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Athletic Pass-Rusher Jonathan Bullard Is Epitome of Boom-or-Bust Draft Prospect

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2016

Florida defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard (90) rushes the New Mexico State line during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Gainesville, Fla. Florida won 61-13. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

Every scouting report needs to begin with what a player can do. For all the negatives brought out through the evaluation process, it's often lost that every team isn't looking for a full-time starter in every player that they draft.

There are 53 roster spots and 46 active players on NFL game days. There is more to the sport than 11 three-down players on each side of the ball.

The constantly changing valuation of roles and traits at the NFL level is fascinating. After Richard Sherman, everyone wanted to find the next long press-man cornerback. Another Seattle Seahawk, Michael Bennett, is starting to popularize an outside-inside pass-rusher role in the league, too.

Bennett is a base defensive end in Seattle's 4-3 defense, but in passing situations, he kicks inside to defensive tackle. Hybrid linebacker-defensive end Bruce Irvin used to then drop to the line of scrimmage, but he recently moved on from the team by signing with the Oakland Raiders.

The purpose of an outside-inside pass-rusher is twofold. First, the base defensive end can replace a run-first defensive tackle on third downs, improving a defense's ability to turn up the heat on the interior offensive line. The vacancy at defensive end also gives an opportunity for situational pass-rushers, like Irvin, who are too small to be three-down edge defenders but still have talent to utilize on third downs.

One player who may be able to emulate Bennett's success is Jonathan Bullard of Florida. For the Gators, Bullard played the same base defensive end-nickel defensive tackle role in their 4-3 defense.

In 2011, Will Muschamp, formerly a defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas, headed to Gainesville as a first-time head coach. Bullard has the opportunity to be the fourth Florida lineman with a Muschamp background to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

The first was defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who was taken 23rd overall in 2013. A year later, defensive tackle Dominique Easley was drafted 29th overall by the New England Patriots, despite the fact that he was coming off of his second major knee injury. Last class, Dante Fowler, who was a hybrid end-tackle early in his Gators career, was taken third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Entering the combine, I was skeptical of Bullard. Though those Florida linemen were drafted high, it's hard to make the case that any have met or surpassed the expectations set for them coming into the NFL, at least early on in their careers. What worried me the most, though, was his label as a snap-anticipator. 

I have no idea what to do with Bullard. Snap jumps, but tests well in short area. https://t.co/Da9SFab0A6

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) March 7, 2016

 At the college level, there are shortcuts to making impact plays that can't be replicated at the NFL level. One difference between the two sports is the relatively bland cadences that teams use in college, even at the Power Five level. Often, players can "jump the snap" and beat their opponents off of the ball by guessing when they will begin the play.

Now, your counter argument can be that a player needs to do what he needs to do to get a sack, but as a professional, it's going to be hard for him to mimic his college results with the same process. One interior pass-rusher, Jerel Worthy, always comes to mind when discussing snap-jumpers. Worthy was talked about as a penetrator when he left college early for the 2012 NFL draft. Up until the combine.

In Indianapolis, Worthy had a 1.74-second 10-yard split. He also only hit 28.5" in the vertical jump and a 8'11" mark in the broad jump. For reference, that vertical jump ranks in the 28th percentile for defensive tackles, per Mock Draftable.

So, Worthy didn't have lower-body explosion that he displayed on tape? How could that be? He was often timing his burst off the line of scrimmage with simple Big Ten cadences, a cheat code.

Worthy was still considered as a potential first-round pick by the likes of some of the heavy-hitters in the draft community, like NFL Draft Scout. At the end of the day, Worthy was taken 52nd overall, a second-round pick. Since 2012, he's been on the rosters of five different franchises, only playing four games since the end of his rookie season.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

With that narrative hanging around Bullard's style of play, he seemed like a risky player heading into his Lucas Oil Stadium effort in February. Fortunately for Bullard, he had the polar opposite of Worthy's combine performance.

He had a 4.93-second 40-yard dash, a 32" vertical and a 9'8" broad jump, good for the 88th, 78th and 98th percentile, respectively, for defensive tackles, according to Mock Draftable. His 1.65-second 10-yard split is also a couple tiers above Worthy's time.

Armed with those numbers, you can make the case that at least some of Bullard's freaky first-step ability is natural and not just snap-jumping. That's a massive positive for his scouting report. What he does after that first step is what his draft stock now hinges on.

If he doesn't immediately get into the backfield, he loses the pad-level battle frequently. He's just never learned how to reset after his initial steps, which causes some nasty blocks on him in the ground game by well-versed guards. He's lucky he's slippery enough with his feet that, with time, he can slide past blocks. 

Bullard is moving so fast off the snap sometimes that he can't diagnose plays. Getting too deep in backfield. pic.twitter.com/XYiWPX4OBj

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) March 11, 2016

When he is able to burst into the backfield, there are times when he's unable to even control his own momentum. As a defensive tackle, you shouldn't be deeper in the backfield than replacing the offensive line's feet, at least until you lock onto your target.

There are times when Bullard is three or four yards in the backfield and a running back darts past him, forcing him to chase the tackle from behind.

All of those issues are coachable, but that doesn't mean it's going to be effortless for the staff to develop those traits in the former Gator. His hands aren't what you'd describe as active, but they are heavy, which will help him as a base defensive end in the running game. On paper, Bullard has no massive physical limitations.

Bullard won't be a special edge defender. Edge pressure has a lot to do with bending around offensive linemen, which is nearly impossible at Bullard's size. He's a good enough run defender to play as a strong-side defensive end in a 4-3 defense, though, and his ability to explode into the backfield as a 3-technique defensive tackle, also known as an under tackle, will be where he's most impactful.

The biggest mismatch position in the NFL is tight end. There are the haves and the have-nots when it comes to jumbo pass-catchers who can test the seams downfield. Last season, there were four tight ends who totaled more than 1,000 receiving yards. There were only 18 tight ends in 2015 who totaled more than 500 receiving yards.

That means about half of the organizations in the NFL didn't have a tight end who was able to post even half of the yardage that Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker or Gary Barnidge did. Ceilings of the top tight ends in the league are incredibly higher than the average starter, with safeties unable to cover the freak athletes downfield.

Ask any NFL fan you know about their team's needs and they'll almost always rattle off one of two answers. They either need to take a step in finding a better tight end, or they need a coverage linebacker or large safety to hang with these pass-catchers.

Right behind tight ends in terms of mismatches, though, are penetrating 3-techniques. Athletically, defensive linemen are better than the average offensive tackle, due to the economics of linemen positions on both sides of the ball, the glory of bringing quarterbacks down for sacks juxtaposed to the anonymity of pass-blocking and the single-handed impact they can make at the position, which puts them on the defensive line at the high school and college levels in the first place.

Last year, there were three base-under tackles who were able to post 11 sacks, good for at least eighth in the NFL. They were Geno Atkins, Aaron Donald and Kawann Short. Of the top 29 sack artists of 2015, there was only one other 3-technique listed, being Gerald McCoy.

The players at the top of the interior penetration game in the NFL are so much better than the rest of their peers that it almost sets unrealistic goals for the rest of the players at the position. For example, Geno Atkins is the only of the Atkins-Donald-Short trio to be on his second contract. In 2013, Atkins, who had already made two Pro Bowls, signed a five-year extension for $53 million, with $15 million coming in guaranteed money.

In 2016, Malik Jackson, who only has 14 sacks in his career compared to Atkins' 11 just last season, signed a contract worth $90 million over six years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, including $42 million guaranteed, per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network. Jackson, with a fraction of the production at an older age than when Atkins received his extension, after just one year as a starter, received nearly three times the guaranteed money as Atkins, who had established himself as an All-Pro player.

Teams are willing to go to great extents to find a pass-rushing, producing, 3-technique defensive tackle, because there are so few who can make the impact of an Atkins, Donald, Short or McCoy. With creative defensive coordinators, though, another mold has appeared.

The Michael Bennett comparisons will linger around Bullard, but he's not the only defensive end-defensive tackle with double-digit sacks in 2015. Robert Ayers, who recently signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Bennett played before signing on with the Seahawks, was able to post 7.5 sacks in his last five games of 2015, ending the year on a hot streak.

By comparison to Jackson's contract, Ayers is a steal. He's four years older than the now-Jaguar, but he signed a contract worth $21 million over three years, with just $10.5 million coming guaranteed, per Rapoport. Four years of age matters, but it doesn't matter to the extent of three extra years on a contract and $59 million, plus four times the guaranteed money.

If defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche of Mississippi didn't have any off-field concerns, he'd be a top-five pick in this draft class because of his third-down ability. He's a liability in the run game as a three-down interior player, like Bullard would be at 285 pounds.

As of right now, Play the Draft, a stock-based site that creates composite scores for draft prospects, has Nkemdiche, off-field issues and all, ranked as their 19th overall player with a projected selection between the 20th and 21st picks of this draft. Bullard is 34th on their list, sliding between the 31st and 32nd picks, a borderline first-rounder.

So what separates them? Gone are the days of reserve players on an NFL roster. Every non-quarterback in the active 46 slots on Sundays needs to have a defined role. Bullard's role can be rare and impactful, but a team has to be willing to mold their defense around him as he develops, as Seattle did with Bennett.

A team like the Atlanta Falcons, who essentially have an Irvin clone in Vic Beasley, their 2015 top-10 selection, could easily mirror the Seahawks with the addition of a player like Bullard with the 17th pick in 2016. They've finished with 41 sacks over the past two years, worst in the league, and need help in the pass-rushing unit.

Their head coach, Dan Quinn, was Seattle's defensive coordinator early on in Bennett's tenure, and making Beasley a base linebacker and situational pass-rusher should help the 246-pounder in the long run. Quinn also coached Bullard in 2012, when he was the defensive end's coordinator and positional coach at Florida.

If a team is willing and patient—two huge obstacles that NFL front offices tend to trip up on—Bullard can become the centerpiece of a franchise's defense. If he isn't able to take up on coaching, though, he'll be an athletic, but inconsistent, rotational player who can't be trusted on a down-to-down basis.

The full spectrum is possible with Bullard at the next level, which is why where he lands and when he comes off the board on draft day will be so interesting from a long-term perspective.

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