NFL teams are always looking for elite talent at the most important positions to vault their league standing to the upper echelon. Star quarterbacks are undoubtedly the most valuable positional players on the field at any given time. Finding a top-tier pass-rusher to chase other teams’ franchise quarterbacks must also be a significant priority.
The two most valuable positions in the NFL are quarterback and pass-rusher, at least if we’re judging by which players have the biggest contracts. According to Spotrac, there are 17 players with at least a $95 million contract. Six of those 17 players are pass-rushers, and Denver's Von Miller is likely to join that group sooner than later.
Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith and Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson are the only non-quarterbacks of the remaining 11 players on that list. The NFL is clear with which positions are valued the most. Positional value has significant impact in free agency and the NFL draft.
Teams selecting in the first 10 picks of the draft will have the opportunity to get their hands on an elite pass-rushing prospect, and former Ohio State Buckeye and Eastern Kentucky Colonels edge playmaker Noah Spence is the best pure pass-rusher in the 2016 NFL draft.
Spence has been a supremely talented prospect going back to his high school recruitment out of Bishop McDevitt High School. The former 5-star defensive end was the nation's No. 5 prospect in the 2012 class. He was also Urban Meyer’s first 5-star recruit as the Buckeyes head coach.
Spence earned his first extended playing time as a sophomore in 2013. Featured on a defensive line with fellow stars Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, Spence was devastatingly effective at rushing the passer. While Bosa is more of a well-rounded talent, Spence has the speed and ability to bend the edge that Bosa lacks. That is a rare skill set.
His 7.5 sacks ranked second in the Big Ten that season despite other stars filling the conference. Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive end Randy Gregory and Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun led their respective teams in sacks, but they did not have the same competition on their own roster. Spence was primed for a monstrous junior season that would parlay him into a top pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
But Spence made some bad decisions before the 2013 Big Ten title game—and again in September 2014. He tested positive for ecstasy, and as Spence told Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, being permanently banned from the Big Ten was a life-changing moment. He not only missed out on the Buckeyes’ national championship run, but would never suit up for the team again:
I will never in my life forget that feeling. That feeling right there is always in my head whenever I do anything because I know I don't ever want to go back again, hit rock bottom -- and I know I won't be back there ever again because I will always have that feeling in my mind.
Instead of entering the NFL draft, Spence decided to transfer to Eastern Kentucky. Before he suited up for the Colonels, he was arrested for alcohol intoxication and disorderly conduct for throwing a glass bottle in the street. Charges were later expunged after Spence completed community service, and he’s had no public incidents since.
Even though Spence made mistakes under Meyer’s watch, the Buckeyes head coach played a massive role in getting him another chance. Spence was a 3.0 student at Ohio State and was named first-team All-Big Ten in 2013. He’s always been talented on and off the field, and Meyer didn’t want his career to end because of mistakes he showed remorse for.
Meyer personally vouched for Spence to Colonels head coach Dean Hood. According to Hood, per Matthew Florjancic of WKYC, all Meyer had to do was make the call for him to take on Spence:
Urban called me wanting to help him. That speaks volumes about him, his family, what Coach Meyer thinks of him as a person. (He) made mistakes, absolutely, but Coach thought that he would be a kid that would really relish a second chance and deserved a second chance. (He's) a good kid, a good student.
When Spence eventually returned to the field, he quickly re-established his dominance. The 6’2”, 254-pounder seamlessly transitioned from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 scheme. His ability to set up blockers with his speed is reminiscent of many of the NFL's top edge-rushers. This was evident even back at Ohio State, when he’d often align over the tight end’s outside shoulder.
His pure speed constantly stands out on film. He’s often playing the game at another speed, as evidenced in his domination of Penn State. The above clip shows Spence blowing by current Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith for a strip-sack.
NFL Draft Scout projects him to run a 4.58-second 40-yard dash, which matches the eye test. If he delivers upon that projection at the scouting combine, he’d rank among the top one-third of all defensive ends to compete in the event, per MockDraftable. If he is considered an outside linebacker, he’d still be above average in terms of pure speed.
Athleticism is important for pass-rushers. The ability to win with speed, quickness and overall lower-body explosiveness consistently shows in the best edge players. Dipping through contact requires flexibility from the core down to the foot. Spence has excellent balance and core strength to withstand contact and get to the quarterback.
Spence was able to show his elite traits against top competition during his only season in Columbus. His ability to win with a variety of athleticism-based talents is encouraging for his NFL projection.
At Eastern Kentucky, Spence was by far the best player on the field for almost every snap. Not only did he log an 11.5-sack season, but opposing offenses avoided running to his side of the field. He stood out as much as he should have against FCS competition.
When the Colonels played the Kentucky Wildcats, the lights were on for Spence to prove he still had his signature athleticism. Spence played very well against top competition, logging two sacks and causing general havoc throughout the game. He’s simply too fast and flexible for collegiate tackles to consistently handle without help from a tight end or running back.
The same thing happened against North Carolina State in 2015. Spence started the game with a strip-sack on one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks, Jacoby Brissett. Again, he beat the tackle to the corner of the tackle box and withstood contact to bend and change directions to finish the play.
There are some concerns with Spence’s game that could limit him to a weak-side defensive end role or stand-up 3-4 linebacker. His lack of stellar height and length definitely shows on tape, both as a pass-rusher and run defender. With only 31" arms, he struggles to use his length to control the blocker like a longer athlete can.
Spence has to rely on his speed and quick feet to be great as a pass-rusher. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an elite prospect or terrific player in the NFL. But he must develop countermoves and the ability to shed with his hands more effectively.
Right now, he is overly reliant on his outside speed rush. It’s effective and will continue to cause havoc in the NFL, but there’s room to improve from a consistency and overall ceiling standpoint. Otherwise tackles will be able to hedge against the outside speed and wash him out of the play.
Similarly built players like San Diego's Melvin Ingram and Philadelphia's Brandon Graham have been successful in small spaces by developing their hand placement and bull-rush ability. Spence should model his arc after those two, as he has more speed than both players. Adding a more dynamic inside rush is necessary to fulfill his upside.
Spence flashes solid run defending, but he has room for improvement there as well. His lack of speed-to-power conversion shows in both phases of the game. He’s more of a hit-or-miss player setting the edge than he should be. This could limit his snap count as a rookie, but he’s explosive enough to believe he can and will improve with the right technique work.
If there were any questions remaining about his talent, all evaluators had to do was watch the 2016 Senior Bowl. Spence was the best player on the field throughout the game, even notching a sack. He was the standout performer against fellow collegiate all-stars.
Overall, Spence deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Laremy Tunsil, Joey Bosa, Jalen Ramsey, Jared Goff and Ezekiel Elliott as one of the top talents in the draft, as he is the best pure edge-rusher in the class. He offers unique movement skills for his size that are rarely available in the draft.
His off-field issues are a thing of the past, as he has shown great remorse and understanding of his mistakes. He hasn’t had any incidents since last May, and September 2014 was the last significant hiccup in his journey. His on-field focus has helped him improve his stability, and NFL teams should be comfortable with drafting him.
Every team in the league could use another impact pass-rusher. That means each team in the top 10 is a fit for Spence. Ideally, he would go to a team with a 3-4 defense like Tennessee, Cleveland or Baltimore, but he has proved his talent in a 4-3 as well. He’s an elite pass-rushing talent, so he’ll make the best of whatever situation he ends up in.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.