After drafting Bruce Irvin with their first overall pick in last year’s draft, and then resigning Chris Clemons for a couple more years before the season, I hadn’t spent much of this college football year looking at DEs. Then I started thinking about Jason Jones being a free agent and whether or not to re-sign him or let his $4.5mill salary come off the books.
At first, I was preferring to re-sign him. Then I looked at Jones’ production: 10 tackles, 3 sacks in 12 games (on 318 snaps, 32% of the defensive total). Clearly stats aren’t the be-all, end-all of a player’s value…I’m sure Jones does things in absorbing double-teams that free up other pass-rushers, but still. I looked at Greg Scruggs' numbers (knowing he has played far less than Jones, 199 snaps, 20% of the defensive total, to be exact)…6 tackles, 2 sacks…in only 11 games. Hmm. The game tape suggests the Hawks’ pass-rush has been worse without Jones, but is it 10 times worse with Scruggs? Cause that’s pretty much the ratio in dollars. Scruggs makes $400,000 to Jones’ $4,500,000. My opinion started to swing toward letting him walk.
This isn’t to say that Greg Scruggs is the answer. I like him enough to be part of the answer, but we can look to other, additional ways to replicate Jones’ impact while improving the Hawks’ cost-result value. So I began to look around for guys coming into this years’ draft that remind me of him. For those that have forgotten, Jason Jones is 6’5"/276 with 4.76 speed and 36+inch arms. Although the Hawks use him as a DT, most guys with his kind of build are playing DE in college. So let’s look at the bigger college DE’s. We won’t know the exact arm measurements until combine and pro-days, but we can assume the longest dudes have (relatively) the longest arms.
The two biggest guys playing DE this year are SMU’s European import Margus Hunt, and the guy that plays opposite Jadeveon Clowney for South Carolina: Devin Taylor. Both check in at over 6’7"/270. Hunt has had a decent year, putting up 8 sacks, 11.5 tackle for loss (TFL), and 2 pass break-ups (PBU), and he’s still pretty raw as a newcomer to the sport, but Hunt had a pretty declarative coming-out party in SMU’s bowl game. I would really like to see a guy his height putting up more swatted passes. To me, a swatted pass is an indication of being able to read, diagnose, and adjust to a play. Taylor was better at that, knocking down 6 passes, but his pass rush was worse than Hunt, only registering 3 sacks and 8.5 TFL. We can do better.
Next down the list are a couple of 6’6"/280 lb recently-declared juniors: William Gholston from MSU and Joe Kruger from Utah. Both of these guys also have relatives that have played in the NFL (Gholston- cousin to Vernon, Kruger- brother to Paul). Kruger really didn’t have any standout stats. Gholston, however, had one REALLY interesting one. If my research was correct, Gholston led the nation in PBU for a D-Lineman with 10. This was one I needed to check the film on.
William Gholston, photo credit Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
The film was disappointing. Gholston doesn’t have great get-off, nor much of a motor to get after QBs. What’s worse is the guy is kind of a scumbag (think: Ndumakong Suh)…trying to rip Denard Robinson’s helmet off after a play ended, and a couple other dirty plays, pre/post-snap penalties, and off-the-field shenanigans. Not the kind of guy I would want on my team. Next. (Note: at this point in writing this piece the news broke that Chris Clemons has in fact torn his ACL. We’ll adjust as we go.)
When we get to the 6’5" players the list opens up a bit. We’ve got three guys here that NFLdraftscout.com is projecting in the first round (LSU’s Sam Montgomery, Texas’ Alex Okafor, and BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah). As I began this story, I was not looking for a first round guy. With Clem out 9 months (at least), we may need to reconsider. I certainly would look for a DE sooner than the 4th round, which was my original intention. Regardless, I would avoid the three guys I just mentioned in the 1st. I WOULD consider FSU’s Bjoern Werner or Texas A&M’s Demontre Moore with the Hawks’ 1st pick, however, neither of those guys will likely still be on the board after #24 (Hawks are now guaranteed to pick no earlier than 25th overall…barring trade up…which Davis Hsu has reminded me is not in John Schneider’s vocabulary).
Also in the 6’5" group are some later-round names with intrigue: Texas’ Jackson Jeffcoat, Illinois’ Michael Buchanan, and Western Kentucky’s Quanterus Smith. Two of those guys (Jeffcoat/Smith) missed multiple games this year due to injury. Earlier this year I created an excel sheet where I plugged in the season stats for a dozen-or-so defensive players at each position (I already know, *nerd alert…guilty as charged), in an attempt to create a singular stat to determine defensive production (kinda like baseball’s WAR…only mine is comprehensible for the layman)…guys that didn’t play in a bowl game, or missed games for injury, were given numbers using their existing season stats and then projecting for a 13-game season. (Reference numbers for DE’s: Super-Soph Jadeveon Clowney scored an 85.0 and Damontre Moore an 89.5.) Michael Buchanan had 4.5 sacks this year…Jeffcoat had 4.0. But Buchanan played 12 games to Jeffcoat’s 6. So we spend no more time on Buchanan.
Jackson Jeffcoat, photo credit Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
It’s really tough plugging Jeffcoat into the D-production grid…we’re projecting over half the season for him. It’s still an interesting exercise, and Jeffcoat’s score (based on his 6 games) would be an 86.7. We don’t have to project as much for Q-Smith, as he played in 10 games, and his actual numbers include 12.5 sacks, 18.5 TFL, 3 FF. Project him for 13 games, and Smith scores an 85.8 on the grid (without projection Smith scores a real 66.0…just behind 1st-rounders Ansah-72.0 and Werner-68.0…in three fewer games). So these two guys are really interesting on paper. Does the film hold up?
I already knew a bit about Jeffcoat’s film because I had watched him and Okafor getting stone-walled by Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews in the Texas/A&M game. But those two tackles are the elite of the elite. Next, I intentionally looked at Jeffcoat vs an average O-line. I even looked at his tape vs a pretty terrible O-line. In each case, he really just looked handled. Although 6’5", Jeffcoat is only 245lbs and actually more like Bruce Irvin than Jason Jones, and his weapon should be speed, but he just looks slow to me. There was really very little I found compelling about his tape. It made me wonder if most of his sacks were coverage sacks (Texas is known as DB-U, and they do have some studs in Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs, and Kenny Vaccaro on this year’s roster). Plus, Jeffcoat may become undraftable due to the ruptured pectoral muscle that ended his season.
The film of Quanterus Smith couldn’t have been more different than Jeffcoat’s. Actually, before we digest the film, some full disclosure: Smith plays for WKU in the Sun Belt Conf. and a good chunk of his sacks came against teams like Arkansas State (3.5 sacks) and Florida International (5.0 sacks! A clip of this performance will soon be up on youtube!). BUT…Q also put up a 3-sack game against…….NCAA National Champion Alabama. THAT’s the tape we want to watch. And that tape is AWESOME.
As I’m writing this, I’ve got Notre Dame/Alabama pre-game on in the background…so much hype on the massive Notre Dame D-line taking on the REVERED Alabama O-line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, Cyrus Kouandjio, DJ Fluker…and Q-Smith smoked them!
The first sack (0:45), Smith is lined up opposite Fluker (a guy that is projected to get drafted in the 2nd round this year), and it’s a straight speed-rush. Smith takes about four steps directly to outside Fluker’s right shoulder, and then he pulls about a 3-G, 180-degree turn down and inside of Fluker’s outstretched arms, to snatch AJ McCarron by his neck (and strip out the ball in the process).
The second sack (2:29), Q is up against ‘Bama’s sophomore LT Kouandjio. It starts with that same four-step run to the tackle’s outside shoulder, but this time Smith slaps his arms away, and swims inside to get to the QB.
The third sack is (3:34), again, on Kouandjio…it’s more of a coverage sack, but Smith does seem to do a bit of a rope-a-dope on Kouandjio. Smith gives him three pushes inside, not huge effort, but on the third, as Kouandjio pushes back, Q pulls him forward. As Kou’s momentum finds no resistance, he loses balance, falls forward, and Q slides around him, accelerating quickly on a clear outside path to McCarron.
Can you tell yet if I like this guy? Have I been effusive enough in my description? He is, now, definitely on my board. A couple of his other measurables: 248 lbs and an estimated 40-dash of 4.74. (Estimated 40’s are wrong. And generally slower than how players will run at the Combine.) I’d say a good 50% of the draftable DE’s this year have 40-estimates between 4.74 and 4.79. It’s just the arbitrary range they assign DE's. Only seven guys are currently estimated faster than Q, and for perspective, actual historical tested 40 times include: Quinton Coples-4.78, Chandler Jones-4.87, Whitney Mercilus-4.68, Robert Quinn-4.62, Aldon Smith 4.74, Jason Pierre-Paul 4.71, and Chris Clemons-4.68 (Clem actually tested at 6’3"/236 out of Georgia and has bulked up to 254 lbs as a pro). So Q looks and measures out a bit like Clemons.
Quanterus Smith, photo credit Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Wanna know where he’s being projected to be drafted? 7th round…if at all. What?? Well… not only does he share some skills/measurables with Clem, he is also sharing an injury with Clem. Smith was shut down this year after tearing his ACL in November. That’s the bad news. The good news is, that puts his recovery time-table two months ahead of Clem’s…putting him on track to be ready in July/August. He’s a guy I would definitely take a 7th round flier on, but not a guy we can count on to contribute immediately. We still need to find a player upwards of the 4th round.
(Note: Or find one in free agency. Derek Stephens did, kindly, point out recently that the Bengals’ Michael Johnson is a free agent now, and looks every bit a John Schneider kind of guy.)
After parsing through the NCAA sack leaders list, filtering out more of the injured (Tank Carradine) or returning underclassmen (Anthony Barr), the pickings are pretty slim. There aren’t even really many small-school players that produced well against lesser competition. The next ideas…well, one idea with multiple ways to get there…are finding guys without production, but with upside. Maybe a guy that started the year injured, but played well for the second half of the season…maybe a guy that had a "light-switch" moment mid-year and figured out how to play…maybe a guy that played down the depth-chart at a really stacked program but could have started somewhere else (the Matt Cassel effect). I didn’t find any one that fit the first description, but I’ve got one of each of the latter two.
A guy that comes from a stacked program is LSU’s Lavar Edwards. He’s a 6’4"/258 lb DE, with 4.82 speed, who has spent this year playing behind Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo on the Tigers’ depth chart. Snap totals are, of course, a complete mystery, but Edwards, in whatever amount of play-time he did get, managed 4.5 sacks, 7.0 TFL, 26 tackles, and an INT. He showed enough in his few snaps to get invited to the Senior Bowl.
And finally, we come to a player that doesn’t have a stand-out stat line. Not for the whole season. But he did have a stand-out stat line in his bowl game. The final line reads: 3 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU (against a quality SEC opponent), but in actuality he was credited with half-sacks a couple times, lost credit for another sack on an intentional grounding penalty, and had at least two more uncredited hits on the QB (total hits on QB, by my count: 6).
Watching this guy’s tape, I marveled at his four-point stance. Whereas most guys can only make their shoulders level with their butt by having a significant knee-bend (in fact, many guys will have a downward slope from rear to pads), this player’s legs are almost upright, and yet both hands are on the ground. Is this gonna be that dude with the 37" arms???
Photo credit Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports, Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
The Jason Jones DE/DT hybrid?? After the film study, let’s go back to the paper.
6’4"/280 with 4.74 speed. Love it. Full-season stats: 7.0 sacks, 9.5 TFL, 20 TT, 1 PBU, 4 FF. Don’t love it, but it’s not horrible (on the grid, it’s a 42.0…half the score of the elite DE). Would like to see way more tackles, TFL, and a handful more pass breakups (especially if his arms are as long as they look). But then I looked at his game-by-game production…he had at least one sack in his final four games, and a sack in six of his final seven…three of his forced fumbles, and his lone PBU came in his final four games. In fact, if we ignored the first six games, and gave him the Jeffcoat projection (in reverse), this DE’s defensive production would have scored a 54.8…take it further and project for the final four games of his college career (against Maryland, NC State, S Carolina, and LSU), he scored a 76.4 (which is beyond Werner, Carradine, Ansah territory)!
I’m obviously starting to manipulate the numbers too much, but it is also possible that upward trend indicates he was figuring it out. The player I’m talking about is Clemson’s Malliciah Goodman, and, with his 4th round projection (with a bullet) he’s now one I’ll be watching at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine, and beyond. Maybe we can get that 4th round DE after all.
(Get better Clem!)