Buyer Beware: Defense, Part 1

Longtime personnel analyst Dave-Te Thomas brings Part 3 of a four-part series on boom-or-bust talents who have major flaws in their game or disconcerting character concerns. We start the defense with three players with first-round grades.

It happens every year. The team scouts spend every waking minute evaluating talent, attending games, watching film and checking their lists twice, sort of like a football Santa Claus. Then, the Combines roll around, and coaches, scouting directors and general managers are out in full force with stopwatches in hand. The four-day "underwear workout" commences, those out of the scouting loop (coaches and GMs) become enamored with agility figures and march off en mass to pro days. There, they continue their little "love fest" with a player's athletic ability, but along the way, seem to forget that victories are generated by production, by consistent performance and not how good a kid looks running 40 yards on the track.

What all of this leads up to is a totally different draft board than the ones the scouts have prepared. The general manager is the decision maker and all others are there to offer input. Coaches have their "guy" they want the GM to take, despite claims from their scouting department that have spent the better part of the year finding the "warts" not shown on the player's professional resume. With that in mind, here is a look at that one player at each position who will either make a general manager look like a genius, or have that guy on the unemployment line a year later.


Da'Quan Bowers

University of Clemson Tigers — #93 — 6:04.2-277

While many might be surprised to find Bowers as a member of this squad, there are very strong concerns from NFL teams about the condition of the defensive end's right knee after he underwent surgery to repair his meniscus. Some reports claim that Bowers will eventually need micro-fracture surgery and several teams doubt he will finish out his rookie contract, citing fears of arthritis settling into the knee area. While the injury has seen his draft stock drop, Bowers has also brought up concerns that he might be a "one-year wonder."

After registering just four sacks combined over his first two seasons, some began to question whether the defensive end would ever reach his potential. Bowers silenced those critics in 2010, terrorizing opposing backfields on his way to winning the Bronko Nagurski and Ted Hendricks Awards.

Bowers rededicated himself to football after losing two people close to him in less than a year. His mentor, former Clemson great Gaines Adams, passed away in January 2010 after going into cardiac arrest. Bowers' father, Dennis, died after suffering a seizure in the summer before the season.

Bowers entered his junior year with a newfound devotion to the game. He cleaned up his eating habits and managed to shed 20 pounds in the offseason, regaining the quickness and athleticism that made him a nightmare for opposing tackles. The results were spectacular, as the defensive end led the NCAA in sacks (1.19 spg) and placed second in tackles for loss (2.00 tpg).

The defensive end has good balance, body control and quickness off the snap, playing with adequate leverage strength. He is quick and agile on the move, showing decent quick twitch and natural movement as a pass rusher, but is prone to being late diagnosing running plays. Bowers is an adequate learner who needs time to digest plays. He showed better field awareness in 2010 than in the past, but still lacks the ability to rely on his instincts rather than think through the play before reacting. In a complicated system, this kid is apt to struggle.

Overall, Bowers is a good athlete, who looks to be developing physically, but there are still lingering questions about the long term condition of his right knee. His production is just decent against the run, but much better against the pass. He still needs to locate the ball better when working down the line, but when he gets into the backfield, he can zero in on his target. He has improved his ability to sniff out the play, but struggles vs. the larger blockers in running situations due to inconsistency in recognizing blocking schemes. Compares To…ERASMUS JAMES, ex-Minnesota…It seems like Bowers is in the "same boat" as James was coming out of college – fending off serious concerns about the health of his knee. He had a banner junior campaign, but some question if that was just a "one year wonder." He looked lethargic during pro day agility tests and while he might have been shaking off rust from his surgery, his 40-yard dash time (4.95) would have ranked 21st among the 24 defensive ends that attended the NFL Scouting Combine. His overall workout was called "sluggish" by some scouts and "average" by others, thus eliminating him from consideration to being the draft's top pick. He could do a freefall and drop out of the top ten selections, if whispers coming from NFL teams hold true.


Nick Fairley

University of Auburn Tigers — #90 — 6:04.1-298

No player in this draft carries the "boom or bust" tag more than Fairley. While he had a banner junior campaign, there are serious concerns for his dedication and work ethic. There have been reports of tardiness to meetings, lack of work ethic, especially in the training room, penchant for getting flagged for flagrant fouls and a concern, like Bowers, that he might be a one-year wonder.

When some "experts" compare him to Warren Sapp, it borders on the ridiculous – Sapp performed on every snap and every game throughout his Miami Hurricanes career and carried that over to a stellar NFL career. The only similarities between the two was a "liking" for dirty play, as Fairley was constantly being called for late hits and there were instances when he has speared ball carriers with his helmet, banged into their lower legs purposely and pushed off downed players to lift himself up in 2010. That attitude in training camp could lead to a "beat down" by some agitated veteran.

Still, Fairley earned consensus All-American recognition and was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the year after placing third in the NCAA in tackles for loss (1.71 tpg) and 12th in sacks (.82 spg) in 2010. The junior broke Auburn's single-season record with 11.5 sacks for minus 74 yards. It was nearly impossible to keep the defensive tackle out of the backfield, as he posted an impressive 24.0 tackles for losses totaling 106 yards and 21 quarterback hurries.

Nick Fairley
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Fairley had a profound impact on the Tigers' front four. Before his arrival, the Auburn run defense ranked 54th nationally, allowing 138.92 yards per game on the ground in 2008. He played in all 13 games in 2009 but started just two contests while his team finished a lowly 78th vs. the run (156.08 ypg). He started all 14 games of the 2010 season and emerged as a dominant presence along the Tigers' front wall, leading a unit that boasted the NCAA's ninth-ranked rushing defense, allowing just 109.07 yards per game.

Fairley has long arms, good bubble, thick thighs and calves and room to carry at least another 20 pounds of bulk without having the additional weight impact his foot speed. He has good upper-body chest thickness, but he has to continue to develop his lower-body strength, as he was efficient vs. isolated blockers as a junior, but struggled to hold his ground vs. double teams.

Fairley is just an adequate student and has struggled at times with play recognition. He is never going to be a really instinctive player and will need time to digest a complicated playbook.

Fairley's motor was too hot-&-cold prior to his senior year. He now shows better field awareness and aggression in his game, but even though he had a solid 2010, his lack of overall consistency and urgency in his play earlier in his career (looked lethargic late in games) makes one wonder if 2010 was his "coming out" party or a fluke.

In the training room, Fairley has to be monitored, as he needs to be prodded to do the little extras in the training room and practices (improved in these areas as a junior, but is still a work in progress). He can handle touch coaching, but must continue to put forth the extra effort in practices and study film more.

Compares To…Tommie Harris, ex-Chicago…Harris has unquestioned talent, but he failed to put forth a consistent effort and his lack of work ethic finally saw him wear out his welcome in Chicago. Fairley is in the same situation – a talent that could be on the cusp of greatness, but his flippant attitude towards training, dirty play and lack of great strength (more natural than weight room) have teams feeling he might be too big of a risk with an early first round draft pick.


Martez Wilson

University of Illinois Fighting Illini — #2 — 6:03.7-252

It's not like Wilson will be a total bust, it's just that he lacks great field awareness and ball-recognition skills, along with the natural instincts you look for in a middle linebacker, a position where your starter has to be the smartest player on the field. Wilson would be much better served playing outside in a 3-4 alignment, where he can just zero in on the ball-carrier, as he does not have a great feel for shooting gaps or taking the loop around the corner as a pass rusher.

There are concerns about his medical record and there were off-field issues that have raised a few "red flags" around the league. Wilson was suspended for the 2008 season finale vs. Northwestern for violating team rules. Several weeks later, he was hospitalized and underwent surgery for stab wounds suffered coming to the defense of a friend and former Illinois teammate outside a bar in Champaign. Wilson returned to the field for the 2009 season opener vs. Missouri, but suffered a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery, forcing him to sit out the rest of the schedule. Biting at the bit to return to the gridiron, the oft-reckless performer, both on and off the field used those troubling times to get what he described as his "house in order." He would go on to earn All-Big Ten Conference first-team honors in 2010, a season that saw him post 112 tackles (47 solos) with four sacks and 11.5 stops for loss.

Wilson has a muscular frame with good chest development, big arms, tight waist, tapered back, good bubble, thick thighs and calves and room to add at least another ten pounds of bulk. He has large hands and shows good arm length to stave off reach blocks.

The junior might be more suited to be 3-4 inside linebacker than the classic 4-3 type. He plays with functional strength, doing a decent job of stuffing and clogging the dive hole, but despite his powerful frame, he lacks the hand punch to get off blocks quickly. He is just not consistent in shedding when attempting to make the play. He shows better strength to fight through the playing side pin blocks.

Wilson works to the line with square shoulders. He has above-average linear speed and good flexibility for his position. He shows good lateral agility and acceleration working in the short area. He can redirect quickly, but needs to play in control, as he will overrun plays.

Wilson is adequate student and shows just marginal mental alertness. He lacks the instinctive feel to flow to the ball and shows poor angling when trying to close on outside runs. He takes too many false steps dropping back in pass coverage and needs to be in a simple scheme, as he struggles with the mental aspect of the game and will be exposed playing vs. a complicated offense.

The linebacker does not always read and react quickly to the play, especially when trying to break down line keys. Wilson is capable of reading the triangle, but will get too focused on it and loose sight of the ball, especially on misdirection. He is adequate at reading keys, but a bit of a liability making calls and adjustments, as he will struggle to grasp a complicated playbook. He looks lost and sluggish dropping back in the zone and lacks the burst to recover when a receiver gets behind him.

The defender has a good motor, but even with his weight room strength, he is not a forceful tackler.

Compares To…Carlos Polk, ex-San Diego/Dallas…Like Polk, Wilson's pass coverage deficiencies will leave him performing as a two-down linebacker at the next level. He gives good effort on the field, but is best served in a 3-4 alignment where he would not have to handle making calls, as he has just an adequate mental grasp for those duties. He plays much better in the box than when giving chase, as he does a good job of keeping his shoulders square and exploding through the holes. There are just too many holes in his game (mental aspect, pass coverage) for a team to get excited over him as a middle linebacker, but he could prove to be an effective strong-side inside linebacker in the 3-4, or on the weak-side playing outside.

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