The biggest surprise from Sunday's on-field drills at the NFL Scouting Combine was Charles Tapper's 40-yard dash. Running it in an amazing 4.59 seconds, the majority of non-draftniks immediately went to Google to figure out who the defensive lineman was, as, for the most part, they hadn't been exposed to him.
The Oklahoma Sooners defensive end wasn't completely anonymous heading into Indianapolis, as he was an All-Big 12 player in both 2013 and 2015, and he played in the Senior Bowl. Still, little draft talk revolved around Tapper in a loaded defensive line class.
The interior defensive line is the strength of the 2016 draft, and there were already plenty of names to satisfy every need you could imagine. If you wanted a 5-technique defensive end, there was DeForest Buckner of Oregon, A'Shawn Robinson of Alabama and Jihad Ward of Illinois. If you wanted an under tackle, there was Sheldon Rankins of Louisville, Jonathan Bullard of Florida and Maliek Collins of Nebraska. If you wanted a nose tackle, there was Andrew Billings of Baylor, Jarran Reed of Alabama and Kenny Clark of UCLA.
Small-school studs like Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech and Javon Hargrave of South Carolina State generated some buzz, while raw former blue-chip recruits like Robert Nkemdiche of Mississippi and Chris Jones of Mississippi State ranked among first-rounders. There was so much known talent on the surface that almost all of the coverage at the position was fixated at the top, with little digging just under the surface at some deeper sleeper prospects.
To truly understand why the Sooner went unnoticed until he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at 271 pounds, you have to follow his career timeline.
After seeing limited playing time as a mid-level recruit during his true freshman season, Tapper took over as a full-time starter for Oklahoma's defense in 2013. He wasn't an interior defensive lineman, but a traditional pass-rushing defensive end. In that role, he was able to total nine tackles for losses and 5.5 sacks—second in the Big 12 for a sophomore, only behind his teammate Eric Striker.
This prompted excitement in the draft community. When a young player displays production and athleticism, more times than not, you can take a first-round projection to the bank as far as defensive linemen are concerned. Pete Fiutak of Campus Insiders, for example, ranked Tapper as his third defensive end in the 2015 class heading into the 2014 preseason.
Ahead of Tapper on Fiutak's list were Mario Edwards of Florida State, a 2015 second-round pick, and Shilique Calhoun, a potential top-50 pick in this draft class by way of Michigan State. Behind him were names like Nkemdiche, Dante Fowler—the 2015 third overall pick out of Florida—and Noah Spence, a first-round talent who transferred to Eastern Kentucky from Ohio State due to a drug suspension by the Big Ten. Tapper's name was among the stars of college football.
The singular play that you could point to for the generation of hype, like Jadeveon Clowney's helmet-flying hit in the Outback Bowl against Michigan, was when Tapper chased Alabama's Amari Cooper from behind in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. The Oakland Raiders drafted the star Crimson Tide receiver fourth overall in the 2015 class, after running a 4.42 40-yard dash. Cooper made a Pro Bowl in his rookie season.
That Sugar Bowl was the last time we saw Tapper as a pass-rusher, though. Oklahoma switched him from an edge defender to a four-point-stance, two-gapping defensive end.
In a one-gap scheme, an end's goal is to explode as soon as the ball moves at the line of scrimmage, keeping outside containment with his outside arm but doing his best to get after the passer. Tapper proved he did excellent in that situation. In a two-gap scheme, an end doesn't even look at the football, as he doesn't react out of his stance until the offensive tackle in front of him moves, often called a "tackle read," which takes lower-body explosion out of the equation for the defender completely.
His best trait became a non-factor on Saturdays due to scheme. This is how a potential first-round pick became an afterthought in the matter of months. He finished his junior season with only 13 solo tackles, as he transitioned from penetrator to facilitator for the greater good of the overall scheme.
When you think of players returning to school for another year, it's usually the Jake Locker or Matt Barkley stories of prospects who were touted as high draft picks. Tapper was no longer on that stage, but his return for a senior season after a disappointing junior campaign still made news. David Ubben, then covering the Big 12 for Fox Sports, was the first to break the story:
Oklahoma DE Charles Tapper says he plans to return for his senior season in 2015.— David Ubben (@davidubben) January 2, 2015
Tapper wasn't totally off the radar, as he made the preseason watch list for the Senior Bowl he'd eventually participate in, but he was down in mock drafts by the summer of 2015. During his senior year, Oklahoma did mix up its defense more than in 2014, but in base alignments, Tapper was still in the limiting four-point frog stance that evaluators have grown to hate.
It's understandable if a team decides to make him a Day 2 selection after his 4.59 40-yard dash, 34-inch vertical jump and 9'11" broad jump. He's shown his explosive ability on film when given the chance, and according to MockDraftable.com, Tapper comes in at the 92nd percentile or higher on the relative scale of defensive tackles in the three drills that measure explosiveness.
Per the site, his three closest comparisons are Nkemdiche, a top-five talent in this class; Edwards, who is waiting to take over as Justin Tuck's replacement in Oakland; and Bullard, who also might be a first-round pick in this class. If you can get a talent like Tapper 20 to 40 picks later than that group of three, didn't you come away with positive value on draft day?
Mocks and evaluators are looking at Tapper as a Day 3 selection. NFLDraftScout.com listed Tapper as a third- or fourth-round pick and the 12th defensive end in the class, which is around the consensus range. The risk-reward spectrum in a less-than-stellar class would suggest that anything after the second round would be a slam dunk, but there is a reason why teams might shy away other than Tapper's college scheme.
He's only 271 pounds. That alone makes it difficult to imagine him as an impact interior defensive lineman, at least in year one. The only way he sees the field as a defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end under 280 pounds is as a pass-rushing specialist or on special teams, where his explosive ability should flash. He's a few years away from being the football player you draft him to be.
Regardless, when you run a 1.59 10-yard split—the same number Clowney clocked in at in 2014 as the first overall pick—you're going to turn heads. What's also intriguing is the endless possibilities he possesses at first glance, as Tapper is willing to play defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker, per Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News:
"I can go inside, play that 3 technique," Tapper said. "I can also go outside and play linebacker. So they’re like, ‘You do so much but we don’t want to label you a ‘tweener. We want to find out what’s your position. We know you’re like a piece of mold. Where would you want to fit at?’ I said, ‘Five technique.’ And they said, ‘Then that’s what you need to work on when you get back.’”
When he's told that Mario Williams was not happy about dropping into coverage, Tapper cuts in.
"I would love to drop into coverage," he said. "Yeah, I’d love to show people how athletic I am. Who wouldn’t want to catch a couple picks in their career? You get opportunities to score touchdowns! ... I definitely love to show how versatile I am. When you want to be the greatest you have to be great at a bunch of different things. Look at J.J. Watt. He’s good at the whole defensive line and linebacker and he can play tight end. I want to be one of the greatest, too, so I have to show my versatility.”
It's hard to gauge exactly what Tapper will do at the next level or where he will land. Is he the hidden riser who sneaks into the first round in a weak draft class? As either a defensive lineman or edge defender, he shows all the potential in the world, but he needs to choose an identity before a staff can start molding the ball of clay that he is.
We haven't seen the peak Charles Tapper since January 2, 2014, in New Orleans. What separates him between a defensive tackle prospect like Aaron Donald, who ran a 4.62 40-yard dash and 1.63 10-yard split at 285 pounds, is production. Donald was a force his senior year at Pittsburgh, while Tapper was stuck in a four-point stance.
Even at the Senior Bowl, where Donald stole the show in 2014, Tapper was pedestrian. Instead, it was Sheldon Rankins who rose from the defensive tackle group in Mobile, Alabama. That also poses concern, as he didn't break out in a week's worth of practices as a one-gap player under an NFL coaching staff.
It's going to take plenty of elbow grease to get Tapper back into his old pass-rushing self. The same can be said regarding a transition from being a 271-pounder into under tackle shape. Still, the depth of this defensive tackle class may present a team with a discount freak athlete in a talent pool that is lacking many premier talents. For a patient team with a strong coaching staff, Tapper has a chance to be someone's "big get" looking back in three years.