INDIANAPOLIS -- It's not unprecedented for a college program to send four high-quality defenders to the NFL in the same draft class, but when it happens, it usually happens on an SEC squad. The Washington Huskies, who suffered through an 0-12 season in 2008 before rebounding with five straight winning seasons, could brag of just such an achievement in 2015 -- defensive tackle Danny Shelton, outside linebackers Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters come to the 2015 draft with first- and second-round grades, and each player has what it takes to make major impacts in the NFL. It was former Washington and current USC head coach Steve Sarkisian who put that defense together, and current head coach Chris Petersen who benefited from it in 2014.
The Huskies went 8-6 and lost the TicketCity Cactus Bowl, but that was more about an offense that finished 92nd in Football Outsiders' metrics. The defense finished 35th in those same metrics, but those four players formed the centerpiece, and they're all about to cash in. They've been friends and teammates, inspiring each other through it all, and the 2015 combine was one of the last times they'll all be in the same place. Before the NFL casts them to the four winds, let's look at what makes each player special.
Danny Shelton: The Superstar
Whether it's the 300-pound three-tech defender or the 350-pound run-plugger, the best defensive tackles in the NFL are the ones many call "dancing bears" -- that is to say, they have incredibly light and agile feet for their weight, and they're able to use that footwork in ways that are positive for their defense and devastating for any opposing offense. If you were to watch every defensive tackle in the 2015 draft class, there's little doubt that Danny Shelton would surprise you the most with his footwork and agility.
At 6'2'' and 339 pounds, Shelton doesn't just show up with the prerequisite run-stopping ability -- though he has that in spades. What sets him apart is his ability to get quick and skinny in a big hurry, doing everything from multi-gap stunts to covering screens to either sideline. It's pretty amazing to watch him go, and it's the agility that draws comparisons to Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, a 335-pound war daddy who has intercepted five passes in his estimable career. Shelton doesn't quite match Ngata in pure big-man speed, but he may pack even more punch at the line of scrimmage, which is where comparisons to New England's Vince Wilfork come in to play.
Shelton combined for 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in his sophomore and junior years, but he exploded off the page in 2014 with nine sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Double-teamed on nearly every play, Shelton was almost unblockable at times for long stretches of games, and he put himself firmly on the map with USC's Leonard Williams and Texas' Malcom Brown among this group of draft-eligible tackles.
"Shelton is a top-10 pick for me. I love him," Mike Mayock of the NFL Network recently told me. "Reminds me of Haloti Ngata. I think everybody sees that comparison. Powerful, better feet than you think, and I'm surprised at how many snaps he can play at a high level. There are very few guys that play that position at 350 pounds that can play plus-or-minus 80% of the snaps. In the NFL, Vince Wilfork and the freak from Kansas City, Dontari Poe, there aren't many guys with size that can play so much. This kid played 80% of the snaps up and down the line of scrimmage. You can't run against them, and he gets them pushing the pocket."
The high rep percentage is another thing that speaks highly for Shelton -- while a lot of players his size (even the truly great ones) get gassed and have to sub out, Shelton can stay in effectively, and move from gap to gap. This is critical in today's NFL, when offenses are playing more and more no-huddle, and linemen are forced to alter their responsibilities in sub-packages.
Shelton can play anything from true over-center nose tackle to three- and four-tech in different fronts. Most have him going to a 3-4 base team because of his size (the Chicago Bears, with the seventh overall pick, would be a likely suitor), but every NFL team would benefit greatly from what he can do.
“Danny Shelton is a beast," Kikaha said with a laugh at the scouting combine. "I don’t want to compare him to an animal. He’s really intelligent, too, so I don’t want to be putting that on him. But yeah, great person. Loving, caring, smart, quick, athletic, strong. Everything you want in the first couple picks.’’
Anyone who missed Shelton's Washington tape for whatever reason got a big eyeful at the Senior Bowl, where Shelton was perhaps the toughest defender to deal with on either side of the ball. He's the member of this group with the fewest question marks, and everything points to an All-Pro future in the right situation.
Hau'oli Kikaha: The 'What-If'
Edge-rushers are always in demand, especially in today's NFL, when quarterbacks are more important than ever. It makes sense that as quarterbacks become more critical to higher win percentages, those pass-rushers who can stop them from getting anything done on a regular basis would rise in importance as well. The Houston Texans proved this when they took South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney first overall in the 2014 draft, and though Clowney's rookie campaign was cut short due to injury, the point stands -- true pass-disruptors will make a lot of money and have a lot of impact in this league.
Kikaha is ranked behind the group of elite 2015 pass-rushing outside linebackers, but that has more to do with his two ACL injuries than anything else. When he's been healthy, Kikaha has proven to be one of the more consistent pass-disruptors in the NCAA. Washington's all-time sack leader, Kikaha combined for 40.5 tackles for loss and 32 sacks in his last two seasons. He led the NCAA with 19 sacks last year, and as a pure burner off the edge, there aren't many in his class.
"He's one of the most beastly pass-rushers I've ever played with," Shelton said of his teammate. "Kikaha is someone I look up to, he's like an older brother for me. He definitely pushed me to step up my pass-rush game. I definitely challenged him at the beginning of the season with my sacks. It's something we do at Washington. We love to compete. Our defense is filled with athletes. If you're going to produce, you've got to show effort and make the plays that you need to make."
Kihaha is a quiet assassin who is known to turn on his teammates for bringing anything less than optimal effort -- his compatriots describe him as the conscience of that 2014 defense.
"He's basically a technician," Shelton said. "He's going to kill you with speed, kill you with power, but he's very detailed. Just working with him in practice, sometimes he gets on you for making little mistakes. That's something you need on a team."
The tape shows that Kikaha can be an NFL-level pass-rusher, but the second- to third-round grades have more behind them than his injury history. At 6'2'' and 253 pounds, Kikaha sometimes fails to bring optimal strength to the run game, and he's not always an optimal asset in pass coverage. He could also use a few more pass-rush moves, especially a dominant inside counter -- there are times when bigger and more agile tackles will make him disappear, and that will only increase in the NFL. Some teams may look to put him at defensive end in a 4-3 front, or he could be a straight-up hand-off-the-ground "endbacker" in a 3-4 base defense. Either way, if he rounds out his skillset, Kikaha could be a major bargain in the middle rounds.
Shaq Thompson: The Wild-Card
Is he a running back? A linebacker? A safety? Shaq Thompson has a legitimate ability to be an NFL contributor at all three positions, though he made it very clear at the combine that he sees himself as a versatile outside linebacker. Thompson won the 2014 Paul Hornung Trophy as the nation's most versatile athlete, but he's ready for all the talk of ancillary positions to stop.
"That’s where I feel the most comfortable," he said of the linebacker position. "I like to be up by the line of scrimmage. I feel like I’m physical enough. I’m not the biggest guy, but I have a lot of heart. I feel like size doesn’t matter. There were a couple of times where I didn’t get off blocks. But there were other times when I did. If you’re a playmaker, you’re gonna make a play regardless, whether you’re getting blocked or not getting blocked. That’s part of my game I need to tighten up and I’m getting better at it."
At 6'0'' and 228 pounds, Thompson would have been undersized for his ideal position a decade ago. But in today's NFL, linebackers are lighter and faster than ever, and that's how Thompson plays.
"Shaq Thompson is one of the most fun guys to watch on tape this year," Mayock said. "I know GMs were looking at him as a running back, linebacker, and safety, most teams as a linebacker. I've got him as a safety. I think he can be a Kam Chancellor-type on first down in your base and then drop down and play linebacker in your dime, and that's really important in today's world."
Ideally, that's where Thompson will play -- as a nickel and dime linebacker who can come up as a thumper on running downs, and cover tight ends and slot receivers against varied passing formations.
"I want him to play linebacker because he definitely made a difference on our defense, and he's a ballhawk," Shelton said when I asked him where Thompson would best fit in the NFL. "Any position he plays he's going to do well at, but I'd rather see him at linebacker attacking people."
Because he plays fast on the field, and because he's compared himself to Tampa Bay's Lavonte David -- an impact speed linebacker who ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at his 2012 combine -- Thompson disappointed with his 4.64 40-yard dash last Sunday. This was also a problem for those who might project him as a running back -- though he gained 456 yards on just 61 carries last season (a 7.5 yards per carry average) and scored two touchdowns on the ground, that 40 time doesn't generally project to an outstanding NFL career as a ball-carrier. Still, there are some who will compare an interested Thompson to an embryonic version of some of the better power backs in the league. Thompson has said that he'll do whatever it takes to help his NFL team win, though it's instructive that he declined the opportunity to participate in running back drills at the combine, and has said that a future as a starting running back is "out of the question."
With 146 solo tackles and five interceptions in three collegiate seasons. Thompson does project as an above-average coverage linebacker with multiple skills. It's the other stuff -- the nascent rushing talent, the field speed, the headiness when he's in the game -- that makes him one of the most intriguing players in this draft class.
"Even if a guy is better than me, I’m not going to think he’s better than me," he said at the combine. "My confidence is going to be high. I’m going to feel I can guard him. I’ll never be on the field thinking somebody’s better than me even if they are. That’s the mindset you have to have."
In the right system, the combination of mindset and skillset could make Shaq Thompson a star.
Marcus Peters: The Outcast
When Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong was asked at the combine which cornerback gave him the biggest headaches on the field, he didn't hesitate to name Marcus Peters. Many Pac-12 receivers would probably mention Peters's name in that same category. Unfortunately for Peters, though, he was giving headaches to Washington's coaching staff in 2014, which led to his dismissal from the team. He was suspended for the first quarter of Washington's 2013 bowl game, then suspended a full game after throwing a tantrum during the 2014 Eastern Washington game. Then, an argument with an assistant coach led to his dismissal from the program. Just like that, one of the most talented cornerbacks in the NCAA was out of pocket, left to explain himself to NFL scouts, coaches and executives.
Peters has done that over the last week during combine interviews, and it helps that he eventually reconciled with Huskies coach Chris Petersen, apologizing from his immature behavior. Petersen is one of the NCAA's true hard-asses, but he has said that he would give Peters a positive recommendation to NFL teams, and Peters has been invited to work out at Washington's pro day on April 2. Peters's story could be very similar to Tyrann Mathieu's -- the former LSU star was banished from the Tigers' program after several drug charges, but got his life in order and blew everyone away at the 2013 combine.
Peters has the talent to do what Mathieu has done -- among all press cornerbacks in the 2015 class, he may have the best combination of coverage technique and field speed. The 6'0'', 197-pound Peters has all the attributes desired by NFL teams -- at his peak, he displays the potential to impact a passing game in ways that the best NFL cornerbacks do. The only thing keeping him from a top-15 grade is the off-field stuff, and his former teammates went to the mat for him during their combine interviews.
"Marcus Peters is probably the most dominating defensive back we've had in a while, since Desmond Trufant," Shelton said. "His issues, he's had his own problems, we've all had our own problems. He's definitely working on it. I'm working out with him over at EXOS, he seems like a completely different guy. As far as training with him, working out with him at Washington, he's never showed any problems."
“He’s a good teammate," Kikaha added. "Great guy. He used to carry my bags to the plane. I had about six of them. So, great guy."
"He’s a great teammate," Thompson said. "I played with him for three years. Comes to practice every day, hard-working. He doesn’t say much. All he does is compete and work his butt off. And he’s really quiet in practice."
Well, for the most part. Now, it's up to Peters to prove to the league that all the other stuff is past him. He's talked to Peterson. He's talked to his father, who was his high school coach. He's talked to Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who's been a friend for years. So far, he's said all the right things. He even sent his younger teammates some of the defensive assignments the week after he was booted from the program.
"I never figured I lost my chance," Peters concluded. "There are a lot of people that make mistakes, and I am blessed to have a second chance with me being able to be at the combine. I go in these interviews and accept full responsibility for what happened, and I just take full ownership of it."
That's the first step. The next step for Peters is showing all the on-field talent without all the things that will give teams pause.