It’s becoming a time-honored question in NFL circles this time of year: How do teams project and evaluate players that were defensive ends or outside linebackers in college but may be asked to change positions to be effective edge rushers as pros?
Oregon’s Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins are two prime examples of players NFL teams are having to project to likely different positions in this year’s draft. Mock drafts illustrate how wide the variation can be as both Jelks and Hollins are projected to go anywhere from as high as late in the third round to as low as the seventh or even possibly a priority free agent in the case of Hollins, who led Oregon in sacks last season.
“It’s projecting, right? So it’s figuring out whether or not he has those compensating factors,” Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. “With Poona (Ford) it’s his length. So he’s got a natural leverage about him. He’s got a heaviness about him with his hands. He can get up and down the line of scrimmage. He went to the Senior Bowl and had a great week down there. It’s really about projecting.”
Jelks made 57 tackles with 7.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks as a senior while playing mostly 4i defensive end but is a better fit as a 5-technique end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker. His size makes is even harder for teams to projects as only been 18 edge rushers, defensive linemen or linebackers have appeared at the NFL Combine since 2010 that were at least 6-foot-5 and under 260 pounds.
Hollins had 64 tackles with 14.5 for loss including 6.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception and seven pass breakups while playing outside linebacker in Oregon’s 3-4 defense last season.
With the majority of snaps being played in Nickel packages how Jelks and Hollins translate, particularly to a 4-3 base defense, is part of the analysis GMs and coaches have to do.
“If you can find guys, no matter size they are, that can rush the passer you can find roles for them,” Cincinnati Bengals general manager Duke Tobin said. “We have a guy named (Carl) Lawson who we found a role for before he got hurt. He was in that hybrid category. But if they can rush the passer, that’s the No. 1 trait that we’re looking for.”
NFL teams that made coaching changes during the offseason had to reevaluate the talent they had on their rosters first.
Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for example, who hired Bruce Arians as head coach and brought Todd Bowles, who was fired after coaching the New York Jets, to be defensive coordinator. Bowles played for Arians at Temple and worked for him most recently with the Arizona Cardinals so they know exactly what they want to do, but the Buccaneers have to adjust their roster to fit that, first through free agency and now the draft, where Tampa Bay drafted LSU middle linebacker Devin White No. 5 on Thursday.
“A lot of guys of guys that we would, not throw out but would be way down low on our draft board, the 4-3 D-ends that were undersized, these guys come back to life,” Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said. “This scheme allows those guys to make plays and to fit into a role, whether it’s first and second down or rushing the passer. Guys like Noah Spence might have new life in this scheme.”