This story appears in the Oct. 12, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
If you haven't heard of Baylor senior defensive end Shawn Oakman, you will. A screen grab of him looming over Michigan State players during the coin toss before last year's Cotton Bowl, with arms bulging and his shirt rolled up to show off his chiseled abs, set off an avalanche of Twitter memes about his intimidation factor. And for his physique alone, Oakman is sure to be the talk of the NFL scouting combine in February, before the 2016 draft. The reality is, Oakman may be among the most freakish athletes ever to enter the NFL.
He's 6'9" and 275 pounds with the upper body of a comic-book hero. Despite his absurdly long limbs, he can bench 400 pounds and squat 600. His 36-inch vertical is good for an NBA player, and he has been clocked at 4.8 seconds in the 40, a number that will certainly drop once he trains for the NFL's underwear Olympics.
Eyeing Oakman at field level, you appreciate what television or Twitter can't completely capture: He dwarfs other FBS players, like an adult crashing the neighborhood street-ball game.
I've covered the NFL for 15 years, and I've never seen a player like him. I asked Gil Brandt, who helps run the scouting combine after working as the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960 to '89, if any prospect's physical profile has matched Oakman's.
“Ed (Too Tall) Jones,” he said. “That's it.”
Not a bad defensive end to be compared with. At 6’9” and 271 pounds, Jones was taken by Dallas with the No. 1 pick in 1974 out of Tennessee State. He had a superb 15-year career, with three All-Pro selections and 57½ official career sacks. (The NFL didn't keep that stat until ’81; the Cowboys’ unofficial count had Jones at 106.)
Oakman has said he should be in the mix for the No. 1 pick in May; that was one reason he returned to Waco for his final season. After studying six of Oakman's games from 2014 on film and scouting him in person during the Bears’ 70–17 win over Rice on Sept. 26, I feel confident saying Oakman will not reach his goal. In fact, if he doesn't have outstanding performances against the better teams on No. 3 Baylor's schedule, he shouldn't even be a first-round pick.
But he probably will be. That’s because Oakman is known in football-speak as a “planet guy,” as in “there are only so many guys on this planet who are that large, strong and fast.” Some personnel people feel compelled to draft planet guys whenever they have the chance.
Whoever chooses Oakman will be doing so with the future in mind, believing that there's a way to unlock the wonder of his physical tools, because right now he's an average football player who has gotten into the conversation purely because of his physical attributes. Such advantages can carry a player through college, but the NFL is different; solid technique and focused intensity are essential to making it at that level. Oakman hasn't exhibited enough of either—yet.
Oakman is known in football-speak as a “planet guy,” as in “there are only so many guys on this planet who are that large, strong and fast.”
Oakman simply does not make enough plays, especially for someone who has athletic advantages over most of his opponents and, at 23, is usually older too. He tied the Baylor career sack record with his 15th against Rice, but only five of those have come against FBS teams with winning records. That includes the Owls of Conference USA, who aren't exactly a powerhouse. On his first real pass-rushing opportunity against Rice, third-and-13, Oakman failed to disengage from a left tackle who's small (6’5”, 260 pounds) even by Texas high school standards.
Still, he has time to make his case. The Bears have yet to face West Virginia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU, not to mention a bowl opponent. He must take advantage of those opportunities because in his two biggest games last season, against TCU and Michigan State, Oakman was nowhere near productive enough.
In No. 5 Baylor's 61-58 come-from-behind victory over the ninth-ranked Horned Frogs last season, fans could have forgotten Oakman was on the field. Yes, because left end Jamal Palmer was out with a torn ACL, Oakman was switched from his usual right side, and he was going against right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a well-built 6’6”, 315-pound blocker who should be in the NFL next season. But even after an injury forced TCU to reshuffle its line, leaving Oakman matched against a backup, he did nothing. Baylor tried lining him up over the right guard a few times, but that made no difference. His one tackle for a loss came when he touched a running back who was already going down from someone else's work.
The play that best illustrates Oakman's failure to affect the game happened with 31 seconds left in the third quarter. TCU ran a fly sweep reverse, with receiver Cameron Echols-Luper getting the ball and running toward Oakman while looking to throw downfield. The only thing separating Oakman from making a huge sack was 6’2”, 205-pound quarterback Trevone Boykin. Did Oakman blast through Boykin's block? No. Did he use his leaping ability and wingspan to engulf the 6-foot Echols-Luper? No. Oakman was easily nudged out of the play by Boykin, who paid no physical price, and Echols-Luper completed a 59-yard pass.
A top 10 NFL pick would have wrecked that play.
In the 42-41 loss to the Spartans, Oakman had his highlight of the year when he beat acclaimed left tackle Jack Conklin around the outside for a sack with 3:55 left in the first quarter on a third-and-12. Oakman used nice handwork to thwart Conklin's initial strike, then stuck his foot in the ground to change direction and chased down quarterback Connor Cook. But this was really a coverage sack. Oakman hit Cook 3.31 seconds after the snap; after three seconds a quarterback is simply holding the ball too long. And while the 6’6”, 325-pound Conklin is a possible first-round NFL pick, he isn't fleet, so he could well end up a right tackle or guard at the next level.
Still, it was a notch on Oakman's belt. So was another play with 11:35 left in the fourth quarter, when he helped pressure Cook into an interception (later wiped out by a penalty) by finally getting his long arms extended and putting Conklin on his backside. But that was it. As the Bears were giving up 21 straight points in the fourth quarter, they needed Oakman to make one play. He never did.
To be fair, though, Baylor's scheme is assignment driven, so he is often asked to take up blockers, or to assess the various read options and receiver motions then cover a certain area of the field rather than simply chase the ball. On his final snap against Rice, before giving way to the subs, Oakman appeared to let a running back go right by him for a touchdown. But both Oakman and coach Art Briles confirmed after the game that he was asked to “long stick” the B gap (take the blockers with him), and someone else failed to fill the C gap.
Oakman projects as a 4-3 end in the NFL, though he has played standing up and dropped into coverage for the Bears, so he'll also be evaluated as a 3-4 outside linebacker. If teams don't think he'll become the dominant pass rusher they covet for either of those spots, he could be targeted as a 3-4 end, a five-technique who usually plays both gaps on either side of an offensive tackle. I have a hard time projecting Oakman as a 3-4 end in the NFL. While he can play with great leverage—thanks to his long, strong arms—run blockers can move him fairly easily when he doesn't play with the proper technique.
There's more to it, though. Oakman is top heavy: While his legs are strong in testing, they are skinny. Defensive line coaches would rather have their anchor players built from the ground up, with big calves, thighs and backsides. “It's a legit concern with him,” said an NFL scout who watched the Rice game with me in the press box.
Arik Armstead is another imposing specimen who didn't dominate in college, but the 49ers took the Oregon product with the 17th pick in April's draft. Armstead is 6’7” and 292 pounds, and he's thicker in the lower body. Plus, he ran a 5.1 in the 40-yard dash. That's interior speed. Oakman has exterior speed that would be wasted inside.
Better physical comparisons with Oakman are Texans 3-4 linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (6’5”, 266, 4.53 40-yard dash), Bengals 4-3 end Michael Johnson (6’7”, 266, 4.75), Bills 4-3 end Mario Williams (6’7”, 295, 4.73) and Packers 3-4 linebacker Julius Peppers (6’6”, 283, 4.6). Clowney went No. 1 in 2014, Williams was the first choice in '06, and Peppers was picked second in '02. However, they were all more fluid than Oakman, who plays stiffly and shows little ability to bend the pocket, leveraging his body sideways as he rushes forward to pinch in on the quarterback (think Dwight Freeney or Von Miller). Plus, each of them dominated in college.
That's why Johnson is the best comp. Despite his physical gifts, scouts were leery because Johnson had only 10 sacks in his first three seasons at Georgia Tech before erupting for nine as a senior. That inconsistency led to questions about his work ethic and his love of the game, common concerns about underachievers that will certainly be raised about Oakman. Even after his strong senior year, Johnson dropped to Cincinnati in the third round in 2009.
After a slow start in the NFL, with 11½ sacks in his first three seasons, Johnson developed into a solid player in 2012, when he matched his career sack total. That was enough to earn him a five-year, $44 million contract from the Buccaneers as a free agent in '14. He was released after a season and returned to the Bengals, but Johnson's story will likely help Oakman's draft prospects should he finish strong at Baylor. Johnson showed that a talented defensive end could put it all together late in college and have a sustained career in the NFL.
In Waco there are no doubts about Oakman's enthusiasm for football. Briles could not be more steadfast in his belief in Oakman, who is an obvious and easy leader of his teammates. “His last 18 months have been as clean as any pro that we've had on our team,” Briles says. “And we've had some guys who changed the last year and a half because they know what's at the end of the rainbow.
“He doesn't have a barrier around him. To me, that gives him a chance to be great. If you let people in, then you allow yourself to be helped.”
NFL teams will make other off-the-field inquiries. One will be about his mother's influence. Shawn acknowledges that Vernetta Oakman had substance abuse issues during his childhood in Philadelphia—according to each, she has gotten clean—which at times left Oakman and his three siblings homeless. When Shawn was 10, the state took custody of the kids and he was placed with his mother's cousin Kenn Roberts and his wife, Tracy, in Lansdowne, Pa. Kenn, then in the Army, ran a no-nonsense household.
Oakman believes that background will help him when he turns pro. “I was raised by a military man, and he was the breadwinner for the family,” Oakman says. “He told me the right way to do things. You can't help somebody more than they want to be helped. So there are no handouts. Just like they did with me here [at Baylor]. They could show me the right path to take, but they didn't give me anything.”
Oakman originally went to Penn State but, despite the Roberts's efforts, he admits he was too full of himself and focused on the wrong things. After getting in trouble for being late and skipping classes, Oakman was arrested for shoplifting a sandwich (for which he paid a fine), and Bill O'Brien, now the Texans' coach, kicked him off the team. But O'Brien gave Briles a glowing recommendation for Oakman, who got a second chance. Even though he was suspended for the second game this season for a violation of team rules, Oakman said NFL teams should have no concerns about his leaving the Waco bubble that has served him well.
“Have you ever lost everything?” he says. “When you lose everything, you don't ever want to lose it again. I lost my mother. I lost my brothers. I lost my sisters. I lost football. What else could you take from me? I've done it all, been through it all. There isn't much out there for me except this game and helping my family get to the promised land.”
The NFL will appreciate that desire, but scouts will probe Oakman's eccentricities—he has three American bulldogs; walks around Waco with his python, Baloo, around his neck; and often sports a green or purple Mohawk. NFL teams prefer conformity, and general managers may see him as a guy who could be distracted by the trappings of being a pro athlete.
Those are secondary issues, however. Before they matter, Oakman will have to show that his ability to rush the passer can match the rare tools he possesses. Right now, they don't. And that's no hype.