explosive qualities.

    When he gets to the ball, he swallows it. He plays with a nasty attitude and shows explosive strength. He is not a guy that consistently bends the outside, which is why I don't have him higher for now, but he can get to the quarterback through an array of moves and he's always a pain in the butt for whoever tries to block him.

#7. DE/OLB Corey Lemonier, Auburn

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    Corey Lemonier of Auburn is built like a Ferrari.

    He possesses great length and frame, with long arms and the strength to consistently keep blockers away from his body. He has very good take-off speed from the snap, hands that connect well with targets, and the ability to shed blocks.

    The reason he is not rated better is that he consistently paddle steps around the edge and does not really show the ability to bend and get under a blocker to execute a proper edge rush. This could be something that develops, but for now I am not seeing it.

    However, he does show other means of getting to the quarterback, and he has very high potential.

#8. DE Sam Montgomery, LSU

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    There are times you are watching Sam Montgomery and he will show you the things that Barkevious Mingo is really missing in his game.

    But then, there are times you are watching Barkevious Mingo and you will see the things Sam Montgomery is missing.

    The two players are very different, yet play on the same line on the same great defense, and produce a similar amount of pressure. That can make the comparison and evaluation process for the two difficult.

    The bottom line for me is Barkevious Mingo only has to show me a few things in his 2012 season in order to sell me on his pro potential, whereas Sam Montgomery has a lot more things he must show in order to convince me that he is the real deal.

    He is consistently slow off the snap before he gets into his rush. He possesses burst, but not a fluid one. He takes a while to gather himself before he explodes into his second and third maneuvers. He does not have great balance and I did not see him consistently bend the arc.

    There are elite qualities to his game. He is stronger than Mingo against the run and able to push through a lot more contact. He has a really good frame and is a well muscled athlete. He is able to achieve explosiveness in bursts.

    However, with his lack of balance, lack of consistent ability to get off the snap, lack of fluidity and lack of ability to execute an edge rush, he is in much more danger of ending up "just a guy" than his teammate Barkevious Mingo.

#9. OLB/DE Brandon Jenkins, Florida State

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    Brandon Jenkins is a player that was probably talked about a little too much in 2011. A lot of analysts gave the impression that he is an elite pass-rusher. I do not have him ranked very high, based on my film study.

    Jenkins has pretty good take-off ability and his second and third steps don't let him down, so he has the ability to get around the edge. He is not consistently strong and flexible bending the arc when challenged, though.

    His natural athleticism helps him make hustle plays, but then you do not really see him hustling very often, so it's kind of a moot point.

    His speed and athleticism might actually be a little bit overrated.

    His hand use is definitely very inconsistent. He shows timely play recognition and gives good strong effort in strength matches during run plays, but he just doesn't hustle to the ball as well as you'd hope when the play goes by him. He has a good spin move and shows some other countering ability.

    I believe his linemate Bjoern Werner has better potential for the NFL.

#10. DE/DT Margus Hunt, Southern Methodist

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    Margus Hunt of Southern Methodist University is an incredible, Olympic caliber track and field athlete with ridiculous size, speed, strength and explosive elements.

    The problem is, what do you do with him?

    He's blocked more kicks than I have ever heard of at the college level, but on the field as a defensive end, you are always left wondering if he is just a poor man's Jared Odrick.

    He is not nearly flexible enough in my opinion to rush from the edge of the formation on passing downs. He has no bend in that lengthy, thick frame of his. He is much closer in build and style to what you would want to see at defensive tackle, but then some teams may take issue with his height at that position, as players as tall as him can have trouble maintaining leverage against double teams.

    You will probably have to reduce him inside to rush over a guard on passing downs. That leaves you looking to put him at end on first and second down as primarily a run stopper. Yet, he's not all that instinctive or impactful against the run. He does not get off blocks particularly well, yet.

    Trying to figure Margus Hunt out is like baking bread with a missing ingredient. Depending on which ingredient is missing, the dough may not rise. Yet, at the same time, you see his combination of overwhelming size, explosiveness, speed and strength, and you wonder how this would end up not working at the next level.

    He is a true enigma.

#11. DE/OLB Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

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    I am given the impression by some of my fellow draftniks that I am supposed to like Jackson Jeffcoat, but I am really not sure why.

    I do not know his career statistics, but I am sure he has collected some sacks off the good work that Alex Okafor and some others on the Texas defensive line (including Kheeston Randall) did for him.

    He reminds me a little bit of a cross between Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford, and the old Arizona pass-rusher Ricky Elmore, with a bias toward the latter.

    He has some athletic ability and some take-off from the line, but he doesn't put together the full package of quickness, strength, speed and hand fighting ability. He was in my opinion consistently shown up by his teammate Alex Okafor.

    In all reality, there are very likely some defensive ends in the class that I would have rated above Jeffcoat based on 2011 film, however Jeffcoat is a top-billed player and so I felt I should address him in this piece.

#12. DE Michael Buchanan, Illinois

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    Whitney Mercilus' linemate, Michael Buchanan, is another pass-rusher that I have been given the impression I should like.

    Maybe it's the Illinois scheme, since I also did not particularly like Whitney Mercilus either, but I do not like Buchanan much at all.

    He has some movement ability and he is built nicely. However, I found that he does not really earn anything he achieves on the field as far as pressure on the quarterback or plays on the ball.

    He is far too easily blocked. He does not have enough speed, nor enough explosion, nor enough physicality, nor enough flexibility.

    The reality is I probably should not have him ranked in the top 12, however, I felt his billing warranted address in this piece, if for no other reason than to express my disapproval.