AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 26: Courtney Upshaw #41 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after a defensive stop against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Courtney Upshaw might be the best defensive prospect in the draft. It's not a great class by all means, especially considering the quality of defensive lineman available in recent years. Even so, when I sat down to consider the top prospects this year, I couldn't help but rank Upshaw among this year's elite.
#1 Andrew Luck (QB, Stanford)
#2 Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama)
#3 Matt Kalil (OT, USC)
#4 Courtney Upshaw (DE, Alabama)
#5 Robert Griffin III (QB, Baylor)
That's how I see the top five, with Upshaw the #1 defensive prospect available. A case can certainly be made for LSU's Morris Claiborne, who made enough plays this year to warrant a grade in the same range as former teammate Patrick Peterson. Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama) gets downgraded due to his off-the-field issues, but it's easy to forget how just how talented he is. During his time at Florida in 2010, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery all had their worst performances when covered by Jenkins.
Melvin Ingram (DE, South Carolina) is generating a lot of hype at the moment, but as I discussed recently on Seahawks Draft Blog, I'm not entirely convinced he'll be able to provide consistent pressure at the next level. Quinton Coples (DE, North Carolina) has the physical tools to be a top-five pick, but had such a disappointing senior campaign. Quite aside from his mediocre tape, we're talking about a guy who was spelled on around 30% of snaps including key first downs. If North Carolina's coaches weren't comfortable using Coples as an every down player, shouldn't that set off major alarms?
In many ways Coples' inconsistent effort is comparable to former Florida lineman Carlos Dunlap. Once considered a possible top-ten pick, Dunlap lasted until the 54th selection in 2010 before being drafted by Cincinnati. Dunlap achieved much more in college, winning the MVP award in Florida's 2009 BCS Championship victory and recording 19 sacks before declaring as a junior. Teams were put off by Dunlap's attitude and inconsistent performance, but the talent was unquestionable. If anything, you want Coples to have a little more attitude. He coasted through his senior season and the team that drafts him in round one will be taking a leap of faith that the light turns on when the cheques start being cashed. He's performed well at the Senior Bowl, but what did people expect? Flashing your potential in what amounts to a job interview is one thing, showing it on tape against real opponents is quite another.
There are several other prospects who warrant a mention. Michael Brockers (DT, LSU) is full of raw potential and his best play should come in the NFL working at either the three or five technique. Sean Spence (LB, Miami) is one of the great underrated prospects of this class with deceptive size but elite skills to play outside linebacker in the 4-3. Luke Kuelchy (LB, Boston College) is also undersized and offers very little in terms of a pass rush, but he's a tackling machine and could have a similar impact to James Laurinitis in St. Louis. Other people will mention the likes of Devon Still (DT, Penn State), Fletcher Cox (DT, Mississippi State) Whitney Mercilus (DE, Illinois) and Zach Brown (LB, North Carolina), but without doubt in my eyes the best defensive prospect in this class is Courtney Upshaw.
He's only 6-1 and around 270lbs, so he doesn't have ideal length for an edge rusher. However, he's mastered leverage and will consistently attack a lineman with great pad level and drive players into the backfield. He has a deceptive second effort when trying to beat blocks, dropping a shoulder and seemingly giving the impression he’s beaten before bursting by a tackle to make the play. He’ll disengage with violent hands and rarely gets absorbed by even the biggest lineman. Despite not having the longest arms, he does a fine job keeping blockers away from his body so that he’s able to dip inside or burst around the edge.
Upshaw’s thick set is comparable to a small three-technique and he has similar skills. He’s never likely to move inside at his size, but the hand use, the bubble and the strength are all comparable to an interior lineman and it goes some way to explaining how he generates so much power at the P.O.A. I'm not concerned by a lack of truly elite edge speed, because the rest of the package makes up for it. His bull rush is already elite, but he's also capable of showing double and counter moves. There's enough evidence on tape of a guy who can beat the edge and warrant double teams.
So what's his most natural position and how does he fit in Seattle?
For Alabama he played the vasy majority of his snaps at the LOS as an orthodox end, with minor responsibilities in underneath coverage. Ideally you want the guy playing in aggressive pass-rushing situations and helping to seal an edge against the run.
The Seahawks currently use a hybrid 4-3 with a lot of 3-4 tendencies. There's scope to introduce even more 3-4 sets to this scheme, using Upshaw to flank Chris Clemons while maintaining Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch in the middle. He'll also be comfortable playing WLB in the 4-3 where coverage responsibilities are limited and his main duty will remain rushing the passer (blitz or not) or read and react. Although they are very different players, Von Miller was used in a similar way by Denver last year. Miller had the mobility and foot speed to work in coverage, even if this was a new skill he had to develop basically on the hoof. Upshaw may not be quite as effective here, but he'll provide greater support against the run and does at least have some experience working underneath routes. You could argue Seattle has enough range at the SAM and MIKE (if they keep Hawthorne) to accommodate a player who gives up some coverage ability, but adds to the team's pass rush.
Seattle wants to shut down an opponents' running game and Upshaw is going to make it really difficult to run on the left side when he’s placed next to Red Bryant. Perhaps even more of an advantage though is the ability to spell Bryant a little more and maybe even kick him inside, knowing you can use Upshaw as a pure power end on more orthodox four-man sets. As great as Bryant has been for this team the last two years, there’s going to be big advantages on first and second down when the defense is able to press from both sides.
In many ways Seattle's defense is being built similarly to Alabama's. Although Nick Saban uses a lot of base 3-4, it's very much a hybrid as with the Seahawks. There are a lot of four man fronts, a lot of 4-3 looks. Alabama have tall, physical cornerbacks who work well in run support, while there's a nice combination of size (Dont'a Hightower) and speed (CJ Mosley) at linebacker. They have three big bodies up front led by the underrated Josh Chapman and on a lot of looks you could even argue Upshaw is used as a LEO. I sense the Seahawks are building that same tough, run stopping defense that strangles you into turnovers. Upshaw would add to the brooding intensity that's growing among Seattle's defensive unit.
But above all else it's all about improving the pass rush. For two years, the Seahawks have relied exclusively on Chris Clemons for consistent pressure outside of obvious passing downs. They need to find someone who can be on the field every snap, provide some balance and take some of the attention away from Clemons. Greater balance on the edge may even create more opportunities inside for Brandon Mebane, who went sackless in 2011.
Upshaw is without doubt in my opinion the most logical player to fill that void.
A lot of people expect him to be drafted in the 11-18 range, but I think that's a modest assessment. You can make legitimate cases for Upshaw being drafted by Jacksonville, Miami, Buffalo and Kansas City - all potentially picking ahead of Seattle. Even so, you could just as easily make a case for the Jaguars targeting a receiver or cornerback, Miami a right tackle, Buffalo a receiver or blind side blocker - and the Chiefs need to improve several areas of their offensive line.
Seattle's greatest need remains at quarterback, but assuming the front office isn't planning a bold move up the board to target Robert Griffin III, it's hard to imagine this is a solution that will be solved in 2012 (at least not in round one). For those pinning their hopes on Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, I would recommend these two write-ups (here and here) explaining why I don't believe he's worth a high pick. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it. Judge for yourself.
If Upshaw is available for the Seahawks at #11 or #12, at this stage I expect he will be Seattle's pick.
It would be a wise move.
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