We will get to five talented defensive dudes below....
By now, hopefully you are up to speed on the weekly draft project to make sure we are familiar with all of the talented players who will be taken in the top two rounds in April's draft. It would be better if we had a little more time, because I already feel like getting to everyone is going to be a long shot, but here are prospects 26-30 (in terms of my random examination - not their quality by any stretch), so I imagine we will only be able to get to 50-60 names in all since today is St. Patrick's Day and I average five players a week.
We are only 41 days from the draft - so if we hurry, I can maybe get 30 more names under the bell. It all ticks by very fast.
As you also hopefully know, I am really stressing defense this year. I fully realize that the Cowboys were looking WR/TE in the first few rounds when I started this project - which was sort of solved by keeping Terrance Williams for about 12 hours before Doug Free retired. Now, if you told me they would grab a right tackle at #28 or #60, that might seem plausible, too.
That said, with three starters from the secondary gone, Jaylon Smith still a question, and the team obsessing over finding a war-daddy, I have decided to go 40-deep on defensive prospects and risk only getting 10-20 on offense. Sometimes, you have to make tough choices.
And now, on to this group - Week 6: Alabama's Reuben Foster, Wisconsin's TJ Watt, Vanderbilt's Zack Cunningham, Youngstown State's Derek Rivers, and Florida's Jarrad Davis:
Reuben Foster - LB, Alabama
6'1 - 228
Stats last two years: 30 games | 188 tackles | 21 tackles for loss | 7 sacks | 11 passes broken up
Foster is another from the Alabama defensive machine that is widely talked about as a top-10 pick and a sideline-to-sideline monster who can anchor any defense.
POSITIVES: This All-American plays the inside linebacker position with the ability to run like a safety but bang into bodies like a linebacker. He mirrors running backs with great ease when he lines up against the run and pass and has hips to handle the turn and go. He closes on the ball with ferocity and looks the part of all of those first-round Alabama LBs before him who played the similar spot - Hightower, Mosely, Rolando McClain. He covers plenty of ground and comes through on both the A-gap blitzes but more impressively, can put his hand in the dirt and display some uncommon edge-rushing ability for these run-and-hit LBs, similar to Jaylon Smith last year. He stands tall and handles shedding guards and centers quite well.
CONCERNS: The biggest concern here - aside from the occasional off-field scrape - is that he plays on such a talented defense that he is not asked to perform some of the tasks of his fellow prospects. For instance, Foster almost always runs clean. This means he is allowed to mirror the RB with almost no contact. His defensive line is so good that we don't know much about his work in traffic or too many examples of shedding. He is always clean, which allows him to look his best. That will not go with him to the NFL. He also doesn't finish plays quite as much as you would expect as he goes in for the kill but will allow some to break through his effort and require help from mates to finish the play.
Foster is really, really good. I am not sure I like him as much as the consensus appears to be, but there is no question he belongs in the Top 25 prospects.
Jarrad Davis - LB, Florida
6'2 - 238
Stats last two years: 23 games | 158 tackles | 17 tackles for loss | 5.5 sacks | 8 PBU
Davis is another high-quality inside linebacker who has intangibles that suggest he is a fine candidate to run your defense in addition to the athleticism and ability to lead it.
POSITIVES: There are times when you look at Davis and wonder if this is Ray Lewis. He is a tackling machine who is eager at the snap to spring into action and looking to physically battle guards and jack up the guy in front of him. He brings a real load when he hits and those around him rave about his communication skills and knowledge of what he's seeing. He can blitz through the A-gaps with intent and get where he needs to go. He will physically challenge offensive linemen who are much bigger than him. He definitely is the definition of a brute-force linebacker.
CONCERNS: He has had some health issues that cause us to wonder if this is a position to spend too much on. I have always considered this the defensive version of RB in that the career span and the job description demonstrates how difficult it is to play this position in this style and have a long career. The way he plays and his health history suggest that he might be an injury concern. Also, compared to Reuben Foster, Zack Cunningham and Haason Reddick, Davis looks a bit more stiff and tight and therefore we wonder about his ability to man-cover a RB in the flat. This is more and more becoming a key part of the job at times, and even though he can go sideline to sideline, when it requires turn-and-go, he can be left in the dust.
Davis is an absolute dude. I like him a lot. Just not quite as much as a few others in the inside LB group.
Zack Cunningham: LB, Vanderbilt
6'3 | 234 | 4.67 40 | 34 3/4 arms
Stats, last two years: 25 games | 228 tackles | 33 tackles for loss | 4.5 sacks | 6 forced fumbles - 6 PBU
Cunningham is a Butkus Award finalist and All0American who is a fantastic prospect and a player who excelled despite being on a team without a ton of additional talent.
POSITIVES: Cunningham appears to be the type of player who is perfect for the further evolution of football where you watch a guy and you aren't sure which position he fits best, but you realize he will fit great at any of them. He is a sideline-to-sideline guy, if you wish. He is an outside LB who has the arms and talent to play edge for you. And, you know, Vanderbilt would send him out to the slot to defend receivers and tight ends like a safety. Is he Kam Chancellor? Is he Erik Kendricks? He is very quick, very athletic and finds the ball-carrier before stopping the play with authority. His 4th-and-1 stop to win the Georgia game was his calling card, but he makes plays all game long.
CONCERNS: The only legitimate concern here for me is that you are projecting a bit more and not seeing him surrounded by those who allow for more opportunities for splash plays. He also tackles high, which allows bowling-ball RBs to slip through at times. You would love just a little more bang in his hits, but beyond that, he is really impressive. His range will jump off the screen.
Cunningham is going to be a seek-and-destroy force on defense for a long, long time. He may end up being the best player from this group at the next level.
These next 2 are back to "edge rushers" and guys who could be those high-sack producers we have visited about for weeks...
Derek Rivers: LB, Youngstown State
6'4 | 248 | 4.61 40 | 32 3/4 arms
Stats, last two years: 27 games | 110 tackles | 35 tackles for loss | 22 sacks
Rivers is the rare small-school prospect who is getting all sorts of positive reviews after showing well at the Senior Bowl and Combine as an elite athlete.
POSITIVES: Rivers is a really athletic edge who has the short-space quickness that dazzles on the screen. He also has production that borders on insane when you consider he had over 90 plays behind the line of scrimmage while in college. He gets low and his pursuit is absurd. His opponents have no choice but to hold him at times. He is off-the-charts twitchy. He has some people seeing DeMarcus Ware with his athletic traits and his small-school beginnings. He has the ability to look the part very well when he gets the game going in his direction. He brings electricity and suddenness to the edge which usually translate well if the traits are special enough. And they appear to be.
CONCERNS: The concern about Rivers is two-fold. Neither of these are deal-breakers at all, but they must be considered. 1) He is going up against very poor offensive linemen. He generally is lining up against the right tackle of these opponents and if Big 12 schools don't have two good tackles, you can imagine Northern Iowa doesn't, either. 2) He has very few moves most of the time. He has superior athleticism and that works at his level with a nice motor. The question is how well he can be taught moves that will be required where the tackles are very strong on Sundays. He is very interesting and may have a higher ceiling than most. That said, he may also have a lower floor than top-50 edge guys, so there is a gamble in trusting this tape.
Rivers has great quality and when forced to choose, he might be your guy. But he comes with a slight reservation - which is common with players from his level.
TJ Watt: LB, Wisconsin
6'4 | 252 | 4.69 40 | 33 1/8 arms
Stats, last two years: 27 games | 71 tackles | 17 tackles for loss | 11.5 sacks | 28.5 explosives
Watt has been forever known as JJ's little brother, but he earned his own identity in the last year as a legitimate candidate for Round 1.
POSITIVES: You want an edge player who explodes over the line at the snap and attacks. This destroys run and pass plays alike and puts the offense into a defensive posture themselves. Watt does that so well with his ability to set the edge and close down plays. He can trouble left tackles with a pass-move array that uses power and quickness very well. He can destroy plays and he can also use his arms to just push a tackle back into the QB. He tested as an elite athlete and one of the best in this group. He is far from developed but the progress shown since September is just silly. He certainly is of interest by many teams at the moment.
CONCERNS: The biggest issue is that he was a TE/fullback just 18 months ago. That means he has so much to learn and there is not a massive sample size of his abilities. Despite that, you would not call his moves raw. You are trying to figure out what scheme he fits best in, but I believe I am comfortable with him in the Dallas scheme as an explosive edge element. His size might make you think more about a 3-4 OLB, as he was in college for the most part. There is also concern of adding too much value for his last name, but his brother had nothing to do with his tape or his combine performance - aside from DNA.
Watt looks the part and although he was not on the radar when this project began last summer, he is now comfortably in Round 1 discussions.
Next week, we get back to the defensive backs as the Cowboys are trying to replace about 2,700 snaps in their secondary. It is a good draft for it, so plenty of work to do.