Yep. Spring must be right around the corner. The sun is burning off the fog and melting the snow that's been on my brain and I can finally hold on to a thought long enough to put together a list of the top Buttkickers in this year's draft.
Apologies to Neil Young for once again mangling one of his songs, but I've feigned confusion long enough. So many of you have asked, "Hey, Wex, when are you going to write about the Asskickers?"
Now is that time.
Last year's mid-January draft column apparently struck a chord, and when I could delay with excuses no longer, I just explained that I got nothin'. I explained that it's too difficult to write such a column when the team you cover is looking for cornerbacks.
I mean, is Eli Apple really a Buttkicker?
But I think I finally have found a base, an anchor, for such a column.
The reason I hadn't considered the Baylor nose tackle previously is that the Steelers didn't seem to need one. I mean, c'mon, they had a good one in Steve McLendon and an enormous backup in Daniel McCullers, and those two had only played a third of the snaps last season anyway.
But the Steelers lost McLendon -- without putting up a fight -- and all of the sudden they were in the nose tackle business down in Waco.
Billings is a 6-0 5/8, 311-pounder who ran the 40 in 5.05 at the Combine and passed most of Gil Brandt's historical criteria, except in the vertical jump (27.5), short shuttle (4.82) and 3-cone (8.05).
When the Steelers descended, I went to the cut-ups over at DraftBreakdown.com and was disappointed in his lateral movement against Oklahoma.
And then I learned Billings had been playing with a high ankle sprain, so I watched him against West Virginia, pre-injury, and was blown away.
This is a Vince Wilfork-type nose tackle who'll not only stuff the run by handling double, triple and the WVU-style quadruple teams, he'll collapse the pocket as a tackle in the four-man pass-downs front, and I believe he'll do it consistently.
From the Steelers' light four-man front anchored by two college ends and flanked by two college linebackers, they could draft their way into possessing a hulking 3-tech in Stephon Tuitt, an enormous pocket collapsor at 1-tech in Billings, a 290-pound strong-side DE in Cam Heyward and the whipsaw pass-rusher in 265-pound Bud Dupree.
That, my friends, is getting there with four.
Drafting a guy like Billings is like adding a clean-up hitter who pushes the lightweights into areas that are now strengths.
The Steelers could add a little depth in the fourth round or so, bring in Jason Jones, coach up L.T. Walton, Caushaud Lyons and Big McCullers, and their defensive front would be complete for the next five years or so.
Will the just-turned 21-year-old Billings fall to them?
Well, he came out early after receiving a second-round grade from the draft committee, according to the Dallas Morning News, which quoted Baylor Coach Art Briles as saying Billing was a second or third-rounder.
If it's truly the belief, that's fine with me. Take him 25th and let him get off the bus first in Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Yep. Things are finally making sense.
2. Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia -- Mike Mayock compares him to Earl Thomas, and the size is almost exact. Joseph weighs three pounds less than the 5-10, 208-pound Thomas did coming out in 2010. But I see more "Bullet" Bob Sanders in Joseph, except Joseph is two inches taller and hopefully more durable. Ironic to say, with Joseph out with a torn ACL suffered in October, but I'm not thinking very rationally at the moment. I'm just taking names and kicking butt. Perfect two-way safety for what the Steelers want to do out of a cover-two.
3. Kenny Clark, NT, UCLA -- Was going to push him into the second half of the list before I learned he won't turn 21 until Oct. 4. Yes, he was born a few days after Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays each intercepted two passes and each scored touchdowns in a 1995 Steelers revenge win over the San Diego Chargers. The 6-2 5/8, 314-pounder who deals with double-teams all game, shows great ball instincts and flashes of a pass rush and still has a lot of development ahead of him.
4. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville -- Figuring he's a lock to be gone -- as other blue-chippers I haven't listed here -- I was a bit disappointed with the tape. Rankins is quicker and more athletic than Billings, and just about every interior defensive lineman out there, but Rankins plays too high. He stands up at the snap far too often. But he did play all across the line, including both ends and nose, and is, in general, a Buttkicker who has the athleticism to become Geno Atkins some day.
5. Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State -- Strikes me as having everything the Steelers look for in a potential first-round cornerback: young (turns 21 on Aug. 9), tall (6-0 5/8), fast/quick (4.40/1.57) and comes out of Ohio State with a reputation as a hard-working, solid young man. He had only four interceptions in his two seasons as a starter and is rapped for not having great ball skills, but Apple reminded me of Aqib Talib during his Combine field drills and with patience could develop into a Pro Bowl fixture.
6. Jarran Reed, NT, Alabama -- Teamed with A'Shawn Robinson to give Alabama an impenetrable inside tackle duo that set up ILB Reggie Ragland to roll downhill and blow up running games all the way to a national title. Reed's rap is that he doesn't offer much pass-rush to the pass-happy NFL. But when allowed to get rolling at the Senior Bowl, showed plenty of mobility and range. He would need to develop in that area, and lackluster Combine times aren't going to make me take the risk above Billings, Clark or Rankins.
7. Josh Garnett, LG, Stanford -- With the signing of Ramon Foster I pretty much forgot about this guy until I watched his work against Clark and forgot how much I liked his game (particularly those killer-pancake pulls into the strong side). Every time the aforementioned UCLA NT lined up over Garnett, Clark was rendered ineffective. And then I remembered what a great presence Garnett was at the Combine podium and how he explained that when he gets to the second level his plan is to "run through their soul." Said he modeled his game after David DeCastro and that if Garnett played for the Steelers, and "they got DeCastro and I out in space, you may see two souls getting run through." I want him.
8. Javon Hargrave, NT, South Carolina State -- This is the guy who'll draw the most derision on this list, I assume, from the experts on the message board, and perhaps even from my wife and daughter at home. But he's more athletic and nearly as strong as Billings, even a bit taller at 6-1 3/8. Hargrave ran around guards and centers all night and day in the MEAC but doesn't get his arms out and control linemen like Billings and would need work to play nose on run downs in the NFL.
9. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama -- If this were 2003 and you were a Steelers fan coming down from the high of having Jerome Bettis hammer teams into submission the previous seven years or so, this 247-pound Heisman Trophy winner would be No. 1 on your Buttkickers list. Times have changed some 13 years later. Running games don't dominate the way they used to. But, really, if you can't get the ball back you can't win, no matter the style of play. So this guy's on my list, particularly after watching so many of the top safeties back away from him the last two seasons. Florida safety Keanu Neal deserves mention on this list for walloping Henry on a few occasions, but Henry wins most battles, and he has breakaway speed, can catch and can block. I would have no problem seeing his name brought to the podium at pick 25, but very few running backs his size have lasted very long in the league. Bettis was a freak of nature. And so is Le'Veon Bell, for that matter.
10. Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida -- Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander got the last-minute heave here because I wanted to plug the best playmaking big man in the SEC last season. Bullard really has no place with the Steelers other than 4-3 strong end, and I'm not sure they're ready to go there first with gaping holes in the secondary. But Bullard belongs on this list, if for no other reason than historical posterity. And the fact he's a natural-born Buttkicker.