At some point reading my pre-draft rankings you’re just going to think I’m a contrarian. But there’s a reason I look beyond the measurables when I’m grading NFL players. It’s because the measurables, and the scouts, and especially the pundits, are so often wrong.
Now, being wrong can still nab you an elite player, but the consensus pre-draft rankings are so consistently off, it’s hard to believe anyone still takes them seriously.
For instance, since we’re ranking defensive ends right now, let’s look at the 2011 NFL Draft. Now, looking back there’s no question at all who the best defensive end to come out of that draft was; J.J. Watt. And the Houston Texans were smart enough to take him at No. 11, so you can’t fault them. You can fault the two teams that took defensive linemen ahead of Watt, the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers. The Bills took defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, an elite player but not Watt by any measure. The 49ers took Aldon Smith, who was also an elite player before he lost his marbles. But even on his best, sanest day, he wasn’t J.J. Watt.
The NFL Network’s Michael Mayock had Watt ranked as his fifth best defensive lineman in the draft and his No. 3 defensive end. Walter football had the same ranking on Watt. No. 3. ESPN’s Mel Kiper had Watt the fifth best defensive lineman and third best defensive end just like Mayock. The two ends ahead of watt on Mayock and Kiper’s lists? Robert Quinn and Da’Quan Bowers.
When Quinn is healthy, which hasn’t been often over the last two seasons, he’s one of the best pass rushers in the league. He’s an elite player. He’s not J.J. Watt. But Bowers? The man’s career lasted all of five seasons, he started a total of 10 games and recorded a seven sacks. You can blame Bowers’ slow start, and second round draft position, on injuries, but from 2013 on the dude was healthy and did all of jack shit. Last year he didn’t even make an NFL roster. But Mayock and Kiper both thought he was a better pro prospect than J.J. Watt.
So, yeah. I’m a contrarian, but with good reason.
5. Carl Lawson, Auburn (6-2, 261)
2016: 30 tackles, 14 for a loss, 9.5 sacks
Lawson might be a little undersized for an NFL defensive end, which just means he can switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Lawson’s first move off the snap is shockingly quick. Many times the kid would fly into the backfield untouched, leaving an offensive tackle in the dust. When you watch his tape, pay attention to how many times a top notch offensive tackle (especially in the SEC), barely gets a paw on him.
Ideal situation: Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers
4. Charles Harris, Missouri (6-3, 253)
2016: 61 tackles, 12 for a loss, nine sacks
Harris is another guy that might end up switching over to an OLB in a 3-4 defense at the NFL level. Harris is a relentless rusher with the ability to slid free from tackles when they put their hands on him. He has a Dwight Freeney-like spin move and just like Lawson, has a knack for coming out of the blocks right at the snap. My favorite thing Harris does is deliver a blow when he hits a guy. He doesn’t just grab a QB and take him down, he blasts him with his entire body.
Ideal situation: Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens
3. Solomon Thomas, Stanford (6-3, 273)
2016: 61 tackles, 14 for a loss, 8.5 sacks
If you’re drafting for potential (and I wouldn’t), Thomas looks to have the highest ceiling, as the scouts love to say, of this group. He’s smart and can play multiple positions across the defensive front like J.J. Watt. His horizontal slide is crazy fast, not only to get past blockers, but to recover and take down running backs on the edge. Thomas is going to be good as a rookie. He has the potential to be the best defensive lineman of this entire class in a couple of years.
Ideal situation: San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers
2. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M (6-4, 272)
2016: 33 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks
So here’s where I go off the rails. Garrett is going to be the first defensive end taken in this draft and there’s a great chance he goes No. 1. Garrett is a guy that is blowing the scouts away with their stopwatches and measuring tape. But that elite, No. 1 status he’s been handed doesn’t show up on the game film. I see a tremendous talent and a guy that deserves to be taken in the first round of the draft. But take a look at Jadaveon Clowney’s South Carolina tape or Aaron Donald’s Pitt tape, then watch Garrett’s again. Clowney’s tape got him No. 1 and it should have. Everybody whiffed on Donald but the Rams and now they’re reaping the benefits. Does Garrett’s tape measure up to theirs? Is it even close?
Ideal situation: Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers
1. Derek Barnett, Tennessee (6-3, 259)
2016: 56 tackles, 19 for a loss, 13 sacks
Barnett is a guy that can not only play any position on the defensive line, he can be an edge rusher in a 3-4 system too. Barnett played a similar schedule as Garrett in the SEC this season and outperformed him across the board. Barnett has a quick first step and his a freak athlete with tremendous body control and ability to stomp his foot in the turf and turn on a dime like a running back. Look at that tape and just see how often the Vols used him in their pass defense. As a cover guy. You want to see this year’s Aaron Donald/Jadaveon Clowney tape? This is it.
Ideal situation: Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals
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