The NFL draft is a minefield of uncertainty, highlighted by players who have the potential to be elite performers in NFL. Sometimes those prospects have a mile-high ceiling, but they aren’t quite ready to be premier performers.
Football isn’t just about running faster and hitting harder than opposing players. Skill, technique and football intelligence play a big role in developing a quality prospect. Physical attributes create a strong foundation for success, but the more intricate details hone an athlete into a football player.
Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers is the perfect example of a college prospect who had the raw ability to be an elite NFL defender, but teams were wary of his unpolished skillset. The 49ers took a chance on him with the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft, and the rest is history.
Smith went on to notch 14 sacks as a situational pass-rusher in his rookie campaign, and further established his dominance by posting 19.5 sacks in 2012.
Had teams known the kind of success the Missouri product would have in his first two seasons, he likely wouldn’t have made it to No. 7 in the first round. At the time, Smith seemed to be a gamble; his football skills and experience didn’t quite match his raw athleticism.
The San Francisco linebacker proved to be the exception to the rule, but the success he has experienced is far from guaranteed for other prospects. That’s one of the reasons the NFL draft is an inexact science; polished players can fail and inexperienced players can flourish.
We’ll take a look at some defensive prospects from this year’s draft class with the raw ability to be NFL superstars. One compares very favorably to Smith, another to Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and a third may not have an equal at any level of the game.
Ezekiel Ansah: DE/OLB, BYU
At 6’5” and 271 pounds, BYU defensive Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah has the size, strength and athleticism to be a force in the NFL. Whether at the defensive end or outside linebacker position, he has the skills to dominate as a pass-rusher off the edge.
Ansah ran a 4.63 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine—a time few players his size are capable of posting. He also completed the 20-yard shuttle in 4.26 seconds (the top time for defensive linemen) and put up a respectable 21 reps on the bench press.
Ansah did all of that without training for the combine (via Dan Pompei of NationalFootballPost.com), further proving just how physically gifted he is.
The biggest question mark for Ansah is his inexperience. The BYU prospect played just three years of football, and he wasn’t a major contributor until the 2012 college football season. There are still a lot of holes in his game.
Ansah needs to learn to use leverage at the line of scrimmage and he needs to improve how he uses his hands when fending off blockers. With limited on-field experience, those are skills that will take some time to develop.
Some of the same things were said of Smith when he was drafted by the 49ers. Smith has added several moves to his pass-rushing repertoire—a result of coaching and experience. Ansah has the ability to do the same at the NFL level.
One of the most influential factors in his development will be the system into which he is drafted. His size, athleticism and schematic versatility will warrant a lot of attention on draft day, but that doesn’t mean he can be equally successful in a 3-4 or 4-3 front early in his career.
While his inexperience may suggest a difficult transition to outside linebacker (should he be drafted by a team that employs a 3-4 front), NFL teams are very versatile in their defensive schemes. It won’t be hard finding a fit for Ansah as, at the very least, a situational pass rusher in his formative years.
Shortcomings aside, Ansah has all the physical ability to be an elite defender in the NFL. He may need some coaching to reach his potential, but his ceiling is as high as any player in this draft class.
Margus Hunt: DE, SMU
When it comes to raw talent, SMU defensive end Margus Hunt is the poster child—though there’s nothing child-like about him.
With a 6’8”, 280-pound frame, Hunt has the size NFL teams look for in a defensive end. He has the length and bulk to play a gap-control role in a 3-4 front, but his explosiveness could also be a major attribute for playing inside and out in a one-gap 4-3 front.
Like Ansah, Hunt put on a show at the combine. He hammered out 38 reps on the bench press, ran an astounding 4.6 40-yard dash and showed excellent lower-body strength and explosiveness with a 121" broad jump and 34.5” vertical jump.
Hunt’s mix of size, speed and overall athleticism are undeniable, but he isn’t exactly the most pro-ready prospect in this draft class.
Hunt looks a lot stiffer in space than a lot of teams would probably like to see, and his lack of experience (just two years starting at SMU) shows on tape. He has a lot to learn about the game of football.
Still, it’s hard to overlook his physical attributes, and those same attributes are what give Hunt the potential to be a dominant defensive lineman in the NFL.
Size and speed can’t be taught, but technique and the mental aspects of the game can. If he can work hard at honing his football skills, we won’t be comparing Hunt to current players—we’ll be looking for the “next Margus Hunt” in future draft classes.
Barkevious Mingo: DE/OLB, LSU
Some of the same things being said about Barkevious Mingo were said about Miller when he entered the draft in 2011.
Miller has since propelled himself into the conversation as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, but he wasn’t widely considered a sure thing when the Broncos took him with the second overall pick.
Miller was a pass-rushing specialist, and at Texas A&M, he spent a lot of time lined up on the edge with his hand in the dirt. The move to a stand-up role at outside linebacker was expected to be a bit of a transition.
I don’t believe Mingo has the all-around talent of Miller, but he certainly has some of the physical tools.
At LSU, Mingo lined up primarily at defensive end. He’s fluid and athletic enough to transition to outside linebacker (as his 241-pound frame will likely necessitate), but playing linebacker is a lot different than an edge-rushing role in a 4-3 front.
Mingo’s drop in production during the 2012 season isn’t as big a concern as some may think. He notched just 4.5 sacks last season—as opposed to a 2011 campaign that saw the defensive end tally eight sacks in a rotational role—but he showed time and again on film that he has the pass-rushing skills that translate well to the NFL game.
If Mingo can work to add some pass-rushing moves to his repertoire, he’ll have a chance to be an absolutely dominant speed-rusher off the edge. His ceiling isn’t quite as high as Miller’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he compiles similar production early in his career.