Ryan and Wes discuss the best edge rushers available in the draft, including the enigmatic Noah Spence. (April 24, 2016)
When Noah Spence dumped a bucket of ice water on his simmering draft stock at the NFL scouting combine, running a 40-yard dash more resembling an athletic defensive lineman than explosive pass rusher, one former executive wasn’t surprised.
Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager, saw Spence up close at the Senior Bowl in January. Spence was an intriguing prospect from the beginning, arriving in Mobile, Ala., with baggage after being permanently banned from the Big Ten for failing multiple drug tests, but showing clear potential as an NFL pass rusher.
Spence started his career at Ohio State, where he had 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a sophomore in 2013. Before February’s combine, he was drawing comparisons to All-Pro rushers Von Miller and Khalil Mack. Then he ran a 4.8-second, 40-yard dash – a couple tenths slower than Miller and Mack.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
“I’ll be honest,” Savage said, “I was not surprised he ran a 4.8. I thought that was probably what he would be. So the question is, what is his dominant trait? It’s not necessarily size, it’s not necessarily quickness.”
No, Spence doesn’t have dynamic athleticism. He isn’t a bad athlete. A little undersized at 6-foot-2 1/2, 251 pounds, he started his dash with an adequate 1.61-second, 10-yard split. He also had a 35-inch vertical jump. Still, he needed to display explosiveness to seal his position in the first round.
In the NFL draft, elite talent wins at the end of the day. Talent that is promising, but not elite? That’s when red flags can anchor a prospect’s draft stock.
Spence rehabilitated his career at Eastern Kentucky last season. He finished with 11.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and took weekly drug tests to show he was staying clean. Spence never failed a test.
Then Spence showed how serious he was about his future at the Senior Bowl. Savage, president of the Senior Bowl, said he was impressed after the event in January.
“Noah came here,” Savage said, “he seemed to be motivated to really put his best foot forward. I thought he did that here on and off the field, overall. In going back and watching some of the practice tapes, and then the game film from our event here, some of his success came due to some of the matchups he got. I would not put him in the class of a Khalil Mack of Von Miller. I mean, those are top-five NFL draft choices. I don’t believe he belongs in that category.
“The trait that he has, is he has a really good understanding about rushing the passer. He’s got quickness, and he’s got counter moves. He’s very good with his hands. So he’s got some polish to him in that way. Because of his past, I think that he might go in the first round. Some teams are going to say he’s the classic second-round pick, because he’s got to prove himself from what happened at Ohio State.”
The Green Bay Packers will make their first selection at the end of the opening round Thursday night, pick No. 27 overall. General manager Ted Thompson will have an interesting decision to make if Spence is available.
Any NFL team could benefit from boosting their pass rush. The Denver Broncos proved last season dominant pass rushers can win a title. The Packers have pass rushers. Julius Peppers has been a revelation in his two seasons since the Chicago Bears released him, putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career. Clay Matthews remains one of the most explosive defensive players in the game. Former first-round picks Nick Perry and Datone Jones showed flashes late last season, while former undrafted outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott could have a breakout third season.
Together, the Packers’ batch of edge rushers helped them finish tied for seventh in the NFL with 43 sacks last season.
What the Packers lack is a set of elite bookend edge rushers, bringing pressure from both sides of the field. Peppers was supposed to bookend opposite Matthews, and though he’s been everything the Packers could’ve hoped, coach Mike McCarthy was forced to move Matthews off the line of scrimmage midway through Peppers’ first season in Green Bay. As a result, a balanced pass rush has remained elusive.
So it’s not hard to see why Thompson might be enticed to draft an edge rusher 27th overall, especially if a talent like Spence slides down the draft. While the Packers want Matthews to return to the edge this fall, it’s unclear whether their current roster could allow it. Thompson said more work needs to be done earlier this month.
“We’re not playing anybody tomorrow,” he said.
Maybe the Packers fatten their inside linebacker depth chart enough to move Matthews back to the edge. Maybe they don’t. Either way, there isn’t a position Thompson could target at the end of the first round that would potentially correlate to winning more than drafting a pass rusher.
Spence won’t be the Packers’ only edge-rushing option at the end of the first round. The field has some depth this season, though it isn’t as deep as the draft’s defensive tackle class. If not Spence, Boise State edge rusher Kamalei Correa could be an alternative.
Correa has drawn lofty comparisons to Matthews during the buildup to this weekend’s draft. At 6-foot-2 5/8 and 243 pounds, he showed athleticism with a 4.69-second, 40-yard dash at the combine. His dash was behind the 4.59-second 40 Matthews ran before the Packers drafted him in 2009, and, though impressive, Correa’s 1.62-second, 10-yard split wasn’t quite as explosive as Matthews’ incredible 1.49-second split. Correa’s 10-yard split also was one-hundredth of a second slower than Spence ran.
Correa will need to develop his pass-rush arsenal, but he could bring versatility to defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system.
“Love his motor,” ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said. “Love the way he gets out of the blocks fast. He’s an outside edge rusher. He’s really got to be able to develop a counter move as well. He’s got to do a better job using his hands. You watch the way Joey Bosa attacks, Correa can learn a lot from that. He’s got short arms as well, which is a concern. But he closes fast, strong, athletic kid.
“He plays with a tremendous amount of intensity, and he can play inside. He’s kind of like Clay Matthews coming out, where you could see him at inside (linebacker) four or five years down the road. So Kamalei Correa is a heck of a player.”
Oklahoma State edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah is another possibility at the end of the first round. Few players combine his blend of size (6-foot-4 1/4, 273 pounds) and speed (4.63-second 40, including a 1.58-second 10-yard split). He also has tremendous length. Ogbah’s 35.5-inch arms ranked third among all edge rushers at the combine, and his 83 7/8-inch wingspan ranked fifth.
Ogbah led the Big 12 with 12.5 sacks last season, and his 16.5 tackles for loss ranked second in the conference. He had the college production and workout results of a top-10 pick. He’ll also enter the league with the technique of a second-round prospect, needing much development.
“Great kid,” Kiper said. “He works hard. His measurables are through the roof. So you say, ‘Why is the enthusiasm tempered a bit with him?’ Really, technique-wise, he needs work. He needs to develop a counter move, a secondary move. A defensive line coach, I think, would love to work with a kid who has great athletic ability, great work ethic, great passion for the game.
“He has all these skills you need. So I think a coach can make or break you, but in Ogbah’s case, with the right defensive line coach that can teach him and develop his talent as a late first-round pick – which is where I think he’ll go – he would make an awful lot of sense.”
MARKET WATCH: EDGE RUSHERS
Rising stock: Georgia edge rusher Leonard Floyd never had a 10-sack season in college, but a rare combination of size and athleticism have scouts believing his best football is ahead of him.
Falling stock: Eastern Kentucky edge rusher Noah Spence could fit in the sleeper category considering his talent getting after opposing quarterbacks, but red flags off the field and a poor 40-yard dash at the combine might push him to the second round.
Sleeper: Oklahoma State edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah could sneak into the late first round, but he has a chance to develop into one of the draft’s five best pass rushers.