Consider it an annual NFL draft tradition. Star player dominates college football to the point where he is tabbed as a potential No. 1 overall selection; star player’s game gets picked apart in January and February enough so that a little mystery follows him into the actual draft itself.
Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa has followed that plot so far, with the increased scrutiny leading to combine questions about his so-called stock. Could he slip out of the top five? The top 10? That is likely the floor, but it’s a significant step back for a prospect not long ago seen as the near-consensus top option.
What’s really going on here? How Bosa’s combine unfolded gives us a decent explanation.
Sunday, Bosa was among the defensive linemen asked to add linebacker drills to their combine. The request was not unexpected—Bosa dropped into coverage every so often for Ohio State, and there are a bunch of 3–4 teams near the top of Round 1, including the Titans. Bosa said during his media session earlier in the week that he had been working on his linebacker drops, in anticipation of taking part in those drills.
“I guess you can say I’d be more comfortable [in a 4–3] because I’ve never played in a 3–4,” Bosa said. “But I can’t speak for it because I’ve never played in a 3–4. I think I’ll be comfortable staying wherever they see me.”
The thing is that, of the options for where to line up Bosa at the next level, outside linebacker is arguably the worst choice. His game to date has been built on power, hand use and explosiveness off the snap, all of which would be rather limited factors if sitting in zone or tracking a receiver out of the backfield.
The mere fact that Bosa participated in the linebacker drills can be read one of two ways, depending on one’s optimism: either NFL teams believe he has the athleticism to play in any scheme, even if it’'s completely different from his college role, or teams are still trying to figure out what to do with him.
Both are true, to some extent, yet it’s the latter that has his eventual landing spot in flux. At 6' 6" and 269 pounds, Bosa does not have the weight usually expected from a 3–4 defensive end. He did say, “if an NFL team wants to put five-to-10 pounds, on me it’s not going to be a problem,” but even at 274 or 279, he would be among the lighter 3–4 DEs in the NFL.
Then, also on Sunday, Bosa ran a 4.86 40 with a 1.69 split at 10 yards. Those are perfectly respectable marks, especially when matched up against the rest of this combine’s D-linemen, but his 40 time is far from an elite mark compared to prior years. Bosa told the NFL Network’s Kim Jones that he expected to be closer to 4.7, which would have been more in tune with the type of speed desired from prototypical edge rushers.
Put it all together and it is a little easier to see why Bosa can be a challenging evaluation. The way he attacks makes him best suited for a hand-in-the-dirt DE role or possibly an extended opportunity to pass rush from the three-tech. However, he doesn’t check off all the boxes at any one spot—we’re talking 4–3 DE or DT, and 3–4 DE or OLB.
“I can see myself playing anywhere on the defensive line,” Bosa said. “I’ve been working standing up and working on my linebacker drops, so I definitely feel I’m ready to play in a 3–4 or a 4–3.”
Bosa recorded 26.0 sacks over three Ohio State seasons, plus 51 tackles for loss. There were long stretches of games—against excellent opponents, too—where he proved to be unblockable, ripping his way past tackles on the edge or downright overpowering guards inside. He is not in consideration for the No. 1 pick by accident.
This is a league often slow to stray from tradition, though, hence why at least one GM said this week that the NFL hasn’t updated its combine drills because there is too much value in comparing numbers across classes. If Bosa doesn’t fit the bill as a prototypical 3–4 end and doesn’t really have the game to be a 3–4 OLB, that certainly could limit how many teams consider him on draft day.
Bosa did tell the NFL Network Sunday that he had interviews with 13 teams in Indianapolis, including the Titans, Browns, Ravens, Saints and Cowboys. Only two of the clubs he specifically mentioned (New Orleans and Dallas) play mainly out of the 4–3, and it is a fairly new development for the Saints.
If Bosa’s talent level were lower, those remaining 3–4 teams might not even take a second glance. It’s because of his overwhelming performances at Ohio State that everyone wants to find out what he can bring to the table.
Will what they find be enough to get him to No. 1?
“I do believe I’m the best player in the draft,” Bosa said. “There [are], of course, a lot of amazing players in the draft and it’s going to be up to Tennessee to make that decision. But I think as a player, if you don’t believe that then there’s kind of something wrong.”
More notes from Sunday's workout session, which featured the defensive linemen and linebackers:
DT class continues to be as good as advertised
A hearty congrats to the franchises heading into this draft in need of defensive help up front. The defensive tackle class arrived at the combine with sky-high expectations, and Sunday’s on-field workouts did little to temper the hype.
Sheldon Rankins, Vernon Butler, Kenny Clark, Andrew Billings ... the list of potential early contributors inside goes on and on. Billings, in particular, delivered a strong weekend. He fell far short (31) of the record 50 bench-press reps he said he could challenge, but on the flip side he’s a 311-pound man who can move like this:
That’s better footwork than some of the linebackers showed on Sunday.
Florida’s Jonathan Bullard, a versatile defender who said Friday that he sees himself as a three-tech, ran a sub-5.0 40, then tacked on a 32-inch vertical and nearly 10-inch broad jump.
The Robert Nkemdiche bandwagon may not have gained any extra bodies Sunday, but it definitely did not lose any. As expected, the imposing physical specimen more than held his own: Nkemdiche ran a 4.87 40 and posted a 35-inch vertical.
Sunday’s small-school star
Grand Valley State defensive end Matt Judon likely made himself a few bucks this weekend. The 6' 3", 275-pounder ran a 4.73-second 40 (1.66 10-yard split), did 30 bench reps and leaped 35 inches in the vertical. He moved well in positional drills, too, flashing the ability to change direction.
Judon led the nation with 21 sacks last season.
Another, more prominent college defensive end from a small school, Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence delivered some good and some bad on Sunday. His 4.8 40 falls into the latter category. The majority of his day otherwise, including positional drills and a 7.2 three-cone time, into the former. But the straight-line speed factor alone could push back against the momentum he had coming out of the Senior Bowl.
Sunday’s big-school star
Well, one of them anyway.
A reintroduction to Florida defensive end Alex McCalister, who was dismissed by the Gators prior to their bowl game vs. Michigan for a violation of team rules. He also sat out the Gators' opener due to a similar slip-up and an injured foot cost him three more Saturdays.
Obviously 100% healthy again, McCalister (6' 6", 239 pounds) was outstanding on Sunday—a 34.5-inch vertical, a nearly 10-foot broad jump and a 7.01 three cone (just behind Bosa’s 6.89 and Calhoun’s 6.97).
Another DE who stood out Sunday was Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun “I think they want to see that I can move in space,” Calhoun said of his goals for the weekend. “They want to see that I can catch the ball, as well. And what everyone wants to see: Can he run fast?” Check, check and check.
What to do with Scooby?
I guess that’s a play on words. It’s about as good as you’re going to get after a week spent covering the combine.
Anyway, Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright: He was the best linebacker in college football two seasons ago, taking home the Nagurski, Bednarik and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year awards after a 164-tackle campaign. Multiple injuries (knee, foot) limited him to just three games this past season, although the last was a 15-tackle, two-sack bowl outing.
He always has presented as a function-over-form evaluation for the draft, so the combine didn’t shape up as his best environment. Wright excelled for Arizona on his instincts—hardly something that shows up speed drills.
“You don’t have 31 tackles [for loss] by being slow,” Wright said this week.
Even with that in mind, Sunday was disappointing for him, starting with a 4.9-second 40 and ending (at least in terms of what the NFL Network aired) with a stumble in an agility drill.
Will it matter? In terms of his final draft spot, probably. When it comes to his success in the NFL, the answer will depend on if his next team can find a creative way to take advantage of his nose for the ball.
He will appeal most to teams needing an inside run defender and perhaps to teams looking for weak-side help. Interestingly enough, he told SI on our On the Clock podcast that his dream would be to play a pass-rushing OLB role in a 3–4.
Whatever the fit, Sunday just wasn't a great day for him.