I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.
Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State - 6'4, 325 - RS Junior - #99
It is important to place values on different players at different positions because lost in all of this talk every year about "Best Player Available", we lose sight of the simple idea that all positions are not created equal. If you want the best player available, you better have considered the ability to understand these differences in values from one spot to the next.
That means that at the top of the chart of value is a starting QB, along with a starting left tackle, a dominant pass rusher, and a shut down corner. There are numerous positions on the field that are not "full time" positions, where they are part of a rotation - Running backs, defensive line, and most linebackers. There are positions where the life span is considered much shorter and there are positions where the supply is high to fulfill the demand. Others, obviously, there is no supply for the demand. So yes, get the "best player available", but if all of those other variables are not properly assigned, you might regret not asking the right questions.
This leads us to the place we will spend most of the week - looking at the defensive linemen who are at the Senior Bowl. Today, let's dive in on a player I have been told is definitely on the Cowboys' radar, Penn State's defensive tackle, Austin Johnson.
Johnson is part of a Penn State defensive line that was very strong this year and will put a few different prospects into the top of the draft and Johnson was the inside force of this crew.
What I liked:For a man of his size (6'4, 325), Johnson moves very well both in moving forward and from sideline to sideline. He really is a player that might balance what everyone seeks in an inside force as a 1-technique (he will switch to the 3-tech at times). Can he stand his ground against a double-team block, while possessing mobility that allows him to make plays - especially behind the line of scrimmage? With Johnson, you can definitely see how his ceiling would be that type of inside player who cannot be slowed down. He has a real strong bull rush, but clearly what sets him apart from most 1-techniques are his movement skills. And there is no question that running through the whistle is something he feels quite strongly about. He will draw double teams and that will limit his ability to make impact plays, but he certainly will free up his mates to do just that, which is what his position is all about (and frankly why the Cowboys don't always value it). He has "Dancing Bear" traits, which makes him appealing at the right price. He also is impressive inside with his hand skills to move past a man.
What I did not like: His experience level at Penn State is solid, but his time as an "impact" player is rather short. He had 21.5 explosive plays (sacks + tackles for loss) in 2015, but before that, he had very few - if any. He will get locked up in a block from time to time and that is when he is not making enough difference to value highly. He also appeared to get banged up a bit which limited his mobility. When he is not on the move, he ceases to be special. He gets held a lot and will need to continue to work on his techniques to free himself because those calls inside don't occur very often. We should consider him a capable pass rusher, but one who is generally getting his production off stunts rather than one who just destroys his blocker on the way in.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys: We certainly know the Cowboys are careful on 1-techniques. We also know that they have almost no impact plays behind the line of scrimmage from their 1-technique since they moved to the 4-3 defense and if they hope to improve their defense, they need to reconsider their stance if they can find the right player at the right price.
Now, they have Johnson on their "North" squad this week in Mobile, which certainly will not mean as much as we will want it to mean, but they will have a close-up view on him to see if it is time to invest in their defensive front further after spending important picks on DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Randy Gregory. Adding Johnson in the 2nd round might be a very fine idea to bring this line together. This is a very deep defensive line draft (again - this is becoming a bit of an annual truth) so there should be some fine ideas in Rounds 2-4. You don't want to over-value the 1-technique who is always going to face a center-guard double team, but it might be time the Cowboys stop under-valuing the spot. The 21-year old from Penn State seems to be a target going into the Senior Bowl.