A fan of defensive football? That’s the side of the ball that features early and often in this week’s NFL Draft stock watch article! Here’s who’s in this time around:
Josh Sweat, EDGE, Florida State
The dramatic finish left Sweat on the losing side of a typically intense rivalry game between Florida State and Miami that saw the Hurricanes leave Tallahassee with the 24-20 victory. However, the explosive edge rusher put in arguably his best performance of the season to date.
Sweat has near-unlimited upside potential, in particular through his ideal length and athletic traits, but so often underwhelms in terms of the final product that leaves his tangible production lesser than it ought to be. Not the case on Saturday though, as the 6’5”, 250lb junior forced regular pressure en route to totaling five tackles (including four solo stops), 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and two pass breakups.
He impacted the game from the first series, deflecting a pass from ‘Canes quarterback Malik Rozier that wasn’t far from being intercepted for the early turnover. A strong second quarter saw Sweat read a quarterback keep to take down Rozier for a loss, then later torch Miami right tackle Tyree St. Louis outside with a speed rush to join Derrick Nnadi at the quarterback for a joint sack.
On the final drive of the game that saw the Hurricanes snatch the late victory, the series had begun well for FSU thanks to Sweat, who again couldn’t be contained by tackle St. Louis, forcing Rozier to scramble back before deflecting the pass attempt for a second pass breakup.
Despite the good performance, Sweat has totaled a modest 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks through four games. That said, there’s some similarities in terms of traits for the next level that remind of Leonard Floyd, a pass rush specialist who under-performed at Georgia yet still went ninth overall to the Bears a couple drafts ago.
Sweat also offers impressive length, first step and speed, but also shows plenty of aggression and physicality when engaging with linemen at the point of attack. His closing speed in pursuit leads to some impressive run defense moments to go with his dangerous ability to turn the corner on the pass rush. He’s not a finished product but certainly has first round ability.
Khari Willis, S, Michigan State
There’s so much to enjoy about a low-scoring tense rivalry game, and the teams from the state of Michigan provided a gripping addition to the history of the matchup, with a torrential late-game downpour adding to the atmosphere and the challenge for the offenses looking to generate an elusive score.
Michigan QB John O’Korn really struggled throughout, throwing three interceptions as part of five total turnovers for the Wolverines’ offense. While Spartans’ safety David Dowell had the more memorable moments, picking O’Korn off twice, it was his partner at the position in Willis who really stood out from an NFL draft perspective.
His contributions were fairly standard, and didn’t provide a key turnover or plays in the backfield, but Willis kept showing up around the ball as he totaled ten tackles on the day, eight of them being solo efforts. That included a fantastic special teams stop on punt coverage following Michigan State’s first drive of the second half. Willis really impresses with the way he flies around the field and closes on ball carriers that lends itself well to gunning down a returner in the kicking game, adding to his value.
In his primary role on defense, he similarly showed great movement around the field and range of coverage as a highly active player to put himself into positions to make plays. Well built at 6’0” and 215lbs, Willis looks to have good length in his arms as well that helps him wrap up and finish tackles, added to by the aggressive nature of his style; he seems to love the physical side of the game.
His sound reads and eyes lead to him flowing downfield effectively, generally taking ideal angles. Willis (#27, pictured) is only a junior and entered this season with only four starts in his first two seasons, but is very much putting himself on the radar, even if it would surprise to see him leave early for the NFL.
Will Richardson, OT, NC State
NC State’s defensive line is one of the best in the ACC, and the country, led by B. J. Hill inside and Bradley Chubb on the edge. Less heralded are their offensive counterparts in the trenches, who are very much a strength of the team as well.
Being talented on both lines is an excellent foundation for a successful season at any level in this sport, so the Wolfpack’s wins over Florida State and Louisville over the past three games shouldn’t surprise too much. Several of the offensive line unit have next-level potential, and while a couple of the others also had standout performances in the 39-25 Thursday night victory, Richardson is the one who drew the focus of this writer.
Listed at 6’5”, 322lb, Richardson has length and a broad frame that has a prototype look for an NFL prospect. He backs that up with good movement at his size, proving quick out of his stance and light on his feet, quick to react and move as he mirrors pass rushers and tracks them in space off the edge.
He completes the measurables with a likeable combination of strength and aggression, holding up well at the point of attack post-contact. There’s a tendency to over-lean and bend into contact occasionally, but he has good control and balance in pass protection. As a run blocker, Richardson is quickly up onto the second level and appears to take pride in overpowering and dominating defenders he blocks.
That ability as a blocker in the run game kept showing up in the win over Louisville as the Wolfpack found regular success running behind the right side of the line to which Richardson plays at right tackle beside senior guard Tony Adams. He provided a superb right-to-left block to open up running back Nyheim Hines for a touchdown scoring run near the end of the third quarter.
One of the biggest red flags for Richardson is his off-field character, having received multiple suspensions, including one for a DWI arrest; he can’t afford any more mistakes off the field.
Grant Haley, CB, Penn State
The Nittany Lions are very much meeting their lofty expectations so far on the season, and while the Saquon Barkley-led offense is drawing much of the focus, they are excelling on defense as well, including two shutouts (vs Akron and Georgia State) and now holding a solid Northwestern team to just seven points, only surrendering that single TD score near the very end of the game.
Even on the defense itself there are under-rated contributors. In the secondary, safety Marcus Allen gets most of the attention in terms of the NFL Draft, but not to be outdone, fellow senior Grant Haley at cornerback is having a fantastic final season.
Though a solid build for his frame at 190lbs, Haley is a little shorter than ideal at 5’9”, something that will limit his stock, but he certainly doesn’t play small and has the playmaking skills that absolutely make up for it.
With superb man coverage ability and ball skills, he could surprise at the pro level if he gets the right opportunity with the right team. With good quickness around the field, he sticks tight to his man in the pass game, and the manner in which he battles physically and for position really stands out. His timing and instincts lead to regularly making plays on the ball for breakups and interceptions while also showing further playmaking ability when asked to make corner blitzes into the backfield.
Haley was at it again last weekend against the Wildcats, getting into the backfield for a tackle for loss among his three tackles on the day, and adding three pass breakups. With five breakups and two interceptions through the first half of the season, he’s already bettering his numbers from any of his previous three years, and even taking into account his relatively shorter frame, is showing next level ability on one of the top teams in the country.
Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan
Returning to the Paul Bunyan Trophy game, the Wolverines may have lost but the fact that the score stayed so close despite five turnovers goes to the credit of their outstanding defense once again, that continues to be one of the best in the nation.
Regardless of their offensive struggles, this group can keep them in any contest. One of their better prospects had his best game of the season as Hurst was a constant disruption to the Sparty offense that couldn’t get much going themselves.
Hurst had a relatively pedestrian 16 tackles and two tackles for loss on the season entering this one, but boosted those numbers with 10 tackles (six solo) and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Hurst is not the biggest you’ll see lining up on the interior of the D-Line at under 6’2” and listed at around 280lbs. He’s an absolute terror when at the top of his game though, as he was against Michigan State.
His calling card is the elite first step, exploding out of his stance, added to by the superb timing of his reactions off the snap. It’s not just about the speed though, using his hands well as he forces himself through gaps and works off initial blocks. Hurst is fairly short, but uses his low pad level to his advantage, usually manages to win the leverage battle and drive up into the pads of opposing linemen.
In addition to being highly disruptive as an interior pass rusher, he’s able to blow up run plays as well, challenging the mesh point on handoffs to the RB for losses or no gain. There are times when he can be a little blinkered and allow plays past him and once established on a block, he can be shut down, but the positive plays tend to make up for the less impressive stretches.
If he continues at the level he produced against the Spartans to finish his senior season strongly, he has the playmaking ability that will be coveted on draft weekend.
Small School Watch: P.J. Hall, DL, Sam Houston State
When it comes to small school draft prospects who generally face a lower level of competition, dominating the opposition at that level is key to earning a draft selection, and nobody dominates in the FCS like P.J. Hall does.
Against the run, against the pass, making tackles, sacks, interceptions or blocking kicks on special teams, he does it all. Even with the attention his playmaking draws and the resulting double teams he faces, he still can’t be stopped from piling up ridiculous statistical production.
Hall had to miss the first couple games of the season due to a suspension related to an academic issue, but has wasted no time in continuing where he left off. Through three games, he already has seven tackles for loss and four sacks.
He had three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble, in addition to six total tackles, in this past game against Stephen F. Austin in the 92nd “Battle of the Piney Woods” that Sam Houston State won 27-16.
He was an unstoppable force in the first quarter in particular, exploding into the backfield time and again for instant pressure to force throwaways and to take down both quarterback and running back during the opening few series. More than just interested in the first few seconds of the play, Hall’s hustle really stands out, with one of his sacks a result of continuing to work and taking down a desperately scrambling Lumberjacks quarterback.
Several other disruptive plays didn’t even show up on the stat sheet, including a blistering burst through the line in the fourth quarter with the QB just getting rid of the ball before being hit, then making a sensational stop in space as the quarterback ran out to his right that ended up not counting due to offsetting penalties after the play.
In addition to the level at which he plays, Hall’s size could leave some questions as to whether he can continue his success in the NFL. At around 6’1” and listed at 270lbs (though might well be playing heavier), he doesn’t have ideal length pro scouts look for.
It’s difficult to ignore such a talented football player though, and one who makes an impact from anywhere across the front line, constantly changing up position and being equally effective. The speed with which he plays is particularly eye-opening, reportedly matching the skill position players on the team in testing drills. With 74 career tackles for loss and 40 sacks, with half a season to go, it would be unwise to doubt him.
It’s not been the best of seasons for the Tigers of LSU, but they bounced back from a loss to Troy with a win over the Gators. Despite that, one of their offensive stars continued his disappointing year.
Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
There’s no doubt that he’s not been at full fitness throughout this season, with a leg issue limiting him, but it’s still the case that Guice’s draft stock sits lower as of right now than it did entering the season.
Having excelled in relief and in compliment to Leonard Fournette last season, expectations were high this season in taking the lead role in 2017. His slow start (again, partly injury related) has seen an offense that was hoping to rely on him struggle, and the performances of senior Darrel Williams have at times stood out more.
Guice has averaged just 4.44 yards per carry this year so far, and even that mark is boosted by taking advantage of an over-matched FCS side in Chattanooga back in early September. His latest showing of 50 yards on 17 carries resulted in an ugly 2.94 yards per carry.
It’s difficult to judge how his performances will affect his draft stock ultimately, should he leave college after this season. There’s no doubt that when at 100% he is an explosive, powerful back with an aggressive style that sees him fight effectively for extra yards after contact and can take it to the house once free on the second and third level.
Someone could get a bargain if he were to drop a bit on draft weekend. There was first round talk entering the season, and right now, he’s not leaving a final impression that convinces of committing a first round selection, especially when so many later round backs are providing outstanding value in the pros right now (see Hunt, Mack etc).
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