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Unheralded NFL draft prospects part I: Seahawky defensive linemen

Which under-the-radar players entering the 2016 draft fit Seahawks positional prototypes? My investigation revealed some fascinating characters.

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Hey folks. I’ll be serving up semi-regular pieces on a variety of subjects, starting with draft-related analysis and commentary. I grew up in the Seattle area and attended my first Seahawks game on November 16, 1981, a rousing 44-23 smackdown of Dan Fouts and the Chargers. Although I was just a wee lad then, I was old enough to appreciate that football was a damn cool sport, something that I wanted to follow. Before the Kingdome was cruelly demolished I had witnessed about 10 Seahawks games there, along with 50 or so Mariners contests, a handful of Sonics games, and one classic Harlem Globetrotters performance. For the past several years I've been a writer and editor in the high-tech realm, mostly software design-related stuff. I appreciate Danny & Co. giving me this outlet to publish my incessant footballing thoughts.

What do Michael Bennett, Thomas Rawls, Garry Gilliam, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Patrick Lewis have in common?

All were regular starters and major contributors for the Seahawks in 2015, and all were underappreciated college players who slipped into the undrafted ranks. Four of those guys (Rawls, Gilliam, Baldwin, and Kearse) were signed as undrafted rookie free agents by Seattle, and three of them (Bennett, Rawls, and Baldwin) played at a Pro Bowl-caliber level last year. Were I to discuss all the ‘Hawks remarkable day three pickups from the Schneider/Carroll era, I could go on for another five paragraphs.

Each spring there’s a wealth of intriguing underrated college football talent that lasts into the late rounds or the undrafted free agent pool, and while much of that talent won’t even translate to a roster spot, the Seahawks excel at recognizing and maximizing that talent as much as any organization. This year’s class stands out as a special one for quality and depth. John Schneider recently told KJR that, "Just from a numbers standpoint, this is the best draft since we’ve been here. Since 2010, sheer numbers...we usually have about 130 or 140 guys on our board, this year we’re going to have about 200, which is a lot."

Part one of this three-part series examines select unheralded defensive linemen whom Seattle are likely to covet. The criteria for every player covered in this series are that they fit certain Seahawks measurables (and possibly some intangibles) for their positions, have received relatively little press, and are expected to last into day three (rounds 4-7 of the draft) or go undrafted. Just a few of these guys were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, though each performed at a regional combine or at their team’s pro day.

As for defensive lineman measurables, the Seahawks look for good length (height + arm length), explosiveness (vertical jump, broad jump, and strength, likely more than just the bench press), and short-area quickness (assorted agility drills + 40-yard dash and 20/10-yard splits, with the splits likely mattering more for big guys who usually don't run that far).

(Note that height is expressed in the following standard format: the first digit is feet, the next two digits are inches, and the fourth digit is fraction of inches in eighths—so 6013 equals 6’1 3/8", 5117 equals 5’11 7/8", and so on. Also note that some of the player highlight vids have explicit lyrics, so mute as needed.)

Defensive tackles

Michael Pierce, Samford

The Seahawks covet athletic freaks, and Pierce, as much as any defensive lineman entering the draft, fits that bill. After reading about his pro day I had to watch some film, and was impressed how he moves for his size. He’s 6003 and 329 pounds, and his fastest 40 time was 4.98 seconds (with a 5.01 average), speedier than Sheldon Rankins, who weighs 30 pounds less. Even more astonishing—and more significant for the position—than Pierce’s 40 time was his 10-yard split, which was clocked at 1.67 seconds, quicker than all but one offensive lineman entering the draft, and better than many of the tight ends.

How about Pierce’s broad jump? Nine feet seven inches, one inch shy of Robert Nkemdiche’s 9’8" mark. And Nkemdiche, who weighs 35 pounds less than Pierce, is one of the top two or three most athletically gifted defensive tackles in the whole draft class. Rounding out Pierce’s pro day performance were a 27" vertical (good considering his weight) and 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench. He also happens to be a power lifter who can squat 725 pounds and power clean 405 pounds.

Though the film on Pierce is limited, he does look quick, instinctive, and relentless. In 2015 he played 10 of 11 games and recorded 2.5 sacks, 48 total tackles, and 9 tackles for loss. The obvious caveats here are a smaller program that faced lesser competition and modest production.

My overall take on Pierce is that he’s a raw, low-center-of-gravity, highly athletic run-stuffer with interior pass-rushing potential who’s worth taking a risk on as an undrafted free agent. One curious possibility is a DL-to-OL conversion project, even though he’s barely over six feet tall. At least Russ could easily see over Pierce’s head at the center or guard position.

Pierce’s pro day summary:

Height, weight: 6003, 329
40-yard dash: 4.98 seconds (1.67 10-yard split)
Vertical jump: 27"
Broad jump: 9’7"
Bench press reps @ 225 lbs: 28
Arm length: (no data)

DeMarcus Hodge, Arkansas

Similar to Michael Pierce, Hodge is a short, squat, massive, athletic interior defensive lineman with a low center of gravity and great strength. Unlike Pierce, Hodge faced off against superior competition, and looks like a less-raw prospect.

Based on the film I’ve watched Hodge has decent explosiveness off the line, though I thought it would be better considering his very good test numbers. He anticipates the snap count well, gets a good initial step, has an active motor, and shows good pursuit. Hodge projects as an undrafted free agent nose tackle candidate, one who could come in and compete for a roster spot.

Hodge’s pro day summary:

Height, weight: 6006, 333
40-yard dash: 5.25 seconds (1.78 10-yard split)
Short shuttle: 4.76 seconds
Three cone: 7.65 seconds
Vertical jump: 27.5"
Broad jump: 9’4"
Bench press reps @ 225 lbs: 30
Arm length: (no data)

Destiny Vaeao, Washington State

Vaeao is one of several Wazzu draft prospects I’ve looked into, and like Joe Dahl on the other side of the ball, appears to tick all the Seahawky boxes. In addition to explosive test numbers (including a ridiculous 35.5" vertical leap for a 295-pound guy), Vaeao has some interior pass-rushing ability and very good production that improved each year.

While Vaeao only totaled 7 career sacks, 4 of those came in 2015. Between 2013 and 2015, he had 83 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. Vaeao offers versatility and can line up anywhere along the line. I’d be thrilled if Seattle took him on day three of the draft.

Vaeao’s pro day summary:

Height, weight: 6037, 295
40-yard dash: 5.21 seconds (1.77 10-yard split)
Short shuttle: 4.56 seconds
Three cone: 7.73 seconds
Vertical jump: 35.5"
Broad jump: 9’0"
Bench press reps @ 225 lbs: 27
Arm length: 32" (per ESPN)

Justin Zimmer, Ferris State

First mentioned by Tony Pauline on his insightful blog and then discussed in greater detail by Rob Staton, Zimmer is a freakishly athletic and strong defensive lineman who nearly benched a cumulative 10,000 pounds (44 reps x 225 lbs) at his regional combine. Zach Whitman lists Zimmer as the top pSPARQ defensive lineman prospect.

In addition to his superb athleticism, Zimmer amassed remarkable career statistics, even taking into account his playing at a small program: 216 total tackles (81 in 2015), 48.5 tackles for loss (26 in 2015), 14 passes defensed (5 in 2015), 26 sacks (13 in 2015), 9 forced fumbles, 3 blocked punts/kicks. The cherry on top of Zimmer’s impressive collegiate career is that he was a three-time Academic All-American, so he’s got brains as well as brawn.

Zimmer’s pro day summary:

Height, weight: 6025, 302
40-yard dash: 4.85 seconds (1.69 10-yard split)
Short shuttle: 4.4 seconds
Three cone: 7.01 seconds
Vertical jump: 32"
Broad jump: 9’9"
Bench press reps @ 225 lbs: 44 (!!)
Arm length: 32.75"

Defensive ends

Mike Rose, N.C. State

Rose, a redshirt senior in 2015 who’s pursuing his master’s degree, showed off his stuff in the Shrine Game but was a combine snub. He got the chance to demonstrate his athleticism at N.C. State’s pro day, including a 4.66 in the 40 that would’ve been 4th best among defensive ends at the combine. Rose has a relentless motor and wins with very good instincts and explosiveness, though in the NFL he’ll need to develop a better pass-rushing arsenal.

Rose’s career stats at NC State include 119 total tackles (76 solo), 33 tackles for loss, 15 sacks (9 as a senior, plus 5 QB hurries), 3 forced fumbles, and 5 fumble recoveries. He has good length at 6024 with 33 1/2" arms. If he doesn’t go in the 7th round (my projection) he’ll end up being a priority undrafted free agent signing who could provide great value.

Rose’s pro day summary:

Height, weight: 6024, 261
40-yard dash: 4.66 seconds (1.66 10-yard split)
Short shuttle: 4.46 seconds
Three cone: 7.47 seconds
Vertical jump: 33.5"
Broad jump: 9’8"
Bench press reps @ 225 lbs: 17
Arm length: 33 1/2"

Jonathan Woodard, Central Arkansas

Woodard, who led the Southland Conference in sacks and tackles for loss in 2014, has the length and explosiveness that the Seahawks like. He’s quick, instinctive, and relentless in pursuit, with impressive career statistics: 174 total tackles, 53 tackles for loss, 30.5 sacks, 2 blocked kicks, 1 interception. Woodard is almost identical in size to Michael Bennett and should provide similar versatility. He should have been invited to the combine, but got his chance to show off at his pro day.

Woodard’s pro day summary:

Height, weight: 6047, 271 lbs
40-yard dash: 4.89 seconds (1.69 10-yard split)
Short shuttle: 4.40 seconds
Three-cone: 7.08 seconds
Vertical Jump: 34"
Broad Jump: 09’09"
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 28
Arm length: (no data)

Matt Judon, Grand Valley State

To get any respect and attention, small-school prospects usually need to post eye-popping stats, which Judon did to a ridiculous degree in 2015: 20 sacks (leading the whole nation), 23.5 tackles for loss, 81 total tackles, 9 QB hurries, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 passes broken up and 3 passes defensed. Over the last two years, his totals include 28.5 sacks, 42.5 tackles for loss, 21 QB hurries, 8 passes broken up and 8 passes defensed. Those last two figures would be good for a safety, and Judon was a full-time defensive end.

Judon’s combine measurements were nearly identical to Frank Clark’s: 6’3" tall, with Judon weighing 4 pounds more (275 vs. 271). Judon doesn’t quite have Clark’s length, though his arms at 33 7/8" are just 1/2" shorter than Clark’s. They have similar builds, though Judon seems to carry almost no bad weight and is more shredded than Clark was at combine time. Clark had better agility and explosive tests (shuttle, three cone, broad jump, vertical jump), while Judon was faster and stronger (40 yard, 10 yard, bench). As part of a pro organization, Judon would be on a much better overall fitness program and should be able to improve his quickness and explosiveness.

One question with Judon, who’s already 24 years old, is how his unrefined abilities and excellent production against lesser competition will translate to the pros. How much more can he be coached up? He has the raw ingredients. Where does it make sense to draft him? When I started looking into him after the combine, he looked like a round 6-7 pick, but he’s now being graded as highly as round 4. I’m curious to see where he goes.

Judon’s combine summary:

Height, weight: 6030, 269
40-yard dash: 4.73 seconds (1.65 10-yard split)
Short shuttle: 4.52 seconds
Three cone: 7.67 seconds
Vertical jump: 35"
Broad jump: 9’1"
Bench press reps @ 225 lbs: 30
Arm length: 33 7/8"

Coming up in part two of this series, I’ll examine some lesser-known Seahawky linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks entering the draft.