Tough As Nails: Defense, Part 2

NFL Scouting's Dave-Te Thomas returns with this story that he supplies to teams for their draft prep. We conclude this four-part series with the outside linebackers and defensive backs, 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.


Brian Rolle, Ohio State University Buckeyes

With NFL teams becoming more and more enamored by "measurables," drafting a player under 5-foot-10 might be OK at wide receiver or kicking specialist, but one look around the league and you are not going to find too many linebackers measuring in at 5-foot-9 5/8. But, if you measured Rolle's heart, desire and fire, he'd stand 7-feet tall.

For a team utilizing a 3-4 scheme or Cover-2 defense, Rolle might be a fit, especially if that team has a defensive end-sized strong-side linebacker. Some team could look at his speed and pass coverage skills, and decide that Rolle might be a better fit at middle linebacker or as a strong safety.

A standout special teams performer during his first two seasons as a Buckeye, Rolle made Ohio State fans quickly forget All-American James Laurinaitis with his stellar performance as the team's middle linebacker since taking over that position as a junior. Since moving into the starting lineup, he registered 171 of his 210 career tackles and registered 18.5 of his 21.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while still serving as the leader of the special team coverage units.

This Sam Mills (ex-Carolina Panthers)/London Fletcher (Washington) clone has seen his unit lead the Big Ten Conference in total defense, ranking fifth nationally in 2009 (262.31 ypg) and fourth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in 2010 (262.23 ypg). Ohio State also led the league in rushing defense during his senior year (96.69 ypg; third nationally).

Compares To: Lofa Tatupu, Seattle… If they could measure heart, desire and determination, Rolle would stand tall among the linebackers in this year's draft, but when actually measured, his height and size will become an issue on draft day. He is an athlete that plays bigger than his size, as he has a great combination of speed, quickness and strength. He is a well-proportioned athlete with above average sideline-to-sideline agility and range. His quickness and instincts are his best assets.

While undersized, he plays big. Rolle shows a nose for the ball and attacks the offense with good determination. He is a solid run defender who despite a lack of size, plays strong with good hand usage. But, he is even more effective when avoiding and slipping blocks to make the plays. Slower offensive linemen seldom get a good shot at him, but when they do, he will get washed out of the play because of his safety-like frame. However, you will not see him blocked for long, as he is quick to redirect and is the type that will play until the whistle.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Tampa Bay, Houston, San Diego and Atlanta…There might not be a better place for a Cover-2 linebacker than in Tampa Bay, where Derrick Brooks turned in what is expected to be a Hall of Fame career. The Bucs have a gaping hole at left outside linebacker, where Dekoda Watson managed only 30 tackles in 15 games last year. Rolle could also battle Corey Lynch for a spot in the secondary. Houston is looking more for a big pass rushing linebacker in the Von Miller mold, but innovative defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has had success in Dallas with their smaller line-backers in the past. San Diego has Shaun Phillips and Larry English on the outside, but strong safety Steve Gregory and left inside linebacker Stephen Cooper are easily replaced in San Diego. The Falcons have to develop a playmaker behind aging Mike Peterson and Rolle's physical style would be a nice compliment next to Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton in the Atlanta linebacker unit.

Lawrence Wilson, University of Connecticut Huskies

At 6-foot, Wilson is taller than Rolle, but at 225, he is a bit "light in the pants." However, he is constantly on the move, thanks to excellent speed, footwork, balance and lateral agility. His coaches cite his work ethic and the thing that impresses you when watching him on film is the way Wilson attacks blocks, strings out running plays and can rush the passer.

A model of consistency, Wilson started all but one of the 52 games that he appeared in for the Huskies. Three times during his Connecticut career, he produced 100-plus tackle seasons. His 449 tackles rank second in school history, fourth in Big East Conference annals and placed fourth among the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision's active performers. His 35.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage tied for sixth on the school's career-record chart.

After a 140-tackle junior season, Wilson's senior season saw him repeat as an All-Big East Conference first-team choice. He again led the conference with a team-best 123 tackles (71 solos), setting the school career-record by returning his third interception for a touchdown. He tied for third on the squad with ten stops for loss, 3.5 of them resulting in sacks while taking over middle linebacker chores due to injuries suffered by Greg Lloyd.

Compares To: Derrick Brooks, ex-Tampa Bay…Sure, most cat-quick, smaller linebackers are somehow compared to Brooks, but Wilson has a lot of the same style as the perennial All-Pro – speed, field smarts, incredible balance and excellence playing in space. He might not be a great pass rusher, but with his speed and change of direction skills, few weak-side linebackers can cover ground as well as Wilson. He might have to work on adding more bulk to play at the next level, but he does a fine job of keeping plays in front of him.

Against the run, his size issue sometimes causes him to struggle working in-line. However, he knows how to use his quickness to slip past and avoid blocks in order to get to the ball and clog the inside rush lanes. He is best in pursuit, showing urgency, balance and body control with excellent change of direction agility to run clean and take proper angles to the ball when working in space. He is a solid wrap-up tackler with enough power to drag ball-carriers down.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Arizona, Green Bay, New England and Buffalo…The Cards are going to revamp their linebacker unit, with aging Clark Haggins and Joey Porter being led to the unemployment line. Bringing in a speedy backer to apply constant pressure on the backfield is a must, as those are areas that Wilson is strongest in. Green Bay has an outstanding pass rusher in Clay Matthews, but Wilson would give the Packers one of the quickest set of playmakers at this position in the NFL. New England is well aware of Wilson's field exploits. They have slowly rebuilt their linebacker unit, but need that speedy player to be a nuisance along the line of scrimmage. Buffalo mysteriously resigned Shawne Merriman, but they need to cover their bases when that former San Diego All-Pro ends up on IR or continues his career downslide in 2011.


Cortez Allen, The Citadel Bulldogs

Generally, teams look for cornerbacks that were developed in the major college ranks, but there have been a handful to go on to Pro Bowl careers from the small college level, most notably Arizona's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Blessed with the size and hitting ability of Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor, Allen has received serious midround consideration by more than a dozen teams looking to upgrade their secondary.

Allen has a tall, well-built, muscular frame with long arms, good bubble, thick thighs and calves. He has a tight abdomen, trimmed upper body and a frame that can carry additional bulk without it affecting his quickness. He has smaller than ideal hands, but it does not impede him from securing the ball properly and extending away from his frame when competing for the pass at its highest point.

Since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore, Allen has allowed just 69-of-197 passes targeted into his area to be completed (35.03 percent).

Allen's ability to execute the bump-&-run is almost flawless. On the 128 passes that the opposition failed to complete in his area, the Bulldog rerouted/jammed his main pass coverage assignment on 102 of those incomplete tosses (79.69 percent) and also recorded 21 passes defended (16 deflections, five interceptions).

Cortez Allen
Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
Compares To: Aeneas Williams, ex-Arizona Cardinal…Allen is a vastly underrated boundary cornerback who has the length and stride in his backpedal to easily stay on the receiver coming out of transition. Allen can plant-and-drive with no gather and displays the mirror ability to stay with any receiver he's matched up against. He consistently makes plays on the ball and is determined to finish when executing the tackle. He might not get a lot of opportunities vs. the running game, but when he does, no other FCS cornerback can do the job of keeping outside containment like Allen. He just might be the most underrated man coverage defender in the collegiate ranks.

Because Allen plays mostly in man coverage, he has had just limited opportunities to make plays in the box, but he is a physical tackler in the open field. He can put a "big hit" on a receiver competing for the ball and is not the type that will just attack "legs" when facing up to a ball-carrier. He has effective drag-down strength and can get guys to the ground, but is not regarded as an explosive tackler. He knows how to make adjustments to break down and fit when playing in the open and shows good desire to make the play. He will go low, wrestle the ball-carrier down or use his upper body strength to knock his opponent out of bounds.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Pittsburgh, Carolina, Baltimore and Oakland…If the Steelers fail to resign Ike Taylor, cornerback becomes an immediate need for Pittsburgh. Even if Taylor returns, the secondary was exposed enough in the playoffs to warrant multiple picks at this position. Chris Gamble never panned out in Carolina and the Panthers had their most success when they had a big, physical press coverage corner like Ken Lucas starting for them. Allen might fit that mold with a mid round choice. Baltimore has one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. They ranked 21st in the nation in pass defense (224.9 ypg) and their cornerbacks were torched for 19 touchdowns during the regular season. Fabian Washington proved to be a first round bust and was replaced during the course of 2010. Oakland suffered perhaps its greatest loss in recent history when it was announced that Nnamdi Asomugha was declared a free agent. They resigned Stanford Routt and were close to extending Chris Johnson before the lockout, but depth is lacking and neither of those can ever hope of matching Asomugha's playing level.

Ras-I Dowling, University of Virginia Cavaliers

Dowling seriously considered leaving school for the NFL after the 2009 season, but decided to return to improve his draft stock. The problem was – injuries. A rash of ailments sidetracked the physical cornerback, leaving him with only five games of action to show for his decision to play college ball in 2010.

Dowling is a tall boundary cornerback with an impressive wingspan, big hands, good bubble, high-cut, long legs and solid overall muscle tone. He has a tight abdomen, developed hamstrings and broad chest, looking more like a Cover-2 strong safety rather than a cover cornerback.

Dowling started 25-of-40 games at right cornerback for Virginia, recording 160 tackles (115 solos) with a 6-yard sack and 7.5 stops for losses of 24 yards. He recovered one fumble and caused four others, gained 34 yards on a punt return lateral and 70 yards on a trio of interceptions. He also deflected 29 passes. He also became the 11th player in school history to lead the team in interceptions in consecutive seasons (2007-08).

Compares To: Sean Smith, Miami…Dowling has the height, arm length, leaping ability and timing to win most jump-ball battles. He shows good ability to jump and track the ball in flight and is fearless going up for the ball in the air when working in a crowd. He takes good advantage of interception opportunities and has the ability to reach and pluck outside his frame. There are times he will drop the ball when tracking it over his shoulder, though.

Dowling's long stride allows him to make up ground in a hurry, more so on plays in front of him (another reason he might be a better fit at safety). He shows the power to combat for the ball in flight and is starting to show ability to read the quarterback and bait him to throw, knowing he has the burst to close on the ball. He seems to get better depth and position playing in the zone than in man coverage, as he uses his frame well to keep everything in front of him. With his reach, leaping ability and natural hands, he reacts quickly in attempts to make a play on the ball.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston and Minnesota…The Lions desperately need somebody who can shut down the big, physical receivers they faced regularly in the NFC North. While they will more likely go for an outside linebacker in round one, they could still find a first round talent like Dowling still around with their 44th pick. Only Dallas (33) and Houston (33) gave up more touchdown passes in 2010 than Philadelphia (31). Asante Samuel is a ball hawk, but with Ellis Hobbs expected to retire due to injury issues, getting a physical press corner who would allow Samuel to continue to freelance is essential early in the draft for the Eagles. Houston might regret letting Dunta Robinson bolt for Atlanta, as they failed to replace the All Pro last year on the way to yet another non-playoff season. Putting Dowling in a Houston uniform could solve two issues, as he would be a nice fit at left cornerback and allow the 2010 starter, Glover Quin to shift to his more natural free safety position. Minnesota would be another nice fit, where he could be reunited with his old Virginia teammate, Chris Cook and also add needed youth to a secondary whose best player is 34-year-old corner, Antoine Winfield.


Mark Legree, Appalachian State University Mountaineers

The Mountaineers have been known for producing outstanding playmakers in recent years and LeGree is the nation's active pass thief. He has an athletic build with minimal body fat (6.4 percent) and room on his frame to carry at least another 10-15 pounds of bulk without the added weight affecting his overall quickness.

Much like the New Orleans Saints' Darren Sharper, LeGree is a punishing contact hitter with classic wrap-up technique. He has the ability to cover speedy receivers in the deep zone, come up to provide solid run support inside the box and the hand placement and technique to consistently jam receivers and take his coverage assignments out of their route's progression.

In his time as a starter, he killed 103 potential scoring drives by the opposition, based on his turnovers (24) and stops on third-down (69) and fourth-down (10) plays and preserved a victory when he deflected a two-point conversion pass with 0:56 left in a 42-41 win over Chattanooga in the 2010 season opener.

LeGree became the first Southern Conference player to lead the nation in interceptions (10 in 2008). Those ten pass thefts were the most by a league performer since the 1975 campaign and also established the school's annual mark. They were also the most by an FCS defender since the 2002 season.

Compares To: Nick Collins, Green Bay…Like Collins, LeGree has enough range to play center field and his 17 interceptions are evidence that he is a solid ball hawk. He can mirror the tight end underneath and stays tight with the slot receivers up the seam. When working the zone, he gets a much better jump on the ball on plays coming from the middle hash. He will square up and hit with good pop and is a solid wrap-up tackler. He appears very instinctive going for the jump ball, timing his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point.

LeGree's best assets are his hands, as he holds two of the top three season spots on ASU's pass theft record list. While he has shorter-than-ideal arm reach (29 7/8-inches), he compensates with good leaping ability, timing and natural hands to reach and pluck the ball at its highest point. LeGree shows very quick reactionary skills. He has that natural feel for finding the ball, thanks to his quick decision making that allows him to read and reacts in order to get to the ball in a hurry. He is seldom fooled by play action and misdirection, doing a nice job of keeping action in front of him.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville and Minnesota…Dallas needs help at both safety positions. While both lines need immediate attention, the Pokes hope to find a "diamond in a coal mine" on the draft's third day. Alan Ball is really a corner forced to play free safety for Dallas and with the team not interested in bringing back Gerald Sensabaugh, they need to find a player who can replace Sensabaugh's pass thievery skills. Brian Dawkins has been showing his age lately (37) and had perhaps the worst season of his career in 2010. The new defensive coaches say they would like him to return for 2010, but they need to draft a youngster to groom behind the perennial All-Pro. Jacksonville featured Don Carey, a converted cornerback at free safety, but in two seasons with the Jaguars, he's managed only 55 tackles with one interception. Minnesota thought it solved their free safety issues when they inked Madieu Williams away from Cincinnati, but in three seasons, the oft-injured defensive back has made just three interceptions and missed the end of 2010 dealing with a concussion.


AHMAD BLACK, University of Florida Gators

Sometimes, maybe teams need to toss away their criteria factors when it comes to a player. Ask any general manager what he looks for in a strong safety and they will tell you they want one who is over 6-feet, more than 220 pounds, has the speed of a cornerback and the tackling ability of a linebacker. In Black's case, he only managed the tackling criteria. He's just 5-foot-9, 184 pounds, and ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, numbers that saw his draft stock slide considerably.

Having started 39 of his last 41 games at strong safety, Black closed out his career with 244 tackles (14 for losses), caused three fumbles and recovered two others, blocked a kick, deflected 15 passes and is tied for fourth in school history with 13 interceptions. He holds the school career-record with 362 yards gained via interception returns. "I had a pro scout tell me that he [Black] is the best tackler in college football today, UF safeties coach Chuck Heater said. "He's got a gift for it. He's an athletic guy. He's really athletic. First off, he's tough. If a guy doesn't want to make a tackle, all that other stuff doesn't really matter. Some guys don't want to make a tackle. He's a tough guy. Then it becomes just that ability to weave himself through people and around people and make plays the way he does. He's extraordinary."

Compares To: Bob Sanders, San Diego…Few safeties in the professional ranks have the instinctive feel for the ball and knowledge of the action in front of him that Black displays. He plays with the same field vision, ball anticipation skills and determination as Sanders. He is a physical tackler who excels in run support and does a nice job of impeding the ball-carrier's forward progress with his hard-hitting wrap-up tackling skills. He has large, natural hands to make the interception and excels at gaining placement in attempts to reroute the receiver.

What he lacks in hip fluidness and explosive second gear, Black makes up for it with solid tackling skills, a good understanding for taking proper angles and great anticipation skills. Toss in his total disregard for his own safety, determination to make the play and an added bonus with his kamikaze-style of play on special teams and you have player who is certain to become a fan favorite.

Teams Showing the Most Interest:

Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Dallas and Houston…When Indianapolis cut Bob Sanders, it left a huge void in their secondary, making Black, a version of Sanders an ideal fit to be his replacement. Dallas is not going to bring Gerald Sensabaugh back, leaving them with nobody in the secondary with the pass thievery skills Black brings to the table. Jacksonville ranked 28th in the league vs. the pass (250.2 ypg), as they allowed 28 touchdowns while picking off 13 passes with Courtney Greene and Don Carey both expected to lose their starting safety jobs. Houston tied for the league lead by allowing 33 touchdown passes. Bernard Pollard recorded 111 tackles, but failed to record any interceptions in 2010 at strong safety and the Texans' free safety, Troy Nolan, recorded just 49 tackles after signing off the street.

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