The 2016 NFL draft is one of two major offseason events, along with free agency. Finding impactful talent via the draft allows teams to maximize the production they receive while keeping costs down. One of the more impactful and productive players from this class is Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard.
The 6’3”, 283-pound defender was a four-year contributor for the Florida Gators. He proved to be one of several high-profile prospects from this unit, in large part because of his immense physical talent. He’s a unique player who can win in a variety of ways.
Before the 2015 season took place, CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang had a glowing review of Bullard’s talent. “At his current weight, he projects best outside, though he's not an explosive edge-rusher," Rang wrote. "He has good quickness, balance and hand use, however, and plays hard.”
Bullard had just 5.5 career sacks before his senior season but broke out with 6.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2015. He was a monstrous force for the Gators defense statistically. The best part of Bullard is that his impact goes well beyond the stat book.
The former 5-star recruit from Crest High School in Shelby, North Carolina, proved valuable everywhere he lined up. Although he fits best on run downs as a strong-side defensive end in a base 4-3 front, he can play as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 and a defense end in a 3-4 front. This type of versatility is why Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett immediately came to mind when I broke down Bullard’s tape.
Bullard isn’t the fastest player and will never be known as a speed-rusher, but he is quick off the line. He immediately jumps off the line and forces his blocker to have his body set or be knocked onto his tail. It’s common for Bullard to put his blocker on skates as he penetrates the pocket.
These are the types of plays that don’t show up in Bullard’s numbers but are important for the defense as a unit. That’s not different from Bennett’s impact in Seattle or at Texas A&M. See below for a comparison of their collegiate numbers:
|Jonathan Bullard vs. Michael Bennett Career Collegiate Production|
|Player||Solo Tackles||Total Tackles||Tackles for Loss||Sacks|
Bennett became more dynamic and effective in Seattle, which maximized his strengths by moving him all around depending on the situation. Like Bullard, Bennett overwhelms interior blockers with his combination of quickness and strength. He constantly power-rushes and throws heavy hands with tackles.
While it’s not sexy to be a quality edge-setter in the run game, many young defensive ends earn snaps because of their ability to play all three downs. It’s important to be at least neutral against the run unless the player is a fierce pass-rusher. Bullard is an excellent run defender no matter where he lines up.
Bullard is a bully as an interior defender, though. He may be light compared to other defensive tackles, but he plays low and wins with leverage. He is strong and often redirects where his blocker is heading.
The play above illustrates his ability to take over the line of scrimmage on his own. The Tennessee Volunteers are running a simple inside zone play, which is common in the NFL as well. Bullard, lined up as a 3-technique defensive tackle, works from the outside shoulder of the right guard and ends up making the tackle for loss where the left tackle was aligned pre-snap.
This type of range helps show what type of athlete Bullard is. He’s not a linear athlete, which is a good thing. He has the flexibility in his lower body to change direction and maintain balance through contact. We have another example of said flexibility below.
These traits have helped Bennett tally 40.5 career sacks (and counting) in the NFL. He wasn’t even as productive in college as Bullard was, but the two are similar with their play style. Take a look at Bennett rushing from the defensive tackle position below:
Bullard’s pass-rush ability can use improvement before he’s ready for a full-time NFL role. It took Bennett until his third season before he started being a productive pass-rusher, although Bullard may not take that long. The numbers were good but not great for the Gator.
Like his impact in the run game, some of his best pass-rushing plays were more disruptive for the good of the unit than ended in a sack. The interception that sealed the Gators’ win against Ole Miss was directly caused by Bullard’s bull rush. He plowed through the center en route to the quarterback. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III finished the play with the ball in his hands.
Bullard has the size and versatility to play in any scheme. A multi-front scheme best suits his talent, but he needs a defensive coordinator who is willing to move him around. He’s a playmaker who wins in a niche role.
Bullard is projected to be a first-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. He’s rated as the fourth-best defensive end. I agree that Bullard is certainly a first-round talent and signifies top-20 value for the right fit.
While he’s not a terrific pass-rusher at this time, he is a matchup nightmare with the potential to see significant growth early in his career. His sub-package value right away is going to justify an early investment. As he enters the latter part of his rookie contract, he may become a tremendous value before his second deal nears.
Some rookies need time to add functional strength or improve their technical prowess before they log significant playing time in the NFL. Bullard shouldn’t have that issue, as he was a man among boys in college. He has the look and playing style to fit right into an NFL rotation.
In the right situation, don’t be surprised if he develops into the next chess piece on a defensive line. The player he should model his game and career path after is Bennett. If he takes that path, then opponents will dread their matchups with the former Gator.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.