'Buyer beware' for the front seven

It happens every year. The team scouts spend every waking minute evaluating talent, attending games, watching film and checking their lists twice, sort of like a football Santa Claus.

It happens every year. The team scouts spend every waking minute evaluating talent, attending games, watching film and checking their lists twice, sort of like a football Santa Claus. Then, the Combines roll around, coaches, scouting directors and general managers are out in full force with stopwatches in hand. The three day "underwear workout" commences and those out of the scouting loop (coaches and GMs) become enamored with agility figures and march off en mass to pro days. There, they continue their little "love fest" with a player's athletic ability, but along the way, seem to forget that victories are generated by production, by consistent performance and NOT how good a kid looks running 40 yards on the track.

What all of this leads up to is a totally different draft board than the ones the scouts have prepared. The general manager is the decision maker and all others are there to offer input. Coaches have their "guy" they want the GM to take, despite claims from their scouting department that have spent the better part of the year finding the "warts" not shown on the player's professional resume. With that in mind, here is a look at that one player at each position who will either make a general manager look like a genius, or have that guy on the unemployment line a year later.

DEFENSIVE END
DA'QUAN BOWERS, University of Clemson Tigers, #93, 6:04.2-277

While many might be surprised to find Bowers as a member of this squad, there are very strong concerns from NFL teams about the condition of the defensive end's right knee after he underwent surgery to repair his meniscus. Some reports claim that Bowers will eventually need microfracture surgery and several teams doubt that he will finish out his rookie contract, citing fears of arthritis settling into the knee area. While the injury has certainly seen his draft stock drop, Bowers has also brought up concerns that he might be a "one-year wonder."

After registering just four sacks combined over his first two seasons, some began to question whether the defensive end would ever reach his potential. Bowers silenced those critics in 2010, terrorizing opposing backfields on his way to winning the Bronko Nagurski and Ted Hendricks Awards.

Bowers rededicated himself to football after losing two people close to him in less than a year. His mentor, former Clemson great Gaines Adams, passed away in January of 2010 after going into cardiac arrest. Bowers' father, Dennis, died after suffering a seizure in the summer before the season.

Bowers entered his junior year with a newfound devotion to the game. He cleaned up his eating habits and managed to shed 20 pounds in the offseason, regaining the quickness and athleticism that made him a nightmare for opposing tackles. The results were spectacular, as the defensive end led the NCAA in sacks (1.19 spg) and placed second in tackles for loss (2.00 tpg).

There are times that Bowers struggles to shed (see 2010 battle vs. Boston College's Anthony Castonzo and Rich Lapham and vs. South Carolina's Hutch Eckerson), but will try to work across the block to the ball. When he is freed up, he shows good pursuit and effort to make plays. He relies more on leverage to play off blocks, but in 2010, he showed marked improvement in using his hands to guard his legs vs. the chop block.

Bowers is a good tackler at the line, but will struggle more in space. He plays with a lot of effort and can pursue. He has improved his wrap-up tackling technique and makes every effort to arm tackle. When he gets free in the backfield, he does not miss much in getting to and taking down the ball carrier.

Overall, Bowers is a good athlete, who looks to be developing physically, but there are still lingering questions about the long-term condition of his right knee. His production is just decent against the run, but much better against the pass. He still needs to locate the ball better when working down the line, but when he gets into the backfield, he can zero in on his target. He has improved his ability to sniff out the play, but struggles vs. the larger blockers in running situations due to inconsistency in recognizing blocking schemes.

Compares To: ERASMUS JAMES-ex Minnesota. It seems like Bowers is in the "same boat" as James was coming out of college – fending off serious concerns about the health of his knee. He had a banner junior campaign, but some question if that was just a "one year wonder." He looked lethargic during pro day agility tests and while he might have been shaking off rust from his surgery, his 40-yard dash time (4.95) would have ranked 21st among the 24 defensive ends that attended the NFL Scouting Combine. His overall workout was called "sluggish" by some scouts and "average" by others, thus eliminating him from consideration to being the draft's top pick. He could do a freefall and drop out of the top ten selections, if whispers coming from NFL teams hold true.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Nick Fairley, University of Auburn Tigers, #90, 6:04.1-298

No player in this draft carries the "boom or bust" tag more than Fairley. While he had a banner junior campaign, there are serious concerns about his dedication and work ethic. There have been reports of tardiness to meetings, lack of work ethic, especially in the training room, penchant for getting flagged for flagrant fouls and a concern, like Bowers, that he might be a one-year wonder.

When some "experts" compare him to Warren Sapp, it borders on the ridiculous – Sapp performed on every snap and every game throughout his Miami Hurricanes career and carried that over to a stellar NFL career. The only similarities between the two was a "liking" for dirty play, as Fairley was constantly being called for late hits and there were instances when he has speared ball carriers with his helmet, banged into their lower legs purposely and pushed off downed players to lift himself up in 2010. That attitude in training camp could lead to retaliation by some agitated veteran.

Still, Fairley earned consensus All-American recognition and was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the year after placing third in the NCAA in tackles for loss (1.71 tpg) and 12th in sacks (.82 spg) in 2010. The junior broke Auburn's single-season record with 11.5 sacks for minus 74 yards. It was nearly impossible to keep the defensive tackle out of the backfield, as he posted an impressive 24.0 tackles for losses totaling 106 yards and 21 quarterback hurries.

Fairley had a profound impact on the Tigers' front four. Before his arrival, the Auburn run defense ranked 54th nationally, allowing 138.92 yards per game on the ground in 2008. He played in all 13 games in 2009 but started just two contests while his team finished a lowly 78th vs. the run (156.08 ypg). He started all 14 games of the 2010 season and emerged as a dominant presence along the Tigers' front wall, leading a unit that boasted the NCAA's ninth-ranked rushing defense, allowing just 109.07 yards per game.

Compares To: Tommie Harris-ex Chicago. Harris has unquestioned talent, but he failed to put forth a consistent effort and his lack of work ethic finally saw him wear out his welcome in Chicago. Fairley is in the same situation – a talent that could be on the cusp of greatness, but his flippant attitude towards training, dirty play and lack of great strength (more natural than weight room) have teams feeling he might be too big of a risk with an early first round draft pick.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER
Martez Wilson, University of Illinois Fighting Illini, #2, 6:03.7-252

It's not like Wilson will be a total bust, it's just that he lacks great field awareness and ball recognition skills, along with the natural instincts you look for in a middle linebacker, a position where your starter has to be the smartest player on the field. Wilson would be much better served playing outside in a 3-4 alignment, where he can just zero in on the ball carrier, as he does not have a great feel for shooting gaps or taking the loop around the corner as a pass rusher.

There are also concerns about his medical record and there were off-field issues that have raised a few "red flags" around the league. Wilson was first suspended for the 2008 season finale vs. Northwestern for violating team rules. Several weeks later, he was hospitalized and underwent surgery for stab wounds suffered coming to the defense of a friend and former Illinois teammate outside a bar in Champaign.

Wilson returned to the field for the 2009 season opener vs. Missouri, but suffered a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery, forcing him to sit out the rest of the schedule. Biting at the "bit" to return to the gridiron, the oft-reckless performer, both on and off the field, used those troubling times to get what he described as his "house in order." He would go on to earn All-Big Ten Conference first-team honors in 2010, a season that saw him post 112 tackles (47 solos) with four sacks and 11.5 stops for loss.

Compares To: CARLOS POLK-ex San Diego/Dallas. Like Polk, Wilson's pass-coverage deficiencies will leave him performing as a two-down linebacker at the next level. He gives good effort on the field, but is best served in a 3-4 alignment where he would not have to handle making calls, as he has just an adequate mental grasp for those duties. He plays much better in the box than when giving chase, as he does a good job of keeping his shoulders square and exploding through the holes. There are just too many holes in his game (mental aspect, pass coverage) for a team to get excited over him as a middle linebacker, but he could prove to be an effective strongside inside linebacker in the 3-4, or on the weak-side playing outside.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
Aldon Smith, University of Missouri Tigers, #85, 6:04.2-258

Before any NFL team dares to draft Smith and try to make him an outside linebacker, there is a word of caution – contact Buffalo and ask them for their opinion of that mistake made when drafting Aaron Maybin. The junior has good muscle development, but needs further body tone in his lower frame. He has good arm length with muscular definition, thick bubble, adequate hamstrings and thighs.

Smith added over 15 pounds to his frame during the 2010 off-season in order to compete better at defensive end, but outside of rush-end duties, he may not be suited to play outside linebacker, as I doubt that he can generate enough foot speed to be effective in long pursuit. To play linebacker, he has to show better alertness to plays in front of him. He is best when getting a clear lane off the edge, but is slow to recognize blocking schemes and will bite on fakes and play action.

When he is able to locate the ball, Smith plays with good instincts and awareness. His problems arise when he has to work in-line, as he spends a lot of time trying to disengage and loses sight of the play. When he finds the ball, there is no hesitation in his moves to pursue the play.

Compares To: AARON MAYBIN-Buffalo. Maybin appears to be an all-time bust, failing to show the pass-rushing skills he did during his "fluke" junior season at Penn State. Smith could use his right fibula fracture in 2010 as an excuse for his drastic drop-off as a pass rusher, but he's strictly a tweener – lacking strength to "man up" vs. offensive tackles as a defensive end and missing the foot speed (4.82 in the 40-yard dash), along with great lateral agility (7.25 three-cone drill and 4.59 20-yard shuttle) to string plays out as an outside linebacker.




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