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FCS Standout Pass-Rusher Javon Hargrave Deserves First-Round Hype

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2016

East defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (97), of South Carolina State, during the East West Shrine football game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The concept of draft stock is typically dishonest. For the most part, players aren't moving up and down boards as the draft nears; the media is simply catching on to what NFL scouts already know.

With that being said, there are two opportunities for players to showcase their talents in the offseason. The first is through all-star games, typically a venue only seniors can participate in. The second is through athletic testing, by running around in spandex at either a combine or pro day.

One small-school talent, Javon Hargrave, has aced both of those tests this draft cycle. The South Carolina State product didn't go up against a Southeastern Conference slate, but the defensive tackle was put on an even playing field with FBS prospects multiple times this past winter, and he excelled on every occasion.

After posting 29.5 sacks and 45 tackles for losses in his last two years for the Bulldogs, he generated enough attention to land himself in what is viewed as the second most prestigious all-star game in the postseason schedule, the East-West Shrine Game.

Why did Hargrave land at the Shrine Game? Invites to all-star games occur in-season, and 10 of the under tackle's 13.5 sacks came in the final five games of South Carolina State's schedule. The premier showcase, the Senior Bowl, must have overlooked the defensive tackle in the initial wave of invites due to late-blooming production.

The same circumstance was also true for Vernon Adams, Oregon's quarterback who didn't play healthy until mid-October and didn't participate in a healthy premier head-to-head matchup until mid-November. Playing Stanford and USC back-to-back, Adams completed over 80 percent of his passes combined, plus he scored eight passing touchdowns while only throwing one interception in that two-game stretch.

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Adams didn't receive a Senior Bowl invite, either, leading him to play at the Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was the named the MVP of the event. Like Adams, Hargrave also thrived in practices and on game day, as he clearly stood out from the rest of the competition. He displayed both the burst and bend that is demanded from a top defensive-tackle prospect.

@dpbrugler Well then. pic.twitter.com/J0M0uERHLr

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) January 19, 2016

After the week of practices, Dane Brugler of CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout wrote a positive report on the defensive tackle.

Entering the week, I considered Hargrave the top prospect on the East-West Shrine Game roster. And after a week of practice in St. Petersburg, my opinion hasn't changed. His performance during drills matched his impressive tape, launching himself out of his stance with terrific initial quickness to break up the rhythm of blockers.

Hargrave moves very well for a 315-pounder due to his flexible lower body to easily change directions in space and play low to the ground to get underneath blocks. He has a thick lower body with wide hips and meaty thighs, showing the ability to anchor at the point of attack and occupy multiple blockers. Although he was already my top player entering the week, Hargrave was still able to help himself with his positive play against prospects from the FBS level.

Luckily, Hargrave did enough during the Shrine Game to earn himself a Senior Bowl bid, replacing Sheldon Rankins of Louisville, who left the event due to injury. As a firsthand witness of his short week in Mobile, Alabama, he was dominant in the few one-on-one drills he was able to participate in. By all accounts, he won big at two different all-star games.

The next time we'd see Hargrave would be in Indianapolis for the combine, another setting for the improvement of his draft stock. He measured in at 309 pounds and just a hair over 6'1". His 4.93-second 40-yard dash is in the 88th percentile of defensive tackles, while his vertical jump of 34.5" fell in the 95th percentile and his 9'1" broad jump ranks in the 70th percentile, according to Mock Draftable.

He displayed some of the best lower-body explosion at the position, at a position that has great demands for that trait. On both sides of the ball, the interior line game is much quicker than on the edges. While offensive tackles and edge defenders need to be more athletic overall, due to bending and dipping nature of the position which demands body control, the interior game is simple: burst quickly in a phone booth and be the first person to make contact.

Hargrave has proved he can accomplish that with the best of the defensive linemen in the class. His 1.69-second 10-yard split was only slower than two of his 36 interior defensive line peers at the combine. Those prospects were Robert Nkmediche of Mississippi, who is considered a top-five talent, and Jonathan Bullard, who is a another potential first-round pick.

Just prior to the combine, CBS Sports and Rotoworld's Josh Norris ranked Hargrave as the 46th overall player in the class, just the second small-school prospect on his list behind Carson Wentz, North Dakota State's quarterback.

Where He Wins: Squatty, powerful interior defensive lineman who also has upfield ability thanks to explosion and even displays flexibility in his hips. Far from rigid. A better prospect than many “big school” names, and more advanced with his hands, too.

On film, Hargrave is one of the better pass-rushing defensive tackles in the draft. He's up there on a list with Nkemdiche, Rankins and Bullard. The new mismatch position in the NFL is 3-technique defensive tackle. If you have a Geno Atkins, Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Kawann Short, Mike Daniels or Jurrell Casey, it's going to make a quarterback's day tough.

The quickness of the interior game means that the elite are able to get into the backfield even faster than edge defenders, as a well-timed burst off the line of scrimmage can lead to penetration in two steps. At the same time, interior pressure is unavoidable for quarterbacks.

If a pass-rusher comes around the edge running the arch, a quarterback can step up in the pocket. If a defensive tackle gets loose in the backfield, though, there's a straight line to the passer. Quarterbacks then need to make a decision to either throw off their back foot or roll out of the pocket almost instantly to avoid a sack.

How much more could Hargrave have done to prove to franchises that he's worth a first-round selection? He dominated at the college level. He dominated at two all-star games. He dominated at the combine.

Wentz also checked off those boxes and is discussed as a possible second-overall choice to the Cleveland Browns, whose starting quarterback at the moment is once again Josh McCown. Maybe it's positional value that's keeping Hargrave from being valued correctly. Even Atkins and Daniels were fourth-round picks, though they were coming off injury, while Casey was a third-round selection. Atkins, Daniels and Casey went to Georgia, Iowa and USC, respectively, hardly South Carolina State.

Donald owned the offseason more than any player of recent history. After being named an All-American, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and winning the Outland, Bronko Nagurski, Lombardi and Chuck Bednarik trophies, Donald single-handedly turned the Senior Bowl into a one-man show.

From there, he had one of the best, if not the best, all-time combine performances at his position, finishing in the 88th percentile or better in the 40-yard dash, the 10-yard split, the bench press, the broad jump, the three-cone drill and the short shuttle. His "worst" drill was his 32" vertical jump, good for the 78th percentile of defensive tackles according to Mock Draftable. Even with that resume, he went 11th overall, behind players like Justin Gilbert, a cornerback who has three starts in his two-year career.

Franchises are looking at undersized defensive tackles as "just pass-rushers," like every team couldn't use more pressure on defense. The Denver Broncos took the approach of adding interior pressure players across the board a few years ago, and they were just rewarded with a Super Bowl victory led by a decrepit Peyton Manning. Their Super Bowl 50 opponent, the Carolina Panthers, were spearheaded on their defensive line by Short.

Saying these players are "just pass-rushers" is like claiming tight end Antonio Gates was "just a pass-catcher" in his prime. That may be true, but you're never going to shell out big money for a run-first 3-technique defensive tackle or a blocking tight end.

Explosive plays, drive-killing sacks or tackles for losses, are what you should be asking from the position. One play in the backfield gets an offense off tempo, which more times than not leads to a failed forced ball downfield or a punt.

Hargrave has the burst and shifty hips to pin his ears back and make a play in the backfield without hesitation. He has a variety of moves, including a swim, a dip and rip and a bull rush, but the best part is he knows when to use each technique situationally. Because he played at a small school, the reps and amount of experience he received has made him a well-versed defensive tackle, not just an athlete who slipped through the cracks.

SC State DT (97) Javon Hargrave vs Clemson in 2014...he's the best player at E/W Shrine game. https://t.co/LMw9vxqphg

— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 21, 2016

If Hargrave wore a winged Michigan helmet, a Notre Dame golden dome or had a Southeastern Conference patch on his jersey, we're talking about him as a top-25 draft pick. As of now, Play the Draft, a site which attempts to compose a consensus ranking for draft prospects through a stock market approach, has Hargrave ranked as the 105th overall player in the class, behind 12 other defensive tackles.

The small-schooler has gone through the gauntlet of the draft cycle, reaffirming his talent along every stage. Hargrave has made it as easy as possible for general managers to notice and respect his ability. If 32 decision-makers pass up on him, 31 will be kicking themselves in two years while the other sealed a massive steal.

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