NFL DRAFT DIAMONDS

Inside the War Room’s Defensive End Edition

In this week’s Inside the War Room, I take a look at the top senior defensive ends in the draft, discuss the quarterback situation at Michigan, start a new feature called Prospect of the Week, and much more.

Top Senior DE’s

This year’s class of defensive ends is led by one of my top defensive players in Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree. The group also has solid depth with players like Anthony Chickillo, Markus Golden, and Trey Flowers earning solid second day grades. The top juniors who could join this year’s defensive end class include Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, and Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr.

1. Alvin Dupree Kentucky 6-4 267
Dupree is an extremely athletic undersized defensive end, who shows exceptional pass rushing skills. Look for him to continue the trend of undersized pass rushing defensive ends going in the first round of the draft next year.

2. Anthony Chickillo Miami 6-4 277
Chickillo is a bigger defensive end who can hold up well vs. the run, and also has enough explosion off the line of scrimmage to rush the passer. I currently project him as a second round draft pick.

3. Markus Golden Missouri 6-3 260
Golden was a backup to NFL Draft picks Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but still managed to lead Missouri defensive ends in tackles with 55, and also recorded 6.5 sacks. When watching his film the first thing that stands out is his athletic ability, and quick bust off the line of scrimmage.

4. Trey Flowers Arkansas 6-4 267
Flowers is another big defensive end that will attract NFL scouts. He does seem to lack the burst Chickillo has off the line of scrimmage which could cause his stock to slide in the draft.

5. Hau’oli Kikaha Washington 6-3 250
Kikaha is a player who has battled his share of injuries in college. He missed the entire 2012 season due to a knee injury, and he also missed all but four games in 2011 due to a different knee injury. When he has been on the field though he has been very productive in 2013 he recorded 70 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 13 sacks.

Sleepers
1. Shaquille Riddick West Virginia 6-7 240 #6 DE
Riddick spent his first three seasons at Gardner-Webb where he was named FCS All-American after recording 19 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks. Riddick is a tall athletic defensive end who must learn to use his hands better and be more physical overall.

2. Brock Hekking Nevada 6-4 255 #9 DE
Hekking is an all out effort player, who should be able to be a solid backup in the NFL. He does lack the elite physical skills though that will give him a chance to start in the NFL.

3. Lynden Trail Norfolk State 6-7 250 #14 DE
Trail was named the FCS National Defensive Performer of the Year by the College Football Performance Awards after recording 94 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks last season. While he plays OLB at Norfolk State I project him to shift down to defensive end in the NFL due to his size.

Battling for #1

One of the more interesting quarterback battles going on currently is at the University of Michigan where senior and last years starting quarterback Devin Gardner is competing with sophomore Shane Morris who played in four games last season completing 62% of his passes for 261 yards for the starting quarterback position. While Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has yet to name a starter the three Michigan beat writes I spoke to on this issue all said they expect Gardner to be named the starting quarterback this season, however if Gardner is to have a draftable grade he will have to have significantly better senior year then he did last year.

One of the biggest areas Gardner must improve on is his overall consistency. He can have weeks where he looks like a mid-round draft choice like he did vs. Ohio State when he completed 71% of his passes for 451 yards, and scored 5 touchdowns or when he completed 64% of his passes for 294 yards, and four touchdowns vs. Notre Dame. Unfortunately, he also has weeks where he looks like he should be on the bench like he did vs. Iowa when he completed only 46% of his passes for 98 yards, and vs. UConn when he completed only 48% of his passes for 97 yards with two interceptions. One thing Gardner has said he wants to improve on is his game preparation which will hopefully lead to a more consistent
performance from him. When looking at his play on the field the first thing that stands out to me is that he is more of an athlete playing quarterback at this point in his career then a polished quarterback. He tends to get very sloppy with his ball security and will throws a lot of passes into coverage, and also when scrambling does not keep two hands on the ball and holds the ball low. His accuracy also needs work due to the fact he will throw a lot of passes his receivers must adjust to, and it is also worth pointing out he had four games last season when he completed under 55% of his passes.

The biggest issue affecting his accuracy is his unpolished footwork. He tends to not step into his throws, and also would drift away from his target at times when throwing on the run. One more concern I have with him is his lack of pocket awareness. He looks lost at times in the pocket, and does not set up in the pocket very well at this time.

While Gardner definitely has some areas of his game he must work on he also has several positives that will impress NFL scouts. The area of Gardner’s game I like the most is his impressive athletic ability. He played wide receiver at Michigan in 2012 catching 16 passes for 266 yards. He also has NFL size coming in at 6-4 218 pounds.

This season will be a major determining factor for Gardner, and his draft stock. I think three major factors will have an impact on Gardner’s season with the first one being his new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier who comes from the University of Alabama. Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press pointed out that Gardner’s biggest obstacle last season was the mental game which Nussmeier has been brought into help Gardner with. The second factor that will have an impact on Gardner this season is his offensive line. Last season, the offensive line struggled both with run and pass blocking allowing 36 sacks and 114 tackles for loss. The offensive line must improve this season, if Gardner and the Michigan offense is to have a great season. The last thing that will have a significant impact on Gardner’s season is Gardener himself. He must show he can pick up the coaching he will receive from Nussmeier, and can develop into a quarterback and not just an athlete who lines up at quarterback.

I currently have Gardner ranked as my 21st best senior quarterback which would earn him an undrafted free agent grade. In order to improve his grade he will have to improve in the areas I mentioned above, and be a much more consistent player.

Prospect of the Week

This week I am starting a new weekly feature called Prospect of the Week. In this section I will highlight one draft prospect that deserves a closer look. This week Inside the War Room will take a close look at one of the most underrated defensive ends in the 2015 NFL Draft class in Kentucky DE Za’Darius Smith.

Smith is still relatively new to the game of football only have played it for four years. He picked up the game as a senior in high school, having focused on basketball most of his high school career. However, his one year of high school was enough to garner interest from one of the top junior colleges in football in East Mississippi Community College. Smith had a very productive career at East Mississippi posting 11 sacks, and 18 tackles for a loss, and being ranked as the second best junior college defensive end by ESPN. Coming out of junior college he was highly recruited and eventually picked Kentucky over Florida State, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Virginia. In his one year at Kentucky he started every game and recorded 59 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks. Going into his senior season he will team with the top defensive end on my board in Alvin Dupree to form one of the best pass rush tandems in college football.

Smith has outstanding size for a defensive end coming in at 6-6 274, and he has the long arms defensive line coaches love to go with his size. His size will allow him to be an every down defender who can hold up vs. both the run and pass. His long arms will allow him to prevent offensive lineman from getting into his body, and controlling him at the point of attack. Smith also has good athletic ability for someone his size, and has the ability to turn the corner on an offensive tackle or jump up and bat down the pass. One more positive with this prospect is his nonstop motor. He is defiantly a hard worker who will impress his coaches with his strong work ethic.

There are several things Smith needs to work on this season in order to maximize his draft value. The first thing he needs to work on is his overall technique. He has very limited pass rushing moves, and at times tends to have poor pad level. Another concern I have with Smith is that most of production came against non-SEC competition. Last season he posted 4.5 of his six sacks in non-conference play. He needs to prove he can produce outstanding results against the best players he goes against in order to earn a second round grade.
I currently have Smith rated as my seventh best senior defensive end, but he is a player who could significantly rise up my draft board with a big season. If he has a strong senior season, and proves he can produce against SEC completion I could see him earning a second round draft grade.

Ten Football Thoughts
1. I think one of the strongest positions when it comes to seniors is inside linebacker. The class is led by Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman who currently projects as a late first round draft pick. I could also see Eric Kendricks of UCLA, Ramik Wilson of Georgia, Jake Ryan of Michigan, and Bryce Hager of Baylor going in the second round.
2. I think Baylor’s Bryce Hager reminds me of a bigger Chris Borland. Hager has outstanding instincts, and shows the range to play sideline to sideline. In 2013 he missed four games due to a groin injury, but still recorded 71 tackles and nine quarterback pressures. He had an even stronger season in 2012 when he was healthy for the full season and recorded 124 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss.
3. I think one NFL franchise that is extremely happy the Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James is the Cleveland Browns. The Browns should be happy with this signing since Johnny Manziel and James are good friends, and James should have a positive impact on Manziel. This is due to the fact James has already gone through the spotlight that will surely shine on Manziel, and can hopefully guide him on how to be a professional at the highest level.
4. I think one of the top non-BCS schools when it comes to producing NFL talent has to be Utah State especially on defense. This year’s defensive prospect to keep an eye on is inside linebacker Zach Vigil who recorded 124 tackles last season, and is currently rated as my 12th best senior linebacker. Last year, Utah State also had one of my top non-BCS players in cornerback Nevin Lawson who was rated as my 10th best cornerback, and ended up going to the Lions in the 4th round. Utah State also has one of the top quarterbacks in the 2015 draft in Chuckie Keeton who is my number three senior quarterback.
5. I think my number one senior QB Sean Mannion continues to show why he is the top senior QB in college football. This week he won the Manning QB Challenge Championship after having a very strong showing last week at the Elite 11 Quarterback Competition. I have also been told my number one small school quarterback Bryan Bennett had a strong showing at the Manning Passing Academy.
6. I think Jeff Driskel will finally start to look like an NFL quarterback this season. He was having a solid season last year before breaking his leg. I also think the hiring of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will have a tremendous impact on Driskel’s development. I look for him to be one of the top five or six quarterbacks going into the 2016 NFL Draft.
7. I think I agree 100% with the advice Will Muschamp gives to his underclassmen when it comes to declaring for the draft. In his press conference at SEC Media Day he said he advises first round draft picks to declare for the draft, but if they are not projected to go in the first round to come back to school and improve their draft stock. I wish more players would follow this advice, so that we don’t have the possibility of over 40% of underclassmen who entered the draft jobless when the NFL season starts which might happen this year.
8. I think Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney would be making a mistake if he declares for the 2015 NFL Draft, like he hinted he might at SEC Media Day. I currently don’t project McKinney as a first round draft pick, and think if he came back for his senior season he would improve his draft stock. This marks the second SEC player who is learning towards entering the NFL Draft that would be making mistake with the other player being Georgia running back Keith Marshall.
9. I think USC’s defensive back Josh Shaw best pro position is safety. Shaw has played both cornerback, and safety during his time at USC and has the size to be a free safety in the NFL. I also think his best position is safety in the NFL, because he doesn’t have the smooth hips I like to see in a cornerback.
10. I think I am going to write solely for NFL Draft Diamonds, and no longer run the Inside the War Room site. You can still expect all of my position rankings at NFL Draft Diamonds, and Inside the War Room to be published every Friday.

Notes

USC LB Lamar Dawson is fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered last season. … South Carolina WR Damiere Byrd ran a 4.3 40-yard dash last week. … Auburn QB Nick Marshall was ticket for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana last week. … Alabama DT Jarran Reed was arrested for DUI on Sunday. … Central Florida is moving senior offensive tackle Torrian Wilson to offensive guard this season. Wilson will most likely play offensive guard in the NFL, due to a lack of height and quickness. … LSU’s Rob Bolden will transfer to Eastern Michigan. … The following players on my draft board were named Beyond Sports Network 2014 Preseason D2 All America Football first team QB Kevin Rodgers of Henderson State, QB Chris Bonner of Colorado State-Pueblo, WR Trevor Harman of Shippensburg, DT Charles Tuaau of Texas A&M-Commerce, and OLB Darius Allen of Colorado State-Pueblo. …

Inside the War Room is written by John Blair the newest member of NFL Draft Diamonds.  We recommend that you follow him on twitter for more NFL Draft News @NFLDraftITWR. 

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