Tough As Nails, II

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, 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 #94 6:04.0-263

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 seven forced fumbles in 2009 led the nation and tied the Purdue season-record that James Looney set in 1979 and is one shy of the Big Ten's annual mark of eight forced fumbles, set by Jonal Saint-Dic of Michigan State in 2007. 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 and third in lost sack yardage (229). He is also listed fourth in the nation with 57.0 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 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.

For the 2009 and 2010 campaigns, he led the nation in fumbles caused. He led the Big Ten Conference in sacks as a sophomore and senior while finishing third in the major college ranks in that category during the 2009 (13.0) and 2010 (12.5) seasons.

As a senior, he continued to be one of the most disruptive defenders at the collegiate level. He led the Big Ten Conference and nation with 26.0 stops behind the line of scrimmage. His five forced fumbles paced the Big Ten and ranked second in the nation.

For his career, Kerrigan started the last 35 games, appearing in a total of 48 contests, as he recorded 210 tackles (134 solos) with 33.5 sacks for minus 229 yards and 57.0 stops for losses totaling 289 yards. In addition to his 14 forced fumbles, he recovered three others, deflected seven passes and intercepted another for an 8-yard return. He also recorded a safety and collected 30 quarterback pressures.

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 (see 2010 Notre Dame, Ball State and Toledo and 2009 Northern Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana games). 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. His balance is evident by his ability to easily bend back inside. He has the leg drive to power through or get under offensive tackles and push his man back into the pocket. He flashes the short area burst needed to shoot the gaps and very good ability to dip and rip while turning the corner. He bends and flattens with good body control and speed, but he also knows to compensate for size limitations, that he has to keep his hands active and not allow himself to get tied up at the X's to have the success he has had pressuring and collapsing the pocket.

With a 500-pound bench press, big hands and long arms, he is a nightmare for offensive tackles in one-on-one confrontations. He might get too caught up in the battle at times, but utilizes his quickness and explosion off the ball, along with active hands to consistently gain block separation. He shows much quicker counter moves as a senior than in previous seasons and shows the lower body strength and leg drive to get opponents off-balance when shooting the gaps. He uses his hands well to discard blocks and even when double teamed, he's not blocked for long, as he uses his strength well to lock out and shed. He also uses his hands with force when attempting to rip through holds.

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 #99 6:05.3-290

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 has 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 ball 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.

Unlike most defensive ends, which are usually recognized for their pass rushing skills or run stuffing ability, Watt has also proven to be a very capable pass defender. On 53 passes targeted into his area, he deflected 13 of those attempts, rerouted receivers away from nine other throws and saw only three passes be completed against him for 8 yards, as those quarterbacks managed a miniscule 2.45 pass completion percentage vs. the talented junior.

The 2010 All-American and All-Big Ten Conference selection lived up to his billing during his junior season. He finished second on the team with 62 tackles, 21 coming behind the line of scrimmage, including seven sacks. He added fifteen QB pressures, as he picked off a pass and deflected eight others. He caused four fumbles, recovered two others and blocked three kicks in thirteen games.

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 passing 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, but they will be negated when he fails to use his arms to combat blocks. He is very determined coming off the snap and with his recently improved hand technique (see 2010 Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State games), he can generate the explosiveness needed coming off the snap to get good penetration and disrupt the play.

When he drops his weight and plays with leverage, he can prevent the blockers from washing him out when working in-line. His low center of gravity lets him get into the rush lane and push back the lead blocker to clog the holes. You can see on film that he has a good feel for blocking schemes.

Watt is still developing his edge rush technique, getting most of his penetration on stunts and taking inside gaps rather than looping around from the outside. He has shown the ability to get up field and press the corners, but it is his size and outstanding strength that allows him to push the linemen back into the pocket (won't ever be confused for a finesse-type of pass rusher).

The Badger has the quickness to bend and push with leverage, along with vastly improved "up-&-under" and spin moves. He is generally a load in pursuit, especially when shooting the gaps. He might take wide angles at times, but he has the flexibility and balance to come back down under. He sees the field well and is quick to spot even the slightest of creases in order to shoot the gaps.

Watt is effective with his counter moves working to the inside. His spin moves and quickness lets him easily defeat the slower offensive tackles when working off the edge. He has very good ability to play off blocks and consistently pressures the quarterback. He has the strength to bull rush and push the pocket. His flexibility has also improved as he does a better job of opening his hips (used to be a little stiff and took false steps when changing direction in 2009).

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 #93 6:02.3-300

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 ten pressures. For the second year in a row, he deflected a trio of pass attempts.

Illinois was one of just four schools to have three underclassmen enter this year's draft, joining Alabama, Auburn and Pittsburgh. With Liuget, tailback Mikel Leshoure and middle linebacker Martez Wilson all declaring early this year, six Illini in the last four seasons have entered the draft after their junior seasons.

In 2008, running back Rashard Mendenhall was picked in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2009, the Miami Dolphins selected cornerback Vontae Davis in the first round. And in 2010, wide receiver Arrelious Benn was a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Liuget finished his career by starting 19-of-36 games at strong-side defensive tackle for Illinois, recording 125 tackles (57 solos), 8.5 sacks for minus 52 yards, 25.5 stops for losses totaling 85 yards and thirteen quarterback pressures. He also recovered three fumbles and caused two others, while deflecting seven passes.

Liuget has a wide frame, with solid muscle tone in his lower body, a good bubble and wide hips. He has broad shoulders, long arms, large hands and demonstrates above average weight room strength. While he might be asked to add additional bulk, his frame might not be able to carry it without it affecting his overall quickness.

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). He has very quick hand technique and an effective arm cross over move in pass rush attempts. He also generates good punch to control and disengage.

Liuget has the lateral quickness and sustained speed to slip through the pile and apply pressure. He has good change of direction agility and can get in gear when working in space. He is best working along the line of scrimmage, where he can make plays in short pursuit. With his high motor, he shows good intent to flow to the ball.

Liuget can pull the center, recover and make plays up and down the line. He has good lateral agility and shows fluid moves when changing direction. He is very hard to block, but needs to show better hand usage to prevent guards from attacking his feet (poor knee lift to avoid). He shows excellent field instincts, as he is quick to locate the ball and pursue the play in the short area. He has a very good feel for pressure and reacts with power-oriented moves rather than finesse the blocker.

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 than a type who will finesse or rely upon speed to make the play. When attempting to pass rush, he is consistent in using his hands to generate effective rip, swim or club moves. Still, even though he has the strength, he relies more on his leverage and strength to get penetration and pressure.

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 #54 6:01.1-295

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 Combines. 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 sixteen.

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. He continued his "football education" at Snow Community College in Utah, where he actually red-shirted in 2006 in order to help him acclimate better to the college game.

With a year of major college ball under his belt, Paea became one of the team's captains in 2009. His ability to handle double and triple team coverage allowed his teammates better opportunities to make plays while Paea occupied the middle of the field. He recorded 43 tackles (22 solos) with 8.5 stops for loss that included three sacks while causing four fumbles and recovering another, despite battling thigh and lower leg contusions during the season's second half.

But, his importance to the team was evident, as the Beavers improved from 40th in the nation in rush defense in 2008 (131.23 ypg) to leading the Pac-10 and ranking 13th in that category in 2009, giving up just 98.45 yards per game to opposing ball carriers.

Paea continued his rise through the collegiate ranks in 2010, as the All-Pac 10 Conference first-team choice added 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.

Even though Paea played in all twelve 2010 games, he did need a cortisone shot in his leg late in the schedule. He finished his OSU career by starting 37-of-38 games, recording 129 tackles (60 solos) with 14.0 sacks for minus 100 yards, 30.5 stops for losses totaling 177 yards and five quarterback pressures. His nine forced fumbles established a school career-record, topping the previous mark of seven, first set by Michael Hale (1991-94) and matched by Inoke Breckterfield (1995-98) and Bill Swancutt (2001-04).

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.

His low center of gravity is evident when Paea consistently stacks at the point of attack. He is a physical inside run defender who can make plays up and down the line of scrimmage. He also possesses the speed to generate the long chase. His strength comes into play as he gains leverage. The thing I like about him is that he will usually keep his feet free, using his hands well to stave off low blocks.

Even though he is shorter than ideal, Paea has decent gap potential. He shows good mobility working down the line and is able to locate the ball quickly. His problems occur when he runs underneath blockers, as it causes him to have a bad angle and he then has to chase down the ball carrier from behind.

Few interior linemen display the strength and power that Paea has. He needs to use his hands better to play with leverage, but he has had good success using his brute strength to neutralize. When he keeps his pads low, along with his experience as a standout rugby player, this allows him to generate great lower body strength at the point of attack. He has adequate arm length and lacks the great size you look for in a player at his position, but plays with a low center of gravity and a very strong base. 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 all the films I watched on him this year (11), I have yet to see him get washed out. He demands double team coverage from the opponent and even then, he is hard to move out. When he settles into position, he will use his quick hands to work across the blocker's face.

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.

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