Buyer Beware: Defense, Part 2

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. The series concludes with the outside linebacker, cornerback and safety.

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.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Aldon Smith

University of Missouri Tigers — #85 — 6:04.2-258

Before any NFL team dares to draft Smith and try to make him an outside linebacker, there is a word of caution – contact Buffalo and ask them for their opinion of that mistake made when drafting Aaron Maybin.

Smith, a junior entry, added over 15 pounds to his frame during the 2010 off-season in order to compete better at defensive end, but outside of rush end duties, he may not be suited to play outside linebacker, as I doubt that he can generate enough foot speed to be effective in long pursuit. To play linebacker, he has to show better alertness to plays in front of him. He is best when getting a clear lane off the edge, but is slow to recognize blocking schemes and will bite on fakes and play action.

When he is able to locate the ball, Smith plays with good instincts and awareness. His problems arise when he has to work in-line, as he spends a lot of time trying to disengage and loses sight of the play. When he finds the ball, there is no hesitation in his moves to pursue the play. He is better coming off the edge than when having to deal with reading responsibilities.

He is weight room strong, but because of his size, he does not generate enough strength to work across blocks in pursuit and can be overmatched at the line of scrimmage vs. the bigger offensive tackles. He relies mostly on hand placement to gain separation and his burst and arm-over action to slip blocks. While active with his hands, he does not have the ideal strength to neutralize, especially vs. double teams. He keeps a tight mirror on the tight end and will shock and jolt to reroute, but will give up his body some. When taking on the lead blocker, he does a decent job to control, slap and break free.

Against the run, Smith is a one-gap player who can be productive to slip blocks, shoot the holes and be disruptive. He is best when using his speed to get up field, as he does show enough hand strength to shed in on-on-one situations. As a pass rusher, Smith is not the type that will explode and burst through traffic. Rather, he uses his suddenness along with his lateral quickness to get a clear lane coming off the edge. He is more of a finesse-type pass rusher who will not generate great speed, but he uses his hands to gain separation and his extra effort in pursuit allows him to get pressure.

Compares To…Aaron Maybin, Buffalo…Maybin appears to be an all-time bust, failing to show the pass rushing skills he did during his "fluke" junior season at Penn State. Smith could use his right fibula fracture in 2010 as an excuse for his drastic drop-off as a pass rusher, but he's strictly a tweener – lacking strength to "man up" vs. offensive tackles as a defensive end and missing the foot speed (4.82 in the 40-yard dash), along with great lateral agility (7.25 three-cone drill and 4.59 20-yard shuttle) to string plays out as an outside linebacker.

CORNERBACK

Aaron Williams

University of Texas Longhorns — #4 — 5:11.7-204

The more I watch Williams on game film, the more I am convinced that if he is to have any success in the NFL, it has to be at a safety position. Some teams cite his aggressive play, but he tends to get out of control, too often looking to make the big interception rather than try to prevent the receiver from catching the ball. Case in point — on 49 pass plays that he defended against, the opposition caught 28 of those passes (57.14 percent).

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Williams failed to impress with his foot speed, producing electronic 40-yard dash times of 4.62 and 4.68. He did show impressive lateral agility, and decent strength. Along with his size and leaping ability, combined with his lack of natural hands, he has better safety qualities, where his lack of explosion will not be as exposed in one-on-one matchups.

Williams shows good hand/eye coordination, but you'd like to see him generate a second gear in order to recover quicker on deep routes. He has valid feet for the safety position and good arm usage to stick it to tight ends and slot receivers in press coverage, but struggles to recover when handling receivers that get behind him on deep routes.

The one glaring concern for a possible move to safety is his zone coverage awareness skills. This is where he gets into trouble mostly, as he seems to have mental hesitation in the deep zone. He will gamble too much and peek into the backfield too long, then, he has to rely on his speed to recover. When a receiver gets a step on him, he does not have the burst to recover and will sometimes will freeze up, allowing his assignment to break free.

Williams has the loose hips and change of direction agility to close when working along the perimeter. He is not afraid to mix it up in the trenches, but is better working along the perimeter, as he will get bounced around by the larger blockers trying to make in-line tackles. He knows how to play the force concept, but needs more brute strength in order to fill the rush lanes at the next level.

Still, you have to like his determination in attempts to turn plays back inside. Williams lacks classic wrap-up technique. He is not an ankle biter, but will take a side or arm tackle, causing for more than a few bal-carriers to escape the initial hit. He is just not the type who will make many tackles, preferring to cover his man rather than initiate contact.

Compares To…Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans…Like the Saints discovered with Jenkins, some NFL team might be better suited shifting Williams to safety, where his lack of great foot speed and his marginal recovery skills will be less exposed. Even though he has an angular build, he packs a thud behind his tackles when he is able to maintain plays in front of him, ideal for a professional safety. He will get a little reckless at times and take a side rather than wrapping. This will usually see the ball-carrier escape his initial hit. In run support, he likes coming up to the line to support and fill the rush lanes, but has problems getting back on the pass play when the receiver gets behind him on deep routes.

SAFETY

Robert Sands

West Virginia University Mountaineers — #2 — 6:04.3-217

While UCLA's Rahim Moore's disappointing 2010 campaign could have earned him this honor, Sands' lack of range and poor tackling ability bears a striking resemblance to recent Tampa Bay bust, Sabby Piscitelli. This is not to say that he will be a bust at the next level, but with his package of size and speed, it might be better suited for some team to evaluate him as a potential Cover-2 linebacker, where he will draw comparisons to Carolina's Thomas Davis. He has experience playing linebacker and is not a neophyte at that position. During his playing days at Miami Carol City High School, he was rated the 27th-best strong-side linebacker in the country by Scout.com.

Sands started 31-of-39 games at free safety for West Virginia, recording 151 tackles (88 solos) with 1.5 sacks, 10 stops for losses, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He deflected eight passes and had six interceptions. His five pass thefts in 2009 were the most by a WVU defensive back in a season since Aaron Beasley set the school season-record with 10 in 1994.

Sands has an athletic-looking build with good upper-body thickness, well-developed thighs and calves, good bubble and arm length, but while he has impressive closing speed and lateral range, he needs to dedicate more than a few hours in the training room to drastically improve his marginal strength (12 reps at 225 pounds).

The junior shows good ability to adjust on the move, but will miss some tackles when he gets overaggressive in his pursuit angles. Sands is a smart player with good instincts and a nose for the ball, but just needs to play with more control at times, as he will try to go for the "big hit" rather than make plays on the ball. He is a decent open field tackler who plays with a "take no prisoners" approach, but is learning how to reel in that energy, as he is prone to missed tackles when he gets too aggressive attacking the man or goes for the knockout punch rather than make plays on the ball.

Compares To…Kerry Rhodes, Arizona…Like Rhodes, Sands is best when making plays in front of him or coming up to attack ball carriers in the box. He does a decent job of rerouting tight ends and backs in the short area, but will get a big over-aggressive at times, leading to missed tackles. He needs to play with better patience and make plays on the ball more often than he did in 2010, but you would still like to see him get more opportunities to attack the ball in flight, as it is evident he has the hands and speed to be a good ball hawk. It might be better served having him fill out his frame and becoming a Cover-2 outside linebacker, but he has to greatly improve his overall strength to make that conversion.


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