Mike Tanier's Combine Notebook, Day 5: D-Linemen Must Run Fast or Fall Behind

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Mike Tanier's Combine Notebook, Day 5: D-Linemen Must Run Fast or Fall Behind
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

“It’s a pretty strong defensive tackle draft. And you know that doesn’t upset me.” – Dave Gettleman, general manager, Carolina Panthers.

If you love defensive linemen the way Gettleman loves defensive linemen, this is the draft for you. And lucky you, because the rest of us love quarterbacks and receivers, and this is totally not the draft for us.

Kidding! We all love defensive linemen. But let’s face it: There are drafts for the media (Eight quarterbacks could go in the first round, four saints and four sinners!) and then there are drafts for empire builders like Gettleman, who helped build the Giants Super Bowl defensive lines before building the Panthers’ Super Bowl defensive line. If you get excited when a three-tech tackle beats the whole offensive line off the line of scrimmage or an edge rusher gets a sack with a swim move and second effort, you will be a pig in slop this draft season.

Saturday was a showcase for just that sort of exceptional defensive talent: huge tackles who can run, speedy ends who are also big and strong and linebackers who can do a little of everything. Here are some of the highlights. With all respect to Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee, who appears to be the member of a more advanced species, let’s focus on the D-line:

  • Emmanuel Ogbah ran a 4.63 second 40-yard dash, high-jumped 35.5 inches and broad jumped 121.0 inches at 275 pounds. The jumps, for all you smart alecks out there who wonder when teams will start digging moats around the quarterback to make broad jumps matter, are proxy measurements for explosive strength in the thighs and trunk. That strength translates into both power and an initial burst at the line.
  • Shaq Lawson of Clemson ran a 4.70-second sprint with jump numbers of 33.0 and 120.0 inches at 270 pounds. He also looked great in lateral drills.
  • Sheldon Rankins of Louisville, a 304-pound left tackle who was one of the three or four biggest stars of Senior Bowl Week, ran a 5.03-second sprint with 34.5 and 118-inch jumps. These jump numbers tend to run together and lose their meaning, so to clarify: a 304-pound man produced a 34.5 inch vertical jump. Rankins then looked great in mobility drills.
  • Matthew Ioannidis of Temple, another Senior Bowl favorite, matched Rankins’ 5.03 sprint at 303 pounds. Ioannidis’ jump numbers were not great, but he benched 32 reps. That’s the kind of strength—with enough athleticism—that teams will look for in a mid-round run plugger.
  • Andrew Billings of Baylor, one of my favorite prospects this year, weighs 310 pounds, ran a 5.05-second sprint, benched 31 reps and did enough in jumps and agility drills to prove his point.

Spouting off workout results gets boring (and you can check NFL.com as well as I can), so let’s touch on some big guns before moving on.

  • Ohio State's Joey Bosa was amazing, but we knew Bosa was amazing.
  • DeForest Buckner’s results were not spectacular—5.05-second dash, 32-inch and 116-inch jumps at 281 pounds—but Buckner aced the agility drills. Lateral-movement drills are a big deal for a 6'7" dude, because teams don’t want to watch a power forward come off the line of scrimmage and straight into the punch of a dumpster-shaped blocker with better leverage.
  • Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky ran just a 4.80 second sprint at 254 pounds, but broad-jumped 121 inches. Spence has had a buggy hamstring since Senior Bowl practices. His less-than-impressive offseason could cause him to plummet all the way down to … oh, let’s say the 12th pick in the first round, where the Saints will be waiting with a catcher’s mitt (and the Steelers and Bills clogging their phone line).

You may think that with so many great players, the workout figures are more meaningless than ever. Actually, the sheer amount of talent on the defensive line at the combine adds significance to the workout results. To explain why, we turn to someone who has really been slacking off lately: NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock at the Saturday press conference:

"There are so many good defensive linemen, that one way you could look at it is that there could be a bunch of them taken in the first round. The other way, which could happen, is that teams are going to look around and say, ‘Man, I can get a second-round defensive tackle in the fourth round, so I’m gonna wait. I could go get a first-round defensive tackle in the third round, so I’m gonna go attack another need.’"

In other words, defensive linemen not named Bosa or Buckner may need to stand out from an extremely talented crowd or risk sliding down the draft board. Workout numbers are one way to stand out or keep from stepping back.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press
Emmanuel Ogbah had a terrific day

Ogbah‘s and Ioannidis’ workout results are especially significant. Ogbah looks like just another defensive end on tape. He rushes off the edge, sometimes knifes inside or around his blocker and occasionally wins by being big and fast. He rarely shows a second move or refined technique and offers little when the play is moving away from him.

Ogbah risked getting lost in the shuffle of better players, so it helped to prove this weekend that he is REALLY fast, strong and athletic in ways that suggest untapped potential.

Ioannidis is a run-plugger by trade in a draft full of tackles like Billings, Rankins, A’Shawn Robinson and Robert Nkemdiche types whose all-purpose capability pops off the game film. Solid workouts this weekend, coupled with a strong Senior Bowl showing, will keep him in the conversation with the mid-tier prospects, instead of dropping him off the chase.

Good workouts can slide a prospect up one tier from a group of similar players. In a draft where Bosa and Buckner won’t last past the top six picks or so and Spence the first dozen, everyone else must jockey for position or risk being a low-priority guy simply because this year’s defensive line class is so awesome.

It’s what we saw from wide receivers in 2013 and 2014. This year, all of the workout fireworks were on Sunday.

Gettleman and his type of general manager are not upset, not at all.

 

Diaper Dandies

Andrew Billings, mentioned in the last segment, does not turn 20 until March 6. A’Shawn Robinson of Alabama, whose beard is so long and thick that he can buy dad jeans without getting carded, turns 21 on March 21. So add one more intriguing number to this year’s defensive tackle class: Some of these guys are really young.

LM Otero/Associated Press
A'Shawn Robinson cannot legally buy a beer for three more weeks.

Age is a big deal in baseball scouting, where the analytics crowd has known for years that there is a huge difference between a 19-year-old hitting 20 homers in AA ball and a 24-year old doing the same thing. Most NFL prospects are between 21 and 24 when they enter the league, so age is not as extreme a variable. Still, there is a big difference between age 21 and 24 and outliers like Brandon Weeden enter the league now and then.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press
Andrew Billings is still a teenager!

Here is what Gettleman said when asked about the ages of prospects:

"Let me tell you something: We’re drafting guys you still have to change their diapers.

"That’s one of the things you really focus on. You focus on their intelligence and you focus on their maturity.

"You saw what happened when the NBA first started drafting 18-year-old high school kids. It was only about a 30 percent hit rate. And the guys they were hitting on were someone whose mother, father or someone was living with them. OK, so now we’re taking guys just a couple years older. It’s big.

"It’s a whole new world for them. Is it going to stop us from drafting a 20-year-old guy? No. It hasn’t stopped us yet."

Kevin Colbert, general manager of the Steelers, offered a similar (if less colorful and detailed) opinion.

“You factor in the age. Obviously, the younger they guy, they may have more upside. The older, they’re more mature and ready to go. So, I think it can go either way and we won’t value one over the other.”

I would argue, all other things being equal, that a 20-year-old who achieves draft eligibility and an early-round grade will be at least equally mature, if not more mature, than a 23-year-old in the same situation. The 20-year-old had no academic problems in high school (or else he would have spent a year in an academy or junior college). He rose quickly through the starting ranks at his program, which is nearly impossible to do based on pure athleticism. He probably impressed coaches with his work habits and football IQ as a freshman, etc.

The 20-year-old didn’t complete his degree, you say? Robinson has the credits to graduate.

All other things being equal is a huge caveat: A prospect can be too immature for the NFL at any age, so Gettleman and Colbert must do all the usual homework. But If we are going to spend the post-Combine season focusing on the measurables of a prospect like Robinson—312 pounds, 22 reps on the bench, 10 ½ inch hands and a good enough 5.20 sprint—we should acknowledge that his age may be the most intriguing, significant measurable of them all.

 

The Draft Window

Remember “character issues?”

When I started covering the draft 15 years ago, few prospects were accused of doing anything specific. But dozens of prospects each year had vague “character issues,” which could range anywhere from an NCAA violation (tee-hee) to activities outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.

There was no TMZ back then, no Pro Football Talk or Deadspin, no major websites covering mid-major college programs and maybe a dozen reporters at the typical combine press conference. Collegiate naughtiness was whispered down the lane. By the time it reached a worker bee like me, it was unconfirmable gossip. So the kid who got a free tattoo and the one who drop-kicked an archbishop both had “character issues.”

We’ve come a long way. Now, we look at a prospect like Nkemdiche and try to parse out whether he got high on marijuana and fell out of a hotel window or got drunk and fell out of a hotel window.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nkemdiche’s Sunday workouts were solid: a 4.87-second sprint at 294 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and so on. But the measurables are not what Nkemdiche is all about. The Ole Miss defensive tackle made news on Friday when he announced that he was drunk, not high, when he fell out of a hotel window and was charged by police for possession of marijuana in December.

Nkemdiche said the marijuana belonged to someone else in his room. He casually mentioned that teammate and possible top overall pick Laremy Tunsil was in the room, making Nkemdiche sound like the kid who got the whole tenth grade suspended after Chad’s parents left him alone in the house that one weekend.

Now, I buy Nkemdiche’s version of events for two reasons.

First, doesn’t the drinking story sound more plausible than the smoking story? We’ve all staggered a little after a few drinks. Some folks at the combine have spent the hours after 11 p.m. each night doing nothing but. But my (limited and totally second hand) experience with marijuana suggests that the only thing it makes you tumble helplessly into is a Barcalounger for a Tom and Jerry marathon.

Second, is admitting to one really better than admitting to another, at least to the NFL (as opposed to the police)? I swear I wasn’t using the substance that is now legal in two states and much of society considers a mild vice at worst. I got rip-snorting drunk to the point that I lost control of my motor skills instead! Oh, that erases all of our doubts about your judgment and maturity.

As Jason Cole reported for Bleacher Report on Sunday, Nkemdiche did not do well in team interviews. Let’s face it: If Nkemdiche came across as a little odd when answering questions he (and his agent) knew he would face and had time to prep for, imagine what happened when teams started hitting him with the tricky stuff.

The game tape shows an individual who dominates his opponent completely for short spurts, then disappears for a while. That is sometimes the on-field profile of a young man who may not be prepared for the demands of NFL life. Also part of that profile: doing dumb stuff like getting intoxicated and taking a header out of a window.

Ultimately, Nkemdiche will end up like all of those prospects with character issues of yesteryear. Teams have already combed through the window incident and his all-around background, gotten as strong a sense as possible of his personality and work habits and made 32 separate judgments. Nkemdiche will get drafted somewhere between the middle of the first and the top of the second round. The team that selects him will announce that they will mentor him to make sure he reaches his full potential, and that team might conceivably even do so.

There are plenty of NFL prospects who partied too hard, but didn’t fall out of a window during their final seasons. Nkemdiche’s defenestration gave us some specifics to report about. But the vague, yet still very real, character concerns remain.

 

And Finally ...

By bursting out of his compression shorts and showing The Full Monty to a national television audience, Chris Jones of Mississippi State may have helped his draft stock a little.

No, not like that you weirdo.

Jones’ fall prompted the usual explosion of silly jokes. But it should also provide backlash from folks eager to point out that Jones is an excellent prospect, not a punchline.

If Jones ran just another 40-yard dash, he would not be talked about at all. Remember the first segment? Defensive linemen need a way to stand out. Jones inadvertently found a way to…never mind.

The GIFs and one-liners will soon be replaced in the weeks to come by "Here's a breakdown of Chris Jones' REAL tape (SFW)" and "The Chris Jones You Haven't Seen" articles with goofy headlines and openings but generally supportive tones. Positive (ahem) exposure is better than a total lack of media (sheesh) coverage.

Jones now also has an icebreaker with teams when they speak to him at Pro Days and in predraft interviews:

“So you are the guy who …”
“Yeah, crazy huh?”
“Well, it’s nothing we NFL coaches haven’t seen before.”
“Ha ha.”

The NFL likes to pretend scouting is a 100 percent scientific process, but it’s a human process, and a little empathy can influence an opinion.

The real victims of the Great Jones Exposure of 2016 are not Jones or the millions of innocent children who spend Sunday mornings watching scouting combines. It’s the Internet news-breakers obligated to create GIFs, roundups of Twitter gags and other on-the-spot content. Honey, take the kids to breakfast without me. Some kid no one outside of Oktibbeha County knows just ran out of his pants and exposed his junk on pay cable and the world needs me to keep it informed.

It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

The combine ends tomorrow, folks, Keep your pants on.

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