The defensive end from Bloomsburg, a D-II school in Pennsylvania, has only played football for two years. Even though his father, Larry, played in the NFL, the younger Webster was first and foremost a basketball player.
I saw it firsthand during Shrine Game practice sessions in January. My initial impression there was not favorable at all. In fact, it led to a rather bold proclamation on my part in response to a ESPN 96.1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan) radio show where I was a guest:
@espn961 to answer about Larry Webster: I was at Shrine Game week & he was EASILY the worst player there. Lost puppy, completely unphysical — Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) May 7, 2014
To his credit, Webster did play well in the actual game. However, his raw lack of technique and recognition really stood out in comparison to guys like Ethan Westbrooks or Will Clarke. In contrast to the coveted praise of "playing through the whistle," it often appeared that Webster couldn't wait for the whistle to blow.
Many teams saw enough, or rather not enough, and opted to work him out as a tight end. Dane Brugler of CBS even dropped him from the defensive end ratings and listed him as a tight end:
For #Lions fans who can't find my report on DE Larry Webster, it's because he's ranked as a TE for me, where I think he'll end up— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) May 10, 2014
Imagine my chagrin when he was announced as the Lions' pick at No. 136 overall. Here's a player I openly slammed coming to the team I love and cover.
In a desperate attempt to get on board with the pick, I sought out all the game film I could find. I found three Bloomsburg games, two of them on Draft Breakdown and one game of coach's tape, as well as his Shrine Game performance.
Here’s a nutshell of Webster (he's No. 99) on the field from the 2013 contest against Shippensburg:
That is a player without a real plan of attack. He’s trying to read and react on the fly, attempting to counter the blocker’s action. His athleticism does indeed show, but there's very little functionality to it.
Because Webster doesn’t have much technical refinement or football instincts, it comes off as ineffective and easily thwarted. Keep in mind he’s going against a D-II right tackle here. It’s one thing to not get a sniff against a future NFL left tackle in big-time BCS-level action, but Webster is continually stymied by small-school grunts.
In the three games I’ve seen, as well as Shrine Game practices, this play outcome predominates the action. He's rawer at his position than cornerback Chris Greenwood was coming out of D-II Albion in the 2012 draft. So far, Greenwood has played one game in two years and will be in a big fight to earn a roster spot in 2014.
Yet, Webster is not hopeless. In fact, he does have some plays where it’s easy to see what piqued Detroit's interest.
Here’s an example from the same Shippensburg game:
Webster senses the guard blocking his inside route, so he uses a strong yank move on the tackle to get free around the outside edge. He’s so quick to power around the edge that the guard has no chance to recover and help. It’s a beautiful sack created by an NFL-caliber move, one that calls to mind Jared Allen or Anthony Spencer.
He made a similar play to this against West Chester, where he sensed his inside path was blocked and used a basketball bounce step to whip around the outside and generate pressure on the quarterback, forcing an errant throw.
It's those flashes that must have intrigued the Lions. His workout performances certainly showed the ample potential for further flashing. Mike O'Hara of the Lions' official website noted Webster's athletic comparison to top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, writing:
Clowney was No. 1 in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.53 seconds. Webster was second in 4.58. Clowney was second overall in the broad jump with a leap of 10 feet, 4 inches. Webster was next longest at 10-3. Clowney was second with a vertical jump of 37.5 inches. Webster was an inch back at 36.5.
Those are outstanding figures for a 6'5", 252-pound man. It's worth noting that his 33.5" arm length is fairly short for his height; Clowney is the same height and his arms measured 34.25", while two other 6'5" defensive ends, Kareem Martin and Aaron Lynch, both hit 34" as well.
Aside from developing the technical aspects of his game, the Lions must also develop Webster's body. He's very lean and must get stronger, both in the upper and lower body. There just isn't enough power behind his pads to move blockers at the NFL level.
His frame can hold more muscle and bulk. Again, the potential is evident, but it's far from NFL-ready.
Webster's draft position puts the Lions in an interesting spot. A fourth-round pick is expected to make the 53-man roster, but it's a real stretch to see the lanky rookie making any impact in 2014.
He desperately needs at least one year on the practice squad, but that means cutting him and exposing him to the waiver wire. A fourth-round pick hitting the waiver wire is mighty tempting to opposing general managers.
That means quickly developing one aspect of his game enough to where it can contribute if he's forced into service. It could be as a situational pass-rusher, or perhaps on special teams coverage units.
With second-year ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor, as well as veterans Jason Jones and Darryl Tapp, already in front of him on the depth chart, it's unlikely Webster winds up active for any games this fall. That's for the best. Throwing him to the NFL wolves could prove devastating for his psyche.
Webster offers just enough promise to merit long-term investment in a great athlete. Having a father who played in the NFL offers some assurance that there is a football player somewhere in the former cager's body.
It is going to take time and lots of hard work. Hopefully defensive line coach Kris Kocurek can reach him quickly and mold this athletic project into something useful on the football field. It would be great if Webster proved his harshest critic, which might in fact be me, to be full of hot air and validate general manager Martin Mayhew's confidence in selecting him in the fourth round.
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