Tough As Nails: Defense, Part 1

NFL Scouting's Dave-Te Thomas returns with this story that he supplies to teams for their draft prep. We lead off with the defensive linemen and a middle linebacker, including one player who is coveted by the Packers.

Every year, the elite draft prospects garner most of the media attention leading up to draft day, and rightfully so. There are players who might not get the recognition that they deserve, but end up becoming fan favorites for their ability to handle the "grunt" work, go out and play the game like a pack of "junk yard" dogs. In order to make my Tough As Nails Team for The NFL Draft Report, I want players that perform, no questions asked. I want players that laugh at the face of adversity; those that would much rather tear an opponent's head off rather than make a passive tackle, run through a pile rather than avoid contact, flatten defenders with devastating down field blocks and relish playing on special teams.

The players listed below might end up being the best performer in the draft by the time all is said and done with the NFL careers. They might not be the first taken at their respective positions, but if I put a team on the field, they need to be "Tough as Nails" as this starting unit;


Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue University Boilermakers

With all of the talk about the underclassmen coming out at the defensive end position, it is this senior who has had the most productive career of any defensive end eligible for the 2011 draft. Kerrigan might not have the athletic pedigree of a Robert Quinn, but his ability to wreak havoc in the backfield is truly outstanding.

On just turnovers alone, Kerrigan's 14 forced fumbles broke the school career-record of 12 set by James Looney (1977-80) and topped the previous Big Ten Conference mark of thirteen recorded by both Simeon Rice of Illinois (1992-95) and Bob Sanders of Iowa (2000-03). His 14 forced fumbles tied the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision career-record that is shared by Terrell Suggs of Arizona State (2000-02), Antwan Peek of Cincinnati (2000-02) and Kenechi Udeze of Southern California (2001-03).

His "old school" ability shines through, as he plays with the non-stop motor of Lee Roy Selmon (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1976-1984), the "tough as nails" tenacity of Bruce Smith (Buffalo Bills, 1985-1999; Washington Redskins 2000-2003), the run-stuffing skills of Jack Youngblood (Los Angeles Rams, 1971-84) and the field vision and intelligence of Howie Long (Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, 1981-93).

The Boilermaker blends those old school skills with that of the National Football League's "new breed" – the pass rushing ability of Minnesota's Jared Allen, the explosive chase-down quickness of Philadelphia's Trent Cole, the business-like approach of Jacksonville's Aaron Kampman and the bone-jarring wrap-up tackle skills of Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith.

Kerrigan ranks second among active FBS defenders with 33.5 quarterback sacks (12.5 as a senior) and is listed fourth in the nation with 57.0 tackles behind the line of scrimmage — includinga Big Ten-leading 26 as a senior. generating 289 yards in total losses. His seven forced fumbles in 2009 set the school season-record and was one shy of the Big Ten Conference annual mark.

Compares To: Jared Allen, Minnesota…Like Allen when he was coming out of college, Kerrigan does not get the "true love" he deserves from professional scouts and media, alike. He is a high motor type who plays until the whistle and consistently beats blockers with his blend of strength and foot quickness. He's a throwback to the days of Howie Long – playing smart, but playing with aggression.

Kerrigan is a beast when giving chase in the backfield. Since the beginning of his junior year, runners have averaged minus 0.35 yards on 96 carries in his area. He has that instinctive ability to know when to shoot his hands in attempts to hit and shed. He plays much bigger than his size indicates in run force and has the lower body strength to hold ground firmly at the point of attack.

Kerrigan has that sudden initial step to gain advantage coming off the edge. With a 500-pound bench press, big hands and long arms, he is a nightmare for offensive tackles in one-on-one confrontations.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, New Orleans, New England and Philadelphia…The Bucs ranked next to last in the NFL with 26 sacks and 28th vs. the run (131.7 ypg) last year, making their need for a playmaking defensive end a prime need. The coaches are looking to replace Stylez White at right defensive end and have also tired of White's antics. Kerrigan gives the Bucs an impressive blend of quickness and power, especially as a pass rusher. He has that initial explosion to fly past slower offensive linemen and simply beats most blockers coming off the edge. Jacksonville might be ready to admit to their previous first round blunder by setting Jarvis Moss free. Austen Lane came on strong the second half of the 2010 schedule, but a player of Kerrigan's caliber alongside Tyson Alualu will provide the Jaguars with All-Pro potential performers on the left side of the defensive wall. New Orleans' Will Smith and Alex Brown combined for 7.5 total sacks in 2010 and with issues also at linebacker, the Saints need to drastically upgrade their front seven early and often on draft day. Brown's days come to an end in Bayou country, if New Orleans selects Kerrigan in the first round. Ever since trading Richard Seymour to the Raiders a few years ago, the Patriots' defensive line has suffered from a lack of pressure coming off the edge. Kerrigan has the balance and change of direction agility to slant and shoot the gaps, staying low in his pads while using his reach to keep blockers away from his legs. When he moves laterally, you can see the way he easily blows past the gaps. He has the same burst whether standing up or in a two-point stance and consistency gains advantage with his ability to pin the offensive tackle's ears back. Philadelphia thought they solved their defensive end problems when they drafted Brandon Graham last year, but the rookie suffered a major knee injury and he remains questionable for the 2011 season.

J.J. Watt, University of Wisconsin Badgers

Like Kerrigan, you expect Watt to show up at the stadium wearing a hard hat rather than a football helmet. The junior rivaled Kerrigan in constantly disrupting Big Ten Conference backfields in 2010. The amazing thing is, he can only get better, as he has just two years of experience at defensive end, having begun his career as a tight end for Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin.

In only 26 games at the strong-side defensive end position, Watt produced 43 stops behind the line of scrimmage (assists/solos) that included 11.5 quarterback sacks. Ten of his 28 quarterback pressures have caused interceptions, as eight other hurries saw those passers try to escape his onslaught, only to be sacked by other Badgers defenders in the process.

Watt has also proven to be a "drive killer," registering 36 third-down hits and seven more on fourth-down snaps. He also caused four fumbles and recovered five others, with each of his turnovers leading to Wisconsin scoring drives. On 106 plays made vs. the ground game, he has limited those bal-carriers to a minus-56 yards and two first downs (-0.53 ypc). Eighteen of those tackles came inside the red zone, including nine on goal-line plays.

Compares To: Richard Seymour, Oakland…The thing I like about Watt is that he is hungry for knowledge, making him a coach's dream. You can see with each game that he adds a few more "tricks" to his game. I love the way the Badgers move him down the line, as he is very effective at pushing the offensive linemen back into the pocket, along with taking the inside gaps to flush the quarterback out. Understand, this is a kid with just two years of defensive line experience. In a 3-4 alignment, he would be a perfect fit, as he can be a terror on stunts.

Watt relies on both quickness and brute strength to penetrate inside. He plays with good leverage and strength, He is determined coming off the snap, and with his recently improved hand technique, he can generate the explosiveness needed coming off the snap to get good penetration and disrupt the play.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Tennessee, Houston, Green Bay, New York Jets, San Diego…The Titans really want Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with their first pick, but if both quarterbacks are gone, Tennessee will opt for a pass rusher to fill the void that will probably be created when their top sack artist, Jason Babin (12.5 sacks) was deemed expendable and not offered a contract prior to the lockout. Their other starting defensive end, Jacob Ford, had just three sacks in 2010. Houston needs to compliment Mario Williams on the defensive line. Connor Barwin is a question mark coming back from knee woes, making a playmaker at defensive end a priority. But, if Von Miller happens to slide down to pick #11, the Texans go for the Aggie instead. Green Bay would love to keep the local product "home," but finding him still on the board at #32 is likely not going to happen. The Jets let Shaun Ellis go, ending his 11-year career in New York and the Chargers are desperate to find someone to attack the quarterback like during the days of Shawne Merriman and Watt can easily unseat left end Jacques Cesaire for the starting job.

Watt has that "special" burst off the snap that lets him consistently put the offensive tackle back on his heels. He is sudden at the X's and shows the natural strength to get off blocks when the opponent tries to latch on. He has more quickness than one would expect from a player with his size, sort of like the Chargers' Luis Castillo and former Atlanta Falcon, Patrick Kerney.


Corey Liuget, University of Illinois Fighting Illini

Corey Liuget
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
When you are a 215-pound defensive end, you might not get too many college scholarship offers coming out of high school, but coach Ron Zook took a change on Liuget, seeing him grow into a 300-pound All-American defensive tackle. Buried behind the team's veteran depth during his first two years, Liuget emerged in 2010, ranking among the Big Ten Conference leaders with 12.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2010.

With Liuget utilized in the front wall's shuttle system in 2009, the Illini finished 91st in the nation in total defense (403.25 ypg), 96th in scoring defense (30.17 ppg) and 76th in rushing defense (154.42 ypg). Once he took over the leadership role in 2010, Illinois greatly improved as a unit, allowing 351.31 yards per game in total offense (38th in the nation), 23.46 points per game (48th nationally) and 130.77 yards on the ground (32nd in the NCAA).

Liuget received All-American and All-Big Ten Conference honors as a full-time starter in 2010. He delivered a career-best 63 tackles (29 solos), ranking sixth on the team. He paced the Illini with 4.5 sacks, 12.5 stops for loss and 10 pressures.

Compares To: Kelly Gregg, Baltimore…Like Gregg, Liuget plays well when lined up over the center's head. He needs to learn how to keep his pads down, as he will pop up at the snap sometimes, leaving his chest exposed for the physical block. He has good lateral agility and uses his hand jolt effectively to push the blocker back, redirect and shoot the gaps. When he moves down the line, he is quick to pick up schemes and plays with urgency to prevent the ball-carrier from turning the corner.

Liuget has very quick hands and the functional strength to deliver a punishing jolt. He shows good production getting into the blocker's body, but needs to use his hands better to defeat the low blocks (can get knocked down vs. the chop block). When he moves down the line, Liuget is quick to pick up schemes and plays with urgency to prevent the ball-carrier from turning the corner. Against the pass, he shows a sudden burst off the ball, but is more comfortable as a power rusher.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

New York Giants, New York Jets, New Orleans, St. Louis and Cleveland…Both New York teams have interior line issues. The Giants are expected to see Barry Cofield bolt via free agency, once the lockout issues are resolved and while they usually go for the best available athlete, they need to use their 19th pick on either a defensive or offensive tackle. The Jets let Shaun Ellis go and Kris Jenkins' career might be over after Achilles tendon issues the last two seasons. Liuget might not have the massive bulk to play the classic nose guard position, but he does have the lateral agility and bull rush skills to be a highly efficient under-tackle. The Saints have lots of holes to fill on their front seven. If no viable prospect is available at either defensive end or outside linebacker, they could opt for Liuget in a tandem with Sedrick Ellis at the tackle slots. The Rams ranked 17th in the nation vs. the run last year, thanks to the arrival of Fred Robbins at left defensive tackle, but a drastic upgrade from Gary Gibson at right tackle is needed. Cleveland jettisoned Shaun Rogers, who signed with New Orleans, creating a big hole at defensive tackle, but it is doubtful that the Browns will still find him available early in the second round.

Stephen Paea, Oregon State University Beavers

Paea is the unquestioned "strong man" among this year's draft eligibles and recently bench pressed 225 pounds 51 times after putting the same weights up 49 times at the NFL Scouting Combine. But, a right knee lateral meniscus tear in practices leading up to the Senior Bowl required surgery to repair and he just recently started to run for teams. That injury might have cost him a chance to sneak into the end of the first round, but if healthy, Paea has the ability to be a dominant bull rusher. Coming back from great odds is nothing new to the Beavers defender, though.

One of the most unheralded players in the collegiate ranks, Paea made tremendous strides in his game since joining the Beavers in 2008. It is hard to imagine that he has just little less five years of organized football experience. He was a standout rugby player who was born on the island of Vav'u, within the Tongan Island chain and did not come to the United States under age 16.

Paea did not even speak English until five years ago and the first time he ever competed in a football game came during his senior year at Timpview High School. In 2010, he was an All-Pac 10 Conference first-team choice and won the Morris Trophy honors, an award given to the top linemen in the league. The All-American again caused four fumbles while delivering 45 tackles (20 solos), six sacks and eleven stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Compares To: Mike Patterson, Philadelphia…Like Patterson, Paea is a classic plugger in the middle of the field. His ability to occupy multiple blockers is one of his best traits, but with his speed and strength, I would like to see him spend more time in the backfield wreaking havoc, rather then spending the bulk of the day "taking out the trash." Yes, he lacks ideal size, but with that raw power, few NFL blockers will be able to contain him in one-on-one action. I say, unleash this junkyard dog and let's see which quarterback is still safe by the end of the day.

Paea still relies a bit too much on his raw power and will get into a rhythm where he gets his hands outside his frame, sort of like swinging them like a big bat, but he is quick to recoil and reset to get instant placement to stun and jolt the blockers. In the 11 films I watched on him this year, I have yet to see him get washed out.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Indianapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington…

The Colts allowed 127.0 yards per game rushing, the 26th-worst total in the league last year. They have always been known for drafting lunch pail-type blue collar workers, a perfect evaluation of what Paea is. If drafted by the Colts, he immediately replaces Daniel Muir at left tackle, if healthy. Chicago finally tired of overpriced Tommy Harris and cut him in January, but that leaves a gaping hole on the line's interior. The Bears' left tackle, Matt Toeaina, boasted only 26 tackles and two sacks in 16 games last year. The Eagles have more pressing issues on the offensive line and linebacker, but they could go for Paea in round two, to eventually groom him behind Michael Adams. The Redskins appear more committed to the 3-4 defense and getting rid of Albert Haynesworth in the process, but while Paea does not have the classic size to play the nose, few players in the NFL boast his raw power.


Quan Sturdivant, University of North Carolina Tar Heels

The Tar Heels' hopes for capturing the national championship was sidetracked by an NCAA investigation that saw a slew of UNC defenders either be dismissed or suspended from the program. Sturdivant was spared a suspension after his July 2010 bust for marijuana possession, but he was lost for the month of October by a hamstring pull. What makes him so inviting to a NFL team searching for linebacker depth is that the senior has starting experience in the middle and weak-side positions, along with the raw power and quick feet to play on the strong side.

Bearing a striking resemblance to the late Steve McNair, Sturdivant has an athletic, compact physique with a thick upper body, muscular arms, good bubble, thick thighs and calves. He possesses very good lower body strength which allows him to anchor firmly vs. double teams. He displays fluid hip snap with minimal body fat and room to carry at least another ten pounds of bulk without the added weight impacting his overall quickness.

In 2009, Sturdivant became the first Tar Heels linebacker to earn first-team All-ACC honors since 1997. Even though he appeared in just eight games as a senior, Sturdivant provided quality performances for that decimated defensive unit, finishing third on the team with 61 tackles. He led the Tar Heels in tackles as both a sophomore and junior, finishing his career with 300 tackles (186 solos) that included seven sacks and 27.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Compares To: James Laurinaitis, St. Louis…Sturdivant and Laurinaitis rely on their field vision, intelligence and quickness to gain advantage on the blocker in order to compensate for a lack of ideal size. The Tar Heels linebacker is a classic knee bender who plays in good football position, as he always seems to be on his feet working through trash. He a smart playmaker who reacts decisively and can step up, stay square and take on/shed the bigger blockers with good force. He has that quick reactionary ability to fill holes and make plays in-line and even at his size, blockers struggle in attempts to contain him at the point of attack.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Denver and Philadelphia…

The Bucs seem like a perfect fit for Sturdivant in the second round. Tampa Bay ranked 28th vs. the run last year and the Tar Heel could either slide into the weak-side position or take over the middle if Barrett Ruud leaves. The team might also shift Ruud to an outside slot to take advantage of his pass rushing skills. Only Carolina (20) and Denver (26) gave up more rushing touchdowns in 2010 than Jacksonville's 19. There's a gaping hole at middle linebacker for the Jags, after they recently let Kirk Morrison leave. Once Denver takes care of defensive line issues, they need to find a better solution to Wesley Woodyard (37 tackles in 2010) to line up next to D.J. Williams at the two inside linebacker spots. Stewart Bradley missed the 2009 season with knee issues and was banged up again in 2009. Since Jeremiah Trotter was let go (the first time), Philadelphia has lacked any consistency from their middle linebackers. Enter Quan Sturdivant?

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