The comparisons were out of control before Noah Spence arrived at the 40-yard dash’s start line in Indianapolis.
Von Miller? Khalil Mack? Spence’s “next-big-thing” hype cast a big shadow.
So when the former Ohio State pass rusher ran those 40 yards in 4.8 seconds, almost two tenths slower than Mack and three tenths slower than Miller, it was not the good kind of surprise. Spence needed a dominant combine workout, the kind controversial Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche showed. He didn’t get it.
“I don’t see the elite speed,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said, “like you see from Von Miller or you see from Khalil Mack. When you line up those numbers for Von and Khalil, with Noah they’re not there. And it’s not just about the 40-yard dash and running with shorts on. It’s about when you study the tape, too.”
There’s no shame in falling short of being the next Von Miller, the next Khalil Mack. Both edge rushers were named first-team All-Pros in their second NFL season. Miller added Super Bowl 50 MVP honors in January.
Spence needed to validate those comparisons to compensate for his past. Three seasons ago, he was a rising star with the Buckeyes, with eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2013. Then two failed drug tests for Ecstasy led to a lifetime ban from the Big Ten. With his future in peril, Spence sat out the 2014 season before resurfacing last year at Eastern Kentucky.
The Ohio Valley Conference was a long way from Ohio Stadium. But if the Horseshoe quickly became a distant memory, Spence showed he was still a high-caliber pro prospect. Spence was a big fish in a small Eastern Kentucky pond, overpowering opponents. He had 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last season, production that quickly shot him up draft boards.
Spence did more than dominate lesser opponents. He overwhelmed Kentucky in an early October game, even more than his 1.5 sacks indicated. With Spence wreaking havoc, Eastern Kentucky eventually lost to the big state school, but not before pushing Kentucky to overtime on the road. It reminded scouts of his career at Ohio State, when he led the Buckeyes in sacks as a true sophomore.
“I’ve never seen that speed,” McShay said. “I see everything else. A highly instinctive player, really like his tape, motor is always running. Against Kentucky, they had to change their whole game plan and they barely escaped alive in winning that game because of Spence and how dominant he was. So I’m not knocking him as a player. I’m just giving the reality.
“Spence can be a great pass rusher, but there’s trust issues.”
Those trust issues might not have been an issue if Spence ran like Von Miller. Yes, off-field issues are something for teams to consider during the pre-draft process. Unless they’re heinous, they usually don’t get in the way of teams drafting players who can help them win.
Spence has the production and film to lock him into the first round. With a faster 40 time, he was on a trajectory to be a potential top-10 pick. No worse than top 20. Now, the off-field red flags and slow 40 time could pull him to the bottom of the first round. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said he expects Spence to be drafted somewhere between Nos. 20 and 25 overall.
That’s getting into the Green Bay Packers’ range.
“Noah is just pure speed,” Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said, remembering his practice battles with his former teammate. “He can run for days. He could run with the linebackers, and be beating them. He’s really quick off the ball, and has a really good motor.”
Spence’s drop could present general manager Ted Thompson with an interesting decision.
The Packers could have a thin depth chart at outside linebacker, and they need to replenish their edge pass rush. Spence would help them do both. He’s arguably the second-best edge rusher in the draft, behind only former Ohio State teammate Joey Bosa.
So Spence would be worthy of Thompson’s consideration if he’s available when the Packers are on the clock with the 27th overall pick. Still, the question is unavoidable. Can the Packers, or any team, trust him?
Spence, naturally, is adamant he wouldn’t be a risky pick. He takes a drug test every week. The year at Eastern Kentucky was good for him, he explained. In obscurity, he concentrated on getting his life back on track. Spence never questioned how he dropped from the top of college football to the FCS.
“I knew what I did,” Spence said. “I knew why I was there, and I knew it was a business trip for me. It’s a great school, and I wanted to win. I knew going in what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to get out of the situation.”
It’s probably a long shot for the Packers to draft Spence, even if he’s available. Thompson, as he has shown again this week, can be stubborn in never deviating from his approach. Predictably, he avoids prospects with character concerns.
Spence’s presence in the Packers locker room is something that would have to be weighed. The Packers have had three drug-related suspensions stemming from incidents in the past 13 months. So Thompson could be leery about drafting a player with drug abuse history.
There’s reason to believe Spence can leave his drug issues in the past. He didn’t fail a drug test at Eastern Kentucky, where he was frequently tested. If he stays clean, Spence’s potential contribution on the field could be a big payoff. The Packers signed Nick Perry to a reported one-year, $5 million deal Thursday, helping pad their outside linebacker depth. But Julius Peppers is getting older, Jayrone Elliott is unproven, and Clay Matthews might still be needed at inside linebacker.
While Spence admits he needs to become a better run defender on the edge, there’s no question his “biggest strength” is consistently rushing the quarterback.
“I’m relentless on the field,” Spence said.
He’s also a good teammate in the locker room. Ohio State had 14 players at the combine. Each played with Spence, shared the same program. One by one, they vouched for their former teammate.
Decker said he was happy to see Spence turn around his life and career after some “dark times.” From a separate podium, linebacker Darron Lee pointed at Spence and called him a “brother.” Bosa, on his way to being a top-10 pick, thought about what it would have been like to partner with Spence rushing the passer.
“They’re pretty lucky he got kicked out,” Bosa said of Ohio State’s opponents, “or that would have been a scary duo rushing on Saturdays. He’s a great kid. Everyone makes mistakes. I made mistakes. It’s what you do with the second chance.
“As you see, he’s here. He’s being looked at as a first-round pick. So I think he did a great job with a second chance.”