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Evaluating Draft Prospects 101: DEs

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Jadeveon Clowney's production was down in 2013 (3 sacks, 10.5 TFL), but he's still in the running to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Getty Images.
Jadeveon Clowney's production was down in 2013 (3 sacks, 10.5 TFL), but he's still in the running to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Getty Images.

Editor's Note: This week, we will launch a series of features designed to teach fans what to look for when watching game film and evaluating prospects at different positions. Through YouTube, DVRs, sites like Draftbreakdown.com and other digital technologies, fans have access to game broadcasts that they can utiize in ways similar to what scouts, coaches and GMs do with game film. It's important to see the intangible factors that unfold over the course of a game, to watch how players perform when they are under duress. Highlights provide a limited snapshot of talent and ability, and they often obscure the question marks and effort cues that NFL teams look for in the evaluation process. We will look at every position group between now and draft time and focus on some of the main things that scouts and GMs from the NFL look at in determining a prospect's draftability. Today, we focus on scouting DEFENSIVE ENDS.

The defensive end position has a broad range of characteristics that encompass different subtleties dependent on the defensive scheme employed. In a 4-3 defense, the ability to apply edge pressure is important. Speed is the coveted trait, so faster players like Dwight Freeney or Bruce Irvin, first-round selections in 2002 and 2012 respectively, earn big pay days.

A 3-4 defense favors bigger body types, players with the ability to eat up space and occupy blockers. Sometimes some athletic interior lineman are projected as 3-4 defensive ends, or bigger OLBs are projected as edge players in a 4-3.

In either case, each position requires similar criteria in evaluation of a draftable prospect. The criteria scouts use has been streamlined to help you develop a keen eye in how to study draft prospects. The five criteria we will use are:

  1. Physical Attributes
  2. Pass Rush Ability
  3. Run Defense
  4. Recognition
  5. Pursuit/Effort

Physical Attributes

Becoming enamored with measureables can get teams into trouble when looking at defensive ends. Height, weight and athletic traits are the common statistics fans and scouts alike use to develop an assumption of a prospect's pass rush ability. When you see a 6-foot-5, 275-pound end who runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, it's easy to assume he is going to be a great pass rusher. Mike Mamula should serve as a cautionary tale in this regard. He was the 7th overall pick in the 1995 draft after dominating the NFL combine with amazing measureable statistics. His career lasted five years.

On the other hand, you have Terrell Suggs. After a slow 4.9 at the NFL combine, teams were unsure that he would be a dominant pass rusher. In 2003, Baltimore drafted him 10th overall and he has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

To be clear, size is a factor, as well as speed and agilit. But it is important to view the combine measurables against a player’s overall body of work and skill level.

When evaluating the “game speed” of a prospect, you want to note the time it takes for him to “hit home” or get to the QB. Suggs was not a great 40 runner, but he was “fast” when it came to tracking down a quarterback. For pure speed rushers, first step quickness is paramount, but where the great college rushers and great NFL rushers separate is in the ability to work fast through traffic. Rushers won’t be able to speed rush on every down in the NFL, but they must develop skills necessary to be a threat off the edge.

A player’s functional strength refers to the player’s ability to apply force (developed in the weight room) into the necessary movement to be successful on the football field. A way to evaluate a defensive end's functional strength is to watch how he plays through blocks. Does he make contact low and neutralize opponents at the line of scrimmage? Can he at least stalemate an offensive lineman he's giving 30 pounds to? Is he able to use his body to make plays?

Another element of functional strength is his force on a bull rush. Does he explode into the blocker and shrink the pocket?

Strength is more than bench press reps. You need to see how it is applied on the field, how a defensive end imposes his power on an offensive blocker.

To determine athletic ability in film study, you want to see how a defensive end adjusts to movement and responds to the pressures applied by blockers. An end must explode off the L.O.S. at the snap. He will bend, contort, get skinny and use leverage in an effort to get to an edge of the blocker and eventually get to the quarterback. Defensive ends must maneuver in a small box of space and redirect in hopes of creating a window to exploit against a blocker, so having quick feet is also key.

Another question you can ask as you watch is whether the athlete bends at the waist or knees?  Flexibility is important in determining athletic ability. A player who has trouble changing direction may have “stiff hips” limiting his capacity to alter his course.

Pass Rush Ability

The ability to rush the quarterback is the most important trait NFL general managers and scouts look for in a defensive end. The first aspect scouts evaluate is a prospect's burst off the L.O.S at the snap of the ball. Does he have an explosive first step, and does he gain ground upfield during that step? This must be tempered by an ability to time the snap count. Athletes may look explosive in their 10-yard times at the Combine (used to measure explosive first step), but they may be a split second slow in recognizing the inception of a play.

The next critical aspect is the use of hands. It’s that martial arts-type ability to keep a blocker's hands from grabbing you. A player that has the great explosive step and burst becomes average if linemen are able to get a hold of them. Some GMs feel you can coach up a “freak athlete," which is true, but the athlete must have the mental acuity to master his craft, much like JJ Watt has shown in becoming one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL today.

The last aspect scouts look for is “closing speed,” which is the ability to drive to the QB after clearing a blocker quickly. This is where you can watch to see what happens after they get an edge on their blocker; once in the clear, how fast can they get to the quarterback?

Run Defense

As a run defender, the evaluation process starts with a prospect's ability to hold his position on the edge. Does he play at the line of scrimmage or get pushed back? Or does he get into the backfield to force a ball carrier to stop or bounce plays?

The ability to use functional strength here is important, as ends often are trying to make a tackle while holding off a 300-pound blocker. It is important to note whether the end plays with leverage or a low pad level. Does he get arm extension and escape from the grasp of defenders to force the play?

It is important to key in on whether a defensive end can press a lineman away from his body; failure results in becoming a “block magnet” -- a trait that doesn’t bode well for NFL prospects. You also want to see if he has the strength to create a stalemate on double team blocks. Does the end get inside hand position (which is important for gaining leverage)? A player must have great strength and great pad level to be successful in the run game.

Recognition

The ability to recognize how you are being blocked and what is needed to fend off a blocker while maintaining your gap responsibility all within a split second could be the difference between being a standout player or a never was. In the run game from week to week, players will see gap schemes with pullers and zone schemes with players chipping you as they work to the second level. As you watch ends, take note to see whether he maintains his gap responsibility, or does he peek inside giving up the edge?

In a passing situation, ends must recognize the pass set of the opposing tackle. Is it a soft set trying to cut you off from the quarterback, or are they jump setting you to stop you at the L.O.S? Tackles may slide protect to you, or chip you with a running back or you may be blocked solo by a tight end. The ability to recognize how an offense is blocking you will be key in getting to the QB or ballcarrier fast.

Pursuit/Effort

This may be the one trait that truly separates a good defensive end from a great one. Rushing against an equally talented offensive tackle is a competitive and combative endeavor that sometimes comes down to who wants it more. In these battles, you want to see the effort to get to the quarterback or the ballcarrier. Does the end show toughness and aggressiveness with the intent to pursue? When watching this aspect you want to see if the defender takes proper angles to the ball. Does he show a burst to finish the play? Much of this is subjective criteria, but vital in the evaluation process.

The defensive end position can be broad when considering the type of player your team may be looking for. A four man defensive front will want edge players who can not only hold secure the outside of the defense but have the ability to apply pressure. A three man defensive front will employ a larger body type that must be effective as a rusher, but also help secure gaps in the run game. Overall the traits above can be applied to determine which prospects you feel can help your favorite NFL team.