INDIANAPOLIS — Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day started his combine media session as so many players this week have: by touting his versatility. He promised he could play in a 3–4 or a 4–3, inside or outside, perhaps even wide in a four-man front as the 286-pounder did a bit at the Senior Bowl.
But, Sheldon, what is your ideal pass-rushing spot?
“What down is it?”
“Three-tech. Get to the quarterback as soon as possible.”
He wasn't alone in that choice. Time and again, the 2016 draft class's D-linemen insisted that they could help anywhere their new team needed them. Time and again, they confirmed that the three-technique alignment—between a guard and tackle—is the sweet spot.
“I think I want to play three technique,” said Florida's Jonathan Bullard. “Just being closer to the ball, mismatching with the guards, [having] a quicker first step and you can key the ball faster on the three technique.”
From UCLA's Kenny Clark: “I don’t really have a favorite, but I do like playing three technique. ... I think teams see me as a three technique who can do a bunch of other things.”
And Penn State's Austin Johnson: “I like three (technique) because there's more space.”
Johnson's teammate, fellow defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, mentioned St. Louis Rams rising superstar Aaron Donald as someone whose game he tries to emulate. Donald slipped out of the 2014 draft's top 12, presumably because of his size (6’1”, 285 pounds), but he has quickly turned into a dominant force rushing from the interior. This past season, Donald accumulated 11.0 sacks, giving him 20.0 in just two seasons.
Clark highlighted Cincinnati's perennial Pro Bowler, Geno Atkins, as his NFL three-tech of choice. The 6’3”, 310-pound prospect has height and weight edges on Atkins, Donald and many of the other draft hopefuls who favor the three-tech. His size actually could lead to a primary role at nose tackle, with movement along the line given the situation.
He's still well aware of the advantage that comes with the coveted three-tech slot, as is Mississippi State first-round hopeful Chris Jones.
“I'm a defensive end in a three-tech body,” said Jones, who then elaborated on why that alignment can provide such a favorable situation. “[You] get the most one-on-one blocks, and you're closest to the quarterback.”
The offensive tackle lined up to a three-tech's outside shoulder usually has the responsibility of picking up a wide pass rusher, be it a DE or outside linebacker. Even if they can offer help for the guard next to them, “having a tackle trying to block down on me and reach me,” Bullard said, “it’s kind of hard coming off the ball the way I do.”
As a result those three-techs are expected to penetrate consistently and to create havoc for running backs and quarterbacks alike. The goal, according to Bullard: “Disruption.”
More from Friday's combine session ...
Jaylon Smith's bad news
The injured Notre Dame linebacker was somewhat ambiguous about his knee injury during his Friday presser. Shortly after he left the podium, the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport dropped the bad news.
The update contradicted a report issued by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller during the Senior Bowl stating that Smith was expected to be ready for the start of the 2016 season.
However, it's not much of a shock to hear otherwise. Smith's catastrophic knee injury occurred in a Jan. 1 bowl game vs. Ohio State, so he was facing a rapid nine-month turnaround to be set for Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season. The general feeling headed into Indianapolis was that the team drafting Smith shouldn't count on having him available before midseason, at the earliest.
Crossing out the entire 2016 season, with the potential for lingering and long-term effects from the injury, does change the game for the worse. A top-10 prospect this year on talent alone, Smith now could be too much of a gamble for any team in Round 1 and maybe even Round 2.
He's basically looking at a “redshirt” season, much like San Francisco's Tank Carradine required after the 49ers selected him in Round 2 of the 2013 draft. Carradine did not make his debut until 2014 and waited on his first start until this past season.
Without question, this is a disheartening blow to Smith's draft stock.
The week's first 40-yard dash star
The honor goes to Georgia running back Keith Marshall, who posted a blazing 4.31 mark, just off the 2015 combine-best time of 4.28 posted by eventual Cardinals draft pick J.J. Nelson.
“I just saw him a second ago … He brought it, but I knew he would,” Marshall's Georgia teammate, WR Malcolm Mitchell, said. “He’s done that before. I looked at him, and I said, ‘You know I’m coming, right?’ He said, ‘I hope you get it.’ Just trying to support each other.”
Marshall also led all running backs with 25 bench-press reps at 235 pounds.
All in all, a potentially big week for a prospect who is something of a mystery just two months out from the draft. Marshall rushed for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman in 2012 but tore his ACL the following year, an injury which lingered into '14. He saw just 68 carries this past season, as he was stuck behind Nick Chubb until Chubb suffered an injury himself.
Marshall's combine, though, would seem to hint that he is back close to pre-injury form. If that's the case, he could get a chance to hit the reset button in the NFL and prove that there is much more to his game than anyone saw during most of his final three Georgia seasons.
O-linemen making $$$
Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs may have locked himself into the first round on Friday. Having already completed 31 bench reps a day earlier (fourth best among offensive linemen), Spriggs set his position group's standard in the 40-yard dash at 4.95 seconds. Also impressive were his 4.44-second 20-yard shuttle and 9’7” broad jump.
Spriggs was fluid in positional drills, proving again that he can kick step out vs. pass rushers and change directions.
“I just want to further let people recognize my athleticism and kind of how I can move,” Spriggs said earlier in the week, when asked about his goal for Friday's workout. “That is something I can show here.”
Another potential first-round lineman out of the Big Ten, Michigan State's Jack Conklin, also had a nice day for himself. He matched Spriggs's impressive 1.75 10-yard split in the 40, en route to posting a time of five seconds flat (done despite an odd personal habit of bobbing his head while sprinting). Conklin kept rolling into the positional drills, in the process perhaps easing any lingering concerns about him sticking at tackle.
One more pat on the back at the tackle spot: Washington State's Joe Dahl. His numbers weren't off the charts (5.18 40 time, 7.68 three-cone), but he appeared far quicker than that during drills.
Among those likely destined to be inside, Arizona State's Christian Westerman, Missouri's Connor McGovern and Kansas State's Cody Whitehair stood out. All could be off the board by the end of Round 2. Westerman and McGovern finished 1-2 in the offensive linemen's bench competition, with 34 and 33 reps, respectively.
Ezekiel Elliott cements his spot, plus more RBs
Elliott's marks, headlined by a 4.47 40 time, should assure him of an early draft spot. On the sensational comps put together at MockDraftable.com, Elliott matches up most closely with...Todd Gurley. Yeah, that'll work.
Alabama's Derrick Henry opened some eyes, too, with a 4.54 40 time—remember, he weighed in at 247 pounds. Henry wasn't as impressive in the shuttles or the three-cone, so we'll see how that affects him in the long run. It shouldn't knock his stock down much, if at all.
Cal running back Daniel Lasco enjoyed a boost this week, despite a three-cone time that landed in the middle of the pack (7.22 seconds; West Virginia's Wendall Smallwood was best at 6.85). Lasco suffered through an injury-plagued 2015, but he was tremendous back in 2014, producing nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
Don't sleep on Northwestern H-back Dan Vitale, either. His 4.12-second 20-yard shuttle time matches what Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon put up two years ago and what Gio Bernard and C.J. Anderson hit in 2013. Vitale caught 135 balls for Northwestern in his career. He will be a piece an NFL team can get creative with on offense.