It is draft season! This is a fun time of the year, but it is filled with many new names and faces and stories we want to get to know. I have my own system for rolling through the next 10-11 weeks that I won't declare the best, but it is the best I have.
The system is this: I watch football. Seriously. I am not that worried about doing much else. Every day, I will try to grab another prospect and watch him play three full games (around 200 snaps) simply to watch him play. I try to ignore the outside noise and opinions as best as I can and just watch the guy play. Pro days, the scouting combine, rumors and hearsay all factor into draft season, but I have often found that the best opinion you can get on a player (who still looks pretty good 3-5 years after he is drafted) is through putting your eyes on him with his college tape and letting that guide you.
Other information is useful, but it also serves to confuse. Before long, you hear about a guy's knee injury in high school, so you knock him way down your list only to see he played three years of major college football at a high level and went on to lead the NFL in sacks. You thought too hard. You didn't trust the tape and your eyeballs.
So, through all of that, I try to just watch the player play. From there, I watch another, and then another. Now, there is no way this side hobby can be as complete as the work from guys who do this all year. If I have 10-12 weeks, I can only get to about 50-60 players. So, understand that I just want to know the guys in the top two rounds. But we have done this for several years now, and it seems most readers are fine with this system. So, take it for what it is worth.
I want to grab prospects at positions of interest for the Dallas Cowboys. I also want to spend more time on those who we think could still be there when they pick at Nos. 28 and 60. This, of course, is impossible, since we have no idea who the top 27 picks will be. So we visit and collect information, and then try to narrow things down. But in early February, information is pretty general, to be honest.
FEB. 10: EDGE RUSHERS, GROUP 1
Today, I want to introduce you to the first five players I grabbed. They are all edge rushers who have been grouped as potential Round 1 guys. They are all thought of as top-50 guys, for sure, but this is not the top group. So yes, Texas A&M's Myles Garrett will go before all of these guys (we think), and Stanford's Solomon Thomas may, too. I will grab those guys in the weeks ahead, but today, I just randomly grabbed these five players. Please keep in mind that heights/weights are unofficial until the combine.
Derek Barnett - DE - Tennessee
-- 6-foot-3, 257 pounds - 2016 first-team All-SEC
-- Stats from past two years: 26 games, 23 sacks, 31 tackles for loss = 54.5 explosive plays
Barnett is an absolute beast who broke Reggie White's sack record at Tennessee. This guy is plenty young and talented, and a very gifted and natural edge rusher.
POSITIVES: He has a great "get-off " at the snap and can turn the corner on just about any of the tackles he faced in the SEC. He can also squeeze through gaps in short-yardage situations, which makes him a force against the run. He has loose hips and is the very definition of an athlete who you want patrolling the edge in the NFL. His size is ideal and, more importantly, he can turn the jets on and close on anyone in the open field. He just takes over games and his production is out of this world. For a guy at that level to exceed two explosives per game for his final two years shows what a game-changer he really is. On third down, it is seek and destroy. He is very, very good and college tackles have no chance whatsoever. He gets double-teamed quite a bit.
CONCERNS: Well, the first one is that he has no chance of falling to No. 28. He is absurdly good and it looks like he will land in the top half of Round 1. Beyond that, it looked like he was playing carefully in his final season with his head on a swivel to keep from getting damaged ahead of his draft year. This doesn't concern me, but some will mark off his motor for this. I just want to make sure we noted that.
-- Top half of Round 1.
Taco Charlton - DE - Michigan
-- 6-6, 265 - 2016 first-team All-Big Ten
-- Stats from past two years: 24 games, 15.5 sacks, 22 TFLs = 37.5 explosives
Charlton, part of a very talented Michigan defense, is a very big and imposing man who looks like he can play some power forward in that Julius Peppers model of big ends who can intimidate against the run and pass.
POSITIVES: Charlton has size that makes him a focal point of the defense and battles his tail off from the snap on. He bulls through traffic and makes himself at home in the backfield on a regular basis. He comes up big in big games. He has an impressive get-off as well and really has a skill set that offers plenty to like. I really love his traditional skill set in terms of looking how defensive ends always did. He can carry 280 pounds and play a style that will hold up well on the edge in terms of crashing a pocket with brute strength. I really like his compete level and his bull rush. He was getting a lot of clean runs at quarterbacks, which is a credit to Jim Harbaugh's scheme up there.
CONCERNS: The biggest concern about a player like Charlton is simply his short-space quickness and ability to change direction. This is a very fast league with very athletic tackles, and while Charlton is impressive for sure, the reason you may prefer someone with a bit more fluidity to their game is that it seems like they are generally the high-production players on Sundays. He moves well on rails, but if you ask him to circle and change directions quickly, he appears to lack those hips, comparatively speaking. You get a bit concerned when a player is this young and looks that way, because it seldom improves with age in the trenches.
-- There is no question he is a fine prospect, but you have to put the proper value on him.
Carl Lawson - DE/OLB - Auburn
-- 6-2, 257 - 2016 first-team All-American
-- Stats from past two years: 20 games, 10 sacks, 16 TFLs = 26.5 explosives
Lawson is the type of dynamic and explosive edge player who seems like a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker capable of running down plays to the outside and still be a menace in the pass rush.
POSITIVES: Lawson returned from injury to show he is back in terms of having the explosiveness in his body that allows him to win with power and quickness as a pass rusher. He is a very interesting player who remains active and has the ability to win with his hands. He is a creator of chaos who moves very well. He has a real fire that makes him a focal point, but as the season went along, you continued to see him terrify college tackles who had no idea how to slow him down. He is a real terror and looks like he will be excellent at the next level.
CONCERNS: In general, the concerns are about his injury history, which is mostly about him blowing out an ACL that forced him to miss 2014 and a good portion of 2015. In specific, with Dallas, he just looks like one of those players who would not really be a fit in Rod Marinelli's defense. The most basic question of "where would you play him" will pop up as he could be a SAM linebacker here, which, as many will attest, seldom plays in today's NFL. Too small to be a 4-3 defensive end, therefore he is in the space that this scheme does not really value as much. I suspect he is a 3-4 edge player all day.
-- First-round talent, for sure, but not a fit here.
Takkarist McKinley - DE - UCLA
-- 6-2, 260 - 2016 first-team All-Pac-12
-- Stats from past two years: 24 games, 14.5 sacks, 25.5 TFLs = 40 explosives
McKinley is as impressive a pass rusher and game-wrecker as you can imagine. In watching three games from his final college season, he was absolutely phenomenal.
POSITIVES: He is simply a freakish athlete who looks like a classic "joker" that can be moved around and put wherever the best matchup is found. He is explosive, switches from a 2-point stance to a 3-point stance and appears to be a fit either as a 4-3 edge or 3-4 outside linebacker. He also seems capable of adding weight, but the first thing that jumps off the screen is how he is a mismatch across the board. Perhaps the best comparison is Clay Matthews in how he explodes at the snap. He competes his tail off and his production was absurd, especially on a UCLA defense that lost plenty to the NFL over the past two years. Still, he stepped up and made plays continuously. Great use of arms and tools to get into the backfield.
CONCERNS: The biggest concern I would have is just hoping he drops to me in the draft. I see someone who, once the combine hits, will continue to rise as an athletic freak. But I sit here thinking that I don't need to see that because as a player, his credentials are good enough. Not a name you heard a lot of in the fall, but I am guessing he will push his way well ahead of where the Cowboys will select. I really like this player.
-- I think he belongs with the elite in this draft class.
Charles Harris - DE - Missouri
-- 6-3, 260 - 2016 second-team All-SEC
-- Stats from the past two years: 24 games, 16 sacks, 30.5 TFLs = 46.5 explosives
Harris is yet another impressive edge rusher in a very deep draft class who can bend and get to the quarterback with regularity.
POSITIVES: Anyone who watched Harris will quickly see that this guy appears to have all sorts of qualities you really like when scouting edge rushers. He has a real athletic build that allows him to get low and underneath a tackle with his shoulder to turn the corner with explosiveness off the edge. He has that prototypical defensive end build and an intensity and energy about him that checks all of the boxes. Also, his productivity is right at that two-explosives-per-game level that you desire and he comes from a program that teaches edge players well. He seems to remind me a bit of Michael Bennett in his disruptiveness against the run and pass. He has great bull rush and is very active with a spin move that he may risk using too much.
CONCERNS: I saw him appear to slow down as the game goes along, which speaks to the need for a deep rotation if you want your pass rushers to go 100 percent each snap. It is a taxing job, but he appears to be capable in long doses. In 2015, he looked just a bit lighter and perhaps a bit quicker. But overall, this is another player where the biggest concern is that there is no way he likely gets to the late stages of Round 1. Harris is another very impressive player who looks like a stud at the next level.
-- A real difference-maker and first-round talent, for sure.
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So, there is a quick review of five edge guys, and I have easily 10 more to study in the next few weeks. If the Cowboys want pass rushers, there is no reason to think they can't get a good one in this draft.
My quick review would be that Harris, Barnett and McKinley are special talents that will likely be long gone by pick No. 28 -- but I would love any of them. I may put them all on a rather equal level, but if you want me to rank them, I will put Barnett first, Harris second and McKinley third. Then, Charlton is fourth and Lawson is just a 3-4 guy right now.