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2012 NFL Combine Notes: Defensive Linemen, Linebackers and All of Monday's Buzz

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On Monday, the defensive linemen and linebackers reported for on-field work. I can’t say that there were too many surprises. What you saw on tape, basically showed up on the field. However, there were a few things buzzing around Indy, Twitter, and the NFL Network. I’ll recap some of the day’s biggest stories and give my own take on each unique situation.

Dontari Poe – I’ll start with Poe, because this seems to be where me and 99% of the population seem to disagree. Every year some “athlete” shows up to Indianapolis and drops every one’s jaws by putting up some amazing number. For this reason and others, I always preach to watch the game film ahead of time. I knew Poe’s story and how athletic he was before he showed up on Monday. I also knew that even though he’s one of the most agile 350 pounders that I’ve ever seen, he’s not a great prospect. I’ve seen over and over again, Poe get redirected by lesser competition and men half his strength and size. I’ve watched as running backs have buckled his knees and stopped him cold in his tracks.

Yes, it’s amazing that a 350 pound man can run a 4.98 forty and it shows “weight room” strength that he’s capable of benching 225 lbs, 44 times. All impressive. All of it completely meaningless if he doesn’t play with that speed and strength during his games. Which he didn’t. Every year I warn people about players and I get tweets, emails, etc, all saying that I’m blind and that any idiot can see that this guy is an elite talent. I heard it with Vernon Gholston, Aaron Maybin, Jimmy Clausen, Blaine Gabbert…the list goes on and on and on. It doesn’t matter if I tell people every year to not took these guys, they will go with the crowd because it’s always more comfortable to be apart of a group and stand alone. Even if the proof is right in front of you. So, I’ll take the hate mail now but I’ll still warn every fan base to steer clear of Poe in the early rounds. Also, I’d ask for you to go watch at least 4 full games of Dontari against lesser competition, instead of highlight clips and media opinions. If you still feel the conviction that he’s a dynamic player, by all means, inbox me and tell what game impressed you!

Nick Perry – Perry lit up the combine as well but he’s a bit of a different animal. Here’s what I wrote about him and the other pass rushers in this draft.  As you can tell in the brief description, we feel that he could be the best pass rusher in this draft but have some concerns. His athletic ability was never part of those concerns as he clearly displayed today by showing up at 6’2 3/4 and 271 lbs. He was a highlight in every drill as he ran a 4.64 official forty and had a vertical of 38.5″. He looked good in all of the movement drills and solidified that he could be a force in a 4-3 or 3-4 system as a pass rusher in either.

It was great that he kept his speed, even after adding 21 pounds to the 250 he played with during the season. The only concern is his lack of effort on plays during games. His intensity is insane in the last few minutes of his college performances. If he played every game, the whole game, like he did in those last few minutes, he would easily be a top 10 pick. He doesn’t have the boom or bust factor but teams will have the questions about whether he wants to reach his ceiling or will he just depend on his raw, natural abilities. If they believe he can be coached into playing at his highest level and perfecting his craft, then he’ll go higher in the first round. If they interview him and worry about his drive and passion for the game, then he’ll slide to the latter part of the first round.

Andre Branch & Whitney Mercilus – As far as the combine’s Olympic activities, Branch and Mercilus feel short of Perry’s stat line. But, neither one feel drastically behind. Branch came in a little taller at 6’4″ and a little lighter at 259 lbs. Mercilus was 6’3 5/8 and 261 lbs. All three of the guys arm length and forty times were pretty similar. Perry (4.64 & 33″), Branch (4.70 & 34″), and Mercilus (4.68 & 33 7/8). Neither Branch (32.5″) or Mercilus (32.0″) came close to Perry’s impressive 38.5″ vertical. They all are so similar that I wouldn’t be surprised to see almost every team divided on their rankings of these three. When talking about their production as far as sacks, Mercilus had the best 2011 season but he was a one year wonder. Perry was strong in 09′ before a fall off in 2010 and a reemergence in 2011. Branch has had a steady improvement year over year. The tape will be the determining factor. Andre has the highest motor, Nick has the biggest upside, and Whitney is the hardest worker and most disciplined.

Melvin Ingram – I have to be careful how I work this one because Ingram is the media’s darling this year. I can’t blame them either. He’s engaging, great personality, and extremely talented. But, just because a guy is an athlete doesn’t mean that they can play him wherever they want. His workouts at the Senior Bowl and the Combine added with the fact that he dropped weight, says that he’s a 3-4 outside linebacker. His game tape contradicts that. His tape shows that he’s only a 4-3 defensive tackle. It’s great that he got down to 264 pounds on his 6’1 1/2″ frame to become better suited to play outside linebacker but once again, the problem is, he’s not an outside linebacker. He doesn’t have great speed (4.79) and unfortunately wasn’t blessed with long arms (31 1/2″). People want to say that he can play 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker and be a pass rusher. Here’s the problem with both of those.

While he did play both of those positions this year, he didn’t play them well. In situations where he was the defensive end, he didn’t have the speed to get the edge and he also lacked balance to be an edge rusher. He routinely would be getting up off the ground after losing control on the edge rush. The same can be said for when he was a standing pass rusher but you also have to add that he lack great get off in these situations. When he played defensive tackle, he was explosive, created havoc, demanded double teams and freed up the edge rushers. His best fit is going to a team that will move him around to take advantage of his athleticism. Any other team that drafts him, needs to draft him as a 4-3 defensive tackle.

Michael Brockers – Brockers added 16 pounds to his playing weight for the combine. He came in at 6’5 322 lbs with 35″ arms. If the weight gain was intentional, I don’t understand it. He’s was already a beast at 306 pounds and his best fit isn’t at the defensive tackle position. Brockers has some of the biggest arms at his position and he’s the most violent with them. While he can play the 3-4 defensive end position at 322, I rather see him back in the low 300s.

Quinton Coples – Quinton came in at 6’5 3/4″ 284 lbs and had 33 1/4″ arms. He turned in an impressive time of 4.78 in the forty. Coples is another guy that frustrates me in this draft. He has an enormous ceiling but I don’t think he will ever play to his potential. But, he’s so physically gifted that he can still be a key piece in an NFL defense even if he’s just relying on natural God given talent. Where does Quinton fit? He’s the definition of scheme diverse. I could see a team taking him as a 3-4 defensive end or in a 4-3 system as a defensive tackle or left end. His measurables and ability to fit at so many different spots will increase his draft value. He still scares me as a top 10 pick and personally I wouldn’t draft him that high if I was a general manager. I expect to see him go in the top 15 but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was this year’s version, of the draft day slide.

Fletcher Cox – This is another one of those athletic kids. At 6’4 298 he put in a forty time of 4.79. He’s extremely flexible and surprisingly fast for his size. He too can fit in numerous spots for a team and cause a disruption. He impressed at Indy for anyone that didn’t know he could move like that.

Mike Martin & Kendall Reyes – Martin and Reyes are two guys that continue to go under the radar as they are talented but not on the level of the elite prospects in this draft. These are a few of the guys that solidify this as one of the deepest positions in the draft. Quality NFL starters will be found in the third and even fourth round of this year’s draft. Martin isn’t getting as much attention due to tipping the scales at on 6’1 3/8″. He turned some heads today though when he ran a 4.88 at 306 pounds. Reyes isn’t lacking in height at 6’4 1/8″. Kendall was just shy of 300 pounds but he to turned in a sub 5.00 forty time. He caught my attention with how explosive he was off the snap at the Senior Bowl.

Jerel Worthy & Brandon Thompson – Jerel is the premier 4-3 defensive tackle in this class. He’s good for one false start a game but he’s a wrecking ball. He’s constantly tearing up the middle of the offensive line. He can take on two defenders and also has the get off to shoot the gap. He gets his 6’2 3/8″ 308 lb frame moving quick. Brandon Thompson came in today at 6’2 314 lbs. Other than their size, they have a lot in common. Much like the DE/OLB comparisons of Perry, Mercilus, and Branch, Worthy and Thompson play real similar. Teams that miss on Jerel in this first, should quickly turn their attention to Thompson in the second. Here’s the pre-combine rankings of where we saw them before this week.

Shea McClellin – 6’3 260 with 32 3/4″ arms ran a 4.63 forty. Shea proved to be who we thought he was when we watched the tape. Scouts were raving about his smarts and versatility. Whichever NFL team drafts him will not only love his talent / play but also get added value as they can line him up at several positions and watch him play at a high level. I like him best as a pass rusher and taking advantage of his immediate burst.

Bruce Irvin & Ronnell Lewis – Bruce measured in at 6’3 245 lbs and ran the fastest forty time of 4.50. We loved him in our rankings but still question what happens when offensive linemen get their hands on him. The combine is built for players like Irvin to shine and he took full advantage of his opportunity. It still did nothing to answer our concerns about his size. To say Ronnell is a bit under size at 6’1 3/4″ 253 lbs would seem as a joke if you saw how physically well built he was (36 reps). He was explosive and showed amazing footwork. He appeared even better than what we saw on film. Teams definitely took note of his performance and he will be making an impact on Sundays this fall.

Luke Kuechly – Kuechly didn’t have any competition at inside linebacker this year and he still managed to separate even more after today’s workouts. At 6’3 1/4″ and 242 lbs he ran a 4.58 forty and benched 225 lbs, 27 times. The only question concerning Luke now, is where does he get drafted?

Mychal Kendricks – When we listed Kendricks in the top 5 of our inside linebackers before the combine, we got some unique responses. Only our debate was are we sure we don’t want to place him higher. After deciding to leave him at 5 and give Vontaze Burfict another chance at the combine, we greatly regret our self doubt. Despite only being 5’11 1/8, his 239 lbs is distributed well and plays / looks bigger. Not to mention but his footwork was fluid and flawless. To add the icing on the cake, he turned in the quickest time on the day with a 4.47.

James-Michael Johnson – Here was another name high up on our inside linebacker list that drew raised eye brows. Putting his combine performance with his game film, we feel that he was well deserving of his top 5 rating as well. The 6’1 1/8″ 241 pound Johnson, turned in a forty time of 4.68 to go with a smooth technique, a 37″ vertical, and a broad jump of 10’4″. Once again, the game film is out there to back up the measurables if you still doubt his our Kendricks’ talent.

Vontaze Burfict – Sometimes when you give someone another chance, you’re the one who gets burned. We had a long discussion about Burfict before finally deciding to put him in our pre-combine, top 10 linebackers’ rankings. We thought about leaving him out altogether due to being a head case and only showing flashes of play making ability. It is a weak inside linebacking class and we figured, hey, maybe he got his act together and will really show up for the combine….this was not the case. Burfict is 6’1 3/8″ and 248 lbs. He actually lost weight and we felt that he may be taking this serious but then he ran a 5.09 forty. I didn’t hear if he wasn’t going to compete any of the other drills but I do know that I didn’t see him again after the horrific forty time. Once again, he may have gotten injured and I missed it but due to his past and a week spent in Indy where he blamed everyone else for his mistakes, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just starting pouting and took his ball and went home.

Zach Brown – After hearing Mike Mayock spend the better part of the last month saying repeatedly to anyone and everyone that Brown may be the fastest linebacker ever at the NFL combine, it was rather humorous to me that not only was he not the fastest ever but he wasn’t the fastest in his class. That honor would go to Mychal Kendricks who Mayock seemed to not get any attention to even after he made such a big deal about Brown’s forty. I honestly believe if the NFL Network put up a counter that went off every time Mayock mentioned on Sunday that Brown was probably going to run the fastest LB forty ever, it probably would have topped 20. Then he almost neglected Kendricks after his superior time. When will someone call out Mayock on his bias. If a player is listed in the top 5 of Mayock’s list, they can expect to be built up on every exercise and have excuses in hand on each mistake. If you’re not on his list, you can expect to get ignored from the combine coverage. Brown who measured 6’1 1/4″ 244 lbs, still ran an impressive 4.50.

Courtney Upshaw & Dont’a Hightower – I’ve mentioned before that both Upshaw and Hightower played really tight and didn’t have great change of direction. While Hightower didn’t look as stiff as Upshaw, neither looked particularly great in this regard. But, they both are bigger, powerful linebackers. Some teams may look to sacrifice to flexibility for the toughness. Upshaw came in at 6’1 5/8″ 272 lbs, while Hightower was 6’2 1/4″ 265 lbs. Upshaw didn’t run the forty and Dont’a turned in a time of 4.68. Hightower didn’t compete in the bench and Courtney turned in 22 reps. Both players are at their best when they are closing in short area bursts. Each player could field calls to possibly switch to 4-3 defensive end but their physical nature will also allow them to be successful at the next level in their current positions. Upshaw needs to go to a bigger, more physical defense. Hightower would benefit in playing in a 3-4 system that asks him to crash down and take out blockers, opening up the play making inside linebacker next to him.

For those of you that returned to work on Monday and weren’t able to watch any of the day’s combine activities, I hope this was able to catch you up. Come back tomorrow as I will have all of the buzz surrounding the last day at the NFL combine, my favorite day, the defensive backs.

Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You can also catch Jayson on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio with Scott Engel and the morning crew every Thursday at 10:30am ET. You may email Jayson directly @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock
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