In NFL draft discussions, there’s occasionally a rift between a player perceived as "safe" and a player who has "upside." Too often, players narrowly fit into one of these categories, grouped as either NFL-ready with limited growth potential or prospects who need ample work before their teams can trust them.
Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun is proof a prospect can be both. Teams don’t have to sacrifice upside and production for relative safeness all the time in the draft process.
Calhoun isn’t the sexiest of athletes and may never be a top-five pass-rusher in the NFL, but it’s his reliability, future impact and persistent activeness as an edge player that should force NFL teams to ignore their desire for pure “upside” and draft the future long-term starter in round one.
Run Defender: Active Yet Controlled
In today’s NFL, the focus is on defensive ends or outside linebackers who can rush the passer. Sacks and tackles for loss are the gold standard for edge-rusher success, which has some merit; there aren’t many pass-rushers who can consistently cause consistent pressure, just like there are few NBA players who can effectively create their own shot.
It’s a rarity, and when you find a Von Miller or a Stephen Curry type who can win on their own, it’s important to properly appreciate it.
But few college edge players enter the NFL with as refined and consistent run-defending skills as Calhoun boasts as he departs Michigan State. Working as a strong-side defensive end the last three seasons, Calhoun has dealt with all types of offensive focuses against him in the running game.
Calhoun has grown into a complete edge run defender, offering remarkable consistency in two key areas: edge setting and in-space finishing.
The 23-year-old is rarely pushed off balance when working on the perimeter, utilizing a strong core to re-engage after the initial block and work toward the running lane with momentum. As in the play below, Calhoun plays with a violent activeness with his hands while also maintaining balance and meaningful steps as he works down the line:
Notice how he erased the tight end's hand placement, baited and slipped underneath the pulling center and eliminated any hope of a cutback lane for the running back. He not only eliminated the value of two blockers but also inhibited any potential cutback lane for the running back. With so many teams valuing the outside zone run as a part of their horizontally stretching offense, having a strong-side defensive end who can neutralize it like this is supremely valuable.
The second aspect of Calhoun’s game that makes him an NFL-level run defender is his ability to finish in space. Too often, defensive ends can get to their spot and eliminate blockers, only to be just a minor delay in a running back’s big play. Calhoun, who may be considered by some teams as a 3-4 outside linebacker, is able to evade second-level blockers, stay linear in his pursuit and breakdown to finish in space.
In the play above, Calhoun effectively read the underneath screen thanks to the right tackle pushing upfield after the snap. Calhoun dips into the flat, evaded the receiver’s poor block and worked to get into position. His tackling form and finishing here should be the go-to play when considering whether Calhoun can play 3-4 outside linebacker.
As in these two instances, Calhoun has displayed effectiveness as a run defender who's more than just being physical, active or having the inherent skill set to do so. The upside is there to add bulk, improve hand alignment and diagnosis even quicker, but he’s NFL-ready in the two areas that generally give rookie defensive ends trouble in the NFL.
Pass-Rusher: Impact Without Risk
As alluded to earlier, the breadwinning skill of any highly valued edge player is his ability to rush the passer. Calhoun doesn’t dominate with elite athleticism or explosiveness, as some of his 2016 draft counterparts are able to. But Calhoun can win with refined technique, hand placement and positioning, as well as with dynamic counter-rush moves and straight-line bursts to the quarterback.
For a strong-side edge player as a pass-rusher, Calhoun needs to prove he can take advantage of one-on-one matchups without blitzing support, can counter rush to maximize the handful of opportunities and still generate disruption against double teams. Calhoun, especially as a senior, has consistently displayed all three of those pass-rushing dynamics.
Despite rushing a bit high at times and not playing with a consistently low-centered pad level, Calhoun is able to dip on the perimeter initially and work underneath edge-blockers with plus-shoulder technique and an underneath rip. Calhoun’s ability to run the arch, get position on kick sliding tackles without giving up ground and finish in the backfield is exemplified in the play below:
Along with winning on the perimeter in his senior year, something he’s drastically improved upon since his 2013 and 2014 seasons, Calhoun has also become more effective as a counter rusher inside. He’s developed well-defined and effective outside-in rip move setups as well as a sharp spin move, both of which should translate nicely to the NFL level in time.
As in the play below, Calhoun works outside initially, gets the left tackle to overcommit only slightly, then uses a push and inside rip move, coupled with a balanced, linear approach to the quarterback, to finish the sack. Staying linear and more under control as a pass-rusher allowed Calhoun to be a far more effective backfield tackle finisher than in the past.
Finally, Calhoun has willingly accepted double teams in his time at Michigan State. In the past, it was to support the host of NFL prospects at linebacker and defensive line to generate their own pressure with as many as one-on-one opportunities as possible. This season, as the defense’s feature defender, he was asked to continue to generate pressure despite the added attention, and he answered the call.
In the play above, Calhoun first executed a perfectly stepped (though a tad high) spin move, keeping his back exposure minimum and stepping the blocker’s full width in his footwork. He moved past the blocker with upfield penetration, split the aiding running back block and forced the quarterback into a throwaway.
Calhoun’s aggressiveness was on display throughout the 2015 season, and his campaign to prove to NFL teams he could be a feature pass-rusher has paid off based on his play as a senior.
Worth a 1st-Round Pick?
After producing middle-of-the-road NFL Scouting Combine numbers—4.82-second 40-yard dash, 23 reps on the bench press and a 6.97-second three-cone drill— Shilique Calhoun’s performance reiterated to NFL teams he’s not an elite-level athlete. But that was expected. He won’t have the terms "high upside” or “developmental” tied to his name, and that’s great news.
More than few teams should be coveting an NFL-ready strong-side edge defender. While there are a handful of free-agent options to fill the void, such as Chris Long, William Hayes and Courtney Upshaw, they’ll cost a pretty penny and may not be much more effective in 2016 than Calhoun.
Just because a prospect such as Calhoun doesn’t possess elite upside as a pass-rusher doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be considered a first-round pick. First-round values are players who can make an impact early in their NFL career and grow into one of the cornerstones of the team.
Calhoun could provide immediate starting capabilities in the NFL, and his growth as a senior along with completeness as a prospect should make him a key cog in any defensive line.